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Eyes of the World
By Rob Palmer Dorchester Publishing
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Lime Key
Mike Stanbridge kept a photograph tucked in his bedroom mirror. He stared at it as he pulled on his swimming trunks. He'd taken it eighteen months earlier, using a Polaroid camera set on auto-timer. It was in Hawaii, at a sprawling beachfront home on the Big Island. He could remember exactly the clean smell of the air and the sound of the raindrops pelting the trees outside.
There were two people in the picture: Mike and a woman. They sat on a rattan sofa, his hand in her lap, her head against his shoulder. Their smiles were contented, and, though she wore only a silk robe, the pose seemed casual, not sexy. She wore no makeup; her blonde hair was uncombed. Just risen from bed. A couple on a second honeymoon, perhaps. But, no. There'd been no honeymoon for these two. She was married to another man.
Her name was Carolyn Connor, and she was, without a doubt, the most famous woman in the world. Lynnie (as she was called by the few billion people who cared about such things) was president of the United States.
They had argued a bit about the picture, and that was why he'd settled for the Polaroid. There was no digital file, no film to be developed, no negative. Just the snapshot for Mike to keep.
His gaze lingered on the photo, on Lynnie's face. Leaving it out where someone might see it was risky. Sure, other politicians had had affairs, flings really. Mike knew the scorecard: Bill and Monica; Gary Hart and Donna Rice; Wilbur Mills and his Argentine Firecracker. Some had survived, kept their careers alive. But this thing between Mike and Lynnie was different. If the story-the whole story-behind that picture unraveled, Lynnie Connor's carefully constructed world would come crashing down.
So why keep the picture in the mirror? So he could look at it every time he came into the room. He'd read about people who needed special lamps in the winter, to make up for the lack of sunlight. For Mike, it was Lynnie who kept his battery charged.
Smiling, he patted the photo and went into the bathroom for his skin cream. The ointment was his own concoction of cocoa butter, aloe, and vitamin E oil. He needed it to keep his skin moist. Otherwise the stiffness and itching drove him crazy.
Through the window over the whirl pool tub he could see the Atlantic, milky blue today. Ismail Hussani was out in his bonefish skiff, a long-billed cap pulled down over his eyes, his fly rod flicking back and forth. Ismail was a perfect neighbor for Mike, quiet and studious, never prying, and, like most residents of Lime Key, Ismail was rich. Most residents, that is, except Mike.
Mike was here as a house sitter. The owners lived in London and had only visited twice since they bought the home four years earlier. Their taste was a little over-the-top for him-Roche-Bobois furniture, original Miró paintings, antique Persian rugs-but the place was way beyond tolerable. Before coming here, Mike had had his own home in the Miami suburbs. One weekend he saw the "house sitter wanted" ad and something clicked in his mind: the slow pace in the Keys; living free-form for a while. He sold out and moved down and hadn't regretted it for a minute. Over the micro wave in his kitchen he had a sign, one his father had made for him before he died: NEVER OWN ANYTHING YOU NEED TO PAINT OR FEED.
Lime Key wasn't a separate island but a tiny section of Key Largo, a walled-off enclave of twenty stucco mansions with pea-gravel yards off a winding concrete driveway. There was a security gate, complete with armed guard. Four men worked full-time keeping up the grounds. Getting hired as a house sitter there might have been difficult, but Mike had the right qualities. "He's a lawyer," the property manager told the owners, "but he doesn't have his own clients. Does work for a big firm up in Miami. He'll be perfect."
The newspaper was out on the stoop. Mike checked the front page: no picture of Lynnie. There was an article about the campaign. The election was only a few weeks away. He scanned the lead paragraphs. Lynnie was expected to do well in the final two debates.... Still up in the polls ... Mike yawned and tossed the paper on the kitchen counter. It was Lynnie he was interested in, not politics.
