This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional. Kirkhall Island is a fictional Barrier Island off the Georgia Coast. Where I mention real people or companies (for example, Home Depot), it is merely for a semblance of verisimilitude and the attitudes and actions I ascribe to them are entirely fictional.
My thanks to Bill and Alastair who edit my work and make suggestions. Any errors that remain are probably because I ignored their advice.
The PA system crackled hoarsely as if to clear its metallic throat of the salt that had accumulated over the winter and then rasped, "Lawrence: Party of one." It coughed once again in dismissal and went silent.
I looked upwards as the evening sun picked up the fuselage of a southbound jet headed toward Jacksonville, a shiny gold arrowhead at the end of a pipe-cleaner contrail. Judging by the lack of noticeable separation in the trail I guessed it was an MD-88. ‘Yankees headed to Disney,’ I thought as I poured the last of my lime-and-lemonade down my throat, emptied the ice into the flower bed, picked up my leather jacket and helmet from the sun-warmed stone wall I’d been leaning against and headed into the restaurant dodging a couple of scavenging seagulls on short finals for the parking lot.
The Kurrajong is not a large establishment and the fifteen or so people waiting for tables filled the paneled vestibule. On Kirkhall Island there are only two short periods during the year — early spring and late fall — when the weather is pleasant yet the social detritus has not washed in from Atlanta and the local folk make the most of these. Nodding casual hellos to people I recognized, I edged my way toward the hostess’ podium. Mac, the owner of Kurrajong, was its chef, commanding the kitchen staff with a well balanced fusion of Australian directness and inventive phrases. His wife, Barbara, ran the restaurant and most early evenings she would be where she was now, assigning tables. Her open, tanned face, framed by red-blonde hair, radiated the sun she had absorbed over many a long day on Brisbane beaches and the laughter that danced in her light brown eyes could placate even the most impatient and self- important diner. If I were one to covet my neighbor’s wife Frank’s spouse would be the subject of many a discussion with some jaded padre in the enclosed darkness of the confessional. It was she who had chosen to call the restaurant after the tall trees with their tunics of green leaves that had grown around her childhood home. Certainly it was a more imaginative name than the ‘Sandpiper Grill’ and way less affected than ‘a Bord d’Ocean’, the two restaurants that grabbed for the tourist trade at the other end of the island. As I elbowed through the ring of supplicants pressing around the podium I caught her light Australian twang addressing a diner. "It’ll be at least an hour before we can get you a table, I’m afraid. It’s the first really nice weekend we’ve had in months and everyone’s out tonight."
The man in front of her was, I guessed, about my age, although I’m generally pretty hopeless at age estimation. The open shirt-neck and pulled-down tie couldn’t camouflage the impression that was created by the neatly pressed suit and expensive shoes which together somehow wafted Wall Street Journal. He made a grimace and brushed his dark blond hair back from his brow. "Oh, wow!" he paused, "And I guess there’s no other place to eat down here?"
Now, that was something of a difference: usually the ‘foreigners’ expected to be bumped up to front of the line just because they weren’t from around here.
"Sorry, love. There’s a couple of places up at the north end of the island, but we’re it down here." She turned to me as I finally made it to the podium. "Hi, Chris ! Haven’t seen you for a while. Been busy, have you?"
"Hi, Barbara. Yeah, pretty snowed at the mo. Got anything by the windows tonight?"
"Sure. You know I keep the best for you," she replied grinning as she pulled a menu from under her desk and handed it to the waitress. "Table eight."
"Yeah right!" I smiled back. "Thanks, Barbara!"
I turned to follow the waitress and then, out of the blue, the old affliction hit me. It had been a long time since I’d had a bout — I thought I’d outgrown it years ago — and I was caught off guard. As I moved past the businessman my mouth severed any connection it had with my brain and went off to do its own thing. "If you don’t mind sharing a table, you can eat with me," it said and then, ignoring the frantic commands being yelled at it from within my cranium, smiled at him.
Time and again throughout high school that mouth had dragged me into trouble which my brain had foreseen only too well. It had become somewhat more controlled as I’d got older, helped in that direction no doubt, by getting a couple of bashings for its impudence, but now, once again, it had chosen to manifest its independence.
The suited man was slightly taken aback and hesitated for a second and everything may not have been lost, but then my eyes defected to the other side, raised their brows questioningly and threw him a friendly look.
"Well, .er. are you sure?" he asked.
"Yeah, why not?" the rebel mouth encouraged.
And I must say Barbara didn’t do anything to help either. I was standing there in a panic and she simply passed a second menu to the waitress and smiled sweetly at me. My brain scrambled a squadron of high voltage neurons to instruct my eyes to flash her the frosty flash that meant ‘No, it’s NOT like that’, but all they managed to muster was a bovine stare as I turned to follow the young girl.
In the twenty seconds it took to reach the table my brain finally regained control over my body and formulated a game plan to control the damage. It was only a dinner, after all. Only forty minutes — an hour at the most — and we would go our separate ways. I’d go home slightly embarrassed and the guy now following about seven feet behind me would have a quaint story to tell his work buddies on Monday. For less than an hour I’d be an urbane fellow diner and then it would be over. The plan crystallized as the waitress placed the menus on a table and stood back for us.
Barbara might not have kept the table just for me, but she was right: it was the best. The windows looked out onto a low dune where the sea-oats, deep yellow in the evening light, bowed a deferential farewell to the retiring sea. Their shadows slanted across the beach where the waves gently lapped, resting before the next tide would force them to race up headlong and regain the sand again. While my new friend rolled his tie up and put it in his pocket before neatly arranging his coat over the back of his chair I slung my jacket over the back of mine and placed my helmet safely between my chair and the wall out of the way of clumsy feet. As I straightened up he turned to me and held out his hand.
"I’m Mike. Mike Jorgensen. It really was very kind of you to share your table with me. I thought I was destined for a fast food dinner."
"Well, I’m glad I saved you from that," I laughed taking his hand. "I’m Chris Lawrence."
"Nice place this," Mike said gesturing with his head as he pulled back his chair and sat down. "I gather from the warm welcome up front that you’re a fairly regular patron?" He was from The South I could tell, but more from the gracious slowness of his speech than from any heavy accent.
"Yeah.kinda. I live fairly close by and Kurrajong definitely has the best food around, so when I don’t feel like cooking my own dinner " I let the sentence hang as the waitress returned carrying a board with a hot bread loaf on it. For Mike’s benefit she informed us that her name was Theresa and then set out to detail the evening’s specials.
"Can I get you something to drink while you look at the menu?" she finished up.
"Chris, let me buy a bottle of wine as a token of my gratitude," Mike asked. I hesitated: I rarely drink more than a glass if I’m going to ride my bike, but then, I thought, it’s less than a mile home and it’s a deserted road. Hey, I can rationalize.
"Well, thanks very much. That’s appreciated."
"So what should we get?"
"I guess that depends on what you’re going to eat."
"Yes, you’re right." He scanned the menu for about half a minute then looked up. "It all looks so good. Do you have any recommendations? I really don’t feel like making another decision today."
"Well, pretty much everything here is good. But if you feel like eating meat then I’d say go with the roast lamb with olive-rosemary crust. We could have that with a Chianti or if you’d prefer fish then I’d suggest the baked Atlantic salmon, with wild mushrooms and we could have the Cardeto."
He paused and looked again at the menu. "That salmon sounds really good. What was the wine you mentioned?"
"The Cardeto. It’s an Orvieto and I like it."
Mike turned to the waitress. "OK, Theresa. We’ll take a bottle of the Cardeto then."
"Dolce or Secco?"
Mike looked across at me. "I would say secco. What’s your preference, Chris?’
"Oh yeah. Secco, definitely."
"And are you both going to have the salmon then?" asked Theresa.
"I am," nodded Mike, "what does it come with?"
"Chef makes it crusted with dill and serves it with wild mushrooms and basil mashed potatoes. It comes with a house, spinach-citrus or Caesar salad."
"I can’t wait," he said. I’ll take the house with a vinaigrette dressing." She jabbed hieroglyphics onto her pad then turned to me.
"Yup, me too. But I’ll take spinach-citrus thanks."
"OK, then. Two salmons, one house, one spinach-citrus. I’ll bring the wine right out and then bring the salads," she said scooping up the unread menus.
She moved away and Mike turned his attention to me. "I wasn’t expecting to find a restaurant like this down here. It’s rather different."
"It really is good. Barbara and Mac — that’s her husband — run this pretty much as a hobby. Oh, they do all right," I added as Mike raised his eyebrows, "but if they wanted to they could go to Savannah or Atlanta and be famous."
"I could see it working in the summer months, but I wouldn’t have thought there’d be the customer base down here for a year round operation."
"No there isn’t really, but it’s a win-win situation for them. Most years they close from after Thanksgiving until sometime in February and head back to Oz for a sunny Christmas."
"Ah yes, of course, they have summer then down there." He paused, reflecting. "It’d be strange to be hot at Christmas — must confuse the kids: do they even know what a sleigh or a reindeer is?"
I laughed. "Maybe Santa comes in a cart pulled by a pack of wild dingoes."
"That’d work: a sort of Yule-tide Crocodile Dundee." We laughed at the image.
"Anyway, there’s enough of a demand to keep them going the rest of the time. Kirkhall has a fair population: you wouldn’t think so by looking around here, but up North at Inverness there’s quite a town. And then we get the folk from St Simons and Brunswick who like good but different food and are prepared to travel a bit to get it." I pushed the breadboard toward Mike. "Want some fresh-baked bread?"
As he cut into the loaf he asked, "So, Chris, what kind of work do you do down here?"
"I’m in computers. I write software."
"Not bad ! I didn’t know there were any software companies down here." He moved the bread toward me.
"There aren’t." I put a slice onto my plate and broke a piece off. "My home office is in Atlanta, but the traffic and senseless rush was getting to me. An aunt of mine — that branch of our family had come to The States in the 30’s — had died about a year ago and left her holiday house down here to my cousin. She’s married to some guy out in San Francisco and couldn’t really use it much so she’s letting me buy it from her. She figures it keeps it in the family. I share a T1 line with some of my neighbors so I have superb access to our company systems and everybody is out of my hair." I expeditiously omitted to mention the quick look of relief that passed over my boss’s face when I had first broached the matter of working remotely about a year previously. It wasn’t getting everyone out of my hair that concerned him, it was getting me out of everyone else’s.
"What do you write?" Mike asked between bites. "Games?"
"No. I write control software. For aircraft."
"No shit? For 747s and things like that?"
"Well, it’d work in pretty much any plane, but it’ll probably be used mainly by the passenger jets. They’re big enough to take on the payload of a few computers without making a difference."
"Is this what they call ‘Fly-by-wire’?"
"Not exactly. Fly-by-wire more or less replaces long mechanical linkages with electrical ones and with some added intelligence stops the pilot from getting the plane out of its flight envelope: tries to stop him from banking too far over or getting the nose too high to stall the aircraft.
"What our stuff does is to make airways — the fixed routes in the sky — obsolete: planes can fly pretty much where they like. It also makes automatic landings safer, because it works in all weathers. No more back-ups in stormy or foggy weather because the crews can’t see."
Mike leaned forward with a piece of bread midway between plate and mouth He looked at me earnestly, "You know, Chris, when I’m sitting back in coach, wedged between some guy who wants to regale me with a post-mortem of every sports game played the previous weekend and a kid who is turning green from all the candy his parents fed him in the gate area, the one thing that stops me from going totally postal is the thought that there’s a gray-haired, square- jawed, 45 year old, Church-going pilot up front. Now you’re telling me that he is, in fact, sitting back relaxing, staring at a computer and hoping that the thing won’t give him the blue-screen of death?"
"Pretty much," I laughed. "But no. Our system uses four separate computers. Three are doing the analysis and the fourth handles the display and interfaces with the controls and stands by in case one of the other three pukes. A blue-screen is real unlikely." I broke off another piece of the bread and dabbed a pat of butter on it.
"OK. So there’re these four computers " He stopped, waiting for me to continue. I was a tad surprised: most non-Geeks don’t really care to venture much beyond this point. But, if he was interested
"What we’re working on is a scheme where an aircraft has two GPS units, one, say, on each wing tip, and one inertial navigation system. Computers average out the information from these three, and about every two, two and a half seconds, transmit 36 bytes — like 36 characters — on a set frequency. These parameters show which plane is sending the data; some simple characteristics about it such as its type and stall speed; where it is, which it gets from the GPS; its altitude and heading; and what its destination is — a beacon or the airport and runway.
"You following this?" I asked smiling.
"Oh yeah. In my other life I’m a Discovery and TLC junkie."
"OK, that’s fine then. There’s something called a TCA, the terminal control area, which is a roughly circular area around an airport and up to about ten thousand feet where aircraft arriving and departing from the airport are under airport control. Well, in our system, every aircraft in the TCA has a unique ID assigned, and a radio in the control tower polls each one every two seconds or so and each then responds with its data. So now the controller — or rather his computer — has a very clear picture of which aircraft is where." I took another bite of bread. "This of course is only marginally better than the present radar system but he now also knows much more accurately the altitude and heading. Aside from this, from successive transmissions the computer can calculate the aircraft’s speed over the ground. Comparing this with the transmitted heading and airspeed of the aircraft, a good estimate of the wind direction and speed at that specific altitude can be worked out which helps the base computer make plans."
"Sounds Star Wars-like," Mike commented. He was leaning forward and really listening without the normal glazed look that most folk get when I explain my work. Emboldened by this, I went on.
"That’s chicken-shit. The Star Wars stuff is still to come. What I’ve told you up to now is nothing more than like going from gramophones to CDs. The next step we took is to give each plane some intelligence. We interface our system with the autopilot which can control the aircraft’s direction and throttles. We provide a software map about the environment of the airport, either loaded into memory before take-off, or off a CD. With this information we have the ability to make a totally automatic landing. The only thing missing is how to stop hitting the guy in front of you."
"They follow that close?" asked Mike with genuine alarm.
"Naah," I laughed. "Airplanes in flight leave a big, invisible wake behind them. It twists around like a couple of horizontal tornadoes. Another airplane flying into that can be in a whole lot of trouble. At best it’s going to be a wild roller-coaster ride; at worst, the wings or tail may snap off."
"Hey, man, I didn’t need to know that!"
"Not much of a chance of you ever being in that situation," I assured him. "The FAA mandates a separation distance that keeps planes well apart.
"So, getting back to our system, the controller sequences each aircraft for any runway. Say there’s a Delta 757, an American 727 and a British Airways Jumbo all entering the Atlanta TCA. The controller decides that he’ll sequence them onto runway 26-Right in the order Delta 757, American 727 and then the Brit 747.
"In the poll to the 757, data is passed to it giving it the id of the American as the following aircraft. In two successive polls to the American, it is given the id of the 757 as the preceding aircraft and the 47 as the trailing aircraft. And likewise in the poll to the 47 goes the ID of the 727 as the leading aircraft. From that time the computers in each aircraft listen in to the data transmissions from the other aircraft they’ve been told about and grab their data.
"As the Delta flies in, its computers are monitoring the position of the 727. There’s a built-in table of aircraft types, so the computer knows how far behind a 727 can safely be to a 757. In the 727, the computers are doing the same calculations. If the 727 starts to creep up on the 757, its pilot gets a warning on his instrument panel. The picture on the controllers screen also takes on a different color warning him of a possible conflict. If it can, the 757’s computers will speed up its approach speed or the 727’s will decrease his. If the 727 is still overtaking, it’ll reach a critical point in separation, then its computers will initiate a missed approach, climbing him out of the approach pattern. This is communicated to the computer in the tower that will then notify the 757 that the Brit is now his following aircraft and similarly the Brit finds out that he is now following the 757.
"If you say so, Chris."
"And the best part," I hurried on on a roll, "is that the weather doesn’t factor into this. Even in clouds they can follow each other just as closely — still limited only by the wake distance. Technically we don’t even need the control tower we could add some code to let aircraft sequence themselves in and out of an airport, but I don’t think we’ll go that route for some time."
"And this is all safe you think?" Mike smiled indulgently.
"Oh yeah," I replied with confidence. "Safer than currently. Right now, say a pilot gets an alert of a wind sheer above the runway threshold in front of him. It takes him a full two seconds at best to hear the message, translate it in his brain and begin to act. A computer receiving that same information reacts almost instantaneously: within quarter of a second the power is being increased and the nose starts coming up and our friendly computer is hauling his chips and salsa outta there."
