When Elizabeth Stevenson moved to Los Angeles last year from Nebraska she never thought it would be so hard for her to get paid acting work. “I came to L.A. with only a few hundred dollars and figured I would be able to find enough work to support myself.” Unfortunately, Elizabeth has only been able to book acting gigs that pay in experience.

“I was working almost every day, but still needed to crash on couches. That is until I found Mr. Jennings,” said the 22-year-old. “He lets me rent out an extra room in his home and says all I need to do is keep perfecting my craft. He is so sweet.”

Elizabeth is a beautiful girl, and when this reporter first heard of 78-year-old Allister Jennings’ supposed generosity to her I was suspicious. With Los Angeles’s housing costs at an all-time high, I concluded that Jennings’ willingness to provide free housing to a financially strapped young woman had to be part of an ulterior motive. Why else would he give up that sort of passive income stream?

My editor Hannah had told me about Elizabeth’s story and suggested I meet her for a piece on housing affordability. Hannah had heard about her unusual rent arrangement after speaking to Mr. Jennings for a profile on veterans of foreign wars that volunteer at a Presbyterian Church in the Palisades. It figures Jennings was religious, I thought after seeing Elizabeth for the first time, most perverts are.

As I extended what was initially scheduled to be a 15-minute interview with Elizabeth passed the two-hour mark she told me she had to leave because she was starring in a student film in the Valley. As I left I gave the girl a long hug and told her of my mistrust of Jennings’ generosity and that I was going to get to the bottom of it for her. She told me that I didn’t have to do that and that Mr. Jennings was just a nice old man who enjoys the company, but I insisted. She didn’t even know how much danger she was in, that sweet girl.

I spent the next several hours going through her Facebook and Instagram profiles for any information Mr. Jennings could be using to take advantage of the aspiring actress. As I scrolled back through pictures of the chesty redhead from her high school production of Oklahoma (she played Laurey) I concluded that her natural innocence and beauty were easy prey for what was probably an old Hollywood sleazeball like Jennings and that I needed to act quickly to ensure her safety.

Elizabeth told me that the student film was being shot in Van Nuys and I decided it was in her best interest for me to chaperone. She didn’t really know Allister Jennings and for all she knew this supposed film shoot was a ploy by some of his confederates to lure her deep in the San Fernando Valley where all types of perversions are known to take place. I was able to figure out the shoot’s location by image searching backgrounds from Elizabeth’s Instagram stories and, after stopping at a barber for a haircut and shave and The Gap for a slimming new outfit, I was on my way to a park in Van Nuys to protect sweet Elizabeth.

“Elizabeth! There you are,” I called out toward the makeshift set. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“Oh, hey,” she said, the confused, poor thing. “What are you doing here?” I didn’t want her to know how much danger she could be in so I lied and said that I was so enthralled when I heard her describe the student film project that I wanted to do a piece about it too.

“That’s great!” said the trusting young fawn as she introduced me to the film’s writer and director, Romero, a 19-year-old community college student who described his short film, Nazi Zombie Acolytes of Fashion, as a “realistic horror political satire that sendups Hugo Boss’s Nazi affiliation and also has zombies.” After spending far too long listening to Romero describe his film as “a mix between The Phantom Thread and also like a Zombie film, but with Nazis, you know?” I asked if I could watch his process as he filmed. He agreed.

The shoot went late into the night and involved Elizabeth running from several well-dressed zombie Nazi officers. Despite Elizabeth’s talent and the sultry vulnerability she so naturally expressed, Romero’s directing style was amateurish and I felt like he was not being bold enough in his creative choices. During a break, I told him that the scene would be more powerful if Elizabeth fleed from the Nazi Zombies before the end of Hitler’s fashion show. Romero disagreed, saying that would force him to rewrite the film’s climax, but I insisted. “Why don’t you just try it one time with Elizabeth naked, having just learned of the Nazi Zombie occupation before she was able to put on her clothes? I think that will make the scene more engaging.”

