John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

“We don’t do criminal law at the shop. I used to get into a little of it years ago. The way they reconstruct it, Bern stopped at the Bay way Mall for something or other. A couple of people reported seeing his car there in the late afternoon.

The kids were prowling the mall and moved in on him when he got back into his car. Maybe they held a knife on him. They had him drive out into that fairly empty area near the landfill. They were going to leave him there. He made the mistake of trying to take on the two of them. He got a cracked jawbone and he got kicked in the throat. So they dragged him over into the bushes and they looked around that trailer and found a shovel and they were getting set to bury him when something startled them and they drove off. Is that the way you read it?”

“Pretty much. Yes.”

“Why did they take money and not take credit cards? Why did they stick his wallet back in his pocket? Why didn’t they drop him off one of our hundreds of bridges? Why did they leave his solid gold wristwatch on? You do criminal law, you get in the habit of looking for holes.”

“There’s nobody left to answer the questions.”

“Bern was working close with Tuck. Now Wade’s got the business and I don’t think he and Tuck get along too well. So Tuck will probably do his real estate work in house, and go back to Tom French for some of it. Tom is a little too slippery for my taste.”

“We don’t use him on any bank business anymore. We had some problems.”

“In connection with anything Tuck was involved in?”

“Well… yes.”

“I wondered why Tuck picked up with Rowley/Gibbs. Glad to know the answer.”

“And you don’t know where it came from.”

“Where what came from?”

On Tuesday evening, a week after Bern’s death, in the hot stillness of the night, after he had finished his half-hour swim, Wade toweled off and spread his big towel on the twin chaise and settled onto it, sighing. Soon Beth came out and sat beside him.

“Are you kind of down?” she asked.

“I guess so. I spent the whole afternoon with Rick getting the legal stuff straightened away. He kept telling me that having the partnership set up as a Chapter S corporation makes things a lot easier. I couldn’t see anything very easy about it. Things are going to be in a mess for quite a while, I guess. Bern didn’t keep good records of his prospects and where he was in negotiations. And one account is short about thirty-eight hundred dollars. It looks as if Bern borrowed it and didn’t have a chance to pay it back in. Rick says we can pick it up out of the insurance money, but I’d rather just forget it than take it out of Nita. Once she settles Bern’s other debts, the income from what’s left might be enough for her to keep the house and get Lois through college. Too bad he didn’t have any personal insurance.”

“Thoughtless and… wicked.”

“He knew he was going to live forever.”

She turned the floor lamp on and looked at a magazine for a little while. He stared out at the night. Finally she put the magazine aside and said, “There’s something else wrong, isn’t there?”

“What makes you think that?”

“Eighteen years of marriage. Eighteen years of observation.”

“It upset me, this whole thing. We worked together for a long time. I had to go through his personal stuff yesterday and throw out some things that I didn’t want to send home to Nita. And tear up some letters from women.”

“And that’s all that’s wrong?”

He knew it had to be all. If she were to find out that Bern had been killed by a person or persons who thought he was Wade Rowley, all her insecurity would come flooding back, more than ever.

“Hey, that’s all! Isn’t it enough. How is Nita handling it? How was she this afternoon?”

“Kind of wan and hollow. But she’s got plenty of support around. Her mother and two sisters and a cousin. House full of women. One of the sisters I didn’t take to. Molly. She went around looking at the bottoms of plates and vases, like she was shopping. But the other three are fine.”

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