Excerpt: Black & White & Dead All Over

Excerpt: Black & White & Dead All Over

Book 1: Lost Hat, Texas Mysteries

CHAPTER ONE

Actors want to see their names in lights. Athletes want to see their pictures on cereal boxes. Pundits want their blogs to go viral. Me? I want to see my name on a little white card in a museum, next to one of my photographs:

Penelope Sophia Trigg
1985—
Lost Hat, Texas, USA

I did not want to see my name in a police report as a person of interest in a major felony or on a flyer explaining that I did not murder anyone and that the Trigg Photography Studio was safe and ethical and not the scene of any crimes.

Well none committed by me, anyway.

All I wanted was to do photography, which is what caused all the trouble in the first place.

***

Late one January morning, I was shooting my lover’s well-formed body as though it were a landscape, the tripod at eye level with the iron bed where he lay. I tried to accentuate the hills of his shoulders and buttocks against the long valley of his spine and play the broad planes of his back against the oval curves of his muscled legs. His skin tones were warm and earthy against the cool white of the sheets. We were lounging around in the unfinished, semi-furnished space above my studio. The clear light of the winter sun angling through the tall triple windows was perfect for black and white photography. A north wind was blowing rows of puffy clouds across the pale sky, so every shot had a different quality: some all gray shadows, murky and mysterious; others with bands of bright sun striping across Ty’s back and casting hard shadows through the bars of the footboard.

Soft light, slow film, and a willing model: my idea of a perfect Sunday. I was in the Zone, keyed in to light and shadow and form. This is what I lived for. This is why I’d moved to Lost Hat, where the living was cheaper and I could spend more time doing art.

Ty was languid and compliant after a leisurely morning of lovemaking. I wanted to take advantage of him while the mood lasted. As soon as he woke all the way up, he’d start thinking about work and the long drive back to Austin.

At least I’d have the pictures to play with when he was gone.

I fired off two frames in quick succession. Scooting the tripod an inch to the right, I stopped down, adjusted my shutter speed, refocused, and took two more shots. They were not bad, not bad at all. They might even be good. It didn’t hurt to have a dishy model.

“You are so gorgeous,” I murmured.

The corner of Ty’s lip crooked in a tolerant smile. “Can I get up yet?” His voice was muffled by the pillow.

“No.”

“Can I fall asleep, then?”

“Yes.” I wished he would. I could sneak down to the kitchen and grab some olive oil. I would love to get a little shine on that northeast slope.

I had created this hideaway as a place to crash after late nights in the darkroom. Rummaging around in the hoard of antiques left to me by my late great-aunt Sophie along with the building, I’d found an iron bedstead with a tolerable mattress, tugged it into a clearing under the windows, and covered it with a pile of old quilts. Courthouse windows overlooked my room, but nobody was over there on a Sunday morning.

Ty pretended to doze while I had my way with his lanky body. I rolled him on his side to form a hillscape, then onto his back to shoot the plains of his chest and belly. I adjusted his legs and shifted the sheet to cover or reveal. I used up two rolls of pricey Agfa film and couldn’t remember when I’d had so much fun. I perched on his belly to get a wide-open close-up of his naked toes. They were long and shapely and looked like miniature tree trunks. How had I not noticed that before? Six weeks of seeing each other nearly every weekend and there was still so much to discover.

“I can’t believe you’re letting me do this.”

He chuckled; a warm rumbly sound.

Tyler Hawkins was a wheeling, dealing, Austin high-tech venture capitalist, not the sort of amiable wastrel you usually get for life modeling. When he was vertical and fully dressed, he was dynamic, authoritative, a guy that made things happen. That’s the guy most people knew. This postcoital rag doll? This guy was mine alone.

He’d grown up on a ranch near Lost Hat, where his sister still lived. She had introduced us at the courthouse Christmas party. At first it had just been the easy hook-up of two healthy, unattached people with holiday time on their hands. On the surface, we had nothing in common: he was a suit; I was an artist. He was a workaholic; I was an artist. He was a techno-wizard who kept his eyes on the really big prizes; I was — well, you get the picture.

But by the second weekend, we’d started talking. Really talking, beyond the where-are-you-from-and-what-do-you-do trivia. We discovered a mutual love of the natural world and its amazing, fragile beauty. We talked about dreams he’d never shared and desires I didn’t know I had. That moved our relationship to Level Two: something worth pursuing.