“Look man, this is just a student film. I’m not even paying her. I don’t think I can ask her to appear nude. It feels gratuitous and wrong.” Romero told me.

“Maybe you’re not the artist I thought you were,” I said as I walked away. Moments later I watched as Romero cautiously approached Elizabeth and convinced her to disrobe. If she could be convinced to take off her clothes for a nineteen-year-old film student what has that monster Allister Jennings been doing to her, I wondered as I watched her perky breasts bounce as she ran.

“I’m sorry, I, I just can’t do this,” Elizabeth eventually called out and ran to get her shirt. “I got to go.”

“You’ll never make it in this town by making young actresses uncomfortable,” I told Romero and warned him that if he ever contacted Elizabeth again that my readers would be hearing about his predatory behavior. “Didn’t you learn anything from #MeToo?” I asked before leaving to find and comfort Elizabeth.

“Hey, it wasn’t right how you were treated back there,” I called out to Elizabeth as she waited at the entrance to the park. “Asking you to appear nude in that scene was gratuitous and wrong.”

“Thanks. I think I just want to get back home.”

“Let me drive you,” I offered, even though it was very far out of my way. I’m such a nice guy.

“That’s okay. I called an Uber–“

“Cancel it! It’s going to cost a fortune to take an Uber back to the Palisades. Plus, you don’t know who could be driving you. They could be a pervert.”

“You don’t mind?”

“It would be my pleasure,” I told her before walking her to my Ford Focus which I had detailed on my way to the film shoot.

As we made our way through the Valley I asked Elizabeth if she was hungry. “Have you ever been to the 101 Cafe?” I asked. She hadn’t, but said she was tired. “Oh, you don’t have to be shy,” I told her. “They have the best pie in Los Angeles. It’s my treat.” I knew she was going to love it and didn’t even wait for her to answer before exiting the freeway.

“Okay,” Elizabeth finally agreed. As I parked the car I caught a few glimpses of Elizabeth staring into her phone and was reminded that for all of her beauty and poise, she was in many ways a typical, helpless Millennial. “She’s so lucky I’m here to protect her,” I thought to myself. If only more guys were like me.

“Who are you texting?” I asked, but she told me she wasn’t talking to anyone and quickly put away her phone. “Let’s go inside, I want to try some of that pie,” she said.

“Oh, you’ll love it!” I told her. As she opened her door I stopped her from exiting. “Elizabeth, I just want to let you know I was really impressed by your acting back there.”

“Thank you.”

“But you need to realize that people in this town don’t always have good motivations like I do and will try to take advantage of you. That’s what happened with Romero.”

“Thanks. Let’s go inside and have some pie,” she interrupted me.

“Look we’ll eat the fucking pie, but you were taken advantage out there tonight and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you again,” I said, perhaps a little too aggressively. I could tell she was scared. “Just promise me that you won’t go around Romero again. I want you to block his number.” She agreed. “You’re going to love the pie. The Rhubarb is incredible,” I told her and then turned off the safety lock so she could exit.

As we sat at Cafe 101’s vinyl booth I asked her to tell me about herself. “Oh, well I think you know a lot about me from our interview. I was born in Nebraska–” she flirted, but I stopped her. “No, not that. I want to talk about the stuff we didn’t get to talk about this afternoon.”

“Like what?” she asked, playing hard-to-get. “Oh, I think you know–will you put down your fucking phone!” I snapped. “I’m sorry, but, is that Romero? I told you to block him.”

“I did block him. Sorry. You wanted to know–“

“Do you have a boyfriend?” I asked her.

“I don’t.” As she said this I knew she was trying to send me a coded message. “Boys your age are stupid. You need someone more mature,” I told her, but the moment was interrupted by the waitress.

“We’ll have a slice of rhubarb with whip cream. Two forks” I ordered before turning back to Elizabeth. As we waited for our pie to arrive I tried to connect with her and was disappointed to learn that she hadn’t seen any of the movies or listened to any of the music that meant so much to me when I was her age. She has so much to learn about the world, I thought as I offered to show her Fight Club. “It will change your life,” I said before I was interrupted again.

