Cynthia Fuller lost her virginity to Ricky Smith the night they graduated from Kenwick High School. It happened on the beach among the pilings supporting an abandoned nightclub on Follett’s Island. The morning after their tryst, a man fishing the surf found Ricky’s body hanged from the deck of the old club. The investigation of his death resulted in a ruling of suicide.
Cynthia did not learn of Ricky’s death until she returned to Kenwick for her twentieth high school reunion. She disagreed with the ruling of suicide.
I agreed to meet with Dr. Fuller because I was bored. It was the end of a summer during which I had not done much. The woman I most enjoyed spending time with was still in France. With her husband. My welders and I were finishing up the one big custom grill building job we had on the books. I had money in the bank and more coming in weekly. I didn’t need to take on any mundane legal work, something I did my utmost best to avoid. I did not expect the coming months to offer distractions to relieve my malaise. Meeting her gave me something to do right then.
An appointment in my Galveston office would give me an excuse to drive into town. I could meet up for lunch with Wallace Rockwell, the private investigator I hired when needed. If I drove into the city to meet her, I could write off the mileage even if I referred her to another lawyer or if I declined to take on her case. Every little bit helped come tax time.
I ended up taking her case because she and her problem intrigued me. Taking her on as a client would relieve the boredom for a while. I didn’t think it would take long or be terribly complicated to do what she asked. Plus, she had plenty of money to pay.
I did not expect what followed.
The morning I met Cynthia Fuller the phone rang in the shop where I’d just finished welding stainless steel bullhorns to the lid of a grill we were making for the Miller Ranch out in West Texas. Darla, one of my welders and my office assistant, flipped up her flamboyant welding helmet and yelled, “Got it.”
Her helmet had a bright pink lightning bolt graphic slashing over a cartoon drawing of a voluptuous woman holding a flaming cutting torch. Fiery purple letters spelled out Girl Handling Fire and Steel. My other welder, her boyfriend Joshua, gave it to her for Christmas.
She wiped sweat and grime off her face with the tail of her work shirt before she picked up the phone. In a most professional voice, she said, “Law Offices of Samuel Locke, how may I help you?”
She listened for a moment. “May I have your name please?” She made a note on the pad by the phone. “Hold please, I’ll see if Mr. Locke is available.”
She turned to me and said, “A Cynthia Fuller would like to come see you today if it is convenient.”
“Take a break. I’ll talk to her up at the house.”
A look passed between Darla and Joshua. They were young, in love, and lived in an apartment attached to the shop. On my way out the door, I told them, “I’ll be back in a minute. Keep your clothes on.”
I expected Cynthia Fuller to have a routine problem. In my law business, the most often received calls were for divorces or other family matters, issues of custody or child support. Coming in second were arrests for driving under the influence or other mundane criminal matters. I took on few cases. They limit my fishing time. I made a bet with myself that Cynthia Fuller’s husband had done something bad, and it was time to divorce him. I expected to tell her I wasn’t taking on new cases and refer her to Harry Faulks.
I pushed the button on the phone in my office and said, “Hi. This is Sam. How can I help you?”
“Mr. Locke, my name is Cynthia Fuller. I’d like an appointment to get some advice.”
“Can you tell me a little about what’s up? I might not be the right person.”
“It’s kind of unusual.” She paused for several seconds. Long enough for me to think it probably wasn’t as unusual as she thought. I was wrong.
“I just found out somebody I knew in high school died twenty years ago. They called it suicide. I don’t believe that.”
Okay. That was different. She’d caught my attention, enough so that I didn’t say anything while I thought.
“I’d like some advice. I’ll pay you. Money is not a problem.”
That, too, caught my attention.
“I’m not worried about that. It doesn’t cost you anything to talk to me a bit. I’m just processing what you said.”
“So, can we meet?”
“Yes. I have offices in Houston and Galveston. Which would be convenient?”
“Galveston. I’m calling you from my room at the Gulf Grand Hotel.”
“Okay. When do you want to meet?”
“As soon as possible. I have some things coming up in the evenings, and I plan to fly home to California on Sunday. Will you have time?”
“Yes. How about in an hour?”
