Fog Noir 58 Archive


2: The Magnificent Ambersons

The fog is thick and dark all the way back to San Anselmo, and it takes me nearly an hour to navigate murky Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Passing the parking lot where I’d met Lara, I see my motorcycle sitting in accusing silence. Across the road the Tamalpais Theatre marquee eerily shimmers:




Ross is just half a mile farther in the center of the heavily populated eastern third of the county, where most of Marin’s towns are packed within a 10 to 15-minute drive from one another. Among the oldest and nearly the smallest, housing only 1.5 percent of the county’s 140,000 residents, Ross is notably the wealthiest. I muse that even the fog—dark as moonless midnight in this late afternoon—somehow seems lighter, as if residents can afford to keep it out.

I follow a narrow, tree-lined lane, unfolding yard by yard like a path through a forest. Abruptly, the Melville-Fielding address glows in my headlights: huge chrome numerals embedded in a cement pylon shaped like a miniature Washington Monument.

A high sandstone wall hides the estate from the road, the ungated entry drive guarded on each side by a shining lion squatting imposingly atop a tall flagstone post. They roar in angry, brass silence, announcing that through this portal lie wealth and power—beware and tread softly. I receive the impression of nouveau riche posing as The Magnificent Ambersons.

I climb the wide concrete drive, and slowly the house’s bizarre, two-story combination of Southern Colonial and ultra-modern styles emerges, pillars and plate glass, blazing mistily with light, as if declaring a state of festivity—or of crisis.

Sprawling to the left and adjoining the house is a long, six-car garage that terminates at its far end with a small bungalow styled as a miniature of the mansion, including scaled-down copies of the Greek columns, spacious stone porch and vaulting glass windows, like a mommy house and her baby.

Parking Lara’s car in the roundabout, I put up the roof, shoulder my small camera bag and mount the steps to the broad veranda. My half boots clack on the polished red bricks. To the left of the wide, hazily lit main door is a second door, smaller but also oak and equally ornate and lighted, bearing a bronze plaque engraved in fancy script reading:

Duane R. Fielding, M.D.

An angry wave surges from within the house, and before I find the bell, the main door swings open, expelling a dashing, muscular man in white shirtsleeves, tie askew, eyes glaring.

“Chercheur?” The man gives my name an ugly inflection.


“I’m Dr. Duane Fielding.” In barking his credential, Fielding imparts a shower of whisky-laden saliva, and jabs a finger in my chest. His thrust jars me outwardly and inwardly and I react and return his anger with my hard, flat hand delivering a karate-like chop to his wrist.

He yelps, and grips his wounded paw. “You’ve broken my arm, you bastard!”

I’m ready to do more, except I catch myself and immediately deflate, aware that it’s better to defuse than escalate, and that it’s all nonsensical anyway—as simultaneously a lovely presence slips between us.

“Duane!—stop this nonsense. I saw what happened. You started it. This is obscene! Especially now.” Annabel Melville-Fielding speaks in a distraught tone. “Mr. Chercheur has done nothing wrong—and it is not a ruse.” Her voice carries a soft accent.

“Of course, it is. Your daughter will do anything for attention.”

The lady presents a regal appearance: tall and trim in a simple white dress, black hair drawn sleekly back, pinned at the rear, features fine as a classic cameo.

With a gentle touch and a desperate smile, she draws me close. “Mr. Chercheur, thank you for coming. I am Annabel, Lara’s mother. This is Duane, my husband,” she says as if wishing he wasn’t.

Holding her hand, I feel its tremor, and gripping my fingers tightly, she escorts me into the house.

The interior is elegant and spacious: On the left, a wooden staircase curves gracefully upward to the balconied second floor. The shiny, hardwood foyer extends under the second floor and becomes a wide hallway leading to the rear of the house.

To the right, a huge carpeted space sprawls like the lobby of a grand hotel. “Mrs. Melville-Fielding,” I say.


“Sean,” I echo. “What’s happened?”

“I do not know. They have not phoned back. It has been over an hour—a man with a hellish voice!” She speaks rapidly, her accented tone shrill and broken, as if strangling and crying for help. “He said Lara is—abducted—and they will kill her if we call the police!” She hesitates, and adds plaintively, “I believe hetheymean it.”

“How can you know?” Fielding interjects and still cradling his wrist like a child seeking attention, moves toward us as if to separate her from me. “It’s just a stunt—a nasty trick Lara is playing. You should have let me talk to the bastard.”

Letting go my hand, Annabel turns away, her mutating expressions a torrent of distraught emotions. I gaze at her husband in the brighter light: ruddy hair immaculately combed, grim-faced and stubborn, brown eyes and handsomeness deadened by too many drinks over too many years. Creases on his neck indicate his well-built body is turning to flab. Behind him, close to the front door, is a smaller door and a plaque similar to the one on the veranda, reading:

Private / Do Not Enter

Ignoring him, Annabel beckons me across the foyer into the massive front room, large enough to comfortably accommodate scores of guests, illuminated by a huge chandelier hanging in the center.

An enormous fireplace recedes cavernously into the far wall, the flagstones climbing high into the shadows above the heavy wooden ceiling beams. The far corner of the room at the front is a giant, curving window, like a Cinerama screen, with the drapes open.

A plethora of plush sofas, soft chairs and oak coffee tables are arranged in intimate groupings on the deep, sumptuous carpeting. Over the fireplace mantel hangs a wide mirror tilted to reflect most of the room.

Fireplace stones, ceiling beams, walls, drapes, carpet, tables, sofas and chairs—everything is medium grey in tone.

The room gives the impression of a cathedral or temple dedicated to art—for the neutrally elegant décor is only a backdrop for the main attraction: an array of semi-abstract paintings, each individually lit, covering all the non-windowed spaces on the grey walls and hanging in tiers three high. Several oversized canvases on stretcher bars dangle from invisible wires, suspended in space several feet above standing height, exploding with vivid bursts of color, propelling my head into a vortex as if I’m thrust into the center of a rainbow.

Stopping beneath the chandelier, Annabel brings me down to earth—tensely taking my arm and summoning a sincere but stressed smile from within herself. She’s striking despite the patina of fear tingeing her olive face, her clear blue eyes radiating sensitivity as well as a kind of complex distress.

I set my photo bag on a coffee table. “Did your ‘caller’ say what they want?”

“Very little. He said… they had… Lara. And warned me not to tell the police. Also, to send my assistant away.” Annabel speaks in a soft staccato, the words catching in her throat. “And to expect a call from you. They will phone with payment instructions. And we are to wait.”

“Of course,” Fielding attacks from my rear and bears down. “It’s your plan. Yours and Lara’s. Now tell us where she is, or I’ll have you arrested for assault even if I can’t prove extortion yet. Give us the truth. Or have you come here just to make us sweat?”

“Actually, I had to bring Lara’s car.” I hand the keys to Annabel.

“Please, Sean, please ignore Duane’s rudeness.” She ushers me toward one of the long sofas and offers a drink.

I request water, thinking Annabel is using hospitality to hold herself together.

Moving across the thick grey carpet, I catch my reflection in the grey-framed mirror over the grey-stone fireplace, looking pretty grey myself—tall, gaunt, my short brown hair a mess. My deep-set eyes gaze back at me like they belong to a zombie. The atmosphere in the house makes me feel like I’m in hell.

A copy of my book In Search of the Light lies on the coffee table. Beside it is a glossy brochure, the cover showing a dramatic photo of a San Francisco skyscraper under construction. The copy line reads:

Melville Construction – the Bay Area’s Number One Builder

On the far end of the table, a red telephone waits, its long cord snaking threateningly across the carpet.

Annabel brings my water from a movable mahogany bar and sinks into the center of the sofa across from me. Scooping up a pinkish drink, she sips hard and long, and asks me in a pleading tone to tell her everything that happened.

I conclude: “I believe they wanted me to see them taking her away.”

“So, you can convince us it’s for real,” Fielding says cynically. “Well, we don’t believe it.
Your plan’s gone to hell. I wonder what Oscar will make of your story. That’s Oscar Bailey—he’s the County Sheriff, you—”

“No!” Annabel cuts him off. “You are not telling Sheriff Bailey—or any police.”

Fielding paces, “You said McClures was Lara’s idea, and she led you off the main beach into the hidden cove—that’s not how professionals direct their sessions.” He turns to Annabel. “Can’t you see Chercheur and Lara cooked up this whole thing—to extort your money?”

“That is ridiculous!”

“I don’t think so!” His eyes seethe behind their dullness. “Chercheur’s story is full of holes.”

“Will you please stop?”

“I will not! You don’t understand things the way I do.”

“No, and I hope I never will.”

“Because you own a big company, you think you know everything.”

“I know you are making this… awful thing worse.”

Sighing, I say to Annabel: “Maybe I should leave.”

“That’s a good idea,” Fielding says curtly. “Time for you to end this game—and tell Lara to come home. Or better—you bring Lara back right now, and we won’t press charges. I’ll forget your assaulting me, too.” He touches his wrist with a pout.

Dammit! Stop it!” Annabel shouts. “Sean, please stay.” Her tone is plaintive and pleading. “Duane—all you do is bully and make absurd accusations and speculations. We’ve had enough!”

