At the yacht club, the dock creaked and swayed beneath my feet. There was brine in the air and the smell of money in my nose. Big money, family money. Ancient dollars that had sired so many other dollars it was exhausted and weary and just wanted to be left alone. I felt about as out of place here as a mutt at a purebred prancing show but I had business to conduct so onwards I creaked and swayed. Speaking of business, as I neared his slip, I waved at my client. He didn’t look happy to see me.
“Social call?” he asked when I got close enough.
“Not exactly,” I said.
“I see. Well, hop on board, I’ll show you around.”
The boat had two masts with three sails and a bunch of other mumbo-jumbo that sounded very impressive when he explained it but basically went in one ear and out the other. All I knew for sure was the waves were lapping against the hull and the pastrami-on-rye I had for lunch was threatening a mutiny.
“I was about to set sail for a few hours,” he said. “If you haven’t seen the sunset from the water, you haven’t seen a sunset.”
I was pretty sure I had seen a sunset somewhere along the line but didn’t argue. Instead, I checked my schedule and found nothing other than the usual “happy hour” entry, so I told him sure, why not, and he did a series of nautical-type things at the helm and then unwound a rope tied to the dock and pushed off. He used the engine to get us out of the marina and put the sails up. The wind caught, urging us along. I watched the land fade, realizing I was at Mother Nature’s whim. Frankly, it was more trust than I usually put in the old gal but there’s a first time for everything.
The first time I met my client was when he showed up out-of-the-blue at my office, his eyes blank like he was running on a quarter tank—still gassed, but low. The second time I saw him, a few days later, when I visited him at his fancy mansion in the hills, he seemed to be coasting on fumes: food-stained clothes, wild hair, unshaven. Judging from some pictures I’d seen in the society pages from better days, he’d let himself go like a man hanging off a ledge who just couldn’t grip the edges anymore. Freefall. Nothing but time on his hands and none of it good. Today, he looked different, rejuvenated. Bright eyed and ruddy cheeked. A man in flux.
Story went, he had hired me to find his wife, Eileen, who’d packed her bags and vamoosed a few weeks back. I did a little digging and found out she was two-timing him with a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman so fresh from the cradle he probably still popped zits and called out for mommy when he had a bad dream. The kid had disappeared, too. Last they’d been seen was at the bus station, tickets in hand. Before that the lovebirds holed up at a fleabag motel and barely left the room for a week. According to the deskman, a college brat with coke-bottle glasses, some of the other guests were so put off by the mating noises they called the cops.
“The cops show?” I asked.
“They did,” he said, chewing gum like a horse chewed oats. “Two big guys in suits.”
“Hmm, plainclothes officers. You see a badge?”
The deskman blew a bubble then popped it, classy-like. “One of ‘em had blood on his lapel and fresh bandages on his knuckles. Anything shiny was fine by me.” He went on to say that Eileen came down to the desk a few minutes later and asked for the bill, saying that her and her fiancée were getting out of this one horse town, where their love was deemed a sin.
“How’d she seem?”
The deskman thought about it. “Scared,” he said.
So I went to the bus station and found out two tickets were bought, with cash, by a woman fitting Eileen’s description. And though no one could really remember them getting on the bus, no one couldn’t really remember it either. Which was what I’d told my client (minus a few scandalous details about his wife’s vocal habits) the day I visited him at his giant house. And he took it okay, considering. Better than me, it seemed, since the rough edges of the details stuck in my head, rocks in the stream that refused to be smoothed.
“We’re here,” he said, before taking a huge breath, sucking the ocean air deep into his lungs. I looked around and saw water and more water. A buoy bobbed in the distance. Land was a memory, a wish. Clearly, my client and I had very different versions of “here.”
“Any luck finding your wife?” I asked. “Any shamus worth his salt could track her from that other bus station.”
“What? Oh, right. Nothing yet.”
“So, she was a rumrunner, eh?”
“No, the boat.”
He winked. “I’m impressed, you did your research. Yes, she was, in fact, I bought it from an old-timer who used to run Canadian Scotch Whiskey down the coast during prohibition.”
“Noble cause,” I said, “helping thirsty people stay hydrated.”
“Yeah, I bet there’re a lot of hidden compartments on board. Stash spots for the hooch, places the cops would never find it. Or anything else for that matter.”
He didn’t answer right away. I stared up at the clouds. A gull made lazy circles in a sky the colour of ash. When I looked back down, there was a .45 pointed at my gut.
“How’d you know?” he asked, a grin on his face that made me uncomfortable.
“I didn’t for sure, until now.”
“Well, your whole man-gone-to-ruin-over-his-wife’s-infidelity thing seemed like a performance you didn’t quite have the acting chops for. And rather unusual for plainclothes officers to catch that kind of disturbance call. Your guys?”
He nodded. “There’s a phone number I had. It was expensive just to know it and even more expensive to call it. But dial those magic numbers and anything can be asked and no one will remember the question. One-shot deal, like a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
I did the math and it added up easy enough—it was the sum that was frightening. “So these dirty cops flash their badges at the motel and act official. In the room, they brace the kid first, rough him up. Say they’ll hurt him more if your wife doesn’t go down to the motel desk and make a fuss about leaving town. Same with buying the bus tickets, they tell her to make sure she’s noticed. Put on a show.”
“Something like that. They’re very thorough.”
“I’ll say. The guy I talked to swore on a stack of Bibles he saw Eileen and the kid waiting for the bus, smiling, suitcases in hand.”
“All part of the guarantee. But as a client, you want the ultimate service, you got to have skin in the game, so they told me I’d have to be the one. I did the kid up close with a scaling knife—there was anger there, resentment. I’d seen the Polaroids. But Eileen, that was hard. Had to close my eyes.” He pointed with the gun, to the port side. “There, wrapped in tarps. Like you said, a secret compartment in case anyone went looking. I was going to dump the bodies tonight, until you showed up on the dock. Then I thought three’s a nice number, too.”
“Didn’t have you pegged for a killer.”
“Goddammit, it was supposed to make the pain go away. But I can still hear them together, laughing, taunting me.”
I had most of my answers, except one. “You were free and clear, why pay me to snoop around?”
“Appearances. Only I didn’t want too good a look, so I found the dumbest, drunkest, greediest-looking private dick I could find in the yellow pages.”
“And he said he was too busy, and suggested calling me?”
“Ah. Sorry to disappoint.” I put out my hand, shaking my head. “You don’t want to do this. It won’t help the voices.”
His eyes pleaded. “Tell them to stop. They’ll listen to you.”
I cleared my throat. “Eileen. Kid. It’s okay, now. I’ll walk him to the judge myself.”
I was sure he was going to put one in my belly and watch me bleed out on the deck, but then I felt the cold weight of the steel as he placed the .45 in my hand. His eyes were emptier than I’d ever seen them. Done, broken, the rich man stared out at sea for a moment before raising the anchor and steering us towards shore.
As we sailed, the gun safely stowed away in my pocket, I gazed at the city skyline. The glow, the shimmer. And knew I was almost home.
R. Daniel Lester‘s writing has appeared in print and online in multiple publications, including 365 Tomorrows, Broken Pencil, Bareknuckles Pulp, the Flash Fiction Offensive, and the Lascaux Prize Anthology. Recently his novella Dead Clown Blues (Shotgun Honey/Down & Out Books) was shortlisted for a 2018 Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Crime Novella by the Crime Writers of Canada. The second book in the Carnegie Fitch Mystery Fiasco series, 40 Nickels, will be released in May 2019.