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Setting the scene

Claire Gray, a renowned director, has recently arrived in the Palm Springs area of California to head the theater department of a newly built arts college. A week before classes are to open, however, she and a fellow faculty member, sculptor Paul Huron, discover the lifeless body of his wife, Jodie, the apparent victim of a home invasion. Recalling that Jodie had gushed about having some car repairs done by a “marvelous mechanic,” Claire has begun to wonder exactly what sort of services one Tanner Griffin had performed to warrant such praise. With his business card in hand, Claire drives to the body shop early one morning to do a bit of investigating.

Excerpt from the text of Desert Autumn

        I had been expecting some run-down garage with a gravel parking lot, where the rusty remains of stripped and abandoned cars could momentarily snag the passing tumbleweeds. To my chagrin, the establishment was slick, tidy, and inviting—at least to the extent that a body shop could be called “inviting.” It was obvious that, decades earlier, the place had been a gas station. A stylish renovation now alluded to the property’s automotive past while luring a new clientele with neat landscaping, tasteful graphics, and eye-catching accents of chrome and neon. Taken as a whole, the enterprise conveyed an image of precision, cleanliness, and fussy attention to detail. I could well understand why Jodie had been so impressed and effusive. Anyone—myself included—would have nary a qualm about handing over their keys to Desert Detail.
        As I crossed the intersection and pulled into the driveway, I saw that the shop was just opening for the day. An immaculate black Jeep (the smaller, open, military-looking variety) was parked near the closed front door, where two rolled newspapers leaned at the jamb. On the door of the Jeep, in pristine gold letters, was the same Desert Detail logo that appeared on the business card. The Jeep’s driver had entered the building through one of the garage doors, which gaped open, and I noticed lights blinking on indoors as the proprietor made his way through the shop toward the front office.
        Getting out of the Beetle, I crossed the small parking lot toward the building. Through the glare of the windows, I saw a figure in the office raising window shades, switching on signs, but he made no move to unlock the front door, where the unread newspapers still waited. Since he had entered through the garage, it wasn’t clear to me if the office door was meant to be used, so I poked my head into the garage and gave a yoo-hoo.
        Hearing no response, I stepped a few paces inside, calling, “Anybody home?”
        “Can I help you?”
        I turned toward the voice—which sounded rich, resonant, and slightly amused—and saw a young man backlit by the morning sun outside the garage. He held the two rolled newspapers under one arm, a sizable ring of keys in his hand. “I was opening the shop,” he explained, “and thought I heard someone. Then I saw the Beetle.” He jerked his head over his shoulder toward my car. “Cute.”
         “That’s an understatement,” I mumbled as I stepped out of the shadows and got a good look at him.
        “Beg pardon?” he asked, turning to me with a smile that made my knees weak.
        “Nothing,” I tried to answer, but choked on the word, covering my muddlement with a cough.
        “They were great cars, with lots of character,” he was saying, his voice clear and pleasant, almost musical, though wonderfully masculine, “but I like the new ones even better.”
        For all I knew, he could have been reciting the phone book or reading recipes. Hell, I wasn’t listening. I was looking at him, studying him, still agog.
        Now and then, someone comes along who personifies beauty or vulnerability or animal magnetism or a charming personality, but rarely, if ever, does someone have all those qualities rolled into one squeaky-clean, health-conscious, man-size package. More rarely still, if ever, does such a person answer your yoo-hoo, compliment your car, and pause to engage you in conversation. If this was Jodie’s leering grease monkey, then her winking, swooning allusion to a “marvelous mechanic” had been fully justified, though her description didn’t begin to paint a sufficient picture of the man.
        He was in his midtwenties, not a kid, but his face, indeed his whole bearing, had not yet lost its boyish appeal, its illusion of fresh innocence. He was of medium height with a solid build—not intimidating or brutish, just pleasingly muscled. His body was displayed to great advantage that morning in loose-fitting, olive-drab cargo shorts and a tight, spotless white T-shirt. His tan work boots coordinated perfectly with his thick, sand-colored hair—was he vain enough, or clever enough, to have chosen his utilitarian footwear for that reason?
        “. . . but it looks brand new,” he was saying. “It doesn’t seem to be in need of any repairs. So how can I help you?” Again that smile—full lips, perfect teeth, strong chin.
        “Well,” I began to explain, “I’ve just recently moved to the desert, and I understand that many drivers here get their car windows—”
        “My God,” he interrupted, “you’re Claire Gray.” The smile. “Aren’t you?”
        I was so flustered—and flattered—by this unexpected recognition, I had to think which way to respond. “Yes,” I said, sounding idiotically uncertain, “I am.”
        “Wow, I can’t believe it!” Pocketing his keys, he let the newspapers fall to the ground, then clapped imagined grime from his palms, extending one hand. “What an honor, Miss Gray. And what a surprise—to find you standing here.”
        With a weak laugh, I shook his meaty hand, telling him, “I was thinking much the same thing.”
        “I’d heard you were joining the faculty at the new college, and I wondered if I’d ever run into you.”
        Flipping my hands, I announced the obvious: “And here I am.”
        “And here you are,” he repeated, grinning. His tone grew serious when he added, “I’ve admired your work for years. You’re simply the best. The college—the whole community—is lucky to have you here.”
