SUN SENSITIVE STEELE [PART III]
Rated SPF 45 (Coppertone)
"Excellent question, Mr. Steele. Everything you need to know is right here." She pulled out the brochure from her handbag and tossed it in his lap. "Check out the calendar of events."
Steele fumbled with the brochure with his right hand while steering with the left. He quickly scanned the calendar, sounding out the possibilities. "Relive the Age of Aquarius at our Annual Nudestock Music Festival? Oops, wrong month. That's a relief. Well what's up next, eh? Bare Buns Fun Run. A bit more strenuous than I'd hoped but - "
"Top of the page. This month's events", Laura indicated.
"Oh, sorry. Ah, let's see. Tours and Timeshare Opportunities." Steele raised an approving eyebrow. "Good thinking, Laura."
"Care to hear the details?"
"Love to, Miss Holt."
A short time later they turned onto the quiet, palm laden drive to the resort. The desert peaks of the San Jacintos provided a rugged backdrop to the tranquil valley floor below. The sprawling Spanish style main complex was constructed in sand colored adobe. It was reminiscent of the casual elegance of 1940's Palm Springs with strong echoes of old Hollywood. The hillsides were dotted with smaller, multi-level villas, each with their own tennis courts, pool, and other amenities.
Steele let out an appreciative whistle. "Well if we're going to doff our clothes at least we'll be doing it in elegant splendor, don't you think."
"I'll say." Laura stared at the flyer. "The pictures don't do it justice, do they."
They drove up to the main building, passing alongside the sparkling pool and mammoth sized hot tub in which several deeply tanned bathers were lounging, drinks in hand.
"Back to nature with a hot tub and margarita close at hand," Steele observed wryly.
"What more could you ask for, Mr. Steele?"
They parked the Auburn in the visitors parking lot and entered the luxuriously appointed lobby. It was furnished in an old world Caribbean style accented with tropical native plants and polished mahogany furnishings. The reception desk was manned by dark skinned brunette wearing a bright orange and yellow patterned sarong. She looked up and smiled at them. "Welcome to Paraiso del Sol. How can I help you?" Her voice was warm and pleasing, with a slight Spanish accent.
Laura spoke first. "I'm Laura Blaine and this is my husband Richard. We have an an appointment to see Mr. Sommers about a timeshare opportunity."
The receptionist checked her desk calendar. "I don't see anything on the schedule. I'll check with his secretary."
"Perhaps he forgot to mention it. We saw him in LA yesterday around 9:30. I'm sure he'll remember our little chat," Laura improvised.
"I'll see if he's available, Mrs. Blaine." She walked down an adjacent hallway.
"She didn't seem nervous when we mentioned Sommers," Laura mused. "That could be good news."
"I hope you're right, Laura. I'd hate to think after agonizing over this excursion of yours, that we no longer have a client. Besides, this charade would certainly be a lot simpler with his cooperation." Steele drummed his fingers nervously on the counter.
They both turned as a harried looking Mr. Sommers came toward them.
"Mr. St-" Sommers began.
"Blaine, Richard Blaine," Steele prompted quickly. "And my wife Laura."
"Yes, uh, Mr. Blaine. I'm sorry I forgot to put our appointment on the schedule. Things have been a little hectic lately. My office is just through here. There are some things we definitely need to discuss." He propelled them swiftly down the hall and into his office, quickly closing the door. He motioned them both to a chair.
"Mr. Steele. Miss Holt. I was afraid you wouldn't come." He began to pace nervously. "My secretary says you asked for me several times yesterday. Well I can tell you I was no where near a telephone for a while."
"Did something happen to delay you?" Laura asked.
"Just the fact that I spent several hours in a ditch after my car flipped over. I didn't get back here until nightfall. I heard from the body shop this morning. One of the mechanics said it looked like my brake line had been cut. I'm having the police check it out."
"Are you all right?" Steele looked him over.
"Just some uncomfortable bumps and bruises. All of these accidents are connected, I'm sure of it. Now no one may be safe, even off the grounds. You've got to find out what's going on before someone gets killed. At first I was just worried that we'd have to close up shop for a while. Now it just keeps getting more serious." He sat down heavily on the edge of his desk.
"We'll do everything we can, Mr. Sommers," Steele said reassuringly.
"Do you have any ideas as to who might be behind this?" Laura inquired. "Have there been any recent confrontations or arguments among staff or guests?"
"Nothing that I can remember, and believe me, I've been trying. Most of the people here are very laid back. They're here because they're committed to the lifestyle. That goes for everyone, staff and residents."
"Try to think back to the beginning, Mr. Sommers. This all had to start somewhere," Laura prompted urgently.
"Well, there was one incident early on. But I didn't connect it to anything. The man had been with us for over a year."
"Exactly what happened?" Steele inquired.
"Our caretaker, Mr. Edwards. We had to let him go last month. We've hired someone else."
"Why was he let go?" Laura asked.
Sommers spoke with obvious reluctance. "There was an incident with one of the female guests. A sexual assault. Charges were filed but later dropped for lack of evidence. There were no witnesses but I believe he was guilty. After the story came out several women came forward and said they'd been harassed but they weren't taken seriously. Naturists often face this sort of prejudice. People think we band together for sexual purposes when in reality it's the opposite."
"In most cases, you mean," Steele interjected.
