Frank Randall entered the house through the unlocked front door.
“Mom?” he called out. “Mom!”
Magic, the family’s pure black cat, raced in from outside. Tail straight up in the air, he ran between Frank’s legs and headed for the family room in the back of the house. Frank followed.
The sight of his mother stopped him in the doorway. Elizabeth Randall’s always neat hair was disheveled, her clothes looked slept in, and her shoeless feet were black with dust and dirt from the floor. She sat slumped in her wheelchair staring out the back window at her garden.
“Mother,” Frank said gently, moving up behind her chair and resting his hands on her shoulders. “How many times have I asked you to keep the front door locked? Times aren’t what they used to be. You know that best of all.”
He stared out at her garden, her pride and love, overgrown now with weeds. Her beautiful flowers lay choked and dying. She pointed at the garden and herself.
“What does it matter about the door? I’m like that old garden out there, withering and dying.”
“Cut it out Mom, you’re still beautiful and have a lot of life left in you. That bank robber’s stray bullet left you in a wheel chair not in a grave. You were lucky. Blessed. I wish you’d see that. The other two people he killed that day can’t say that.”
He grabbed the handles of her chair and turned her away from the window. Then he knelt in front of her.
“Things are a little slow right now down at the station and they’ve assigned me to some old unsolved murders. I could use your help. You love detective stories and have a fine analytical mind for mysteries. A gift for it. Please help?”
He set the file folder on her lap and opened it to the picture inside.
Angela Wright’s face stared out from the glossy family photo. Her silky black hair was cut short and arranged in a style that was once called a page boy. She had dark eyes, bushy eyebrows, sensuous lips with a little curve right under nose, and a haunting look as if she knew her fate and the mystery that would surround it.
“Five years ago her body was found on the beach near her exclusive Bay area home,” Frank began softly. “At first everyone assumed she’d drowned, but the medical examiner found sand in her lungs. She’d been suffocated to death on a public beach with no clues, no motives, and no witnesses.”
He flipped to the next photo in the folder.
“Her husband and daughter are left without knowing what happened or why.”
Magic jumped onto Elizabeth’s lap on top of the photos and file. He began to purr like a propeller driven dive bombing airplane. Elizabeth absently stroked him.
“The beach is not far from here. The family still lives in the same house. It’s a real scene-of-the-crime.” Frank stopped a little breathless. “What harm can looking do?”
Elizabeth sat gently petting the cat, her eyes fixed on the dead woman’s photograph. After a long moment she spoke. “I suppose anything is better then sitting here watching my flowers dry up and die.”
“And my mother too,” Frank added letting his pent up breath out as he bent over to kiss her on the cheek.
“All right, all right, I said I’d take a look. We’ll go first thing in the morning. Now, I’d like to clean up and rest some.”
“Agreed,” Frank said quickly. “But first, how about a quick dinner?”
“Still my same little boy,” Elizabeth said with a quick smile as they made for the kitchen. “Always hungry.”
Next morning, the sky was silver gray and cold. Overcast clouds hung close to the ground heavy and dark with moisture. Frank parked across from the wooden ramp leading down to the beach. He helped Elizabeth out, into her chair, and they made their way down and out onto the soft sand. It was a struggle until they got to the hard wet sand along the water’s edge.
Frank pushed Elizabeth along until they found the rear of the house he’d spotted from the road. An earlier check had confirmed that the same family still lived in the long flat stucco home.
In the distance seagulls plaintively called and dived searching for food. A cold shiver shook Elizabeth’s body and Frank looked for a clean place to sit beside his mother that was out of the wind. This beach, this spot, was certainly a forlorn place to die.
They sat in silence for only a moment when a golden blur of a dog flew past, kicking up hard clumps of sand.
“Glad, get back here!” a voice called from behind them.
Running toward them was a pretty young girl in a one piece black bathing suit. She lovingly scolded the dog. Then she turned to them her arms spread apologetically.
“I’m sorry. He’s always got so much energy. The whole beach to run and he kicks sand in the faces of the only two people on it.”
Elizabeth nodded, unable to speak for a moment. The young girl had her mother’s face. Angela Wright’s face.
The energetic dog came bounding back, licked the girl’s hand, and bounded off again.
“Jeeze,” the girl said as the dog disappeared in the distance.
“That’s some dog you have,” Elizabeth said finally. “So full of energy.”
“He’s a special dog,” the girl said proudly. “He’s bred and trained to rescue people from the ocean. He’s my lifeguard.”
Frank silently watched as his mother studied the girl.
“Your dog’s name is Glad?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yeah. It’s short for Gladiator. Mom named him as a pup. She always brought him down here with her when she went swimming.”
She was an open friendly girl, but was obviously becoming nervous.