“I can’t believe I’m still in bed at this time of day.” Ty yawned a sonorant yawn. “You must have drugged my coffee this morning.”

“That’s right. Zee drug of looove. You are under my spell and now you must do my bidding.”

He stretched his legs and wiggled his toes.

“Stop that! No wiggling!”

I felt him lever himself up onto his elbows. “This is quite the view,” he said. I could hear the smile in his voice and knew he was admiring my trim runner’s backside. And since I wasn’t wearing anything but a long-sleeved T-shirt and socks, his view was indeed comprehensive.

“Time to get up.” Ty raised his knees and jostled me just as I snapped the shutter.

“Ty!”

“Sorry, darlin’. But I gotta head back to the money mines. We’ve got a major deadline coming up and I’ve got to be there to crack the whip.”

I turned around and planted my butt beside his shins. “No, stay, stay. A little bit longer. Go back to sleep until I finish this roll.”

“You only want me for my body.”

“Just the toes. And maybe the arches. You have photogenic feet, has anyone ever told you that?”

“Oddly, they have not. That would be the unique Penelope Trigg viewpoint.” He propped himself up on his elbows. “I hope you’re not planning to tweet those toes.”

“Do what?”

“Tweet, you know: publish widely to people with very short attention spans.”

“Hmm, no,” I said. “I’m not into the virtual scene these days. I’m trying to meet actual people, being the new gal in a new town and all that. Do you want me to tweet your toesies? Because if that’s what floats your boat, baby, I’m game.”

Ty laughed. “No, thanks, but I appreciate the thought.” He laughed again, shaking his head. “Our CEO is running for Congress and he’s gone crazy paranoid about Internet scandals, especially anything having anything to do with sex. Pictures of unclothed body parts would qualify, even toes, probably. He actually asked us to refrain from engaging in any kind of sexual activity whatsoever until after the November elections.”

“Hey!”

“That was pretty much the unanimous response. When the noise died down, he begged us to at least avoid doing anything that could be construed as unseemly or unsavory in any way, shape, or form. Keep your noses clean, he said.”

That expression always made me giggle. “You do have a nice nose. I could shoot you some portraits, kind of a super close-up…” I lifted my camera to focus in on his face. He turned to give me a profile, but spoiled it by breaking into another mighty yawn. This one sounded definitive, like the last yawn of the morning. Playtime was over.

He smiled at me. “Who has time for hanky-panky? We’ve got the investment people from Japan coming in two weeks and we are not ready. I’m going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone to make the deadline.”

“That should help keep it clean.”

He smiled that eye-crinkling, easygoing smile that sends little shivers up my spine. And I got the shot. One in a million.

He pulled himself up to a seated position. “When do I get to see these pictures?”

“When are you coming back? Maybe I need motivation and encouragement.”

“As soon as I can, darlin’. Let me motivate you a little in advance.” He reached out and grasped my left arm, pulling me slowly, but firmly, toward him. His intentions were plainly not in line with his CEO’s request.

“Camera! Camera!” I wrestled my arm free and clambered off the bed, setting the camera carefully atop a sturdy chest of drawers. A delicious memory prompted me to move the tripod out of the reach of flying blankets. I turned back to Ty, got a running start, and leapt with all the force of my athletic hundred and thirty-five pounds back onto the bed.

Big mistake.

The old bed groaned and twanged as the rusty springs beneath the mattress pulled away from the antique frame. Ty and I rolled helplessly into the sinking middle, limbs tangling, a heap of quilts tumbling on top us. The iron footboard bent in toward us, some piece of metal underneath it going click-click-click-click-click.

Ty grabbed me tight and gave a mighty heave, shifting us out of our upholstered pit along with a trail of quilts. We huddled together on the floor and watched as the footboard wobbled backward and forward and the headboard began a steady, slow, decline. Then, with a creak and a sproing and a long, weary screech, they both collapsed, clanging against each other as they jostled onto the mattress, iron feet scraping across the wooden floor.

We clung to each other and laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks.

***

CHAPTER TWO

Ty left, promising to do his utmost to get back out to Lost Hat next weekend. I was sad to see him go, but glad to have the rest of the day to myself. Motivation was not an issue: I was eager to develop those photographs. I’d never had time for darkroom work after college. First, no darkroom, and second, I had to earn a living and people want color. Digital, for choice.

