She nearly killed an innocent man.
Creighton "Charley" Bondurant drove carefully because his life depended on it. Latigo Canyon was mile after mile of neck-wrenching, hairpin twists. Charley had no use for government meddlers but the 15 mph signs posted along the road were smart.
He lived ten miles up from Kanan Dume Road, on a four-acre remnant of the ranch his grandfather had owned during Coolidge's time. All those Arabians and Tennessee walkers and the mules Grandpa kept around because he liked the creatures' spirit. Charley had grown up with families like his. No-nonsense ranchers, a few rich folk who were still okay when they came up to ride on weekends. Now all you had were rich pretenders.
Diabetic and rheumatoid and depressed, Charley lived in a two-room cabin with a view of oak-covered crests and the ocean beyond. Sixty-eight, never married. Poor excuse for a man, he'd scold himself on nights when the medicines mixed with the beer and his mood sank low.
On happier days, he pretended to be an old cowboy.
This morning, he was somewhere between those extremes. His bunions hurt like hell. Two horses had died last winter and he was down to three skinny white mares and a half-blind sheepdog. Feed and hay bills ate up most of his Social Security. But the nights had been warm for October, and he hadn't dreamed bad and his bones felt okay.
It was hay that got him up at seven that morning, rolling out of bed, gulping coffee, chewing on a stale sweet roll, to hell with his blood sugar. A little time-out to get the internal plumbing going and by eight he was dressed and starting up the pickup.
Coasting in neutral down the dirt road that fed to Latigo, he looked both ways a couple of times, cleared the crust from his eyes, shifted into first, and rolled down. The Topanga Feed Bin was a twenty-minute ride south and he figured to stop along the way at the Malibu Stop & Shop for a few six-packs, a tin of Skoal, and some Pringles.
Nice morning, a big old blue sky with just a few clouds from the east, sweet air blowing up from the Pacific. Switching on his eight-track, he listened to Ray Price and drove slow enough to stop for deer. Not too many of the pests before dark but you never knew what to expect up in the mountains.
The naked girl jumped out at him a lot faster than any deer.
Eyes full of terror, mouth stretched so wide Charley swore he could see her tonsils.
She ran across the road, straight in the path of his truck, hair blowing wild, waving her arms.
Stomping the brake pedal hard, Charley felt the pickup lurch, wobble, and sway. Then the sharp skid to the left, straight at the battered guardrail that separated him from a thousand foot of nothing.
Hurtling toward blue sky.
He kept hitting the brake. Kept flying. Said his prayers and opened the door and prepared to bail.
His damn shirt stuck on the door handle. Eternity looked real close. What a stupid way to go!
Hands ripping at his shirt fabric, mouth working in a combination of curses and benedictions, Charley's gnarled body tightened, his legs turned to iron bars, and his sore foot pressed that brake pedal down to the damn floorboard.
The truck kept going, fishtailed, slid, spattered gravel.
Shuddered. Rolled. Bumped the guard.
Charley could hear the rail groan.
The truck stopped.
Charley freed his shirt and got out. His chest was tight and he couldn't suck any breath into his lungs. Wouldn't that be the shits: spared a free fall to oblivion only to drop dead of a damned heart attack.
He gasped and swallowed air, felt his field of vision grow black and braced himself against the truck. The chassis creaked and Charley jumped back, felt himself going down again.
A scream pierced the morning. Charley opened his eyes and straightened and saw the girl. Red marks around her wrists and ankles. Bruises around her neck.
Beautiful young body, those healthy knockers bobbing as she came running toward him --- sinful to think like that, she was scared, but with knockers like that what else was there to notice?
She kept coming, arms wide, like she wanted Charley to hold her.
But screaming, those wild eyes, he wasn't sure what to do.
First time in a long time he'd been this close to bare female flesh.
He forgot about the knockers, nothing sexy about this. She was a kid, young enough to be his daughter. Granddaughter.
Those marks on her wrists and ankles, around her neck.
She screamed again.
She was right up to him, now, yellow hair whipping his face. He could smell the fear on her. See the goose bumps on her pretty tan shoulders.
Poor kid was shivering.
Charley held her.
L.A.'s where you end up when you have nowhere else to go. A long time ago I'd driven west from Missouri, a sixteen-year-old high school graduate armed with a head full of desperation and a partial academic scholarship to the U.
Only son of a moody, hard drinker and a chronic depressive. Nothing to keep me in the flatlands.
Living like a pauper on work-study and occasional guitar gigs in wedding bands, I managed to get educated. Made some money as a psychologist, and a lot more from lucky investments. Got The House In The Hills.
Relationships were another story, but that would've been true no matter where I lived.
Back when I treated children, I routinely took histories from parents and learned what family life could be like in L.A. Peo