ADVENTURE THE 8TH: DEATH IN THE TROPICS
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Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
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ADVENTURE the 8th: Death in the Tropics
A quick stop at my apartment for a change of clothes and I’m off to meet Carolyn in my rented convertible. Getting off the plane in Miami, the radio said rain but I didn’t believe them. By the time I was halfway across the causeway I knew better. A rolling bank of kingpin clouds was chewing up the scenery in my rear view.
I figured on trying to outrun Mother Nature and took the causeway at a fair clip, knowing damn well that I’d probably end up with a ticket before I reached our little rendezvous. The highway patrol did not disappoint. After asserting himself as the custodian of safe passage for the tourist trade, my copper decided to put in a personal dig just to show me who’s boss.
“You’re a regular Ben-Hur,” he gloats.
So I hold up his ticket against my middle finger before pulling away.
“Yeah,” I admit, “Thanks for my invitation to the toga party.”
. . .
The address Carolyn gave me had been described as a little place not far off the road. So, it was no great surprise when I drove past the cutoff twice before pulling into that remote sweaty jungle. The house was the size of parliament, tucked way in back of some forgotten place where God must have been a baby once. I caught the old petrified wooden porch of the hideout staring back at my headlamps, rotted through by termites and sea salt. The drive was nothing more than worn dust where nothing had been allowed to grow for years. I pulled my car into a half collapsed port attached to the plantation house, all twisted and overgrown with vines. Tarzan’s maid must be off for the season.
It was unnaturally dark by now. A big canopy had dropped from the sky.
And suddenly, there was Carolyn, glowing like a zombie in her almost sheer green negligee and fluff-lined housecoat. She was taller somehow than I remembered and poised just so, with her left leg extending from between separating fabrics – a glittery powder puff of a slipper pointed in my direction. But any illusion I had about her being glad to see me ended with her first words.
“Huh,” she says, producing a half empty glass of something cleverly tucked behind her, “I didn’t think you’d come.”
“How’s that?” I say, trying to convince myself that she’s alright deep down where it counts.
She pouts like a sick canary, as though she means every word. This isn’t what I had in mind - exactly, but being a birdwatcher, I decide its time for a little cat and mouse.
A bolt of lightening transforms the relatively placid forest into a cage of shadows – the accompanying thunder clasp rattling all hell beneath us.
I walk up the creaking stairs, paying more attention not to shove my foot through a soft spot. When I get to the top, Carolyn’s already gone inside.
It’s a surprisingly homey place, the kind old southern gentlemen built in the old southern days when labor was cheap and the lives behind it cheaper still. I wonder how many are buried out back.
“You’re late!” Carolyn says again, more pronounced than the first time; too pronounced, in fact.
“You said that before,” I remind her.
Somewhere in another part of the house a faint echo of classical music pierces my acoustic nerve like a staple gun.
“Suit yourself,” I’m told.
“Thanks” I tell her, “I always do.”
I leave her standing with her arms folded like a pile of spaghetti while I go off in search of Stokowski. Besides, it gives me a chance to case the place. Fairly lavish, with lots of pictures belonging to somebody else’s family tree. Either the place came like this or we’re trespassing on a summer retreat. I look around for any sign that I’m being set up, but the place looks legit.
After a two room detour with no misdirection, I finally get to the reason I’m supposed to be skulking around – a gentlemen’s library with all the comforts of the arts. I take the needle off its long-playing maestro; Leon Schyvatz – a classically trained pianist who could put most of the highbrow set to bed but keeps the critics awake just long enough to write him a few Jeremiahs. The jacket says it all, his virtuosity, his musical stealth, his great gift to the world. At twenty-six, he’s too young to be that good. His press agent’s the real star.
I bury the young protégée under a pile of Bing Crosby records and get back to my little fortune hunter in the living room. She’s still waiting like a spoiled child who’s just been told she won’t be allowed to drink a mint julep at her sweet sixteen.
“You know, you should have that recorded,” I tell Carolyn.
She’s expecting some explanation so why not give it to her. Because I’m stubborn – that’s why. Instead I give her my ‘don’t try it, baby’ look and drop my overnight on the floor next to the couch. I find a little mirror on the wall closest the hallway and preen a bit – something I haven’t done since I left sixteen behind.
“I could use a shave,” I wax calmly, remembering the massage and the cute thing that gave me it with honors before my trip.
