Authors: Richard S. Prather
The Srinagar was still anchored where it had been last night, white and lovely in the bay.
It looked sleek, beautiful, as if poised to cut through blue seas on its way to tropic islands, a place for laughter and dancing and light-hearted fun. But the sight of it didn't make me feel like laughing and dancing.
At Greene's Landing I rented a small motorboat, climbed in and pointed it toward the yacht. On the way I checked my Colt Special again, put it back in the holster. As I neared the boat, I could see a man standing at the rail, looking in my direction. He went out of sight, then reappeared and stood at the head of the ladder near the stern, the one which last night the guests had used to climb aboard.
I cut the engine, bumped the landing at the ladder's base, stepped onto it and tied the boat securely. The guy stood up there above me, motionless, watching me silently. I climbed the ladder and just before I reached the top he said, “Yeah?”
“Hello. Mr. Goss aboard?”
“He's aboard. Not expecting anybody, though. What's your name, pal?”
This guy didn't look like a seaman, talk like a seaman, and it was a pretty sure thing he didn't act like a seaman. He wore a brown leather jacket hanging open far enough so I could see the butt of a gun in the holster at the left side of his chest. It was also an extremely broad chest. He had the kind of face that looked as if it did push-ups, thick and hard, bulges of muscle at the back of his jaw. A faint stubble roughened his cheeks and chin, but shaving it off wouldn't mellow him; nothing would mellow him. A short cigarette butt smoldered in the corner of his mouth.
“Shell Scott,” I said. “I'd like to see Mr. Goss.”
“Hell see you.” Ash fell from the cigarette's end and spilled down the leather jacket. He didn't brush it off.
I stepped onto the deck. “Where'll I find him?”
He jerked a thumb. “Up on the bridge, pal.”
The cigarette had burned down so close to his lips he appeared to be smoking the filter, but he ignored it. Probably when they got any shorter, he just ate them. I wondered why it was turning out to be so easy for me to see Goss. I walked forward, up another flight of steps, to the bridge and inside. The deck was highly polished, the walls beautifully grained dark wood. To the left of the wheel, fixed to the forward bulkhead, was a padded red-leather bench, a small table in front of it. Sitting on the bench, hand around a half-filled highball glass resting on the table, was Robert Goss.
He looked even bigger than he had last night. The black hairs on the back of his hand seemed more wiry, like pig bristles. His heavy lids sagged, his mouth sagged, his face sagged, perhaps even more than when I'd first seen him. But the rest of him was resplendent. He wore a Captain's yachting cap on his head, dark bill decorated with gold doo-dads, a dark blue yachting jacket with gleaming brass buttons, white gabardine trousers and white leather shoes. He looked ready to steam right into the Balboa Bay Club's bar.
“Hello,” I said. “We meet again.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Scott. What brings you aboard?” His voice was pleasant, agreeable. He even tried to smile. But it was like a frown with teeth in it. He tried, but he just couldn't quite carry it off. No matter how much phony effort he put into the act, he was never going to convince me that he found me charming.
I said, “Well, several things, Mr. Goss. A murder for one. Couple of other items.”
“Murder? Who got himself murdered?”
I grinned. He wasn't very fast, but the wheels clicked in his head and he realized he'd made a tactical error right off the bat, in his second sentence to me. The corners of his mouth pulled down, and when he managed to get them back up the effect was even less gay than before.
“Maybe it was an old woman,” I said. “An old woman who got himself murdered.”
He gave me the distinct impression that he was exercising all his willpower to keep from getting up and smacking me one. But he just sat there, smiling like a man with ingrown teeth.
“I refer, of course, to Craig Belden,” I went on.
“Why of course?”
“Because he was with you last night when I stumbled in on you.”
“No, he wasn't, Scott.”
“I saw him last night. I saw him again a few hours ago. In the morgue. He looked different; but I recognized him.”
Goss reached to the leather bench alongside him and picked up something wrapped in brown paper. It had been hidden from my sight until then. He started to speak, then looked past me, toward the door.
I glanced around. The heavyweight who'd met me at the rail stood there, thumbs hooked in the pockets of his brown jacket. Goss said to him, “It's okay. Chuck. Go on back.”
