Authors: John Lutz
A large-busted young waitress in an orange uniform and wearing a hat with Mickey Mouse ears on it approached the table. A balloon twisted into the shape of some animal Carver couldn’t identify bobbed after her with helium buoyancy on the end of a long string attached to her belt. No wonder the place had tourist trade.
Edwina ordered the Dieter’s Delite. Carver asked for a hamburger, French fries, and something called an Orange Sloshy.
“I bring clients here sometimes,” Edwina said. “I’ve closed several deals at this table.”
“It’s probably the Orange Sloshy that gets them,” Carver said.
Edwina ignored his wisecrack. She was looking at him with an interest he hadn’t seen before in her gray eyes. The intensity of that look scared Carver. It suggested that they had turned a corner. Now their fates were linked. She was a little bit afraid, too, and curious about where this was all carrying them. The three of them, Carver, Edwina . . . Willis. Or was he gradually displacing Willis, becoming what Willis had been to Edwina? Willis the perfect, gentle lover; she’d moaned his name beneath Carver. Carver didn’t want to be Willis, not to that extent. Is that where this would end? How it would end?
“He’s a thief,” Carver said softly. She knew who he was talking about. Willis. Always Willis. “He ran out on you; he didn’t have to do that.”
“I don’t know the circumstances. You don’t, either. Maybe he had to leave. Maybe he did it for me.” She didn’t sound convinced. “I have to give him the benefit of the doubt,” she said earnestly.
“He doesn’t deserve it,” Carver said.
She sighed, toyed with the menu, then placed it back in its metal clasp at the side of the booth, near the miniature orange salt and pepper shakers. “I should have guessed it would go wrong for Willis and me,” she said. “There were signs, but I couldn’t see them, not knowing what I know now.”
“Signs involving drugs?”
“No. Nothing like that. Like the time Ernie Franks caught him going through his, Franks’s, desk. That happened right after Willis started working at Sun South. He explained to Franks that he had a customer on the line and needed some information fast on one of the new units, thought he’d find it in a hurry in one of Franks’s drawers. Franks believed him; he’s kind of a gullible sweet bastard despite the business he’s in. I wanted to believe him too. And Willis is convincing. Nobody thought much about it after a while. Then there was the time Willis disappeared.”
“Only for a few days, not long before he moved in with me. He stood up some customers, cost the company at least one deal. Franks was furious, but Willis, being Willis, was able to smooth things over.”
“How? What did he tell Franks?”
“I don’t know, exactly. He told me he had to go to Miami unexpectedly.”
“Did he say why?”
“No. Only that it concerned some past business. You see, Willis went to Miami before he and I . . . became close.”
“I thought you became lovers before he went to work at Sun South.”
“We had.” She gazed directly at Carver. “We became close later.”
The tone of her voice said it even if the words didn’t: The closeness of complete commitment was what had come later, the absorption of self. Desperate love, like in one of the old movies Desoto watched. Some women still thought that way. And men. They shouldn’t. Carver had found that out. People continued to buy into that kind of thinking, that kind of love, because they had no choice. The idea made Carver uneasy.
“Maybe when Willis disappeared he saw some people he didn’t want anyone to realize he knew,” Carver said. “People on the wrong side of the law, in the drug game.”
would think that,” Edwina said.
The waitress brought their food. On the way back behind the counter, she paused and gave the balloon animal to a squirming preschooler at one of the tables. The kid promptly stuck it with a fork, popping it. Mom frowned. Dad thought it was funny. Family life.
Edwina was right, Carver decided. The hamburger was surprisingly good, the French fries were crisp, and the Orange Sloshy was delicious in its waxed cup.
They ate silently for a while, the way people do when they’re hungry and the food is simple and up to taste.
Carver watched Edwina across the table. Her dark hair was carefully brushed and arranged and she was wearing a minimum of makeup. She didn’t seem aware that Carver was studying her, but he knew the mask of Edwina could be unreadable. What was the mask hiding? What wasn’t she telling him?
“When will you be finished working tonight?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Late.”
“Do you want to drive up to my cottage when you’re free?”
She didn’t hesitate; she’d thought about it before he asked, had her mind made up. “I don’t think so, Carver.”
“If you can’t forget about Willis,” he said, irritated, “can’t you at least put him aside for a while?”
