Read Pale Gray for Guilt Online

Authors: John D. MacDonald

Tags: #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Private Investigators, #Mystery & Detective, #Political, #Hard-Boiled, #General, #Suspense, #Detective and mystery stories, #Private investigators - Florida - Fort Lauderdale, #McGee; Travis (Fictitious character), #Fort Lauderdale (Fla.)

Pale Gray for Guilt

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John D. MacDonald
Pale Gray For Guilt
"Perhaps no one can be really a good appreciating pagan who has not once been a bad puritan."

–BOURNE

One
THE NEXT to the last time I saw Tush Bannon alive was the very same day I. had that new little boat running the way I wanted it to run, after about six weeks of futzing around with it.

So on the test run I demonstrated one of our contemporary maladies: You can't just go out and ride around in car, boat, or airplane-you have to have a destination.

Then you feel purposeful.

So in the early morn on a flat, calm, overcast day I stocked the ice chest on the little Muhequita from my ship's stores on the Busted Flush, locked up the Flush, dropped down into my new playtoy, and, as what faint breeze there was seemed to be coming out of the southwest, I stuck my nose out of the pass to see if I could run north outside. The long, slow gray-green lift and fall of the ground swell was all of a towering five inches high, so I took it a mile off the beaches and fooled with the rpm and the fuel flowmeter, until she was riding right and sounded right and just a hair under 3,000 on each of the 120-horse stern-drive units. I then turned the steering over to the little Calmec autopilot, took a bearing on the Lauderdale Municipal Casino and noted the time.

That, of course, is one of the fussy little enchantments of a new boat new being either brand-new or secondhand new. What you are hunting for is the optimum relationship between fuel consumption and distance. You tell yourself that maybe someday you are going to get caught very. short, and you are, going to have to squeak back into port with no more than half a cup of fuel left, with luck, and it would be very nice to know what rpm leaves you the least chance of running dry.

But like the exercise of caution in almost every human activity, the fusspots who make it their business to know are the ones least likely to ever have that ticklish problem. It's the ones who never check it out who keep the Coast Guard choppers busy.

The little boat was aimed back up the Florida east coast toward Broward Beach, where I had picked her up on an estate sale from a law firm. She'd belonged to a Texan named Kayd whose luck had run out somewhere in the Bahamas.

It's a funny thing about boat names. She had that Munequita across the stern in four-inch white letters against that nice shade of Gulf Stream blue when I brought her on back to Bahia Mar. Spanish for 'little doll.' One night Meyer and Irv Deibert and Johnny Dow and I sat around trying to dream up a name that would match the Busted Flush. Little Flush? Inside Straight? Hole Card? The Ante? And I forget. which one we decided was best because when I got around to changing it, I looked at the name it had and I decided that trying to match it to the name on the mother ship was a case of the quaints and the cutes, and I liked the name just fine. It was a little doll and had begun to acquire in my mind a personality that could very well resent being called anything else, and would sulk and wallow.

I switched the FM-UHF marine radio to the commercial frequencies and tried to find something that didn't sound like somebody trying to break up a dogfight in a sorority house by banging drums and cymbals. Not that I want to say it isn't music. Of course it is music, styled to accompany teenage fertility rites, and thus is as far out of my range as °Rockabye Baby." FM radio was a great product when it was servicing a fringe area of the great American market. But it has turned into a commercial success, so they have denigrated the sound, and they have mickeymoused the stereo, and you have to really search that dial to find something that isn't either folk hoke, rickyacky rock, or the saccharine they pump into elevators, bus stations and Howard Johnsons.

As I was about to give up I found some pleasant eccentric, or somebody who'd grabbed the wrong record, playing Brubeck doing Cole Porter, and I caught it just as he opened up "Love for Sale" in a fine and gentle manner, and then handed it delicately over to Desmond, who set up a witty dialogue with Joe Morello.

After telling myself that ten of eight in the morning is beer time only for the lowest types, I cracked a bottle of Carta Blanca and stood in the forward well, leaning through the center opening where I'd laid the hinged windshield over to port, out of the way, forearms on the smoke-blue foredeck shell.

