The first four years of the sixties have not been kind to Esther Charlemagne, even with her former NYPD partner, Aiden “Mac” McManus by her side. As they settle into life in Los Angeles as private investigators, the two take on a case that forces them to return to New York City to unravel the facts of a ballerina who died in a fire. Little did they realize when they took on the circumstantial case that they would be fighting every preconceived notion about their relationship, and finding a course through the twists and turns of the case. Nothing is what it seems, and in the end the shadows take on form and mass to lead them toward a deadly end.
Targeted Age Group:: Adults
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Ballet is a particular passion of mine, and I had to write a story that involved my favorite choreographer, George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet Company. I grew up in the sixties and it was the perfect backdrop for two people who are struggling to know what is right within the morally turbulent era. I believe that the sixties were the hinge of the future direction of the western world. Everything changed, from morals to how we view the world. It was also the last decade of great fashion, before jeans became the usual mode of dress. Even the popular music changed dramatically, from cute little rock, folk tunes and ballads, to hard rock, with everything in between.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Two of the characters are people who lived during that time; George Balanchine and Sally Kirkland. The rest are a bit of myself, and people I knew during that time. I enjoyed taking slices of myself and translating them into full-blown characters. I used my own ignorance when I was a teenager to define the silliness of some young people, and contrasted their views with my lead characters, who have more experience and understands life better.
“I see the lost are like this, and their curse
To be, as I am mine, their sweating selves. But worse.”
~ Gerald Manly Hopkins
“And grief itself be mortal!”
~Adonais XXI, Shelley
September 23, 1964…
A cool breeze blew in from the ocean and out across the landscape of Los Angeles in an attempt to chill the heat off the early autumn night. Then, it just died. Dead. Autumn never made it past Highway 101, the road running like a black, glassy snake along California’s craggy coast. It, too, was dead on arrival.
When the ocean wind died, the heated damp air was left behind, and floated lazily through the bowels of the Los Angeles warehouse district, like it fell asleep. It managed to stick to everything like flypaper, making any physical activity uncomfortable. One particular warehouse, converted into a dance studio, was lit up at the late hour, the old glass and wooden walls expecting to hear the clunk of ballet slippers across its hardwood floor. A young dancer, sat on a bench in the dressing room, ready to change into her leotard and tights. Sweat began to form in huge beads at her hairline and on her upper lip. She wished that the cool of autumn would finally get the upper hand and kill its predecessor. Summer should have been finished, should have died, just like the wind, but it hung on, passively suffering in its excessively long-lived existence. Rehearsing in the heat was just one of the sacrifices a dedicated dancer had to make if they were to star in a company like the New York City Ballet. She sighed, and dabbed with the tips of her fingers at the sweat on her upper lip.
She stood, stepped out of her heels, feeling the cool cement on the bottom of her feet, then slid out of her sleeveless Yves St. Laurent dress, hanging it in a locker, along with her stockings. The converted closet was only large enough to accommodate three at-a-time changing out of their clothes. Fortunately, she was alone. She should have been at home packing for her plane trip to New York, but her muscles felt cranky and she needed to stretch, in spite of the sultry air. It would be good to leave Los Angeles behind, with its pitiable peculiarities, and all the emotional entanglements that seemed to be unresolvable. She paused for a moment, thinking, conjuring up a picture in her mind. The future, any further contact, had died away with love unuttered between them. She knew leaving would not solve the break-up. It would only make it more tragic. A tear broke free and traveled down her cheek, joining with the sweat already gathering for a full scale assault. Even her tears weighed in, knowing intimately the inconsolable grief of unrequited love. She must learn to live with it, however painful it was, and focus on her fledgling career in New York.
She brushed the thoughts from her mind and quickly slipped on her tights and leotard, then she lowered herself to the bench and laced up her toe shoes. The picture in her mind returned, and she sat immobile, fixed to the bench. Curiously, she could hear someone walking across the boards toward the men’s dressing room; a hurried, uneven step, someone probably more interested in a quick workout, rather than mastering a movement. Disappointment traveled through her, and she stared at her hands, laying like two limp fish in her lap, her shoulders slumped forward.
She assumed the studio would be empty, that it was late enough at night that no one else would be there. With the summer workshop ended, classes wouldn’t begin for another month. She had already stayed several weeks beyond the workshop to study with the teacher, one-on-one, in order to learn what Ballet Master Balanchine expected of her upon her arrival in New York City. The only sound she wanted to hear was the thud of her toe shoes when they hit the floor, the steady rhythm of her breathing, and the tympani of her heart, while she mastered her technique. All emotion would disappear in her movements, and she could lose the consciousness of that monster… time.
Dancing cleared her mind. Dancing helped her breathe. Dancing sorted, categorized, and filed all the craziness into neat little compartments, minus all the passion.
And things need sorting in her life. Everything had gone wrong this summer. Absolutely everything. Except Balanchine’s invitation to dance in the New York City Ballet Company. Dancing was the only thing that made any sense. And she had been so hopeful about her move to LA.
She sat immobile, listening to whoever was out there, as they tinkered with items on the shelves outside her dressing room door. Then, she heard music begin. A Beatles song, Hard Day’s Night. It blasted through the doldrums in a burr, igniting the air with its relentless drumming.
Rising to her feet, she stepped toward the door, and turned the knob. It wouldn’t budge.
“How stupid,” she said.
She unlocked the door and pushed, but it had swelled in all the wet heat, and it wouldn’t open.
