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Authors: Beatriz Williams

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BOOK: Along the Infinite Sea
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Stefan's yacht rose up rapidly before us, lit by a series of lights along the bow and the glow of a few portholes. It was long and elegant, a sweet beauty of a ship. The sides were painted black as far as the final row of portholes, where the white took over, like a wide neat collar around the rim, like a nun's wimple. I saw the name
Isolde
painted on the bow. “Ahoy!” I called out, when we were fifty feet away. “
Isolde
ahoy!”

“They are likely asleep,” said Stefan.

I pulled back the throttle and brought the boat around. We bobbed on the water, sawing in our own wake, while I rummaged in the compartment under the wheel and brought out a small revolver.

“God in heaven,” said Stefan.

“I hope it's loaded,” I said, and I pointed the barrel out to sea and fired.

The sound echoed off the water and the metal side of the boat. A light flashed on in one of the portholes, and a voice called out something outraged in German.

I cupped my hands around my mouth. “
Isolde
ahoy!”

“Ja, ja!”

“I have your owner! I have—oh, damn.”

The boat pitched. I grabbed the wheel. Behind me, Stefan was moving, and I hissed at him to sit down, he was going to kill himself.

But he ignored me and waved the bloodstained white shirt above his head. He brought the other hand to his mouth and yelled out a few choice German words, words I didn't understand but comprehended perfectly, and then he crashed back down in his seat as if the final drops of life had been wrung out of him.

“Stefan!” I exclaimed. The boat was driving against the side of the ship; I steered frantically and let out the throttle a notch.

A figure appeared at the railing above, and an instant later a rope ladder unfurled down the curving side of the ship. I glanced at the slumping Stefan, whose eyes were closed, whose knee rested in a puddle of dark blood, and then back at the impossible swinging ladder, and I yelled frantically upward that someone had better get down here on the fucking double, because Stefan was about to die.

Pepper

ROUTE A1A
•
1966

1.

Mrs. Dommerich leans back on her palms and stares at the moon. “Isn't it funny? The same old moon that stood above the sky when I was your age. It hasn't changed a bit.”

“I don't do moons,” says Pepper. “Who was this American of yours? The one having the party?”

“He was a friend. He was living in Paris at the time. A very good friend.”

“What kind of friend?”

Mrs. Dommerich laughs. “Not
that
kind, I assure you. He might have been, if I hadn't already fallen in love with a friend of his.” Without warning, she slides off the hood of the car to stand in the sand, staring out into the ocean. “We should be going.”

“Going where?”

She doesn't answer. Unlike Pepper, she didn't follow her own advice and wear a cardigan, and her forearms are bare to the November night.
She crosses them against her chest, just beneath her breasts. The material falls gently from her body, and Pepper decides she isn't quite like Audrey Hepburn after all. She's slender, but she isn't skinny. There is a soft roundness to her, an inviting fullness about her breasts and hips and bottom, which she carries so gracefully on her light frame that you almost don't notice, unless you're looking for it. Unless you're a man.

She turns to Pepper. “I have an idea. Why don't you come back with me to Cocoa Beach? We have a little guest cottage in the back. You can stay there until you're ready to make some decisions. A little more private than the Breakers, don't you think?”

“Are you serious?”

“Of course. I'd love the company. To tell the truth, it's a bit lonely, now that my husband's gone and the children are grown. And you need me.”

Pepper opens her mouth to say that she doesn't need anyone.

“Yes, you do,” says Mrs. Dommerich, before the words come out.

“You're just nuts, do you know that?”

“No, you're nuts. You think—what? That I'm involved in some vast conspiracy to keep all this out of the public notice?” She waves her hand at Pepper's belly. “That I'm in cahoots with the great man himself?”

“I'd be crazy not to consider it.”

Mrs. Dommerich narrows her eyes to consider Pepper's point of view. “I suppose that's fair enough,” she says. “But you're already here. You've trusted me this far.”

“I haven't trusted you a bit. I'm just trying to figure out your game.”

