The following is the prologue and first chapter of my upcoming novel Inevitable, published by Black Rose Writing and to be released on June 23rd.
She was the apple of her mother’s eye. The epitome of the blonde, blue-eyed, squeaky clean all-American high school girl. Never in a million years would she have been so base or degenerate as to drink to excess or combine heavy drinking with hard drugs. She could be trusted wholeheartedly, even when not under the watchful gaze of her mother or in the company of other elders who frowned on such vulgar behaviour among the young.
Marianne Canny, backed to the hilt by the girl’s stepfather Vaughan and more so her grandfather Andy, grasped every opportunity that came her way to play the same card as the days passed and no definitive solution broke the mystery open. The means were considerable and originated as much from the print media as they did the old stalwart radio and the cocksure, noisy brat television.
Newspapers, magazines and book publishers did all in their power to milk the ‘guaranteed to be a winner’ missing pretty white woman syndrome. But television, with its immediate auditory-visual dissemination, trumped the competition. For their particular ends the TV networks were gifted with industrious Marianne, a woman who slaved many hours a day for a public relations firm in her home state of Mississippi.
She was as shrewd as the most battle-scarred politician at handling reporters and tricky questions and fanned the flames with her imaginings of dastardly deeds done to ‘my darling Gloria’ or ‘my beautiful baby’. She might have been awaiting this chance all her life. Additional mileage lay in the fact that the case provided a spin on the syndrome inasmuch as Gloria was a mere eighteen, an ingénue, a new graduate with her whole life ahead of her, as the cliché went. More than one lip biting television anchor alerted viewers of this in the immediate aftermath.
The cast supporting Marianne in her quest, an assortment of friends and family, endorsed the line. Gloria was an angel and had always been an angel. Anyone who suggested otherwise was no friend of theirs. They were as bad as the skunks on New Mendoza who had, without any doubt, done grievous harm to the girl.
Even for an extremely gullible audience, poisoned daily with misinformation or half-truths about news events, this must have been hard to stomach. Gloria began resembling a figure out of myth, far from the high school girl who, like her classmates, eagerly packed her bags in anticipation of a sojourn in the relatively distant Caribbean. But, unlike them, she met trouble before the five days ended.
The youngsters who travelled with her hardly ever featured in the news reports. When they did they verbalised not a word about the trip. As if a harness had been affixed, they utilised platitudes or hatched inconsequential anecdotes about the kind of classmate and friend Gloria had been in the months and years before the tragedy.
Watching the broadcasts from far away, a young man from the island, Vanburn Holding, was given to thinking. Rather than a fairy tale upbringing fit for a princess, might the missing girl have undergone something as tempestuous as his own formative years had been? The more he heard Marianne’s sound bites, in interviews short and long, the more he wondered about possible similarities between this girl with the silver spoon and himself, her seeming opposite.
When a child has advanced to an age of any consequence, to have a virtual stranger suddenly dumped on him as the new dominant male in his life can be a hard ask. I was six-years-old, but I would go on to recall the manner of Hank Van Neal’s permanent entry into our lives like it happened the other day.
Dad had died and been buried in the island cemetery, located on a patch of high ground that on clear days offered a view of the South American coast in the near distance. Van Neal was among the mourners on the bright, hot day of the funeral. My father gave him work in the car rental business he owned and managed. Van Neal came to dinner frequently during the time. A childless man whose Dutch wife died within twenty-four months of their marrying, the invitations provided a panacea for his solitude.
I never suspected he would inveigle his way into our lives in the way he did and within such a short period. Only six weeks had passed since clods of earth were strewn upon the polished lid of my father’s coffin.
“Vanburn, this is your new dad-ee.”
Fresh home from school, I closed the front door behind me. Still befuddled by the untimely departure of one who in future I would remember only by dint of old photos and an ever-diminishing memory of me balanced upon his shoulders as we bicycled our way along a gravel laden stretch of road, the last thing in the world I wanted or needed then was a replacement.
Josie, my mother, stressed the word’s dual syllables until it exited her mouth sounding more like two words than one. Her background – she was born in the Deep South of the United States and lived there as a little girl until her mother and father, who was from the island, moved to New Mendoza to live – shone no more clearly than at such moments. When I saw Van Neal’s familiar face alarm bells went off.
I resented the affected way she stood dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief. Had she so readily, so soon, forgotten her late husband? I abhorred him on several counts – the fact that he’d brought her to such a state, his forwardness in having wrapped an arm tight about her then narrow waist, like she was his woman and had always been his woman, the creased jowls, the high forehead, the fair hair that crowned it combed straight up, and his phlegmy Dutch accent.
Self-assured to the point of arrogance. That was him, if I read the expression on his chops right. He resembled a man who had finally, after an excruciatingly prolonged period of waiting, gained the prize sought-after. Had those visits to the house for dinner been a pernicious setting of the scene?
