Authors: Ron Base
Tags: #Mystsery: Thriller - P.I. - Florida
“Maybe I go to the beach more often than you think,” he said. “Maybe there are all sorts of things about me you don’t know. It could be I’m an international man of mystery who’s been leading a double life all these years.”
A telling beat ensued before she said, “Okay. What time are you going to be home?”
Tree turned and started back for the parking lot. He saw a young figure who he recognized after a moment as Marcello, the kid from his office. Still wearing the baseball cap and khaki shorts, he stood astride a bright red bike. Its frame gleamed in the sunlight, a boy’s dream of a bike.
“Let me call you back, honey,” he said.
“Sure you’re okay?”
Tree closed his cell phone. Marcello squinted up at him, all but lost in his Sanibel Island T-shirt. The backpack hung from his shoulders.
“I followed you here,” Marcello said. He nodded at his bicycle. “On my bike.”
“Maybe you should be the detective,” Tree said. “Did you find your mother okay?”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Tree said.
“I’ve got another card though. Want to see it?”
Marcello extracted from his backpack the same sort of blue greeting card he had shown Tree in the office. He took it from Marcello’s outstretched hand, and held it at arm’s length, squinting, trying to read the writing.
“You should wear your glasses,” Marcello said.
“They’re just for reading,” Tree said.
Tree got his glasses out and put them on and then studied the card: more of the neat handwriting he saw before. He read aloud:
“‘Hi, my little love. Won’t be long now. I can’t wait to see you. I’m looking forward to going to the beach with you. Hope you still like to swim. I know I certainly do. There are dolphins out in Pine Island Sound. We can go swimming with them. How does that sound? It won’t be long, I promise. In the meantime, stay brave and never forget how much I love you. Mommy.’”
Tree handed the card back to Marcello and removed his glasses. “That’s very nice. How do you get these letters?”
Marcello looked irritated. “How do you think I get them? They come in the mail.”
“Do you still have the envelopes they came in?”
“They didn’t give me no envelopes,” Marcello said.
“Who didn’t give them to you? Your stepparents?”
“I’ve been thinking,” Marcello said. “I should pay. You know, money.”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a crumpled wad of one dollar bills and thrust them at Tree. “Here,” he said. “There’s seven dollars.”
“Not enough?” The boy looked defiant, arm outstretched, the money gripped in his fist.
“That’s not the point,” Tree said. “The point is, you should be going to the police with something like this.”
“I don’t want the police.” Marcello’s voice was adamant. “I don’t like the police. They’re no good. That’s why I’m paying you. So’s I don’t have to go to the police.”
Tree sighed. “Keep your money,” he said.
“No.” The boy’s hand shook. “I want you to take the money. Then we have a deal. That’s the way it’s done. We make a deal. You work for me.”
Tree took the bills out of the boy’s fist. Maybe he could redeem himself a bit. “When’s the last time you saw your mom?”
“A long time ago,” Marcello said. “When I was little.”
“Do you remember what she looked like?”
“She was pretty.”
“But you haven’t seen her recently?”
Marcello shook his head.
“Just the letters.”
Tree stared down at the mash of one dollar bills. His first payday. He looked at Marcello. “Where do you live?”
“What difference does that make?”
“Listen, if I’m going to help you find your mom, I need you to be a little more cooperative.”
“Cooperative.” Marcello repeated the word as though he had never heard it before.
“What’s your mom’s name?”
Tree stared at him. Marcello looked defiant. “Well, it is.”
“That’s all? You don’t even know your mom’s name?”
“If I knew my mom’s name I wouldn’t need you to find her, would I?”
There was a certain undeniable logic to that, Tree thought.
“And I don’t have no more money,” added Marcello.
An Irish guy named O’Hara had threatened him first thing this morning, and now a black kid named Marcello, a client by any definition, had paid him money. Maybe he was a real detective after all. Okay, detective, he thought. How do you go about finding a kid’s mother?
His eyes fell on the red bicycle. “Is that new?”
thought you only wore your glasses reading,” Marcello said, seated beside Tree in the Beetle.
“I only need them for reading,” Tree said.
“Then how come you have them on now?”
“I have to read traffic signs.”
“This is a really crummy car,” Marcello said.
“It’s a Volkswagen,” Tree said. “The Beetle. My pride and joy. The only thing I own in this life.”
“I hate this car,” Marcello said. They rode in silence for a couple of minutes. Marcello looked over at him. “This is all you own?”
“Well, how much do you own?”
“I’m just a kid,” Marcello said. “When I grow up I’m gonna be rich.”
“That’s great news,” Tree said. “How are you going to do that?”
“Not gonna tell.”
“Just as well,” Tree said. “I might steal your idea and become rich myself.”
“That’s the truth,” Marcello said. “How come you’re all grown up and you’re so poor?”
“I ask myself that all the time.”
“Don’t you own a house?”
“Belongs to my wife,” Tree said. “I’m lucky to have a roof over my head.”
“You got no money, what kind of detective are you?”
“The kind that’s willing to help you for seven bucks,” Tree said.
That silenced Marcello. Tree drove onto Periwinkle Way and turned into Fennimore’s Cycle Shop.
“Do you want to come in or wait here?“
“I’ll wait here.”
Tree wheeled the bike into the interior of the shop. He wound his way through rows of bike racks until he encountered a heavyset woman in a stripped T-shirt and jeans. Her left arm was etched in dragon tattoos.
She said, “Your wife works over at Dayton’s, doesn’t she?”
“That’s right,” Tree said. “Freddie’s running the place.”