“Elizabeth!” called out a gruff voice from the doorway. “Oh, Mr. Jennings!” Elizabeth jumped out of our booth and ran over to him. The poor girl had not even finished her pie and was clearly petrified of her supposedly generous landlord.

As I made my way over to Elizabeth who was now speaking frantically to Allister Jennings all of my worst fears were confirmed. He obviously had her under some spell and had tracked her to the restaurant probably through some piece of high tech software he installed on her phone.

“Thank you for the ride and the pie, but I am not feeling well and Mr. Jennings said he could take me home,” she told me abruptly. “Oh, I can drive you home,” I said, but Mr. Jennings would have no part of it, that monster.

“Not a problem, I live there, it’s on my way,” he smiled. “Elizabeth, go wait in the car.”

Elizabeth obliged and ran out of the café. 

“So, you work for Hannah at the paper?” Allister asked. I told him I did. “I trust that you’ve got enough information for this piece on, what is it? Rent prices in L.A.?”

“You’re very protective of Elizabeth. That’s a little unusual for a landlord, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Well, Los Angeles is a dangerous place. Especially for a young girl like Lizzy. There are a lot of people who would take advantage of someone like her,” he told me.

“I couldn’t agree more,” I said back to Jennings.

“Well, have a good night. I look forward to reading your article about…rent,” the old man said as he walked out to his car to do god knows what to my Elizabeth. “Oh, and if you try to contact her again you’ll be sorry,” Jennings told me before returning to a genteel smile.

As Allister walked back to his car I could see that Elizabeth was crying from the passenger seat. She was clearly petrified of Allister and it was at that moment, watching tears cascade down Elizabeth’s full cheeks that I knew that he must be a monster and needed to be stopped.

***

As I made my way back West toward Allister Jennings’ home to rescue Elizabeth I called my editor Hannah and asked what she knew about him.

“He’s just a nice old man who volunteers at the Church. But I don’t really know much about him beyond that,” she told me. I told her what he had said and asked her to help me find out more about his background. She was reluctant.

“Why were you at a restaurant with a 22-year-old actress at 1:00 AM anyway? Does Diane know about this?” she asked. “Of course she knows,” I lied. “Listen, Hannah, this could be a big story. For all we know this guy is running a human trafficking ring out of his home. Can you find out what you can about Jennings for me or not?”

She agreed and said she would call me back when she had something. “Just be careful,” she told me.

“Hannah, he is 70-something years old. I’m not scared of him,” I told her.

“No, I meant about Diane. I think you need to be careful with all of this.”

“There’s nothing to be careful about,” I said, resenting the implication. “Just call me when you find something out.”

**

Diane and I have a complicated relationship. We have been married for going on twenty-three years, and most of that time was spent as partners raising our three children. It’s been a year since our youngest, Morgan, left for college and the readjustment of becoming a couple again has been harder than either of us expected. As I sat in my car across the street from Allister Jennings’ home I thought about whether Diane would understand my motivations for being so protective of young Elizabeth. Despite Hannah’s suggestion, I was only concerned about Elizabeth’s safety and would hope that if Morgan had gotten herself wrapped up with some pervert like Allister Jennings that someone like me would be there to protect her. At least that’s what I would tell Diane if she asks where I was all night. Best not to analyze the situation too much, I thought as I looked through Elizabeth’s Instagram again. She really is beautiful.

*

It was close to 2:00 AM when I saw the lights in Allister’s house finally shut off. This was my chance to check in on Elizabeth and offer her a chance at safety. I suppose I could take her back to my home, she could stay in Morgan’s old room, but that would be a lot for Diane to understand at such an early hour. Probably best to find a motel for us until morning, two beds, of course, if they had it. As I made my way to Jennings’ yard I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. It was Hannah.

“Hello?” I whispered.

“That’s wasn’t Allister Jennings,” she said frantically on the line. “I had a friend at the VA send me his records. The picture of Allister Jennings isn’t the person I met at the Church.”

