John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

“I wonder if you know me too well. Wade Rowley, squeaky clean. He finds a quarter in the phone-booth slot, he mails it to the phone company. He thinks good citizens should overpay their taxes. He even goes so far as to ”

“Now hush! All this is serious.”

“I know.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Well, I have the list of all the thirty-nine people who bought lots way out there on the island. A bunch of them I can cross off. Tuck’s pals. Pink Derks, Mr. Daggs, Sam Loudner, Warner Ellenson, Colonel Barkis, Fred Pittman, people like that. And then there’s some it would be too much trouble to go looking for because the home addresses are so far from here. One in Miami and one in Portland, Oregon, even. So there’s about eleven locals I don’t know and I would like to know if they are planning to build out there where the hurricanes blow. Maybe some of them are fronts. Maybe just one.”

“And if you find just one?”

“If I find somebody who can’t possibly come up with the rest of the money, much less build out there, then I’ll try to figure out what the next step should be.”

“What’s the most drastic thing that could happen, darling?”

“You tell me.”

“Sure. Split up with Bern. You told me once if one of you wants out, the other has to buy his stock based on an independent appraisal, and he has ten years to do it. I think most of the people there would want to come with you.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of it. The kind of business we are beginning to attract lately, a certain amount of it is from the good old boys. The cute old boys. Bern can solicit and hold that business better than I can. As far as the nuts and bolts of the business are concerned, I know more than Bern. I can work out things when he hasn’t got the patience. I know the tax codes better than he does. So if we split up right now and we each took half the business, in ten years he would be big and I would be… maybe just about the same.”

He heard her sigh. “The roof needs work, maybe replacement. My poor little car goes sour twice a month. Tod isn’t going to win any scholarships. Maybe Kim can get one with her tennis. How difficult would it be, being by yourself?”

“Not too bad. Nobody would exactly be steering any business toward me. But it wouldn’t be like starting all over.”

“Don’t get me wrong, darling. But don’t you think you could… kind of ease off for a while? I mean you could quit looking for problems? I love you because you are exactly the man you are. But this isn’t like that terrible story about Mr. Jester. Nobody is actually stealing anything. I’ll be thirty-six in a week.”

“Nobody’d ever know.”

“Hush a minute. Look, we can get the kids off to college pretty soon.”

“Kim is twelve!”

“You’ll be surprised how fast the time will pass. And I can go back to full-time work then instead of this part-time deal. And then there won’t be any reason why you can’t do what you want to do.”

“Honey, I don’t want to make a fuss. I told Bern that.”

“I know. But right now, it just seems so… expensive. You know?”

“I know. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. If I’d been a lot tougher about it when this first came up, then we wouldn’t be on the hook the way we are. And Bern wouldn’t have fallen in love with the extra money.”

She pulled him close and whispered, “This is the first time in maybe a year we’ve had a long talk about the things that matter most to you.”

“I’m right here in bed with what matters most to me.”

“I love you so much,” she whispered. And he moved his hands along the warm familiar silk of her body, across the beloved places, and heard the catch of her breath in her throat and then her long exhalation.

Later, when he was on the edge of sleep, she said, “I’ve always liked Helen Yoder. She’s had really terrible luck in her life. She seems to do the wrong things at the wrong time. Why would she take up with Tucker Loomis again?”

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