SUNLIGHT ON WATER
Summerland, California, 1950
The house was pale yellow. Actually, all the houses were in bright yet curiously muted colours, dotting the slopes of Ortega Hill like shy wildflowers; all facing the parabolic arc of the bay, with its strip of glaring sand like a swathe of parachute silk soaking up the fringes of the ocean. Once, before the War, this place had seen an oil boom, the hillside and the bay despoiled by marching derricks that waded far out to sea. Hard to picture that now: the oil and its accoutrements were all gone, but the houses had endured, re-emerging to blossom as Summerland itself hoped to blossom, one day soon.
She was not all that far from LA, but she might as well be in a different world. She could appreciate now why Carlton Briggs - her onetime publicist, then husband, then publicist again - had suggested she come here for her ‘rest’. Cheap and easy to get to, but discreet enough to keep her out of the public (read: journalistic) eye. Good ol’ Carlton: always fixed on the bottom line.
But she couldn’t help liking the house a little. Like all the others, it had a sort of old Colonial look about it, albeit slightly off. Many of the houses were strange - literally. Summerland had been founded in the last century as a haven for spiritualists, and it seemed the Spirit World had had a hand in designing the properties. There were, apparently, doors that opened onto blank walls; stairs that climbed to non-existent upper storeys. Carlton had taken pains to assure her that the property he had rented for her was not so afflicted: just as well, for in her present fragile state that might well have tipped her over the edge. She took a deep breath, slid key into lock, and entered her new home.
Inside was spacious, slightly echoing, but not overwhelmingly immense. She checked each room in turn, starting with the kitchen: as promised the icebox was fully stocked. Every morning somebody would deliver food; someone else would arrive early afternoon to clean for an hour or so - she did not have to interact with these persons at all, if she didn’t want to. She was free to be alone, free to do whatever she wished - trouble was, she had no idea what that might be.
Desultorily, she continued her tour. Like any holiday home, the place had a random selection of furniture, much of it having seen better days. There were curios scattered here and there, some of which drew her attention for several minutes, but overall there was the sense of a house being either half-filled or half emptied: the place had no personality, and such a thing would have to be imposed by the resident. But she was an actress - nay, a movie star - she had no personality to impose. She incarnated other people’s personalities - borrowed them, if you will. If you stripped away all the parts she had played, all the carefully applied outer Hollywood glamour, there was a good chance you’d find nothing at all underneath. Her name was Carmelle King, and she was a star who’d crashed and burned.
She made her way upstairs. There were several bedrooms, but one in particular drew her, with a huge window offering a panoramic view of the bay, and in turn opening onto a balcony from which you could see - well, practically forever. She stepped towards it, pointedly ignoring the large mirror placed on an otherwise bare wall. Carmelle didn’t need to look in it to know she was beautiful - Christ, she’d been on the cover of Time twice, and it wasn’t because of any achievements in culture or politics. Long, rich, auburn hair; high, full cheeks that made her slightly baby-faced every time she smiled (oh, how producers loved that); searing, heavy-browed green eyes; a dainty little nose; a sinuously slender mouth; a strong jaw line, almost regal, tapering into a strong, pointed chin. And then, of course, there were the tits. Voluptuous and hanging, the ripest fruits on the shapeliest of vines (long legs, unexpectedly slender waist and hips), those tits had opened more doors than a 24-hour locksmith. It all amounted to a ‘bombshell’, which sounded something dangerous, explosive. But the detonation had all been in her own head - now it was a case of putting the pieces back together.
Stepping onto the balcony, she felt the sharp waft of a cooling breeze as it carved over the hillside, carrying the ocean’s salt tang with it. Below the arcing beach seemed deserted, as did the town - perhaps the spiritualists had succeeded too well, and created a place of ghosts. She thought about heading down there - but no, there were indeed people there, and the fear of recognition was, for now, too strong. Later, perhaps, when she felt up to it.
She lingered, feeling trapped by the emptiness of the house behind her, the town dropping away in
front. For over a year she had craved nothing so much as being alone, and now that she was, there was already a creeping loneliness. She shook her head, admonishing herself: this was fucking typical, always wanting what she couldn’t have - a contract, a drink, a pill, a husband. And when she did get it, she threw it away in search of something better, stronger, more satisfying. But it never was.
She was about go back inside at last when something arrested her. It wasn’t so much a sound as a vibration, but it quickly resolved into a sound - a deep throated rumble that was somewhere between a purr and a roar. It built in volume until, with a sudden surge of noise, an aircraft flashed over the hilltop, over her roof, momentarily draping her in its cruciform shadow. She watched as it headed out over the bay, then executed a wide, elegant turn back on itself, losing height as it did so until it was actually below her level. There was a fleeting fear that it was going to crash into the hillside, until she noticed this was an unusual sort of airplane - its wings and twin engines were mounted high above its body, which was itself rather boat-shaped. Carmelle knew precisely nothing about aviation, but she could still recognise a seaplane when she saw one. This, however, seemed an exceptionally small seaplane.
The plane’s engines seemed to cough slightly as they were throttled back, and it settled onto the calm water in a series of shallow skips, like a skimmed pebble, carving a frothing wake behind. She watched as it gently chugged towards a small jetty that projected out into the bay - she could just make out a figure awaiting its arrival. But before it got there she had turned away, gone inside, laid herself down upon the sumptuous, softly welcoming bed. There were things to do - not least, negotiating her first meal - but for now she was going to do what she came here for: rest.