“What do you mean? Then who is living at his house?” I asked, but before I could hear her answer felt the shock of a blow to the back of my head and everything went to black.

************************************************************************

I met Allister Jennings at a coffee shop two years ago. He was an amazing person, one of those types of men that were less extraordinary in my youth but who now seem almost otherworldly. When we met I had fallen on hard times, as always seemed to happen with me. My long-time partner Maurice had passed away and because he wasn’t exactly open about the extent of our relationship to his family I found myself suddenly bereaved and without the emotional or financial support needed to survive. It was at my lowest moment when, out of nowhere, Allister Jennings approached me to start a conversation. He had lost his wife a few years back and, as I have found is common with men our age, would start conversations with strangers as a way to make the lonely days more bearable.

Over the course of several weeks Allister and I became close and would share stories of our partners and the lives that we had for years felt were so secure and how it felt to have that confidence disappear. I was lucky that Maurice had purchased our car in my name and had let it slip during one of our morning coffees that I had been sleeping in it. This beautiful man offered to take me in. I told him that I couldn’t accept that sort of generosity and he said he would enjoy my company. I wondered if I would display such charity if I were in his position. I doubted I would ever get that opportunity.

For the next six months Allister and I lived together and became as close as two friends could be. After nearly 80 years of life and both of us losing our great loves we didn’t have time to slowly wade our way into a friendship. Neither of us had any real family left, Allister said he had some nieces and nephews who he hadn’t seen in years, but for the most part we just had each other. And I was grateful for that. That’s what made losing Allister so hard; not as hard, obviously, as when I lost my Maurice after 30 years, but it was very difficult.  I knew something was wrong when I woke up and Allister was still in his bedroom. He was always up before me.

I wish I could say I became Allister Jennings in a panic, but the decision to continue to live as him was heavily deliberated. He was one of the best men I have ever known, a war hero, a Christian, someone who was kind and considerate to those who could not offer anything in return. The world lost someone special when Allister Jennings died, and I wondered why I, a lonely old queen, should get to live instead? Allister had a deep freezer in his garage that, unfortunately, became his semi-final resting place. That, to me is the real horror of my masquerade, that he didn’t get a proper burial, but I’m sure at some point when I’m finally gone he’ll be found and given the respectful burial he deserves. God knows what they’ll think of what I did.

On my first day as Allister Jennings I went out to a Presbyterian church to say a prayer for my friend and had a few conversations with the parishioners and deacons I met, feeling a strange freedom of introducing myself by a name that I knew was unconnected to the weight of the sins I had lived with my entire life. When Deacon Greg asked me if I was interested in volunteering I honestly said I was, and for the last year I had enjoyed every moment of being Allister and extending his legacy of kindness that he showed to me to anyone I could. That’s why when I overheard Elizabeth speaking to a friend on the phone about her financial struggles while seated in the same chair in the same coffee shop that Allister offered me a place to live I made the same offer to her.

And now some sick man stalks my young houseguest and threatens to unravel the only good thing to come of my life since Maurice left me for a less judgmental world. I couldn’t allow that, could I?

************************************************************************

My vision was blurred when I woke up. I was hit so hard by what I think was a shovel that I still did not feel pain. Just numbness. I was confused and saw Allister Jennings, or whoever was pretending to be Allister Jennings, standing above me. My hands were tied tightly behind my back and I couldn’t move. My efforts to talk were incoherent.

“What are you doing here?” Allister said to me, still out of breath from the effort it took to pull me into his garage. I couldn’t get the words out except to say “Elizabeth.”

“I told you to stay away from Elizabeth. I know what you’re after,” he said, but I still couldn’t muster up a verbal reaction.

“Mr. Jennings, are you okay?” I heard Elizabeth call out from the other room. “Don’t make another noise,” he told me as he went back to the main house.

