Authors: Ron Base
Tags: #Mystsery: Thriller - P.I. - Florida
“Look, we’ve still got a bit of a problem here, Reno.” Tree tried his best to sound reasonable. That’s what would work in a situation like this. Reason.
“What problem is that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Reno’s face went dark. Tree found himself being lifted off his chair and slammed against the wall. His reading glasses spun away. A framed photograph of a bikini-clad beauty catching a marlin crashed to the floor. Reno’s taut face deployed in a shower of bursting stars.
“You tell her. Okay? Tell her.”
“Tell who?” Tree managed to gurgle.
“She comes back, no hard feelings. Everything is A-okay again. Got that?”
Reno let go of him and backed away. His face no longer resembled a storm brewing. A smile played at his lips. “Where did she find you, son? What is there? Some sort of Florida Loser Club? You just call up and they send over a loser?”
“Yeah, that’s it all right,” Tree agreed, trying to catch his breath.
“Let me give you some advice. Get away from this shit. As far as you can. You know what I can do to a guy who gets in my way. This is what I do, son. I scare myself sometimes. So make sure you don’t get on my wrong side again, okay?”
“Just stay away from her.”
And then Reno O’Hara was gone. Tree stood there. Gulping for air.
reddie and Tree had married five days before the
downsized him or, as they used to say in a more simple time, before they fired him. The timing couldn’t have been better for Tree, Freddie observed. Five days later, and she might have reconsidered. Freddie smiled when she said this. He was pretty sure she was joking.
After twenty-five years in the newspaper business. Finished. Left feeling alone and curiously hollowed out as though, abruptly, he no longer was anyone, a man without an identity. He used to be a reporter, a journalist—a real live Chicago newspaperman. Now he was, what?
He didn’t know.
He kicked around writing magazine pieces while he looked for other newspaper jobs. There weren’t any. They were getting rid of guys his age, not hiring them. Everyone was being ushered out the door. Everyone was looking for a job. The end of an era. The end of the world, at least the end of the newspaper world he had known all his adult life, the world he thought—they all thought—would never end. Newspapers reported the catastrophes. They were not supposed to be the catastrophes.
He wrote scripts. The good scripts never got made. The bad scripts became low-budget thrillers, running to a similar theme: a newspaper editor was accused of a murder he didn’t commit; a magazine editor was accused of a murder she didn’t commit.
Soon enough the bottom fell out of the low-budget straight-to-video market that had kept him more or less employed—or perhaps producers realized he wasn’t much of screenwriter. Maybe it was a combination of both things.
He had sat at home reflecting on his lack of talent, much the same way he now sat in his office, mouth dry, stomach churning, the stars finally deserting his thick head. He found his reading glasses on the floor, folded them, and put them into his pocket as he listened to the muted voices of the tourists downstairs. He revisited the encounter with Reno O’Hara, trying to locate the part where he had taken control, refused to allow himself to be pushed around.
He couldn’t find that part.
Every time he inspected his actions, he felt worse. He was no better than the teenage Tree in fear of those long ago encounters with punks in leather jackets lurking in the designated No Man’s Land one dreaded block from school. He felt violated. He wanted to talk to someone. But who? Freddie? He talked to her about everything, but not this, not right now, not until his pulse settled and his heart stopped racing.
He went down the back stairs and stumbled outside, half expecting to find Reno waiting for him. But no Reno. Just another tourist family climbing out of their van headed into the visitors center. Mom and dad and two adorable children, unaware of the evil lurking beneath the Florida sun. Just as well they didn’t know. Tree didn’t want to spoil their vacation.
He took deep breaths. He wasn’t hurt. A little shaken up, that’s all; his pride wounded. Well, wounded pride never killed anyone. If he still drank he would go to a bar, calm his nerves. But he couldn’t imagine having a drink under any circumstances. Instead, he got into his car and drove to Lighthouse Beach.
When he reached the beach, he removed his shoes and rolled up his pants so he could walk along the edge of the surf, allowing the warm tidal water to wash over his bare feet. Key West lay straight south beyond San Carlos Bay, deep in the dazzling glow of the Gulf of Mexico. There had been a lighthouse here since 1884, warning sailors away from the sandbars lurking offshore. Funny about that date. He seemed to have known it all his life as, in a sense, he had known Sanibel and Captiva.
His mother and two aunts used to bring Tree, his brother, Jimmy, and their three cousins to Sanibel Island for two weeks each January. The aunts piled the kids into a big green Desoto Adventurer that towed a little black trailer, and together they all set out for Florida.
In the years before it was linked by a causeway, the only way to reach Sanibel was via a ferry—one dollar per car, an additional thirty-five cents for each passenger—across from Punta Rasa on the mainland. The name meant flat point. In the very early days cattle had been shipped from there bound for Cuba.
Once on the island, they parked the trailer at the edge of whatever beach caught their fancy. Swimsuits were produced, tents for the kids pitched, sleeping bags unfurled, strict orders issued to have a good time. Those were days of gold and laughter, the only really happy days of his childhood.
Tree and Jimmy and the cousins would splash in the warm gulf waters overseen by a stern trio that kept one eye on their kids while at the same time devouring local resident Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s
Gift from the Sea
. The book urged a state of inner spiritual grace. Tree’s mother and her sisters loved that idea. They spent long hours enthusiastically discussing the remote yet hopeful possibility, their voices drifting across the sand as the cousins bobbed in and out of crystalline water. Tree always wondered if they had ever found the inner peace they sought, suspected they didn’t, except perhaps during those warm winter days on Sanibel.
In the afternoons, wearing the sunhats they hated, the boys were required to accompany the aunts on shell-hunting expeditions at the beach on the Captiva side of Blind Pass.
