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by David R. Addleman
Description: Diane Atkins has had a crush on Buddy Talbert since she was fourteen and watched him set a national record when he won the 100-meter backstroke at the Indianapolis Nationals. So why doesn't she recognise him just a few months after finally meeting in person at one of her swim meets? Buddy had been quite attracted to the graceful nineteen year old, and her enthusiasm for the upcoming Regionals where she is to swim gives him the perfect excuse to seek her out again. So imagine his surprise when Diane misses her own event! Diane's best friend Sue informs Buddy that Diane had gone missing for a few weeks and when she came back she was cold to her friends and family, and acted like she didn't even know her own coach! Buddy' concern increases when he runs into Diane on the street and she doesn't know who he is! Not only that, the beautiful grace that he so admired when he watched her move at the University has been replaced by an odd physical awkwardness. The mystery deepens as they find Diane is not the only one acting strangely. Diane's new housemate Jerome Whitely, also disappeared for a few weeks only to return and not know his friends and suddenly started acting cold to his previously close family. Buddy and Sue discover both swimmers had recently stayed at "The Retreat" in Palm Desert right before their sudden personality change. It is time to investigate, although Buddy is now becoming increasingly interested in Sue, swimmers stick together and they want to know what happened to their friends, and who knows, it might just be the break he needs at his newspaper where he is a VERY lowly reporter. They are right, "The Retreat" and what happens inside its heavily guarded compound is the biggest break any reporter could hope for, but will Buddy live long enough to get out and let the world know? A competitive masters swimmer, Mr. Addleman makes full use his swimming background in this novel. "Skin Game" is a mystery/thriller, but never it also wanders too far from the water.
eBook Publisher: Writers Exchange E-Publishing, 2011
eBookwise Release Date: December 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [403 KB]
Reading time: 247-345 min.
Buddy felt strange coming back to West Lynn University six years after he'd graduated. So much of it had not changed that he felt a peculiar deja vu. The mix of eucalyptus and magnolia trees still lined the long circular drive. The broad lawns fronting the old buildings were still neatly mowed--he wondered if old Mr. Carson still drove the tractor with the array of mowers behind. The lawns on the left glistened in the sunshine as lazy sprinkler arms swung monotonously, spraying fine rainbow mists while emitting bird-like chirps. It was eight am and students marched along the crisscrossing sidewalks like dutiful ants heading to their hills-of-higher-learning.
He drove past the administration building, the humanities building, the gymnasium, the stadium, and turned onto the asphalt beside the natatorium. He maneuvered his Honda Accord down rows of closely packed cars and pickups to squeeze in between an oversized Ford SUV and a Dodge minivan.
As he got out and stood up to stretch, he saw the new dorms over behind the stadium. Two six-story glass and chrome structures hovered over the campus looking misplaced among the English-Tudor architecture of the older buildings. He'd lived in a dorm himself, six years ago, but that had been an old, decrepit three-story building built after World War II to house the influx of returning veterans.
He saw half a dozen smaller, newer buildings. For a moment he wondered if the professors had moved in on the school. Then, spying three oversized letters on the front of one house, he realized that the Greeks had moved in. In his time, only two fraternity houses competed for the best and brightest. Now there seemed to be enough to pledge everyone. The thought brought a smile. Was this the result of some new politically-correct egalitarian system?
He reached back inside the car and lifted out his blue blazer, tossing the hanger onto the back seat. If he was going to waltz into an ongoing swim meet, he wasn't about to dress like any other student. What a hypocrite, he thought. Most of the time he'd been in school here, he'd worn a variety of sweatshirts to go with his jeans. He glanced down at his shiny loafers. Quite a contrast to scuffed up mocs or sandals.
He squared his shoulders and marched into the natatorium--he'd always liked the pompous use of the Latin name for "building with swimming pool inside".
The interior was a stadium surrounding two pools. One, 50 meters long by 25 yards wide, was used for the actual racing events. The deeper second pool, 25 yards by 25 yards, was configured for diving competition. The far end of the diving tank had two 1-meter springboards in one corner and two 3-meter springboards in the other. Between these twin boards were the diving platforms staggered at heights of 1, 3, 10, and 33 meters above the water. During swim meets, the diving tank became the warm-up pool. After their races, the swimmers would reenter the diving tank to warm down before toweling off. Doctors, it was said, recommended the warm down to prevent lactose buildup in swimming muscles.
