Gillian’s real last name was Tremaine but in college she’d changed it to St. Croix to piss off her parents. It was the same reason she was majoring in elementary education; her parents had wanted her to take a degree in finance and join them at the discount brokerage house in Clearwater. That’s what Gillian’s older sister had done, and her unhappiness was currently manifesting itself as sloppy promiscuity.
Although Gillian was theoretically committed to the idea of teaching school, it wasn’t a true calling; it was a job she thought she could stand until she experienced a cosmic awakening, or met the right poet-musician. She’d settled on the name of St. Croix after visiting the island with her then boyfriend, the self-perforated rock guitarist. The vacation itself was not especially magical but Gillian understood that she wasn’t easy to amuse. Boredom had always afflicted her like a wasting disease. Every skirt she picked out seemed drab the moment she got it home. Every CD she bought sounded old and trite the second time she listened to it. Every book she opened with high hopes turned into a slog through the mud by page one hundred. It was the same with relationships.
“I’m twenty years old and I’ve got nothing interesting in my life except you,” she informed Sammy Tigertail.
“That’s scary,” he said.
“Don’t worry. It won’t last.”
Wolves that they were, Len and Ginger Tremaine had followed southward the herd of retiring, fully pensioned midwesterners. Gillian was a teenager when the family moved from Ohio to Florida. On the first day of school her tenth-grade French teacher, Mr. Hodgman, told Gillian that she was too pretty for her own good, which inspired her to reach beneath her blouse and remove her bra in front of the class. She would become so well known for such high-spirited antics that her fellow students christened her “Psycho Babe,” not without affection. She graduated with good grades but also with enough disciplinary footnotes to kill her chances with Wharton and three other private colleges short-listed by her parents. They were aghast when she surprised them with an acceptance letter from Florida State, a notorious party school located in a notorious party town, Tallahassee, which also happened to be the state capital.
Soon after arriving in Florida, the Tremaines had read a scandalous story in the St. Petersburg Times about a powerful state legislator who’d put his favorite Hooters waitress on the state payroll. They feared that a similar tawdry fate awaited their youngest daughter, but they didn’t know Gillian very well. She wasn’t impressed by power, position or money; she was impressed by rebels.
“My cell phone finally died,” she told the Indian. “Ethan never called back.”
“Which is fine with me.”
“How long you gonna stay up in the tree?” Sammy Tigertail asked.
“You know why I started dating him? One night he and some other guys drove down to the Keys and freed some dolphins from a marine park. Ethan said they put on scuba tanks and used wire cutters to make a hole in the fence around the lagoon,” Gillian said. “It made the front page of the Miami paper. He showed me the clippings. He was like a total outlaw.”
The Seminole was frying some fish that he’d caught. He told Gillian he was going to eat it all himself if she didn’t climb down soon from the poinciana tree.
She said, “Later he told me what happened. The dolphins swam out through the hole in the fence and then the very next morning they all came back, just in time for breakfast. And they never left again! They just hung around the lagoon, doin’ all those corny Flipper tricks and beggin’ for fish. Meantime the owners patched the fence and, like, that was the end of the big jailbreak. Of course Ethan didn’t clue me in until after I’d slept with him.”
Sammy Tigertail peered up at her. “You on dope?”
Gillian closed her eyes. “I wish I could spend the night up here. It’s so damn perfect.”
Sammy Tigertail said, “Come on down. You gotta eat.”
Gillian rose, balancing in bare feet on the long branch. “I’m really not so messed up. I’m just waiting for something phenomenally stupendous to happen to me.”
“On this island?”
“I don’t see why not.” She hopped down and joined him by the campfire and even ate some snook, which was sweeter than any fish she’d ever tasted.
The Indian told her she was being too hard on Ethan. “At least the guy tried. It’s not his fault the dolphins didn’t want to be free.”
“But he should’ve told me that part in the beginning,” Gillian said, “so I wouldn’t go around for weeks feeling great about somethin’ that didn’t really turn out that way.”
“Maybe he wanted you to be happy.”
“Sure, so I’d ball him.” She paused to pick a fish bone out of her front teeth. “Tell me about Cindy.”
“Nothing to tell. She’s a disaster.”
“All because she’s white?”
Sammy Tigertail said, “It was my mistake. I wasn’t strong.”
“So, what exactly are you lookin’ for out here?”
“I already told you. Peace.” He carefully poured the warm grease from the fry pan into a rusty beer can. “Not world peace. Just peace for me-I need to shut out all the craziness.”
