Like Sirius, she shined brightest among the nighttime stars. So why would a such a dark plan germinate in her mind? And how would Zeta come to feel the weight of the whole world bearing down on her summa cum laude shoulders?
“What did I miss, what red flag did I ignore to get in a mess like this?” she’d repeatedly ask herself.
Zeta Conner was the quintessential blue-eyed blond southern California girl. She emanated the epitome of health with her bronze tanned body and maintained an elite level of intellectual and physical fitness.
“I envy your ability to channel your energy and focus,” her best friend Carol complimented.
Zeta laughed and said, “I can’t take credit for it, it’s in my genes.”
Even as a teenager she was a self-starter and outstanding achiever with little time for adolescent nonsense. “The rest of the team has gone back to the locker room, and there’s our Zeta running some more interval sprints,” her track coach commented to his assistant coach. “Oh, what I’d give to have more athletes like her.”
Zeta’s older brother Mark went through a brief teen rebellion period. Briana, her younger sister, an unplanned child, recently reached teenage critical mass and was exploding. Like three-quarters of American Catholics, her mother disobeyed the Pope’s instruction and practiced birth control after having two children. She chose pills and was one of the unlucky 1% for whom the pharmaceutical fails. She did obey the church’s instruction regarding abortion.
Mark and Zeta gave the Conners a very skewed idea of what parenthood could be but Briana provided a rude awakening. First with sleepless nights, then childhood tantrums, constant defiance, and now hardcore teenage rebellion. Mrs. Conner felt terribly guilty when “That lousy pill,” thought would float up into her consciousness. Briana was the family anomaly the Conners were now all struggling to save. Zeta didn’t like the fact that fate had placed her in stark juxtaposition with her black sheep sister.
Zeta attracted all types of guys and most who hit on her sensed her on a primal level, lowered their eyes and quickly shied away. The more reckless and brash crashed and burned when they encountered her agile mind. With her acerbic wit, she’d morph a pickup line like, “Are you religious, because you’re the answer to all my prayers?”, into a boomerang like, “If you’re religious start praying. You look like the perfect sacrifice for our satanic cult.” Mistaking her for a bimbo who’d hook up for the price of a few cold beers or vodka shots, was always a painful mistake.
Zeta wasn’t stuck up or arrogant, but her brain body combination could be intimidating. She admittedly had become slightly sadistic when it came to rebuffing males. So how and why would this straight arrow become poised to kill?
“I can’t believe all the hot guys you run off,” Carol lamented, “I wish you’d just let them hang around for a little bit longer, maybe I could, well you know.”
“If my loser, jerk, player, sponger, creep, or stalker alarm fails to go off, I’ll send one your way. But I don’t want to be responsible for you spending the rest of your life in psychotherapy, so I’m not going to flip you just any ol’ fish,” Zeta joked.
An avowed health nut, Zeta practiced yoga, surfed, was a skilled Muay Thai kick-boxer and held the Mission Bay High School track record in the 440 and 220 dashes. At five feet eight, she possessed the ideal 440 female athletic body type. “She is pure physical poetry in motion,” an excited TV broadcast announcer described her winning the 440 California state championship.
She didn’t understand why some girls she knew liked to get drunk at weekend beer keggers, and puke with the clique bitches from high school. Zeta was that rare teenager who knew who she was and what she wanted out of life. Her great loves were family, surfing, running the 440 and 220, and astronomy. She liked boys but wasn’t by any means boy crazy. And yet, a killing seed would eventually germinate inside her beautiful heart.
Mr. Conner, Mark, and Zeta all shared excellent running genetics. Her father and brother were also track stars in the 440 and 220. They liked to refer to themselves as the 440-220 club. Mrs. Conner was an excellent swimmer in high school winning many medals in the 100-yard freestyle before she completed her BA in nursing.
Mark was now in the military serving his country in the Middle East. Zeta and her parents were enjoying sunny southern California beach town life. They lived in a modest one-story four bedroom two bath house in Pacific Beach. Most Americans would envy this idyllic life. Briana would readily tell anyone, “It really sucks.”