“Pardon me,” Fielding mumbles sarcastically, and walks slowly and tensely towards the bar, as though he’s ready to blow apart, or simply dissolve into pieces that will dissipate without a sound—“Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Annabel says, “I admit Lara does foolish things sometimes. Things teenagers do.”

“Right!” Fielding shouted, “and this fake kidnapping is one of them.”

“I wish it were a charade!” she glares. “But it is not, it is not…” She takes a long sip of her Seabreeze, grips the glass like a lifeline and gives me pleading eyes. “Ever since the Bobby Greenlease tragedy—I have wanted Lara protected… but she refuses.” She stares into her drink, as if seeing the past, feeling the pain of the present, fearing the future.

Scotch in hand, Fielding leans on the bar and scowls at me.

Annabel continues to stare, her expression blank. Then her face breaks, tears pour down her cheeks. Quickly, she tosses her head, regains control, downs her drink and returns to the bar. She speaks rapidly: “We saw a movie two years ago. I did some research after. It seems true—abductors will kill their victims or not—regardless of whether ransom is paid.”

I know the movie too—Ransom! In it, the father of the kidnapped child decides not to pay the ransom and the mother has a breakdown. I wonder if Lara’s parents aren’t both on the verge of breakdowns, and their marriage on the verge of breaking—or already broken.

“Just a movie, Annabel,” Fielding says, and makes a half-hearted attempt to give her a hug. She ducks away.

Our attention goes to the sound of a noisy vehicle pulling up outside.

“I am almost sure this is Todd Perry,” Annabel says. “He is someone Lara is dating. One of those North Beach people—whom Herb Caen calls ‘beatniks’ in his column. Drives an old Plymouth with a bad muffler. Lara made plans with him for tonight.”

Chimes reverberate throughout the house—the front doorbell.

“I’ll get it,” Fielding says.

He opens the door and admits a handsome young man, tall and wiry. The fellow is dressed like a beat cliché—all in black, turtleneck sweater, tight pants. A thin, David Niven-type mustache and stubble—too spare to be called a beard—adorn his face, so pale it suggests he spends his days sequestered in a cave.

“Todd,” Annabel says.

“Mrs. Fielding,” he nods politely.

She frowns. “Why are you here?”

“Pickin’ up Lara, natch.” He glances round at everyone, dark eyes grinning, as if enjoying a private joke.

“Lara’s not in,” Fielding says.

“Why’s her rag top here?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“My biz is Lara biz. You got news where she is?”

“You tell us.”

“Hey, man, if I were wise, I wouldn’t be doggin’ her doorstep, would I? You sure she’s not out in her pad doin’ Zs?”

“We’re sure. Where were you taking her?”

“Nowhere, man. She’s takin’ me. My hunk of junk’s not fittin’ for the kitten.”

“You’re not either,” Fielding mutters.

“What’s that, man?”

“Where are you planning to go?” Fielding says.

“The hungry i. Lenny Bruce is doin’ the scene—it’ll be a blast.”

“North Beach?”

“Where else?”

“In this soup?”

“Isn’t it a groove?”

Annabel interjects, “We are concerned about Lara.”

“I would be too,” Perry smirks.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“I mean, why should you? Lara’s a free kitty, isn’t she? Her jailbait days are yesteryear. Why are you always so buggy about her?”

“She’s our daughter,” Fielding says.

“Her bag, you nag, I gag,” he quips with a smirk. “Well, when chickie-do shows, tell her I blew by. Now, I’m cuttin’.” He turns to leave.

Fielding grabs his arm. “Enough of this bullshit. What have you done with her?”

Todd shakes him off. “Hey, man, keep your frosty paw in your pants or you’ll nibble a knuckle sandwich.” A tincture of superiority sneaks into his smirk.

“Duane,” Annabel rises, “I will handle this. Todd, Lara told you where she was being photographed today.”


“Did you tell anyone else?”

“Might have,” he shrugs. “Who cares?”

“I care, Todd.”

“Ahh, Mrs. Fielding,” he cocks his head condescendingly. “A lot of us were mouthin’ about makin’ the Bruce scene. Hey—I came to get cozy with Lara, not to receive the royal shaft. The chickie’s flown the coop, so I’m splittin’. I’m cool, but big daddy’s a wet rag goin’ nowhere in la-la land.”

“We apologize, Todd,” Annabel says. “Where shall I tell her to reach you if she returns soon?” She extends her hand.

After an awkward moment, he touches it tentatively. “Uhh… tell her to hoot me on the horn.

Now, I’ll blow.”

He tromps out, slamming the front door hard.

“Shit!” Fielding says. “I think that bastard’s involved. Damn him!”

Todd’s noisy muffler fades away, and Fielding turns his anger on me again: “I notice you didn’t say anything while he was here.”

“What was I supposed to say? I’ve never seen the fellow before.”

“That’s good. You pretended not to know him,” Fielding shakes his head knowingly, “and he pretended not to know you. Very good indeed.”

Fielding is like a dog gnawing on a shoe and won’t let it go. Annabel says:

“Duane, stop! How many times must I say? Now, I insist!”

Taking her empty glass, Annabel hurries to the bar ahead of him. “Sean, may I get you perhaps something stronger?”

“What are you drinking?”

“Seabreeze. Vodka mixed with grapefruit and cranberry juices. A blend I invented.” I accept and she brings it, sits close to me and sips, her blue eyes intent. “I trust you. To be honest, I had you investigated before I hired you.”


“Do not worry. The report is totally confidential. Even Lara does not know.” Annabel speaks with difficulty. “Lara is impulsive. her decisions are often… ill-advised. Capital Security is highly reputable and thoroughly discreet.”

I sip the seabreeze, and find it pretty tasty… and rather soothing. “What did they tell you about me?”

She sighs. “You are 35, raised in a small wheat town in Central Kansas, attended Kansas State College briefly, discovered photography, enlisted in the Marines in 1943, assigned to combat as a photographer. Participated in two campaigns in the Pacific, stationed in Japan after the War. You were disturbed by your War experiences and seldom speak about them. Pursued advertising photography in New York.” Annabel recites as though she memorized the report, or has an incredible memory and embraces the opportunity to take her mind off her daughter’s kidnapping.

“Met an English girl,” she continues, “married her, but no children. You failed financially with photography and your wife divorced you. You left New York and moved to the Bay Area, and achieved some success. You drink but not frequently. You are essentially a ‘loner’ but now live with Etta Maler, who works as an assistant in the Tidewater Photo laboratory which does work for you. You are in no desperate need of money and owe no debts.” She pauses. “In summation, Capital Security concludes you are a person of integrity who can be trusted. My sense of you agrees.” She smiles. “Enough?”

“Yeah.” I’m reminded of Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin and his confidential reports. And Orwell’s Big Brother.

Ringing comes from the red phone on the coffee table, and resounds throughout the house. Annabel reacts to it with fixed eyes, body frozen. The ringing repeats. Fielding moves to pick up the receiver.

She stops him, and ferrying her drink, she moves to the console mounted in the wall near the front door, pushes a button, and speaks in a shakily controlled voice: “Hello, Melville-Fielding residence.”

“Why do you sound peculiar?” A weird voice, high-pitched and squeaky, like Donald Duck.

Annabel says, “I am using a telephone intercom so we all can hear.”

“Who else is there? Who else is listening?” the voice says. “Only my husband and Sean Chercheur, Lara’s photographer.”

“Right, we know he’s there. We wanted him there. Listen carefully. We know everything. Your phones are tapped. You are watched. You have been watched for weeks.” The kidnapper pauses after each phrase. I guess he’s breathing helium to alter his voice. The effect is chilling.

“We know who comes and goes,” the caller continues. “We know everybody’s faces and vehicles. We know your servant Ynez was sent away, like we instructed. Your husband may do his doctoring, but you, Mrs. Fielding, you are not to leave your house until your daughter is released.”


“You are to cancel all your business meetings and personal engagements. If you even go outside any door, there will be severe consequences for your daughter.”


“Do not question us! Your daughter will lose a finger for every minute you are outside of your house. Let’s see. Can you imagine you go out the front door for any reason? Just to pick up the newspaper. We cut off Lara’s forefinger. Then you go out the rear door to take something from your patio table. We chop off her ring finger. Then later you go out to tell your… well… you can see by the time you have your daughter back her hands will be of little use for anything. Get it?”

Annabel is shocked into silence.

“Get it?” the voice repeats loudly.

“Yes,” she says weakly.

“Except for setting foot outside your house, you are to act normal. Let your grounds people come and go, but talk to them only if they come to you. Do not go outside with them. Get rid of visitors fast. If you don’t follow our instructions, your daughter will suffer consequences. Mrs. Fielding, do you enjoy jigsaw puzzles?”


“If we do not receive what we want, we will cut your daughter in so many pieces, you will need a team of morticians to sew her back together. Now, here’s your daughter.”

“Mother, help me please!” Unmistakably Lara’s hysterical voice. “I’m so scared! Please help me!”

Annabel’s taut face blanches. “I will, dear, I will!” She cries, “Trust me, I will!”