"Edwards was a special case."
"You say he'd been with you about a year. Did you hire him originally?" Laura asked.
"No. My wife Sonya handles personnel matters. She's been my assistant for several years. She's hired all of our current staff."
Laura jotted down some notes. "We'll need to talk with your wife about the staff as soon as possible."
"I'm sure she can be more helpful in that area than I can, Miss Holt. She'll be glad to assist you with whatever you need."
"Who is your new caretaker, Mr. Sommers? When was he hired?"
"That would be Ethan Deerfield. He's been with us for four weeks. He seems very capable. I have no reason to suspect him," Sommers declared. "All of our other staff members have been here for at least six months."
"What about guests?" Steele asked. "Are many in residence long?"
"We have some, mostly retirees, that stay for six months or more. The average stay is less than a month.
I can furnish you with a current list. I trust you'll keep this information confidential."
"Of course," Steele assured him. "Can you think of anyone besides staff or guests who might have a grievance, or simply a strong objection to your lifestyle, perhaps?"
"Well, we've had some long standing opposition from the usual anti-nudity citizens groups. There have been some legislative initiatives over the years to try and shut down our operation, zoning battles and so forth. We've still managed to survive. It's been pretty quiet on that front lately."
Laura rose from her chair. "Well, Mr. Sommers I think 'Mr. Blaine' and I need to settle in so to speak and um, get acclimated to things here. Perhaps if you or your wife would be free later today we could take one of your timeshare tours. It would be excellent cover and give us a chance to meet the staff."
"I'm sure Sonya can handle that for you. I'll arrange things before I go. I have a meeting with my attorney this afternoon that may run a bit late." Sommers moved behind his desk and typed briefly on his computer keyboard. "I've booked both of you under Mr. and Mrs. Blaine in one of our villa suites. It's our most luxurious offering. Private balcony, pool, hot tub, the works. Suite 207. You can pick up the key at the desk."
"I'm sure 'Mrs. Blaine' and I will find everything to be satisfactory. You've been most helpful, Mr. Sommers." They shook hands.
"The sooner you get to the bottom of this thing, Mr. Steele, the sooner I'll rest easy. I hope you're as good as they say you are."
"We do our best." Steele and Laura turned to go then Steele hesitated in the doorway as if puzzled by something. "I know this has nothing to do with the case but I'm curious. Most of the people I've observed on the grounds are au naturel, so to speak, but many of the staff seem to be fully clothed."
"Yes," Sommers explained. "Most of our people go nude but we also have occasional visitors, delivery people and such who don't subscribe to naturism. Sonya and I feel that staff in the reception area should wear clothing, albeit casual. We think it projects a more professional image."
"I see," Steele replied. "Makes perfect sense."
Laura stifled a giggle as she and Steele walked down the hallway. "Well that's a tip I'll bet they don't teach at Harvard Business School."
Laura and Steele made their way to suite 207, through a series of winding walkways, past the tennis courts, poolside, and outdoor Spanish-tiled shower, all encircled by citrus trees, bougainvillea and desert flowers. Laura turned the key in the lock and they entered the suite. The sun was beaming in through the skylight and the interior was accented with greenery and lush tropical fabrics. There was a whirlpool bath for two and a private balcony with a spectacular view of Mount San Jacinto.
Laura noted that there were two queen size beds rather than one king size. There was a coffee maker and a small refrigerator along with several amenities baskets of fruit, exotic coffees, and various soaps and body oils.
She unzipped her suitcase and began to unpack. "You know, this is so plush it's a shame we have to leave this room."
Steele stopped unpacking his suitcase and came up behind her, twining his arms around her waist and pulling her against him. He leaned closer. She could smell the spicy scent of his cologne and feel his warm lips caressing the nape of her neck. "Who says we have to? We could go native in our own private paradise. You show me yours, I'll show you mine." He breathed the words seductively into her ear.
Suddenly Laura realized how her body was molded into his and how one of his hands was beginning to wander teasingly upwards, along her side, then skimming her ribcage. She broke away.
Steele exhaled with annoyance and spit out the words. "Still not mixing business with pleasure, are we? I'm grateful to be once again reminded of the ground rules. No matter what the situation those never change, do they? Forgive me for thinking that there was more to this little jaunt than just your desire to help Mr. Sommers."
"What on earth is that supposed to mean?"
"For heaven's sake, Laura. We knew eventually that we'd both have to get down to the 'naked truth' here. It was obvious from the time you accepted this case. I think you were more than a little curious about what might happen between us. So was I. The difference is I'm willing to admit it."
"Admit what? You know I didn't intend to take this case. Even if I did it wouldn't be because of you."
"Then why were you so insistent that I go along? It wasn't just for protection. You've never asked for that from me before. In fact, you've always refused it. Independent to the last. Isn't that your motto?"
"It still is, Mr. Steele." Her eyes flashed fire. "I should have known better than to ask you to come. I thought, given the difficulties of the situation, that you might show a little concern for my safety, give me your support. I can see this is just another fresh opportunity, just another angle for you to use to get me into bed."
"Laura, that's not fair and you know it."
"If I do get naked on this case, just remember, nothing you do or say will change these ground rules - 'look but don't touch.' " She stormed in a reckless fury to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her and locking it with a sharp click.
End Part 3