The following morning she slept ridiculously late. By the time she rose the sun was already high, its light sparkling off the water with almost painful intensity. She flicked on the radio, but quickly found it unendurable, so switched it off again. Nonetheless, a string of commercials had reminded her it was the Holiday Season approaching fast - fucking December already; though out here, of course, most every day felt like summer. She settled upon the first major activity of her open-ended convalescence: she was going to write Christmas cards. But that seemingly simple decision brought with it a raft of consequences and encumbrances. She would need, at the very least, the cards and stamps to place upon them; and that would entail venturing down into the town, days ahead of her expected summoning of sufficient nerve to do so. But it was a trial that needed to be faced, so perhaps sooner rather than later was good. Thus resolved, she moved to get ready quickly, lest her courage fail halfway down the hill. However, before she did, she stepped out onto the balcony, peeking down at the jetty so far below. The little plane had gone - whenever it had departed, be it last night or this morning, she had been oblivious. Maybe those sleeping pills weren’t such a good idea.
The trick was in creating a convincing disguise. She pinned up her hair carefully, cramming most of it under a wide-brimmed sun hat. The affectation of sunglasses was fair enough on such a bright, bleaching day. She considered a silk scarf and cotton gloves, but decided that smacked too much of ‘Hollywood star trying to look incognito’. In the mirror, of course, she recognised herself straight off, but she had to trust that Joe Public was a little less perceptive.
As it turned out, she needn’t have worried at all. For a start, Summerland was pretty much deserted - perhaps it was like this all the time. The few people she did encounter paid her little heed, other than to flash that curious glance - at once welcoming and standoffish - that locals always reserve for those they believe to be tourists. She found the post office with almost childish ease, and stepped inside. It was one of those places that doubled as a general store, and as well as cards it also carried a range of trashy local souvenirs - evidently, somebody believed in Summerland’s future as a major resort.
There were no other customers, just a middle-aged woman sat behind the counter, who after a fleeting, disinterested glance at Carmelle’s arrival, returned to her knitting. Self-conscious but determined, Carmelle began to browse the racks and shelves, starting with the seasonal cards. Quickly tiring of even this limited selection, she randomly grabbed a dozen or so before moving on to the more
colourful, and therefore more interesting, souvenir counter.
Scattered in among the more predictable tat were a few very unusual items. Postcards, books, even a strange sort of ceramic ornament commemorating, not Summerland itself, but something called the ‘San Clemente Monster’ which, if the sculpture was anything to go by, was a sort of cartoon dragon. Intrigued, Carmelle picked up one of the books, and began idly flicking. She felt sure as she did so that the woman’s eyes were upon her, but she ignored the instinct to turn and look. The volume was slim and seemingly lacking in detailed text, but the illustrations made it clear that the ‘monster’ was some serpentine form of sea creature, and that it had been sighted in California waters from the end of the First War to the beginning of the last - she felt a vague pang of guilt that she’d never heard of such a thing. On a whim, she decided to buy the book - perhaps it could while away a few precious minutes back at the house.
She smiled nervously as she made her purchase, but there was no glimmer of recognition from the woman, just the usual, slightly distant friendliness of the shopkeeper. Emboldened, she essayed a spot of small talk.
“I, uh, didn’t expect to be reading about a monster, here in Summerland.”
The woman gave her a slight, vaguely condescending smile.
“That’s just a nickname the papers gave it,” she said firmly. “Really, it’s only an animal, but no one’s managed to figure out what sort yet.”
“Oh?” Carmelle blinked. “You seem very sure - have you seen it yourself?”
“No. But there’s plenty round here who have - fishermen, mostly, rich guys. Guys who’ve got nothing to prove by telling tall stories - it’s all in the book.”
“I see.” Carmelle was rocked by the woman’s casual conviction - there seemed something vaguely evangelical about it. She gathered her purchases quickly and exited the shop, realising once she did so that she was already quite exhausted. She was halfway back home (strange that she was already beginning to think of it as ‘home’) when it occurred to her she should really have gotten some groceries as well, but it was too late now. She went straight to bed and slept for a solid hour, after which she took a shower and, swaddled in a pale blue chenille wrap, sat out on the balcony to write her cards.
She had managed maybe three when ennui overwhelmed her, and she set down her pen. Craving something, anything else to do, she picked up the book, wondering as she did so what had actually possessed her to buy such garbage.
Carmelle tried to read systematically, but her brain would not focus, so she finished up flicking randomly between pages. Essentially, the volume was a collection of news reports, fleshed out with minimal commentary and highly speculative illustrations. As the woman had intimated, the primary witnesses to the so-called‘monster’ were sport fishermen - certainly, their accounts all seemed to strikingly agree on the main particulars: a huge creature with a long, columnar neck sticking ten feet or so out of the water; a head vaguely horse-like, complete with a shaggy mane, but with disturbingly large, dark eyes perhaps twelve inches across. It all seemed quite plausible, but Carmelle had no true idea of the quality either of the witnesses or their documentation. What if they were all crazy, crazy as the folks who’d first built Summerland and its crazy houses? Perhaps that’s why nobody had recognised her: perhaps she was just another crazy person in a whole town full of them.