What sort of foul mood Carolyn’s in I just don’t care. But I’ll be damned if I’m the Jolly Rancher to cleanse her taste buds. I finally break – not to be magnanimous, but because the whole ‘I hate you to death’ angle’s grown old…fast.
“Oh, that,” says I, tossing my grip on an old couch while glancing around for the bar, “Marysol paid me a visit.”
Her demeanor abruptly changes – not to jealousy, but concern.
She paces in that slow angular strut of a runway gal who needs a burger and a good spank.
“Seems as long as I’ve got the list I’ll never be lonely,” I add.
“Except you don’t have it,” she reminds me.
“Well, Marysol didn’t know that,” I prod, “Anyway, I got what I wanted.”
The dig gets her like a pickaxe. She whirls around, pretending her way out of a tough spot but with no glue and cardboard backing to make it stick.
“Men!” she seethes.
“Yeah,” I say, lighting a cigarette for effect, “You sure know how to pick ‘em…maybe you should switch.”
“Whatever’s your pleasure.”
But even that doesn’t seem to break her down to my size. She’s a block of granite tonight. Maybe I should sharpen my chisel and get to work.
“What are we doing here, Mars?” she snaps.
I can tell that daylight hasn’t begun to glimmer yet under those long blonde tresses. It’s open season on grouse and I’ve got all the fire power.
“I was invited, remember? Don’t know about you…” I tell her, direct and pretending to be a little miffed, “…but I did one-twenty in a sixty just to get here. The green-eyed monster doesn’t suit you, angel – not without a scotch and soda waiting.”
She pivots on those puffy stiletto-heeled slippers before slinking over to a nearby credenza. You can always tell what a gal’s thinking by the way she pours your drink. Heavy on the ice and stingy on the booze…that, brother, says it all. I come up from behind and reach for my choice.
“Better make it a bottle of each,” I explain, “I’ve been a very good boy.”
“Hah!” she laughs, taking the drink in her hands, “…and now you want to be bad?”
I shrug my shoulders as though nothing matters. Nothing actually does. Another rumble of thunder outside and the lights flicker.
“Isn’t it romantic?” I wax.
“Only in spots,” she tells me.
I leave the bottle where it stands and take Carolyn in my arms. She feels right, just like she did the other night – coiling her arms around my neck and leaving a puddle of scotch on the carpet next to us. I give her just enough to keep her waiting for the rest.
“That’s what I like about you,” I tell her sweetly, “You know something’s wrong but haven’t any lasting interest in how to fix it.”
She loosens her grip, pulling away with deliberate wounded pride. What an actress.
“I feel so alone,” she pretends to confide.
“…and strange, some how…”
“You are,” I admit.
This could go on forever.
“Suppose you leave feelings out of it, angel…especially when you can’t comment from a point of knowledge.” I say, coming from behind with a soft touch around her waist, “Don’t think it isn’t that I don’t care, because I don’t. Only I’m the kind that doesn’t put much stock in my emotions.”
“It’s a feeling,” I smugly reply.
Carolyn slides her hand over mine. She’s hoping I’ll let go. But it’s not going to be that easy for her.
“I’m tired,” she explains.
So am I. I tighten my grip and spin her around to face me. She’s shocked but not surprise, so I let her have a light smack across the cheek – nothing to leave bruises, just enough to really get her attention.
“Out with it,” I demand.
She hasn’t counted on this. I can tell.
“With what?” she says.
Her breathing gets deeper.
“My patience or your teeth, angel. You decide. Either way we’re going to get to the bottom of things.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you don’t. Just like you don’t know anything about Hemmingway looking for that same list. Tell me, who’s into that beady little heart of yours, angel? I already know who’s got dibs on your soul.”
“Maybe,” I admit, “But at least I know my way around the nuthouse. I didn’t the night we bolted out of our own funeral like a couple of nags marked for the glue factory. Oh sure, I knew it was too easy, but I went. I had to see where it would all lead to…and it leads right here.”
“Let me go!”
I haul off with a pretty decent coin toss, sending her face first into a couch full of mildewed pillows. Carolyn reaches for a vase on the nearby coffee table but I’m quicker on my feet. I grab her wrists. She tries to sink those porcelain fangs of hers into me but it’s no use. I’ve straddled my prey. I’ve got her cornered.
