“If you say so, Tuck. Glad to meet you, Mr. Barley.”
He stared at her for ten long seconds and then nodded. He pulled his green shirt out of his slacks, laid the mailer against his plump belly and tucked the shirt in again.
“Just don’t try to get in touch with me in any way until the trial is over. Is that quite clear?”
“Don’t use that prosecuting attorney tone of voice on me, Wilbur. Just call your brother-in-law and fly away.”
Tuck and Helen Yoder stood side by side and watched the little seaplane skim and roar and lift, then make a shallow turn and head northwest by west.
The water was turning blue, and a breeze ruffled the surface. The mainland was invisible under smog and clouds. Heavy weather by nightfall. The marine forecast had been right on. He slid his thick hand down Helen’s back, and gave the far buttock a hearty, honking squeeze.
“Hey!” she said, and sprang away from him. “I’ve really got to go to work today. I’ve got appointments.”
“Every little love pat, you think I’m about to jump you.”
“That’s the way you always used to be.”
“But now I’m fifty-damn-eight years old.”
“Can we go now? Please?”
“Get your cute ass up there on the bow and bring in the anchor line as I run up on it. If it don’t come free, take a turn around ”
“Just like I’ve done a couple thousand times before.”
He started the inboard-outboards as she went forward. As he eased up toward the hook, he realized how pleased he was with Wilbur Barley’s reaction. Right from the first contact, there had been the possibility that they were trying to set him up. Bribing a federal officer. A pilot with a telephoto lens. But little oP chubby Wilbur had come through like a champion. Helen’s sudden appearance had been the stress test. Because, had it been a trap, Barley would have realized at once that the woman could give false information in an affidavit that would cause the jaws of the trap to snap shut on air. Wilbur would have had to be a first-class theatrical actor to handle it the way he did.
And, in addition to his help this time, you never knew when you might like to have somebody well placed in Wilbur’s spot for anything else that might come up in the future. There were people here and there in Jackson and Biloxi and Washington who had come to like doing favors for Tuck Loomis and having favors done in return. That was the way you got to sit in the owner’s box to watch the game.
He saw Helen lean and lift the hook out of the water, careful to keep it away from the hull. She lifted the small forward hatch and stowed it. When she stepped back down into the cockpit, he pushed both throttles forward and when the boat was on the plane, he pulled the throttles back and balanced them off at twenty-eight hundred.
She stood beside him, a hand on his shoulder. “I suppose I shouldn’t ask what that was all about, huh?” She had to lean close to him and speak loudly over the engine roar.
“You suppose exactly right.”
“It’s the condemnation on Bernard Island, isn’t it?”
“I don’t like smartass women.”
“Like you told that Barley, you can trust old Helen.”
He smiled up at her. “I sure can, little buddy. If I didn’t have a good lock on you, you wouldn’t have been out here at all.”
“What kind of a lock?”
“I don’t mean I’ve got something I can hold over your head. It’s just that we had a good time together and we parted friends and stayed friends. Okay? You’re my buddy, aren’t you? My old pal?”
“I guess so. Sure. Why not?”
“You don’t sound all eager and happy.”
“Should I? Hell, I don’t know. My life doesn’t seem to go anyplace at all lately. Not since Cordell died.”
Every time she mentioned his death, her mind slipped back into the same old groove, like a repeating track worn in a record. Cordell Strange had been hurrying back home to her from a meeting in Gulfport, and going so damned fast in a light rain in that stupid Trans Am he was outrunning his headlights. And he came upon a big dead dog in his lane that someone else had hit. He swerved and lost it and went a hundred feet off the highway before he smashed head-on into an old cypress. Somebody had phoned in to have the dog pulled off the road, and when a state policeman got there and got out of his car he heard the tape still playing in the Trans Am and he went looking and found Cordell in the car, all crushed and dead.