Connor Larkin stood with the other passengers waiting to enter the Greyhound bus. The night-time travelers were exactly as he remembered from his early journeys. They were silent and they were weary, and many of them treated the bus as their bed for the night. As Connor climbed on board, he knew he was doing the right thing. He intended to make a complete break. Nothing could be further from his current existence than this.
He took the first window seat where the one next to him was still empty. Connor was six-three and linebacker lean, and he didn't want to crowd somebody who was already settled in for the night run. Three minutes later, a woman who almost matched his size stopped and asked, "You mind?"
"Not a bit," he replied. She must have seen he meant it, for she offered up the best smile she could manage.
Night busses held to an established cadence. Soon as the doors sighed shut, the chatter faded. People settled in as best they could and went quiet. Those who didn't care to sleep talked in respectful murmurs. Even the fretting baby was soon silenced. The bus rumbled its way out of the downtown Los Angeles terminal, stopped twice for additional travelers, then joined the freeway and headed north.
There had once been a time when Connor had loved nothing more than a long bus ride. He had just turned sixteen and was trapped in an imploding family. Connor had not just been escaping. He was building his dreams. He was traveling toward a tomorrow all his very own. He had not thought of those trips in years.
The tires hummed and the night comforted. Connor reveled in being anonymous, at least for a few hours. He had no idea what he would find at the end of this journey. Nor, just then, did he much care. He stared at his reflection in the dark glass to his right, and decided that running away was the first thing that had felt good in far too long.
The woman leaned over and jammed Connor hard against the armrest. She knew what she'd done and grimaced an apology. Connor shrugged in reply. She set a tablet in her lap, plugged in earbuds, and said, "This is the only chance I get to watch my shows."
Connor watched her connect to the bus Wi-Fi and then dial into the number one LA entertainment cable show. That meant everything he was running from flashed up in brilliant color.
The program's anchor was a cable lollipop named Peyton Stein. LA was full of Peytons. Her program and Hello magazine had been granted exclusive coverage of Connor's main event, in return for the agency's publicist having the right to edit everything prior to release.
The image shifted from Peyton's report to a clip of Connor's most recent appearance in a US drama. He played the bad guy, as usual. The thirty-second spot showed him being caught by the hero, who launched into a furious assault that ended with Connor being thrown off a bridge. The camera followed his free fall into the torrent below, then cut back to Peyton's brilliant smile.
Connor should have been accustomed to seeing himself onscreen. His acting coach forced Connor to watch and learn and critique and grow. However, the required detachment was lost to him now.
The next clip came from earlier that same day. Connor watched as he and his fiancée emerged from the intimate engagement party attended by seven hundred of their closest friends. They had rehearsed this next act five times, until the lights and expressions and cadence were camera-perfect. Connor saw his eyes go round as two tuxedo-clad waiters pulled the quilted covering off his engagement present, then shout with delight as his fiancée offered him the gold-plated key to his very own Maserati Ghibli.
Then the woman on the bus noticed Connor watching and pulled the bud from one ear.
Connor's dread rose with the bile in his throat. He knew what was going to happen next, clear as if it was scripted in the slightly stale air. She would cry out his name. She would wake up the entire bus. Then his one chance of escape would be stripped away.
Instead, she turned in her seat, looked straight at him, and said, "You think this is for real?"
"A guy this good-looking marries an heiress, she gives him a Ferrari, and they live happily ever after?"
"Maserati," Connor corrected.
"The car. It's a Maserati."
She waved that aside. "Whoever heard of such a thing? I mean, that's not real life, is it? It has to be something they cooked up inside their executive suites. Like, hey, let's find this perfect guy and this superrich girl and we'll have this bash at the Hilton —"
"Beverly Hills Hotel."
"— And we'll invite all the beautiful people, then we'll put it on the TV. And next week we'll show the wedding."
"The wedding is in five days," Connor said.
"See, that's just it. I don't think there is going to be any wedding."
Connor was an actor. He was paid to pretend at emotions. So right now, he nodded slowly, like he was giving the woman's comments a lot of serious thought. He said, "You may be right about that."
"You like, I could turn on the sound and we could watch this together."
"Thanks," Connor said. "That's really kind, but I've seen it already."
Every time Connor glanced over, there he was on the woman's tablet. She kept scrolling back and forth between the various episodes, living the impossible dream. Closing his eyes no longer blocked out the memories. Peyton, the cable lollipop, had a breathless way of speaking as long as the camera was rolling. However, in the seven sessions they'd had together, she had not spoken once with Connor after the lights went off. Not even a hello. Her attitude had said it all. Connor was just another momentary episode, there to suck dry and discard. His fiancée was amazingly adept at handling the LA publicity machine. As a result, people like Peyton treated her as a keeper.
