I pulled into the parking deck of the building which housed my publisher in Alexandrea, Virginia. They had recently been forced to relocate when the building they’d occupied in Manhattan was sold. I parked between a wall and an empty slot.
I hoped that by parking well away from the side of the deck nearest the building I might avoid some oaf in a big Caddie or Lincoln from opening his door into the side of my now aging 1974 Mercedes Benz 450 SLC.
I had bought it used in 1979 with the first big check I got from my publisher. That was five years ago. It had a few dings and scratches but nothing major. It is my oasis and think tank when I got writer’s block.
PYRENEES PRESS was a modestly sized publishing house. Modest was a fitting description. They published modestly good books. Books that were written by modestly talented writers. I publish my books through them.
I write Murder Mysteries. I don’t call them novels any more than I call myself an author. I’m a writer of books. That I will admit to. Some people would call that splitting hairs, but I don’t. I’ve read great books by talented authors. I’m a writer.
My name is Damon Kelly. My friends call me Duke. I write under a pen name, Mark Dagger. It’s a chance to avoid the criticism of people who also know great narrative prose and would seek to criticize me for not doing better. But the people who buy my books seem to like them. At least, they used to.
I made my way into the building through the gleaming brass and glass doors, past the brown terrazzo foyer with its inlaid map of the globe within a brass ringed circle. I found the bank of elevators on the left. I pressed the little button and waited patiently for the elevator car to arrive. When it opened, the petite blonde receptionist from my publisher’s office stepped out. I didn’t recall her name. She was all smiles and oozing charm. She squealed at seeing me in the lobby. She asked if she could bring me back a coffee. I declined.
I rode up in the polished brass paneled elevator car. The walls gleamed in a mirror like finish. I looked upon my aging countenance. I was dressed, as usual, in a lightweight L.L. Bean cloth parka that had been weather proofed. It was Navy Blue, a color I liked. Under that a navy open collared polo shirt and faded jeans. I had owned the jeans for years. I was there as they faded. I didn’t buy them that way.
I exited the elevator on the top floor of the building. I think PP owned the entire building. I assumed that was why they could display their name prominently above it. I passed through their double glass doors bound in gleaming brass and entered the lobby of my publisher. I wasn’t surprised to see an empty desk when I walked in. I knew the receptionist was out.
The walls were covered in a golden hued burlap above a wainscoted raised panel mahogany colored bottom section. It read plush. Facing me were a collection of book jackets displaying an illustration of some dame in distress from some unseen evil. In the background, a lone figure in a trench coat, upturned collar and a downturned fedora was lighting a cigarette under a lamppost. Atop the display appeared the words Another MARK DAGGER Murder Mystery.
In the center was a large picture of me, dressed in the same upturned trench coat and broad brimmed hat, lighting a cigarette. Thankfully my cupped hands covered the lower half of my face. It made it simpler when someone thought they recognized me. Deniability was a blessing and a comfort.
What was not a comfort, was the display on the right wall of a man in a US Navy baseball cap. This man was smoking a pipe. His face was full frame. His picture was surrounded by two Book Jackets on either side depicting Washington DC landmarks and Naval vessels. These were books of political intrigue. “Thrillers” my agent called them. The man in the photo was defined underneath, DON MURPHY, Pyrenees Press’ Rising Star.
I had been summoned to the offices of my publisher for a “conference.” That’s a polite way of saying “Your books aren’t selling and you’re in trouble, Jack.” I had seen my checks. I knew they were decreasing for a good reason. I wasn’t stupid. I was aware that the public’s taste, my readers’ tastes, had changed. And not in my favor.
The little blonde receptionist returned. She placed her coffee, and something wrapped in a napkin, on her desk. She promised to let Roger know I was here and she’d be just a minute. Normally a young, nubile blonde whose body had reached peak perfection would be a cause of wonder among visitors about what exactly her duties were vis-a-vis the boss, the publisher and head honcho, Roger Remora. That was only if you didn’t know Roger Remora.
Remora. You know. Like the sucker fish that attaches itself to a shark and feeds off the scraps that fall by the wayside. It was a fitting name for a parasite. However, a parasite that I really needed.
Roger Remora appeared in two thirds of a three-piece glen plaid grey-green suit, a gold shirt and a dark maroon regimental tie at half-mast. Very butch. Except for the Mother of Pearl cufflinks. Roger fancied himself to be my very best friend. Then again, Roger had a lot of fancies. It seems we all fantasize about being what we are not.
I followed Roger back into his office. He closed the door behind us. I assumed it was about to get loud. Roger indicated I should sit in one of the two client chairs as he settled in behind his desk. He began with the normal pleasantries by telling me all sorts of personal things about his recent life with his loving wife and daughter. The same wife who’d left him three years before and took their daughter with her. He told me these things almost as if he believed I cared. We both knew I did not.
Eventually he got around to the hog killing. He attempted to soften the blow by telling me that my sales had been “soft.” It was as if I could not read the checks I had been receiving. He said nothing as he pushed a button on his desk and waited silently with his hands in his lap. The door opened, and the little blonde brought in a couple of folders. She gave one to Roger and the second to me before retiring, closing the door behind her. She didn’t look at me when she handed me the folder. That was a bad sign.
Roger opened his folder and laid it on his desk like an open Bible. He leaned forward and rested on his elbows as he covered the material within our contract. He focused in on a portion of the document. He pointed out the terms and conditions of the publishing house’s escape clause. He referenced this to my current sales figures and made it clear that unless those sales figures changed in a very positive way, Mark Dagger would not appear in the spring collection of books from Pyrenees Press.
He suggested that the new hot titles were all espionage and political thrillers. Like the ones that Don Murphy wrote. He suggested that I try that. I had an altogether different suggestion for him. Probably not my best move at that point.