“That would be great.”
I gave her directions to the small office suite I shared with Rockwall Investigations in a building close to the courthouse. After a quick shower and a change into some jeans and a golf shirt, I left for downtown Galveston. As I drove from my place on the westernmost tip of the island, I called Rockwall Investigations. I doubted much would come from my visit with Cynthia Fuller, but if it did, I’d need Rocky.
That’s how Rocky always answered his phone, but this time Genevieve Mills answered. She was Rocky’s niece and worked for him. He wished she would do something else but lost that battle. In fact, Jenny had recently received her license as a private investigator.
“Hey, Sam, what’s up?”
“He’s at the courthouse for some case. He expected to be done about now.”
“I’m headed for the Galveston office. Leave him a message to drop by if he gets done before eleven.”
“Sure. Need me?”
“Are you in Houston or down here?”
“I’m with Marlene at their house. Rocky still doesn’t like me living in Houston, so he passively aggressively makes me come down here to answer the phones when he’s out. I can come to the office now, no problem.”
“Sure. If she retains me and I need you guys, I’ll introduce you to the client. This may be our only chance to talk to the client in person for a while because she’s headed home to California.”
“I’ll be there. I’ll let Rocky know.”
Rocky and his wife Marlene took Jenny in as a teenager when her parents were killed in a car wreck. Jenny lived in an apartment with a roommate in downtown Houston. She was in her twenties but being on her own bothered Rocky in a cute, fatherly way.
The weather promised a great beach day, the temperature slowly climbing but not expected to break ninety degrees. There were a few clouds, mostly far out on the horizon over the Gulf. I rolled down the windows and breathed deeply to enjoy the sea-scented air. On a Wednesday in October with school in session, the traffic wasn’t bad. I made good time driving down Seawall Boulevard toward town.
I got to the building fifteen minutes before I expected Cynthia Fuller. I nodded to the woman behind the security desk in the quiet, sterile lobby and took an elevator to the third floor. Our office suite consisted of four rooms—a small reception area, a conference room, and an office each for Rocky and me. The main door had both our names on it.
I sat at the desk in the reception area to wait.
Right on time, she pushed the door open. We introduced ourselves to each other and shook hands. Cynthia appeared to be in her mid to late thirties. Slender, she wore a long sleeve white men’s dress shirt, starched and tucked into sharply creased blue jeans. A leather messenger bag slung over her shoulder served as her purse. Her dark brown hair, trimmed serviceable short, had touches of gray. She wore functional, black-framed glasses, not likely to be carrying any fashion designer’s name. Her eyes focused on mine and betrayed no nervousness. Everything about her looked confident and smart. She might have been wearing make-up. If she did, it was minimal.
We sat on either side of the conference table, my hands rested on a blank legal pad, hers on her leather bag.
Before I could ask her how I could help her, she said, “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I’m only out here for a few days. I read an article about you and that ballet dancer in the LA Times. When I decided to seek assistance out here, I looked you up online. I’d like to find out if there’s anything you think can be done.”
The case involving my ballet dancer client made a big media splash. The dancer was Jenny’s roommate.
“I’m glad you found me. What’s up?”
“I’ll expand on what I told you. First, as I said when we talked, a boy I went to high school with died the night we graduated twenty years ago. I’m out here for our twentieth reunion. The ruling was suicide. I don’t believe that.”
She took a deep breath and looked out the window over my shoulder. She returned her total focus to me.
“You need some background. I graduated from Kendrick High School twenty years ago. My parents were deceased. I did not really enjoy living in Kendrick. High school wasn’t fun for me. I had a scholarship to MIT and a lab internship I could start immediately. I was seventeen but legally emancipated. I left Kendrick the night we graduated and never looked back. I never talked to anybody I knew in Kendrick. I never came back for any reason until this year.
“The boy’s name was Ricky Smith. They say he hanged himself the night of graduation. I don’t believe it and I’d like to know the truth. How do we do that?”
“I don’t know yet. Tell me why you think that.”
“Because of what I know about Ricky. It was high school. He had some issues he believed were bigger than they were. But he had plans. He knew what he wanted to do. He was as excited about his plans as I was about mine and not in a place where he wanted to die.”