“Ray Dayton runs the place.”
“That’s what Freddie keeps telling me.” Tree smiled disarmingly. That is if sixty-year-old males could still smile disarmingly. “But I’m such a blind fan of my wife that I just can’t believe she’s not in charge.”
The woman chuckled. “I hear you’re a detective. That true?”
Tree held out his hand. “Tree Callister. “
She took his hand. “Molly Lightower.” She held up her arm.
“They call me the Dragon Lady.”
Terry and the Pirates
“Because I’m festooned with dragons, baby. Head to foot. Places I can’t show you without being arrested.”
“I used to run with Hell’s Angels in Cincinnati,” she said.
“Are there Hell’s Angels in Cincinnati?”
“My first old man was a sergeant at arms for the local chapter.” She held up her right arm. Angel wings framed the letters AFFA. “That stands for angels forever, forever angels.”
“Is there a Hell’s Angels chapter on Sanibel Island?”
“Are you kidding? That was my dark past, honey, I’m a good girl now.”
“Sorry to hear it,” Tree said.
“Yeah, some days I am, too.” She looked at the bike. “What can I do you for? You out detecting or what?”
“I’m trying to find out who bought this bike.”
“The Electra Townie.”
“Is that what it is?”
“Twenty-one speeds. More bike than you need around here, but that’s what the kids want. Also, there are linear pull brakes on both wheels. Makes stopping easier. That’s what parents like—and the saddle’s easy on the bum thanks to the elastomers.”
“Did you sell the bike?”
“Me? I didn’t, no. But then I’ve been away for the past week. Up in Tampa. Mother’s appendix burst of all things. Ninety-years-old and her appendix goes. She hates my tattoos. Russ probably sold it.”
“Is Russ in?”
“My man Russ. Saved me from myself, that boy did. Tamed a Hell’s Angels mama. Today, he’s not in. But it would be in the computer.”
“Would you mind looking it up?”
“How’s your wife get along with that bugger Ray?”
“Pretty well I think,” Tree said. “They talked for a long time before Freddie came to work for him so they both knew what to expect from each other. So far they’ve managed to co-exist pretty well.”
“I’ve known that old bastard for thirty years. He was in Nam, you know.”
“So I hear,” Tree said.
“Those Nam guys, who knows how screwed up they got over there. Drugs, Agent Orange, booze, clap. No end to the way they could mess themselves up.”
She was moving toward the desktop PC on the counter.
“Let’s see.” She put on a pair of glasses and clicked away at the keyboard. “Yeah. Here it is. Russ sold it last week. Red Electra Townie.”
“That’s the one.”
“Jeez,” Molly said, “four hundred eighty bucks. That’s practically our most expensive bike, at least for kids. Hold on.” Her fingers clacked against more keys. “Okay. The bike was sold to a woman named Dara Rait. She paid by credit card. Visa. The address is off-island, interestingly enough. Seven hundred sixty San Carlos Blvd.”
Tree wrote the address down on the back of a hydro bill he found in his back pocket “I appreciate this.”
“I helped with your detecting?”
“You certainly did.”
“Hope you can make a living at this detecting business,” she said. “Because you know what?”
“What’s that, Molly?”
“I don’t think your wife is going to last long with our Mr. Ray as he likes to be called. No one does.”
“He’s a mean old Nam vet. Lot of crazies were over there. In Nam, I mean. I knew some. He’s one of them.”
“Then I’d better get to work, hadn’t I?”
“Good luck, honey,” Molly said.
Tree rolled the bike out to the car. Marcello wasn’t inside. He had disappeared.
“You little bastard,” he said out loud. Then he was sorry he said it. Maybe something scared the kid. Or worse, maybe someone took him away.
He stood beside the Beetle for a few minutes in case the boy returned. He didn’t. He put the bike in the back seat and then pulled the hydro bill out of his pocket and stared at the address he’d written down. He stood there, trying to figure out what to do next.
What the hell, he thought.
Along San Carlos Boulevard, closer to Fort Myers Beach, the theme was distinctly nautical—the Mariner’s Hotel, a crab shack called Pincer’s, storefronts full of bikinis and beach balls. He swung right just before the Matanzas Pass Bridge, turning onto Main Street and then another right onto San Carlos Drive.
A stern sign warned the Bon Air Motor Court was private property, and there was no trespassing. Tree parked on the shoulder of the road. Number 760 stood at the intersection of San Carlos and a gravel road going off into the motor court. A knot of residents gossiped at the far end of the road near the water. Further along San Carlos Drive, workmen moved construction machinery aimlessly around, pretending to repair the road.
A white-painted motor home stood under impressive oaks. Rusty lawn furniture was scattered in front of a faded lattice-work barrier. The ornate face on a hanging clock said 2:20. A narrow, parched garden, marked off by white-painted stones, ran along either side of rickety aluminum steps leading up to a peeling screen door. Tree could hear the sound of a TV. Riotous laughter followed by delighted applause.
Tree knocked on the door. The sound of the television abruptly stopped. Tree thought he could hear movement inside. He knocked again, rattling the glass panel of the door. A short-haired black woman appeared and launched a fight with the screen door. The door finally gave up and popped open.
“Hey there, brother,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for Dara Rait.”
The woman eased the door open wider. She wore a brown pantsuit, the jacket open to reveal a cream-colored blouse. “Are you now? Who shall I say is calling?”
“Are you Dara?”
“Supposing I am. Who are you?”
“My name is Tree Callister.”
“And why would an individual named Tree Callister be looking for her?”