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Authors: Charles Williams

The Sailcloth Shroud

BOOK: The Sailcloth Shroud
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The Sailcloth Shroud

by

Charles Williams

1960

I was up the mainmast of the
Topaz
in a bosun’s chair when the police car drove into the yard, around eleven o’clock Saturday morning. The yard doesn’t work on Saturdays, so there was no one around except me, and the watchman out at the gate. The car stopped near the end of the pier at which the Topaz was moored, and two men got out. I glanced at them without much interest and went on with my work, hand-sanding the mast from which the old varnish had been removed. They were probably looking for some exuberant type off the shrimp boat, I thought. She was the
Leila M.,
the only other craft in the yard at the moment.

They came on out on the pier in the blazing sunlight, however, and halted opposite the mainmast to look up at me. They wore lightweight suits and soft straw hats, and their shirts were wilted with perspiration.

“Your name Rogers?” one of them asked. He was middle-aged, with a square, florid face and expressionless gray eyes. “Stuart Rogers?”

“That’s right,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“Police. We want to talk to you.”

“Go ahead.”

“You come down.”

I shrugged, and shoved the sandpaper into a pocket of my dungarees. Casting off the hitch, I paid out the line and dropped on deck. Dust from the sanding operation was plastered to the sweat on my face and torso. I mopped at it with a handkerchief and got a little of it off. I stepped onto the pier, stuck a cigarette in my mouth, and offered the pack to the two men. They shook their heads.

“My name’s Willetts,” the older one said. “This is my partner, Joe Ramirez.”

Ramirez nodded. He was a young man with rather startling blue eyes in a good-looking Latin face. He appraised the
Topaz
with admiration. “Nice-looking schooner you got there.”

“Ketch—” I started to say, but let it go. What was the use getting involved in that? “Thanks. What did you want to see me about?”

“You know a man named Keefer?” Willetts asked.

“Sure.” I flicked the lighter and grinned. “Has he made the sneezer again?”

Willetts ignored the question. “How well do you know him?”

“About three weeks’ worth,” I replied. I nodded toward the ketch. “He helped me sail her up from Panama.”

“Describe him.”

“He’s about thirty-eight. Black hair, blue eyes. Five-ten, maybe; a hundred and sixty to a hundred and seventy pounds. Has a chipped tooth in front. And a tattoo on his right arm. Heart, with a girl’s name in it. Doreen, Charlene—one of those. Why?”

It was like pouring information into a hole in the ground. I got nothing back, not even a change of expression.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Couple of nights ago, I think.”

“You think? Don’t you know?”

I was beginning to care very little for his attitude, but I kept it to myself. Barking back at policemen is a sucker’s game. “I didn’t enter it in the log, if that’s what you mean,” I said. “But, let’s see. This is Saturday—so it must have been Thursday night. Around midnight.”

The detectives exchanged glances. “You better come along with us,” Willetts said.

“What for?”

“Verify an identification, for one thing—”

“Identification?”

“Harbor Patrol fished a stiff out from under Pier Seven this morning. We think it may be your friend Keefer, but we haven’t got much to go on.”

I stared at him. “You mean he’s drowned?”

“No,” he said curtly. “Somebody killed him.”

“Oh,” I said. Beyond the boatyard the surface of the bay burned like molten glass in the sun, unbroken except for the bow wave of a loaded tanker headed seaward from one of the refineries above. Keefer was no prize, God knows, and I hadn’t particularly liked him, but—It was hard to sort out.

“Let’s go,” Willetts said. “You want to change clothes?”

Yeah.” I flipped the cigarette outward into the water and stepped back aboard. The detectives followed me below. They stood watching while I took a change of clothing and a towel from the drawer under one of the bunks in the after cabin. When I started back up the companionway, Willetts asked, “Haven’t you got a bathroom on here?”

“No water aboard at the moment,” I replied. “I use the yard washroom.”

“Oh.” They went back on deck and accompanied me up the pier in the muggy Gulf Coast heat. “We’ll wait for you in the car,” Willetts said. The washroom was in a small building attached to one end of the machine shop, off to the right and beyond the marine ways. I stripped and showered. Could it be Keefer they were talking about? He was a drunk, and could have been rolled, but why killed and thrown in the bay? And by this time he couldn’t have had more than a few dollars, anyway. The chances were it wasn’t Keefer at all.

