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A big noisy wind out of the northeast, full of a February chill, herded the tourists off the afternoon beach, driving them to cover, complaining bitterly. It picked up gray slabs of the Atlantic and smacked them down on the public beach across the highway from Bahia Mar. It rattled loose sand across the windshields of the traffic, came into the cramped acres of docks and boat basin, snapped the burgees and went hoooo in the spiderwebs of rigging and tuna towers. Fort Lauderdale was a dead loss for the tourists that Saturday afternoon. They would have been more comfortable back in Scranton.
I was cozied up in the big lounge of the Busted Flush, my houseboat moored at Slip F-18. My electric heat was turned to high-high. I was stretched out on the big yellow couch and clad in ratty old wool slacks and an old Norm Thompson flannel shirt, faded to a sky blue over the treasured years.
A few days earlier I had junked my old speakers in favor of a pair of AR-3's, and had bracket-mounted them on the far wall. The Scott tuner was locked into WAEZ in Miami, and the Fisher amplifier was driving the new speakers very handsomely. They were broadcasting that Columbia recording of Bernstein conducting the Shostakovich Fifth, one hell of a big bold heroic piece of music, and I had the gain high enough to do it justice. You could shut your eyes and float on it.
Skeeter was across the room, hunched over her drawing board. She was wearing gray corduroy coveralls, too big for her. All her clothes always seem too big for her. She is thirty, I think, and looks eighteen. She has cobweb blonde hair, constantly adrift, a Raggedy Ann face, and a narrow graceful immature figure. She is not very well organized, but she makes a pretty fair living doing illustrations for children's books under the pseudonym of Annamara. My friend Meyer found her on the beach a year or so ago. That hairy, ugly, charming fellow can walk down a beach and collect a rare people the way anyone else might pick up a left-handed whelk.
She worked with the top of her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. She was doing line drawings of a dissolute field mouse named Quimby. She was working at my place because they had repainted her apartment three blocks away, and the smell made her nauseous, and she had a deadline to meet. Once upon a time, when I had been feeling shattered by the loss of someone very dear to me, we had drifted sideways into a brief affair. We had found we weren't very good for each other on that kind of basis. We seemed to bring out a talent in each other for chipping away at the weak points. The infighting got a bit bloody, and though we felt obligated to pretend otherwise, it was a relief to both of us to call it off and find our way into a casual and off-handedly affectionate friendship.
At the big parts of the music she would use her drawing pen to help Bernstein conduct, and then go back to mouse work. She had uncovered an unexpected talent for making Navy grog, and I had a mild and pleasant glow from the ones she had fixed me. She had made her own weaker. Quimby demanded her sober attentions.
Into the resonant blare of the music came the frail little overpowered bing-bong of my bell. I have a button board affixed to a dock post, and a chain across the dock end of my small gangplank.
I got up and went and took a look. It was a tall girl out there, a tall girl in a severe dark suit, with a purse that managed to give the same impression as a brief case. She stood erect, pretending there was no wind at all. She looked as if she might be going around enrolling people in a business school. As I peered out at her, she punched the button again. There was no hesitancy about her.
I went out onto the rear deck and up the broad short slant of gangplank to face her across the chain. Her survey of me looked inclusive, and I couldn't tell if she registered approval or disapproval. I get both kinds. I am extra-big. I have been out in the weather. I look lazy and am. In the words of a Texas chick one time, I look as if I had been there and back.
She had black hair. Male musicians often wear theirs longer. She had vivid dark eyes, heavy black brows, a rather long face, high flat cheekbones and a ski-jump nose. The mouth saved the face from austerity. It was full and broad and nicely modeled. She looked fashionable, competent and humorless.
"Mr. Travis McGee?" she asked. She had a furry contralto.
"I am Dana Holtzer. I couldn't reach you by phone."
"It's turned off, Miss Holtzer."
"I would like to talk to you about a very personal matter."
Sometimes it does happen that way. She had a money look. No jewelry. Earned money. She looked handsomely employed, and she didn't look as if she was in any kind of a jam. An emissary for somebody who was. Had she come along a couple of months sooner, I could not have cared less. But the kitty was dwindling. I was soon going to have to cast about for some profitable little problem. It is nice when they come walking up and save you the trouble of looking.
But caution is always essential. "Are you sure you're talking to the right guy?"
"Walter Lowery in San Francisco mentioned your name."
"What do you know? How is old Walt?"
"All right, I expect." She frowned. "He said to say he misses playing chess with you."
So it was all right. Walt and I never played chess in our lives. Not against each other, at least. But that was the identification tag, if he ever sent anybody along. There are the nosy ones, and the troublemakers, and the cuties, and the official investigators. It is good to have a way to weed the doubtful ones out.
"So come in out of the wind," I said, unhooking the chain, rebooking it after she had eased by me. She was long-waisted, with sturdy shapely calves, moving with the grace many women with that kind of build have. Her back was flat and erect, her carriage good.
I opened the door and ushered her into the blast of music. Skeeter gave her an absent-minded glance, a vague smile, and continued her work. I left the music on and took Miss Holtzer on through the lounge and past the galley to the little dining booth. I closed the door from the lounge to the galley corridor.
"Nothing, thank you," she said, sliding into the booth.
I poured a mug of coffee for myself and sat opposite her. "I'm not interested in every little thing that comes along," I said.
"We're aware of that, Mr. McGee."
"You do know how I operate."
"I think so. At least, I know what Mr. Lowery said about it. If something has been taken from someone, and there is no way to get it back legally, you will make an effort to get it backfor half its value. Is that correct?"
"I have to know the circumstances."
"Of course. But I would rather have . . . the other party explain it all to you."
"So would I. Send him around."
"It's a woman. I work for her."