Suicides often surprised those left behind. The things she said were what people say. Chances were he killed himself. But Cynthia Fuller was obviously smart. MIT smart. And survivor smart. She spoke with the precision of those who are super smart. I noticed she’d never actually called him a friend or a neighbor or anything like that. She’d left him behind like she did her high school experience and the entire town of Kendrick. There would be more to her story.
“How well did you know him? Was he a friend? A boyfriend?”
She smiled for the first time. “I had no real friends back then. Certainly no boyfriends. I didn’t really talk to him much until that night after graduation.” Another long pause. Finally, a deep breath, and she said, “I need to get something out of the way so we can get past it. Ricky and I had sex on the beach that night. It was my idea and my first time.”
That was unexpected.
She continued. “That’s merely a fact. It has nothing to do with my belief about something happening other than suicide. You need some context.”
I didn’t believe her. Ricky Smith being her first lover had to color her thinking about his death. I nodded to keep her talking. I needed thinking time before I shared that thought.
“First, my life. My dad was a chemical engineer. He got a job at Deshinell Chemical the year I entered junior high. We moved to Kendrick. My elementary school recommended I skip the fifth grade, but my parents said no, hoping I’d socialize. By junior high, I’d made some plans. I took the SAT as part of a talent search program. The school system suggested I go straight to high school and get in a gifted children’s program. Instead, I agreed to skip one grade and go into eighth grade.”
“Yes.” She smiled. “I hoped to make some friends before I had to endure high school.” She shrugged.
With most clients, I wanted to hear the interesting stuff first—the dead boy and more about why she didn’t believe he’d killed himself. Only after I heard that story would I refine the problem by understanding more about the client. But Cynthia Fuller knew what she was doing. She wasn’t bragging by telling me her history. She knew I needed to know her to trust her opinion about the boy’s death. She’d already convinced me to trust her enough to not interfere with questions.
“I should have just gone on to high school. I didn’t fit in at the junior high anyway. Just like I didn’t fit in at the high school. I didn’t understand much about the social aspects of those years. I am still confounded by what most people consider important in life.
“It did not help my high school experience when my dad died in an accident at the plant my sophomore year. Then, that summer my mom got her cancer diagnoses. She spent a year fighting cancer and putting things in place for me. She died just before Christmas my senior year.”
“I’m sorry. That must have been miserably hard.”
There were tears in her eyes, but she never lost the look of being in absolute control of herself.
“Yes. They left me plenty of money—lots of insurance, investments. There had been a huge settlement from the company. The cars and house were already free and clear.”
“Did you go into foster care?”
“No. My mom understood what I am. She knew I would be able to take care of myself. She even had a lawyer ready. Olivia Greenbaugh?”
“I’ve heard of her. Never met her.”
“She does wills and trusts and stuff like that. I called her yesterday to ask about you. She said you had an interesting but excellent reputation.”
“She asked me if I needed a lawyer or a barbecue grill. Your excellent reputation covers both.”
I laughed. “Good to know.”
She smiled, something I would come to learn was the closest she came to laughing.
“Anyway, Ms. Greenbaugh was appointed my guardian ad litem and the trustee of my assets until I went to court and became emancipated. Evidently, my mom had things arranged so well it got done in record time.
Ms. Greenbaugh also took care of getting my house sold shortly before I graduated. By the time I left, everything I owned was in my car. Everything else I sold, donated, or threw away.”
“You really were ready to leave.”
So far, the only notes I’d made were Cynthia’s name, Ricky Smith’s name, Olivia Greenbaugh’s name, and the phrase: sex on the beach.
“I sense you viewed life after high school as a new beginning. Was it what you hoped for?”
She shrugged. “Mostly. Obviously, I had a lot to learn about the real world, but I finally had a purpose and a comfortable place. At MIT there were others like me. Being able to have conversations with people close to my age was a new experience. I liked it.”
“What did you study?”
