John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

What they didn’t show and would never talk about were all the ratty little decayed businesses beside the boom of traffic, grass high in what had been parking lots, derelict signs a-dangle. Mountains of trash and garbage leaching poisons into the aquifer. Teen gangs prowling the shadows of the night streets, grabbing and snatching. And another kind of garbage leaking into the ears, loud thumpety rock and country, rackety roar of the trucks, organized inanity of cable and network, and the yelping and keening of patrol car and ambulance once the sun had set.

But if you leave the coastal zone and go on up through the long silences of the piney woods, you had a choice of the two Mississippis that do not invite the preparation of brochures the great Delta, the alluvial plain which extends down the whole west edge of the state, or the great East Gulf Coastal Plain, punctuated by the Loess Hills, the Tombigbee, the Natchez Trace. He remembered the strange beauty of the rolling country near the prairie, the deep and narrow stream valleys coming off the stunted hills. Too many people, he thought. Too many of them swarming in here, changing everything. They have to have their malls and their pizza places, their motels and high-rises and their little automatic banks on every corner. They have to go out on the piers to the seafood restaurants and eat the frozen fish flown in here from South Africa.

Suddenly his indignation amused him and he tossed the brochures aside. Such attitudes on the part of a real estate salesman could be called terminal disloyalty, punishable by having to attend a year of conventions. He would give the brochures to the next pilgrims hoping to buy a house near the beach. They could go looking for the pretty girls. They would find huge flaccid women on the beach, their wobbling tissues scorched pink by the indifferent sun, whining at their scrawny macho husbands and backhanding their kids. Ask them what happened to the pretty girls of yesteryear.

Ellie Service came in, looking troubled. “Got a minute, Wade?” He nodded and she closed the door behind her and sat across from him. “Something weird is going on.”

“Every day. It’s a chronic disease.”

“No, I mean more than usual. I have to background it for you.”

“You sound like Dan Rather. Go ahead.”

“Little by little, Jeanie Nash has been teaching me to run that PC out there. I’m not up to communications yet, with the modem and all that. But I can dig into our files that are on hard disk and get what I want and print it out. It isn’t as difficult as Jeanie makes out, but I can see why she wants to keep it all mysterious. Anyway, yesterday, Monday, because it was the first day of September, I wanted a client list for the last three months. You’ve seen the list. It’s alphabetical by client, with the contract date and amount, a code for the kind of property. It’s simple, one line per buyer and one line per seller. As you know, this isn’t the greatest year we’ve ever had, so it isn’t a long list. A page and a half. With holes in it. I mean places where there were no names. Four of them. Here is the printout. Take a look.”

Puzzled, he looked at the list. The first hole came between Faminger, Mr. and Mrs. Robert E.” and Feeney, Mr. and Mrs. Horace T. He realized at once that Feeney, Ezra, would have fitted nicely in the blank space. He checked and saw that there were alphabetical spaces for Simms and Stanfield and Phipps. The four who had flunked finance.

“Somebody deleted them?”

“It wasn’t me and it wasn’t Jeanie. Jeanie had already taught me that when you delete items from a list, you use a deletion protocol that causes the rest of the names to hitch up a space and fill the holes. If you just use the delete key, it leaves a hole. Somebody had called that file up onto the screen and edited it by deleting those four names and then put it back onto the disk. It was yesterday that I got into this with Jeanie. She has a program she runs every night before she leaves. What it does is put any new stuff on the hard disk onto tape, so if the hard disk crashes, she can rebuild it from the tape backup.”

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Categories: John D MacDonald