On the most beautiful day any April could be asked to come up with, I was kneeling in eight inches of oily water in the cramped bilge of Meyer’s squatty little cabin cruiser, the John Maynard Keynes, taking his automatic bilge pump apart for the third time in an hour.
The socket wrench slipped, and I skinned yet another knuckle. Meyer stood blocking out a sizable piece of the deep blue sky. He stared down into the bilge and said, “Very inventive and very fluent. Nice mental images, Travis. Imagine one frail little bilge pump performing such an extraordinary act upon itself! But you began to repeat yourself toward the end.”
“Would you like to crawl down in here and—”
He backed up a hasty half step. “I couldn’t deprive you of the pleasure. You said you could fix it. Go ahead.”
I got it apart again. I spun the little impeller blade and suddenly realized that maybe it turned too freely. Found the set screw would take a full turn. Tightened it back down onto the shaft. Reassembled the crummy little monster, bolted it down underwater, heaved myself up out of the water, sat on the edge of the hatch, and had Meyer flip the switch. It started to make a nice steady wheeeeeeng, gouting dirty bilge water into the Bahia Mar yacht basin.
Meyer started to applaud, and I told him to save it until we found out if the adorable thing would turn itself the hell off like it says in the fine print. It took a good ten minutes to pump the water out. Then it went weeeeeeng-guggle-chud. Silence.
“Now cheer,” I said.
“Hooray,” he said mildly. “Thank you very much and hooray.” I looked at him with exasperation and affection. My mild and bulky friend with the wise little blue eyes, bright and bemused, and with the bear hair, thatch black, curling out of the throat of his blue knit shirt.
“Another half inch of rain last night,” I told him, “and you could have gone down like a stone.”
He had stepped out of his bunk in the dark after the rain stopped and into ankle deep water. He had sloshed over to my houseboat, the Busted Flush, and told me he had a small problem. At three in the morning we had toted my auxiliary pump over and set it on the dock and dropped the intake hose into his bilge. His home and refuge was very low in the water, the mooring lines taut enough to hum when plucked. By first light the Keynes was floating high again, and we could turn the pump off and carry it back. Now the repaired automatic bilge pump had taken out the last of the water, but he was going to live in dampness for quite a while.
“Perils of the sea,” he said.
I stepped up onto the dock and squatted and began to rinse the grease and bilge water off my hands under the hose faucet. Meyer shaded his eyes and looked toward the Flush. “You’ve got a visitor, Travis. Isn’t that what’s-his-name?”
I stood up and stared. “It sure is. Good old what’s-his-name. Harry Broll. Do you think that son of a bitch has come to try me again?”
“After the showing last time . . . Was it two years ago?”
“I think he’s at least bright enough not to try again.”
“Not the same way. But he did catch me with one very nice left. True, he broke his hand, but it was one to remember.”
Harry turned and saw me when I was about fifty feet away. He was big, and he had gotten bigger since I’d seen him last. More gut and more jowls. Not becoming. He wore a pale beige suit, a yellow shirt, and he had a chocolate-colored neckerchief with an ornate, gold slip ring.
He raised his hands in the most primitive gesture of reassurance. Palms out. Sickly smile to go with it. As I came up to him he said, “Hi, McGee.” He put his hand out. I looked at it until he pulled it back. He tried to laugh. “Jesus, are you still sore?”
“I’m not sore, Harry. Why should we shake hands?”
“Look. I want to talk to you. Are you busy or anything?”
“About Mary. I know you’ve got no reason in the world to do me any favors. But this concerns . . . Mary’s well-being.”
“Is something wrong with her?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really know.”
I studied him. He seemed concerned and upset. He had the pallor of desk work. His black hair had receded since I had seen him last. He said, “I couldn’t think of anybody else to come to. I can say please if it’ll help. Please?”
“Come on aboard.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
We went into the lounge. I had on an old pair of denim shorts and nothing else. The air-conditioning cooled the sweat on my shoulders and chest. He looked around, nodding and beaming, and said, “Nice. Real nice. A nice way to live, huh?”
