After being the backdrop for 1948’s critically acclaimed tragic romance, Cape Seduction, Northern California’s Dragon Rock Lighthouse sat shuttered and abandoned for decades—and it also happened to be the last place up-and-coming Hollywood starlet Darla Foster was seen alive.
When photojournalist Rebecca Burke locks horns with Los Angeles attorney Matt Farralone while trying to gain access to the derelict off-shore beacon, she encounters the spirit of the sassy, once-promising Oscar-hopeful Foster, and uncovers a 60-year-old secret that sets her world on end.
Northern California, Near the Oregon Coast
Rebecca Burke squinted at the road ahead, hoping to make out the taillights of the car in front of her.
Fog is nothing like soup. Not green, not hot, not tasting like some disgusting pureed legume.
The eerie silence unnerved her. She snapped on the radio and twisted the knob in search of something other than talk or rap. Settled on Garth Brooks.
Coast Highway ran only two lanes in either direction, and Rebecca kept to the right, nervously alternating between gas pedal and brake. She wasn’t used to this thick, cottony mist. Dense fog almost never occurred back in Phoenix. She focused her attention on the white abyss before her. Surely it would burn off soon.
Was anyone behind her? Quick glances into the rearview mirror revealed nothing but retreating gray. Perhaps I’ve entered the Twilight Zone, she thought, trying to conjure a chuckle.
As the roadway swept around the base of a steep cliff, Garth’s warble turned to noisy static. Rebecca reached for the tuner, intending to search for a stronger signal. Out of nowhere, a car charged past her on the left, churning up a brief clearing before being swallowed by the whiteness ahead. Startled, Rebecca’s heart quickened, and she took tighter control of the steering wheel. She considered pulling over, but since she couldn’t see the roadway to the side, she hesitated, slowed her speed even more. But what if a faster motorist hit her from behind?
The radio static grew. Rebecca again attempted to tune in something more agreeable, pausing when she discerned traces of a female voice behind the noise. Just a word, here and there. “Time has come…find me…” Rebecca frowned, concentrating as she listened.
Again she checked her mirror. Seeing nothing, she started to pull her eyes back to the road when something appeared. A face, a woman’s face, stared at her from the backseat.
A shockwave bolted through Rebecca’s body at the sight. Grasping the steering wheel, she hit the brake, pulled the Volkswagen off the highway, and came to a skidding stop. She quickly twisted around, stared hard at the empty seat, the floor, the back window, and the fog.
I must be losing it.
Fortunately, there was a wide, flat shoulder where she’d left the highway. She looked to her left where the occasional car rushed by, traveling south. To the right, the fog lay heavy over the Pacific Ocean. Garth had resumed his mournful tale of unrequited love.
Rebecca smacked the off button on the radio, leaned back in her seat, closed her eyes. Clearly, her anxiety had caused a hallucination. There was no one in the car with her. She could barely recall the details of the woman’s face, so brief was the vision. For a moment, she wondered if she’d seen her late mother’s face; she’d dreamed about Mom just the night before. Heart still pounding, she opened her eyes and peeked into the rearview mirror. Nothing obstructed her view of the back window and the menacing fog beyond.
At 9:00 a.m. the sun hung somewhere overhead, lamely trying to burn through the clouds. The VW died; she twisted the key in the ignition, without result. No starter, only the futile clicking that usually foretold a dead battery. Eyeing the instrument panel in disgust, she thumped the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. The check engine light glared back at her, so there had to be some juice left.
Rebecca tried again to re-start the car to no avail. With a sigh, she reached for her wallet and cell phone, dialed, and peered again into the rearview mirror while waiting for an answer. This time, only her hazel eyes stared back. She shoved her bangs back off her forehead just as the tow service came on the line.
“I’m not exactly sure where I am. Somewhere near Crescent City. I know I passed an RV campground a few miles back. No, I don’t have PGS or GSP or whatever it is.” Like I really want some satellite keeping track of me.
The tow service dispatcher had more patience than she did, but Rebecca found it hard to be friendly, especially after hearing it might be an hour before someone would be by. “Well that’s just grand,” she muttered, slapping the cell phone closed before tossing it into her backpack on the passenger seat.
I can’t just sit here. Reaching behind her to the rear floor, Rebecca grabbed her black camera bag and stepped out of the car, quickly walking around to the passenger side. Cars whizzed past, their drivers oblivious to her plight. She dug her digital SLR camera out of the bag, draped the woven strap around her neck and then popped open the trunk and dropped the empty camera bag in.
Carefully, she perused her surroundings, her photographer’s eye searching for a subject. She hated the waste of time. There had to be something worth shooting. She didn’t mind the grayness–she’d shot some of her best work in black and white–but there still had to be subject matter.