“Not at my discretion.”
“I was thinking about indiscretion,” Carver said.
Edwina pushed her cottage-cheese-and-orange-segments concoction away, no longer hungry. Or maybe that was the idea of the Dieter’s Delite.
“You’re acting like a moody adolescent,” Carver told her. He was angry with Willis again, taking it out on Edwina.
“I know,” she said. She wasn’t being emotional, nowhere near tears, merely assessing herself, like someone with a fixation they’ve learned to live with because there’s no available cure. “But I need to know about Willis so I can lock my mental door on him and go on. Can’t you understand that?”
“I can understand it,” Carver said. “I can’t accept it. You’re making life too damned complicated.”
Edwina stood up, then stooped slightly and picked up her blue briefcase. “I better go,” she told Carver. She didn’t sound angry or upset. “I probably shouldn’t have taken the time to come here, anyway.”
Carver didn’t say anything. He took a huge bite of his hamburger. If she wanted to leave, let her. He could be a brooding adolescent, too. Edwina stood staring down at him.
Then she surprised him. She bent down and kissed his forehead softly, lingeringly, and turned abruptly and walked from the restaurant.
He would have called after her, but his mouth was full of hamburger. By the time he’d washed it down with a sip of Orange Sloshy, she was gone. He heard her car pull out from the parking lot.
When Carver was almost finished eating, the waitress brought the check. Edwina had let him pay for her lunch. For her, that was a gesture of intimacy. Like her unexpected kiss. Carver shook his head. Edwina’s moods confused and astounded him. They were like violent weather before a seasonal change: rapid, unpredictable. Her life shifting in juxtaposition with the thing that warmed and sustained it, her earth rotating away from Willis, into what she dreaded would be her winter.
He paid the cashier, got another Orange Sloshy to go, and went out into the heat of the parking lot.
As he settled into the Olds, he spilled some of the Orange Sloshy down the front of his tropical-bird shirt, but the stain was lost in the colorful maelstrom of bright curved beaks and beating wings. The sudden coldness on his chest and stomach made Carver shiver.
He started the Olds and drove for home.
When he parked in front of his cottage, he saw Desoto waiting for him on the front porch.
The lieutenant was wearing an elegant gray suit with the coat buttoned, and he appeared even more out of place on the beach than Alex Burr had that morning. Desoto looked more like a handsome Spanish don with an eye for royal coquettes than a cop.
“Ah, Carver,” he said, as Carver stepped up onto the porch. He breathed in deeply, making it a meaningful gesture. “I love the smell of the ocean. I don’t get to the coast often enough.” As if to punctuate his statement, a particularly large wave broke on the beach with a slapping, backwashing roar. It seemed to bring with it a breeze carrying the faintly rotted, fishy yet somehow fresh scent that Desoto missed inland in Orlando.
“What brings you to the coast this time?” Carver asked. He unlocked the door, pushed it open, and stepped aside, leaning on his cane and waiting for Desoto to go in. A porch plank squeaked under the weight concentrated at the tip of the cane.
“Willis Davis,” Desoto said, moving gracefully past Carver into the cottage and looking around.
Carver followed. “I’ve heard enough about Willis for one day.”
“He’s a problem for you in more ways than one, no doubt,” Desoto said. He shot his white grin at Carver. “She needs to find him, see him again maybe, to forget him.”
“That’s what she seems to think.”
“You should be tolerant, Carver.”
“Oh, I am. Jesus, I am! Want a beer?”
“Yes, in a glass.”
Carver went behind the counter, got a Budweiser from the refrigerator, and found a clean water tumbler for Desoto. He watched Desoto pour the beer carefully, as if he were a chemist, so that the head of foam was precisely as he wanted it.
“Aren’t you drinking?” Desoto asked, putting down the empty can.
“No, I just had two Orange Sloshies.”
“Hm.” Desoto took a sip of beer, smiled with the satisfaction of sated thirst, and licked his lips. “We ran the Willis Davis prints,” he said. “His real name is Willis Eiler, a.k.a. William Corker a.k.a. Willis Davis. He got out of federal prison in Marion, Illinois, eight months ago after serving five years on a narcotics charge. He sold some cocaine to a federal agent. Eiler also has been convicted of swindling a wealthy widow in a real-estate scam in Missouri.”