I stood to leave. Roger looked shocked, and then angry. He stood and puffed himself up in defiance. It was a nice try but a bad act. He came off more like a little girl stamping her foot. He yelled at me as I was leaving his office. The gist of his bellowing was that my deadline for the next book was carved in stone and I would fail to meet it at my peril. I assumed he also declined my suggestion as he failed to respond.
I closed the door behind me in a cold sweat. I was in a bind. I needed the money from a new book. A best seller. However, I was not going to let Roger know that. As I stepped into the lobby, the office staff was removing my pictures and display and replacing it with the Don Murphy display. It featured his new book, Traitor’s Tower. The book jacket had an image of the Washington Monument sticking up like an exclamation point. The receptionist didn’t bother to look up at me. She simply continued with her work.
I could see the way things were headed. I was on the way out. Literally and figuratively. Not even the doll behind the desk gave a damn. The big brass bound glass doors swung closed behind me as I made my way to the elevators. The only option was “Down.”
I walked through the lobby without saying a word. I heard nothing until I got off the elevator in the parking garage. I heard my footsteps echoing off the walls of the garage. They were the first sounds I was aware of hearing after I left the office. They came as a surprise. I realized I was experiencing a moment of panic. I stopped and waited for what seemed minutes. I tried to control my breathing.
It was then that the panic stopped and a new sensation began. I felt a combination of pain mixed with anger and the sensation of having just been gut punched. I leaned against the railing of the open section of deck and breathed deeply. I let the anger boil. Then, when it hit its worst, I let it freeze.
My blood had gone, figuratively speaking, from a hundred degrees Celsius to zero in a matter of seconds. Some survival instinct from my misbegotten past took over and made that happen autonomically. I needed a clear head. Something within me recognized that fact and came to my aid.
I climbed into the old sport coupe which was still sitting by itself in the back of the garage. I cranked the old V-8 and let it warm up. When I felt fully in control of my facilities, I pulled away. It was Zen time. Time to cure writers block and sweep away the cares of the day. I did my best thinking in this old beauty and I had a lot of thinking to do.
Rather than head for my home, I turned south onto the Interstate and got out of the city as quickly as I could. The mind-numbing monotony of the divided four lane thoroughfare made entering into my meditation easy. A few hundred miles or so south of the second state line, I turned onto a small rural country road and headed southeast.
I always carried a small leather satchel in the trunk of the little Mustang sized Mercedes. I was known to take spur of the moment trips. One of my past acquaintances said my middle name should be “Impromptu.”
Still, whenever I had to do some serious thinking there was just one way. I drove. This old girl had been with me for a long time. She had been bright, shiny and fast when I bought her. A lot like the dames I ran with back then. The difference was, the Merc was still with me. And I was still with it.
I drove on into evening. The sky turned a lovely shade of pink that turned to peach and then purple before settling into the darkness. The evening was warm for early autumn. A three-quarter moon lit the scene. I was much further south than when I had begun. I let the side windows down and enjoyed the smells of the low country coastal plain.
The road always gave me peace. The cares of my day seemed to wash away as the soft evening breeze blew across the open cockpit of the car. I began to see things more clearly. Without pain or passion, I examined them slowly, carefully and thoroughly. The more I examined them, the more one fact became an evidentiary truth. I spoke it aloud.
“I am soooo screwed.”
This was going to take a lot more thinking. It was late. My gas gauge was headed for the cellar. I found a small station open, so I stopped to fill up the tank. Actually, it was more of an old wooden framed store with three gas pumps in front. The old fellow behind the register was still awake, if not talkative. That was fine. I didn’t feel like talking myself.
As I filled the tank, I noticed some scattered bits of Spanish Moss hanging from the coloring leaves of a large oak. I assumed I must be further south than I realized. Georgia maybe? No. Couldn’t be that deep. My eyes were getting tired. So was my butt.
I paid for the gas and cruised further southeast. I came to a T intersection and turned right. I eventually spotted a very old-style motel on the right-hand side of the road. It was set into a grove of large trees. Some were oak, some maple and some pine. The odd Palmetto scrub stood around the central courtyard.
Even in the artificial twilight I could see the peach hued buildings were freshly painted. The old place looked as if it had seen better days. Just like I had. But somebody still cared for it. Maybe it was a good sign. Maybe even an omen. I got a key from the night clerk and went to the room. It wasn’t much, but it was clean. It smelled of the coast. The bed was soft. I was asleep in moments.
The morning sun sneaked in through a gap in the motel curtains and hit me squarely in the eye. I squinted and rolled over trying to avoid the demonic death ray of slumber, but an ill placed mirror reflected the same all-powerful sun beam back into my face. I swore a mighty oath, which was unintelligible even to myself, as I rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed.
I felt like hell. My natural instinct was to go back to sleep. That seemed destined to fail. I managed to stand. I had forgotten to eat the day before and the results were now making their presence known in my innards. I stumbled towards the bath scratching my naked butt as I went.
The shower water was hot. It had forceful water pressure. The distinct smell/taste of coastal water with its near saline content was evident. The soap didn’t lather well. Eventually they’d have to find a way to correct that if they wanted to attract and hang onto the North East carriage trade. Maybe that’s why the omnipresent low-country tea was so sweet, to mask the salt content.
I pulled my pair of jeans on. They felt oppressively warm. I pulled a clean T-shirt from my bag and donned it. A picture of the Statue of Liberty graced the front of it. I took it off and put on a plain grey T and slipped into my loafers.
I opened the door and was awash in an intense merciless sun that was beating on me. I stepped over into the shade of the big Spanish Moss strewn oak tree and made my way to the office. I could maybe find out where to go eat. I might even find out where the hell I was.