A lone gull sat atop a nearby trash can. Tentatively spreading its wings, the bird begged for attention.
“Forget it, pal. I’ve already got your mom, dad, and cousins on film.”
Rebecca walked unhurriedly through the mist in the direction of the surf, still wishing she’d happen upon an interesting angle or unusual sight. There was nothing, and why should there be? Nothing else had gone right today, from the power outage in her hotel, which caused her to be late and almost cost her the job, to the breakdown of her car and the wait for the driver. Not to mention the ridiculous hallucination that had driven her off the road in the first place. Now here she stood, wasting valuable travel time walking on Nowhere Beach, California, USA.
She finally found a log big enough to sit on. Not comfortable but a tolerable perch while she waited. The fog lifted while the clouds thinned in response to the sun’s persistence. Rebecca glanced back at the highway. Her car had recently been serviced and had received a clean bill of health, damn it! Yet it quit running when she pulled off the road. Died. No illness, no accidental cause of death. She huffed out a sarcastic chuckle. What next? A tsunami?
Shaking her head slowly, Rebecca could see the oncoming waves now. She imagined them to be like a string of small white animals, all rushing toward her before losing their collective nerve and retreating quickly back to the safety of the ocean.
Forced relaxation. She closed her eyes, tried for that calm, centering peace her yoga instructor always raved about. I need a vision. Something soothing. Something–
Rebecca’s eyes fluttered open, and she felt the sting of threatening tears. The vision rising before her mind’s eye did not offer tranquility. The face of the woman in the rearview mirror returned, and while she still couldn’t be sure the image was her mother, fresh grief inexplicably washed over her.
“I don’t need this,” she murmured. “I don’t need this at all.”
Rebecca unlaced and took off her sneakers and socks, neatly stacking them on the log. This water will be freezing. She edged toward the wet sand, camera swaying below her chest. “Freezing,” she repeated aloud as the first small rush of foam-crested seawater lapped at her feet. Still, she stood grounded, mesmerized by the thinning fog. There were rocks, some boulder-sized, in the waters before her, becoming visible as the waves crashed against them. The odd beam of sunlight, here and there, painted the individual rocks with an ethereal glow, intriguing her as the water sprayed up with each pounding wave.
Transfixed upon one huge rock miles out, Rebecca slowly brought her camera to her face, peered through the viewer as she focused on the rock, which, through the telephoto lens, turned out to be a small island with some sort of structure on it. Shrouded by remnants of mist clinging to its sides stood a building, as gray as the fog surrounding it, built on an islet barely large enough to support it.
Snap. Snap. Snap. The shutter worked its magic, stealing moments of time, freezing the waves, the spray, the birds, the rocks and the odd little structure on her micro memory card. The haze rapidly dissolved as Rebecca snapped away, and she moved closer as she filmed. Suddenly, the sun broke cleanly through the sparse clouds, evaporating the remaining fog, giving Rebecca a clear view of the island and its lone structure. She smiled as she lowered the camera, squinted into the sunlight, making sure the image spied through the lens wasn’t some new mirage. No; her eyes, unaided by lens and filters, looked directly upon a lighthouse.
Maybe her luck was changing.
* * *
“Just sign here.”
“Even though you didn’t do anything?”
The tow truck driver shrugged. “Hey. I drove down here from Crescent City. I did something. Not my problem there’s nothing wrong with your car, lady. You should be glad.”
Rebecca frowned and took the pen he offered. “Know where I could get a decent motel room?” she asked, scribbling “I.M. Stupid” illegibly on the form.
“Straight ahead about two miles there’s a Best Western. Clean. Got a coffee shop.”
“Thanks,” Rebecca said, handing the clipboard back.
“You’re not from around here,” he said, noting the time on his watch and jotting it onto the form.
“Nope.” Duh. Could the Arizona license plates have clued him in? Phoenix seemed like a million miles away. Digging into the hip pocket of her jeans, she pulled out some ones and handed them to the driver. “You know anything about that lighthouse out there?”
The driver pocketed the tip and looked up. “No,” he said, staring straight into Rebecca’s eyes. “Nothing.” He turned to go.
“Is it still in use?” Rebecca asked, following the man to his truck.
“No. It’s not occupied anymore. Es vacante. Abandonado.”
“Is there any way to get out there?”
“Not many guys are willing to take a boat out there. Killer rocks.” He hesitated. “There is one guy. He’s in town,” he said, motioning over his shoulder toward Crescent City. “He might. Ask at the bait shop.”
“Thanks,” Rebecca murmured and stood back to watch as the tow truck merged into traffic. She paused, looking from the VW back to the lighthouse, then to the road and the southbound traffic. She had time to kill. Her rescheduled appointment wasn’t until late afternoon, and she now felt compelled to stay on the beach for awhile.