She was into her smartphone, the Kardashians, glamor magazines, what’s trending, latest fashion, the hottest name brands, doing her nails, and dreaming about boys. Living on Cass Street, just several blocks from the landmark Crystal Pier, the family would walk down to watch a sunset or maybe do a little fishing if Bonita tuna were running near the pier. “Fishing is so cruel and gross! This pier smells foul and disgusting,” Briana would protest. Ignoring the sunset and casting a pall over the family outing she’d repeatedly ask, “Can we go home now?”
There were cottages on the pier, and Mr. and Mrs. Conner loved to spend their wedding anniversaries staying overnight in one of the cottages. They loved being lulled to sleep by the sound of crashing waves beneath the pier, dying upon the wooden pilings. “How can you sleep on that cruddy creaking old pier?” Briana taunted. She had a simple three-part life plan. Be a party animal, get a boyfriend, and escape the boring beach town life. She was the poster child for teenage girl angst.
Her idea of a good time was hanging out at the mall with girlfriends trying to get attention from hot guys, and commiserating about how embarrassing and absurd their parents were. She habitually daydreamed about moving to a real city like New York, London, or Paris someday. Posters of these romantic places adorned her bedroom walls.
She’d gone through a Gothic clothes stage during which she also enjoyed assailing any form of exercise, especially running. “I don’t know why everybody wants to run. You should only run if you’re being chased, or there’s a desperate emergency,” she’d pontificate. “I hate running. For Christ’s sake, we’re not hunter-gatherers anymore chasing down game!” she chided the rest of the Conner family. “Destroy your knees, see if I care!”
Other than their last name, Briana currently had little in common with her older sister. She faked interest when Zeta attempted sister talk, to get money that she’d never repay. “I’ll pay it right back,” she’d say with enthusiastic charm and a hug. “Don’t worry about it,” Zeta answered knowing it was a gift.
In high school, Zeta refused to join a couple of her friends who got their adrenalin buzz by shoplifting designer clothes at the Mission Valley Mall. “Come on Zeta, it’s a huge rush,” they pressured. “Getting busted and calling my parents from jail to be bailed out isn’t my idea of a rush,” she countered. Zeta knew how to set boundaries and dropped the two as friends.
Zeta’s parents encouraged character development by example. Her father’s favorite homegrown adage, often repeated for as long as she could remember was, “Mutual respect, we humans need to live by mutual respect.” “A car, every human needs their own car,” Briana would mock in a hushed sarcastic voice.
Zeta had enough surfing championships on her resume’ to turn pro after high school. Instead, she decided to accept a full track athletic scholarship to San Diego State University. With her score of 2200, she majored in astronomy beginning her studies with preparatory course work in physics and astronomy and then completing a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Arts and Sciences. Her eventual goal was to get her Masters in astronomy, and then her Ph.D. “Living out of a suitcase and trying to win contests in surf spots around the world, just isn’t for me. Surfing will be my fun thing,” she announced at a family Sunday dinner.
Her father was a serious amateur astronomer and introduced the curious Zeta to the work of Carl Sagan, S.E.T.I (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), and took Zeta to the San Diego Astronomy Association area star parties where she gazed through skilled members telescopes into the Universe. He also took Mark and Briana, but only Zeta got hooked. She received an 8 inch Celestron telescope for her 10th birthday and learned how to locate stars, nebulas, and galaxies.
Terms like eclipsing binary stars, black hole binaries, cataclysmic variable stars, gamma-ray burst objects, novae and supernovae became as familiar to her as sugar and flour to a baker. The Mount Laguna Observatory, 45 miles east of San Diego, was owned by SDSU, and she looked forward to one day getting an internship there, and eventually a faculty or research position.
“Contact” starring Jodie Foster was Zeta’s favorite movie. She’d have long discussions with her father about the solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy, the trillions of stars, billions of galaxies, and the search for planets and other life in the Universe. Stargazing together on a moonless night she’d say excitedly, “I just know there are all kinds of life forms out there in the billions of other star systems in our galaxy. I just feel it, Dad. I just feel it. And there are billions of other galaxies with their billions of stars!”
In high school, her dating life was limited by a busy schedule, so nothing serious or long term developed. With studies and athletics, she had little idle time to hang out with friends. Surfing with the dawn patrol would remain her recreational love and pure enjoyment. The vagabond travel life of a surfing pro wasn’t on her radar.
