(story391.wpd: May 21, 1997) … now renamed as “Mostly Charleston People” Chapters one through seventeen: 23 chapters total
Phone static, lines still wet from the hurricane. “Come-on Nicky Lighten up. I’m game. Sure I’ll tag along your off-road forensic. Are you legal yet? I figured no. Got rubber boots?”
Game. Lighten. Forensic …. Charleston coppers all had City Station-issue cell-phones; my hand buzzed coded bandwidth. Human hands reek trivial, casual horror … so I’ve seen … ya wonder why Christ ever took a nail. Care to see more, a copper needs to see things twice visualizing truth; prepare-the-system perv Hricko would say. Visualize two times, using two different attitudes … allowing a 2nd persons sight; that’s Wigners friend who sees and makes real not you palsy.
Fuck what an attitude … I was calling from home, watching my infant son sleep peaceful … that’s why I called Fila 2nd day after the rancid hurricane murder, the string of murders continued. I was still on dept. admin leave, but sure to return. Stay current Captain Marsh had said. Charleston IA had got modern like cheap, leaky capacitors in an Abit motherboard.
“Yes I know the camp lodge. No, Nicholas I would not eat there. Well, maybe the flounder, but the shrimp are tidal not surf. Show? Tony has the downstairs vid-phone. What? Yes. Spanish. No. Argentina. Who always eats where they walk? No telling what gets mixed into the swamp-grass.”
Tony shouts up the long curving stairwell. “We have a dinner to give this evening. Ben will be pissed ...”
“No, your Sergent does not need to join us. She and I see a different world of clues.”
“Cocktails at four, my love.”
Whispering into the phone, but whistling into her stairway. “Anything fair game before three, Tony.”
Upstairs downstairs. Filas singsong did not help. The headache ran all round Tonys brain … left-to-right, front-to-back. Happened every time Nicky ducked & dodged a bullet, and then called back Fila to trim the 30-cal skid-marks. She had been a PI before … before she was his … Nickys PI and he minded any tapbacks a full goddamn! “More of DeLeon’s crap,” Vitalle muttered, working his mouth furiously under a broad, unshaved face.
“I’m sure to be back before three. If Nicholas wants to pitch a tent, he can also use the thumb.”
Fila’s buttery voice carried easily down the broad oak stairway. From the small balcony at the head of her four-poster bed, Fila would sometimes wake him in the early morning with her giggles. She watched the high tide mullet feed on the mossy granite beyond the walkway and he watched Fila . . . Reflections, friends said, who could have said worse. Lovers. Tony Vitalle would have died on the rack before admittingthat, but he had no complaint that she had let go of Hricko, made scarce with DeLeon. Since Fila had chosen to move with him - to the fog and tourist noises at the head of Charleston Bay - he had never once thought of Chicago. “Nobody’s busy but Nick.” His beard poked through the study door as her words teased. Stolen the morning’s what DeLeon had done. “Bastard’s kept his own time and everybody else’s.”
“Seen my straw hat, love? The one with the white band.” Clever woman, when she drew away, she always made him a part. That trick had cut at Hricko, had been the first and only warning he had volunteered. Vitalle switched the telephone to his left hand and scribbled numbers furiously. To hell with the hat. Time enough for her to discover it on the brass rail next to the door, on her way out.
Fila must have wakened at dawn. Vitalle remembered crawling off a sodden sheet, feeling the damp breeze from the open Bay window, smelling the bitter coffee. She wandered into the study, left a steaming silver flask of Blue Point espresso , made him taste her Saturday espresso before he continued the vidphone call to an Argentine meat packer. Fila fully fluffed in silver silk had refilled the cup before retreating to their upstairs bedroom. “More sugar, please, Tony. You can’t drink it black. A kiss too, for your sweet.”
In hobbled Spanish Tony apologized for the interruption. Came with the business. Senior Realto seemed undisturbed. His woman was no different, the Argentine had assured with a flourish, and took whatever man’s time she could find. Yes, the freighter filled with exotic nuts and beans would arrive in Charleston a day late. Tough titty. Tony grunted; wished Fila had no reason to be up. Tony Vitalle had never in his life slept later than five A.M. “Sleep is for the lazy,” he would say, and if he was conscious, he was working before first pink frosted the eighty foot loading cranes beyond Customs House. Senior Realto had put him on hold at $27/minute.
“Them investors of yours must already be rich,” he ragged on Ben Hricko, when
they swam at daybreak off station sixteen. Hricko’s response. “Find me an engineer up at three A.M.! There’s not enough coke in San Francisco Bay.”
“None that you didn’t pump earlier.” Information, not money was the broker’s business. Same as his, keeping that step ahead; what driver has the skill, the engine and the AC for a prime load of Kansas steaks. Still, for the honest customer, working early hours looked good, even if the job had been done night before. Vitalle never had to explain that to Fila.
Women, of course were not morning people; he would tell Hricko that too, and Vitalle’s suspicion was mixed with amazement when a woman sleeping next to him beat him out of the sack. More true of Fila than any other. To those he trusted - including Hricko - that was one story Tony would tell around. He wouldn’t tell much else, even to Hricko who once had shared her bed. Trusting and talking were two very different things with Tony Vitalle. Fila might have been a vapor from Charleston Bay, for all he was willing to reveal. Not that she lived with him, though when she finally decided to, her friends knew about it - shaking their heads in despair - before he did. No, she wouldn’t marry him, and he wouldn’t tell you that for sure. Not that her source of money was as unknown as it seemed unending.
“Remember, Tony, Lauren will be here at two; help her with the roast beef if you have a chance, will you?”
Christ, Fila had eyes; Hricko didn’t need to tell him that. Vitalle stretched the telephone cord over to his computer keyboard, and punched up a spreadsheet. He entered the price quotes given by the Argentine; modified a slippage formula, since the Argentine was a strict Catholic.
“For god sake, Tony, I forgot. The shipment of Cornwall beef for the Mills House came in on BOAC, eleven-thirty last night. I storaged it at the airport. And John called from Harris Ranch. Remember him? He was the fella wanted me to wear the silver spurs; cute guy! Lot bids are due by Monday - I would have gone 58 on the spot.”
That bastard had too many good ideas, Tony remembered, too many questions. If you did business with Tony Vitalle, uncertainty about his companion surfaced naturally. And always, Vitalle found ways not to know the source of the Jaguar, the sailboat or the Italian stained glass over the front door. If a neighbor on Charleston Battery, old Charleston or a new doctor, admired Fila’s necklace on a Sunday afternoon, he would only smile, and admit that pearls almost did the woman justice. “Damon Willis is bound to show up with Peg. Is that OK? Ben won’t be happy, but Damon’s a leach.”
“Big men don’t lie well!”
Crap. Okey … Willis sat hi-up on Hrickos computerized story-board of suspects in a serial killer case infesting the Low Country. He’d seen the matrix … Nicky didn’t like it much, a jealous reaction from the detective. Tony thought … ‘leach like Nosferetu dribbles when he sucks ...’
“And they fall quiet when a woman calls them out!”
His eyes wandered from the numbers wildly scrolling on the monitor. Not a bookish room at all, the teak paneled study where his business got done. Not at all like Hricko’s.That’s why he can’t keep a woman! But the damned partywas for Hricko’s candidate, Phil Regan. With the enemy scratching around, could be problems. Vitalle stroked his short beard and grunted. Served Ben right, for all his talk of a peaceful life defending Isle of Palm from developers while fucking the brains outa Bottie. That wasn’t just impossible, but queered the attitude, dulled sharp peeps and replaced stink-finger with sniffing around a rich bitch. Tony’s voice boomed through the door and up the stairs. “Ben should stick to his surfing.”
“He’s tired of the young ones.”
“Since when? One will come along … like Breech Inlet swimmers.”
“Nasty you my dear,” Fila pouts. “They’re cute together, Tony. You know Peg’s after him, like sheets on a bed don’t you? She wants aring! So they can lord it over the barrier islands.”
Made everything all right, just Fila saying so. Sure. Fila could make a lot of things OK. Tony Vitalle’s eyes followed the screen, allowed the orange lines to trace furrows across his forehead. He had some ideas about damned fools who thought they were lucky being chased. Ben should know better, after taking Tepy’s place on the Island. Rooting bad luck out of that was a life’s work, without having to worry about Peg Bottie’s scum.
Fila’s voice drifted down the stairs. “Come up here, Tony. Tell me if you like the skirt? It’s from Messer Dumeau Indiana Jones collection.”
Vitalle tracked the numbers on the HP 6000 screens, noted the small expected profit and waited for the live-cam of bright-blue Shirley Lake at Squaw. Seasons over, but five feet of wet snow cling to the western rim. Senior Realto must have thumbnails: “They drain us all, eh Senior Vitalle?” Everybody speaks English and that’s no damned improvement. Tony promises to phone the Argentine on Monday and hangs up with the newly clipped Partagas half-way-lit!
Both screens have auto-shifted into data-display mode.He finishes the second espresso and walks out of the den. Fila would be patiently waiting for him, posing breasts bare as last night’s love, in front of the oval, bedroom mirror. His steps hurry on the oak stairs; he had left her alone too long. His business done for the day - - except the gasket that needed a lub and hammering into #6 Kenworth AC unit - - the oldest, hardest question remained. For of all the things commodity broker Tony Vitalle would not tell about his lover, Fila McKay, he could least say why Fila chastely consorted with the detective, Lieutenant Nick DeLeon.
“You’re ready for North Beach, lady, not the swamp grass.” She wore parts of a tan safari-suit. He had found her spot second night, and from then on she never put on her own bra … she was naked for him and he could cover what he wished, when he wished and how …
“And you would take me there, show me off? When did you decide on my good fortune?”
She had perfectly light gatorskin boots through which no moccasin fang would ever penetrate. “Damn it, Fila. WANDA came through only three days ago. Those are bait for the hurricane rattlers,” he exclaimed almost hurtfully at her sandals and bare toes.
She moved back toward the mirror and scoffed. “Have you seen the tourists throwing chicken-legs off docks? Whites feed the crabs; crabs feed the snakes.”
His woman could afford that comforting thought! Tony gently stroked the back of her long, slender neck. “No garlic in the locket? The bugs will suck you dry. At least wear the windbreaker.” He kissed a spot on her bare throat, and then another.
She clung to him but scolded. “I won’t be looking like a rag, Tony. Get the yellow blouse from the closet, like a dear.”
Fila removed a thin gold chain from the mirror frame, and fastened it around her neck. She clipped on a mother-of-pearl case, preening, felt the cats-paw light and held the pose, a stolen fraction of time. Had she cared to notice, Tony did not move while she stood naked. He returned from the closet with the yellow blouse, and a leather waist holster that held a tiny, five-shot thirty-two caliber automatic. He had inserted the clip. “You might need this friend.” Though Vitalle directed the words to Fila, he thought them most true for the detective.
“Tony. You know this is a favor I do for Nick. He’ll look out.”
Tony stuffs the nickle-plate Glock into her shoulder-bag. “Wear the Glock when you need it! Nick probably locks his ten-gauge next to the wheel.”
For his sake, Fila knew better than to refuse. The pistol would harm no one lying on the back seat of Nick’s Ford, and Tony might remember to get oysters, not clams, for tonight’s party. She buttoned up the blouse and gave Tony a final hug, which lasted until Nick DeLeon’s horn broke open the morning.Hricko said the detective would not be a day early. Tony marched Fila down the stairs. At the oak front door, he stopped her with a last kiss. She held the straw hat in her hand and tweaked his ear. “Rock shrimp is cheaper this month; don’t allow Lauren to tell a story.”
“You come back to me.”
Nick drove the unmarked Chevy along the winding dirt road, dodging ruts and cracked palmetto trunks as green swamp closed around the two thin car-tracks. Local yanked at the wheel; tortion bars whine, the 389 snarls and Nicky yanks back. Locals called this an island … truth was when hurricanes swam ashore the ocean deposited swirls of sand along the Carolina coast. Some swirls lifted above high tide; fern, pine, seagrass and palmettos took root. Gators, egrets and moccasins built tunnel mounds. More sand was trapped … this!
Fila never minded the snakes. Never damn mind that along the salt grass edge of the marsh, every cluster of low pine curled a swamp rattler to its brown needles. Every mossy, wet green concealed a black-headed moccasin. Hard to see, those bitches with their trowel head pushing the green-eyes downward; not like a rattler … oh no.
Nick’s fear of the dark, striking forms was baby-fresh this September morning. The high boots and 40 caliber Browning automatic, safety off as he left the car, did nothing to dry the sweat that ran from his linen collar along the contours of his leather strap and holster.
A bent crutch, wasn’t it, the Fairchild girl having such peculiar friends?
Nick had parked around the far side of the tin-roof shack - - noone would call it restaurant, leaving the right wheel pressed dockside. They followed pine-heart decking rather than cross the parking lot, approached the rotted pilings from the tip of the island. The killers, both of them must have taken this path sometime, DeLeon thought and had he taken it two nights ago, the thin Columbian would have blown out his heart.
“We’ll not be eating here, Nicholas, when you finish gloating.”
He must do less of that. “Mama Charlaine’s hired a chef from the Mill’s House.”
“Nicholas, tell me again? Mill’s House Chef? One has never worked there.”
Nick though cold ‘black bitch would eat at a negro cafe and never fuck a man who did.’ Near buttery Fila coldplay thinking. But, Hricko did - - Tony did - - “Damn, Fila, a first for both.”
“Rambunctious with food, so cautious in the daylight . . . ”
“You don’t miss . . . guess not.”
“Pussers!” He scuffed at the soft, green bank that bordered the deck, wishing Fila - his twin - back in Tony’s bed. Further away than distance . . . she could have begged off for another sail with Tony, or an anointing of Catholic babies with hash oil.
“He must have been here – before. Swamp death is casual to the novice.”
DeLeon nodded … a swamp boy himself. But, nobody knew better than Fila the moccasin infested reaches south of Charleston Bay. Nick pointed to the plyboard-covered window. “With the Columbian. Here. Hold on Fila. Are you wandering?”
“Certainly not. You did bring me to the scene of your crime, didn’t you Nicholas?” Fila’s ankles lay bare under a long, loose safari skirt, but she spared herself nothing of the dense myrtle thicket. She brushed by . . . Nick clicked off the receiver, his channel connected to the twin. She said. “What do you expect me to find, now, with the trampling all over the bush? If any sign was left, it’s under a fool’s heel mark now. You are just like clumsy white water buffalo.”
“Bunzetti is black.”
“Nobody from Isle of Palm is black.”
“Tell that to his white wife. Far back she’s a Laval, and considered a family progressive.”
“That makes her white?”
“Makes her Bunzetti’s kind of white; are you bothered Bunzetti’s got some planter blood in him?
“Who doesn’t?” Fila swatted at the wordplanter, at the notion that low-country white blood had any purity to it at all. “Deputy Bunzetti’s grandmother fucked an Italian lawyer from New York. She kept the child, when it came, and the boy took to the trawlers when he grew. Some say the father bought him the first one. You know how the whites are with guilt.”
“So the kid made good.”
“And his also. Until one married Thea.”
Only steps further, Nick pointed to his right, to a fantasy.“He was a tough sons-a-gun, once I had him by the tail. First in the car, then with the boat.” Nick’s boots found the edge of the marsh, and he knelt down, feeling the soft mud between his fingers. “We pulled the 223-slugs out of the bank right about here. That caliber … military caliber tells a lot.”
“To which retired Johns Isle Sargent!” Fila had taken his arm, pulled him up, brushed close, confiding as a sister might confide. “Not an island person at all, the escaped one if that’s what you want me to say. Say just because he proved unable to shoot from a skiff.”
“He only missed by a short step. Here! You can see where my left elbow hit the mud, after I tossed the flashlight.” Nick hovered over the matted patch of salt grass. “The boys didn’t tromp that down! Of course I had the shotgun in my right hand.”
Fila stepped gingerly from the bank to behind the young cedar which had somehow caught her attention. Nick knew there was, of course, nothing to really be seen. Not after the rain, not the truth of the matter. Fila raised her face toward Nick, and said. “You’re not the one to get the vapors, Nicholas, when a bullet comes calling. The left arm can remind you any time.”
He shuffled. “Cutter must have been half way out, and pitch dark except for the flashlight. Raining moccasins to boot.”
“Motored not poled, like any geeche would choose.” Fila untied the blue silk bandana that covered her forehead. “Most of the island men I know use nothing but a single shot 22 caliber rifle. Coon, pig or snake. Night or day makes no difference for their aim.”
“I figure him for a crabber, or some such hard type of man. Did you hear me, Fila? A young, strong working man with a taste for tan, blonde attitudes.”
Fila dallied at the cedar. Her eyes seemed to follow their path through the grove, then come to rest momentarily on the spot where he had sucked another life from the salt grass. But she finished shaking her head skeptically, a serious, wrinkled cast to her cinnamon brow. “Count on it, he’s one of your city people.”
That twice-over certainty startled him. Fairchild had not been a city girl, not that kind. What crime scene had Fila in mind? He intended to ask her just that, but she had wandered away. Nick looked after her. She was sweet brown, never wasted his time and never talked by him. She would have made a hell-of-a sister . . . Apology wasn’t the word. “Didn’t mean to fish at you, Fila. Shouldn’t have prodded.” Should have trusted, he didn’t say. “You’re wrong about Bunzetti, no matter how much white he’s got.”
“And what does the wife think she has?”
“First off, she hasn’t lost nickel-one of the family coin.” Fila made to object but Nick hushed her. “She has the new attitudes moving her way. Black and white enough for the Island folk. Frank’s a Citadel grad. Isle of Palm deputy now. Police Chief next year. Or the next. Then? You tell me!”
“Imagination Nicholas, provokes ambition. So Bunzetti gets to lord it over the retired Yarders and hippies. How does that move his wife along?”
Nick took her arm, feeling smart. “They’re pushing out the old Island people. New professionals replacing them. Marina, golf course, what’s next? Wioka Land Company loves New York money.”
“You’ve been talking to Ben? Does he say the women love Wioka Land Inc?”
Actually, it hadn’t been Hricko at all; he’d not spoken to the man in months. For Nick, change was purely a matter of crime. “Beemers, Fila, not pickup get lifted on Isle of Palm these days. Who do you figure drives those?”
A blush might have been detected, had she not turned her face under the shadow of the straw hat. “If the new white girls kill this easily, how poorly Isle of Palm will use them.”
Nick considered. “Used poorly?” Fila flirted cruelly with the truth.
They reached the restaurant along with the Saturday brunch crowd. Beemers and Jags filling the parking lot with upscale couples. “Pan-flounder in iron skillets. Sure you’re not interested?”
Filas nose wrinkled. “Fried fish like old granddad.”
The new shack door swung open and an old silver-hair negro man ushered a pair of flighty expense-account businessmen into the lobby. Fast as moonshine the door swung shut. “You must be Mista DeLeon,” said the cap, vest & tie Uncle Tom ignoring Fila. Your wife Ms Eve seen to the Wappo Cut clinic for us fisher-folks … we got more vaciine these dayz than swamp moccasins got poison.”
“You fixed the door.”
“Yes Sa Mr DeLeon I can run a screwdriver well as a shrimp-net. Mop up the blood too - - when you poke that Big-10 no tellin’ where the spray ends up. Heavy tires messed up the parking lot; need a gravel-load to smooth it down.”
Ruts were shin-deep. “I’ll make sure the City send you a check for repair.”
“Yas yas massa been promising that check since grandpa last fired his musket - - back in ‘31.” Tipped his cap. “Back to business Sar; you and Mss Eve welcome any time.” Again the door opens and closes.
“He didn’t care much for you,” I say moving us away from the rusted, sheet-metal overhang. “Some IOP surfers feel the same way, only they have different ideas on race.”
“Us Nicholas! Uncle Tom never learn; he didn’t like the races mixing, when there’s no need. Like his attitude - hell to get a decent plate if you’re not family.” She was skeptic and pouting and not wishing him well. “You’re not comparing the islands, this finger of palmetto trees with Isle of Palms. Beware Nicholas, this one hasn’t signed in blood to whiten its offspring! ”
“Only the visitors.” He could have smiled. “Fair play, Fila. Even this white boy knows the islands north aren’t as devious as those south of the bay.”
“And the people are like the islands? That is trash talk, Nicholas. I don’t want to believe I heard it from you.”
Nick didn’t mumble, but he mumbled this. “Islands, like people, follow the money.”
Her next words caught him up, froze him like the unheard bullet. “Worry the islands as much as you wish. More likely you’ll find something talking to Ben. He did know the dead girl, and innocently at that. So most believe. But for her friends? Ben is not so innocent about them.”
“Figures you shuffle for a gambler sweet on you. Make sense of Hricko. Uh-huh.”
“He’s happy you ignore him, but don’t be surprised if his good fortune belongs to another. SOB has gone to war with Wioka Land company and lost bodies are bound to appear common where once outre.”
Fila again with a cinch. “Better watch your first step. There’s a biter among that group. She’ll give no warning before sinking the poison into you.”
They pulled from the parking lot in a haze of blackening flounder, and kind of funk. Fila lit a Camel and rolled down her window. Bits of swamp island stench lifted from the puddles. Nick recalled that when Fila lived with Ben, for that period of wreckage around the time of the three Saturdays, she made him pick out the bones before she would touch a fish. Nick couldn’t remember how he had run across that story; maybe Tony had dropped it.
“Now don’t that make a toodle-do, Ben charming the Island snakes. Does he make a separate basket for each one?” DeLeon pretended no love for the new, barrier island whites. Maybe Hricko found a use. “A different tune, perhaps, for every woman?”
Fila puckered. “One basket, Nicholas, if that wouldn’t surprise you. And the same tune, if Breach Inlet sings. You’re not forgetting Bartlet, and those who fought him over the dunes?”
Wioka Land LLC, that’s what Nick heard. Fila had let him blunder on, this time talking. Tangling with the broker was no longer Nick’s option. “Hricko’s pickedthat fight?”
Fila quieted, almost sliding away from an uncertainty. “Ben’s picked his friends; an enemy waited.”
Tell him about enemies. He was a careful man, a careful detective. Even now, his fear of the obscure detail made the taking of a next breath seem natural. The Roadrunner his Ford had hounded case in point. Stolen from a speed shop, night of the murder. Unexceptional, but the car wasn’t local; the shop was in Myrtle Beach. How had the killer got seventy-five miles up the road on a hurricane night? Same with Hricko’s friends. Perhaps everyone in the group, including Fairchild, showed fangs; someone had struck back.
But Fila picked at him most. As he wove back through the island pines, past the stump of fallen oak that had tossed his bandit-chaser like so much driftwood, Nick wondered why she had pondered so deeply over a six-year old, straight grown cedar? Had the woman felt bored wondering how he could possibly be alive?
When he asked her, she responded simply. “The tree has been tended.”
Nick grasped at an odd story. Kiri had related it over dinner at the Mill’s House some months before. “Kiri says that Ben’s turned forester, not you.”
Fila sighed, unamused. “Rat bones, picked clean, were next to the trunk. No doubt, one of the big dock rats from behind the restaurant; I should have shown them to you. Yesterday, your buffalos might have seen the bones, too.”
“Animal rights, Fila. I’m one-hundred percent for them. Screw the trees.”
She did not respond to the sarcasm. “Beneath the bones was a root of the young cedar, partially eaten through.”
Didn’t need me to give the tour, did you? Sandals kicking at the pine needles, Nick remembered, graceful fingers about the bark. He wondered if Fila had played with the branches as he thought the killer had?
The Chevy pitched gracelessly down the last, short sandy incline and onto Folly Beach Road. “Who killed the rat, Fila? One of my city people? How and why?”
“Your lab should know the names. So would a protector of the native forest.”
“Christ almighty. That swamp island’s been logged a dozen times. What’s native?”
“Someone who cares that the visitors demand the restaurant, and the restaurant demands the rats. What person spread the poison? I would be a smart one to know that.”
Those words, “smart one,” refused to go away as Nick drove west toward the city.Hricko’s the smart one, and he would tell you that. He decided just short of the Wapoo Cut, and they pulled into a third rate diner with a picture of young Jesus in the window and a pay phone standing next to the front door. He crossed a finger and dialed the city crime lab number.
A young intern answered. “Worth the time, sonny, to have your name on the report? Get famous with me.” ”No problem Mr. DeLeon,” the kid too eager with a Clemson voice. “I’ll get the samples and do the work-up myself. Just watch the tricks! But which swamp island is it?” Hard to shut the kid up, once he started. Grad school at Duke. Ambitious type, working on a Saturday. Knew what he was doing, at least the babble. Promised TLC’s and a GC- mass spec finished in the morning. “Must be a tight job market,” he blurted and clicked off.
Nick then phoned Ben Hricko - he could expect the detective’s friendly visit. Hricko’s response tricked back, prickly pear, from surprise to amusement to an obscurity. His last question had been, of course “ . . . from the twins?” You’re the smart one, Hricko smattered, Figure it out.
Fila looked grim when he returned to the Chevy. They were headed for Isle of Palm. It was no part of the deal that she see Hricko. “No way in heaven, Nicholas.” Her face liquid, but she had measured each word so the singsong cadence dropped five little ice-cubes in his lap.
“Heaven can wait!” Nick assured her. Nothing would be required after they arrived. She would be . . . aspirit. He figured she might do it anyway, join him for the tangle; Fila could have objected more.What did Hricko know? What could he get out of them? Satisfied with the chances, Nick allowed the Chevy to wallow and pancake through the fat, streaming curves leading onto the Ashley River Bridge.
Nicks stainless Rolex ticked through 10:45AM. Driving from John’s Island to Isle of Palm is a matter of bridges. The scar over the Wappo Cut, the squat concrete plank over the Ashley, the soaring steel wing over the Cuppa … Cooper . . . the cranky rusted drawbridge to Sullivan’s Island, spanning the Intercoastal Waterway. Leaving behind Breach Inlet, currents would have sent him to the ocean, the bay, or a half-dozen endless bogs. Like that, endless bridges, the bog, talking to Hricko with any purpose. He didn’t think Fila had ever tried.
Nick’s method - without malice or plan - senseless quickness. He turns off Palm Boulevard onto Forest Trail Road, It tracked low along the marsh, waving fields of salt grass to the horizon. Only a row of stilted homes interrupting, nudging outward from the fringe, opposite old pine. Green tips rocked in a turn of offshore wind. A hint of the broker’s nonsense - manufacturing distance. She wasn’t immune! The closer Nick got to Hricko’s, the further Fila drifted away.
He tugged at her. “Some comfort, but then, men are weird about death. You think so, Fila?”
“Don’t be on him about it, Nicholas. He’s mostly forgotten . . . ”
“You say comfort. Perhaps the marsh gives him that?”
“I’d have taken the perp. So would Vitalle.”
“You have the baby.”
“And you, Fila, have Tony.”
Slow nonsense, but it happened, close to the broker. Like nesting with a snake, after it bit your hound. Nick’s words to Kiri one hellish December night, shortly after Hricko had purchased the Tepy place. Nick always thought of it that way,Tepy’s, from the name on the thick folder of police reports. What had he expected from the Korean bitch? She had understood nothing, muttering strangely about marshcats, while feeding him her honeyed nipples. Now she had slipped away, while Eves buttery love conjured 200 years of negro wenches teaching white mams what a man needs from a woman. Nobody was saying how deeply involved Erlyne Tepy had been with the New York girl, or that Hricko hadn’t known more and said nothing. Sam had sweated him afterward, said Hricko thought like a child molester and talked like a Jesuit.
Nick figured he’d crumble, but Hricko had settled into the high-beamed house on the marsh and never spoke of those Saturdays. Nick cruised the Chevy up behind Hricko’s Triumph, popped out of the car and came around to Fila’s side. It helped him not a bit. “You gonna drive off with the car, let us talk, or cosy up to your old flame? That might help me. Tony doesn’t mind.”
If Fila asked - but she would not insult him - he would claim no memory of earlier promises to the contrary, and he might have been telling the truth. Nick confused useful with true, no surprise to Fila, who drew up in the seat, arms around her knees, the long skirt flowing over the center console and the wooden stock of his shotgun. “No, Tony wouldn’t mind, but Tony would care.”
“I’ll run about at front beach; have a sandwich at the Greeks. Will an hour be enough time for you? Or two? He will stretch your patience before that, no matter that the house is beautiful. ” Fila wheeled Nicks Chevy a 180 and pealed out toward front beach.
Nick had baked shell & sand white-brick underfoot. As a morning place Bens house invited. For a property all-but washed into the marsh Fila had the beauty part right. Near the front door, a wild rose struggled along the grillwork leading upward to a balcony. It overlooked the entire island, small, shabby, sharing color with the rose. Vertical red cedar plank covered the house excepting the north face. Goat Island cedars lay that way, through a heavy glass pane, as did the exquisite tidal marsh between Isle of Palm and James Island. On three sides a lawn surrounded. Over Fila’s protest, Hricko had allowed these grounds to go politely native.
The Duke intern punched through on Nicks cellphone. “Data got back fast Lieutenant, since I sent samples to MUSC not Columbia. I got a girlfriend in pathology.”
Fast bastard. “What’s pathological about rat poison?”
“Plenty about this stuff. It’s high-grade Warfarin … used by heart docs as a blood-thinner for humans. Stuff you get only with a prescription.”
“Yeah a prescription ... or a pal in the business - - like your galpal who could provide a supply every booty call!”
“Ha ha you got me there Lieutenant. But, even she couldn’t get the Salvia divinorum laced into the Warfarin. A shake & bake mix, not professional , but that rat still died on cloud-9. Funny also - - high levels of beta-radiation. Did the Feds use that island for nuclear testing?”
“No” … was the damned lie. South Caroline hospitals had dumped their radio-logic waste there for 20 years, on those fingerland pokes of sand and palmetto till the EPA stopped them. Professional whites had started moving to James Island. Hot dead niggars were one thing, but some caskets were lined with lead sheet! Different time some say; Ben said IOP sand was heavy with industrial-grade cattle antibiotics. Hadn’t killed humans yet, but fish virus had grow immune. “Okey partner,” Nick palavered, “thanks for the hustle. Hope galpal is as fast with her mouth as she is with her hands … whatever she does.” And hung up.
Walked off the driveway looking around at Bens place. One/two/three stories … depended on how ya counted. First floor rested on a ledge of crushed shell. Further down, Tepy had driven six concrete pillars 80 feet into the island marl. Ran a thick iron pipe down after them … ‘water supply’ she said; Hricko never believed her if you believed him, but never filled the hole. He considered tearing up the crushed shell port extending into the swamp, and when he didn’t even the most radical SOB people said nothing. Looking north, the open terrace cantilevered above the windows, over the dock. It was that view that pricked his memory, in the detective’s opinion, though Hricko ran here to forget. Fila could not understood, for she had never brought death to a woman.
“Jenni heard you two blocks away,” piped Hricko Bogarting his fifth spiff of-the-morning. He looked like a scarecrow, Nick thought, in T-shirt, Docksides and cut-off jeans, watching quietly from the south-faced balcony, admiring his Saturday. Fila volunteered a wave, then slipped into the Chevy and drove away. Pure relief to Hricko, Fila’s leaving, for he immediately leaned far over the railing and modestly called down. “You know how fickle women get this side of the Bay.”
Nick stepped through the sea oats toward the voice. Hricko wound down the rusted, circular stairway, his dock shoes padding on the metal rungs, unhurried, almost uncertain, Nick thought. Rust fit with the red cedar, Hricko fit to the rust. A patch of waist highrustica at the base surrounded the rose. “You look after the women, I hope, better than the god damned front lawn. Isn’t there some city ordinance?”
Hricko eased off the iron step, came up two paces and then down through California poppies. His smile tentative for the long firm handshake, hands rough as live oak from manual labor thatwas unnecessary. His words appeared unchosen, but Nick didn’t try to quick-study the face. “All natural, my friend. Sand spur grass, lavender, sea oats and cedar. See the three small guys at the front? Give them forty years and they’ll be the biggest cedars on the Island.”
Nick considered the saplings, burned a Red, tilted the Panama to shade his eyes. Affected concern. “Rats stay away from the roots, do they?”
He had thrown out the question easily, but Hricko still gave him a queer look.Here, it said, life held an edge.Come see how this works, the look said. “A fair question. What’s the sudden interest in trees?”
“Not the trees, Ben, but the rats.”
Hricko led through the sand flowers, passed a scatter of low bushes that, if not poison oak, were a second kissing cousin, and over to the driveway side of the lawn. “Watch your step … they move sometimes.”
Off the crushed shell ledge, under the frosted windows on the north side of the house, Hricko stopped, pointed to a clump of brush along the dock pilings. Nick couldn’t see a thing, but then again, he would have kept his foot out of it. “More than a matter of style.” Hricko waited for Nick’s reaction - it stayed under a crushed poppy. Hricko seemed too pleased, as if he, rather than the tidal wash, had scrambled the branches. Some of the refugee in it, a weaver of feelings forgotten, polishing dross for gold. Some of the storyteller - in the broker’s voice, a bit of the deceived. “I don’t kill snakes anymore. Got a really nice moccasin breeding here, nights snake you know. Can’t expect to see her now. On the other side, next to the dock, a swamp rattler lives in the scrap flagstones. No rats on my property, Nick.”
The detective fingered the slight bulge under his left armpit and shook his head, smiling at the man who seemed all too peaceful. “Trees for the grandchildren?”
“They’re good for everybody’s life, as long as they have it.”
Nick groaned. “Growing hat-bands and planters. Good for you.”
He followed Hricko across the crush, past the Triumph and up the flagstones to the front door. “Guess you watch your step at night. Hell on the girls friends though, if they work late, or leave early.”
“Even small things, Nick, make a difference with the Island. She wants to take care of herself, and only needs us to live quietly.”
This groan slipped out. Nick needed the lecture. Before Charleston, before NYPD, a John’s Island boy who had cut rattlers big as a fire hose from cotton bales. Ashe viewed the environment, the stinking rot-water swamp, you killed the part closest to you, before it killed you. What a pisser of an interrogation he had pulled out of this clear-washed Saturday morning. Hricko returned hisare you insane grin, with awe know how you feel; that’s OK look, and led him through the oak double front door. “New kitchen cabinets - in Cherry.”
“Salt air rots the birch.”
But not you, my friend, busy with the rot. A house built as much for Hricko as anyone, framed in oak and cherry and teak. Ceilings high in the plantation style. “Helps to buy when the blood’s fresh, eh Nick? Couldn’t have touched it otherwise.”
“Fila thought you were lucky, I remember. Who had the mortgage?”
Barlet. Fila told him that. “Tepys property always gets bigger .. that’s what TJ says when he’s straight.”
“Last year/’ Hricko laughed. Hricko had moved in eighteen months ago, carefully repaired the terrace flooring with Tony’s help. Nick hadn’t been in the house since, so a bit of a tour followed. Hricko had no furnishings. An antique coal and gas stove next to the fridge; a huge, rose-colored bong dominated the floppy, living room sofa. He might have afforded more, should have in the detectives view, since Ben Hricko was not a bad stock picker of the technical persuasion. Tony swore to that. More than one Island woman had told him so.
“Safe rooms, for all the good that did Tepy. Lock ‘em out, people are hell. If twas people that did in the witch.”
Nick shrugged off the story-line as the teak doors slide appart; his first time in the Intercoastal-facing study. A single, bulletproof pane of glass caught the marsh; safety door of metal honeycomb, double lock. An electrically controlled skylight allowed the afternoon sun; black and white photographs speckled mahogany walls. He ignored the chrome 357 S&W. Not the two computer systems, HP 6000s, each set in a separate oak cubical and talking to it’s own modem and data-lines – nor the Convex CPU-farm that sat hehind them in it’s own air-filtering cooler. He didn’t know frame-relay, but he would ask around - a decade better technology than City Station.
The double bedroom doors were open - only a bed - with an unadorned, rosewood base. No bedposters, no headboard. How you could ever tie a woman to that? Nick followed Ben’s lead onto the redwood terrace.
“Tepy sure could pick a view,” Nick exclaimed with some envy. “Do you ever worry about her ghost? Like, it might want to come back and claim the property?”
Just the slightest hitch; “I burned her bed; had a new hickory frame shipped down from Ashville. Hricko shot him a not-quite-funny look.
“Tony says she hated the heat, and he might know something about that. I imagine Erlyne stays busy, looking for the coldest part of hell. The bong clean?”
“Use it for sprinkler, now; have to cheat with the poppies.”
A bottle of Wild Turkey appeared from a small oak cabinet; china mugs followed. Three splashes - to your health - Nick turned to survey the marsh that extended a mile and a half north. Rippling green sprinkled with Heron white. The dock below connected to a narrow offshoot of the Intercoastal Waterway. They both took a first long pull before Hricko’s voice found him enjoying the drift. “The wife OK, and the new kid?”
“Boy doing fine, Ben; the girl’s thirteen, two years early.”
“Promotion, Tony mentioned.”
“Internal Affairs politics stunk worst than vice. I’m back to the stiffs after three months.”
“Black book chubbier, I’ll bet.”
Spinning the threads so soon. Hricko would have him fully wrapped and packed off without so much as a whimper, if he didn’t stir. Nick said slyly. “Not half what must have come with the house? It’s what, now. Eight months since we last talked at Tony’s? Looks like you’ve really settled into a new life.”
“I’m hanging out, OK. Work on the deck, work on the yard.”
“Lost some weight, too, I’d guess. You’re not trying to cook the women into bed anymore, are you Ben?”
“I’ll pull the grill out any weekend, but I stay busy.”
Nick pulled at his bourbon. Indeed, the man could roll out the grill, everybody welcome, an entire nest of his vipers.But Fila would not come. Nick thought better than to say that. “Still working on that heavy tan, or is it a bit of Pennsylvania Gulla sneaking out?”
“Too much night work for you, detective. Tan’s gone to hell. The Triumph was blocked up for a month; blown transmission; the rebuild finally came from Chicago last week. I’m traveling these days, doing more business in California with new companies south of San Francisco. I can get you into a start-up real cheap.” He sniffed at Nick’s interest. “Video controllers have become hot stuff.”
Now the indirection, an invitation really, Hricko’s offer to get down to business, to the trade. He had pulled a small marble table from the rail of the veranda and placed it between them. It held the drinks and a blue-green conch ashtray, and formed the center of the broker’s distractions. Stocks not even half a bribe, the detective thought, to send his ass packing back to the city. Only an invitation to the blue sky; Nick figured on giving an invitation of his own. A first bead of sweat rolled along his cheek.
“I’m stuck in the cotton fields, Ben, and stuck in the swamp. We used to say it was the Negro problem, kept us down. Times change.”
“Don’t see me moving very fast either.” Hricko swung his arm in an arc which encompassed the entire eastern marsh. “Only the muck is different.”
Hricko pursed his lips between two fingers, looking prepared and waiting. Nick sensed the filter Hricko had positioned between himself and the last, worst thing. Oblique answers were only the start. “About that Island muck, Ben, the deep stuff that hides under the grass. I need to wade through it like a native.”
“So Fila set you on me. I should have known. Tony called last night with the dirt on your latest adventure. You don’t mind me calling it that? Lucky you, Nick.” Hricko scratched at the dichroic shades tucked to his close cropped head. “ One bad guy down, one escaped. Unfortunate, the Fairchild girl’s death. What am I supposed to know?”
Nick ran a hand through his hair, graying early his wife had warned, and smiled across at the broker. “You hadn’t gotten her into the sack, I understand. She must have been pretty.” Hricko’s hand played idly along the wooden chair. “Deb Fairchild and I were both on the SOB committee. We worked together doing door to door canvas for about the last six months.”
Nick feigned a modest ignorance. “SOB?”
“Save Our Beach. Or Suck Our Boobs, when the gals want to be smart about it.”
A slow grin caught them. The detective believed Hricko’s women would be clever, too clever for his own peace and too clever keeping a distance. “Was Fairchild dedicated to the cause?”
“I’d say she was aware of the pressures on the Island, and her own interests and the people who had those same values.”
“Nobody from Isle of Palm laid a hand on her.”
“That eases my mind, Ben, you being so certain. So tight with the lot of them. Boys and girls on the SOB committee?”
“We mix the races, too.”
And motives, Ben, you’ve whipped a creole of those together, haven’t you and the Island. Nick continued. “She have a particularly close friend in the group? Somebody with the hots? No wild eyed, back-to-nature type ?”
“SOB’s not really a dating service. We get together every other Thursday to plot acts of terror. Sunday evenings spent corn-holing the voters with propaganda. Want to see a pamphlet?”
The detective considered, but quickly shrugged off the idea. Any obvious idea of Hricko’s. Terror was a different matter; plenty of questions in that basket. Let the broker pick one. Hricko found a wrong answer. “I keep the voter registration data on my computer. Know what an RDB is ? Never mind; show you another time. Deb used the integrated spread-sheet program to handle the money; twenty-five hundred dollars in the SOB treasury as of last meeting.”
Nick pressed across the table. “She wasn’t involved with pushing Barlet’s dozer into the Inlet, was she? Red neck would have the perps killed if he found them out, and think he was doing God’s work. He’s that kind of mean.”
For a fraction, Hricko lost his smile. “Illegal as hell, Barlet lopping off the first dune, and the court said so afterward. After we stopped him. Not even private property, below the line of mean high tide. I’d have put a bullet between those fat, beady eyes if that’s what it took, but no, to answer your question. Deb was not involved; didn’t even move to Isle of Palm until March.”
Nick frowned at his bourbon, like it should promise more than one answer and give none - like Hricko. Nick stood up and walked to the terrace railing. Circled back. “About the men in the group. You said there weren’t that many.”
“Only about four dozen. Need a list?”
Then the detective jumped two steps. “Was Deb a kink? Nothing of the hard trade in Fairchild, or the strangetaste, that might spot a danger?”
Even a ripple of sentiment in Hricko’s face would have betrayed. “She was the caring type, like I said. I’ve seen her, weekends at the Comber, with all sorts. Even some of Peg’s pals.”
Nick reached down and tugged at the front of his white linen jacket. Past the side of Ben’s dock, he had caught a glimpse of the diamond patterned form quietly swimming toward a pile of rocks. Ben, now beside him, also had caught the ripples from it’s darting head, but looked off toward the marsh; arms folded; at ease. Too at ease with evil, to the detective’s lights. Was making it a habit. “Bottie’s group? Damned if you Commie types don’t get around.” He followed the thick, wedged head ease onto the flagstone. “Did Fairchild own a sailboat or crew for someone else?”
“I think Deb borrowed the Hobie, once or twice.”
“She’s not much for the water, then? Only the Island atmosphere.”
“Hell’s the Island atmosphere? We body-surfed together, along with half the island. Every tow-head kid with a hard-on was after her twice. She worked with SOB, ate fish I imagine, and picked sand spurs out of her toes. Worked twelve hours a day, drank the rest. Screwed in the dunes like everybody between North Beach and Fort Sullivan. Lived well. Deb simply turned up the wrong card.”
Nick’s arms flew back from the railing in a boiling rage. “Fairchild’s murder was no poke and cut. Politically connected or connected to politics. The bastard had it all planned, maybe for weeks. Perhaps he already knew her.”
“Is that it, Nick? Friend’s don’t let friends bleed.”
“He ripped her, Ben. Opened her from ear to tit like a melon. Soul to God, husk to the river.”
Hricko’s eyes steeled. “I’ve seen. He’s hit before, if we can trust your locked-down records … it’s not just the police looking for this perp.”
Noon on the Isle of Palm like it’s most virulent griefer rose a blistering, orange-white ball of sun. Did Christ ever smile? Never know it from St Peters epistles. Or Hrickos recorded, short-wave snatches of exchange between Ibn-Ali, Peg Bottie and Saul Levine. Figure that - - scandal too hot for phone-lines! I finished a green ice-tea and wiped sweat from the leather band of my white Panama. Staling, humid air died on the second line of dunes; stinging beach-flies did not. Hurricane swill rotted, released from the marsh in a high tide that pegged Hricko’s dock to the bronze stoppers to the top of their posts. Miseries unremarkable by the Island’s standards.
If I wanted to get abstract about it, Isle of Palms rocked with a kind of questioning of men by the Island; some exchange, some posing of small verbal problems for those large and physical and quite insolvable. How much casual lux cunt did Bottie have to give; how much sand could IOP lose and still shoulder-off the next hurricane?
Nick saw it as a balancing between the two; his persistence, willingness to beworn. So the detective was certain, anyway, even if Hricko had caught the Island’s eye, pleased its temper. Trailing death was no beauty contest! What would the broker say? Nick felt he was gettingall of that, the fatalistic amusement, and none of it seemed funny.
Recently, the marble table between the men had come to be occupied by two large bowls. One held hard boiled eggs and cold rock shrimp. From the stainless, Coors and hot-sauce popped out of the ice and cracked shells returned. Bourbon consumption had only slowed. Fila had mercifully not returned. While Nick played havoc among the shrimp, Hricko took off with a bit of Island history. Nick had been waiting.
“Last April we formed SOB. Got enough signatures on a petition to include a non-binding citizen’s advisory in this November’s ballot. The initiative simply says there should be no building on the Cherokee Strip. You know, that’s the historical name for the Breach Inlet properties.”
Nick found his history files lagging. “Billy Sweetwater owned that too, didn’t he, as well as Sullivan’s Island?”
“Sure did. When he died in prison, the Isle of Palm parcels were auctioned off, but
nobody in 1880 would buy the full lots. Too close to the ocean for Victorian tastes. So that last strip, a mile long and sixty feet wide sat around for ninety years until Wioka Land offered to put it back on the country tax rolls. Words just words. They knew the zoning law changes needed ...” … had been used...” to “… has been usable...” as residential frontage. The past IOP mayor now lives in the Bahamas on Wiokas sweetner!”
“Nobody thought of that before?”
“Nobody thought of buying the 87 separate properties before in a blitz of million-dollar check$. So yes, naturally, there were no competing bids, since the parcels were individually all too small for development.”
“Where does SOB fit?”
“Anywhere we can, most of us. Isle of Palm politics twist the usual categories.”
Nick stumbled through his memory of a recent political column in theTribune. His wife had written the article and damn-straight he never read them. “As I understand, SOB supports Phil Regan against Wheeler Petrakis in the mayor’s race. Demos verses the fat cats.”
“Not exactly, Nick. Most of the SOB folks are Regan supporters, but there are exceptions. And a few Sullivan’s Island people are involved because they live on Breach Inlet. After the incident with Barlet’s bulldozer, SOB started pushing the whole development issue.”
“That’s when Bottie got involved?”
Hricko picked himself up and quietly walked to the deck railing. Nick didn’t need to be a mind reader, for the broker looked not over the marsh, but at the growing complex of redwood and cedar buildings which comprised the Isle of Palm Marina. Three years before, a dock and a bait stand, where locals pitched off into the Intercoastal and tidewater creeks for oyster and shrimp. Coors sold from a cooler and joints from the gas-boy. Now, the boat-launch fee was ten bucks, and the slip-fees eighty a month. Both were due to increase. Bar open at eleven, jackets and slacks. Hricko’s unease almost pleaded.
For Nick, motives multiplied as fast as the oversold boat-slips. “Got you surrounded, Ben. Always buggered whichever way you turn. I understand you find allies as they come. Cozy up to Bottie; divide the enemy; anything that works.”
“That was the crude plan, anyway, to split them. Give us a tool and a chance. Regan the hammer, Cherokee Strip Initiative the wedge. Rest of us chipping away.”
“Same for the nude beach?”
Hricko laughed smartly. “Nobody from the Island, Nick, thinks about north beach that way.”
“Nobody south of station thirty-seven.”
Hricko wiped away a ring of sweat from his forehead and stepped back toward the table. He seemed impressed the detective knew development boundaries. “North end development is a separate issue. SOB is neutral on that. Regan opposes both the rezoning and giving away the road. So did Deb Fairchild. Petrakis would allow both if he gets the chance.”
“At least SOB’s initiative will stop the rezoning, eh?”
Hricko had returned to the table, tearing into an egg. Coors washed it away. “The city council is supposed to take the vote into account when making decisions, but they don’t have to do squat. Only the acting Mayor, Jason Webley is up for council re-election; he’s one of our guys.”
“Then Phil Regan came along just in time. You running the SOB show, Ben? Making it all fit?”
Hricko fiddled with a rock shrimp, trying to decide what kind of answer the detective might accept. “Only Phil’s campaign. Hard to believe, but Peg Bottie is head man on SOB. Now that’s a bitch, since her Press Secretary, Damon Willis, never leaves home without Wioka Land Company money.”
“Not hard for you to believe, Ben.” As Nick saw it, Hricko found no problem with the Isle of Palm’s strange politics. Almost a natural, all the twisting around; said that himself. Hricko gave out with a loud, bitter whistle and turned away from the table, looking east along a line of Palmettos bordering the disputed roadway. To Nick, the broker’s face had the look of infinite, amused despair.
