Authors: John D. MacDonald
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled, #General
Cloud cover moved west, and soon we were in hot sunlight that made the deck steam as it dried.
She toweled her hair half-dry, flung it back, and said, "I'm starving, darling. I really am. After I eat, I'm going to chop my hair short."
"It's too much of a damned nuisance on a boat ride. You could probably cut it better, huh? How about when we get to the place you said? Will you?"
"Why reluctantly? Oh, could it help you turn on, if it's long?"
"I think long hair is becoming to the shape of your face."
She frowned. "I mean chop it off to only about here, not like when it was all shaved-"
"All shaved off? Why?"
"It was sort of like an initiation."
"Sounds like a very unusual club."
"I'll tell you all about it sometime, honey."
"We've got nothing else to do right now. Why not tell me?"
"Right now I've got to fix something to eat. You want to eat now too. Samwiches?"
After we ate, I said, "Okay. The story of the shaved head."
"I don't feel like telling it now."
"But I feel like listening to it now."
She stared at me. "Are you going to be like that? I don't like to be pushed around, Travis. I've had enough of it all my life. If you muscle me, I can't feel loving toward you. You understand what I'm saying?"
"I don't think I could ever adjust to a reward and punishment system of lovemaking."
"I have news for you. You're going to have to."
"When I'm happy, I'm the best thing that ever happened to you, and when you make me unhappy, I'm just no good at all. Sorry, but that's the way I am."
"I wasn't trying to muscle you."
"I accept your apology."
"I just wanted to know if you were in a home or a prison when they shaved your head."
"Oh, you are such a smart bastard! You just cut off the supply, friend."
"No, goddamn you to hell! It was a school for girls."
That was the forlorn tipoff. The ones which are attended voluntarily are called girls' schools. I asked no questions. I could feel the radiations of her anger. At last she sighed. "They caught me and a boyfriend with the whole trunk of the car full of radios he'd taken out of parked cars. We'd both been in trouble before. I was fourteen, and he was twenty. I was in a foster home, and those people didn't give a shit about anything except the sixty-two fifty a month they got for letting me sleep there. At the school we were in cottages. Twenty girls in a cottage. A matron was supposed to run the cottage, but ours was a wino, so two butch girls ran it. I wouldn't let them into my bed at night, so one of them stole a gold locket from one of the black girls and hid it on the underside of my bed with tape. They found it in a shakedown looking for some missing table forks, and so then they all jumped me and shaved my head. It took a lot of doing. I tore them up pretty good. Afterwards I used to jump the ones who did it, one at a time. They locked me up alone a few times, but I kept going until I got every last one. I guess I'll keep my hair long the way it is. It isn't all that much trouble."
"When did you get out?"
"This isn't the confession hour. Some day I'll tell you all that stuff. When I feel like it. Right now I'm going downstairs. You just drive the boat, huh?"
Her voice was weary rather than angry. It seemed quite pleasant being alone. I put the sun tarp back up. I took a beer out of the cooler. A ray leapt high and came down, slapping his wings hard against the water to stun enough minnows for an afternoon snack. Over to my right, in the shallows near a mangrove island, a mullet made three leaps. Mullet come out gracefully enough, then land flat out, on belly or side. They are vegetarians. They graze the undersea meadows where parasites fasten to their skins, and so the mullet leap and knock them loose and go back to grazing. Flying fish leap to glide away from the teeth of the predator fish. Dolphins leap for the pleasure of it. Sailfish leap to shake free of the steel hook.
So why, after the five quiet years in the depths, did my bikinied creature leap free? To knock away the parasites, to stun something she wanted to feed on. To escape the predator or the hook. Or for the pleasure of it.
I shuffled all the square pieces and put the puzzle together again. The trouble with square pieces is that there is no way to know if any are missing or how many are missing. Or how many pieces do not belong in the puzzle at all.
I checked the next marker number against my Waterway chart and found we were making better time than I had estimated. We would be there in time for me to monitor the Miami Marine Operator frequency for Meyer's call.
I got out the chart to refresh my memory of the old channel. I had hiked it in. It looked like a lumpy, runover snake. I had enough tide to make it, and the slant of the sunlight helped me read the water ahead. Even so I nudged the mud several times where the turns were sharp, where I had to back and fill, like a tractor trailer truck threading a Mexican alley.
I laid the Flush close in, close enough to spit into the mangroves, killed the engines, and threw over a bow hook and a stern hook, planning to go over the side and walk them into better position and make them firm, but something changed my mind quickly. Three somethings. A sky-darkening cloud of ravenous mosquitoes, sand flies and stinging gnats. As I bounded down the ladderway, Mary Alice came out onto the stern deck, knuckling a sleepy eye. Then suddenly she began dancing, hollering, flailing her arms and slapping herself heartily. We both tried to get through the doorway at once. We got in, and I slammed it and went looking for any open, unscreened port. They were coming into the galley. I slid that screening across and got out the bug spray and gave them a taste of civilization.