In the trunk dug out her father’s binoculars and her aluminum accessory case. She selected a telephoto lens from the case, swiftly exchanging it onto the camera body, then grabbed the binoculars before heading back to the driftwood log. Bracing her elbows on her knees, she leveled the camera before her eye and snapped a few frames before turning the camera sideways, framing the lighthouse vertically.
Something was different now. The water line rose higher on the rocks, the tide rolling in.
“I wonder how far it is,” she said, tilting her head and trying to figure the distance between the beach and the island.
Perhaps her client would know. He might even be able to see the lighthouse on a clear day, as his home perched on a bluff not too far north of where she sat.
Soon, she rested her camera in her lap and lifted the binoculars to her eyes. The lighthouse looked old, gray and beaten. Tall, a squarish tower rising from the center of an immense oval base. Rebecca’s mind searched for a word. Forlorn. Cold. Forgotten.
The waves crashed, relentless in their attack on the small rock, almost as if the sea was trying to reclaim it, to destroy the man-made structure and return the islet to its natural state. Build–crash–retreat: the water glistened over the rocky island base as it trickled back into the sea. Rebecca wondered what the lighthouse looked like inside. Who had lived there? Was it scary, being surrounded by water, all alone out there? Who owned it now, and why did they allow it to fall into such disrepair?
There were answers, Rebecca was sure. Adjusting the focus, she made one more perusal of the island. Moving slowly in order to take in the smallest detail, Rebecca noticed something she’d not seen before. Something red, a small figure, perhaps, at the top of an external stairway on the base below the lighthouse. She strained to hold the binoculars steady, squinting her eyes.
Taken aback, Rebecca started, her focus lost. She struggled to locate the same spot, and when she did, the stairway was empty.
“How strange,” she murmured, re-examining every section of the stairway and its surrounding structures. No signs of life. Could the woman have gone inside?
At noon, she reluctantly packed her equipment, put her shoes and socks back on, and returned to her car, hoping to find the motel with the coffee shop close by. She sighed with relief when the VW started and she eased out onto Coast Highway.
* * *
The laptop grabbed the Wi-Fi signal right away. Rebecca took a large bite out of the apple she’d brought back from the convenience store, then placed her fingers on the keyboard, carefully typing in the name her client gave her: Dragon Rock Lighthouse. She chose the most informative looking link and clicked. Her eyes raced over the words, unable to pause for even a moment. She had to know everything about the lighthouse, and fast.
“Abandoned in 1947…failed attempt by local preservation society to gain ownership in 1988…shown in backdrop for The Keytooth Affair, Sandstone Productions, 1996…” She read aloud to herself, nibbling on the apple as she reviewed site after site. “Ownership is private…identity veiled by corporate documents…no plans to restore the property at this time.”
She found photos, of course, many of them from a time when the lighthouse was young and in good condition. Rebecca leaned close to her screen, poring over each picture. “Just over six miles offshore. Built in 1891…also seen in the film Cape Seduction, MGM, 1948.”
Cape Seduction. Her father was an old movie buff. She picked up her cell.
“Dad? It’s me. Yeah, still in Northern California. My shoot went off great when I finally got there. He has a ’34 Packard, Eleventh Series Eight Convertible. Yeah, pristine. I shot it in a kind of film noir look. Hey, speaking of films, did you ever see a movie called Cape Seduction?”
He paused and with a mumble, her father reached into his memory. “Let me see. Seduction. Hmm.”
Rebecca found herself drumming fingernails on the desk. “It might have had a lighthouse in it…”
“Lighthouse. Oh, yeah! Hell, that must’ve been…1938…”
“Yep. Errol Flynn was the hero, I believe. Is he even still alive? Oh, what a Casanova, let me tell you. Friends with Doug Fairbanks, Olivier, you know, that whole gang. The woman was a new actress, back then, anyway. Can’t remember her name right off. Young, real pretty, dark hair.”
“Did she make any other films you can remember?”
“Nope. Now that I think on it, I don’t think we ever saw her again. Your mother, God love her, she…she really liked that picture.”
Her father went silent as they both thought about Rebecca’s mother, dead for over fifteen years. Jebediah Burke still grieved. Rebecca flushed at the memory of her surreal experience in the car that morning, and her thoughts about her mother. Shake it off, Bec.
“Thanks, Daddy. I saw this lighthouse today, and for some reason, I just got crazed to know all about it. So. How’s the weather there?”
“You know what they say. In Phoenix we have two temps, hot and hotter. It’s only hot right now.”
Rebecca chuckled. “Hey, I’ll be home in a week. I have about ten more cars to shoot for the magazine. Love you.”