"I really regret the demise of the railroads," Mike mocked. Turning serious he asked, "And you code all this stuff yourself out here?"
"No, I do aileron, elevator and rudder control. Other guys are doing stuff like engines or position. Also, remember I told you there are three computers analyzing the same data, making decisions and then voting? We’re one of two companies writing the software. We’ve got the same specs and targets, but that is all. We don’t communicate at all. It is contractually forbidden. That way, it’s really unlikely that two different programmers will make the same assumption in their code. And it’s unlikely we’ll design the same error recovery or build-in the same bugs. No more than two computers on any one aircraft can have the same company’s brand of software."
Mike nodded thoughtfully and apparently impressed. Geeks one, mortals nil, I smirked inwardly to myself.
Right then Theresa returned with the wine and an ice bucket. Mike approved the bottle and watched her cork it and pour a little into his glass. He swirled the pale yellow liquid around gently and savored the aroma before tasting it. "This is pretty good," he said to me and then nodded and smiled at Theresa who poured my glass and then filled his. When she had set the bottle in the bucket and was heading back to the inner sanctum he lifted his glass to me. "Skol, my hacker friend! And thanks again for sharing your table with me."
"Salud!" I replied not to be outdone in foreign toasts, "You’re welcome." Yeah, the wine was good. I rolled it over my tongue a couple of times before allowing it to flow down my throat.
"So, now, tell me what brings you to our part of the world, Mike?" I asked as I set my glass down.
"Oh! I’m involved in a trial up in Savannah that isn’t going too well. It’s been a real long week and I felt I needed a change and some time to get my mind refocused. So when we adjourned for the weekend I just threw some stuff in my car and headed down here."
"Yeah, Kirkhall is a pretty good place for being free of distraction," I admitted. "What kind of trial?"
"Murder," he said with a wry grin.
"Holy cow!" Geez, this guy sure knew how to upstage my story. I paused. "You a lawyer?"
"Yes," his eyes held mine steadily. I thought I caught a touch of ‘Want to make something of it?’ in the stare but I didn’t. I can be couth sometimes.
"Who murdered who?" I asked ungrammatically, "And whose side are you on?"
"Remember Rolf Lee?" My eyebrows shot up. "I’m his defense."
"The guy that killed Hayden Etchells up at Inverness?"
He shook his head and laughed remorsefully. "See why I got the trial moved to Savannah? You haven’t heard a word of evidence and you’ve already got him convicted." His expression was good-natured, but I felt the barb nonetheless.
"No, I’m not like that! But I read the newspapers," I scrambled.
"Ah yes. The fourth estate! Now that’s an unbiased source for you." He paused and a sly look came into his eyes. "I would have thought that you relied on the Internet," he said archly.
"Well, I do for things I really want to research, but this was a bit too sensational to go read what all the Mother Grundies were moralizing about. To tell the truth I reckoned it was a domestic affair and I wasn’t all that interested."
"The crime passionelle?" His eyes lost their focus and he broke off a morsel of bread and popped it into his mouth." That’s what the journalists say," he said looking at me again. "And, to be fair, it’s what the prosecution is putting forward." He paused as if reflecting, took another sip of wine and turned to the sea. I followed his gaze. There were hardly any waves now, foot-high swells that could barely break after their long journey from Africa rolled in lugubriously.
Turning back to look at Mike I asked "But?"
"Huh?" Mike moved his eyes to me.
"But you don’t think so?"
"Chris, don’t you read any novels or watch any TV?" he asked with a mischievous smile. "You know the famous Defense Attorney line? ‘It doesn’t matter what I think. It’s what the jury thinks that matters.’"
"Right! I forgot," I chuckled. "And right now they believe the prosecution?"
"Oh, they’re trying to be impartial, but I’m not giving them much else to think. Even folk who disagreed with Hayden, and there weren’t that many of those, didn’t really dislike him. There is no motive other than the spurned lover."
And that was probably true. I had known Hayden, not personally, but by sight. He had run a pretty neat hardware store up in Inverness and I’d been in there fairly often over the last year as I set up the house. He would have been a hard guy to dislike.
"And Rolf says ? Or is that a breach of ethics."
"The ethics part is easily taken care of, because my client is saying practically nothing. He has a novel way of thinking that goes something like this: He is innocent until proven guilty; proof requires evidence; the evidence being produced is illogical; ergo he has nothing to worry about."
"Well, Mike like isn’t that how the law works? We haven’t really gone back to the Spanish Inquisition since the change in presidency, have we? Although I must say it sometimes seems like it."
Mike grinned at me. "Geez, Chris. A well trained (and notice I use neither the word competent nor even the word good, merely well trained) lawyer could convince the average jury that Mother Theresa was the brains behind, and main beneficiary of, the Enron debacle."
I laughed. "That’s why techs are such neat folk: everything is straightforward and above board with them."
Mike smiled back, "Yeah. That’s why, after a year, I still can’t program my VCR to record the programs I want to see. And as for above board, well let’s talk Microsoft and Netscape."
Our banter was interrupted there as Theresa arrived with our salads. While she ground peppercorns over Mike’s I studied my companion. It was the eyes one noticed. The windows of the soul were brown under dark brows, but it wasn’t only the color that one noticed, it was the life and energy that lay within them. I had the feeling that there wasn’t much that this guy missed and I suddenly found myself wondering what it would be like to be a witness being skewered by those eyes under cross examination.
Wishing us a bon appetite, Theresa walked away and we picked up our forks. Mike showed no inclination to pick up the previous conversation and we began to discuss good food and the best places in Savannah and Atlanta at which it could be obtained. As the sea turned dark gray and the highest peaks of the cumulus on the horizon caught the pink of the setting sun our main course arrived.
By the time we set knives and forks together on empty plates the sea and the sky were both black and the only evidence of cloud was the distant, silent lightning. The salmon had been outstanding and the conversation had been fairly catholic. The dismal performance of the Democratic Party in the last elections had found us in regretful agreement. This concurrence did not last when we switched to movies. Mike was a Black Hawk Down aficionado and hadn’t enjoyed Amelie or Royal Tanenbaums which had been my recent cinema highlights. Concord returned when the discussion meandered to the recent Renoir exhibition at the High and continued until, as the last of the bottle fell into my glass, I recounted the idiosyncrasy of Pope Gregory XVI who had decreed that his body be washed in the wine of Orvieto before being buried. "I bet that made for some jolly maggots," was Mike’s observation.
"So, how come Kirkhall has missed the trashing that’s hit St.Simons?" he asked me as we settled back in our seats.
"We keep dynamiting the bridge to the mainland," I answered straight-faced as I put down my empty glass. Mike rolled his eyes up in mock despair.
I relented, "Let me tell you a story.
"Way back in the late 1600s — you’ll have to realize I’m not a history buff, so I’ll paint in broad-brush strokes — the English settled in Charleston. Almost immediately the settlers began to covet the lands of the Indians and even the people themselves. There began a series of wars and engagements, euphemistically termed ‘to deal with the Indians’ savagery’ but, in fact, designed to seize their corn, their lands and their children. Horrific things happened for close on a century and a half so that, in retrospect, one can only wonder about who were the ‘savvidges’ and who the civilized.
"The English came into an alliance with the Shawnee and together they rounded up Indians throughout the Carolinas and down through Georgia toward St Augustine to become slaves.
"Some time in the first half of the 1700s, two Englishmen and a party of Shawnee had rounded up a group of Indians south of here, men women and children, and were moving them northward to Charleston which at that time was the hub of a thriving slave trade. From Charleston many of these wretched and terrified people were shipped throughout England’s Empire and those that were kept in the Carolinas were probably only slightly better off.
"Maybe this group was of a different mettle, maybe their captors were less watchful, or most likely it was just an accident, but that would not make the tale as interesting, and so it is believed around here that the captives somehow managed to slip some kind of a poisonous herb into the food of their tormentors. In any case, during the night the two Brits and most of the Shawnee were in dire straits, retching and worse. At this point the captives rose up and killed all the slaving party with the exception of two Shawnee who somehow hid and later crept away.
"It is thought that some of the escapees were injured in the fight, or had possibly been previously hurt in their original capture, and they didn’t move very fast to return to their original lands. Perhaps looking for a refuge, they made their way through the wetlands to Kirkhall Island -- although it was not called that then: the name came only after Darien was settled. In any case, a vengeful party of English and Shawnees returned for justice or revenge. Once they got to the island the pursuing horde, realizing that they had their prey cornered, proceeded onto the island in a more leisurely fashion so as the better to enjoy the coup de grace.
"The trapped refugees battled them off as best they could with stones and sharpened sticks, but they were outnumbered and out-weaponed so, as the afternoon came to an end the outcome was only too obvious. Knowing what was to happen if they were captured, a few warriors held the pursuers at bay while the others walked into the sea. Men and women, clutching their children to them and dragging their wounded, simply walked into the sea and were drowned."
"Holy shit!" Mike was looking at me open mouthed.
"Yeah. Not one was taken alive. This mass suicide really nonplussed the Shawnee and, with incredible callousness, infuriated the English who saw only a loss of ‘merchandise’. Anyway, they left the island almost immediately. On their way off the island one of the Brits was bitten by a snake, probably a cottonmouth, and died within a day. In tending to him their departure was delayed and, in trying to negotiate the swamp in the dark, the son of the leader of the group fell into a hole in the swamp and his father, trying to rescue him, got tangled in the weeds and drowned. That was the start of the stories. Later on came the tales of cries and screams from the sea at night and so the island wasn’t settled until much later and then not very vigorously.
"Did you know that Darien once almost rivaled Savannah in trade?"
"No, I didn’t actually."
"Yeah. Before the railroads came, Darien was a bustling port exporting cotton from the Altamaha. Around then some fisher-folks had set up some settlement up where Inverness is now up at the North end of the island. During the er.War of Northern Aggression ," I grinned mischievously at Mike, "there was always some kind of smuggling going on with the blockade runners. The waters around here can be tricky and the Union ships were somewhat wary of coming too close in. One night a small ketch or brigantine, the Fiona, was expected to slip into the area and a group of men had assembled on the shore to light bonfires to guide her in since the weather was rather gusty with frequent squalls and visibility was severely reduced. While they waited there they suddenly heard screams and shouts and peering into the stormy twilight saw people struggling in the water close into the shore. Believing that the ship had foundered they grabbed at some rope and, holding onto that, formed a kind of human chain and waded in to the sea to assist. However, before they could reach them, the distressed people in the water disappeared. The Fiona arrived uneventfully on the morning tide with her crew intact. No wreckage or bodies washed up on shore in the following days. The men who were at the outer end of the human chain swore that the people in the water were Indians, or Native Americans as we now say."
"Yup. Uncanny, huh?"
"After the Civil War the island remained pretty much deserted and Darien fell from prominence itself since the railroads kinda bypassed it. Since the tales of the supernatural somehow persisted and realtors felt disinclined to invest, the island stayed in a pristine state except for Inverness having a small fishing harbor and some processing plant until the late 1970s.
"Apparently some folk built vacation houses in the mid 60s, but for some reason the type of folk who went to St Simons never cottoned onto this island — I think the refrigeration plant detracted from the ambiance of the harbor, both visually and with its odors, rather than the supernatural, scaring anyone. Then in about 1979 or 1980 Hurricane David came by. It did a lot of damage including flattening the refrigeration plant. The loss was too great to repair and the industry more-or-less moved to the Brunswick area.
"My aunt and uncle bought property here in the early 80s and built their house. I can remember coming down here when my family and I visited The States when I was about ten or eleven and it was really out in the boonies. There were only two other houses down this end and Inverness was a hick town with a greasy fast-food place and a laundromat.
"My cousin, who is about five years older than me, and I hiked all the way round the island."
"Obviously your family wasn’t impressed by any stories of ghosts," Mike interjected with a laugh, "Or didn’t they like you all that much?"
"Everyone’s a comedian!" I remarked with mock exaggeration. "Naah, they didn’t give it much credence. Although, I can remember on that trip spending a stormy night with no light on in the house other than the hearth fire with my uncle, who was a bit of a wag, telling us the story of the Indians and having to clench my butt really tight."
Mike laughed then observed, "The island’s grown some since then apparently."
"Yeah. More up in Inverness. There’s a couple of firms that build boats — yachts and stuff like that, a few trawlers are based there, nothing major, and there are some holiday houses and hotels. Down here there are only about eighteen houses and I don’t think there’ll be much more development in this area because of the protection of the dunes."
"An undiscovered paradise. I’ve lived in Savannah about four years and didn’t know much about Kirkhall Island at all until relatively recently."
"Well it’s a bit of an acquired taste. Just like Buffalo in New York gets a lot worse weather than places just a short distance away, so we get some bad storms that seem to miss Jekyll and St. Simons. We jut out into the Atlantic just a tad more than the other barrier islands."
"It sure seems idyllic tonight," Mike responded leaning back and looking out into the blackness. He paused and then turned back to me and asked "Would you care for a glass of red wine or a brandy or port perhaps? I’m having such a good evening."
"That’d be real nice, but I’ve got to ride my bike home so I’d better not." Mike looked somewhat disappointed. I was, too. The evening had turned out to be a good deal of fun. "Where are you staying?"
"I was going to the Ramada up in Inverness. I guess I don’t need a reservation at this time of the year." It was more of a question than a statement.
My brain wasn’t as sharp after the meal and the mutinous mouth seized the opportunity. "Why do that? Look, I have a whole house down here. You don’t have to go to a hotel with a room that’s no different from any in Atlanta or Detroit. At least at my place you’ll have a choice of two rooms."
‘Oh, shit!’ my brain scolded as it was dragged back to handle the new mess. ‘He’s going to think you’re some fag trying to pick him up.’
"Oh, no. I wouldn’t think of imposing on you any more," Mike said.
‘See,’ my brain whined, ‘you’ve just gone and screwed up a great evening.’
‘You do realize that there was a pause before his refusal, don’t you?’ The quiet and unexpected observation came from my ears, until then the most loyal of organs.
"I spend most of the day at my computer, so it’s quiet and you could come and go as you like," voiced my mouth making the most of my distraction with this ‘pause’ crap.
"I just feel I’m taking advantage of your hospitality." OK, I had to admit there was a distinct pause before that statement.
"Would I have offered if I hadn’t wanted you to accept?" My mouth was totally uncontrollable and I felt my throat contracting in embarrassment.
Mike laughed. "When Jimmy Carter was elected President, a reporter went down to Plains to talk to his mother. His family tried to make everyone feel welcome and experience Southern hospitality. Now Carter had proclaimed he did not lie and would not deceive the American people. So, of course, this reporter had to ask his mother, ‘Has your son ever lied?’
"‘I believe he is someone whose word you can trust,’ Miss Lillian answered. The journalist wasn’t satisfied.
"‘I asked you if he has ever lied. As his mother, did you ever catch him lying?’
"‘Well, he told little white lies,’ Miss Lillian conceded.
"‘Aha! A lie is a lie,’ declared the triumphant reporter and rubbing it in asked, ‘How would you define a white lie?’
"Miss Lillian looked at her and said, ‘Remember when I said ‘Welcome to Plains, I’m pleased to see you’?’"
I burst out laughing and my brain was now in control once again. "No, my invitation wasn’t a little white lie. I had much more nefarious intentions." Mike’s eyebrows shot up. "I’ll make you a deal. You spend the night at my place and, by way of payment, you tell me all about this murder case you’re trying."
Mike broke into a smile and relaxed. "OK. If you’re serious about the offer, I can do that. I don’t really feel like being in a hotel tonight."
I beckoned Theresa. "Some dessert, gentlemen?" she asked picking up our plates, "or perhaps some espresso and a liqueur?" Now that was a white lie: they wanted us out of there because there was a whole line of folk waiting for a table.
But the social niceties had to be played out so as Mike put his MasterCard on the table I replied, "Naah. That salmon was way too good to leave room for dessert." I pulled my wallet from my back pocket and dropped my card over Mike’s. "Split it down the middle."
"But the wine is on mine, remember?" Mike said to me.
"Fair enough. Thanks." I looked at Theresa, "That OK?"
"Hey, I may not be a computer nerd, but I can do arithmetic," she mocked me. I just smiled.
As she walked away I said, "I have a couple of bottles of some real good Australian red at home that a friend brought me. We can sample that."
"Geez, this is turning out to be a great evening. I never anticipated any of this when I left Savannah."