“Computer science. I won an award at a science fair my junior year of high school that caught the attention of Dr. Concannon at MIT. He became my faculty advisor and mentor at MIT. He was instrumental in getting me scholarships and grants at MIT. He made it possible for me to work at the school the summer after high school. I worked in his lab during college and for my postdoc. I went with him when he moved to UCLA. That’s where I am now, on the faculty at UCLA.”
She convinced me of her extraordinary intelligence. I wanted to hear why she came to see me.
“Tell me about Ricky Smith.”
“Ricky was a big deal in high school. The top of the social pyramid. He ticked all the benchmarks. He was the quarterback and class president. He dated a cheerleader and was a member of all the right organizations. He and his girlfriend were homecoming king and queen. He was even in the honor society. His future was bright. Everybody thought he’d play football at Texas Gulf Coast University.”
“You knew him well?”
“Not really. Not until the night of graduation.”
I heard either Rocky or Jenny enter their office. I still was not sure I would bother them. If not, I’d buy them lunch for the inconvenience of showing up.
My already weak confidence in what she wanted me to do waned. She obviously got to know him somewhat the night before he died but, despite having sex with him, could not have known him very well. But she was willing to pay me to investigate his death twenty years before we met. It had to be the sex. Even super intelligent people could be not so bright when sex enters the equation. She noticed my confusion.
“I know,” she said. “I’m not making sense, yet. I’ll jump to that night.”
“I was on the cusp of my life finally beginning. I was getting out of Kendrick and leaving all the silliness of high school culture behind. My car was packed with the few things I was taking to Massachusetts. Waiting for my name to be called at graduation, there were girls on either side of me talking about the big party at the beach after graduation. It amused me that the thing marking graduation in their lives would be another high school beer bash. It was so alien to what was happening in my life.
“My group, the smart kids, had nothing planned. I guess most of them were going to dinner with family. I didn’t have that. I was alone. A few of my teachers tried to make the whole thing special for me. I got some graduation gifts from them. I turned down their dinner invitations. They really were kind. But I had nowhere special I wanted to go. I’d sold the house and had been out of it for a week. My plan was to go to the hotel where I was staying, go to bed, get up and leave early the next morning.”
“I’m curious. Were you the valedictorian?”
“Yes. Initially, I wasn’t going to graduation, so I declined to give a speech. They got the president of the Honor Society to give that one.
“I didn’t go back to the hotel immediately. I stopped and got a Whataburger. I sat in the parking lot eating it and felt . . . alone. I was sad my parents didn’t see me graduate. Before she died, my mom knew about MIT, but my dad never did. He would have been proud. I didn’t want to be so alone, but I was. I drove around a bit. I decided to go to the beach. Not because I expected to suddenly be a part of the crowd, but . . . I don’t know . . . I guess as kind of a final farewell to the high school part of my life even if I didn’t really know the people there.
“I didn’t stay long. I stood around watching things for maybe half an hour. I spoke to a few people. It was typical and what you’d expect. Noise and beer mostly. I left. I’d parked down the beach, so I could get close without being noticed if I decided I didn’t want to be seen.”
“Nothing happened there that is important to your doubts about Ricky’s death?”
“Not at the party. I’m telling you about it just so you’ll know why I was on the beach.”
“Down the beach, away from the noise and people, there was an abandoned building. It was a nightclub at one time. I stopped there, underneath that building. I guess I was still antsy.”
She paused, pursed her lips, and nodded.
“To be honest,” she said, “I was a little nervous—scared really—about heading off on my own. It was peaceful on the beach. I could think. I enjoyed the waves. I could hear the music and laughter from the party. There were lights out on the Gulf.”
“I think I know the building you’re talking about. It’s still there.”
“Really? I thought about driving down there but haven’t.”
“Yes. Over on Surfside, right?”
“I take it something happened there.”
“I’ll try to make this quicker.”
“Take your time.”
I made another note. I wrote: Surfside-old nightclub.
“I don’t know how long I sat there before Ricky came walking down the beach. The moon was bright enough to recognize him. He was alone. He entered the darkness under the building. I said hi to him. Scared him, I think.”
“He recovered quickly. He said hi and came up and sat down next to me. He was just as nice as always. I’d known him since junior high and he’d always been nice. Never a snob like most of them in his social strata. I’ll skip a lot of what we talked about. I was shocked and curious about how interested he was in what my plans were. He knew I was going off to MIT.
