Beach House No 9 - By Christie Ridgway

THE SALT AIR, Jane Pearson realized, was hampering the success of her impending mission. First, it made her normally normal hair fuzzy. Not such a big deal, she supposed as she picked her way downhill, taking the narrow track of crushed shells that led from the coastal road to the picturesque cottages of Crescent Cove, but it was also wilting the white linen dress she wore.

At home, the garment had seemed perfect I-mean-business wear for a June late afternoon. It had short cap sleeves and a collar she'd buttoned tight to the neck, but the swing hemline no longer moved crisply about her knees, instead clinging damply to her thighs. By the time she reached Beach House No. 9, she feared she wouldn't appear the no-nonsense professional. Kleenex ghost might be a better comparison, the kind that kids made at Halloween - this one spritzed with water and topped with frizzy blondish tendrils.

No matter, she thought. Her determination remained firm. Despite the state of her attire, she wouldn't soften when facing the man she was here to confront. Griffin Lowell had been ignoring her calls - all eleven of them! - and she wasn't willing to wait any longer for a response. According to his literary agent, the writer was way behind on his memoir. Jane had been hired to cure his critical case of deadline denial and then help shape the pages she prodded him to produce. It was time to get started.

He needed her.

You need him too, Jane, a little voice in her head added.

She ignored the unwelcome reminder and focused instead on her surroundings. Crescent Cove wasn't a hardship to visit. It was actually an amazing find in this Southern California county notable for the recently built, oh-so-alike housing developments and shopping malls that sprouted like beige-stuccoed fungi along the Pacific Coast Highway. About those red terra-cotta tile roofs...didn't anyone realize that too much of a good thing made a bad thing?

By contrast, this beach colony was straight from another time. The fifty or so unconventional bungalows and colorful cottages were prime examples of beach vernacular architectural design - she'd read that - and snuggled the bluffs along a two-mile stretch of sand. Each appeared as cheery and appealing as the bougainvillea that grew like weeds around them in colors ranging from pale salmon to the brightest scarlet. The prevailing sound at the cove was the rhythmic shush of the waves, as the growl of tires on the highway above was screened by a stand of tall eucalyptus. Their medicinal tang mingled with the scents of seaweed, sand and ocean.

A black Labrador in a tie-dyed kerchief ambled toward her, and she smiled at him. Jane loved dogs, though she'd never actually owned one. Growing up, her famed scientist of a father had claimed that pets would distract children from the rigor of their studies. And these days, her hours were too unpredictable to allow for a pet.

"Hello," she called out to the canine, wiggling her fingers in his direction. His moseying pace didn't check, however, and he turned down an alley that snaked between two rows of houses. Well. Just another male wrapped up in his own pursuits.

Continuing forward, she approached No. 9 from the rear, where more crushed shells led to a double garage, its door painted a seafoam-green. A handful of beach cruiser bicycles leaned against the dark brown shingled siding. Six cars were parked nearby, half of them luxury sedans, half in dubious running condition, all with two or more surfboards strapped on top, bright-striped beach towels sandwiched between them.

Did Griffin Lowell have houseguests? The thought made Jane pause while she was still fifty feet from the back door. Surely not. His agent had told her the man in question had gone completely hermit, ignoring phone calls, texts and emails - even from friends and family. Jane knew all too well how effectively he'd snubbed her.

"Before he went incommunicado, I spoke to him about getting some assistance with the book," Frank, the agent, had said. "He agreed. So light a firecracker under him, will you, Jane?"

Of course she would. She was excellent at her job, and after the disaster of her last assignment, it was imperative she prove that again.

Her short-heeled pumps had slender ankle straps and cutouts like eyelets scattered across the toe cap. She watched them carefully as she navigated another fifteen feet on the unsteady shell surface before pausing a second time. Taking in some deep breaths, she tried smoothing