Well, I was on my way to see old Tush after too long, and I had wind in my face like a happy dog leaning out a car window. The wake was straight. The engines ran sweetly in sync. I could feel the slow rise and fall in the imperceptible ground swell. The overcast was starting to burn off, the sea starting to glint. I could see pigmy figures over on the beach by Sea Ranch. Even with the investment in the playtoy, I still had a comforting wad of currency back in the cache aboard the Busted Flush at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar.

It had been a fine long hot lazy summer, a drifting time of good fish, old friends, new girls, of talk and laughter.

Cold beer, good music and a place to go.

That's the way They do you. That's the way They set you up for it. There ought to be a warning bell on the happymeter, so that every time it creeps high enough, you get that dang-dang alert. Duck, boy. That glow makes you too visible. One of Them is out there in the boonies, adjusting the windage, getting you lined up in the cross hairs of the scope. When it happens so often, wouldn't you think I'd be more ready for it?

I took my right-angle sight on a water tower just beyond Ocean Ridge, one that measures almost exactly thirty miles north of the Municipal Casino, and my elapsed time was sixty-two minutes. I wrote that down, along with fuel consumption, so I could do the math later, breaking it down in the way that to me is easiest to remember, statute miles per gallon at x rpm.

The wind was freshening and quartering into the south, and though I was still comfortable, I decided it wasn't going to last very -long, so I went through Boynton Inlet into Lake Worth. The OMC's were still green enough so that too much constant speed wasn't the best thing in the world, so as soon as I had a nice open straightaway up the Waterway without traffic, I pushed it up to 4,200 rpm, estimating it at about 45 miles an hour. I estimated I had fifty if I ever needed it, and hoped I'd never get in a bind where I needed it. I held her there for five or six minutes, then dropped it way back, getting it to that minimum rpm that, depending on gross weight at the time, would just hold it on the plane. It wasn't a rig I was about to take out and see if I could get to Nassau ahead of Wynne and Bertram and those people, taking those thirty-foot leaps and turning your spine into a concertina every time you smash back into the sea, pulping your kidneys and chomping your jaw into the foam rubber tooth guard. The little Munequita would have had to be turned into a racing machine, with a hundred more horses in each mill, special wheels, a lot more bracing and reinforcement to keep the engines in her, and then she would not be much good for anything else.

Besides, I had been talked into trying it once. I think you could maybe argue the point that it is a little more fun than a hungover, carbuncled cowboy might have while trying to stay aboard a longhorn-in a dusty rodeo, but it would be a close decision.

When I reached the bay north of Broward Beach, I had to look at the chart to see at which marker I should leave the Waterway to hit the mouth of the Shawana River. So it was ten thirty of that Tuesday morning, or a little later, when I eased up to one of the finger piers at Bannon's Boatel, put a line on a piling and cut the engines off.

I stepped high onto the pier decking and looked around. He had a dozen outboards tied up, and maybe half as many inboard-outboard rigs, two smallish cruisers, and, neatly aligned in their slips, the dozen rental houseboats, outboard rigged, fiberglass, white with orange trim. I saw that he'd put up the in-and-out storage he had told me about the last time I'd seen him, over a year and a half ago. Fifteen racks wide and three high. The forklift could tuck forty-five boats in there on monthly storage, but only the bottom row was full, and the middle layer half full.

Up the river from his place and on the other side, where it had all been marshland the last time I was there, I could see, maybe a mile away and more, some squat, pale, technical-looking buildings and a glinting of cars in the industrial parking lot next to them.

There didn't seem to be anyone around the little marina building, or around the white cement-block motel with the red tile roof that sat parallel to the river and parallel to State Road 80D, and about a hundred feet from each of them. I remember Tush talking about how he was going to expand the motel from ten units to twenty.

"Now that there's the three kids, me and Janine are taking up two units, and having just eight rentals, I couldn't tell you the times we've had to turn folks away, Trav "

The slab had been poured for the extra ten units, and the block had been laid up to shoulder-high on about three of them, but some kind of a coarse green vine had taken hold and had crawled along fifteen feet of the wall, spilling tendrils down.