The thought actually made her laugh out loud. If this was Carlton’s idea of a joke, she had to concede it was a pretty good one. Her eyes were skittering over another fisherman’s yarn when she felt, as much as heard, a familiar, distantly approaching roar. She looked up expectantly, putting her hand to her forehead and holding it there, like a visor. Sure enough, the little seaplane came buzzing overhead, the sunlight glinting off its glossy black wings as it turned out into the bay. As it lined up to alight once more upon the spangled water, Carmelle was seized by another sudden and inexplicable urge - she wanted to watch the plane come in, to observe its operation at close quarters. It was utterly irrational, but then most of her thoughts these days, indeed most of her life, was irrational: she decided to just go with it. Besides, where there was a plane there must needs be a pilot - maybe he’d be handsome; maybe she might like to try and fuck him. This last thought brought a simultaneous surge of pleasure and guilt, prickling her pale skin - it had been a long time since she’d entertained the notion of sex, and in this context it seemed as alien and unlikely as any sea-monster. She rushed inside, flinging off her robe and pulling on her uniform of anonymity. Outside she could hear the chug of the engines as they throttled down, then the resurgent roar as the aircraft began to travel (did they call it ‘taxi’, or was that something else?) towards the shore. She was pretty much running - stupidly, since she was in heels - as she made her way down the hill.
As she came to the jetty she slowed, then stopped uncertainly. Awaiting the plane’s arrival was a strikingly handsome man of indeterminate age - he could have been anywhere from twenty to forty. He had excessively long, tousled hair, and a muscular frame appositely displayed by a tight-fitting t-shirt and denims. Along with the sexual thrill Carmelle felt on seeing this vision - he was at least as handsome as several of her former leading men - there was a flutter of confusion: this was the image her imagination had summoned for the pilot, not some mechanic or hanger-on. Was it possible there was an even greater delight in the offing? The thought had her tingling and, frankly, a little moist.
Propellers turning like over-stimulated windmills, the plane edged gently towards the jetty. At close range, Carmelle could see it was not black overall - the parts that would equate to a ship’s hull below the waterline were painted a vivid orange. Reflections from its curved windscreens - which looked vaguely like a pair of eyebrows - prevented her from glimpsing the pilot in his cockpit (she smiled and blushed at the myriad connotations of the word ‘cockpit’ - much more of this and she might start touching herself in public).
As the plane swung into its final position, the guy on the jetty snagged its nose with a mooring-rope, just as if it were indeed a boat. With a cough the engines were cut, the propellers stopped, and the man simply pulled it the last few feet, securing various other parts of it with additional ropes. As a door in the hull (fuselage, whatever) opened, he place a small ramp across to it from the jetty, and passengers began to disembark. There were only a handful of them - they stretched and blinked in the sunshine, looking vaguely like released prisoners. Then at last the pilot himself emerged, and Carmelle’s mouth fell open. She resorted to peering over the top of her sunglasses (at slight risk to her anonymity), just to be sure she was indeed seeing what she thought she was seeing.
The pilot was female. A slightly baggy khaki flying suit and light leather jacket could not conceal the very obvious curves of womanhood, nor could a tight-fitting helmet - also of leather - disguise a sharply feminine face. When, seconds later, that helmet was removed, there was a spill of long golden hair so bright it seemed to glitter in the sunlight, rivalling the mirror dazzle of the sea. Carmelle appraised the woman as she chatted amiably with her passengers - shaking hands with one, posing for a photo with another. The revelation of a girl pilot had been like a bucket of cold water thrown over her nascent sexual fantasy -suddenly, even the mechanic (who had proved himself such by climbing up onto the wing in order to check over the engines) did not seem anywhere near so attractive. No doubt, these two were a couple, thus whatever vague notion of seduction she might have entertained was moot.
Nonetheless, she had to concede - with a mix of professional curiosity and outright envy - that the woman pilot was extraordinarily beautiful. Carmelle could easily imagine her in pictures, a second-tier cross between Jean Harlow and Veronica Lake. Moreover, there was something vaguely, almost hauntingly familiar about her. She had a crisp, Californian face: a thin, sharply tapered nose; a strong chin; high, subtle cheekbones. Her eyes were brown but bright, almost vivid beneath soft, sweeping brows; her mouth was narrow, thin-lipped yet sensual. That gilded hair fell in lush waves and spirals down her back, over her shoulders - Carmelle idly wondered how long it must have taken to cram all of it under the tiny helmet. The woman’s figure was difficult to precisely ascertain beneath her suit - she was not remotely tall, but still gave an impression of loose, long-limbed athleticism.
Gradually the passengers filtered away. As each of them passed Carmelle she froze involuntarily, but still there was not a flicker of recognition, just the odd smile and polite nod, especially from the men. Meanwhile the mechanic had climbed down from his post, and he and the pilot were chatting with the easy familiarity of a husband-and-wife, or at least regular bed mates. Then, somewhat surprisingly, the mechanic disappeared back into the plane, and the pilot began walking easily along the jetty, directly towards Carmelle. As she drew level she favoured her with a gentle yet dazzling smile, and Carmelle, for reasons she would never be able to precisely pinpoint, felt compelled to speak.
The woman stopped. Her gaze was uncomfortably direct and penetrating.
“Um, what sort of airplane is that?” was all Carmelle could think to ask.
“It’s a Grumman G-21 Goose, ma’am.” The reply sounded vaguely amused, but there was obvious pride underneath.
“And is it yours?”
The pilot smiled again, looking back at her charge.
“Well, unless the United States Navy decides they want it back anytime soon, I guess so.”
“And whereabouts do you fly to?” Carmelle knew her questions were feeble, but she was anxious to get some form of conversation going, even if she didn’t quite know why.
“Anywhere and everywhere,” came the Cheshire Cat response. “Most folks just want to take a skim around the bay, or down to Long Beach, but so long as I’ve got fuel and they’re prepared to pay, I’ll take ‘em wherever.”
Carmelle hesitated before asking her next question, though not so much as she should.
“Could I buy a flight?”
“Sure.” She hooked a thumb towards the plane. “Just ask Mario back there - he handles all my bookings.”
“No,” said Carmelle quickly, feeling suddenly rueful. “What I meant was, this would be an… unusual flight.”
