From so far out and through such fog I should not have noticed Isle of Palms floating across Charleston Bay to Folly Beach. “NO .... ” I shout ... no --- I do not miss your breath like air that shines, nor like the moon or in Virgo a cast of violet stars - what insanely I try to shout over crashing waves ...
It had got bright, on the beach as November mornings do. Sun beat against grey, fluorescent fog curtains, sun-spots making droplets spark before they vaporized. Curls of the sailor-green combers glitter emerald in curls of light. The entire beach burning - air and breakers salt spray and the wet tops of sea-oats ... all shining, sparkling, glowing while wind and fog and sun make puzzle-pieces of the dunes ... unnaturally breaking them apart, then shoving together random ...
Tumbling foolishly under a curl I lose sight of her. Then coming up spitting brine, beating toward the shoal and I will choke pelicans for a Camel. My stainless Rolex reads 7-AM and the leather band is ruined. Wind slices in from the east , and behind me breaker-tops are wreathed in white skrill. I shiver. It's cold alone. The morning surf had beat me blue and I am coming back to the shoal through 'kissies lapping at my shins .. when exactly I saw Peachy I don't know takes maybe a year for each ripple to pass ... Isle of Palms beach is like that, around Station 32 - shoal and sandbars and tidal pools that slip east seamlessly into deeper water, and into the sliver of sand at nep-tide. Distance shrinks in that water and that light, and what you see, past and present and what you think about ...
Heh ben hricko its saul talking to you
the man heh, one man to another not
some drooling byte-pervo not some shmuck
join the party. At Pegs, eh only the best bet ya
had a hardon for her since waters wet who
doesn't get what ya can then we got a deal
for you make moses kiss a cows asshole.
... it helps to spit out what you have heard or seen ... the bitter cold wind makes seeing painful so what is seen even focused by sun-rays you don't really ...
She doesn't wave, and me ... I do not scream for her or go tearing through the brine she is not my drug nor my savior with a cunt ... nothing like that. Only what adults do. Peachy kneeling to watch, then laying back - she had plunked herself down on my mat like she isn't gone - won't ever go again ... and as if rubbed raw by gritty, barrier island surf I don't still smell of her. Me shaking off crusty streamers till I come close and lay down snorting salt and puffing ...
Peachy says. “Yer miss me, luv?”
“Miss ... I thought you'd gone ... torn the sheet, kissed my white ass aloha ... I thought the light was playing tricks on me.”
“So it's a first night we have and afterwards, the man must think of it.” Her cheeks reddened. They are ruddy, Gaelic cheeks born to her hair. “Damned she is noone yer ne'r think a' twice.”
“Never - I thought of you like two heart attacks.” No - not only like the sun, and grey fog that dazzles. Have you eaten breakfast? Are you taken? Why are you so beautiful? My jacket's too big on you ... Thoughts like that are running around my brain. I touch her arm, and after I stop shaking from the cold I say. “You came back.”
“From where”, she laughs? “I dun'naugh sleep when the sun rises.” Her eyes plucking at my face. “Well say something, man.” Her finger touched my cheek. “Yer brains fryin' what's tongue fer but to prattle me ...”
She is laughing and makes me smile. Sun spills fresh, between clouds still grey and black ... it had rained all night the first cold autumn rains and I had woke up alone. I squat cross-leg and pick a sandspur from her hair. Beat crust from the bowl, and plug a wad of Edisto hash into the one-shot, gorge on grey balloons that follow the flame. She refuses and I suck embers down to glowing, powder ash. It makes fog glitter.
“Honest Injun - I though you'd bugged out, flown the coop, ditched the gig ... I figured you'd sailed for Savannah - or Miami ...”
“A feckin' beur then am I?”
“No ... you could wake me ...”
“Easier wake the dead, Benji.”
She said it like she'd worn through all my sheets, while for me there's still a bit of the dream about it. Or dreamy, like a fog balloon must feel when run-rays come piercing ...
I say. “You've come back and you're alone ... ” Looking east and west, along the narrow Isle of Palm strand I flounder in my canvas sack for a smoke. She takes one. I hack at them with the battered, chrome Zippo.
Her hand catches mine. “Alone as two people can be.”
It is an empty, Tuesday beach. I chew on the Camel. My gut feels like a gutted flounder. I toss the butt into steaming brine bubbles. “Alone ... I mean not followed anyway ... ?” Dropping words, brooding, babbling - I'm not a man who does that usually. To people who know me I'm a sharp edge and like it. The hash helps. It has never rounded me off or make me float. A wave crashes behind us, its crack sharp as 25-caliber steel-tips and while froth sizzled Peachy said nothing. Like me. Waiting - I did lots of waiting ...
“Wouldn't I er told ye?”
“I don't know, what you would have told or what you might be doing.”
“Gawd sakes, Benji what vile ways must yer think of me ...”
It wasn't about her I was thinking ... not exactly. Part floating dream, part puzzle pieces lay about I shove them together thinking about the man on her tail last night. On the beach I damned near ran through the bastard. Him darting from behind a stone groin, then doubling back ... Stuck into his belt he packed a small-caliber revolver. Long barrel. A killers weapon. He was a pudgy, plain-face bastard wearing a grey Hawaiian shirt, his gut hung over looking heavy, but he moved with a killers smooth quickness. I've seen such men ... I kiss Peachy on the mouth. “Suppose I think only one way. Tuesday morning's no time for an Isle of Palms shoot-out. Bam-Bam ... makes sharks nervous, pelicans ...”
“I did'na mean to draw on you last night.” Her nose pinches up. “It's a small guun, anyway ... some fine skinny bird yer be too.” She plucked her lip, where black lipstick was fresh and smearing. “Sharks coud'na get a tooth fixed into your bones, night er day ...”
She is dodging my questions, sporty ... last night - she had surprised me last night on the beach - jumped me, jammed the gun to my temple, when I cut my evening jog off and too much like the first man, followed her into the dunes.
Feckin' hell, man who are you
Easy sweetheart i'm easy
Yer a shavehead bastard i'm na' your sweetheart
Trade that steel barrel for a bourbon give it time
Do i ken yer face?
Time ... I look up. “Sharks no ... I guess they couldn't - least one never gave it a try.”