“Want a drink?”
“Bourbon, if you’ve got it.”
“On the rocks.”
I put out the bottle and the glass and said, glancing down at my soiled hands, “Ice is in the bin there. Help yourself while I clean up, Broll.”
“Thanks. You sure keep yourself in shape, McGee. Wish I had the time. I guess I better make sure I have the time one of these days.”
I shrugged and went forward, dropped the shorts into the hamper and stepped into the oversized shower, thinking about Mary and wondering about her as I sudsed and scrubbed away the rest of the grime from the repair job. Miss Mary Dillon when I had known her. Then abruptly—maybe too abruptly—Mrs. Harry Broll. When I put my watch back on I saw that it was nearly four o’clock. Meyer and I were invited for drinks at six aboard the Jilly III. I put on fresh slacks, an oyster-white sailcloth sports shirt, my ancient Mexican sandals. On the way back to the lounge I stopped in the galley and put some Plymouth on the rocks.
He was sitting on the yellow couch, and he had lit a small cigar with a white plastic mouthpiece. “It must really be something, being able to just take off any time you feel like it.”
I slouched into a chair facing him, took a swallow of my drink, and put it on the coffee table. “You’ve got a problem, Harry?”
“About that time I made such a damn fool of myself . . .”
“No. Please. Let me say something about that. Like they say, the first year of marriage is the hardest, right?”
“So they say.”
“Well, I knew you and Mary were old friends. I couldn’t help knowing that, right? I mean, you and Meyer came to the wedding and all. I wondered how good friends you had been. I couldn’t help wondering, but I didn’t want to really know. Do you understand?”
“The way it happened, we got into a hassle. It was the first real one we’d had. People shouldn’t drink and fight when they’re married. They say things they don’t want to say. I started saying some pretty ugly things about her and you. You know Mary. She’s got a lot of spirit. She took it and took it, and finally she let me have it right between the eyes. I deserved it. She blazed right up at me. She said she’d been cruising with you alone aboard this houseboat, down through the Keys and up the west coast to Tampa Bay, and she’d lived aboard for a month and cooked your food and washed your clothes and slept in your bed, and you were kind and decent and gentle and twice the man I am. So that Sunday afternoon I slammed out of the house and got in the car and came over here to beat on you. I could always handle myself pretty good. I wasn’t drunk enough for that to be any excuse. Jesus, I never hit so many arms and elbows and shoulders in my life.”
“And the top of my head.”
“That’s what popped the knuckles. Look. This knuckle is still sort of sunk in. How many times did you hit me? Do you know?”
“Sure I know. Twice.”
“Twice,” he said dolefully. “Oh, shit.”
“I waited until you ran out of steam, Harry. I waited until you got arm weary.”
He looked at me in an appraising way. “I wish I’d done more good.”
“I had a pair of sore arms. You bruised me up, Harry. And a three-day headache.”
“I guess I had to get it out of my system. Do you understand it’s still pretty hard for me to come to you to ask for anything?”
“I suppose it might be.”
“Mary kept telling me to grow up. Okay. I’m trying to grow up. I’m trying to be a mature, rational human being. Like they say, I’ve been examining my priorities and my options.”
“Good for you. But where do I fit in?”
“Here’s what I want you to tell Mary.”
“Give me a chance. Okay? Tell her that as soon as the SeaGate project is all set up, I think we ought to get away, just the two of us. A cruise or fly over to Spain, whatever. And tell her that the Canadian girl didn’t mean a damn thing to me, that I didn’t bring her back down here or ask her down, that she came on her own. And tell her to please get in touch with me so we can talk.”
“Hold it! I don’t know where Mary is.”
His face turned red. “Don’t give me such crap. You willing to let me search this houseboat?”
“She isn’t here, you damn fool.”
“I’ll find something of hers. Clothes, lipstick, something.”
“Harry. Jesus. Look around all you want.”
He settled back in the chair. “Okay. You and Mary knew I’d come here sooner or later. So you haven’t been having your fun aboard this boat.”
“That’s called paranoia, old buddy. When did she leave you?”