The woman gazed at her, deep brow slightly furrowed. Carmelle fought down a girlish blush.
“Look,” she blustered, “I’d like to discuss it with you, in private. Maybe you could come for dinner, say seven o’clock? I’m staying in the yellow house on the hill.”
Carmelle fully expected to be dismissed as a lunatic, or at least subjected to barrage of questions. But what the woman actually said was,“Okay, sure.”
It all seemed a little too easy. Then a thought struck Carmelle.
“I mean, your husband’s welcome to come along, too - that is, if he wants…”
This time the woman did seem genuinely confused. She again furrowed her brow a moment, then broke into another luminescent smile.
“What, you mean Mario? My husband? He should be so lucky. No: the guy’s a good friend, a great business partner, and the best mechanic this side of Long Beach, but I really don’t think we’d work as a couple. So anyway: yellow house, seven o’clock, right?”
Carmelle could only nod, whereupon the pilot sauntered on her way. She’d gone several yards before Carmelle called out again.
The blonde head turned, its tresses rippling magnificently.
“What’s your name?”
“Tanith,” came the reply. “Tanith Wade.”
“I’ll see you later, Tanith,” Carmelle said, realising as she did so that certain names could have their very own taste. “By the way, my name’s Carmelle…”
“Yes,” came the reply, with a little indulgent nod. “I know.”
Back‘home’, Carmelle retired immediately to bed. She didn’t sleep, but she needed a safe, quiet shelter in order to try and untangle recent events, and her own role in them. What the hell was she thinking, asking that woman to dinner? She could barely boil an egg, let alone entertain. And her ‘proposition’ - the thing that seemed to spring fully-formed into her brain - where had that come from?
Was it not precisely the notion of an addled mind? It was so bizarre she actually shied away from recalling its details, assuming it actually had any. Regardless, it was madness - she was indeed mad. But - and here her roiling thoughts seemed to abruptly still and settle - it was what she wanted, nay needed, to do. She felt as determined about this as she had about anything in her life, and she had the ferocious will to match the colour of her hair. She all but vaulted from the bed, as hyperactive now as she had been in the doldrums previously. She would make dinner for that woman - for Tanith - and she would tell of her crazy notion. And if it all sounded like insanity, then it was no more than a place like Summerland deserved…
Seven o’clock approached, the sun dipping low towards the water, a crimson ball sinking through gradated layers of violet. Cautiously, Carmelle checked her bubbling pans: she had combined what was in the refrigerator with a few almost random store-bought items to create something she hoped would prove edible. Then she took off her apron, and headed upstairs to check on herself one last time. That mirror had seemed to taunt her when she first arrived, yet now she was obsessively checking it every few minutes, aware even as she did how ridiculous she was being; acting like a teenage girl on her first date. She had affected a long, strapless pink-cream gown that showed off her décolletage to full advantage (while keeping her bosoms under control), and let her auburn locks tumble impressively over her bared shoulders. She honestly wasn’t sure what she was trying to accomplish: was she trying to intimidate her guest? Was she just relishing a chance to show off, even if to an audience of one? Was she actually flattered that someone appeared to have actually recognised her, after all? Whatever, the doorbell sounded just as she was fixing expensive earrings and necklace into place. One last check, to make sure she looked every inch the film star, then she glided down the stairs to the door.
Carmelle hadn’t known what to expect, but even so she was a little taken aback by what the open door revealed. Tanith was attired in what appeared to be a man’s denim shirt over dark slacks, and the same battered leather flying jacket - for the first time Carmelle noticed a circular cartoon design over one breast pocket. She would have looked completely unfeminine were it not for that lovely, soft golden hair hanging free and unfettered: to be frank, it looked as if she hadn’t even brushed it. In her hand she toted two glass bottles that glowed the amber of beer.
“Shoot,” she said, “I’m feeling kinda underdressed here. You look wonderful.”
Carmelle fought off a blush, stepped back, and admitted her visitor. Tanith proffered the bottles.
“Dunno what you were planning to drink, but this here’s best I could do at short notice.”
Carmelle took the bottles, cold to the touch, but was momentarily unsure what to do with them. In the end, she carried then into the kitchen, setting them on a worktop. She took advantage of the moment to check on her concoction - it looked and smelled vaguely like food. When she came back Tanith was taking in her surroundings with a casual eye - she seemed neither overwhelmed nor unimpressed.
“Nice place,” she said. “This all yours?”
“For the time being,” Carmelle replied, trying to sound cool. “By the way, thank you for not letting on that you’d recognised me.”
Tanith shrugged.“Seen your face on about a hundred magazine covers, but I figured if you were down here, you were looking to lie low. You on a sabbatical?”
“Yes,” Carmelle answered, with a half smile. “Something like that.”
Tanith didn’t seem inclined to pursue the point, to Carmelle’s relief. Instead she slipped off her jacket, draping it over one armrest of the sofa on which she sat down. Carmelle could see the design clearly now - a stylised, winged female figure, dressed how a child might imagine a flyer to look. Like its owner, it had a tinge of familiarity.
“So how long have you been a pilot?” she asked, apropos breaking the ice. Tanith gave a modest little shrug.
“Hell, must be ten years now. My dad started teaching me in an old Jenny, and I soloed at fifteen. I had this little gig doing mail flights up until Pearl Harbor, then in ‘42 I got the call to join the Air Force, and I became a WASP.”
Carmelle drew a breath.“You flew in the War?”
“Kinda,” Tanith smiled. “I was a ferry pilot - all us girls were. Basically we took planes from the factories and flew ‘em out to bases all around the country, so they could be made combat ready.”