She kisses me, her mouth gritty and fine grain like the sand and hot wet suck from a jelly-fish you never knew cared in public “Ooh - it's a shark am I ... and not supposed ter mind that wit yer got - the brain tied direct to the mouth. Do yer know, Benji how that wit never stops grinding up what it sees and spitting it out n'er seein' the heart.”
Chill November air sweeps in from the east. Isle of Palms sees nothing but Easterlies and when summer dies it freezes bone. I wear wet baggies and shiver in the wind. Now wind ripples cross the brine pool as if to push back tide running out. It had exposed wet sand on the shoal, and at noon we lay just above it. Chin-to-chin. Watching kissies ripple and steal sand grain-by-grain ... Explaining, bargaining, exposing ... driving a bargain demands more of my life than I care to expose. Yet now I believe we are exposing bits and grains one after the other, of each other deciding how life gets lived, or two lives ... A days beard scruffs at my hand - I did not need to be here at all, it reminds me. Miles down the beach people are meeting who steal the Island not grain-by-grain, but by bucketfuls. Let them talk, Peg and her pals. I am thinking a comparison, of the Island being thieved which I do not own not all of it and this woman who takes my mat. Theft - about theft talk comes easy ...
“Who was the man, Peachy, the man last night and why was he chasing you?”
The blue welt on her cheek has faded overnight. She does not flinch when I brush it with my fingers. Was I supposed not to notice? What would a cop think? Damage hiding truth in plain sight - Christ, Nick would hammer that nail ... my copper pal Nick he would feel no quick kindness toward this obscure woman. Peachy slogging dunes at twilight she had been running from a man with a gun.
“Just a pervo ...” Her eyes glitter. “Did yer think the bastard gave me a fright? Or think I'd call the police, or I'd hurt yer precious feckin' Island ... ?” She bunches her knees, and buries her right hand deep into the peach-blonde hair. “Or der you have copper friends of your own ...?”
“Copper? Hell no ... only kiddie-cops on Isle of Palms,” and I turn my face watching brine drain from hard pack sand, looking above the tide-line for footprints in the hard-pack not mine or Peachys ... I say in jest. “You - make a mess of my Island ...?”
Stretching out, she, shiny black lipstick on pouty lips talking to the sky, violent green eyes flashing down, looking me straight. Under her right breast she carried a 25-caliber auto-load in a Teflon holster. Carries it now, far as I know ... “... nothing like that,” I say without conviction.
“Then whoot!” Emerald eyes - steel-tips - she fired them right through me. “I told yer he was a thuug from the marina, a perv full o' himself gots his mind set on me and got noothin' fer his pain.”
“Some local smoothie, huh. Maybe he thinks luck once, twice a charm?”
Her face turns away quick - she hadn't mentioned the Colt. She says. “It's blather yer got for a mouth now - you did better last night ... did yer think me a cheap lay, Benji, to be shook off or addle-brained looking for another so soon?”
“I'm not trying to shake you off, God ...”
“Yer shook me fine last night - now I'm cold or vicious? I can tell you noone do that know me - know me well - that know what's mine. ”
Mine ... “I thought I might ...” ... who knew her well not me - hell no, one night, fog balloons I can see through them. I say. “Anyway it's safe here ...”
Whoots yer name?
D'yer always muug women in the dune?
No, never ... i have a house beyond the dunes, marshside ...
Am i safe without the guun?
Later, you can always shoot me
She says. “Anyway, so maybe I stay aruund ...” And brushes sand from a bled-out madras shirt she had got that from me quick and from long white sailor pants. “ ... if yer not sure ...” And in the quick, effortless way she has of moving hunched up, propping both elbows on the wool blanket SEALS baseball cap tipped sideways and sporty. “... buut least yer thinkin' about me, and that's guid.” She coils arms round her knees, lights another Camel, takes a drag and plugs it into my mouth. And her sporty girls laugh trickles out on the sand like pieces of a rainbow chipping off. “Yer thinkin' aevil things about me, aren't you Benji ....?”
Fog balloons I am thinking. “So ... you might stay around.” I say.
“What's it ter you?”
“You said your boat's at the marina ...”
“Unless the faeries took it. It sleeps me well enough on the water, but docked - nuuthin' to it less you've a mind to scrub decks.”
“I meant, it's where you sailed in. I thought maybe later ... ”
“Screw the bloody marina.” Her hand whips back hair from her face. “Or what I sailed for. Did yer get enough, Benji ... last night?””
Last night, on the beach she had worn a Cod'r rain-hat, two bullet holes punched clean through the brim. That had been plenty for her, that piece of night and she had filched my cap. Wore it now with snap. Hers ... I say. “I got fog balloons, a spare pint of cream and cold toes because the sun rose too quickly ...”
“Then guid for me.” She uncoils easy and stands. Walks away to the ripples - paddles her bare toes maybe she's counting them, the ripples. She turns arms wrapped cross her breasts - it's cold. She says. “Marina hell, if yer promise to eat more I'll share your cot ... and yer not a Fenian or a trooper ...”
She dazzles - how she bargains that I see ...a full Mediterranean body, wrapped round fearless Gaelic wit and I stutter ... “Cop ... A copper? A muggler? Nothing like that ... but promises ... I promised my brother I'd never promise anything to a beautiful woman. Least till she could beat me tacking upwind from Folly Beach.”
“Save yer heathen promises ...” Her cheeks hold a blush, and her laughter spills over the sand, till in a little girlish way her own hand stops it. “I hear different stories ... That you plague people, a rebel ... and yer couldn't sail a sunk log to the bottom!” She says this with a metric certainty that dissembles. She must know how carefully I listen ... “So from a woman is it Aristotle yer want, or the plague or just a way with yer feckin' noombers.?”
“Heard from whom? Me? Hardly an abstract person ... you might quickly learn a boring one.”
“What's yer business?”
“I'm ... I don't work honestly. I'm a broker - mostly ...”
“A broker Christ Benji - a thief a landlord a scoundrel and a Jew ... with a Catholics face. Is that all yer do fight for the money?”
“Catholic? No ... not that faith ... not for years ...”