"This is your goddamn paradise?" Mary Alice yawped. "This is where we are supposed to wait for good weather?" She looked down and whacked herself on the thigh. "You are some kind of dummy, you know that?"
There were little ones coming through the screening. I told her to shut up and close all the ports while I started the air-conditioning. Soon, after we had killed off the last of the invaders and the moving air began to feel cool, it began to seem better to her. I told her we were lucky there were no dive bombers, a kind of fly half as big as a mouse that folds its wings on high and comes arrowing down to take an actual piece of flesh out of your body, leaving a hole and a trickle of blood. He takes it away with him and sits in a tree and eats it like an apple. She wanted to believe I was kidding. I was, but only by about ten percent.
I explained to her that the wind had died, and when it came up again, it would be out of the north, and we could go out on deck without being dragged away and eaten. But for now I was going to assume the anchors did not need moving and the Muсequita did not need attention. I was not going out there. No.
Her disposition began to show considerable improvement, and suddenly it was time to gear up and listen for Meyer. She followed me into the pilot house, asking too many questions.
"Okay," she said, "so what good does it do if you know that somebody has come around looking for you?"
"Or you. Wouldn't you want to know who?"
"Knowing why is all I need to know. Anyway, what makes you think you can trust that hairy son of a bitch?"
"I don't think about it. I just trust him."
"If you've got somebody under the hammer, you can trust him. Otherwise, forget it."
"Another of Mary Alice McDermit's delicate aphorisms."
I tuned the channel another hair and got rid of some of the blur. We listened for the full fifteen minutes. There were calls for other boats and calls from other boats, but no traffic for us. She'd had a nap. She was getting hungry again. She was bored. She wanted a drink but didn't know what. There was a whiny sub-tone in her voice. I let her play with the radio, and she found some country music and turned it too high. It wasn't worth trying to get her to turn it down. She sat cross-legged on the floor, swaying back and forth, singing the lyrics she knew, scratching her bites.
He didn't phone on the second segment either. She was tired of the radio. She went in and changed her clothes and came back in a yellow terry thing like a body stocking that she said was too tight in the crotch. She kept tugging at it. It made her cross. She rummaged through the cabinet over the wall desk and found some cards. The only game we both knew was gin. She didn't give a damn what I might be holding and paid no attention to what I picked, so she constantly discarded right into my hand, and she constantly lost. She turned the radio on again and played solitaire on the floor in front of it. I don't know what her rules were, but she went out every time.
On the third and final fifteen minutes of monitoring, the marine operator came up with a call for "the motor yacht Busty Flush." She had a short list, and I came in and identified and took the call. Meyer sounded as if he were calling from the bottom of a big laundry bag. As soon as he'd start to come in clear, they'd dump in more laundry. But I managed to extract from the blur that there had been a fellow looking for me. I felt my pulse give a hefty bump. I waited for the next part of our little code. Mary Alice stood at my elbow, listening to the insectile low fidelity of my tin speaker and, with her thumb, trying to relieve the undue stricture of the nether end of her yellow garment.
It was sick excitement to know that I had placed a bet on a three-legged horse and every other horse had fallen down on the clubhouse turn and my choice was lumping home at historic odds.
Yes, the fellow had a beard. "His name is George Sharsh. He said you know him. Do you know him?"
"George who?" This was beyond the limit of our code, and I was puzzled.
"Sharsh. S as in sniper. T as in telescope. A as in arson. R as in rage. C as in careful. H as in hide. Sharsh."
"Sure, I know him."
"He said he'd be back tomorrow in the late afternoon or early evening."
"Right. What will I tell him?"
"Stall him." I hesitated. That was wrong. Meyer might think I wanted him to try to delay Sprenger. "No. Just find out what he wants and see if you can take care of it."
Out of the depths of the laundry he said goodbye. I hung the Bakelite mike back on the hook and flipped the set off.
"Who is this George Starch guy?" Mary Alice asked.
"Oh, he comes around with a problem now and then."
"Well… like a disposal problem."
"I don't get it."
She followed me back to the lounge. I had an urge to experiment. "George is sort of an agent. Somebody might be holding stock certificates that don't belong to them. George finds a way to unload them."
"He comes to you with stuff like that?"
"Once in a while."
I stretched out on the yellow couch. She leaned on the back of it, standing behind it, looking down at me. "I got this idea you were straight, sort of. What do you do, work both ends?"
"I do favors for friends."
"But Meyer wouldn't get involved in anything like that."