About halfway along the main pool he was stopped by two girls in matching blue and white, skin-tight suits. There were nudging each other, as if to encourage some action.
"Hi," the taller one said. "I'm Diane Atkins. This is Sue Clemenson."
"Robert Talbert--but most people call me Buddy."
"We know who you are," Diane said. She looked like a swimmer; close-cropped hair, well-muscled, smooth-skinned, and standing as erect as a fashion model. "Did you come to see our dual meet?"
Yeah, right. Like he suddenly wasn't so burned out on swimming that he'd forgotten his oath to stay away from anything resembling competition until he was at least forty. "That's what I do." Pausing for effect, he added, "I hunger to watch all the swimmers who are faster than I ever was, winning races and climbing out of the pool not even breathing hard." He grinned to show he was kidding and reached across to shake their hands. "What are your events?"
"Mine's the same as yours," Diane said. That surprised him, since he'd been out of the water four years and he doubted more than a handful of people remembered who he was, let alone which events he'd swum.
"I'm a flyer," Sue said. She struck him as slightly uncomfortable, as though she'd rather be elsewhere. At the very least, she didn't seem at all impressed with him. Too bad, she was lovely. Not as ravishing as Diane, but a girl any man would be proud to date. If she wanted to run off and leave him and Diane alone, he supposed he could endure her rejection.
"I'm a has-been who got talked into helping time a few races."
Diane broke into a wide grin. "Sorry, that 'has-been' stuff won't float here. When I was 14, I watched you win the 100-meter backstroke at the Indianapolis Nationals."
Sue perked up. "You must be the 'Mystery Celebrity' timer."
He threw up my hands. "Guilty. They wanted to be sure I'd be thoroughly humiliated by all the fast times in the meet."
Diane made a face. "That day in Indianapolis you set a national record."
Buddy pulled a sour look. "Can you guess what a four-year-old record is worth? Mine lasted exactly 1 month and 3 days before being smashed by a 17-year old who didn't peak for another year. But I'm flattered you remember. You caught my all-time personal best. Never swam that fast again. Maybe because the Indianapolis pool is the fastest in the states."
"Don't forget the Federal Way pool outside Seattle," Sue chimed in. "It's even faster."
"Maybe," he said. "If you two qualify here, you'll get a chance to find out. Aren't NCAA regionals in Seattle this year?"
They looked at each other and laughed. "That's why we have to win," Diane said. She glanced up at the clock. "Better go stretch out. See you later."
"Bye," Sue added.
"Good luck," he said. As they walked back to where the West Lynn team was sitting, he marveled at Diane's coordination. Most females prefer being seen in heels, and for good reason. The heel-up posture slims the calves and lends an elegance that nature doesn't always provide. Diane's hard-bodied grace didn't need artifice. They both walked with the elegance of smoothly running machinery. A runway model wouldn't walk with more coordination, not if she were barefoot on concrete. Sue was no slouch, but Diane was unforgettable.
Neither swam in the lane he timed, but he got a good look at them during their events. Diane won both the 100 and 200 backstroke events, setting two meet records while qualifying for the finals. Her times were close enough to his own best times to be embarrassing. He swallowed and dredged up a smile so no one could guess his thoughts. Each year's crop of swimmers got faster. At 27, he was definitely over the hill.
Buddy stayed for most of the meet and caught himself enjoying the atmosphere. He'd forgotten how good the old camaraderie felt, and how contagious a team's enthusiasm could be. He drove the 320 miles back to Seattle feeling his age and thinking about those years of exhaustive two-a-day workouts. Looking back, they seemed almost golden, but, at the time, his training schedule had left no time for a social life and he'd ended by seriously resenting swimming. When it was over, he'd walked away from pool life without looking back.
Buddy lived in Seattle, where his job as a tyro reporter on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put him at the low end of the pecking order. Consequently, he had been assigned to interview the people whose stories were used as human-interest filler in the paper. These people rated a brief paragraph or two, but weren't important enough to rate an accompanying photograph. Boring stuff, by and large. He found himself day-dreaming as he traveled between interviews. His thoughts returned often to the swim meet at West Lynn University and the two girls he'd met. Especially one of them. Especially Diane Atkins. Finally, when he realized how often he was thinking of her, he decided to act.