"Send her around."
"That's impossible, Mr. McGee. I have to take you to her."
"Sorry. If she's in enough trouble to need me, she's in enough trouble to come ask me herself, Miss Holtzer."
"But you don't understand. Really. She just couldn't come here. She would have talked to you if I could have gotten you on the phone. I work for . . . Lysa Dean."
I knew what she meant. That face was too distinctive, even in the darkest sunglasses in town. She wouldn't want to come on such a private mission with a police escort. And if she came alone, the boobs would recognize her at a hundred paces and come clotting around, pressing in as close as they could, standing and staring at her with that curious fixed, damp, silly smile, America's accolade to the celebrity. Ten big movies, four fairly messy marriages, one television series fiasco, and a few high-paid guest spots had made her a household face. Liz Taylor, Kim Novak and Doris Day would take the same stomping among the star-dazed common folk. The public is an untrustworthy animal.
"I can't imagine Lysa Dean in a situation where she thinks she'd need me."
I thought I saw a little glimmer of distaste on the rather somber face of Miss Efficiency. "She'd like to talk to you about it."
"Let me see. Walter did a script for her once upon a time."
"They've been friends ever since."
"Would you say her problem fits into the way I operate?"
She frowned. "I think so. I don't know all the details."
"Aren't you in her confidence?"
"On most things. But as I said, I don't know all the details of this. It's been a personal kind of thing. But it is . . . something she wants to get back. And it's valuable to her."
"I can't promise anything. But I'll listen to her. When?"
"Now, if you could manage it, Mr. McGee." The symphony ended. I got up and went and turned the set off. When I came back Miss Holtzer said, "We'd rather you didn't mention this to anyone. Even her name."
"I was just going to run out and tell a few friends."
"I'm sorry. I've gotten so used to trying to protect her. She's beginning a promo for Winds of Chance, starting Monday. The world premiere will be next Saturday night in eight Miami theaters. We came early hoping for a chance to see you. She's staying at the house of a friend now. She'll move over to the hotel penthouse on the beach tomorrow evening. She'll have a full schedule, starting Monday."
"Have you worked for her very long?"
"Two years. A little over two years. Why?"
"I wondered what you call yourself."
"She tote a big staff around?"
"Not really. On the road like this there's just me and her personal maid, her hairdresser, and the man from the agency. Really, I would rather you asked her the questions. Could you . . . get ready to go see her?"
"Yes. I have a car waiting, Mr. McGee. If . . . I could make a call?"
I took her into the master stateroom. The phone extension is in a compartment in the headboard. She looked up the number in a black leather note book from her big purse. She dialed the operator and made it a credit-card call. "Mary Catherine?" she said. "Please tell her that our friend is coming back with me. No, that's all. Pretty soon now. Thank you, dear."
She stood up and looked around the room. I could not tell if the huge bed repelled her or amused her. I was tempted to explain it. It startled me that I should want to tell her that it had been part of the furnishings when I had won the craft in a long poker siege in Palm Beach. The man wanted another advance to stay in the game, this last time putting up his Brazilian mistress as collateral, under the plausible assumption that she too went with the boat, but his friends saved me the delicate problem of refusal by leading him gently away from the game.
Miss Holtzer did not look particularly austere. She just looked as if she might put people in handy categories.
She decided she would pour herself some coffee while I changed, if that was permitted. I put on the very infrequent necktie, and a fairly heavy suit. When we went back into the lounge, Skeeter said, "Hey, both of you look at this lousy mouse a minute."
She showed us the drawing just completed. "This is when Quimby finds out for sure he's really a mouse. That cat just told him. He's crushed. He thought he was a real small pedigree dog. But I think maybe he looks more scared than crushed. When you look at it, is it as if he's scared of the cat?"
"It's absolutely charming!" Dana Holtzer said. "What a horrid thing, really, to find out that all along you've been a mouse."
"Quimby can't adjust," Skeeter said.
They smiled nicely at each other. "Dana Holtzer, Mary Keithknown as Skeeter. We have to run. Skeet, make sure you lock up if I don't get back before you go."
"Sure. What's bugging him is all that trouble learning to bark."
"Forage if you get hungry."
But she was back at work, insulated and intent. Miss Holtzer and I headed into the wind, toward the parking areas. She said, "That's a dear strange girl, and very talented. Is she a special friend?"
"They've just painted her apartment so I told her she could work on the boat. She has a deadline."
Within another three steps, Miss Holtzer had tucked the escaping loose ends of personality back into her executive secretary shell. I had a memory of how pleasure in the mouse had brought her alive, younger and surprisingly more vivid. But it was not in her manner or habit to give anything away. She would do her job, reserved, armored, efficient. She was not being paid to react to people, nor to show her own reactions, if any.
A glittering black Chrysler limousine was waiting, tended by a middle-aged man in dove-gray uniform with silver buttons. He touched his cap and opened the door for us. He looked like a television U. S. Senator. And he had that uncanny ability of the skilled chauffeur to drift a big car through traffic with such rhythm that the bunglings of other drivers seemed like an untidy and unimportant mirage.
"Miss Dean's car?" I asked.
"Oh, no. It belongs to the people where we're staying."
"When did you get in?"
"That's a good trick."
"Chartered airplane," she said.
There was glass between us and the barbered neck of the skilled driver. Her face was turned away from me, looking placidly out at the gray day.
"Yes?" she said, turning with polite query.
"I'd like to know if I am right or wrong. I get this impression of quiet disapproval."
I thought I saw a flicker of bleak amusement. "Is that sort of thing so important to you, Mr. McGee?"
"I've never thought so."
"Mr. McGee, in the past two years I've been sent on so many curious errands, I would have become quite worn out if I'd tried to make value judgments about them."