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Authors: Kit Reed

Where

BOOK: Where
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F
OR
D
ANIEL

FOR REALS

 

1

David Ribault

Thursday, before dawn

If there was a shift in the skies at his back just then— any change in the wind to signify what was coming, Davy didn't know it. The islands were at his back, the skies ahead, dark as fuck. He was on the last causeway to the mainland, getting cranked up to confront Rawson Steele, object?

Deconstruction.

Look, the first time he saw the guy, he was stealing a car on Front Street— at least Davy thinks he was. Last week he caught this well-dressed stranger hotwiring a needle-nosed Lexus with out-of-state tags on the main drag. Nobody steals cars in downtown Charlton, South Carolina, at least not this early; nobody lays his classy suit jacket across the hood while he's doing it: flaunting Hugo Boss on Front Street at an hour when no tourists come.

Perfect hair. That suit.
Not from around here.

Davy let it go by, but he unlocked his offices with the creepy feeling that he wasn't the first.

David Ribault's sense of order is profound. He can tell when something's wrong. An architect, he knows the location of everything in his office, down to the last pencil. He doesn't know how, he just knows how it is. It's what drove him to architecture in the first place. He wants to improve his part of the world with designs that can be set down and defined in terms of absolutes. It's about sorting out the mess and confusion of life, a least a little bit, with symmetry.

He studied the configuration of objects on his drafting table for too long, scowling.
Everything looks OK, but it isn't.
He couldn't pin it down, exactly. He just knew.

Don't be stupid,
he told himself, but it was creepy.

Then, driving back to Merrill's neat little steamboat bungalow on Kraven island that night, he slammed on the brakes. The sleazy hotwire wizard's car crouched in the no-parking zone outside the Harbor City Inn, vibrating in place like a dog that somebody told, “Stay,” and then forgot. Davy's back hairs bristled.
Not your car.

He saw the driver stalking up the walk to the hotel like he owned the place. However he charmed Martha Ann Calhoun at the desk, whatever he had to pay her, days have passed and that car is still sitting there. Did the big-city stranger come back and turn off the motor or did he leave it running in place until the tank burned dry?

“That car? It belongs to this big gun from New York, his name is Rawson Steele,” Merrill said when he came home fuming. “We had a great conversation.”

Davy's back went up. “Stay away from him, he's a sleazeball.”

She shut him down with a silky smile. “Well, he was very nice to me.”

So Steele hit on Davy's girl before he even knew it, worked his dark magic before he could go,
watch out.
Everybody knows him now, Kraventown is that small. He knifed his way in here like a tiger shark hunting in the swash, finds a way to get in your face, standing too close with that innocent fuck-me grin,
Can't they see the teeth?
It bothers him that nobody else got this warning vibe, not even his old friend Ray Powell— retired lawyer, runs Kraventown from behind the scenes.

It bothers him that nobody else got that warning vibe, not even meticulous Ray. Ray takes his time making up his mind, just not that day. Ray,
his friend Ray
walked Steele into Merrill's office at Town Planning and Zoning and introduced them smooth as Judas, and Merrill drank the Kool-Aid too, which bothers him the most.

Then on Friday she took his hands the way she does, laughing. “Come on, sweetie. Ray's giving the party at Azalea House.”

“For that guy.”

“Is that a problem for you?”

He was cool about it, neither here or there. “Sorry, I have things to do.”

They're too close to have to spell it out. She tried, “If you'd only
talk
to him. Really, he's in love with this place and so are you…” Then she read the sour look on his face and push almost came to shove; his smart, tough, longtime lover curled her fingers in the hollow at his throat, wheedling. “If you loved me, you'd come with.”

He managed not to say,
Not in this life.
He tightened his hand over hers, keeping it in place, and did the best he could. “Tell Ray I'm sorry, tell him something came up.”

Right. He should have gone, marked his territory, whatever men in love are supposed to do. Merrill came home glowing. “Davy, he can't figure out why you won't give him the time of day when he thinks you're doing great things here.”

What???

“New buildings
and
renovations. What you did at the Lanier plantation, the big houses on Front Street, the Gaillard, for instance, the clinic. At least give him a chance!”