Digital’s great, but it ain’t quite film.

I agitated the last print gently with my plastic tongs in the final rinsing bath. I lifted it out, squeegeed off the water, and clipped it to the line to dry. Then I sat on my stool to contemplate the row of wet prints. This was my favorite way to view my work.

They were better than I’d hoped. The light had been extraordinary. My favorites were the pair where I’d posed Ty on his side with his head resting on one outstretched arm. The curves of his body looked like a mountain range by Georgia O’Keeffe, with the rumpled quilt making foothills in the foreground and the modesty sheet across his hips standing out like a trail of snow.

I sat on my tall stool, listening to soft jazz leaking under the door from the Internet radio station playing on my Mac out in the studio, tasting the acrid tang of chemicals in the air. I gazed at my work and thought, the Fourth Annual Berlin Photography Institute Black-and-White Competition. I’d just seen a full-page ad for it in Professional Photographer. This year’s theme was “Body Language.” First prize, 5,000 euros. Since I was primarily a nature photographer and mostly worked in color, my work was not usually a good fit for this contest. But here I had a couple of decent black and white photographs that were right on target.

I hopped off my stool and zipped into the studio to find the magazine. I heard rain pounding on the sidewalk outside and caught my wavy reflection in the windows on the front doors. Night had fallen and the storm had landed. People had closed up their shops and gone home, leaving me all on my lonesome on the courthouse square.

 I ruffled through the pages of the magazine to find the ad. Sure enough, the deadline was in two days. Was this synchronicity or what? The universe wanted me to enter that contest.

I felt the rising thrill of getting ready to show my work to fellow professionals. It had been a long time. And this would be my very first photographic foray out of Lost Hat. Even an honorable mention would be a milestone.

I made a pot of chai and gobbled up the last of my oatmeal cookies while I waited for the prints to dry. Then I scanned the three favorites into Photoshop and made copies in the size and format specified for the contest. I opened up Firefox and typed in the contest website address.

A little voice in the back of my mind sang, “Ty won’t like this.”

“Shut up,” I said to the voice. “You can barely see his face. He doesn’t have to know about it unless I win.”

The odds were steep. But if I won, Ty’s torso — or his toes — would be immortal. What man doesn’t want that?

The voice persisted. “He trusts you to use discretion.”

“Trusted me not to tweet sex pix,” I told the voice. “This is totally different. This is art.”

“That’s not how the CEO would see it,” said the voice, which now sounded like my cousin Marion. “I think Ty would think, ‘Why can’t you just wait until things settle down?’”

I reminded the voice that contests have deadlines and told it to put a sock in it.

I found the entry form on the contest site. I wrote “Nude male #1,” “Nude male #2,” and “Bare toes” in the title fields. I uploaded the images, crossed the fingers of my left hand for luck, and clicked ‘Submit.’

***

CHAPTER 3

When the antivirus scanner popped up on my Mac, I knew the wee hours had arrived. My service provider had given me a suite of security programs with his high-speed Internet package and advised me to run the whole suite every night to keep the digital oogly-booglies at bay. They were set to run at two A.M.. I took it as a signal to close up the shop. I cleaned up the darkroom, put my new prints in a folder, and slipped upstairs to wrap myself in Ty-scented quilts.

The wet rumble of traffic around the square woke me to the gray light of a rainy morning. My tummy rumbled, too. I needed fuel. And caffeine.

First stop was the Texaco on 88 to fill up my GMC Sierra pickup, another hand-me-down from Aunt Sophie. Filling its tank takes a while, giving me plenty of time to clean the bugs off the windows. The rain had stopped, but the temperature was falling fast, so I was happy to keep moving.

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on the couple on the other side of the pump aisle, but as their voices rose in volume, I couldn’t help it. They were arguing about money. He was outside the car, standing by the pump, leaning toward the window with his arms crossed over his chest. She was in the driver’s seat, leaning out. Their faces were contorted with their efforts to keep their anger under control.

She hissed, “That was our children’s college fund! And you gambled it away!”

He snarled back. “It’s not gambling. And it’s not lost. Stocks go down and they come back up. The brokerage site explains it all. You should trust me.”

“How can I? You’ve been so secretive about it.”

“That’s what this is really about, isn’t it? You’re too suspicious. You had to go snooping around in my files.”

