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= FOTO FINISH =

a Night Shots short story (Suspense)

by John Argo


1.

Foto Finish by John ArgoA year ago, the priceless antique roadster with the gold ashtrays crashed through a guard rail on Ocean Bluffs Road. It exploded in a fireball on the moonlit beach boulders three hundred feet below, killing a woman with whom half the world's men were in love—including me—but don't tell Sandy that.

The car probably turned end over end several times, full speed. Nobody will ever know, because nobody saw the accident, and damn sure nobody walked away from it. Or did they? And then there is the huge bribe I was offered when I got near the truth. But first things first.

I drove to Loma Portal and parked my dented VW on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The reddish golden sunset looked like a lady's drink and the air was balmy as I walked several houses down to Grimacher's steel and glass villa.

I like these huge death insurance claim cases. I've saved Continental Mogul big wads of money several times in the past, and they pay me well. I work a few weeks til burnout; then I spent months surfing and relaxing, maybe travel to Mexico and sip Corona Extras by the Sea of Cortez. This case was different. I'd been in love with the woman, though I'd never met her. Millions of men were. She was, after all, Liana, a tawny, slender angel with long gunmetal black hair, and sultry jungle eyes that bored into a man's soul looking for his primeval solar core. That's how one of her obits read. When I first saw the papers, my fingers trembled and my heart grew faint. The fact that she appeared to have been a San Diego girl added something. She'd had that near-athletic robustness, yet that childlike simplicity, shyness, vulnerability. The world had mourned her passing at the tender age of 30. She was the Marilyn Monroe of our age, our Eva Peron, our Jackie Kennedy. She was Liana. That I should put her last echo to rest in the form of an insurance claim was a morbid honor; I could be a footnote in her biography, not that I thought the publicity would be healthy for me. In the end, I would opt for privacy. And a large sum of cash.

I pressed the door bell, and somewhere a chime rang. A maid opened a carved oak door worth more than my car. She showed me through carpeted corridors to a living room whose huge window overlooked the Pacific Ocean. There were sails in the surf, but already the glow had lost its fizz.

Harry Grimacher, shaking my hand, looked surprised. "I thought we had this all behind us." He was a middle-aged man with a paunch. He had a face lined with character, but veiled suspicion in his eyes.

"Just a follow-up. Some final details," I told him as he eyed me up and down. I'm a fairly big guy, six two, 220, who used to play halfback for UC San Tomas, and I still look like I just got into my three-piece suit for the first time. Actually, it's probably the thousandth time, since it's my only suit. I'm forty, and about all I really know how to do well is surf. Not a way to get rich, so I welcome these freelance jobs.

"Drink?" Grimacher asked, evening shadows in his features.

"Milk," I suggested. Grimacher raised an eyebrow, and the carpet whispered as a hovering someone rushed off to fill my request. "Now Mr. Grimacher," I said steepling my fingers while we sat on opposite couches, "I'm just going around to cross a few last t's and dot some i's. Thanks," I added as the maid brought milk. "You were Liana's agent." I opened the file in my lap.

"We long ago established that fact," he said, looking at a jeweled watch.

"I won't keep you," I said. "It's been a year since Liana and Paul were killed. The estate has been settled, probate is closed, and Continental Mogul International is about to pay up. Five million bucks, I believe."

"Something like that. Before the lawyers take their cuts."

"All right, let's make sure no salient facts have changed before C.M.I. shells out. Now I notice here that the issue of Paul's social security I.D. was never resolved. Can you shed any new light on that?"

He shook his head and sat in the window frame with his drink. "No, as I've told you people so many times, Paul Conlon showed up one day in L.A. with pictures of the most exquisite model I'd seen in years. That was Liana, no last name. Within a year, I had her on top of the modeling heap. Her picture was on one or two major magazine covers every month. She had her own lines of luggage, perfume, and women's clothing. The Jungle Woman, we styled her, we the agents, the press, the industry. Even got her involved in the Amazon ecology movement. The President and First Lady practically adopted her. She spoke for orphans, whether they were slum children or lost whales." Grimacher's face had a melancholy tinge. "Believe me, Mr. Lambert, she was worth a lot more to me alive than dead. As to Paul Conlon and his social security number, I could care less."

"Formalities." I flicked through my file. "Liana," I said, "Liana. Hmm. That's a stage name, right? A liana is a jungle vine, right? Oh here it is, Maria Esquivel; that's who the bank deposits were made out to."

"Yes," Harry admitted. "She may have come into the country illegally. I never delved into that, and the INS was never able to confirm or deny it."

My scalp tingled with disbelief. "And this Paul Conlon, the photographer who discovered her, he came from nowhere and died a nonentity?"

"I repeat," Harry said, "I wasn't interested in Conlon. Actually, I disliked the guy so I never really got to know him."

"But she was in love with him?"

"They lived together."

I closed the file. "Okay, Mr. Grimacher, thanks for your time."

"Will this be the end of questions?"

"I'll let you know."

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