The helium voice: “She’ll remain alive only if you do exactly as we say. Remember—no cops or you will bury her in pieces.” A vicious laugh. “You are to obtain one million dollars in uncut white, sawable diamonds. No rock under three carats, none over five carats. You are to buy them in New York from the Diamond Dealers Club. Each batch is to have the broker’s certificate, verifying the contents as to weight and color as graded by De Beers. Get it?”

“Please, I must write this down.” Annabel gives Fielding an anxious glance. He fetches a small pad from a drawer in the bar. She writes, while the kidnapper repeats, and reads, “Raw, sawable, white diamonds. Between three and five carats. De Beers certificates. Diamond Dealers New York brokers. One million dollars.”

“You have enough time to get them. We know you have connections to arrange the purchase and rapid transport. We expect delivery tomorrow. You will be phoned at precisely 4 o’clock tomorrow afternoon with instructions. Now, we will choose who is going to make the delivery. Chercheur, are you listening?”


“We choose you.”


“Tomorrow afternoon. Be here at four. We want you to hand over the goods.”


I will!” Annabel pleads.

“No,” the weird voice says. “You must remain within your house.”

“I’ll do it,” Fielding says.

“No. We do not trust you. Chercheur, it must be you.”

“No…” I repeat.

“Yes… oh, yes,” the weird laugh.

“No! I barely know these—”

“Shut up! We think you’re smart enough not to do something stupid.”

“How do you know anything about me?”

“How did we know where you’d be taking little Miss Melville for her pictures?”

“How did you know?” Fielding interjects.

“Like we know everything. We have known about you since last night. Since Miss Melville engaged you. You will deliver the diamonds, Chercheur. If you do not, we will kill you. We could have killed you today, but we did not. We know you have a girlfriend. Her name is Etta Maler. Listen carefully. You will deliver the diamonds, or we will hunt you down and we will hunt Miss Maler down, and we will kill both of you, together or alone, it makes no difference. You will never know when it will happen. We will strike and you will both be dead.” He laughs. “We are not to be messed with. Do not argue with us. After you leave this house tonight, Chercheur, you are not to return until four tomorrow. Get it?”

“No…” I’m shocked. How do they know about Etta?

“No? You must say ‘yes’ or you and your girl will die! Do you understand?”

“Yes.” What the hell is going on?

“Good. You won’t hear from us again until four o’clock tomorrow. Mrs. Fielding, you have the diamonds. Chercheur”—he pronounces my name Cher-sure—“you be sure to be here to take them. No cops, no strange phone calls, or Miss Melville will die—badly. Believe it, Mrs. Fielding! We’ll shoot her dead after we cut her in pieces,” he laughs maniacally, “and all the newspapers will get photos of the body parts.” Still laughing, he hangs up.

Annabel gasps, drops her drink to the carpet, grips her chest. “My pills—they are on the bar.”

Fielding quickly brings them with a glass of water. Annabel gulps them down—little white pills—recovers, sees the spilled seabreeze. It soils the grey carpet like an old bloodstain. She scoops up the unbroken glass and goes rapidly to the bar, almost colliding with her husband.

He downs his drink and tags after her like a hound dog following its master. Annabel pours a fresh Seabreeze, while Fielding puts a great deal of Scotch in his glass, adding only ice.

He shakes his head slowly. “I was wrong…”
God help us!” Annabel cries abruptly, “Please do not let them harm her! Oh, God, God help me…” Her head drops as though in prayer, then she looks up, relaxes, and her gaze travels to me.

Fielding follows her eyes and charges. “You bastard! I knew you were involved, I just didn’t know how. You—you’re the one who set this up!”

I rise, fully fed up: “Mr. Fielding, go mount one of your brass lions,” and to Annabel, “I’m sorry, but now I have to go.”

Annabel takes my arm gently, “No! Please—stay!” She shoves Fielding into a chair. “Damn you! Cool off! He cannot possibly be involved.”

“Hell!” her husband says, “how can you be so sure?”

“I trust my instincts and the work of Capital Security. I apologize, Sean. Will you please stay? And pardon me a moment while I make the arrangements for Lara’s ransom?”

Sitting again, I wonder about getting drunk too. The seabreeze seems mild, but it’s deceptive. Two or three would put me in a pretty good state. But this is not the time.

On the phone, Annabel asks to be connected with “Nate,” explains the situation briefly and thoroughly, gives details about the diamonds, listens attentively, responds affirmatively, thanks him and ends the call. Smiling, she says:

“That was my attorney and advisor Nathan Girrard. He has connections in New York and will arrange everything. Purchases will be made tonight and the diamonds can be flown by courier in comfortable time to meet the abductors’ deadline.”

She goes to the bar, tops up her seabreeze. “Thank you for your patience, Sean. You should know why I had you investigated.”

“I’m photographing your daughter for one day.”

She stares into her seabreeze, takes a sip, then meets my eyes. “Lara was so insistent on you. Other people who have interested her have not turned out… very favorably. Or she develops impossible attachments, such as the actor Paul Newman, or this ‘beatnik’ Neal Cassady, who is now in jail. I believe she may have a crush on you.”

“This is too much!” Fielding rises, throwing up his arms. The ice flies out of his glass, arches and splatters against one of the paintings.

“Duane!” Annabel cries, as if he’s struck her.

“It’s only water.” Fielding mumbles something inaudibly distasteful, gulps his drink and grips his face as if trying to grab away his impotence—it helps relax his features. “You want to entertain this guy, Annabel, that’s your business. I’ve got better things to do.” Sweeping a bottle of Scotch from the bar, he marches towards the foyer.

Poor guy—yelping and pissing on her painting like a doggie asserting himself, then running away with his tail between his legs.

“Do not call Sheriff Bailey!” she orders. “You heard them. They say our lines are tapped, and we must believe them.”

Her eyes follow Fielding until he enters his office across the entryway and shuts the door, then they dart nervously to me as if desperate for help, travel on and settle on the splattered canvas, a desert under blue sky, or a beach meeting the sea. Unusual, how her paintings appear to represent more than one thing. But I’m not in the mood to appreciate, and ask:

“Has anyone else seen that… report? Could the kidnappers?”

“No,” she says definitively. “Because they know who your girlfriend is…? I understand. I am sorry.” Getting a damp cloth from the bar, she goes to the canvas, and carefully, almost lovingly, wipes it clean.

Fielding emerges from his office—scowls and calls: “You still here, Chercheur? Why don’t you leave us alone?” His tone is more begging than belligerent—the alcohol seems to have drained his vitality.

“He is my guest, Duane, and this is my house.”

He stares at her stiffly, then rolls his eyes upward, mumbling, “OK. You have everything under control. You don’t need my help. I’ve had it. I’m going.” He trudges out a second doorway in the wall beside his office, closing it quietly. A minute later there’s the faint rumble of a high-performance engine roaring to life.

Annabel stares sadly, briefly after the sound, drops the cloth on the bar and sits beside me, touchingly close. She gives me a searching look.

“Did you tell anyone where you were taking Lara?” she says.


“Lara told Todd Perry. I heard her on the phone. This is confidential, yes?”


“I believe Lara uses marijuana. It is how Perry makes his living according to Capital Security. Selling dope. Marijuana is relatively harmless, but worse drugs are often handled by the same people. I mean Heroin. However, Capital Security assures me Perry sells only marijuana.” She sighs. “Still, it is difficult not to worry. Lara is 25, but often she acts immaturely.”

“She seems pretty intelligent.”

“Her test scores are the highest, but she has never taken education seriously. She has no plans for a career. She writes poetry now, but it may be only another whim. Her sense of modesty is often appalling. At times she acts erratically. She will leave for an evening and then does not return for days—does not phone. Two years ago, I sent her on a trip to Rome. She was arrested for dancing nude in the Trevi Fountain. I arranged bail so she only spent a few hours in jail. Two months ago, she asked for tuition to attend the University of San Francisco. Instead of enrolling, she used the money to fly to Paris. That is when she met your friend Vittoria Kenyon, who recommended you for the photographs. It is one of the few female friendships Lara has ever had…”

Annabel frowns, “Is Todd one of the people you saw?”


Damn him!” Eyes inflamed, she says faintly: “The voice on the phone—so… awful…”

“I think he was using helium.”

“To disguise his voice.” Annabel gulps her drink, stands uncertainly. “I do not think it was Perry who phoned. But who? Who are these monsters he is working with?” Her expression brightens. “If Todd is one of them—he will not let them harm Lara. But how can they get away with it?—if we know Todd is one of them?” She shakes her head. “This makes no sense. And why do they want to torture me? Not permitted to even set foot out into my own back garden.” She paces. “‘Solitary confinement’ they call it. In Sartre’s No Exit play, Hell is being confined with people you do not like. Duane…” she trails off and stares at me. “You are worried about your girl… Etta.”

“She’s returning from LA this evening.”

“I must pay you for your work.”

“It can wait.”

“Will you allow me? Please? It will make me feel better.”

She leads me across the great room and down the wide dark hallway to the rear and into the elegantly appointed kitchen, bright and spacious. Fetching a checkbook from a drawer in one of the marble-topped counters, she writes, saying, “You have a beautiful name.”