"Yeah? You need to leave the city more often and visit the colonies. But don’t forget your part. I want gory details."
"Er.let me see," he put rubbed his chin with his finger as though in deep recollection, "Isn’t this Mister-I-ain’t- interested-in-all-those-sensational-details?"
Shit! He had me there. "Yeah, well, whatever." I smiled sheepishly. I guess lawyers are trained to remember careless remarks.
"I’m kidding. But really you may be disappointed. It is not anything extraordinarily exciting. Probably more sordid than anything. Your pilotless airplanes are a whole lot more daring."
"Only at test time. Up till then it’s all numbers and diagrams on a screen. It’s when we get in the simulator that the adrenaline flows. It’s hard to remember you’re not in a real airplane."
"Now I reckon I could do a simulator ride. It’s only when I’m a mile above the ground that I’m scared."
"I’ll get you a ride in the sim one day. Bring a change of shorts: you’ll need them." His eyes widened questioningly but right then Theresa appeared with our cards in two black folders.
"Hope you enjoyed your dinner, gentlemen," she said pleasantly as she placed them in front of us. "Have a good evening. And ride safely," she added to me.
"Always do. Thanks, Theresa. See you soon."
"Sure. Good night," she directed more formally to Mike.
I figured out the tip, jotted down the total and slipped my wallet back into the rear pocket of my jeans. Mike’s wallet, with neatly-folded receipt, was carefully returned to his coat which he then donned.
I pulled on my jacket, picked up my helmet and motioned for him to lead the way. We walked out through the tables. Once we were outside I asked him, "Where are you parked?"
"The white Audi over there," he pointed.
Not bad, I thought, he must have high-paying clients. "Cool. That’s my Ninja over there. Just follow me." I walked over to my bike and preflighted it while I fastened my helmet and zippered my jacket. Nothing was noticeably loose and the tires weren’t flat so I swung my leg over the saddle. With the engine rumbling gently under me I kicked the side stand up and pushed back from the parking space with my toes. Once lined up I saw Mike was waiting behind me. I patted my tail-piece as a signal for him to follow and put the Ninja into gear.
The road was pretty deserted and dark but I knew it well and my mind mulled over my dinner partner as the little bugs sailed out of the blackness into my headlight beam before whizzing past into obscurity. I downshifted, leaned the bike over in a sharp turn into the driveway and pulled up in the garage next to the Jeep. Unstrapping my helmet I walked back out into the driveway where Mike was pulling a duffle bag and his PC case out of the trunk.
"Nice place," he remarked as he closed the lid and hit the lock button on his key fob.
"Thanks. Yeah. I’ve got some work to do on it still, but it’s solidly built and the neighbors aren’t too close," I said pointing to dim lights about a hundred yards away. "These were built before the dune protection laws were past. Nobody else can build here now. Of course, if we can drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, who knows what the Republicans will allow next — probably an aluminum smelter here."
Mike laughed and barged me gently with his shoulder. "I guess you’re not in sales with a mouth like that?"
"Me? The sales folk lock me in a cage whenever a customer is within a mile. Stupid wankers don’t understand that the customer wants to buy our stuff and the only thing that makes them nervous is the feeling that the sales folk might be hiding something. Hear the truth from the tech and you won’t be surprised later." I turned my key in the Schlage lock, pushed the door open and stood aside for Mike.
I followed him in and put my helmet on the little table by the door as he surveyed my sitting room. The only light was the small spot that highlighted the painting on the wall. Mike walked over and stood in front of it, amazed. "Geez, Chris. What is this? A Boeing Clipper?"
It would be hard to say which I was more proud of, my Ninja or my painting. The oil painting in its gold frame measured just over five foot by four and depicted a Shorts Sunderland, up on the step with engines thundering, just moments before lift off.
"Naah. It’s a British flying boat called a Shorts Sunderland. My grandfather flew that one during the war."
"This is beautiful, Chris. You can feel the power of those engines and almost hear the roar just by looking at it. Where did you get it?"
"Granddad painted that. He did it mainly from memory many years after the war."
"This is unbelievable. He has incredible talent." He paused, studying the painting, moving closer to examine a detail, taking a step back to get it in perspective. "Do you paint?"
"Ha!" I laughed out loud. "No. I can get as far as stick figures and that’s about it." Mike laughed and moved away from the painting as I turned up the lighting.
"Not a bad set up you’ve got here, Chris. Very nice indeed."
"It works for me. I can get pretty much everything I need. I go up to Savannah about every two weeks or so to get food stuffs I can’t get here." I slung my jacket over one shoulder and headed towards the staircase. "Let me show you the rooms and you can get changed."
"OK. Sounds good." We climbed up the stairs and I pointed to the first room.
"That’s my office and this one is where I sleep." Walking down the passage to the next door I said, "This one is free and so is the one over there. This has a view over the beach, that one over the estuary and toward Darien. The head is over here and there’s a bath and shower next to it. So take your pick."
"Man, this is way too good," he laughed. "Sea view sounds great." He walked in and turned on the light.
"Oh, shit! Hang on." He stepped back hurriedly at my interjection.
I flicked the lights off. "We need to close the blinds before the light goes on. It’s the turtles. If they’re hatching the little ones wander toward the light." I pulled the bamboo blinds closed.
"No sweat. No harm done." I flipped the switch on again. "Make yourself at home."
"Thanks. I’ll be right down." I hung my jacket behind my door, kicked my sneakers and socks off and headed downstairs.
My dining room table and chairs weren’t the greatest, but the important furniture was good: a one-hundred-and-eighty- bottle redwood wine rack. OK, don’t get the wrong idea, it wasn’t filled with bottles and most of the bottles that occupied the slots were inexpensive, but to one side I kept my special wines and from these I took out a bottle of Australian red. Back in the kitchen I pulled the cork and put it to my nose. Not bad at all. I looked at the bottle: a 2000 vintage. Not too young, but it could do with some breathing time, time which I didn’t really have. I walked back into the dining room. The only thing of my grandfather’s that I possessed that didn’t have to do with aircraft was a rose-colored crystal decanter. I carried it back into the kitchen and gently transferred the contents of the bottle to it. Visitors at this time of the year were few and I wasn’t sure what food was in the house that could accompany the wine. With a Shiraz as good as this a fairly strongish cheese would be ideal. I grabbed some gorgonzola from the fridge and rummaging around came across a reasonable piece of red Leicester that I had found up in Savannah on my last expedition northwards. ‘Geez, guy, you’d think this was a date the way you’re acting,’ I thought, grinning to myself as I added some whole- wheat crackers to the plate. I was trashing the paper wrapper when I heard Mike’s footsteps on the stairs and turned around.
Holy cow! Gone was the neatly suited city lawyer. With the faded jeans clinging to his legs and his arms, the skin tight enough to show the veins, protruding from a black muscle-shirt, he looked more like a beach boy.
"Wow!" escaped involuntarily from my throat which had suddenly gone dry. I gulped. "I mean er I guess um I thought lawyers were born in suits," I stalled in recovery.
Mike laughed. He walked over to the table by the door and picked up my helmet and held it up so I could see what he’d seen in his headlights the whole way home: the dark blue rectangle with the yellow equals sign that manifested my HRC membership. "Wow is good, Chris!"
"Mike. It’s not like that. That’s not why I invited you here." I was panicking again. This was suddenly going where I didn’t want to go and it was going way too fast. I was still officially in recovery, still on light duties, take a look — I have wounds that hadn’t healed yet.
He dropped my helmet gently back on the table and came over to me. "And that’s not why I came," he grabbed my shoulder gently. "It’s OK, Chris. We’re here now, let’s just chill and chat." Blood surged to my head like a Pacific breaker and then drained back to my gut with a violent undertow. Hormones that had been in hibernation for twelve months were leaping up and racing in clueless confusion through my body. "So do we drink the wine straight from this fancy decanter of yours or do nerds run to glasses as well?" he asked grinning at me.
"Oh, yeah, of course." I bolted into the dining room, gaining temporary respite from the normalcy of doing something practical. Shit, was I so transparent to everyone but me? Taking two glasses down from the stem rack I walked back into the kitchen where Mike was peering suspiciously at the cheese.
"What, in the name of all that’s holy, is this? Looks like a friggin’ pumpkin."
"Geez, don’t you lawyers ever get out of Burger King?" I countered, glad of the banter to get my equilibrium back. "It’s a Red Leicester. Kinda like a cheddar in the making, but it’s got some coloring added. Used to be carrot or beet juice, but of course now it’s some vegetable dye. The taste is just a tad stronger than aged cheddar. It’ll go nicely with the Shiraz."
Mike picked up the wine bottle and studied the label. "Chateau Reynella. Never heard of it."
"It’s an Oz wine. A buddy of mine came over here and brought me four bottles. There’s one left after this. Let’s go through. Can you bring the cheese and plates?" I asked picking up the decanter.
"Sure." He followed me into the living room. "You know, you’re not exactly what I imagined a computer nerd to be like. I had visions of rooms with computers and screens, perhaps two miles of wires and cables and a month’s supply of Kentucky Fried Chicken."
"You’re not exactly what I imagined a lawyer to be," I said, parrying.
"Yeah. It’s hard to be Perry Mason or Matlock twenty-four by seven." He paused and then added, "But I could show you a couple of guys like that from our office. You go to their house on the weekend for a barbecue and they’re dressed up in white lounge shirt and Dockers. Matt, he’s this friend of mine, is always onto me the way I dress when I’m out the office, but I figure I’ve earned my free time so I’m going to enjoy it."
I laughed and picked up his glass while pushing the name Matt onto a stack in my brain for later investigation. "You going to try some Aussie Shiraz?"
"Sure. I enjoy reds. Don’t know Shirazes that well, though." He turned and walked over to my Sunderland picture. "If you don’t mind my asking, are you from Australia? Your accent doesn’t really sound as though you were born south of the Macon-Dixon line."
"I’m more Southern than even that! I was born in South Africa. Came here when I was nineteen — got a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon. When I was finished I had changed too much to go back so I got a work visa and a job at AT&T. Got my permanent residence and two years later my citizenship. The President said anyone from a warm, sunny country that could survive four years in Pittsburgh was most assuredly the kind of guy the United States wanted as a citizen."
"That bad, huh?" Mike laughed as he took the glass I offered.
"Tell you, man, I had to pass out of there in four years. Another long, cold winter and my skin would have turned green from the mildew." I set the decanter down and raised my glass to him. "Cheers, Mike."
"Your health, Chris." The soul of a red wine, Baron Philippe de Rothschild once said, are its tannins. There are three sources of tannins. Those from the grape seeds are abrasive and the wine-maker tries to avoid these at all costs. Those that come from the small pieces of stalk that accompany the grapes into the vat are somewhat rough and these are spurned, too. The tannins from the skins, however, have the finest flavors so, in order to maximize the contact between the skins and the fermenting wine, the skins, which rise to the top, have to be continuously pushed down. It is in this punching down that the tannins are released, giving the Shiraz its rich color, its full flavor.
Our Chateau Reynella did not disappoint. Like the overture to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woodwinds had come in with the selecting and corking the tip-toeing of the strings subtly heightened the expectation as the wine was decanted and now the full flavors rolled across my tongue and exploded into the symphony of sensations in my nasal passages.
"This is really good," remarked Mike as he savored the scents from his glass once again.
"It is. Bet it’s better than you could have got in the room bar at the Ramada," I said ostentatiously biting my lip to show the humor.
"That’s for sure. I hate being in hotels: I don’t enjoy being in the bar by myself so I end up flipping channels and watching junk TV for hours."
"Yeah, I know. Greatest thing about my notebook. I can work or watch a DVD. What kind of music do you like?" I asked moving over to the stereo.
"I’m pretty easy. Don’t like rap or very heavy classical. Matt is a Wagner fanatic but I just can’t get into it."
"No. Nor me. Let’s be American — a little Copland?"
"Appalachian Spring; Billy the Kid; Rodeo."
"Cool. The South’s link to culture," Mike laughed as he took some cheese on a plate and sat down.
"Uh-huh," I concurred as I set the CD up and adjusted the amp. I turned off the main kitchen fluorescent leaving just the reflected light from the Sunderland spot and a low lamp next to the stereo then pulled open the curtains. The moon was in its first quarter, but it provided sufficient light to see the waves. Far out toward the horizon the lights of trawlers stood as motionless as the stars making it impossible to see where sea ended and sky began. I cut a piece of the Leicester and a piece of gorgonzola and sat on the sofa. "How do you like the Red Leicester?"
"Good. The color is a bit unusual, but the taste is good. It does go well with the wine."
"Yeah. A shiraz needs a bolder cheese." I took a sip of the wine and let it trickle down my throat before reminding him, "OK, Mike. It’s story time."
He chuckled. "Right. Let’s go right back. Did you know Hayden Etchells or Rolf Lee? They lived out here on Kirkhall."
"Pretty much everyone here knew Hayden. He owned the hardware shop up in Inverness and I was there quite often when I was setting this house up. He seemed a real pleasant guy. I’ve been to maybe two social get-togethers where he was also invited and he seemed pretty normal. He never acted gay or said anything so I was kinda surprised when things came out later on.
"Rolf? I’ve seen him on his bike a few times and waved to him like all bikers wave to each other. I saw him in the bookstore in Inverness, but he was working there and I don’t think I ever chatted to him more than the pleasantries.
"You must understand there’s a slight caste system on the island. We who have houses down here tend to be keep-to- ourselves, mind-your-own-business folk. We live here because we want the solitude and like it. Up in Inverness I guess it’s more like life in any other little town. Somehow people think of us as a bit eccentric or maybe even snobbish and," I pulled a wry smile, "since that gives us some guarantee of solitude, we don’t do much to discourage it."
Mike laughed then stabbed a piece of the Leicester and put it on his plate. "That’s something I didn’t know, but I don’t think it has any bearing on my case or client." He laid the cheese on a cracker and popped it into his mouth. He chewed for while before continuing.
"Hayden grew up in the Atlanta area. He went to Harvard and got some kind of business degree. After graduating he worked at a couple of places in the North and got married. After about eight years or so there was a divorce. As far as divorces can be, it was amicable. There were no children to tie him down and so he came back to Georgia. He worked in the city for a time and one day noticed that while there were big hardware stores in the outlying areas, there wasn’t much in the city especially in areas where people were buying up old houses and renovating them. He opened up the first Etchells Hardware not far from the Midtown area carrying merchandise that targeted house renovation. On Saturday mornings he paid artisans to give lessons and demos on how to do the things people wanted to do. The business took off. Within a few years he had four stores and was going gangbusters. In fact he did so well that he was bought out by Home Depot who paid him really well.
"So at age forty he has all the time in the world on his hands, a fat bank account, a portfolio of investments and nothing to do. He traveled some, then he did some business consulting, but it had none of the sense of achievement or the social aspect of his hardware enterprise. One of the stipulations in the buy-out was that he would not open up another hardware store in any place where it would compete with Home Depot and that left him little room if he wanted to return to that type of work since wherever there was a market with money there was invariably a Home Depot.
"And then he came across Kirkhall Island.
"As you pointed out, Inverness is finally getting going and there is no Home Depot within a reasonable distance. So he bought out the Inverness General Store and set it up much in the same way as he had before, except here he catered for the boat crowd, too." He paused, took a sip of wine then went on. "He did well, as you know. He built a beach- house just outside Inverness and bought himself a small sailboat. The typical unattached forty-something male. There was no serious romance that anyone knew about, but there was the occasional weekend visits by various women. None remained very long. And also, like many forty- something males, he bought himself a motorcycle."
"Hey, you’ll get on one one day and realize what you’ve missed," I said.
"I dare say," commented Mike dryly.
"Then there’s my client. Some time after the middle of 2000 Rolf Lee moved here from Savannah. It was a promotion for him. He had worked for the same bookstore in the city and he was made a manager when they opened the store here. According to the folk who worked with him up in Savannah he was a friendly guy who got on with everybody. He had a couple of boyfriends, but no serious LTR. One of the guys has been down here to spend a couple of weekends with Rolf and Rolf stays with him whenever he goes up to town.
"As you mentioned, Rolf rides a motorcycle, and he met Hayden one weekend when he was gassing up for a ride. Hayden was going riding that afternoon, too, so they set off together. After that, they would go riding together almost every time Rolf had time off from his bookstore. The friendship grew. They went to restaurants together, Hayden took Rolf out on his sailboat, Rolf took Hayden up to Savannah to some music concerts and in December, Rolf spent the night at Hayden’s home."