“What kind of planes?”
“All kinds - if it had wings, we flew it. My specialty was the Martin B26 Marauder, a medium bomber. It was kind of a hot ship, with a bad reputation - some of the guys were scared to fly it. They stuck me in one to shame ‘em a little, I guess, and that’s how I ended up on the cover of Time.”
Something finally clicked into place in Carmelle’s brain.
“Oh God, I remember now - the girl sticking her head out of the plane window. That was you?”
Tanith lowered her eyes disarmingly.“That was me.”
“So what happened to you - to all of you?”
“Well, when it got to late ‘44, the Air Force decided it didn’t need us any more, and we were drummed out. Scattered to the four winds, no benefits, no nothin’ - all I came away with was this jacket, and its little Fifinella badge.”
“Surely you got a service medal?”
“Are you kidding? They just wanted to pretend we’d never served, never even existed. Hell, they didn’t really want us in the first place.”
“You sound bitter,” Carmelle observed.
“Yeah, well. I got my reasons.”
But Tanith didn’t elaborate, and this time it was Carmelle’s turn not to pursue.
“So, how did you end up here, doing these flights?”
“I had a bit of money tucked away, and when all the surplus planes came up for grabs I got whatever I could afford, which turned out to be the ol’ Goose. I figured there might still be a market for pleasure flights, the odd bit of mail and freight thrown in. It was Mario’s idea to base ourselves here in Summerland - no competition. Not much trade, either, but certainly no competition.”
“Was Mario in the War?”
“Sure - he went to England with the Eighth. Did the whole bit: drank warm beer, fell in love, saw sights that’ll haunt him to his grave…”
A silence fell between them - a guilty one on Carmelle’s part. Her war effort had amounted to a couple of cheesy propaganda movies and a training film pitched at switchboard operators. Compared to those who had fought, who had bled and died, it seemed pampered and pathetic.
“I was on the cover of Time, too,” she blurted. “Twice.”
“Oh, yeah,” Tanith grinned. “I don’t think anyone will ever forget those pictures…”
Carmelle blushed slightly, unsure if she was being flattered or teased. An awkward silence ensued.
“Well,” Tanith began suddenly, breaking it as decisively as her plane, “Don’t you think it’s about time you told me what you plan to hire me for?”
“Not yet,” Carmelle smiled nervously. “I think it’s best we eat first - my proposal might prove as hard to digest as my cooking.”
As it turned out, her culinary efforts proved wholly edible, if a trifle bland - it seemed as if all the careful simmering had simply bled the flavour out of everything. She served Tanith her beer in a wholly unsuitable glass, whilst self-consciously pouring wine for herself. As she picked and prodded
at her food, Tanith ate like a trencherman, oblivious.
“So if you don’t mind me asking,” Tanith said, somewhere between mouthfuls and sips of beer, “What’s a famous person like you doing in a backwater like this?”
Carmelle twirled her half-full glass. Tanith’s directness and the soft lull of alcohol were overwhelming her discretion.
“Officially, I’m ‘resting’. Medically, I’m ‘recuperating’. In truth, I think I’m hiding.”
“From my fans, from the press, but most of all from myself.”
Tanith’s expression blanked. Carmelle set down her glass, shifting forward on her chair.
“Look: it’s probably best you know the whole story. What I’m going to propose to you will sound crazy, because in all probability I am crazy. I had this… I had a breakdown, about six weeks ago. I freaked on set, messed up an expensive production; burned a few bridges I probably shouldn’t have. Then I went on a binge - booze, pills, you know the drill. By the time I got back in my own head I was persona non grata round Hollywood: my agent suggested I take time to sort myself out; somewhere I was, ah, out of the picture, but still close enough that he could keep tabs on me.”
“So what brought all that on?”
“Oh, you know, my third marriage was on the rocks; I was in a contract dispute with Polygon Pictures. Actually, I think I’ve been in dispute with Polygon my entire career.”
“But didn’t they make you famous?”
“Yes, I suppose they did. But the contract… Jesus, I had to churn out these lame, soul-sucking movies, one after another. Just when I thought the scripts couldn’t possibly get any more stupid - any time I tried to protest, make any changes, that bastard head of studio, Cohen, was on me like a ton of bricks. Christ, that guy treated me like his personal slave…”
Tanith’s eyebrow flickered, just a touch.
“You were a rich movie star - wasn’t that enough?”
Carmelle stared hard at her for a moment, then broke into a self-deprecating laugh.
“Yeah, I know, it sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? There’s millions would kill for just a slice of what I’ve got, but… it all seems so - so hollow, y’know? I felt - I feel - that there’s so much more I could do, not just as an actress… I mean, I don’t just want to be remembered as a pair of boobs and some red hair.”
“Why not?” Tanith shrugged. “There’s worse things to be remembered for.”
Again, Carmelle felt a slight frisson, unsure what Tanith was getting at. She fidgeted nervously as the pilot regarded with her with those cool, penetrating eyes, all through a long draught of her beer.
“Okay,” she said at length, setting down her empty glass with a decisive thump, “I think we’ve established beyond doubt that you are not actually crazy. So, I’d say it’s about time I heard this proposal of yours.”
Carmelle met her gaze, determined to rise to the challenge.
“All right. What do you know about the ‘San Clemente Monster’?”
Tanith, astonishingly, did not seem unduly thrown by the question.
“Word is, it’s some sort of sea serpent. S’posed to hang out in the Santa Barbara Channel, if I recall correctly.”
“You’ve not seen it yourself?”
“Nope. But anyone who hangs around these quaysides gets to hear the stories.”