They both fired up Camel straights as Hricko continued. “Every guy I know on the Island voted against her three times, but with that old family style and the James Island colonials, what can you do? Peg’s got a summer home right across Breach Inlet. I guess she’s worried about the view, no matter who bought her last election.”
“So that’s how Bottie can justify supporting both Petrakis and SOB.”
Hricko’s chuckle dripped acid. “Justify? Bottie’s type grabs for its God given rights, not justice. You’ve seen her place on Sullivan’s Island, haven’t you Nick? A three story art deco with a widow’s-walk, stained glass on the ocean side, and killer view of the Inlet. She’s oh so sensitive about that eastern exposure.”
“Senator Bottie’s not a woman to take chances, but she’s working every angle on this deal.”
“Angles! Does the woman have an ego? She figures to get Petrakis elected and chooses her best person, Willis, to oversee the campaign. Since Petrakis owes her if he wins, she can squeeze him into opposing the Cherokee Strip project after he’s mayor. He can still support the development on the north tip of the Island, kiss off the road and strangle north beach. Bottie gets credit for electing another Republican. She keeps her clean view of Breach Inlet, and she still rakes in the bucks. She doesn’t figure taking any chance at all.”
Nick. Sympathetic. “Your snakes are looking cuddly.”
Hricko, easing farther into his lounge. “Peg thinks she’s D.C. material. As far as Damon Willis is concerned, anybody standing between him and the Potomac is crab bait.”
Nick felt muck up to his ankle. “It’sPeg, is it? You keeping close tabs on the enemy?”
“Crossed my mind. So far, we play some poker, but not house. Bottie bets close and mean in seven card stud. You’d like that about her.”
Actually not; he didn’t like one quick slip of the bitch; neither was he surprised that Hricko found those tricks endearing. If she had skills, Nick knew them from a monthly, high stakes game in a certain room of the Mills House.
“I don’t suppose she’s got a peek at your hand, or you at hers?”
Hricko smirked modestly, like a man chips ahead. “Not at all. Strictly divide and conquer.”
“Exactly the way I see it. She bets Petrakis, thinks you’ve raised north beach.”
Hricko laughed. “Side-bet on the next jack. Insurance. Can’t fault her for that.”
Nick shrugged; Bottie had reason for modesty. She watched her money just fine, but bluffed like a bare-ass cheer-leader. For Hricko’s benefit, the detective managed a blank face.Not Jack, and not the side-bet, is it Ben? but Willis. Hricko leaned back on his chair, watching a red winged hawk circle lower about the dock.
“Got her to watch with you, didn’t you Ben?”
“Peg has her weak moments. So do I.”
Hricko appeared a mile too comfortable with the confession.
“Is she the biter?”
“Fila tell you to ask that?”
“Made both of us miss her, hasn’t she.” He stretched his hands out to the wooden railing and looked over the swampland to the east. Not a woman’s kind of place at all, the salt grass, mud, and creatures that die, sucking a person’s blood.
“Fairchild’s death not going to change a thing? You and Regan and SOB still marching to battle?”
“Whatever the connection, Nick, if we win, we’ll cast a bronze for her, sink it in the Inlet next to Barlet’s dozer.”
Both men turned away from the marsh at the sound of the Chevy’s horn and crunching shells.
“That’s going to satisfy you?”
“Leave the dead in peace.”
Formal, the way each took a position. Fila had remained standing at the front of the car, Nick leaned on the open door, and Hricko stopped three paces away. The broker toyed with a small bronze amulet that might have been the woman’s. “Adios till the dead rise.”
She tipped up her straw hat toward him, allowing the whisper of breeze to wrinkle around her long braids, and Hricko responded with a helpless shrug. Fila’s voice almost died in her throat, far away, pleading, the thin dark face unlined and uncertain. “We’ll see you at the house, tonight, won’t we Ben?”
“My idea , wasn’t it, to have Tony introduce Phil Regan to all that old, Battery money. I wouldn’t miss the fun.”
Fila seemed not to hear his words. “Nobody else will dare rib Tony about the plank. After six? All the chicken you want.”
I’ll be one of the early birds, Fila. Count on it.”
No, her face said, I have no reason to count on you, and she turned back toward the car. Hricko nodded a goodby, and as he turned to walk back up the flagstone path, Nick could see that suddenly, a bit of peace had drained from the man’s gait. He slid in behind the wheel and cranked the ignition. Fila returned to the seat next to him, and they drove off the Isle of Palm without two words said between them.
She wanted out on upper Battery, near the Coast Guard Station, a dozen blocks from Tony’s place. Did he get that right, or was it Fila’s place? Needed to think over the mullet, what she said, or whatever it was she did, wandering the broad Battery promenade with her eyes to Charleston Bay. Not tormenting the past; not Fila. Not a thing she missed about that. She waved him off like he had thieved, though her eyes had followed him to the corner.
He wheeled straight up Murray Street. No white man could say she hadn’t distracted, and he wouldn’t say he had ignored, grinding data while she dashing at the ocean; he was testing the marsh boundary. Nick brought the Rolex on his left wrist to the top of the steering wheel . . . time enough . . . if he ignored her . . . a damned woman’s gall. Perhaps if she had stayed with him, Hricko couldn’t have butchered the truth and left it buried in the shell ledge.
The broker’s story stuck him like pins in a voodoo doll. Play by play of a non-contact sport. Deb Fairchild’s a nice girl; we had a nice plan, for a nice island. All bad guys are Greek. Teams hate, but need each other even more than the win. Umpire is on the take; by God are we in love with the snakes. Hricko was giving him the sharp end of the sticks; those he could dodge, but who was really supposed to get the message?
Nick had one for the broker, gave the broker credit, wrote him up for repayment in a special mental record of asshole accounts. If he didn’t have a final interview - of unknown length - he might have had Hricko break out his data-base, so he could crack the pivot tables and shove all the relations up the broker’s royal butt.
Nick made the big turn onto Lockwood and raced west toward the tidal pools. White hull stripes from a Cutter flashed in a side mirror as he headed for the Ashley Marina and a crash landing on Wednesday last.
Nick knew it would be bad - homicide squad review of the crime scene photos - but it was three times worse than he imagined. Careening out of control like his swamp island wreck. Yesterday afternoon, with Captain Marsh and the others. He despised learning from the dead. He hated the white, lifeless bodies of the young ones, as if their butchers intended the pain expressly for him. But he had seen the girl, still dripping hot blood from the slash across her neck. He had told himself, maybe this time the photos wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe he was getting old, because that hope was another bad mistake.
Nick had fallen into a pit, and the crunching shells dissolved it, pulling him out of the previous afternoon. Caddy’s and pick-ups crammed the Marina parking lot. Only three days passed, and the hurricane had left the Saturday skies clear with the slightest late September edge to the harbor. A cool breeze caught him under the arm, and he slipped on the white linen jacket before locking the car. Funny how different the Isle of Palm had felt, with the salt marshes clinging to the summer. Nick maneuvered through the lot and headed for boat-slip three twenty-one. Carelessly, he remembered the previous afternoon, when the bad news came early.
He had been tipped off to the weird - and that could only mean bad - as soon he entered the City Station parking at twelve-fifteen. An Isle of Palm cruiser was not that unusual; the girl had lived on the Island. But the car from the Pauli’s Island sheriff’s department had no business at all being there. Nick had double-timed up to the Captains second floor office. He hesitated at the screened window beside the vice squad lockers. Sure enough. Along with his lez sergeant, the pathologist and the young forensic intern, he could make out Bunzetti and two other men, beside the Captain. All were hunched over the long table the Captain used to display photographs, and all were as grim as a root-canal. Nick banged through the office door. Sam Johnson, a thirty year man with lead fragments in his spine, sat quietly at the far corner of the room. Nick thought coldly, restrained speculation - only once before had he seen players like this at the table.
“Easier to fix a hull than a life,” he said, passing a confused carpenter as he wove among tradesmen onto the docks. Boat owners had worked the marina into a frenzy of drilling, hammering and the high buzzing whine of electric saws. Only a single two-masted sailboat remained unattended. The fractured keel lay sideways, impaled on the end of the outermost dock. It’s hull had been lifted and crushed over the metal shed that had taken the two bullets meant for Nick. “Unlucky omen detective.” He said that to himself, easing through a crowd near the third row of slips, two out from the main Marina dock. Half-way he could make the line of yellow police tape. Still carrying a FOR SALE sign, the boat was drawn up in slip number 320. That adjacent belonged to the couple making the 911 call. Nick approached the tape warily, as if some memory of the killing had been waiting just for him. Now, no need to hurry; no time for a mistake. Yesterday, he got his fill . . .
“That stainless steel elbow must be heavy, Nick. Slows you down,” greeted Captain Marsh.
Nick had thumbed him, and shook hands with the other detectives. Kept his mouth shut while Marsh responded.
“We’ll have you a new Ford tomorrow. Sorry about the Chevy.”
“That your piece of shit, Nick?” Bunzetti’s hand quivered, like his had as a rookie. Slap on the back. Santini and Valdez were the Pauli’s Island men; hard cases at a first glance; theirs, rudely eyeing another city cluster-fuck.
“Detective Valdez also has color Polaroids of the cabin. Have a look, but no smudges.”
Guess nobody could keep the Mex out, Nick thought, and turned to the sets of photos laid out on the Captain’s table. Nicely organized, like Cosmo for the morally crippled. Johnson approached him, face high yellow and jowly with a toadstool’s mirth. They acknowledged each other.
“Like ‘57, DeLeon, without the publicity. Glad this one’s yours.” Sam’s eyebrows raised, and the wrinkle spread across the salt-and pepper crop of low curls and he was nobodies uncle.
“Our’s Sam,” but Nick’s voice was no more serious than protocol required. Johnson retired in three months, and his eyes said he intended to breath every second of that time. Looking into the other faces around the room, Nick could see that only the Pauli’s Island men seemed satisfied.
“We’re all a day late, because of the hurricane, but that’s no reason to start slow,” continued Captain Marsh. “Pathology has the story.” Nick’s lez sergeant motioned for him to take the chair next to her. She wouldn’t look at him straight on. Not since she had sent him alone, into the Marina. Even a dyke knows wrong.
“What a waste.” He said that to her straight on. She tugged at the open top of her blouse, muffled a curse, and they settled in for the slide show.
Dock noises drifted behind. He was standing quiet, taking short notes on a long boat and hoping he didn’t miss a foot. Name was theMad Hatter, a forty-two foot sloop, formerly owned by a construction company out of Myrtle Beach. The company had gone broke; the bank called in the note and put it up for sale. No takers, and no lookers as far as the dock manager knew. But one person had looked. A long jagged crack - port-side - etched the fiberglass hull; the radar dome bent to the vertical.
Violence had visited. That night, the girl had lain where he now stood.
Nick worked down the ladder to hull level. The boat rode easily on it’s lines, without a memory. His business, to find a memory. Nick skipped onto the deck near the stern scuttle; a dark streak of burn - waxy - creased the teak inlay along the toe-rail. Untidy of a sailor. The lab had reported candle wax on glass fragments found imbedded in the fiberglass. Old news.Perhaps she had seen the candlelight? Thoughts banished of the girl, as those of the light wind and blue Carolina sky and the broker who did not screw blonds about to die. Imagination banished, while he scoured the Mad Hatter for a pinched bit of life.
By no means a gentle scouring. For an hour, he searched outside, among the fittings and shrouds and lines. Probed for a loose plank or chrome plate. Dis-assembled a bronze winch. Traced the twisted lines of the railing. Climbed the main-mast. Then next to the wheelhouse. Nothing.
Nick found the generator switch and turned it on. A small auxiliary gas engine kicked in. A plume of blue-grey smoke blew from the stern. He removed the hatch, slipped below into the hold and prayed that the killer needed to remember.
“You’re off everything else until we get this one Nick,” the Captain had remarked after the others had left his office. “It’s a bad one, but it wants to get worse. You know how the type progresses, how the fantasy grow in the man.”
“What are you going to do for me, Marsh?”
“You want help? Johnson, if he takes a mind. But he’s a short timer, DeLeon, you respect that - he’s had his fill.”
If he needed, if it would do any good, Nick knew he could enlist others that had been in the room. More if he really needed. Hell. Half the state National Guard was on call. Captain Marsh hit closer to the point.
“He left something at the scene, if we’re right about this. A signature. We didn’t find it, but it’s there. The writing’s there. I want you to read it for us, Nick. Do the good job on this bastard. The city doesn’t deserve him.”
Captain Marsh turned at the door. “Oh, and Nick. Don’t worry about the Columbian. IA wiped your ass. Two outstanding drug-felony warrants. I’ve assigned Creutz to clean it up.”
Light filteres in through the portholes. Like so many oval movies, each carrying a blotch, separated distracting realities running amuck in the cabin of theMad Hatter. City Station hadn’t left much . . . a Mercator projection world map remained fixed to the teak; Marsh had scoured . . . Nick opens a small hatch and strobes the bilge with his flash, rises and finds the main light switch; fluorescent tubes whine and snap a harsh buzzing white over the tan. He’d take his look.
No part magic, no part luck to the hunt. Every spot available to Nick’s eye, every edge and corner touched; a pilfering of hidden stores. The killer did not sign his name in spray paint! Little things spilled out; a hash cube and vial of oil taped under the tea-pot lid; two unused French ticklers fallen between bed-slats; in the waste, a page fromJustine.
Picky work for a man more taken by an entire city than by any of it’s parts. From the local chemists, two tabs of purple dragon - for thedevote, eight hours watching melted faces while hugging the privy. A gold nipple-clip tumbled from behind a loose teak board above.
His found it, middle of the second hour, nestling under the boat table, in its metal housing that provided the elliptical carry. A knife blade prised it free and balanced, so his pocket magnifier could examine features in the porthole light. Genius. Specie. Habitat. It struck back, a blaze of white. Nick bolted through the hatchway; the hold had a suck to it, had keened a mindless whorl like the killer’s memory.
Nick froze at City Station front door.
“Yo, DeLeon, you big-dicked f... Yeow, Nick! The friggin arm . . .”
Creutz had crossed him bad. Nick leapt at voice, slammed him into the marble wall, bent his arm behind his thin neck and rammed Creutz’s thumb to the knuckle into a pointed ear.
Nick rasped into the other. “You got big, bulgy eyes, Creutz, for my report, and a big nose for my business. You won’t get this thumb into your whore’s ass tonight. Not this one, Creutz.”
“Fer Christ sake, DeLeon, I got tintinitus! I was kiddin.”
Squealing behind him. Nick shot out the front door. “See medical, Creutz. That knuckle’s got a strange twist.”
Creutz cradling his dislocated thumb shouted after him. “We got IA for crazies like you, DeLeon, we got the union . . .”
Everybody had something, Nick had maybes times ten, but one cold certainty. The man who had sent a trio of 150 grain bullets steaming after his life was a serial killer. A patient bleeder of life whose mind twitched to a storm’s tune. A wholesale butcher of young, blond women who, like the one in ‘57, would stop only with the dying away of his last breath.
Since Nick had boarded theMad Hatter, the Bay breeze had freshened, curling sand devils across the Marina parking lot.
He angles the Panama over his eyes and crosses to his car. Signature safe in a plastic bag - like ice against his chest. Maybe crime lab could find some trace of the murderer, fit with the other two, from the Isle of Palm and Pauli Island Marinas. Nick had studied previous cases, listened again to Sam Johnson, who had squeezed out a freaks wretched life and still carried the man’s bullet in his back.
Now he carried a message in cold white, a white worm. As Nick pulled behind the wheel of the Chevy, he was taken by the blood rage. A feeling of speed like that he had felt, night of the hurricane when he swore to wring the butcher’s heart dry. Nick drove direct to City Station and nailed the forensic intern at the gate and turned him around. “Got more for ya to be smart about.” Exchanges the cart handles. “This will be tough, sonny-boy, juju that doesn’t make the FBI classes.” The punk looked hostile. “Mebby I’m wrong, though and some Athens peach squeezed a pit up your ass.”
Then he wove Beaufain back to Colonial Lake. His front yard still red with roses as love. He parked catty-corner and climbed the back stairway to the third story porch overlooking the concrete basin and the last two children dodging toy sailors. Eve had brought him up this way, when they were courting, to avoid her slightly mad mother - - father had died defending a hilltop near Pusan.
But, he had already taught his daughter about family - - how strong men would continue his klad. How Eve had found his human part. Twas an August dance, at the Legeres plantation. Moon light bathed, her smell and clothes and shy uncertainty had pealed away. How she led him, gave her body pleasure to him , fighting his mans urge to share while draining his NYC rot into the tidals. Yes, a woman can drain evil from a man, like draining pure white distillery or red boiling violence. Nick can almost smell her throat perfume on live-oak banisters so many years after … smiling, laughing he becomes sane before he slips into their bedroom and dresses for Fila’s party without ringing the maid.BR>
Tony camped in a garden lounger, shooting palmetto bugs off lavender vines with a long-barreled 0.177cal air-rifle. They flew and he plinked hating the oily bastards, much as long-hauling jet fuel outa Oklahoma to the desert Airforce bases. No blo-jobs from high-titted spec-4s; she might’a been Mormon, but Unkle Sammy transformed her into Daddys lil’ bitch!PLING-SPLAT! He smirked cruelly, then smelled the pheasant pepper-spice wafting out the kitchen window. He laughed over a spicy vision of Fila, heard the front door-chimes and saw the long haul ...
As a beautiful woman will, Fila did not fuss over those arriving first. She picked an early favorite; others searched for attention among the most elegant of the room’s furnishings. Some purposeful strangers of course, some intimates, these guests. Neither would be surprised had she recruited them to a last minute chore.
“Gretchen, Josie careful with the heavy creame,” warbled Fila. “Took 100 skinny women to make it.” She laughed softly … Gretchen and Josie, and another 5 SOB teens - - and a 12 yo genius from a high-yellow Folly Island sharecropper were learning the skills of party-making … an art of southron womanhood … by serving as servants for a real adult SOB party. Josie was Lieutenant DeLeons coltish daughter, and if she only learned to avoid Catholic young men Nick would count it a blessing.
“Break time,” shouted last with small iced nogs that kept frisky that better class of southron women. Better than snatching awkwardly at the dark woman’s time, receiving a cut to the heart. They need not have feared. Mr Betters hand-churned ice-cream, and by God fresh peaches found them instead. Intimates expected the worst.
Bitch of it, Nick intended to be early. Like Hricko, making a space for the Irishman, the detective wanted to carve a niche for his suspicions. Would the serial killar celebrate Hrickos birthday and the political introduction of a yeoman mayor? ItwasRegan, and not himself that Hricko intended to lead. Introduce to theright people? Nick had felt the broker’s prod to see nothing. Seethis . . . sonny boy intern would see!
But if Nick was provoked by the brokers intentions, then he was wary twice bartering a toy and the intern’s promises for the next play of Hricko’s game. Sonny boy cost him an hour; what was that hour really worth? She caught the couples rush through a stairway window, and wondered lewdly if Nicky had detoured them through a dark cobble alleyway north of Colonial Lake; Eve would not resist, red lips and pale pearled throat her soundly caught husbands wilding! Jesus she can almost hear ...
“Ms Peepers is all eyes for the perps, dear Sir, but I’ll get some of you tonight,” Eve had whispered wickedly as they padded down the stone stairs of the Battery. Vitalle’s mansion slid into view, Nick wished trading that list of perps for a jar of Charleston honey. Not all of it belonged to the broker.
Casual tourists would not think the house conspicuous. Vitalle’s three story Tudor was a Lenwood address, black shutters trim against the creme plaster, and frosted glass moon and crescent over the front door. Only steps off the Charleston Battery. Its small front lawn and copper roofed entrance opened easily on the palmetto-lined street. Naturally, the small, second story balcony might catch the eye, with it’s wrought iron grillwork and French doors. Beveled glass and frosted in the same style as that below, but the figures of love might have scandalized . . . intent on discovery, reticent details, these figures, inviting interest. And prurient dismissal of tumbling granite-bedded streams.
High stone walls, high as the greenish first story windows, separate the house from it’s neighbors. Only the northern sandstone distinguished it. Even the bronze mounted lightly on a low marble could be easily passed. It less guarded than announced the rust stained iron gate, and to one who saw less with his hands the statue discomforted, appeared unfamiliar in the modern manner. Some feral women touched. More archaic in origin and convolved - when examined - but few bothered the slain fisher who did not already care.
Vitalle was expecting - he had come up from the garden and walnut grandfather clock read five forty-five. Took to the widows-walk. He caught sight of the detective rounding the corner next to the brass cannon. Nick never would get rid of that Panama, Tony thought; none of the bad actors in Nick’s trade had ever drilled it. Close to the truth, maybe, a bit of detective superstition! He stopped shuffling on the balcony and returned to the bedroom, grabbed Fila’s jeans off the floor and tossed them across the room into his wicker laundry. Now here was something worth drilling! Blazing hot water for the next wash, Tony laughed to himself, and let the woman do her worst with the result! Christ, he loved her ass.
Tony caught a burst of Ben Hricko’s static, and the scolding voices that followed. Guess he had the right, and Fila’s friends could never stop him. After all, how many Cherry-wood splinters had the man’s hand collected? Tony buttoned up the white silk shit and scrounged for a polka-dot tie.
“Can’t make the woman mad,” he thought out loud. Tony found a likely candidate, knotted it up real neat, and headed for the stairwell. A raft of young voices floated up, Island women … Court-House Shelas with their shards of lawyer jargon. Others now, like a chorus - - Fila, Ben and Nick . . . like the old days, the good new days that moved as surely and quickly as a Peterbuilt in a Nebraska May. By damn if she couldn’t throw a party.
Guests have spread through the first floor. An older couple harbored a couch and clucked at the rock-steady, playing smooth and soft from the living-room. Front parlor, State Senator Peg Bottie chatted easily with two very tanned young woman. Bottie’s blonde hair had been tightly knotted in a bun as Damon Willis required of her at any semi-political gathering. Not the pair, strands of tangled gold. Island whites could have been stenciled across their high breasts, as if anyone could miss the type. Three suits, a couple of boatmen and a man of Middle Eastern complexion shadowed by a darker skinned heavy … his 3-A suited Corsican shadow … plied the dining room table, now covered with fruit and cheese; all but the darker man swilled liberally at the bourbon.
Of the dozen or so early guests, none seemed more concerned at the unvarnished plank of cherry flooring than the thin, tanned man. He was seen running his fingers over the perfect, unprotected grain of the wood, or prodding into the exposed, bronze nailheads. His eye worries the joints where the plank mated to the wall. As carefully, he is escorted on the bare, chocolate sweet arm of the hostess. The cracked smile that followed the inspection would sometimes leave his mouth for his eyes, but never faded, or fail a return to the woman’s face should she have a word. A pair of teenage boys had at first trailed them, but then made scarce through a back door. The old couple, encamped cautiously as first time guests, wondered if this man had installed the flooring, and expected to be paid before the job was finished. The Senator bit off a quick, sideways glance and speculations that for a moment dried her tongue.Vitalle is a fool. Her audience allowed no time to intervene. Hricko and the dark woman had gathered an audience.
Damon Willis, before deciding to approach the Asian woman, crossed them both with his eyes and judges them quaint. Some very few, arrive and not, would have remarked otherwise. The man on Fila’s arm, one to have at your back should a night alley turn long and unlit, they well might whisper to their companions. Mistress of the house, those who know Fila at all will be sure to say, as would any guest with a second invitation.
How sharp and abrupt, bright against dark and perfectly Charleston the foyer appears. Another man sees it that way, an Irishmans dark passage into SOB social Hades.
Imagine … imagine being new to Charleston, new to Isle of Palms and already hot-dogging mayor. Desiring yeomans justice filled your soul while bribes crusted your ears. Already a man freshly invited to the A-list Saturday gathering. Oh you’d heard of them from Hricko, filling those ego-snares near the South Murray and Lenwood. Here. Now, and after Ben Hricko snatched at a young smart brunette somehow you are unescorted.
Vitalles overlook, Fila his striking cocoa party mistresshello good luck, should she speak to him; nervous. Uncentered … a racy blonde laywyer has snuggled away your contact with Filas and you are alone with a martinia beside a bucket-size silver bowl of mysterious rock shrimp. “How so alone, Sir” comes the sweet voice. “You’re Hrickos Irishman lowers-the-boom on Jerry-the-Arabs sheep?”
How does she …SHE know so much. Fila’s girlfriend Lauren might have taken your arm and winked knowingly. She would think nothing of breaking into the couple’s private amusement to introduce you. Lauren is surprised when Hricko’s face lights up. “How you doing, Phil. I see Lauren’s made her first catch of the evening.”
You think, “at least he doesn’t change with the company.” Then, you smile at your escort. “She’s promised to be gentle.”
Fila gathers in Lauren. “Last month, she promised that to the fisherman. He still trawls alone.”
“These two I could use for the Jammer’s mastheads.” You believe this amusing, lively, the start of something, but Hricko appears distant, even from the woman on his arm. You hope he watches for the money. Tuning into Fila’s grace and presence, you tell right off she was not his, at least not anymore.
This dark woman, introduced by your guide as Fila McKay, consumes you in that first instant; only Lauren’s steady pressure on your arm moves you off toward the parlor. The couple does not watch you go, but Fila motions.
“He’s never been on the run. You found a good one to fight Petrakis.”
“An ex-physicist, would you believe, Fila. He bought the bar next to the Comber, so he and Petrakis are always toe to toe. Still over-roasts the oysters, but keeps his hands off the children.”
“Without a wife?”
“None that’s found him.”
“Smart to me again, Benjamin. Has Peg met him.”
Even moving away, Lauren would sense your continuing discomfort, and tighten her hand on your arm. She detours from the parlor, pretending to show you the stained glass above the fireplace.
Her stories do not end. “She would draw anyone, any man that is, and certainly any friend of Ben,” would have been Lauren’s comment to you. Such a test of discretion being one of her chief amusements.
If you were quick, with some experience of the world, you would mark Ben and Tony as close friends, and old ones, and the woman no small part of that. You grope for words and find the right ones for Lauren. “Would you join me for dinner tomorrow,” or some such foolishness. Lauren would prefer to hear this, in lieu of a pale apology.
She accuses you of being another rambling dog, breaker of hearts, but a wise one.
“Thanks, but I really don’t have time,” she laughs, but then finally carries you off to the parlor. The swirl of politics around State Senator Peg Bottie would have been a useful distraction.
As for the pair, Ben and Fila? Lovers, Lauren’s eyes would have said. For indeed they did love. But Lauren’s words? Those would have been chaste, though the full, red lips would hardly seem capable of such a thing. Those two were old lovers, her eyes would have said, if you watched closely. Beside you a well tanned, over-dressed islander, as your due-diligence advises.
The woman eyes stripe you bare, but her voice addresses him. “Hi. I’m Peg Bottie. I didn’t catch your name, but pleasure to meet you. Do you live on James Island?”
“A pleasure, I’m sure.”
“The Phil Regan? What a strange way to be introduced after so much threat and misunderstanding. You didn’t have poor old Mayor Spires killed, did you?”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know the way.”
“Cheeky, for a man so new to Isle of Palm.”
“With every due apology, Senator.”
“You vex me, Mr. Regan, give me a migraine, disturb the Island rabble. Not another communist like Hricko, are you? Well, for the moment, you’re safe with Lauren, but we certainly should chat. Later.”
Lauren might have warned you, well dressed as you were on a first invitation, the Senator would waste no time. Never mind that you drove a rig, beside running the bar, or were two month’s behind on rent for your ceramic studio on Sullivan’s Island. Never mind that she owned Wheeler Petrakis, the other candidate running for Mayor of Isle of Palm. Your guide, Lauren, would not protect you from this one.
Peg Bottie’s voice would have quickly returned to the women, and what must have been an irritating question. “Of course I can support Petrakis and still oppose the Breach Inlet development. He’s an Island Republican. I know how to reach him, after he’s elected.”
Ass bought and sold, said more succinctly; you don’t think this a hard judgement; you feel at home. A bushel more comfortable than the Arab gentleman, standing immediately behind the girl. He must believe nothing is sold directly to the Greek. Petrakis has pretensions of ancestry, Hricko says. Why does he care? The Arab, tailored, invisible to those who follow voices.
Women learn by talking. The blond’s voice jerks at you. “Just because you run his campaign doesn’t guarantee you buy his support for SOB. We all know who’s supplying the money. Once the election is over, he can crawl off into any snake hole”
The young woman is bold. No doubt about that. Dressed for it, too. And her girlfriend’s torn cut-offs and beach sandals make them a prickly pair. The scruffy one has the money, so her eyes said, as they caught and released yours. You know that one already. Met her at the same time, same bar Hricko first introduced himself. Fumbling with her, and she likedthat. Janette Coffee is good at numbers, like Hricko, like yourself, but now, she does not introduce you to her well dressed friend. Her friend is not shy. “Who are you, anyway, a friend of Tony’s?”
“I just moved to the Island. And this gentleman beside me is Democrat candidate for mayor.”
This would not be a high recommendation. “Oh. That one! Senator Bottie said you weren’t a real island person. Anyway, I’m Sheri McClain. Guess we’re both Irish, huh, but how did Hricko find you?”
“Quasi-deterministic time series analysis, I imagine. Can I count on your support?” Slapped her tit good on that one, you think, and she does hesitate, but says nothing. “You’re not for a fight, then, girl. Wouldn’t rise with a mad-dog’s poker up yer ass. Not your father’s girl.”
Her face crimson’s, eyes poker hot, and yours also, from the sudden passion. You have far overstepped; she has presumed. Not twice, for she pulls away sharply, and her eyes return to Senator Bottie. And Peg Bottie never stopped running her next election campaign.“Trust me, girls, Wioka Land Company is not interested in Breach Inlet. The north end development is an entirely different project. They do own the property and have a right to build. A lot of local jobs on the line, I don’t have to remind you. We’re not communists, after all, are we?”
“But they’re such little piggies, Senator Bottie. Grab for the road; grab for the dunes. Slime oozes out of them, and you know what I mean.”
If you could drag your eyeballs off the blond’s tanned thighs, you realized she had nailed that one. The Senator showed irritation, but through a broad smile, words did not fail her. “We know how to take care of those types, now don’t we ladies.”
You have been one of those types. Best shake hands with the dark complected man, the Arab, who stood listening just behind the young women, and who does not volunteer even a first name. Equal parts of hostility and craft form him. Yet in twenty minutes, you are dismayed when an Asian beauty of no certain age interjects, greets him knowingly, “Jerry, I find you everywhere”. She does not take his arm but his concentration. She, or her husband, is an importer of Persian rugs. Jerry may sell them; has sold others. At Wioka Island, you know only that much, have heard of him, but not the nick-name.
Awkward, her interrupting. For you and Jerry have marked time, wandered the entire first floor of Vitalle’s mansion gossiping brave complexities of time dependent boundary conditions. Jerry is the equal of anything that flows. You did not take him for a merchant.
Ben has been listening to a fisherman’s story; moving laterally, avoiding the obvious attentions of Senator Bottie. You are happy when she catches your eye instead and allows you to drift away. In five minutes, Bottie has tried to cut out your soul.
A maid says so and chief also, so he will smile, turn and taste her flaming shrimp gumbo! Charleston city detective, Nick DeLeon, appears from behind the swinging kitchen doors to demand of you a life history of the dead girl, Deb Fairchild. She had worked bar at the Comber. You do share a wood-pile with the Greek. The third bourbon convinces him to leave. You are less happy with the detective near Thea.
Later in the evening, you would have found yourself alone, drifting out of the parlor and toward the food and clatter of plates in the dining room.
Tony would recognize you as the guy Ben introduced to him last week at the Marina. He is a man who sees to business. “Campaign shaping up for you, Phil?”
“It’s a tough start.”
“There’s a ton of money in the room. Find a principle you don’t need and sell it fast.”
“I’ll see if I have a spare, Tony.”
Vitalle strokes his beard and asks if everything else is going OK. Yes. You had met Fila and Lauren. Peg Bottie? Certainly. He motions to a sturdy, fisherman type across the room. “Ex Navy; Captain of a destroyer until he got an honest job.”
Like Vitalle, he appears taken only by the women. Tony waves him over and introduces.“Gordo owns all the shrimp trawlers and half the whores on James Island. Gordo, this is Phil Regan, and he wants your money.”
Then he is off into the now crowded living room. You would be left with a crepe, wondering if that blond had really paid you a last smiling glance, and if the Arab fella had ever in his life forgotten a phrase overheard.
Music floats in from the study. Tony, Fila and Lauren stand together listening to flute and viola; a youngish Battery couple have conjured the instruments. Middle Eastern, perhaps. Tones wind together, always looking for the third note. A pair of woman come in with the Arab, but one soon leave, Coffee embarrassed for the first time you’ve known her.
Half a floor below music has devolved. Nick’s there too and a blue Lieutenant with high breasts wants a quick fuck. You don’t know, but quick-ass is romancing him, quite unlike Bottie when she wants a nickle of his dime ; no cop gives that nickle. He says no I’m sorry and a wife would believe him. You back away. Careful ears follow music crackles about, down to chords openly evoking the wirds of Pan. Quietly, the Asian woman asks if you are superstitious, and you must respond “No”. A word “eldritch” comes to her red lips. They are all examining a sculpt Ben and Tony had exposed in the passageway to Bulls Island … volcanic rock from much farther south - - St. Augustine perhaps while the figure if not a natural misshapen might imagine a jellyfish.
Light flickers in the corridor as thunder rumbles outside. You ask. “Could you explain that word?” Suddenly the detective is watching you as she watches him. A muffled scream from the corridors shadowed other end.
“No … don’t … please ...” forms a basin into which concern foams. A girl stands at the top of stairs leading down to a basement. “Nightmares of a blue tone,” she says with a devil’s grin and the pink of her tongue.
Nicks’s first. “You draw blood, Gretchen, with that pleading.”
“He … he grabbed me and … pulled, ” she shuttered pointing down to an open basement door.
It cannot be true. Nothing down there , but water pipes, water and … who was he?”
Shaking her brown curly hair no. Could be yes. “Creepy, but he … he wanted me,” whispers the voice. She is romancing a rape that never happened. Later, to other drunk guests she claims a rat tried to bite her.
“He’s trapped !” Nick feathered his shoulder sling ready to go down the stairs. But Tony … “Three ways down, Nick and three ways up. And one leads to the garden wall! You never bag him.”
“Fuck!” And Gretchen ran away to the kitchen while the Detective meditates about wet cellar floors and dirty shoes. Evening chimes from the grandfather clock.
Nicks wife carries him away, and you calculate the virtues of an early exit. The lawyers 36s rub against your arm and discourage this. As Hricko warned, you have become more a part, but less at ease with the rune. DeLeon, Bottie, Willis and most in the charmed circle around Fila McKay have played out earlier. Hricko is drunk - Jet Coffee manages him carefully. Tony, the Arab and Kiri have retreated to the upstairs den. Thea seems to be waiting at the front cathedral doors, and time still appears an ally.
You see how any guest within might merrily be dunned, while outside that Battery Tudor, nothing said at all. You could see the fine thing Tony had created to surround Fila, while Oenghus’ scent is ivy-thick about the oak doors leading to the Bay. Had Vitalle been ten minutes later down the stairs, you might have pitched everything for an early plug at the lawyer.
Chimes striking 8-PM. Tony’s first steps ring out on the polished oak steps leading from the second floor to the base of the grandfather clock. Regan corners a beauty. Fila has deposited Hricko near Damon Willis, and the two men sparred from the first word, still thoughtfully, while they inspected the tumblers of Wild Turkey. Fila, like as not, was headed toward the kitchen to help Lauren shuck the last of the oysters, but paused for a few hushed words with a striking Asian woman; her infinitely peaceful eyes raised distractedly from a parlor art book and as quickly lowered. Hricko sees Vitalle and nods. Nick checked his Rolex while lifting the brass door-striker.
The detective had gone out and walked round-the-block. Nothing. He hit twice and swore harshly before the oak panels swung open. Vitalle grabbed him with a meaty hand and pulled him through the door; bellowed for Fila as if he had answered by mistake.
“How you doing, Nick. Find a perp? NO! Good to see the jacket pressed. Fila says you have more lives than a marshcat.”
A pause, since the men’s homes were separated by much more than a dozen city blocks. “Nice tie, Tony . . . happens every time a man moves east of Broad Street.”
“Not my fault . . . Fila.”
“She likes a fast learner. I’d be happy to consult . . .”
You’re just down the block, Nick, every Thursday night so the story goes,” Tony continued, releasing Nick’s hand and looking for the Kiri. “No need to be a stranger after the weekly dose.”
“Now where would that be?”
“The Battery is a small town. Everybody has eyes. Everybody talks and believes what they want to. Lauren is amused. But it’s really good that you should come. Like the old times.”
Not really. Personal friends in the livingroom, money waiting for attention in the parlor . . . Lawyer’s rap filtered through the French doors leading off the dining room. Nick did not see Fila. Vitalle and Hricko are separated only by distance. “Roasting politicians instead of chickens from the looks of it.”
“Ben’s idea of social responsibility. Who the hell would go to his place for a fund-raiser?”
“You say that to Ben?”
“Hell, he said it to me.”
Vitalle looked over Hricko, dark faced, and Damon Willis, tense, biting, on the bare cherry plank. “Fila also says you’re famous; page nineteen in the morning Trib. Next to the kid who got rabies from his pet racoon. Car theft, Nick, what they call it now?”
“Wife put the kibosh on her editor; he owed . . . it was raining . . . favors.”
“Got a bad cutter loose . . . a citizen might feel unsafe.”
Nick said. “Better with a knife than a pistol, but he’s best with a wheel.
You still running the stocks up in Somerville?”
Tony shrugged and motioned toward Kiri, visible and the suit’s hot ticket. “You here on business or pleasure, detective?”
“I’m tired, Tony. He beat me at the Marina, the bastard, and in the swamp. I get to count the next one - so sez Marsh.”
“No cutter at the races - everybody uses a wrench. You’re sure that Columbian fella wasn’t the blade?”
“Helpers die easy - I know his type.”
Vitalle mocked horror. “No Workman’s Comp for muscle, not like Chicago.” Probed skeptically. “You gotta have a better cover, or are you still ragging Hricko?”
Nick paused, noting the two killer blonds hovering around Peg Bottie. “Stories move off the Island fast. Too bad someone didn’t get a message to Fairchild.”
“You think the cutter is mixed up with SOB shit? I don’t know, Nick. Politics is murder, but who’s the type? Better come with me. I bet Fila’s helping Lauren; bound to be some early clams in the steamer.” They pushed into the livingroom; Tony mugged at a group of lawyers. “Muzzles in the trough, no matter where you put them.”
For an instant, Nick thought he spoke of the killer. They stop, so Tony can greet a long haired kid in a red, Peterbuilt cap. Brief talk of ICC schedules. His wife’s hair is cropped tight below her ears, and they are in love. Her hand is that of a Athens schoolgirl. He and Tony move on; Nick recognized the wealthy banker that replaced them. Fila’s wicked sarcasm escaped the kitchen. He reassured Tony. “She wore the 32 automatic. Bitched every second.”
“I bet she did. Thanks. You expecting this one to wiggle out of a dark hole?”
“She thinks, could be the guy next door.”
“Damned if Fila doesn’t leave them all in, like them snakes you keep talking about.”
“Grand-dad burned them out of hedgerows . . .”
Like the ones Hricko keeps. Vitalle and the broker a team? Nick took a shine to that idea. His eyes scanned through clusters of guests - piles of marsh bramble - Fila’s notion. If Nick expected a response, Vitalle didn’t bother. “Have you met the guy, Regan? Half smart for a politician.”
Tony motioned to a far corner of the room, near the kitchen door, where the Irishman had been pinned between Kiri and a cold-lipped beauty of deep, Charleston extraction. Behind her, the hand of a county judge rested comfortable on her ass. “Not in the present company.”
And never, Nick reminded himself, inher’s. For him, appearances counted. He would as soon shuck oysters with the colored as familiar himself in public with his Thursday night lay. Didn’t matter; progress toward the kitchen had all but stopped and they were moving toward Hricko. Barlet’s wife moved by, touched his shoulder, and disappeared into the study. Nick could be certain her husband had not brought her, nor would he see her to bed. Damned fine people. Far from an A-list party, as his wife would judge it. All Fila’s choice. Most names in the Charleston social register hadn’t found an invitation. As Tony would think, they couldn’t haul the freight.
Damon Willis interrupted an intense argument with Ben Hricko. Nick’s first surprise. Willis carping at Hricko instead of nibbling at Peg Bottie’s ear. Hell knows what the esteemed Senator Bottie might say if she hadn’t heard it first from the quadroon. Willis stepped forward, confronting the detective, but Hricko spoke quickly. “So soon, Nick. A bullet finally get the Panama?” Hricko had turned from Willis to greet the detective with mock humor.
“Either I leave it at the door or get it cleaned tomorrow; flying bull shit makes linen a mess.” Nick shot a hard look at Damon Willis as he shook Ben’s hand. “Where do you find these people?”
Hricko’s face hadn’t changed a crack from the afternoon. “It’s a territorial thing, Nick. Tony has to get along with everybody in Old Town. I know Damon would feel unwanted at Erlyne’s.”
Nick saw Damon Willis’ cold attention swing from Hricko to himself. The lawyer, Peg Bottie’s chief henchman, carried himself willfully; tall, arrogant, careful. “We are on the same side, detective. The law. I make them. Which one’s have you broken this week?”
Nick flushed. “That Negro whore we sent up to Bell Mountain was yours, wasn’t she counselor? I thought you paid them well enough so tourists didn’t get cut?”
“Conviction on appeal, DeLeon. Old Sparky’s never going to get her.”
“Maybe so; not since you’ve moved up.”
“Slow justice, detective; I work steady.”
“Quite the law pro, Willis. Your partner, Ringony, couldn’t keep the Greek’s father out of jail. Now, you’re going to make his son mayor?”
“You have a prejudice, one that some people have already observed; should have earlier. Not good for your career path in this city, dead bodies all over the marina.”
“I work steady too. Count on it.”
Willis swung around to search through the faces near the Irishman. “Working tonight? Somebody should check your overtime.”
“Have a problem, talk to Captain Marsh. Vitalle. Weren’t we headed for the clams?”
“I didn’t think you guys had met.”
Hricko had turned to confront Damon Willis after following DeLeon and Vitalle toward the kitchen. They had threaded their way under Kiri’s blinding stare, but who still barely acknowledged as they passed.
Willis didn’t try struggling past his sickening distaste for DeLeon. “Fucking city pig. How do you know the prick?”
Hricko’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “About a year ago, Tony had some problem at the docks. I got involved.”
“When bodies started to show up in the Ashley.”
By two’s and three’s, parts missing. The detective payed them righteous attention. Every body but the first; that one didn’t float. Hricko. Grinding the thoughts inside, floating among Vitalle’s guests. “He’s funny about the Holy City, but tough as a bent eight-penny. What’s your problem?”
“He’s a small man, a rogue cop, if you take away his wife. DeLeon has a crazy idea that he protects virtue in the Holy City. Pure crap, but he’s quick and mean with his illegal shotgun. One story put’s him close to that black bitch, McKay.” Willis’ voice had dropped to a whisper. Not so with Hricko’s, though it covered Willis.
“Problem’s for the lawyers, Damon. If I still lived in the city, that ten-gauge would have a twin.”
Damon knew the story, thought he knew it early . . . figured he knew the tough guy and how he could be used. Willis gestured obscenely at the thousand dollar cherry board beneath his Italian loafers. All but a down payment on the man. Vitalle had been offered serious action, once building started on the Island and the trucks had to roll on time. Once Petrakis became mayor. Once the broker confronted a strong hand. “So that’s when you decided the Isle of Palm was safer than the city?”
He figured Hricko for a flake; easy to bluff, easy to confuse over development issues. Had to be, once separated from Vitalle. What kind of person would buy Erlyne Tepy’s blood-soaked house on the Intercoastal?
Hricko blew a long stream of smoke from a Camel straight. “That’s when I decided, Damon, never to take another step backwards.”
Willis didn’t mistake the threat. His shit-eating smile came as quickly as the spin. “We’re not the ones who would hurt Isle of Palm. You’ve seen the way Wioka Island has been treated. It’s all but a fucking virgin, even with seven thousand people.”
“I got it, Damon. Bend over once and you’re pure forever. Just never stand up.”
“Strap a chastity belt on it.”
“While you’re around her.”
“For three years I’ve . . .” Damon felt the tightening come over him and he fought for control. The cocksucker had lived on the Island for a year, sleeping in a whore’s bedroom, and suddenly he’s the damned right hand of God. Savior of a precious few acres of sand that nobody wanted in the first place. He really tried to help Isle of Palm grow and stay clean, and this perv telling him what’s pure? He’s mud! Sing Hricko a song.
“Ben, you’re a guy used to calculating all the details before making a move. So doesn’t it make sense to have pros develop Isle of Palm. None of this tacky, piecemeal shit. Cheap concrete, undersized drains, aluminum instead of copper wiring. You know how the small builders cheat on the codes. We can do a first rate job on the whole island, and your part of it will be better than ever.”
“Maybe you should come to another SOB meeting yourself, Damon. You would see a lot of people care about the Island; we all think it’s our own. And hell, not like we’re trying to keep development from the north end. All we want is that tiny piece of beach, and the access road. Doesn’t seem like much to me. Bring the Jew with you, and let him explain it, or better still, his boss, the Arab Ibn what’s-his-name. Isn’t he here tonight?”
‘Saul’s a busy man; too busy to bother with a detail like a road easement.”
“Who runs his bulldozers, Damon? I’ll bet he’s not too busy to know that.”
“Even a little fish can act like a big piggy, Ben. Don’t try to save every last sea-oat stalk on the Island.”
Neither man seemed able to grip the other. Hricko threw a look into the parlor, where Peg Bottie was busy collecting telephone numbers. The older couple in the couch had the look of beached flounder. Bottie’s eyes once met his in a fleeting puzzle . . . “How do you keep the job, Damon, or don’t you ever talk to the boss?”
Willis’ shrug said “No problem,” but he corralled a couple of passing Old Town matrons and the conversation turned to the Charleston Historical Review Board.
“You haven’t scared him off, have you Damon? This is our next Republican City Councilman on Isle of Palm.”
Peg Bottie had slipped up on the two men as easily and unnoticed as she had on the insurance salesman who used to represent State Senate District thirty-four. Hricko and Willis separated half a step. “Ben’s not too far from our position, Senator,” Damon whined in a subservient voice that surprised even his boss.
“And I don’t need to tell you our position on Breach Inlet development, do I Damon?”
Two strands of the long, dirty blond hair had slipped from her bun. Damon Willis excused himself with a handshake that Hricko barely returned, and filtered off into the parlor. Bottie seemed pleased, and had Hricko’s arm to prove it. “You really would be a shoe-in, Ben. The girl’s in SOB love you, and that fat fart Belton is ready to die. One of the old gals in the poker club could take care of him overnight.”
“What happens to my peaceful Island life, sweet Peg?”
“I’ll just keep you so busy, you never notice the work.”
Neither of us, sweet Peg. Hricko wasn’t sure how serious, or was it cold blooded, the woman on his arm intended to be. Christ, her hand felt hot on his skin. If she stuck her boobs any harder into his side, they would take a dive. Behind Tony’s French provincial. That would clear the damned living room. She must have been reading his mind. “How fun!”
“Christ, Peg. Just a thought.” Or find a beach that did not end, no matter how finely you divided the sand. Hricko could not askthat question to a busy woman. Bottie’s lips came to his ear with a time next morning, and a whisper, the word kite. Hricko smiled and changed the subject, as a pair of Island locals intruded. “Is SOB still meeting this Thursday?”
Hricko shook his head uncertainly. “I figured people would still be pretty shook up about Deb.”
“Now Ben . . . Janice and Flo are OK. Deb’s room-mate sounds like a zombie on the telephone, and the kid Deb dated is a basket case. Her mother flew in from Pennsylvania, and he’s staying with them at the Holiday Inn. We can’t play dead. The rest of SOB will come along if we’re there to lead.”
The couple faded back into the room, and Hricko cautioned, “Has Nick DeLeon talked to you?”
Bottie, irritated, pressed back. “He said hello, and promised to return. Sticky, isn’t he? Does he ever take off the gun?”
“So Kiri says.” Hricko rattled the ice cubes in his empty tumble. “Nick and I had a chat this afternoon. Felt he needed it then.”
“You don’t think, Ben, that the killing had anything to do with us, do you? With SOB and the Island?”
“Nothing to do with you, Peg,” and Hricko had answered the only question his companion ever imagined.