As the daze of the blow diminished I felt my phone in my pocket buzzing in near constant vibration, most likely Hannah trying to find out what happened or perhaps Diane wondering why I was still not home from what I told her was a work dinner. I struggled to grab the phone to call for help but could not reach my hand to my pocket. I could hear Elizabeth inquiring caringly as to why the Jennings imposter was out of breath, but her captor chalked it up to age and told her to go back to sleep. Knowing I only had a moment before Jennings came back I shimmied my way to a standing position and waited by the door.

Those few moments before he returned felt like hours but despite the phantom time, I could not think any real plan between the steady throb of my head and the incessant vibration of my out-of-reach phone in my pocket.

************************************************************************

Over time I did a pretty good job of adopting many of Allister’s mannerisms and habits, but I couldn’t handle waking up as early as he did. Most nights I stayed up early into the morning watching whatever old film was playing on AMC late into the night. Occasionally Elizabeth sits with me until she falls asleep on the couch to one of the classics, but tonight she was out on one of her picture shoots and said she would be home late. I don’t like it when she’s out late, but I remember what it’s like to be young and try to be supportive. For her part, she doesn’t ask for much and is always respectful and kind to me. She sometimes cooks me dinner and always asks about my day. I think of her as I imagine I would have thought about a granddaughter if Maurice and I had been able to live our lives in a different time and under different circumstances.

It was around 1:00 AM when I received a message on my cellular phone from Elizabeth that she was being taken to a diner against her will by that reporter and didn’t know what to do. I felt honored that she would ask me for help and texted her to go inside the restaurant and that I would be there as soon as I could. When I arrived I immediately had a bad feeling about the man and didn’t understand why he was still with Elizabeth so many hours after what she told me was an interview about us becoming roommates. As he walked over I thought of Allister and how he told me how when he was in Korea he would pretend to be brave and told this man to leave Elizabeth alone or he would be sorry. I was so scared.

On our way home, Elizabeth cried and told me about how she took her top off for the film shoot and how she wanted to go home but had somehow ended up in the reporter’s car and on her way to the café.

“I panicked. Maybe he was just being nice?” she questioned herself, but I told her that she had to follow her instincts. When we arrived home, she went to her room and I went back to my chair to watch television. I felt maybe Elizabeth did overreact a little and that the reporter could have just been being nice, but any benefit to his motivations vanished when I heard a rustling outside the house and saw him sneaking up toward Elizabeth’s bedroom. The next few minutes happened without any real awareness on my end, and I grabbed a spade Allister kept in the garage and snuck around the house to the front yard and used it.

One thing that’s strange about getting older is you don’t necessarily think of yourself as an old person, but are reminded of it whenever you try to do anything physical, let alone trying to drag a full-grown man into a garage. I tied his hands behind his back and could hear his phone vibrating constantly from his pocket. I believed when I hit him that he was after Elizabeth carnally, but understood once I pulled his phone out of his pocket and saw not only a background image featuring his wife and children, including a daughter right around Elizabeth’s age, as well as several unread messages from Hannah confirming I was not the real Allister Jennings, understood that the reporter was not in fact doing a story on rent or intergenerational roommates but likely an exposé about the disappearance and identity theft of an elderly war hero.

As the reality of this situation dawned on me I heard Elizabeth call out my name. I placed the reporter’s phone in his back pocket. The reporter was starting to come to and I told him to stay quiet and returned to the main house. Elizabeth had heard me rustling and was worried about why I was out of breath. For a moment, I thought of telling her the truth, but couldn’t and asked her to go back to bed. Let her have a few more moments of peace before the police arrive.

By the time I ran into the kitchen to grab the cordless phone I had made peace with what was likely to come. I’ll untie the reporter and call the police on myself and explain to them how I came to become Allister Jennings. My only hope was that I did not cause any long-term damage to the reporter and that somehow Elizabeth would be able to stay at the house after I left, although I knew that was not likely.

As I made my way back into the garage, phone and a sharp box cutter in hand, I could hear the buzzing of the reporter’s phone and his heavy breathing. But he wasn’t where I left him. The confusion of where he had gone was the last sensation I would ever have.

