A Favor

“Johnny? Hi, Johnny,” Kristen called.

The naked man assembling his hang glider near the edge of the cliff stood up and turned around. A smile spread over his face when he saw Kristen approaching across the beach parking lot. She was wearing a crisp white blouse and dark blue shorts that showed off her long tanned legs. On her feet were dark blue canvas deck shoes with white laces and white trim. On her face was a big bright smile that made something inside Johnny Bee ache. “Hi, Kristen,” he said. “How are you today?”

“Fine, I think,” Kristen answered, a little skeptically. “Do I look alright?” She spun around to give him a chance to look at her.

Johnny laughed. “You look terrific,” he said. “You always look great. I think you’d look good even in dirty dungarees.”

Kristen rolled her eyes, laughed, and looked down at herself dubiously. “Thanks for the compliment, but I’m serious,” she said. “I was wondering if there was something wrong with me,” she said. “I was getting a lot of strange looks from people as I walked across the parking lot.” She cast a quick glance back over her shoulder. “I thought maybe the back was ripped out of my shorts or maybe my hair looked goofy or something.” She turned slowly to give Johnny another chance to inspect her appearance. “See anything?” she asked.

“Nothing wrong. You look fine,” Johnny replied.

Kristen looked puzzled, then shrugged. “I guess it’s just my imagination,” she said. “Oh!—I almost forgot,” she added. “I brought your book back.”

Johnny’s face fell as he reached out to take the book. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you would like it. It’s pretty technical, I suppose, but…”

“Oh, I did like it,” Kristen said. “I finished it last night. There were a few things I didn’t understand, but I took some notes. They’ve got a couple books on hang gliding at the library, and I’ve got them reserved. I figure I can read those books, too, and then maybe ask you a few questions—I mean, if that’s okay with you…”

“You—you read the whole book already?” Johnny said, incredulously. He hefted the book in his hand, and smiled. “I don’t remember how long it took me to read this. You’re welcome to ask me questions anytime you want. We might be going about this all wrong, though. Maybe you should be teaching me.”

Kristen laughed. “Not until next week, at the earliest,” she said. “Thanks for letting me borrow the book.”

“My very great pleasure,” Johnny replied. He could feel the warmth from her hand still on the spine of the book.

Kristen turned to walk away, then stopped. “Say, Johnny, do you know anything about that spooky black van? The old rusted-out one parked near the head of the trail?”

“No, ’fraid not,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “Why? What’s spooky about it?”

“Spooky—sounds stupid, doesn’t it?” Kristen said, with an embarrassed laugh. “That van’s here about half the time when I come in to work. I’ve asked around, and nobody knows who it belongs to. Nobody’s seen anyone getting out of the van or getting into it, either.”

“Probably somebody who comes early and leaves late. An awful lot of people coming and going here, you know,” Johnny said.

“There’s somebody inside,” Kristen said. “The windows are all tinted, but there’s somebody behind the wheel, watching. I know that because several times I’ve had to walk right past the van. Whenever I get close, the engine starts and it drives off in a big hurry. The first time, it almost ran me down—me and several other people.”

“Yikes,” Johnny said. “Have you said anything to the guys from the beach patrol?”

Kristen shook her head. “No, I didn’t want to bother them,” she said. “They always have more important things to do. I’m really more curious than worried.”

“Say, you know who might be able to help?” Johnny said. “The guy with all the cameras. Aw, heck—I can’t think of his name—I’m sure you’ve seen him, though. Everybody calls him Skinnydipper.”

“Sandy hair and aviator glasses? I—I’ve met him.” Kristen said ruefully.

“That’s him. He’s a good man to know,” Johnny said, smiling. “He’s got a lot of connections, naturally. I’ll bet he could get that license number traced and at least find out who owns the van.”

“You think he could?” Kristen asked. She looked at the van squatting malevolently near the redwood staircase that started the trail down to the beach. “I’m probably overreacting, but—but maybe that would be a good idea,” she said. “I’ll try to get the license number. The photographer, uh, Skinnydipper—I think he’s trying to avoid me. I wish there was some way to contact him.”

“I’m sure you could just call him at the—hey, speak of the devil! Look who just drove in!” Johnny said. He pointed to a car that had just rolled to a stop halfway across the parking lot.