The sun was on the east deck. As he sat down the glass door at the next house slid open. Music spilled out. Sixties' rock, the Raspberries or the Association, Mike wasn't sure which. Wally MacMasters, Mike's other neighbor, stepped out. Mike had an urge to head back inside, like a turtle into its shell, but this afternoon he needed to start work on a brief for that law firm up in Miami. He'd be locked away for four days, no phone, no distractions. He needed some time outside.
Wally was a Canadian, a big man who'd made a fortune manufacturing plastic garbage cans. Shortly after his fiftieth birthday he sold out and retired to Florida. Today, as usual, he had a woman with him, a chesty young thing in a string bikini. Both were drinking piña coladas from parfait glasses. It was just after ten in the morning. Wally waved at Mike and pointed at the woman. "Christa!" Mike had seen Wally do the same thing with his car. Point. "Jaguar!" And the obscene statue he kept in his living room. Point. "Pre-Colombian!"
Mike nodded and bent over, dabbing ointment on his leg. Christa watched, holding the deck railing because she was a little tipsy. She worked in the men's department at Macy's at Dadeland Mall, south of Miami. Sizing up men was her job. That's where she'd met Wally. One day he breezed in, tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Bomber jackets, I'll take two. One black, one brown. Wanna have lunch with me?" Not much to figure out there. But this neighbor-this Stanbridge character-he was a lot more complicated.
He had neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and a face that was perfectly handsome-not cute or adorable, just the sort of handsome that played well in the movies. His eyes were like the ocean, sparkling blue, underlaid with something smoky. He was tall, well over six feet, but so thin he appeared slight-the dead opposite of Wally. What really caught her attention were the scars. They ran in a mass up Mike's right side and back, from knee to shoulder. There was one on his neck, a narrow purple streak that probed like a tentacle to the base of his jaw. There was a girl in the perfume department at Macy's with scars like that on her arm. Burn scars.
Christa knew she shouldn't stare, but she couldn't help herself. Still rubbing the cream in, Mike glanced up into her eyes. His expression was placid, a hint of dry humor. He knew what she was thinking: God, how can you live with that?
Christa started to mumble an apology but cut herself off. It's his fault, coming out here, just swim trunks on. Irritated, she turned away from him.
Mike closed his eyes and settled back, hoping they'd get bored and go inside. No dice. Wally, four coladas to the wind, wanted to dance. And Christa was some dancer, lithe and quick. Before long Wally collapsed onto a bench, panting. He hooted in appreciation.
Mike opened his eyes. Christa was watching him, shimmying. See? Who's staring now? He started to get up, go inside, and one-two-three she slipped her hands up her back, undid her bikini top, and tossed it aside.
Wally put his hands out as if warding off a ghost. "No, honey, put 'em back! Somebody'll call the cops or somethin'!"
Mike chuckled and shook his head.
Christa's face had gone grim. Jerks-laughing at her. She grabbed her top and stormed into the house. "Honey?" Wally called after her. "Wassamatter?"
She didn't answer, and Wally made no attempt to follow. He wagged his head from side to side, a way of saying who knows? He lifted his glass to Mike. "Wanna come over for some cocktails?"
"No. I need to swim and then lock down and do some work."
Wally wagged his head again. "Workin' man's blues. Yours sure must be interesting. I've never seen anybody go underground like you when you're busy. When I was in it-Who's that?"
"What?" Mike said, smiling. He was used to Wally's practical jokes.
"That man in your kitchen."
Mike turned in time to see someone with a green knapsack disappear into the bedroom. He bolted after him, knocking his chair over on the way.
They squared off next to the bed. The man had a silver wand in his hand, attached by a hose to a metal canister in the knapsack. The logo on his greasy watch cap said bug/out. He gave Mike a perfunctory salute with the wand and said, "Yeah, what?" His name was Mel, according to the stitching on his shirt.
"How the hell did you get in here?"
"Front door. You the new owner?" Mel's accent was throaty and lazy, trueborn Florida cracker.
"House sitter. You've got a key? You come in here all the time?" Mike had edged around so he was blocking the photo on the mirror.
