Authors: Layton Green
A Novella of Suspense
by Layton Green
Copyright © 2011 by Layton Green
All rights reserved.
Cover Art by Emy Mixon
Ebook creation by Dellaster Design
First Ward 2011 Ebook Edition
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any semblance to actual events, locales, or persons is entirely coincidental.
hey gathered at Sloppy Joe’s, each more pathetic than the last, living another man’s life. When the police reported that the second body had washed ashore, ten yards from the waterlogged Panama hat, they knew something was terribly wrong.
Ernie’s hand shook as he reached for his whiskey, and he had to shout to be heard over the din of the crowded bar. “That’s two in one week. Someone’s got it in for us.”
“No shit,” Papa said, his bulk straining against his short-sleeved beige safari shirt. All four of them were wearing short-sleeved beige safari shirts. And trimmed white beards. And white shorts with black belts.
All four also had ruddy broad faces, small eyes, and high foreheads. The only difference was their size. Papa was the largest. He was too fat and never won the contests, but he bullied the others into doing what he wanted, so in a sense he was the best of the lot.
Ernie was the smallest, and Champ and Bumby were in the middle, closest in actual girth to the Man himself. Bumby won the most contests and the rest were jealous.
“You’d think the police would do more about it,” Champ said, mashing the mint leaves in his Mojito without his usual vigor. “We bring dollars to this sand trap. We’re the best in the world. How’d all these tourists like it if their precious Hemingways just up and moved to Paris, or Cuba, or God forbid to Ketchum?”
“Idiot,” Papa said, the whiff of fear behind his bravado typical of the town bully. Papa pretended he was an ex-con, but he had only been in jail for two DUIs and an assault—not even a proper battery—against his ex-wife. After his last business venture failed, a combination pawn shop and tanning salon in Daytona Beach, he declared bankruptcy and moved to a shack in Key Largo. After months of hearing how much he looked like the Man, he decided to turn pro in Key West. “You think there aren’t hundreds of fat old bastards waiting to grow their beards and claim our turf?”
“Is that right? And how’re they gonna to do
?” Ernie’s posture shifted so that he was a mirror image of the Man slouched at a bar, his voice hitting just the right grandiose tone as he waved at the bartender. “Bill! Another round here, why don’t ya?”
The tourists that were already staring at them from the next table began to laugh and point and take out their cameras.
“Shhh,” Bumby hissed, the only one at the table with any sense or class. He was a failed writer and a waiter at a four-star restaurant. “You know what he would’ve said to that? You’ll be replaced in one of two ways, gents: gradually or suddenly.”
“Bumby’s right,” Champ said. “We’re fearing for our lives here. We need to keep a low profile until we find out what’s going on.”
Papa almost fell out of his seat. “A low profile? We’re
impersonators, living in
“All of you need to shut up and think,” Bumby said. “This all started the night after it happened. We know what we have to do, and we’re sitting around here getting schnockered because we’re all afraid to do it.”
Ernie licked his lips, and Champ muttered into his whiskey.
“I ain’t afraid of shit,” Papa said. “And this is ridiculous. Hemingway’s ghost isn’t talking to us through a Ouija board in his basement.”
“No?” Bumby said quietly. “Then how do you explain the letter?”
Papa’s mouth opened and then closed, and he returned to his whiskey.
“That’s what I thought.” Bumby slapped money on the table and stood. “Who’s with me?”
Ernie and Champ jumped out of their seats, jowls and bellies quivering with anxiety. Papa folded his massive arms and pursed his lips, regarding Bumby with eyes that were small and mean, but not unintelligent. His head began a slow nod, and then he knocked back his whiskey and grabbed his hat. “Fine. We’ll put this stupid idea to rest.”
The four of them shuffled into the balmy air and waddled down Duval, huddled together like a giant white globular porkpie, each wondering if he would be the next found floating by the shore, throat slit and bloated.
I watched and smiled.
They cut over on Petronia and then walked down Whitehead until they could see the great house brooding in the darkness behind the brick wall. I could almost smell the jasmine drifting on the breeze. After the gaggle of Japanese tourists moved on, the Hemingways slipped into a thicket of palms and followed the wall to the rear of the property, where the wall was not as high and they could step onto a ladder set out by the caretaker.
The caretaker, God bless him, was a very greedy man. Months ago Papa figured out they could pay him fifty dollars and he would let them climb onto the grounds at night and wallow in their secret intimacy with the Man.
Because as different as the four of them were, the one thing they had in common, for different reasons, was their hero worship of Ernest Miller Hemingway.
Bumby of course revered him as a writer, and as a fellow uneducated closet intellectual. Ernie was once a Golden Gloves champ and loved Hemingway because he was the ideal man’s man. Champ loved the outdoors and was an avid fisherman, and also had a passion for adventurous, muscular literature (he didn’t really get, nor did he care about, the Man’s subtlety and sensitivity). Papa loved him because he embodied the type of man who did whatever the fuck he wanted, all the time.
They stood hidden in the jungle-like foliage on the other side of the wall, scrutinized by the small army of cats that patrolled the grounds, the mewling drowned by the battalion of crickets. To their right was the outline of the caretaker’s dilapidated house, a smudge of grey and brown in the darkness. The tourists took care not to walk too close to it. It looked abandoned, but the Hemingways knew otherwise.
Ernie whispered, “Is it clear?”