“Yer faith in noombers, though like a heathen Greek!... Bleedin' rocket science you are, and weenie .... Pick a shell - write the scripts. But yer hands are a workin' mans hands - rouff ...”
“Yes ... guess I do have computers laying about ... I'm not choosy though. For the hands, I keep a garden and I sail, when the time comes ...”
“Sailor yer are now too ... you'd fool a Jackie-Tar Benji that's fer sure.” She is scooping sand into her palms, letting it dribble out ... “I've got business in Charleston. It's a family thing. People are doum there I've no doubt, and the air's fresh enough to stink. I wouldn't be bored ...”
“Really, it's not a bad life ...”
“... and stay out of your business, what's noon' a' mine.
“... and not just numbers and money, what I like. That you're standing on ...”
“Yer precious feckin' Island ... do yer know, Benji that shows in your face. But the woman herself - you put her through the sieve. So take the shaking, man. I'm a scamp and a raven - pain in your dry bones. I found more than a share of those ... dry bones do yer ner eat, Benji, like a man who does a mans work?” Peachy laughs. I think she can make angels cry when she does not laugh. “I'm a jealous bitch for the man I'm choosing ... .”
Damn. She talks like that always. Most always... After one day, or half of it, then a night and today what's gone I know she speaks no other way than in languorous spills - words spilling out. She hides behind them, the words like she hides her face behind a long spill of peach-blonde hair. Waves of it - combers, torrents ... I swear it silently to myself up-and-down the sand I have agreed to nothing ... I kiss her. “How did you get the madras?”
She frowns. “I gigged the cottage, after yer left for the beach.”
“Cottage ... JENNI let you in?”
“Yer have a funny house, Benji. From the outside it looks like a goatherd shack, but from the inside ... it's a feckin' fortress. More like a prison. It's not your prison, is it Benji?”
“If I go farther than the beach JENNI would become utterly pissed and have the /bin/rec daemon shoot me!”
She does not believe this, has caught me up in a lie and turns her face so the hair streams out behind following the wind. She is letting it pass, I think - her smile returns, and her hand clamps over my mouth. “That's blasphemy making the dead alive. But getting in ... impossible now is it? If that's written in high-stone, won't be your only lie. Between girls, yer fool ... sharing the same man anyway there's noone holds a secret.”
She has of course told me nothing, exposed nothing ... less than that - I have a house-mate, a cot-mate and I think of flounder I have gigged and my stomach laughs. I do not think of Island meetings and evil persons. What's not impossible? Nothing. What's left, happens ... it is that kind of choice and I make it.
We are together. I change into windbreak and shorts, from my tote, and we walk east over scoured sand bleached white toward the cafe. It is a place to talk, now, in public and a ceremony and a threat for couples. Beach couples are one thing, and they fly apart like sand none-the-worse or they may fly to a bed and couple ... I think none's the worse or better. Private, all private and pairs may sink back into nothing. But the cafe ... It sticks like a dirty glass finger intruding over the beach and into a hotel marina where people have done evil before they spoke of it and all becomes public and real.
Peachy changes in her 40-foot Jeaneau while I walk the hull. A magnificent craft, the schooner oak and mahogany rather than fibreglass, a hull stiff and unforgiving. It is not a weekend sailors hull. Brass fitting shine. Sheets dry over a spar and taut lines sing. As I saw it a craft one good man could handle, in blue water and better for two: roller reefing, hydraulic winches and mechanical auto-pilot that could hold points long enough to trim sheets and drive the hull over skating on its keel. If you worked quickly.
A strong man might make it work, in a stiff wind if that sailor was good ... hell's she sail from, how and when and to where ... the hatchway groans catching me faithless she is a goddess appearing from below in a long, raw silk skirt, and the madras and a diamond-stud choker covering her throat. Peach-blonde hair covers and uncovers her cheeks in waves ...
“So you like her, Benji ...,” she says brushing passed me and tossing a canvas from the wheel.
I say, “how does she handle?”
“Like she's treated ...” Peachy says coyly and rests a palm on the brass compass. “Six points she'll hold, till wind spills. Could you na' do that in your own?”
“None of my own ... for blue water, but I crew a pals Ta-Ching-54.”
Redwood steps lead along the docks, then up to a glass-framed balcony. “You'll need to show me, Benji yer know a compass needle north from down ...” Peachy giggles.
I say. “Never laid a hull over ... not yet, anyways.”
She has made a solo southern-crossing and will tell me about it. A waitress in a pink-flamingo jumpsuit greets us. The cafe is called the LIVE OAK GRILL, and was built over dead cutting of a rainforest of live oak trunks four feet thick and left no bones. Redwood, floor and ceiling, walls glass and a short, zoot-suit stiff at the bar gives us bead-eye before sticking his face into the Manhattan it came from. We are being measured. He has an eye like a seagulls beak, and cares about something. He has made a discovery, the eyes say. He is a public man and wants to stop us sitting down alone.
We sit beneath a parasol, on an open deck watching the Atlantic spill out between Isle of Palms and Bulls Island, and pelicans diving for marsh shrimp, and the chrome-and-onyx palmetto trees stationed between wind-breaks. Drinks appear, bourbon and a Captains gas-lamp pours out orange light, service is frantic, waiters arrogant and mispronounce in French or hide Geechee.
Peachy says. “Yer hate them, don't you Benji.” She takes a hand buried in peach-blonde hair and sweeps it around. “Now it curls yer face - looking so cruel. We can go if you like ...”
“NO! I mean the table's ours. Damn the marina ... they brought people to Isle of Palms. Careless people. Grasping people ...”
“It's their fantasy.”
“... scum best left rotting. Should leave their pale bones rotting in Manhattan.”
“Lecture, sir ... if it pleases you.”
“You wouldn't know therm, or care to.”
“But if you care ...”
“Names just names ... “
“Sometimes a name's like a picture steals your soul.”
“Developers ... damn them sealed up in a steel green wall. Jerry and Saul the bastards. Ibn-Ali Jerrah, his business pal Saul Davidson and our I'm-more-bitch-than you politician Peg Bottie. They got money like dogs have ticks - need to put it somewhere. Figure to cover Isle of Palms with it. ... ”
“Just the money ... that's all yer find worth hating? Part of the green wall are yer now ... been invited ... ?” Her voice accuses - she toys with the drink and lets her cheeks flush. “Yer hate the men for their money ... but this woman, Bottie ...” She has left Pegs name sticking into me - a broke off dagger, ice and melting. “... what's she to you?”