Unknown to them, all of Zeta’s boyfriends were like minor league baseball dreamers with zero chance to become a New York Yankee. Benton Barrington III was not a deluded dreamer. Confident, self-assured, devastatingly handsome, and very financially successful, he would meet Zeta shortly after she graduated San Diego State University and began her internship at Mount Laguna Observatory. More than three hundred applicants had applied for the internship that could lead to a permanent position with the Observatory. At age 30 Benton was poised to become the youngest partner in one San Diego’s most prestigious law firms. They had genuine power couple potential.
Zeta’s father taught physics at San Diego Mesa College, and her mother was an intensive care nurse at Scripps Mercy Hospital. Her older brother Mark received an appointment to West Point, graduated fifth in his class, and was now a second lieutenant with the 470th Army Intelligence Brigade deployed to Afghanistan.
The Conner’s family rebel loved to drink on weekends, started using cocaine, then graduated to crack and meth. Her parents had good medical insurance, so she was in and out of rehab as a high school freshman and was failing most of her classes. The family went from an all-American Norman Rockwell painting to an oil of violence and chaos by Peter Paul Rubens.
Briana’s ticket to self-destruction was her boyfriend who from all accounts introduced her to the chain of drugs culminating with heroin-laden syringes. In her eyes, he was cute and gave her the attention she needed like a parched desert hiker craving water. All the attention in the world from Zeta, Mark, or her parents came up short when compared to him. “I just love the way he flips his hair back when he looks at me,” she told Zeta.
He was Briana’s first real boyfriend, and she’d been boy crazy for so long she was like a horny nun stepping outside a cloistered convent. Her mother and father both went to the home of her boyfriend’s parents when the San Diego police telephoned.
When they were younger, Zeta and Briana had been close, and Zeta was grief stricken and feeling guilty that she hadn’t been able to stop her from getting involved with the boy, and from doing the drugs. She’d tried many times, and many ways to help. It would always end with Briana getting pissed and walking away mad. Mark phoned from Afghanistan and told Zeta, “I’m gonna kill that fucking scum bag when I get back home!”
Zeta tried to reason with him with, “I understand Mark, but you can’t allow yourself to take the law into your own hands. You’ll just end up in jail, and we’ll lose you too.” She was hoping he’d cool down by the time he returned to San Diego. “It’s good he can’t get back in time for the memorial service due to increased ISIS kidnappings in Afghanistan,” she told herself.
Her father had also voiced similar desires for wanting to bring about the boyfriend’s fatal demise. Zeta had never heard her father or brother speak with such anger and wanting vigilante revenge. Her mother became quiet and withdrawn. Zeta would consider it a measure of justice if the boyfriend died or became a vegetable. She realized Briana had made terrible choices and engaged in risky drug behavior over and over for the past year. When she went into Briana’s bedroom, she sat down on the bed and broke down crying. She wept for Briana many times during the grieving process, feeling she’d failed to rescue her little sister. The once happy Conner family of Pacific Beach San Diego was now unalterably changed.
Sadistic fate dealt another heartless card. Paramedics took Briana’s boyfriend to intensive care at Scripps Mercy Hospital where Mrs. Conner was a nurse. He recovered from his heroin OD brush with death that put him in a coma for two days. Zeta’s mother found herself having the kind of dark thoughts she’d never thought herself capable. For the two days, she wanted her daughter’s killer to die and go to hell. The only prayers she’d prayed in the past were the popular novenas she learned in Catholic school like novena to Annunciation, novena Divine Mercy, novena to Immaculate Heart, Novena to Sacred Heart of Jesus and others she loved.
When she was eleven, she was confident she would become a nun. Now she craved a powerful voodoo style novena to use on the vermin who destroyed her daughter. Briana had been closer to her mother while Zeta was more the Daddy’s girl. Mrs. Conner had poured far more mothering into Briana than Zeta and Mark combined.
While the boyfriend was in the coma, Mrs. Conner went to her church, lit a candle, knelt, and composed and prayed a new prayer from her heart. “Dear God, you know I’ve never really asked you for anything, ever. I now reverently ask, I beg, that my daughter’s killer stay in the coma or flatline. Please, I am unworthy, so I am pleading in the name of Christ, Holy Mary, and all the saints.”