Empty glass were the excuse. Bottie maneuvered Hricko to the parlor bar, a 19-TH Century marvel with a Victrola-like crank rotating the bottles through a glass dome. Thea Bunzetti worked it like an organ-grinder, had never left the booze, never thought about Frank. “Night shift,” she said.
“Habits change, habits return, don’t they Ben?”
Together, they began draining a fresh bottle of Jack Daniels, anesthetic in long, straight shots. Thea was a fifth into oblivion, hated to waste time, could not stop talking. “Didn’t our little wild child pick a fine way to get caught? Time was, we’d pinch a bit of dick and end up marrying the guy. Not our girl.”
“Problems tonight, Thea? You and Phil not getting on?”
“Bung-off, Hricko.” Thea Bunzetti looked in great need of the next drink. “Straight arrows, Peg, that’s us now, the SOB sisters. You came in a little late for the hell raising. That’s how it started. Am I right, Ben, or what? Tell her how we went on before Barlet’s dozer took the plunge.”
“Nothing at all, Thea, but a lot of talk, until the Senator took over.”
Bottie put her arm around Thea Bunzetti, almost whispering. “I told her . . .” and Bottie’s voice trailed off into a quiet that was as close to tears as she ever came. She pulled down a long drink before handing the second tumbler to Ben. Only a prepared eye would have seen the tumbler shaking. “I told her, Ben, going out at night like she did, to carry a gun. I offered her my little 32 caliber automatic, but she laughed. Said she could screw her way out of anything. You know how the kids are . . .”
Nick approaching . . . caught the cry-baby whine . . . drifting sincere as a plume from the pulp mill.
If Bottie had been more direct, Hricko’s legend for the two blonds would have been tested right then. But she romanced and idled and the food got serious. Hricko said to her. “Together, they’re heart-breakers by the dozen.”
Peg said. “Not likely Ben. Those two hardly . . .”, and then stiffly cut off as she turned into the white linen jacket of Nick DeLeon.
“Time now, Senator Bottie? Hricko won’t mind.”
“Lieutenant, wecan make an end to this quickly, I trust.”
Nick’s outstretched left hand held a plate of quiche, rock shrimp and potatoes. He motioned them to the three armchairs in a back corner of the room. “Starting at the end’s no problem for me, Senator Bottie. Ben and I have been there.”
He plumped over a stool, set the plate on the oak table and proceeded to rip at the shrimp, raising the occasional eye to Bottie as if, she too, hid something he needed to consume. Hricko lit a Camel straight and forked another over to the detective. Bottie drained the eight ounces of bourbon in her tumbler. After finishing the third shrimp, DeLeon fired up the Camel, adjusted the leather holster, and leaned back into the overstuffed chair. Nick had his ways. “The girl worked at the Greeks. Nobody thought that was strange?”
“You mean the Comber, don’t you?” Hricko was getting up to grind another bottle of Jack Daniels, but the detective brought him short.
“Deb Fairchild worked at the Comber at the time she was murdered. You could have volunteered that, Hricko, this afternoon.”
“Didn’t seem crucial.”
“But last winter, she worked at Petrakis’ deli on Anson Street. Then, she was a student at College of Charleston. Getting crucial, Ben?”
Hricko sat thoughtfully back into his chair; nothing would have surprised DeLeon more than the broker’s surprise, not since this afternoon’s chat. “That’s where she met Petrakis’ niece, Nikki.”
Bottie.Was she threatened?
Green daggers at Nick. “Surely, detective, there’s nothing strange about Deb working at the deli. The kids pick up money wherever they can.”
“That’s right, Nick. Deb and Nikki were about the same age. No surprise they would get along. Especially, with Nikki’s father gone . . . way far gone.”
Nick speared the last boiled potato and wolfed it down. Took a pull on the Jack Daniels and wondered why Hricko hadn’t tapped . . .
Nick at Bottie. “Fairchild started at the Greek’s deli long after Alex died. I don’t believe Nikki mourned him. Try days! Can you figure another reason?”
Hricko between them. “Moon-signs, could have been an accident. Friend of a friend thing.”
Peg thought, “what is McCain helping Coffee run?” And she stared straight at Ben who blanked her so purposefullyInto the bog that rough sex was a moonlight kiss.
Nick said. “Right back to the swamp, Hricko, that’s where your taking me. The leather holster had long ceased to be a friend. He stretched all ways to relieve its tug, giving up with a low groan. He wasn’t looking for sympathy. “Maybe it’s no surprise to you that the girl followed Nikki Petrakis to the Comber . . .” Nick hitched his words between bites of strawberry quiche “. . . maybe Wheeler even needed Deb’s experience to help Nikki run the new place . . .”
“Quite the puzzle, detective.”
“. . . but what else, or who else followed Fairchild out of the city?”
Bottie spoke . . . prudently. “I have an office on State Street, Lieutenant, and I work nights. So does my staff. We’re careful, but we don’t really worry about getting mugged.”
Bet you don’t. Nick didn’t think harsh. Bottie couldn’t admit first meeting Petrakis at the Anson Street deli, or that her henchman Damon Willis’s used it to meet the bagman from Wioka Land Company. Nobody thought it unusual that the Charleston office was out of her district.
Nick’s eyes said nothing. “I guess, Senator Bottie, that men see the city different from women.”
“I’m sure I know how you see Charleston, detective.” Bottie and Hricko were on the move.” It’s a pile of garbage, and your the cobra hunting rats.” “Cobra’ Nicjk thought. String Quartet music from a side room had just switched from cobra-venom inspired RAJ gypsy strains to early CREAME with two base a rhythm and Stratocaster lead. Tony had hexed that sofa-heavy den with walls of foam-filled milk cartons and you were either in-there or square.
Vitalle’s the mystery, all right. Why would he screw with Isle of Palm? Forwhose old time sake? Nick had one very wrong answer to that - since he was convinced that Vitalle knew more than Bottie - needed less than Bottie. Tony needed only Fila, and Fila wanted nothing from the Senator. What did Bottie need from Hricko?
She needed his silence.
Some romance for the Island bastard . . . well, for all he cared, they could roll around in the sea-oats until the marina caged Isle of Palm for a parking lot, Breach Inlet a sewer pipe. Bottie would find another island, probably in the Chesapeake Bay. And Hricko? Could he desert the cedars for his godforsaken cabin in Nevada? Vitalle wasn’t going anywhere; neither was he. Under what mossy bank would Nick DeLeon find himself? Sometimes the Browning 40 caliber under his shoulder felt good, even here, in a maze of characters whose words killed.
“Expect you’ll be spending time on the Island, Nick. Seems like yesterday . . .” Beauchamp had slipped out from the dining room with a pair of eight inch bourbons. However Gordo died, he would be buried in high stone. They toasted a forgotten battle, won by the shrimper.
“You keep those freezer doors closed, Gordo, when I pass by and I might not smell a thing.”
“Fresh shrimp, detective, never frozen.”
“Right, Gordo. Still trawling those reaches south of Edisto? A challenge rumbled out of the big man, hands red and hard as boiled rock shrimp. “If you can find ‘em, I’ll haul it back and sell. I’m not the one with the problems now; understand the twin has been helping you again. I’d do the same, give her some time.”
“First man she ever needed to do that, eh Nick? City’s not the same. Hell; neither are we. Stop over at the restaurant next week. I have some Chesapeake Bay soft-shells coming down on Tuesday. I promise, you won’t smell a thing.”
“Natural finish for the Cohibas,” Vitalle growled. He had seen the truck-stop light ahead - - - always a waiting whore. He listens to the pendulum clock strike an hour. Later now, in Vitalle’s study, and he has been watching Kiri talk with the Irishman - the blond sparkling diamond to the Arab. “Eight track I recorded myself on Isle of Man.”
Nick pays no attention to the music which is at once obscene and fragrant as a virgin. He has drifted in, discovered the recital by accident, like the couples have formed.Hricko multiplies accidents. Hricko, sharp and dismissive, is introduced by an old man to his young companion.
“I like your music, Mr Hricko. Peaceful,” she said taking Gordos arm.
“Them’s blue notes, little girl.” Vitalle had swiftly chastised her. “And red.” Age has cut and wrinkled to desolation the man’s face, but the girl eagerly has his arm. Her cheeks high and copper, and her hair - like Kiri - pitch black, long about her shoulders and so far into the night that its skein of rivulets will live forever.
The grandfather clock sounded twelve chimes. Coffee , Kiri and Bottie had been pleasant, funny even telling TJ weed stories and midnight pulled in a new stream of guests. Cases sometimes broke in such swill and Nick might have buried deep, lingered among them - - Eve had been making soft mewing sounds in his ear so instead he sought out Hricko who small-talked Regan, while bare shouldered Kiri pinned between them on a couch meant for two. The candidate should have been shilling developers he needed to screw. But, he needed to screw and that’s politics.
He could taste her flesh . . . she left them working toward Nicky till Eve had sloughed her off like a five-dollar Gas-N-Guzzle hoe. Fila’s eyes from the kitchen door had saidnow. The thought pestered . . . him already late for the next dead girl . . . or did he think her butcher had been within arms reach? Never slipped, though as blood simple will slip 9 perps outa 10. That raised neck-hair he’d swear the killer had been two steps away all evening, entangled as Hricko would say, but traveling in a different dimension. How many pairs were entangled tonight?
“Sure you won’t come home with Ben and me,” sniffed Bottie angling for a new mint sour.
“Both? Eves particular. You haven’t got even Hricko yet ; he’s stargazing.” Bottie huffed away.
Then goodnight to Fila, she pressing Vitalle closer as the evening wore. She wasn’t leading the way this time, singsong from a bramble that all the Birmingham stainless couldn’t hide. “Ben won’t be on your side if you threaten Peg. He’s so sure the evil had flung itself eons of stars from Pegs little power grab. She’s used, not the key, not mistress of her own house.”
Nick muttered defiance, one woman covering another … but she had pinned Ben to a star-twinkle. Fila, not the mistress . . . Tony sipped an espresso. “I’m out to Ben’s place for a swim this Thursday morning. You gained a couple pounds Nicky … give me a call and freeze in the surf.”
“My advise is have a go at the Korean bitch before the Arab sets her sail,” Beauchamp muttered to Regan, and sauntered away with Jerry. Jet Coffee, withdrawing from a tight circle of admirers. “You have everybody worried but me, detective. Peg’s not much fun in handcuffs.” She crossed her wrists behind Nicks neck. Frowned. “Ben’s upstairs.”
Thea Bunzetti and Phil Regan were openly fondling against the stone fireplace. Openly drunk. “Come visit the Jammer, Nick. Soak away those Charleston vapors.”
“Sure, detective. Frank would love to talk shop.” Regan was stroking a kneeling bare-ass sculpt of Dianne and hounds; Thea flinching pinched her own breast till the black nipple slipped from her halter.
Damon Willis oozed oiled dim and slippery as Bottie’s last deal. Work hard and never stopmessing with it his father had advised. “You see, Nick. We have plenty in common. She even drives a Chevy.” He was drinking, standing next to Kiri, staring into her breasts. “Here’s to the best man, and the quickest.” DeLeon believed he was also drunk.
Hricko. Lurking the detective’s traps. For an hour, the broker had huddled with Jet Coffee next to the pool. They split, and as Kiri advised he retired to Tony’s study. Nick found him rocking slowly in the high leather chair before the computer screen. Coffee lounged on a window-side daybed , peering through a sailors telescope following a cast of new stars.
“See Nicky? One par-secs two … three par-secs four ...” The big-screen computer game had sucked him in … Bottie must have promised him the moon. The walls iron firebox glowed red, fire fingers lisping from beneath oak logs ancient when Sewee redmen swarmed the Battery swale. Warriors sacrificed a tribal virgin to crocodile gods each spring.
“What’s it all about Ben?”
“A couple numbers.” Stirring a warm martini he dismissed the detective’s careful approach. “Prowled us good tonight, Nick. Stirred the pot, like we couldn’t tell. Scared piss out of Peg.”
“Why was she scared, Ben?”
“Can’t abide people out of control. She wants the firm hand.”
“Who’s out of control?”
“Mebby the numbers …. a few grains of sand each hour . I can’t get the solutions to stabilize; know what I mean? Know what is least-bound-randomness? A backwards ontological gig … what am I saying shit no you don’t understand.” His paw scratched at a wood-grain swirl. “I can’t give you a simple answer.” Hricko swung up from the rocker and reached for the gin bottle. “People-wise I see more. Peg’s tries to keep the finger on every thread of the island web. Tightens there, loosens a tad here. Feels for the response. Bugger all wrong, linear, but I can’t tell her no. Not yet. And what fucks does that deal a dead string of young eco-tainted women?”
“Cosmic bullshit, Hricko. Maths once needed infinitesimals … now small does just fine and a limit doesn’t even need be small. Are we on the same side this time? Sand pulled from the north gets dropped at Breech Inlet. It’ll clog eventually into one island, Sullivans and Isle of Palms ...”
Hricko burst into laughter. “Unless they come for it, moonless, like they came for Tepy! What if it – they – leave as much sand as they left of her bones?”
“That whore played dirty with thick-neck men. No stargazing needed.” Nick blew a long, thin stream of grey Virginia blend into the dark mahogany ceiling as he thought of ways to avoid Hrickos traps. “One giant sandspit is what you’ll have, from Pawly Isle to Kiowa and damned little of a witches marsh.”
Now Hricks’ laugh exploded. He had been mugged and knew it. “Ask the computer.” Hricko pulled hard on the Camel straight, and sent a stream of smoke pouring onto the screen. The mouse chased a swirl of green lines. “But Jerry knows … he may know and dear Peg my booty-call wishes Damon knew cause she can’t, but could fuck it out of him. True love I’d call that gig!”
Ben dove back into a 3rd world war video game and Nicky watched as Kiri fell to his side, fondled, cursed and burst away crying. The computer continued to amuse, playing fantastic combinations of order and relation and rules . . . beyond . . . Canada won … a paradise of green-striped hallucination where the bits carrying randomness became random
Eve slipped through the door in her A-line Peck & Peck scouting for him having not a word for Hricko; high Episcopal blood was just bad between them. Nick groused as he banged shut behind him the mahogany doors: “Don’t be a day late next time, Ben,” and that was the detective’s best prowl of the evening.
Having seen-off Fila and Tony the detective and his wife left alone. Swift and certain, under the frosted crescent and star, having made a choice. A heavy bay mist greeted them. Voices at the oak doors behind still startled him, and they moved quickly up Murray Street toward the brass cannon. At the gate, he stopped to follow freighter’s lights as they split the sea-wall, fell away and beneath the rows of black stone, trading one step now for two, later.
Flickering east from the salt marshes, following the Ashley and Cooper Rivers like so many viper tongues, wisps of dark probed among the inhabitants of the Charleston Battery. Wet lapping at oak front doors; whirling vapor among sidewalk sounds of rapid, uncertain footsteps; playful smearing of form over the chrome bright automobiles that plied the evening streets.
Take caution, and by all means take warning, was the message carried by these cool, early arrivals. Make haste on the journey. Button tight if the logs had already been lit and blazed. Not all Charleston lives above the snake-infested marshes. Deep below the marl, below Danish bronze pots, buried under the Clovis arrowheads and beneath the Solutrian flints a life swirled , a singularity sharp and fractured in the smooth spherical harmonic that governed Gaias peninsula. Forever old that fracture, bedded and clothed or old as rust-less metal carried by the new streaming stars Tepy worshiped? A dense grey ghost shadowed the messenger. Testing. A windowless mentor of uncertainty. Within that uplifted, swamp-born bank of fog, all memories might be removed from existence, and life itself held valueless.
“I left you alone too long.” Nick burned his Zippo into the dry end of a Camel straight. Eve snatched the second draw … she had done so before, brashly as her families bold 14-yo witch. Mist roiled the long stream of grey smoke over the Battery wall … another virgin sacrifice.
“Regan would have fucked me over the fruit-bowl table. I bit his hand with a nut-cracker!”
Two in one flesh he had never doubted! Just words. “That ...”
“That’s all in a detectives night-shift,” Eve giggled. “He might kill once, but not twice. Can’t keep the hard-on long enough.” Grousing. “Babes know a lot about what men can’t do. You hate Ben, but know he would never harm a woman. He’s infatuated with the breed.”
Eve pulled up the mink collar. “Some brash breed my love. Jet drools for a shot at you, public or private,” Eve voice clipped at the mist. Nicky un-nerved. “She’s looking for a spear not a milk churn.”
Eve smacked his chin. “Are not! But, she’s a rich bitch in heat ...” and Eve fell into the wool lining of her husbands overcoat.
“You madam will burn right through my chest!” Words left her as Nickys paw exploring found her ass bare and smoothed it wet. Her breath came in hurried bursts of gravel. “We had one waltz Nicolas while you ungaily pondered Regan or Bartlet or Willis … all small men who cut people down around them. You would never even consider perv Hricko and Christ save him if he ever comes near our daughter ....”
Hricko had already observed her young teen spirit … and Nick had almost bust his face … except Tony had thrown his shoulders between them. Men can agree on such things and Hricko backed away. Yet now a cutting edge departed from Nick, without Ben to urge fools into foolish blunders. Tough cases didn’t break because you were smart, but because the perp got stupid! But, without a goad - - Hrickos weird hallucinations of star-heavy sky - - some perp mistakes became impossible even on this dimly shaded night street. And bored; one mistake became certain. He lost the first sense of salvation, the detective’sneed. He believed in the second, in its tenacity, without confidence in another move on a board that curved away from every line of sight.
Eves body had melted into his and the four remaining blocks as dark ill-shaped shadows slid into the mists. Dim vapors chose another route for the Detectives aura gleamed like a wolves fang. Colonial Lake shimmers. They came up the back way, to a third story bedroom and high 4-poster bed occasioned by visitors. The trellis gate had been unlocked and a pewter burn of cat-tail and raspberry oil smoked beside it on a brick ledge. They parsed out a bit of peyote and later by a little she buttered him into fantasy. Smooth pale thighs and arms became coiled shivering loops of desire. They ripped his cuffed shirt and pulled him into a transformed body, the thorny and bottomless and lubricious black slough every rough-ankled house-Negress had trained & bred into her brooding, effervescent delicate white mistress.
Peg Bottie accepted Damon’s cheek-peck and buried herself within the plush, black Lincoln - stroked by powerless streaks of red, amber and green. She swung west onto Lockwood Boulevard, and the street-lights flared and dimmed and finally retreated to impotent halos. Each guarded wooden post unseen. Her Lincoln was swallowed whole on the cross-town expressway, and she crept forward, locked within a shining, muted cave. The drive to Sullivan’s Island took nearly two hours. Powerless against the fog, creeping over the Cooper River, she had conjured images of herself bound in a fury to Ben Hricko, behind Tony’s incredibly ugly French Provencal couch. He, not the night would have it’s way; she would not have let him go.
Ben Hricko left solidly drunk, followed Bottie by a half-hour. Had Fila not been sharply engaged with Kiri, she surely would have seen him stumble against the oak doors and pulled him back. Hricko’s Triumph blazed past the Lincoln on the Sullivan Island drawbridge, cut her off and shagged her to the side. The rusted piece of British iron would have been a gnat on her American grill had she been as drunk as he, climbing over the convertible top onto her hood, and pawing the best of his obscene fantasies onto her windshield in cold, dewy sweeps.
She bought him off cheaply; he pinned a half-smoked Salvia-LSD laced reefer between her lips, backed off roaring away in the TR6 and beating her home by ten minutes. He harmed nothing in the process except one slow possum before she pulled her Lincoln into his bricked driveway. Bottie threw a half-full bottle of Ghost Horse Cabernet at the Triumph missing wildly - - of mercy Hricko knew nothing. “You get nothing, bastard” she howled. “I saw you fucking Coffee over the garden bench!”
She meant nothing to him. He ripped her from the car, dragging her toward the house his fingers spreading her cunt and ass which all, but buckled her knees … so weak she was when a man just took her ass and tore a tit from its silk halter. In Pans grasp they missed stepping on the moccasin by a foot. However, the snake had just dispatched a dock rat which had blundered over from the Marina, and about its foolish patron, the viper could have cared less. Cared less than Bottie about her swollen sex , lubricious manner cowardly she thought afterward, to their loss, that Hricko snatched her down hallways lit with computer screens and algoryths and ROI plots that saw, measured and died away under their own mistress while she, Bottie struggled weakly , carried by Hricko into his California king slapping tit and ass red till he drove into her.
And racing the Salvia-slick acid-run never stopped driving … squeezing more deeply into her flesh … she pleading … “the heat - - the fucking god-damned heat my cunt burns” - - demanding …. howling as Tepy might have howled into shadow-casts a flaying master of new stars delivered ...
Damon Willis found no reason to hurry. After leaving Bottie, he walked north along the Battery, a thoughtful muse to the rare German tourist still looking for the Meeting Street bordello. His leather coat mixed with the swirls of mist, neither menacing nor menaced by the city, until he too might seem a vapor from the Bay. He passed the Korean’s still dark house, paused for a cigarette on the Tradd cobbles. The slant bitch he though would serve well as agitprop in Botties next campaign. Just no more mistakes … He sensed a memory of panic, searched for the face or form that was its container and continued north. The feeling did not travel alone. Several blocks beyond, at a certain back door in an alley off Church Street, he stopped. Invisible, dark, hardly a shadow within the blanket of night.
His eyes pursued the alley, proving he had come alone, but not without a companion. Hebathed in it. However, at that entrance under the arch and beyond the iron gate, secrets either of approach or desire were not allowed. He lightly touched the brass knocker, and the door swung open. A crack of blue light fled into the mist, reveling a black woman in a white lace skirt and leather belt. Not very much of the red leather, not revealing very much at all.
She brought him through a scarlet, soundless corridor, and then a black hall of pleading. Along the path a sobbing woman was hung in rude hemp ropes and a man bound in chains rusted, sharp and twisted. A brass lock founded on brass, the door bared and locked. She kicked Will in the face , her leg flashing high as the Olympic gymnast she had once been and dragged him though the doorway now keyed open, undressed him and allowed his pleasure working the gold clip deep into her nipple before binding him to the metal rack. The leather strips were torn from her own ass - such was her pleasure - and they came away from her slit smelling of dark sex and the high acrid draw of frog-skin. This amused the woman - thisseething of distance -who was not always thus, and rarely a kind person. She knew the man, and though he had no need of the oil, that also remained her pleasure, as for herself. Finishing her preparation, she unbuckled the belt and removed the skirt - exposing her cunt - stropping the leather against a heavy cedar beam.
Willis backed away, lunged for’ard swinging a curved wrist-knife at her. She knelt smoothly as the blade whistled above her head, and drove the iron stirrup of the lash into his soft belly; he crumbled moaning and the knife flew across into a straw mat. Quiet now and peaceful, as she approached him, stropping the leather fangs against her own leg laughing at his helpless meowing, but mercifully the fog closed tightly around the screams.
Sunday morning brilliance erupts from sunlight piercing fog. Hricko dreams. He casts for blue-fish near marker number six. Schools of pogie flee toward the Breach Inlet currents, sucked by the flow and driven by the predator’s slashing dark fins. So many, so thick and long and wide the flow of chum each crashing blue erupted in blood-mist through the carpet a mimick volcano . Hricko cast after and ahead-of each erupted point with Bottie clinging to his back, sex against his ass fondling the wide leather belt and gutting blade.
Shafts of afternoon sunlight play down, chasing among rain-clouds and glinting off the gold spoon. Hricko believes this lure cannot fail. It breaks surface, teasing, just beyond the school. A gust drives raindrops into his face; he blinks and loses the lure in a flash of blue scales. The surf rod bucks in his hand and he is caught.
A wet sprinkle pulls him from the bottom of a dreamless pit.What is burning? Groggy, he gropes for the blanket. Nothing. Camels?Morning breeze chills his bare back. Hricko jumps at another splash of water, and tries so hard to rise from the pillow that his head starts spinning. Smoky fire carried on wind-spray. Close the sliding doors. Didn’t Erlyne warn you?
“Alright, I’m coming,” he says out loud, struggles against blankets he cannot find. The blue dashes line from his reel, runs for the deep - Hricko feels this last piece of the dream, all of it - fading. Only then does he take the soft cheek against his forehead, and shoots upright in the bed. He accepts the kiss, smells Bottie’s breath move away, and opens one sleeping eye.
“Peg. I’ll pick you up Monday morning.” He rolls into the down pillows. Turns on his back. Looks up into the maze of curls that have fallen around her cheeks. “What time is it?”
She’s made hotter telephone calls and Peg Bottie amused … greatly amused. “If you don’t remember last night at Tonys ... Hricko unfaithful lover … you had a gawd-damned gin-dick for me after the 2nd oyster .”
A telephone rings. “. . . then I won’t remember for you. Since it’s this easy to steal the family jewels . . .” she murmurs and her voice trails off.
Has she taken the house-keys? He has drilled for this, prepared mentally for an intruder. Against stealth he has designed a terrible strike.Has she explored while he slept? Are they plotting together already?His dick has the answer to that, hurries a painful response.
Her smiling lips follow the lure. He pulls a sheet self-consciously around his waist. She laughs at his modesty. He has never seemed helpless before. “How will you ever get me into the sack?”
Peg Bottie slips a cup of espresso into his hand, sinks into the single low, cushy chair that Hricko has allowed in the bedroom. At least he provides one option! She thinks he does not provide others. Demands; he believes in those, as much as his precious beach! Acts to provokes her. No training will make this man respectable. “You will come to your swiving no respectable way.”
‘Swiving ...’ Hricko is so taken by archaena Peg thinks, but he could say as much, confront her, and she would what? Beggar pride - beggar him! Knowing her thoughts would have undone him completely. Hricko had come awake. “Luscious,” he spurts!
She wears a long, maidenly summer dresses , fringe tickling her knees and pins finding the sandals. She is as bitter as the coffee, which he downs in a single swallow. At least she left out the damned sugar cause that’s his move. “Time to chase the woman you love around the dunes.”
“Catch me if you can.” She is being ironic - her sing-song. He accepts her need, but is not a physician.
“Catch yourself happy. Can that ever be my vixen?” Hricko lights a Camel straight and blows a long thin stream of Virginia blend toward the workstation screen. “Peg. You just don’t take humor seriously, and the floating of sandbuckets is nothing if not humor. Best leave them sit!”
She imagines ending the day right there, stripping off her dress and jumping into the California king with the strange, distant guy who calls her Peg. He hands her the cup; in that instant she is up and across the room, plunging into the open door to the deck.
“You’re a dangerous guy, Hricko. I’ve got the kite, you get a shower, and we’ll go play in the fog.”
What did I do? The broker thinks, watching the woman disappear out the door. The answer comes back as faint cries from the morning fishers. He will not accept only this, for the calls and the mist and the coffee have brought him fully awake. Bottie has done this.
Yes, she is standing at the rail, at the very end, losing herself in the swirling fog. The marsh has retreated from her, is afraid of her, so she watches the dock, scans the edge of his yard and the water trail leading to the Intercoastal. Does she know which parts he has built, which preserved, what destroyed? Can she imagine the future? He does not believe her studied quiet, satisfaction, apart.
Hricko showers on the dock. She is appalled and does not take her eyes from him.
They tussle over the car, balancing one to the other. She has conceded the Lincoln is not playful; the Triumph will mess her hair. They can talk in the Lincoln; the Triumph will speak for them. Hricko’s thought, parts moving parts.
“Which one,” she would ask?
He feels no strength to deny her, but persists. Morning sky, sun a promise, Bottie relents. She has come to play, to grasp at the clear, free spaces between the rolling banks of clouds, to drive a nail into his peace.
She has taken a wrap on her hair and extracted from the Lincoln’s trunk a huge, orange kite; multiple air-foils; slow, then intolerably fast. Hricko stows it behind the Triumph’s leather seats.
“If it tears, I’ll cry,” she warns. “Do you know . . .”
He imagines a formula – relents. “Then drive the damned English rust-bucket and see if you can make the springs work!”
She must drive, then, a demon. On a sand covered intersection she breaks the rear end free, counts the third hop and bangs second. She caresses a high whine from the SUs and roars the Triumph down Palm Boulevard. At the Baptist Church, she flattens the long S with a spray of gravel. Two young boys in wetsuits wave to her; Hricko touches her bare knee. Words are impossible. She is mad. Breach Inlet races toward them with the kite’s silky ruffling at their back.
At the front beach turnoff, the red light winks behind them; they fly through a scatter of commercial buildings, closing to the right on a green carpet of marsh. Morning swirls about the woman’s skirt and through her hair, busying both of her hands and the laughter that so easily comes.
October’s sun and the onshore wind would need another two hours to clear beach fog. Bacci’s fades into view, weather flags limp above the bait shop cum greasy-spoon clinging to the north end of Breach Inlet. They stop for cigarets and coffee. Bottie has never been, and notices Hricko’s edginess as he spills coins over the register. She squeals out, and plays the Triumph recklessly through a cloud-bank enveloping the bridge, and finds open crush on the south side. The couple seems none too eager deserting the car, lounging against the grill with a thermos and the small, self-conscious ways of those who have not yet slept together. Who have cautioned themselves, but thought of little else. Who have better, more certain business to attend. Of this simple fact the Island believes them ignorant.
She fills his cup, straightens a unruly collar. He wishes her hand not to move from his neck. He lights a cigarette that she would have accepted no where else and from no one. The Camel straight bites at her lip, even as she steadies his hand; does he know this? She can still hear the SUs singing to her hand, knows Hricko has conspired with them. He kisses her cheek and she, his. Without warning a fuselage of sun breaks through, fog banks scattering to the west; her arm comes around his waist, and she mocks his serious face. Stealthy, these two clinging together; even now the bonnet cools, drives them toward the convolutions of the beach at low tide. So subtly did the Island weave their fortunes.
Ben carries the kite. Instead of setting off south along the Inlet curve, Peg leads them first to the base of the bridge. They have not hurried, for she mistakes the devil Hricko finds in Wheeler Petrakis. “If I owned property near the marina, I’d worry too, like you. Do anything before I got swallowed.” She insinuates with caution; smiles a test.
“Not just anything, and not just the marina.” Hricko is speaking to her bluntly.
She resists. “And Wheeler is not that man? Someone must control them.”
“A cripple tending the lame.”
She has prepared for this fear. “I’ll grant you, Wheeler likes to deal. He’s a trader, Ben, and a louse, but look at your own man, Regan. Besotted. Hands on what they shouldn’t. Talk about cripples!”
“Would you allow the Greek one ounce of your heart?”
She flinches, that part of her taken . . . in shock. He would say it first! Sold it by the pound, body and soul. How can the broker devil her when he’s so scarce with a word? Now, she finds none prepared for him. “What part of your heart do you give me?”
“I’ve hidden nothing.”
“You lie, Hricko. Tepy told you things before selling the property - - before she was torn apart!” Indeed Tepy talked, Hricko thought! And spoke in ways only he could imagine, but shared less truth than Bottie believes.
Nep tide has exposed the piling from early attempts to span the Inlet. Three sets of rotted wood piles march into the water, from the north and none return on the south side. It’s fifty yards on a slow day … and the rushing Atlantic brine eats its fill. Sure, a few rotton teeth stick out where a green park stretches to marshy or rip-rap. Among those wooden stubs a dozen locals are working the narrow deep quiets. Simple faces might deceive, as they joke and finish the first joints of the day. For the taking, fat blue crab, and flounder that measure the flows of a wary, rising tide.
Bottie cool as the October mist. She knows them all by name, by the children’s names and their teachers - more if she were pressed - and they seem comfortable with that. Most had voted for her; she had seen to small favors. Her people, she thinks, even the retired fisherman, not Ben’s. Gulls chatter over a bait-fish school, while she ropes Hricko to her arm and passes among them.
They pause short of the big man working a bait, blue-bib coveralls and a captain’s eye. Gordon Beauchamp is over from Trawler’s Inlet. Bottie sees Hricko exchange the greeting. She believes Ben knows him as a business acquaintance of Tony’s. From evenings at the man’s namesake restaurant on James Island; knows him perhaps better than that. The men drop their surprise - she has noticed.
Beauchamp is setting a bottom jig for his grandson and eyes Bottie warily. “Morning Senator Bottie. Prime time, isn’t it now, for the flounder.”
She skates smartly along the menace. “A bit of plastic skirt over the hook would do no harm, Gordo.”
“For you neither, Senator Bottie.”
Hricko feels her tension drain into his arm. He knows the story, both of them. “You home safely, last night? Appears so, you’re here! Fog thick enough to separate mother and child.”
Peg looks at Gordon and says. “Slow going, especially for Ben.”
Years before, Bottie and Beauchamp had squabbled over a bit of fill-land along Trawler’s Inlet. Beauchamp had won, built his new dock and ice-house. Every year since, he had endured a tax audit; Bottie had seen to that!
She smiles at the boy, too quiet by a shout for a nine year old, who has stood apart from Beauchamp. “He has the farther’s eyes, and yours.”
Beauchamp finishes his knot and does not look at her. The boy’s father, a coastal shrimper, went down in a water-spout off Bull’s Island two years before. Wife with him, who served as first mate and never twisted a line.
No one has forgotten. “Better sense than either of us, Senator. Like my son. He’s an A student; wants to be a doctor.”
Bottie had seen to that; the councillors, small favors money could not purchase. Neither man felt she had acted unusually. That was no part of their problem with Peg Bottie. “He’ll make it, Gordo. You see to him well.”
“We can all do with a bit of look up from time to time. Trick is, seeing where the real help comes from. Trick is, avoiding theMarvs.”
Bottie swore nothing said had moved Ben Hricko in the slightest. He wouldn’t defend her. Didn’t need to defend her? Needed to watch her. Though Gordo Beauchamp had contributedthousands to the Regan campaign. Though Hricko and Tony Vitalle and Beauchamp did more than chowder when they met each week for dinner. Damon had badgered; Hricko and God knows who else knew something that could blow the Petrakis campaign right into the Dewee Island cedars.
“These friends need to step forward, Gordo, and make their intentions clear.”
“Just open your eyes, Ms. Bottie. Nobody’s hiding.”
As the couple drifts away, one of the women at the pilings prods her husband. HE had gotten awfully lucky, the Island broker, who was a hand too short and a cracked smile less than good looking. “Swept away, ma,” responds the husband a breath less than the wife could be sure of, and better’s done him. But his brother heard and Peg Bottie certainly did not.
She kissed Hricko full on the mouth and crinkled her nose like a school-girl. “Do you think Gordo has eyes for me?”
“And no bigger fool walks the Island.”
She giggled, and pulled him full against her breasts. “Who’s Marv?”
“Marvelous Marvin?” Hricko waved toward the Inlet and sputtered.
“He’s a lot of things by now.” His arm came around her as they splashed along the narrow, innocent shallows.
She affected concern for his next plot. “He must love the water, like you.”
“A tourist from New Jersey, I think. Originally.” Hricko did not restrain a malicious uncertainty. “You’ve not heard this story?”
“Who has, Hricko? You make them up to suit company. I knew you and Beauchamp were playing me along.”
“I’d have no story if Marvin didn’t like to water-ski; especially on the Intercoastal.” Words trailed, awaiting a plead and he got it. “So much, that he and his new bride came to the Island on their honeymoon; Marvin stayed.”
“And his wife?”
“She had more than her fill the first two days.”
“Don’t tell me; marriage annulled after one good tan.”
“Now that’s where the story gets queer. You see, third day of the honeymoon young Marvin took a tube-float across Breach Inlet, just at the rising tide. No man admitted givingthat advise.”
“Got to know your friends, eh Hricko? Another story made.”
Hricko pondered, dramatically. “A Mako came through looking for the blues, and found poor Marvin instead. One second the boy is waving to his bride - she had the good sense to stay just about where we are now - and the next he’s a bloody bubble.”
Bottie is horrified, and cannot stop the broker who has set all sails to his story. She squirms against him, but he holds her firmly, ankle deep in the ripples.
“The wife unbuttons, of course, shouts wildly to the fishermen on the bank; they come running. About that time, young Marvin bobs back to the surface, his torso that is, close to the bank, and the men pull him out. To his bride’s horror, you would think, but she seems to stand in awe.”
“You are insane, Hricko! What did the girl do?”
“She’s bawling; everyone around her allowed that; all torn up by the tragedy. But when they gigged the man’s top-half ashore, those nearest the bereaved bride swear she put hands on hips and demanded the shark show himself. They say the Mako’s fin appeared not thirty feet from the sand, and the bride shouted to it. ‘At least you returned the best part of him. But you’re two days late.’ Then she ran off the beach. The worst part of Marvin now the favorite of a fourteen-foot shark.”
“Marvin the Mako, I should have known. But she didn’t give the name!”
“Blame that on the locals, because the fisherman thought it curious, neither before nor since has that shark so much as nipped a toe. The bride never returned, but Marvin’s a regular, certain as the tide.”
Hricko allows her to pull them from the ripples. She strokes the stubble around his mouth. “Islanders tell this story to young brides?”
“Actually Peg, it’s a tease for the women. Minding their boyfriends to properly be about business. Marvin is waiting!”
“Not my Marvin,” she thinks. Squeezes the question from the broker’s lips; kisses it back.What is he asking her?
“Will you mind business, Hricko?”
“No!” But he is sucking on her neck so hard that the question eludes her. She holds him off, and motions to a crooked white finger of sand exposed by the tide. The tip of the sand spit melted into the jeweled glittering of the ocean, and the pair made for it. Up the beach, Bottie found her question.
“You, the three of you, have something in mind better than Regan?”
“Us three? You in the boat so soon?”
She bit his neck, horsing him toward the water. “My responsibilities do not disappear with every good idea. Join me, Ben. Bugger Regan, I’ll bugger the Greek. Our Island, then, if you really need it.”
“I’ll ask her, the Island. We can listen.” Listen together? Yes, the broker thinks, she will listen to him. To the ripples of her own life. But first, she will hear the tones of her own ambition and the song that feeds it. Ignore the low moan carrying behind.What part of your heart, dear Peg, can you give?
He is slippery, this broker who wants to nail her so badly that his hands constantly play at the small wetness near the curve of her ass. She had brought him where he cannot fail, and now will lose him. A shoulder of fog envelops and cuts them off from the world. No ocean to the east or island bearing right. They may believe, as do breakers, a rule of the last second. This accepts a local rule of physics … he mutters laughing rule of a local rule … where entanglements reach no further than a bikini bowtie so easily loosed. Surrounding, a cool, wet cove that bare feet wander through the dry sand, while hair mats faces, only inches apart. They may believe in a lost creation. For the new wind is not an abstract sensation; fog ghosts appear, create, writhe and move away in a frenzy. His California quant-pal Scranton claims he conjured them out-of December Tule fog driving to Lake Tahoe. From one minute to the next, they are permitted no memories.
Yet the lowest layer catches them up. No way to truly vanish, not the two, though the tidal pool came upon them suddenly. Ben would have face first had Bottie not pulled him back, against her. Crusted edges of sand crumbled under her feet and they stagged, unseparated, crushing together, while the warm lapped around their knees.
Had they been children . . . but they were not, and separated, lips parted in small self-conscious desire, oh yes, that was an easy thing to say as bodies will, theirs no exception, mouth on mouth and the warm flesh of a neck too willing to receive mock ferocious white marks of teeth. But they, no children, yet laughing hand in hand, her mouth leaving his with effort, struck for the unknown middle of the pool. Fog might have it an ocean.
Every square foot of a beach may be thought a pool in waiting. Nothing is flat; not the sand sloping into the ripples of a low tide; not the dunes, curving upon themselves; and smaller but no less agile a tease to the probing tongues of salt water licking upward at high tide, every lump and whirl and inconstancy of sand that buries a foot or slides it left or right. Hricko has told her a story.
She finds a shell and splashes him. “This is my pool.”
“Shells are mummies,” he cautions. “A tidal pool must collapse of itself.” He is serious; teaching her.
She darts away. Her long dress gathered folds about her waist, and that takes one hand. His arm around that bare waist to the middle where a lonely, trapped spot-tail darts around their feet. Crabs too, find them wrapped together, and nip toes, would do worse, had another burst of sun not driven them from the brine.
A flight of Pelicans play between the low breakers. “We have some wind, Ben. Lets try to put it up.” She kneels beside the kite, a balsa wood maze of silk and mylar. The image an orasnge dragon roosting before a bare-breasted blue-skinned maid. Attending she to some detail misbehaved that connects the wings. Ben attaches the string. He has stripped off the T-shirt, soaked from the excursion into the pool, and Peg’s hands play teasingly at the back of his neck. Finished, he gives the spindle of line to her, carries the kite ten paces, holds it over his head and shouts.
She untangles a snag, then … “Go.”
“Gone!” Whipping through small breakers with an ocean before her - - the ocean and the spit of sand. Her blond hair flies behind a bright offshore wind that has already scattered the fog in undisciplined, drifting clumps. The kite rises, ruffles, dives and ruffles again before soaring invisibly above them.
“You get to find it,” Ben shouts, and he pelts toward the ocean. He catches her at the very edge of the wet sand. By this time, the kite had explored an opening between the shoulders of fog, and the orange fabric blazes against the sun. Always flying away, higher.
“You take the Kite, Ben. I want to run out on the sand. Find me on the spit.”
He takes the spindle from her, and she disappears toward the end of the spit, now shrouded in another swirling shoulder of fog. Wherever Peg had run off, the kite was now his. How high she had allowed it to rise is impossible to tell. A button on his smart spindle flashes 40 meters; he ought to have marked every 10. Fragments of mist appear and disperse with all the sense of two people joining, only to flee. Ben wades a shallow trough and follows the wet sand toward the end of the spit. Peg’s footsteps and laughter drift before him.
Sun foams around her, waiting for him knee-deep in the ripples, at the very end of the spit. Run to her he cannot, as the kite now far out of sight, is an anchor to the deserted beach and its island. He must negotiate with the sky. Every foot outward along the spit costs so many feet of twine. She becomes bold, promising him first one favor and then another, more outrageous, and the spindle bares to the wooden core. He may not reach the end, save that the kite has found for him a perfect blue 80 meter hole in the sky.
Together they walk back along the spit rewinding the string, feeling the tug pulse with the variations of wind closer the ground. The couple and the kite return to the island as a single act. Formalities? Yes. She is all for those. She has submitted to north beach. At her house for a change into her finest. Ben draws the line at her beach robe. She rummages for jeans and T-shirt. To his house for a quick change into surfer baggies. She scowls; relents. Unfair but equal, he assures.
While he changes she has prowled the yard. Flowers do not interest her or distract her. What has he built? The pair are sleek and oiled and hot, standing close to the salt-grass. Why, she demands, has he torn up the north side of his lawn? He explains, a failed attempt at a new dock. No marl beneath the pluff-mud at that point. No sand. And his precious Island house, equally floating on a layer of crushed shell? She is making a metaphor; Hricko is certain of that. No, he says. Erlyne’s builder founded three concrete pilings into the marl. Only three, but every beam is laced into them with bronze rod. Is he also tied to the Island? Yes, he admits. Very deeply tied.
Back in the Triumph, now, and away from the retreating swamp mist, they pass onto the marker thirty-seven. She is allowing him to drive, and the transmission sulks. Bottie believes the broker cannot allow a second victory; this pleases her. Cottages give way to the cedar summer homes of the wealthy; Ford pick-ups are replaced by Caddys and Vetts; hats are Ecuadorian weave from a famous shop in St Agustine. Driveways hold braces. Hricko misses third. Koni’s sing out behind them and a canny yellow Triumph roars by; fours hands wave.
One sharp turn brings them screeching to the dusty end of the road. They find an empty spot between two sorry clumps of marsh willows, and pile out of the car. Voices and the glitter of morning reflections filter in from the right. Ben has two wooden beach chairs - and Peg? They kick though fallen willows, out onto the white sand. Peg does not kick; she prances!
Though the hour is scarcely past eleven, the blue Sunday sky sprouts dozens of bare brown asses and tits. They enter the top of the narrow beach and stroll north, almost a hundred yards, to the very end of the spit. Without a word, Peg strips off her one piece and dives into the inlet, golden ripples on the sun spreading behind her. Surfacing twenty yards from the edge, she turns to form them into waves, push them back. Ben props the chairs in the shallows and follows her.
Ben wraps the heavy blue towel around his waist and waits for Peg.
Ask them. No. Save your breath. Might as well query the Heron half hidden among the stems of salt-grass. “Why the thoughtful intention of quiet? Why ‘first you, no, you’ rather than ripping at each other, grinding life into the dull redwood planks. Why this prim game?” You would think them observed. “The serpent is sleeping, god-damn-it, on its own little rock pile.” This day has spent its hot colors preparing. “What do they expect? Tongues of fire as well as the night?”
The two shower heads steam cold and hot and then fall silent. She comes out and leads him from the dock to the redwood terrace. They lie together on deck chairs. One almost touches another. Hricko has planned this time, foreseen them quiet, hopes fractured, light streaming from the purple disk having no home on earth save this one. Only the smallest matters come between them. His memory is too long; she too watchful.
Hricko will not tell her the circumstances which compelled him to the Island. By an unyielding hate for the Greek, he implies the Petrakis family is deeply involved. “For the same reasons an SOB Detective … DeLeon finds himself involved?”
“Oh you don’t know all of that my dear Peg-O!” The thought hangs … “Yes. Charleston is an island, but water does not make it so.”
She resents his formality, feels him studying her with words. “Fila would tell me more,” she suggests.
He doesn’t hesitate for an answer. “Perhaps at one time.”
This impresses her, his trust in an old lover. “Willis distrusts Petrakis as much as he hates DeLeon. Wheeler was my idea.” She is telling half the truth.
“For good reason!”
Bottie calculates. Hricko’s distaste for Damon is more recent. Yet the man is even more despised; they will never work together. Is he jealous? Hricko admits this with too much assurance; he is romancing her. She is too happy. He hides everything. “What connects you to Phil Regan?
“The Island,” Hricko says. “Regan visited, stoned out and bought a shack! But, he stumbles trying to explain; cannot simply mean the sand.
He expresses a fear that binds them, a loathing for small changes with unseen effects. “We take foreigners prisioner!”
“You fuck them too.” Smarmy shit, Bottie thinks. Is he talking about them? Pretending to begin when he has swallowed her whole? “Does your pirate snatch go on longer than the tidal pool?”
She is speaking, wondering how long for them? He insists the pool was formed months before; she thinks, as they were. She contracts, childlike from a fear that is unyielding. Is this fear the same poison, the same understanding that might be used against her? Will he drive fangs into her?
Hricko has no answer - he is touching her arm with a frightful gentleness. He does not know a defense against evil, or how to decide which person is compelled to evil. Hricko promises only that what she sees in him is not contrived. Sometimes, he seems to mock her.
“Tell me,” he asks, “how can you tell Breach Inlet sand from North Beach sand?”
She will not have him leading her round some pool of confusion. He withdraws into a hurt silence. She teases. “How can you tell Wioka Island from Isle of Palm money?” Hricko laughs until she stops his mouth with hers.
They are standing on the veranda, touching without words as the last violet edge of the sun falls into the marsh. His arms have come inside her robe, melted into her back. He sucks the sweat from her cheeks and neck. Foolishly, he wonders about dinner. “No chicken tonight.”
Peg murmurs, “Saul has Argentine veal on tonights menu.”
What other dish did he scribe on her slate … and when? “Sorry Peg I always thought a cow ought to have one-good-fuck before the hammer falls. Perhaps we should have a McFish?”
Pieces of flesh tare, exchange, corrupt their owners. “Don’t feed me, Ben. Feed me.”
The old couple now far away, toking a burned-down joint and farther than they imagine. “I’ll place no bets on these two,” the Island night might have said as it wound them together. “They’ll have nothing but ideas in the morning.”
Who could blame the Island for reflecting the modern, cynical tone voiced by its most promising resident? But the Island is not modern, does not believe what is reasonable is also just; insists on a measure of art while moving through time. They did talk that night, at restless hours. They could make decisions, always they. One finding another at the railing, suddenly fond of the night, she would tease him back into love and the Island’s grace.
Daring him to follow the cat-steps.
SOB would meet as scheduled, Thursday evening. Phil would be there. Ben had no doubt that Phil would agree to the fund raiser, Coffee a willing messenger. Awaik LC would cater unadvised a raw-roast beef; ‘fat men build fat buildings’ Willis loved to scoff. He’s a fool thought Hricko, as more food means more people means more rabid bull-dozers pushed into the Inlets unforgiving maw. Cops don’t see and don’t care that a syphilitic pedophile ex-judge would build hit shit-house atop the sweetest redfish honey-hole on the Charleston peninsula. Sunday it would be; the mother of all oyster roasts at the Jammer. Let investors and owners pair-off to measure the real value of unshoveled sand.