“Nothing ... now.” I take the cigarette and light it and think what a terrible price couples pay for becoming real you can put nothing back. I look up. “She covers their ass with the Feds ... but one person ... a lover they vanish, can vanish, not the money - look around ...”
“Yer no faith in another person, Benji and that I won't argue. But muther a' Gawd,” she says mocking my serious face, “comes a hurricane the money all washes away. Sand, money and people ...”
“God, goodness ... she has nothing to do with it, what washes away and who remains.”
“But you, Benji, you do.”
I say it bitter cutting off the toothless, bitter spew. Damage. One word - I manage one word with marble bead-eye sticking into my back. It taunts me. I slug the bourbon and whorl around, there it sits bottom half of a red-rim eyeball submerged in a martini while the iris floats on top, a black-bead periscope. It makes me not want to sit down. I pat Peachy's hand, kick away the chair and walk straight to the bar where damage waited like bar-angels painted fingers.
“Do I know you?”
The zoot is a head shorter than me, in his Pork-Pie and about as skinny, and when bar-angel brought the Turkey he shoved a crisp ten under it. Glances at Peachy. “Bend an elbow, pal, it's cheaper than bending ears.”
Leaning over I say. “I know you.”
“Yeah, but that don't mean we're kissin' cousins.”
I kiss the Turkey till rocks show and say. “Levine. PI. State & Broad. Judge gave you 90 days ... I remember. You clamp-jawed on the Lieutenant ... that Tradd Street murder ... some SOB dame got wacked cause of a chippee. And YOU had the Nikon - underage, huh Levine?”
“Eighteen, Hricko she swore she wuz eighteen, seventeen anyway ... and you ain't the one ta talk birth certificates.” He smears PIs eyeball grope all over Peachy. “The frail ... old palsy, huh ...?”
“Years ... how'd you get out?”
“Courts ... do I know courts and judges and coppers? Heh who ain't got spare glossies? Anyway the chippee's innocent, cause the old bitch tried strangling her with a rubber. Used rubber, huh musta been stretchy ...”
“That's what you say.”
Levine turns looking west down the beach fingers curling on the waxed moustache. “That's what the glossy said. Sure helps ta have a pal keep an eyeball open.” He is chewing on that, what he's said smart and points to a small side balcony. “How 'bouts some privacy?” We go out dragging drinks to the table. A lefty rolls out on glass, gets lit, passes back and forth. It's good shit, like an angel biting your ass.
I say “Yeah, Levine, eyes open, but you got all three spread like saucers. I never understood how beady eyes spread so wide.”
“Crap mouth don't bother me none, Hricko, not when I got reasons ...” Levine glances down at his martini long enough to stick his face in. He was chewing the olive, both of them. “Yeah, serious reasons ... I'm lookin' for a long lost pal.”
“How long and how lost?”
“About three miles and 6 hours. He's a big guy can't miss him looks like a flounder without all the fins. Slow, careful bottom-feeder, know what I mean?”
“Breech Inlet, huh ... Kind-of-a funny place to be ... this morning. Funny place, funny pal. This gent a business associate?”
Levine squeaks like a rat when he talks and shows his teeth. “Associate, partner, maybe so ... I can't do all the muscle ... But him, Larry-The-Lip he wuz supposed ta meet up with a dame ... the sporty sort, and a real fancy-pants makes shrimp swim up river ta spawn.”
“Okey - Why is that my problem?”
“Whatsamatter Hricko, you ain't spawned lately or that frail your sister ...?”
“She's no business of yours ... What about the mystery woman - you've seen her? Ever?”
Now, Levine stares through the glass at Peachy, tilts his head and ratchets the neck around. “Well ... not exactly ...”
“Meaning never, huh. Mystery-babe could steal your drawers Levine, and you wouldn't know it. Could have missed The-Lip too!”
“No way Hricko. I got three eyes Cyclops got the office next door.”
“Figures for me, Levine. Breech Inlet's crawling with bottom feeders. Our esteemed Representative Peg Bottie's holding forth for all the Island shakers. Her developer pals got new concrete to pour. Maybe your pal got re-employed.”
“He ain't that smart - one dame at a time no spare propeller on that head like a sturgeon spawns once a year.”
“Then the gal. How about bar-angel - she's spawned all over the Cooper, Ashley River too.”
“No way, palsy I seen the stack-a-yards the girl-in-question paid up front. For protective services. Know what that means, palsy? She's rich and sensitive and half-awake that dame cause somebody wanted ta smear her lipstick.” Levine's nose was stuck up in the air like he'd found a trace ... “I wuz supposed ta meet them rolled snake-eyes so I figure maybe ... They had to scramble, and maybe they suck together.”
“Why come here looking for them?”
“Where else does a rich broad go on Isle of Palms?”
“Ever heard of the beach?”
“No I ain't! Ya know how many different kinda worms live in sand? I'll tell ya: twenty-seven and some are ten-yards-long. And ya know every one's lookin' for a new wet asshole.”
“Wrong Island should be Sullivans Island not here.”
“Wrong assholes I'm lookin' for a skirt.”
“Story's bull-shit, Sammy.”
“Yeah, maybe, but not this Ben ...” Levine reaches into a pocket and pulls out a brine-stained coaster, Moose-Drool Ale flips it on the table beside my drink. Coasters match. Levine squeaks. “Must be sisters, huh ...? What Charleston bar serves Moose Drool not nobody except this boin?”
“Which proves ...?”
“Don't prove nothin' ... 'cept that The-Lip sails like steel needles float and what is this ... but a marina! Heh, ya wanna flashcard? If it ain't The-Lip wuz here musta been the frail he wuz escortin' got ruby-slippers or a worm up her butt I don't know ...” Levine hammers down the martini - sucks up both olives. “So ya ain't seen nobody ta yak about ... huh, Ben ... Nobody look like they swallowed hairball on the beach ...?”
“Couple of pelicans, but they wanted privacy.”