I toweled myself and dressed in faded washable slacks, sneakers, and a short-sleeved white shirt. After slipping the watch back on my wrist, I transferred wallet, cigarettes, and lighter, took the dungarees aboard the
Topaz,
and snapped the padlock on the companion hatch.

Ramirez drove. The old watchman looked up curiously from his magazine as we went out the gate. Willetts hitched around on the front seat. “You picked up this guy Keefer in Panama, is that it?”

I lighted a cigarette and nodded. “He’d missed his ship in Cristobal, and wanted a ride back to the States.”

“Why didn’t he fly back?”

“He was broke.”

“What?”

“He didn’t have plane fare.”

“How much did you pay him?”

“Hundred dollars. Why?”

Willetts made no reply. The car shot across the railroad tracks and into the warehouse and industrial district bordering the waterfront.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Wasn’t there any identification on this body you found in the bay?”

“No.”

“Then what makes you think it might be Keefer?”

“Couple of things,” Willetts said shortly. “Was this his home port?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “He told me he shipped out of Philadelphia.”

“What else you know about him?”

“He’s an A.B. His full name is Francis L. Keefer, but he was usually known as Blackie. Apparently something of a live-it-up type. Said he’d been in trouble with the union before, for missing ships. This time he was on an inter-coastal freighter, bound for San Pedro. Went ashore in Cristobal, got a heat on, and wound up in jail over in the Panamanian side, in Colon. The ship sailed without him.

“So he asked you for a job?”

“That’s right.”

“Kind of funny, wasn’t it? I mean, merchant seamen don’t usually ship out on puddle-jumpers like yours, do they?”

“No, but I don’t think you get the picture. He was stranded. Flat broke. He had the clothes he was wearing, and the whisky shakes, and that was about it. I had to advance him twenty dollars to buy some dungarees and gear for the trip.”

“And there were just the three of you? You and Keefer, and this other guy, that died at sea? What was his name?”

“Baxter,” I said.

“Was he a merchant seaman too?”

“No. He was an office worker of some kind. Accountant, I think—though that’s just a guess.”

“Hell, didn’t he say what he did?”

“He didn’t talk much. As a matter of fact, he was twice the seamen Keefer was, but I don’t think he’d ever been a pro.”

“Did you and Keefer have any trouble?”

“No.”

The pale eyes fixed on my face, as expressionless as marbles. “None at all? From the newspaper story, it was a pretty rugged trip.”

“It was no picnic,” I said.

“You didn’t have a fight, or anything?”

“No. Oh, I chewed him out for splitting the mains’l, but you’d hardly call it a fight. He had it coming, and knew it.”

The car paused briefly for a traffic light, and turned, weaving through the downtown traffic. “What’s this about a sail?”

“It’s technical. Just say he goofed, and wrecked it. It was right after Baxter died, and I was jumpy anyway, so I barked at him.”

“You haven’t kept in touch with him since you got in?”

“No. I haven’t seen him since I paid him off, except for that few minutes night before last.”

The car slowed, and turned down a ramp into a cavernous basement garage in which several patrol cars and an ambulance were parked. We slid into a numbered stall and got out. Across the garage was an elevator, and to the left of it a dingy corridor. Willetts led the way down the corridor to a doorway on the right.

Inside was a bleak room of concrete and calcimine and unshaded light. On either side were the vaults that were the grisly filing cabinets of a city’s unclaimed and anonymous dead, and at the far end a stairway led up to the floor above. Near the stairway were two or three enameled metal tables on casters, and a desk at which sat an old man in a white coat. He got up and came toward us, carrying a clip board.

“Four,” Willetts said.

The old man pulled the drawer out on its rollers. The body was covered with a sheet. Ramirez took a corner of it in his hand, and glanced at me. “If you had any breakfast, better hang onto it.”

He pulled it back. In spite of myself, I sucked in my breath, the sound just audible in the stillness. He wasn’t pretty. I fought the revulsion inside me, and forced myself to look again. It was Blackie, all right; there was little doubt of it, in spite of the wreckage of his face. There was no blood, of course—it had long since been washed away by the water—but the absence of it did nothing to lessen the horror of the beating he had taken before he died.

“Well?” Willetts asked in his flat, unemotional voice. “That Keefer?”

I nodded. “How about the tattoo?”