* * *
She tossed in bed, her sleep broken into short, fitful naps. As she twisted restlessly beneath the sheets, visions of a nameless face appeared in settings, familiar and yet out of place. A woman sat behind the wheel of a 1944 Packard. A Brown Bomber, her father said, nodding in approval. The woman smiled from behind dark glasses. Smiled, yet Rebecca shuddered at the appearance of a single tear sliding down the fading cheek of the driver. Wait, she called out, wanting badly to remove the sunglasses from the woman’s face. The car drove away. Her father bowed his head.
Rebecca awoke fatigued, but determined to get moving on her plan. At 8:00 a.m. she phoned Pat, her boss, hoping he’d had his first cup of coffee. Even two.
“Okay, I have this excellent idea for a photo story. You ready? Lighthouses.”
“Lighthouses? And why would our readers care about lighthouses? Isn’t that a bit too cozy-romantic-sappy for our jet-setting subscribers?”
“How about mystery, intrigue, weird history?”
“What sort of weird history?”
“Well, I don’t know yet. But I will. There must be thousands of lighthouses around the U.S., and they all have stories, right? There’s even one right here, not more than ten miles from where I’m staying.” She decided not to share her sighting of the woman in red.
“Where you were staying. You have to be in Sacramento by 5:00 p.m., right?”
Rebecca groaned inwardly. What a stick-in-the-mud. She tried again.
“Our readers are wealthy travelers with a variety of interests. Lighthouses have an aura…they’re different, out of the ordinary, unique places of history where people risked their lives every day to protect our coasts.” Paraphrasing the website still on her screen, Rebecca rolled her eyes at the trite words.
“Let me think about it. You just get those cars digitized for September.”
“But I’m here now. Why would you want to go to the expense of sending me back?” A risky question. She hoped Pat wouldn’t use it against her.
“Rebecca. What are you asking for? More time? Money?”
“Can we set the car shoots back a few days…give me time to see if I can get on the island and film the inside of this lighthouse before I have to move on? It’ll be worth it, Pat. I guarantee it. And I never guarantee anything.”
She pictured her boss chewing on his fake cigar.
“Okay. Look. I’ll bump Sacramento and San Jose to the end, so that’ll give you three days before you have to hit that kid in Monterey with the 1930 Pierce-Arrow ragtop. Got it?”
Rebecca smiled, danced her fingers lightly across the top of her laptop. “You won’t be sorry,” she said honestly. “You’re gonna like this.”
“I hope so.”
* * *
“If there are no tours, how do I get out there?” Rebecca asked. The clerk behind the counter of the Del Norte Visitor’s Bureau smiled.
“You can get there by helicopter but not without the owner’s permission.”
“And the owner would be…”
“It’s called the St. Paul Foundation. But honestly, no one around here really knows who they are.”
“They must have an address somewhere. What if…what if something happened out there, an emergency or something?”
“Their address is in care of an attorney in Beverly Hills. That’s about all I can tell you.” The woman, a nice looking senior, wore pearls the same color as her up-do hair.
Rebecca lifted her chin, took in a deep breath, considered the clerk. “I, uh, understand they filmed Cape Seduction out there.”
“Oh, yes. Our local claim to fame in the ’40s. Jordan Kent became all the rage, and that Darla Foster…”
“The leading actress?”
“Yes. When she went missing, it brought all sorts of notoriety to our little town. It was the only movie she ever made, you now.”
“She went missing? Like, disappeared?”
“Mm-hmm. About a month after the picture came out. It debuted at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, you know. In Hollywood. Oh! What a fabulous night.”
“You were there?”
“Well, no, only in spirit. They did a radio broadcast, and my girlfriends and I, we sat up all night chatting about it.”
“What about Douglas Fairbanks. He played the hero, right?”
“No, no, definitely Jordan Kent. Douglas Fairbanks wasn’t in the film.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know if your video store has a copy, would you?”
The older woman’s eyes fairly twinkled, Rebecca thought, as she gazed back at Rebecca with a knowing smile.
“Yes, it does. It just came out on DVD, too. Part of MGM’s anniversary celebration. You going to rent it?”
“I think I will. Say,” Rebecca ventured on, sensing the clerk’s enjoyment of their conversation. “Is Jordan Kent still around?”
“They say he’s reclusive. He’s in his late 80s, you know.”
Rebecca nodded, filing the information away for later. She got directions to the video store and bid the clerk goodbye.
She smiled as she left the video store with a copy of It Happened One Night in her hand, along with a rain check for the already-checked-out Cape Seduction. Tonight it would be room service and a good, old-fashioned romance. She giggled aloud at her own foolish thoughts and at the realization that Cape Seduction was drawing her in.