Beside the huge refrigerator, a tall chrome box stands imposingly, a small door in its center. I say, “What’s that?”

“A microwave oven. They are new and cost as much as a car. Generally, only large restaurants have them. Useful for cooking certain foods or warming things quickly.”

She hands me a check for $1,000—10 times my usual fee.

“It is what I believe is good value for a portrait by you. Please accept it”—her voice catches— “if only to reassure me everything will come out well. We must believe everything will come out well. They threaten your Etta, but my Lara they have in hand. We have to believe they will both be safe.”

Annabel refills her glass from a large, crystal pitcher of the seabreeze mix, sets it down and presses her palms to her temples. “Is this really happening?” Desperation edges her mellow, accented voice. She clutches her chest, grabs a bottle of pills from the counter and gulps some down, simultaneously gesturing to me that she’s really alright.

Recovered and smiling defiantly, she compliments me about my book In Search of the Light, comparing it with The Decisive Moment by Cartier-Bresson, my idol. “Except your photos are more lyrical. Softer. And sometimes subtler.”

Embarrassed, I thank her. She asks quietly:

“Will you please stay—for a short while?”

“For a very short while.” Using the wall phone in the kitchen, I book a taxi to come in half-an-hour—plenty of time, I think, to be home before Etta returns from Los Angeles.

* * *

“Well, you sure thought wrong,” she injects.

“I guess so.”

“Go on. I think Annabel’s seduction scene is coming up and I wanna hear every sexy detail.”

* * *

Annabel invites me to see her latest work, and we go into her studio—a long, glassed-in veranda that spans the entire rear of the house. She’s got hundreds of paintings, large and small, enough for a score of simultaneous one-man shows, stacked against the house wall on the right and against the veranda windows on the left, leaving a narrow path between, terminating in darkness at the far end.

Annabel lights the near end—essentially uncluttered—where a large easel stands, loosely covered by a piece of lightweight cheesecloth. I imagine the whole space is bright as outdoors in daytime—with light pouring through the windows and skylights and the large French doors—but now with the dark fog hanging heavy, the only illumination is from a few of the many adjustable spots suspended from the rail running the long length of the high ceiling.

“Where I spend most of my time,” she smiles. “When weather is pleasant, I work in the garden.” She nods sadly towards the French doors, perhaps recalling the kidnappers’ admonition about her not setting foot outside, and says, “You probably wonder how I can be here most of the time and also manage my company? I hire good managers. People I can trust. Every Monday, I hold a telephone conference, and once a month I spend a day in the San Francisco offices.” She pauses and has a long sip of her Seabreeze. “But that is ending. Many national companies have wanted to acquire Melville, and recently one made an excellent offer and guaranteed the job security of all my employees. I have accepted, and the transfer is nearly complete. Freeing me to begin something new, something closer to my heart. The Melville Foundation. As you can guess, I have considerable assets, and this sale includes a surfeit of cash. I want to do things of value for the world. One is to preserve endangered wildlife. Elephants are being indiscriminately slaughtered for their tusks. I have purchased a park in French Equatorial Africa where they are now protected. I have also invested in Darryl Zanuck’s production of The Roots of Heaven from Romain Gary’s novel on this subject. John Huston is directing, and the movie will be released this fall. It will help bring the problem to public attention. And I wish to travel… with Lara… which time has never allowed. She does not know yet. Nor Duane. Please… may I trust your confidence and your discretion?”

I nod and assume she’s telling me all this to take her mind off Lara’s kidnapping.

Annabel purses her lips. “Thank you.” Smiling, she goes to the Ampex tape recorder sitting atop the cabinet inside the studio entrance, extracts a tape from a box among several on the shelf below, threads it and turns on the sound. Johnny Mathis begins singing “The Twelfth of Never,” issuing from speakers in several locations around the room, balanced so his voice seems to surround us.

“My personal hi-fi,” she says. “I have 45 rpm records and selections from albums recorded onto tapes. Listening to music makes me happy while I paint. I do not care to play most LPs because you must listen to all the other songs that are usually mediocre. I hope you will like this tape I arranged.”

“I like this song.”

She gazes down, then at me with stoic sincerity, “I apologize, but may I ask if Lara attempted to seduce you?”

I smile. “Well… sort of.”

* * *

“Ha!” Etta exclaims.

* * *

Annabel grins, and shakes her head ruefully. “I am afraid Lara is… rather… promiscuous. When I get her out of this awful mess, I have no idea who she may take up with next. The decent men she attracts she discards when they become ‘serious.’” She pauses. “I believe her behavior is because of memories she has suppressed about her father.”

“Lara told me about his death.”

Really? What did she say?”

“He was electrocuted by a radio while bathing, and she was too late to save him.”

Annabel nods. “Yes.”

“She seemed detached. How old was she?”

“Twelve. I was asleep next door in the bedroom. Lara’s scream woke me. She was hysterical. The doctor sedated her. Later, she seemed normal, too ‘normal’, and only spoke about the tragedy in jest. The inquest ruled it an accident. According to the autopsy, Richard was quite drunk. He died the day the War ended. Richard liked listening to the news. The coroner concluded he was probably attempting to tune in a better signal and pulled the radio into the tub.” She downs her drink and unveils the painting on the easel, saying, “I painted it using a mirror.”

A naked woman with her arms akimbo, almost life-sized, nearly finished except for the background. The face is Annabel’s, a self-portrait. In contrast with her abstracts, the picture is totally representational, detailed down to individual pubic hairs, her vaginal crevice subtly peeking through. “It is taking me many times longer than most of my paintings. What do you think of it? Excuse me while I refill.”

* * *

“Yeah, Sean, what did you think?” Etta says amusedly.

“When she came back, I hid my embarrassment, and said she’s a beautiful woman.”

“Give me the whole thing, moment by moment.”

“You sound like a voyeur.”

“Pretend it’s a scene from Rear Window.”

* * *

The music changes to Al Hibler’s “Unchained Melody.”

Annabel’s eyes turn an intensely touching blue, and her silent stare becomes magnetic. Her nature seems like a dark crystal, multi-faceted, with few surfaces readily apparent. Many of them secreted away, to be brought forth only when occasion demands or she chooses to display them.

“I paint only for myself, and to show to visitors, such as you. It is my chief pleasure—or indulgence—besides this…” Hoisting her glass, Annabel turns away “Today… is… a horror I have never experienced. Duane is worse than no help.” She sips and looks at me. “I am divorcing him. He does not know. The papers are prepared, but I must wait until Lara is returned. And I do not want to be alone when he learns. You have observed his capacity for violence.” Her eyes peer intently into mine: a captivating, enticing blue.

Gogi Grant sings “The Wayward Wind.”

Annabel flicks a switch and ignites the entire row of overhead lights spanning the length of the room. “Come. Let us talk where it is more comfortable.”

Extending her long, slender hand and carrying her Seabreeze, she ushers me down the aisle between dozens of leaning stacks of countless, huge canvases towards the pitch black of the velvet curtain hanging at the end. She brushes it aside, revealing a tiny alcove tucked in behind her art, nearly totally filled by a queen-size bed serving as a wide couch with numerous cushions resting against the veranda’s side and rear windows covered by silvery, opaque plastic.

* * *

“Wow!” Etta raises a toast. “She invites you to view her ‘etchings’, unveils her erotic self-portrait, leaves you alone to fantasize, returns and reveals she’s getting a divorce and leads you to her private little beddy-boo. I’m panting for what comes next.”

* * *

“Welcome to my secret place.” Annabel climbs onto the white-patterned quilt, and pulls me down. I sit on the edge and stare into her eyes, now an uncertain blue. Her fingers are cold.

The space beyond the foot of the bed is filled with blank white canvases, large and small, in neat leaning stacks, the wall above hung with shelves of paints, brushes, cloths and chemicals.

“My supply room.” She sets her drink on the little end table beside the head of the bed. “Please light the candle. Matches are in the drawer. I’ll be back in a moment.”

While Fats Domino climbs “Blueberry Hill,” I light the candle. A shelf under the table contains books. An eclectic collection. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and several sex classics banned here and printed in France: Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Casanova’s Memoirs, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Fats getting his thrill on “Blueberry Hill” descends to Joe Valino walking in “The Garden of Eden.”

Annabel returns, her black hair undone, hanging freely about her shoulders. She sets the crystal pitcher of seabreeze on the table, and throws a wall switch between the shelves of chemicals, shutting off all the studio spots, leaving us in candlelight. Igniting a stick of incense, she twists its shaft into the wax at the base of the candle.

She refills her seabreeze, sips, leans into the pillows, props her head on her elbow and smiles nervously. “You are the only person who has ever been on this bed with me. Even Lara has never seen it. You see, both Lara and I have private lives. I am not privy to hers, and she has no more than a peripheral interest in mine.” Her voice shows subtle pain.

I say, “Am I ‘the man who knew too much’?”—in reference to Doris Day singing “Que Será, Será, Whatever Will Be, Will Be.”