“I want to find it,” said Carmelle firmly. “I want to track it down, see it with my own eyes. I think, with your plane, I can do it.”
There, she had said it. The mad notion, finally given form. To her consternation, Tanith did not laugh, nor did she run screaming from the room. Instead, she thoughtfully brushed a stray strand of gilded hair back from her face.
“Fuel could be a problem,” she finally said. “You’d be looking at a vectored search pattern, all around the Santa Catalina islands. I’d need to stock up on gas.”
Carmelle’s mouth had fallen open, thunderstruck.
“You mean… you’re prepared to do it?”
Tanith shrugged.“Hell, a job’s a job. You’re a crazy movie star with money to burn - who’m I to argue with that?”
Carmelle felt a strange surge of pressure beneath her breastbone, which she belatedly realised was joyous excitement. It was, no doubt, enhanced by the alcohol, but it was nonetheless definitely there.
“When can we start?” she breathed, trying not to sound like an over-eager schoolgirl.
Tanith considered.“Well, assuming Mario can sort me out some extra fuel, maybe a couple of days - my schedule’s not exactly overcrowded just now.”
Carmelle actually had to fight down an urge to run around the table and hug her. She settled for raising her glass in salute, and just like that the deal was done. In retrospect it seemed vaguely anticlimactic - Carmelle had been so nervous about even articulating her mad, spontaneous quest, and yet now she’d not only garnered professional support, she seemed to have made a friend as well. Tanith was good company, and she seemed almost entirely non-judgemental, which Carmelle found rare in other women, usually because a bright jade thread of jealousy was woven through her interactions with them. But then, she mused with mild chagrin, why would Tanith need to be jealous of her? She was every bit as beautiful as Carmelle herself, and moreover comfortable in her own skin, in her own life.
Before Carmelle quite realised it, they had consumed all the food. Despite Tanith’s protestations, she opted to leave the dishes for the attention of tomorrow’s cleaner. They retreated to the comfort of the sofa, and later Carmelle located a second bottle of wine and prevailed upon Tanith to partake with her. She knew that booze was a potential problem, but tonight she felt in control and besides, she was off the pills. It just felt so good, so… normal to be entertaining, to be passing her time in such pleasant company. She of course ended up doing most of the talking - Tanith was polite enough to ask only about her movies, but Carmelle found herself dropping indiscretions as if she were in the presence of a particularly chiselling journalist. She talked about her marriages, and her flings - which in some respects were interchangeable; about which co-stars she’d seduced, and which had seduced her. She tried to articulate the pressures of fame, the sense of being a goldfish trapped in a bowl with the whole world looking in on you - she wasn’t sure if Tanith understood, or even cared, but she listened intently, and that in itself felt damn therapeutic.
Eventually, she became tired of talking about herself, which she thought could well be a first for an actress. Glancing randomly at the clock, she was astonished how deep into the night they had gone.
“Well,” she said, affecting a weariness she didn’t actually feel, “It’s getting kinda late. I suppose you’ll want to get going…”
She stood up, stretched herself a little. Tanith reached for her jacket, then stopped. She looked up at Carmelle with those incisive eyes.
“Are you sure you want me to go?”
Carmelle froze. She wasn’t sure of anything, but she knew that there were rules governing such things. She tried to make light of the situation.
“Well, we’ve talked about your plane, and about the monster, and mostly about me - I’m not sure what’s left to discuss.”
Now Tanith rose too, her jacket still limp and abandoned, standing uncomfortably close. Even though she was markedly shorter than Carmelle, there was still something slightly intimidating about her.
“Who says we need to discuss anything?” she said quietly. Her hand arced upwards, to alight just above Carmelle’s wrist. Carmelle watched in immobilised, slightly horrified fascination as it travelled slowly along her arm, into the crook of her elbow and up towards her shoulder, eliciting feathery shivers of sensation where it brushed fine copper cilia. Carmelle suppressed a shudder, aware even as she did so that her heart had suddenly started furiously pounding. She forced herself to look into the hypnotic depths of Tanith’s eyes.
“Look,” she said shakily, “I don’t know if I’ve misled you in any way, but I really think you need to leave now.”
“Sure,” Tanith smiled, and now her other hand was on Carmelle’s other shoulder, pulling the actress
towards her. With precise inevitability, their lips met. Carmelle had only time for a fleeting, fractured jumble of impressions: of her own breath being snatched away; of the controlled, powerful softness of Tanith’s lips; of her own immobility. After a beat, or maybe two, she reached up and pushed the pilot away, though perhaps with not as much vigour as she would have liked.
“I guess I shouldn’t have done that,” said Tanith levelly.
“No. You shouldn’t,” Carmelle replied, trying to gather herself. She found that she was trembling.
Tanith smiled, a brilliant crescent.“What I meant was, I should have asked first.”
Again, Carmelle made herself look at her, that fresh, fierce face. It felt like her own face was about to crumble in on itself, her entire being collapse in a heap.
“Can I kiss you again?” The question was delivered as matter-of-factly as a request for the salt. The absurdity of this moment was not lost on Carmelle - she tried to smile, but her lips would not cooperate. She tried to laugh, but all that emerged was a sort of strangled sob. Somewhere along the way, almost imperceptibly, she nodded, colour draining helplessly from her cheeks.
Tanith came forward like a surge, annihilating the distance between them. Carmelle registered only the flow of her, the hands firm again on her shoulders, the visage suddenly filling her perception from horizon to horizon, before all sense and thought were rendered null and void. Lips upon her own; sweet breath that was not hers; the strange comfort of an unfamiliar body pressing close. She closed her eyes, let herself be reeled in the moment; the only concept she could frame was that this person was a darn good kisser. When she next pushed Tanith away, it was with a gentle, somewhat regretful shrug.