When had Bottie sold him the idea? Worse than Carthage offering Utica for all of Cyprus according to the geographer Strabo. How the Roman senate had laughed. Hricko imagined how he would lose the woman. Hand to hand like school-children , the day wandered away from them. Even a visit to the small Catholic chapel beside the old fort walls … they took a rear pew and sat listening to the ocean rumble against the shell-stone fort.
Hricko snapped dead awake and alone at six-twenty, Monday morning. What’s an empty bed to a man who has read three times the two-volume bound GENTLEMANS COMPANION TO SOUTH AMERICA. He expected the call at eight, from a layout engineer at Visi_Vortex Technologies. Hispartner. Details and confirmation that a graphics chip in a hot new V_V board was unusually heat sensitive. Some H1-B fool had designed aluminum not copper heatsinks! The product would sell out, then smash the Companies earnings as the recalls filtered in. Hricko planned to go short - big. Their stock traded OTC, but them with a pipeline to the blue gorilla; they would survive to fail again. God-damn, he loved California.
Only after the call, and an hour dickering with the V_V market-maker, did he find time for Peg Bottie. Minutes, he allowed himself, standing at the veranda rail where she had held him and promised a cats-paw peace. Remembering the kite, the melting flesh that had wrapped so closely, as sand folds over a rock jetty and melts beneath pilings. Her image faded, replaced by that of the man whose plodding work could unbind them, Hricko’s silent, unknowing partner.
At Bacci no less. Frank had seen the couple this morning during early patrol, visiting the cousin. Ritz resort means their food gives no comfort; instead any traveler discovers the global sewage taste. Haute! Even the county health inspector had said the violation wasn’t serious. A certain rubbery consistency to the eggs, them scrambling so close to the squid tank and all.
“Just remind him, Frank, the bait gets hungry too.”
Wonder the DeLeon fella wasn’t over their shoulders. A local might as well count misfortune’s weight, and put a Wild Turkey on each to calm the misery, serious as a barb and unexpected. October usually laid a lighter hand on Isle of Palm. Time for Islanders to regroup, make peace with the daughter’s boyfriend and enjoy their treasures. Edisto reefer came-of-age, for the spirited and the country had taxed it as salt-isle cotton. Damned Federals interested now, so what local Law could remain practical with a simple heart?
No one welcomed Charleston Detective Nick DeLeon. Back Islanders remembered him from the goings on of Erlyne Tepy; one damned unlucky hooker. DeLeon a grim man, it was said, after his own and a sly Negress PI who appeared more often than needed knowing Geechee before white, as if THAT was the issue.
DeLeon hectored peace from decent people - - he had no answers only questions - - spare enough in that virtue. Talk was the Bottie woman got the detective interested in Hricko. Him and the Irishman. Then poor Frank Bunzetti had taken severalofficialcalls; from who else on a weekend? Thea had even bragged about them, like her plate wasn’t full enough. DeLeon, Bottie and Frank’s wife made proof that Breach Inlet was too narrow by half.
Too narrow by miles for the Fairchild girl. Bury that in the bourbon as God intended, for surely the rake-hell detective would ease no one’s soul. And WANDA. Three days of heavy rain had swept late season tourists from the Island like so many Palmetto fronds. No cloud of Piedmont tourists buzzing the bars. Both restaurants closed for the winter, so the yellow postered announcements shouted from each front door - - unlocked front doors But what quality the rain drove away, the election for mayor had attracted in vice.
Of those people, none rested heavier or with less grace than the advisor to Wheeler Petrakis, Peg Bottie’s hand-picked grifter, Damon Willis. That Tuesday afternoon, when Willis parked his red Mercedes at the front door of the Comber, only a bewildered Canadian couple chanced to see him. They smelled of old whiskey and island hashish. He drove them off front beach with a chill, bloody eye. Willis felt like a God-damned savior.
Station twenty-one front beach occupies three undistinguished blocks toward the middle of the Island. Two bars, two restaurants, and three gift shops constitute the beach industry, and include only the second public rest room on the Island. The city water tower and government building sit next door, and across the street is the only Pig-Wig and pharmacy on the Island.
Not a paradise for older tourists, who usually bailed after a single, boring summer. This suited the Islanders just fine. Children, young families, and hard body vacationers loved the Island for the same simple reason as the natives. Extending three miles north and south of the bars lay an unbroken ribbon of white sand. Brine pools ruled low tide. A double row of low dunes separates the beach from the first row of cottages. Currents are warm and mild from May through August. Hricko body surfed with some of the girls during the hurricane season around station thirty-two, but even Fila thought him foolish. Nobody swam below station eight, within the treacherous currents and sink holes near Breach Inlet at the Island’s southern tip … or the west depending on when you watched the sun. Leave that for the crabbers and spot-tail fisherman, and the wealthy Sullivan’s Island folk who nurtured afternoon fears of cigarette filters and evening sharks.
North beach lay on the Island’s east end, and the name couldn’t be changed. Station forty-three became a shrine for the red-head who camped beneath it on August weekends. No round-heel, the red-head, but at times she deserted her station post and patch of sand to help locals strip a Speedo from a fortunate, bashful tourist.
Locals called it a beach, the slim ninety-five yards of waterfront, because a sand jetty appeared at low tide. It extended nearly a hundred yards toward the Dewee marshes. Surrounding shallows were precious, as the currents between Isle of Palm and Dewee Island would not have threatened an Island toddler. Each decade a few were taken by sharks and gators, leaving the majority growing quick and clever, aware and ruthlessly optimistic!
Optimistic enough to own ocean property without a string of wealthy cousins. Blotched, the developers cursed! Land was the new slave and builders Simon Legree flogging backs red by the ½ acre! Yet the determined and lucky yarder or hippie owned … all adjoining properties belonged to the Wioka land Company. But the road through the center of the Island was owned by the city. Some even believed, owned by the people. Hricko had threatened to plant IEDs should the city every try giving that roadway to the developers. He’d take their fucking blood, send them to hell before they got their hoes silver of 30 pieces.
On summer weekends, every square yard of jetty was covered with bare ass, all ages too, though the Sullivan Island boys stayed away and everyone felt that a gift. With age, teens drifted south to the breakers, Folly Island Geechee cunt and Edisto kif, but later - much later - would return to Isle of Palms with their children. If you didn’t like it, well . . . fact was, nobody on the Island didn’t like it. Not even the back Island folks with cottages among the marsh Palmettos, and skin tones that matched attitudes shading into the mulatto.
Everything was proper, of course, in an Island way. No babies got made there on the lazy-creme sand - during the daylight hours anyway. But dates and scams and a hundred crazy promises did lay about every weekend. And when it came to cashing in the day’s play, payment was taken at the two Island beachfront bars - the Comber, owned by the Greek Petrakis, and the Jammer. The latter had been snatched from bankruptcy court a year last July by the Irishman, Phil Regan, and Islanders would tell you, not a month too soon.
Though the bars were side by side on the front beach, and shared the volleyball court, they were as different as David Allen Coe and The Dead. Since the Isle of Palm folks were about half of each, robbers and rascals, they were tickled when the Irishman came along and smuggled the Jammer right out from under the Greek’s twisted nose. Properly gigged the Islanders, pondering justice, that the Folly Beach man, Barlet, had owned both properties.
Hricko had talked him into it. Not into buying the place; nobody had the first idea why Regan had done that. Nice question, too, how or when the Irishman and Hricko met, both of them northerners. Perhaps something in the cold. Must have been powerful, for soon as the Irishman moved in, he hired Barlet to drive three concrete pilings down a hundred feet, right through the floor of the bar, and then laced angle-irons into the frame. Didn’t close the bar for a day, either, but that’s an Irishman’s way of doing business.
Was Hricko that talked him into the pilings, just like he found in that place he bought from Erlyne Tepy’s estate. She wasn’t making any deals herself by that time. Oh no, not any pieces that were left. “Faith be known,” admitted Regan, “Hricko and I met fishing stripers on the north coast of Cape Cod. Vacation? Hell no he never takes a vacation; was teaching physics at a private school among those New England pine . Good? Fuck no! But, damned Lady-of-Fatima can the man drink!”
Barlet’s a different story, and nobody ever said any love lost between Hricko and him, different ideas about what the Isle of Palm ought to be. But for driving the rod - and knowing the sand to bite on - nobody came close to the brigand from Folly Beach. He had earlier re-sided both bars in one inch cedar plank. Each had been raised on heart-of-pine piling. Sturdy enough for any hurricane, locals thought, until Regan bought the Jammer and nailed it deep into the marl.
Passing between, locals still commented on the strange mix. A damned cold night if bets weren’t laid on the Greek’s oily hand taking down the Irishman, or Hricko buying into Barlet’s deals. Lower voices when it came to SOB and Senator Bottie; strong feelings provoked among big men. Better allow Jack Black to settle those, shuffle the men who, like the bars, appeared similar. A narrow walkway separated the buildings. One year, two fat gals from New Jersey had gotten themselves wedged between - and a crocodile, but that had been drugged and diseased, ultimately slaughtered, and could not possibly have been local. Couples used the space to make out between band sets; some said it went a bit farther on a late Friday, but the boys would tell those stories about any dark place.
Half way down the length, across the space between buildings, a pair of narrow doors opposed. They were always locked. A few old shrimper’s remembered when only the Jammer was a real bar, the Comber an attached whorehouse and a place for the Island Blacks to drink. The only place to get black ass on the Island. Planks were laid between building, connecting the two doors. More than one white boy took back to his fall semester, something besides the colored swamp music. Some left a bit, but the summer Island nights were long, and the marshlands breed in its people a kindness to life, so both those who visited and those who stayed became more than they had been without the other.
No improvement, those old men said, when the Baptist preacher led a protest march and got the whorehouse closed down. “Git to go sonwhr,” snapped the oldest church member, who as a young southron miss had known General Longstreets grand-daughter. Proper town ladies sure were pissed at the competition; at least, the old men would chuckle, that much hadn’t changed.
Smells of burning salt-wood surrounded the Comber. Damon took the curving redwood steps two-at-a-time and rattled the front doors as he burst in early. An old bearded fisherman sat at a counter near the fireplace, across from the bar. His half-empty bottle of red wine glowed in the flicker of wet oak. He had been speaking with the girl, and Nikki had rewarded him - that careless humor lanced to a mix of fear and disgust at Willis’ arrival. Damon motioned to her, got a blunt turn of the bare, olive shoulder. The fisherman rose, jawed over his bill and cruised through the back door, bad company in his wake. Wheeler Petrakis waited for Willis at a wooden table pushed under the narrow, rear window. A small boat lantern hung over the table, pitching its own tint to the light. Wheeler had just hung it, and nobody would think of rewarding him.
“Don’t fuck with the tush, Damon, she’s a nice girl. Too young for that kind of thing.”
The cigarette smoke hung low and heavy, curled around and clung to the larded, waxy figure of the Greek. Damon wondered how long Wheeler had been waiting for him, what had he told the girl, and how did he plan to squeeze? Had to be that, money, for Petrakis to look so ready. Damon kicked a chair away from the table and dropped into it; flared at the girl. The bitch clinging to the mahogany shadows fucked like a mink, but an oily mink. Willis done with savior. “I tend to my business, Wheeler. You ready?” Drawled, wooden echoes in an empty room.
Petrakis looked around. Disgusted. “A few raindrops and the tourists run. What business do I have to tend?”
“That’s about to change.”
“Screw. Sit down and listen, Damon, I need to say a thing.”
“That’s why we’re having the meeting at Wioka. You can tell everything to us all.” But having spoken, Damon Willis leaned back in the captains chair, again motioned for a drink. Nikki Petrakis remained under the green bar-light; tuned in, staring with huge, piss-off eyes. Be that way - piece of ass and drop dead. Willis decided to listen. If Petrakis had a snit, better he should hear it before Saul Davidson.
“You know Damon, I don’t give a shit about the north end development. Let the naked pollute themselves. Those rich shits aren’t worth a nickel to the business, driving in and out with their limos. I’ll tell you what’s important. The twenty-seven new houses on the Cherokee Strip will bring people who show up at the Comber. Drink my liquor and eat at the deli. That’s cash business, Damon. If Wioka Land wants my help, they better build first on the strip. If they don’t, why should I support deeding north beach road to the Company. Simple enough?”
Damon listened as the Greek made his little speech. Nikki’s tits distracted. He hoped Petrakis wouldn’t think that much once he got elected. Damage control time for the big dog. “I’m with you on that one, Wheeler. Ringony’s the worrier about publicity, not me.”
“His judge cannot afford publicity, and I can’t afford to buy one extra keg of draft beer! He has a whole, fuckingsea of money!”
“Ringony’s testy, all of a sudden. Some tax complications. He now prefers we smooth the path right here, during the election.”
“Then get your bitch Senator off my ass. She’s the real problem. What business does she have screwing with SOB, when she doesn’t live on the Island?”
“You know the history.”
“Don’t tell me about history, Damon. My family was on the Island before your father’s first dry hump in a cotton field. My interests come first.”
“I’m working on her, Wheeler. Slowly. You think it helped when Barlet moved dozers onto the Cherokee Strip? Bottie doesn’t want to see fucking factory housing from her patio. Why is that so hard to understand?”
“Screw her. We’re talking about my business.”
“Wheeler, let’s get clear on just what your business is right now. If you can’t get elected mayor, you’re the last dog-turd on the beach.”
“You called me what, you cracker, shit-head!”
Damon Willis was fighting for his life. He was pushing the Greek. Whipping the last bit of reason out of him. Too hard, too far, too risky. Willis didn’t need to be told. He didn’t have an option. If he couldn’t get the Greek in line, if the double-crossing scum lost the election, Bottie would ditch both of them, her calculation simple. Twenty homes on Breach Inlet mean nothing. Some are liberals, like herself. Two-thousand Republican voters, her votes, ready to be picked on the north end of the Island. If they can close off the road, complete the development. That means everything. Next election, or the one after, they both can pack their bags for Washington, DC.
He’s the big dog. “Need a lesson in courtesy, Wheeler. Can you afford to have people talking loose, sniffing around? The hell you can. Not here, not in Charleston. Not about anything that goes out the back door of your fish market!”
“What do you fucking know, Willis?”
“Only this, asshole. If you lose this election, Bottie loses. I look like a fool. If that happens, I’ll see you shoveling horse-shit on Meeting Street, if your not in jail.”
Petrakis sucked the tip of his cigarette into a caustic, red inferno. “Stupid piece of white trash. You have no idea, do you Willis, who would go down with me? Before that happens, you’re crab bait under a dock.”
“I don’t deal the blessed oil, Petrakis. Not a drop on me. You swim in it. Federal prison is hard time. Think about that.”
“My brother said you were a piece of shit.”
“Your brother is dead.”
Wheeler Petrakis stormed from the table and kicked his chair spinning across the floor, crashing into the bar. He foamed curses, and took a wild swing at the girl behind it. Nikki lurched back and ducked away from the hairy fist. When she stood up, a 9-mm Glock sprouted from her right hand, and she waved it wildly toward the Greek. He froze, and then backed off into the middle of the room. Even in the dim light, Willis could see the sheen of sweat and oil covering Nikki Petrakis’ face, a confusion of loyalties betrayed in the eyes, part rage, part cowering fear. She had lined up the gun barrel on the Greek’s chest.
But her eyes were all on him. “Go ahead, just try stealing the Island, both of you. See if its without protectors.”
The Greek’s voice filled with dismissal and cold fury. “Bitch. You will leave it to the men.”
Petrakis shook with fury, even while moving cautiously toward the door. He waved off the girl’s threat and turned to face Damon Willis. “Live long and prosper Damon …. remember, hands off the tush,” and slammed the heavy oak behind him. Seconds later, the car’s engine gunned and squealed off into an afternoon sun just growing its purple haze.
Damon Willis counted the time after the tire sounds died away. At ten, he moved away from the table to lock the front and back doors.
Fuck with him; they had to fuck with him.
He roamed up to the bar and knocked the gun from her hand. Then he pulled her along the bar, sending the odd stale bottles of beer crashing to the floor. “Fuck this ya dickless wonder,” she threw a second piece into his face, fat-handled 32-calBZAM BZAM both fmjs screaming above his left shoulder.
“Cunt”, he batted away her hand andher 2nd revolver went flying. At the back opening he yanked her forward and out, and stripped a breast from the loose cotton blouse. She hit him flush in the face, and in return, his slap carried her, dazed, to the back of the room.
Then she neither fought nor helped, but carried along. Willis bent her over a table, pushed her face hard against the wood, and stripped the jeans from her ass. They bunched tightly around her knees, binding her legs. Even bound her lips gleamed wet, ripe and swollen for this kind of thing! Willis removed his belt in a drawn out slack-slack against the cotton, and folded it over in a long, black loop. Slashed the leather across her ass, for he would see-would see-would see who was betrayed. She bit into her arm as the leather rose and whipped against the round cheek. And again. And again, till the flesh glowed fearsome red against the white streaks and tears streamed from her eyes and her silence grew as deep as the pain.
As wounded as his arm, growing tired as the bitch did not return his pain. Sweat corrupted his face, pouring in stale, dark stain onto his collar. He yanked her around and caught her fat on the mouth with the buckle. She gasped, returned it, a stinging flat blow with her hand, low across his eye, and he staggered back in shock, the fear mocked him, the pain . . . kicked in knee and belly Willis crumbled to the Combers splintered floor. Rising … eyes flickering a cratered moon …
Nikki rolled her shoulders toward him. “Can’t even do it now, can you asshole. Big talk man ... ” taunting him with her olive breasts, pinching the nipples, thrusting them at his face. “Botties poly-fag! Fucking dick like a Slovak dumpling not a sausage!”
Cowards retreat, Willis retired like a beaten army to the bar, put the belt on. “Your time … bitch your time flows like a bloody Mary!” He remembered that line from an English history class
Stumbling, he edged toward the front door never taking eyes from his “Times coming … times coming … fucking Marv!”
Stumbling, he edged toward the front door never taking eyes from his limp helpless dick. Her taunting ripped his back … “see ya round asswhole” … as Damon Willis slammed through the front door and slug-footed roared his Mercedes away from the Comber.
“…bitch bitch bitch … fuck you all up bitchbitch ... ” Damon Willis daubed blood from his lip crossing another steel-arc bridge. Like a punch-drunk boxer he weaved back into his own lane laboring the gas-pedal shooting south.
“She’ll beg for it she’ll beg ...” she will cringe, as do they all. Steel words had returned to Damon Willis’ mouth, twisting the edge.Had she come at him . . .He clawed at the image, trying to hold it in-place, but the two-lane asphalt road black-as-night stripped it clean away.
He chuckled madly driving the narrow wooden bridge that spanned the last tidal creek, the one that created Wioka Island in the minds of map makers and developers. Brushed his long brown hair in the rear-view. Yeah that’s about right ...
For the trade, only.
Drooling scum onto the mahogany steering wheel Willis choked back thought that she had armed again a never-ending vendetta and would follow him. Thumping tires on the bridge planks quickly gave way to the sounds of wet asphalt. The stench of her soft olive skin blew into his face. Not from his island, but from the same night rustle of branches stretching from the semi-dark to caress the sides of his red Mercedes.Release me! The simpering died on his lips. A scent of the brine ponds filtered through his window, and the stars appeared. In this cradle, Damon found peace on the gently rocking road.
Damon had never been bothered by questions of what might be joined with the branches, only to slip in an open window. Black evil; a cuckold playing the rake. Or what lay hidden behind the grasping desires of the other men at this meeting.But those desires he knew; oh yes. He felt at peace with the unknown, random sounds. The same peace he felt on his beach at Isle of Palm, where he reigned protector of unknown virtue.Stove in the bitch, wouldn’t they!
Shortly he approached a gate, and a heavy-set black guard waved him to a stop. “Evening Mr. Willis. Yo’ friend’s sure anxious to see!”
“How’s that, Jim.”
“Mr. Davidson stop by. Check personal, tonight, with my guest book.”
Keep the asshole tight, when the Jew takes attendance.
Willis drove off. This meeting, like the others, started early on a Tuesday evening. The house, a prim, heavily censored Victorian had been borrowed from a well connected Charleston businesswoman, and was as secure as any private dwelling. Not safe as a dinner table at the Mills House, but that was obvious only to Damon. Several hundred yards beyond the gate, his Mercedes carried a wandering sand-dunes low rise. At the bottom, he turned sharply from the pavement into a broad cone of light. The building stilted behind, on concrete pillars. A balcony circled the third story. Above the balcony a ring of windows glowed sulfurous yellow into the surrounding pines, and beside them, Willis found a space among the collection of Mercedes and Cadillacs. He did not recognize the Jensen.
Otherwise, he knew all of them; who owned them, who paid for them, and who needed to stay dead so each driver could stay behind the wheel. Damon even knew which girlfriends screwed in the back seat, and who preferred a blow-job in the front.
Barlet owned the new silver Caddy, hoarding his self-made millions like the bastard son of a high-yellow maid. The rough developer came from Folly Beach, had worked it dry, and now wanted a piece of Isle of Palm. Ringony drove the black 1959 Caddy convertible, and practiced property law before the most crooked bench in the State of South Carolina. Saul Davidson - Jew son-of-a-bitch would only buy American - drove the other Caddy - and ran Wioka Island for the Saudis and Ibn Ali-Jerrah.
Oh the damned roadster …. color of clay brick rebuilt by four retired Brit auto-men … priceless. The last car belonged to Wheeler H. Petrakis, candidate for Mayor of Isle of Palm, and already voted biggest, smoking asshole ever to drive a Mercedes diesel.
“Your new spot, Mr Willis,” crooned the guard. “New fill gonna sink in the old place beside the oak.”
Willis hated anything new except his own new pussy ! Worse with the Greek. In two previous meetings, they had bitterly not agreed on one fundamental issue. Should development simultaneous reach for both ends of the island, go both ways or start at the north end, where only the public access and backfill issues were contested? Some bit of money was at risk, but the real stakes were power. Barlet was grabber, greed without bound. He wanted everything that fall, after the election, and screw the subtleties. Grab North Beach, grab the Strip. Of course Barlet was a doer, couldn’t fault him for that. He would have rebarred and poured concrete over Jeff Davis’s grave, given a open bid and a dollar profit. That much about the red neck was honest, and so, Damon thought, the more difficult to control.
Ringony opposed Barlet; fucked Barlet’s wife, too, and stuffed coke up her ass to the end of his middle finger, every Tuesday afternoon. She liked class he said … Ringony had a studied lawyer’s caution, corrupt to the core. He didn’t want to fight two court battles, buy the same judge twice in the same year on what was basically the same case. Too bad Ringony didn’t have a black wife . . .
Saul Davidson did not care, as his Arab master did not care, so long as the properties eventually became theirs. And the Wioka Island property thereby became more valuable. Finally Petrakis, who, praise the lowest shades of hell, had cared only for the oil. Now demanded the sale of meat-loaf sandwiches.
“Such a cozy family of snakes,” he muttered. “We could have done this work under a brush pile.” Going nuts talking to nobody , but himself! He did know them all, to the bottom of each black piggy heart. And of course, he knew himself. Did Damon Willis know himself to the black, corrupted bottom? He was a kick-ass criminal lawyer. Press secretary to South Carolina State Senator Peg Bottie. He was a man who screwed anything black, and when he paid, paid in cash. He was a white man on the way up, a protector of the whites. And mostly, he thought, he was official low country big dog, and USDA prime motherfucker.
‘Especially good for the Jew to wait,’ he thought. All that god damned Saudi money in his fingers, with Barlet willing to lick his ass to get it. Easy for the group to loose perspective, to demand everything right now, to over-reach for a few quicky millions. Ten times that waited to be milked from the Island, if they carefully prepared. Damon would protect the purity, oh yes, nothing could prevent that. He laid a curse on the Greek for the last minute blundering lurch - he would pay dearly.
Damon slammed the car door and hustled up the winding metal staircase to the first floor.
Saul Davidson appeared at the top and said. “You’re late, asshole.” He flooded the dark stairwell with mercury-arc light. Ringony’s head appeared unhappily next to the Jew.
Damon gave both the thumb. “Cut the rest off, Davidson, and save the salami.” The Jew always had to grab! He followed them into the cool, circular room. Barlet appeared from the balcony in the fine left-over haze of his last Havana. The kitchen counter was loaded with dry cod, olives and bourbon.
The first surprise hit Damon Willis. A precise, controlled voice sliced at him from the far end of an oblong maple table. “How certain is Hricko?”
“He’s fucking clairvoyant, Jerry.” Damon knew he hated the nickname, Jerry.
Damon passed the edge of the table, toward the icy voice. What was Ali-Jerrah doing here, blowing his cover? Turning a gentleman’s agreement into, some might say, an act of terror. Damn the Arab, biting his own tail.
Ibn Ali-Jerrah said. “Why not invite him to join us? We could all help him understand.”
“He knows squat about real estate, property values or who gets elected by whom. Stink-fingering numbers and suffocating between Bottie’s tits is all he wants to do.”
Ali-Jerrah’s voice warmed unpleasantly. “Could he have guessed, without your stupid, blundering help, how unimportant are the Breach Inlet properties by themselves?”
Damon paused by a chair one removed from the Arab. Ringony already sat opposite him, but neither man acknowledged. The others quickly joined them at the table. Petrakis and Saul Davidson sat on the far side. Barlet swung into the chair next to his, extracted a cigar and clipper from his coat pocket.
Davidson piped in, Pall Mall twitching between his fingers, and the tune he sang belonged to the Arab. “What’s the matter with you, Damon. The ego thing again? You talk about being careful.” Davidson shook his head and looked away from Willis. “You tell us to go slow, and then have a public debate with the crazy broker. We’re so close now.”
Willis fumed at the Jew. “Give me credit as due. I muddied the water between Hricko and Bottie; gave them another reason to loose focus. By the time the deal hits, and checks are being written for crucial properties Hricko will feel lucky his front yard isn’t an asphalt parking lot for the Marina.”
“He puffs like a blow-fish,” spat Davidson. “And does it with our money.” He continued to measure Willis, as though possessing some ill-concealed, secret knowledge. “My friends say Hricko’s dangerous when he’s squeezed.”
Willis spit back. “What danger, Saul? When have you seen this man fighting instead of scrambling spreadsheets?”
The Arab sat motionless. “Not all fools play with numbers, Mr. Willis.”
Damon Willis, low country big dog, had the start of a really bad feeling. He hadn’t spilled anything important to Hricko, but decisions had been made against him. “Only hard men play this game.” Only small steps succeed , he thought, but each successful choice makes every other move by SOB swells twice as tough. He struck back at the Arab, while his eyes swung for support from Petrakis, to Ringony and Davidson, and finally came to rest on the developer, Barlet. “This deal is not rocket science, my friends. Not complicated for real estate deals at all.”
“Then spell-it-out, step-by ...”
“Steel toe boot-in-the-ass? Sure! We pinch a bit of city road at one end of the Island, and queer a zoning law at the other. Mr. Petrakis, the Island’s mayor-to-be, makes sure the transfer of title for the road and the new city code for minimum lot size, get approved. I make sure Petrakis gets the votes. Saul, you guys own all of that property, don’t you? When the SOB sisters sue, Ringony handles the county judge. Barlet pours the concrete. We all rake in the bucks. What’s to wonder?” Willis looked around in a fool’s silence.
Davidson’s voice was soft but unwavering. “We’ve talked about it already, Damon. We think Barlet’s right. We need to go after both ends at the same time. The Cherokee Strip Initiative must go down!”
“You already took a vote?” Willis exclaimed in a suddenly tired voice, and slumped back into the chair. Barlet examined a small mechanical pencil; Ringony tamped down a Pall Mall straight. Willis was alone. Too true, he admitted to himself. Bottie paid him for knowing the others, and he had fallen flat. Believed that Petrakis had earlier spoken only for himself. Believed the Arab a patient man. Jerry had changed the rules; Damon had become smaller.
What could he save for himself? As Willis settled deeper into the heavy black leather chair, he allowed that the only consideration of importance, however they snatched the properties or in what order, was that his power should grow. And how was that to be? Only if the properties could be obtained through the efforts of his hand-picked candidate for mayor, Wheeler H. Petrakis.
As if thinking conjured it, Petrakis’s voice came next. “Your Senator Bottie is up for re-election in two years. She’s an ambitious woman, and that’s OK. Nice body. But after the election, she might need the SOB sisters more than me. This environmental thing is growing like a cancer. You said it yourself, Damon! Without Bottie’s support - money, people, favors - I go down the tubes without a cent for my effort. Now’s the time to cash in.”
The Arab nodded approvingly. Like a late tide, Barlet followed, breaking his silence in a crash of words. “I’m going to drive those concrete pilings so far up those bastard’s ass, that they can use them for toothpicks. Long overdue to set the dozers on the dunes, and scrape em down, nice and flat. Makes up for the one those commies trashed.”
Willis could hear the whine creep into his own voice. “Bottie just won’t go for it. She needs the SOB votes.” Plays them against the north-end conservatives, he refrained from mentioning. How could the Arab understand?
Ibn-Ali Jerrah toyed with the small pile of shells he had sorted out on the table. Shuffling them, arranging black to white, elliptical to round. All the combinations dancing before him. He spoke without malice. “We have no choice Damon. You need to act now.”
Laughing hands raised! “Help!” Barlet had produced a thin, gold-capped silver flask from which he drank deeply. Unusual curved scrolls. “Found it on a pirate wreck on Folly Beach,” he tried storing without success. Flush-faced he pushed it across the table toward Willis.
“Cheap Italian knock-off … of ancient things ” … false as the Arab knew well. “You see here, a weld!” Copper-edged certainty writ the Arab’s face. “Damon. Better than any of us, you know the difficulty of preserving the Island. I chose you and your Senator Bottie to help us make Isle of Palm as pure and safe as Wioka. Have your feelings changed about that?”
Damon Willis blinked twice into the cool, dark gaze of the Arab. Willis wanted to beg; he hadn’t failed. “I intend packing IOP with hoards of Bottie-voters, not hippie dregs! I wasn’t the person threatening any of your plans.” Only the power … he had remained dedicated to snatching island power for Bottie and thus for himself ! Remorse clung dryly, silently, in the back of this throat.
Other faces around the table seemed to mock his weakness, but the Arab understood. “Then we work together, like four men fucking the same womans ass!”
Willis felt the steady eyes probing at his will. “Without enemies like SOB, we could have protected the Island, piece by piece. First the north end, then the land near Breach Inlet. Now, the drunken Irishman Regan has twisted SOB to his own ends; he will pollute the Island as he does himself.” Willis forced the words through lips dry as the salt-sand dunes at low tide. “Regan is only one person; Island trash supports him.
Barlet. “Hricko’s another problem. Big dog, prime contacts, money he can’t find and friends we doesn’t claim.” Looking at Ibn Ali who stood unruffled.
Willis kranked. “Prime motherfucker, Hricko. We take him out!” Sweat running cold fire down his arms.
Five pairs of eyes closed upon him in a single calm voice. “You’re good at tactics, Damon. Be patient. We know how much you have done already. Worked around the fools, like Hricko and Regan, and even your Senator Bottie. She is still yours to advise, isn’t she, even though she plays with the broker?”
“Hricko’s doing her, and he’s a son-of-a-bitch, but she will listen to me. She’s afraid for her own power.”
So she is, thought the Arab, and of yours more than any. “So find a way to advise her, Damon; to correct her error.”
Barlet was meat-fist pounding on the table. “Purity, my sister’s ass. Why don’t we get a couple of them dock-side Columbians to do the advising.”
The Arab fixed Barlet with eye-slits in hooded concentration, eyes following until the man became still. They questioned carefully, those eyes holding a memory, and then swung back to Willis. “The detective, DeLeon. Not a stupid man and not a lazy one. He questions your Senator Bottie about this unfortunate murder of an Island girl. Perhaps confuses her?”
“Bottie won’t help him; how could she? DeLeon’s only a threat because of Hricko.”
“And the old matter with the Petrakis’ family? Does she know?”
“Knows enough to distrust DeLeon. Made the point myself, how he picks on a good family until he destroys them.”
Barlet chuckled into the end of his Havana. “Hear that Wheeler, agood family!”
But the Arab did not laugh as his eyebrows raised and returned to the table. Positions shuffled among the shells, as he grasped a novel option, appeared quite pleased. “If the detective proves vexing in the matter of the girl, and Hricko will not restrain his foolish grasp for the Island, then you must consider the dark woman.”
Petrakis twisted awkwardly, as if bound by the leather seat, but his eyes fired blackly at the Arab, beyond their station. “Move cautiously on that one, Ibn Ali, like toward the viper, or at a mother’s breast. Mind your father’s words, because I know them.”
Ali-Jerrah shot back. “Tell me of the song, Greek, not of the singer.”
The Arab’s voice had darted after Petrakis, a Cobra’s strike. Present - the other four - their faces bland and patient and absent. Petrakis’ forehead had erupted in beads of sweat, clinging like raindrops to rough wax.
He turned on Willis. “You, Damon, bring this threat to me!”
Some knew their place - determination creased the Arab’s mouth, widened and yet softened his eyes, as they continued to wear on Willis. He dodged them, but the pull had no end, like the Arab’s voice. Ibn Ali picked up the smallest of the perfectly white shells. “They have already tried to pick at us, haven’t they, Damon? Tried to look inside. Twist the knife again, Damon, so they feel the point meant for us.”
Damon Willis flushed red, feeling every face turned to his. The Arab’s voice became questioning. Demanding. “Regan is weak. Perhaps he will make a mistake that Bottie cannot tolerate. One that threatens her. Then, she would turn away from them all, and we will have the Island under our protection. Can you do that for us Damon?”
Ringony had not planned to speak. He watched silently, molding objections, left ankle curled about the right, but prepared to mark a danger. His new voice came forward in a sudden start - almost standing. “Oh, above all, Hricko must be discouraged. My partners will not guess what the Tepy woman concealed or what the broker has found. She was known to distrustlegal remedies.” He stiffened, then relaxed as before and said simply. “I do not want to see Hricko’s luck in County court.”
Both the Arab and the Greek lurched away from the table. “What story can the broker tell without involving the dark woman?”
“Whatever DeLeon will accept, and who else would the broker trust? We should be prepared for their tricks. Even if we get to Hricko, DeLeon cannot not forget the Fairchild girl.”
Petrakis snarled, “they both remember Tepy and what came for her.”
“Your father’s bedtime stories”, muttered Davidson.”
“Juju from the bloody wogs,”snarked Barlet, as he bit into the Havana.At least Jerry’s dreams float on an ocean of Saudi oil. Still, those boys needed a swat. “Fear also is a remedy!” He gave Ringony the big eye, but the attorney, having delivered his warning, had removed himself from the fight.
Barlet waited for Ringony. Twenty minutes since the meeting had ended, and he had chewed the Havana down to a wet stub no longer than the lawyer’s Red - his sense of an option. Man must know something, at five-hundred per, though he hadn’t taughthis frigid bitch to get wet … as dry as Kiri’s ass. No reason to start on that, he cautioned himself. No tired, jealous head-pounding reason. bitch a thing. Barlet pawed the tail-lights as Ringony approached; old Caddys, the builder reminded himself, have such lousy brakes.
“I need a name.”
Ringony had expected this crap. He pushed Barlet rudely away from the bumper and opened the car door. “Matter’s settled; we’re not handling SOB with muscle. Wethinkour way through this. Understand the word, Barlet?”
“Not one finger gets broken, that’smy idea. Just enough to jog someone’s memory. You said it yourself, if Hricko gets busy, nobody has a job.”
“That’s right! Show some initiative, Barlet. Pull some slobbering, coked-out fool from one of your construction sites, and give him a baseball bat.”
Barlet spat the ripe end of his Havana into the pine needles. “I need a name.”
“Find a men’s room.”
“She might have made tapes. Of everyone.”
“Tell that to the SOB shills.”
Davidson’s worry. But Ringony paused, fiddled with the rear-view mirror, cigar hung out the window. Matters of influence had changed, matters of cost. He found Barlet’s face in the mirror. “Not him, but . . .” Ringony settled into the leather seat, played with the ignition cut-off switch hidden under the hand-brake. Hehad a problem with Jerry, with the oh-so-soft gloved hand . . . as long ashe wasn’t part of the fix. The smoldering turd remained in the open window. “This!” A telephone number came to mind; Ringony printed it on a sheet of yellow notepaper and handed it out to the builder. “Experienced. Cautious. Expensive. Your money, Barlet, and itnever, ever comes back to me.”
“Sure. Your commode’s clean as a kitchen table. This guy from the docks?”
“He’s invisible!” Ringony inserted the ignition key. “Don’t be off an inch, Barlet. This man I recommend will be careful only toremind the broker that he’s watched. Give no other instructions, and for Christ sake, tell Jerry nothing.”That would be his pleasure.
Barlet backed away from the Caddy as Ringony cranked the engine, fished another Havana from a coat pocket and clipped the end. “Like a feather up Hricko’s ass. Drive safe.” He watched Ringony ride away. And check your brake-lines, cocksucker.Check them every day, and don’t worry about Hricko. When the message is delivered, he’ll be the last to know.
Ibn Ali-Jerrah walked with Davidson to his rambling cedar beach house. During those twenty minutes, neither man raised his head while the other spoke. Words of concern came from the shorter man, speckled with the number valuations of risk, of loss endured. From the Arab flowed visions of success. They could have been fraternal twins planning to sell the family house. Those twenty minutes carried them from the stilt bungalow near the market place, to the south edge of the island’s largest tidal pool. From their different gaits and attitudes, an observer might have commented that they mixed, rather than matched, while noting the single mindedness with which they attended each other.
“It’s the difference in value that worries me, Jerry. The north end of the island makes us ninety-six million on four hundred and sixty-two homes. That’s not counting the slip fees at the Marina. The Breach Inlet strip is worth what? Two and a half? What if the damned Greek bungles, trying to succeed with both opportunities?”
The Arab countered. “And if SOB gets tough when the city road is deeded over to the company?”
“Seventeen lots we loose, Jerry. Peanuts. We could donate the land for a park and still make a killing on the tax write-off.”
“I will not allow that beach front to be lost!” The Arab’s voice carried absolute resolve to his companion, not a sting. The voice quieted. “Saul. The company needs to control every built acre on the island, or some schmuck will undercut our prices. We’ll lose big on Isle of Palm. Lot prices here float down to that level, and the company is screwed.”
Saul needed no reminder how the Isle of Palm development would ensure high market value for the seven thousand building sites on Wioka Island. But he, like Damon Willis, had been willing to wait. Hell. The company still really owned the land, even after the plots were sold, since the buyers had to sell back to the company. The company could squeeze up lot prices in the north Isle of Palm development, once they had closed the road, while the rezoning of the half-size lots near Breach Inlet was being maneuvered through city council and the county courthouse.
They were sure to get almost everything they wanted. “If we don’t succeed in getting those lots re-zoned, someone else will. We could even lose them for nothing. Suppose the Greek got cold feet around the time of his re-election campaign and had a chat with the judge. Double crossed, pissing in our pants, and we would be too embarrassed to cross our legs. The slippery Greek would love to name a beach front park after his father.”
Saul said confidently. “Willis is supposed to control the Greek. Black-mail him if necessary. Bottie controls Willis, and she gets our money. We have Bottie, knickers and all.”
Ibn Ali-Jerrah gently placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Damon is, how can I put it, Saul, not quite right. The violence takes him, I feel with certainty, and our needs become his excuse. Bottie holds him back by a frayed thread. Before that thread snaps, we need control of the Island.”
The Jew’s voice turned sharply to Ibn Ali. “What violence, Jerry? What has the fool done - what is he planning?”
“He imagines a great conquest, a victory - in his mind I’m saying, Saul. A twisted strand of premeditation that must burn everything away until only he remains.” Ibn Ali smoothed his woolen jacket, comforting the folds, easing next to the Jew. “We are the peaceful ones. That’s why we must strike now!”
“And through personal weakness, if required.”
“Hope you’re right Jerry; I hope you know who’s weak. See you on Thursday.”
“Take care, my friend. This business is done.”
As Saul walked up the steps to his porch, he called back over his shoulder to the man who was even now, disappearing into the beach twilight. “I’ll sleep poorly on it , tonight, Jerry. Sleep well yourself.”
“How the natives must have cursed this island,” thought the Arab, watching his dear friend Saul Davidson disappear into the dark, screened porch, “that an Arab and a Jew should treat each other so well.” This night, Ibn Ali-Jerrah was in no hurry to return to his car, and start the painfully twisting drive back to Charleston. Instead of retracing the wooden path along the brine pool, he turned up along the moon-lit beach that followed the island’s curve. For two miles he walked, far out on the damp, low tide sand. Such perfect beauty he found in the dancing waves of night. So much like the desert, it must never disappear from his eyes. Whatever else must be sacrificed.
He stopped at the narrow, sandy promontory that marked the island’s north end. Sand worn silk-smooth under the gentle lapping of low tide.Controlled by the moon? His laughter - high, haughty - road far into the night. Amazed, still, at the effects a few dozen meters of beach could have on the flows of an ocean. What was there, really, about the contours of a shoreline, that could crumble the Gulf Stream or a hurricane path? Shift a few thousand cubic meters of sand, extend a bare spit or narrow an inlet, and an island, even a big one like Wioka, could become a lost chord in the long low tones of the currents.
Ibn Ali-Jerrah liked to think of his plans as music. As notes that once played, splintered, transposed into many keys. Each displayed across space, rather than time. Not even tones, so much as the sounding board that drew every note curving away from the listener. Until there were none. Then he turned across the beach toward the cleared, but uncut, palmetto groves. Finding a gravel walk which led away from the beach, he watched his step, as the moccasins were as trail dark as they were quiet. Lights from the stilt bungalows twinkled from beneath the live oaks. How carefully the engineers had preserved this island. Not one cubic yard of beach sand had ever moved. He still marveled at the cleverness which scattered two thousand families, invisibly beneath the native, green canopy of palmetto and oak.
Finally he came to the wrought iron fence which surrounded the market. Nine PM already, and the market gate was locked against the odd piece of bad luck. Nowhere on his island could one now find so much as a loaf of bread. Restaurant and bar at the hotel were still open, but unobtrusive layers of security remained.
He was so careful with anything in his charge. Careful beauty on Wioka Island. Isle of Palm, the Arab knew quite well, would not be so fortunate. Careful evil, bad luck was being designed into it. And the silly little terror which chased its own tail, the numbers which carried the random evil, had flown from his own nimble mind. Saul would eventually have to be told, of course. After the first, or the second cycle. Three years ago, when he completed the first damage calculations, he had felt that Saul never needed to know. The effects could be passed off simply as bad luck for the home owners, the consequences treated as technical details of the business. Spreadsheets controlling the financial future of the Wioka Island Land Company would need to be reprogrammed. Unexpected legal expenses allowed for, and new investments found for the profits.
He knew the man much better now. Saul did not believe in his own good fortune, and he did not believe in tears of joy. Without being told, his questions would turn to doubts and then to demands. The Arab did not want to hear demands from anyone. As he had planted the seed of distrust in Damon Willis, so he must allow Saul, in the most careful stages, to feel the wrath he must visit on Isle of Palm.
Ibn Ali-Jerrah briskly walked the last hundred yards to the small raised cottage beside the pond. Behind him, his island lay in peace and certainty. Sleep well, Saul. Moonlight barely touched the fender of his Jensen Interceptor, tucked under a tall, branching pine. He thought only of the Tradd Street townhouse, and the woman who fed him honeyed breasts. Sleep? Talk? That they would. Oh yes, a most serious talk.
He squeezed into the narrow bucket seats and teased the Strombergs into life. Such an immense joke that the engineers could never see it. In the Korean woman’s Mercedes, he would stretch and coil into the frame, into the details of pleasure. Every mistake soothed. But the Jensen was an evil magnifier of error; divider of time; wisher of twisted metal. Now he wanted the car’s steering wheel under his hands. He wanted to feel the force and power, and the razor balance of insanity and control that came in an instant, rather than spread out over decades of September.
Nick DeLeon was not a happy man. He poked at the police radio, got an earful of static.“Bents copper rolls,”he cursed.Finally he punched through to the Isle of Palm dispatcher. Bunzetti was not at the station; didn’t answer his car radio.
“You shouldn’t expect him to, Nicholas. He would leave directly from home,” Fila scolded.
The detective needed that like he needed the lugging Chevy that carried them north over the Cooper River Bridge. Wasn’t it peculiar that Deputy Sheriff Bunzetti wanted to meet so early, and picked the Jammer for the location? Maybe he had heard from the Pauli Island police - something banished from the public record or City Station. The Jammer was fine with him since he intended to grill the Petrakis girl that afternoon, while her cousin was picking pockets on Anson.
Fila asked. “Does Thea get on with the Petrakis girl?”
Nick frowned, for Nikki was fond of morning. “Nice guess. Bunzetti will know.” Nothis guess, however. Frank had picked the time and place for his own reasons. But since when had the Jammer opened before ten AM after Labor Day?
Fila mimicked him, wrinkling her nose. “Even if Frank says nothing, Thea will teach something about your Holy City.”
“Which illusion do you have in mind?”
“You tease yourself, Nicholas. If gentle islands draw Charleston’s gentle society, then you are wrong twice. Eve understands and stays close to the Battery! ”
Wednesday had blown up a perfect low country October day, with a crystal sky and stiff Bay wind. A cool night had rung the humidity from the air, and for once, the white linen suit felt dry. “Niggars used to keep it gentle. Then the damned Yankees …” Crap! No reason to start on that, he cautioned himself. No tired, jealous head-pounding reason.
Fila gave him a skeptical, sideways, stare. “She didn’t deceive you. Not really. You ignored her till you didn’t! You deceived her, Nicholas, so how is there a complaint when Eve seeks to be amused?”
The detective boiled; felt the sweat under his arm. Bad enough that forensics had found no fingerprints on the Road-runner; no trace of blood other than the girl’s. Incomprehensible babble from the young intern. Alibis. Every pilgrim had two. “Some people don’t eat fish, just as a matter of style.”
“You’ll talk to the girl, though, won’t you?” Fila had responded innocently. Fila had meant Nikki Petrakis, but now, Nick couldn’t remember her name.
He eased the Chevy into the long, gentle turn that led into the causeway between James Island and Sullivan’s Island. The drawbridge clanged and rocked and swivelled open - meditation time for a murderous heart - he pulled the Chevy behind a short string of pick-up trucks, and a pair of old Chryslers. All empty, drivers on Island time. The tradesmen and Yarders coming home from night-shift had gathered across the road; talk was easy and a morning toke made the rounds.
Nick cut the engine and looked north for an offending barge, but saw nothing. Fila stayed with the car. He got out and walked up the flowered bay-side of the road. They had noticed him approach, had probably noticed the large blue-shaded light under the rear window. Men nodded politely as he passed and Nick responded - no pissing contests a quarter mile off the mainland.
Three blasts from the ship’s horn signaled its passage. Nick closed on the steel railing, and found the main-mast of a forty-five foot pilothouse schooner crawling southward toward the opened bridge. Sails were reefed, the ship under power, and the vane sported a bad weather flag. Low tide had deeply exposed the gravel and shell sides of the waterway. Here at the bridge, everything moved to Island time. The sailboat intended not to make a mistake. Its teak figurehead, a single breasted woman, bearing the name Mary M. Nick could see no one on the mahogany deck, and only a single gray shape in the wheelhouse. The polished brass of the transom and bowsprit contrasted to the stained bridge iron.
“Did you hear her grind on those rusted bearings, detective? She’ll lock up in the next good blow.”
A few of the men had wandered up to join him at the bridge-rail, while a red-tailed hawk circled above. Nick dully accepted the invitation, though he would have preferred silence bound in a red misted anger. “Our County Commissioners would never offend those worthies.”
“That’s a sport,” mused the tall fisherman in a blue shrimper’s bib. He spit over the railing. “Busy little beavers.”
Beauchamp’s words snapped at him. Nick imagined a furry little animal. “Teeth and all.” The fisherman took a toke from a thick joint and passed it on, making a face.
Nick didn’t mind the distraction. “Out to the Island a bit early, aren’t you Gordo?”
Not for a fisherman, his face said, but certainly for you, DeLeon.
Beauchamp fumbled in a deep pocket and came out with a small, brass barometer. The weather flag maintained his curiosity. “My trawler engine threw a rod this morning. No reason to waste the day.”
Nick pointed to the schooner. A pencil of sunlight had carried through the Sullivan’s Island Palmettos, and scanned over the blue canvas cabin, scattering a glint of gold. “That a Wioka Land Company boat?”
“Hell yes. Come from the marina, most likely, with a couple of new property owners.”
A goateed Yarder piped up from group. “Maybe, they’ll make the bridge work faster. Get me back to the wife’s breakfast on time.”
The fat carpenter just behind Nick let out belch and a low chuckle. “Having your wife for breakfast already, Charlie, if you ask me.” Laughter all around, quieted in a rush.