"Not all'a time, like I'm gonna be eatin' your bean dip or nothin'. Just need t' keep the palmettos down." Palmetto bugs were the Florida version of cockroaches-two inches long, big enough to crunch underfoot.
"I moved in in July," Mike said. "You've been here since then?"
"We come every month," Mel said. He bent close, lowered his voice. "But I might'a missed the last few times."
Mike backed against the mirror, covering the photo. It was a dumb maneuver. The picture came loose and drifted to the floor. Mel retrieved it without a glance. "Well, I'll just zap the little boy's room here and the one downstairs and be on my way." He pushed into the bathroom while Mike gave a nod and slipped the picture into the pocket of his swimsuit.
After Mel left, Mike paced the upper floor-bedroom, living room, den. He could feel the Polaroid in his pocket. When he got to the kitchen, he looked out across the deck. Wally had gone inside.
Mike slid the glass door closed and locked it. He checked the other doors. All secure. Then he went downstairs to the family room. In the corner was a fireplace, a neat adobe half- oval, never used.
He hated fire so much his hand shook just reaching for the matchbox. He placed the photo on the bricks and slipped a lit match underneath. The edges curled and began to char. The figures-Mike and Lynnie-drew together, merging, disappearing. When nothing remained but ashes, he doused them with water, then cleaned everything up.
It was nearly noon when Mike started his swim. The tide was so far out the water at the end of the dock was only knee-deep. He waded straight out to sea. Because of his scars, Mike had a slight limp, and he always enjoyed the partial weightlessness of being in the water. After a hundred yards he approached Ismail's skiff. "Hey," he said quietly, not wanting to spook the fish. "Catch anything?"
"Rays," Ismail replied, tilting his head to the sun. "Catching rays."
Come to think of it, Mike had never seen Ismail bring in a fish. "Sounds fun. Watch out for white whales."
Ismail laughed softly. "Backgammon to night?"
"No, I've got to work."
"Big case?" Ismail said.
"Complex-and yes, a lot of money involved."
"See you when you come up for air, then."
"Good luck with the fish."
"Be careful out there, Bridge. Current's strong today."
Bridge. People called him that, though he never encouraged it. Bridge to where? For what? Bridges were things people didn't think about until they collapsed.
He swam smoothly, aiming for tiny Tavernier Key a mile and a half offshore. He thought about the brief he was going to write. A jurisdictional case, the law simple, the facts complex. He had the argument worked out in his head but needed to review the files-boxes and boxes of files. He tried to stay focused on the work, but inevitably, like the quiet spill of the waves, Lynnie came into his mind. Maybe he shouldn't have burned that picture. He could have hidden it; a safety deposit box, maybe. But what would be the point? He'd had the picture to look at, not save for old age.
He jumped up the pace a bit, making his muscles strain and his lungs ache. Too late for that picture now, but he might take another one, next week. That was why he had to hurry and finish the brief. In five days he was going to Blaine, the village in the Adirondacks where he and Lynnie had grown up. It was her forty-third birthday, and the whole town was turning out for a party. She'd promised Mike some private time together. That was during their last phone conversation, three weeks ago. They spoke once a month, on a prearranged schedule. She was the one who placed the calls, not him.
He kept up the bruising pace, enjoying the rush of water over his skin. He thought of the rain in Hawaii; he thought of the smell of Lynnie's hair. He was so focused he didn't notice the shark until it was right beside him, a powerful gray mass, cool eyes judging his size and strength. He must have passed the test for, with a flick of its tail, it disappeared toward deeper water. All this happened in the time it took Mike to make a single stroke.
He might have quit then, gone home with a story to tell. Instead he forged on, not missing a beat. If the shark returned, there was nothing he could do about it. Simple fate. His mind stayed with Lynnie-her smile, her voice, the sigh she sometimes made far in the night, in the middle of a dream. Just five more days.
Excerpted from Eyes of the World by Rob Palmer Copyright © 2008 by Rob Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
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