I pulled open the screen door to the office and discovered an older lady behind the desk. She was grey haired but still smiling. Looked like she was suppressing a laugh. She was looking at me while she did it. She had all the earmarks of a woman who had done everything in life at least once, and the things she liked, at least twice. She had the confident air of a woman who was totally at peace in her own skin.
While I was trying to decide what to say, she took the floor. “Well, you must be that old Mercedes pilot who washed ashore after midnight.”
“Yes, I suppose so. I’m…”
“Damon Ulysses Kelly. New York driver’s license. Jersey license plate DAGGER 1. 1974 Mercedes Benz 450 SLC. Pre-approved Visa card. Platinum edition.”
I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught. “Just Duke, please. So much for confidentiality.”
“Don’t let it bother you none. I make a point of knowing who’s under my roof.” I liked her smile. It was more of a grin. Her voice was amusing, like that of a favorite old aunt spinning another yarn. The aunt who had who told you your first dirty joke. She cackled, but not in a bad way. She stuck her paw out across the desk.
“I’m Joy Brody. I won the place. Was a real flea bag when I got it. Drunks, hookers and worse. Now I got it cleaned up, I aim to keep it clean. And that includes the guests.”
“You won it?”
“Old man Watkins tried to fill an inside straight. He didn’t try hard enough. Had to go back to Tennessee and his wife. She buried him a year later.”
“Buried him? What…”
“His wife, Bernice, lived up in the mountains. She was the one throwed him out in the first place. Gamblin’ was his downfall. He lost Bernice’s butter and egg money. She shot him graveyard dead. Claimed self-defense. Got off too. Mountain justice is swift.”
“Didn’t the Sheriff or …”
The Sheriff was the one Watkins lost the money to. He returned it to Bernice right after the funeral. Him and Bernice got married in Knoxville a few months later. Don’t pay to mess with the law in the hills. What can I do for you?”
“Breakfast? I was wondering …”
“My cooking’s put two husbands in the ground. One of ‘em was my own. My coffee’s not so bad.”
“Actually, I was just looking for a café or …”
“Cream and Sugar?” she asked.
“Cream, thank …”
She poured a dark steaming stream of coffee into an old crockery style mug emblazoned with the name of the motel. “Ain’t no café open in the inlet this early. There’s a couple of places out on the highway.”
“Beryl’s Inlet. The Baymarsh Inn. That’s where you are. In case you didn’t know. You must’a been bleary-eyed when you drove in.”
I raised my mug and sipped at the strong brew. Joy’s coffee couldn’t have been much better than her cooking. I grimaced and croaked out, “Haven’t had my coffee yet.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean.” She said. “Takes me two mugs to get my heart started of a morning.”
“Where’s the highway you mentioned?”
“End of the road out front.”
“Either way. Don’t matter none. Beryl’s Inlet is just a pit stop off the coast highway. Used to be a quiet fishing village.”
“Used to be?” I was adjusting to the coffee. Either I was getting stronger or it was getting weaker.
“Yeah, well…” Joy sighed a sigh that seemed filled with regret. “We’re about thirty mile south of Myrtle Beach.”
“South Carolina?” I had gone far.
“That’s right. Well sir, it commenced to take off a-growing … exploded all of a sudden like. We are getting’ some of the fallout. Now we start getting these swanky new bars and restaurants. Society people.” She spat that last bit out as if it left a bitter taste in her mouth. “It’s got so’s a poor fisherman has a hard time eating around here, much less sleeping.”
“Why do I think they get a discount here?”
Joy leaned over the counter on her elbows and shared a secret. “Only if they’ve been here before and behaved themselves.”
“Is that why you’ve been eyeing me so close?”
“Like a sea gull looking for a bad clam,” she stated. “We don’t get many platinum cards in here. Or Mercedes. If it’d been a new one, you’d a never got coffee. I was naturally suspicious… leery. But I reckon you’ll do.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It’ll pass for one.”
“Well, thank you,” I responded.
“As for that breakfast, you’d better git a move on. Might near lunch time for the folks who live around here.”
“Okay. Will you be here when I get back?”
“I’m here ever day from seven of a morning to seven of an evening. That’s when Earl, the night man, comes on. Even then I’m generally out back until the eleven o’clock news goes off. You plannin’ on staying over?”
“I might be. I’ll have to think about it.”
“Think fast, buster. Weekend’s a coming and I got fishermen calling. Let me know.”
She was a powerful force. I was impressed. “Yes ma’am. Will do.”
I turned left on the road in front of the highway. The crescent-shaped drive apparently related to the road itself as the road related to the main highway. I had come down this stretch in the darkness of midnight and didn’t see much. I saw enough to recognize that there were buildings of some sort lining the two lane that seemed to be commercial in nature. I assumed if I was going to find something to eat it would more likely be along this stretch.
I began to see what Joy had meant about the new bars and restaurants encroaching on what had been, by all evidence, a quaint fishing village in days past. Quaint was not a word I had used before to my recollection. I didn’t see much of anything that came close to “quaint” living in the greater New York area.
Whatever quaintness there may have been at one time was lost long ago. Probably not since the Dutch used $24 worth of beads to buy it from the natives. The natives probably thought the Dutch were rubes. They didn’t understand how anyone could own the earth anyway. But in fairness the natives got their vengeance in a way. They gave the white men tobacco. Dumb pale skinned immigrants.
This stretch of road had only a few elaborate and graphically enhanced modern theme restaurants, all seemingly dealing with Pirates and colorful reprobates from long ago. More than a few of the older buildings were shuttered with FOR SALE signs decorating the fronts.
It was obviously a place in transition. Once the big money comes in, it attracts more big money and the true things of value are lost forever. Usually.