“Figure it out at my place, then.” Mrs. Dommerich walks around the left fender and opens the door. “It's a hell of a lot more comfortable, for one thing. What have you got to lose?”

“My luggage. For one thing.”

Mrs. Dommerich swings into her seat and starts the engine. She calls out, over the throaty roar: “We'll ring up the Breakers in the morning and have it sent over.”

Pepper stands there in the beam of the headlights, arms still crossed, trying to find Mrs. Dommerich's heart-shaped face in the middle of all that glare. Mrs. Dommerich gives the horn an impatient little toot.

“All right,” Pepper says at last, walking back to her door and climbing inside. The leather seat takes her in like an old friend. “After all, I don't suppose I have any choice.”

Mrs. Dommerich turns the car around and starts back down the dirt track to the highway, chased by the moon.

“Honey, you always have a choice,” she says. “The trick is making the right one.”

2.

“I suppose you can call me Pepper now,” she says, as they bounce elegantly back down through the parting in the reeds, “since I'm going to be your houseguest, and not a very good one.”

Mrs. Dommerich changes gears and accelerates down the dirt track.

“You'll be a wonderful houseguest, Pepper. Better than you think. And you can call me Annabelle.”

3.

They are back on the highway, roaring north under the moon. The landscape passes by, dark and anonymous. Pepper yawns in the passenger seat. “Tell me about this lover of yours.”

“I thought you weren't interested in romance.”

“I'm just being polite. And I don't like silence.”

Annabelle shakes her head. “Tell me something. What
do
you believe in, Miss Pepper Schuyler?”

“Me? I believe in independence. I believe in calling the shots and
keeping your eyes wide open. Because in the end, you know, he just wants to get into bed with you. That's what they're after. They'll kiss you in the sunset, they'll carry you upstairs, they'll gaze into your eyes like you might disappear if they stop. They might even tell you they're in love. But the point is to seduce you.”

Annabelle taps her thumbs on the steering wheel and considers this. “Do you know, though, I think I was the one who seduced him, in the end.”

“Well, that's how they do it, the best of them. They make you think it was your idea.”

The draft whistles around them. Pepper checks her watch. It's half past eleven o'clock, and she's getting sleepy, except that the baby is pressing on a nerve that tracks all the way down her foot and turns her toes numb. She shifts her weight from one leg to the other.

“Do you know what I think, Miss Schuyler?”

“Call me Pepper, I said.”

“Is that your real name?”

“Pepper will do. But really. Tell me what you think about me, Annabelle. I'm dying to know.”

“I think you really
are
a romantic. You're longing for true love with all your tough little heart. It's just that you're too beautiful, and it's made you cynical.”

“That doesn't make any sense.”

“Yes, it does. Any unearned gift makes you cynical, unless you're a psychopath.”

“Beauty hasn't made
you
cynical.”

“But I'm not beautiful. I suppose I'm attractive, and I have a few nice features. My eyes and skin. My figure, if you like your women petite. But I was never beautiful, certainly not compared to someone like you.”

“Don't sell yourself short. Look at those cheekbones of yours.”

“Not like
yours
. I could hang my hat on yours. No, there were just two men in my life who thought I was beautiful, and I think they
thought I was beautiful because they loved me, because they were attracted to something inside me, and not the other way around.”

Pepper laughs. “Trust me, it was the other way around.”

“How can you say that? You don't know either man.”

“I know men.”

“You think you know men, but you only know cads, because the cads are the only ones brash enough to take you on. You don't know the first thing about a man capable of a great love.”

“Because there's no such thing. It's just the sex instinct, the need for reproduction, and the more attractive the man, the more women he wants to reproduce with.”

“All right, Miss Schuyler. That's quite enough. You just shut that steely old mouth of yours and hear me out.”

“So you're feisty, after all!”

“When I have to be. So be quiet and listen up, and you might actually learn something, my so-wise friend with the prize-winning cheekbones and the knocked-up belly.” Annabelle taps her long fingers against the steering wheel. “In fact, I'll make you a bet.”

A bet. Pepper's heart does the old flutter.