“Bullshit. You’re hiding.”
“That’s right,” said the Seminole.
“The man who died on your boat-was it your fault?” Gillian asked.
“I didn’t kill him. He knows it, too. Told me in a dream.”
Gillian said, “It’s weird, but I don’t hardly dream at all.”
“You will if you stay here too long.”
“Is that, like, an Indian thing?”
She dropped the sensitive subject of the dead guy. Sammy Tigertail went to pick some cactus berries, which they ate for dessert. He said, “For fifteen hundred years this place was home of the Calusas. Spirits never go away.”
The oyster people, Gillian thought. She had never believed in afterlives but she was open to persuasion.
She said, “Doesn’t it ever rain here in the winter? Because I’m dyin’ for a drink of water.”
“We’ll go get some tonight, if the clouds give us a moon.”
“But where?” Gillian asked.
Sammy Tigertail said he didn’t know. “But if we can’t find our own, then we’ll steal it.”
Gillian thought of the loaded rifle and got worried. He didn’t seem like the type who’d shoot somebody for water, but what did she know about such men? Sometimes the Indian acted hard-core, sometimes just the opposite.
“No big deal. I’m really not that thirsty,” she told him.
“Well, I am,” he said.
The first time I laid eyes on Van Bonneville, he was cutting down a grapefruit tree in front of the Elks Lodge on Freeman Street. He wore a faded indigo bandanna and a silver Saint Christopher medal that the police would find after the big hurricane, in his dead wife’s sunken car.
As Van worked, sweat trickled down the cords of his neck and glistened on his bare chest. His arms were like ship cables and his shoulders looked as broad as a meat freezer. But it was his dark, weathered hands that intrigued me-they were covered with long, pale, delicate-looking scars. Van must have noticed me staring, because he smiled.
I’d been out walking my neighbor’s toy poodle, Tito, who was fourteen years old and suffered from bladder problems. He was valiantly trying to relieve himself on the Elks’ shrubbery (Van later told me it was a ficus hedge), and there I was, dragging him like a wagon along the sidewalk. The poor dog was yapping and hopping and struggling to keep one leg in the air, but I didn’t even notice. I couldn’t take my eyes off that gorgeous stranger with the chain saw.
Suddenly the tree toppled, and Van backed away in the nick of time. A flying grapefruit struck him on the temple, yet he just shrugged and put down the saw.
The first thing he said to me was: “Canker.”
“Citrus canker,” he explained. “That’s why this old tree had to die.”
That night I touched those magnificent hands for the first time, and they touched me.
Boyd Shreave closed the book and turned to gaze with a rush of desire at the author, who’d fallen into a deep snooze beside him. He wanted to awaken Eugenie Fonda and make crazed, howling, back-bending love to her. He wanted to shake the double-wide off its blocks. That’s what Van Bonneville would have done, or so Shreave believed after reading (and re-reading) Eugenie’s breathless opening passage. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d picked up a book without pictures, but none of the handful he’d actually read had affected him as powerfully as this one. He was half-hoping that Genie would open her eyes and see the copy of Storm Ghoul on the bed. He didn’t care how she reacted, as long as she did. Ever since they’d arrived at the cheesy eco-lodge, she’d been an icicle.
And now she began to snore, a moist warbling enhanced by the stud in her tongue. As Boyd Shreave reached for her, he despondently took notice of his own unmagnificent hands, which featured no masculine wounds or even a dime-sized callus. They were hands that had spent a lifetime in the safe fuzzy harbor of pockets. Shreave had only one genuine scar-the faint purple dotting of his pubic area, caused by that long-ago crash against the potted cactus-but so far Eugenie’s interest had seemed more clinical than erotic.
As he endeavored to tug her into his arms, she scowled through her sleep and pushed him away. A muscular woman, Shreave thought longingly. Having invested so much hope in their illicit Everglades jaunt, he could hardly bear the idea that Eugenie might be tiring of him already. She was his future; his freedom. For Shreave, returning to Fort Worth-specifically, to his wife-seemed out of the question. Lily wasn’t an idiot. She’d soon figure out that he’d lost his job at Relentless and that there was no prestigious clinic for aphenphosmphobics in South Florida, leaving Boyd’s trip exposed as the sneaky tryst it was. Lily would pauperize him in the ensuing divorce, while his mother would stomp on the remaining crumbs of his self-esteem. More tragically, being both broke and unemployed would reduce to nil his chances of finding another lover as tall, beautiful and exciting as Eugenie Fonda.