Maybe he caught the idea. Levine pushes away from the table unsteady. We're back in the dining room. He gives me an X-ray. “Privacy yeah me too I got a date tonight broad's worth about two heart-attacks don't wanna be in a bad mood - know what I mean?”
“Good for you. Don't miss the toothbrush those olives stink.”
“Yeah well I took worse dives before than for an olive ...” He glances woozy over my shoulder at Peachy. “You too, huh pal?” And stumbles away where a NO EXIT sign hangs over a door and he punches through in a flare of afternoon sun. .
I order flounder, Peachy the scallops and we both drink muscat raw and wonderful from never having touched oak.
“Yer two yapped a lot ...”
“Levine only understands words two-at-a-time. He says what ? And I say hell no.”
“Levine ... that's his name? Friend of yers? What did you say?”
“What do you want to hear?”
“What's at the end ouve that wit yer so proud of.”
“I love you,” I say.
“Feckin' better ... ”
Perhaps, I think she has never said those words before ... She takes a Straight from my crumpled pack - takes it easy. I am so snake-bit if a mocassin bit me it's dead. She runs the cigarette coolly between her fingers ... perhaps she wonders, if she has promised enough? I am trying to put things together ... put the Zippo on it then mine. “Who's the muscle - or whose? From where, for what, by which means?”
“I kin go, Benji - up and leave ... leave ye noone a my troubles.”
“Don't do that ... please ...”
“Yer gonna fix me first, with-ere proper usin' me ... “ Wisps of her hair fly up. She blows a thin stream of smoke, into vortex curling over the glass, and thinks about it - as I feel, about answering or leaving. “ ... do yer see what's proper and good let's enjoy it. What's broke about a woman a woman's most keen to be hiding. Am I wrong?”
“How did you break into the ... my 'cottage'?”
“Did'n I tell yer now ... just between the women.”
“Did JENNI ask for your birthday?”
“Goose! She asked for yours, and when a man first had me ... looking at gutturals falling edge be my guess, the third Fourier coefficient ...or a Hadamard if the bluoody /dev/secure daemon is sleeping ... be my guess.”
Jewels ... She is tossing them about sipping her muscat curled up in the cane chair. Gutterals - the Hadamard ... No one knew that. No human. “The daemon,” I say. He didn't mind you either?”
“Just a puppy.”
“Come and go as you please. That's the deal? How early, and where did you go this morning, when you left me in bed alone.”
“And fool innocent as a babies ass yer looked too - I needed company, so I went with his mudder ta see Jasus risin ' ...”
She makes my head spin. Like the man on the beach last night I am stalking her, or like a sand-worm ... it turns my stomach. A waiter brushes by. Somewhere, toward the west end of the Island a police siren whines. I say. “Will you tell me anything?”
“Yer got a kind face, Benji. If I can get some meat on it won't break a mirror.”
She is smiling, and forking some kind of mushroom over the scallops. Just then it seemed important to her. Staring ... I never stare at a woman ... I think her smile the most serine smile I have ever watched. “So I'm the one gets improved?”
“May-haps ... a perfect man's already taken. Yer know something, anyway, or been taught. I see no ring, and mine's the only scratches on your hide. Yer not taken ...”
“Oh no - a monk that's me. Forever.”
“Forever the damned divils liar ... but I'll scratch out the beurs eyes ...” Her hand reaches out to mine. “If yer luv me, Benji I'll luv yer back, if not the best then long as I can.”
“At the marina ... how long did you rent the slip?”
“I own it.” And she kisses me. Makes me ache. .
Later. Peachy has business in Charleston she says - a security matter, and financial she says - the pass-codes are all in her head. It's family business. She gathers sea-bags of woman things from her Jeaneau and dodging rain-squalls we trundle them cross Island. She takes an empty closet, then two. I give her keys to the old Ford pick-up. She leaves the 'cottage' about 2-PM still wearing the long raw silk and my windbreak over it saying she'd return by 5-PM with shark steaks. I should beg corn from the neighbors garden. I grow carrots and melons behind the 'cottage' nothing else, trellaced redwood where the ass end of the dock pokes in from marsh. Mostly, only salt grass grew well, and otherwise I trade for kitchen table spares. Cottage. End of the dock I stand there not shaking my brain, but killing it.
Peachy. She had sailed to Isle of Palms marina and someone tried killing her. Because she did what, or before she did what ...? She has business ... 'Security, finance ... family'. She owns a boat-slip that tags along with a condo. Figure ... 300-big-bills. Her money or his? Without complaint she has come to my bed. What's her play? Any port ... before, during or after the storm? Probably she had not sailed alone, and either someone knew her destination and followed, or her mate had attempted the shooting. She raps 64-bit passwords from ROOT daemon by guessing a tone sequence. Guessing - just girls talking ... She could have shot me - didn't, she could run with the Ford ... wouldn't. Won't. Sure of it. Not tonight. She is working through a plan, an assignment, a program ... she is a lost desperate soul ... she is not real. Nothing is at risk, neither life nor love - all a setup, a scam ... make-believe, you risk nothing. Fool.
Rap-rap I am rapping the one-shot against a wooden dock-post. It rings, like church-bells ring or the runabout hull on rising tide. Inside the grey balloon I am floating. Three hash buttons - I've burned them dead and the marsh sings to me. Fool it sings. Brain cells ... I kill them by the million, slap at a mosquito, and turn to walk off the dock.
Nick stands at the ass end. He doesn't block it, but I wouldn't try walking through him. Not Nick. He's casually flicking his battered Zippo and examining the bikini bottom Peachy has left hanging that didn't cover most of her ass and wasn't meant to. Two latex clamshells nothing more. What got the Lieutenant interested I couldn't imagine ... He should have been tagging stiffs at Charleston morgue. His Edisto Island drawl is smooth and cold as a dead Confederate general.
“You got a brain left, Hricko or only a lung?”
“Maybe half - take your pick.,” I say and for a moment see rabbit ears growing from his white Panama. I blink.
“Whose the new squeeze? Getting serious?”
Questions - I don't like questions. Nick is wearing the Charleston copper badge pinned to a pocket and means questions to be official. I don't like those questions. “Like two heart attacks. Who wants to know?”
