My flight swooped in over the San Gabriel Mts. at a little past four that afternoon. We glided over the flat LA basin, kissed the tops of the high rise buildings bordering the 405 and dropped into John Wayne Airport. The whole area was in the middle of a heat wave. Ninety degrees in the middle of October. As dry as a bone and as dangerous as a tinderbox. Christ. It was turning into the Kalahari Desert. And you tell me there’s no such thing as global warming…
By the time I gathered my luggage, it was going on five o’clock. I stepped out to the front of the terminal and was hit with a blast of hot, desert air.
Climbing into a cab a moment later, I told the driver downtown Laguna. I hadn’t been home for months and expected the inside of my place to be like an oven. The candles had probably melted in this heat.
Accordingly, I had plans to kill a few hours over a meal at the High & Dry Bar and Grill. Get a few thrills from Mike, the music wizard. He’d swing me from Cole Porter to Pink Floyd and drop kick me out the door around ten with my guts torn up a bit, but what the hell. You only live once, they say. It might as well be to the hilt.
The cab driver was in a chatty mood on the way into town. Where you coming from? What do you do for a living? I wasn’t feeling the least bit talkative and gave him a line of BS. A consultant and coming back from Frisco on business. It wasn’t even close to the truth but it stopped the questioning.
He ditched MacArthur at San Joaquin Hills Road, went up over the hill and came down to the coast at Crystal Cove. Going that way, the sea came into view on the downward run, like a sheet of metallic blue glass out there, utterly still in that dry desert heat. A bank of brown smog was doing its best to swallow Catalina.
The smog aside, the sight of the Pacific did a lot to calm my spirits. The madness of mankind stops right here. Six thousand miles of open ocean straight ahead.
When we hit rush hour traffic at the outskirts of town, I leaned over the seat and pointed to the left.
“Head up on High Street here. We’ll miss most of the BS.”
We weren’t the only ones trying to game the system but it still beat the hell out of the bumper to bumper traffic ahead, or trying to head down through the canyon at that hour.
When we hit the usual snag up where Cliff drops down to Broadway, I jumped out, handed the driver a fifty and left him to deal with getting out of that mess.
Down at Beach Street, the light changed, I crossed over, passed the old corner art deco building and hung a right on Ocean. A row of fichus trees pointed down towards Coast Highway, the street and fichus trees both turning dusky. The boardwalk and Pacific Ocean were visible straight ahead.
A minute later, I was slipping into the High & Dry. The place was darkened, as usual, half empty at that hour and they had the air-conditioning on high. It felt like a little slice of heaven.
As if not a day had gone by, I found Eric sitting at the bar with a drink. When he grinned my way, I felt déjà vu bonk me over the head.
“Wow! Jesus! Far out!” he said and reached out his coarse right hand.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Pour me a drink and I’ll tell you.”
“I thought you weren’t drinking anymore.”
“They still sell club soda and cranberry juice, right?”
“Yeah! Right! Hey Bill!” he called out to the bartender and slapped his palm on the bar.
Bill was down at the far end, talking to a blonde doll and polishing glasses. He nodded at seeing me and started our way. The blonde doll eyed me once and went back to her drink.
“What’ll you have?” Bill said.
“The usual. Club soda, a splash of cranberry and a twist of lemon, not lime.”
He went to work. I looked back at Eric.
“So, where the hell have you been?” he said
“The Caribbean. I stopped in New England on my way back.”
“Why New England.”
Bill delivered my drink and I dropped a twenty on the bar.
“Relatives,” I said and took a long drink. “Also, the place is famous for the fall colors, if you hadn’t heard.”
“It’s also famous for snow and being fucking cold.”
“Yeah, like this place is famous for heat waves.”
“That’s why they invented air-conditioning.”
“I know. Let’s heat up the planet so we need even more air-conditioning.”
“Yeah!” Eric said with another slap of his palm on the bar.
“I fail to share your enthusiasm for disaster, sir.”
“So tell me about the Caribbean.”
“Nothing much to tell. Beautiful in the winter. Miserable in the summer and somewhere in between the rest of the year.”
“I mean, what were you doing down there?”
“Oh, helping a small shipping operation deal with piracy.”
“Wow, far out. So like Blackbeard and guns going off?”
Hardly. Guns going off, maybe. Mostly you’re dealing with Jimmy Buffet types gone bad. These guys go island to island looking for undermanned and vulnerable boats. Picture a street hold up on the high seas.”
“So what? Were you out there shooting it out with them?”
“Rarely. Mostly I track these guys down, turn them over to the local authorities, reclaim whatever goods I can and leave a calling card, so the rest of the bandits get the message. Screw with my client and you go to jail.”
