“It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea,”
~ Edgar Allan Poe, Annabel Lee
by JE Marshall
“We’re out of blueberries!” Chef Thurman roared. The Pancake House was not normally open on Christmas Eve, but a lucrative deal had been struck with retired police officer Ray Cozy, executive director of the Hollywood Riviera Santa Crawl.
“The curb!” Thurman hit the bell so hard that it jingled instead of ringing.
“You’re going to kill that poor bell,” said Dolores. She tapped her rhinestone Christmas tree earrings to make sure they were still there. She picked up the order and then hesitated.
“What?” Thurman squinted.
“I’ll take the blueberry trip. You need Charlie. Besides, my old English teacher is bothering me again. Maybe he’ll be gone when I get back.” Dolores tried to hide her distress.
“He will be. I’ll have Ray talk to him.” Thurman promised.
Old Man Van Tilburg had chased Dolores around his desk, giving her a bad grade for refusing his advances. Two years ago..
“She’s not your little Lolita. You need to leave that girl alone,” Cozy said as he pulled down his Santa beard and tucked it under his chin.
“I offered to write a letter to the school board and say she deserved an ‘A,'” Van Tilburg said. He crumpled a piece of paper he didn’t want Santa to see yet.
“She doesn’t want you. She quit because of you. Here’s a to go box. Pack your pancakes and go. When I get back from the urinal, you better not be here.” Ray pulled his Santa beard back up and disappeared into the swirling sea of drunken Santas.
The vantage point was like a panther on the balcony of a condominium with a view of the construction site and the parking lot.
“It’s never open at night!” Valentino whispered angrily into his phone. He glared at the Pancake House as if it was open just to defy him.
“We’ll wait,” Payton accepted the situation. The only open vehicular exit from the construction site was through the Pancake House parking lot. They had to move the body before Christmas morning. That was the deal.
Valentino threw one leg over the balcony and grabbed a eucalyptus branch.
The cold wind crushed the buttery marigolds in the planter in front of the Pancake House. Dolores thought she could take the shortcut to Smart & Final on foot through the construction site when she heard a terrible sound. It sounded like lightning splitting a tree.
A Santa throwing up next to the bus saw Valentino climb the tree and swing over the retaining wall. Valentino was taking off in the parking lot when the branch he was standing on snapped.
“Whoa! Are you okay buddy?” The nauseous Santa yelped and passed out from the strain of using his lungs.
Valentino sat on the ground and slapped his face. It was covered in powdered scales from the wings of the Jealousy Moth, also known as the Great Ghost Moth. With a wingspan of twelve inches, it had completely covered his face and disappeared before he had a chance to see what hit him.
The dark construction site was full of huge mounds of earth where the Teddy Inn, the Teddy Pony Restaurant and Anabelle’s Disco had been. Raindrops the size of grapes hammered the blue tarpaulin on the construction site fence.
Valentino and Payton loaded the senator’s niece onto the bed of their white utility truck. Silvia had been buried in the concrete pillar under the sidewalk since her disappearance from the disco on New Year’s Eve all those years ago. She had danced to the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “IMAGINARY LOVER,” but she didn’t win the bikini contest that night. The winner was a vulgar girl who repeatedly stopped dancing to point at her rank and file. Silvia was too modest for the crowd, but she was the killer’s type.
“What did you just say?” Valentino was still annoyed by his fall.
“Crazy old fart paid us with peyote buttons,” Payton repeated. “Did you put camouflage on your face?”
Valentino didn’t answer. He was in no mood to admit that he fell out of a tree, and he had no idea where the pesky gray powder came from.
They waited in the truck between the dirt mounds like a pair of moray eels hiding in a jetty.
“Where’s Dolores with those berries?” Charlie complained. Thurman checked the phone app. No charges had been made at Smart & Final. Her car was still in the parking lot.