After dropping Storm Ghoul into his Orvis bag, Shreave got up to marvel at the hokey decor of the bedroom. Honey, their goofball tour guide, had redone it like the interior of a safari tent-billows of muslin bedsheets tacked to the ceiling, and a Coleman lantern glowing on a faux-cane nightstand. Incredibly, there was no television or even a CD player.
The Dancing Flamingo Lodge, Shreave mused acidly. Try the Fleabag Flamingo. It was plain to him that the Royal Gulf Hammocks promotion was doomed; only a certified retard would buy real estate from such a lame and bumbling outfit.
He took his NASCAR toothbrush and travel tube of Colgate into the bathroom and went to work on his smile. When he came out, Eugenie was upright in bed, shedding her clothes.
“I had a god-awful nightmare,” she said. “I’m at the call center and I’ve got Bill frigging Gates on the line, all hot to buy a timeshare at Port Aransas. But then that damn Sacco crawls under my desk and starts licking my knees-Boyd, what does that big number three on your toothbrush mean?”
Shreave said, “You’re kidding me, right?”
Eugenie kicked off her panties. “Okay. Never mind.”
“Come on. Number three was Dale Earnhardt’s number!”
“And he is…?”
“Genie, that’s not even funny,” Shreave said.
“Whatever. I gotta take off my makeup.”
Hope renewed, Shreave slapped some cologne on his neck and dimmed the lantern. Kneeling on the floor, he hastily fished through the Orvis bag for his box of condoms. A black object under the bed caught his eye-it looked like a gun.
Shreave was waving it around when Eugenie Fonda walked out of the bathroom. She stopped in her tracks. He was ready.
“What’s that for?” she asked.
“Just in case. They’ve got panthers down here, you know.”
“How’d you get it on the plane?”
Shreave said, “I didn’t. I bought it when we stopped at that mall.”
When Eugenie asked to hold it, he said, “No. It’s loaded.”
Sounding, he was sure, as calm and knowledgeable about firearms as Van Bonneville would have been.
She smiled. “I didn’t know you were a gun guy, Boyd.”
“It pays to be prepared.”
“What is it-a.38?”
“Good guess,” he said, having not a clue.
Had Boyd Shreave been a gun guy, he would have known that what he’d found beneath Honey Santana’s bed was actually a Taser, a handheld shocking device used by police to subdue drunks and meth freaks. Instead of bullets it fired fifty thousand volts.
Shreave coolly stashed it in his bag, under a stack of Tommy Bahama shorts.
“And that little thing’ll work on a big hungry panther?” Eugenie asked.
She climbed into bed and tugged the covers up to her breasts. “You tired, Boyd?”
“Excellent. Get your ass over here.”
Dealey drove to a Winn-Dixie in Naples and bought two pounds of ground chuck, into which he inserted his last four Ambiens. The pit bulls were still loose when he returned to the trailer park, but they keeled soon after wolfing the bloody meat.
The investigator parked one street over from the mobile home in which Boyd Shreave and his girlfriend were staying. At half past midnight, he emerged from the Escalade and began walking. He carried a small video camera equipped with an infrared attachment. He had rented it from a competitor back in Fort Worth.
Approaching the trailer, Dealey saw a faint glow through the droopy curtains on one of the windows. Quickly he stepped off the road and into the shadows. Using a penlight, he found some loose cinder blocks near the wall. He stacked them beneath the window and climbed up to have a look.
Only vague shapes and forms were discernible; the curtains turned out to be an elaborate spread of bed linens that offered no opening through which Dealey could peer. He couldn’t hear a damn thing on the inside, either, thanks to the rumble of a corroded air conditioner that protruded crookedly from the wall.
“She’s mine,” whispered a raw voice, causing Dealey to lose his balance and pitch sideways into a mound of potting soil. Somehow he managed to keep the video camera aloft, sparing it from damage. At first he was too startled to speak.
“Don’t you move,” the man whispered. He appeared to be wearing a white glove, and he was most definitely pointing a sawed-off shotgun at Dealey’s heaving gut. Unshaven and wispy-haired, the man reeked of booze, sweat and fish.
After Dealey caught his breath, he said, “It’s not what you think, mister.”
“Well, she’s mine. Like I tole you.”
