John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

She flinched, swung around and sat the other way on the bunk and pulled the sheet across her lap. “No. No thanks.”

“That was just for good morning, that’s all.”

Her face was in shadow. The gray of predawn made a moist highlight on the curve of her left breast. “Where are we, Tuck? Back at the dock?”

“We’re way out on the sandy flats, honey. Ten miles about. Half a mile off Bernard Island. Flat calm.”

She combed her tangled hair back with the splayed fingers of both hands. “Jesus, Tucker! This is dumb. What if Buddy phoned last night, or this morning even?”

“Why should he all of a sudden phone you? You told me last night he’s been staying at his sister’s place for a month. And you told me he’s up in Washington this week.”

She frowned at him. “I told you all that? Well… I guess I remember. What more did I tell you?”

“People are forever telling me all kinds of stuff. I listen good, sweetie. I like people. I really do. I like to listen to the problems they got. Everybody’s got problems.”

“Anyway, this is Friday and I’ve got to go to the office. And my car’s at the club! I’m going to be pretty damn conspicuous trying to get to my car from the dock. In my long blue dress.”

“There’s some stuff aboard should fit you okay. Good as the swimsuit did. T-shirts, shorts. Under that other bunk. You can dig around in there, see what you find. Feel free. Nobody to see you but some early morning tennis freaks.”

“Look, can we get started back?”

“Not yet.”

“Why not?”

“Honey, how long is it since we had us like they call it, a relationship? Three years? Four?”

“Let me see. How long has Cordell been dead? Then it would be more like five years ago, Tuck. We started a month after he hit that tree. And we were together the best part of a year.”

“Then you should remember, little buddy, how pissed I get when people keep asking me fool questions. Just you relax.”

The small cruiser stirred suddenly, lifting and rolling in the slow swell from a distant barge train going up the waterway. It settled slowly back to stillness, but it had swung far enough on the anchor line to bring the morning light against her face. Smudge of lipstick, smear of mascara. It was a handsome and vital face, with large features, a strong jawline and brow. But it bore the lines and folds of her thirty-five years.

“I’m a mess,” she said. “I feel rotten. I haven’t had that much wine in years. You woke me up sloshing around out there. I think a swim is probably a pretty good idea for starters. Okay? But you keep an eye on me. I don’t like to swim way out here without somebody watching out.”

The sun came up as she was swimming back and forth behind the transom, about thirty feet each way like someone in a small swimming pool instead of in the endless serenity of the Sound. She climbed out and sat on the transom and scrubbed her face and her teeth with a wet corner of the towel he handed her.

“Better get below and fix yourself up,” he said.

“Are we heading in?”

“You go on down. I’ll be there in a minute and tell you what’s going to happen, Helen. And what you have to do.”

“What’s going on?”

He sighed. “Just shut up and move it.”

He put on old khaki pants and a torn white shirt. Their good clothes were in the hanging locker. When he went below she was fixing her face. She had brushed her hair, and picked out a pink shirt and white shorts spotted with green paint, and he recognized them as a pair one of his daughters-in-law had left aboard long ago.

“Okay, here’s what’s going to come down, as they say on the television. A man is going to meet me out here in the next ten or fifteen minutes. He’s coming in a float plane. He’s a very careful man. The deal was just him and me and the pilot, but I don’t like that setup. I’m supposed to be out here by myself. I decided I better have company.”

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