“What,” she asked with a quaver, “What do you want?”
Tanith’s smile took on a slightly provocative twist.
“I want to make love to you,” she said, with infuriating casualness. “I want to make you come.”
The words were even more disconcerting than the kisses - they seemed to strike Carmelle with percussive impact. The blood that had drained now surged hot within her, filling face and hands and throat; pouring into those long-dormant places that had stirred so vividly and unexpectedly, earlier that day. There was a dampness at the back of her eyes; her heart was a runaway train.
Tanith didn’t wait for permissions or recriminations - she came on again, powerfully, even a little desperately. Carmelle rode the collision, feeling drunker than she had ever been, letting herself sag a little into the pilot’s unexpectedly forceful embrace. The hot mouth hard upon her own was leaving her no choice, or so she chose to tell herself. Her lips were open, to receive the inevitable shy succulence of Tanith’s tongue. A sweet, sustained kiss - a screen kiss, no less. She thought fleetingly of Garbo and Elizabeth Young in ‘Queen Christina’, and knew she was beyond hope. When the kiss ended she felt drained, dizzied, clinging to Tanith as much for support as passion.
“I don’t…” she mumbled breathlessly, “I mean, I haven’t…”
“Hush, it’s okay.” Tanith’s whisper was a warm sirocco at her ear, and it was followed by a gentle dab of tongue that boomed in Carmelle’s perception like a close-held conch. Tanith’s hands were beginning to stray now, just a little - her fingertips like fireflies dancing over Carmelle’s upper arm, her neck, her shoulders; each touch a shivering spark of sensation, all flowing and fizzing together, down below the pit of her stomach. She felt soft and malleable; nothing like the Hollywood vixen who had burned her way through three husbands and a small army of lovers.
“Be gentle with me,” she actually heard herself murmur, and it was almost as if she were playing a role, but she knew deep down this was herself - a secret, fragile self long hidden.
“I promise,” Tanith answered, with just a hint of gentle laughter. Whatever momentous crossing this was for Carmelle, ‘twas evidently nothing untoward for her. Her fingers had been stealthily busy,
nudging zips and teasing fasteners - Carmelle’s dress was loosening, sliding; she was beginning to spill free from it.
“Here, sit down. Relax,” Tanith softly urged, lowering Carmelle onto her own couch like she was some sort of invalid. Carmelle’s immense, slightly elongated breasts were exposed now, all pale munificence like white marble, but yielding as marshmallow. As she lay back Carmelle was struck by the sheer ludicrous efficiency of her disrobing, and again she almost giggled, but was arrested this time by the awestruck adoration now evident in Tanith’s eyes.
“My God, you’re so beautiful,” Tanith breathed, before unleashing her fiercest kiss yet, one that resonated through Carmelle’s entire being like some personal, intimate earthquake. In its aftermath she felt herself quivering, pulsing with anticipation, with heat, with need. No longer was this mere novelty, a sidestep to the wilder side: she wanted her pilot, and it mattered not the gender. She wanted Tanith; she wanted it all.
Tanith seemed to sense this shift. She smiled down at Carmelle, with perhaps the faintest glimmer of triumph. Then she shifted, her face lowering, her mouth descending with awe-inspiring certitude to the tumescent ivory surface of Carmelle’s breast. Soft kisses, tactile and vaguely tympanic; fleeting flowers of dampness like wineglass rings all around the broad, trembling, dusky pink boss of her nipple. Carmelle let forth a tiny gasp as she felt the teat enlarging, hardening, beginning to ache for the sucking adhesion of lips and tongue - the erotically maternal urge of womanhood.
And then Tanith’s mouth was upon her, and she moaned, lifting slightly. The sensation was the more intense for Tanith’s unexpected delicacy - her lips gently adhering, her tongue lapping with slow restraint. It felt to Carmelle as though all the blood in her body had surged to this one spot: the sense of swelling, of stiffness, was so intense it fringed upon painful. But it was matched by a similar, simmering ache coming from below - the slick unfurling, the innate receptivity. They were approaching the point where a man would fuck her; with idle lewdness she wondered what Tanith would do instead.
For her part, Tanith seemed in no particular hurry. She paid close oral attention to first one nipple, then the other, causing both teats to blush tumescent; Carmelle expressed her appreciation with soft, ragged moans, her fingers lightly stroking Tanith’s gilded head. There was a certain comfort in taking this pleasure, a certain safety: though what they were doing was certainly compromising in the extreme, it wasn’t quite going all the way; wasn’t quite sex. In this moment, still, she would have plausible deniability.
Then, after what seemed an age, Tanith withdrew her mouth, and looked up. There was both shyness and determination in her limpid gaze.
“Can I lick your pussy?” she asked simply.
Carmelle felt her heart rate hasten to a near-dangerous level; fear and longing fought a brief, silent war within her, now hot, now cold. Her reputation -what was left of it - hung by sticky, viscous threads. Trembling with the immensity of it, she touched Tanith’s burning cheek, tried to smile, nodded almost imperceptibly. Tanith’s face lit up to shame the sun itself: her hands moved swiftly to the crumpled fringes of Carmelle’s dress. Without giving herself time to think Carmelle pushed her hands down upon the couch’s cushions, lifting herself a critical inch or so. Tanith pulled determinedly: the dress shimmied and rippled its way down Carmelle’s body; exposing creamy flesh; at her hips it snagged upon the waistband of her panties. Tanith grimaced, adjusted her grip, and tugged - Carmelle couldn’t suppress a titter at this ill-timed hiccup. As the seductive slide of garments from body resumed, she was grateful that the panties could not be seen - it felt to her like they were shamefully sodden, almost wringing with wetness. Indeed, it seemed to her as if there was a tangible waft, like spiced pollen into the air as her enraged vulva was exposed. If Tanith noticed, she did not react, but just to be sure Carmelle put her knees together as what remained of her dress was eased down to her ankles, over her sandals, and to the floor. The shoes were plucked from her feet with the alacrity of ripened cherries, and thus Carmelle was rendered naked, save for her jewellery. She settled back on the sofa, but her body was still held rigid.