“Hank’s going to be moving in and him and me will soon be marrying.” I looked from him to her and back again. “So you won’t have to be without a dad-ee.”
Again the stress on the two syllables. I loathed her accent that afternoon. I wished she’d left it behind in America. But her presumption was worse. At her bidding, I took Van Neal’s offered hand. As I did, he bent at the waist and brought his pug-like face close. His bright blue eyes drew level with mine.
Boldly, given his superiority in age and strength, I held his gaze. It was war on, but there was not even a remote chance of my surrendering the first round to this usurper. We stared at each other for up to a minute, each aware of the other’s rank animosity. I knew he locked mine away for safe keeping when his eyes momentarily hardened. On the count of one his more benign look was back, but the message had gotten through: I’ll whip you into shape, God be my witness. You’d better believe it, sonny.
“Don’t worry, Hank. He’ll come round.”
Van Neal glanced at his wife-to-be, taking in her positive spin on the no love lost situation. She didn’t know me well if she sincerely believed I would modify my attitude toward him. I didn’t so quickly forget. He unwound to his full height and brought the hand that had grasped mine unnecessarily hard to the top of my head. I became aware of uncomfortable pressure there, intensity that reiterated what the hand grip and fugitive flash in the eyes had conveyed loud and clear.
Josie often reprised the same line – Hank, you’re not to worry, he’ll come round – in the months ahead. In tense times, I would also overhear her say, Give him time, Hank. He misses his dad. I saw it as belated recognition that I’d had a genuine father. But bringing up the fact worked negatively on Van Neal. He interpreted it as a slur on his capacity, an implication that he didn’t fit in how they hoped. By nature he was quarrelsome, but at least two or three times in my hearing her his dad citations angered him.
Years later, when I had unrestricted time to think everything through, I drew the conclusion that but for my refusal to accept him the two of them might have stood a realistic chance of being happy together. Bridging the distance wouldn’t have cost me anything. I could’ve done that without necessarily embracing him as a father figure.
But potential in that area went right down the drain the day he nearly wrenched my right arm out of its socket. A journeyman from way back, or so he bragged to anyone who would listen, he liked being on the water. For several years before he moved to the island full-time, he appeared annually for three- to six-month stretches, the period coinciding with the bleakest winter and spring cold in the Netherlands. Sometimes spring over there could be as stark and drear as winter, he used to say.
When he wasn’t manning an office counter and attending to clients for my father or supplementing his income with odd jobs, he was to be found on the water, in a homemade skiff, a small sail boat or a single-engine speedboat. The speedboat featured a blue awning at the top, a handy add-on in a climate as hot and sunny as ours.
Rare were the days when the sun failed to shine in our little plot of paradise. We were the recipients of more than three hundred and twenty days of sunshine annually. The prevailing breeze blew out of the east. Its southerly bent tended more toward the north in the wet or hurricane season. That was one reason why the terms wet season and hurricane season were misnomers to us. An average annual rainfall rate of less than fifty inches put us in the dry, or arid, tropics range. Year in year out, some Antilles islands received drenchings to the tune of twenty, thirty or forty inches in a single storm let alone the whole season. Hurricanes never threatened us. Our position in the Caribbean ensured immunity from monster systems.
No matter how often I point blank refused to join Van Neal and her on a boat outing, Josie always asked if I wished to go along. She liked me to come along. This was in the period when she preserved hope that peace, of a sort, might be brokered. I did step into a boat with them a handful of times, but not once when it would’ve been just him and me.
When he paid the equivalent of 2000 American dollars for the speedboat, he berthed it at the marina, Nestor Bay Wharf. Early one Saturday morning, partway through a two-week spell of unbounded sunshine, Van Neal rose early and headed to the wharf. He got underway without incident but hit a mechanical problem a mile or so to the south, off Hawkings Beach. We’d lived inland of there a long time and so the area had a ring of familiarity. Josie and I spotted him when we arrived at the shore. He was marooned and fuming, a hundred yards up from the southern end of the beach.
He sighted us but made no acknowledgement. He went on spewing invective into his cell phone. I guess the target was the poor unfortunate who made a hash of repairing his precious possession. It was akin to a piece of junk anyway. The awning on top, functional though it may have been, made it look more ridiculous. I had no sympathy for him, yelling and screaming, treading back and forth like an imbecile at the water’s edge.
“Can I go back?” I asked my mother.
I knew she wouldn’t agree but I thought it worth a shot. I watched her watching him. We were about twenty yards away from him, awaiting his next move in the shade of some tall pines at the rear of the beach. She answered without giving up her scrutiny of him.
“No, you wait here with me.”
“I’ll take the bus,” I said, making another effort. “I’ll wait for you at Ronnie’s.”