Annabel giggles. “Thank you for making me laugh. You should know, I am not from an upper-crust family. I am, as they say, nouveau riche., but I apologize for the ostentation of this house—it was Duane’s personal project. I will trust you with my biggest secret.” She moves close, whispering in my ear, “What do you think if anyone discovered I am half Mexican?”

“An eight-point Richter shock to Marin’s social register, reverberating from Tiburon to Inverness.”

She laughs loudly. “In fact, my mother was a wetback. I grew up in a barrio in Los Angeles. I did not learn English until I was 16!” She sips. “To explain my accent, I say I was educated in Europe and my father was Hungarian, in the diplomatic service and killed by the Germans, which is only half a lie.” She rises, her midriff imposingly close. “And Hungary is now behind the proverbial Iron Curtain, so nothing can be disputed. I even hint I am related to royalty.” She lays her hand on my shoulder and giggles gaily. “Marin society is so snobbish. It is marvelous to make them think I am one up. Like the ‘loverly’ play we saw in New York last year. I am Marin’s ‘fair lady’!”

“Well, as they say, San Francisco’s high society was founded by gamblers, gunmen, prospectors and prostitutes, and they’re all in bed together.” I drain my water, and Jimmie Rodgers sings “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”

Annabel’s eyes turn an alluring blue. Laughing more crazily, she sprawls back into the pillows, legs splayed, her white dress spread on the white quilt, bare feet outstretched. Gazing at me from under half-closed lids and with a silly half-smile, she pokes my thigh with her toes.

I give her foot a friendly shake and ask, “Where are your parents?”

“Both dead.” She sits up, intensely animated, tucking her legs beneath her. “My mother in the flu epidemic of 1919—I was barely three. Her sister raised me. My assistant Ynez is her daughter— my cousin. I grew up with her.” She downs her seabreeze and pours another. “My father was Scottish. I was illegitimate. He deserted my mother before I was born, but I had him tracked down and learned he died in the War, the first one, of course—the ‘Great’ one, as they say—a hero in fact. I contacted his relatives and Duane accompanied Lara to Scotland to meet them. She was a huge success.”

Shirley Jones sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Annabel’s face shatters like still water struck by a stone. “Oh, God, please let Lara not be hurt, please.” She utters a soft cry and chokes it back. “Do you believe in God?”


“I do too. I always have. But I have not attended Mass or made Confession in… so long… now I am praying.” Tucking her drink between her thighs, she bites her lower lip and weeps.

Annabel’s sudden sinking into classic Catholic guilt moves me, despite the absurdity, and I touch her shoulder gently. “Annabel…Lara will be alright.”

She averts her face.

“I feel it,” I say. “She’s OK, and she’ll come back to you OK.”

“I believe you,” Annabel nods, her expression brightening, “I believe you. I must.”

I check my watch. “I need to leave.”

The candle lights the captivating contours of Annabel’s face, her eyes, though not their blueness.

“I have wanted so much for Lara to become more capable than I…” And in the furrows of her frown, the failure reverberates. “Is it like Scott Fitzgerald said? We row so hard, but it is always against the current. So, we are ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’?” She stares at me as if I’m her means of transport into the future.

I open my arms, give her a huge, sincere hug, and dispassionately let her go.

Abruptly, she stands. “Thank you for staying.”

Switching on the main light, she blows out the candle, takes my hand and walks me out, pausing to turn off the tape recorder, halting the hoofbeats of Vaughn Monroe’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

Fetching my camera bag, I say, “Well… see you tomorrow at four,” and receive a ‘thank you’ with a soft kiss to my cheek.

* * *

“Just a kiss, huh? And you gave her a big hug. I see that all sorts of ‘potential’ was passed over by you both… well, you… since it’s fairly apparent Annabel was hoping for a lot more.”

* * *

At the front door, Annabel says, “Thank you for proving you are a gentleman.” With a parting smile, she turns and crosses the great carpeted space to the bar, pours a fresh Seabreeze, sits on a sofa and stares at the large painting on the wall opposite her, withdrawn into a world only she knows.

The picture shows what appears like a bright yellow sun either rising or setting over a blue cloud in a blue sky or a blue island in a blue sea. Not a bad world and one into which I was briefly invited, and which I entered in a limited way. Annabel does not look again at me, and I wonder if she’s aware I’m still here.

I leave, closing the door quietly, and the bizarre fog hits me like a grey blizzard, cool, moist and refreshing. I smile. Even the wealth of Ross cannot keep it out. Lara’s misty Thunderbird sits in the roundabout, forlorn as a toy left out on the lawn in the rain.

My taxi arrives. Coasting slowly down the long drive, I gaze into the ashen mass, contemplating how I was nearly swept away within Annabel’s world. Gliding now into my own, I feel I’m escaping a huge prison with its single lovely inmate. The house glows like a ghostly beacon to guide Lara home.

3: The Best Years Of Our Lives

In San Anselmo, the cabbie drops me at the parking lot where my BMW awaits. I say a prayer for Lara. Prayers carried me through the War, maybe this will help Lara. Riding my bike home, I say another. I can’t guess what delivering the ransom will entail, but I don’t like being the person to do it, nor do I like the threat to my love if I don’t.

The little house in Fairfax, which I share with Etta, rests near the top of the central hill, with access via several narrow connecting roads off Bolinas Road—so narrow that when two cars meet, the one bound uphill must back into a driveway or pullout. Not so for a motorcycle. Today, as I curl up the cloud-encrusted hill, I meet no one. Parking in the dilapidated, clapboard garage, I’m surprised to see Etta’s blue MGA—she’s already returned from L.A.

From the road, on a clear day, our single-story rental abode on the slope above looks like a squat, rectangular box, solidly constructed with unpainted redwood, built into the steep ivy embedded hillside. The backside is a thick cement retaining wall, windowless and rising to the roof that slants downward to the front, where a wide redwood deck with a two-by-four, waist-high guard railing extends along the complete expanse. Crowning the roof is an enormous aluminum television aerial, courtesy of the San Francisco owners, producing prime reception for all Bay Area TV stations.

In this remarkably dark late afternoon, when the sun should still be shining bright, the house is hidden within the fog, except for the front windows glowing vaguely—distant lodestars for my homecoming—and by their position I find the base of the long, tall see-through stairway. It dangles from the right end of the deck down to the road like an afterthought.

Carrying my photo bag, I ascend the afterthought, 57 wood steps—“a lot more than 39,” Etta remarked. Arriving at the top, I open the front door and drop my keys and wallet on the tall, narrow parsons table just inside. Generally, we leave the door unlocked, but tonight I bolt it, and call:

“Horny—I mean ‘Honey’—I’m home!”

Not amused, Etta emerges from the bedroom. “Where were you? I just got in, but I expected you to be here.”

“You’re early.”

“I had an intuition and caught an early flight, and good thing I did. Half-way across the Golden Gate Bridge, it was like a blanket dropped over my windscreen and the drive took forever. I can find no words. Bizarre and unworldly—sometimes I could see taillights barely 20 feet in front of me. It’s the most incredibly dark fog I’ve ever seen—unreal.”

Hugging her, I say, “I’m glad you made it OK,” and we kiss.

Etta’s younger than me, about 30, small and compact, thick, brunette hair trimmed below her ears. A strong, friendly face. Big, incisive brown eyes show practicality and wariness. Nice round lips bear a perpetual smile accented by two large beguiling dimples on her soft cheeks. She may not be considered glamorous, but her face shines with stark sincerity, giving her an unglorified beauty.

I notice the odor wafting from the kitchen. “Wonderful smell,” I smile.

“Lamb. Stuffed with shards of garlic, shallots, rock salt, basted with olive oil, rosemary, thyme and black pepper. It’ll be done in a couple of hours. Where have you been?”

“Long story. Do you want the short version or the whole saga?”

“A synopsis will do.”

“Well… while I was shooting Lara Melville, she was kidnapped. I’ve been at her mother’s house, and the kidnappers insist I deliver the ransom tomorrow.”

Etta’s expression freezes, and for the next minutes we go through all sorts of ridiculous protestations and obscure accusations until she settles down and wants to hear the detailed account while we share a bottle of wine and process Lara’s film.

We cloister in the huge walk-in closet I converted to a darkroom. Lights off. Total darkness. Etta pops the film cassettes. She’s an expert and works for Ziggy Ziegler at Tidewater Studios where we met four months ago, the one professional photo lab in Marin.

I talk while her scissors snip, clipping the film leaders. Stainless steel reels tinkle—the film is threaded. The reels clink into the four-reel tank—she clunks it shut.

Lights on. Etta checks developer temperature, sets timer, pours developer into the tank’s spout, starts timer, caps spout, knocks bubbles loose from the film, agitates, waits, agitates, waits, and when the film’s development finishes, she dumps the developer and fills the tank with fixer.

“So, I’m the ransom delivery boy, and we’re both targets if I don’t deliver. I’m not living in fear, but I take them seriously, because there’s no reason to believe they’re not serious.”

Etta empties the fixer, opens the tank and pours in hypo clearing agent, shakes well, twists the small hose down through the centers of the reels, turns on the water to rinse the film and drinks the wine.

I say, “You need to return to L.A.—tomorrow.”

“I’ll think about it.” She pauses. “OK, I’ve thought and I’m staying, for worse or better.”