This was the time when the village was caught between its shady past and its upscale future. It had a depressing feel about it. What remained served to recall a past that was probably more akin to CANNERY ROW than where it was headed. That quality was being lost. I like Steinbeck. I told you I knew the difference between a writer and a true author.
There were no places to eat that were open as Joy had predicted. At the end of the road was the highway. It was four lanes wide and semi-divided. I continued north, the path of least resistance at that point. Burger chains and pancake houses dotted the roadsides. Nothing appealing to me. I turned right towards the coast when I had a chance and went towards an old beach with an old pier advertised on an old sign that was rapidly fading.
At the end of the road, across from the fishing pier was a small row of small shops that were barely open. Not prospering since the Labor Day crowds had returned home. One of the shops said SANITARY CAFE. It looked small and uncrowded, so I stopped in there. The small lettering at the bottom of the glass door said “Since 1955. Miss Carrie Stratford, prop.”
The place was as it appeared. There were three booths on the right. They were painted in many layers of white enamel paint. Two tables in the middle of the floor, covered in the same white Formica tops that covered the lunch counter. The seven bar stools fronting the long counter were upholstered in the same white plastic padded covering. Sanitary? It looked like an operating room.
Only the back booth and one bar stool were occupied by customers. I took the first booth and opened the celluloid wrapped menu. It had typed pages behind the plastic sheets. They looked as if they’d been typed a decade before. So did the prices.
I ordered the Shore Breakfast Special from a waitress who hadn’t skipped a meal in several months. She was an older blonde whose sun darkened skin probably related to her sun-bleached hair. Her name tag said Marge. Behind the window in the kitchen was a short, hefty black lady with grey hair. She was singing something so softly I couldn’t hear.
Marge turned the order in and brought a small orange juice and coffee. I asked as she poured the coffee where Miss Carrie Stratford was. I soon learned it was pronounced “CAR-ry, not CARE-ry.”
“Miss Carrie went to her reward two year ago Christmas. She was a fine woman.”
“Did you inherit it from her?”
“No, Lord no. Miss Wanda, back in the kitchen, that was her daughter. It belongs to Wanda now. But she keeps Carrie’s name on the door. Kinda like a good luck thing. Says she always knows when Carrie ain’t happy about something she’s doin’.”
“Is it just the two…” I started to ask but the bell rang in the window. My order was steaming away there as Marge went to retrieve it.
Two eggs, over easy with bacon and hash browned potatoes. Hot coffee and juice. Fresh made biscuits with butter pats and jelly packets. All served on a patter that was probably over a decade old and would later hold fried fish platters. After four o’clock, according to the menu.
“You want some gravy for them biscuits?” Marge asked.
“No, ma’am. I think this will do nicely.”
“I’ll be back with coffee in a minute or two.” I ate more quickly than normal. I guess it was a sign of how hungry I was. Or how good it all looked and smelled. I was sopping up the egg yolk with the biscuit when Marge returned to fill my now empty coffee mug. She looked at me a bit oddly I thought.
“You ain’t from around here are you?”
“You been talking to Joy?”
“No. I just don’t get many orders for hash browns after Labor Day. Most folks around here eats grits. But it was right smart of you. At this time of day, we have to cook ‘em fresh. So you know it ain’t been setting around. The grits kinda lose their texture after a few hours”
“You live in the area?”
“Back in that little trailer park yonder near the highway. Been here nigh on to fifteen year now I recon. Come down from West Virginia along with my boyfriend. He was here to help build houses and hotels and such. He started working on a hotel and fell off the roof about a year after we got here. Died. The trailer was paid off. Bought it used. Had a baby by then. Miss Carrie was the only one’d give me a job.
"See, me and Donny, we wasn’t married. People around here look down on you for that. Miss Carrie didn’t much care. Let me bring the baby along and work the floor. People looked down on me for working for a … ‘negro womern.’ But hell, they’s already looking down on me so didn’t much matter none.
“Used to be me ‘n Wanda on the floor but then Miss Carrie, she got took poorly, so Wanda went to cookin’ instead. Ain’t as good as Miss Carrie’s, but better ’n most.” Marge walked away without anything else to say. I fixed the coffee with little creamers of half and half and put
some butter and peach preserves on the still hot biscuit.
I went to the register to pay. It was a cash only operation. The whole meal set me back less than five bucks. I’d need to find a bank or ATM somewhere as I don’t usually carry much cash. I peeled off a five spot and left two singles on the table for Marge.
I waved at Miss Wanda. She grinned a mouth full of gold filled teeth and waved back. It was a good smile. I liked it. It was honest. I asked Miss Wanda a question. “What do folks do around here when they aren’t working?”
“Most of our folks we get in here are fishing on the pier.” She had a bright smile and twinkling eyes. I liked her immediately. She was a genuine person. Nothing fake or pretentious about her in any way.
“Why not the ocean? Why the pier?”
“Ocean’s expensive. Pier’s cheap. Ain’t nobody catching all that much now no how. Y’all come back an’ see us now, y’hear?” I would. I waved again as I left.
I stepped out on the sidewalk that ran in front of the shops. The sun was up higher now. So was the temperature. My jeans were beginning to feel oppressively hot. I looked around and two doors down was a small store with the somewhat ambitious name of INLET OUTLET. It was too small to hold much I thought, but maybe I could get some shorts and a t-shirt or two. My bag wasn’t equipping me for a long stay.
I walked in to the sound of a small bell ringing electronically somewhere. An old man behind the counter looked up from the paper he was reading and nodded his white hair in my direction but said nothing. I returned the nod. He returned to his paper.