At low tide, when the shelling was best, everyone adopted what was known as “the Sanibel Stoop” searching the mudflats and sandbars just beneath the water’s murky surface for the yellow-line buttercup, the multi-colored calico, the scalloped rose cockle, the curiously marked Chinese alphabet, the slender polished olive—three thousand varieties of shells, the tourist brochures boasted. Not the children’s favorite pastime but they went along because the moms loved it.
They were saved from shelling one year by the arrival of a suitor for Tree’s Aunt Shirley. Gaspar Leon was a local fishing guide named, he said, after the legendary pirate José Gaspar who made his headquarters at Sanibel Island. The women he captured during his buccaneering rampages were held prisoner on an adjacent island—how Captiva got its name.
According to local legend, José Gaspar buried stolen treasure on various islands, inspiring Gaspar Leon to take the kids treasure-hunting, occasionally interrupted by fishing expeditions in search of the sharp and tarpon and grouper that were plentiful in the shallow waters of Pine Island Sound. They never found treasure, but they caught plenty of fish.
At dusk the aunts grilled grouper on the beach while Gaspar poured the ladies generous portions of Cuban rum. Around the campfire, everyone’s belly full, the gentle Florida night falling, the sea calm, Gaspar spun dark tales of decimated Calusa Indians who inhabited the area and once ruled an empire, runaway slaves, vicious slave catchers, and poachers. In the early 1900s, the poachers nearly wiped out the Florida egrets in their lust for the colorful plumes that were all the fashion rage. He recalled hurricanes that created islands, redfish so thick they turned the waters crimson, tarpon so plentiful they once fueled the local economy. He would drink rum and talk, lamenting the folly of man, so willing to destroy the natural things around him.
Men were varmints, Gaspar said. You could trust the osprey and you could trust the redfish. But the two things on this island you could never trust were alligators and man. Came down to it, Gaspar would take an alligator any day over a man. At least you knew what you were getting into with a gator. You never knew with a man.
Nights like that could go on forever as far as Tree was concerned. Life like this could go on forever too. What happened? Tree wasn’t certain. Perhaps they just got older or the sisters drew apart or life simply flew away in other directions. He couldn’t even remember when they stopped coming, but stop they did. Sanibel winters were no more.
Except in fond memory—until many years later when Freddie met Ray Dayton at the storied Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs while attending the annual Grocery Manufacturers Association conference. They ended up seated together during the president’s dinner. He offered her a job running his five supermarkets headquartered at a place in Florida called Sanibel Island.
Dayton’s Supermarkets were doing okay, but the competition was starting to hurt. Ray had a sense the world was passing him by. He wanted to change, expand. Freddie could help him do that. Not that he ever expected her to take him up on his offer. It was a joke—glamorous big city woman comes to a little business on a faraway island, working for a dictatorial old fart who has yet to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. What were the chances of that happening?
But Freddie, as much to her surprise as Mr. Ray’s, was intrigued. She came home to tell Tree about the offer, not expecting him to know where Sanibel even was. He laughed when he heard this. He knew where it was, all right. Yes, he knew—head due south and turn right at the sun. Sanibel lay straight ahead out there in the mist of his childhood, a dream shaped like the palm of a hand floating in the Gulf of Mexico. The long finger north of the palm? Captiva Island, where Jose Gaspar used to hold his female captives, a place Freddie found even more intriguing than Sanibel.
Even so, Tree did not think she would do it. He would move in an instant, fed up with Chicago and its imbedded memories of a newspaper life that could never be again. But Freddie had a career. He could not imagine her giving it up even for the undeniable lure of Sanibel-Captiva.
She probably wouldn’t have either if not for the dolphins. They rented a motorboat and had lunch on nearby Useppa Island at the old Collier Inn. The CIA had once used the inn as a headquarters from which to train the Bay of Pigs invaders. It stood at the end of a romantic walkway with blooming cereus twisting around live oak and Spanish moss hanging from dramatically spreading Banyan trees.
After lunch they headed back across Pine Island Sound in their rented motorboat. Just past Cabbage Key, Tree cut the engine. On a whim, they stripped off their clothes and dived into the warm blue water.
They were splashing around together when darting grey forms approached, slipping just beneath the surface. Freddie screamed in alarm, thinking for one blind moment they were being attacked by sharks. Then one of the creatures soared gracefully out of the water before disappearing again. Not sharks, dolphins. They leapt and dived playfully around the two swimmers, nuzzling against them before swishing away, only to reappear again. Tree and Freddie spent the rest of that perfect, windless afternoon with the dolphins of Pine Island Sound. Freddie was converted. Chicago could not compete with dolphins.
Standing there on Lighthouse Beach, Tree thought of a piece of doggerel his Aunt Shirley used to recite during their winter visits.
The misty memory of a world
Where struggle is, and scars
Floats by us like a shadow.
And is lost among the stars.
Maybe not so lost, after all.
Stay away from her
. Who was he supposed to stay away from? The woman who had broken Reno’s heart? Who was that? Must have been a mistake, except Reno O’Hara didn’t strike Tree as the kind of guy who made too many mistakes about this sort of thing. He wondered if he should he go to the police. Did private detectives go to the police? Seemed like he might be breaking the private detective code or something.
His cell phone buzzed. He fumbled for it in his pants pocket, coming away from the shore as he opened it up.
“I phoned your office.” Freddie.
“I was just thinking about you,” he said.
“Where are you?”
“On a case,” he said.
“If you must know, I’m at the beach.”
That brought silence. Then: “Are you all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You’re at the beach at eleven o’clock in the morning.”