“When the new bridge goes in, this one’ll rust down to the piling. Maybe we will too, boys. But it’s all for our own good. Right? Diddle my sister! We’ll all be wearing horns by then.”
“Planted them spikes on me already.” Considered words from a thickset man-child with a net handler’s careful shuffle. “Damned if they didn’t take out the shoal south of Bull’s with their building on the beaches. You can’t steal the sand like that, from the Inlet, and not have the sea take it from someplace else. My sea trout are gone unless the spring tides build me a new ledge.” He took the joint from the carpenter and dragged it so low that the butt glowed through his fingernail.
Gordon Beauchamp banged a fat fist against the steel railing and stretched tall, surveying the straggled line of men, grimaced at Nick. “Not a bad one in the group, detective, but they’ll all be deceived. Go for the developer’s bait. Who’s early enough or fast enough or has their claws into enough people to beat them?”
Beauchamp’s lament rippled across the faces of the men as the low growl of the schooner against the stained concrete pilings of the bridge. Like the Petrakas bitch when she came, echoing smooth and soothed her damned crazy sky-icons and died, bucking like a foul-hooked blue enveloped by the marsh. A kind of bubble, if bubble fluorescence is your thing … all trawlermen knew that purple glow behind a stern-trace. Light coming from somewhere … and if light then heat and if heat then warm water. Made a damned-site baby hurricane if you looked at things that way. He didn’t.
She thought perversely: Jerry-the-Arab had chosen her, picked her like a ripe fig to be iced and served with old wine - nothing plagued her more and yet she was a southron woman bred to power and blooded to the game. He was looking straight into her green eyes, and thinking every way around . . . Bottie welcomed his money as easily as she forgot the source. And didn’t care that he knew, or that her breasts were a hands-breath from his starched white shirt.
“I would have served Stoli!” This morning’s conference had lasted his humor. “Green lawns vote for green money, as your advisor, Mr. Willis so cleverly says.”
Bottie said. “Don’t confuse us with Hilton Head, Ibn Ali. Our Islanders vote with sand spurs between their toes; always will.”
His numbers said different! “Damon, Damon good to see your seasick face!” Willis had not joined them on the curving, widow’s walk. When he left, Willis would remind her that money came neither naturally nor cheap.
“Damned reds weren’t running the cove. Fuck ‘em!” While he remained . . . the Arab caught himself in a dance of reasons, and dropped them with his head, face gentling toward the sea.
“Your home, Senator, is as beautiful as a white tent on my desert.”
Slowing. She could bear a gentle lash, with constant reminding. “True so true … then even in jest, allow it to last a bit longer.” Damned she was trapped, between Ibn Alis money, the noise of kissy-waves lapping at her bare ass … and the political power she graped and what might come!
“Simply a hypothetical, Senator, a numbers game, though the results are perfectly clear.” The Arab mused quietly near the top of the stairway. He was displeased to give up the Senator’s company so early - she had removed his peace. From her balcony, the slow curves of the barrier islands leapt out of Breach Inlet like a poem.
She had never welcomed his sharp tongue, and would probably report it to Hricko in some childish parody. “When have you, Ibn Ali, consigned yourself to old women and thin merchants?”
He scowled at past evil. “Yes, a most unfortunate accident ….” Yes, the Arab muttered to himself, she prefers the local sand vipers, and a crafty lot they were. “I am a servant like yourself, Senator Bottie, of many masters. Only great patience will make us both rulers.”
Separating the imagined from the necessary did not strike Peg Bottie as the Arab’s strong suit. “I will leave your pleasure, Ibn Ali, to your father’s oil and the computers. My voters are my prize.”
“Yet,” the Arab unable to quench the fire, “only those east of the Intercoastal give you a victory. This Island balances on a razor thin edge, while the hippies across the Inlet support your enemies.”
Bottie could restrain herself no longer. “Independent minded is the phrase, Ibn Ali, not hippies. Don’t fear them.” She giggled as she politely shooed the Arab down the steps. “More like Hricko appear every year, and I will count on their support.”
Jerry smiled at her from the patch of wild roses beside the stairs. “You cannot treat them all like the broker.”
Her favorite time of the morning, Peg Bottie thought, as she -finished an espresso and watching the slick bastard leave. Light by a twenty thousand dollar check to SOB. He could be a real power, if he minded his father’s Island as well as her re-election.Or if he bows as quaintly to the latest bed-mate. Hricko could learn manners from him! She watched the Arab disappear around the curve of the south wall. If only the broker minded!
Damon Willis appeared, a menacing hiss at her left shoulder. “Jerry expects value for his money.”
“I gave him an hour.”
Willis shot her a vicious sneer. “Don’t change a thing, Peg, not one fucking sentiment, not one arrogant posture. He’ll buy and sell the Island twice, and everyone on it, before we get another ten votes. You’ll sink next to Barlet’s dozers, with SOB tied around your neck.”
“Speak plainly, Damon, by all means. Save me from myself with another scheme. Creating the SOB committee, need I remind, was your clever idea.”
“Count yourself lucky that I saw the threat. Suck Hricko in; pull his fangs; co-opt Regan, all while the Greek stays bought. All smart as piss. Then you decide to have a go at him; turn into his gold plated mink.”
“At least we agree on that, my lucky day! What’s your point?”
“DeLeon’s been nosing around Hricko.”
“Old news is not . . . news. They swim together, Hricko, and DeLeon and Vitalle! A man-pack! Hricko hasn’t told me the detective’s a threat, and doesn’t seem concerned himself.”
“He’s going to tell you everything? What a quaint idea, Peg! You better hope DeLeon has simply connected SOB to the Fairchild girl; he’s pushing for a lead. But if DeLeon’s sniffing with Hricko’s invitation, the broker might supply the slime.”
“Remember where the man lives - where sweet Erlyne got wacked! Some of Vitalle’s friends tell weird stories about why Hricko moved in.”
“Hricko’s haunted house? Really Damon.”
“Who knows what the whore socked away, and what Hricko found? Something that could sink Petrakis; screw us? What are we worth to Jerry without the Greek?”
Bottie turned cautiously away from the espresso machine. “Have we . . . looked at the property, Damon?”
Willis hesitated, a matter of power. ”Twice, Senator, with some care.” Willis scrapped a white line on a pewter-plate and buried his nose in paradise! Heat shot us. “Can’t break through his new security doors, Hricko can search every day.”
Search for what? A carpet of stars? HA!” Bottie turned away to the chrome pot. “Useful suspicions, Damon.” She handed the steaming espresso to her advisor.But if Damon had a clue, he wouldn’t miss this chance. Willis got her best frown. “I believe we’re safe. People don’t blame Wheeler for his brother’s sins, and I certainly do not blame Hricko.”
Willis drained the cup in one swallow. “One way to be sure, Senator, no matter what the broker finds. We can squeeze the black bitch, McKay, and Hricko’s frozen. I can do that.”
“Fila? You’d love to try that one.”
“Senator, you pay me to know . . .”
“Then you’d better learn this fast. One threat to the dark woman, and you live about half a day. Then Vitalle gives you a concrete shoe, and a trip to the bottom of the Cooper River.”
“Fucking wop wouldn’t . . . dare.”
You know what, Damon? I’ll row the boat.”
Bright clear riffs on a cloudless harbor. ‘Who indeed could control Wioka Land Company?’ he thought. “Who already does?” The man beside him shook his head, and returned the twenty-lb wrench to his tool-chest. The Arab, or Saul Davidson with his city money, or Bottie? Which way does the power flow? He lit a Camel straight as the bridge noisily ground into life. “See ya tomorrow, Nick.” The schooner had faded into the James Island marsh, and the men? What wouldn’t they do to screw Barlet?
Nick allowed the breeze to play through his vest, as he walked back to the Chevy. Like the hawk, he had plenty of time, caught himself; scoffed at the thoughts of bird shit and marsh breezes and the play of light on blond hair. When he returned to the car, Fila was certain that the bridge and the company of men had gained him nothing. “Three chicks this year. We’ll have a swarm before a lightening bolt slaughters them!”
“Is that what men do when they leave women? Watch the hawk?”
“It was fishing in the boat-wake? Seeing what got churned up.”
“I didn’t see it catch a thing. But the hawk is patient, following the boat. Very patient.”
“So now your mornings turn metaphysical. I’m glad, Nicholas, that we have never slept together, if I had to listen to this.”
Except for the vicious streak of red in the man’s hazel eyes, Fila would have thought him suddenly happy. The detective’s hand ground silently into the plastic wheel. Oh yes, a most serious talk. A heart-to-heart with his hand’s around Botties blushing throat. “Everyone, but us.”
Fila had the good sense not to respond - her flushed cheeks and lipsshouted. They crossed Breach Inlet. Peg Bottie’s shell-colored beach house rose from the dunes and Nick heard plenty! The bitch really had her’s, the sweet salt sting of the ocean; needed more. That was the horror, wasn’t it, that the killerneeded more. A half dozen expensive cars neatly filled the grass strip to the rear. Among them, Nick made Willis’ red Mercedes and a black Caddy that certainly belonged to a retired, US Senator living on Isle of Palm. Bottie’s Lincoln had sprouted a twin. Wheeler Petrakis’ diesel pulled into the space vacated by a Jensen Interceptor of unknown ownership. Busy as beavers.
Past Bacci he blue-lighted one of the pickups, Fila’s sisterly hiss driving the pedal to the floor. Beauchamp’s old Ford had beaten him through the light at front beach and disappeared around the sharp S turn at the Baptist Church. Nowhere for Gordo to go out there, but to Hricko’s. Bottie talks, the broker talks, they talk to each other; He’d take a piece of those chats any time.
The clatter of Island meetings, real and imagined bore a hole through the detectives sensibilities, like a steel jacketed 357 might drive through the stainless steel in his left arm. Oh. They would talk, all right. For as surely as Jett Coffee had deceived him to the core. She had crushed a single, dim light. Hidden the killer! She had driven him mad. Brought him low; she’s Damon Willis’ alibi for night of the Fairchild murder.
Another minute found him pulling onto Isle of Palm front beach, before the open teak doors of the Jammer. Eight-thirty AM, and music from an early Dead album spilled from the opening like so much bad, french-roast coffee.
“She’ll make it up to you, Nicholas.” Fila had come around to his side and opened the door, but he remained fixed to the wheel in frozen anger. Fila might have stood there forever if the voices had not crashed through the open door. Deputy Sheriff Franklin Bunzetti followed, dragging his wife Thea. One arm circled her bare waist, the other raised a steaming Citadel mug. Thea’s tangled mass of red hair sported in the light breeze, and her hand with an empty bottle of Jack Black.
Fila shot Nick a truly hostile look.I will not be alone with these people. A demanding look such as she gave to Tony when he insisted she join him at the stock-car races. Fila’s eyes snatched him bodily from the car, as Thea’s plucked at his bulging leather holster. Leaden eyes, but the voice honey sweet. “Never stop, do you detective?”
“Just a John’s Island boy, Thea. You’re looking well.”
“Frank here’s got more time for you this morning than for me. Must be high cotton, you out of your favorite bed so early.”
Nick stiffened. “How neighborly of you Thea to be concerned on my sleeping habits. Getting you own forty winks I imagine.” Fila tugged his arm and only then did Thea Bunzetti whisper to her husband and disappear into the bar. Her face had said “smart shit”. Her face had shouted “waste you and your city!” The Jammer’s oak front doors banged shut.
Frank Bunzetti’s broad confidence dropped for only a second; he shuffled down the plank steps and approached like the half-back he was, like a man who had twice pinched the cheerleader’s ass. “Brought your boss with you today, Nick.”
Fila nodded a brief, quaint smile to the deputy, but that told Nick more than enough. Bunzetti needed a rabbit’s foot. “Thea’s a lively gal, Frank. You’re so lucky.”
Frank wasn’t smiling. “When a white guy tells me I’m lucky, I check for my wallet, then my balls.”
Nick fished for a starter. “Island been quiet, since?”
“I do the drills; the Chief just wants the Island to forget; mostly, so do the people.”
Yes. Sometime he would learn to forget the last. Not like Vitalle, who had lost only one.
“We’re still on our own time, Frank. I’d kill a chicken if it would help.” Sometimes, Nick really worried about the blacks.
They rounded the outside of the brown, planked building, and mounted the steps to an open patio. Sand devils swirled out across the wet sand in the onshore morning breeze. Bunzetti briefly disappeared inside the Jammer, and returned with two steaming mugs of coffee, and a tumbler of Jack Daniels. The deck chairs put them almost knee to knee. Fila had moved one over near the rail, and carelessly stretched her bare feet into the screen webbing. Whatever Bunzetti had to say to Nick, only the wind was intended to catch; Fila would miss not a word.
“You understand, Nick, how Island business stays on the Island. Feelings have to be respected, we living so close to each other and all . . .”
“I won’t change that, Frank.”
“Same on Pauli’s as on Isle of Palm. Families are old, cautious. They don’t need to have outsiders gawking. Not when the business is hard.”
“Agreed. Nothing of the families.”
“No offense intended. Your a good cop, Nick. I figured you guessed already, the way you looked at the pictures in Captain Marsh’s office.”
Nick ‘s voice carried a matter-of-fact tone. A homicide detective’s voice. “It wasn’t just Deb Fairchild, was it?”
Frank Bunzetti wasted neither activity nor memory. Maybe he didn’t have much to spare. His wife, Thea, thought he was blind. Fila considered him a fool. To Nick DeLeon, he was the guard of the demon’s own treasure. What Bunzetti valued became clear. His shoulders were those of a college half-back, moving to square himself at a point of attack.
“All three, DeLeon.” His voice maneuvered advantage. “Remember, Nick, the Pauli Island case happened eight years ago. Now, nobody would burn evidence to save a family reputation. But the Pauli Island girl had her hands bound, just like Fairchild. You do know that the father was the one to find her. She was the family rover; college up north, the Peace Corp somewhere in the Middle East. Before the body left the boat at Pauli Island Marina, he removed the leather strips. Crushed the life out of him, losing the daughter; he committed suicide a year later.”
“How did you find out?”
“You know how Sicilians are with the secret.”
Did that explain the satisfied look on the faces of the two Pauli Island men? A case known as too foul for the hard men. Nick probed closer to home. “And the local girl, two years ago? She was found at the shark hole; not a pretty sight.”
“I had only been on the force a month, my first case. Two days after a storm hit Myrtle Beach, and the water murky as piss. I had lead on the dive, found the body, brought it up - one hell-of-a mess. Nobody wanted to look at her, Nick, but there was evidence; she had been in the water less than a day.”
Frank Bunzetti removed a small plastic envelope from his back pocket and threw it on the table. Even without a close examination, Nick made the fragments of shredded, black leather. “Her wrists were bound?”
“I found two pieces. One from her wrist. The other was clamped between her teeth.”
Bunzetti pushed the envelope closer to him, pushed it away, a corrupted thing, better left with the city detective. Nick tucked the envelope into a breast pocket, next to the Browning. Frank’s shoulders sank a bit, and he turned away from the detective, as if talking to Fila, or some invisible listener hiding among the dunes.
“I can’t tell you why I never reported the evidence. Maybe, I figured on busting the case myself. Maybe it was too much like Nam. That’s how we treated the NVA whores sent to spy on us.”
A sharp sound of glass shattering against a wall carried out from the bar on a stream of laughter. Bunzetti wrenched his head around, waiting for another sign of betrayal, his face now grave, hinting-of despair. Nick was losing him. “Did anyone inquire about that case, Frank? Someone who didn’t have a good reason? Someone otherwise connected to Deb Fairchild?”
Bunzetti grimaced and fell into a moment’s quiet. Perplexed. “Nobody like that, but I do remember a call from Erlyne Tepy.”
Nick rocketed upright in his chair. “I spent some time with parts of her, at the morgue.”
“You remember the whore, then. We knew she was a mule for Alex Petrakis, but we could never catch her with the goods - slippery as the old Greek.” Bunzetti chuckled meanly. “She was cool, all right, but scared. Wanted to know if the girl had died where we found her.”
Voices now appeared from inside the swinging saloon doors that led into the Jammer. Shrill, high curses; slurred demands; low murmurs. Nick made them as those of Thea and the bar owner, Phil Regan. Bunzetti fixed Nick with a black eye. “Till the last minute of her life, Erlyne feared neither God nor man. A devil woman if I ever saw one. What could she have to do with the girl?”
“Maybe, Frank, the girl worked for the other side.”
Frank suddenly pushed away from the table. “This conversation never happened.”
“What never happened?”
The couple was scandalous and shrill and stupid, and they burst through the doors like a Jonestown vice-squad. Regan’s hand barely off Thea’s ass. He groped vaguely at the front of his open, Hawaiian shirt. Her nipples had been worked until they all but burst through the tight halter. Regan dropped into a canvas chair while Thea Bunzetti lurched backward, swayed uncertainly against the doors and stared at the two cops. “Aren’t you two the serious policemen.”
Fila tittered. “You have found the morning so very funny, Thea. Some of us have been treated to philosophy.”
Thea grasped the half finished bottle of Wild Turkey carelessly in her left hand, while trying to focus on the voice. “And you Fila. Up so early? We girls do need our morning fun.”
She hadn’t remembered them coming, hadn’tseenthem at all, and wouldn’t know when they left. Thea sucked hard at the bottle, booze gurgling through her lips and over the top of her freckled breasts like a baby at her mother’s nipple. Nick knew the type. Bunzetti threw him a look - helpless - and both men drained their tumblers with a gulp. Fila flicked open her gold Zippo. For the moment, detached from the detective, she seemed as amused as Thea. “Better the men should work than us. You’re right about that!”
Thea stumbled toward the screen door which led out to the sand. Her hair flattened to a bronze helmet in the stream of sunlight. She leaned against the post just behind Fila’s whicker chair, and bent over to rest her chin on the dark woman’s shoulder. “Are you here to protect the detective?”
“Nicholas can get lost almost anywhere. Why, just this morning, he practically followed Gordo Beauchamp through a red light.”
Thea rose, flashed wickedly at Regan and flopped into a wooden deck chair next to Fila. She ignored a distinctly curt look of restraint from the Irishman at the far side of the patio. “Mischief from the boys. Too bad they can’t finish it themselves.”
“Ben roves most mornings.” The dark woman covered her slip by emitting a huge stream of smoke from the Camel straight. Not half fast enough to pass by the detective, and not funny enough for Thea.
She considered Fila’s words for a moment, cleared another tipple of bourbon, before cheerfully pipping away. “Those are two righteous fisherman, Beauchamp and Hricko. One on the water, one on the beach, two on a net. Bet they catch a whale. Don’t you think so, Phil?”
Regan snapped at her caustically. “You’re bloody fucking drunk, woman. Fish the bottle over here, and without the babble.”
Thea blinked back at him. “Don’t crap in your jeans, Mr. Mayor, or should I call you Mr bare?”
Nick felt the automatic bite into his shoulder. He coughed and affected the tone of John’s Island. “That is the question, Miss Thea. Be so bold on this fine morning. What might those boys be catchin’?”
Thea pursed her lips, shushed him and turned her eyes toward the dark woman. “Phil, here, should be with them, and your old man too, Fila. Everybody pulling on that invisible net.” A high giggle slipped from her throat. “All those boys should surely find some luck, better than the last.”
Regan’s head had buried itself in the back of his wicker chair. Nick’s white linen hat tipped low as he leaned across the table toward the woman. “And you Thea. How lucky do you feel?”
She rustled the plated red hair high against the screen. “Why detective, Frank brought me out to the Island. Made me a present of the eastern sea. Made me a right modern southern girl and promised me a child, two maybe, if the paychecks come. Does a white girl need more?”
“Who’s yo daddy,” snarked Fila?” Nick felt the dry taste of anger at the back of his mouth, and would have reached for her scruff had not Fila’s eyes warned him off. “So far,” they said. “Too far.” Her arms curled about her drawn up legs, bunching the long dress about her like she was a little girl. “We’ll just let those boys play, won’t we Thea. Then we’ll have the whole Island to ourselves.”
Thea half sneered, the half under control. “Can’t stop Nick from snooping around. I can’t let the politics go. We have to get Phil elected. Isn’t that right Frank? Fila?”
“If you say so, girl.”
She gave Fila an earnest, boozy smile. “The boys are planning the SOB meeting this Thursday. You’re all invited,” she said leaning out of the chair toward Nick. “Especially you, detective.”
“Better get the hat steamed again; kinda droopy for serious social engagements.”
:I’ll set the old China.” Fila smoothed her long skirt over her legs, lit a cigarette for Thea and another for herself. Frank poured another cup of coffee. A breeze rustled the fabric about her knees while she cast Nick the faintest hint of contentment. She would make herself to home. Good, because time wasn’t Nick’s best friend.
Nick said goodby, underage drinking business next door, official he said, and left the three hopeless Islanders to finish the bottle. Frank had two quick shots and went on patrol. Regan switched to coffee, as the first morning drunks had arrived at the Jammer’s front door. Fila remained on the patio, chatting mercifully with Bunzetti’s wife, nursing at the coffee mug, and blowing long strands of cigarette smoke outward toward the beach.
Sand filled the detectives loafers at the first step. The volleyball court was shin-deep in it, with bottles of Coors and rubbers floating on top. At the far end, a group of boys waxed surf boards and smoked reefer, scattered insolently about the second dune. Same beach, same sand as his, different ocean. But the trip was smooth - no unsolved problem at his back, no blind-side noise on a stakeout. Put the best face on a sad try, and the Greek’s daughter was a lot less than a try. Bunzetti had his own white bitch to worry about, and the Irishman had already bought a share. Tick another man off the list. He didn’t need to grill Regan, just watch him drool . . . no time, no attitude or brain for the hard work . . . Nick already knew that last Saturday night, after Vitalle’s party, when he had tailed the wrong man home.
He pushed gently at the back door. The Comber had no patio, and exited directly onto the volleyball court. He entered at one end of the long, oak bar. As the door swung away from his hand, light poured in through the opening on the startled, and then dismayed, features of Nikki Petrakis.
“He’s not waiting for you Nick, so you can close the god damned door.”
“I was looking for you, sweets.”
“Don’t tell me. Your wife took the baby and ran back to Beaufort.”
“We need to talk. Alone. I’m hurting on this one Nikki.”
“Sure, Nick, to the last drop of blood, as long as it’s not your own.”
“I’ll wring it out of you, if I have to. Don’t hold out on me.”
“Since when, Nick. Since when haven’t you had your fill?”
He slammed the door back on its hinges, and for a instant, the wood paneled room glowed with the same olive tone as the woman’s face. Springs snapped the door closed at the detective’s back. Two rectangles of light escaped inward through a pair of small, barred windows. Brightness was wrung from the light, even though the dark walls were shadowed. Empty. So was the base of the stairwell leading up to the roof. His eyes swept the room, right hand casually free. He turned back to Nikki Petrakis. “Must be quiet around here with Deb gone. Did she bus the roof?”
“Nobody’s up there, Nick. You want to see drinkers, check out the hippies next door. Or is that where you came from?”
Nikki made no move to come from behind the bar. Instead she poured fingers of Wild Turkey, pushed one at Nick, and cradled the other between her breasts. Nick walked past her to glance behind the large stone fireplace, which squatted in the middle of the room. Nikki Petrakis’ hands never left the drink, and her eyes never left him. The Wild Turkey disappeared in a gulp and the girl poured another. “You never called.”
“Some things end. Get on with your life.”
“But I needed you then. Especially . . .”
He had thought about it. How the bastard’s belt had left her black and blue; below the waist. A soap opera ran out of suds. Nick pounded down the second shot and listened; cast a long look at the base of the stairwell to satisfy himself, and turned back to Nikki Petrakis’ soft face. He could pull it out of her, the same way she used to do to him. “Did you and Deb party together when she worked downtown?”
“You ‘re the real shit, aren’t you!” The words raged at him. Her right hand flew from the shot glass, but Nick grabbed the wrist, yanked her over the bar toward him.
“You want it like this, rough style, just like before?” Her voice mocked at him. “Anything you want, detective.”
He didn’t release the wrist, but with his right hand, turned her face up into his. “Who was after her ass, Nikki? Who had the major kink?”
Nikki Petrakis’ olive face had turned a caustic gray, and her eyes, bug eyes that could swallow you up, had sunk deep into her skull. She mouthed sex across the bar, forming the words like a courtesan though her wrist trembled in his hand. Her left hand banged helplessly at the oak. “She was the kink, you bastard. A big, green asshole kink right down the middle of this island. Not that your righteous buddy Hricko ever had or clue; or the dickhead next door.” Her hand came alive, and grabbed at his white linen collar. “Regan’s always grabbing at my tits, Nick, whenever I go over there, just to be friendly. You know about that? He squeezes just the way you did, but I don’t give him shit. Anyway, Bunzetti’s white bitch is more his speed.”
Tears came, and the detectives florid, southern complexion had turned ashen, like the girl’s. Her left hand now eased beneath the bar and returned with a small green and orange button. The raised image was one of a fisherman, and the white letters spread across the front read SOB.
“Yeah, me too Nick. And I was with Deb when Barlet’s dozer got hit.”
Nick DeLeon rocked back on his Italian leather heels. So much of nothing until now, but he was about to get his fill. He moved forward to kiss her softly on the mouth and released her hand. Nikki again reached under the bar, but this time slammed a Colt automatic down on the oak bar.
“Looking for this, detective?”
Her defiance was wasted. Nick had already turned his back and was walking away from the girl toward the round table next to the fire place. Bottle in hand. He popped the cork, and put the Wild Turkey in the middle of the table. She studied him for a moment, hand as cold as the 45's steel barrel. The gun stayed on the counter as she came out from behind the bar. Nikki locked the front and back doors, and slid into the chair across from Nick.
Drinks came one after another, draining the past into the detective’s heart and new spirit into the girl. Her words splintered in a maze, resolved, focused, again vaporized. He had lived around her body, but never felt its emotion. The story had enough holes and falsehoods to be true, and for those empty spaces and misshapen workings the detective’s memory had plenty of spare parts.
Two years before, Deb Fairchild had gone to work for Alex, Wheeler’s brother, at the Greek deli on Anson Street. She was a senior at College of Charleston, looking for play money - reefer, booze and a slick twenty-six foot single-design that she rented for ten bucks an hour. On her best behavior for the Greek! Alex had creamed instantly and hired her. Though Deb was two years older, she and Alex’s daughter Nikki had hit it off immediately. It was a match made in hell. Concerning men, Nikki had already picked up and practiced some Rhodian traditions from her whoremaster father. Nick knew all of those; none would make Sunday’s society page. Alex was nobody’s Greek and Nikki no one’s virgin.
Deb was an A student. Teacher, too, for Nikki, and from a well of hate pumped a major dose of eco-terrorist adjitprop into the poor innocent daughter of Alex Petrakis.
Deb’s father was dead, she thirteen at the time. He had been a farmer. After the farm failed, he had gone to work in the hard coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. But he hated what the mines did to the land and the rivers. Worked the hate into the daughter. Trying to sabotage a coal breaker, he got buried under fifty tons of anthracite. She had been daddy’s girl; payback time for the daughter was always now. Nikki understood. Each girl working their fantasies into the other. Quiet though, at first, on the sly. Among the initiated.
“She knewMoma’s Money, Nick, but not the third floor. That’s where she got crazy.” Where the clock never passed one AM and the back room sofas reeked of spilled booze and southern hash. “But the boys got tiresome, not to me, but that was her word. Same with theJoker, but she likedKitty Whisker, even with all the Negroes. Hated theShe-Crab; that’s where we met, Nick, remember? Your friend Creutz liked that place too. After that, it was all after-hours.”
“Never get carded?” It was a dumb question, dumber from him. The thought of Creutz’s hands on Nikki turned his stomach.
Nikki’s face registered a nasty grin. “Wehad something to show - thatwas our card -you thought so!” As she continued, her excitement grew and the words spilled over the table like run-off from a rat filled gutter in a thunderstorm.
The girls ran loose in the Charleston underground - hash, leather and bones - until that night, year and a half ago, when Alex Petrakis had loaded his 45 automatic and come looking for Nick. That same night, Nick had blown Alex Petrakis nearly in half with a blast from his sawed-off ten-gauge. After that night, Hricko had stopped fucking Nikki Petrakis.
Naturally, the young women had become even closer. Nikki had visited with Deb’s mother in Shickshinny, Pennsylvania, among the wasted coal-fields. For a time the girls had shared a place on Sullivan’s Island, but when Wheeler had first bought the Comber, he wanted Nikki in town and close to the old bar and deli. She had moved back to Charleston, while Deb jumped to a ratty old cottage across Breach Inlet on Isle of Palm. Deb took a few grad courses, but still partied with Nikki. When the Comber started to fail, and Wheeler got desperate for the younger crowd, he brought in the niece. For the first time, Nikki had power and her own money. Deb had joined her immediately.
Barlet’s dozer - the one that so enraged Hricko - had gone to work not two blocks from Deb Fairchild’s cottage. She became despondent, murderous. And then with Nikki and three others, had dumped seventy thousand dollars of John Deer steel into the high tide currents of the Inlet.
Nick thought it was a hell of a lonely young girl’s fantasy, spit in his eye and nail to the heart. But the funny business hadn’t started. Nikki had calmed down, become almost introspective, and seemed to search carefully for memory fragments worth repeating. Or safe enough to repeat. She lapsed in and out of their old dirty-talk, though she couldn’t bring him along; he wouldn’t allow it, not where it would certainly take them; not any more. They had binged through one bottle, cracked the second, but now their drinking had steaded to one shot every five minutes. Just like old times.
Both thoughtful. He didn’t have to ask, or act surprised, when Nikki’s memories crashed into the broker. “She was using Hricko’s computer, you know that, don’t you?”
Nick, unimpressed, muttered absently. “Deb did the books for SOB; so what?”
“I mean before that, Nick. Deb did some kind of arithmetic calculations about the effect of Barlet’s building cottages on the Inlet. On the whole Island. That’s what really sent her into a fit, just before we tanked the dozer.”
“How did she manage getting to Hricko’s computer?”
“She took a statistics class from him at College of Charleston. Didn’t he tell you that? If he didn’t, it’s because he was doing her every week. At the Tepy place - for the whole term. Gave him every little bit, Nick. She said she made sure Hricko would never wake up while she was working.”
Nick whip-lashed across the table, nose to nose and her lips licked at him. His were dry. “Were you ever with her, at Hricko’s, or see any of her work?”
“That’s a joke. Deb told me, after Hricko would crash, she would sneak into his den and change his computer programs, run them, and change them back before hitting the sack. Kept the results in her head.”
“Whose being the fool here, Nikki? You, for thinking that Hricko’s blind, or me, for thinking you’re protecting someone?”
“Hricko’s like you, Nick, always trying to pick a cherry, hates the juice . . . Can’t enjoy half of it. But, Deb liked his stat course. What do you like now?”
Nick couldn’t imagine how Nikki Petrakis could sound so much like a stubborn child and yet look more like a woman. Did the roughness of her words reflect that of the olive sheen beneath her cheeks and across the top of her forehead? Had her eyes widened on a world too far beyond her twenty-one years? Fact was, she would spit him out like a cherry pit if he didn’t get to the meat fast.
Several patrons had already pounded and sworn at the locked doors. The morning sun no longer streamed through the windows opening on the dunes. And he still had a job to do, back at the Ashley Marina. He couldn’t take all day, needed to squeeze the last drops from the woman before the first wave of iron workers broke in to sweep away his time, before she had squeezed herself dry in a self-pitying rant. Now, only Nikki nursed the near empty bottle of bourbon. Nick probed for a weak spot in her story. “Was Hricko involved with the dozers?”
“Didn’t I make it clear? Ben is the missionary type. In the beginning, people talked loose at the SOB meetings. We could have started a revolution right here on the Island. Hricko didn’t like it. Said we didn’t know the enemy. He was happy - actually, Nick, he was so relieved that he stayed drunk for two days. Got that straight from Deb! - when Peg Bottie’s people got involved with SOB and she took over. Deb felt Hricko had even set it up. He’d have pissed in his pants, if he had been at the Inlet that night.”
Nick rasped at her, a skeptical, debating tone. “You didn’t see Hricko at all that night, and Deb didn’t talk about meeting him.”
“Not a word. There was me, Deb, and three others guys. Well, first just Deb and me, drinking at Bacci until it closed. She planned it, gave it a name, alegend. Is that what you call it, Nick, when you cover your ass?”
“A legend is make-believe, Nikki. You’re not doing that to me, are you?”
She pinched his face between her hands, but only the skin reddened. She dropped them under table where they curled together, comforting a lost hope, his pants a close second. Nick poured another shot and she continued. “Then we waited for them on the dock. At two AM, high tide, the guys showed up on a Catalina 22 coming in from the marina side. We all got lucky, because about that time, the rain started, so we ran across Palm Boulevard and hid in the dunes.”
“You stay with Deb?”
“We stayed in a group. Even that was funny, waiting together, but nobody wanting to get too close, like somebody might not make it. The guys brought them, and everybody put on ski masks and camouflage jackets. One of the guys never said a word. We each did adragon, and hit the dozer at three AM.”
“You mean you didn’t know who they were, the guys?”
“Deb did, but she wouldn’t tell me. Said that was best. I can tell you the quiet one, guess you’d count him the leader, had an ignition key for the dozer. Think about it, Nick? Five kids without as much as a crow-bar. How do you figure we dumped it?”
No. He hadn’t thought about it. And he hadn’t realized how quickly Ben Hricko would go native. Was Hricko, wasn’t it, that led the crazies? But most of all, he had forgotten about the boat. “Did all five of you leave together?”
“Yeah, Nick, on the Catalina. All of us except the guy who never said a word. Never took off his mask. He had a little motor skiff. Must have docked it earlier in the day.”
“Everybody else take off theirs?”
Nikki Petrakis didn’t hide the malicious curl to her lips. “The masks? What do you think, detective? Everything came off.” Every truth hidden. He had first taken her in a drunk rage after Sam had been killed. Rage a marriage could not cool ... sex ... she melted each time he touched here there ... or there ... as she spewed acid bile for Damons pretense.
Nick pounded down the last of his Wild Turkey and pushed away from the table. “We just cared about the Island, Nick. Just wanted to keep it safe.”
He headed for the back door. “Sorry about the wrist, Nikki.”
“Don’t mention it detective. Past stays gone while the future is anytime.”
Nick left by the back door. The surfers had disappeared, except for the straw-haired kid, stripped to his waist, and sleeping on his board, an older wooden design, scarred and long out of favor. This one, he figured, a boyfriend of Nikki’s. A child pestered him in a bemusing tease. She was nine or ten and still frocked for summer, and did not care that the boy’s eyes would not follow her for years. Nick crossed to the Jammer, where Thea Bunzetti still held court; he had seen the odd couple at Vitalle’s party, and they saw him. “You’ve met Fritz Kranic, haven’t you Nick? And this is Tess.”
A steel handshake from the wrinkled old man. “I know your face, Lieutenant. Stared at my girl during the flute solo. Not mine I guess, yours neither.” Kranic nodded to Tess, and she stood and curtsied, dressed much as the child and without fear. She might have been eighteen.
Nick looked at Thea. “I thought you’d be sleeping it off upstairs.”
If offended, she was more proud of putting one word after another. And, it seemed to Nick, of the old man. “Not with the Island’s business to look after, detective. Like yourself.”
“Thea, when didyou become the solid citizen?”
“Besides Frank?” She laughed and blew steam from the top of her Citadel mug. The story might have belonged to half the Island, but the spite was all Thea. “Jason Webley’s an old friend of the family. When Mayor Spires got himself a State Street send-off . . .” Her forehead wrinkled one serious thought. “ . . . Jay took over temporary. Why, how could I not help?”
Tess had a rascal’s face and Kranic frowned it away. “More of it stays here, the better Lieutenant.”
“Plenty of that, indeed, Mr. Kranic.” Nick flashed at Thea. “So the heart attack indisposed him, but he died in his wife’s bed.”
“And always will, rest the bugger’s soul. Stay for lunch Nick?”
“Thank you, Thea, but I’ve had my fill. A pleasure to meet you, Tess.”
“Of course, Mr DeLeon.” She twisted a fall of hair from her waist. “Lieutenant? Do you know Ben Hricko?”
Nick said. “We all get around to it.”
Regan was judge-sober at his bar. Vitalle had picked up Fila. No, Beauchamp hadn’t been by. Nick swilled a coffee, then another, and headed out to the Chevy. One more stop before that overdue chat with Coffee, to put matters right. He waved … a sonic wave that killed cockroaches when directed. Them! Nasty girls, posing as babies. Dottering ass-bandits in the guise of power brokers.Hricko screwed her every night, until she died. A kindly Republican politician. Nick DeLeon, everybody’s fool. Kind Islands do not make kind people, Fila’s idea. At least now he would get a straight story, and a complete one, from the people who had first reported the murder. What they had seen and felt, would also be a kind of signature, more leavings behind of the killer. And Deb Fairchild. It was a natural skim, the old couple, the Laskers. He was thinking he was more than ready for Coffee, this second, as he re-crossed the Charleston Peninsula to the Ashley River Marina.
They came up the last twenty feet of dock to greet him. Wind-burned faces, open, gnarled hands outstretched.
“Right on the bell, Lieutenant. I like a prompt man.” Younger than her husband, and wrapped to her chin in blue, waterproof twill. She wore a seaman’s cap, and piercing green eyes that might close, but never fade.
“I’m Detective DeLeon. Our dispatcher said City Station contacted you, said I’d be coming.”
“Yes they did,” responded the woman, proudly, “and we’re just tickled that you found us.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant DeLeon. I’m Doc Lasker, and this is my wife, Emma. We are happy to talk to the police again, here. At the Marina, you can feel the peace. City Station was pretty fearsome for a couple of old folks.”
“Hate it myself,” he agreed.
“Then lets start palaver,” advises the woman. Indeed they were lively, he thought, quick stepping to the ladder beside their slip. They passed slip 320 where the girl had been slaughtered. Yellow police tape still marked off the two masted sloop, Mad Hatter. This couple in the adjoining slip must have found that a grim reminder.
“Not my favorite place either, Mr Lasker. I’m out of the office every second the Captain permits. On the water too, truth tell.”
Not only lively, but handsome, in the way of old lovers, he decided after testing the firm, steady grip of each hand. Faces that held curiosity, as well as age. At the top of the ladder, Doc Lasker chuckled. “You’re a sailor then, Lieutenant. Explains Emma’s feelings about you to windward.”
“Give me a long windward reach and a jiffied mainsail … I’m terror of the sea!” All laughed. Fearless came to mind also; old used bodies worn but not frail. Nick would have chosen such two as friends. His smile to them came without art. They returned it, almost conspiratorially. Indeed they were pleased, and Nick was sure he hadn’t wasted the afternoon. He put on his best, reassuring voice while wondering what had become of his blue-water sailing.
“I understand your concern, Mr. Lasker, and really appreciate both of you making the time for me.”
“We are not busy people, Lieutenant. Being retired travelers is a little worse than being retired. Deck chairs are under the lee, so let’s find them and get to business. We feel responsible, you know, since we reported the . . . disturbance, in the first place.”
Nick puzzled over the old man’s hesitation with the worddisturbance. He had listened to the 911 tapes, and the man had used just that word. Now, did the couple have a different story, or a bigger one? A blue storm flag still fluttered from the reefing. He followed them down the ladder to the slip, and then onto the cruiser’s worn, mahogany deck. “Bench is best,” old man Lasker advised.
Like the couple, the craft had put on some years. But it was a big one. Fifty foot at least, with a marine diesel, electric, blue-water rigged no doubt. “A Ta Shing,” Nick admired.
Doc Lasker raised one bushy brow. “Well spoken, Lieutenant. Our Mason 51.”
“I don’t believe so, a Mason over forty-three,” Nick responded with a certain air.
“Indeed, there is not a second. But at one time, those Chinks would build anything for the American green.”
And you, my friend, would see it done. The Laskers might be old, but two old fools they were not. Nick took the mahogany bench toward the back railing, Emma and Doc Lasker settled together opposite him, across a small, teak table. “You folks must have done a fair amount of cruising in this one,” Nick started.
“Oh yes, Lieutenant. Around the world twice with nary a problem.” Emma Lasker beamed proudly at her husband.
“And more than one force-five, I can tell you,” her husband followed. “Swells to the mizzen while Emma served the tea. We’re not people to tinkle at the first bell.”
The old man intended this comment to say a lot, for his wife gave him a very stern look. Respectful. Duly noted by the detective, the couple staking out some territory at the start. Nick said. “And in the process, learned to enjoy a safe harbor.”
“We’ve never felt unsafe beneath the Southern Cross, Lieutenant, on the blue water, or well east of the Prime Meridian.”
They couldn’t get much farther east than the Ashley River. But they didn’t mean here, did they, notthis far, wherever they called home. Disturbing also, them witnessing a gruesome murder, or close to it; they seemed awfully cool. The Ashley very much the detective’s home. Nick screwed up his face in a most professional air of authority. “Neither of you knew the girl, Deb Fairchild, did you? Even to see her around the docks?”
The old woman primped a bit defensively. “Certainly not, Lieutenant DeLeon, not her personally. The young ones don’t pay us much mind, though might have been with some other friends, on another boat.”
Nick hesitated. “You did SEE pictures of Ms. Fairchild?”
Only the old man’s face showed the trace of pain. “We both saw the pictures the other detectives passed around. The personal ones taken before that night. Lovely photographs, full of spirit. I saw her face, night of the killing, her lying there on the dock while the police took photos. The wife didn’t, and a precious favor that was.”
Emma Lasker seemed the more steady of the two and, Nick puzzled, the moreexperienced. “Not her, so we remember, but others like her. We’re boat people, Lieutenant DeLeon, and all marinas draw the same crowd.”
“Now what might that crowd be, Mrs. Lasker?”
“Do I have to tell you, Lieutenant? Pretty. Daring. All with long blond hair. Always around older men.”
Emma Lasker’s emerald eyes flashed to the detective’s heart, seeped cold into his tongue, laser sharp, freezing questions on his lips, Emma Lasker’s face practically shining, as if polished by the killer. Nick came silent, while the breeze ruffled behind him and he fell off the wind.
Doc Lasker found him. “We put nothing on her head, Lieutenant. Please don’t misunderstand Emma.”
Five minutes before, he would have thought that request insulting. He pointedly addressed Emma Lasker. “So thedisturbance at slip 320 must have been quite a ruckus; noisy, coming in the middle of the hurricane and all.”
“Hurricane didn’t bother us a bit, Lieutenant,” Emma piped. “Seen twice as bad off the Marianas, and me bearing a child to boot. Of course we called them typhoons when we sailed the Kuroshia Current, and I boiled sea snakes for a lotion to ease my delivery.”
Doc Lasker’s correction was as gentle as it was swift. “For the entire western Pacific, Emma, that’s their name. Typhoon.”
Her smile seemed suddenly frail. “Doc’s got me on that one, Lieutenant.” She remembered in a spot of silence that even the breeze respected. “But the first daughter slipped out of me as sound and quick as a squid, and WANDA hardly ruffled the tea pot.”
“I understand that, Mrs Lasker. But the couple, or however many people got your attention, must have been really violent, for you to take notice over WANDA.”
“Well Lieutenant, what Emma means is, it wasn’t violent to start. I mean it was, but nobody was complaining.”
Some effort had been taken by the old man making his last comment. He moved about in his chair, searching for a new point of equilibrium, only to flounder cross-legged and uncertain and waiting for his wife. Emma Lasker found a more direct response, for at her husband’s discomfort, she started out of her deck canvas, hesitated, and then rose. “You boy’s, I imagine, have matters to discuss, and I’ll leave you to them.”
She walked immediately toward hatch leading down to the ship’s galley, stopping just before the entrance. “Don’t mind if I whip up a bit of a nog, now do you?”
“That’ll be fine, Emma. Easy on the juice. We don’t want to interfere with the Lieutenant’s work.”
His wife nodded and disappeared into the doorway. Doc Lasker unzipped his duck jacket and fixed Nick with a knowing grin. “We can talk now, Lieutenant, with the wife gone. Even after forty years, there’s a line you watch for. She would be embarrassed. That was the problem at City Station.”
“That surely might be,” Nick nodded, and leaned all the way back - the chair groaned and settled.
The old man gave a look over his shoulder, and pulled a crumpled pack of Camel straights from beneath his cotton jacket. He shook one over to Nick, that he did not refuse; how often, he wondered, did the old man get a cigarette? Emma must be fearsome! “Can’t smoke with ma about, you know. She just won’t have it. Kind of a modern woman like that.”
Nick fired both of the Camels, and the man continued. “But old-fashioned too. Like you can’t talk so easy about fucking with a woman around; not in public. They can do it, all right, till a man falls over dead, but the talks got to stay on the pillow. You follow me, Lieutenant?”
“It’s a fashion my wife says never goes out of style,” Nick said cautiously. Straight into the rogue, spilling wind, and old Doc Lasker had yet to speak his mind. Nick thought of a bimbo or two who could have used the lecture, though he had stopped thinking he would ever be ready.
His eyes never strayed from old Doc, and the man understood too well - Nick thought him batty as his wife - but Doc troopered on. “We were on the ham radio, me and Emma, talking to a guy over on Isle of Palm. Following the storm together, though he was flat-ass in an oak rocker, and we pitching about like jugs on a dancing girl. Emma likes to make small of it, but WANDA sure gave a tickle.”
Nick smoothed at his jacket, trying to put himself into a scene not unlike that of the Ford. The rain cannonading around the windows; branches whipping in death from the dark. “Boats not much smaller than your ended up on the dock, Mr. Lasker. I imagine you kept your eye on the ports or checked above.”
Had a sly grin washed across the old man’s face? He pulled himself rod straight in the canvas chair and leaned far over so his sailor’s vest strained, and the blue veins stood out on his nose. “Those city boys don’t set a line worth shit. That most certainly would not happen to our boat. We had it hausered tight as a first daughter.”
Nick gambled on the woman who had left them alone. “Was Emma that crossed them, I’d bet on that, like a first mate seeing the first trouble.”
Doc Lasker tightened his chin and nodded. “We never heard a damned thing, above the racket, until they come on deck. When they did, they were screaming and fucking like a pair of juju sailors, and you know what I mean by that, Lieutenant.”
Nick felt some control slipping away. “Did you two go outside the cabin?”
“As far as the canvas windbreak. They were lying on the hull, first, banging away. Emma shouted for me to join her, she not moving a muscle, but watching steady by the chrome reefer.”
“You standing next to her.”
“Stiff as a board, next to my Emma. Weren’t going nowhere. But believe me, Lieutenant, the boy next door’s not so still.” An excited glee had crept into old Lasker’s voice. “He drug her up by the tit and hung her over the rail.”
“Roped her in?”
“Like a foresail!” Pitched to the bottom. Nick could have laughed or cried, but with great effort managed a straight, determined face. Set up a defense.
But salty Lasker was hesitating, no doubt about that, and the old man busted right through. “He was corn-holing the woman, Lieutenant, and she was begging for more. Maybe you know how it is when you get so far along, and the woman won’t let you stop.”
Nick broke in harshly. “Did he strike her? Did you see the knife.”
“Did he hit her? I mean they were whopping on each other, all over, and that wasn’t so easy for her, being all tied up with the leather. The old man thought for a second. “Might have been some hash smell around, but that’s a fine judgement to make with all the wind and rain. Emma and me. . .” and the old man’s voice trailed off. Again found itself.
“Used her feet and head, though. She was a wild one, that’s for sure.”
For just a moment, both he and the old man looked past each other, finding different places and times. “Not rape, but consent!”
Then the old man leaned over, almost whispering. “The wife and I can only remember now, but sweet Jesus do we remember.”
Emma Lasker made her reappearance in the middle of a deep silence. Nick didn’t doubt she knew every word old Doc had said. Maybe even coached him around a lost memory of that night. The two of them had seen everything, Emma and old Doc enraptured by a fantasy, Emma now with a glittering silver service beside him. Nick figured to pass the nog - he felt lightheaded, as if from a long underwater dive - but Emma Lasker placed a small crystal goblet of orange cream in his hand. “When they came from hatch, he carried a small lantern with an yellow candle-flame. He fastened it to a shroud before . . . ”
Her voice was cool and sweet, but the softness was not that of age. “We never saw a knife, Lieutenant, while she was on the boat. That came after, when she hollered something that twisted him all up. I could tell that by his face.”
Doc Lasker leaned over to peck his wife’s cheek, and lifted one of the drinks from the carved platter. He raised it and finished half in a large swallow. “Broke free she did,” he continued from his wife, “and jumped onto the dock. He followed. That’s when we saw the knife in the man’s hand. He threw the lantern to the deck and we headed below.”