The man nodded, turned ponderously and walked away.
Goss said to me, still trying to keep it pleasant, “Really, Scott, you made a mistake, that's all. I don't doubt you saw Belden in the morgue. I heard about the terrible thing that happenedâit's in all the news broadcasts. Has been since early this morning. But Belden wasn't here last night.”
“I remember when you came into the stateroom. I was sitting there with Joe Navarro, having a friendly drink. Just the two of us.”
“I must have been pretty drunk. I saw twice that many people.”
He grinned. It was a good one this time, like a famished wolf about to bite a fat leg. Maybe he thought I was agreeing with him, giving him a way out, because he echoed my words, “Drunk, that's it. You had too much of the free booze. Seeing double, Scott. I like that. Here.” He pushed the little package across the table to me.
As I picked it up, I said, “Just for fun, who was the other guy I imagined? The tall white-haired man. Rather a distinguished looking egg.”
He shook his head. “Just me and Navarro.”
I looked at the package. On the face of it was typed my name and my address at the Spartan.
“Open it up, Scott. It's yours. I didn't expect you aboard, so I was just getting ready to send it in to you. Figured I'd phone you and explain about it, if you didn't figure it out for yourself. But I thought you'd get the idea.”
I tore off the wrappings. Inside was a wallet, and it looked like a good one, expensive, fine-grained leather, hand-tooled and hand-stitched. It must have cost about five thousand and thirty or forty dollars.
Because inside the wallet were fifty crisp, new hundred-dollar bills. I fanned them, counting them roughly. Fifty was close enough.
And correct, because Goss said, “That's right. Five G's. Just because I like you.”
Yeah, because he liked me when I saw double. I put the money back into the wallet, placed it gently on the small table, and pushed it slowly over in front of Goss.
“Sorry, captain. I never get that drunk.”
And that was the one that did it. That was the line that let the bars down, wiped the false geniality from Goss' face and voice. Those were the words which showed me Captain Robert Goss as he was when he relaxed and was just himself.
You wouldn't think a face which sagged in so many places could suddenly get so hard. It was a little like watching the face of a mountain change in a moment, instead of months, from the green and soft and peaceful colors and textures of spring to the harsh, hard, and ugly end-of-a-dry summer's bleakness. The corners of his eyes and mouth, the lines along his nose, the flesh of his cheeks, still slanted downwardâbut now not as if they sagged, but as though the lines had been carved that way with a steel chisel.
He didn't raise his voice. He didn't move a muscle except around his mouth. But the words came out with cold and threatening ugliness, nastiness, evil, as if he chewed off each word and spat it at me like a gob of phlegm. “Then this is the day you die, Scott.” He paused for a long time, heavy-lidded eyes fixed on mine. “Pick it upâand we'll forget this happened. You don't get a second chance. Pick it up.”
I let the heavy silence grow between us for a while. Then I said, “I've finally figured out what's wrong with you, captain. You need an enema.”
Well, I thought for a minute he was going to prove my diagnosis wrong right there on the bridge. I thought maybe he was going to have an apoplectic fit during a cerebral hemorrhage. His lips flapped up from his teeth and his eyes got big and bugged out as if his brain had exploded, and he shook convulsively all over. He tried to speak but couldn't get the words out at first. Then he slammed his big hands down on top of the little table and started pushing himself to his feet, eyes wild with anger and shock and hate. And as he came up, he got the words out.
He started with “You slimy bastard! You lousy stinking pileâ” and went on from there, building up from an almost quiet beginning to a filthy crescendo. I told him twice to chop it off. I warned him twice. I didn't want to hit him. I didn't want anything now but about fifty miles between me and the
I'd learned all I'd wanted to, I was in deep enough already, probably about as deep as I could get, and there was no point in digging at the bottom of the hole.
He wouldn't stop, though. Maybe he didn't even hear me at first. He stepped toward me and, for the last time, I told him to stay where he was and shut his fat mouth. Maybe I don't use the most delicate language at times, but usually my meaning is clear. I got through to him; he heard me.