“My daughter. She sez you're cuter than most of the pervs I deal with. Got me worried - 14 ya know, the daughter and she wants ta be 21 years early. Got the wife worried too.”
“Eve hates me and the swamp gas I breath.”
“Catholics like you are easy ta hate. Eve thinks if you were married she wouldn't care so much. I wouldn't worry so much.”
“Don't worry so much. The last proggie your daughter emailed was a Sieve of Erastothenos - in FORTH. Very creative and independent.”
“Now that's the worry, isn't it.”
“Fourteen ... kinda young for me.”
“Since when? Eve thinks I should shoot ya.” Nick flicks a small, black chip from his linen jacket and holds it out. “This look familiar?”
“A two-yard chip from Sauls casino.”
“Guess again, byte-boy. And guess smart, put smart-lip in the bank and a clamshell on your ass cause just now I'm settling for an explanation ... no less.”
Nick's got his arms folded up, and his white Panama tipped back and jaw out, standing on one leg mostly like a pelican about to spear minnows. Sweat beads on my neck I wipe it off. “A long explanation?” I point to sliding glass doors. It's 60 degrees inside, plus-or-minus nothing. The glass doors? They are two-inch plexi and will stop a tank.
“Short or long, I got a good memory ... knock yourself out.”
“Do I need a lawyer?”
“If I told ya, Ben I'd have ta shoot ya.”
In my study. We are doing business now, Nicks business, copper business. This part of the second floor my 'cottage' does not advertize. I think it's an honest room, where I thieve money I do not take it from bleating sheep. The Lieutenant does not care how or from whom he thieves information. We are equal. A monitor screen flashes on, a vidcam winks and JENNI says:
A PLEASANT AFTERNOON TO YOU
LIEUTENANT. HAS IT BEEN MONTHS?
IS MR HRICKO IN TROUBLE?
Nick says looking across the room. “Not half as much as you, sweetheart, if ya don't turn off the mic - police business ... confidential, so kill the vidcam too.”
SEE HEAR AND SPEAK NO EVIL YES
I UNDERSTAND. SEALED LIPS DONT TIP
Nicks Panama hangs on a hatrack, over the break-handle 357-S&W. A window watches out on the dock. Nick is watching the tidal fill up. “Oh yeah, JENNI ... any emails from my daughter - send me a copy.”
AND A MOST FRISKY YOUNG WOMAN
SHE IS. I WILL CONSULT THE SECURITY
DAEMON FOR PERMISSIONS
Nick grunts, shuffles to a chair, shuffles a pack of Camels across the oval desk. It's pegged cherry, huge and takes up most of the oak floor not covered by computers. Heat exchangers whine in the background, and the wood smells of lemon-oil. Old and new - the room is set up that way.
I finger the chip Nick has given me. Black plastic, round and new, sharp edges ... what's to figure if I knew nothing. Chip or emblem or tag. On a hand-press the type could be turned out nickel-a-piece with any picture or text pressed into the surface. Any, but not these ...
Nick says. “Noticed that, huh, stamped on both sides. One side's an accident ... what gets stamped on it. Any copper believes in accidents, eh Hricko, but both sides ...?” He is fingering a bronze amulet, hawk-eye then tosses it back into the rosewood bowl. “Yep - thought I recognized both sides.”
I drop the plastic chip and say. “You found this, and the person carrying it.”
“Oh we found him all right ... the kiddie coppers from Sullivans Island found him, fished is the better word. Body floating out to sea under Breech Inlet bridge.” Nick leans over the table, and pulls at the half-empty tumble of Wild Turkey. “Crabbers: they fished the floaters jacket with shark hooks, that plastic chip wedged in a pocket, before the floater stopped floating. Ya know how hard it is ta pull a body up from Breech Inlet once it's sucked down?”
“So ... body's lost. No ID.”
“Right about the ID - we don't have one yet, whether local or tourist or ... But the body - we got lucky and pulled it up just after lunch ... crabs lunch, know what I mean?”
“Kinda torn up, huh ... water in the lungs?”
“Nice thinking, Hricko, that's the way a copper thinks, and the answer is none!” Nick pushes back in the cane chair. “Funny, too ... usually the eyes go first when crabs work on a body. Not this time, cause the eyes weren't there ta start with, when the floater hit water. Somebody had pinched them out, the eyes. Best I can tell without a lab report 25-caliber soft-points did the pinching. Now a 25-caliber - that's a womans gun, or a pros ... ”
“Sure, kids and dogs, too.”
“Maybe ya do need a lawyer, Hricko, ya want ta clamp-jaw like that.” He pushes up, eyeing me sideways walks cross the room to a terminal, punches in static. For his trouble a screen-saver appears - a barracuda slashing through a school of spot. Red splotches fill the screen and a barracuda grinning ... He grunts. “Half expected ta see you there, Hricko, across Breech Inlet at Peg Botties shindig. Everybody who's anybody ... I looked!”
“Toxic waste, far as I care.”
“Well yeah, maybe ... maybe someone figured getting close enough ta stop the flow, know what I mean Hricko?”
“Means nothing to me, Lieutenant. Not the man, not the gun, not this piece of plastic. Could be, Jack-In-The-Box gives them out as prizes.”
“Actually ... I checked on that.” His eyes squint turning violet X-raying the room. “You expecting anyone are you ... any surprise visitors dropping in ta chat?
“Regular monk these days, aren't ya Ben ... No pals - no fly-ins, drop-ins, sail-ins ... how 'bouts the squeeze?”
“Known her for years.”
“Years, huh ... one of the SOB girls - a beach drooler, frog kisser ... pat-our-pelicans ...?”
“No, yes, not exactly.”
“Years, huh and she ain't tried ta shoot ya yet?” Nicks head shakes, and he reaches back into the bowl for the bronze. “Not since years, huh ... you know what this drool means?”
i thought her bright as noonsun
and she hell black
He flips the bronze. “Or this. Same crap pressed into that plastic chip we found on the floater.”
the song not he who sings
“And the images - squid or octopus or ...”
