Caroline sat on the empty beach. The sky was a bleak gray. Intermittent gusts of wind pulled on the brim of her straw hat. Spring had barely arrived and in a few short months the beach would be crawling with tourists. She stared out at the steely waves of the ocean as they broke against the sand and reached for her. They looked cold and forbidding. It amazed her that the ocean was such a draw. It could so easily tumble the life out of someone and so often did.
She sighed and pulled her knees up to her chest. Her bare toes dug into the sand. She wasn’t going to go to the cabaret today. If she had to watch those girls listlessly trip over one another again, she would throttle them. Caroline had even been on her way there to go over set design before she took a sharp turn and ended up on the beach. She opened her pocketbook and pulled out the deed again. She clutched it protectively away from the wind.
It was real. It wasn’t one of Frank’s jokes. He had put both of their names on it. The property wasn’t that far away, but it was on the quieter side of the boardwalk. She heard a splash and looked up. After a minute, a dark spot appeared on the waves. Caroline squinted and waited for it to reappear. A slender bird head appeared over a wave, then it dove beneath the surface again. She watched it dive and reappear long enough to choke down a fish.
“Excuse me, Miss?” Caroline glanced up and saw a man standing at the railing of the boardwalk. She tucked the deed back into her pocketbook.
“Yes?” she replied. He took the stairs down to the sand towards her.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t help but notice you sitting out here alone.” He put a hand to his chest. “I’m an artist, you see. My name is Tom Simmons. I saw you and I couldn’t help it. I had to draw you. I hope you don’t mind. If I had asked permission before hand it would have ruined the moment.” He held out his sketch pad for her to see. It was a graphite drawing of her sitting on the beach staring at the ocean. Her expression was pensive, but the sketch was a good likeness.
“You are very talented, Tom,” she commented. “What are you going to do with that?” Tom shrugged.
“I’ll take it back to my studio and use it for a painting. It’ll be expressive. The viewers will be able to sense the distance, the longing. The colors of the waves, the reflective mood…it’ll be so palpable, they’ll feel it too.” He stopped his artistic overture and gazed down at her. “Or if you want it…I usually end up selling my portraits to tourists.”
“No, you can keep it. I’d like to see that painting if you ever do it,” Caroline patted the sand next to her and went back to studying the drawing. The young man sat down close to her. She wondered if he knew how old she was and if he had tried this sketchbook ploy on other young girls or if he had actually meant what he said about his hopes for the painting. She handed the tablet back to him.
“How long have you been out here selling sketches?” she asked. Caroline was careful to use the bright, airy voice she had used at the banks. It always threw off any suspicion before she shoved her gun in a teller’s face. For the moment, she wanted to be the young thing that Tom thought she was.
“I started last summer with some success, but money was tight over the winter. I had a lot of free time to focus on my painting though,” Tom said, “But what about you? It’s a bit early for traveling.”
“I’m a dancer. I saw an ad for auditions at a place called the Night Owl. That’s why I’m here,” lied Caroline.
“The Night Owl?” Tom commented, “It must be new.”
“It hasn’t opened yet.”
“Then you’ll be moving to town then?” he asked hopefully. Caroline shrugged.
“I’m not sure my audition was any good. Well, actually I think they want a different type of dancing than I expected.” Caroline tried her best to blush and act coy. “I’m not that kind of girl.” She saw the light bulb go off in Tom’s mind. His hand went up and nervously ran through his hair.
“Oh gosh, I’m sure they can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.”
“You know how it is, Tom. People like us still need to eat. I’m sure you don’t always want to draw the people that want to be drawn.” She laid a hand on his arm. “I’ve never really…I mean I don’t have…the experience they’re looking for.” She had leaned closer to him and waited. Tom was surprised how well his sketching gag was working this time. He swallowed a lump in his throat.
“We’re both artists, you know…different mediums. Perhaps we could help each other out,” he stammered. “You could maybe sit for some of my paintings and I could help you with…with.” He swallowed hard again as Caroline waited.
“What I’m trying to say is…would you mind it terribly if I kissed you right now?” Tom asked. Caroline raised her eyebrows in surprise, but gave his arm a gentle squeeze in reply. In moments, he cradled her cheeks in his hands and sloppily, juvenilely kissed her. Caroline saw his eyes shut and she tried to enjoy it as he pawed clumsily at her. It wasn’t like the kiss on the opening night of Libellule. She didn’t feel anything as she kissed Tom. There was no blossoming, melting feeling in her chest.
“What are you doing?” someone whispered harshly in her ear. She pushed Tom away and saw no one, just the diving bird that now stood on the beach with its wings spread open. Its beady eye was trained on her, then it let out a squawk that sounded like it was chuckling at her.
“I have to go!” Caroline cried. She shot to her feet and grabbed her shoes, before bolting down the beach. Tom called after her for her name, but she kept running. She had no intention of seeing him ever again. He had been a test, until that voice. The woman’s voice that haunted her had interrupted the moment. She ran until she passed under the next pier. She glanced back and only saw an empty beach. She was lucky that Tom had given up so easily. She continued to walk a little way until she caught her breath. She went back to the boardwalk and dusted the sand off her feet and put her shoes back on.
Caroline took another look around to see if Tom had followed her, but apart from the odd shop owner making preparations for the next season there was no one about. Her eyes landed on a burned building. The remains were a hollow black skeleton. It would have to be removed by whoever owned it before the season, she thought.
Caroline turned to trudge back to her apartment, when she noticed the building number of the sweet shop she was passing. She fumbled to open her pocketbook and pull out the deed. She reread the address and looked up at the charred timbers again. The shopkeeper next door came out and started scraping the worn out paint off his windows.
“Excuse me, but when did that fire happen?” she asked. The man stopped and pushed his glasses up.
“Oh, it must have been about two weeks ago now,” he replied. “I thank the Lord my shop didn’t go up in flames too.” Caroline agreed and continued on her way. It was very convenient that the property Frank had bought had burned down just a few weeks ago. A little too convenient.