It was more of a general store than anything else I could relate to. There was a cooler filled with beer. I postcard rack. Shelves filled with canned snacks, peanut butter crackers and Slim Jim jerky snacks. And finally, a small shelf unit with shorts, bathing suits and local touristy t-shirts to choose from. I found a pair of denim shorts in my size and a couple of the least gaudy T’s available. I gathered them in and headed towards the counter and the old fellow working there.
I spotted an old-style drink machine, chest style, and opened it out of curiosity. Inside were bottled Cokes and other bottled sodas in an array hanging from a metal grid. I slid out an old Coke, in the small green glass bottle, and put my change from the diner in the slot to free it. It was icy cold, and I was all smiles. I hadn’t even seen one like this in years.
I opened it in the convenient bottle opener and drank a big swallow, followed by a big belch. I didn’t think the old fellow would mind, even if he could hear it. I carried my items to the counter. He hadn’t said a word the entire time I’d been in the place. He looked it over and finally spoke.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“That’ll be $15.75.”
“No tax?” I was surprised to hear the total.
“Included. Too damn much trouble making change. I’ll figure it out later.” I handed him my last twenty and he began to do his transactions in the ancient cash register on the counter.
I asked him as he was doing this, “How’s fishing these days?”
“Depends on what you’re going for.”
“What do you suggest?”
“In the inlet or on the ocean?”
“I don’t know. Ocean?”
“Only thing biting on the ocean is the suckers paying good money to get seasick just to catch baby sea bass.”
“What’s biting in the inlet?”
“Crabs, croakers, flounder, spots … mostly small, but they’re biting.”
“What bites the most?”
I selected a bottle of mosquito repellant from the counter display. “Where do I get a boat?”
“The sucker boats go out from the docks.”
“How about in the inlet?”
“Ain’t no boats in the inlet. Got to know somebody and get invited.”
“You got a boat?”
“You fish the inlet?”
“Can I go along?”
“You got gas money?”
He looked at my change in his hand. “About four bucks worth?”
“Yep.” I was getting the hang of this.
He smiled and pocketed my change. I didn’t quibble about the quarter. “Be here about four this evening,” he said.
“Can do. Thanks.”
“Name’s Reilly. Most folks calls me Pop.” He stuck out his hand.
I shook his hand. “Duke.” I smiled and so did he.
“You got a fishing pole, Duke?”
“Not with me.”
“You just gonna sit and watch?”
“Anywhere I can rent one?”
“Step back here and let me show you what I got.” He led me to the back of the store and the tackle supplies. I left with a very complete fishing outfit. Old Pop was a mercenary so and so. But, I couldn’t help but like him. I had to open the moon roof to get the fishing rod inside the old Merc.
I drove back to the Baymarsh Inn. As I was unloading, I heard a familiar voice behind me. It was Joy behind the screen door. She was sipping coffee and grinning.
“I recon you’ll be a-stayin’.”
“Looks that way.”
“Ok. You’re covered for ten more nights.”
“I’m going fishing this afternoon.” I thought she’d be pleased but I saw no reason for her chuckle.
“Yeah, I know.”
“How did you …”
“Pop called me. He knowed you was a-staying here.”
“Not many old Mercedes in Beryl’s Inlet, huh?”
Joy grinned even broader. “I hear he sold you that fishing outfit he’s been trying to unload ever since Nixon was president.” Suddenly I felt the sting of humiliation.
“Oh. Ah … yeah.”
“Ha. New Yorker.” I couldn’t take that lying down.
“I happen to LIKE classic sports gear.”
“Well, you damn shore got some that time, Yankee.” She laughed a hooting laugh and turned to go back to her desk.
“YOU WANT YOUR MUG BACK?” I shouted in irritation.
“That’s all right, darlin. I done put it on your room bill.” She laughed some more. I did a slow burn as I carried my newly acquired humiliation into my room.
It was just before four when I arrived at the boat ramp. I walked to the end of the dock and sat down on the piling and looked out over the salt marsh bay that was Beryl’s Inlet. The sun was beginning to trace a line towards the horizon and the shadows of me and the dock reflected off the surface of the water.
The tops of the marsh grasses were a brilliant green that paled as it approached the grey mud of the marsh floor. A large seagull soared across the sky before swooping down just above the grass tops in search of dinner. I could see a snowy egret wading and fishing a short distance away. A pelican sat on the piling of a nearby dock. He looked at me curiously, but never moved. This was “His” dock. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I’d seen pictures of places like this. I’d been fishing all over the East Coast. Virginia and the DelMarVa peninsula. The Outer Banks of North Carolina. Cape Cod and Long Island sound. But never had I seen anything exactly like this.
I didn’t notice when Pop pulled up in his ancient Ford pickup towing the aluminum Cherokee fishing boat. He walked out beside me apparently. I turned when he nudged my shoulder. He was there looking at the same view.
“It’s something ain’t it?” Pop’s voice bore a certain emotion he’d never shown to me before. It was genuine affection if I was any judge.
“Yes. It certainly is,” I replied.
“You gonna just set here or are you gonna help me launch the boat?” His smile belied his impatience with an outsider.
“Aye aye, skipper.”
I watched and stayed out of the way as he backed the boat down the ramp and as it floated off the trailer. I held the rope, so he didn’t have to get out of the vehicle. That was the extent of my assistance.
Pop moved the truck to the parking area and grabbed his gear out of the bed of the pickup. Soon we were out on the water. I managed to push the boat off the bank without falling into the inlet, much to Pop’s supposed surprise.
We found a mud bank, apparently a favorite of Pop’s. There was no cooler. There was no beer. This trip was already different from my normal fishing outings in the past.
“Nothing to drink? What happens if we get thirsty?” I asked.
“Shoulda thought of that before we left. If you got to take a leak, be sure you don’t get any in my boat. Shoulda thought of that too. And try not to fall overboard.”
“How long we gonna be out here?”