I break in rapping hard. “Sushi or clam-fry maybe it's the Popes Friday menu. Something like that, Nick - actually anything, like the words. What do they mean? Nothing! Romantic fantasy. Hashish dreams. What says the little green gent dances on your belly when DMT stays down.” I butt out the Camel, light another. “Some kfir having a bad hair day, but don't take my word for it ... ask Jerry. He gave the bronze to me. Good luck, he says ... Assyrian, so he says 9000 BP. Dug it up from his own wadi.”
“Jerry, huh. I didn't know that.” Nick slugs last of the Turkey and lights a Camel. “Anatolians maybe, but no Assyrians doing metal-work 9000 BP.”
“That's what I told Jerry. He laughed.”
“I'm not laughing, Hricko, and I don't care if King Tut used it for a butt-plug. Way it showed up now, that floater had ya pegged - that's my copper guess. Had you pegged or at least he had the bronze pegged. He was looking for you, looking for it ... ” Nick's scratching his chin. “Is this the only copy?”
“Copy?” I laugh. “There is a 'twin', not a copy - Jerry's father the Calif owns it. Hides it in an onyx block. That's Jerry's story anyway ... I hide mine in plain sight.”
“Clever ... so it's like you, Hricko ta think your the only person hides what they do in plain sight ... an original. Worth thieving?”
“Priceless, the amulet, but who could sell it?”
“There ya go again, thinking like a copper. But ... what some people grab, they have no intention of selling. Some people will trade, barter ... know what I mean Hricko? Trade a wife for a bimbo, one baseball card for another, a clear conscious for a piece of dirt, or trade flesh for time. “He's chewing lip. “Anything sound familiar?”
“Sure, Nick, the stupidity sounds familiar. It's how I eat twice-a-day ... every day in the market I take money from traders like that. Dreams for cash.”
“Nothing rubs off?”
“Everything rubs off. I stay busy growing new skin.” Down to dregs I pour out the Wild Turkey filling tumblers. We smoke, and are watching each other without staring, eyeball straight.
From under the Panama he squints. “Yeah, ya kinda look pinkish ta me, now that I squint and look careful. Kinda rubbed all over ... who does the rubbing recent?”
“Maybe it takes a village.”
“Not you, Hricko, no decent squaw would have you. Gonna mind if I chat with your squeeze - seeing you're such longtime pals?”
“Gone to Charleston, back for dinner. You and Eve are invited ...”
“Yeah well ... another time - maybe. Captain's gonna want this case written up quick, and the kiddie coppers want ta feel consulted. Who takes prints and dentals, who makes the ID ... Blow their nose ...”
“Any time, then.”
Nicks scratching, back of his head. “Doesn't carry a piece, does she?”
“Who? Peachy ...? Outside, Lieutenant - you groped what she carries. Only what fits in the clamshell drawers.”
“Yeah, well ... got a picture?”
“Peachy feels pictures steal a womans soul.”
“Uh huh - Peachy this, Peachy that ... She'll be around ...”
“Like four queens at Sauls casino.”
“What I figured ...” Nick gets up tosses across the table a lipstick case black smears round the edge. “ ... stuff's hell on the keyboards .... Clamshells, huh ... We'll stay in touch, eh Hricko on this case. But anything happens you do the smart thing don't make me blow your nose.”
A wall clock chimes 5-PM. From the swamp rain pounds in against the window. It's a steady pounding ... against the noise an engine backfires. I imagine it's Peachy pounding the old Ford down Forest Trail Drive, and even behind eight inches of ferro-cement I can hear the backfires. A sailor, not a mechanic, she ... sailor ... I'm sitting at a console tapping Peachys passport name into databases most people can't afford, can't find and aren't invited to use, but far as Datapro knows she's wind-in-a-sail, a ghost ... a Flying Dutchman.
The city-roll reefer fumes desk-side taunting me. It draws like dried oak and taunts me like the monitor screen. What's written ... traces I find, nothing more:. a sealed currency traders account in Macao ... another in Hong Kong; her concert tickets purchased in Vienna for a Dublin show ... house credits at the Vegas Tropicana ... a years pass on the Seattle ferry ... She is a dark raven ... I feel like a traitor and a heel.
I feel like her savior and that's no smart mans deal with a woman. Not with Medea or Penelope, not with a murderess. It is a thought not allowed, and an unsolved puzzle that while Peachy had disappeared this morning a man had been shot near Breach Inlet by the same type of weapon Peachy carries faithful as lipstick. A man I had seen on the beach trying to run her down? A 'security' man, perhaps ... a 'financial' man ... Levines lost pal? No.
I will not think these thoughts. I am pushing away, when JENNI punches through email. Nicks GnuPG. key. The X-theme is nautical - a blue-water cruiser ... JENNI is dressed in sailor-bells, looking cool and smarmy as 900-Megs of 64-bit assembler code can make a virtual mistress look
GOOD AFTERNOON MR HRICKO
HAVE WE BEEN BAD?
Her TCP_daemon a three-arm leather-face gargoyle-like apparition carries a trident carelessly, and hangs from a spar drooling hex.
AVAST YE SCRIPT-CRIPPLED LUBBER
MESSAGE FROM THE GENDARMES
The message shakes out on parchment. She is teasing, she and the daemon - the Lieutenants terse email does not tease.
Floater's scum: North Charleston PI Larry-the-Lip
Couldn't sail a steel-needle: Got S&W? On my horse
I BELIEVE, MR HRICKO THAT SURFACE TENSION
CAN MAKE EVEN STEEL NEEDLES FLOAT
IS THE LIEUTENANTS SSL TRUSTED?
An email attachment flashes I click <over-ride>, get the PIs mug shot. It's an aggressive , optimistic face. Dead at birth. Damn the Lieutenant. What did he know? I look into the vid-cam. “Who supplies the tension, Jenni? Who figures? What's Peachys scam?”
SCAM MR HRICKO? OH MY ... HUMAN AFFAIRS
OF THE HEART OBEY NEITHER PHYSICAL LAWS
NOR THOSE OF COMPUTER SECURITY
... and JENNI winks off, her TCP_daemon drops from the spar and spit:
GOTCH'R SOCKETS SCRAMBLED BOSS
NEED A PATCH OR A PEGLEG? ... HEHE
The security daemon has appeared beside him. A hell-hound, I named him FANG. He is time-bound, stupid and vicious, and wears a dogs face. He would reconfigure me out of ROOT, if I could not pull the power plug. The monitor screen is wavering, and red splotches show through. Something slaps at the dogs hand and he yaps:
BELIEVE THIS SHIT EVERY TIME ROOT
GETS A HARDON.