Then she repeated as many Ave Marias as she could, staying on her knees, for an hour. “Hail Mary, full of grace, Our Lord is with thee, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” She went back the second day and did it again. Guilt overwhelmed her when she recalled the times she’d thought, “That lousy pill.”
“I don’t like the vibe I get from him,” Zeta had told her after Briana introduced her boyfriend. “He seems shifty-eyed and phony. He stares at his shoes, and for god’s sake Bree, he chain smokes cigarettes. I can’t believe you’d date a guy who smokes. Even second-hand smoke makes you sick.” Of course, Zeta didn’t realize Briana had already smoked crack and shot heroine with him.
Briana’s feelings were hurt, and she didn’t want to listen to anything else Zeta had to say. Putting her hands over her ears, she screamed,” I love him! He loves me!”
“Bree, he looks anorexic, and his clothes are almost as filthy as his greasy hair. You deserve better Bree. You’ve got to dump this guy, he’s no good for you.” Briana ran out the front door and over to a girlfriend’s house.
Later that night Briana returned acting contrite and sat on the bed with Zeta. She tried a softer approach. “I know you feel you love him Bree, but we all love and care for you. We’re your family, and we see some things that worry us. I know he’s your first real boyfriend, but there are plenty of testosterone charged guys who are just dying to meet you.” Bree smiled a bit and giggled. They talked for over an hour like sisters do, about different things, but Zeta couldn’t tell if Bree was sincere, or just playing her.
Her father didn’t like the boy either and finally, forbid her to see him after learning about the drug use. Then Briana started sneaking out of her room at night and problems at school escalated. Another failed attempt at rehab signaled the beginning of the end.
Her boyfriend was not allowed in the house, and many nights she wouldn’t come home. She started stealing money from her mother’s purse, and her father’s wallet. Several expensive tools from the garage and some items went missing from the house including jewelry that Briana pawned for drug money. Zeta would never have another chance for a sister to sister, heart to heart talk.
It was at a party hosted by Michelle, a friend of Carol’s in La Jolla that Zeta met Benton. He was introduced to Zeta by Michelle and all the defensive information stored in Zeta’s brain about males fragmented. He looked at her with his penetrating brown eyes and her knees felt strangely weak, and her inner world shuddered. “Zeta, I’d like you to meet a very good friend of mine, Benton Barrington the third.” She managed a friendly smile while sensing the intense chemistry between them. Zeta and Benton greeted each other politely and noticed how their hands lingered in the introductory grasp. Before this moment, he didn’t know what smitten was, and now the feeling overwhelmed him.
Six foot two inch Benton spoke in a relaxed, confident voice, “It’s such a pleasure to meet you Zeta. Michelle’s told me many wonderful things about you. She says you’re a surfer.” Zeta could not feel her feet. She wondered what was happening. Maybe she was coming down with a virus. Her central nervous system tingled with new foreign feelings. She felt slightly light headed but steadied herself as she studied his dark hair. “Hmm, dark, handsome, snow white teeth.” “God damn, she is hot!” They both unconsciously assessed each other’s pheromones and their olfactory brain synapses flashed green lights in toto.
Neither Zeta nor Benton would ever be the same. This unexpected, unanticipated, unimagined moment occurred like an earthquake. Time and space became warped, at less than the speed of light. Fate once again proving itself omnipotent in the Universe.
Benton tried the surf subject once again. “Michelle tells me you’re an excellent surfer Zeta, is she telling me the truth?”
“So Carol already told Michelle about my surf bum alter ego. Yes, I love to surf, I’ve been surfing since I was nine.”
“I’m a surf bum myself Zeta. I’d love to join you with the dawn patrol tomorrow. The Surfline report says La Jolla Cove will be getting hit with a northwest six to ten-foot swell, should be some great waves.”
Zeta surprised herself with, “I’m in Mr. Barrington the third, sounds great to me. The water temp has been 72 degrees lately, exceptionally warm for mid-October.”
“Yes, no need for full wetsuits and it’s early in the season for such large waves.”
“Well I’ll leave you two surf bums to talk shop, the only thing I can surf is the Internet. Be sure to show Benton your trophies Zeta,” Michelle kidded as she headed back to other guests.