“Clear of what?” Papa said. “That shit-for-brains doesn’t care what we do, and he’s been letting us in for months.”
“There’s something about him gives me the willies, like when you tell him something and he looks at you for an extra second as if he didn’t hear you. I don’t want him looking over our shoulders.”
“The light’s off. He’s asleep or strokin’ it.”
Bumby ignored them both and stepped onto the garden pathway, feeling the familiar tingle that he was striding down the lawn with one of the wives on his arm, adoring worshippers at the gates, the next masterpiece in the works, the world his personal fiefdom. What Bumby wouldn’t admit even to himself was the repressed jealousy that every writer has of the great ones. Not of the writers who get rich; that’s a skin-deep kind of jealousy and easily shrugged off, the same kind of jealousy one has for a suitor who wins out because of money or family, rather than because he makes the girl weak in her knees.
No, this jealousy festered in Bumby like an open sore, so painful it was murderous, because when it came to writing, the Man was truly great. So great that Bumby knew, deep down in his soul, that he himself had no business picking up a pen, and should stick to telling rich New Yorkers what vintage to drink with their ginger-braised lamb chops. Bumby had been writing for thirty-five of his fifty years, had never been published, and knew it was never going to change. Still, he loved writing, and loved the caché it gave him with the island’s burned-out waitresses who thought he was about to make it big.
He heard the others creeping behind him, although they had never crept until recently. Not until they had gone down into the basement, talked to the Man through the Ouija Board, and discovered that his troubled mad spirit roamed these grounds.
They shuffled down the outdoor stairs at the rear of the house, to the locked door at the bottom of the stairwell. Ernie bent over the simple lock and opened the door with a credit card. They all cringed as it creaked open.
They did four different things: Ernie flicked the light and locked the door behind them, Champ took the Ouija Board out of a burlap sack and started arranging it on the brick floor, Papa lit a cigarette and pulled out his flask of whiskey that was engraved with a cheap likeness of the Man’s face, and Bumby went to read the love letter again.
“I told you not to touch that until we decide what to do about it,” Papa said, as Bumby pried loose a brick in the corner and pulled out an envelope whose seal had stood for decades until broken by the six of them last week. An envelope whose location had been revealed to them by the Man himself, speaking from the mysterious ether to which the Ouija Board granted access. They had left it there for the time being because they couldn’t agree on who should keep it. Their fear that someone else might steal it was eclipsed by their fear that one of them might sell the letter behind the others’ backs.
Papa said, “I’ve been making inquiries in Miami. We’ll have a buyer before long.”
“A buyer,” Bumby murmured to himself. He held the letter in his palms, cradling it as gently as possible, as he read words from the master that no living person outside of that room had ever seen.
“We’re not selling it yet,” Champ said, his reverence for the letter trumped by his yearning to buy a proper fishing boat. Champ and Ernie were day laborers for a construction company owned by a Mexican, which embarrassed Champ. Champ spent all his hard-earned money in the island’s dive bars, and he was also embarrassed that he couldn’t afford anything other than his twenty-year-old pontoon boat. If he ever hooked a marlin, he knew he would end up upside down on a rock in the Bermuda Triangle. “There’s got to be more,” he said, “and we’ll sell everything together.”
Papa blew smoke in Champ’s face. “I said I’m lining up a buyer, pisshead. It takes time. It’s not like selling a goddamned baseball card.”
Champ was Ernie’s best friend, and Ernie’s stomach clenched as the smoke swirled in Champ’s face. Ernie knew in theory he could take Papa in a fight, but Ernie was a physical coward outside of the boxing ring, where there were no rules or referees. “So who’s the buyer?”
“Don’t you worry about that. A contact from the joint is all you need to know.”
“Yeah, well, we’re doing the transaction together. All four of us.”
Papa showed his teeth and said nothing. Ernie hated him for it, but hated himself more. The truth was that the Man would have thought Ernie to be the lowest of men, the kind of man who ran from the battlefield.
Champ finished setting up the Ouija Board and they all gathered around it. It had belonged to Champ’s grandfather. The wooden board was splintering at the edges, the Gothic lettering fading. It had been Bumby’s idea, one night when they were all plastered at Sloppy’s: why not try and contact the Man to whom they spent their lives in dedication, and what better place to do it than at his former residence? They had nothing better to do, other than chase wrinkled whores down Duval.
None of them had actually expected anything to happen, none of them thought they would hear from a tortured revenant who claimed to be the ghost of the Man himself.
Bumby’s nervous eyes flitted over the small group, no doubt realizing that the last time they were here there had been six of them. Now Max and Scotty were lying on their dead broke backs in the Key West cemetery.
Champ placed the planchette in the center of the board, and they all hovered over it, each placing a fingertip on the plastic wedge. They moved the planchette around in circles to warm it up, then eased off the pressure, letting their fingertips rest lightly on the piece.
“Who’s first?” Champ whispered.
“Stop whispering,” Papa said. “There’s no one else here.”
here,” Ernie said. “He told us exactly who he was, including intimate details of his life.”
Papa gritted his teeth. “Maybe that’s because these boards respond to subconscious thought, and there were six
asking the questions. Maybe, just maybe, we wanted him to be here.”
“And the letter?” Bumby said.
Papa sneered. “You’re not as clever as you think you are, you know. There’s an easy answer for that, and it’s the same answer to the question of who killed poor Max and Scotty.”