John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

He went around and sat in Bern’s chair, in front of the big mural of the county. He sat quietly for several minutes, and then began looking through the papers, finding nothing of any particular significance. The desk calendar page for the day was nearly blank. There was a single word written in at ten o’clock. “Bank.” At twelve-thirty there was a penciled “D.M.” The rest of the day was blank. The desk drawers were locked. He did not think they would reveal anything of great interest. He knew he had not expected to find anything.

He had wanted to go to the place he had shared with Bern, because that was where he would feel the loss most deeply. That was where Bern’s absence would be felt most acutely.

There was no great sense of loss. Just a drifting sadness, a regret that they had ended up so far apart. Had Bern died five years ago the loss would have been painfully sharp, shocking.

He turned the desk lamp off and walked slowly toward the front door. He was aware of a figure outside the door, close to the glass, the silhouette of a woman with the streetlights behind her. He unlocked the front door and Dawn Marino lurched against his chest with such force he was knocked off balance for a moment.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God!” she said in a small hoarse voice.

“There there,” he said, aware of the stupidity of the required words, “There there, Dawn.” She was shivering. She wore baggy slacks, boots, an earth-colored blouse far too big for her.

“It’s my fault,” she said in a shaky voice.

He reached around her and relocked the door and then led her to his office. He turned on the lights and backed her up until the edge of the upholstered chair hit the backs of her knees, then lowered her into the chair. She was in the full slant of overhead light then, and her appearance shocked him. She was not the over enameled Miss Tits Marino who had

always regarded him with a heavy-lidded insolence, and who had managed to do any chore he gave her slowly and badly. Her eyes were puffed and red, her dark hair tangled, her lips pallid. She looked about fourteen years old.

He put the Kleenex box where she could reach it. “I’ve just been driving around,” she said. “Since I heard. I tried to see him but they wouldn’t let me. They were cutting him open. Oh, Jesus!”

“Why was it your fault?”

Her mouth twisted into an ugliness. “I got too fucking cute, that’s why. Nobody was here but Jeanie and me, and this man that wanted you, he wouldn’t let Jeanie turn him off, so she put the call through to me and I said I was your secretary. So he gave me the message for you. You were to be at Feeney’s at four. Pretty soon Bern came in and we went off together and I told him about the message and how I hadn’t left it on your desk. I knew he was really mad at you about Feeney and the other three, the way we had to get their names off the records after you gave copies of the deeds to the Park Service, and so he decided he’d keep your date and see what was going on. We had to go back to the office to get Feeney’s address. If I did what I was supposed to do, he wouldn’t be dead.”

“And I would be?”

She had been looking into an interior distance. She turned and focused on him, licked her lips. “He was going to marry me.”

He stopped himself in time. No point in telling her that Bern would never have left Nita. Not for Dawn, nor for any of the undying loves who had preceded her. Bern needed women as a quick polish for his self-esteem. He had to think of himself as desirable to women. A wife didn’t count. They had to be in bed, entwined, nose to nose, looking at him with big wet adoring eyes, breathing their moist quick breathing, squirming their loins against him, saying love… love. So if it helped her to keep on thinking he was really going to marry her, let her believe it. Bern had always had a certain elegance in the way he moved, the way he wore his clothes. Women enjoyed looking at him.

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