************************************************************************

I had no plan, but as soon as the old man reentered the threshold of the garage I lunged, hands still tied behind my back, into the fake Allister and knocked him onto the floor. He held a large box cutter in his hand which by reflex he squeezed so tight that I noticed blood pool from his palm in addition to where his head hit the ground. As I watched him seize and start to die I briefly struggled to maneuver the felled box cutter to untie myself, but couldn’t. I imagined momentarily how Morgan would react to being called into such a violent scene in the middle of the night, but determined it was necessary.

“Elizabeth!” I called out several times. “Mr. Jennings? Are you okay?” she yelled out before entering the room and letting out a scream.

************************************************************************

I moved back to Nebraska a few months after the incident. Initially, I just wanted to be back at home with my parents, but didn’t want to let this ordeal define me. But soon I realized that I just couldn’t be that far away again. I had been so trusting of Mr. Jennings, or, who I thought was Mr. Jennings, that I had ignored all the warnings from everyone I knew that people won’t just let you live in their home for free, at least not in a place like Los Angeles. I had been so convinced of his altruism that I almost got that reporter and me killed. I was so blind.

I was about to fall asleep when I heard my name called out from the garage and assumed it was Allister. He had been having breathing problems that night and when I heard my name I got scared he was having a heart attack or something. But it wasn’t that. I ran into the garage and saw him convulsing on the floor and bleeding from his head next to that brave reporter.

“Elizabeth, cut me free and call the police,” he yelled out at me. I called the police but didn’t know what to think or who to trust and as I waited for the police I left that poor man who risked so much to save my life tied with his hands behind his back.

“Okay, I understand that your scared,” he said to me. “He, I don’t know who he really is, but he isn’t Allister Jennings. He hit me in the head with that shovel, am I bleeding?” he asked. He was. “Let me find you some ice for your head,” I told him and walked over to the deep freezer in the corner of the garage. As I opened it and I saw the real Allister Jennings’ body frozen and contorted within it I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. But I knew it was bad and I screamed and screamed and turned to the reporter tied up next to whoever was pretending to be Jennings and screamed again. I still don’t understand what happened, but if it weren’t for that reporter I could have been in that freezer too. After a few weeks back home I realized I couldn’t go back knowing how close I came to something that horrible. Los Angeles isn’t the type of place for someone like me.

************************************************************************

I attended Allister Jennings, the real Allister Jennings’ funeral. After the police discovered his body they concluded that he had taken in his imposter, a grifter named Carl Daley, who killed him and assumed his life. I did a report on the entire ordeal and tried to find out information about Mr. Daley but only learned that he had a roommate named Maurice for decades who passed away a few years ago. I reached out to Maurice’s relatives for information about Carl but they told me nothing about him other than they believed that he stole a car from Maurice and that they wanted nothing more to do with him.

The funeral was odd in that nearly all of the people in attendance did not know Allister Jennings. Many, in fact, had only interacted, fondly, with his imposter. There were dozens of members from the Church in attendance, as well as scores of people from the community who had heard of the odd and tragic death of Allister Jennings on the news. The Marines even sent a color guard to honor him, which was nice. Elizabeth wasn’t there, though, and I couldn’t blame her. It’s probably best she stays in Nebraska, at least for a while.

A lot has been written about Allister Jennings and in every telling of the story I am cast as the heroic anchor, a reporter following his intuition that led to the discovery of a murderer and a young girl’s safety. But I know that deep down, or at least I think, my intentions that night were more complicated. In the months since that night, as I look out at Diane or the kids when they are in town I’m not sure whether I know what I was really after or whether I do know and just don’t want to admit it out loud. A better version of me would have been at home that night with Diane, which would have kept Elizabeth in danger and more than likely caused her to become Carl Daley’s next victim. So, what is the lesson when the pursuit of one’s basest desires results in great admiration coupled with the lonesome understanding that the praise received is undercut by the knowledge of your own bad intentions? Carl Daley died with a secret. Now I will too.

***