“Til us death do part?”

She chuckles. “Let’s not make it literal.”

I down another glass of wine. “We’re not even legally married, and you’re laughing.”

“It’s better than crying. The French are talking about “noir” movies and we’re living one that’s comically absurd. You need to laugh too.”

“You’re a binge drinker, you are. So am I—sometimes—and this is one of those times.” Upending the bottle, I gulp down the remainder and drop the empty in the trash basket.

Leaving the film for its 15-minute running water wash, we adjourn to the sparely furnished main room.

A big soft leather sofa and long wood coffee table snuggle before the brick fireplace in the vaulted rear wall flat against the hillside. To the left of the fireplace, a hi-fi stereo tuner turntable and tape player nestle on shelves above a massive speaker, and on the right, a 24-inch table TV sits eye-level on the second speaker.

The rest of the room is open space with only the small parson’s table inside the front door. Movie posters and photos decorate the off-white walls: framed one-sheets of Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Spirit of St. Louis, Love in the Afternoon and Witness for the Prosecution— some of Etta’s favorite films—interspersed with a few of my large horizontal landscapes.

The studio occupies the right wing of the house, the kitchen, bedroom and bath, the left.

With another bottle of wine and logs set ablaze in the fireplace, we plop on the soft sofa, switch on the TV and brood in silence while ingesting the news about the rest of the world for this Wednesday, 18 June 1958.

Generally, there’s been nothing sensational since Charles Starkweather was tried and sentenced to death at the end of May, for wiping out 11 people earlier in the year. Today, there’s further lamentation on the Soviets in Hungary hanging on Monday of former Prime Minister Imre Nagy— whom they tried in secret—an exponent for a neutral Hungary, thus setting back hopes of Hungarian freedom for years to come.

President Eisenhower hitting golf balls seems the symbol of the era. I don’t dislike Ike, but I voted for Stevenson. Etta chose not to vote. Ike’s Vice President Richard Nixon made a different sort of hit a month ago, when he was stoned in Venezuela while on a ‘goodwill’ tour, which doesn’t say much for the goodwill of the USA’s South American foreign policy.

However, this week the Supreme Court ruled against the State Department and allowed people like blacklisted singer Paul Robeson to have his passport restored.

And uplifting is the announcement that Explorer 3 is approaching three months in orbit and still functioning. The ‘space race’ component of the ‘cold war’ began when the Russians put Sputnik in orbit the previous October, and Sputnik II a month later, carrying a dog it liquidated seven days later.

The US finally challenged the Ruskies’ dominance of space when NASA got a decent launch with Explorer 1 in early February.

Like the first Explorer, number 3 is a prodigy of Iowa professor James Van Allen, and has confirmed the existence of radiation belts around the earth. We have no idea what the significance of the belts is, and apparently the news announcer doesn’t either.

“This is your life, Sean Chercheur,” Etta hoists her glass. “Today was a day like all days, except you were there when Lara was kidnapped. Now you gotta deliver the ransom, and I’m not thinking clearly.”

“Please go back to L.A.”

“Stop whining. As I said, ‘no way, Sean-say’—I won’t ‘go home to daddy.’ And since I’m staying I want to do more than ‘watch.’ Anyway, dad’s busy, buried in pre-production for the movie he’s shooting in August—the most outrageously original comedy you can imagine.” She breaks off with an accusing look. “You know, those Scheisse can get the money and kill Lara and you too.” She finishes her glass. “Somebody’s going to die, I just know. It’s awful, and I don’t know what to do.”

“You shower and I’ll dry the film.”

In the darkroom, I carefully hang the three film strips—weighted down by their steel reels— from the heavy fish line strung tautly across one corner—turn on the space heater, gently close the door to restrain dust, return to the main room and tend the fireplace.

Etta comes out fresh in boy’s jeans and white T-shirt, combing her hair dry, and it’s my turn.

On the toilet, I read a short chapter of Ross Macdonald’s latest Lew Archer mystery The Doomsters—briefly though effectively forgetting Lara and our precarious situation, entranced by Macdonald’s exquisitely descriptive prose and intricate, logical plotting, everything interconnected.

Television, the News, a book—it’s impressive how many things a person can do to avoid dealing with something they cannot avoid.

Showering, I thank God for Etta. We have in a very short time become real partners. We share a love of God and a love of movies. We share a personal integrity and inner awareness, and I trust Etta’s intuitive perceptiveness. We’ve developed genuine friendship and understand love is more than good sex. We call it lovelling. Perhaps that’s silly, but we have fun being silly.

Back in the darkroom, the film is dry. I print, and Etta processes, pouring developer and fixer into the first and third print trays respectively, using only water in the second tray instead of stop bath—its acid odor is too appalling.

Carefully cutting the negatives into strips of six, I insert them into the printing frame, switch on the dim safelight and make two contact prints of each roll under the enlarger light.

She drops the prints into the developer, extracts at the right moment, dunks into the water for a rapid hand-agitated rinse, and deposits in the fixer. Washing her hands clean of the chemicals, she switches on the main light and removes the prints with tongs and places in the washtub, water running. Grabs the wine bottle, takes a swig, passes it to me.

We return to the main room, trash the empty bottle, open our third. Etta cuddles close. I give her a kiss, saying:

“Previews of coming attractions.”

“Now the short subject.”

Our fingers travel freely, softly probing and gently stroking.

I say, “Quite an indication for an extended run.”

“Quite solid. The sort you want to last forever. But we’ll have to wait for the main attraction.”

We squeegee the contacts, and each other, quickly bake one set on the little canvas-covered dryer, take them crisply out. The other set—for Lara and Annabel—we leave drying on lowest heat, ferry the prints to the living room, switch on the spotlights behind the sofa, change TV channels, and examine the shots with 10x loupes on the large coffee table, while half-watching The Best Years of Our Lives—a great old movie by William Wyler—a story about soldiers coming home from the War. One of them is real. Harold Russell. He lost both his hands. Etta pauses in marking a contact with her grease pencil and says:

“I doubt if his two Academy Awards made up for losing those hands. I hope he found the love in real life, which Cathy O’Donnell gives him in the movie. She’s sweet. Seems like a real person.”

I study Lara’s close-ups. “You know, in my pictures I usually see things about people I don’t notice when I’m shooting. But with Lara’s I see nothing and I’m disappointed.”

“I think you captured her emptiness—she’s empty—there’s something missing in her. You didn’t capture it, because she doesn’t have it.” Etta frowns. “And no one notices because of her outer beauty. She’s a ‘hollow girl’ stuffed with cotton candy and covered with the colorful sugary stuff they sprinkle on cookies. The kind of sweets that rots teeth.”

She sighs, “God forgive me,” and views the scenic of the cove on the final sheet. “You should blow this up—I feel it’s good.” Filling the adjoining black frame with a red asterisk, she continues:

“Annabel’s husband—he’s hiding something. Then there’s Lara’s boyfriend—Todd Perry.”

“He may be one of the kidnappers—or just a jerk.”

“Or both,” she grins, and cocks her head. “Funny. We’re like detectives discussing suspects. Like we’re playing a game. This whole thing is… awful. Nasty and awful. Crazy too… but it’s the world… awful things happen, and unless they touch us, we don’t care. So, welcome to the world.”

Embracing tightly, we start a kiss that’s going to become a lot more until pounding on the front door jars us apart.

At the door is Vittoria Kenyon looking as black as the night in motorcycle leathers, jacket, leggings, boots and cap.

“Hi,” she smiles anxiously, “sorry for visiting so late. But I’m worried about Lara, and I have to talk to somebody. I think her beau has kidnapped her.” Vicki glances round into the murky darkness. “Isn’t this the weirdest fog you’ve ever seen?”

I invite her in with an incredulous look.

“I know it sounds crazy, and it makes me feel crazy.” Vicki shakes her head rapidly, stripping off her black cap and tossing her blonde hair. She gulps and sits on the sofa. “May I have a drink?”

Etta gets her an Olympia. Vicki’s been our friend for several months, since Etta met her at Tidewater, when she arrived via her motorcycle. Vicki has an AJS Enduro that can go over any terrain. My BMW is limited to roads and smooth trails, but we’ve spent many pleasant days riding the Marin country roads together. Vicki also does weight lifting and can beat me in arm wrestling, while also beating her employer TWA’s 135-pound weight limit for airline stewardesses.

Etta says, “Why do you think Lara’s kidnapped?”

Vicki gulps down half the bottle, takes a deep breath and continues, “We had a date tonight, Lara and her beau Todd Perry, and Ziggy and his new girl Juli, but none of them showed where we were meeting. We were all going together into The City for Lenny Bruce at the hungry i. Lara said you were taking her photo this afternoon, and this morning Todd said something creepy about how would Lara feel if she believed these were the last pictures anyone might ever take of her.” Vicki signs. “I’ve always suspected Todd had bad intentions, if he could ever bring himself to have any intentions. When they didn’t show up, my first thought was that Todd had done something with her.” She pauses to drink. “Anyway, I called Lara’s private number, and got no answer, and Todd doesn’t answer his phone. So, I called the main house number and Lara’s mom said she was not available and to call back in a few days. Finally, I rode there, and went around to Lara’s little cottage in the back. She wasn’t there, so I tried the main house and no one would come to the door. And Lara’s T-Bird is sitting right in front, and she never goes anywhere without it. And she wouldn’t have flown out of town without telling me. I rode all the way out to Todd’s house in Woodacre, and his old car is there, but he’s not. Nobody is. So, Todd must have her, and he and Lara are with someone else who has another car.”