Emma Lasker said. “Doc has an old Springfield ‘03. Tells me it’s for the dock rats, but, I know better.” Her voice remained as sweet, but the words came slower. “He told me point the barrel at the door - and pull the trigger if someone opened it. Then, he made the 911 call. Lieutenant DeLeon, neither of us had any doubt that death was a few steps away.”
Nick chose the simple question. “Do you remember, Mrs. Lasker, what the girl screamed? What were the words?”
The old woman did not hesitate. “Think the word was ‘Attractor,’ or something close to it, is what she shouted, Lieutenant, and after that, nothing was the same.”
Nicks mind tumbled. Attractor … where multiple paths cross in a chaotic system … where they must return. “Were they all over the deck?”
Smiling. “You can say that.” Emma Lasker had removed the third crystal glass from the tray, and placed the tray on the table. She softly clicked her glass against Nick’s, and then her husband’s, and said to both of them. “Drink; please. It’s a substitute, small things for large. But for a while, she was happy.”
Groggy from more than the nog. Nick hurried from the Lasker’s cruiser, whipped by the evening wind at his heels, driving at him from the docks, driving him from the marina. He swore the Lasker’s owed more to the devil than to the Fairchild girl, and waved goodby to him from across the black river. As Nick saw it, the oceans had forced perversions on her - had to - that she confused a few parched memories to a life cut young and bloody? Memories as poorly lived as the message swept from the murdered girl.
He felt the 151 proof rum bursting at his temples, but he cranked the ignition and pulled east onto Lockwood Blvd. The detective had two eye witnesses, a head ready to explode, and a dead girl who had written the invitation to her own murder. He ripped past the tidal pools to the broad Y adjoining the Coast Guard Station; there, he pulled the Chevy to the roadside and allowed it to idle meanly. Fairchild had known her killer.
She was happy.
Hricko made her happy, like her father, before he died. Could the broker possibly have been the ultimate target? If he was, then he also played the butcher.
Some days kill you until you die.
Words of passion froze on his lips. Hanging a left, he sped toward his old three-story brownstone on Colonial Lake. He parked among strolling couples next to the crumbling grey-stone wall. A pair of children vied furiously with radio-controlled sailboats. The sky had deepened to a pulsing blue. Nick’s maid answered the front door, appearing by magic as she said, on her way to the nursery.
“Misses at you daughter’s soccer game, Mista DeLeon.”
“Returning soon, no doubt.”
“They stopping for pizza afta, Mista DeLeon. No hurry for you.”
“Take your peace, Nicholas, as the Lord give you.”
Luck had it if a jiffied, dead past is luck. Nick spent the afternoon sleeping next to his infant son.
Annie Rains sparking a meth-case chuffed and made early coffee … her blue starched Lieutenants blouse loaded like a double-barrel turkey-shooter. Thursdays didn’t get any better, both detective’s agreed. Nick had spent the morning with Sam Johnson at City Station, in the small, first floor office Captain Marsh had caged from the vice squad. The caged office-room made an ‘L” sitting at the very back of City Stations concrete and glass building, spread-out between evidence and interrogation rooms, and sporting a string of small, barred window giving views on the Ashley River. Should SHTF they could shoot toward rowboats outside … otherwise they were nailed shut!
“Yeah all four hookers … knickers or none. No No I don’t care if one is a trannie ...”
Always black, whether a Ford or a Lincoln! When perp was being sweated, you could smell fear oozing through the wall. The office had a cemetery reputation for bad ideas and lost chances, complete with a rusted eight-drawer filing cabinet and a battery of phones. Sam only needed one. If the office seemed quiet, tranquil didn’t do it justice, not this morning.
“Old farts jam away, DeLeon, give up hard on the snuggle. Tell you about my great aunt Dolorus?”
“No thanks.” Thirteen hours of sleep hadn’t hurt the detective one bit. He groused actively at Sam. “If Emma Lasker had been callous or brutal. . .”
“Good. You brown up that white ass basting in perv-sauce. See what you get.”
“We have more on Fairchild, nothing on the Columbian, but we don’t have worse than Emma.”
“I be deaf. Lordy, Lordy.” Nick’s partner liked it tidy, put together. “You did see how they lived, leastwise thirty years ago. And where they had to live it.”
Sam Johnson worked comfortable, pushed back in the government chair, wood-slates straining, with his feet propped atop the battered, metal desk. Nick had the window side and batted at a speck of dust.
“You got to live with the cutter.” On the best of days, like today, Sam could beat Nick’s funk into the mildewed linoleum.
“Till he dies.”
Sam was carrying on. “Just like my man has to do now. Not living for me, but the help come if I ask the right way and hear what he’s say’n.”
Seven-thirty AM and Nick was reading Sam’s shorthand notes from an interview at Myrtle Beach. “The STAR Marina? He volunteer?”
“Sure Nick, for the usual two bills.”
He felt his wallet lighten by half. “Reliable? You’re sure?”
A heavy, overnight rain had seeped through the molding, and drowned roaches floated in puddles along the baseboard. Air conditioning hadn’t worked since Wanda blew its mail-order, galvanized condenser from the station’s roof. Nick could see Sam thinking about it. “Like a gas pain. The caterer has been my informant for years.”
Sam Johnson tucked the Taryton charcoal filter fag into a coffee-can slit, pawed at his left eye with a sweat-stained, linen handkerchief. “Trust him twice my wife. She lies too!” No bottled water had been delivered, and the lez Sargent’s coffee stank from the tap-water salt. The cracked, glass ashtray overflowed, fuming beneath half-stubbed butts. Neither man drank from their solver flasks. But, gotta twerk if yo find the perp!”
Nick yawned. “Said this for years, Sam - the Negro police officer has a natural advantage with the criminal type.”
Congratulatory smiles lit their faces as surely as Johnson’s Zippo fired the Pall Mall Reds. Sam had hit gold in Myrtle Beach, and had spared Nick few details in the telling. “Haven’t done yo’ mama in years, DeLeon. Whatshe did was criminal. My contacts are scientific police work. The boy pushes a little reefer with his cold roast beef, but only for the party boats. Otherwise, keeps his nose clean.”
Nick couldn’t imagine how Sam had met the man, the job had cost Sam that much; him the first black detective in a city still losing the Civil War. But he pressed, and Johnson admitted the guy was an ex son-in-law. “Least daughter keep her knees shut!” Nick’s stomach churned with the thought that everybody’s time would come.
“Holy City sends its thanks!”
Johnson spit into a coffee-can and continued. “Seems he worked a party at the STAR Marina, two nights before the Fairchild murder. Wild as ‘shine for the Piedmont types. Smart boy, kept his ears open while he pushed the booze. The boat was the MARY M. I checked with the dock-master, and it had berthed that Sunday night.”
“Get the Captain’s name?”
“Too bad about that. A crewman signed the registry and the checks. Mechanics repacked the prop bearing, while the owners telephoned somebody. Chandlers got paid in cash.” After thirty years, Johnson still worked his jowls furiously between sentences. A bad-boy mushroom look that only Nick found tolerable. ‘Chewing da worm’, Johnson called it and he had been prophetic.
“Long distance calls?”
Sam sniggered. “Collect, to a Wioka Land Company number.”
“Don’t tell me. The secretary who answered is visiting her dying granny in West Virginia, and won’t be back for a month. Phone lines down in the holler.”
“Daddy said not all white boys are dumb.”
Nick emptied the smoldering ashtray into a paper bin. Johnson’s daughter had been married three times; the detective’s oldest was twelve. Sam had an eye for what counted, and this wasn’t the first time Nick looked over his shoulder. “How did your son-in-law happen to cater this party?”
“It seems the marina hosts dozens. They handle all the details, including the food, and the son’s on their list. Costs him five big ones a year.”
“And the guests? RSVP’s? Who handled the invitations?”
“A marketing company out of Savannah.Safe-Haven Homes.
Incorporated in Georgia, but owned by Saul Davidson. Ain’t that somethin’. Naturally, they couldn’t locate the guest list. ”
“But the son kept a pocket full ofMary and his Negro ears open.”
“Charity begins, DeLeon, with the marks. They were wealthy, older white couples from the mill towns, looking for nice, white property. And a half-dozen single babes.”
“For the trade, only.”
“Fresh looking, Nick, so the son says. I’d guess the bimbos came down from Charlotte. The group was supposed to sail the next day from Myrtle Beach to Wioka Island, but WANDA scared them off.”
“Girls gotta have their fun. Any trouble?”
“A couple babes got drunk, took off their clothes and went skinny dipping. Wanted the old farts to join them. Son-in-law said a smooth, well dressed guy broke that action up fast; slapped around one of the girls, dragged her out of the water by a tit, and the old bags loved it! What kind of problem is that?”
None at all for a man with practice. Nick chewed on the coffee dregs and grunted, admiring, for he’d give the killer that much, a sense of place. “Bet they didn’t wait around for the blow to start.”
“Not a one. A couple threesomes - ain’t we getting modern. Heh, heh. Now the others hitched a ride with the caterer; any hotel that wasn’t near the beach. Those jokers want to live on a barrier island? Hell with ‘em; get what they deserve.”
Sam had never lived on a barrier island. Sam had never cast a drogue during a force five. Sam didn’t all that much like whites. Nick was learning slow and learning patience; leaning over the fag can … “When did the MARY M leave Myrtle Beach?”
“Not until Saturday morning. The boy who works the fuel pumps said nobody was on board except the crew.”
Nick DeLeon felt certain that crew minus one had sailed south that morning. Johnson didn’t have to say it. That was the gold. Nick reached for his leather holster. “I’m on it like a hot potato!” Johnson could do the follow-up, check the cruise log for the MARY M, though Nick bet nobody would have a list of sailors.
“Take out the fork before the first bite!” No paper trail to the well dressed man who gave orders; to the killer of Deb Fairchild. Johnson already had the phone in his hand. “Don’t find the last nerve around here, while the man’s working. You got your business.” He looked at Nick. “Did the toy come in today?”
“So says the lez.”
Johnson kicked back in his chair, working easy, chuckling, punching out numbers. “Forget the Laskers. Go play detective; run the new Ford up some poor citizen’s ass.” Them or a short-timer, Johnson was having too much fun. Nick didn’t have to tell him about that mistake. Sam usually drove on patrol … “yeah yeah before I take it to the freeway I’ll run it out to the reservoirs.”
He had a similar Merc coming. Made a difference in your luck, if you never expected to retire. Nick adjusted his holster and white linen hat, and left for the station garage. Riverside! It gleamed black and nasty in front of the oil-streaked metal doors. Nick broke into a trot. Half-way across the asphalt he stopped dead. The intern waited beside it, leaning against the chrome side mirror. Then waved smiling brightly, full of piss, like he was delivering the goods. Regular FEDEX! A small plastic folder dangled from his left hand. He twitched excitedly while Nick approached. “Captain Marsh said you would show up here. Nice car. We do a road-test?”
“I hope that jacket’s clean, sonny. Don’t mess with the chrome.” Easy to catch a man’s attention like that. The intern jumped, but the jackass grin never left his face. Nick approached, and waved him back from the door. “Everybody’s busy today, sonny. Places to go, thing to do. Call me tomorrow morning.”
That should have sent the intern scurrying, but as Nick came near, a curious determination writ sonny-boy’s face. A look not unlike that of the detective, something of theseen. “Fucking A, Detective DeLeon. Is Watson my name or what?” The intern raised the flap on the plastic folder and extracted a small picture.
Nick would have struck a bigger man, thought twice about kicking little twerp’s ass. Resolve, and the innocent truth stopped him. The next hour belonged to the intern’s chirpy voice. He has photographed the air.
Cherry. Dual cross stabilizer bars. Michelins five-speed Hurst. A blown 418 with 2-4s & a vertical gun rack cut down to fit his sawed-off. Ancient, illegal, a product flaw if anyone should inquire. Carbs and wrack! All of it. Nick signed for the bandit-chaser and headed for the Ashley River Bridge, for the wide, clear back roads south of Charleston. He had decided not to run straight to the Captain. The evidence a moonbeam, Marsh’s brain a steel-toed shoe that stepped on bright . . .Nick would get it right. Run the Ford until it begged pity; test its guts. One-eighty on the straight. Catch a six-degree bank at one-twenty, and live.
Johnson was right about one thing; Nick could shove the Ford up anybody’s ass. He and the killer, listening together. Modern, this pendulum thing, on his mind like the new son. Him swinging from Charleston to Isle of Palm, from a slaughtered child to low country politics, with blue sky in between. That part of Sam Johnson was rubbing into him . . . thewaiting . . . like a lost night in an Edisto bone factory. He hadn’t exactly made the choice, he still felt it creep his skin. The straight line and a hard fist had always been his style. But the method had begun feeling normal, the same folding of city into marsh used by the Fairchild killer.
Becoming like him.
The Rolex hectored to be early, everyone needed to be seen, show but not tell. A certainty, vile as the two vipers that guarded Hricko’s red cedars. As certain as he felt the MARY M had left the STAR Marina sans its most important passenger. This fit too. He would go back to Isle of Palm, to the SOB meeting at Hricko’s.
Nested five swamp blocks long, the neighborhood of island homes wound in behind the east fringe of IOP golf course. Piers lead out into the Intercoastle. From Hrickos driveway he could skip the tree-line between hole #15 green and #15 T , cross the two-lane asphalt and show up climbing a dune at Station 56 only thirty yards from low-tide water. Phil Regan’s pick-up had arrived first, beside the broad front door, but cars and bikes littered the lawn. Nick pulled the Ford behind Ben’s Triumph and invited himself in. Down the hallway, parlor tables loaded with food. Bottles of JD and Wild Turkey lined the sides of the double kitchen sink. Work benches, front and back, and rows of bingo parlor chairs crammed the livingroom.
Hricko’s invitation had sat unanswered … Nick thoufght he’d know … so greeting was ready for anybody, but him. “You look like a dick.” She typed away at a laptop computer size of any decent rear-view mirror. Chicklet keys. Nick hated them.
“And you look easy.”
“We’re even,” said the stacked, round-heels redhead with a quick, short-skirt curtsy. “Island not! Friend of Bens?”
“You must be new. Only on Tuesday?”
“I get what I can.” Bitch. Nick shuffled forms on the front table and wandered to the glass-pane ocean view.
“DeLeon! Over here.” They were nothing if not civic-minded rambles. The dock was empty, but he turned up the stairwell toward the faint, metallic clatter; Hricko must be working or screwing. Nick found them huddled over a third, watching a color-coded display of Isle of Palm.
“You need a help-dog or what?” No … he centered a group of thinkers harassing a littered coffee klatch and cabinat. Nick found them huddled over a third, watching a color-coded display of Isle of Palm. They were pissed off and happy to see him stay or go - he helped himself to a drink and pulled a chair to the rosewood table. Regan nursed a quiet, early drunk while Hricko wrestled with number columns. Neither appeared successful.
“Phil’s going to win this election, Nick, going away, if only white women under the age of twenty-seven are allowed to vote.” Hricko flicked a long ash into a conch, and scrubbed his index finger along a red lined area on the Isle of Palm display. “Oh, yes. They also have to live south of Florence Street. We do great, then.”
“That’s what the computer says?” Nick wanted no bizarre explanation from Hricko. Would a sober candidate who kept hands off married women make any difference? Nick figured Hricko couldn’t give a damn.
Hricko hit the Camel straight like a brick. “Virtue doesn’t count, when green is mean.”
“So sez the Arab,” ruffled DeLeon and pulled on the Red. “But, is green clean?”
“Saturdays … every Saturday we get clean and young.” Hricko pulled a weary drag from the Camel and ruffled computer code into a window. “And smart! I carve them into pieces, by age, sex, income, and address. We have voting profiles for every group; voting histories too, so we can eliminate seasonal effects like the economy. Easy, then to target the mailings and telephone contacts to Phil’s likely supporters.”
“I don’t see fags and dopers on the list.”
“If you look close . . .”
Nick pushed the Panama high on his forehead. Hricko was going to play his drum, and Nick wanted to be there at the end of the song. “So why isn’t Petrakis on the run?”
“Reasons? Wheeler has ten dollars of Bottie’s money to Regan’s buck. That’s one. And Peg splits the SOB vote, since she makes it legit to vote for the Cherokee Strip initiative and still vote for Petrakis. That’s two.”
“Free Marina-club memberships for city council . . .” Phil Regan swilled the Wild Turkey around in his tumbler. “We can’t even win by scaring the old farts. We tell them Petrakis will allow apartments next to their houses. Petrakis hints that anyone opposing him will get a sewage plant at his back door. Or public housing. What can black-arses like us do? Who moves here from New Jersey to help the poor?”
“I don’t know a one, Ben.”Not for the gentle folk, Hricko and friends, number witches. Nick tugged at the bourbon, puzzling the broker’s bag of tricks. “What do the Island men say?”
“Jobs, Nick. They are all about jobs, and Wioka Land promises plenty. Nothing we can do about delivering the bucks. That’s why Phil’s here tonight for a SOB meeting. Just to show his face, show he isn’t afraid of facing the voters naked.”
“Does Bottie know?”
“I imagine so.”
“CanI imagine Peg Bottie knowing? Only if you still worship the Blessed Virgin.” Hricko and Regan gathered their printouts, and headed downstairs. Could one fanatical broker and a drunken Irish whoremaster beat a billion dollars of oil money? And to do what? Save a few acres of sea oats and a rutted, dirt road?
Hricko’s voice scratched at the marble inlay. “Remind me Nick. Why did I invite you to a SOB meeting?”
Nick padded down the stairs behind him, but paused to straightened his tie as the front door chimed. “Crowd control, Hricko. With Regan at the meeting, Bottie loses it from the get-go.”
Shouts raised at the front door. Hricko disbelieving and looking at Nick. “The invitation came when?”
Nick stepped back as Hricko flipped a brass latch. A buzzing plug of North Beach worthies burst through, making straight for the kitchen. DeLeon and Hricko filtered around them.
“They’re Bottie’s people first, SOB’s second and Regan’s if the first-born’s preggers.”
“If daughter can dance with the one that done it.”
“That’s it, Nick, bet I wrote you into the SOB budget. You’re our replacement social critic.”
“I won’t ask who I’m replacing.”
A band of young, bearded Turks rambled in, unannounced and not greeted, threw Nick a suspicious glance and piled those who came first. The kitchen boiled with bodies, few were strangers, all preferred bourbon, and Hricko’s humor grew with the noise. “Damned white of you. Nobodies looking for the top slot on your list either.”
“Where would you look, Hricko, if you were me? Fairchild and Petrakis. Fairchild and SOB. Fairchild and . . .”
“Perfect, Nick, for the critic - always half right!”
A bottle of Wild Turkey passed over their heads, and Hricko snatched it, filled their tumblers, and slipped it on to the couple behind them. “On the short side of twenty.”
“That one has her knees clamped tighter than Bottie.”
Nick turned, but the pair had vanished. Another victory for the broker. They detoured to the parlor for ice, and then maneuvered along the rows of bingo parlor chairs to the back of the living-room. Regan waited for them at the table. Nick said. “Quiet, Phil, for a politician.”
Regan tossed a suspicious look at the room, now filling with an older, under-styled crowd. People from rented cottages, back-Islanders, fishermen and construction workers. “I know them black-arses would love to go at me early. Why give them an excuse?”
Why get to the point? Why, indeed, with Hricko to part the waters later? Nick bummed a Camel straight and waited for the show. He was, after all, the appointed judge.
Though they sat at the back, their table had become the center, the place where SOB people stopped for a blessing. Bunzetti’s wife showed up alone. Nick exchanged greetings with two ex-cops from the city. Nobody ever questioned how Pisecki and Dolrun, two dumb shits from the vice squad, had found the money to buy homes in the development. Nobody ever would. Young blonds wandered by, casually distracted, challenging, without meeting his eye. Beauchamp slumped into the chair next to Regan, and said nothing after fourteen hours at the nets. Nikki Petrakis strutted in with two surfer types. She dismissed him like a watering eye; he recognized one of the boys. Nick watched her until she camped under the parlor door.
The room had packed shoulder tight with the SOB faithful, but the chairman’s table up front remained empty. Hricko had words with hard old Kranic - until an agreement was forced and Kranic stood to the side, at his side, Tess. Coffee fingered a graph which Hricko pointedly returned. A tenseness prevailed, like that before the start of a race.
Nick motioned to the Petrakis girl. “You know the boy?”
“Calls himself TJ. A local.”
“Friend of Nikki’s?”
“She says. TJ shares a cottage on twenty-fourth with his surfer buddies. Works at the Greeks, helps Kranic install TV antenna, and probably sells a bit of hash.”
“Upstanding young man.”
“As Islanders go.”
Peg Bottie and Damon Willis showed up last. Nick’s Rolex had just ticked past seven-fifteen when the pair casually strolled through the oak front doors, Willis behind, but his mouth never left the her ear. Whether she was distracted or disgusted or too busy looking for Hricko, she returned him only a sour caution. Like Captain Marsh on hormones.
Her face was a quick study. She had managed crews like this before. Pats on the back, all hands to the oars, go that-a-way. Willis took a seat close to the chairman’s table, while Bottie worked the crowd. Always the first names, always with an aside to the wife or girlfriend.
She came back to Hricko, stiffly shook hands with Regan and returned to the front table. She had no eye for him.You again? Pestered, was the word he found - she did it to him without trying . . . Hricko followed her. The third chair sat conspicuously empty. Hricko motioned to the Slav. “Any objections to Fritz Kranic as Treasurer?” Hricko’s voice never cracked, but the for a moment, neither was there another sound in the room.
“Agreed.” Peg Bottie briefly scanned a short, handwritten page of notes. “Jamie? How solid is the pamphlet coverage in wards eight and eleven? Those were problem areas Ben identified in our last survey.”
A tall brunette in white jeans rose smartly. “Up to eighty percent, Peg, from forty-two percent last month. Here’s how we did it.”
And not a minute too soon, thought the detective,if you expected to work for Peg Bottie.
The voice crackled like a marketing director. When it came to business, Nick admitted, Peg Bottie did not mess around. For the next, solid hour, Bottie extracted reports of voter contacts, press releases and fund raising. Nobody had a speech, but everyone had their numbers, and every speaker had a copy for Hricko at the end of their presentation. Nick wondered if Deb Fairchild had also given Hricko a copy of her numbers, whatever they had been, and whether Hricko had appreciated them as much?
Near eight-thirty, Peg Bottie had banged a small toy gavel to announce the SOB reports were over. A low rustle washed over the room. Some couples stood, preparing to break for the food. No one got the chance. Eyes turned toward the open screen doors, where a sharp dressed man, bemused by Hricko’s outdoor shower, chose to speak. “Wioka Island has become a paradise; the best part of South Carolina. Most of it with indoor plumbing. If we give them a chance here, they’ll do the same for Isle of Palm.”
Not everyone laughed. The shot was immediately returned by Hricko, appropriating a low slung drawl. “Wioka’s no part of this state. Saudi’s took it clean away. We Island people are worth no more to them than the moccasins, and we will be treated the same way. When they skin us, we’ll know the day after.”
Bottie scarcely raised an eyebrow. So much, Nick figured, for her not being prepared. Probably handles sex the same way, and probably Willis doesn’t know squat beforehand. So who’s on top, Bottie or Hricko?
Nick expected to chew on this with the shrimp, but for the whip-snake blue eyes of the blond who spoke immediately. “Phil Regan represents something sacred, Senator Bottie. It can wash away, like Folly Beach is washing away. Regan won’t say that, but who else will stand for the Island? Petrakis is a snake.”
Scattered applause countered by bird-whistles. More applause came in long, intense waves. He would give her a cheer! Same sandals and torn jeans as at Tony’s party; Jet Coffee. Nick picked her out at once as the blond who hung close to Bottie, and who had drawn so much attention from both Regan and Willis. Her party friend, the dresser, had not accompanied her. Coffee sat down next to Thea, and exchanged complements. Not so for Damon Willis, who had the look of a betrayed eunuch.
Bottie waved off another speaker, and pounded the table. “Do try the food, ladies and gentlemen, and by all means Mr. Hricko’s bourbon.”
The crowd broke. Only Hricko and Phil Regan remained seated.
Perhaps expecting Ms Bottie? Nick waited, but Damon Willis had spirited her to the front door. Had her nailed like Hricko could only imagine. The wet plaster face shriveled, and Willis now hunched his tall frame over the Senator as if she was the last thing for him to defend. Nick didn’t have to hear a word. “Senator, Petrakis’ campaign is crashing here and you’re getting reamed. Who let Regan in?”
“It’s Hricko’s house. Talk to him.”
“You seem to have his ear, Peg. Whisper something, so tonight, Petrakis doesn’t get his asshole ripped out.”
“Ben knows my responsibilities. We play along together. That’s not bothering you, is it Damon?”
“Is it your game, or his?”
“Mine, Damon, and don’t forget it. You have the job of working the Petrakis campaign; I’ll take care of the rest.”
“This IS the Petrakis campaign! Better to move the SOB meetings to the Isle of Palm Marina. That’sour territory.”
“Now wouldn’t that look good. Think, Damon! Can you see me defending my integrity from some prattling civics teacher? Whether Petrakis is elected fat Greek of the month or mayor, my Senate seat is up in two years Try to hang around for that one, will you?”
“Anything your tight little asshole wishes, Peg . . . Senator Bottie. Anything it takes to win.”
Willis brushed by; Nick followed and plopped heavily into Bottie’s chair. Willis was bigger than the detective, and Nick hoped the man thought so. He forked out a Pall Mall red and fired it up, blowing a thin line of smoke toward the nearly empty room. “Times change, Damon. Got your resume updated?”
A small, involuntary twitch ran down the man’s body. Hunched over, he speared Nick with cold, blue eyes. “We will see the best is done for Senator Bottie. And for the Island. I can’t stop the children from playing.”
Nick motioned to the back of the room, where Peg Bottie, Hricko and phil Regan hunched together over the flimsy card table. Only a fool would mistake the detectives intentions or the slight flush to his white, southern face. The detectives right hand drummed on his hip. Casually free. “You got that right; not even the old ones. First the Island development and now the boss slipping away. How does it feel to loose it an inch at a time, cocksucker?”
No movement in that plaster face. Nick caught a blurred image of Nikki Petrakis behind the two men, caught her mouth open trying to speak, and then moving beyond toward the patio screen doors. Willis had straightened his back, but his voice rumbled low. “Time, detective? Those little pieces that seem invisible until they slam into your gut? I know all about those. See how I use them, detective. You have no time left at all.”
Nick tightened. His leather holster pushed hard against the front of his white linen jacket. “My Rolex never stops. Your clients get unlucky. I keep hoping some of it rubs off on you.”
Nick searched the room for Sheri McCain. Nothing. Coffee smiled at him from the patio doorway. Nick glared back at Willis, their faces closed to within a short breath. “I don’t know, detective. I’ve seen plenty of stiffs. Most wore a badge next to the lucky bullet hole.” A smarmy red blushed through the paste. “Keep taking those chances. I’m patient. By the way, did Hricko just scrub the deck planking on the veranda or put in new stuff like Tony?”
Beauchamp’s hand appeared on Nick’s left shoulder, a caution for which he felt no need. Not worth the pain of a smashed fist. The white trash in front of him was a muff-diving gofer, a bag-man masquerading as a scribe. Hairs raised on the detective’s neck. “You have the guts to do your own work? You like those late strolls on State Street, don’t you Damon? Keep the constituents in hand, eh? Well, watch your own back. If you ever get mugged, you’re meat.”
“Your wife loved it, DeLeon,” the man retaliated, like a whipped cur. Snarling. “See you in the next patch of fog.”
DeLeons fist pounded deep into Willios gut.; he crumbled to the floor vomiting … Nick retorted a cool hot, “Eve? Too white by a dozen shades”, as he and Hricko bounced through the parlor door toward the food. “God help Petrakis, ” were his first words to Peg Bottie.
At nine-thirty, Peg Bottie restarted the meeting. Willis gone. A dozen new faces against the back wall. Kranic spoke first. He was a toolmaker, wrinkled and retired from Detroit mills to the Island. His hand still rail steady, with a perfect eye for the cubic.
“If money bought only people, wouldn’t make a hill of beans. But it buys them the time. It’s like this, Mr. Hricko. I’ll visit a man, say my piece for Phil, and he’s a fair chance to support us. I’m down the street. Petrakis’ people right behind me, of course. ‘Wheeler’s a good guy’, they say. ‘Give him your vote.’ That one’s off like me, and the voter has two shiny buttons. Like I say. Even chances.”
“Send them skimming the McMac garbage dump!”
“Yes yes … but the next day or two, a second Petrakis shill is at that same door. A gal; talks to the wife. ‘A lovely day Mrs. So-and-So. Sale at K-Mart tomorrow. Save a penny. Now about my candidate, Mr. Petrakis; he’ll save you a penny too.’ We’re slipping, now, do you see? How the wife talks to the husband and two votes are slipping away. Another couple days later, and a young man in a dark suit stops by the same people. Say’s not a word about Petrakis, but wears this big American flag button. Wants to know if they feel Phil Regan here is a Commie? Supports the unions and coloreds and all. No mind to Frank. Leaves a little American flag with them and marches off dapper as can be. Sets their minds, though. Pulls those two votes right over to the Greek. Buys those people. I’ve seen it ten times, more, and I can’t do a rat’s bare butt about it.”
Clapping. A few offended gasps. “Not a bad speech,” thought the detective, scanning the room for the odd satisfied face. Too white when they came, usually, for island people, truculent faces, and defensive at the same time. “That’s how we bugger your daughter,” said those faces; “that’s how we buy your island.” Of the Regan people, only Gordo Beauchamp looked equally satisfied, and that, he found deeply troubling.
“It’s a god-damned shame, Ms. Bottie, that Wioka Land wants the North Beach road. We all got our first smooch on that strip of sand. Or our second. You want the kids going to the city for their fun?”
The voice was that of a plain old man, plaid wrinkled sport coat over one arm, and wife faithfully on the other. A quiet wave of understanding rolled through the room, heads nodding shyly, stern faces few and closely shaved.
A slow voice from under a full black island beard. “Keep your view, Senator, and leave us the drag-strip. Keeps my girlies hot.” Of course he meant the road to north beach. Any Island man would know that.
“You don’t get another pinch, Brendon, until the back seat’s recovered.” A girl’s drawl from the back. Hoots followed with choruses of laughter.
An open faced, dirty-blond kid of about twenty took Bottie’s nod. Long heavy arms with a voice as quiet. “Where do I drive my iron, Ms Bottie, with the Island off limits? I have no skill, but what I build up from the sand?”
Shouts drown him out, but a small, bald headed man with carpenter’s hands stood quickly and the room silenced. “Let Petrakis run things, Jimmy, and you’ll be driving your rods in asphalt. Is that what you’ll build for us?”
The courting couple in the front row, and not the youngest; north end people by the clothes. Divorced or widowed, alone. First the tanned woman. “Regan won’t let us expand the golf course. We need part of the road for that.”
Then her boyfriend, who turned to her as he spoke. “Now that’s a savior of the western world, Minni. Bigger sand traps. You can’t get your ball out, and I still can’t get your ass into one.”
She seemed far from offended by her companion’s humor, for he is indeed trapped. From others followed a steady stream of back-and-forth. Tuned by the bourbon to a low rumble. Less mean than worried, and if careless then also open. “The North Beach road is so noisy on weekends.”
“Leave yer damned limos in the city, then.”
“Dope smoking commies lying naked on the sand.”
“Keep your son out of the Jammer, Hawthorn, if you got a problem with drugs.”
“I have two young daughters, and I don’t want them around those perverts.”
Raucous bellows. “Don’t worry, lady, they’ll get their chance too.”
Quiet settled uncomfortably, for certain matters are less spoken of. Hricko fidgets, Nick thinks, in anticipation. Finally, from the parlor side of the room, one of the skinny blond surfers has a say. He had escorted Nikki Petrakis, and some bolder young women whistle. The boy, TJ, is less than intimidated.
“I’m a threat to you good people’s daughters, those out north of marker thirty-seven. A regular blood hound, and you can ask ‘em yourself. But Wheeler should peddle his damned oil at the marina. Do wonders for the frog ears on them new cruisers.”
Finished, Nikki dragged him to her side. He received only nervous applause. A voice from the crush, another surfer. “Which side are you speaking for TJ? The Greek might leave front beach if we elect him mayor. Phil might stay if we don’t.”
Rows of head’s scratch; the boy is on dope; Petrakis has never been welcome; who asked for Regan? TJ’s arm wraps around Nikki. From behind them, a dark back-island woman who seeks no attention.
“He’s a black republican, all right, like the boy says. Un-natural. Darker than Frank if ye get my meaning.”
A sense of unease pervaded the room as she slouched back to her seat. She is a well known crank, a clever reader of the Tarot, a person come north from Folly Beach with a marsh-water spirit. Peg Bottie’s eyes sought Hricko’s, as if he had been remiss. Funny … funny how the same people populated every IOP gather, left or right or …. like a radar unit directed everyone who mattered! “Darker than Franks brain!”
“Take not much,” squawked the old Dutchman.” He fired a Camel straight from the pack that always sat at his left hand.
Dixon rose, a Catholic from New York, but twenty years on the Island. “Damned if this isn’t a fight worth having. What’s wrong with your man, Hricko? He’s got plenty of support here?”
“Money, John, pure as a woman’s tit.” Hisses from the women, for and against, but Coffee piped in loudly.
“We didn’t allow Barlet to take the dunes. Got him before and by damn get him again. Federal gestapo be damned! Why do we let them steal our votes? We have money to roast if money’s the question. Roast some oysters, Hricko, and steam the shrimp. Twenty bucks a head; all you can drink.”
Old man Gordon Beauchamp, still in his fisherman’s bib. “Let the Island look after its own. Sounds right to me.”
“Hell yes, Ben.” Bunzetti’s wife, with her hand squeezing hard into Phil Regan’s knee. “We can take them from the swamp this Sunday morning, and have the party at front beach. Regan’s bar.”
“What will it take, Gordo?”
While Beauchamp’s expression remained matter-of-fact, his shoulders broadened just the slightest camp; Hricko was fishing for the fisherman, far as everyone was concerned. Dead setup between the men - Nick understood that immediately. Fifteen minutes work from any Beauchamp trawler would give Regan more bucks than a dozen oyster roasts. Not money like Bottie’s, but serious dollars. Surprisingly, to the detective’s eye, Peg Bottie seemed not the least disturbed by this turn of events - Gordon Beauchamp had never been a Bottie man.
The shrimper had calculated briefly, allowing his new position of authority to sink in. His response was still directed to the front table. “Four runabouts transport nets to the tidal creeks; another five handle the oyster harvest. Those five better be flat bottom or you’ll never get them off the pluff mud. Oyster trees will rape a wood-bottom, like bending Coffees ass over a bench and stuffing her mouth full of a Red-Man chew ... he nodded her way … so make the hulls aluminum! I’ve got one of each and you’re welcome to them.”
In a moment, hands and voices accounted for more than the required fleet. “Damned if we won’t do it!” Damned if Hricko hadn’t done it! And Hricko hadn’t even been serious, so accidental that the SOB people would be spread out over ten square miles of low country swamp. Hricko had managed that quite well, and Bottie thick as a stump. What profit did the broker calculate from that?
“Unless the mud get hot!” TJs joint swung from a jade clip between chin and a shell necklace some 11-yo sweetee made for him. “Seen it happen when sun’s bright all week and the swamp stinks from no rain.”
Bottie shrugged and Nick ruffled his memory . “Happened once … I’ve seen … north of Georgetown IRONWORKS, when their scrubbers let fumes out into the raceway. Not enough flow. Water wasn’t meant to cool slag and gas together. Took a day ...”
“The perv will take a week explaining. Crap him out Nicky. Join us outside?” Beauchamp’s meaty hand had him by the shoulder, the invitation, bizarre.
“I think not. Snake’s alive this time of evening.” Willis had appeared on the dock, and Jet Coffee with him. “Balls, then detective. See if pestering Bottie and Hricko make you feel any better.”
No iron works in site, unless the ancient rusted
Portugee diggings got counted. Gas neither even
if flames appeared. Nobody counted. Sandspits weren’t considered an island even then.
Currents swept bonita north and fishermen slept! Deep down … nobody
went deep down.
Down a cone 400-m deep where cracks lead to
an even deeper reserve of frozen methyl-hydrate. If
frozen is the right word. But, the bubbles escaping
from that channel spread over and out the meshwork
of volcanic rock. Iron lattice defects made bubbles surface tension enormous! Close to 30,000-K bursting temp.
Natives knew of the lagoon that flamed each night,
when the bubbles expanded, tensioned and now vapor methane mixed in milliseconds with oxygen-rich algae
creating a million tongues of fire. Didn’t happen
always, of-course, and the methyl-hydrate melting and tube-travel were as random a passage as the
waterspouts dip and rise across that same lagoon.
Unlikely for one, rare for two … for current,
methane-packed bubbles and waterspout to join.
Nearly impossible and yet
patch of the Atlantic ocean vapor picked up
those three elements one fall evening and swept them along like poison pen-pals.
Currents swept bonita north and fishermen slept! Deep down … nobody
went deep down.
Down a cone 400-m deep where cracks lead to
an even deeper reserve of frozen methyl-hydrate. If
frozen is the right word. But, the bubbles escaping
from that channel spread over and out the meshwork
of volcanic rock. Iron lattice defects made bubbles surface tension enormous! Close to 30,000-K bursting temp.
Natives knew of the lagoon that flamed each night,
when the bubbles expanded, tensioned and now vapor methane mixed in milliseconds with oxygen-rich algae
creating a million tongues of fire. Didn’t happen
always, of-course, and the methyl-hydrate melting and tube-travel were as random a passage as the
waterspouts dip and rise across that same lagoon.
Unlikely for one, rare for two … for current,
methane-packed bubbles and waterspout to join.
Nearly impossible and yet
patch of the Atlantic ocean vapor picked up
those three elements one fall evening and swept them along like poison pen-pals.
Hricko had spirited Peg Bottie up the stairwell. Beauchamp was right. Nick’s first instinct was to follow the couple. Cold as a whore’s last orgasm. Nick saw it that way. Deb Fairchild not yet in the ground, while her friends danced on the sand. Her name and face seemed to have disappeared as surely as an unlucky ‘dab in a school of blues. So he would follow them out of retribution.
This is not right, Nicholas.
Leave the dead in peace. He caught the movement of Beauchamp’s group through the patio screen. He elbowed through to the kitchen for another tumbler of Wild Turkey and followed them into the evening, watching from the shadows between patio flagstones and the dock.
The five people had found a place at the far end, under the orange lamp that stood almost as a sentry between land and water. Thea Bunzetti had her feet dangling off the dock, splashing in the oily high tide, while a wisp of smoke rose from her mouth; the feather near her throat, part of a roach-clip. Beauchamp sat next to her, scratching his three-day beard and while he talked, pointing to some unseeable feature of the marsh.
The remaining three, Phil Regan, Damon Willis and Jet Coffee, chatted away like volunteers at a charity regatta. Both men swilled tumblers of booze The girl smoked an unfiltered camel, like Hricko and stood casually to Willis’ side, a curve of her blouse brushing the man’s arms. Though her face lay shadowed by the orange lamp, Nick could feel her eyes flit through the screen and into his. Thoughts casually free as a watcher for the second sound, as a reader of the Islands delicate blank verse, he became aware.
Willis’ head turned, as if sensing his retreat, face softening in contentment. Nick could make that go away . . . he banged open the screen, tossed his jacket and shoulder holster to the cherrywood floor. Willis dropped his whisky and stepped toward him. With a speed that belied his size, Beauchamp came off the end and dashed past Willis, sloshing the dock unsteadily about the pilings. Willis fell to one knee, and before he could recover, Beauchamp’s huge frame blocked the path between the two men.
Beauchamp let out a hearty chuckle, a captain’s joke and break-balls if you didn’t laugh. “Nick, you’re baby-ass naked without your piece. Coming for a swim? Thea is about to strip, so we’ll all go in together.”
From behind the fisherman, words spit from between clenched teeth. “Now’s the time, fuckhead.”
Nick shrugged the fisherman’s hand from his shoulder. Jet Coffee came next to Beauchamp, and pressed her breasts into the back of his huge arm. Her smile twisted, or so he imagined, her lips dark, not red, an invitation, a touch without softness. Her lips moved in a curse, and immediately she returned to Willis and with him to the end of the dock.
“Tell me, Gordo,” Nick muttered carefully, “you following the channel or dredging it?”
“Feeling along the bottom till the storm hits. Then, certain as the tides, you’ll find another.”
“Why screw around? What’s Coffee expect to get from Willis?”
“Another time, detective,” Gordo Beauchamp said with a quietness no softer than Jet Coffee’s, and with malice no less than Nick’s.
He wandered the now empty first floor. First chatting aimlessly with the retired vice-cop Dolrun, now a honest man. His partner had left early, light a kilo. “Want a piece, Nick? Ha, Ha.” A fat, stupid face pressing close to his. “Just kidding.”
You’re doing good, right?”
A step away, Dolrun at him again. “Heh Nick. Don’t go away mad.”
Dolrun bleeding sweat-beads. “I need to ask you about this guy Creutz. Friend of yours, right? I got this proposition from the man, adelivery, know what I mean? Don’t say a thing, not asking for that. I want to know if I can trust him, straight deal, shuffle from the docks to the Coons. What do you say, Nick. Creutz an honest cop?”
Nick said. “Your man, Frank. Creutz never stole a nickel, always watches your back.”
“Jeez, Nick. Thanks. Any time I can help, just give a call. Wife says she misses having you over for dinner. Shake a leg, I mean an elbow. Just kiddin Nick.”
Gordo was right. Peg and Ben showing off his new wide-screen TV. Hitachi, imported direct with scanner and a dish they intended mounting over the dock. She was all hands and all over him. Downstairs, in the kitchen, he finished a piece of smoked salmon with Kranic. The last gift from Emma Lasker had been this man’s name. He knew more than a little about - as they both called it - the Tepy house. He had built the dock. He might also know something about the Mad Hatter. Jet Coffee had brushed by them, once, on the way upstairs with Nikki Petrakis. Her arm had rested on the Slav’s shoulder.
“Yo, Mr. Detective.”
The straw haired surfer let them go, and peeled off toward the parlor and a bowl of rock shrimp. Kranic had followed the women; Nick followed Wheeler Petrakis’ youngest mule. Knowing Dolrun counted for something. “One killer speech. Have another cholesterol lollipop.”
“Everything dissolves in gin.”
“A healthy guy like you, with a girl friend to consider? Have you thought about law school?”
“Kinda nice, I guess, wearing a suit all day. How do you like it?”
“Got it beat into me by the old man.”
“Mine died young; never got a chance to beat me. Pretty hip, though, Mr. Detective, with the tie and hat. Heh! I saw you at the Comber, couple-three days ago. Guess you thought I was sleeping.”
“Nikki was cool. Said you were all bent about Deb Fairchild.”
“And you weren’t.”
“I tended bar with her, but she didn’t have much use for the Greek.”
“And you’re his last friend.”
“He’ll surprise you . . .” The kids voice trailed off, his mouth crammed with another shrimp. “Kind of practical too, Nikki being the old woman.”
“Has he invited you to join the family? The man’s a lying, manipulating bastard, TJ, who collects garbage instead of friends. How do you think he’ll use you?”
“Nikki and I have plans. We won’t end up like Erlyne.”
“Or like Deb.”
“We’re not all stupid, and we’re not all righteous like old man Kranic. A wave comes and you ride it. Life’s a surfboard and time is the cosmic wave. Deb wiped out.”
Nick’s face hardened, his eyes took a skeptic green web. “Hricko said that too.”
“Like he would know. The dude’s never ridden anything longer than his belly.”
“Did your friends ride with her?”
The kid shook his head, a plaintiff mock remorse. “I lost one off the north coast of Maui.” Then a smirk to the real question. “When she started at Comber, all the time.”
Not to the detective’s liking. He looked at TJ and said harshly. “Until Petrakis tried to suck her in, the same way he did you. She fought the bastard while you kissed his ass.”
“You have a gravitational problem, Mr. Detective. Deb was light, floating at the horizon, but would not fall in.”
“Never in, but radiating before that. She started balling a Marv, and became very internal.”
Nick had become hungry. “But you don’t know who.”
Somehow, in his rush to dig every last rock shrimp from the mound of ice, TJ had ignored the iron pot bubbling small and tasty at the back corner of the table. Nick did not, and helped himself to the last three ladles of green-conch stew. Speciality of the Folly Beach woman, so the folder of business cards said with a skeleton emblem and the words:
TAROT OF YOUR LIFE
SEEK THE FISHER
She wasn’t Nick’s idea of funny, and TJ not his idea of straight. The conch stew was superb. TJ picked away at a strand of shrimp caught in the shell. Had a boner for them as bad as for Nikki. He checked the table to see if Nick had removed his white linen hat before eating. He had not.That’s kool, Mr. Detective, and too bad. For as hard as it was to get the last bit of meat out of a rocks shrimp, it would be a hell of a
lot tougher to lift Mr. Detective’s Panama.
He finished the detective’s thought. “Or why or exactly when or if her karma reflected her motivation. Talk to the Greek. It’s hard to believe, but the man can be absolutely weightless.”
“Oil floats; so does slime.”
“Wheeler’s got plenty of both.”
“You didn’t believe the old woman, then.” Nick flashed her card.
“Petrakis the dark man.”
“I visit her all the time Mr. Detective, and she’s read me right to heaven.”
“See a priest, TJ, before you start the family.”
Nick left Hricko’s place at eleven-thirty. His bandit-chaser, so secure, so grounded under his hand this afternoon, seemed weightless now. Perfectly responsive. Eagerly incomplete. Green panel lights flashed across his face as he red-lined, flew the causeway from Sullivan’s Island. Eve would be waiting to devil, at their stilted Sullivans Island play-house; since they’re sons birth she had deviled him with her sex … her niggar maid had been prodding her - - nick was sure of it - - prodding her white mistress to goad a family man into his jelly-roll fantasy.
Suck him in like a whore sucks in a fat-wallet John with a gold tooth, not a new child. Hotter than the Petrakis bitch by all the Kelvins in the universe! She’d wear than red tunic he ripped from he back last time … he would have kissed her knees, but she made him consume all flesh … made him put his hands on her while her teeth and nails scratched for blood … made him … knocked up again? Not that, physically, but a mental thing. Niggar women knew about that and taught Nick was sure taught well! Eve knew and wanted it all now! He didn’t think she wanted that … not all of it … or that yet what a white-skinned southron woman might want , but the new lust for him she did flush from thighs to lips.
This is good, no, this is a perfect end to the evening.
If he could keep his hands from squeezing a little too tight on that long, tender throat. Show patience. Take time, but not twenty minutes! That how long it had taken him to come looking for Beauchamp, smart mouthed son-of-a-bitch. The fisherman would have hated the ride to MUSC with a 40 caliber bullet in his leg. He thought better of it now, a cold calm feeling for the little things; he would make sure Eve didn’t miss a detail. He felt consumed by the certainty, understanding his game was not the only game being played against the cutter.
A speck of South Atlantic ocean.
Latitude 14.4 ; Longitude -25.1
A small black-tip shark cruised at a depth of five meters. It followed an instinct, a pressure gradient program well understood by its species early in the Jurassic . . . pressure gradients followed through 20 meters by a common, easily caught prey. An entire school might follow the slope as well its predator. Bubbles of methane released far above and falling below at different density did follow it. That trapped methane added enough energy to travel a 19-th Century steam engine from St Luis to SanFranCisco. On the scale of the Atlantic Ocean … nothing! But, on the scale of a cycle grasping as-a-cubic onto temperature fluctuation twas a nuclear event!
Casually the shark flashed a few with spare oxygen trapped to its gills . Flashes of fire like spotlights! Another gradient to follow and doing so the Man of War jelly-fish entangled the shark gracefully, with no purpose, damping its struggles in flickering dark and consumed it slowly . . .
Immediately above saturated air circulating close rose a few tenths of a degree. Nothing …. almost nowhere … timeless so early in its evolution from red-noise to inanimate terror, no one could have reasonably found it. Had a seaharp or scientific instrument by some unusual happenstance flown into the disturbance, the data might well be considered a error, an electrical transient in the power supply. As a stitch on a nondescript pressure trough flowing west, gliding below the Azores from the African coast, the hundred meter wide atmospheric disturbance had no right to exist longer than a few seconds. No possibility, but for the bubbles boiling. Above and below a statistical freak of seven hundred milli-bars pressure; goaded by the random company of violent coastal rainstorms that pumped incredible energy into the interior volume of air.