“I wasn’t snooping!”

“Then how’d you find out?”

“Aha! So you were keeping it a secret!”

My pump clunked off and both of their heads swiveled toward me. I pretended to be absorbed in my own thoughts as I holstered the nozzle and walked past them to go inside for some coffee and an apple fritter. As I waited for my change, I heard another heated argument going on at the back of the chips aisle.

“It wasn’t me, Emmie! I don’t use that chat room for flirting. I don’t even go in that chat room. And even if I did, I sure as heck wouldn’t flirt with some clown named RandyMan!”

The moon must be in the marital conflict phase. Lucky for me I was married to my art.

I had to do a little two-step to push the truck door shut against the wind blowing across the parking lot at DeGroot’s Groceries. Good thing I’d thought to bring my big coat to the studio yesterday, with my warm gloves and stocking cap in its pockets.

DeGroot’s checkout girl, Lexie, usually greeted me with a cheery smile, but this morning she was engaged in a furious whispered fight with a girlfriend. They were both about seventeen with long hair ironed straight, wearing skinny jeans and drapey boyfriend sweaters. The air vibrated with the tension of a white-hot argument on Pause as I walked past the counter. I ventured a small wave and a “Howdy.” They smiled at me in that stiff way that said, We’re just waiting for you to leave so would you please hurry?

I got a cart and started cruising the aisles, picking out chips, Diet Cokes, cookies, frozen dinners, canned soup. Ty says I live on snacks. I say, why not? I eat fruit and drink V8. That’s like a salad in a can. Every time I neared the checkout end of an aisle, I caught another installment of the girls’ argument. Fury supercharged their whispers and their voices carried well into the condiments section.

“I can’t believe you forwarded him that email,” Lexie spat. “I trusted you, you bitch!”

“I am not either a bitch!” The other girl sounded close to tears. “I didn’t send it, Lexie, I swear!”

“Now he won’t even talk to me.”

“It wasn’t me. Jesus, what do I have to say? I bet it was Carey; I told you not to trust her.”

“I never sent it to Carey. I only sent it to you! I’m unfriending you, as of right now.”

The intensity of their anger raised my adrenaline levels a notch, but I wasn’t even curious about what was in that dire email. Seventeen-year-olds? Probably some goopy confession of lust for a guy’s eyelashes. Or worse: poetry.

I rounded an aisle and aimed for the produce section for a bag of Ruby Red grapefruits. The door swung open, letting in a blast of cold air and Greg Alexander, Long County’s Internet service provider. He’d connected the two computers in my studio to his new high-speed satellite service a few months ago and I was delighted with the results. It was as fast as anything I’d had in Austin.

“Good morning, young ladies,” Greg said. He spoke in that singsong voice that teachers use to elicit a group response.

The other girl mumbled something, but Lexie glared at him with such radioactive hostility it set me back a step. And I was tucked in between the onions and potatoes and thus well out of the line of fire.

Maybe he’d hit on her last time he was here. He was a pasty fellow with an apple belly. A cubicle guy; quite the contrast to the ranchers the town served. He had short hair, dark-rimmed glasses, a soul patch, and that know-it-all smirk that makes geeks so endearing. I kind of liked him, but he was nobody’s Teenage Dream.

I got the grapefruit and some apples and rolled my cart full of photographer fuel to the checkout counter. The unfriended girlfriend had gone. Lexie scanned my items with stony concentration, a deep line creasing her forehead. I wanted to say something comforting, but I couldn’t think what. For all I knew, this really was the worst day of her life.

Greg came up behind me as Lexie was weighing my fruit. He had a stack of boxes decorated with pictures of hot pink snack cakes zooming across a turquoise sky.

I glanced at my bags of chips and cookies and said, “Another health food nut, I see.”

He grinned at me. “I love these little beauties.”

To each their own. I was working my hands through the handles of my plastic shopping bags when Greg said, “Thank you, Mr. Alexander,” to Lexie in that same singsong voice. She turned away and fiddled with the register tape. Her back was so rigid it was practically vibrating and I was sure I saw steam rising from her ears.

Greg held the door for me on the way out. As it swung shut behind us, I said, “Aren’t we glad we’re not seventeen anymore?”

He lifted his upper lip, showing a row of small, even teeth. “Some people have to learn things the hard way.”