I stared at him in disbelief. “This is the fourteenth day of April. You have a slow reaction time.”
“I’ve been hoping she’d come back or get in touch. Tell her how much I’ve been hoping. She caught me dead to rights. She went around the house with a face like a stone for nearly two weeks, then when I got home that Tuesday, she’d packed and left. No note, even. I went down the list of her friends and called them. It was humiliating for me.”
“Now just one damn minute—”
“What makes you think she’d come to me?”
“I thought about it. I mean, back in January. It seemed like the most likely thing for her to do. I spent a whole weekend hanging around here. You had . . . another friend. So I decided if Mary had come here, she’d found you were busy, gone someplace else.”
“She didn’t come here, Harry.”
“Not right away.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
He leaned forward. “Okay. Where were you at ten o’clock on Friday morning, April second?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“You and Mary came off this houseboat at ten that morning, and you went out to the parking lot and got into a white Ford LTD convertible with rental plates. A friend of mine happened to be here and happened to see the two of you get in and drive off. This friend followed you. You went over to the Parkway and turned south toward Miami, and he came back, and he phoned me about it.”
“Are you willing to listen a minute? Are you willing to try to listen?”
“All I know is my wife left me and she’s sleeping with you, McGee, and I’d like to see you dead.”
“The woman I was with is about Mary’s height, and her figure is just as good, at least as good as Mary’s used to be. Her hair is dark like Mary’s. The woman is an old friend. That’s her rental convertible, and it’s still out there on the lot. With her hair in a scarf and dark glasses, she was all prepared for a trip in an open car. She’s here aboard her boat. Her name is Jillian Brent-Archer. I haven’t seen Mary since the wedding. Not once, Broll. And that was better than three years ago.”
He looked at me. “You’re real cute, McGee. Jesus, you’re cute. Most of the damn fools in this world would believe you. Are you going to tell Mary what I told you to tell her, what I’ve begged you to tell her?”
“How can I, when I don’t even know . . .”
And the dumb little weapon came out from under his clothes somewhere, maybe from the waist area, wedged between the belt and the flab. A dumb little automatic pistol in blued steel, half-swallowed in his big, pale, meaty fist. His staring eyes were wet with tears, and his mouth was twisted downward at the corners. The muzzle was making a ragged little circle, and a remote part of my mind identified it as .25 or .32 caliber, there not being all that much difference between a quarter of an inch diameter and a third of an inch. There was a sour laugh back in another compartment of my skull. This could very possibly be the end of it, a long-odds chance of a mortal wound at the hand of a jealous husband wielding something just a little bit better than a cap gun. The ragged circle took in my heart, brain, and certain essential viscera. And I was slouched deep in a chair facing him, just a little too far away to try to kick his wrist. He was going to talk or shoot. I saw his finger getting whiter, so I knew it was shoot.
I shoved with my heels and went over backward in the chair. The weapon made a noise like somebody slapping shingles together. My left heel went numb. I rolled to my right, knocked over a small table, fielded the chunky glass ashtray on the first bounce, rolled up onto my knees, and slung it underhand at his head as he came up out of the depths of the yellow couch. I missed him shamefully, and was caught there too close to him as he aimed at the middle of my face from five feet away and tried to pull the trigger. But the slide was all the way back, the clip empty.
I got slowly up onto very wobbly knees as Harry Broll lowered the gun to his side, relaxed his hand, let it fall. My heel tingled. A slug had grooved the hard leather on the bottom of the heel. The lounge smelled like the Fourth of July.
Harry’s big face wrinkled like a slapped baby, and he took a half step toward me, arms half reaching out for comfort and forgiveness, and then he plumped back down on the couch and bellowed once, a walrus on a lonely strand.
My drink was gone, spilling when the table went over. I moved cautiously, checking myself for any area that might feel dead and damp. That is the bullet feel, dead, damp, and strange, before the torn nerves and muscles catch up and begin screaming. No such areas. I made tall careful steps into the galley, made a new drink. I went back in. Harry Broll sat with face in hands, snuffling drearily. The paper had kept me aware of him over the years. Broll plans new condominium complex. Broll given zoning board exception. Broll unveils shopping plaza concept. Chamber lauds Broll.