But instead of calming down he cleared his throat, made a grating, choking sound deep in his throat. Then he screwed up his face and pressed his lips together.
The crazy bastard was actually going to spit at me.
But if he did, he spit at my fist. Because, of course, then I hit him.
I didn't hit him reluctantly, either, not when it became clear that I had no choice. I hit him exuberantly, expansively, enormously, almost joyously. In a word, I clobbered him. It was a long, hard right swung with my arm and shoulder behind it, body turning fast, with my right leg thrusting against the deck to help slam the blow into him. It was a blow that would have stunned an ox. And it stunned this ox.
My fist smacked into his mouth with a sound like a plank breaking, and I could feel the shock rip up my arm and down into the muscles of my back. It was like hitting a wall. But, unlike a wall, he moved. He tilted backwards and fell against the bulkhead, slid down to the leather bench. He wasn't outâbut he wasn't very far in, either. I stepped close to him, raising my left arm, hand open. Then I slapped it backhand against his jaw, like a cleaver, as if I wanted to chop his jaw off. I did want to chop it off. The thick edge of my palm landed solidly and he toppled over on the bench, slid loosely to the deck. His pretty yachting cap landed upside down alongside his face.
I spun around and the Colt was in my hand before I'd turned all the way. If any of the crew was in sight, I knew they'd be jumping at me. But nobody was visible. I put the gun away, walked a few yards aft and looked around. The man Goss had called Chuck was back at his post above the ladder. Two or three other burly guys were at various points on deck, but apparently nobody had witnessed the action just ended. I mopped at sudden perspiration on my forehead, then walked down the ladder, and started up the alleyway toward Chuck.
Then I hesitated. At the moment I was puzzled most by Goss' insistence that the shiny white-haired egg had been absent last night. I could understand why he might want it kept quiet that Belden had been aboard the
immediately before his murder. But why pretend that only he and Navarro had been aboard? Why deny the presence of that fourth man, too?
I wanted more than ever, now, to know who that shiny boy was, what he'd been doing here last night, what his businessâor racketâmight be. It seemed unlikely that he'd still be aboard, but there was a chance there remained some trace of him in that stateroom below. A matchbook cover, a special brand of cigarette, maybe even a glass with his prints on it. You never know till you look.
With luck, I'd have a few minutes before any hue and cry was raised; one or two of those minutes would be enough. I turned and went back to the ladder leading below, hurried to the plain, unmarked door through which I'd gone last night. It was open. I stepped inside, found the light switch. The room was empty this time.
More than empty. Somebody had gone over every inch of it. The place almost gleamed, it had been cleaned so thoroughly. Well, that told me a little more, but there wasn't a chance I'd learn anything else here.
I stepped into the alleyway, walked past Cabin Seven, where I was to have met Elaine, and on up the ladder to the top deck. A couple more heavyweights, new ones to me, lounged against the starboard railing, near where the bar had been last night. They eyed me curiously, but stayed where they were.
Only a few yards farther, to the still-shiny square of deck which had served for the dance floor, across it and a little farther to the ladder at the rail, and I'd have it made. Down the ladder, into my boat, and away I'd go.
But right then, when I was almost home free, the ax fell. Behind me a voiceâa voice I knewâyelled, “There he is.
Grab him! Kill the bastard!"
It was Goss' voice; he was even tougher than he'd looked.
I swiveled my head around fast, saw Goss standing twenty yards away, weaving on his feet, finger pointing and mouth bloody, still yelling. But then I was jumping forward. As I reached the edge of the dance floor the two heavies came at me, hands reaching. By that time the .38 was in my fist, pointed at them. They stopped, feet skidding.
I leaped across the dance floor, headed for the ladder. Chuck wasn't there, and for a second I thought I'd still make it. I leaped to the rail, along it to the ladder and as I reached it saw Chuck, a few feet to my right, almost as if he'd been waiting for me to reach this spot. Probably he had been, because his gun was in his fist.
Beyond him in the alleyway, coming toward me in a hell of a hurry, were three more bruisers. I couldn't shoot them all, but I didn't think these guys would do any shooting eitherâunless they had to. The sound of shots could bring half the citizens on shore out here, including some uniformed citizens.