“Hello? You out there,” she called, raising her voice over the din of the song. “Could you help me out? The door’s stuck.” No one answered. “Pull on the knob, while I push.” Silence. “Hello?” She put her ear to the wooden panel. Something was wrong. A definite smell of smoke wafted into the room.
“Hello?” Her voice rose while she beat on the door. “Whoever is out there, this is not funny.” She beat on the door, again.
The music started over, “It’s been a hard day’s night, And I’ve been working like a dog…”
“Whoever you are, you better open this door,” she demanded, pounding and kicking with her fists and feet. “Open this door, now!” She paused to listen. “What’s going on?” she said. Banging one more time on her wooden trap, she felt fear cover her like a thick wool blanket. This time she would appeal to their humanity. “Help me! Please, help me!” But her voice seemed to hang in the thick air, making no progress from the room, no matter how loud she yelled, as if it hit a huge, humid wall, imprisoning her pleas in that closet dressing room.
She stopped to listen for footsteps. She could hear nothing but the music blaring.
“Don’t leave me in here,” she pleaded again. “Help!” She continued to pound and kick, ramming her side and shoulder into the door to knock it free, but it was locked in place. “Help me! Help me!” she screamed, her voice rising into a shrill panic.
The music continued its clamorous assault, the Fab Four still belting out their number one hit song, muffling her pounding. Suddenly, loud popping noises exploded outside the door, followed by the crash of dozens of items when they hit the floor, with glass shattering and wood snapping apart. She envisioned the shelving unit next to the door had fallen over, trapping her inside the room. Underneath the music, and the popping sounds, and the crashing chaos, she thought she heard a door slam.
Oh, my god. Could it be possible they want me to die?
Her head bolted from one side to the other in a frantic attempt to find a way out. She glanced up at the window above the lockers. She could try to open it and climb through, or break through it, her reed-thin body just managing to slip through the opening.
Smoke began to curl under the door, the scent causing fear to engorge her limbs, her heart thudding in her chest. She threw open one of the locker doors and climbed to the top. She stared in horror at what she saw before her. The window was nailed shut.
“Oh, God,” she whispered, her voice warbling in stark fear.
Her eyes darted about the room until she settled on her shoes. She jumped down and grabbed one of her heels on the fly, then scrambled back up to the top. She grasped her shoe firmly in her hand and hammered on the glass with the three-inch heel hoping to break the glass. The sound of her heel hitting the window seemed dull and not sharp like she’d expected. She set the shoe on top of the locker and ran her hand over the smooth surface. Flicking it with her finger, she realized that it wasn’t glass. It was plastic. She also noticed the putty around the window was new. Someone had replaced the window recently and nailed in new stops because they weren’t painted like the frame around the window.
She glanced back at the door. The bottom of it was outlined in a golden glow, and the smoke slipping in around the door had turned an ominous black. Her lungs were beginning to hurt, a clear sign she was in trouble unless she managed to get the window opened, and soon. She coughed hard while she drove the heel of her shoe into the putty to pry off the first stop.
Again and again, she jammed her heel into the edge of the wood, pushing into it with all her strength. The heel suddenly snapped off in a loud crack, and flew behind the lockers. She climbed down and tried to focus her eyes through the black smoke, searching wildly for the other shoe. She spotted it and snatched it off the floor. One more time, she scrambled back to the top and began to jab the heel into the plastic and along the edge of the stop. The hardened tip on her heel split and fell away. She pushed into the edge of the window to raise the stop up just enough to wedge the heel under it and pry the wooden piece off. Shoving the heel under the stop, she yanked upwards and the wooden piece flew off, joining her heel from her other shoe behind the lockers. Her plan was working. Then, she attacked the second one, jamming her heel into the wood with all her strength.
She began to feel like her head was spinning, and that she was about to pass out, her eyes burning and tearing making it almost impossible to focus. Coughing violently, her chest hurt so badly she couldn’t draw in a good breath, but she persevered. She pushed and pushed on her heel, making a huge gouge in the plastic. Slipping her heel in behind the stop, she pried the wood off and watched it fall away into the blackness.
But something was wrong. Her lungs felt as though they were on fire with each breath. She started gasping and coughing and her head was reeling in horrific pain. Stopping was not an option, she had to finish, or she knew she would die.
She dug her heel into the edge of the rigid plastic, but it held tight. She shoved the heel in as hard as she could to pop the edge up. It was no use. It still held tight. The third stop had to come off and there was a nail used to wedge the corner. She would have to move the nail and pry the third stop off to open an edge of the window and snap it away. She punched the heel into the putty and the edge of the stop again, and again.
Her breathing was becoming labored, shallow, and the pain was almost unbearable. She was coughing wildly, drawing more smoke than air into her desperate lungs. She beat on the plastic with her fist and gouged the heel into the wooden frame to get some play in the plastic, until everything went black. She jerked back to consciousness, but she could no longer breathe.
The thick smoke curled, wound its way around her like a great, black dragon, and flew through the slit she had made in the window frame, escaping into the night air like she wanted to do. She gasped for air, feeling like a fish at the bottom of a boat, drawing more smoke into her already oxygen deprived lungs. Her strength abandoned her, and she dropped from her perch above the lockers, hitting the bench on the way down, the bone in her arm snapping in two. She tried to form a single word, but she slipped into the blackness as the light bulb burst overhead.
About the Author:
Cheri is a theologian, a photographer, and an author. She is the mother of two sets of twins born on the same day fourteen years apart. Presently, she lives on a small ranch in the heart of Texas with her husband and her dogs, a Coydog named Scully and a Great Pyrenees named Mulder.
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