Then he corrected himself. His ex-fiancée.
They had not officially broken up yet. When Connor would fail to show for the rehearsal dinner in four days' time, he assumed the lady would bid him a tearful farewell. In front of the global press. No doubt it would be her finest hour.
* * *
Connor's stop was the juncture where the 101 joined with the Pacific Coast Highway. Steep hills cut jagged slices from the night sky. From here to the ocean was fourteen and a half miles of a single snaking road. Miramar, his destination, occupied a bowl where the cliffs eased back from the sea.
Between Miramar and where Connor stood were two valleys given over to vineyards and avocadoes and rich verdant farmland. He was standing in a parking lot shared by a 7-Eleven, a diner, and a Motel 6. Connor waved to the woman watching him from the window, and waited while the bus pulled away. Now that he had arrived, he had no idea what to do next.
His satchel felt like it weighed two hundred pounds. The night air seemed impossibly heavy. Connor had done nothing for five days except prepare for the next shoot with his beautiful bride-to-be. But he had also not slept. Exhaustion threatened to smother him. He was tempted to take a room for the night, but highway motel chains tended to want troublesome items like IDs. Plus Connor knew he ran the risk of getting stuck there. Just lay on the bed for days, trapped by the vise of so many wrong moves. Connor hefted his satchel and crossed the lot and entered the diner.
The little restaurant had a slow end-of-watch feel. Connor sat at the counter and ate a moderately good meat loaf. But the green beans had been cooked to limp submission and the potatoes were barely okay. Connor had worked in his family's restaurant until he was old enough to escape their constant bickering. He had learned early and well the artwork involved in making a fine meal. The food had been very good and the patrons had remained loyal, at least for a while. In the end, the screeches emerging every time the kitchen doors swung open had driven the patrons away. It felt comforting in a strange and disembodied way to mull over his past while eating. Normally, Connor kept such ruminations buried deep.
Connor was so engrossed in the lost years that he did not notice the cop until he heard someone ask, "You coming or going?"
The counter curved slightly, and the cop had taken a stool three away from Connor, granting him a position where he could study Connor's face. The police officer was ugly as a bull elephant, lumpish and big-boned, with features creased by childhood scars. Connor replied, "Coming, I hope."
The policeman lifted his coffee cup at the waitress' approach, nodded his thanks for the refill, and slurped noisily. All without taking his eyes off Connor. "You got friends around here?"
He squinted, a sudden tightening of his features. Connor realized he had just seen the guy smile. "What brings you here?"
Such conversations had been a fairly constant part of his early years. A good-looking kid on the road, traveling by overnight bus, cops were always on the lookout for runaways. Connor had learned that honesty was the safest move. He said, "I came for a weekend on one of the ranches up in the hills. The place didn't suit me, so I spent all my free time in town. I didn't want to leave." Connor shrugged. "Now I'm back."
The cop whistled. "That place runs, what, a couple of thousand a night?"
"Something like that."
The cop took in Connor's faded T-shirt, worn jeans, woven rope belt, hiking boots. "You were working up there?"
Connor made do with a nod.
The cop picked up his bill, swung his stool around, and stood. "What say we settle up, I'll give you a lift into town."CHAPTER 2
"Miramar was originally named Castaway Cove, but I guess you already knew that."
"I told you, I've been here just once," Connor replied. "For a weekend. That's it."
"See, the thing is, I'm pretty sure I know you."
The police car was old and smelled of industrial-strength disinfectant. It took dips in the road like a boat in heavy seas. Connor's head bumped against the wire-mesh barrier separating them from the rear seat. His left knee was jammed against the computer station. A shotgun and bully stick were slotted into position between him and the cop. The radio hissed words Connor could not understand.
The policeman went on, "You get in trouble while you were here for that weekend?"
"Chief," the big man corrected. "Name's Porter Wright."
Connor did not speak.
"I'm good with faces. I need to be in this job." He stopped at a traffic light and glanced over. His lumpish features were hard as stone. "It'll come to me."
Wright turned off the town's main avenue onto a narrow side street, drove two blocks, then entered a restricted parking area surrounded by hurricane fencing. He pulled into the first slot by the entrance to a nondescript single-story building of painted cinder blocks. He cut the motor, tapped the wheel with his trigger finger, and said, "Guy in my line of work learns to trust his instincts. Mine are telling me I know you. Which usually means I've either locked you up or run across an alert with your photograph. So you can tell me who you are, or we can head on back out to where I picked you up. And I'll let you go, but only if you promise never to show your face —"
"My name is Connor Larkin."