“But then I remembered the turn off the main road,” I tell her, “Funny how on a moonless night you managed to find that spot almost as though you were looking for it. How you never once got lost or ended up wrapping us both around a tree.”
“I’m a good driver.”
“You’re more than that, angel. I went back to our spot the next day. Barely found it with the sun out and all my pistons firing. I then went to the hall of records to catch up on my reading. The property belongs to Hemmingway.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Just like you didn’t know Menendez Construction did the job a little over a year ago. That road, angel, it goes nowhere. Only a guy named Frank Brody, who wasn’t exactly winning points with your husband, seems to have disappeared at around the same time Hemmingway got the itch to pave paradise and put up his parking lot; a dead end for Frankie. And that’s how it was meant for me too.”
“Let me explain.”
“You don’t have to, angel. There wasn’t anyone coming for us. You were supposed to take care of me the way you did Rigor and his boyfriend in the backroom. They double-crossed Hemmingway too, along with Tony. You remember Tony. Big fat hypocrite, so desperate to get his hook under your silk n’ lacies he didn’t see the worm attached. But I did. Only you didn’t have the guts to do it, or did and just felt like a bit of foreplay instead.”
Carolyn stops her kicking and whinnying because deep down she knows it’s no use. I may be the dumbest jockey to ever enter the race but I slacken my reigns just enough to let her regain her stride. I don’t think she’ll run but you can never tell with her kind. They like to get out in front before going into home stretch. But I value my lead.
“You’re not working for Michael, angel. I’m having seconds on whether you’re even married to the old bugger. I know you. Another forty minutes would be too much. Forty years? You’re not the anniversary type. But you did care about Tony, or that is Tony and his list.”
“You don’t know how wrong you are,” Carolyn says, her eyes all hard and glassy, just like the first night I found her.
“Yeah?” says I, backing away from the couch with my hand on my holster, “Well, there’s one way to settle it for sure.”
I throw her my piece – cocked and ready, for old time’s sake. It lands with a thud on the wooden coffee table just inches from her hand.
“Go ahead. I’m a gambling man. If I’m wrong I’ve got nothing to lose and if I’m right you’ll be doing me a big favor. You’re not the victim. You’re a cold-blooded assassin.”
“And you’re a fool,” Carolyn tells me.
She reaches for my gun, seizing it in her hot impatient little fingers and devouring the moment like a hungry lioness marking her kill. I watch her pull the trigger without thinking twice, but my gun’s empty – like I didn’t know - and she realizes now that I’ve won the coin toss.
“You broke my heart, angel,” I tease before I grit my teeth, “Yes, you did.”
She recoils like a snake. I get my piece thrown back at me, followed by the vase and a lamp on the end table. She’s fast and accurate with her pitch. By the time I’ve recovered my gun she’s already through the front door. I make with the chase, loading my weapon before venturing into the storm. Alive would be preferred, but I’ll take dead if she presses the point.
Outside the wind’s gathered its strength, pouring buckets of pain that would wash away most any sin - but not hers. A few feet from the garage I find the broken heel of her velvet green slipper. The rest turns up, muddy and soaked through near the edge of the road leading out of this lost paradise. I don’t see her anywhere, but then again, in all that brush and raging teardrops I don’t see much of anything.
She wouldn’t be crazy enough to try it in her skivvies on foot, would she? I make the decision to sprint up the trail for a bit but it’s no use. Any foot prints left behind in the mud have been washed away by that minor flood rushing towards me. It’s as though someone took the pug out of the whole island and the land’s slowly being lowered into the ocean. The ground beneath my feet turns to mush. I can feel my weight pressing my shoes down into quicksand.
In between wind gusts I think I hear a few failed attempts to start my car, and remember only then that I left my keys in the ignition. There’s no time to think. I race back toward the house, gun pointed, ready to take aim at the tires of oncoming traffic. But it doesn’t happen and I start to wonder why.
Back at the plantation the lights have all gone out. I make the decision to see if the phone’s still working when the sound of a car door closing echoes past my ears. By the time I get to my convertible Carolyn’s slumped back in the driver’s seat, a bullet neatly imbedded at close range in her left temple. No use checking for a pulse. She’s taken her secrets to the unknown. But at least now I’m the one who’s channeling the clues.
THE END?...we're just getting warmed up!
Eddie Mars will return in his next adventure
- TRAVELER'S PRIVILEGE
on April 20th, 2006.
@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).