Seattle happened to be the home of the University of Washington, and the U of W swim coach happened to be a former teammate. Buddy called him and finagled an invitation to the NCAA regionals in Federal Way Aquatics Center, built for the Goodwill Games. If he was going to be thinking about Diane so much, he may as well see her again.
On the day of the meet, he drove to Federal Way. He'd made a point of wearing whites and deck shoes, so that when he entered the pool he looked like any other official. He walked directly to the sign-in table and bought a heat-sheet, which listed all the competitors, their events, colleges, and ages.
He studied the heat-sheet, looking for Diane's races, but couldn't find her name. She should have been entered in at least two backstroke events, and maybe a relay or two. Sue Clemenson's name was there for the 200 fly.
The West Lynn swimmers were sitting together at one corner of the diving tank. He walked over and spotted Sue. Her face looked expectant when she saw him.
"Hi, Sue. Remember me? I timed at your last meet."
She blinked. "Sure I remember you, Buddy. If I'd wanted to forget you, Diane made certain that I wouldn't. For two weeks after that meet she talked about you." Her cheeks colored, as though she regretted saying so much.
His chest felt suddenly light and he wondered if she guessed how much those words meant to him. "How's your fly today?"
Looking pleased by the question, she smiled. "Okay, I hope. I've got a 200 coming up." She paused. "Wasn't fast enough for the 100."
"You impressed me.
Her eyes twinkled. "Thanks."
The horn signaled the start of the 100 freestyle. Six different sections in the stands came alive as those teams yelled and cheered on their own. They might as well cheer now, he thought, since swimmers in the water seldom hear anything. That wouldn't matter to the cheering throng, however, and they'd be yelling like crazy all during each race. He knew the yelling was more for their own benefit. Making it to the Regionals was an honor in itself and any team that got there was determined to make the meet memorable.
The starting beep sounded and the swimmers left the starting blocks, cutting cleanly into the water. Crowd frenzy increased as the three center-lane swimmers swam neck-and-neck. On the final leg, the girl in the center began to inch away from the other two, finishing about a foot ahead of the others. One section of the stands exploded into frenzied clapping and whistling. Finally the noise subsided.
He looked at Sue. "Where's Diane?"
She frowned. "I'm not sure. She dropped out of practice and stayed in her room. Our coach went to the dorm to find out what happened and came back shaking his head. He said she'd acted as if she'd just forgotten all about swimming. He wasn't sure that she'd even recognized him."
Sue looked off into space. "I don't know. It's like something horrible happened to her that made her want to ignore everything she cared about."
"Didn't you ask her?"
Her eyes flicked back to him. "I tried. I'd walk up to her and she'd turn away. I tried phoning, but she wouldn't answer." She paused. "Frankly, I got so pissed with the way she was acting that I quit trying."
"I remember how excited she was about coming to this meet," he said. "The Diane I talked to wouldn't have missed Regionals for anything."
"I agree. We were best friends, before. She turned so cold, treated me like such an outsider, that I decided, 'Fine'."
"You gave up entirely?"
"That's not all," she added. "Diane dropped out of school the same way--just stopped coming to class and never said why or goodbye to anyone. I waited a week and called her mother, who was worried sick. She reported her disappearance to the police.
"About a month later, Diane showed up. Her mother told me that Diane merely said she'd decided to tour California while she had the chance. She gave no excuse for not phoning.
"When her mother phoned me and told me Diane was back, I knew by the sound in her voice that something else was wrong. Diane came to the phone and acted totally nonchalant--almost like she didn't remember me."
"You two seemed inseparable at West Lynn."
"We had been for three years. As far as I knew, we had no secrets from each other." Sue looked ready to cry, so he backed off. After all, she was there to swim and he didn't want to screw up her concentration any more than he had.
Sue won her 200. Afterwards, she warmed down, dried off, and walked over.
"Congratulations," Buddy said, reaching out to shake her hand. Instead, she flew into his arms for a hug. "Thanks," she said into his ear. Even wet, she felt wonderful in his arms. Hmmm.
He stayed for the 100-meter backstroke. The winner, a girl from the University of Oregon, squeaked out a win with a time that was two-tenths off Diane's time of a month earlier.
Buddy sighed and tossed the heat sheet into the trash. Diane would have won going away.
