Descending through the gray curtain of fog, Regina Bonaventure navigated her white Mercedes down the tortuous curves of the narrow streets of Pelican Hill, guided only by the haloed porch lights softly visible on either side of the road. At the bottom of the hill she turned left into the parking lot of a shopping center, the wet pavement shimmering in the mist-muted glow of the metal halide lights perched atop their tall poles. The high-end mall, which fronted on the Pacific Coast Highway, was home to a collection of women’s and children’s boutiques, a hardware store, a supermarket, and three restaurants.
It was nine at night and the stores were dark, their long low line of attached buildings appearing as black shadows against the hillside. Only the lights from the supermarket and restaurants shone through the fog. Regina was badly in need of a drink.
She and Lucas were regulars at two of the restaurants: the expensive steakhouse and the Southwestern style cantina. She’d never entered the Asian restaurant because Lucas didn’t like Asian food. From what her friends told her, it was a generic, Far Eastern dining spot. They’d also said that the restaurant had an elegant bar, which served a variety of cocktails, including exotic oriental drinks and, of course, wine, which was what she so badly needed at this moment. She parked along the side of the restaurant in the shadows near the back, hoping that no one she knew would see her car. She prayed that none of her friends were inside.
The bar was almost empty, and she ordered a glass of chardonnay. She’d had three glasses before leaving the house. The wine had probably contributed to her argument with Lucas—her wine and his whiskeys. It wasn’t the first time that she had left after one of their alcohol-infused fights. She usually fled to the house of a friend. Lately, though, she had been going to bars, places such as this one, but farther away from home, places where she was not likely to be recognized. Although her visits to bars were driven by fear, she also felt a thrill, entering a strange setting, knowing no one… or usually no one.
She remembered the night she had run into an old friend, someone she hadn’t seen for years. It had been a strange encounter. The man, whom she had known since childhood—a relationship she remembered with some pain—apparently hadn’t recognized her, although she was sure it was him, despite his portly shape and the well-trimmed beard that he now wore. Later, she found him looking at her, staring, until he finally came over to the bar and sat down next to her, but when she addressed him by his name, he seemed confused. Then, as abruptly as he had come, he left without a word.
That was months ago. She never thought about it again except when she entered a bar by herself, as she had tonight. A quick look around told her that there was no one here whom she recognized. She breathed more easily and thought about why she was here.
Lucas was a bully. But he had been her father’s choice and Regina had always done what her father had wanted her to do. Bertram Knowles, her father, whose oil company, with its platforms dotting the Santa Barbara coastline and stretching all the way to Huntington Beach, had sold his self-built business to Exxon Mobile for billions, retiring at the age of forty-two. He’d raised his only child as a princess, especially after her mother died when she was thirteen. At college she’d lived the protected life of a sorority girl, majoring in Romance Languages with vague thoughts of a career in international journalism or fashion advertising. She expected something to materialize through her father’s connections. But when she graduated, her father told her that it was time for her to marry; time to give him a grandchild.
She and Lucas had never had a child. Her doctors told her that she was fertile. Lucas refused to submit to an examination.
She signaled the waiter to bring her a second chardonnay.
“The man at the end of the bar would like to pay for your drink,” the tall Eurasian bartender said, nodding toward her left.
She looked down the bar. An early-thirties blonde-haired man smiled at her, then winked. He wasn’t bad looking, she thought, well dressed in a light blue sport coat, open-necked shirt, and dark slacks. He looked well built and younger than her. He could be a businessman or a golfer, topping off a day at the office or at the nearby country club with a drink before heading home, someone hoping for a little action to spice up a dreary life. He caught her eye then raised his glass in her direction. He was drinking what appeared to be whiskey. She smiled back but shook her head. “I’ll pay for my own,” she told the bartender, “but thank him.” She wasn’t about to be picked up in a bar, not this close to home, not by someone who winked at her. She shuddered.
Was it time to return home? If she drank many more glasses of wine, she might have difficulty driving, especially in this fog. She’d have one more drink. She downed the rest of her glass in one gulp, then signaled the bartender for another. The man at the end of the bar held up his glass and raised his eyebrows as if in question. She ignored him. Even a second glass of wine had not heightened his appeal.
She sipped the third glass more slowly. Maybe Lucas would have gone to bed. He often retired early when he’d had too many whiskeys, and she was sure that he’d kept drinking after she’d left. But now she needed to use the restroom. Better do it before heading home, she thought. She left her drink half finished and headed for the restroom at the back of the restaurant.
When she returned, she noticed that the man at the end of the bar had gone. She relaxed a little. He looked harmless, but his friendliness had made her uncomfortable.
In the near blackness outside the restaurant, she fumbled with her key, almost dropping her purse. She hadn’t realized how drunk she was. Finally opening the car door, she sat behind the wheel and, with some unsteadiness in her aim, touched a finger to the starter button. The car purred to life, the lights blinking on automatically. She sat for a moment to steady her head. Was she really OK to drive? Startled by a sound behind her, she turned. She stiffened in terror at the face looming at her from the back seat, the hand raised in a closed fist. Before she could utter a cry, the fist slammed into her cheek, knocking her unconscious.
Her assailant climbed out of the car. He pulled the unconscious woman from the driver’s seat, then opened the back door and thrust her limp body onto the back seat. Closing the rear door, he got behind the wheel and backed away from the building and then headed out onto the fog-shrouded ribbon of the Pacific Coast Highway.