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The Concrete Flamingo
By Charles Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1958 Charles Williams
All rights reserved.
I was talking sailfish with some man from Ohio when I noticed her. I'd just lit a cigarette and had turned to drop the lighter back in the pocket of the terrycloth robe beside me. She was off to the right and a little behind us, sitting cross-legged on a large beach towel with her face lowered slightly over the book spread open between her knees. At the moment she registered merely as a pair of nice legs and a sleek dark head, but after I'd looked away something about her began to bother me.
'I thought I'd go nuts,' the Ohio man was saying. 'This damn sail must have trailed us a hundred yards. He'd come up behind the bait and follow it like a kitten after a ball of yarn—'
'They'll do that sometimes,' I said. 'Did the skipper try slowing down, and speeding up?'
'Sure. Tried everything. But we never could coax a strike out of him. Finally went down.'
I frowned, thinking of the girl, and turned to shoot another glance at her. Somehow she seemed vaguely familiar, but that still wasn't it exactly. What the devil was it? Then I began to catch on. The pose was phony. She wasn't reading that book; she was listening.
To us? That didn't make sense. What woman would waste her time eavesdropping on a pair of filberts second-guessing a sailfish? But there it was. There were a few sunbathers sprawled around in the vicinity, but ours was the only conversation near enough to be heard. Maybe I was mistaken—No. There was no doubt of it. The little frown of concentration on her face wasn't directed at the book at all, but towards a spot just to the left of it, towards us. And her eyes didn't move when she turned a page.
Well, maybe she was a screwball, or a fisherman herself. But she didn't appear to fit either category—if they were two categories. I tried to tag her, and the only thing I could come up with was clothes-horse, which was a little on the bizarre side in view of the fact she was about seventy per cent naked at the time. I wondered how a woman could look smart, patrician, and faintly elegant while wearing a bathing suit, and decided it must be the chignon and the beautifully tapered hands.
Or the sun, I thought, or the two Martinis. Knock it off. I shrugged, and went back to the conversation. 'You going out again tomorrow?' I asked the Ohio man.
It was a still and muggy afternoon in early November. The place was Key West, and we were lying on the narrow strip of sand in front of the private beach club to which I'd been given a guest card by the motel where I was staying.
'No,' he said. 'My wife wants to go over to Havana. We're taking the plane in the morning. How about you?'
'I don't know,' I said. 'I was hoping to find somebody to split a charter with.'
'I know what you mean,' he replied. 'It's a shame to have to charter the whole boat when you're alone. Damned expensive, and they fish two lines or four just as easy as one.'
I glanced round at the girl, and a slight movement of her face told me I'd almost caught her looking at me. I was conscious again of the impression I'd seen her before. But where? I'd been so many places the past two weeks they were hard to sort out. It couldn't have been here. This was only the third day I'd been in Key West, and the other two I'd spent out in the Stream, fishing. Miami Beach? Chicago? Las Vegas?
Maybe if I saw her with her clothes on, it would help. I tried a tailored suit, and one of the new sheath things, and then some hand-knitted jersey, but got no make. Slacks? She wouldn't be caught dead in them, I decided; women who could wear slacks never did.
The Ohio man looked at his watch and stood up, brushing sand from his thickset body. 'I've got to get back and start packing. Take it easy, pal.'
He departed. The girl went on staring at the pages of her book. Far out, a westbound tanker hugged the edge of the reef to avoid the current of the Stream. I'd better start packing myself, I thought, and get out of Key West. I had to come up with something pretty soon; in another week or ten days I'd be broke. Sooner, if I spent any more on fishing trips.
I wondered about the girl again. Propping myself on an elbow, I glanced round at her. 'What's the world record for dolphin?'
I expected a blank stare, of course, or one right out of the deep freeze, but instead she said calmly, without even looking up, 'Hmmm. Just a moment.' She leafed back through the book and ran her finger down a column. 'Seventy-five and a half pounds. It was taken off East Africa.'
It caught me completely off-balance. She glanced up finally. Her eyes were a very dark blue, almost violet, in a thin but fine-boned face. They regarded me with urbane coolness, but then amusement got the upper hand. 'All right. I was listening.'
I sat up and slid over by her. Picking up the book, I glanced at the jacket. It was a volume on salt-water fishing. 'I wouldn't have said you were a fisherman.'
She reached for the packet of cigarettes at her side. When I held the lighter, she smiled at me over the flame. 'I'm not, as a matter of fact. If you'd asked me for the world's record Striped Limbo, I'd still have tried to look it up.'
'Then why the book?' I asked. 'Your boy friend a fisherman?'
She shook her head. 'No, it's not that. I just wanted to try it.'
'Why?' I asked. She still didn't look like an outdoor type.
'A man I used to work for. He talked so much about marlin and sailfish I decided if I ever had a chance I'd see what the attraction was. Maybe you could tell me something about the boats.'
