John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

“And now it’s different?”

“The banks and the radio stations and Channel Ten and the automobile agencies and most of the larger stores are owned by strangers who live a long way away and who will probably never come to this place. There’s a new kind of structure. The developers and local construction firms are the biggest frogs in the pond. But they don’t have any kind of continuity. They plan something, sell hell out of it, build it and move to something else. Local government is probably our biggest growth industry, and the good old boys who get themselves settled into local office don’t have any check reins on them anymore. They can make their own rules, and the big rule is just don’t screw up so bad you can’t get elected again. We’ve got hotshot hustlers who deal in bank paper, tax shelters, penny stocks, commodity straddles, mortgages and things like that. In and out, mostly. Grab and run. What it all is, it’s a kind of diffusion. There’s no center anymore. There used to be a capital-S Society made up of the wives of the owners of the city enterprises. Now there’s a couple or three clubs. That gets me closer to what -I want to say.

“Okay, Beth, in this diffusion there’s a kind of anarchy. There are no signposts. Tuck Loomis used to do his outside real estate business through Tom French. He still does a little bit of it there. Tom is just a little bigger than we are, but I don’t think that on average he’s doing as much business as we are. What Tuck Loomis has done is reach out in our direction. I think that either Tom fumbled the ball, or talked back, or forgot lunch, or the relationship between Tom French and Tuck Loomis on other deals couldn’t stand real close inspection. Tuck has given us a seventy-seven-thousand-dollar warm hug. He has borrowed some of our respectability so that he can use it if he has to when the condemnation suit comes to trial. I can hear him now: “Your honor, I run all them deeds right through Rowley/ Gibbs Associates. Them there are legitimate sales and I got nothing to hide.” ”

“What will happen?”

“My guess is he’ll opt for a decision by a judge instead of a jury trial, and he’ll come into court with big elegant plans and drawings and maps and a tabletop plan of Bernard Island, and a file of sales and mortgages and expensive studies, and the government will win the condemnation suit, but they will have to pay of’ Tuck a very pretty penny, which might work out to five times his investment.”

“Then what will happen?”

“If the price is too high, the government will appeal, and they will probably lose and Rowley and Gibbs will be seventy-seven thousand ahead of where they were before Tuck came along.”

“And that’s all?”

“Tucker Loomis will be able to ask us for favors whenever he feels like it. He’ll be asking Bern. They get along fine. I get along with him, but not as well as Bern. As time goes by I think this business of doing favors and getting favors will turn us into a bigger agency. More money to fix the roof and send the kids to school.”

“Then isn’t it a good thing?”

“Sort of. Depends on where you stand. Tuck is just a little bit of an outsider, even after twenty-five years. But people who have gone in with him have made money. He plays it very close to the line. So, suppose he gets careless and sloppy and a little bit illegal and is caught. If we are tied in too closely, we could go down with him.”

As soon as he said it he felt her sudden tension, the stiffness of her body, and he knew he had made a mistake. Her terrible fear of insecurity was never very far below the surface.

He said quickly, “That’s why I’m going to see that we’re not tied in that closely. We’ll be okay. No pain and no strain.” He felt the tension subside as her body relaxed.

She nestled closer in the darkness. “Since when is your big worry the chance you might get caught?”

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