“Far out. So why did you come back?”
“I was hoping somebody missed me.” Eric laughed.” Yeah, so far, it looks like I was mistaken.”
“Hey, if I had known you were gone, I definitely would have missed you.”
I chuckled and sipped my drink. The door to the bar opened and a pack of young Turks barged in making lots of noise. All of a sudden it was a hockey game. When they pulled up to the bar nearby, I started looking for an exit.
“Fancy something to eat?” I said to Eric.
“Sure. Maybe a burger?”
“Maybe. Let’s go grab that window table.”
The cacophony from the young Turks receded into the distance. I took the seat looking down Ocean towards the coast. With autumn, it was getting dark earlier but it didn’t feel like autumn at all.
“Not sure I can take one more of these drought years,” I said idly.
“It’s supposed to be an El Nino year.”
“Yeah. So I heard, but I don’t even think El Nino’s are the same anymore. The last one was a complete dud.”
“This one’s supposed to be the biggest in a hundred years.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The waitress delivered a meal two tables over and stopped to check on us.
“You gentlemen eating?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You know what you want, Eric?”
“I’ll have the burger. Medium rare.”
“I’ll have the ahi sandwich. Medium rare. Salad instead of fries.”
“You got it. Anything else to drink?”
“I’ll have another Heineken on draft.”
“Tell the bartender to hit me again with my meal. He knows what I’m drinking.”
She went whizzing off. I looked back down at the sea. I had been strangely homesick the past few weeks. Now I wanted to rush back to New England. I had visions of some doll living with me out in the woods somewhere. Autumn leaves, splitting firewood, the warmth of hearth and home in a snowstorm.
In Laurel Lagoon, they were playing volleyball down on the beach in their bikinis.
I was just coming out of my reveries when I noticed a familiar couple going by. It was my attorney. I rapped on the glass and Jim’s head came around, then Doris’. They both smiled and Jim gestured at the door. A few seconds later, they were walking up to our table. I stood up and gave both of them a hug.
“You remember Eric, right?”
“I think we crashed your girls party one night,” Eric said.
“Oh yes, now I remember,” Doris said.
Eric laughed. She shook a finger at him.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back?” Jim said.
“It was spur of the moment. You joining us?”
They looked at each other and shrugged.
“Sure. We were headed down to Tommy Bahama’s but this will do.”
They hesitated about the seating.
“Go on, honey,” Doris said. “I’ll sit with Michael.”
She took the chair next to me. Jim sat opposite her.
“So, how was the Caribbean?” he said.
“Nice in winter, hell in summer. Things were busy enough to keep my mind occupied, either way.”
“And that’s all you’re going to tell us?” Doris said.
“Hell. I can go on all night if you want.”
“Well, at least give us one for instance.”
“Well, a lot of what I did was the typical sleuth crap. Snooping around. Sitting and waiting. And a lot of the mischief that takes place down there is purely happenstance. You stumble across the wrong bunch of guys out on the high seas and next thing you know someone’s pointing guns at you. Plus these pirates run the most common kinds of boats and cover their registration numbers. Makes it pretty hard to trace them.”
I saw the waitress going by and waved at her.
“They’re ordering too.”
She whipped out her order pad and looked at Jim and Doris.
“I’ll have the New York strip steak,” Jim said.
“Same here,” Doris said. “Salad in place of onion rings.”
“And to drink?”
Doris ordered a glass of pinot noir, Jim a Scotch.
“I’ll have your orders up as soon as I can.”
The waitress ran off. I took a sip from my drink.
“So, is that it?” Doris said. “It’s not much of a story.”
“I was getting to it.”
“Well, you’re taking your sweet time.”
“That’s my style, dear. Nice and easy.”
“Yeah!” Eric said.
“Oh, yeah. I can see that. And you stay out of this,” Doris said to Eric.
I chuckled and shook my head at Jim.
“You can go on,” Doris said to me.
“I’ve forgotten where the hell I was.”
“About it being hard to trace the boats.”
“Yes, thank you…So anyway, we had one shipping line that had been hit several times running and it got me to thinking. This has to be an inside job. It’s that or these guys are stupid. You don’t sit on the same route week after week. Either way, it made for an easy target so I chartered a boat, pretended to be fishing and kept watch from several miles off. I had four men with me and enough fireworks to give the Taliban a run for their money. Well, sure enough, passing by Prickley Pear Cays.”
“Prickley Pear Cays!” Eric said. “I love it!”
“It does sound lovely,” Doris said.