The sheriff twisted his bulk around so as to face Connor. "I know that name...."
"I'm an actor."
Chief Wright grunted. "Sure, now I know. You're the bad guy."
That was good for a chuckle. A lot of people were soon going to be thinking just that.
The cop continued speaking. "This past week, it seems like every time I go home, my wife and daughter are watching some show about your wedding thing."
Connor nodded. "'Wedding thing' pretty much sums it up."
"Is it true what they say, you've died on-screen almost a hundred times?"
"Ninety-seven and counting."
The silence was punctuated by the radio's soft drone. Finally Wright asked, "What on earth are you doing here, son?"
Connor suspected the policeman was very adept at extracting confessions. The soft-spoken question punched him in the heart. He said the only thing that came to mind. "I was hoping maybe I could find a little of what I've lost."
* * *
Porter phoned a guesthouse two blocks farther into town, woke up the proprietor, and said he had a fellow wanting to hang his hat for a few days. The chief hesitated at something the other person said, his gaze tight on Connor. "Hang on a second there." He covered the phone. "You got one of them fake IDs?"
"If you use your real name, somebody is bound to blow your cover."
Connor's weary brain ran through the myriad names his more recent roles had saddled him with — all of whom, of course, had kicked the bucket. Not a promising start to his visit.
Porter said, "How about we keep things simple. Connor Smith sound okay?"
Connor found the act of being renamed by a cop somehow comforting. "Works for me."
Porter finished the call, then walked him down silent streets. "The owner of a local guesthouse is an old friend. Back in the fifties, the place was used by abalone fishermen operating the big trawlers. I confirmed you've misplaced your ID and will be paying cash."
"Thank you. A lot."
The key was waiting for Connor in the front mailbox. The current owner had torn out walls and turned fourteen cramped motel rooms into seven bright and spacious studio apartments. Connor tried to put some heartfelt thanks into his farewell, but the chief just smiled and said, "Do one thing for me."
"When this all comes out, and you know it's bound to, stop by and let me introduce you to my wife and daughter. You'll make their day."
Connor said he would, then carried the cop's gently stated warning into the shower. He washed off the journey and fell into bed. The sea breeze filtered in through his open window. Everything should have been perfect, but Chief Wright's final words resonated through the dark room. His secret was bound to come out. Connor resigned himself to another night of tossing and turning and a few frantic dreams.
The next thing he knew, it was two o'clock in the afternoon.
Connor was well accustomed to sleeping whenever the hours were available. For everyone but stars, acting meant fourteen hour days or longer. Most actors didn't object because they had so much downtime between shoots. Every good gig was followed by weeks of auditions, meetings, story conferences, classes, and more auditions. But for the past three and a half years, Connor had been working pretty much nonstop. And then came, as the cop put it, the wedding thing.
The studio apartment had a well-appointed kitchenette, with a basket that contained filters and two packets of ground coffee. Connor was too much of a stickler about what he ate and drank to use either sweetener or powdered milk, but many location shoots offered their lesser actors nothing else, so he had grown accustomed to taking his coffee black. He dressed and extracted the wad of cash from his valise. He had stopped by two ATM machines and withdrawn the maximum before running. He entered the motel's office, paid for a week's stay, then asked the manager where he could find an all-day breakfast.
The diner was right where the manager said, on the corner of a street that meandered down the gentle slope and ended at the beachfront. Up here, a dozen or so blocks off the water, the town had an air of genteel seediness. The shops were done up nicely, but without the chichi atmosphere of wealthier towns around LA and San Francisco. Many of the structures dated back to the time when Miramar was home to the world's largest abalone fleet. Few buildings sported more than three stories, and most had a slightly faded, sea-worn air. Connor feasted on a three-egg omelet with spinach and avocado, hash browns, and fresh biscuits with honey. Then he sat in the booth, pretended to study the street beyond his window, and wondered how on earth he was going to fill his days.
He had never been good at doing nothing. Sitting around and studying his navel was definitely out. Connor had worked his entire life. At twelve, he had started as weekend kitchen help in his parents' restaurant. He had loved the work as much as he had hated his parents' constant bickering. Connor had done well enough in his classes to stay under the family radar, and spent every free moment striving to follow his own dream.
It was the dream that had brought him to LA. The dream he had managed to destroy.
That was enough to draw him from the booth. Connor had always been most comfortable when moving at full speed. Pushing ahead meant less time to look back. Looking back only brought regret. Connor paid his bill and left the diner and headed down toward the sea.