'Sure,' I said. 'The charter fleet ties up over in Garrison Bight. Along Roosevelt Boulevard, I think it is. Most of them charge sixty a day, but a few are higher. The only one I've fished with is Captain Holt, of the Blue Runner. He's good, and so is his Mate; they'll put you into fish if anybody will. He charges sixty-five.'
'They're rather expensive, aren't they?'
'Nothing's ever cheap about boats,' I said. 'And don't forget you're hiring two men all day, plus gasoline, tackle, bait, and so on. Plus a lot of skill you can get only with experience. Are you alone?'
While I was speaking I noticed the same intent expression on her face I'd seen before. It puzzled me. 'Oh,' she said abruptly, as if she'd been thinking of something else. 'I—yes, I'm alone.'
'Well, look,' I said, 'if you want to go out tomorrow, why don't we team up? It's a lot less expensive—thirty-two dollars fifty apiece.'
She appeared to think about it. 'We-ell—'
'Come on, I'll buy you a drink,' I told her. 'We can talk it over.'
She smiled. 'All right.' I helped her up, and gathered up her towel and my robe. She was a little over average height, I noted, and very slender. Too slender, I thought, to attract much attention among all the stacked and sun-gilded flesh lying around on Florida beaches, but she was smart-looking and exquisitely feminine and she moved nicely. She appeared to be around thirty.
The bar was located on a screened porch at one end of the dining-room. It was empty at the moment except for the white-jacketed barman and two men arguing about the Detroit Lions. We sat down at one of the small tables along the screened wall facing the beach. The barman came over. She ordered a Scotch on the rocks, and I asked for a Martini. A big fan in the corner blew humid air across us.
'My name's George Hamilton,' I said.
She dropped the book on a chair beside her. 'Forsyth. Marian Forsyth. How do you do, Mr. Hamilton?'
'Have you been here long?'
'Just two days,' she replied.
'You know, I keep thinking I've seen you somewhere before.'
Again I was conscious of the urbane amusement in the eyes. 'Really? I thought we had by-passed that one.'
'No,' I said. 'It's on the level. There is something familiar about you. Where are you staying?'
'The Hibiscus Motel, just up the street.'
'Then we're neighbours. I'm there too.'
'That might have been where you saw me. In the lobby, perhaps.'
'I suppose so,' I said. 'But I don't see why I'd be so hazy about it. You're quite striking, you know. I mean, the Black Irish colouring, and the classic line of that hair-do. It sings.'
She propped her elbows on the table, with her chin on her laced fingers, and smiled. 'And what other personality problems do you have, Mr. Hamilton, besides shyness?'
I grinned. 'I'm sorry. Seriously, though, if any Charles or Antoine ever tries to tout off that chignon, shoot him.'
"That seems a little drastic, doesn't it? But—if you insist.' Then she added, 'Incidentally, I'm not Irish. I'm Scottish. My maiden name was Forbes.'
I was reaching for cigarettes in the pocket of the robe, which was on the chair beside me. When I glanced up at her, there was nothing in her face but that same cool good humour. 'Oh?' I said. Then I remarked, 'I didn't know you were married.' She wore no ring.
'I'm divorced,' she said. 'Where are you from, Mr. Hamilton?'
The barman brought over the drinks. 'Texas,' I told her.
She took a sip of the Scotch and looked at me thoughtfully. 'I'd never have known it. You don't sound a bit like a Texan.'
'I'm not a professional,' I said. 'It's a fallacy, anyway. All Texans don't go around saying "Howdy, pardner".'
'Yes, I know. I'm from Louisiana, myself. But I do have a pretty fair ear for accents. You've lost yours entirely.'
'I never really had one,' I said. 'But while we're on this Professor 'Iggins kick, you can spot it if you listen closely. I still boot one occasionally. Thanksgiving, for instance. And afternoon. That over-stressed first syllable is pure Texan.'
She nodded. 'And Southern. You must have a good ear yourself.'
I shrugged. 'I had a little speech training. At one time I was going to be an actor.'
She regarded me with interest. 'But you're not in show business?'
'No,' I said. 'Advertising. But how about the fishing? Do you want to try it?'
'Oh, yes. Very much. But I'm not sure yet I can make it tomorrow. Could I let you know tonight?'
'Sure,' I said. 'Why don't we have dinner together?'
She smiled. 'I'm afraid I couldn't, tonight. But thanks, anyway. Suppose I call you around ten or eleven. Will you be in then?'
I said yes. She asked several more questions about fishing, refused the offer of another drink, and left to go back to the motel. I swam for a while, wondering about her. I couldn't place her at all. Was she really interested in fishing, or was she just a girl away from home looking for a little fun? If the latter, I thought, she had a very cool approach to it. I wondered if she had money. A bathing suit revealed a lot of interesting statistical data, but it didn't say a damn thing when it came to financial status.
I was lying in bed around eleven reading The Hidden Persuaders when the phone rang. 'Well, I can go,' she said eagerly.