Ray Cozy stepped outside and put a brick on the rattling aluminum coffee break table by the kitchen door to keep it from moving away like a crab. He tried unsuccessfully to light a cigarette. The wind whipped up like flying razors. He couldn’t believe his irritated eyes when he saw Van Tilburg in the distance emerging like a zombie from a row of porta-potties on the construction site.
“I thought I told you… what’s that in your hand?” Ray interrupted himself when he recognized Dolores’ Christmas tree earring.
“I found it,” Van Tilburg said with a repulsive lilt.
“How? It’s pitch black out there.”
“I didn’t say I found it in Andy Gump. I found it in the flowers out front.” Van Tilburg mocked Ray Cozy.
The FBI showed up before Ray had a chance to call the police. An anonymous witness had called them from the Pancake House with a hot tip.
Thurman was asked to explain the pink highlighter on her chin. He pointed to the garlands of mistletoe draped around the Pancake House.
Ray Cozy found a crumpled piece of paper, a handwritten copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s ANNABEL LEE.
An FBI agent examining the Pancake House’s takeout records found the White GMC Savana listed. It pretty much confirmed that the Curbside killer had abducted Dolores.
Santa, who had witnessed Valentino’s fall, pointed to the eucalyptus tree. The FBI found blood where Valentino cut himself on the rebar protruding from a broken concrete wheel top next to the tree.
“Hey Shephard! We have some sort of shrine here,” Agent Farlow turned his flashlight on a spiral of hearts carved into the tree trunk. The oldest read “Silvia and I”. The fresh one read “Dolores and I”.
“Jesus,” Shepard’s lips went into a thin line. It occurred to him that it was probably Silvia Schiller, the senator’s niece.
“There are 38 of them,” Farlow reported. There were 38 hearts wrapped around the tree.
The FBI scanned social media accounts and pancake hashtags
The parking lot facing the marigolds was clearly designated for PICKUP ONLY at the FORESIDE. The white GMC Savana was probably already burning in the desert.
“They found the van! The girl is alive! Curbside is in custody,” an officer’s voice pierced the dark night. They had their man.
With most of the cars gone, Valentino and Payton thought it was time to escape. It was still raining hard.
Payton drove slowly over the speed bumps and then hit the gas. Ghost Moth’s wings had finally dried enough for it to fly again. It flew out of Valentino’s coat where it sought refuge from the rain after he destroyed its home in the bark of the eucalyptus tree. That startled the men.
Valentino and Payton were killed instantly by a big rig on the Pacific Coast Highway.
The Ghost Moth, like the Ghost Eucalyptus, was not native to California. Its eggs came to the Hollywood Riviera from Queensland in the pages of a vintage collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s works.
“Merry Christmas,” one officer nodded to the other as they cordoned off the crash site and took pictures of the portion of the skeleton exposed when the concrete pillar cracked.
Curbside was in custody, but it would be New Year’s before they retrieved Silvia’s purse containing the handwritten copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s “ANNABEL LEE.”
Ray Cozy and Agent Shephard were drinking coffee in the empty pancake house. Shephard looked at photos of the curled poem Cozy found.
“Those dead boys out there on the highway didn’t kill these girls,” Shephard enlarged the photo on his phone of the hearts wrapped around the tree.
“There’s some kind of harmonious coincidence of killers happening tonight,” Ray Cozy agreed.
“Curbside didn’t kill these girls. A bitch probably saved Dolores by removing her from the scene.” Agent Shephard shook his head.
“I think Dolores could use some more savings. I’d like to hear the punter call. Does the guy happen to have a creepy voice?” Ray suspected that the killer had purposefully used the FBI.
Professor Peyote admired Silvia’s VIP card from Annabelle’s disco, then carefully replaced the precious trophy with the other rhinestone earring he hadn’t given to Ray Cozy. Van Tilburg fell asleep in his train compartment and planned his return to the Hollywood Riviera to retrieve his beloved Dolores. IS