"Last night before I came aboard, I saw Meyer. He had a suggestion about your car. By now some friends of ours are baking a different color onto it, and they'll put Alabama tags on it and sell it right in Miami. Alabama tags make it easy. There's no title certificate. Meyer will probably clear three hundred."
"He suggested it? I'll be damned! Gee, you never know, do you? Whyn't this George Starch move things through… you know, regular channels?"
"That's like selling to a supermarket, M.A. They're so big they beat the price way down. I'm a corner grocery store, and I can make better deals."
"Unless they find out you're making better deals."
"I'm not a total damn fool, honey. If some hungry clown contacted me with a problem about a couple of barracks bags full of grass from Jamaica or Barbados, fresh off somebody's Piper Apache, I would route him to Frank."
She swallowed and licked her mouth and started to speak and had to speak again, the first attempt was so ragged.
"Frank? Frank who?"
"Frank Sprenger. What Frank do you think?"
"How would I know what Frank? How would I know?"
I reached up and patted her hand. It felt damp and cold. "Sorry. That's right. How would you know? He isn't in operations. He's just a guy who's acceptable to all parties at interest, and he works as a sort of traffic manager and resident auditor. I guess because you saw him all those times at the bank, I had the idea you would know what he did."
"Investments," she said in a small voice.
"All kinds, dear. All kinds. I never got to ask you this question. It's been in my mind. Frank is very very heavy with the ladies. You are far from being dog meat. I imagine he made his move. What happened?"
"He… isn't the sort of person who appeals to me."
I laughed. She asked me what was so humorous. I said it was like a deer in deer season refusing to be shot by a hunter in the wrong shade of red hat.
"Okay, so maybe he doesn't like girls as big as me. Some men are really turned off by tall girls."
"If everything else is in the right place, I think Frank might start to get turned off if a girl was fifteen feet tall and weighed four hundred lovely pounds."
"Well… he never tried anything. I had no idea you knew him at all. You never said anything about knowing him."
I stretched and yawned. "It was sort of a confidential relationship. He gave me a little fee to sort of represent him in the Fedderman problem. I wouldn't have fooled with it otherwise."
She gasped and stood erect. She ran around the end of the couch and came thumping down onto her knees on the floor beside me, sat back on her heels, and stared at me. "He paid you!"
"A token. Two round ones for expenses. What's the matter with you anyway?"
She thumbed her hair back. "Exactly what did he tell you to do?"
"Why are you getting so churned up?"
"This could be very important. Please."
"He told me he heard that Meyer wanted me to help Fedderman, who thought that the properties in Sprenger's investment account had been switched. He said he heard that it didn't appeal to me. I told him that it didn't appeal because I thought he could handle his own problems better than I could. He asked me, as a favor to him, to check it out. To keep my eyes open and keep his name out of it, insofar as our private agreement was concerned. I'd say he took care of it himself without my help. You and I know who made the switch."
I waited for a reply, but I had lost her. She was still there, but her eyes were focused on something further than the horizon. She was chewing her underlip. Her eyebrows went up over the bridge of her nose, separated by two new deep wrinkles.
I wondered if I was wearing an identical pair of wrinkles. Good ol' Meyer had found a Meyer-like way of imparting ugly information. Frank Sprenger was enraged. And I had better be very careful and do an efficient job of hiding, because Sprenger was planning to take care of things with a rifle with telescopic sights and then burn my house to the ground. I could not imagine Sprenger, no matter how enraged he might be, confiding his battle plans to Meyer, no matter how much Meyer encourages confidences.
But I could imagine Sprenger asking specifics of the location of the Flush, the terrain, the cover, and asking details of her construction and fuel, enough to enable Meyer to make one of his intuitive yet logical series of guesses.
"So he knows you then," she asked. "He knows where you live and how you live?"
"Certainly. Dave Davis and Harry Harris have been aboard this houseboat. You wouldn't know them, I guess. They work for Frank."
"If he came looking for you or sent somebody, would they ask Meyer where you are and if anybody is with you?"
"I would imagine so. But Meyer would say he doesn't know."
"Would Frank know Meyer would probably know?"
"I guess so."
"Oh dear Jesus God."
"You better tell me your problem, girl."
"He can make Meyer tell him."
"If Meyer sees that Frank is serious about it, he'll tell him. He'll tell him the Flush is set for long cruising and you're aboard with me."
Her face crumpled. She toppled onto her side and wound her arms around her head. She began to sob.
I sat up and reached down and patted her. "Hey! Hey, what's wrong?"
She sat up, snuffing, eyes streaming. "Wrong! I'm dead, that's what's wrong. You killed me, you dumb son of a bitch!"
She scrambled up, stumbled and nearly fell, and ran back to the stateroom and slammed the door behind her.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. Now I could sit at the game table and take some of the square pieces and turn them the way they belonged and glue them to the table. Too few to be able, from them, to discern all of the pattern.