Some of the dock pilings sagged. The pennons on the marina building were bleached gray, windripped and tattered.

"Hey!" yelled Tush. "Hey, now! Hey, McGee!" He had come around the corner of the motel and came toward me in a kind of Percheron canter. A big man. Almost as high as I am, and half again as big around.

Long ago and far away we'd been on the same ball team. Brantley Breckenridge Bannon, second string offensive fullback. First string if he could have gotten into his stride quicker, because he was hard to stop when he was in gear. The nickname had started as BeeBee and had been shortened to Beeb, and it was that season it suddenly turned into Tush. He was a man totally incapable of profanity. The most we ever heard from him, even in the most hideous, unlucky and painful circumstances, was a mumbled "Durn!"

Then in one game we tried running a play that was designed to make up for his slow start. They set him out to the right, and on the snap he had to run to his left, go behind the quarterback who had taken some quick steps back and who had faked a handoff to a wingback slanting right, and who would then spin and stuff the ball into Bannon's belly on a half cut and an off-tackle slant left.

The first time we ran it, and I was offensive left end at the time, a linebacker thought he smelled a pass, blitzed through, saw what was happening, and rolled his shoulders right into Bannon's ankles. The second time we ran it, he had a good head of steam but there was absolutely no hole at all, and as he tried to spin along the line and find one they tore him down. The third time we tried it, we were fourth and two at their eleven, so late in the game that we had to go for six points, being four points behind. He got a fine start. We got a good jump and cleared him a big hole. But as he went through the hole he was juggling that ball, hand to chin to chest to forearm to hand, too busy to keep from getting hit, and was hit from the side and the ball floated into the hands of their squatty defensive center, who after a considerable pause to realize he actually had a football right there in his hands, took off in a lumpy little grinning gallop out to their forty before he got pulled down from behind. Bannon, on his knees, ripped off his helmet, whammed it against the sod, stared skyward and yelled, "Oh… TUSH!"

When things went badly for him on one play in the next game, about four of us yelled, "Tush!" And Tush it became, then and forever.

After he was converted to a tackle, he stayed with an AFL team four years, during two of which, being married to Janine, he saved his money. A pinched nerve in his neck turned him into an insurance salesman and he did well but got sick of it, and then he sold houseboats, and then he bought the ten acres on the Shawana River on which to act out and work out the American Dream.

So after the obligatory thumping upon each other, our words of greeting were drowned out by an oncoming roar, deep and grinding, and three big orange Euclids went by on their six-foot tires of solid rubber, loaded high with yards of wet marl, kicking up a powdery dust that drifted north, across the palmetto and scrub pine flats on the other side of the state road. I saw then that the blacktop was gone, and the right of way widened.

"We're being improved around here," he said in sour explanation. "Everything is going to be firstclass. By and by." He stared west, after the fading roar of the big earth movers. "Worries me the way they bucket through here. Janine should be on her way back from town by now, and there's some bad places where she could meet up with them. She does more than her share of driving now that the school bus can't come down here."

"Why can't it?"

"They can't use roads that are officially closed, that's why" He looked toward his waterfront. "What'd you come in. You can't get the Flush upriver in this tide."

"Wasn't there a good deep channel?"

"Until they did a lot of dredge and fill upriver. Now the first half mile from the bay up toward me is pretty bad. They say they're going to scour it out, but they won't say when."

We walked out and I showed him the Munequita.

He knew that good honest T -Craft hull, the semi-V that ftodney Thompson makes in Titusville. When people from the Kansas flats get the marine fever, it is a dreadful addiction, and Tush had a bad case. He looked over the custom installation of the two dualcarb OMC's and listened to my explanation of why I'd pulled the Chrysler-Volvos the original owner installed. He was intrigued by the special engineering of the Teleflex panel and control system.

I heard myself talking too much. Things were going well for me. And the world was a little sour for my friend Tush Bannon. In repose his broad, heavy, freckly face sagged. So when it happens like that, you talk too much. The small breeze stopped, and the October forenoon heat leaned hard, in that 90°-95°Io humidity that makes the sweat pop out.

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