Kristen saw a man get out of the car, then pull a camera bag out of the car and sling it over his shoulder. He pulled out a camera with a long lens and seemed to be giving it a close inspection. “That’s him,” Kristen said, uneasily. “I—I guess I’d better go catch up with him.” She cast a quick glance at Johnny Bee’s partially assembled hang glider. “I’ll let you get back to work. Thanks again, Johnny.”

A warm smile spread across Johnny’s face. He nodded, and touched a finger to his forehead in a kind of salute as Kristen walked away. Instead of returning immediately to the task of assembling the hang glider, he looked down at the book she had handed him, and flipped through the pages. His smile grew wider. He looked up to watch her walking across the parking lot.

Now he noticed it, too. As Kristen walked by, heads popped up from open car doors where people were unloading things for their day at the beach. Men and women walking across the parking lot stopped in their tracks, or turned to watch Kristen pass. Johnny chuckled and shook his head in puzzlement. With a shrug, he turned back to his hang glider.

Kristen noticed the stares, too, and tried her best to ignore them. She had always attracted her share of attention—perhaps she was just overly conscious of it this morning. At least she still had clothes on. She focused instead on the photographer, who was still fussing with his camera. She wanted to catch up with him before he left his car, but she didn’t want to call even more attention to herself by yelling at the man or running across the parking lot. She quickened her pace.

Kristen saw the passenger-side door of the photographer’s car swing open. A shapely blonde woman stepped out, hesitantly. She was wearing a red top and white shorts. She looked around the parking lot with quick, nervous movements of her head. Then she vehemently shook her head, said something to the photographer, and moved as if to get back into the car. The man walked quickly around the front of the car. He and the woman seemed to be arguing about something.

Kristen was close enough now that she could hear some of what was said.

“I beat you fair and square,” the man said.

“I know,” the woman replied. “But ‘outdoors’ doesn’t mean ‘in public’. There must be several hundred people here!”

“They’re nice people,” the man said.

“There are plenty of secluded little groves of trees around here,” the woman said. “I thought we would do it somewhere like that.”

“No, no, no,” the man said, shaking his head. “It was you who made the condition that we had to do it some place where there wasn’t any risk of getting arrested, remember? It was a big deal that everyone had to witness my promise that I wouldn’t get you in trouble with the law. So, this is the place. On this beach, you won’t get arrested for being naked. In fact, you can get arrested if you’re not naked.”

Kristen was close to the car now, and she hesitated. She didn’t want to intrude upon a personal argument between these two people. Still, there was a playful tone in their voices. Slowly, she walked closer to the car.

“So, if I don’t take my clothes off, I’ll get arrested, and you will have broken the promise you made in front of all those witnesses,” the woman said. “Seems to me you’re in a very tough spot, Skinny.” The woman laughed, and her cheeks glowed a bright red. A grin spread across the photographer’s face.

Emboldened by the woman’s laughter, Kristen stepped forward. “Ma’am, you have to be very careful around this fellow,” she said, trying hard to keep a very serious look on her face. “He traumatized me for life.”

The woman gave Kristen a look of puzzlement, then smiled. “Oh, he specializes in that,” she said, with a quick glance at her companion.

The smile had vanished from the photographer’s face. “Listen, Kristen,” he said. “I owe you an apology. It wasn’t my…”

“Thanks to him,” Kristen continued, with a comically exaggerated expression of mock anguish, “I’ll never be able to eat a hot fudge sundae as long as I live!” She buried her face in her hands.

“Wait a second—the ice cream sundae?” the photographer said. “I thought you…”

Kristen lowered her hands and looked up with a big smile on her face. “You don’t owe me an apology,” she said. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. I bumped into you, remember? And then I was really rude to you, which wasn’t fair at all. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Sure, sure,” the photographer said, with a baffled look on his face. “But—but I don’t understand—I thought you would want to wring my neck today.”

“Ian, I should have realized you’d know all the ladies here,” the woman said, laughing and shaking her head.

The man smiled uneasily. “I guess I’m just the gregarious type,” he said. “Ruth, this is Kristen. She’s one of the lifeguards here. And Kristen, this is Ruth Banks. She’s a friend from a club that I visit sometimes.”

“Oh, a lifeguard!” Ruth said brightly. “Hey, are there any male lifeguards?”