“What are his stats?”
“Thirty-nine-year-old male Caucasian, five-foot-eleven, brown hair, hazel eyes. They wired me his photo.” Desoto reached into an inside pocket of his suitcoat, pulled out a black-and-white photograph, and handed it to Carver.
As he accepted the photograph, Carver realized he was breathing rapidly and his hands were unsteady. Finally he was going to see Willis Davis—or Willis Eiler.
It was a prison mug shot, full front and profile.
Eiler didn’t look worth all the fuss. He was an ordinary type with even features, a certain stubbornness in his eyes, and handsome not so much for any distinctive quality but because there was
distinctive about him. No rough edges. Nothing not to like. He’d have been good at modeling suits in the Sears catalogue.
So this was Willis, Edwina’s all-or-nothing bet. Maybe his Everyman quality made him a sort of blank canvas that women like Edwina longed to paint their dreams on.
“Keep it,” Desoto said, when Carver held the photo out to return it.
Carver glanced again at the regular, bland face in the photograph. “A crook and a con artist from the time he met her,” he said.
“Did you ever doubt it?”
“Yeah,” Carver said. “She had me doubting it for a while, off and on.”
“Even she can’t doubt it now,” Desoto said. “He was using her. He ingratiated himself with her so she’d help him get employed at Sun South, so he could set up his phony time-share racket.”
“He had to be good to fool her,” Carver said.
“He is good. And Edwina Talbot was ripe to be fooled. Wanted her last chance. Men like Eiler, they can sense that kind of yearning in women,
They feed on it.”
“Knowing who he really is doesn’t get us any closer to him,” Carver said.
“Not yet, maybe. But it might.” Desoto tossed back his head and drained the rest of his beer.
“Another?” Carver asked.
“No, I have to get back to Orlando. I wanted to give you the information and photo personally. And to see the ocean. I’ll come out here for a while on my vacation, Carver, and we’ll do some surf fishing. You can tie a line on the end of your cane, eh?”
“Sure,” Carver said. Six months ago, a few weeks ago, he might have taken offense at a remark like that, even from Desoto. The Edwina effect, he realized. Damn her, she was good for him.
After Desoto left, Carver got himself a beer from the refrigerator, then propped up the photograph on the table and sat looking at it for a long time, wishing there were some way he could crawl inside the mind of Willis Eiler.
That night Carver dreamed about sinking slowly in the dark ocean, opening his eyes underwater and seeing faces drift by—Edwina, Desoto, Willis Eiler, and there was Verna Blaney, with her scar blanched white by the sea. They might have been the faces of the dead; Carver couldn’t be sure. He called out to them underwater, silently. Only Desoto replied, seemed to shout a warning that was whirled away by the current as a thousand tiny, glittering bubbles. The face of Silverio Lujan floated past slowly, troubled, eyes closed. A man with Latin features seemed to drift straight up from the bottom of the ocean, extending his arms toward Carver.
Something—a sea creature?—closed its tentacles around Carver’s neck. He suddenly couldn’t breathe; his lungs were working in violent spasms; he was drowning. Someone was cursing hoarsely in Spanish. A huge man with foul and beery breath had his hands clamped on Carver’s throat, digging blunt, powerful thumbs into his windpipe.
Carver woke up. Suddenly. Seeking the reassurance of the real world. Finding instead vacuum and panic.
A huge man with foul and beery breath had his hands clamped on Carver’s throat, digging blunt, powerful thumbs into his windpipe.
ARVER WAS INSTANTLY
aware of the pressure on his chest. The man choking him bore down with the weight of a building.
Terror struck cold in Carver as he tried to draw breath and got only pain. His ribs seemed about to cave in; he thought he could hear the cartilage in his neck cracking under those probing thumbs that felt as if they were touching together
his throat, pinching off his air. The man’s rancid breath was hot on his face in the darkness as the attacker muttered a throaty stream of Spanish. Carver caught only one word:
Brother. He knew he was meeting Jorge Lujan, and that this was violent vengeance for that day on the road outside Solarville.
Carver squirmed convulsively and managed to get his own arms inside Lujan’s thick, locked arms. He clasped his hands tightly for leverage, bent his elbows as much as possible, and pried his arms out sideways against Lujan’s.