Etta says, “But what makes you think Lara is kidnapped?”

“Because Todd has been talking about it—for weeks. We just thought he was being weird, saying things like, ’I wonder how valuable your mommy really thinks you are?’ or ‘Wouldn’t you like to find out how much she’ll miss you?’ We thought he was making bad jokes. Now, I think he was serious.”

I say, “Is Todd that stupid?”

“Maybe his brain is addled from too much dope.”

Etta asks: “Did you tell Todd about Sean and me?”

She grins. “I warned Lara not to get fresh with Sean.”

“You gave my name to Todd?”

“Sorry. He’s a jealous type, and needed calming. You know? Sean,” Vicki begs, “do you know if Lara’s OK?”

“She was OK this afternoon. But if something has happened, like you say, I think it would be better for Lara if we didn’t talk about it. You know what I mean? It might endanger her?”

“You do know something, don’t you?”

“Honestly, Vicki, if I knew something, it wouldn’t be good for me to say, would it?” She nods hesitantly. “But if you do know anything, is there anything I can do?”

“If she’s in trouble, I don’t think there’s anything any of us can do except pray.”

Vicki gives me her enigmatic smile. “How are the pictures?”

Etta gestures to the contacts on the coffee table. “See for yourself.”

Loupe in hand, Vicki scrutinizes the prints. “These are great.” Sipping her Olympia, she looks longingly at a contact sheet, and up at us with her perpetual knowing smile, bright blue eyes laughing under the blonde bangs. “Thank you. I should go.” Vicki rises.

I say, “We’ll phone if we hear anything.”

“I’ll try not to worry.”

“Everything will be fine. God bless you.”

She sighs exasperatedly. “You believe there’s a God. I don’t. Religion is simply people’s imaginations working overtime to make sense of a world that is the way it is, but what we gotta make the best of any way we can.”

“Which you are trying to do.”

“You bet your sweet asses,” Vicki smirks, and exchanging goodbyes, she descends the long stairway and vanishes halfway down.

Back in the darkroom on the lightbox, we coordinate our choices from Lara’s contacts with their negatives. Print seven 8x10s of her close-ups, two full-body. Leave them washing.

Etta says, “Now let’s eat. The Magnificent Ambersons is on the late show. Another channel has Leave Her to Heaven, which is what we have to do with Lara, while Ambersons makes me think of her screwed-up family.”

She serves her magnificent lamb and we cuddle on the sofa, engrossed in Orson Welles’ magnificent movie adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel about the changing Indianapolis at the turn of century.

At one point, George Minafer, played by Tim Holt, who finally gets his ‘comeuppance,’ criticizes Eugene Morgan’s enterprise of producing motorcars, and Morgan, played by Joseph Cotten, an endearing actor who deserves more recognition than he’s received, replies in one of the most prescient speeches from modern literature ever put into a film:

“I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls. I’m not sure. But automobiles have come. And almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. It may be that in 10 or 20 years from now if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine and would have to agree with George—that automobiles had no business to be invented.”

The print drying is done when the movie ends, and our fourth bottle of wine is drained. The TV signs off for the night, and we sign off too, pouring ourselves into bed.

Etta sighs, “I’m so tired and smashed I should drop right off… but the thought of your delivery tomorrow—whoops!—later today!—makes me so horny I gotta have the best lovel you can deliver this instant.” She rolls onto me and our night becomes loverly.

The wonderful sensation. Sex is holy, male and female combining, becoming one, why it’s called ‘coming’, remembering God, the power of God, the movement like a heartbeat, the throb of life, the back and forth, the side to side, in and out, called the Zikar by some, the greatest bliss or ecstasy we can experience in this life, and not just for our pleasure, it’s a reminder of our worship of God, it is a worship, our worship of God…. And I only know this person, this dear Etta, is who I want to spend the rest of my life worshipping with, God willing.

I awake with a start, and my lurch wakes Etta. The illuminated electric clock on the bureau says 6:08. The bedroom window glows darkly beneath a sheen of condensation.

We’re both half hung-over, and shower to set ourselves straight. I change into fresh khakis and a long sleeve cotton shirt and pick up the newspaper the delivery boy gets an extra couple of bucks a month to toss on the deck.

The fog persists, cold, dense and dark. A new day like the old day. Taking a deep breath of crisp air, I feel pretty good, then think about delivering Lara’s ransom, and feel not so good.

The Independent-Journal headlines the mysterious fog already setting a record for duration and for which there’s little explanation.

The cold lamb is delicious for breakfast.

“Ziggy’s expecting me,” Etta says, “but I sure do not wanna work today.”
“Don’t then.”

We have an hour before she needs to leave, and she remembers the scenic of the cove at McClures. The contact shows a triangle of sky cutting down into the rock formations, the sandy beach occupying the bottom half of the image. Under the 10x loupe a plethora of detail appears in the negatives, and five of the seven frames pop with extreme sharpness. All are composed more or less the same, so we choose the final shot, marginally the best compositionally, clip the frame and its blank, clear tail from the strip.

As the image on the first 7×10 test print appears in the developer, we immediately see it’s an intriguing scene: the wet, smooth sand strewn with seaweed and small stones sweeping up and spilling onto the massive craggy rocks, the sky above a V, the passageway in the center, even its far end showing fine detail. We print several 7x10s until the contrast and tonality are right, then make a couple of 9×14 enlargements, the maximum size the small enlarger will go.

Drying the prints at low heat, Etta slides the negative into a sleeve, tucks it with a 9×14 into an envelope to take to Tidewater, where her boss Ziggy Ziegler makes 24×36 inch blowups for my art sales at Golden Shore Gallery. I note in my log this is negative number 30 Ziggy will have on file, and we decide to title it simply “McClures Cove.”

The rest of Lara’s negatives we file as usual with their contact sheets.

It’s nearly nine. Etta says: “I gotta go.”

“I’ll take you and bring you back.”

Etta tugs on her denim jacket and I don my riding duds. We trod down to the garage and mount up.

Because visibility is poor, I wear my yellow-tinted night glasses. A couple of kicks start the bike, and we roll out and down the hill into Fairfax, riding carefully on the damp road. The BMW has no windshield, and the moisture hitting my face is sharply invigorating. Etta snuggles behind me. At stop signs, I have to wipe my glasses to see clearly.

Roaring through the Hub in San Anselmo, I glance at the Tamalpais Theatre, Vertigo on the misty marquee, anticipate sharing what I perceive is a special movie with my special love, who’s had a life no one could easily imagine.

Etta Maler is German and half Jewish, but speaks with little accent from having British tutors when she was young, and attending UCLA, where she graduated with a degree in cinema arts. Her history reads like a movie story:

She spent the war on the Maler estate in what is East Germany today—“quiet and scary,” she calls it. Her adopted family were spied on by the Gestapo because Herr Maler was critical of Hitler. He’d been in the foreign service until friends advised him to retire. Evidently, he was too widely respected to be killed, but many of his relatives were executed by the Nazis. As a child, she learned to shoot guns more than play with toys. In 1945, the Malers fled 200 kilometres on foot in freezing cold, to escape the Russians, until they reached the American zone. All the way, Etta carried her pet parakeet in a cage and he survived.

The mother and grandmother of her natural father died at Auschwitz. In fact, Etta is the illegitimate child of a couple who are both quite famous. “They met briefly in Berlin, early in my dad’s career,” she said. “My mom was already famous in Germany. I’m the result. A ‘love child.’ Now my father is maybe the most successful writer/director in Hollywood. My mother is a legend and just starred in a great movie—in her 50s—an incredible accomplishment.”

Unfortunately, Etta never had much of a relationship with her mom. When she was two, her mother left her with the Malers in Germany and went to America to make movies. The Malers pretended she was their daughter and raised her. Her mom came back to Germany when Etta was ten—it was “wonderful” she said—but then mom left to do another movie, and the War came. She didn’t see her mother again for eight years. Her father found her right after the Germans surrendered, and brought her to the States—he hadn’t known Etta existed until halfway through the War, when her mother told him.

Her father supports her, giving her a car and as much money as she needs, and sponsoring things like her immigration and her enrollment at UCLA. Information about his identity is out there if anyone wants to look hard. But her mother is secretive about their relationship, because, supposedly, she doesn’t want to hurt her husband any more than she already has and with whom she has another daughter, and maybe because Etta more resembles her father. She’s told me who both her parents are, and said, “You’re the only person I’ve ever told, and I don’t want to be ‘somebody’ because they are real ‘somebodies.’ The most important thing is to be yourself.”

I care about Etta—for herself. She doesn’t want to work in movies, because “the industry and unions are completely controlled by guys. Dad would help me, but I don’t want that. I want to become successful on my own—if I can. Like dad says, ‘You have to dream, so you can get up in the morning.’”

