Authors: Jeff Lindsay
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 2015 by Jeff Lindsay
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition October 2015
Things were not going well that last slow month of summer. Business had fallen to an all-time low in the hard and stupid heat of August. People still came down to the docks, but no one wanted to go fishing. Instead, they would amble sideways down to my boat to gawk, scratch their necks, and ask, how much? And when I told them $450 a day some of them would look unhappy for a moment, and some would grin strangely, and some would just stare, and then they would all look behind them, take a funny little step to the side, and wander away with a shy half glance over their shoulder like they were hoping I hadn’t noticed them.
Art, the 350-pound ex-biker dockmaster, said it was the same with people who called his shack on the phone. They would clear their throats three or four times, ask the price, and promise to get right back to him, but they never did.
Art said things would get better soon, but Art always said that. I guess he felt like he had to keep up the morale of the handful of guides that worked out of his dock.
It wasn’t working. My morale was bad, and it wasn’t all because business was slow.
Things were not going any better away from the docks. The court had finally awarded me salvage rights to
, a lush 54-foot Alden sailboat I had taken from a guy named Doyle who thought he was the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. He was dead, blasted to bits by lightning, and nobody else had come forward to claim the boat. So I could count on a nice chunk of money when I sold it. That should have solved a lot of problems. But there seems to be a special rule of life that whenever you have money, everything else goes wrong, and it all did.
Nancy had moved out a few months earlier, saying she just needed some space for a while and it didn’t really mean anything, but we both knew it did.
She had moved to Key West from L.A. because working as a nurse in a small ghetto clinic had started to turn her sour—and because, I still thought, maybe we had something.
And maybe we had. We had tried hard to make it work and for the first few months together, it had worked magically. Even in my small and battered cottage, there was room for two of us and everything we needed because we were in love. Or at least, we thought we were in love, and maybe that counts for the same thing until the fairy dust wears off.
There is nothing quite like being in love in Key West. Just walking down Duval Street can make you feel more alive than you have ever felt before, like God loves you more than other people and everything you do will always turn out all right. You can almost hear the music playing and you begin to believe that you are Gene Kelly.
And when the fairy dust wears off there’s nothing worse than love dying in Key West. On the passionate canvas of the tropics the brush strokes are brighter, harder-edged. They hurt more. Everyone holds hands in Key West, and if your hand is empty you feel it more.
But Nancy and I had not broken up; we had simply moved apart. We would spend an evening together, and Nancy still kept some of her stuff in a closet at my house. Of course that made it harder; if we had just agreed it was over I could get on with life. Instead, the ending was dragging on indefinitely as the relationship twitched into temporary life from time to time, bringing the illusion of hope into a thing that was already as dead as it could be.
The illusions didn’t last long. The final killing blow came in a way that might not have been able to happen at all, except in that searing, stupefying August heat.
• • •
The Moonlight Room was a back street dive. Every waterfront town has one. There are no signs posted to tell you, but it’s for members only. To be a member you have to live in town and work the boats.
The membership at the Moonlight Room was made up of Key West’s sports-fishing community and a good handful of the commercial fishermen. Any evening would find the place full of guides, charter captains, mates, and shrimpers—and their wives, girlfriends, and families. If an outsider wandered in by mistake, the odds were pretty good they’d get the message quickly and wander out again. If they didn’t take a hint they’d better either buy a round for the house or know how to use their fists.
You almost had to duck under the small neon sign to get through the door. Once inside you were never sure it was worth it. There were three small tables, a couple of barely-padded high-backed booths, and a row of stools along the bar. At the back was a small hallway, only slighter deeper than a broom closet, with a telephone, a cigarette machine, and a unisex restroom.
I don’t know where the term “Happy Hour” comes from. I’ve never seen one that wasn’t two hours long and pathetic. Happy Hour at the Moonlight Room was so standard, it might have been a Norman Rockwell, if Rockwell had ever painted All-American shabby degenerate drunken resignation. A handful of idle captains, mates, and retired drunks sat on stools and in booths and just drank with a concentration you could almost call sober.
With Nancy avoiding me and my future with her uncertain, I had taken to spending the last of the late afternoon heat in the dark and moldy coolness of a booth. After the first few times, the residents stopped glaring at me when I came in. I was starting to fit in. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
Draft beer was fifty cents and there was usually a ball game on the television. I would have two or three beers, watch the game, sulk for a while, and then head out into the evening, my mild buzz a shield against the dying heat of the day.