Kristen nodded, smiling at Ruth’s sudden enthusiasm.

Ruth’s eyes quickly ran up and down Kristen’s body. “I’ll bet a lot of guys pretend to be drowning just so you’ll have to jump in and rescue them, am I right?”

Kristen laughed. “Nobody’s tried that yet,” she said, “but there are a few guys who keep dreaming up new ways to get some attention.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever been to a place like this,” Ruth said, with a nervous laugh. “Last night at the club I lost to Skinny in a trivia game. I—I guess you could say he beat the pants off me. So, tell me—can I keep my clothes on for a while, at least until I have a chance to get used to the idea of taking them off?”

Kristen noted a look of mingled excitement and apprehension in the woman’s eyes. She remembered how she had felt on her own first visit to this beach. “Sorry,” she said sympathetically. “It’s not a clothing-optional beach. Once you’re on the beach, the rules say you’re not allowed to have any clothes on at all. Naturally, we realize it takes a while to find a spot and to get settled in. I guess if we were being super strict, we’d make everybody undress up here.”

The photographer brightened up and looked as if he were going to say something, but then he seemed to think better of it. The woman still seemed worried.

“Listen, I know it can be a little frightening the first time,” Kristen said encouragingly. “I had never even thought about going to a nude beach until I was assigned here. I thought I was going to die of shame. But trust me—once you’ve got your clothes off, you’ll start to wonder what all the fuss was about. After you’ve been swimming in the nude, and felt the sun all over your body, you’ll never want to give it up. You just have to be brave enough to try it that first time.” Kristen couldn’t believe she was saying this—it sounded more like one of the other lifeguards.

“I dunno—you might be right,” Ruth said. “I know I’d feel a lot better about this if I didn’t have to pose in front of everyone once I get down there.”

“You don’t have to pose,” the photographer said. “We could just do some candid shots.”

“You—you agreed to let him take photos of you? In the nude?” Kristen asked, blushing.

Ruth smiled and nodded ruefully. “Yes, but it wasn’t my preferred outcome, let me tell you,” she said.

“Well, Skinnydipper comes down here fairly regularly,” Kristen said reassuringly. “The people on the beach have a pretty high opinion of him. And he seems to be a decent photographer.”

The man was visibly surprised. “I sure didn’t expect to hear you say that,” he said.

“I guess I owe you more than one apology,” Kristen said. “You must have thought I was a total jerk the day you met me. You were right about the beach being a public place. I really went off the deep end when I told you that you couldn’t take pictures down there. It’s embarrassing to remember it. So, I—I want to apologize.”

“I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop,” the man said. “I keep thinking you’re going to grab my camera and smash it over my head, or rake your fingernails across my face, or something.”

Kristen laughed. “Oh, do you get a lot of that?” she said.

“No, but I…” the photographer said.

“Well, maybe this is the other shoe,” Kristen said sheepishly. “I came to ask a favor. See that black van over there? It comes here a lot, but nobody knows who it belongs to. Nobody’s seen anyone get out. Whenever I get close, the engine starts and it races off.”

“Okay,” the photographer said warily. “So, what do you want me to do?”

“Johnny Bee said you might be able to find out who owns it, if I could get the license plate number,” Kristen said.

The photographer stared intently at the van. He frowned, and without saying a word, he raised his camera to his eye. Slowly he swept the camera across the parking lot, turning a ring on the long lens as he did so. Kristen watched, puzzled. When he had the camera pointed toward the van, he seemed to hunch his shoulders a little. He clicked the shutter and lowered the camera.

“I can’t make any promises, but I’ll see what I can do,” he said. He turned his head, but his eyes stayed fixed on the black van.

“O—okay, thanks,” Kristen said uneasily. The photographer seemed to be taking this very seriously indeed. “I’ll get the license number,” she said, as she turned to walk away.

“Be careful,” the photographer said gravely. Kristen nodded and walked toward the beach steps and the black van.

“Well, she seems nice enough,” Ruth said softly. “Oh! I didn’t even recognize her, Ian. She’s the girl from the picture!”

The photographer smiled and nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “Can you believe it? She wouldn’t let me apologize. She apologized to me. She certainly is a remarkable person.”

“Maybe so,” Ruth said. “Or maybe she just hasn’t seen the newspaper yet.”