Often, the mass was too small even to be subject to the Coriolis forces that would have sent it spinning into a shear induced fragmentation against the prevailing high altitude winds. Occasionally breaking into a vicious waterspout that collapsed under its own ferocity. So protected by its size and violence, the fluctuation danced four hundred miles across the southern tip of the Azores like a pitcher’s knuckleball, a phantom, a rogue that a dozen times collapsed out of existence from the weight of its own improbability, only to appear a fraction of time later, created again from a random determination for slaughter.
But in those early times, each hour, another thirty meters of radial ocean surface were swept into its maw and three unlucky fishermen from Porto Novo who needed fourteen marlin to cover a soccer bet , but no longer.
Sam Johnson never made a telephone call before breakfast, and when he rang through, Nick had jumped. It was Friday morning and it complained . . .of Beauchamp and Coffee and a straw-haired surfer who got read to heaven while Fairchild screamed. Not Nick’s idea of breakfast, and he took it out on the wooden Admiral by smacking the gaudy masthead with a hard, flat right hand as he rolled through the front door of Pussers Cafe.
The Ashley Marina greasy spoon wasn’t interested in his tough night. Right behind him, a strong bellied live-aboard couple gasped - though the bad luck had to be Nick’s - and chirped like hungry sea-gulls through the half-opened swinging glass doors. Four vice cops lounged in the giant booth next to the bay windows, and from their percolated, hunting eyes Nick could tell it had been a good night. A fat blond waitress swore over a stiffed bill.
Nick wasn’t alone. Sam Johnson, sporting a soggy sweat band and grey running shorts sat at a Formica table well back from the windows gobbling chops and grits through a smoldering cigaret haze. Without looking up from the pork he called out in Nick’s direction. “Colored section, DeLeon. Yo Mama’s always welcome.”
“Bushy tailed after the constitutional?”
Johnson had run off his chops, three miles a day for the last twenty years, and didn’t care who knew it. “Swinging right along.”
He came over to the table and snapped a chair in place across from his partner. The Bloody Mary appeared and the waitress vanished before he could sit down.
Sam said. “Got ‘em trained to work that left elbow.”
“Beats the right one every morning.”
Johnson snickered without a trace of humor - he was a bad man. “Creutz says you should talk to him.”
Nick chewed at the crust of salt and Tabasco. “Enrico?”<
The draught of Stoli vaporized them. The guess wasn’t hard to make, not since every tenth banana through the Port of Charleston was filled with white powder. “Not Mr. Green Jeans, not Creutz - what you did to his thumb, Nick.” Johnson managed a pathetic head-shake to mask the cool smile. “And you sure ain’t talking to me.”
Nick looked away at a line of slips and the gently rocking hulls that nested white within the grey concrete marina walls. He hadn’t said plenty to Sam, and now the silence came around. The half-chewed bits of information. The slowness. What could he say that Marsh hadn’t? Nick shrugged and said. “When and where.”
Johnson slathered a chop with buttered grits and cut it through. “The pallets start unloading at eleven. He’ll be at the Tiger before nine.”
“Bananas don’t store.”
Nick’s Rolex ticked past seven forty-five. He got the thumb from a vice-sergeant whose speed-deviled eyes had slowed enough to focus across the room. He slugged down a second Mary, Tabasco, twist and all, felt no hunger, and left Johnson gnawing on a third cop-chop, but this time Sam’s eyes followed him away from the table.
“We’re walking away from this.”
“You be walk’n, DeLeon.”
As Nick passed the large corner table with a rich man’s view of the marina the words nipped out at him. The voice was a bad lung and Nick could have done without them and Sam’s sweat-band and the strong-bellied couple who chirped. “Fucking Marv.”
The big Ford zig-zagged onto King Street and down to Church, past St. Philip’s spire, coming up to the Bind Tiger from behind. He parked in a loading zone a block off Broad and entered through the back kitchen door with a shell already chambered in the 40 caliber Browning and shoe-leather scuffing soundlessly on the Palmetto mat. Enrico was a bad man, and the detective intended to walk away. Why wouldn’t Creutz give the dirty finger to Sam? Why would the Guatemalan turn boy scout? The breakfast cook took him for a food inspector looking for rats. Nick sensed the copper pot-bottoms and casual speed.
He could have saved the effort, for Enrico sat unguarded at the middle table - next to the bronze nude - in t-shirt and jeans and the bulges were all muscle. Three empty Coronas were his only companions. Nick eased by the brass rail and said with a voice only half disappointed. “You make me get a parking ticket for this?”
Enrico wheeled beneath the oak leaves worked deeply into the ceiling, then relaxed as the Browning remained holstered under Nick’s left armpit. “Eh, senior, my wife thinks you’re a wonder.”
“She’s easily pleased.”
A slack-jawed grip met him, on a stainless steel back tooth. “Staying above ground. How do you manage that?”
Nick took the opposing seat. “Bastard was a fag.”
“So is my best friend. You’re lucky the dock don’t work Savannah rules. We got thirteen to a gang, not eight like those cock-roaches.”
“I’m popular enough. Whose hiring anyway?”
Enrico looked smart, not just tough. “Independent contractors? Eh, senior, nobody and that’s the Virgin’s own truth. He paused for a first morning thought and angled a massive forearm toward the bare bass tit behind him. “Except for the government.”
Nick thought twice. “Bottie?”
“The Virgin’s own truth. This one’s in the butt.”
“A fastidious woman does not enjoy the surprise. That’s my experience, Enrico.”
A waitress appeared, freckled red and pale as Broad Street virtue, and plugged a slice of lime into the neck of a fourth Corona. Enrico paid with a five and didn’t wait for change. She left brushing past Nick, her arm sliding off the bulge beneath his shoulder. Enrico took a long swallow before giving the detective a mysterious smile. “While reaching for the money, they don’t feel a thing.”
Nick said. “Why are you being good to me?” Enrico nodded again to the bronze nude, and Nick understood he meant the fisher. But he didn’t like the man’s long smile. Or that he had nothing to say. “That sweat on your hand from the Corona?”
The Guatemalan fumbled with a heavy silver cross at his thick neck. “See the priest, senior, before you have another kid.”
Nick left by the back door and tore up the parking ticket stuck to the Ford windshield and stuffed it into a METAL ONLY recycling bin. The pork chops now seemed like a good idea and he had all morning until the next one. So did Bottie. He backed out of the alley and headed up Broad Street toward Pussers. Bottie usually took a late lunch at the Club - alone - Nick had decided to invite himself. The Rolex ticked past nine-thirty and the Bay was alive with squirming ripples of an on-coming tide, and the Admiral’s face didn’t show a single gouge.
The Harbor Club infested the black tip of Charleston peninsula for sixty years, and set just back of the rotted wharves that had bound Yankee slaves and Yankee ice to the old Charleston market. A speak-easy - even now if you knew a thing - mulatto to its soul, run by a series of Charleston dandies for the bad girls of various professions. It was low slung brick, dark and expensive, never sported a sign, and reservations only was at the whim of a huge black doorman who answered only to a well-turned leg, a saw-buck and the liquid eyes of its current owner, Saul Davidson.
Nick and a grilled flounder had arrived before Peg Bottie, but the long-pull bourbon was a step behind her to the oblong marble table. She had seen him straight off and was not pleased at not being seen and said to everyone. “The help these days, Nick. It’s all Kennedy’s fault.”
She glared at the cringing white medical student who spewed apologies as he stumbled backward toward the bar. She didn’t recognize the family . . . “So difficult to rise above one’s station.” She waved off another approaching waiter and nipped a Red offered by the detective, lit a match and blew a long stream of smoke to the side of the luckless fish now half consumed on Nick’s plate. Nick forked another bite and her discomfort mounted. “Do I have to do all the work?” She said this, tapping the cigaret on the edge of the table. “And why were you so rude at Fila’s party?”
Her eyes glowed incautiously. Nick met them, a hickory hard hazel. “I thought only Fila noticed.”
Saucy her. “Coffee did. When have you taken to politics?”
“The day you call for seven card stud.”
“Most men pay attention when I don’t like the table.”
“I see the stakes this way.” Nick made the last of a Wild Turkey go away. “We’re talking murder, Senator. Talking bribery, conspiracy, conflict of interest, and giving me a major piss hard-on.”
Bottie thought for a moment, judged and marked each threat with an asterisk for disposal, and flashed the low, brown curve of a perfect breast. “Which of my interests is conflicted?” She smoothed the white hem of her skirt, riding high, shifting sideways in the deep leather chair so her profile lay directly across the detective’s line of sight to the fire exit. Not that he expected her to bring Enrico’s kind of trouble . . . she was far beyond that.
“Stray shots damage more than others,” Nick muttered through a mouthful of collards. “Same with stray dogs masquerading as help.”
Though Nick had backed off, the two points hardened immediately. “Hricko’s not help.” She flushed to her shoulders and swiveled around straight on. Bottie didn’t often miss-speak. “You didn’t answer my question, Nick. Which conflict?”
He figured he had set her up pretty cool. “Night of the Fairchild murder. People think - some people think the Columbian’s pockets were full of your money.”
A small sigh of relief creased her lips, and they were maroon all right, and wet and slightly parted.” Oh. You mean him! The one you shot. Lord Almighty, how would I know how he filled his pockets? Her jaw set prettily and firmly around her mouth. “Damon might be cruising the truck-stops for all I care.”
She could fill your belly, Nick thought. Nothing dainty about her, but spilling with well-cooked, low country juice. “Just like that.” Nick’s life, and he knew what she meant, but he couldn’t imagine what she said next.
“Not on the menu.”
“You always order the blue-plate?”
“Its been recommended.”
Bottie’s tongue found the peak of her upper lip and slid through the crack, like her lips hadn’t parted enough. “Bad taste just gets passed around. We’ve both had an early morning, and neither of us likes to jog.”
“Silly me. To think I would know something first. Or that the cutter had clean fingernails.”
“My God. You don’t believe Hricko did it!”
“Why does everybody worry about that bastard? Three days out of four, I worry about the cutter. The fourth, I wonder how I can still worry?”
“A late vocation, Nick, worry.” Bottie fondled a small, folded gold-plated shell laced tightly to the base of her throat by a plait of silver. She said. “He’s only someone’s . . . help.” Nick didn’t think she was fooling around. She kept on talking. “Damon is a … small . . . man, for a dirty job. Something Hricko’s friend, Vitalle dug up on Petrakis. Old, irrelevant business, but Damon was supposed to do the wash.”
“Uh-huh. And Damon went to Saul.”
“When doesn’t he?”
“And Saul? - not to be mistaken for a craftsman - beauty is power.”
“He holds the note on Mama Charlaine’s. ” Her fingers moved deliberately from the shell to a bare thigh. She said. “Poetry’s another late vocation for a man like you. Hricko could take lessons.”
“The she-crab soup is excellent today, Senator. Spanish port.” Saul Davidson had come to stand just behind her left shoulder. The plaid tux made him look shorter. He held a wine list between red leather covers, the last bit of Nick’s view to the fire door and about five percent of Bottie’s attention. The doorman leaned distracted against the enameled wall. Nick’s fork mangled a bit of flounder as he looked up and said to Bottie. “Here’s our conflict expert.”
Her voice suppressed a gleaming edge of malice. “But he’s sharing Jerry’s tent. I mean, I guess, anyone from Carthage.”
Nick thought plenty fast. The words gratuitous attack came to mind, and Davidson sucked them down like marl sucks water. “Will anyone be joining you, Senator?” He continued to share the two faces, thinking that at least Hricko would get his dates right, unless . . . “Hires the best dish washers in town.” The Jew was nodding to a tired white face and a bare dark back at the adjoining table.
“Quick with the hands, eh Saul? With the Bavarian crystal.”
“Yes, Lieutenant, a most careful touch.” He paused to recommend an Atascadero white to Bottie, retrieved the list and straightened tall.
“Though a Nigger woman from Edisto blows it, the blanks are German.”
Nick had cleaned his plate and pushed it away. “A regular detail man, servicing his route.”
Davidson turned to the bar to call a waiter. “I can understand you eating the fish, but why did the doorman ever let you in?”
He was addressing an empty chair, the hot sweat that had seeped through the detective’s white linen jacket. Nick three steps toward the front door and Davidson’s sarcasm dribbling behind. She called after him. “See you in the swamp.”
“Unless he sees you first.”
Orange enamel stripes glowed from a pair of booths, and the stiletto heels were black. Stale, air-conditioned cold stopped at the brick sidewalk, vacuumed the doorman out of sight, the afternoon sun blinded. So did a certain confusion about lines of fire. A cloying, acid breeze sucked at the detective’s lungs as he quick-stepped up Market.
“Five bucks Mr smarty-pants five-bucks for an ex-marine,” called a two-bit pan-handler fro an alleyway. “A swell like you has plenty!”
Nick flipped him a quarter. He was puffing hard at the flagstone, almost stopped at O’Brian’s . . . black pillows piling up to the south promised rain - his Rolex ticked pasted two-fifteen. He didn’t need another friend that afternoon, and headed for Eves office at the Gazette … if office is what you called a three room suite with secretary out-front! Ms Peepers … Eve DeLeon had her prerogatives.
No ifs about it, Sam had called in a marker, thought it was a marker, like Enrico didn’t have a pocket full of Bottie’s money. If Davidson owned Bottie, she hadn’t been told. If Bottie ever knew a thing about Fairchild or the Columbian, she hadn’t bothered to remember. If Mama Charlaine really was the end, then she was a dead end in a mouthful of Geeche blather. No bloody signature from her! And Christ-on-a-cross, if the doorman’s grandfather hadn’t worked for the wife’s Beaufort family, Nick would have paid for his lunch at the Gazette.
At the eastward horizon, a pink crack opened in the dawn sky. Morning searched downward, playing faint colors across the dorsal fin of a twelve foot Mako, passaging Breach Inlet toward the Intercoastal Waterway. A migrating school of white shrimp allowed the shark to swim through them, preferring to risk its jaws rather than the unblinking eye of the bottom dwelling flounder. Wise instinct, or fortune, for the Mako took only a hapless spot-tail and continued west.
Charleston Bay tide tables listed a Goat Island high tide at ten-seventeen AM. Floating docks edged higher on the brass loops which bound them to their pilings. Shrimp could already be found at the mouths of tidal creeks, following the swell of current into the salt marshes.
Five-something, Sunday morning. She had buried the rosewood under down. Weightless dreams encumbered them, even measured by the airy puffs of marsh-mist which the offshore wind scudded and yet held near. Peg Bottie and Ben Hricko lay tangled in each other; they had fought that evening; subtle as a Saxon sword and Norse ax! Wioka Land Co. had brought in new survey crews for the Cherokee Strip … crews not afraid of flat tires or honey-laced gas! Or random 7.62-cal FMJs fucking with 6000-volt transformers. Tough men from the Oklahoma gas-fields. Hricko had sent their off-shore base-line launch to a swamp near Hilton Head. Weeks before a dredge could recover it … Bottie had fucked like a wildcat scotched and pinned and defeated lust and used till her ass just-as-well could not refuse another entry. Neither now cared if the tide ever rose.
Near quarter to six, the runabout was lowered and launched from slip thirty-nine at the Isle of Palm Marina. No accident of place or time. In the sauna, two guards drooled hash oil. The slip berthed a forty-two foot Bertran; its owner, a randy fruit merchant from Savannah. He and a young black secretary floated in a blotter-acid dream off Key West. She fancied herself cooking creole, a hi-yella Niggar fitting in where prizes got rich and white men generous. She would show him how a womans ass should be used. He obliged with a diamond-stud nipple-clip and a twin that bit her clit before he started reeving her ! So the slip should have remained unused. But the merchant chose his friends with less care than he chose the rice-paper strip of purple dragons. She dying young as life of a rare immune disorder just one among starways of negress beauty. Footsteps. The man’s form a dim shadow never exposed by the dock lights. Cruel turn to his lip and a random thought of violence, early and unforgiving. For ten minutes the slip came awake, sailorman tailorman where be ye and fraying hopes, like the transom, cast off a nightmare that slipped into the channel under the lingering mist. An undetected, gliding dream. The pilot rowed fifty yards to the Inter-coastal Waterway, where he started the Evinrude and pointed the prow west of Goat Island.
Exactly six-thirty, and Nick DeLeon smartly lashed his twenty-four foot Boston Whaler into the river between stained, concrete walls. The wash turned his stomach, like bitter espresso or Fila’s sympathy as she waved him from the Ashley Marina dock. He rounded the Coast Guard Station heading north and east into Charleston Bay. The dual fifty-fives bore hard against the incoming tide, and he felt each slap of hull on wave as a personal affront, a goad by the natural order, anything but random. Obstacles, all of it, no less than Hricko or Fila, or the killer who drew him.
Wide awake before sunrise Eve had dressed and sent him to Fila, as Ms Peepers grasped tone, but not content of a message. Fila packed him a vacuum of Blue-Point coffee and dismissed as a provocation all but his jacket. “He’s probably underway already,” she mocked without giving a name. If she knew a name. “When the pit cheers, the actor changes his lines.” A game double-covered … oysters … shrimp … with the crowd roaring, she’d be damned twice before coming with him.
“But Hricko set it up!” He and Beauchamp were producing some insane play - with the Coffee girl, Nick thought - and Nick was the guest of honor. He did plead. “One angle’s missing, one trick, and I need you to feel it for me. Just this once, Fila!”
“Ben is doing what? For your benefit?”
“You never saw her face.”
“And dead, it does you more good than it did Hricko alive?”
That had stopped him. Dead. She meant, what favor had the broker ever done for her? Sex? “What had Hricko done for Fairchild?”
“The City pays me to be a cop, twenty-four hours a day; I work Sunday’s free.”
Fila stubbornly refused to be tested. “I’ll miss only the mosquito bites, Nicholas,” she had said fifteen minutes before. “Tony sends his best.”
Under a canvas jacket, his skin bristled at the Bay wind. Beneath the controls, his foot tapped on a cedar box flush to the hull; he had stowed both 40 caliber Browning and 10-gauge shotgun wrapping them tightly between oilskin layers.
Fila probably thought about deceit that way, that it was a state of being, and not something you could chose to do. She trusted rough-cut Vitalle, dismayed the elite detective. Nick pushed on, believing he knew Hricko better than Fila, and the killer better than Hricko. The question was only when.
Nick found them where and how he expected, a sleepy armada straggling north at the tip of Goat Island. The Intercoastal widens as it joins the Island of Palm channel, becomes almost a lake, with the bordering marsh broad, dense and shadowed by the island cedars. A barge traveling south had scattered the boats like ducklings. Nick made a steady twenty-five knots from Fort Sumpter to the Shark Hole, but he slowed now, for a ceremony he hoped everyone could observe. “Gawd sake, man belay that wake!”
Beauchamp’s skiff trailed, him chewing a Piramide, and it smelled Cuban at fifty yards. Beauchamp with a steady hand on a light hull . . . Nick came astern and left with a smouldering Montechristo. The thumb from Nikki and TJ; three inflated orange rubbers floated from a metal-flake Glastron with three blonds in pink latex. He planed to the front. An old mahogany Chris Craft carried Hricko and Bottie, first in a line of cruisers . . . she shouted for him to join, but Nick feigned . . . roared ahead, raising a white spray over the glass smooth water.
Nick was closing on it, on him, on the set-piece that the two Island bastards had contrived. It was closing around him, he could smell it like the rotting carcasses of ocean catfish thrown up by the Mako. Rolex had ticked another five minutes. Concrete shafts violated a shell-bar and the pillars computer plumbed to a centimeter yet driven off-center and wasted. “Like SOBs doing,” Fila observed. A felony against property however the shells came to be there and Nick didn’t argue.
North of Goat Island, the western flank of the marsh broadens to a open plain of salt-grass and mud banks. Life holds an edge in the five foot tides; the shrimpers would put in here. Nick muscled through the wake of another barge, this heading north. Enough to swamp a skiff; enough to buy time for the detective. Out of sight and two miles ahead of Hricko, Nick maneuvered over a shoal, west, into one of the large tidal creeks, and lost himself in the maze of shallow channels. Ten minutes into the marsh, he found a ledge of clam shell and followed it to a dead end.
Nick figured the others to spread out around him. Short rations for a blue-water sailor, sweating under a blue-white sun, setting the anchor, pulling on rubber boots. He chewed on the Montechristo and removed the ten-gauge from its cabinet, running the oilskin methodically over the steel. Loaded the hi-brass. Twenty-five people, eight boats, and each one would net a different creek. Make that nine. Nobody’s mystery that he would be there, among them; he had made that certain. Who was looking closely? He had posed that question, for someone, he guessed, would bet their life on the answer.
Nick checked his Rolex; ten AM exactly. Humidity boiling off his skin. Ahead to the right, the guttural sputtering of an outboard, then a second; another snaking behind him. Even his sounds would carry well along the high tide channels, even to a man buried over his head in the salt-grass. Nick stoked the Havana and plunged into the swamp.
At first the narrow ridge of shells held firm. But as Nick moved toward the sound of the skiffs, the dry shelf fell off in a series of shoulders, each a bit lower, until he sank knee deep into the muck and drove insects in a steaming cloud. Forward, only if he couldn’t go back! The boat-props now coughed through tidal mud. Phil Regan’s booming curses broke from the main channel not seventy-five yards away, both sounds dying out, moving north toward any of the fifty smaller creeks that laced the high tide marsh. Regan moving away; once deceptive, but for that Nick was grateful.
A second ledge picked up from the first, and led to a spill. He jumped it, into a deep, muddy bank, over a firm shoulder and into the clumps of salt-grass. He backtracked to the shoulder and waited.
The marsh whispered with the first outflows of water - and life. He considered the metaphor with a distaste usually reserved for sunsets. Fifteen minutes; the whisper had turned to a rumble, in tune with the whining sting of mosquitos; time running out and him standing. The Montechristo fumed, but the rings of smoke cut only narrow, transient channels through the swarm. A reef exposed along the creek, a bright white ribbon that followed the bank; had become the bank. He plunged down it, deeper into the marsh, like he knew this way was right, as if his back were behind his front, until the voices came at him.
From the east, women’s voices laughing, cursing and sweating. A scene of total chaos Nick knew well. Under the voices, insect covered bodies strained as a shrimp-net was laid and sunk across one of the small tidal streams. Nobody could stay straight and survive. Even before the shrimp nets settled, cigar sized joints made the rounds. Insect repellant. Mosquitoes may have hesitated, but the pluff-mud bugs would love it. Shrimp swarmed the net. Ass got pinched and babies made. For those harvesting within the daylight marsh, weed had never been enough.
DeLeon also knew the loudest voice. By the time the tide had turned, Bottie had sent the four oyster skiffs careening for the shallows. And four gallons of cheap white wine and two fifths of JD had been consumed. A coven of vampires might have descended, and their blood sucking gone un-noticed, save for the need to open another jug. Bottie first on the cork, pitching in her lot with Hricko’s. Imagine that!
Nick moving again. He followed a ledge which tapered away from the creek and then widened and rose to a low mound of sand. A baseball cap flashed not fifty yards away. Then one toiling beside it. More shrieking, as a spot-tail or a moccasin came up with a net-full of shrimp. Rumbling creeks had now become roaring streams, as the swamp drained to an invisible moon. Still, he waited.
Perhaps he would protect them from a knife that had been whetted this very morning for their warm, soft throats. Or cross the broker. He cracked the shotgun and cleared the chambers. Both were loaded with 40 grain, and either could tear off a man’s head at twenty yards in a death-ray of hot lead. You’re the man, Nick; do the good job on this bastard. A heron came up and glided low over his head; Nick heard another skiff motor die behind him. Possibly older couples who had taken an extra half hour on a Sunday morning.
A second heron lifted behind him and flew east toward the Intercoastal. Disturbed in fishing, no doubt disturbed, by a marshcat or snake, or the glint from a curved knife or the hazy blue reflection from a 357 S&W. Tools of death, retained by the boat that had lain almost far enough into the salt grass beside Goat Island not to be noticed as he passed. Perhaps they waited for him. He saw that now, the way Hricko thought, if he . . . thought, that the cutter would come hard after him, not a girl soft and easy and spilling blond hair. For this one boat and its pilot, he would surely wait.
Nick slipped off the shells into the marl surrounding the sand bank. The suck stopped at his boots, so he advanced several steps into the tall swaying grass before he heard the first crunch on the abandoned ledge.
More footsteps. The ten-gauge, which Nick had positioned vertically with the barrel ends tickling the raised hairs of his neck, swung to a horizontal position. The steps paused, moved away from him, a steady shattering of boot on shell, skirting east of his position and angling above the voices. He lost the steps in noise. If he were to be deceived, now was a fine time! Nick made a dash for the net, marl clammy, now dissolving, his progress measured by the infinitely slow suck of wet mud on a man’s churning body. To his left, the dull rasp of snake-shot and then another, pounded over the mud, goading Nick to a last surge.
Louder now, much louder, the voices. He could hear Hricko swearing at someone to keep the top of the net above water.
“Get out of there, Peg!”
Nick lunged through the last thick clump of salt grass, and his feet flew behind him, slipping free of the ooze, as he dove head first into the tidal stream.
He felt the churning mass of bodies surround him as he was swept into the shrimp net. Then he felt legs and arms next to him, and broke water in the mud-caked grasp of Peg Bottie and Sheri McCain.
“Watch the friggen gun!”
Both women were screaming, coughing brine, and banging him so hard with their legs and bellies, while trying to hold purchase on the slippery floor of the stream, that he almost forgot that his hands were raised, holding the deadly steel barrels above the surge.
“. . . crab on his back!”
He spit salt water and dirt, slipped back down on his ass and was again pulled up. There was no hope to nail the killer, not for his laying the first finger on him, but Christ, Bottie had big tits.
“Anybody see . . .”
He pitched face down into the mud, sat up with enormous effort, and staggered into the rushing water. The two couples on a net thirty yards upstream stared in disbelief, but turned to a frenzied sound on the left, a wild boar blasting along the narrow ridge of shell. They froze. Nick lowered the barrels. Their net filled, bulged and swept from their hands spilling hundreds of fat shrimp into the flow and around the detective. The marsh grass gave way to a sudden swipe as the huge , sweating form of Gordo Beauchamp crashed into view. His forehead bloody, his face caked in mud, and each arm a hungry swarm of sucking mosquitos, but he carried in his left hand the thick, shattered head of a swamp rattler. The Army issue 45 disappeared in the right.
He pulled one leg out of the muck and joined DeLeon waist deep in the stream. “Where the Jesus-Christ-almighty were you headed, DeLeon? Why didn’t you follow the ledge?”
Wasn’t that the question? Smoke billowed from Beauchamp’s Havana. Hricko sat sniggering in the mud. McCain and Bottie lasciviously plucked shrimp from their halters. “I was after that one”, he spit, pointing the barrels of the ten-gauge at the head, severed so cleanly by Beauchamp’s wash of grapeshot.
The old fisherman whipped the head far back into the marsh, and slapped his blood-smeared arms. “What the fuck is going on?”
Only two people knew that. DeLeon unloaded the shotgun and buried the stock trigger-deep into the pluff-mud. “For Jesus Christ’s sake, Beauchamp, all this shit and we lose the shrimp?” Nick lunged for the string of lead weights. “Get on the blasted net.” He didn’t care that he was laughing like a maniac, that McCain had given him the eye, or that Hricko had crossed him.
He had been right! As right as he had been slow . . . incautious as the cutter took his pleasure, small things for large. On the spot, he could have wacked Hricko . . . he thought about it . . . for the next twenty minutes, Nick DeLeon became one of the crew.
Their last net yielded only a few surly crabs, the stream drawn down to a trickle. Crushed ice came from the freezers and the wooden baskets of shrimp were loaded into the skiffs. Hricko and Bottie motored Nick and a fresh Partagas back to the Whaler. They got within twenty-five yards, where Nick went over the side into waist deep mud.
“Why suffer, use the shower at my place,” Hricko suggested in the voice of a scarecrow, less a suggestion than a request. None too soon, considering the man was a half step north of the City Station sweat room.
“I’m sure he can manage.” Bottie’s face gave a second opinion.
Hricko was mashing between his teeth a salt-stained Camel straight. The Senator hadn’t been spanked so hard in years, but Hricko wasn’t having all that good of a time. “You’re planning to meet Fila and Tony before coming over, aren’t you Peg?”
“Sure Ben, anything you say.”
Hricko caught a line, and pulled Nick’s Whaler out of the mud. He cruised off, Bottie spitting, pulling on her knickers . . .
By the time Nick had reached the oyster beds, the armada had reassembled at the Shark Hole. A half dozen aluminum skiffs lay strung below the cream and tan shell ledges, heaving forms knee deep in the mud were visible beside each, straw hats and caps, arms and metal shanks bobbing over the water.
No one was closer than Nick. He slowed, and nosed the Whaler into the small cove, driving a column of splintered shell and muck behind him. They were humping crowbars over an enormous stand of oyster trees, prying off those still submerged; swilling from a cask of red that floated next to the runabout. Stuffed burlap bags hung from the ski-board, and Coffee’s nipples were as hard and small and black as pea anthracite.
“Need a lift, sailor, or a date?” Nick fixed on Jet, and ignored the drunken, obscene greeting from Damon Willis. Coffee scrapped a handful of fine, brown crusted silt from above her breasts and wiped it on her cut-offs.
“Captain Ahab’s lost his harpoon.”
Nick had tied the ten-gauge to an outrigger, and was pumping a stream of fresh water from the tanks through the barrels. The stock slapped casually against a line. Coffee leered at Willis, put up her crowbar and grabbed the Whaler’s prow, pulling it close, and threw a spray of water across Nick. He reached over to pull her onboard. “I’ll see what I can find.”
“No thanks detective, if you have to look for it. Damon’s got one with three little barbs. You know like the bears … Papa, Mama and the baby shit-tail still in diapewrs. Are you still in diapers Nicky or do you know how to take your share?” A hardened nipple slipped out of her halter and she strapped it back. “Silly me how that ever slipped out. They never come out, once they find a home.”
Pluff-mud crusted her, neck to knees, and she dove and swam round the boat, coming up spewing salt water and washing brown rivulets from the green halter top. She stood between the hulls, while Willis finished cracking a tree and, splitting off the top shell, tossed the rest into the burlap. “Haven’t talked to Hricko today, have you?” Still dismissing Willis.
“He’s across there, Nick, with his toy boat and the cow.” Coffee swung an arm over the chrome rail. “Lot of good his talk did you today!”
She flopped backward and came up streaming muck. Willis removed a oyster knife from his belt and dug the tip into the flange of the oyster, splitting the shell apart, juice flowing over his hand and dropping silently into the muddy water. He pried the meat loose; the girl, watching both of them, grasped the half shell and pulled it to her upraised face, sucking down the meat as the juice flowed over her face. Then she tossed the shell toward Nick’s Whaler and splashed a handful of dark brine across her face and neck, shaking her head against the sun.
Willis had the look of a god damned savior. “Do you need a telegram, detective?” Fuck off! The girl’s got her company.”
Nick untied the ten-gauge, brought it down and wrapped it in the oilcloth. “And you have mine.”
“Three times your speed DeLeon. No, make that four.”
Damon Willis’ eyes flickered from the girls body to the detectives face. He rested one hand on his hip; the other gripped the handle of the oyster knife and scrapped the blade slowly across his sun burned cheek. Willis returned the blade to its leather sheath and the girl came against him, thighs, breasts, tangles of blond hair pressing into his neck. “Some men take skin; others give it!”
Eyes of the two men locked in an uneven battle, like the marsh surface with the ocean, tides draining life from one into the other. “If I thought that, Damon, I’d spread your guts in the mud right now.” Nick jammed the throttle forward and drove the boat toward the deep water behind the receding line of boats.
Nick moored the Whaler, washed and changed clothes at Hricko’s dock. Tony’s idea, he remembered, a hot water line from house to a shower all built over the redwood decking. Loose-weave bamboo slats provided privacy … privacy didn’t count for much after a beach day, or a day in the swamp. That was one way to see it, what remained under bagman trunks or a womens leather-patch thong. The stall’s open end faced west, toward the swamp and a flagstone pile high tide mostly submerged, but not now. On top, a seven foot swamp rattler indulged the late maroon sun, while Nick scrapped mud from his body.
Shower-head stung cold pellets, no different than those picking tit-to-tail at rows of female bodies Hricko marched through. Bastard. Should be a mans stall … he had hung the leather holster by a stainless bolt, and neither the diamond body of the snake nor the automatic were ever out of view. A single red winged hawk wove paths above the open water beyond the dock; a long beaked fisher waded the shallows between clumps of salt grass.
The broker could come clean plenty, ask forgiveness while he boils . . . he can wait for a confessor . . . he can watch. Maybe so. Like the thick, wedged head followed him. Something about the snake’s eyes, the unsteady flicker, a seeing, sent Nick edging buck naked from the shower. No. It hadn’t moved toward him. The rattler had curled more tightly between the flagstones, drawing back, but it wasn’t drawing him, it was a watcher hidden in plain view. Minds eye could hear the whispers … Nick deserted the dock for the veranda. Tepy hadn’t abandoned her house at all. She didn’t chose him as the caretaker, but she was looking for comfort . . . the old whore. By the time he looked down from the railing, bourbon in one hand, automatic in the other and Panama tipped high on his forehead, only a thin wake of brine trailed from the rocks into the marsh.
Ben Hricko’s Chris Craft appeared an hour later, him covered with mosquito bites and without Bottie. Nick waited on the terrace, in his white linen suit - all but the tie - Wild Turkey was not an option. After a shower, Hricko had more on his mind than booze.
Nick said to him. “Hell Hricko, I almost drowned twice. Once in the net, then against Bottie. Christ, she has big tits. It’s a wonder you don’t suffocate.”
Hricko extracted a Camel straight and pitched his pack onto the marble table. “Smaller than Tepy’s, don’t miss a guess.”
“I didn’t know you had any personal experience?”
“Erlyne was a funny hoe. North Carolina girl, from a holler up near Doe River.” Hricko pulled deep on a long-think roll of weed. “Total immersion snake handling people, when the wailing takes them ; all her family from way back. Presbers, calling themselves Christians, like St Paul, but who knows?” Hricko shook at a pewter jug of martini. Poured two into frosted crystal.
Nick took one … good … dry, very dry and no vodka! “That’s funny Hricko … always took you for a Manichee, not a pew-and-bible church person. Father McClusky needs to know.”
“Erlyne fucked like a whale-eating squid. Tentacles all-round and a PhD in sex.” Hricko hunched forward in the lounge, an earnest gesture, and pushed back the blue bandana that covered his shaven head. Getting the style points early. “Tell the truth? I didn’t don’t care diddly - first hand - about Erlyne’s tits. She was boen and raised an ass-biych and I wasn’t going to change her.”
“Hricko finished his Tanqueray in a gulp and scrapped two more off the pewters bottom. “Think of it … I thought of her as an historical investigation, Nick; think archeology. Think deep social, though more like an accident that I found a professional photo. Hard to escape, place and all? She wanted to sell after I fucked her and I was going to fuck her again , sale or no sale. I call that an accident!”
“Accident my ass. Tell me she wasn’t busy before the grim-reaper put her down. Tell me she gave no clue? Convince me you haven’t housecleaned this place with a toothbrush, a toothpick, X-rays and a metal detector!”
“Erlene wasn’t … completely natural. She was listening to radar, that I never intercepted; for and against preser4ving Isle of Palms from developers. Two antenna, two minds or two masters … know what I mean?”
“No Hricko I don’t. You’re taking like TJ on Salvia, yakking like a loon!”
The broker shrugged, both uncertain for the exchange and non-committal. “Beauchamp’s the radar guy.”
“Throw in Kranic. There’s your ECM team. And if you don’t like that one, how about Beauchamp, Hricko and Coffee?”
“That first fella’s smart, enough, but the other two couldn’t piss straight in a pot. You don’t get tired, Nick, do you?”
“I feel like I’ve been in the Whaler for a week; give me a reason.”
Hricko pulled slowly on the Camel straight, admitting nothing. But he did stand up and walk across the deck. “Careful woman, Erlyne Tepy. Top of her profession, so to speak. She must have been more afraid of her friends than her enemies, those not on top.”
Hricko made a point, tapped on the redwood plank that he and Vitalle had nailed into the terrace floor. Nick knew how it felt . . . he rose and shuffled along the new wood to an edge closest the rail. “Damage out there, too, and some new boards. Don’t remember that in the initial police report, but we probably missed bunches. I missed it last week. I can’t imagine you missed any.”
“Relative thing, what needs to go and what stays. Got to make sure the fix doesn’t do more harm than what you live with.”
Nick’s voice dropped a tone. “Yes, careful repair, but not with the local product. Did you and Tony find anything that can do harm?”
Hricko moved away dreamlike … stoned … cosmic … and sat down heavily beside the marble table. “Erlyne got one thing right,” Hricko jabbed at a thin stream of cigaret smoke. “A person moves to the Island, grabs a piece, and then has to decide if anything else means shit. Erlyne didn’t give the worst answer.”
Nick stood over him, hands in pockets and he talked out loud. “Just a mite slow on the draw, the old whore. Some man might conclude he needs to act more quickly, get the fangs in first. Move outside the law. Just about that time, Hricko, the man’s on my last nerve. I do a steady business, given the right information.”
Hricko didn’t flinch. “And if some item did come to mind?”
“Then that person shouldn’t think too much, shouldn’t try to plan . . . for me. I might take that person the wrong way . . . turn him inside out.”
“An unpleasant turn of events, no doubt. Now that person . . . if an item . . . appears, if I found such an item, it’s yours on the condition that I never saw it, and you can’t remember where you got it.”
“Maybe so. Does Bottie need protection?”
“Like you say, Nick, she has incredible tits.”
A faint blue shadowed the deck. Nick checked his Rolex and motioned toward the stairs. Hricko waved him ahead, then reconsidered. “I’m for the salt water, soaking the mosquito bites. Want to come?”
“Sorry Ben. The wife has us at a dinner party. Another day.”
“Soon, better than later. Give Tony a call.”
“Mind if I leave the Whaler here, and borrow the Triumph?”
“It’s yours. Key’s on the kitchen table; third is a bitch.”
Hricko watched with grim satisfaction as Nick roared down Forest Trail Drive. He had taken the ten-gauge; Nick, close to the killer. No one had died recently. The Irishman’s show started at seven PM. Hricko stripped to a Speedo and jogged toward the beach. He had thirty minutes to beat the shark’s evening patrol across the first line of breakers.
Thea sucked hard enough on Regan’s split lip to make him howl. Little enough time to soak it in gin. Had the fight been won? Didn’t matter, said Hricko. Regan had his shots and the Greek had gone down. But, Christ-on-a-cross, Petrakis punched like a mule. Had the fight started well? They had agreed, him and Hricko, that either a woman or money would satisfy the men.
After the fight ended, Regan had wasted no time mounting the Bunzetti woman. He led her quickly up the stairs, to the bedroom overlooking the fires and stripped her, spread the paste white thighs as easily as a knife opens a bubbling oyster shell. She flailing her legs above his head while he clamped her mouth. Not a public thing to enjoy, her pleasure. Her nipples had shrunk to hard, inflamed little buttons, and her ass sucked on him, pumped him so hard that she could have blown him up. He slapped her around some, tits and ass then banged her again and she screamed.
He finished slow, and when he finished she rolled away and curled up around a pillow, like a baby. Regan went to the sink, then to the open window. She wasn’t bad, some days, but he needed the gin. Working pussy to the bone in no way cleared the Irishman’s guilt, because a fair fight never started for a reason.
He pulled the bottle of Tanquery from the rack and filled two small plastic glasses. Gave one to Thea, who was pleading for another go, and watched as Jet Coffee and the grifter Willis stalked through the fires and out into the dunes. He could tell an epic, the way people stalked. Those two were trailing lust, him looking all ways but the woman at him; the darlin’ girl had certainteed an unsure man. Earlier the couples - Fila and Tony, Ben and the Bottie woman - had offed north into the dunes, rather than south. All four had picked their way; like their talking thereafter, pick, pick, pick.
A stiff, prowling onshore wind had held back the fog. Isle of Palm front beach shown clear under crescent and star, flooded with the ocean’s reflection. Raped by the shining, the image rousing him, the Irishman glowing with a lunatics rant. “Right between them boys, like splitting the lady’s arse. Between the blocks! Not on them. Yer don’t lay it on top when you lather, do you boys?”
Cars emptied randomly into either bar, grog poured and drunk, grog pissed they spewed patrons with a first hard buzz onto the wet, low tide bottom. “Layer them lad, oak and pine. That’s it, pine on the bottom. No. Not the cedar plank; here, give it to me, we’re not roasting bloody marshmallows. Now on the gas. Don’t mind losing a little.”
Both Comber and Jammer suffused an orange glow from windows and doors thrown wide open. Drift-wood blazes dotted the surrounding dunes. Regan bawling orders like the crazed captain he had never been. Like the provocateur.
He had given TJ charge of the cooking. Evening beach-wind caught the flames and whipped them in a roaring inferno out all sides of the hearth. They shot so high that Ben Hricko, two miles down the beach and retreating in the face of cruising black fins, could make out the blue fringed tips licking at the sky.
Men sweated and drank, while Regan swore insistently. “Never trust food to a woman or fire to one of the Greeks.”
At seven-thirty, Thea Bunzetti drove up to the Jammer in Regan’s pick-up. The Chevy carried several young women, bushels of raw shrimp and burlap bags filled with oysters.
Regan saw her and bellowed. “TJ, you dumb shit, get those friggin’ new logs off the fires. We not eating pine-spit. Now you can put a sheet over it, when it boils the rock. No! Not the galvanized - we won’t plate your gizzard, will we hearties.”
Gloved hands shuffled the metal in place, and the colors shook themselves loose, sheets glowing red, then orange, and finally an evil, all consuming white.
Regan shouted to Thea. “Get the bags over here girl, spill them on the sand. We won’t eat them raw like the bloody Jews, will we Thea.”
Beer cans were emptied onto the sheet, and the liquid steamed, beaded and vaporized. TJ began to dig into the mound of oysters and pitch then onto the glowing surface. “Jet Coffee, you can see to the shrimp. Two minutes, not a second more, and since the man’s measuring your ass so well, cup and a quarter of white. That’s a shovel TJ like yer own? Then bury it to the hilt in them beauties. Work the rake for him, Nikki, or you’ll stay a maid.”
Brine immediately vaporized into blue mist. When the layer of shell reached a foot, the shoveling stopped and burlap bags thrown over the top, these doused with beer and salt water, and the layer of shells transformed to a sizzling heap. Gloved hands ripped the first oysters out of the steam and the eating began.
At that moment, Wheeler Petrakis had stormed out of the Comber, and blind-sided the Irishman. Found a rib with his hobnail. Regan came up faster and meaner than he went down. Dodged another boot, planted an elbow in Wheeler’s ear, and turned the Greek’s face into a bloody pulp.
Did the Irishman grope the Petrakis’ girl, no first time success either, or was she after him in a dark corner of the Jammer patio? Was the oak firewood that both men paid for burned under the oysters? Few had come early enough to witness the scuffle, and among those, the cause and extent never became a matter for agreement. That the two bar owners had to be pulled apart - was the outside couple, Damon Willis and his blond chick that first threw themselves between - still clawing at each other and punching wildly was not in dispute. Afterward, the big men forced the owners to a settlement, and the eating continued to the last bottle of Coors.
As the onshore wind died and black found the purple sky, fingers of mist crept east from the marshes along the Intercoastal Waterway. Back Island homes washed to grey. Then, tentatively eastward, following behind ghosts of old dunes that once favored even the Island’s center with soft, sea-oat covered waves. Palms, yards and houses were consumed one by one in the advancing fog, and disappeared so gently that even the constant watch found uncertain what had appeared solid just a minute before. The inlets remained bare, except for an adhering film, as if the advancing tide wished to conquer its space alone.
The two couples had eaten together, early and sparingly, and moved toward the beach. Without intention, or at least without plan, Vitalle held most of the conversation, Peg Bottie the pointed subject, Hricko rambling answers vaguely relevant to the mood of his interrogator. Vitalle certain Hricko had screwed up in the only way that mattered. Tony had driven them deep into the dunes with a simple question. “I know you guys are having fun and all, but seriously, Ben, isn’t Ms. Bottie here a bit old to be shacking up?”
Taken by the directness, Hricko had neither moved closer to Peg nor pulled away, but assumed a mock detachment, while an unruly confidence played at the corners of his mouth. “Woman is seduced, Tony, plain and simple. Two parts Island style, point for the Triumph, seven for the . . . bong. She’s overwhelmed; how can I blame her?”
Tony admitted as much, pure bullshit, but when Ben turned toward his friend, a wisp of fog had curled around the wide body, and his features smoothed to an uncertain, wet blur from which only the voice escaped. “You’re crazy, catting around like a kid, unless you’ve been taking those injections.”
“Awkward time for us to worry about medication.” Hricko waited for Vitalle to clear the mist. “We have patients from the swamp to the tree-line, and Christ knows how far beyond that. Dose by the day, week . . .”
“At the time, who asked to play shaman?”
Now together, plowing a dune-side. “Healer, doctor, shaman . . . I don’t remember asking you twice.”
“Deceiver.” Tony said ironically. “What happened to the simple, natural life?”
“We had our fill of those damn-lies. Told me it just wore down on you; you know what it did to me. Peggy would understand . . . she would . . .”
“So we do what . . . try to make to right for the girls; keep half a life?
“I fixed things up, mostly, wouldn’t you say? Got the new floor boards nailed in; yard work half done. Time for some optimism.”
“No more cooking?” Hricko was silent. No more of your stories, Hricko, about pieces of time that vanish before they exist?”
“I can see the future again. What the hell, Tony, I may buy a new couch.”
Moonlight, uncertain, hazy like tarnished silver, reflected from breakers and pulled them forward to the beach. Their path through the dunes had been wandering, careless, but had been protected by a certain watchfulness on the part of the two women. They had hardly spoken while the men carried on a kind of negotiation with the past, so it seemed to Peg Bottie. Debtors, possibly, to a weird memory that contrived not in the present but the future.
They walked as far out onto the sand as the evanescent bubbles, beautiful as the two women, Vitalle and Hricko thought. Like a Montana daybreak over the wheel or a converging power series. Confused marsh spirits wrapped about them, couples arm-in-arm.“For what its worth, eh Ben?”
A single black fin sliced the rolling surface of a nearby breaker, and drove the couples back toward the fog shrouded glow of the Jammer. Bottie and Hricko lagged. She with the invitation, Hricko romancing a stone.
Perhaps he noticed them, or was the last to notice the stealthy onset of night. He sat in a disused gazebo, some ten feet above the sand and fifty yards from the fire. Perhaps he had appeared unrecognized - white on white for the wood had bleached cream - to one of the couples that had retreated from the shrinking edge of wet sand. Motionless, he felt neither concern nor, as the time had moved slowly, any special hope.
Some two hours earlier, Nick had driven away from Ben Hricko’s place and roared onto Palm Boulevard, intent on dinner with his wife. He was tired as death, and had gotten as far as the Breach Inlet bridge, passed over the restless, oily curls mostly hidden by the dusk, when a cold hand had wrenched at the wheel and spun the Triumph off the asphalt. He turned the car around and pulled into Bacci. For a moment he faced the sea, but Nick was not a man to be taken by the rough flows or to contemplate beauty, unseen or otherwise.
He locked the shotgun in the trunk. Measured the decision and smoothed the bulge in his white linen jacket. A line of pick-ups drew into the parking, and behind them he dodged across the road, swung over the bridge railing and down to the water. He chambered a shell into the Browning. Breathless, working east from Breach Inlet along the beach.
The gazebo confronted him just south of the Jammer. Badly weathered, unkept, un-cared for during a short tourist season. No doubt, since the connected beach house was unlit. From his cover, the fire appeared a kind of opening into hell, and the revelers, the unknowing damned. But only for one, he reminded himself. That is, only for three. He lightly rubbed the stainless steel ball in his elbow, and settled down for a watch.
Wanderers, the passers by, the lovers sifted into the detectives view. The scattered, rolling banks of fog winnowing the couples like so much chafe in a mill, separating them from the dull orange glow and casting them into the night. None saw him, though their weaving paths often approached, smiling shared secrets just beyond his hearing, but always they turned off along another dune, or carried beyond, toward the crashing breakers, or reflected from the deepening mist and returned to the light. Sometimes cigarets glowed, marking an uncertain trail; sometimes the voices came loudly. He imagined couples clutched in the swirls of mist.
However many of these forms, real and wished for he did not know, or how long each remained as company, though the Rolex ticked faithfully. But the harsh, guttural voice twice heard below a whimpering cry of pleasure, above the creme-ice breakers, and not so far as two dozen steps already found the safety catch released on the Browning; his hand fondling the cold, pearled handle. Sounds of feet shuffling, staggering, through the soft uncertain sand, and the voices now louder, one insistent, the other a series of pleadings, a woman’s voice, insistent.
