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The Mysterious Woman In The Lifeguard Chair
About the Author: Bruce W. Most has published two previous short stories in Mystery Magazine featuring Weegee, New York City's famous crime photographer in the 1930s and 1940s. Bruce's latest mystery novel is No Time for Murder. Other whodunits include The Big Dive, a sequel to his award-winning Murder on the Tracks, and the award-winning Rope Burn, involving cattle rustling and murder in contemporary Wyoming ranch country. He’s also the author of Bonded for Murder and Missing Bonds.

The summer night was airless, pitch black, and as sultry as sin. The residential lights of Coney Island huddled behind blackout curtains, the bright boardwalk lights snuffed out, Wonder Wheel and the Baby Incubator sideshow gone dark, while saloon patrons drank by candlelight. Even the moon was afraid to come out.

Weegee, New York City’s most famous crime photographer, if he did say so himself, slogged in the soft beach sand in his brogues lugging his 4x5 Speed Graphic press camera. He hadn’t come to photograph a crime scene, however. The tabloids were hungry for human-interest pictures depicting how New Yorkers were surviving the city’s heat wave.

Or maybe it was a crime scene. While the rich cooled off in their luxury high-rises with new-fangled air conditioning, thousands of less fortunate slept on beaches to catch the cool Atlantic breeze, trying to escape heat stroke in their stifling, breathless apartments.

Weegee zigzagged gingerly to avoid stepping on the sleepers and the couples who’d come not to sleep but to find amorous refuge in each other’s sweaty arms.

The sleepers he couldn’t see or hear, except for the occasional snore, but the lovers he could zero in on by their bursts of laughter, moans, or the flare of a cigarette tip.

“No, no, Billy, don’t touch me there.”

“Ah, c’mon, doll, you’ll like it.”

A slap.

“Damn, what was that for?”

Randomly, Weegee would raise his camera and blindly snap a photo, the camera settings preset at f/16 and 1/200th of a second, focused at ten feet, the flashgun throwing out its light, as he had done so often documenting the city’s crimes, fires, and accidents.

These photographs were different, however. He was using the new infrared film he’d been experimenting with the past few months, able to record in dark movie theaters or other low-light situations. The flashbulbs were not standard either. Standard flash would have disturbed the lovers and sleepers, to say nothing of breaking wartime blackout regulations. These special infrared-wavelength bulbs sent out light invisible to the subject.

Few on the beach would even know he was taking their picture.

“Hey, pal, watch where you stepping,” snapped a gruff voice in the darkness.

Weegee mumbled apologies around his half-smoked cigar and backed away. He continued slogging through the throng, snapping pictures. Once, he caught a sailor in white embracing a woman in a long white dress. He smiled to himself. A sure seller to the tabs.

As he neared the water’s edge, waves slapping against the shore, he stopped to rest against one of the beach’s many wooden lifeguard stands. Slogging a heavy Speed Graphic across sand was hard work, and he wasn’t in the best of shape.

Something stirred above him in the unmanned chair. No giggles or moans, but he suspected a couple had found their way above the crowd, a place to be intimate in private. He stepped back to get a clear view. He could make out the vague outline of a person. Not a couple. A single person. A young woman, he thought. An intake of breath. Yes, a woman. Restless, edgy movement.

Why was she perched alone on this sultry night atop a lifeguard stand above the lovers and sleepers, staring out at the black sea? Waiting for her lover? Or had he jilted her, leaving her alone with her anger and disappointment and maybe sadness?

Intrigued, he lifted his camera and snapped a picture with invisible light.


Two days later, knuckles rapped on the door of Weegee’s tiny Manhattan room near Little Italy. The photographer stirred from a shallow sleep. He mostly slept during the day—catnapped, really, what with the constant chatter of the police radio by his bed, the crack of gunshots below him from the firing range of the John Jovino Gun Shop, and shouts from across the street as cops hauled suspects into the block-long central police headquarters. The oppressive summer heat made sleep even more difficult.

More raps. Insistent this time. Weegee blinked and glanced at his alarm clock. Twenty after two in the afternoon. Hours before he would normally rise, prepare his equipment, eat at Moran’s luncheonette down the street, followed by a beer at Headquarters Tavern, before striking out into the evening to document the dark underbelly of the city.

This story appears in our MAY 2024 Issue
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