"Well, excuse me, but I've got to swim my laps."
"And not talk to strangers," Frank spoke up.
"Uh, yeah, right," she said, smiling. She ran down the beach a short way, dropped her towel, and raced into the water with great splashing steps.
Glad went crazy. He flew along the water's edge, barking and leaping. He started into the water after her, but slowly backed out.
Mother and son watched as the girl swam parallel to the beach for a few laps, then turned and began swimming out. She quickly became a black dot in the frothy sea. Frank shaded his eyes to keep her in sight. Glad seemed nervous too. The golden dog paced the water's edge.
In a few minutes the dark speck grew larger as the girl swam back to shore. Elizabeth let out a pent up sigh of relief. Frank gently touched her shoulder.
The girl stopped swimming a few yards from the shore and slowly floated in with the waves. She lifted her head searching for the dog, then quickly jumped out of the water and dove for her towel.
There was a flash of gold as Glad flew past. The girl covered her face as the big dog slid in the sand beside her much like a baseball player sliding into home plate.
It was obviously their thing to do together and it brought the first big smile to Elizabeth’s face.
"You swim quite well," Elizabeth began. "I was worried when you went out so far. I thought you might try to swim out to that big marker buoy."
The girl stopped for a moment and then walked over.
"That's two miles out, four miles round trip." She said, stopping in front of the wheel chair. “It's my goal to swim there and back."
"That's a long way even for a good swimmer like you," Elizabeth said with a gentle smile.
"I know," agreed the girl. "My mother was a better swimmer and it was her goal too."
"Did she ever make it?" Elizabeth asked.
"I don't know." She frowned and turned away. "She might have tried the day she died." She turned. "Well, I really have to go."
"Was your mother Angela Wright?"
The girl stopped and turned back. "Yes. Did you know her?"
"No. My son here is a detective with the Laguna Bay police department. He told me about your tragedy. I’m so sorry."
"Ah, darn it!" The girl said. "Yes, I'm Karen Wright and Angela Wright was my mother. You two fooled me and I don't like it. You just didn't seem like the others."
"The others?" asked Elizabeth.
"Yeah, weirdoes all of them. Every so often ghouls like you two show up on the beach. I should have known better,” she pointed at the wheel chair. “You just didn't seem like one of them." She spun in the sand and started to march away. Glad raced ahead, bouncing around like a maniac.
Elizabeth watched in silence for a long moment. Then she turned to Frank. “Go get her and bring her back. Her father too.”
Frank didn’t argue. He took off in the direction Karen had taken. Elizabeth stared at the horizon, lost in thought.
They were back in a few minutes, Frank, Karen still in her swim suit, and an angry looking father.
"My daughter informed me about meeting you here," the father began gruffly, his arm protectively around Karen. "For some reason she's taken a liking to you or we wouldn’t be here, cop or not.” He glared at Frank.
"Karen, I'd like you to do me a favor please. Trust me for a few minutes and go into the water, but don't swim out. Stay in a moment then come out like you always do. I'll tell you what to do next."
A look passed between father and daughter for a moment then he nodded and Karen turned and waded out into the water again.
Everyone watched as Karen went in, splashed around, and then came out exactly as she had before. She lay on the towel and Glad came sliding in beside her.
"Don't move," Elizabeth said. "Lay there like you're totally drained, like you've been all the way out to the marker buoy and back. You're so exhausted you can't move."
In a few moments Glad whined, licked Karen’s face, and climbed up on her back. The dog rested on top of her, occasionally licking at her face.
"As your daughter said, that breed of dog is bred and trained to do that," Elizabeth explained. "Hyperthermia kills swimmers almost as much as drowning. Rescue dogs try and keep those they find warm."
Karen's father nodded in agreement.
When Karen didn't move and play, Glad pawed lightly at her back.
"He's trying to bring her around," the father commented softly.
The dog crawled closer to Karen's face still trying to lick her awake.
"Glad!" Karen shouted, rolling over and rubbing sand off her mouth and lips. "Get off of me. I can't breathe."
"Oh, my God!" her father whispered softly, tears beginning to well in his eyes. “Thank you, Jesus.”
Karen looked from the dog to her father and back again as realization and understanding came to her.
"Oh, Glad," she cried, hugging the dog close. "Mom was an accident."
Tears flowed as father and daughter knelt in the sand hugging each other with Glad happily licking both of their faces.
Frank turned to see his mother was also crying.
“Thanks,” Elizabeth said looking up at him. “It is definitely good to be alive.”
As Frank pushed his mother down the beach toward the ramp, they glanced back at father and daughter still holding each other. The golden dog circled impatiently around them.
"Didn’t you say you had some other unsolved mysteries?” Elizabeth asked quietly.
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