“I congratulated him on going to Texas Gulf Coast to play football. That’s when things got deep. He opened up to me. He was not going to go to TGC. Unknown to anybody, he’d applied to Rice University because he wanted to study political science. He’d not told anyone. He’d done it all on his own. I take it he couldn’t get a football scholarship at Rice. He applied too late or something. But they wanted him. He had good grades. Somebody at the school wanted him enough to work with him. They put together some scholarship money for him and were going to work on getting him some grant money. They promised an athletic scholarship as soon as possible. You must involve your parents to get financial aid. His plan was to just present it to his parents and try to convince them it was the best thing. He was willing to sit out a year if he had to and go to work. He said it would not be fun at home, but they’d have to live with it.”
“Wow, choosing Rice over TGC was probably a big deal for a football player. TGC was the champion around then, weren’t they?”
She smiled. “Like I would know. He was worried about telling his parents. He said his dad might disown him. He was serious, though. He’d called TGC earlier that day and told them he would not be coming. He was worried about what everybody would think, but he had plans. He knew the chance of going to the NFL was slim. He didn’t really want to even try. He told me he didn’t want to be one of those good athletes who didn’t plan for the future. He did not want to look back when he got older and realize he peaked at his greatest talent in college or high school.
“He surprised me when he started talking about wanting to do good in the world, something important. He’d found one of the best political science and government programs in Texas. He had some big ideas. He wanted to go to graduate school at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs.”
Tears in her eyes were a surprise. She’d been so matter of fact in the telling of everything. So far, we’d ignored how all that intellectual conversation led to sex.
She took a deep breath and said, “He told me I’d inspired him the way I’d finished high school on my own and how I was going to MIT. He said I was a big reason he’d had the courage to do what he’d done to get into Rice. That really surprised me. I had no idea anybody else at school had a clue about all that.”
There it was. Her emotional interest in Ricky. He was the first classmate to acknowledge her in such a way. I feared, in reality, Ricky Smith realized he was stuck, that Cynthia was following a path in ways he could not, and he made a tragic decision. She was smart. She had to have thought of that. She wanted to buy herself out of guilt by hiring me to prove it wasn’t her fault he died. I did not want that job. I hoped she’d be able to process the likelihood that he’d killed himself. I hoped she’d accept that it wasn’t her fault. She needed to go home to California and leave the dark mysteries of the past behind.
“I’ve condensed our conversation and left a lot out. Mr. Locke, he was happy with his decision. He understood there would be some rough moments. But he was ready to deal with them. He was ready to move on. He did not even want to play football at Rice unless he had to for the scholarship. He intended to focus more on studying for a degree than football. It sounds silly, but he wanted to make changes in the world. He wanted to help people. He was eighteen and the possibilities of the future were still boundless. Just like me, he was about to come to life.
“I am sad that he’s dead, yes. On the last possible day, I made one friend back then. I am not immune to being sad. But it’s more than that. I believe I have filtered out the fact that I had sex with him. I listened to him. We talked. He had plans as firm as my plans. We both had difficulties in our lives, but he’d charted a course to resolve his issues just as carefully as had I. I have few close friends, even now. I want to know what really happened to my one high school friend.”
She had yet to say it, but what she wanted was to know who murdered her friend. I started to tell her I doubted I could do much. “I just . . . ”
“Obviously, I am the only one pursuing the question at this point. I want to hire you, and I will pay you to look at it. If you assure me you can do that and not be hindered by your doubts about my reasoning, I’ll still hire you. Anybody else will have the same doubts, but this is something I do not have the knowledge of how to do.
“If you can do your best, I will understand you may not be able to find out anything one way or another. You may discover there was a reason for him to kill himself. If you promise me you’ll work hard despite your doubts, I’ll accept that.”
She spoke analytically and not the least bit emotional about the facts. She approached the issue like a scientist, applying the best tools she could to analyze the unknown. I could live with that. She was offering to pay. I’ve taken plenty of criminal cases on for money when I didn’t believe a word of what my client said. I’ve won some of those. Plus, what she asked me to do promised to be interesting.