“It is. Anyway, just outside the cays, about ten miles off Anguilla, out roars a boat, loud speakers blaring and guns going off. I put a call in to the Coast Guard and had the captain of our boat put her on full throttle. We were about three miles out but closing fast. I had instructed the shipping crew to lock themselves in the cargo hold if the shit ever hit the fan so they were nowhere to be found.”
“Wow!” Eric said. “Special forces shit! I can see the movie!”
Eric waved his hands fantastically and laughed. Everything Eric said came with lots of arms and hands and mirth.
“Well, to be honest with you, that was the last thing I wanted to see. I had my own bullhorn handy and started shouting out warnings from about 500 yards. That got the pirates scrambling back onto their ship. Once they were all onboard, the captain punched the engines, headed northwest. Based on his bearing, I pictured him running for the British Virgin Islands. There are a lot of places to get lost up that way.”
The pinot noir and Scotch came so I backed out of the way.
“We gave chase but when the captain saw us on his tail, he came back around with his crew firing off rounds. Probably figured their best bet was to kill us and sink our boat. I was weighing whether or not to call their bluff when I heard a chopper off in the distance.”
“The Coast Guard,” Doris said.
“Yep. Calvary to the rescue. So Blackbeard turned tail and headed for open seas. We hung back and watched the surrender. The Coast Guard eventually got the shipping crew to bring their boat around and we spent the next few hours having our asses grilled.”
“So, was it an inside job?” Jim said.
“I suspect as much. There were some looks between the pirates and one of the crew members that just didn’t feel right but no one every admitted to anything. My client fired the guy anyway and that was the end of that. At least as far as those boys go. There’s never any shortage of pirates around the Caribbean if you need one.”
“So, that’s it?” Doris said.
“What do you want? Blood and guts?”
“I was expecting some, yeah.”
She made one of her funny faces, which hurtled my thoughts back to when I had first met her. Lunch on Balboa Island. Me looking down at her pretty feet and thinking of seduction. I had been chasing her clown of a boyfriend around at the time. Then the clown got murdered and I spent the next few days trying to figure out if Doris had done it. She hadn’t, but she never caused me to dream so I passed and she soon fell for Jim instead. And there we were, the happy couple and the guy still hugging his sheets alone.
The waitress came with the burger and ahi sandwich so I backed out of the way again.
“Your steaks will be up in a minute,” the waitress said. “Did you still want me to top off that drink?”
I held up my hand and she left.
“So, the denouement?” Doris said.
“That’s right. The gal who went to finishing school in France.”
“That’s right, buster. So?”
“Oh, it came out in the trial that these guys were wanted from Martinique to Spanish Town. A couple down there came forward to testify. These guys had boarded them off Antigua somewhere. Stole their money and jewels and the husband took a spear gun through the foot somewhere in the scuffle.”
“Oh Jesus,” Eric said.
“Yeah. Nailed him right to the deck. He was still hobbling around at the trial and hopping mad.”
“I would be too if someone shot me to a deck,” Jim said.
“Yeah.” I looked from face to face. “So, anyway, that was about as exciting as it got.”
I bit into my ahi sandwich.
“So, whatever happened to that Audrey lady?” Doris said.
I wiped my mouth.
“You know anything but trouble?”
“Just asking. She seemed like a nice fit.”
“Yeah, on the surface of it. But I’ve come to realize over the years. A career really defines a person and when all was said and done, Audrey’s a marketer.”
“Oh, and that disqualifies someone.”
“I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I’m just saying it’s wrong for me.”
“Mr. Hoity Toity.”
I stared at her.
“Somebody ought to spank you.”
“Just try it buster.”
I smiled sarcastically and bit into my sandwich again.
“So what’s next?” Jim said.
Before I could answer, the waitress rushed up with their steaks. There was a flurry of hands rearranging things around the table.
Jim looked at Doris and shook his head.
“No, we’re fine, thanks.”
The waitress ran off. I held my peace while they dug in. With the first bite, Jim wiped his mouth and looked up at me.
“So, as in work or romance?” I said.
“Either one, I guess.”
“Don’t know about work. As far as romance goes, I think I’ll go try my charms on that blonde at the bar.”
Doris looked that way.
“She’s probably in sales.”
“Well then, so am I tonight.”
Eric slapped the table.
“Yeah. That’s the kind of talk I like.”
“So, what are you doing these days?” Doris asked him.
“Oh, getting a mixed media exhibit ready for the Easton Gallery. It’s call Rot, Recycling & Romance. It’s about how everything rots and gets recycled, including romance.”
Eric waved his hands fantastically and laughed.
“That sounds really fascinating,” Doris said. “I must be exciting for you.”
“Oh yeah. In the meantime, I mix paint down at the hardware store to pay the bills.”