He loves her so he kept his mouth shut.

According to Ray, Rawson Steele worked that party like a pro. He'd played the genial, clueless tourist, “
Say
,
where's the best fishing, who makes the best crab cakes, are there any Civil War relics left on the island?”
translated: Confederate gold. He followed up with
“Who keeps up all these great old houses”
a beat too soon, Ray told him, which meant, “
Who are the first families?”
By the time the Japanese lanterns burned down and his guests were wandering off into the Carolina night, this aggressively charming intruder had his host backed into a corner. He was oblique, nothing stated, but all those questions narrowed down to:
“What would it take to buy these people out?”

Davy said, “He looked like trouble coming in.”

Ray, who'd planted torch
è
res along the walks at Azalea House and fired up his champagne fountain in this guy's honor, finished, “Turns out you were right, Ribault. You. Were. Right.”

Here in the low country, on the barrier islands along the Inland Waterway, on Kraven island in particular, people don't land on you like that. They don't expect you to unzip your fly at the first party and show them your junk. In these parts folks amble in, and if there's something on their mind they take their time getting around to it, idling until you ask.

Ray backed off that night and he wasn't the only one. In the low country, people do these things so smoothly that outsiders never know. Davy kept his distance, but every day he has coffee with the dawn patrol at Weisbuch's store, and he hears. They say Steele is here for something about their island— land, he thinks— which puts David A. Ribault of Ribault Associates, Architects, squarely in his sights, which is a problem for him. Davy isn't OCD exactly, but as a kid he fell in love with symmetry, and he became an architect because of the need to put things right. He'd like to take the jumbled mass of the town, all these decaying houses and ramshackle shanties and cheap new buildings badly designed, and find a way to improve them, daring to hope that will make things better for people living here, whereas this bastard, bastard … He doesn't know. But he does.
He wants to fuck up our island.
No.
He wants to fuck us up by messing with everything we care about.

For days he and Steele circled each other like dogs deciding whether to fight or not. He'd just as soon they didn't, but when he slouched out of Weisbuch's early yesterday, Steele blindsided him. “Ribault!”

“Shit!” Bastard, bastard: hot coffee everywhere.

“We have to meet.”

“Whatever happened to hello?”

Eyes narrowed: “Urgent matter.”

“Say what?” Davy was not about to ask why. He wasn't about to say yes, either.

“We need to sit down.” Steele was all Abe Lincoln forelock and disarming, trust-me grin, but those black eyes darted here, there. With a fake half-smile, he rushed on. “Not here, over there on the mainland, where it's…”

Fill in the blanks.

“It's…” Davy prompted, leaving Steele a space to put the rest, but Steele didn't.
What does he want from me?

“How's tomorrow?”

Davy studied the lanky Northerner: dark hair, dark, deep-set eyes, really does look like Abraham Lincoln on a good day, except without the beard.
Would you trust this man?
Davy doesn't trust anybody much, except Merrill. And Ray, who yanked him out of Charlton Community College and drop-kicked him into New Haven to start all over again at Yale. “What for?”

Steele used the proffer: big man extends hand with generous grin to prove that he's bigger than you. “Rawson Steele.”
Shake.

“I know.” Davy shook, sort of, in a classic feint-and-lunge. Two guys who don't like each other much, bent on faking each other out.

“We need a time certain.”

“I need a reason.”

Steele countered with the blow-off line of the century. “I'll explain later. Tomorrow?”

Davy wheeled. “Can't. Busy.” Take
that
and fuck you.

“Wait!” Steele followed, matching him step for step. “This is…”

“What?” Davy snapped around in a full 360, glaring. “What!”

“It's…” This is when he got weird. “I don't want to cause a panic but this is serious, and you look like the right man…”

If I ask, he wins. Make him wait.

Steele waited a beat too long. He said, “Something's about to,” and didn't finish. He said, “It's just.” But he didn't say just what. He said what was a good place on the mainland, where they could meet out in the open, where no third party can plant a bug. As if granting a concession, he said, “Name the place.”

BOOK: Where
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