“Not long. Fish bite from now to sunset. Two hours tops. I don’t think you’re gonna die of dehydration between now and then.”
We baited up. I chose a lure. Pop preferred a minnow he produced out of a bait bucket. After he had caught two fish to my none, I joined him in the bait bucket. He just smiled and said nothing. It suddenly occurred to me that he had sold me the damn lure to begin with. I started to say something, but I thought better of it. It was a long swim back to the dock.
We ran out of minnows before the sun went down. The fish line was over half filled. Pop raised anchor and we cruised slowly back to the dock where we repeated the launching sequence in reverse. As he pulled away from the ramp, he stopped the truck and I went to the rolled down driver’s side window.
“Thanks Pop. I enjoyed that.”
“Day ain’t over yet, son. Time to eat ‘em.”
He pointed down the sandy road to a little fish shack restaurant on the water’s edge near the two-lane highway. It didn’t look like much. Still, looks can be deceiving.
“We’ll take ‘em down to Flo’s. Get ‘em cooked up, Cajun style.”
I looked down the road and said in recognition “Flo’s.” Something new that this small world had to offer. I got in beside him and we rode together down to the little eatery. It was indeed, or had been, a fishing shack or a bait store in its past.
Now it had been selectively refined by the careful hand of Flo Breaux who hailed from the Bayous of Louisiana. She had an outrageous hat and a huge welcoming smile as we walked into the place carrying our big cooler of spots, flounder and croakers. She welcomed Pop with a hug and an appraising eye to the catch.
“Pop, you old reprobate, how you doing? And more important, what’s in the bucket?”
“Flounder, spots and a few croakers. Wanna trade?”
“I cook ‘em and you eat ‘em?”
“And, what we don’t eat, you keep.”
“But, no drinks.” She cautioned.
She finally turned to me. “Who’s your friend here?”
“Duke something or other.”
“Duke Kelly, Ma’am,” I responded.
“Call me Flo, darlin. What’s your pleasure?”
She turned and got the attention of a beauty in very tight, very short cut-off jeans and an almost too tight T-shirt trimmed to expose her navel. “Ginny! Honey, two Alsatian Beers for these two smelly old men. Put ‘em out on the end of the deck so the air can get at ‘em.”
“You got it, boss.”
We followed Ginny out to the back most corner of the open-air deck. The afternoon of heat, humidity and fish handling probably did warrant this. I would have gladly gone back for a shower first, but this seemed a ritual between these two. I did at least visit the men’s room to relieve my bladder and wash my hands.
Ginny reappeared with two very large imported beers from the Alsace-Lorraine section of Franco-Belgian borderland and opened them at the table. Pop and I clinked bottle necks and took a thirst quenching chug before slamming them down on the table.
“Ginny,” Pop said, “if them shorts get any shorter you’re gonna be in a whole bunch of trouble. Your modesty is hanging by a thread, literally.” Ginny grinned. She turned around and a dime was obviously tucked into her back pocket.
“Can you read the date on that dime?” she asked me.
I gave it a long look before answering in a small squeaky voice, “No ma’am.”
“Then at least they ain’t too tight. I’ll be right back, sugar.” With that she turned and walked away to the entertainment of all in the vicinity. Pop just cocked his head to one side and gave a fond growl.
“Reminds me of her Mama. Takes after her, that’s for sure.”
Ginny returned with two platers of fish. Spots and croakers. Apparently, the flounder were “house reserve.”
“I prefer the spots and croakers anyway.” Pop said.
They were well prepared with a definite Cajun spice twang. The grilled potatoes and onions along with the grilled French bread was a change from the normal coastal fries and hush puppies, but a welcomed change. The seasoning of everything was perfect. And the breeze felt great. We capped it all off with two more of the imported beers.
Flo herself arrived with the beer. She asked me how everything was. I responded truthfully. “If I ever had a better meal, it doesn’t come to mind. My compliments Miss …?”
“I told you darlin, it’s Flo. Just Flo. Brother does all the cooking. He does love to hear stuff like that, so I promise I will pass it along.”
Pop came to preclude any possible necessary defense of his friend and sometime fishing buddy, Brother. Apparently, that was his chosen name. “He is a genuine chef. Best on the East Coast. And don’t give me anything about one of them fancy New York chefs. See if one of them can make as good a pot of Jambalaya?”
“I’d be a fraud. Truth be told, I live on Cheerios and Campbell soup mostly when I’m home. I seldom go out unless my publisher is buying. Trust me, he’s not in the mood for that at the moment.”
“Your publisher? So, what is it you write, Duke?” Flo asked as she pulled up a chair.
“Let’s just say, I’m about to become at least semi-retired.”
“Great,” She said. “Then you can come join us down here.”
“Well, I don’t …” I stumbled. I was surprised by this. “Why would … you don’t even know me. What makes you think you’d want me in your village? You don’t really know anything about me. I don’t understand.”
“Well hell, darlin,” Flo poured about half of my beer in a glass and helped herself to a big gulp. “We don’t know nothing about one another … except that we get along and like each other. That’s plenty.”
Pop chimed in, “God’s honest truth, son.”
Flo continued, “And if you can stand to catch fish with Pop and eat here without being embarrassed about smelling like a gamy goat, then I believe you’ll fit in just fine.”
I didn’t know how to respond to this when Pop added, “ ‘sides, Joy already passed approval on you.”
“It only takes one,” Flo added. I was somewhat lost in the whirlwind of the moment.
“So, kind of like a reverse blackball system?” I asked.
Flo just grinned at this and yelled back over her shoulder, “Ginny! Another round of them long neck Alsatians. I believe we just caught ourselves a newbie.”