There were looks and shrugs and smiles all around.
“Hey, no one promised me wealth and fame,” Eric said with another laugh.
“So, what about you and work?” Jim said to me.
“I may be mixing paint down at the hardware store soon too.”
There was laughter.
“But seriously,” Jim said.
“Why? What do you have? A job for me?”
“I’m defending a guy whose partner was murdered. They think he did it. He claims he didn’t.”
“What do you think?”
“My gut tells me he’s innocent, but I’ve been wrong before.”
“So have I. Got any leads?”
“I might. Why don’t you come by my place tomorrow and we’ll talk.”
“I will if this heat dies down. Or you have air-conditioning.”
“We can always meet back here.”
“Now you’re talking.”
Being distracted, I hadn’t noticed Mike the musician setting up shop behind me. He had come in through the back door with his amps and guitars. Not having seen each other for a spell, I gave him a thumbs up and he gave me a smile.
Five minutes later, he was sliding into an old Steely Dan tune.
You go back Jack and do it again. Wheel turning round and round.
The guy was an absolute magician.
I stood up, dropped a twenty into his tip jar and gave him a wink.
“So, early night for the two love birds?” I said, sitting back down.
“It’s back to the books for me,” Jim said. “I’m trying to find a way around murder.”
“You’re not alone. What about you, Eric?”
“Better get back to my exhibit. I install on Friday and I have a lot of paint to mix between now and then.”
I glanced down at the table. It looked like a hurricane had blown through. The busboy came and swept away all the dirty plates.
I held up a hand and shook my head. Everyone did. The waitress swooped by a moment later and left the check. I tossed in a twenty for my sandwich and let the other three fight over the total.
“And what about you, handsome?” Doris said when they were done.
“Still got my eye on that blonde. She looks awfully lonely.”
“She will be when you get done with her.”
“Yeah!” Eric said.
“You stay out of this, buster,” I said.
“And on that note,” Jim said.
He and Doris stood up. Eric had one last drink of his beer, wiped his mouth and stood up too. I stood up with them.
“I guess it’s just me and the doll then.”
“You’re on your own as far as I’m concerned,” Doris said.
We exchanged hugs all around and they headed for the door.
“You’re really staying?” Jim said when he saw me heading the other way.
“I’m not ready for that heat out there. Anyway, if I don’t try, I’ll lay awake all night thinking about her.”
“Good luck then.”
“Thanks. I’ll need it.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I headed for the bar. The blonde was still sitting alone, twirling a martini glass in front of her. She looked up at me and away again quickly. I settled onto the bar stool next to her with a big sigh.
When I looked her way, she looked mine.
“Michael,” I said and held out my hand.
She hesitated a moment before taking my hand.
“Why do you say that?”
Bill came along and raised his eyebrows at me.
“The usual,” I said.
I looked back at Sandy.
“Why do you say that?” she repeated.
“Some names just seem to fit. And I mean that in a good way.”
She stared for a moment and sipped at her drink. I stared at her profile. It was a nice one, with a fine, long neck, a straight forehead and a turned up nose. The bones were delicate, the skin velvety and unwrinkled. She had to be in her late forties or early fifties but nature had been very kind to her.
She looked over at me.
“It’s not polite to stare.”
“I can’t help myself.”
She showed me her very white teeth. I looked her up and down, from her black silk blouse to her black slacks to her black high heel sandals and back up again. Her shoulder length blonde hair was spilling luxuriously over her black silk blouse. She seemed entirely edible. She caused me to dream.
My drink came and I toasted to her.
“Here’s how this works,” I said. “Either I came over here and introduced myself, or I went home and tossed and turned all night with my regrets.”
“And rejection seems a lot easier under the circumstances.”
“Who said I was going to reject you?”
“It was a fifty fifty shot.”
“You seem like a confident enough guy.”
“I know how you make me feel, and I know I want to feel that way.”
“And what feeling is that?”
I shrugged again and looked forward.
“I suppose it’s like boyhood dreams. Blustery autumn days and falling leaves? To have your wounds all bound up and be young at heart again?”
I looked back.
“Is any of this ringing any bells?”
She showed me her white teeth again. It was a very nice smile. When she let go to it, her whole being exuded a wonderful gaiety.
“I like the part about the blustery autumn days and falling leaves.”
“I just got back from New England. There are blustery days and autumn leaves back there. Like to go with me?”
“Maybe. Or we could just stay here and enjoy the air-conditioning.”
I bit my lip, stared and put out a fist. She bumped hers to mine.
“Kid,” I said. “We’re going to go a long, long ways.”
Sandy showed me her glorious white teeth and ordered another martini.