Gargoyle rips at his leather face and whines:
NOT REALLY THE BOSSES FAULT.
I TOLD MISTRESS BITCH YESTERDAY
TO PATCH THE FOURIER EDGE-DETECT
Fang howls and chews at the screen:
TOO LATE NOW FOR A GUMSHOE
FSCKING BOOT TO THE
HARDWARE KER ...
They exchange leers, vanish groaning in a foamy red sea of teeth and squirming coils.
“Hell's that mean? Damn you, JENNI come back ...” Useless chatter I am talking to the dead and dying ... the worm chews megs of MEM_ALLOC while the system sucks it away under failsafe crash to hardware. Virtuals may do that ... In time JENNI will explain everything. I believe she sees time very different, as one thing after another, equally, but this instant I see in the bloody screen how fast and how expensive pieces of time have become.
Orange intrusion alarms blink over the console. Sensors catch locks opening on the rear plexi sliding door, and at the front entrance. Peachy would have come in the front ... There is now no mistress who watches the door-locks . But the rear, sliding plexi ...
It is coming ... evil ... this way. Brass, manual locks protect the study from the inside, and it is a choice to shoot the bolts I do not make. I think of evil coming, and the break-handle S&W. It sleeps in a cracked leather holster looped over the hat-rack, and I grab it crashing out of the study flying down stairs ... it seems all one movement, and I am so cold with fear the ivory grip freezes to my left palm, because I fear where evil has been butchering ... clawing through Peachy as the worm had clawed red, bloody red ... It does not occur to me till the last step that a man will be waiting for me and a cold steel barrel spitting hot lead at the opened patio door - not till the last step and quick corner do I let my feet slide out my back cracks down hard on the last oak step.
I am flying, hit the open door ass down burning the astro-turf hands stretched ahead holding the revolver I expect to shoot and kill and die it seems one thing - where evil has been. I will come in under the bastard and blow out his guts with the soft-nose 357s. I am thinking this sliding through the empty, open door so heavy a tank could not drive through it onto the patio ... my eyes fill with sweat and the empty door ... then because of pain and fear and the heaviness I believe time becomes very slow.
Tenths of-a-second ... a matter of 0.3 seconds ... what I see and hear . I hear beating of raindrops on the vacuum. To my left there is movement. To my front ... he is a nondescript pudgy man, and in height and width and clothing not hidden yet dim.. A thin lapel flaps in the marsh breeze. He smiles an un-noticeable smile, as are movements with his right hand. Nothing has changed in him, from the man I saw on the beach.
Perhaps once he worked through mentally what he is doing, has done ... He stands at the end of the dock. He has stood there many times measuring distance and angle and speed. I believe he was born at the end of such docks as mine, and the gentle, tidal rocking does not disturb him, or Peachys bllod on his hand disturb the cold, artless swing of his right arm or the steadiness and meanness of the long-barreled 25-caliber barrel growing from the right hand, and I believe he has killed Peachy and wishes to clean-the-slate with me.
I can hear air swish as the arm moves, and grumbles of a boat-motor behind him ... how he will escape. I can look down the steel barrel of his weapon, to the lead slug about to escape and looking beyond that to his grey Hawaiian shirt and the screaming cockatoos why do they scream? Nothing matters, now I am jerking at the S&W trigger the barrel flies high slugs screaming into the swamp. Explosions and the groan of a metal trigger squeezing ... Sounds dance in my ear ... and the smiling man has not only crouched, but jerks his head - a hot razor has sliced a path over my left ear. It leaves pain and blurs my eyes, but ... but I think the smiling man also is flying - high and back ... he is flying now wasps pluck at his chest and the screaming grey cockatoos spit fountains of red. Then black ...
Christ it burns ... I touch my head. There's a rough bandage over an ear. I hear the word “bastard...” Rain beats on us, and a sticky salt taste covers my mouth.
The whisky tastes good, and Nicks drawl hacks at me. “A scratch, Hricko, only a scratch so quit groaning. You got insurance?”
On the dock. It sweeps at my legs like spring breakers. Pain chews my back where the oak has chewed. Nothing matters. Nick is somehow balancing and tearing at the killers gun and counting numbers. “Where's the frail,” he asks coldly?”
“I feel sick, ” I say and vomit into the water ...
Upright. Shaking sense back into my head. Rocking cross-leg now on the livingroom floor. The oak feels cold. Somewhere west on the Island a siren wails closer. Nick says. “Those two shots ya squeezed off bought me a couple seconds. Nice work for a Catholic.”
I shake my head. “Pure reptile brain.”
“Every little bit helps. You been goin' ta church lately?”
“How did you know ...?”
“What the hell, Hricko I gotta blow your nose? It was the stiff! Local talent's only for protection. Question was, who was The-Lip protecting before he got stiff? Answer not you, Hricko, not then.”
We sit across at the kitchen table. Coffee mugs steam bourbon stench. Nick is saying, “ ... must be a hundred black-shoes, Feds, snipers crawling Breech Inlet. Soon as Botties house came under fire, Rambos dropped from the clouds they must have expected something ... Hricko I'm gonna tear out your guts if you expected something ...”
Peachy! My front door alarm howls. We are both fully awake, Nick with his 40-caliber stop-cop me grasping the S&W we race to the door Nick is shouting “... killer ...' but I am insane dashing first blocking his shot grasping the door handle then yanking ... In the open behind Peachy's soaked windbreak water is not blowing in but streaming. Blonde hairs stream about her face. A pearl-handle 25-caliber slips limply from her palm into my hand. She shudders. Her Gaelic cheeks have gone pale and she breaths short quick gasps like a falling bird.
“Dear God in heaven, Benji your Ford's a fearsome ride, but ...” She is falling into my arms. "... do na' maugre and ..." Top of her shoulder, where the jacket flap hangs over a small caliber slug has punched through. “...yer mis me luv ... ?”