We sat back and drank a few more beers. I had to admit, it was a long time since I’d felt this at ease in a place. It had a certain bizarre aspect to it. Everything was happening so fast. The more beer I drank, the less I could focus on the rationale and the more I simply felt the camaraderie. I was feeling that right up to the point I could no longer remember.
I woke up back at the motel. Alone. My mouth felt like the bottom of a bird cage lined with last Sunday’s paper. I walked on very unsteady legs towards the bathroom. I was not at all certain my head was going to fit through the door. Everything I did, I did in slow motion. With concentration and great care. I decided if war in the Alsace Lorraine region ever broke out, I would not go. Screw ‘em.
After a shower, which I took with one hand holding on to the towel bar, I got dressed … sorta. If you can call a bathing suit and a faded T-shirt dressed. I couldn’t find my shoes. I began to have serious concerns about the previous evening. My underwear was nowhere to be seen. And there was a bra hanging from the back of the bathroom door. I don’t wear them.
I opened the door to my room carefully. Slowly. Patiently. I was rewarded for this accomplishment by the sun ramming its light into the furthest regions of my retina. I thought my head hurt before. I discovered a whole new level of pain when the sun joined in. I shut my eyes as best I could. I was trying to see through the slit covered by my lashes. The concrete was burning my feet as I stepped out onto the sidewalk. Thankfully, the small white pebbles that comprised the parking lot were not as brutal. But they were uncomfortable to my unshod feet. I managed to open the door of the Merc and retrieve the coffee mug I had inadvertently bought from Joy. I hoped it came with free refills.
I made my way gingerly to the office door. I pulled back the screen door and cringed at the grief I expected to receive from my landlady. However, she was kind. Sorta.
“You look like hell.” Joy offered in opening. She took the coffee mug from my shaky hand, rinsed it out with some water she had and wiped it with a cloth produced from somewhere. She filled the mug three quarters full and set it on the counter and placed an open carton of milk beside it. I poured some in.
“Thank you, for the description.” I said. “I haven’t been able to open my eyes enough to look yet. Glad to know I got the look I was going for.”
Joy seemed almost sympathetic. She did have a kind streak after all. “Yes sir. A mess of them fried croakers and a half dozen of them French long necks will do that to you.”
“They weren’t all croakers. Some of them were spots. If that makes a difference.”
“It don’t. The world getting more in focus yet?” she asked as I sipped the coffee. I shook my head gently to indicate the negative.
Finally, I recovered my normal voice, “Does everyone here know everything about everything that happens to everyone else?” I was attempting to sound coherent, but I didn’t quite make it.
“Only what they want to know. You’re new. You’re still something of a curiosity.” Joy refilled my cup.
As I added the milk I asked, “Will that end soon? I hope?”
“Yeah. Probably. That is, if they don’t all find out that you’re a big-time writer.” That was the last thing I wanted anyone to know.
“Oh, God. Please. No.”
Joy seemed to enjoy my agony a little more. “Now, the locals? They won’t care much. But, the papers? They’re just liable to start poking their noses in. News, real news, is scarce in these parts.” There was something behind those casual words. I thought.
I took a deep swallow of Joy’s thick coffee and sighed. “I am really sorry to hear that.”
Joy leaned over the counter, almost playfully. “Couldn’t be too sorry. You got that big ol’ vanity license plate hung on that fancy car of yours.”
“In New York, I wanted the publicity. It was good for business.”
Joy took on a conspiratorial tone as she said, “And now you’re hiding out? On the lam?”
She was enjoying my torment a little too much for my taste. However, I was rather at her mercy. Therefore, I decided to throw myself on the mercy of the court. “Look, I really don’t feel like explaining all this right this minute. Can I ask you to, please, keep this quiet?”
She seemed to relent, somewhat sadly. “If it’s that important to you, sure.”
“Thanks.” I said as I emptied the mug. “Now, if I can just…”
“…Get a temporary tag for the car?” Joy proceeded to point down the highway out front. “Go down the road to the local police department. Past Flo’s, on the left. Ask for Pat.” Joy lifted the pot and asked, “Another cup?”
“Please. And thank you for the vote of confidence. I do appreciate it.”
Joy seemed to be annoyed by that betrayal. “They told you that did they?”
“Flo and Pop. I don’t know if I can stay or not, but I am really very touched by the invitation.” I stuck out my hand. Joy accepted it and shook covering my hand with her other.
“No rush to decide. You just stay as long as you like and go when you’re of a mind to. Or when you need to. You’re more than welcome either way.” She smiled a warm genuine smile.
“Thanks, Joy.” I turned to go. “Pat you said?”
“Pat. I’d put some clothes on first if I was you.”
As I headed back to my room to change, Pop drove up in his old red pickup truck. He handed me a pair of rubber sandals out of the window. “Figured you might just need these.” I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. He looked no worse for the previous evening’s shenanigans.
“Thanks,” I said taking the offered footwear. “What happened to my shoes?”
“You got to feeling kinda liberated after your fifth beer last night. You took them off and threw them unceremoniously into the water beside the restaurant. Went straight to the end of the dock and flung ‘em just as far as you could, one at a time. You seemed intent of following that with your clothes, so I decided I’d better take you home before you could follow through on that. Wanna hurry up and change and I’ll take you back to your car?”
“Yeah, thanks. Give me a minute. Wanna come in?”
“Nope. I reckon I’ll wait here.”
I entered the room. Put on a pair of jeans, pulled a fresh T-shirt out of the bag I got at Pop’s, ripped off the price tag, slipped on the sandals and went to the door. I paused for a moment. Returned to the bath and retrieved the red bra. I took it with me to the door, opened it and asked, “Pop, did you bring me home alone?”
“Any idea who might belong to this? Or where my shorts are from last night?”