Last Christmas Etta had a dream about doing photography, and in February she moved to Marin from L.A. to get away from “self-absorbed people and the smog.” She took a job at Ziggy’s lab—Ziggy has quite a turnover in assistants, who are always female. I met her there a week later, and asked her out the same day. By the end of the month we were lovelling, and she moved into my home that is now ‘our home.’ Maler means ‘painter’ in German, and Etta thought she wanted to paint with a camera. Now she believes her dream was about her relationship with me, and she’s pursuing her interest in film criticism.

A short distance past the Hub, the small stucco structure of Tidewater Photo & Art Studio materializes on the frontage road of what Marinites commonly call the ‘Miracle Mile,’ a short commercial stretch between San Anselmo and San Rafael.

Inside, we meet Ziggy’s new assistant Juliet. She’s a petite blonde with big breasts, short bangs and a sexy gaze. Her dyed hair shows a trace of darkness at the roots. She goes through the curtained doorway to the rear to fetch Ziggy.

Ziggy Ziegler comes out, frizzy-bearded and curly-haired, a satyr small and wiry, rimless glasses slightly obscuring his pale eyes, the depth of wrinkles in his forehead indicating his age as mid to late forties. A real iconoclast in sedate, conservative Marin, he’s an expert in the darkroom, but rather mediocre behind a camera—betrayed by his scenic prints displayed on the walls. He shoots good portraits, however, and weddings, as signs prominently advertise amidst moodily lit headshots and strobe captures of happy couples in formal garb. To round out his business, he provides custom mounting and framing, and sells enough darkroom supplies and film to maintain a Kodak account.

I show him the 9×14 and order two 24×36 inch prints to match, unframed and mounted on foamcore, one for us, the other for my gallery dealer, who does her own framing.

Ziggy squints over the negative of McClures Cove on the lightbox built into the counter. “It’s givin’ me a Zen buzz. The patterns in those rocks an’ the debris on the sand are wild, man.” He scans the print with a magnifying glass. “Wow! Crazy! You musta shot this just as the soup was sloppin’ outta the bowl—I see it slurpin’ through the ‘V’ between the rocks. Pretty sexy—I dig the whole scene, man. Especially the existential minglin’ of the elements.”

“I was lucky,” I say, not knowing what the hell Ziggy’s talking about.

“The news says this muck is gonna continue heavy an’ no word how long it’s gonna hang in. Weird.”


“I mean spooky weird.”

“I guess so. Would it be OK if Etta didn’t work today?”

“No prob,” he grins his hairy wolfish grin. “You met Juli. She’s workin’ out great—really great.”

“Good,” Etta smiles, “Excuse me, I need to use the ladies’ room,” and heads through the curtain.

I say, “You know Todd Perry?”

“Yeah, how’d ya know?”

“Met him last night, and Vicki mentioned both of you.”

“We were all gonna dig Lenny Bruce, but I hada cancel ‘cause of the soup”

“Todd’s your dealer,” I smile.

He nods. “Not much longer, ‘cordin’ to him. Suppose-ly, he’s got a big deal cookin’… gonna set him for life, he says.”

“You believe him?”

“He might be dreamin’ as he is wont to do. Maybe thinkin’ he’s gonna run off with this rich chick he’s been ahumpin’. A classy kitty with lots of dough, lots—my guess from seein’ her purse. Only a rich chickie carries a big custom-made Hermès shoulder bag—I dug it from the latch an’ double saddle stitchin’—had to cost thousands.”

“I’m impressed with your knowledge of high fashion.”

“Been ‘round the block, lots of places, had my paws in lots of pies,” he smiles. “Little guys have to be smarter or we’re subject to further reduction.”

“Please tell me more about Todd’s girl. Rich chick.”

“Yeah—name’s Lulu. Todd thinks he’s got it made in the shade. But maybe she’s got him. He had a mega party a bit back—Lulu did a super boner dance. All the guys were pantin’—‘cept me—I played it cool. Only way. A hot kitty like her knows how to put a cat in heat, an’ if she’s rich, the guy gets a double itch, maybe that’s all she wants. Best to let her think you don’t care, an’ she’ll do the chasin’.”

“Did she?”

“Nah-da. She was pretty gone. Was gonna see her last night, but—oh, weel—anyway, I’m cool with Juli.” His eyes twinkle over the specs. “Heard about the new Hitch flick at the Tam? Word is it’s peculiar beyond belief. Psychologically confused, an’ more ‘nothingness’ than ‘being.’” Ziggy tugs his satyr’s beard. “I may give it a glance, but I’m in no rush. Want to graze some grass before you go?”

“No, thanks. Enjoy yourself.”

Etta appears. Ziggy gives her a pat on the butt and me a smirk: “Thanks, man, for relievin’ my overhead today.”

Scowling, she turns and smacks his bearded cheek. “This overhead is relieved permanently. You promised not to do that again. Please mail my last check.”

Holding the door open for her, I give the shocked Ziggy a sympathetic shrug.

Outside, Etta clutches her blue denim jacket tight, looking susceptible in the mist. I caress her neck and she tenderly tucks her head against my shoulder. I say,

“You never told me he was coming onto you.”

“I can handle my own harassment.”

I tell her about “Lulu.”

“Sounds like Lara’s playing the role of one of movies’ first femme fatales. G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Yes. The title has all the innuendo you or she might want,” Etta grins.

We ride home, and upstairs, Etta sniffs her shirt, saying:

“I’ll cook us steaks, but first, shower time. To be a photo printer you must love the smell of acid in the morning, and just using the facilities in the back by the tanks fumigated me.”

Although it’s only noon, the darkened window makes it seem as though night is imminent.

While placing logs in the fireplace and igniting a blaze, I consider the ransom delivery.

Glaring grimly, Etta emerges wearing her white robe, her wet brown hair dangling. She fetches a Coco-Cola from the kitchen, and kneels before the flames. Slowly, she tears the paper sheath from the straw, tiny strip by tiny strip, occasionally darting me a pained glance. “If you’re going to get yourself killed, I need to get used to being alone again.”

“No way. Everything will be OK.”

“Not when your ghost is watching me give myself hand jobs.”

In the shower, I am suddenly drenched in despair, and fall to my knees. The water spikes my head and neck. I pray to God everything will be OK. I let the water wash over me for a long time.

On the sofa, Etta is sipping her coke and staring into space. Seeing me, she rises and hugs me hugely, her eyes tearing. “I’ve got it!”

We kiss passionately, part, and she smiles, eyes glistening in the firelight. Her hair fluffily unfurling, splashing her face and entwining my fingers, her soft clear skin so smooth.

“I prayed too,” she says. “I agree. Like you say—everything will be OK.”

The aroma of broiling meat wafts over us.

“Hmmm,” she says surprisingly cheery. “Cooked with garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper and a lot of butter. Made a pan from two layers of foil, so there’s no cleaning.” Etta cocks her head cutely, raises her hands like paws and mimics a cat purring.

“What a clever kitty.”

“We both love pussies,” she smiles.

“They’re neat. Let’s eat,” I fetch the meat, and we sit by the fire.

She nibbles and drinks. “I’ve thought out the whole situation. You have no choice but to deliver the ransom, or they will kill Lara, and you, or me, or both of us later. Do we believe them? It doesn’t matter. We need to, and act accordingly. So…” she smiles, “how do you deliver the ransom, save Lara and not get killed? What we need to know first is how they want it delivered. We won’t know that until it’s too late to make a good plan. You’re vulnerable. You need protection.”

Etta stops eating, her dear eyes wide, not blinking. She hugs me, and I smell the smoky flower fragrance of her hair, feel its silk against my cheek, feel her fear and passion within, her warmth and softness, and I want to do everything I can to make her happy.

“Here’s what I decided. You definitely need to take your gun. I know you have at least two. Get them both, please. The second is for me, because I’m going with you.”


“I love you so much I’d rather die with you than live without you.”

“That’s a bit much.”

“Yeah, but if I come we’ll all be OK. You know I’m better with a pistol than you.”

While Etta cleans our plates, I retrieve my Marine Colt .45, stored in an oiled cloth, from the top shelf in the bedroom closet, and the .32 Colt Detective Special, a snub-nose revolver—payment from a client for shooting family pictures—identical to Colt’s .38 Detective Special, but holding six bullets instead of five, plus cartridges for both.

I lay the guns on the coffee table, and Etta helps wipe them clean. I take out the .45 mag, load and put the safety on. No need to test, because last fall I used it to kill a deer a motorist had hit and left to die beside the garage.

Etta flicks open the cylinder of the .32, loads, spins and snaps shut, handling like an expert. “Cool,” she grins and drapes her arm round me, saying, “I feel a lot better now.”


Throwing herself back into the couch, Etta extends her glass, smiling broadly, “Trust your feelings, not your thinking,” and downs her Coke.

“Yeah.” I sink down and lean into her.

“Do you think we have time for a quick lovel?” she asks.

“If we’re quick.”

“Well, not too quick. As they say, ‘to hell with Coke’ this is the pause that refreshes.”