"A-ha!" I exclaimed mischievously, "the plot thickens!"
"Yes, although neither made a big issue of it. As time passed the relationship grew beyond just friendship and Rolf moved in with Hayden, although he didn’t sell his condo.
"You knew nothing of this?" Mike asked almost as an aside.
"No. But that’s not surprising. I make forays into Inverness for shopping and I go to the bookstore, but I really stay pretty much down here. I like Kurrajong and don’t like the two eating places up there. But mainly I work pretty hard for a couple of weeks and then take a long weekend off and head up to Charleston or Atlanta or even the Smokies in Tennessee where there are some great biking roads."
"Do you know Henry Coalter?"
"Who doesn’t. Another right-wing nut who’s trying to lead us back into the 19th Century."
"Yes, you know him. He owns The Sandpiper Grill, doesn’t he?"
"I believe so. That explains why it’s such a dump. No- one who is conservative can hope to cook well — it’s a contradiction of nature."
Mike burst out laughing. "There’s probably a lot of truth in that."
"Anyhow, way before then, one summer, who should come into Hayden’s store but this Mr. Henry Coalter. Henry was a year or two older than Hayden, but they had belonged to the same fraternity at Harvard. Naturally they spent some time together, Coalter visited Hayden at his house and had a good time. So good a time, that within nine months, Henry and his family moved to Kirkhall and he bought the Sandpiper Restaurant. He renamed it the Sandpiper Grill and, with Hayden’s help — both physical and monetary — managed to open it up in time for the summer. He did OK that first summer, but after the tourists left, things didn’t look so good. Apparently, according to Ken Meadowcroft, Hayden’s manager at the General Store and a close friend, Hayden had pointed out some problems with the restaurant before Henry bought it, but Henry was impatient and had either chosen to ignore them or downplayed their importance.
"So, along comes some fall storm and the restaurant’s structure is quite severely damaged. In spite of the fancy Harvard degree, Henry had failed to adequately insure the restaurant and the insurance company managed to wiggle out from paying."
"Probably some sleazeball lawyer trick," I said with mock innocence.
"If you don’t watch it, buddy, I’ll start telling you what computers have done to my bank account from time to time." I chuckled in submission and Mike continued the tale
"So, Hayden stepped in and bailed his friend out with a loan and, according to Meadowcroft, a lot of materials at cost. With this much invested, he became a partner in the business. Hayden didn’t do much in the day-to-day running of the place, but he took care of the physical side: the building, the air-conditioning and the electrical stuff. He would also work in the restaurant occasionally, such as when Coalter needed a night off or was on vacation. Last year when Coalter decided to go into politics, his campaigning took him away a bit more frequently and Hayden took more of an active role in the restaurant. He made some minor changes, separating the folk who wanted a table with a view from the teenagers who came in for a burger and Coke and wanted their music louder, for instance. This worked well for both groups and business began to improve.
"Last summer, on the Saturday before the 4th July, the Seaburns held a big party. Apparently it’s a big deal thing."
"Oh, yeah," I agreed: we took some things for granted down on Kirkhall and the social standing of the Seaburns is one of them. "Old man Seaburn has been mayor of Inverness for like ever. He’s not bad. He owns several trawlers and does pretty well. They have this massive house right on the beach. Mrs. Seaburn is a good sort. Patron of the arts in every sense — supports starting-up artists, buys paintings and books for the library, hosts small concerts. A very educated person. So, yeah, to get invited to their parties is a big deal thing."
"Do you get invited?" he asked with a sly glance.
"Not yet. A — I’m relatively new here and B — I’m a South- Ender, which in their minds means ‘Unpredictable’. Maybe this year. I set up the server and terminals in the library and installed the software for their catalogs and they seemed pretty happy about it."
"So geeks are finally getting accepted into the civilized world!"
"Yeah, the Dark Ages are coming to an end."
Mike smiled. "Matt, who’s an accountant by the way, firmly believes that the introduction of computers is a presage of the fall of the cultured world as much as the influx of the Huns was in southeastern Europe."
"Never, no matter under what duress, use the words ‘accountant’ and ‘culture’ in the same sentence. And it wasn’t that the Huns were completely devoid of culture, but because of their nomadic ancestry their art tended to the more portable items like jewelry and personal adornments and cauldrons.
"But parts of you friend’s analogy may not be too far off: the Huns put cracks in the Roman Empire which was way past its prime and computers certainly cracked a rather woeful era of ruthless authoritarianism starting off with McCarthyism and running through Viet Nam and Nixon."
Mike shook his head. "How do you know such weird stuff? I have to get you up to Savannah to debate with Matt some time." He sipped his wine and continued his narrative while I added a mental red tag to the Matt file.
"Anyway, Coalter and his wife were invited as were Hayden and partner. In previous years he had attended either stag or with the girlfriend de jour, but this time he arrived hand-in-hand — literally, I’m told — with Rolf." Mike gave me a wry grin as I formed a mental image of what the scene must have looked like.
"That must have given half the guests aneurisms."
"Well, it certainly caused some gossip. Coalter was very uncomfortable and pointedly ignored Rolf. Hayden acted as though he was totally unaware of anything untoward and Rolf was very urbane and circulated amongst the guests joining in their discussions. Coalter tried a couple of times to pull Hayden aside and was seen to be talking to him very earnestly, but Hayden would just laugh at his protestations and rejoin the group. Coalter explains that it was not the gayness but that, with Rolf being much younger than Hayden, he, Coalter, felt that Hayden was making a fool of himself and being taken for a ride."
"Yes, wasn’t it? Anyway, on the afternoon of 4th July, Meadowcroft went over to pick up a table and other stuff that he’d arranged to borrow for a barbecue and fireworks party they were having at their house that night — to which Hayden and Rolf had been invited, by the way.
"He got no response from ringing the bell or from Hayden’s cell phone. The front door was unlocked so he went in calling out to Hayden. The house was a mess: stuff had been thrown around and broken. Meadowcroft found Hayden lying on the floor of the kitchen and called the paramedics. He tried to help him, attempting some CPR, but when the paramedics arrived they declared that Hayden was dead. The cause of death was a severe blow to the back of the head with a cast iron frying pan which was found in a sink of cold, soapy water. No fingerprints could be lifted from the pan, but the shape of the pan apparently fitted the blow area exactly."
"Shit! Had Hayden put up any kind of defense?"
"No. There was no sign of any struggle nor was there any sign of a break-in, although Hayden’s front door was pretty much always unlocked, apparently. Every appearance was that he knew, and was comfortable with, his attacker."
"Yeah. We have almost no crime down here. It’s nearly always drunk-and-disorderly, a euphemism for pissing on the side of a building, or an expired car tag. We have two cops on the island and have a problem finding enough for them to do. Consensus is they must be the best trained cops in the whole US since they have so much time to read and study everything that comes out."
Mike chuckled as I inquired, "So why did they pick on Rolf? Cherchez le fag?"
"Well, it was pretty-much all circumstantial. A neighbor saw him leave the house in a hurry on his bike about the time of the murder. He has no alibi. His fingerprints were everywhere in the house, but, to be fair, he had spent the night there (there was more than ample DNA on the sheets to suggest that he and Hayden had shared the king-size bed), so the prints are not damning in themselves. There was a small amount of Hayden’s blood on Rolf’s towel in the bathroom. And amongst all the stuff pulled out in the house, the only things seriously smashed, that is not just broken by falling, were things of sentimental value to Hayden: a photograph of his ex-wife and himself on their honeymoon; an oil-painting of a sailing ship which was attractive, but not worth a whole lot; some old books of the history of this area. Probably the second worst thing for Rolf was that, when he was arrested, he had a pair of Hayden’s cuff-links in his pocket. These were gold and platinum and had belonged to his mother’s father and both Meadowcroft and Coalter have testified that he was very proud of and attached to these and, in their opinion, would not have given them away."
"Second worst thing? What was the worst?"
"In the store, sometime between the Seaburns and the 4th, Meadowcroft had asked Hayden about the party. Hayden mentioned that he had gone with Rolf but ended up by saying he wasn’t sure if the relationship with Rolf was a good idea. Meadowcroft doesn’t care who goes out with whom and tends to mind his own business so he didn’t press for any details and Hayden said no more about it so we don’t know exactly what he meant by that. Then on Wednesday, Independence Day, Coalter had called Hayden in the morning about the restaurant. According to Coalter, Hayden had said that Rolf had turned out to be a very different person than he first appeared. While he had first seemed gentle and after friendship, he was now into rough sex and other stuff which made Hayden uncomfortable. He said that Rolf was a money-grabber. Finally, Hayden had said that Rolf and he were through and that he was going to tell him to move out."
"And what does Rolf say about this? Sounds to me like what every hetero thinks gay sex is like."
Mike pursed his lips and nodded, "Rolf says it’s a load of crap. He says that he and Hayden were deeply in love. They had each found in the other a true companionship of complementary natures. After the party at the Seaburns’ party, Rolf had mentioned to him that some folk wouldn’t like or understand their relationship and things might sometimes be difficult for him. For Rolf, that is. He, Hayden, didn’t go into any details and Rolf merely thought that Hayden was overreacting. After all, he, Rolf, had been out of the closet for a long time and had never had any extraordinary problem and, what’s more, at the party on the previous Saturday everyone, with the exception of Coalter, had been pretty cordial.
"According to Rolf, after this discussion, Hayden seemed to be more content and on the Tuesday evening Hayden brought up the idea of commitment and suggested that Rolf sell his condominium. He says that, on the 4th, they had had nothing planned until late in the afternoon so he had decided to go and tell his friend in Savannah his good news. In his bookish way he’s a bit melodramatic and so didn’t phone ahead because he wanted it to be a surprise and, anyway, his friend was almost always home or in one of the local gay gathering spots. He was full of happiness and excitement and, in leaving Hayden’s house, had accelerated real hard in order to get his front wheel off the ground or something stupid."
"He pulled a wheelie, for shizzake. Geez, don’t they teach you anything in law School?"
"Not if you can’t do it in a Mercedes or BMW they don’t." I groaned and rolled back on the sofa in mock despair. Mike grinned and went on.
"Anyway, he maintains that when he left, the house was in reasonable order and that Hayden was alive and happily doing stuff around the house. As far as he knew, Hayden wasn’t expecting anyone other than Meadowcroft and they had planned on going to Meadowcroft’s together in the afternoon for the evening’s barbecue and fireworks.
"He says that when he and Hayden had agreed to be partners, Hayden had said that he didn’t have a ring but that the cuff- links would be his troth until he got one. Hayden said that in any case Rolf was the one that wore formal shirts most of the time, while he, Hayden, was more of a jeans and sweatshirt guy."
I shrugged. "OK. So it looks possible. Maybe it looks bad. But it doesn’t preclude anyone else from murdering Hayden."
"What’s the motive for anyone else?" asked Mike. "Nothing was stolen and Hayden had no enemies of any degree."
"What’s the motive for Rolf to have done it? If they were breaking up then the worst case would be he had to move out. Whoop-de-doo! He’s been living by himself for a while, that’s no big deal."
Mike pursed his lips , looked down and then at me. "Hayden had, about a week before, changed his will. Rolf would have inherited the house, a bunch of shares, and some money."
"Oh, shit ! Did Rolf know about this?"
"He says not, but who knows for sure what he knew or what he guessed.or what he hoped."
"Who else knew about the will?"
"No-one is admitting anything. The neighbors witnessed it, but said that Hayden hadn’t said anything about its contents and they had not read, or even tried to read, the contents. But it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to conjecture that a new mate moving in and a will getting changed probably have a connection."
"Who would have benefited under the previous will?"
"We don’t know. Hayden must have destroyed it after making the new one. We certainly haven’t found any earlier one. Meadowcroft, who is a beneficiary under the new will, too, by the way, was under the impression that Coalter or his family would have got a fair amount. The Coalter kids get only a small bequest each in the current will."
"So Coalter had a motive, then."
"Only if he didn’t know about the new will."
"But, if I understand the law at all, which I must admit seems really unlikely most of the time, Rolf cannot benefit from the new will if he committed the murder. So don’t the Coalters then get a bigger share?"
"Not the way it’s written. The way Hayden wrote it, either wittingly or unwittingly, gives the Coalters the same amount, but Meadowcroft’s share goes up a whole bunch."
"So Meadowcroft has the motive."
"You know, Chris, outside Agatha Christie and her ilk, the law-enforcement and the prosecutors’ offices know quite a lot about the law and about crime and about human nature. We look for all this stuff. Meadowcroft can account for every second of his time, with witnesses I may add, from the time he went to bed some twelve hours before Hayden’s murder until the paramedics arrived and Hayden died."
"Shit! And this guy Coalter? He’s a jerk — my money’s on him."
"Pretty much the same. With the temperature of the body, the analysis of the digestion of breakfast, the time of death can be narrowed down to about a half-hour period. During that half hour Coalter was standing in front of his restaurant getting his photograph taken. His staff swear they knew where he was all morning until they got the phone call from Meadowcroft that Hayden was dead."
"How do they know what time he had breakfast?"
"Meadowcroft had phoned Hayden that morning and Hayden jokingly gave him a hard time about interrupting his breakfast. The phone company records gave the time of the call. And, before the phone records verified the time, Rolf had given the time of breakfast as pretty much the same."
"You know, this Meadowcroft has way too much involvement and entirely too tight an alibi in all this for my liking."
"Not really. We generally have more problems with people trying to give us irrelevant information about crimes than we do in getting them to open up."
"So what about the other person?"
"What other person, Chris?"
"Well, wasn’t it the Sherlock Holmes you mentioned who said, once you’ve eliminated all the possibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer?"
Mike swiveled in his chair to face me. "Chris, there is no- one else. First of all, why? Secondly, why did no-one else see them? Thirdly, why is there no trace of their presence in the house? And really we haven’t dug up anything that eliminates Rolf."
"Then why are you down here looking for something you don’t know? You just said you law guys know all sorts of shit about crime and human nature, you have an apparently open- and-shut case which, I may add, you’ve been working on for quite a while, but now at the eleventh hour you’re pussyfooting around because your gut tells you something’s wrong."
"I never said I didn’t think Rolf did it. Logically and statistically he was the one. Whatever evidence we have rules out anyone else." He scratched a denim-covered knee and I suddenly glimpsed a human being behind the professional fa‡ade: a human being well aware of the responsibilities that rested on his shoulders.
"So you do think he did it?"
There was a pause and Mike looked down into his wine glass for a while before looking back up at me. "Yup. I think he did it. I think he had found himself in a place briefly that he’d never been in before. His position was idyllic — going to parties where he was openly the partner of a respected member of the community. Rolf in his intellectual way, I believe, thought that he would be able to live a more grandiose and cultured life than had been his wont before. I think that, later, Hayden started having second thoughts and began to back-pedal. Rolf felt betrayed and ridiculed and he simply went overboard."
"So why did you come down here then?" I bored in relentlessly, my tech skepticism coming to the fore.
"I don’t know. I had to get out of Savannah; I wanted some place where I could think out my strategy for Tuesday morning. Certainly not to have some Geek second guess my every move." He smiled at me to take the rancor out of his statement.
No offence was taken on my part. This was way cool: I was getting to debate with a lawyer. "You know, when I first heard about the case I kinda thought it was a lovers’ fight that had got out of hand, too. That’s why I never worried too much about it; but now you’ve got a couple of unanswered questions that would make me think of reasonable doubt if I were on a jury." I slung my legs up onto the couch and picked up my wine glass.
"Why trash the house in the way he did? If he’s mad at Hayden and is going to trash pictures of his ex and other stuff he liked, why pull all the rest of the stuff out?"
"He started off to make it look like a burglary because he was realizing what he’d just done and was scared. Then, when he was coming to terms with all that, he came across something that Hayden was particularly fond of and his anger returned. Subconsciously, in his mind, this was a way he could punish Hayden."
I gave a scornful glance. "C’mon, he had only just begun to be with this guy. I mean really seriously be with him. It was just another relationship going sour. This was way over-reacting. If Hayden had chucked Rolf to go back to his ex, then OK, smash the picture of her. If he had decided to let him go so that he could paint, then smash the painting. But shit, haven’t you ever had a relationship go bust?"