Pop just grinned. “Nope. I just opened the door and you more or less just fell in. I left you there on the floor to contemplate life when you woke up.” He chuckled.
“Un-huh. Yeah. Thanks for that. I guess.” I tossed the bra on the bed. Whoever it belonged to, she wasn’t overly - but sufficiently - developed. I made sure I had my wallet and driver’s license. I joined him in the pickup. The windows were down. Pop didn’t believe in air conditioning for himself. Not that that was an option when the old Ford was built.
My head was down to a near normal size and the dull throbbing was easing gradually. Pop pulled into the boat landing and handed me the keys to my car. “Wanted to make sure you didn’t get ambitious during the night.” I thanked him and went on my way.
I could easily have been rolled, or worse, had I still been in Manhattan. But I had begun to feel at ease around these people. I trusted them. That would have been unthinkable in that time frame at home. Here, it seemed nobody wanted anything from me other than just in passing. They offered a basketful of roots to a concrete nomad.
It had been a very long time since I’d felt this at home so quickly. Probably not since I first escaped my crib. Something about the place was growing on me. I found myself seriously considering the invitation they’d offered. I began to wonder if it was actually possible for me to do that. I needed to talk to my business manager and my accountant. However, first things first. I needed to insure some privacy while I thought it through.
I pulled into the parking lot of the Beryl’s Inlet Police Department. BIPD was more of a converted parts supply house it appeared. Much too much glass on the front to be designed as a police station. On the front counter was a small plaque, “Officer on Duty” with a slot intended to hold a name plate. It was empty. The large oaf in the back sitting with his feet on the desk looking at the pictures in Playboy didn’t indicate any more of an official presence than the empty slot. At least, he had a uniform shirt on. He seemed not to notice me.
“Excuse me,” I said.
Without moving more than his eyes he responded, “What for? ‘d you fart?”
I let that pass. “I’m looking for Pat?”
The red faced and red necked closely cropped blonde lump responded and actually managed to raise his head to do so, “Why?”
“Are you Pat?”
“Not damn likely.” He returned to his centerfold.
“Do you know where he is?”
“Do I know where Who is?” He said still contemplating the stapled area closely.
I was getting tired of this. I responded curtly, “Pat.”
A late thirtyish blonde appeared from the back office on the side. I hadn’t noticed the open door. Her hair was in a pony tail. She was well assembled and packing all sorts of weaponry, not limited to the police special on her side.
“The reason Benny, Officer Daniels there, is acting like a stupid asshole … aside from the fact that he is one … is that you asked where ‘He’ is. I’m Pat.”
I was taken aback. “You are?”
“Chief of Police, Patricia Taylor.”
“Sorry. How do you do?”
“I’m guessing you’d be the one Joy called the Old Mercedes Pilot.”
“If only that Mercedes traveled as fast as news seems to around here.”
“Temporary tag was it? Step back to my office and I’ll fix you right up.”
The lump spoke up, addressing the Chief, “You want me to do something?”
She just looked at him, still feet on desk and centerfold on display, “No Benny, you just rest up for later.”
I followed her back to her office. She was easy to follow. The gun belt only emphasized the swaying of her hips as she led the way. My curiosity was aroused, “What happens later?”
“If we’re lucky, nothing.” She moved behind her desk and pulled something from a lower drawer. I assumed it was the tag. “The only thing Benny is good for is breaking up bar fights. These new places have a more refined clientele. They don’t lend themselves as often to fisticuffs. So, with any luck we’ll have another quiet night.”
“If that’s the case, why keep him on?”
“His daddy used to work for my daddy when my daddy was Chief.”
“That explains why you’re the Chief.”
She bristled at this. “No, Mister Kelly, it most certainly does not. I’m the Chief of Police because it is in the best interests of the good citizens of Beryl’s Inlet. They know that I am the ‘Best Man’ for the job.”
She stood and pointed to the front wall of the office behind me. Framed photos of a younger Pat Taylor in Karate attire getting her black belt with the newspaper article attached. Beside that were plaques of the Low Country Pistol Marksmanship award naming Pat Taylor as Champion for three consecutive years. There was also a framed Diploma from the University of South Carolina in Law Enforcement with honors. I was properly chastised.
“Sorry. I meant no offense. I just assumed incorrectly that you …”
“…were blonde, attractive and brainless with no skills whatsoever.”
“I think I just wore out my welcome.” I turned to leave.
“No. You’re not the first to get me wrong. Nor the first to piss me off because of it. I just prefer to clear the air up front. Daddy taught me that too.” She offered her hand. I took it and we shook.
“It sounds like your Daddy did a good job with you. Is he still around?”
“Yep. Here’s your temporary tag, Mister Kelly.” She handed it over along with a screwdriver for changing plates. “It’s good for twenty days. That give you enough time to decide?”
Everyone seemed to know all of my details. “I hope so. I really do like it here. Still, there are many other things to consider.”
“New York things?”
“Yeah.” I took a moment to try to enlist her cooperation. “Look, I’d kinda like to keep a low profile for a while if that’s alright with you?” I guess I looked rather needy at that moment, because she smiled a sympathetic smile that seemed to say, “you poor clueless bastard.”
However, when she spoke, she said, “I’ll try. You don’t have to worry about me. I promise not to tell anyone that you’re a writer.”
Her knowledge came as an unpleasant surprise. “Joy told you that?”
“Nope.” She walked over to the bookcase and indicated a section of paperbacks that I hadn’t noticed. My paperbacks. She turned back, “Daddy just loved your work.” She pulled one copy and held the back cover up. My picture was there, just as I knew it was. “Personally, I think they’re crap. But hey, that’s just me.”
Greatly humbled, I took the tag and the screwdriver and tried to think of a response. “Thanks … I think.” I went out the door to try to address my problem.