“Okay. I’ll get a retainer from you, and I’ll look into things. I’m going to use an investigator or two. I’ll pay them out of the retainer. I’ll report to you, and we’ll decide if you want to go further. If you want to save on legal fees you can retain the investigators yourself. Hire a lawyer later.”
“No. I’m going back to California on Sunday. If things go the way I think they should a lawyer will have to get involved at some point. Right?”
“Most likely if you want to change the official ruling.”
“Okay. You might as well be in charge from the start.”
She pulled a bank card out of her purse. I mentioned a number large enough to test her desire. I told her my hourly rate and told her that the investigator’s rate would be less than mine. I assured her I would reimburse her any funds we did not use. I printed an agreement providing for her retaining me to investigate the circumstances of the death of Ricky Smith. She read it, signed it, and paid the retainer with a bank card. I wrote down all her phone numbers and her home and office addresses in California.
“I think my investigators are in their office. I’ll get them and introduce you.”
She said, “Wait a moment. I know you think I’m being emotional and making an irrational decision. But I assure you, one thing I never am is irrational. You’re thinking about the sex, so I’ll tell you how that happened. Maybe then you can start to ignore it. Having sex with him was not irrational. At least not on my part.”
“Okay.” I sat back in my chair.
“Ricky broke up with his girlfriend a couple of weeks before school was out. It was talked about so much at school even I heard the story. That night on the beach we talked about that. She’d been planning to follow him to TGC.
“She planned for them to live together. He tried to talk her out of it, explaining that he would be living in the athlete’s dorm. He told me he knew that if he was not the big football star, she would quickly lose interest in him. She wouldn’t try to follow him to Rice if he wasn’t going to be playing football. She didn’t have the academics to get admitted to Rice anyway. They would not have the same interests going forward. He was nice about her, but I could tell he knew there was not enough substance in their relationship for what he had planned.”
“Okay. It sounds like you’re right. He was making some definite plans for his future.”
Or, I thought, dumping his girlfriend before he killed himself.
“It’s not just that. We sat there and talked for a long time. It amazed me the things we talked about. He even told me how he wished he’d been smart enough to get to know me better, to ask me out. I almost laughed when he said that and told him it would have shocked the school. He agreed.”
She looked at me. Took a deep breath and continued. “Mr. Locke, yes, I have a high IQ and I didn’t particularly understand all the social rituals of normal high school students, but I was seventeen and not immune to nature. It is in our DNA to be attracted to others. At that age, biology is driving us to seek suitable mates.”
“Yes. I remember.”
“He kissed me. I told him it was my first kiss ever and he asked if it was okay to kiss me again. I said yes.”
“I’m glad you got a chance to make out on the beach. Every teenager should.”
“It went further. At my suggestion. I knew the science, the chemical attractions and the biological urges. I made a reasoned decision. I wanted to get empirical. I moved his hand to my breast. He pulled away and asked me if I was sure. I told him how clueless I was about flirting, that I knew it was just biology, but that I wanted to experience some things I never had. Like the kiss. And more. So, we did. We kissed and touched. A lot. Eventually, I asked him if he would have sex with me. I wanted to experience that.
“At first he didn’t want to. He said my first time should be with somebody I loved. I asked him if he was in love with the first person he ever had sex with and he had to admit the answer was no. I explained how I was just as curious as the next teenager. I asked him if he had a condom. He did.”
“Yes. The valedictorian got lucky with the captain of the football team that night. He was perfectly gentle and caring and took care of me and made sure I was comfortable every step of the way. It was as good as anybody’s first time should be but, from what I hear, usually isn’t. And that concluded my high school experience. I was ready for college.
“Eventually, I had to leave the beach. It was after midnight, and I wanted to leave early in the morning. I made it clear he would not hear from me again. Our plans would not sustain a relationship and trying to do so would be detrimental to what we each wanted to do. I thanked him and he thanked me. It is probably bad of me, but I put our experience on the beach behind me as a part of my high school years.
“We kissed one last time, and I left him sitting there on the beach. Somebody found him dead the next day about the time I passed through Beaumont.”