I sat opposite him again after putting the chair back on its legs. Looking around, I could count five ejected cartridge cases.
“How old are you, Harry?”
He sighed and mumbled it into his hands. “Thirty-five.”
“You look fifty.”
“Get off my back.”
“You’re too soft and too heavy. You sweat a lot, and you’re short of breath, and your teeth need cleaning.”
He lifted his mottled face and stared at me. “Why are you saying these things?”
“Maybe if you hadn’t gotten so sloppy, Mary could have given you a second chance. Or maybe it was already a second chance.”
“Oh, no. I don’t play around. Jesus, I haven’t had the time or the energy. This was the first time, I swear.”
“You don’t play around, and you don’t go around killing people.”
“You pushed me too far and—”
“You always carry that thing?”
“You brought it along in case you felt like killing me?”
“Thank God, I missed you. I’m not thinking right lately. Everything would have gone down the drain. Everything.”
“It would sort of spoil my day, too.”
“You know, when a man takes a good look at himself, he begins to wonder why. You know? I’ve been pushing myself hard. Drinking too much, smoking too much. Late nights. Conferences. For what? Damned if I know. For the sake of winning? How did that get to seem so important? But you shouldn’t have tried to lie to me, McGee.”
“Your friend is an idiot. Mary never came near me. She hasn’t phoned me or written me. I didn’t know she’d left you. Look, I knew her a long time ago. She was at one of those crisis points in her life. She’d never met you, Harry. Never seen you, never heard your name, never knew she’d marry you. We were friends. We took a cruise down through the Keys and up the west coast, and she got things sorted out. We made love. Not for the first two weeks of the cruise. That wasn’t the purpose of it. Once all the knots and springs began to loosen up, then it seemed like a natural thing to have happen. It made pleasure. It was a way of saying hello. Nobody was a victim. She was a very sweet lady, and what I remember best is that we laughed a lot.”
“I . . . I have to talk to her before the thirtieth.”
“Why the deadline?”
“It’s a business thing. Some things to sign. To protect my interest in SeaGate. Of course, if I’d shot you, what difference would it make whether I kept my share of SeaGate or not?”
“Will it make a lot of difference when I sign the complaint against you?”
“Assault with a deadly weapon. Attempted homicide?”
“What’s to stop me? My undying affection for you?”
He pulled himself together visibly. He wrapped up the emotions and put them on a high shelf. I could almost see the nimble brain of the entrepreneur take over. “We’ll both have versions of what happened here, McGee. I’m essentially a salesman. I think I can sell my version far easier than you can sell yours.”
“What’s your version?”
“I’ll let that come as a surprise to you.”
I could think of several variations that could leave him looking pretty good. And, of course, there was the usual problem of believability. Does one believe Harry Broll, pillar of the business community, or a certain Travis McGee, who seems to have no visible means of support, gentlemen?
“A man as shrewd as you, Harry, should realize that the guy who gave you the bad information made an honest mistake.”
“I know Mary. She’d get in touch with you.”
“Would that she had.”
“A troubled friend is a friend in trouble. I’m right here. She could have come around, but she didn’t.”
“She made you promise not to tell where she is.”
I shook my head. “Broll, come with me. I will show you that rental convertible, and I will show you the lady who rented it and who went to Miami with me and came back with me.”
“It’s a nice try. You’ve got a lot of friends. They’d all lie for you. Every one. Think it over. Tell her what I said. She has to get in touch with me.”
We stood up. I picked up his little automatic, released the catch and eased the slide forward and handed it to him. He took it and looked at it, bounced it on his big hand, and slipped it into his side pocket. “I better get rid of it,” he said.
“If you think you might get any more quaint ideas, you better.”
“I was going to scare you. That’s all.”
I looked him over. “Harry. You did.”
“Tell her to call the office. I’m not living at home. It was too empty there.”
“If after all these years I should happen to see your wife, I’ll tell her.”