        While all this adulation was gratifying (I could think of far worse ways to start a Monday morning), it was also a bit weird. Even back in Manhattan, where I’d lived for decades and established my career, my claim to fame, I was never once recognized by a stranger on the street. After all, my role in the theatrical world was behind the scenes, and though I’d been interviewed in print many times over the years, neither my face nor my name was known much beyond Broadway. Now here I stood, three thousand miles away, in the parking lot of a body shop in the middle of the desert, with a hot young fantasy hunk (I was old enough to be his mother) gushing over me as if he were starstruck. What was I missing?
        I thanked him for his kind words, then asked, “Uh, have we perhaps met?”
        He shook his head. “Never. Well, now we have.” He offered his hand again. “My name’s Tanner Griffin.”
        “I thought so.” Gladly, I indulged in his redundant handshake.
        It was now he who seemed perplexed. “Have we met?”
        “No”—I laughed—“someone gave me your card. Desert Detail comes highly recommended.” From the lilt of my voice, anyone would have gotten the ridiculous impression that I was flirting. With a casual primp, I asked, “You’re the owner?”
        “Not exactly. Not yet. I’m sort of a junior partner—with plenty of sweat equity. The real owner is quite a bit older. He retired from another job in the Midwest a few years ago, then moved out here and had this notion to start a body shop. That was about the time I finished college; I’d just moved here from LA and was looking for work. We got to know each other, he hired me, and I set up the business, hired the crew, made it happen. I’m basically in charge.” He laughed. “Which simply means that I’m first to arrive in the morning.”
        “And last to leave at night?”
        “Yeah, most of the time.” Picking up the papers he’d dropped, he said, “Come on inside. It’s cooler in the office. Let’s talk about that Beetle.”
        Following him (Lord, what a sight, just watching him walk), I wondered aloud, “When you were in college, is this what you thought you’d end up doing?” He turned quizzically, and I added at once, “Don’t get me wrong—you’ve got a great deal to be proud of here. What I meant was, did you always have a dream to start up a business?”
        We stepped inside the office, and he sat on a stool, placing the papers on the counter, resting his arm there. His orotund voice was colored with wistfulness as he told me, “No, Miss Gray, though I was a business major in college, it was never my dream to found a body-shop empire. My dream”—the pause, the smile—“was to act.”
        I beaded him with a sly stare. “Now why doesn’t this surprise me?”
        “It doesn’t?”
        I laughed. “God, Tanner—your voice, your presence. What’s the story? Waiting to be discovered?”
        “I don’t think so.” He shook his head, chuckling.
        Then I remembered that he’d been a business major. Sitting on the stool next to his, I said, “Pardon an old snoop, but if acting was your dream, why didn’t you pursue it?”
        He gently raised a hand in admonishment. “First, you are not old.”
        “Tanner, you’re as gracious as you are handsome.” Again, anyone would have reached the preposterous conclusion that I was flirting.
        “Second, you may be snooping, but considering the nature of your query, I’m flattered that you’d ask. Why didn’t I pursue acting? In a word: parents.”
        “Aha.” During the year I’d spent teaching at Evans College, to say nothing of the four years I’d studied there, I’d rarely met parents of a theater major who were totally comfortable with the career being pursued by their progeny—my mother certainly wasn’t. Objections ranged from “too iffy” for the girls to “too effeminate” for the boys. Granted, theater is a chancy vocation at best, so it’s difficult to blame parents for being wary of dreams spun by children who simply don’t have the maturity to distinguish between the curtain-call rewards of a high-school drama guild and the probable disappointments of a dead-ended career. Still, some of us do weather the transition, beat the odds, and know the supreme privilege of truly loving our work. I asked Tanner, “They threatened to cut you off?”
        “At the knees. I wanted to study theater in college, but they wouldn’t hear of it. ‘It’s a wonderful hobby,’ they told me, ‘but we’re not spending tens of thousands of dollars just so you can wait tables for the rest of your life’—or words to that effect.”
        I nodded. I’d heard it all before.
        “So I majored in business. They called that ‘sensible.’ I called it ‘job training,’ a wasted education. So after I graduated, I moved out here—the classic quest to find myself. Took a few odd jobs, menial stuff. I’ve always sort of enjoyed real labor. It’s kept me in shape.”
        “Yes,” I observed dryly, “it has.”
        “Then Desert Detail happened. Things just fell together for me. I’m happy with it—reasonably.”
        “There’s no need to convince me, Tanner.”
        With a soft laugh, he agreed, “Sometimes I need to convince myself that I haven’t wasted a gift.”
        “You’re good then?” My tone was businesslike and matter-of-fact. I was asking for an objective assessment of his acting skills.
        He understood—no bullshit. “People said I was good—not just friends, but directors in both high school and college. I usually played leading roles, even in college, and that’s really something, since I wasn’t a theater major. I heard that the good roles almost always went to majors so they could build their résumés.”
        I affirmed, “That’s how it works. You must be good.”
        “Well, let’s just say that I was. Haven’t done much lately.”
        “No opportunities here?”
        “A few. But it’s just that . . . well, I’ve never studied theater. My acting has been essentially intuitive. There’s a lot I don’t know.”
        Before I could weigh the implications of what I was saying, I heard the words slip out of me: “Have you ever considered going back to school?”
        He paused before answering, “Yes, I’ve often thought of it.”
        A long silence followed, as neither of us felt prepared to discuss the next step. The topic of his returning to school had seemingly bubbled up out of nowhere, backing us into an awkward corner.

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