Tanith’s eyes roamed over the crests and hollows of her form with the same smooth precision she
piloted her plane, and Carmelle could feel yet more heat prickle her skin as she was effectively surveyed. Then with a vague, subconscious sigh Tanith stood up, and began briskly unbuttoning her shirt. As it slipped free of her shoulders Carmelle noted the absence of a bra - Tanith’s breasts were wide set, high on her thorax, almost spherical in their pertness; each crowned by huge, conical, umber nipples. As she gracelessly unfastened her slacks and slid them to the floor, Carmelle observed that underwear in general was not a concept Tanith much abided by. Below her boyishly narrow waist, above her slim thighs, between her bonily projecting hips there was a lurid patch of dark curls quite at odds with the golden glory that crowned her head. For the moment Carmelle was abstracted, appraising Tanith’s form like she was judging a beauty pageant (frankly, a bit too skinny all round, and those tits - it looked like she’d borrowed them from someone else): the notion that she might have any form of sex with this person was inconceivable.
“I’ve… never been nude with another woman before,” she stammered.
“That’s OK,” Tanith smiled, “I’ve never been nude with a film star before…”
In spite of herself, Carmelle laughed, and the tension flew from her like a squeezed balloon. Tanith knelt before her, and though the motion was insouciant it seemed tinged with reverence. Very gently she placed her hands on Carmelle’s knees, and with delicate assertion eased them apart. Carmelle knew a vague trill of terror: right now, spread-eagled, naked, blushed with arousal, a woman knelt between her thighs; this would be the perfect moment for some scandal-sheet shutterbug to come barging in, flashbulbs popping. Tanith leaned forward, sniffing discreetly as if presented with a glass of Beaujolais.
“You smell wonderful,” she said, wholly without irony. Her fingers glided softly in along Carmelle’s thighs, making her shiver - their tips gathered on the outer fringes of her labia, pouting vividly from their nest of russet ringlets. Tanith eased her open, causing her whole body to clench voluptuously, then slipped her tongue into the glistening, roseate depths beyond.
Carmelle couldn’t bear to look anymore, so she closed her eyes and braced herself for… whatever. As it turned out, the sensation was not immediately overwhelming: Tanith was circumspect, skilled, tongue daintily dabbing the inner ridges of her labia in a wavelike, lulling manner. The feeling was akin to being tickled, but with perverse intimacy, and an undeniable sense of building potency.
“Mmm,” Carmelle purred in encouragement, “That feels good…”
Tanith’s tongue-tip curled suddenly upwards, spearing at the base of Carmelle’s clitoris and worming its way to the tip of her quivering bud. Sparks of white-hot sensation flashed through Carmelle, radiating out from her clit to glow in every muscle, sinew and fibre. She tensed involuntarily, almost shrieking with the power of it - for a second, two, it was unbearable, and she fought an urge to protest, to push Tanith brusquely away. Then Tanith returned to her former attentions, gentle dabs upon Carmelle’s outer succulence, and pleasurable equilibrium was restored.
Tanith lulled her thus for several moments before again sampling the raging pith of the clitoris. Again Carmelle flexed, squealing like a schoolgirl before simmering down as Tanith’s teasing, taunting tongue withdrew. Thus was a pattern, a rhythm established, as precise in its way as being roundly fucked; yet withal soft and subtle and wetly lapping, like the sea. Each suckling of her clit Carmelle found easier to bear, to tolerate longer - but each time the molten pit that glowed beneath her belly burned a little hotter, melted her a little further. It felt like there was a flood, a torrent poised between her legs: building, building. Tanith seemed to perceive this sea change (a sea change? How could it be so when it seemed all expressed in fire?): she reached up a hand, clutching Carmelle’s breast hard, squeezing the nipple almost painfully. Carmelle gasped, yet found herself mirroring the action, reaching up her own hand to nurse her other breast with self-indulgent abandon. Her nipples ached, both in positive and negative ways, distended beyond tolerance; they trembled too, as did her wrists, her knees, her lips, her tummy muscles. A deep, fundamental tremor, like a passing quake, spiralling through her entire being - she was helpless to stop it. ‘Twas upon her before she fully appreciated what it was; and when she did, Carmelle was wracked by delight and shame, release and resentment.
“Oh shit, I’m coming,” she wailed, as the tremors coalesced into surging spasms. “You’re making me come…”
Her body felt pulled and pummelled, external manifestation of massive internal tides. It seemed she had been reduced from a person to a collection of disparate elements, all of them lewd: pouring cunt, swollen tits, a voice capable of nothing but incoherently ecstatic sobs; everything shivering and discombobulated. But somewhere in the back of her mind a still voice noted that this was possibly the best orgasm she’d ever had, before consciously backing away from the ramifications.
“That good?” Tanith asked, raising herself so that their eyes could meet. Still panting for lost breath, Carmelle could only nod, smiling feebly. She decided that Tanith’s breasts were actually beautiful - no, scratch that, Tanith was beautiful, even more than she’d first perceived. If she was going to fall for a woman, could she possibly have picked better?