Ramirez pulled the sheet back farther, exposing the nude body. On one forearm was the blue outline of a valentine heart with the name Darlene written slantingly across it in red script. That settled it. I turned away, remembering a heaving deck and wind-hurled rain, and holding Keefer by the front of his sodden shirt while I cursed him. I’m sorry, Blackie. I wish I hadn’t.

“There’s no doubt of it?” Willetts asked. “That’s the guy you brought up from Panama?”

“No doubt at all,” I replied. “It’s Keefer.”

“Okay. Let’s go upstairs.”

The room was on the third floor, an airless cubicle with one dirty window looking out over the sun-blasted gravel roof of an adjoining building. The only furnishings were some steel lockers, a table scarred with old cigarette burns, and several straight-backed chairs.

Willetts nodded to Ramirez. “Joe, tell the lieutenant we’re here.”

Ramirez went out. Willetts dropped his hat on the table, took off his coat, and loosened the collar of his shirt. After removing a pack of cigarettes from the coat, he draped it across the back of one of the chairs. “Sit down.”

I sat down at the table. The room was stifling, and I could feel sweat beading my face. I wished I could stop seeing Keefer. “Why in the name of God did they beat him that way? Is that what actually killed him?”

Willetts popped a match with his thumbnail, and exhaled smoke. “He was pistol-whipped. And killed by a blow on the back of his head. But suppose we ask the questions, huh? And don’t try to hold out on me, Rogers; we can make you wish you’d never been born.”

I felt a quick ruffling of anger, but kept it under control. “Why the hell would I hold out on you? If there’s any way I can help, I’ll be glad to. What do you want to know?”

“Who you are, to begin with. What you’re doing here.

And how you happened to be sailing that boat up from Panama.”

“I bought her in the Canal Zone,” I said. I took out my wallet and flipped identification onto the table—Florida driver’s license, FCC license verification card, and memberships in a Miami Beach sportsman’s club and the Miami Chamber of Commerce. Willetts made a note of the address. “I own the schooner
Orion
. She berths at the City Yacht Basin in Miami, and makes charter cruises through the Bahamas—”

“So why’d you buy another one?”

“I’m trying to tell you, if you’ll give me a chance. Summer’s the slow season, from now till the end of October, and the
Orion’s
tied up. I heard about this deal on the
Topaz,
through a yacht broker who’s a friend of mine. Some oil-rich kids from Oklahoma bought her a couple of months ago and took off for Tahiti without bothering to find out if they could sail a boat across Biscayne Bay. With a little luck, they managed to get as far as the Canal, but they’d had a belly-full of glamour and romance and being seasick twenty-four hours a day, so they left her there and flew back. I was familiar with her, and knew she’d bring twice the asking price back in the States, so I made arrangements with the bank for a loan, hopped the next Pan American flight down there, and looked her over and bought her.”

“Why’d you bring her over here, instead of Florida?”

“Better chance of a quick sale. Miami’s always flooded with boats.”

“And you hired Keefer, and this man Baxter, to help you?”

“That’s right. She’s a little too much boat for single-handed operation, and sailing alone’s just a stunt, anyway. But four days out of Cristobal, Baxter died of a heart attack—”

“I read the story in the paper,” Willetts said. He sat down and leaned his forearms on the table. “All right, let’s get to Keefer. And what I want to know is where he got all his money.”

I looked at him. “Money? He didn’t—”

“I know, I know!” Willetts cut me off. “That’s what you keep telling me. You picked him up off the beach in Panama with his tail hanging out. He didn’t have a nickel, no luggage, and no clothes except the ones he was wearing. And all you paid him was a hundred dollars. Right?”

“Yes.”

Willetts gestured with his cigarette. “Well, you better look again. We happen to know that when he came ashore off that boat he had somewhere between three and four thousand dollars.”

“Not a chance. We must be talking about two different people.”

“Listen, Rogers. When they pulled Keefer out of the bay, he was wearing a new suit that cost a hundred and seventy-five dollars. For the past four days he’s been driving a rented Thunderbird, and living at the Warwick Hotel, which is no skid-row flop, believe me. And he’s still the richest stiff in the icebox. They’re holding an envelope for him in the Warwick safe with twenty-eight hundred dollars in it. Now you tell me.”

BOOK: The Sailcloth Shroud
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