“Honey. So you just put your johnson back in your pants and forget about her. Honey Santana is all mine.”
Dealey sat up slowly. “I don’t know who you’re talkin’ about, friend, and that’s the truth.” He introduced himself, and began to explain what he was doing. “I was hired by a rich lady in Texas to follow her husband.”
The man sniffed. “Is he here to do Honey, too?”
“No, sir, he brought his own girlfriend.”
“Well, I don’t care to believe a goddamn word outta your mouth. I think you’re a sexually degenerated individual. What they call a stalker,” the man said, “but tough shit. I was here first.”
Dealey kept an eye on the barrel of the shotgun, which was bobbing in conjunction with the stranger’s agitations. It was now apparent that it wasn’t a glove he was wearing; his left hand was completely bandaged except for the fingertips, one of which was poised on the trigger of the sawed-off.
“Can I ask your name?” Dealey said.
“Louis Peter Piejack.”
“What happened to your hand?”
The man was having difficulty hearing him over the air conditioner, so Dealey repeated the question.
“Crabs,” the man named Louis replied.
Dealey realized that he must have looked disgusted because the man angrily blurted: “Not those kinda crabs, you asswipe. Real crabs, okay? Jumbo stoneys.”
“Oh.” Dealey thought: I should’ve gotten out of this damn town while I had the chance.
“It was all ’cause of my feelin’s for Honey,” the man went on. “Her ex hired some vicious Cuban bastards to scare me off, but I don’t give up easy. He’s gonna be sorry he fucked with me. Let’s see that lil’ camera.”
Dealey noticed that the bedroom window had gone dark. He lowered his voice. “The camera’s not mine, Louis.”
“You steal it or somethin’?”
“No, I borrowed it for this job.”
Piejack instructed the private investigator to stand up and start moving. Dealey didn’t argue. He was waiting for an opportunity to jump the drunken twit and grab the shotgun. When they got to Piejack’s pickup truck, Piejack took the video camera and ordered Dealey to get behind the wheel.
Half an hour later they were parked on a long dirt road in pitch-blackness. Dealey was demonstrating the night-vision lens, with the expectation of distracting Piejack from the shotgun that he now cradled loosely in his right arm.
Piejack blinked at the viewfinder and expressed awe. “It’s like what our boys got in Iraq”-he pronounced it eye-rack-“for shootin’ ragheads in the dark!”
Dealey said, “Cool, huh?”
Piejack chortled. “Lookie there at Momma Possum!”
Fifty yards ahead, an opossum shuffled across the road, followed by a dozen little ones, their eyes glowing like rubies in the infrared lighting.
Piejack rocked in the truck, giddy at the sight. Dealey made what he thought was a slick move for the shotgun, but Piejack swung it sideways and cracked him solidly above the right eye. With a moan, Dealey blacked out against the steering wheel.
What awoke him was warmness running down his cheeks, and the sharp gun barrel jammed against his ribs. With a shirtsleeve he dabbed the blood from his face.
“What zackly did that Texas lady hire you to take movies of?” Piejack asked.
“What do you think.”
“You serious? That’s some high-class job you got, mister.”
Dealey shrugged. He had a wretched headache and was in no mood for a morality lecture.
“And I thought sellin’ shrimp was a smelly business,” Piejack said.
“Can I go now?” Dealey asked. “Take the damn camera, if you want it.”
The man grinned. “Tell you what-I wouldn’t mind havin’ some private home movies of Miss Honey Santana.”
“It’s all yours, Louis.”
“But see, here’s the problem.” He raised his bandaged mitt. “I can’t work all them teensy video buttons with my hand wrapped up such as it is-the focus and zoom and whatnot. Shit, I can barely find the trigger on this damn thing.”
He turned the shotgun away from Dealey and casually blew out the window on the driver’s side. Dealey screamed and clamped his hands over his ears.
Piejack himself seemed stunned by the force of the blast. He cracked the passenger door to switch on the dome light, then sourly contemplated the broken glass.
Dealey, who like many private investigators had developed a skill for lipreading, saw Piejack say, “Shit, I thought the fuckin’ window was down.”
“Let me go!” Dealey pleaded. “Take the video camera, my credit cards, whatever the hell you want. Just let me walk.”
“Not till you get me some sexy movies of Honey. Then you’re free to go,” Dealey observed the man saying. “But till then, Mr. Dealey, you work for me.”
“Please don’t do this.”
“Welcome aboard,” said Louis Piejack.