"Well, yeah, of course." A hint of confusion, I’d hit a chink in the legal armor, but his recovery was smooth, "But then it was more of a mutual drifting apart. Rolf was still very much in love and got dumped more-or-less at the end of a high-visibility date.
"The way the prosecution sees it is that on the morning of the fourth, probably at breakfast, Hayden told Rolf that things weren’t working out and he wanted to return to how everything had been before: just friends or just riding buddies.
"Rolf spends time trying to persuade Hayden to give it another go. Maybe he says he won’t ask for the rough sex. Whatever. His arguments go nowhere and the breakfast ends. Hayden starts to tidy up and the argument continues in the kitchen until, finally, in a moment of sheer, unthinking frustration Rolf picks up the pan and brings it down on Hayden’s head.
"He probably didn’t mean to kill Hayden but rather make him listen. When Hayden falls down he discovers that Hayden is dead. That brings Rolf down to earth fast. Like any amateur crook he decides to try to make it look like a robbery but takes out particular vengeance on stuff Hayden liked because Hayden made him do this.
"Then he tears off because he knows that Meadowcroft will be coming and would want to speak to Hayden."
"And the cuff links?"
Mike shrugged. "In the general pillaging he comes across those. He likes them and he knows they were dear to Hayden and so takes them. He’s remorseful and thus he can always have something of Hayden’s with him."
"And the jury’s gonna believe that?"
"Well, let’s see. I’m going to produce a friend that says he believes that Rolf couldn’t have done it for reasons the jury will find tough to swallow, then, under cross- examination this guy’ll admit that Rolf liked "manly" sex. I’m unable to lay a hint of reasonable doubt on anyone else because, heaven knows, anyone who had the slightest motive has an alibi and finally there’s no motive for anyone who doesn’t have an alibi."
"And even if they think he looks like the nice boy next door and even if they want to believe me, when they consider their duty as jury-people, they’ll convict him. He won’t get the death penalty, but he’s going away for a long time." He took a long, slow drink from his glass then looked at me. "So what else troubles you?"
"Why did Meadowcroft try and revive Hayden?"
"What?" That had come at him out of left field. "Shit, because he had no real medical training, but knew that if Hayden could be saved he had to preserve the circulation and the oxygen supply."
"Is that what he said or what you surmise?"
"Effectively what he said on the stand. I mightn’t have it word for word, but that’s the gist of it. What’re you getting at?"
"Did Rolf have any more medical knowledge than Meadowcroft? If Meadowcroft could think that Hayden might recover, why wouldn’t Rolf? So why go to all the trouble of staging a burglary if the victim might wake up and say, ‘That ungrateful little shit, Rolf, was the guy that hit me on the head with my own pan’? Why didn’t he make sure? Go and hit Hayden again — or stab him?"
Mike ran his hand up under the hair on the back of his head. "You have a point. I might use that in summary — try and cast some element of doubt. But personally I would say that most folk overestimate the injuries they cause others rather than underestimate them. Even if the blow had been less forceful, Rolf may have been convinced he’d killed Hayden."
"Maybe — you know more about the criminal mind than I do. OK, let’s let that slide for now. When he left the house in a hurry, do you know how long he kept his front wheel off the ground?"
"No. Why on earth would that be important?"
"Well, it’s a biker thing. If he was merely in a hurry, he could have gone wide fucking open and the wheel would have lifted, but he would have probably brought it back down quickly to get more control. On the other hand, if the guy was really happy and in good spirits, he could well have kept the wheel up for a hundred yards or more. Just like a happy pilot may do flick rolls for a long time to express his joie de vivre."
Mike looked at me for a long time trying to gauge how serious I was. Finally he put his glass down and stood up. "OK, Chris. Let me go get my file. My assistant or I make notes while the witnesses talk and maybe that’s down there somewhere." He took the stairs two at a time. When he came down he had a concertina folder, a yellow pad and a ball point and I had decanted the second bottle of Shiraz.
He selected a manila folder and pulled it out. "Here she is: Ozella Godel. Even got her phone number." He scanned the notes for a minute, "No, no real mention of that. Shit, do you think eight thirty is too late to call?"
"Naah. Use my phone. If they sound sleepy when they answer then apologize and say it’s a wrong number. Then you can call back tomorrow on your cell."
"You’re a devious bastard, you know that !"
"Just do it." I tossed the handset over to him. "Do I have to leave the room?"
"No, only if I talk to Rolf. Ms. Godel has not hired me to represent her, so what she says isn’t protected." He punched in the numbers and held the handset to his head.
"Good evening. I’m sorry to be calling so late, but this is quite important. May I speak to Ms. Ozella Godel, please?" There was a pause.
"Hello, Ms. Godel. This is Mike Jorgensen. I’m the attorney representing Rolf Lee and I questioned you earlier today on the witness stand
"Oh, no. Nothing at all was wrong. Your testimony was very helpful. I just was wondering, you mentioned that you saw Mr. Lee leave on his motorcycle and
"No, no-one is doubting you in any way. You were one of the star witnesses today and your testimony was very clear
"Yes. Yes Right. You had mentioned that when he rode off his front wheel left the ground
"Yes you’re right.it probably is against the law, but with only two police officers on Kirkhall they can’t be everywhere, I guess " he rolled his eyes.
"Exactly now Ms. Godel, did you happen to notice how long Mr. Lee kept the front wheel off the ground?" He was quiet for a long time. His eyes never caught mine and his face betrayed no expression. That must be another thing they taught at law school.
"Really? I don’t know how they do it either. But I agree, it does sound extremely dangerous
"Exactly. Well, fortunately there weren’t any children there
"I know. Well, thank you very much. Your answer has been very helpful
"OK, then. Thank you very much and again, I’m sorry to have disturbed you. Have a good night."
He put the phone down and looked at me speculatively flipping the ball point end over end in his hand.
"Front wheel up all the way to the stop sign?" I asked reading his reaction.
"Well, at least for a long, long ways." He changed his voice to a falsetto, "I don’t know how he didn’t come off. If there had been kids in the street they’d have been killed. He had no control over that motorcycle. There’s never a cop around where they should be."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. If there’d been kids around he wouldn’t have done it until he was at least level with them so that they could admire his riding. Anyways, he wouldn’t want to mess his bike up by hitting anyone."
"Well, I’m glad you guys have your priorities right."
"Go get yourself a bike then we’ll talk." I brought my mind back to the problem in hand.
"I don’t think friend Rolf was under much stress when he left that house. So, let’s see, what’s the next strike against him? When he came back from his fruitless, no pun intended, trip to Savannah, where did he go?"
"Yeah, I’d thought of that, too. The State Police stopped him on the bridge before he would have taken a turn in either direction so we have no clue. He says he was going back to Hayden’s place, but who knows."
"OK. Then what about this rough sex? Is that true?"
"According to Rolf, there’s no truth in it and he and Hayden had a good and mutually exciting and satisfying sex life. When I talked to his Savannah friend, he admitted that Rolf could get rather. masculine was the term he used. when he got really aroused. He wasn’t really rough, but rather more aggressive. He felt that it was not in any way violent and wouldn’t have hurt anyone. It was just masculine — the way two guys might jostle each other around in a friendly argument — you know, bumping shoulders, that sort of rough.
"A pair of handcuffs was found in Rolf’s condo, but they didn’t appear to have been used recently and there was no key so they would have been pretty ineffective as a sex-toy. He did have a couple of cock-rings."
"Who doesn’t. Even heteros have them. Anyone ever see him wearing one on the shoulder strap of his leather jacket?"
"No one volunteered and I didn’t ask. I doubt it; he tries to portray himself as suave."
"Suave ends when the little head takes over the thinking," I joked. Mike grinned and nodded as I went on, "What was this friend of his like? A decent guy?"
"Oh, yes. He teaches art at the school there. Very pleasant and open guy."
"What does he say about Rolf? Does he reckon he could have done it?"
"He is pretty adamant that Rolf couldn’t have. He says Rolf didn’t have a temper and would have walked away from a bad relationship. The clinching point for him, however, is the trashing of the books. Apparently Rolf is fanatical about books. He doesn’t even fully open a paperback in case the spine and binding get strained."
"Did you put him on the witness stand?"
"He goes on on Tuesday. The prosecution finished up today and we recessed. He’ll do OK, but the prosecution will have the jury thinking that Rolf is a nice guy but had a momentary flash of rage and over-reacted. Most of them anyway will believe that gays are temperamentally prone to hysteria and passion and this friend won’t do much to dissuade that." He reached out and cut a small piece of Gorgonzola. As it was in flight to his plate he said, "And by the way, fuck you."
I laughed. "Why fuck me?"
"Because two hours ago I had a straightforward murder case. I was defending a guilty client, but I was doing OK by him. I had no doubt about that. I didn’t exactly know why he’d done it, but I could’ve got over that. That was a paper tiger. Now you’ve given that tiger a body and fur and claws."
I finally got the frown to disappear and a wry smile to appear. "Yeah, like Hobbes. Remember, Hobbes was always the voice of reason and was pretty near always right."
"OK. Bad example. Maybe like Tigger?"
Mike leaned forward and refilled his glass. He took a sip and mulled it around his mouth. He looked straight at me. "No, like Hobbes."
"Hey, don’t sweat. Let’s see if we can put any substance on Rolf’s case. What about his alibi? What about his visit to his buddy in Savannah?"
"Yeah.that was a complete waste of time. The friend wasn’t there. He’d gone to Statesboro to pick up another guy whose car had broken down. No-one in any of the places that Rolf says he went to to look for him can swear that they remember Rolf being there. He bought a Coke and some fast food and paid cash. He sat on the River Walk and ate it and was seen by everyone and no-one. He didn’t get a parking ticket or run a red light so we have no evidence that he was in Savannah at all. All we know is that he left the house apparently in a hurry "
"And in a good mood."
"Says you. I don’t know how to get the jury to see it that way."
"I’ll come up and you get the judge to order them to get up behind me. I’ll show them how much fun a wheelie can be."
"You and me will get jail time for jury-tampering and they’ll hang Rolf for having such a jack-off lawyer."
I became serious again. "OK. We’ve got three days to come up with either some stranger who went in to get some money or drugs or something, or we’ve got to break Meadowcroft’s alibi. Who provides his alibi, by the way."
"His wife, mostly." He shook his head pensively, "I don’t think it’s him. He really had no motive. He is not that desperate for money — in fact he’s pretty content with his lot in life. I can’t see what grudge he could have had against Hayden."
"Perhaps he thought that Rolf would change things with the store. Get him fired. I don’t know. Money is a pretty powerful argument."
"Believe me, Rolf knows nothing, absolutely nothing, about hardware. He has contractors come in to fix anything in his bookshop. He knows anything you want to know about books and art and music, but that’s the end of it. I don’t think he and Meadowcroft would have trodden on each other’s toes."
"Shit." I sat back and thought. "OK, then what about Coalter?"
"No motive. No opportunity. In fact he is possibly worse off from Hayden’s death than if he were alive."
"I can think of a motive. He was running pretty much neck- and-neck with the Democratic guy for the election in November according to the polls at the time. Wouldn’t help him much if his business partner was openly gay."
"There could be something in that," conceded Mike but without much enthusiasm. "But he’s got to repay the loan now to either Rolf or Meadowcroft and that will stretch him some."
"But that is under the new will. Perhaps he didn’t know that and perhaps the old will gave him, or at least his family, more. But regardless, I think he’s after the power and the image of political office — the money played only a secondary part. Especially if the murder was a spur of the moment thing, he mightn’t have thought all the details, the ramifications, through."
"It’s moot, Chris. Unless he hired someone, and that doesn’t fit with the crime scene, he was definitely nowhere near Hayden’s house at the time of the murder."
"How sure of that are you?"
Mike opened up his concertina file, rummaged through some folders and then tossed a blowup of a photograph across to me. "That’s Henry and his senior staff outside the Sandpiper on July 4th of last year. See the clock on the harbor pavilion? Says five after twelve. That’s just about when Hayden was getting whacked. His staff saw him before the picture taking going in and out with decorations. He went into his office about five or ten minutes after the picture. They’ll swear that his car never left its spot right in front of the restaurant until the call came in that Hayden had been killed."
"C’mon, Mike. Anyone over the age of ten that can hold a mouse can doctor a photograph these days."
"Well, that’s a copy, but the original is a Polaroid on Polaroid film. No negative."
"A Polaroid. Has this cheapskate never heard of digital? I didn’t know you could even still get Polaroid film."
"Neither did I. But he had it and the photo was on the restaurant bulletin board — see the black dot? It’s the place where the pin went through?"
I looked at the picture in my hand. "So how do you know the clock was right?"
"I phoned the Harbor Engineer’s department. Spoke to the guy who maintains the lights, the electricity to the docks and, amongst other things, the clock. That clock is reliable. All he has to do every year is move it forward in the spring and back in the fall and occasionally oil the works. Other than that, it keeps perfect time."
I looked at the picture. I must have walked there dozens of times and probably looked up at the clock for a time check and never really noticed it. The big white faces on each side marked the passing hours for the pedestrians in the streets or for the watercraft in the harbor. It was 4th July all right: all the yachts were flying flags from every halyard. Even the small boat that took tourists around the island had its deck railings festooned with red and blue bunting. Mike watched me almost cynically. "I even had a surveyor friend of mine look at the shadows cast by the buildings and he reckoned the clock was pretty close to right."
"OK, then it has to be a stranger."
"Gees-us, Chris," Mike responded, exasperated. "What motive? Don’t you think I’ve gone through this over and over again in my mind, with Rolf, with Henry Coalter and Ken Meadowcroft. Other than the cuff-links nothing was taken as far as can be ascertained. Nobody can be found who had the least grudge against Hayden. He gave credit at his store almost imprudently if anyone needed something and couldn’t pay for a while — he’s apparently helped more than one trawler owner that way."
"Not many saints died of old age. Just because you’re nice doesn’t make people like you, although, to be fair, I have never heard a bad word said by anyone about Hayden either."
"Exactly. And you know this place. If a stranger had been seen in the vicinity someone would have noticed. And Rolf was seen leaving the house in a hurry.
"Look Chris, I don’t like it any more than you do, but we can’t have it both ways. If we want gays to be accepted as an equal part of the population, we have to accept that the strata run equally. There are some good gays and there are some bad gays."
"Ay, there’s the rub." Deep down I knew what he said was true, but all the guys I knew who were gay were smart and intellectual and I liked to believe it was envy of the mind rather than the trivial matter of how a guy wanted to have sex that was behind homophobia. "But, Mike," I drove on irritated by his apparent complacency, "you’re going to lose this case unless we come up with something."
Mike got up and moved across to the sofa where I was sitting. Putting his glass next to mine he sat down where he could look directly at me. "Chris, this isn’t a game, or even a sales pitch, where the outcome determines whether I win or lose. The prosecution and I are given a finite, known set of facts and we present these to a jury — a group of everyday people who have a range of friends and colleagues, who read the papers and watch TV and travel. The prosecution puts a spin on the way the evidence points. I put another spin on it or point out flaws in his perspective. These people, pooling their combined experiences, putting their total knowledge together, come to a decision. It’s a good system, Chris. It has worked in some form or another in all civilized countries for centuries."
"Uh-huh. And yet we consistently get juries returning death penalties for folk who are proved, sometimes years later, through scientific evidence to have been totally innocent. And you know what is more sickening than having put the wrong guy in jail for a crime he didn’t commit? It’s that nine times out of ten the prosecutor, or DA whatever you guys call them, comes out and says ‘Yeah, the scientific evidence says he couldn’t have done it, but our witness couldn’t have lied so I know this guy is guilty and will fight tooth and nail to stop him being released.’
"So much for not mattering whether you win or lose. It’s a male thing. Counting coups is what counts."
Mike leaned back and nodded. "There is a bit of that, I admit, but not to the extent that you hear it the media or after some group has put their spin on it. OK, for prosecutors and DAs, most of whom are elected, counting coups is a big thing. That’s because, one way or another, we tend to compare things mathematically. It’s an easier and more concrete thing for a person seeking election to say that, of the thirty cases they’ve tried, twenty-nine resulted in a conviction. The tax payer thinks he’s getting his money’s worth out of this candidate. The sleight of hand that’s been played here is that there’s a tacit assumption that the police have done their job and presented for trial only guilty people and that the court is there only to say what punishment they deserve. And then, on the other — the defense — side, in law firms that need to attract clients, having lawyers that consistently lose cases is not good advertising.