'That's great. Here's hoping you land a sail.'
'I just hope we can still get a boat. Do you think they'll all be taken?'
'No,' I said. 'It's the off-season. And I've already talked to Holt; he's open tomorrow. I'll call now and confirm.'
'I hate to keep bothering you with questions,' she apologized, 'but what shall I take? What time do we leave, and how long are we out?'
'What room are you in?' I asked. 'If you're dressed, I could come over—'
The brush was polite, but firm. She was about to go to bed. She repeated the questions.
'Hat, or fishing cap,' I said. 'Long sleeves, dark glasses, tan lotion. That sun is murder. We'll leave the dock at eight, and come in around four-thirty or five. They furnish the tackle; all we have to bring is our lunch. There's a restaurant on Roosevelt that'll be open. I don't have a car, but I'll call a cab—'
'I have one,' she interrupted. 'I'll meet you in the parking area behind the motel at seven-thirty. Will that be all right?'
'Fine,' I said.
'Just one other thing,' she asked. 'Could you tell me what the outriggers are for?'
I wondered why she wanted to go into that in the middle of the night over the phone, but shrugged. She seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about the mechanics of big-game fishing.
'They serve several purposes,' I told her. 'The line is run out from your rod tip and trolled from the end of the outrigger, clipped in a gizmo like a big clothes-pin. Takes the load off your arms, for one thing. And it's springy on the end, so it gives the bait a good action. But the big reason, of course, is the automatic dropback when a sailfish strikes. I suppose the book told you that a billfish of any kind always stuns his bait before he takes it in his mouth. So when he raps it with that bill, it snaps the line off the outrigger; that releases about twenty feet of slack, and the bait stops dead in the water. Just as if it had been alive and he'd killed it.'
'I see,' she said thoughtfully. 'Well, thank you very much, Mr. Hamilton. I'm looking forward to it, and I'll see you in the morning.'
After she'd hung up I lay there thinking about her, studying the whole thing a little warily. She didn't ring true, somehow. Then I dismissed the worry. Hell, she couldn't possibly know me, and I was three thousand miles from Las Vegas. The prospect of another fishing trip was irresistible, anyway, and she might turn out to be a very interesting deal. I don't get you at all, Mrs. Forsyth, but you're beginning to intrigue me. We'll see what we can find out tomorrow.
It wasn't much—at least, not to begin with. And then when I finally did figure out what she was doing, she puzzled me even more.
It was a beautiful day. When I awoke it was a little after seven and already full daylight inside the room. I crossed to the window and parted the slats of the closed Venetian blind. The sky was clear, and fronds of the coconut palms in the courtyard between the two wings of the motel stirred gently in a light breeze that appeared to be from the south or south-east. The Stream would be in lovely shape. I was eager to be under way. When I'd shaved and showered, and emerged from the room with the beach bag containing glasses, fishing cap, tan lotion, and cigarettes, she was just coming out of No. 17, diagonally across from me. She had on a conical straw hat, blue Bermuda shorts, and a simple blouse with long sleeves, and was carrying a big purse. She waved and smiled. 'Good morning, Mr. Hamilton.'
I learned nothing from the car. As the great American status symbol it was useless, because it wasn't hers; it was a hire job she'd picked up at the airport in Miami. She was wearing a watch, however, that had cost at least five hundred. She didn't have much to say while we were eating breakfast, and afterwards, while we were running out to the Stream with the engines hooked up, talking was difficult because of their noise. We sat forward under the canopy to avoid the tatters of spray flung backward as the Blue Runner knifed into the light ground-swell at top cruising speed.
'Is it always this noisy?' she asked, having to raise her voice.
I shook my head. 'Just while we're running out. When we start fishing, we troll on one engine, throttled down. Hardly any noise at all.'
'Oh,' she said, as if relieved.
The boat was a thirty-five-foot sports fisherman with topside controls and big outriggers capable of bouncing a marlin bait. Holt kept her in superb condition so her white topsides sparkled in the sun. He and his Mate were both taciturn types whose sole interest in life was fishing. They were good, too. I'd enjoyed fishing with them.
It was a few minutes before nine and Key West was down on the horizon when we crossed the edge of the Stream shortly to the south and east of Sand Key light. It was beautiful, running dark as indigo in a ragged line beyond the reefs with just enough breeze to ripple the light ground-swell rolling up from the south-east. The Blue Runner slowed, and Sam the Mate came down from topside. He swung out the outriggers, nodded for Mrs. Forsyth to take the port chair, and put out her line, baited with balao. She watched as he clipped it to the outrigger halyard and ran it out to the end. He fitted the butt of the rod into the gimbal in her chair.
She took it and looked round at me. 'Now what do I do?'
Normally I detest people who want to talk when I'm fishing, but this was different. I was curious about her, and becoming more so all the time. 'Just watch your bait,' I said. 'You see it? A little to your right, and about seventy-five feet back?'
Excerpted from The Concrete Flamingo by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1958 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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