***

I went home to shower and change and drop off the groceries. Home was a three-bedroom bungalow a few blocks from the square. I didn’t need a whole separate house, but it was paid for and everyone said I should wait until the economy improved before trying to sell it. My plan was to use the money to build an apartment over my studio and become Lost Hat’s first downtown resident.

I went back to the studio fresh and clean and ready for a new day. While I was putting groceries away, my Mac bugled that I had mail. There were two messages in my inbox. The first one was from the contest manager confirming receipt of my entry and giving me an entry number. I crossed both fingers and did a little dance in my rolling chair. Now all I had to do was wait three months for the results to be announced.

The next message was from Mariposa Internet Services. Probably an ad for upgrades. I opened it and caught one glimpse and rocked back in my chair like I’d taken a punch to the gut. Under some lines of text was a copy of one of my figure studies, the front shot of Ty lying on his side. But my modesty drape had been edited out and replaced with an enormous erect penis.

It was hideous. It was frightening. Who would do such a thing?

I closed my eyes and commanded myself to breathe: in, out, in, out. Then I steeled myself for another look. The paste job was amateurish. The skin tones didn’t even match. But only a pro would notice details like that. My beautiful figure study had been turned into pornography.

Was the contest bogus? How could it be? I’d known about it for years. I’d gotten the website from an article in a reputable magazine and typed it in by hand.

I took another deep breath and tried to focus — calmly, calmly — on the text. The first two lines read:

You’re not the only one in this town that knows how to use Photoshop. How do you like my work?

Then came the hideous picture. I scrolled past it quickly, getting it all the way out of view. The message went on:

Didn’t you think it was a just a tad risky to put naked pictures of your boyfriend out there to be phished up by everybody and their bot? Or did you put your AMBITION before your INTEGRITY? Did you even ask Mr. Big Shot for permission first?

I don’t think so!!!

Now I’ve caught you in my net (that’s a pun: get it? Cuz I’m ROFLMAO) Unless you and your lover want to see my artwork all over the web tomorrow morning, you better come to my office today at 5:00 sharp to receive your penalty.

Your ever-vigilant Internet service provider,

Greg

 

The blood drained from my face. I felt icy cold. I sat back in my chair, staring at the screen, patting my cheeks and pressing my hands over my temples to squeeze out the dark panic that filled my brain.

What had I done? Heaven help me, what had I done?

I’d been so pleased with myself when I’d submitted those photographs. Penelope Trigg, Photographer Extraordinaire, setting out on the electronic highway to greatness. Oh, what a clever artista I was! What lovely photographs I had made! Why, these were sure to win! And what else could matter, beyond my art and my creative impulses?

Not Ty’s privacy, that’s for sure.

I’d barely listened to the voice of my conscience. I’d betrayed his trust as surely as if I had hung framed prints of his naked body at the front of my studio, where everyone in town could see them through the windows. I couldn’t fix this by taking it back. Even if I withdrew my entries from the contest, Greg had copies. He could do whatever he wanted with them. He could put them on YouTube, Facebook, Flickr. Nobody would care that they’d been doctored, if they even noticed.

Ty had built his reputation and his fortune in Internet security. That picture could ruin him. It could get him fired. At the very least, it would make him a laughingstock among his peers. He would be furious and rightly so. He’d never speak to me again.

What would this do to my portrait business? If this got out, nobody would trust me. That was my bread-and-butter, my life support. Without it, I’d have to leave. Move back to Austin and go back to work at the Monster Wedding Studio for thirty bucks an hour. Struggling to make my rent and spending half my time stuck in traffic.

I couldn’t let that happen. I had to get those pictures back. Somehow, anyhow: I had to get them back.

What did Greg mean by ‘my penalty?’ He must know I didn’t have much in the way of cash money. Maybe he’d settle for antiques. Something up there in those stacks of stuff that my aunt had left me must be worth a few bucks. 5:00 sharp. It was now 11:48. It would take five minutes to drive to Greg’s office. That gave me five hours and seven minutes to kill.

What to do in the meantime? Scream? Shred things?

Thank God Ty was gone again until Friday. Maybe I could get things resolved by then.

I deleted the evil message, but it didn’t help. I needed to do something physical. I needed to wring that weasel’s neck. I had liked him. How could I have been such a lousy judge of character?

I laid my head down on the worktable and let my tears drip onto the scarred old oak.

***

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 Anna Castle.