Ronnie, a girl a few years younger than me, was the second daughter of our next door neighbour. Though this was happening less than in the past, it was to their house that I was sometimes sent to be ‘minded’ when Josie and Van Neal went out and I didn’t go along. I thought it a sensible out except for the prospective difficulty posed by the distance between the beach and home, six and a half miles.
Josie went on staring at this man roped in as a husband in a misguided bid to provide me a surrogate father. Her unease wasn’t just a figment of my imagination. And I believed the reason she did not okay my beating a retreat to Ronnie’s had nothing to do with the distance I would have to travel. I had, after all, reached the age where I could be trusted with things such as riding public transport alone. She never let me go, I thought, because I was, in a manner of speaking, her protection in a tense predicament. I would stand up for her if the worst came to the worst. She would stand up for me.
We left the pine canopy after he completed his call and waved us forward. It was incredible to see a simple gesture imbued with such anger and hostility. The hapless boat kept bobbing up and down in the shallows behind him. Neither Josie nor I were sure what he wanted us to do, whether to board in the hope he might be able to rectify the problem in a moment or what.
When I moved too close to the boat for comfort, both mine and his, he grabbed my right arm, pulled and slung me away. I felt the pain of a damaged ligament or muscle instantly. By some miracle nothing tore. Had I been seriously hurt Josie would have scratched his eyes out. Deferential as she was with him ninety percent of the time, he could cross an invisible line in his treatment of me.
He bided on the right side of that this time because everything was over and done with in a flash. My loud squeal was an automatic reaction, much like how anyone would respond to an assault of that kind unless they’re made of steel. Even the song and dance I performed on the beach, gripping my sore arm, lasted just seconds. I refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing he had discomfited me badly. I quietened down, let go my arm and brushing past Josie thundered back to the shade. There I dallied a moment before turning on my heels in open resistance, determined to have no further part in this latest instalment of our twisted family drama.
My right arm served no useful purpose for days. I hid the fact from both of them, difficult as that was because it lolled by my side, an unhelpful appendage, for everyone to see. Attempts to do the standard daily tasks with it failed because I lacked the required freedom of movement. One evening at dinner, with Josie and Van Neal mid-conversation, I reached out with the afflicted arm, aiming to pick up a salt shaker. But I couldn’t extend it the required few inches until I brought my left hand over, grasped my right wrist and manoeuvred it the rest of the way. Josie reacted to the late corrective movement with a pitying look. Van Neal smirked. King of the castle. Well, I would show him one day and how I longed for time to speed by till the day was upon us.
He’ll come round. The boy’ll come round. I overheard Josie make such divinations less and less over time, as if she no longer believed the mantra herself. What I heard more often were his assertions to her. That boy’s not right or, less commonly, something’s not right with that boy. I never heard him theorise as to what precisely he believed to be not right with me. But he blazoned the claims in a particular tone, one that would have swayed even those partial to granting me some elbow room. If my mother, if anyone else, opened their eyes the obvious would be illuminated for them too: that an undiagnosed mental impairment was at play.
My arm righted itself eventually. No thanks to him. The natural elasticity of a twelve-year-old saved me from nothing more harrowing than several days obscure soreness. Much of the time I could forget it. I was hardly aware of any wound. The mental residua was another affair.
Were your dealings with your stepfather, Gloria, in any way similar? Was your experience with this man Vaughan like mine with Van Neal? Standing at your mother’s shoulder in interview after interview, he is the ‘yes man’, there to assure the world he is with Marianne by hook or by crook. But he’s unsuited to the role, uncomfortable. And what a gaffe he made when he acknowledged that you and he weren’t close.
Your mother bowed her head hearing that admission from her second husband. That wasn’t in the script. Nor his quip that you never took drugs. Before someone from the media scrum was astute enough to see the inconsistency and ask your stepdad how he could be sure of something like that if you and he weren’t close, Marianne called time. Enough harm had been done.
But no one in the family panicked. Your mother was a master of damage control. The hale and hearty if bumbling Vaughan began appearing live to air, or unscripted, much less after the first twenty-four hours. The lead male role would lodge in the safe hands of your no nonsense granddad Andy. Anything aired about your character henceforth aligned with the image of the blonde, blue-eyed maiden in the senior portrait.
You look so pretty in your senior photo. Lustrous, long blonde hair parted in the middle falls behind your shoulder on the left, over your shoulder and down to your nascent breast on the right. Your off-the-shoulder black dress becomes you, as do the white beads around your neck. Your skin is lightly tan. Most fetching are your eyes and smile, fixed directly on the camera. This is how everyone knows you now, Gloria. In the full blossom of youth. Not a hair out of place. But it’s not how I remember you.
Who were you really?
http://www.blackrosewriting.com/mysterydetective/inevitable. Purchased prior to the publication date of June 23, 2016, the promo code:PREORDER2016 may be used to receive a 10% discount.