Sometimes I would find Nancy and we would eat dinner, talk a little, fight a little, and then either make up and make love or separate to stew in our separate bitter puddings. The next day it would start all over again and I was at the point where I couldn’t tell one day from any other, which is something that happens in Key West anyway, but now it was worse.
I had learned that Nancy was one of those people who needs to fight. Not out of any sense of meanness, but from a feeling of worth. If she couldn’t argue about something, the thing had no value. She would take great satisfaction from fighting until terrible things were said and then she’d make up in the face of this new “honesty.”
I was just the opposite. Nancy thought fighting was a sign of a healthy relationship; I thought it meant something was wrong. Neither one of us could shake these convictions. So the fighting went on, Nancy always pushing at my refusal to fight until she got too frustrated to stand it any longer and left, or I got too mad and gave her the fight she craved.
And so it had gradually dawned on us that we were even farther apart than we thought. The distance between us grew, and the silence. By now I knew that it was going to take a very big effort to keep the relationship alive. I was willing. I wanted it to work. But Nancy began working later shifts, forgetting to return my calls, staying away sometimes for three days at a stretch.
She always apologized, saying that her work schedule at the hospital was worse than usual. Or maybe she took somebody else’s shift in the ER as a favor. And when I said she should have called, it would launch us on another three-hour screaming match.
When you are in love with someone and they don’t see you or call you for three days—unless you are a complete idiot—you begin to think they don’t care for you as much as you care for them. And also—unless you are a complete idiot—you realize that there is not a damned thing you can do about it.
So with nothing else to do and no work to distract me, I glided into the routine of Happy Hours at the Moonlight Room.
It wasn’t so bad. Everybody else in the place at that time of day had something they pitied themselves for, so it was quiet. Every so often somebody would play a song on the jukebox, which had somehow been loaded by mistake with a bunch of old songs made up of actual melodies and words that meant something.
Between the songs and the ball games and the fifty-cent draft, life was full again.
This evening was no different. There was a game on the blurry old TV set above the bar. The Marlins were losing again. The same happy crowd hunched over the same half-empty glasses. They barely blinked as I came in. I grabbed a draft and found my regular booth in the back of the room.
Maybe Nancy would find me. Maybe she had forgiven me. Maybe she would even tell me what she was forgiving me for.
I sat in my booth, trying not to notice the smell from the back room. Apparently they’d just poured some new pine-scented stuff into the toilet, and they figured that ought to do instead of flushing. On top of that, somebody in the small kitchen had found something washed up on the beach and decided to fry it in transmission oil from a Packard they’d pulled out of a canal.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Marlins were down seven runs in the fifth inning and suddenly my glass was empty. Something had to give.
I stood and walked over to the bar. There were a couple of boney, rangy guys sitting at the end of the bar, shrimpers from the tough, unwashed look of them. Neither one of them looked up from his glass as I passed by. That didn’t mean anything. I hadn’t seen either one look up from a glass in all the time I’d been coming here. They just sat there, two feet apart, and drank. Never talked, never moved at all except for the slight bend of the elbow as they raised their glasses without moving their heads. So far they hadn’t even gone to the bathroom.
A very large woman with short hair and an ornate tattoo on her arm refilled my glass without looking up and without saying a word. Maybe she was related to the shrimpers.
As I headed back to my booth there was a blinding burst of light and the front door swung open. I squinted in its direction.
Nancy stood just inside, blinking as her eyes adjusted. She looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a car, except a deer never made me feel weak in the knees. She looked so good that the two shrimpers moved their heads an inch and a half each just to look at her.
“Billy,” she said, as she was finally able to see in the gloom and caught sight of me gaping at her. I felt warm.
Key West had been good to her. She seemed more relaxed than when I first met her. The smile lines that bracketed her mouth had grown gentler and there was a glow of health under her flawless olive skin. She still had a ripe mouth and the most perfect neck I had ever seen.
Her hair was pulled back now in what she called her “working do” and even the awful hospital whites could not make her figure look chunky. It flowed like a piece of sculpture, begging for hands to run over it and feel its curves and textures.