West Lynn University is in a small town in Idaho. The nearest big cities are Spokane, Pullman, and Moscow, Idaho, but there's a good probability that a graduate of West Lynn who wants a business career will show up in Seattle. So, Buddy wasn't totally surprised to see Diane Atkins, recent college dropout, standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pike waiting for the crossing light.
"Diane!" he called.
Her head jerked around to see who was calling. He could swear she shuddered when she saw him. Was he so horrible?
"Yes?" That brusque, single word was like a slap in the face.
"Buddy Talbert," he said, feeling inane. After all, she'd been the one who sought him out with so much enthusiasm at the West Lynn meet.
"Oh...hello." She sounded distant. It was like the head cheerleader speaking to the school nerd. "Nice to see you again." Her eyes flicked around, refusing to engage him. "I'm sorry, but I'm in rather a big hurry."
The light turned. She gave him a wintry smile and joined the throng of pedestrians moving across Sixth Avenue.
Stunned by her obvious rejection, he stood rooted on the corner, watching her walk away. Suddenly, he experienced a tremor as her movements registered. That couldn't be Diane Atkins. No way. It might be her face, it might even be her flawless body, but that wasn't the Diane he knew. Where was the effortless fluidity of her walk, or the smooth precision in her every movement? Could even a schizoid change her coordination so much?
Buddy was sometimes impulsive. His mother had always said it would be his undoing. Her image flashed into his mind and he could see Mom shaking a forefinger at him. But his mom wasn't there. He dashed across on the yellow light, eliciting an outraged honking from one driver who thought he was being inconvenienced. Buddy fought the impulse to slow down and really hold up the driver--he didn't want to lose sight of Diane.
She moved up the sidewalk with her less than graceful gait, almost colliding with several passersby. She glanced back over her shoulder a few times, but didn't appear to see him. She picked up speed, walking briskly in a tired looking staccato that would've shamed the Diane he'd met at West Lynn. She hurried into a parking garage. He knew he would lose her once she drove off. His own car was in the P-I lot, too far away to be useful. He waved frantically for a cab.
A yellow taxi pulled to the curb. Climbing in, he scooted across the back seat to keep an eye on the garage drive.
"Where to?" The driver started the meter and looked back. He was middle-aged, fleshy in the face, sporting an enormous mustache.
Buddy braced for a negative reaction. "Can we sit here for a minute? I want you to follow a woman who's about to drive out of that garage."
His mustache twitched as he studied Buddy. "Are you into something weird?"
Taking out his billfold, Buddy held up his press pass. "Does this help?"
The driver looked closely at the pass, apparently confirming that the picture matched Buddy. He shrugged. "Okay, the meter's running. Tell me when."
Three cars entered the garage and two others left. He was beginning to fear that she'd cut through the garage as a ploy, that she might've exited to another street. Then he saw her drive out. "That's her, in the blue Seville."
The driver grunted. "At least you've got class." He'd spoken just loud enough to be heard. Buddy sank back into the seat and didn't respond.
The cabby knew his business. He followed closely and made the same lights, but stayed in an adjacent lane most of the time. She drove out Madison to Broadmoor and wheeled into a long driveway. Stopping at the curb, the driver asked, "Want to follow her in?" He raised his eyebrows to indicate his low opinion of such a course.
"No. Any way to find out who lives here?" He knew he was pushing it, but 'nothing ventured, nothing gained', as his mom always said.
The question earned him another searching inspection. "Anything for the press," the driver growled. He picked up his radio mike. "Cab 24."
The front speaker crackled. "Go ahead, 24." The female voice was faint and tinny.
"Need a name to go with an address. It's 1225 Clarewood Court."
Crackle. "Hold on."
Buddy's mind raced with possibilities, but nothing made sense. Had Diane's family moved here? Did she have a job here? How could she afford the Seville? Was this where a relative lived? Such questions were futile without further information.
Crackle. "You there, 24?"
The driver picked up the mike and turned. "Get ready to copy." He depressed the mike button. "Go ahead."
Crackle. "Jerome S. Whitely."
"Thanks. Over and out." He hung up the mike and looked back. "Does that help?"
Buddy had written the name down in his reporter's notebook. "I don't know. I'll check it out back at the office." He looked around. This exclusive neighborhood was a long way from his pedestrian digs. "Let's head back to town."
"You got it." The cab swung out from the curb and eased into traffic.