Nick rose. Thought about it. Privacy is one thing … he had the third floor hoes-nest and the Ta Ching when heat took them and he and Eve got crazy. But, now? Two shapes flickered, then vanished. He stepped down the ladder and moved toward the sounds, feet burying deep in the sides of the dune as also his awareness, burying deep in the coupled voices. He judged them a second rise away, closer the beach and within those uncertain swirls of fog that at once blotted out everything, only to release them next moment; he would find them before he was seen. He blinked away an image, a speck of wind, Kiri in silk and lavender and ivory toys. What would he tell her? Forms though a mist curtain, as a womens figure slashed at a mans and he cried out in pain. Lust or a lust for life! A quick cry of pain followed by a bleating sexual frenzy brought him above a sharp rise of sand. Nick’s eyes followed the barrel of the Browning as it sighted over the crest and into a low, whipping straggle of sea oats.
Sounds of flesh beating upon flesh , the rude thudding muscle makes were louder now, though a roll of fog had totally obliterated any form.
A last stinging cry and, momentarily, the fog swirled round, cast away, revealing the bodies locked in desperate rutting. The woman knelt forward, face jammed into the sand and lips gasping hopelessly to the side. Damon Willis rode the bitch from behind, pulling her up toward him by leather straps which bound her wrists above the small of her back.
Whether by a sound, or a random twist of his face, or the dead evil line of steel between Nick’s eye and the center of the man’s head, Damon Willis eyes jerked up into his. Unbounded hate traveled that line, penetrated the vision of each man and numbed the brain behind each forehead. For a last time, the man’s hand found the wet little button beneath Jet Coffee’s navel, searched it out, exploring, and driving her face deeper; she never wanted him to stop, so the dry unspoken lips trembled and repeated. Never wanted the world to stop spinning into that delicious pit.
Willis reach onto the sand, jerking the oyster knife from a leather sheath, and with it, ripped open the leather straps that bound her hands. He rose jamming her body into the dune, and slapped her ass so hard that the dune crackled with the retort, echoed by a muffled cry not so much of pain but of release. Without hesitation, or pausing to consider the woman, he stepped into the loose cutoffs that lay beside him, lit a cigarette and fired the stream of smoke toward the steel barrel of Nick’s Browning. Willis spun around and stepped toward the dim glow of the Jammer. Another moment and he vanished.
As Nick approached the girl, she stretched her body along the sand, and rolled over. Wincing, she unknotted the strips of leather from her wrists and threw them carelessly over the dark top of the dune. She wiped sand from her mouth and drank from a rose-colored flask that lay beside her side. She tossed it away, and drew her thighs up on either side of a perfect, golden cunt and gave him a perplexed and perplexing look.
“You won’t tell anyone that I’ve been bad, will you detective? I’d do anything to keep this a secret.”
Nick stared for a moment, too long a moment and too damned bad. He slipped the linen jacket over the leather holster, removed his wallet from a breast pocket, and threw the jacket at the girl. “You could do better!”
“Any girl prefers to do worse!” Coffee lay quivering under chill fingers, slippery, long old wisps of fog. She fashioned the jacket over her bare shoulders and sat up, cross-legged in the smashed bed of sea-oats. A caustic leer turned her lips as he took a final step toward her. “Try me!”
“Sorry; homework keeps me busy!” Nicks Italian leather shoes scoffed at the dune-grass. “Fairchild wasn’t enough. The Columbian small beans. Coffee’s in the mill now.” The pun unintended; Nick spit.
Red-eyed and cheeked Coffee responded. “Don’t be a sore loser, Nick, unless you’ve got nothing to give.”
Nick swallowed his gorge and piled through the sand toward the beach and the long, useless walk to Breach Inlet.
For three days, the family of waterspouts traced an erratic, westerly course along a latitude of fifteen degrees. Frequently degenerate, the track was in every way typical of such disturbances. That one night, for a long second, it had boiled surface water did not matter. Rarely had the winds rotating at the center reached forty knots. A meaningless, late season tropical depression that was bound to be lost at sea to a larger, northerly low pressure trough or the stiff upper winds that blew east OVER THE FROSTED MOUNTAINS from the coastal waters of Chile.
Unremarkably, the storm center had passed just south of a sixty foot, blue water cruiser out of Marseilles, FEM-deJour had fallen behind and then again passed to the north, as if playing tag with the orange and blue spinnaker set to catch the uneven gusts. Before the evening meal, the young captain had been seized by horrid fear of drowning, strapped wife and child below, and rigged storm sails and sea anchor. An hour later, a single thirty foot surge washed over the cruiser’s bow, burying the deck and sweeping away the watch.
FEM would be lucky to hail port again. Two salts lost, the navigator and mastman. Though the captain quickly reported an easting rogue wave to the Barbados weather station four hundred miles to the east, coordinates were mistyped on reception, amplified a coding error that placed such traveling wave somewhere splitting Diego Isle middle of the Indian Ocean.
Early Monday morning, the depression stalled sixty miles north-east of Barbados. Winds dropped to twenty-five knots and the depression, now masked by a series of local rainstorms wandered randomly north, faithfully trailed by the sustaining 15 cubic hectari hot-water bubble at 30 meters as if searching for the edge of the Antilles Current and a new chance at life.
Fall rains swept in from the ocean, first part of the week, and older residents of Isle of Palm accounted the Island for trying to douse its own fires. Never mind that few attended the Irishman’s party. Evening football, you know, and the married women had family cares. Who rabble-roused? Twas the young ones, all right, haircut remiss and the barstool politicians - too many by a hundred this close to the election – those and the rich north beach faces entitled to a hearing that caused all the heat. But among the absent, who wouldn’t listen when a neighbor spilled with details of the brawl between the two esteemed candidates for mayor? Like the 30s’, when a few communists come down from Columbia trying to suck Nigger tit. Modern bloody fists put an Irishman against a Greek? Hell.
The few wrecks still floating from the Great Depression recalled that impulsive fight in 1935; that, a bare-knuckle brawl between Charlestons Mayor and the Isle of Palm sheriff, one Silas Moffit. Seemed the Mayor had brought over some Beaufort KKKers to campaign for Roosevelt, but Moffit was not one to have any lynchings on his island, no more than he would tolerate a whorehouse next to the Baptist Church. Moffit ran off the Klan with his carbine, but the Mayor got personal treatment under the old Breach Inlet bridge; Went back to Charleston in a buggy and couldn’t have made it otherwise.
That story would get the women clucking, those that maintained a patience to the end, and continue with the mayor-to-be, Mr. Regan. Moffit may have gone home to a bowl of fish stew, but Regan it seemed was dipping his spoon in an entirely different chowder. Serves them right, those that would mix the races, the clucking would continue. Next, the faggots from Sullivan’s Island would want to mud-wrestle city council, like them people down from Canada at Myrtle Beach.
But isn’t it a shame some nice colored boy gets mixed up with high society Charleston trash? Nancy-bois .. lots of ‘em. Wasn’t it worse that for spite between the Greek and Regan, you could hardly share your evening at front beach, with the construction men at the Comber, and the Jammer fisherman both talking trash and neither talking much to each other.
Bad feelings showed up at Monday night football, when the two groups squared off during half-time. Big men, too, that you didn’t want to get between. A fight had started between a welder and a trawlers-mate in the walkway between the bars. Some face caught a first, but THAT part ended real quick. Isle of Palm got the worst of it. Sheriff Bunzetti’s left arm took twenty stitches to repair. Perhaps a young woman was involved; parents didn’t much like daughters on either side. Not much material for making grandchildren when the men were serious drunk and mean, and paid no mind to the women, no matter how good they looked.
How serious were the feeling? Serious enough, that on Wednesday morning, Deputy Bunzetti had phoned Charleston City detective DeLeon to report Wheeler Petrakis in a black rage, sharing fighting words and promises of revenge with anyone who would listen. A crowd had gathered outside the firehouse. “I know two men bust his face, and three strap concrete to his knees. Four!”
Sam Johnson chewed vaguely on Bunzetti’s alarm, listening beside DeLeon with the newly installed speaker-phone. Within an hour of the Bunzetti-DeLeon chat, Isle of Palm police dispatcher had gossiped it to her three sisters, and from them to the entire Island. Beneath the gossip, darker hints endured. Of goings on in the dunes, under the cover of what most thought an un-naturally dense, early fog. Talk of revels, spells, cantations and witchcraft; sacrifices to dark eldrich beings known third hand. Of women wandering loose in the sand long after the last oyster had been shucked or the last can of Coors crushed into the hot red coals.
A most confused problem, Regan’s curse, with bills come due beyond the rowdies. No more thank you Ma’am, as North Beach women canvassed for Wheeler Petrakis. Girls from good families attending expensive colleges stopped writing. A marriage failed. No casual invitations and long, unplanned stops for tea and cookies at the cottages west of station twenty-nine.
Kranic let it be known by his count, not as many of the well-to-do dames were trying. By Wednesday morning two flag-and-fin swinging melees had been recorded; the two camps had become blood enemies, and peaceful Isle of Palm swirled in an eddy of suspicion, fear and hate. Front Beach deserted of nine-AM alcoholics, waiting for the bars to open; no spare police-car to take them home. Doors locked against neighbors, and each house or cottage an armed camp.
Shifts of the outside world had not overlooked the Island. Twin brothers joined the Navy, not the Marines and canvas on their 28-foot daysailor was ripped. Locals watched the southern storm, for a melancholy appeared briefly in its lateness, a temporary remembering of peaceful times. At City Station, Sam saw it as quickly as he did, running far ahead of Bunzetti. Bottie had moved her total support to the Irishman by sharing a phone-bank manned by 30 Negro women in a converted Vanderhorst St saloon. Slippery power over-extended. A bottle of gasoline found a back window and the phones stopped ringing. Nick busted the play in five minutes, and for one person, Bottie’s shift was intolerable.
“Gotta spit, DeLeon, before you cut another plug.”
At the sixth minute, Nick had the lez call Wheeler Petrakis, and Sam Johnson stopped chewing.
“All four, huh, knife cuts, leather and signature the same. Get that intern to swear on his frat-house ring, DeLeon? What’s more than certain? I could taste it.”
Sam couldn’t drink the lez’ coffee and chew at the same time, and Nick was thankful for that. This morning, he had dumped everything he knew in his partner’s lap, and everything he thought he knew, and the man kept chewing. Then Bunzetti. “Signature the same; that’s new.”
“Frank knows . . .?”
“Only the two of us, Sam and the intern, and we won’t be certain . . . for a while.”
Sure, he felt guilty for holding back, like he was the Holy City’s man. The man, and he was walking the talking now. He intended lean porks and meant to bust chops fat or grizzled! Ol’ farmers knew the lingo and it passed among the suburban pastures. Sam was so short-time he couldn’t shave the hairs, but better late . . . especially since Bunzetti’s warning, and that’s what Nick understood.
Johnson’s forehead wrinkled. “Enrico cost you a chop, huh.” He raised an eyebrow and might have grinned. “Chasing down the help still jelly. Wioka and Hricko, though, top of the chart?” Johnson spiraled a crushed paper cup into the trash; wondering what his partner hadn’t told Captain Marsh. “The broker never admitted screwing her.”
“Didn’t volunteer the information; I’d put it that way. Wanted me interested in the Wioka Land Company.”
“And you blues-cry’n about the lady-friend, all that come to.” The big man’s sigh was audible and pathetic, sympathetic, cruel. “Why not Hricko?”
“Because he has no known connection to the first two girls.”
“I ain’t say’n he did! My meaning is what he allowed, what got away from him.”
Considering that put the broker’s own tiredness into the detective. “Because I’d shoot him dead on his own cherry floor, if he killed Fairchild.”
“Could have done that Sunday, my man, you talking so hard and righteous. Oh yes, but that Coffee girl show you some justice.” Not a snigger in Johnson’s face, but he was looking intense. “She don’t want you to cool down.”
“I’ll deal hard with Hricko, after . . .”
Sam Johnson laughed mean and low. “You’re gettin’ there Nick, right to the belly’s fire-edge, close to the man, and one righteous nigger’s telling you that!”
Nick went to the window and looped his fingers through the metal screen. “You don’t suspect Petrakis?”
“Don’t be lettin’ that fine little tush tug you along.”
A troll ignored. “He has all the motives.”
“He’s a perpetrator, DeLeon, with his right hand; that’s all the killer that family can manage.” Nick turned, but Johnson waved him off. “Don’t tell me about Alex; you still living! Live forever if you do Wheeler proper.”
“Maybe so. I can’t forget, Alex came to a bad end, and damned if he wasn’t the help.”
“He tripped, Nick, got hung up like your fingers in those wires; think about him like that.” The detective involuntarily jumped back from the window, but Johnson stood by to catch him. Chewing again on the fat jowls while he opened the office door and the clean October air from the fire exit flooded the room with sweetness. “You got your accident, your money killer and your crazy. And then you’ve got pure evil, DeLeon, what should be on you mind. Takes something extra to get that one. You’re close.”
City Station would not do, so they settled on the Anson Street restaurant. A certain grim justice prevailed, he decided. Whether Wheeler cared anymore or not, his brother Alex had come a hands-breath away from dying here, in the second story bar, instead of along the Ashley River marsh. Twist was, since the brother’s death, the Greek deli had become quite chic with a lunch crowd of businessmen and lawyers filling the booths set against high, smoked glass windows. Fila often ate here.
“You’re a cobra among rats.” Nick tried to sooth her, but for days Fila appeared distracted, nervous at any change in routine. A storm flag raised without a wind. “At least this isn’t Hricko’s idea.”
“Stopped doing his laundry long ago ...” Sorrowful. She turned from him to idle at the convoluted, wrought-iron grill that decorated the front second story. “I think Tony and Ben need to talk with you.”
“They mean it!”
“Isn’t that a change.”Is that why Vitalle sent you? Amateur hour getting old?”
He had never spoken to the twin like this, but the insult did not return. She slipped through his trapping, wispy, controlled. “Listen to the Greek, because the person behind him is no amateur. Can’t you feel it, Nicholas, the unraveling?”
“I’m not a tailor. You and Sam must talk.”
They entered the back way, on black iron stairs leading up from the alley. Nick found a table beside the brick corner wall. Fila sat next to him, but pushed away, positioned off the light-cone from the admirals lamp, arms folded across the hem of her short black skirt. Nick scanned for Petrakis and noticed only the blond working an ancient brass register. A polished mahogany bar extended to their left, and clear lines of fire would have existed to both entrances had the eatery not been packed with the best silk suits in Charleston. “Wheeler thinks his story tells smoother than Bens’.”
“Then I’ll sweat the bastard, until the oil seeps out of his ass.”
Sweating and listening did not seem all that different to Nick. Petrakis approached, and Nick rose to exchange a cold handshake. Fila responded to Wheeler with only the smallest nod - Nick had certain responsibilities.
“Generous of you, Mr Petrakis, to find the time.”
“Think nothing of it, detective DeLeon. Your Sargent is persuasive beyond her calling, whatever that might be. What can I do for Charleston’s finest?”
“You’re all business today, my Greek friend. I bet Willis is pissed at you for getting out of hand so fast.”
“Oh, the affair with Regan? Damon makes mistakes, without question. None of my supporters think the worst about two men having a difference.”
Nick caught the look from Fila. Some one had taught the mugger table manners. Petrakis, as politician, had changed from a frog to a snake, a cool, coiled one compared to the brother. How could they come out of the same womb, or was it an egg? Nick had no more tolerance for Wheeler than he had felt for Alex, and now, Nick had a prod. “I understand he dropped you twice.”
“Regan’s still sucking blood from his lungs.” Petrakis left ear glowed a purplish, ruby-red, though the swelling no longer covered the fringe of early grey hair. “No chance Bottie’s going to drop you too, because of Hricko? They’re a hot item, and you know where Hricko stands.”
“Detective, I’ll be happy to chat politics some evening. After the election. I believe you have some questions relevant to the murder of my waitress, Ms. Fairchild.”
“Yes, Wheeler, there is a question, or rather two questions, concerning Deb Fairchild. Not impositions, I trust, on any confidential business matters.”
Nick turned to his companion. “Fila. Can you order another round?”
“Allow me, detective, my pleasure.” Petrakis snapped his fingers, and a small, olive faced man crossed the stained oak floor with a bottle of Wild Turkey and another crystal tumbler. Nick lit Fila’s Camel straight and a thin stream of smoke poured across the cone of light. Twelve year old bourbon crackled over ice. Service at the Greeks had gone to hell. Nick did not intend to see it improve. “The question, Wheeler, really concerns Fairchild’s employment here, before she started to work at the Comber. But I hope you can first tell me her relationship to Erlyne Tepy?”
A subservient glow ringed the Greek’s polished face. “I didn’t really know Ms. Tepy well, detective. A business woman, certainly. She may have brought some of her, ah, clients in for a late night drink, but she provided no services to the deli.”
“No personal contact, either, I’m sure.”
“She of course was a feature on State Street for some years . . . Ms. Tepy, I believe, had recently changed professions. Found a core of off-shore investors. You may question their … their motives, but not their money! Didn’t she have her own restaurant in North Charleston?”
DeLeon mused at the bourbon. “Poisoning truckers; populating Miami penicillin-resistent VD clinics!” Enough machine-gun thought the detective. “Monastery nuns say Erlyne handled Easter-Egg deliveries for you on Isle of Palm. That you bought the Comber not as a dump for old-lamb, but only because Erlyne dead could no longer mule the real product. And by-damn-me your slippery product had to be moved.”
An oily sweat had broken across Petrakas forehead. “Now detective DeLeon, what product might that be?”
Slick as hash oil. Nick thought he had a question that would bite right through the Greek’s unctuous smile. “Did Tepy ever come in with Deb Fairchild?”
“Come in? I don’t do business on the street!”
“That’s smart Wheeler, sharp as a clam. I mean, were they lovers?”
“We both know that such was not Ms. Tepy’s preference. Dabbled, perhaps, but certainly not in public. Many of her clients preferred an old fashion, not to say disciplined style.”
“Was Deb Fairchild an old fashion kind of girl?”
Petrakis worked at a small scab behind his ear, like a smithy fixing a dent. The sweet smell never left him, bourbon drained to the ice, an anxious twitching at the corners of his lips. “She worked the cash register, made out orders, did end-of-the day totals. Quick with numbers, and kept her mouth shut around the customers. A good worker. Too bad she got mixed up with that SOB shit. Ruined Nikki with it too, but Fairchild never stole a nickel from me. That’s the bottom line.”
“She didn’t do any errands, to help that line? Like midnight specials to a certain brick building on Utility? Everybody needs food for the soul.”
“Ask me about cobblestone alleys? I have no idea what you are talking about. You might speak to some of your compatriots at City Station, or your old friend, Sargent Dolrun.”
“Fairchild never got delivered there by Erlyne! Salt and pepper for that customer with special tastes.”
“Foolishness. What devils the woman may have served, or whomever she served up Ms. Tepy never played the Madam.” A certain dryness creased the Greek’s mouth. Some uncertainty, and a glance into the slits of Fila’s eyes. With effort, Petrakis refocused on the lamp above the table. “Call her a witch not a businesswoman.”
“And you would know,” muttered the detective.
Petrakis sneered at the words. “Confusing the two women is hopeless. Your mistake. Only in your mind was Fairchild an innocent, but she picked her own companions, treaded a slippery path and paid for her own recreations.”
DeLeon, harshly. “Did Damon Willis meet her here?”
“Ask him. I don’t keep track of his blonds. No offense to your companion, but it’s well known he prefers the taste of darker flesh.”
“But he keeps track of your campaign money; keeps a tight grip on those Wioka Land Company bucks.”
“Willis’ boss supports my election, as a loyal Republican should.”
Petrakis dangled by the short ones. Try as the family might, when Nick worked on them hard enough, any one of the vipers, the slime oozed from his heart. Petrakis would pass the message on, and Nick would make sure he carried a gut-shot. “As Bottie did, until Hricko started nailing her.”
Wheeler, now flashing beads of olive sweat. “I have the money!”
“He’s a man who likes to squeeze, isn’t he Wheeler. Got to be tough on a man like you. Willis always comes first.”
“What does Bottie’s white piece of shit tell me? How do you know, DeLeon? Fuck you!”
“Willis talks to Hricko, and to the Island cunt. Doesn’t miss even one, Wheeler. Not a hole.”
“He doesn’t know his own shit. Neither do you.” Wheeler Petrakis jumped up from his chair, grabbed the half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey, and let it splatter on the floor and a few drops spattered the heel of DeLeons expensive Italian loafers.
“Do better Petrakas!”
The Greek swung around, glaring at Fila. “Your twin tricks like a child who has already lived beyond his years.” He straightened and turned to the detective. “Perhaps that is all, detective DeLeon. Drinks on the house.” With a practiced spite, he walked across the room to the small door behind the bar. Fila did not ignore a step until he vanished, and even after, silent, till his taste also became small.
Her silent fury. “Is that what you wanted to do, Nicholas? Roust him like a drunk?” Fila had not taken to his questioning of the Greek.
He grinned at her. “Not him. Bottie’s done worse than I ever could.”
“But the family’s anger will go against you, and beyond you . . .”
“Is Wheeler the city person?” Why did the twin look through him like an orphan?
“Was the Columbian Beauchamp’s!” She touched an ear, heard nothing.
Nick said. “Sure Fila. I’m ready for Vitalle and Hricko.” Fila led Nick out along ivy-green walls to a Market Street from which the afternoon sun had disappeared, fleeing before a reef of high grey that rolled from the south.
Beauchamp lugged a black, billowing cloud from the Havana, while scanning the blank radar screen. Navigating a trawler, God’s own work.
“Bring it up to twenty knots, Davy,” he called to the 2nd Mate. New gaskets were worth extra gas. The trawler lurched for’ard.
“Twenty-one and counting,” snarked the mate.
Damned straight! “Find a manetee and run it down! Hahaha...” Good attitude for a boat’s captain tonight - through a narrow, muddy channel, silt distorting the sonar, eyes tricking among the buoy lights - one even the McCain girl could appreciate, once she got her stomach back from the sea . . . his hand rested comforting on her shoulder. A wonder, Beauchamp noted, that either woman could tolerate Cuban cigars, though the ring of Virginia-blend smoke never left her lips.
Astern in the ship channel, a freighter’s lights dimmed; sharp scatters of raindrops smacked into the surrounding glass. Seven foot swells and a stiff south wind chop had followed them from Edisto Island to the mouth of Charleston Bay. That brine chop sent the woman beside him to the rail. Green bile, stench .. weak stomack, but the two worse hours lay behind them! Now he babied the diesels, feeling between the shoals and tidal flats of James Island, smelling ferns and pine, laural and bramble and the stinking marl .
Every hull between Beauchamp and his dock a fool: the lovers anchored in day-sailors, night fisherman gigging flounder, and the Law. Beauchamp would have driven them to the Bay’s muddy bottom. Not that tonight he needed the Coast Guard duty-bound cruising for contraband. Not with HIS boat four-hundred kilos south of the law, and that didn’t count the vials of refined hash oil. Oil was her’s, of course, rather than his. For Beauchamp’s taste, too many hands on the product, too much scum on the buyer. Definitely a woman’s game. Make not a year of difference in the brig, though, if the cutter came sniffing. One bark from its 37 mm dog and this possum got treed and skinned. In two decades of the trade, and a decade of the woman’s business, Beauchamp never once figured it different.
Smuggling in through the freighter traffic, grandfather’s old trick. The cutter, tonight, patrolling north of Bull’s Island. A pox on Hricko and Jerry and all that flowed between them. Sonar sniffed at a reef; he tacked south and dove toward the string of lights. “Any signal from a cutter,” he queried?” Used Navy detection units, but savy at that; illegal; expensive.
Beauchamp’s sixty foot shrimper, Temptation’s Lady, crawled past the blue water boats at the head of Shem Creek. Eight PM, and all had returned early from the Gulf Stream. Behind that dark line, lights from his own restaurant sparkled, and then also passed in the boat’s wash. He reversed the prop. Beyond the restaurant, among his own hulls, he eased the Lady to a sullen, shadowed wharf.
Beauchamp’s spotlight found two men. One quickly stepped away from the cinder-block building to set the lines. The second sank further into the lee. Sheri McCain swore softly to the second woman. No guts to the Greek; that’s also the way Beauchamp saw it. Same for his brother, may the soul brew slowly in hell. He flicked off his spotlight and the dock started briskly to life.
No unnecessary noise, no unusual quiet. Doors flew open in the warehouse, and a half-dozen men leapt across the wooden planking. Winches ground on steel cable. Beauchamp clicked on the CB and police scanner, and tossed the Montechristo into a conch. The women had gone below. Pallets of shrimp flew up from the hold and swung onto the dock. Every other one a full load. Wooden crates moved from the cabin, across the dock and into a waiting Ford pick-up, while opened cans of Coors flowed opposite in a stream of glowing cigarets.
His first-mate replaced Beauchamp on the bridge. At the Ford parked alongside the warehouse under a single high, fog-laced halo of light, both women and the Greek waited for him. A ritual Petrakis demanded, and a risk Beauchamp allowed. Two sturdy wooden crates rested in the back of the pick-up. One top sat ajar, the slates prised up. McCain and Wheeler Petrakis sat on the rear deck. She had lit a Camel straight, and blew a thin stream of smoke from under her weather-hat toward the Lady. Petrakis, inflamed, dabbing a finger over the open end of a slim, rose-colored vial, running the sweet oil in a swipe across his nose to the right ear. Behind them, dock activity had already fallen to mute shufflings, clean-up, shut-down, silence.
“The right stuff !”
No fool’s business tonight. “Satisfied, Petrakis?”
“The woman has done well. No excuse this time about the worms.”
Beauchamp rustled the unopened crate, and came beside them. “You’re a funny man, Wheeler, so damned concerned about one pest while breeding another.”
“Threatening the oil does not make a pest, but an unworthy, foul creature.”
The pompous, twisted bastard! Beauchamp touched a huge raw hand to the vial. “You heard him, Sheri, if my bilge pump goes plunker, I’m food for the crabs.” Petrakis drew the rose glass back to his chest; Beauchamp feinted a snatch. “And there’s a man near fit for the job?”
Beauchamp rummaged his seaman’s jacket for a Havana, and bit off the end. McCain produced a Zippo.
The Greek knocked the lighter into the mud, singed them with a look of disgust. “A laborer’s false pride.” Petrakis’ shoulders mocked a show of strength. “As the woman serves my power, so they after the election.” He shook a fist at the woman who stood apart, beneath the eves of the warehouse. “Look at her, look at the gloat on her face. Yet nothing distracts her, nothing comes before this oil.”
“Save the speech for Nikki. She’ll listen, but you can’t corrupt her. The detective’s handled that!”
“And young snatch, Wheeler.” McCain shocked even Beauchamp, whose teeth ground through the Havana. She chirped. “You’re not trading the Hellespont any more.”
Petrakis flared at the girl. “My family has buried a dozen who have disgraced our name. Now two cry out against DeLeon for vengeance - I hear them well.”
“Nikki liked it . . .”
Beauchamp had scooped the Zippo out of the mud, and wiped it on a jacket sleeve. “Hope you have an island to control after you’ve paid the Arab. DeLeon’s after that squeeze.” Polished the chrome top on a chamois. “I’d be scarce, too, when he takes down a piece of Willis, though he’s doing you a favor.”
“What favor? DeLeon’s last breath will be his first understanding. Willis serves the family through the foolish Bottie woman’s greed. DeLeon interferes again. You, Beauchamp, can play your game with Hricko and Regan; the Irishman does not matter.” He fitted the glass stopper into the vial. “The detective breaths like one already dead.”
“What do you know of Hricko? You, Beauchamp, are a fisherman.”
Beauchamp considered this insult for a moment and took the Camel from McCain; burned it down to the nub, and lit the cigar. “Petrakis, you’ve got that right. I’m always the fisherman, like DeLeon.”
“That’s right, Wheeler, lighten up. We’re free, we’re family, we’re printing hundred dollar bills.” McCain tipped her orange cap to the back of her straggling, blond curls so the rain played on her eyes.
Petrakis rocked carelessly toward the girl. “The cunt serves me.” His fingers reached outward, pinching the flesh beneath her chin.
Sheri McCain’s hand whipped from beneath her rain slicker, like a blade, catching the Greek broad on the face. Petrakis’ head snapped backward, the crack echoed harshly from the metal wall, glass container flying from his hand as he tumbled off the metal door to the ground. He sat stunned on the bed of crushed shell, enveloped in the reek of hash oil from the smashed vial. Blood dripped from his nose, as he clawed at the puddle between his outstretched legs. “This is how you reward me, bitch?” He scrambled to one knee and clawed upward at the girl.
Beauchamp took a quick step, and reached over to drag him up by the neck. “You want a fight?” He held the man off the ground, shook him limp, and threw him onto the pick-up bed next to the crates.
Petrakis, stunned, struggled to one elbow. “My… my … my money!”
“Your ass is mine!” Beauchamp eyed a large door in the warehouse wall. “Lay a finger on her, Greek, and I’ll freeze you as hard as the shrimp. After Jerry’s knife has a go.”
“Family will revenge ...” Petrakis lay in the truck bed, trembling, his face contorted and his chest pumping wild fear and wilder revenge. The motor grumbled and started. McCain jumped from the cargo and slowly backed away.
Beauchamp drug up Petrakis by the scruff and flung him toward the sound.“Skittle outa here, like a good dock rat.”
The cab door slammed open; mother-of-pearl flashed un-noticed through the cone of light. Tormented, impotent rage filled Petrakis as he stumbled forward. “He will pay!”
Whispers behind him. “We’ve set the hook three times, and he’s flounder dumb.”
“And we believe Nicholas is wise.”
Sheri McCain bubbled delight, they sheltered in the building’s lee, as Petrakis’ truck rolled silently from the docks.
Beauchamp had returned to the bridge of Temptation’s Lady. An old Navy habit, a dangerous one, completing his duty-logs for the voyage. A password opened the timed text-file on the trawler’s computer. Corrupt the accuracy? No more than change his own past, but break-a-bone to conceal. He wrote:
. . .
TL port TI 10:6:23:27
do not believe FM&SMc were discovered by P
following swells H 2nd case
advise . . .
Ten minutes of work finished the entry - then scrambled. Clever of the broker ... Beauchamps savvy itched … to choose a cipher based on factoring of large pseudo-prime complex numbers. Erase and overwrite the text-file with random integer-pairs. He had been a weapons Chief-Petty aboard a Navy destroyer, and had studied and programmed patterns for anti-sub underwater mines. He knew random and he knew spline. He guessed plenty of Hrickos moves against Wioka LC ! Just like the Navy; Unkil Sammy had taught him well, for a simple Carolina fishermans son. Too smart for an honest man, reconsidered Beauchamp; techniques of the tyrant and the liberator appear altogether too similar.
“Twenty minutes Beau … twenty minutes and we’re home!”
The Havana cloaked him with a sweet fog, sweeter than the oil, as sweet as a secret. Beauchamp followed the headlights marking a trail from behind his warehouse, the hurried sound of tires pounding through deep ruts. Like the Navy - need to know. Never convince the women a secret’s been mislaid. Beauchamp laughed, for those headlights marked another secret log being completed, experiences scrambled in another code, but one with readers unwilling to the point of foolishness. That code known only to the dark woman, whose Jaguar now turned south over Shem Creek and cruised toward the Cooper River Bridge.
“One fin and DeLeon croaks.”
“Page Nikki for the CPR.” Hricko paused and hunched forward, chasing trouble with a defiant, slap-stick confidence that had worn awful thin.
“Go blind, looking for the black ice. Just drive it.” Vitalle hoped Hricko just needed to blab.
Vitalle said. “Funny guy, Nick. He’d screw us, if the chance occurs . . .”
“DeLeon drowns, murders an island.”
“. . . but not until he’s done the favor for Deb.” Kind of late to negotiate a better deal. Some joke!
“You think that’s it, he’s got to have his turn.” Hricko plucked at the padded arm-rests, nervous, aggressive, a waiting accident. “Got a Red, Tony?” Vitalle patted his windbreaker and shrugged. Hricko flicked an imaginary spot from the leather. “We’d better keep him out of the surf. John’s Island blood, Fila says.”
And a month late. “Revenge isn’t the word.” Vitalle played with a small bronze disk as he prowled the corner of Hricko’s study; first part of the month, every month, and as red as the curse. “He’s got to be fast.” When had that occurred to Vitalle? Jesus, not another angle! Vitalle figured Nick would bust through no matter, lightening slick because the man didn’t know different, like a force of nature. “What would the old whore say?”
Hricko found a crumpled pack of Straights under the lounge, tamped one down and pointed it at Vitalle. “What would Erlyne say to you? She’d pat your cheeks and bite your ass. ‘Give him the itch, good, didn’t you Tony. Promised him the old girl’s tit.’ And she’d wiggle them too, that’s what she’d say.”
Hricko slipped back into the soft leather, studying Vitalle’s face, but the face didn’t show a grin. Not Vitalle, who hitched at his Peterbuilt cap and crossed the room. “I didn’t mean, about Nick.” He tossed the disk onto a thick wooden plate, and flopped into the chair beside Hricko. “Erlyne was a Baptist. Bet’cha didn’t know that!”
“She had her own kind of religion.” Hricko brightened. “No heaven, no hell, but we’re two fools at the gate.”
“Give her credit for common sense.”
You ever ball her?”
“Plenty of times.”
“Then she’s laughing piss.”
Hricko listened in silence, as the bowl resonated with the muted ringing of the bronze. “You’re sure he coming? Nick.”
“When I telephoned him last night, he remembered everything. Plus whatever else he got from Petrakis. He’s figured we had busted Tepy. He figured your memory would improve.” Tony pitched the Zippo to Ben. “Nick’s gonna meet us at station thirty-four tomorrow morning. As certain as them breaker’s gonna grind his white ass red.” Unlike Hricko, Vitalle believed one action followed from another. “He has the itch, like you say. A small one, hidden in the crack, but Nick scratches hardest at those. He’s convinced already, bound to nail the bastard once he sees the tapes.”
“My hide as well, if DeLeon knew when I found them. Like we could have chosen a better time.”
They sat in high-back leather chairs in a paneled corner of Hricko’s study, away from the computers, facing the television screen. Though they had muted the sound, the thrashing images said everything. Neither man payed attention. On the table behind them sat a small, incongruous microwave oven, and a wooden dish. A single floppy disk had been placed in the oven, and indeed would rarely ever leave. An ultimate erase, if anyone queried the appliance. A dull, metallic object, size of a dollar coin, sat in the dish. Wedge-shaped markings all but erased, unreadable. Should anyone query. Tony worried about those questions, the odd night when a cast of stars seemed unusual, and he hoped they never had to answer.
The fisher - that was Hricko’s term, transposed and badly twisted Vitalle thought - posed the immediate dilemma. For him, anyway - Vitalle started. “Now the girl, Coffee.”
“What about her? Not having the first problem. Rather enjoying herself, Tony, if I can believe the story McCain tells.”
“With divine protection, Sheri might tell you the next damned thing. You can’t do them bitches twice, Ben, if you don’t keep ‘em alive.”
Hricko’s thin form had sunk to the depths of the chair, and his voice returned a soft black memory of over-worked leather. “Coffee’s out anytime she want’s, but from then on we learn nothing. How can we know their proposed dredging areas, sand flow estimates, conditional probabilities for breakouts? ”
“The risks on the two girls are not equal. You count that for anything?”
“Two low country sister’s, way I see it, looking after the family’s baby. How can we pull one away without threatening the other two?”
“Cold.” Vitalle had assumed a sullen, rigid pose, pressed deep into the black leather headrest.
Hricko lurched out of his chair, and pointed gravely at the wooden bowl. “Not another, Tony! Nick’s got the serious eye on Coffee. Don’t think he knows why, exactly, but figures solving her problems solves his own. He’ll do the job.”
“Nick didn’t mind the swamp?”
“Nick minded . . . the dunes a whole lot.” Hricko drained his cup of espresso, a concerned face more stoic than ominous. “Worked best unplanned.” He rocked forward. “The tapes will make everything real clear. Chances are ours.”
Vitalle rolled out of his lounge and crossed to the wooden bowl. He removed the bronze amulet and flipped it over in his hand. “We do take them chances, Hricko.”
The time-stamp on the HP-6000 screen read exactly seven fifty-nine. He lit the small orange candle next to the bowl, and a fresh breeze through the open door to the terrace played into the flame, carried out the smell of Island hash. The broker rose and joined Vitalle in the corner - opened the microwave. “If we knew for certain, do we send the message?”
Vitalle brushed the faint carvings with his fingers. Seemed to lose his companion in a search along infinitely, smooth edges. “Never thought they would last so long. Damn shame the listener’s quiet.” He flipped the bronze into the microwave and slammed the door. Punched the roast button. The fan moaned softly into life. “So much for the laws of physics.”
“We’ll take the bastard down, one more time.”
For thirty seconds, two men who cared very much did not care about a serial killer, the man who stalked him, a dead girl or a bleeding island. A low, uncontrolled merriment, an insanity overtook them until the timer clicked off. Since they truly knew nothing - the matter of the slain fisher put to rest - since they never thought about the ritual afterward, Hricko’s study fell into an utter quiet. Another bourbon drunk. Amulet returned to the wooden bowl.
A question of Jet Coffee’s safety returned. Vitalle raised it, for his own sake, wanted another chance for the girl. She should choose again. Not that Hricko wouldn’t risk himself. Vitalle didn’t think him a coward. He knew that better than anyone. But like another angry refugee, protecting both past and future, Hricko just wouldn’t care. “You talking to Regan tomorrow tonight?”
“The regular weekly meeting. Nothing but good news, either, since Petrakis can’t hold his voters. Regan’s pulled dead even.”
Vitalle flinched. “Coffee going to be there?”
“Hot as Erlyne. Count on it.”
Tony’s Ram V-8 rolled silently from Hricko’s driveway and south on Forest Trail Road. Who could be more crazy than the broker? His headlights swung round a protrusion of the marsh, and caught first the chrome bumper, and then the stealthy black roof of the Ford bandit-chaser parked off to the left. Never lost a load, Vitalle, only one. Two men stood beside it, and from the Panama, DeLeon, after the Island’s business. Neither of them had figured Nick would go after Kranic. Vitalle eased his pick-up behind the Ford. A piece of work, Kranic pried from his HAM radio. What did Nick have to say that Kranic’s Peruvian short-wave girlfriend did not?
I was leaving. Had been invited. “Sure, that was the last I heard, DeLeon. I’ve told you that twice. Do you have the eighty year old ears or do I?”
“Just that the message seems so unusual, Mr. Kranic.”
The old Slav spit disgustedly into the drain that bordered his front lawn. “For the last time, it wasn’t a message. Not from them to me. It was something I overheard between them.”
“I guess the radio knows the difference.”
Kranic worked the swollen joints of his arthritic right hand. He was late for a dose, and I wasn’t there to torture him. He saw it different. “The radio doesn’t know Susie’s knickers. The old gal shouted, ‘Doc, come see the light!’ They weren’t talking to me. What don’t you understand?”
I lowered my voice, but that couldn’t hide the frustrated growl. “There’s a dead girl somewhere in that message. That’s what I don’t understand.”
A surge of pain pocked sweat across Kranic’s face. “A dying blond on a dead boat in a hurricane! I’d of riddled that in a day, young as you.”
Try that with the Laskers, old man. I thought better and said nothing, but maybe that feeling slipped out. “Makes me old, fast, and the mean streak takes over.”
Muggy. A crack of summer lightening split the eastern sky, far off-shore so the sound didn’t matter, that cruel snarl and inaudible whine. Kranic looked me up and down, judgmental and unfriendly, like a mechanics eye measuring a piece of stock. “You don’t fool me, DeLeon, you’re hard way-down, not only a thinking-mans cop as appears from that stuck-out chin. I don’t underestimate you like some, but I took a bayonet in the belly when you were still a dripping dick, and I still shit twice a day.”
Worn down not out the ol’ bastard … and hard to stay with his skeptics cold eyes. “Shit? I believe you do.”
“Use soft-wipes though … “ Kranic spit his chew into the gutter. “She’s grinding at your guts; I understand that, DeLeon. You want her working on mine as well. I’m supposed to drill away for an idea while you’re wasting time?”
“Time makes an old man do that,” I snicked. He had been invited the last time. “Just for the record, you don’t know Doc and Emma Lasker personally?”
A noise behind us. Kranic paused and raised his head wiping sweat from his face as Vitalle approached. “One crazy old couple DeLeon. I’m glad the ocean doesn’t reach Detroit.”
I stepped aside, for Kranic had broken into a knowing chuckle, and the tight lines of control on the Slav’s face smoothed to clever tones of age. “Been out at the Tepy place, Tony? I heard the sighing a moment ago.”
“One of Fila’s marshcats, old man.” Vitalle stopped short of the front bumper, where we stood tinted by the yellow fog lamps. “Figured you for a beauty sleep, Nick.” Vitalle didn’t look at me, but had buried a hand in his beard, vexed, to follow his eyes, by something in the bandit-chaser’s side mirror. He didn’t seem anxious to speak to either of us.
I had noticed immediately. Vitalle’s attention set off all alarms, and I scanned the fringes of Forest Trail with my hand on the cold 40 caliber pearl grip. Nothing. What happened to Kranic? He hadn’t moved. “I may need to talk to you again, Mr. Kranic, but thanks for your time.”
“You’re persistent, sonny, I’ll give you that. Time I have plenty of, with the young folks not around. Missy grand-daughter sleeps like a charm. Next visit, I’ll tell you some stuff on the Peruvian fellas, the Shining Path, that will bleach you white. Like that jacket. I hear it from the girlfriend every night; late for it now.” Kranic turned up the path toward his house. “When the bandwidth goes to hell, Vitalle, I know you’re pecking away.” Kranic a thin, old shadow.
A peculiar discomfort pinched. I followed the man’s walk with an eye for a single, lost sound, and not finding it, accosted Vitalle. “Kranic’s lost a card in the shuffle.”
Not even sympathy, young for old. Vitalle had chosen not to respond, but fondled the side mirror on my bandit-chaser. Not to my pleasure. “Selling used parts, Tony?” I had moved beyond the fog lamps and confronted Vitalle with very little humor; he had plenty for us both.
“Ain’t that a joke; you’ll need a used part now.” Vitalle’s little finger poked into the side mirror housing; a dirty cracked fingernail showed at the back. I had missed it – everything – bleeding dead too I missed. Flashed a new blue cop-flash on a hole cleanly drilled through the plastic, just above the glass. My little finger ran around the inside.
“I’d guess the slug entered at an angle near 30 degrees.” My head bobbed up pointing the flash. “On line over there, with that raised patch of salt-grass and willows.”
Vitalle had out his 32-cal banger. “Not a hundred yards into the marsh and there ain’t much more till the water.”
“Holes dry also … warm … moisture hasn’t had time to condense on this rim. Minutes, mebby ...” I counted time … shooter still close , but fading. “Damned funny place to shoot from - - I’da moved to the right , into Hricko’s viper patch. High bushes make it seem a lot more appealing.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Nicky going half-way. This entire island is Hricko’s viper patch!
Very tactical! I reached through the window and methodically swung the spotlight across the swamp - and killed it. Checked the damage to the mirror myself. I placed the Browning on the hood, next to the emblem, and retrieved the ten-gauge. I had seen nothing in the swamp, nothing under the heavy night coat that hinted at a body moving away - or waiting - and Christ how I could feel the eyes boring red holes in my chest!
“The steel-jackets sure leave a smooth exit,” continued Vitalle, “but a 7.26 probably tore up the silencer.”
“Anybody you know?”
“Some vice cop.” I had picked up the Browning - the pearl grip seemed a bit shaky - and handed it to Vitalle. Not to Vitalle’s liking. “Probably those Peruvian fellas, Nick, listening in on the old man. Every one’s a bastard.”
I steadied against the Ford. “I keep waiting to get lucky. Suppose you hold onto the Browning for a minute, while I have a poke at that marsh-grass.”
Vitalle might have responded, but that was behind me, twenty steps - and they were long ones, even running - brought me to the marsh edge. I was another five steps and low under the saw-grass before I heard the measured rustle of branches, and I thrust into the open water. Three-quarter moon. I was crotch deep in low tide, and moving through the pluff-mud toward the small wooded shelf of sand and shell. It appeared no more than a black bowl, striped in moon-white branches; a passage creased them, ceased, and I heard the dull swilling that come from a man’s form passing into water. Vitalle at my back, pounding into the marsh, and a knife-edged whisper in the deeper water fronting the willows.
It wasn’t that first sound that chilled, but the low gurgling cry - was it a cry or the squish of Vitalle’s boots as he fought outward? - that froze me flat-footed in the muck and raised hackles on my neck where the ten-gauge rested, jammed tight to the bone, and that bone was cold as a high stone grave.
“Ain’t this a bitch, Nick, and us both friends of Fila. You see anything?”
What could I have said? “Did you hear the son-of-a-bitch?” Tony had come up on my right shoulder, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t about to die. Not then. We circled left, then right, a scissors move that trapped a snarling ring-eyed raccoon, but nothing else. Eating a poggie trapped by receding tide … we stepped aside and let it eat.
“I ain’t thinkin’ nothin’, ” Vitalle snapped as we finished another loop.
“Which one?” I though it sounded funny, and considering the options and the fact that Vitalle had miraculously appeared . . . We listened in silence for no more than a minute, and then returned to the road. Anyone could have shot us in the back, if anyone was still alive.
“You’ll explain the clothes to Fila, right?” Vitalle was raking mud from his jeans in sick hand-fulls, swarming critters and raising a field of red welts on his arm. “I never expected this!” He was trying to smoke.
I had a second suit at home. “This is how bad luck feels, Vitalle. How much is mine improving?”
Tony handed me the automatic, and stripped down to his Jockys. “For you, Nick, we just rolled a seven.”
I was thinking about good fortune. “Probably just a stray shot at a bobcat.” I half wanted to believe it, but Vitalle didn’t. He was not talking about the mud, or the army issue 7.26 round or the fact that we might have gone into the marsh a bit earlier.
I asked. “We? You and Hricko.” I holstered the Browning, sucked on a borrowed Red, convinced that Vitalle had not appeared by fortune, good or otherwise. He wasn’t looking to explain it.
He was making back to his car and wasn’t asking. “Nothing’s changed. Six-thirty, at station thirty-four.” Vitalle reached through his pick-up window to shoulder a 45 auto. “Salt water does wonders.” He looked at the pile of mucked-up clothes and back to the marsh. “Kind of lucky for us, thinking about it.”
When it’s over. Look for the hard man then, who tests his breathing before he straps on any illusions. Any brave fool can lead with a bullet-proof face. I knew then, watching Vitalle toss his jeans into the back of his Dodge, he was not Hricko’s help. That left me tired and damned tired, that’s the way I felt, going into the swamp whenever Hricko made a mistake or somebody thought he made a mistake.
I said. “Seriously? That early?” Sex wasn’t the issue, really. “Morning’s my wife’s favorite time.”
“Fila says your wife’s a morning person. Have her set the alarm.”
One-hundred and fifty miles north east of Miami, the wandering tropical depression found the Gulf Stream. With its fringes ringed by local thunderstorms, and the center bathed by the warm, northerly flow, winds at the center of the storm immediately rose to sixty eight knots and pressure decreased from eleven-hundred to nine-hundred ninety milli-bars. The tropical storm, now with a name - JACK - stabilized a path making five knots due north and some ninety-eight miles off the Florida coast. Anxious to dominate, a Miami weather-vixen popped-a-nipple forcing a laser-pointer onto its sinusoid track; rating exploded as did 3-rd order high-altitude flows.
An American BMS muscled a fringe and dodged it, speed briefly increased from 3.5 knots to 7.0 , noted the obscure temperature incline and sent a static-rimmed bit-flipped call for a pair of sonoboys: two C-130s hustled out dropping them seventy-five miles east of target. Others listened and watched … at 1300-feet the titanium-skinned Russian attack-sub Admiral Berg vanished beneath trailing vortices, extended her new quadrupole antenna into the Norfolk bandwidth and patrolled unseen for 350 kilometers.
Far-sensing tuna went deep and guide-boats wept in ignorance. Unexpected schools of black-drum could not substitute. Late season surfers at Fort Lauderdale caught an extra eight inches of high tide and a short, monumental lightning display. Overnight, JACK drifted slightly east.
In no way could the Western Atlantic storm be aware of the water-scavenging Lake Erie low that slipped between weather-bouys and dropped east and south out of the Ohio River Valley. Obscured by two Missouri twisters and a forest following osmol-gradient, it hugged the western rim of the Appalachian Mountains. A wet winter had left deep underground pools of water and the turbulent low sucked on them like a malevolent Iroquoi spirit set to revenge Sand Creek!