"But defendants are realistic, too, it’s not just the scientists and computer geeks that can analyze," he looked at me out the corners of his eyes, smiling, "even a lost case can be a win if the defense lawyer manages to get a less-than-maximum or less-than-usual sentence — and that can mean more clients. Cha-ching."
He sensed I was somewhat less than convinced and continued, "Look, I agree that many cases have been shoddily, maybe negligently, defended. And absolutely there are people in jail innocent of the crime they were charged with, but even scientific evidence has to be taken in context. Some of the more high-profile cases that have been overturned are based on DNA testing that is much more advanced now than it was. So, let’s say a guy was convicted of rape fifteen years ago. The prosecution has the guy’s girlfriend who says she was a witness to the rape and provides details of the crime only someone who was actually there could have known. However, she is terrified of her boyfriend and freely admits she will lie under oath on the witness stand and go to jail rather than give evidence against him in a public place. She knows that doing that would be a death- warrant for her. The prosecution has a fairly strong circumstantial evidence case and goes to trial without this witness, but buoyed by the fact that they have the right guy. In the trial they produce the victim’s undergarments and show that they have semen on them. The guy is convicted and goes to jail. Fifteen years later, someone tests the semen and, lo and behold, it’s not his semen. Now the argument is that he should be released since the semen is not his. But, as you pointed out, the prosecutor defends the original conviction because he says, and believes, he has evidence that he could not or did not present in the original trial. You see, the semen is, in fact, irrelevant and the prosecutor should not have mentioned it in the previous trial since there was no established connection between the semen and the crime. The victim could have had consensual sex with one guy and later have been raped by the second who happened to wear a condom. The real question, rarely asked, is ‘was the semen pivotal in his conviction?’ If it was then throw the conviction out. But that’s not how our legal system works.
"Now don’t get me wrong. I am one hundred percent behind the efforts to free people who are wrongly convicted. I have volunteered my own time on two cases in Georgia. Some public defenders are woefully inadequate either through lack of experience or overwork. Some public defenders are freeloaders on taxpayers’ money and are in the job through cronyism. But many, most, are good, solid lawyers trying to make a living through practicing law. You can notch the miscarriages of justice up to the lawyers, but in the long run it is you, me and everyone else who is to blame. We whine and whine about taxes and where do the cuts come from? The very folk that should be the cornerstones of our society: the teachers and the public defenders and the folk who run country clinics."
I still looked skeptical and he laughed at me. "C’mon, Chris, I’m just playing devil’s advocate with you," and he kicked my leg gently with his foot causing the hormones that had settled down to polite conversation with each other to once again leap up and dash around in a frenzy.
"And Rolf?" I asked to relieve the sudden tenseness in my chest that the kick had produced.
"Rolf has got a pretty good lawyer defending him," Mike said without any self aggrandizement, "but unless Rolf can come up with a better alibi than he has, or unless someone can suggest why a total stranger at random would attack Hayden, Rolf is going to be at the jury’s mercy. At the time of Hayden’s death Rolf probably knew more about Hayden than anyone else. If there could be any other motive it would be he, or perhaps Meadowcroft, to suggest it. And Rolf persists in saying he knows nothing." I noticed a touch of exasperation creep into the tone of voice.
"I’m sure he’s not going to get the death penalty and heaven knows we’ve sifted through every piece of evidence a hundred times, validating it and revalidating it." He drained his glass and stretched his arms out. "Let’s just drop it for tonight, Chris. Maybe when I walk around Inverness in the morning or when I go look at Hayden’s house something will jump up. Right now I have tunnel vision."
"’K. I know the feeling. Take a break and things’ll look different." Fanfare for the Common Man had come to an end some time earlier I suddenly realized and I got up and moved to the stereo, "Anything particular you’d like to listen to?"
Mike uncoiled himself from the sofa and came across. "What have you got?"
The faint scent of the morning’s aftershave wafted past my nostrils as he stood close to me scanning the racks and the hormones started doing the wave, rushing up my legs, through my groin into my gut and then, yelling and cheering and falling over each other, into my head.
"Quite a bit of light classical, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Offenbach, that kind; some Dixie Jazz or Joplin; Gershwin; a little rock: Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Queen mostly. Oldies — there’s Buddy Holly; a couple of operas: Carmen, La Traviata; Ballet — Coppelia, la Fille Mal Garde."
"Quite the well-rounded guy, aren’t you?" he smiled and I felt his hand rub my back and massage my shoulder. "Gershwin’s fine." I fumbled at the case and finally got it open. I dropped both CDs into slots in the changer and closed it. As I turned back to the sofa, Mike was right in front of me, his face a mere twelve inches from mine.
"This has been a great evening, Chris," he said putting both hands on my shoulders. "Thanks for inviting me."
"Better than the Ramada?" I asked as the hormones frantically hammered at the rust that was preventing my neck tendons moving my face closer to his.
"Way better," he murmured and his hands ran down my back just before our lips touched. I felt his cheek stubble against mine as our tongues touched, briefly at first and then more urgently as his fingers slid under the waist of my jeans and I could feel his touch on my skin. After a while he pulled back a little, "The Ramada owners rarely kiss as well, either."
I laughed and the tensions inside me evaporated giving way to more primal feelings. I dropped my hands down his back and dragged his muscle shirt up. He raised his arms and I pulled it over his head, tossing it onto the sofa as he tugged my T-shirt from my jeans and off my body. And then, after more than a year’s recovery, I was once again in a tight embrace with another man. Our lips locked together, eyes closed, hands gripping each other’s backs and pulling us together we staggered toward the sofa and fell on it and I noticed with some surprise that the shields that I had so conscientiously welded around myself for months, now fell apart quite easily.
The scratchy 1930s tones of Swanee were dying away before our lips moved apart. "For a geek you’re a pretty good kisser. Or did you get that off the web, too?" Mike grinned gently fanning his fingers across my nip ring.
"You’d be quite amazed at what the new screens can do." I murmured as my hand traced his jaw line, "but I could probably use a refresher course in what is legal in Georgia and what isn’t."
"Man, you have so come to the right lawyer for that. I can show you every intricacy of what each statute forbids you to do."
I nuzzled up to his ear and softly explained, "I’ve read a lot about lawyer-client privilege. Why don’t we go upstairs and exercise it."
"Now this never happens at a Ramada," he remarked as I stood up and turned toward the stairs. He followed close behind, unbuckling my belt on the way until half way up the stairs my jeans fell to my knees and we both stumbled up the final steps leaving Gershwin softly in the background.
Two and a half hours later I lay on my back watching my lover’s chest rise and fall regularly in calm, post coital sleep. My mind was way too active to shut down and I didn’t want to miss a second of this night for who knew what the morning would bring. Only too aware was I that old pieces of love-shrapnel remained imbedded in my heart from times before, and periods of bad emotional weather would bring on bouts on almost unbearable aches. I’d been told that they were rarely fatal, yet it was also said that enough of these attacks could kill whatever inhabited the body. I remembered a guy I had met once, a waiter in a restaurant in Atlanta. His blue eyes were totally devoid of life — you looked into them and saw nothing. It was as though you could see through the empty, black pupils to the very back of his scull. I didn’t want to be like him.
Mike stirred slightly but didn’t wake. I stretched out and contemplated what it had been like for Rolf and Hayden. Hayden must have been about ten years older than Rolf. Not an impossible difference. And, from what Mike had said, they seemed to have grown to be more than comfortable with each other. Certainly Hayden need not have taken Rolf to the Seaburns’ party. That was a gutsy thing to do and I smiled at the image in my mind. So how come a day or two later he’s throwing him out? It didn’t make sense. Nor did the long wheelie. That would be too macabre for words — to have killed your lover and then ridden off in celebration. Of course, the old duck could have been wrong. Maybe she’d seen Rolf do a wheelie before and then visualized it in her mind when he tore off. No, didn’t Mike say that Rolf admitted doing the wheelie? I’d have to ask him in the morning, I couldn’t remember.
And Rolf has no alibi. But what of that. Shit, did I have an alibi for any time today until I met Mike at Kurrajongs? Let alone the 4th July. What the fuck did I do that day? In the evening I’d been to Mac and Barbara’s place. That was a good party: sitting around their swimming pool watching Mac set of fireworks and swearing wild Australian curses when he burned his fingers. Pity the tide was in — it would have been cool to have it on the beach, although that had been pretty crowded earlier. What had I done at lunchtime, the time when apparently Hayden was getting killed? I think I went to the beach. Yeah, I’d painted the bedroom early on and then went to the beach to clear my lungs. It was pretty crowded, at least for Kirkhall standards. Everyone with their red, white and blue trimming and burgees. It was like a soap opera. Even that Coalter had jumped in decorating The Sandpiper. He looked pretty pleased with himself in the picture in his white Dockers. Did he think himself some jack tar out there with all the boats? I wonder what happened to Hayden’s boat? Was that in the picture, too?
Boats the pleasure launch. The pleasure launch was in the picture. That was wrong.
I swung my legs out of the bed gently and Mike never stirred. Grabbing a pair of jogging shorts off the back of the door I ran down stairs naked, pausing only at the bottom to put them on. The music had ended but the coffee table bore witness to our rapid departure: the empty decanter juxtaposed with the few remaining crackers and the cheese like a still life and next to them Mike’s files lay open. I picked up the picture. Yes, I could see the deck railings. This was high tide. But it couldn’t be: I had been swimming at lunch time. I bounded up to my office and clicked the SETI-analysis screen saver to minimize it. I brought the local fishing guide web site up on IE but its tide tables were for the current and next two months. Nothing at all previous. Going to Google I searched on TIDES and ATLANTIC. A few misses and then I hit it: the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services site had the historic data. I pulled up the tide data for the St Simon’s area for July 4th. Yeah, high tide was at about seven in the morning. By lunch time it had ebbed considerably to a low at about 1pm.
This picture was a fake. No fuckin’ way could that boat be that high at about midday. I pushed my chair back and dashed through to my room. "Mike! Wake up. The picture’s a cut and paste, man."
Mike sat up on one elbow blinking and looking around trying to figure where he was. "Shit, Chris. What time is it?"
"About one-thirty. Come here, I want to show you something. Your picture’s not right."
"What are you talking about. Geez-us, Chris, it’s the middle of the night."
"Mike. Get up. That picture .the one by the restaurant.that Coalter guy’s alibi it’s a fake."
"I told you. It’s a friggin Polaroid. They are too old to be altered."
"I don’t know how, but I can prove that it has been."
He looked around somewhat bewildered, "Where are my jeans?"
"I dunno over there in the corner." He swung his legs to the floor and stood up. As he pulled his jeans on he asked, "Why are you doing this now? Don’t you sleep like normal people?"
"I just got to thinking, and things didn’t jibe. Come here." I led the way into my office and pulled up a second chair to my PC. He followed me in zipping up his fly and sat down looking dumbly at the screen full of numbers.
"What’s this mean?"
I handed him the Polaroid photograph. "Look there. You can see that boat’s railings. That means the tide was in. Probably pretty close to high tide. See the clock? Twelve-oh-five pretty close. Now look at these numbers. At twelve-oh-five the water was .226 meters above low level. That’s about eight or nine inches above low tide."
Mike sat there looking at the photograph. "Shit! My guys said that you couldn’t change a Polaroid photo."
"It would require a lot of equipment and a good deal of skill, but it could be done. But I reckon he staged this on a different day. How about July 5th or 6th? Or Memorial Day or even Labor Day?"
"No. The staff standing there vouch for the taking of the photo on July 4th. They were asked and they verified that they stood there on the 4th and had their photo taken with Henry Coalter. Sorry Chris. Nice try, bud, but this picture is genu-wine." He got up, stretched and started to the door. "Get some sleep."
I sat and looked at my screen. "No, Mike, listen up. The difference in the tide is about six foot. If this boat was this high at low tide, the water would be about a foot deep across the road at high tide."
"Then the data is wrong. Some bored guy types this stuff in. He read the wrong numbers or entered the wrong date or something."
"Wait." I clicked the back arrow and selected the data for July 3rd. "Look how they match at midnight. This guy is so bored he types two day’s data wrong?"
"Chris, I don’t know why the friggin’ data’s wrong. All I know is that I have a photo that everyone says can’t be altered and three witnesses who say they were there on the 4th July when it was taken and another really reliable witness that says the clock is right and would be next to impossible to change without him knowing."
"I heard once that an educated man in Europe ages ago who saw a real live giraffe for the first time declared ‘This animal cannot exist.’"
Mike spun the chair around and straddling it, leaned on the back facing me. "Chris, one person can make a mistake as to where they were and when. Two people rarely do. Three people just don’t. It is that simple."
"I don’t know what these people say or why. But I’ll tell you what, Mike, tomorrow morning at high tide you and I are going to be standing right outside The Sandpiper looking at the boats and we’ll go back at low tide in the evening. If you are right, you have earned yourself a weekend here and I will cook you three squares both days, the very best food and wine and beer. I’ll wait on you hand and foot and at night you will think you’ve arrived in cock heaven.
"But if I am right, you are going to do just the same for me in Savannah. You will give me the best two days on the town a guy could have and I will walk bow-legged for three days from all the sex I’ve had."
"It’s a deal, bud," Mike laughed, "Now can we please go back to bed?"
"Sure, Bubble-Butt," I smiled. My job was data. I didn’t know why, but his picture was wrong even if three Popes swore they were there when it was taken.
Within fifteen minutes we were both asleep, spooned together under the sheets.
At nine in the morning I was sitting in the lounge drinking coffee and reading the New York Times when Mike came ambling downstairs his hair standing up making him look like a punk. "Coffee’s in the carafe. Milk or soy is in the fridge."
"How much sleep exactly do you need in a day?" he asked with a sleepy smile.
"I got my seven hours. The rest is just luxury or laziness. Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah. Great thanks. As far as I remember, though, the hours just before midnight were a lot better than the hours just after." He looked up from pouring coffee to gauge my reaction.
"Yeah, that was pretty good." In the light of a new day I didn’t know where things were going either and I’d hurriedly duct-taped together some of the armor around the most vital parts of my heart. "So you ready to head into Inverness and be shamed as you lose your bet?"
"Sure. But it won’t be me losing. You’ll see you overlooked something. You picked the data for the wrong place or the wrong month or maybe even that the guy used a telephoto or wide-angle lens that altered the perspective."
"We’ll see." I still had confidence in my data and had concluded it was Mike’s job to explain why it didn’t fit his theory. "What do you want for breakfast? I got eggs, cereal, bread."
"What do you usually have?"
"Most days cereal, but I could whip up a cheese omelet if you’d like."
"Don’t put yourself out, man. Cereal’s fine."
"It’s no sweat, really. You want an omelet?"
"Sure. That’d go down real well."
"Cool." I went to the kitchen and began the prep. Mike scanned the front page of the Times and then came across to get some more coffee.
"Quite the domesticated guy."
"Yeah. Amazing what we geeks can do when we leave cyberland isn’t it?"
"So who do you usually cook for?"
My missile lock-on tone went off and I felt my chest tighten. "Myself mainly. Some friends from around here occasionally. Sometimes, if I want to live close to the edge, Mac and Barbara from the restaurant last night. I really sweat that one, but they are always polite and enthuse about what I prepare."
"Yeah, I can imagine that that would be stressful. Kinda like oral examinations at college," Mike agreed replacing the carafe on the coffee machine and after taking a swig, began getting out plates and forks. I stayed on alert, but breakfast passed with only general conversation about the news and I gradually relaxed. He never mentioned the photograph or his case and I marveled that this guy could put his work so far out of his mind and kick back.
Once we’d cleared away I reminded him of our quest as we headed toward the stairs. "Wear jeans. I’ve got a jacket and a helmet for you so you can see what a bike ride is like."
"You crazy? I’ve never been on a motorcycle before. I’ll fall right off."
"You see, that’s the trouble with law school. They never teach you guys any physics. Once the bike gets moving you’re sitting on top of two big gyroscopes. There’s no way you’ll fall off. Give it a try — if you’re still scared after a mile, we’ll come back and get the Jeep."
He looked at me skeptically, "A mile? And if I don’t like it, we’ll come right back?"
"OK," he agreed somewhat reluctantly, "I’ll see what it’s like." Mike turned and headed upstairs taking them two at a time. He stopped at the top and called down, "And no wheelies!"
"No sweat," I laughed, "I don’t think I could do one when I’m two up." I followed him upstairs and my mind switched to the problem of the photograph and the question of why four people were all lying?