“I don't know,” she says, poker-faced. “What're the stakes?”

“Stakes?”

Pepper shrugs. “It's got to be interesting, that's what my mother says. The only true crime is boredom.”

Annabelle laughs. “My, my. The apple doesn't fall far. Well, then. Let's see. You're an unwed mother on the run, in need of a little extra insurance. I'll bet my black pearl necklace to your gold Cartier watch that I'll have you believing in true love by the time that baby of yours sees daylight.”

“I don't know.” Pepper brushes her lap. “I haven't seen this pearl necklace of yours.”

“My husband gave me that necklace as a Christmas present in 1937, from the Cartier shop on rue de la Paix, because he could not find another jeweler in Paris who was skilled enough to satisfy him.”

Pepper makes a few rapid calculations, carries the eight, adds a zero or two. The old heart flutters again.

“True love, you said?”

“True blue, faithful and everlasting.”

“In that case,” Pepper says, “you're on.”

4.

Annabelle asks if there is any more coffee. Pepper reaches for the thermos and gives it a jiggle.

“Not much.” She pours what's left into the plastic cup and hands it to Annabelle.

“Thank you.”

“You're not getting sleepy, are you? I can always take a turn at the wheel.”

“Not on your life.” Annabelle hands back the empty cup. “Not that you're not perfectly capable, I'm sure. But I'd like to drive her myself.”

Pepper tucks the thermos back into the glove compartment and latches the polished wooden door. “Because you have history, don't you?”

“Yes, we do.” Annabelle pats the dashboard.

“I'd ask how it happened, but I'd rather stay awake.”

“I can't really tell you, anyway. Too many lives involved.”

“My God, what a relief. I bore so easily, you understand.”

Annabelle laughs. “Do you, now? Have you ever been in love, Miss Schuyler?”

“It's Pepper, remember?”

“Pepper, then. Tell me the truth. I'm taking you home with me, so you've got to be honest.” She pauses, and when Pepper doesn't speak, she adds: “Besides, it's one o'clock in the morning. No secrets after midnight.”

“I don't know.” Pepper looks out the side, at the shadows blurring past. “Maybe.”

“Were you in love with the father of your baby, or someone else?”

“I was very deeply in lust with him, if that's what you mean.”

“That's not at all what I mean, but it can be very hard to tell the difference. Do you still want him?”

Pepper's hand finds the neck of her cardigan. She thinks of the last time she saw the father of her baby, the day before she left Washington. “No. Not anymore. I'm cured.”

“If you say so. We're very good at pretending, we women. And the heart is such a complicated little organ.”

A light flashes in the rearview mirror, and Pepper jumps in her seat. Annabelle glances into the mirror and slows the car a fraction. The light grows larger and brighter, resolving into two headlamps, and the drone of an engine undercuts the noise of their own car, their own draft. Annabelle glances again into the mirror and says something under her breath.

Pepper's fingernails dig into the leather seat next to her leg. “What is it?” she says.

There is a flash of bright blue, followed instantly by red, and the shriek of a siren sails above their heads. Annabelle swears again—loudly enough that Pepper recognizes the curse as French—and slows the car.

“What are you doing?”

“What else can I do?”

The car drifts to the shoulder, and the siren reaches a new pitch behind them. The red and blue lights fill the air, throwing a lurid pattern on Annabelle's cheeks and neck. She brakes gently, until the car comes to a stop. The siren screams in Pepper's ears. She clenches her hands into balls of resistance against the authority of the roaring engine drawing up behind them, the unstoppable force that has found them here, of all places, in the middle of the night, on a deserted Florida highway next to the restless Atlantic. Two well-dressed women inside a car of rigid German steel.

The steel vibrates faintly. The lights and the roar increase to gigantic proportion, drenching the entire world, and then everything hurtles
on to their left. The siren begins its Doppler descent, and the world goes black again, except for the flashing lights that narrow and narrow and finally disappear around a curve in the road, and the moon that replaces them.

“Holy God,” says Pepper, and she opens the car door and vomits into the sand.

BOOK: Along the Infinite Sea
7.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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