Normally I shower and shave in fifteen minutes, but put two guys in a shower together and it takes four times as long. Thus it was an hour later, showered and shaved, that I was standing in front of him demonstrating how to buckle up and adjust a full-face helmet and going through my guy-in-back checklist with him ending up by admonishing, "Never lean any way in which I’m not: keep looking over one of my shoulders and move your body with mine. I pushed the Ninja off its stand and threw my leg over the saddle. "OK, climb aboard."
Once he was settled comfortably behind me I started the engine, kicked down into first and rolled gently out into the street with the Ninja growling contentedly under us. Five minutes later, with Mike’s hands relaxed around my waist, we rolled into the parking lot of The Sandpiper. It was about eleven thirty and several cars and pickups were parked there. I steadied the bike with both feet and cut the engine expecting Mike to get off, but he just sat on the saddle looking over my shoulder at the harbor and the boats lying there. The tide was in and, with gangplanks only slightly sloped, the boats rode high.
"You got this picture firmly in your mind?" I asked over my shoulder.
"Yes. What is the change when the tide is out?"
"The water drops about six or seven feet." Steadying himself on my shoulder he swung off the saddle. I kicked down the side stand and leaned the bike on it as I dismounted and followed Mike toward the wharf. We stood there for a minute while he studied the harbor then he turned to me.
"Chris, your data has to be wrong."
"Why must my data be wrong?" I laughed in exaggerated amazement. "Isn’t it way more probable that your photograph is wrong?"
"No, Chris, it isn’t," he responded with some acerbity. "This isn’t some computer game. Even if we disregard the difficulty of faking a simple Polaroid, four people, who have no reason to lie, have given statements to the police saying that that picture is genuine. I’m not saying your web-site was intentionally bogus, but somehow an error crept in — these things happen all the time. A simple typo and the wrong year is entered; or the date is entered in European format with the day first then the month.
"For your data to be correct, four unrelated people have to be in cahoots together and be willing to perjure themselves, and the probability of that is nil point zero, buddy."
I had to admit his argument had merit and yet still I trusted my data. I scanned the harbor absently wondering how I could double-check the data when my gaze stopped on the little building where the fishing charter boats were rented. "Come, Mike, let’s see if we can get some backup."
"Where’re you going?"
"The fishing rental place — they have tide information, maybe they have it for July last year somewhere."
"Sounds possible," he said and hurried up to walk with me. He put his hand on my shoulder, "I didn’t mean to snap at you just now. But I just can’t make sense of the discrepancies between what you say and what I know."
"Don’t sweat it. Most folk I deal with aren’t scientists or engineers and they firmly believe I practice dark art. But don’t worry, everything, however strange, can be rationally explained."
"You mean we haven’t got all the pieces to the puzzle?"
"No, I think it’s more like we don’t have the correct perspective. We’re like the six blind men in the poem who each examine an elephant. One falls against the elephant’s side and declares the elephant is like a wall; another grabs it’s tail and says an elephant is like a rope; a third touches the tusk and declares the elephant to be like a spear. Somehow we’ve got to step back and see the whole picture."
"No pun intended," Mike gibed.
"I can pun better than that," I laughed. "If you’ll observe, I have refrained from saying that you’re harboring any resentment to my theories and have, with some effort, not quoted anything about there being tides in the affairs of men."
"Well, I’m certainly glad of that," he replied with mock seriousness as we reached the rental office. I held the door open for him.
"Let’s go in and see if we can be schooled, Mike." He struck me across my chest with his left arm as he walked past into the office. I followed him, laughing .
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," greeted a friendly woman sitting at a computer terminal. "What can we do for you? It’s a bit late for today: we’ve only got one boat working because it’s not the season yet."
"Hi! Actually, this is gonna sound kinda weird, but it’s not about fishing. I’m looking for a bit of information. I’ve bet my friend here that on the 4th July, Independence Day, last year, the tide was high at about seven in the morning and low round about midday. He has chosen to doubt my extensive knowledge and maintains that the tide was high at midday. I was wondering if you by any chance had a copy of the tide tables for last year lying about somewhere."
She chuckled and shook her head. "I’ve worked here about five years and no-one has ever asked me for the tides for previous days. Mostly they want to know what they’re going to be like in a few days or, more likely, a few weeks." She got up and walked over to a filing cabinet that looked as though it had been retrieved from the Titanic. She pulled at the top drawer, it didn’t budge until she gave the side a hard slap which caused a small shower of rust to drop to the floor. She rummaged through a couple of sections and then pulled a file out. "I swear my husband has never thrown a single thing he’s ever owned away. Here’s the tide tables for the last two years," she pulled a sheet out, "no, this is 99 — see, there’s three year old stuff in here!"
"So do you have July, 2001, then?" I asked eagerly.
She flipped through the sheets and pulled one out and grinned at us. "OK, you," she pointed at me, "say that the tide was in when?"
"I think the tide was high on the fourth at just about seven in the morning. It would have been low, then, round about one." She scanned down the sheet with her finger and shook her head. She looked sadly at Mike.
"I hope you didn’t bet your house on this."
I let out a whoop and grabbed Mike around the neck. "Never, ever, doubt a Geek again."
Mike broke free and smiled ruefully at the woman. "Let me see that."
"He is such a doubter," I apologized holding up my hands in a shrug as she put the paper in front of him.
"He’s just like my husband. Unless he sees it with his own two eyes he don’t believe anything. Like they say about them folks from Missouri."
Mike looked at the table in front of him. "So at seven in the morning the water was at seven feet and at about one in the afternoon it was at zero feet?" he asked her.
"Yes. That’s with reference to the low water mark. So at one it was at the low level and at seven it was seven feet above that." He looked pensive and puzzled.
"So what was the bet," the woman asked me.
"The best dinner that can be got in Savannah," I paraphrased, omitting many of the details I had in my mind.
"Not bad winnings, I’d say. You need some company?"
"I’ll let you know if he ever decides," I replied looking at Mike whose mind was off somewhere else. "Thank you so much for your help."
"No problem," she said gathering up the sheet and replacing it in the file. "I was getting kinda bored here anyway."
"Bye, now." I tugged on Mike’s arm and we walked out. Once on the street he stood deep in thought idly swinging his helmet from his fingers.
"Let’s go across to The Sandpiper," he said eventually. "Maybe we can get this thing sorted out there." We crossed the road and walked around to the entrance of the restaurant. The door bell tinkled as we entered and a girl stowing trays on the counter looked up.
"Hello," she smiled. "Nice day for a ride."
"Yeah, not bad," I commented as I walked up to the counter ands canned the menu. "I’ll take a cup of coffee, please. You, Mike?"
"Here or to go?"
"Here, please." She put two china mugs on the counter and filled them from a carafe.
"Milk is over there. That’ll be a dollar eighty-five."
I fingered my wallet out of my back pocket and pulled out two bucks. "Thanks."
I pushed Mike’s cup toward him and headed to the milk counter. Mike pulled the copy of the picture out of his jacket pocket and asked the girl, "Any chance any of these guys are here now?"
She gave him a quizzical look. "Sure. Jeremy and Phil are. Mr. Coalter isn’t in until this afternoon and Bill will only be in after lunch."
"Would it be possible for me to talk to Jeremy and Phil?"
"I guess, we’re not too busy right now." She walked back toward the kitchen and Mike and I sat at a table overlooking the parking lot. One of the changes that Mike had mentioned Hayden making was to separate the casual eaters from those wanting a full meal and the restaurant section overlooked the harbor. Most of the customers were over in the restaurant section eating lunch and only one table in the caf‚ area was occupied by two kids.
Within a minute two teenaged boys wearing aprons came across to our table.
"Andrea said you wanted to talk to us," the taller one said.
"Hi," Mike responded getting up and extending his hand, "I’m Mike Jorgensen. I’m the lawyer representing Rolf Lee and all I really need is to get some clarification about some times."
"Well, sure," the taller one, Phil, said, "but nothing much happened here. Mr. Etchells wasn’t here that day: it was Mr. Coalter’s day on duty."
"So Mr. Etchells didn’t call in at all?" asked Mike.
"Not that I heard, did you, Jer?"
Jeremy shrugged. He had an eyebrow ring and a stud in his lower lip and, when he began to speak, I noticed that his tongue was pierced, too. "I didn’t speak to him and I never heard anyone else say they’d spoken to him. If anyone had spoken to him I reckon they’d have been, like, ‘I was the last guy to talk to him’, or something."
"And Rolf Lee hadn’t come in here that day at all?"
"I don’t think so, but it was kinda busy so someone else could’ve served him, but again, I reckon they’d have been all ‘I spoke to that guy that killed Mr. Etchells’ if he had been in."
Mike pulled the copy of the photograph out of his pocket. "What can you tell me about this?"
They looked at it and Phil spoke up, "Oh, Mr. Coalter had gone and put up that red, white and blue ribbon along the edge of the roof. For 4th July, you know. Then he came in and asked a couple of us to come and stand with him for a photograph."
"Yeah," laughed Jeremy, "he said he wanted it for his campaign. I thought it was funny because he wants to look as though he’s friends with the kids around here, but he isn’t really. So he puts me and Phil and Bill in the picture, but when the kids come in here he always thinks they’re going to cause trouble or steal stuff."
"Who took the photo?"
"It was Marcia. She worked here that summer but she’s gone on to college now."
"Do you remember what time the picture was taken?"
"Round about midday," Phil replied without a pause.
"You’re sure about that?" Mike asked without any emphasis.
"Yeah. It’s on the clock, there, see !" He pointed to the harbor clock.
"Oh, yes, of course," said Mike feigning some surprise. "OK, guys, thanks for your time, you’ve been a great help."
"Sure, any time," Phil said. He paused and then looked from Mike to me, "Is that your bike out there?"
"It’s mine," I said.
"Nice," he replied wistfully. "I’m saving up for a bike. I’ve got a small dirt bike, but I want a CBR 600."
"How fast does it go," asked Jeremy. And so, while we finished our coffee, the kids and I discussed motorcycles while Mike was apparently lost in thought. When I’d drained the last drop of the mediocre coffee I stood up and took his empty cup and headed to the counter while he wandered toward the door.
"What did they want?" I heard the girl, Andrea, ask as the two guys headed for the kitchen.
"Stuff about the day Etchells was killed," replied Jeremy without slowing his pace.
"And about this year’s Coalter Loves Kids picture," added Phil doing a hand-mime of taking a photograph.
I smiled to myself. Kids are always so straightforward and see right through adults putting any kind of spin on things. Holy shit! ‘This year’s?’ I turned and called after them. "Hey, Phil !"
He and Jeremy stopped and looked at me. "Yeah?"
"When you said ‘this year’s’ picture, what did you mean?"
"Oh, nothing really. Coalter.er Mr. Coalter did the same thing last year. He got in in the election so it must have worked, huh !"
"What did that picture look like?"
"I dunno. Can’t remember ever seeing it. Probably much like this year’s: it was taken in the same place."
"Do you remember who was in it?"
"I was. Dunno who else."
"I was in it," Jeremy interjected. "I think Bill or Jim was, because Marcie had a big sulk this year because she said it was the second year that no girl was in the picture."
"You’d have to look real hard around here to see any evidence of equal opportunity," said Andrea sotto voce but loud enough for the guys and me to hear.
"Oh, poor baby," chided Jeremy, putting his arm around her in exaggerated affection.
"Thanks, guys," I called from halfway to the door. I burst out into the late morning sunshine. "Get your jacket and helmet on," I shouted at Mike, we’re going home."
"What’s up?" he looked at me anxiously.
"I don’t know for sure," I said as I buckled my jacket belt, "just get your helmet on for fuck sake." I straddled the Ninja, jabbed the keys in and started up. Mike got on behind me and I let the clutch out as his hand came around me. Leaning hard over I motored into the street in front of a slow moving minivan and opened up the throttle. I felt Mike gripping me tightly as I weaved through the traffic and when I had a clear road ahead of me I opened it up until my speedo was showing seventy five and I felt him leaning firmly against my back. I down shifted rapidly as I came to the turn off to my street and then opened it up in a burst of speed, braking hard before curving into the driveway and straight into the garage.
"Get off," I yelled as I cut the engine and kicked the side stand down.
"What the Hell are you doing and why are you riding like a fuckin’ lunatic."
"Come up to my office," I called as I pulled my helmet off my head. "I think things might just be clearing up, but I need to check." I took the stairs two at a time and without taking my jacket off, brought up the Internet Explorer. The tide table page was still in my history and by the time Mike came in I was getting the page I wanted. I scrolled down and looked at the entries.
"Bingo, buddy. We have him nailed.
"What?" Asked Mike looking uncomprehendingly at the screen. "Who have we got nailed?"
"Coalter. That picture was taken in 2000 on 4th July. Look here. 4th July, 2000 — high tide was at ten am. At midday it was still six foot high."
"But, Chris, those two guys just told us that this picture was taken last year."
"No. They told us a picture was taken this year. Let’s say Coalter gets the picture taken. Everybody then goes inside — remember they said they were busy? A day or so later he puts this picture on the board. Everyone is expecting it to be the most recent picture so nobody questions it. The three guys are in the same uniform they wear every day and they probably don’t notice any subtle differences."
"But they would have known when the photograph was taken."
"Maybe, but then they are confronted with the evidence of the clock and they think ‘Geez, I must have been wrong. Time flies when I’m working hard.’ These are guys: Philip is thinking of his new bike, Jeremy about getting another piercing or whatever he thinks about and the matter is not that important to them The photo is gospel to them."
"So we really don’t know when last year’s picture was taken, do we?" Mike reflected. "Their minds are now set on it being taken at twelve."
"Yeah, but what we do have is Coalter producing a fake alibi. Isn’t that enough to cast reasonable doubt? Ask him to produce the correct photo."
"He won’t. He’ll probably claim he got the two mixed up and must have trashed the more recent one. The guys will carry on testifying that whatever photo it was it was taken at twelve."
"There must be a way," I pushed my chair back out, stood up and started to take my jacket off. I felt in my pocket for my bike keys and pulled them out along with the coffee bill. "Can you use this as a tax deduction?" I quipped and looked at the bill, "for one dollar and eighty- five hang on. Look here, it says ‘Your server today was Andrea.’"
"Yeah, I knew that, and no, I can’t take it as a deduction," he replied with a trace of irritation at my apparent irrelevancy.
"No. You don’t see. What did those guys say? They were busy on the 4th. Then Coalter calls them out for a photo. How long does it take? Three, four minutes? Maybe even five. We need to get all the receipts for last July 4th. For every server we plot how many people they are serving as the day goes along. When these four had their photographs taken they all should have a simultaneous hiatus in their cash machines. Then we’ll know when the photograph was taken."
Mike looked at me for a full ten seconds before speaking. "That might work." He didn’t sound convinced, though, and he paused again . "But if it does all it does is remove Coalter’s alibi. What motive would he have for killing Hayden?"
"I can think of two right off. First, money. Hayden was Coalter’s partner. Now what is going to happen if Hayden gets into a committed relationship with a guy who is into books and bookstores? Maybe he’ll pull out of the restaurant business and go into books — who knows. And he seems to provide Coalter with a lot of practical help; looking after the plant, being duty manager and so on.
"But secondly, and this is what I think may be the cardinal reason, Coalter was running for political office. He ran on family values, of prohibiting the schools from barring the scouts from their halls because of their anti-gay bigotry. He leads prayer at the local school before football matches to rub people’s noses in the no forced prayer thing. Now, what happens if he has to campaign on family values and his business partner is an open gay guy living with another gay guy in a committed relationship?
"I think Coalter could have seen his whole future unraveling before him."
Mike slowly unbuckled his jacket and unzippered it. He sat down on my chair and swiveled around to look at me. "You may just have something," he said almost meditatively. "Even if it isn’t what happened, it may be enough to put reasonable doubt in a jury’s mind."
"So why don’t we go get those July receipts now? What do you have to do, get a cop to go get them?"
"No, on Monday I’ll get a subpoena for them and get it served. I’ll get an adjournment until I can process the information. Can you print me off copies of those tide tables?"
"Sure, let me get at the PC and I’ll do it now." He got up and I pulled up the screen again. I printed the first page, selected the data for the following year and printed that one. Mike took the pages and scanned them.
"What’s this sigma and three sigma stuff?"
"Standard deviation. What is it?" He showed me the sheets. "Oh, that. No, they take multiple samples and average them out. The SD shows the spread of the data. Assuming the samples follow a normal distribution, ninety nine point seven percent of the values should lie within three SDs, so a count of one or two here is trivial."
"OK. I shouldn’t get into any difficulties with this then. Let me go and put this stuff in the file."
"What you want to do for the rest of the day? You going to work on the case?"
"No, there’s not much I can do until I get those cash register receipts. I’m happy to do anything. If you want to work I can just read or go walk on the beach."
"I’ve got some work to do, but that can probably wait until Monday."
"I’d like to get a photograph of the harbor at low tide and at high tide if possible. Do you have a camera?"
"Sure. I’ve got a digital and a 35mm. The digital would probably be best: get you the results faster."
"Can we do both? I can work off the digital for now, but I’ll have less of a problem introducing the regular pictures as evidence."
"Sure. No problemo. Low tide today is at " I clicked on the local Inverness Web Page and selected the tide information. " six thirty-five. We can ride up there and get a photo and we’ll do the same in the morning about twelve thirty."
"Thanks a bunch for everything, Chris," Mike said gripping my shoulder. "I would never have figured this out."
"No sweat, man. Just remember our bet," I grinned at him.
He bent down and put his mouth over mine. When we broke apart he said, "I think I need to do some investigation as to what you like so that I can be sure to organize things just right. What do you think?"
"That is the best idea you’ve come up with all day," I answered. "The balcony is sheltered and private. Come outside and we can start getting rid of any tan lines that remain from last year."
And so the weekend passed. The required photographs of the harbor were taken; with Mike close behind me we rode down to Jekyll Island and had ice cream on the beach; we bought fresh fish in Brunswick and ate like the king in France; and in between we broke every indecency law on the Georgia statute books. But as sleep eluded me on Sunday night, my spirits were sinking rapidly. At sunrise Mike was headed back to Savannah and Savannah was where his friend, Matt, was. On Friday night the concept of a no- strings-attached weekend fling had seemed like something I could handle, but in the hours of darkness at the end I was realizing I’d overestimated how far along I was in my recovery.
And so, on Monday, standing in the brisk morning air at six thirty watching Mike load his suit and bag and PC into his car, I was shivering from more than the cold. I had come to believe that the annealing I’d taken a year before had hardened me against any feelings of attachment to another person, but the process had obviously not been perfect and an undetected flaw had apparently existed through which Mike had eroded his way in. Once again my mouth’s cavalier attitude had dragged me into a bunch of pain.
Mike closed the trunk lid and walked up to me. "Bye, Chris. Thanks again for everything. Your hospitality was great and I can’t believe what you did for my case. I’ll let you know how things turn out." He shivered and wrapped his arms around me putting his head next to mine. "Thanks, Chris." Our lips met and we held each other tight, eyes closed. Eventually I broke free. "You’d better be on your way or we are going to spend today like yesterday."
Mike laughed. "Don’t tempt me." Another kiss, brief this time and he walked back to his car.
"Drive carefully, legal eagle," I called.
"Will do. Stay safe, cyber punk." The door closed, he pulled his seatbelt over his shoulder and, with a brief wave, headed down the street. I stood outside until the pounding of the breakers drowned the sound of the Audi’s exhaust and then made my way inside and went up to my office my feet dragging on the stairs.
I didn’t hear from Mike until late in the afternoon. The subpoena had been served and the receipt rolls from the cash registers received. Mike had been over to the prosecutor who, after a little digging in of the feet, had come round to the idea that the picture was not taken when it was purported to have been and ended up waxing vocal about Mike’s perspicacity in spotting it. Now Mike was back in the office getting ready to go through the rolls.
"How’re you going to do that?" I asked.
"I was going to just try and go through and see if I saw a break in the times. You got any better idea?"
"Why not just read out the names and the times to me and I’ll type it into an Excel worksheet. Then we can easily see when a break occurs. Also, I can make a chart of it for you to use as evidence. Make it look all pretty so you can fool the jury into thinking you know what you’re doing."
"Hey, buddy! I resent that," he laughed. "OK, you sure you’ve got the time for this?"
"Yeah. I’ll just add it to my tab for when I come up to Savannah for my pay-off."
"That’s just fine by me. OK, how do you want to go about this?"
"Hang on," I put the handset down, put my headset on and flipped the switch. "OK, what have you got? I mean, what do the receipts look like?"
"Seven rolls of cash register paper. There were five registers and two had their rolls changed. Well do it roll by roll."
"OK. Hang ten while I open a workbook." I busied myself on the keyboard for a few seconds and then told him to go ahead.
"OK, roll one, cash register id oh-five-three-eight. Server is Philip until I tell you otherwise. OK, the times are seven fifty two, eight oh five "
"Hang on," I interrupted. Let’s skip forward to ten o’clock. The kids would surely have noticed a time difference in the photo of two hours or more."
"Good idea. Yeah, you’re right." I heard him pulling the paper for a while and then he said, "OK. Here we go. It’s Philip again. It changed to Marcie for a while, but by ten Philip was on. OK, ten oh one, ten oh three, ten oh four " As he continued to call out the number I typed them in, on and on until, "eleven fifteen, eleven twenty- seven, eleven twenty-nine."
"Hey, there’s a break. Twelve minutes after eleven fifteen."
"Shit, yes. I was so mesmerized by the numbers I failed to notice it."
"OK. Mark that roll where you stopped at eleven fifteen and put it aside. Let’s see if there are other breaks around there on the other rolls."
"Fine. The next roll is number two. The cash register id is oh-seven-four-one and the server is Karyn — k-a-r-y-n. I’m going to start at eleven." Mike began reading and I entered a new column of numbers. By twelve ten there had been no break. "Shit!" he exclaimed, "I thought we were onto something."
"Don’t be impatient. They would have to have kept at least one register going. Get another roll and start at eleven."
"All right. Roll three, register id is oh-five-six-six. Server for this one is Marcie." And we struck gold again with a hiatus from eleven thirteen to eleven twenty-eight. There was no break in roll four, but Karyn took over from Jeremy after eleven fifteen and he resumed at eleven thirty- two. Roll five ended before eleven, but in roll six Bill took a break from eleven fifteen to eleven twenty-six. The last roll, number seven was worthless since it started at eleven fifty-five.
We took a break then and discussed what we had found. Mike felt it was pretty strong evidence, but I believed that we had to have the data from all registers from ten to twelve thirty so that we could demonstrate that no other common breaks had occurred. And thus, for another forty minutes, Mike read numbers and I typed until, in the end, the eleven fifteen break was the only time all four servers were on break together. We chatted some more and then Mike said he was going to meet Matt for dinner and my heart took a tumble once again. We said our good byes and over the next hour or so I made up some charts of the data we had transcribed and emailed the whole workbook to him. I was unsettled: neither the phone conversation nor the email had ended with the three word sentence which I was too hesitant to utter. Dinner for me was quick and I sunk down on the sofa to watch TV, but the Discovery Channel barely distracted me and I trudged up to bed early and dropped into a pit of dreamless sleep.
The morning brought only a tit-bit: an email from Mike thanking me for the charts. But the good sleep had refreshed me and I was able, albeit reluctantly, to push Mike into my mental address book of occasional friends who had other friends and get on with my work.
The following day produced another email. The servers at The Sandpiper had been interviewed again by a member of the DA’s staff. In passing he happened to mention the penalties for perjury and for obstructing justice and, in that climate, the four readily agreed that they had merely judged the time from the clock in the picture. Philip volunteered that he had thought the picture taking was earlier, but faced with what appeared to be conclusive evidence to the contrary, had gone along with the consensus. Henry Coalter had hired an attorney, the email concluded. It was, to all intents and purposes, a rather business-like message I thought.
Wednesday morning brought nothing and I delved into my coding and testing so the day passed quickly. Late in the afternoon I had ridden up into Inverness to purchase some groceries and was happily browsing through the bell peppers when my cell phone began to vibrate violently on my belt. I took the call and heard the animated tones of Mike’s voice.
"Yeah. Hi, Mike, what’s up?"
"Geez, man, where are you?"
"In Harris Teeter’s. Why are you so excited?"
"Hey, guess what’s just happened?"
It was on the tip of my tongue to say ‘You and Matt have set a date for a commitment ceremony,’ but instead responded with a lame "Give up. What?"
"I just heard from the prosecutor’s folks. Apparently Henry Coalter is trying to negotiate some kind of plea bargain. Charges against Rolf are going to be withdrawn."
"Holy shit," was all that I could utter. Somewhere in my mind I envisioned a guy sitting in a cell (I’d never actually seen one, but I’d watched enough TV to imagine it) for week after week knowing he was innocent. "So has he confessed?"
"I don’t know for sure. But since there’s plea bargaining going on and that the charges are being dropped I would guess so."
"That’s so cool. Is Rolf pleased?"
"Yes, but not nearly as excited as I would have thought. He always maintained that the legal system was infallible and he seems to feel that he’s merely experiencing the inevitable. These artsy-literary folk are somewhat strange."
"I guess everyone can’t be a Geek, can they?" I laughed leaning against the corner of a vegetable bin.
"Geez, I hope I never have to defend one of those — they’re way weird !" I could hear the smile in his voice and even imagined a tone of tenderness. But it vanished in an instant as he continued, "I’ve got to go complete some paperwork and then I’ll go and collect him from jail.
"I just wanted you to know what was going on, because sure- as-shit without you this wouldn’t have happened and his ass would be grass."
"Hey, it was no sweat, Mike. I got to meet a great guy through all this."
There was a slight pause then and his voice was slightly different when he resumed, "Er yes.er.that was something I also wanted to talk about to you, but I’d rather not do it on the phone." Oh yeah. I should have seen this coming. This was going to be one of those ‘It was a real great weekend, but it was a spur of the moment thing and you must understand that I’m already in a relationship that I want to stay in’ conversations. I was called back to the present by Mike’s voice calling, "Chris? You still there?"
"Yeah, I’m here," I said resignedly.
"Can I buy dinner for you on Friday night?"
"You don’t have to do that."
"Well, why don’t I do that Friday night? I can come by your place and pick you up and we can go to Kurrajong for dinner? You have to eat, don’t you?"
"OK, that’ll work.
"That’s good then," he said his voice going back to normal. "See you then, buddy. About six?"
"That’ll do. Till then, Mike. Bye," and I clicked off the call.
So I spent the rest of Wednesday night feeling like shit, but once again a good sleep cleansed me and I woke up Thursday morning feeling better and with Mike pretty much flushed out of my system. Even getting ready for dinner on Friday was no big deal and I was actually feeling pretty good about myself and my handling capabilities as I brushed my hair in front of the mirror. I was thus totally unprepared for the clear-air turbulence I flew into when the doorbell rang: my spirits dropped and something close to terror gripped me
"Hi, Chris ! How have you been?" Mike sounded ebullient.
"Hi, Mike. I’ve been doing OK. Come in. How’re things with you?" I could feel the stitches in the old wounds tearing open as he walked in and I closed the door. Mike came up to me, put his arms around me and his lips on mine. Involuntarily I tensed up and he pulled back.
Holding my shoulders he looked into my eyes, "Chris, is it just me or are you this up tight with all guys?" he asked with only the slightest smile.
I moved away a step before answering, "Mike, let’s cut through the crap. I’m a big boy now and I understand about your friend and your life and I’m really cool with it. But if we have an evening together I don’t think I’m going to handle it well."
Mike looked at me as though I’d suddenly started speaking Japanese. He took a step back. "Chris, what the fuck are you talking about?"
"Hey, I’m cool, man. You’re here to tell me that that last weekend was good, but we should just be friends. It’s OK, Mike. Really. It happens. You have a partner, I know, and that’s fine."
"No, Chris," he pushed me back to arm’s length so he could look into my eyes. "No, it’s not like that at all. What partner have I got?"
"Matt," I said in a tone that implied I was stating the obvious. ‘Duh!’ I thought, ‘you know the guy that seems to come up in every conversation.’
"Geez, Chris, Matt and I aren’t partners. He’s my buddy. A real good buddy. I met him at the gym when I came to Savannah. He’s a good guy, and we hang out together. But he’s not my partner — or my lover — he’s too much of a perfectionist: he drives everyone crazy about once a week." He pulled me close and held me while the turbulence continued to send my emotions tumbling over and over. "Chris, I don’t know what’s going on with me, but I know that since I met you, I haven’t felt like this about any other guy. At the beginning of the week I thought it was just new-guy syndrome and it’d wear off, but it didn’t. If anything it got worse."
"So why didn’t you say anything? Some days I never heard from you at all."
He swallowed and held me at arm’s length. "I was scared. You’re a really different kind of guy to anyone I’ve ever been close to. When I was here last weekend you sometimes seemed real close and other times kinda distant."
"That’s me," I confessed rubbing his neck gently, "I try not to get hurt so I go all introverted sometimes." Oh, man, those killer eyes!
He continued, "During the week I didn’t think I could talk with you without saying a whole lot of stuff that was on my mind." His fingers ran through the back of my hair. "And I was scared that if I said the wrong thing it would drive you away and I couldn’t handle that. I reckoned if I was here, with you, it might go easier." We held each other tightly, neither speaking for a minute and then broke apart and, catching each other’s gaze, we laughed.
"Let’s go get dinner," I said." Mike leaned forward and kissed me again.
"Sounds like a great idea."
"Hey, I want to show you something." He jogged out the front door to his car and when he came in he was wearing a brand new motorcycle jacket. "Like it?" He asked.
"Looks good on you, Mike. Should do wonders for your court- room appearances."
"Dick head," retorted Mike. He held me with a steady gaze, "I got it because I thought I might get to go riding with you some more."
I just looked at him with a smile growing on my face. Life didn’t get much better than this.
"Man, do I have some roads to show you. Let me get your helmet, or did you buy that, too ?" I asked, grinning.
"No, I thought I’d better not jinx things by jumping the gun by too much."
"I guess a lawyer has to be prudent about things like that," I nodded with gravity and got my butt slapped as I walked past him.
And so the remainder of the weekend turned into a kaleidoscope of food and wine and talk and passion and planning and riding and sometimes periods of just being together and holding tight.
Over dinner that Friday night Mike told me that, apparently, the crime had followed pretty closely the path that I had proposed. Coalter, fearing that his political image could not withstand the fact that he had a business association with someone living an openly gay lifestyle — with a lover, to boot — had gone to see Hayden to plead with him to reconsider, or at least retreat into the closet for a while. Hayden had treated the whole matter with an indifference close to ridicule and, in sheer exasperation, Coalter had gone over the edge, picked up the nearest cudgel and bashed him on the head. Almost instantly the implications of what he’d done settled in and he set to to concoct a trail of red herrings. He trashed the house fairly randomly and had then set out to create for himself an alibi with the photo. There was, in fact, no film in the camera that day and the kids, totally unfamiliar with Polaroids, had not noticed that a picture didn’t appear from the front of the camera within a second or so.
The resignation of Mr. Henry Coalter from the Georgia House of Representatives a few weeks later, and his subsequent court appearances and sentencing made the newspapers across the country for a day or two before being pushed aside by other news. The right-wing TV news and, of course, the radio talk-shows that pander to the worst in human nature, were gentler with him, mentioning his confession only once and even then omitting all the details of the trial that had preceded it so that the unthinking listener might believe he had acted ‘out of conscience’ — the cruelest and most illogical of euphemisms. His crime they whitewashed as a ‘natural’ abhorrence to homosexuality. What escaped all of them, no, it couldn’t have escaped even those whose IQ was in the single digits so it must have been a malicious ommitance, was the true depravity of the man — his sitting back in silence and watching another person be tried for a crime he hadn’t committed. I guess it’s another of those ‘family value’ things I can never really understand.
I got to meet Rolf Lee for the first time a week or so after Mike brought him from the jail. He was a really fun guy once you broke through the intellectual shell. Quite unembittered by his stay at tax payers’ expense he regaled us with tales of the guards and the prosecutor’s staff that had us laughing for over an hour. I was quite touched by his child-like faith in the American judicial system, but towards the end of the evening he went out to his car and brought back a fine leather-bound set of Churchill’s The History of the English-Speaking Peoples as a gift for me and I concluded that his sojourn behind bars had not been as entirely free from anxiety as he would have us believe.
And yes, Mike made good on our wager: I wouldn’t let him off the hook on that one. But to tell you more about that weekend would put this into an entirely different category of story.
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© Copyright 2004 Horatio Nimier