Authors: John D. MacDonald
Tags: #McGee; Travis (Fictitious character), #Private Investigators, #Detective and mystery stories, #Mystery & Detective, #Florida, #Political, #Hard-Boiled, #General, #Suspense, #Fort Lauderdale (Fla.), #Fiction
AROUND AND around we went, like circling through wads of lint in a dirty pocket. We'd been in that high blue up yonder where it was a bright cold clear December afternoon, and then we had to go down into that guck, as it was the intention of the airline and the airplane driver to put the 727 down at O'Hare.
Passengers reached up and put their lights on. The sky had lumps and holes in it. It becomes tight-sphincter time in the sky when they don't insert the ship into the pattern and get it down, but go around again. Stewardesses walk tippy-dainty, their color not good in the inside lights, their smiles sutured so firmly in place it pulls their pretty faces more distinctly against the skull-shape of pretty bones. Even with the buffeting, there is an impression of silence inside the aircraft at such times. People stare outward, but they are looking inward, tasting of themselves and thinking of promises and defeats. The busy air is full of premonitions, and one thinks with a certain comfort of old Satchel's plug in favor of air travel: "They may kill you, but they ain't likely to hurt you."
It is when you say, "What am I doing here?"
I was here because of the way Glory Doyle's voice had sounded across the long miles from a Chicago December down to a balmy morning aboard the Busted Flush at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale.
"Oh Trav," she said, a wan voice, deadened and miserable, "I guess there's only one word. I guess the word is help. It's a lousy leverage, huh?"
"But I'd use it on you if I had to, Lady Gloria."
"You'll come up here? You really will?"
It was a valid assumption she was a few thousand feet below me, below layers of snow flurries and pockets of sleet. And then we dipped a sickening wing, leaving my stomach back up there at ten o'clock high, stood precariously still on big flaps, then steadied down into the runway lights streaming by bumped and squeaked, brake-blasted, and everybody began smiling at everybody for no special reason, and began gathering gear, as the hope-you-enjoyed-your-flight-aboard-the speech came on, articulated by one of our stewardesses over a PA system which seemed to be constructed of an empty tomato can and a piece of waxed string. The speaker systems, and the interior beanwagon plastic decor seem planned to give the air passenger the minimal confidence in the unseen parts of the mechanism. As if the brass did not expect the fad to last.
The sludge upstairs was rain by the time it settled onto Chicago. When I was ten feet into the scurrying cross-traffic of the terminal building, amid fluorescence and PA instructions, Glory Doyle-correction-Glory Doyle Geis, or alternately Mrs. Doctor Fortner Geis, or acceptably, widow of Dr. Fortner Geis, came flying at me, to hug and hiccup and make glad sounds, lift a mouth up as high as she could get it, which is perhaps a little over five feet off the ground when she is in four-inch heels.
It had been four years for us. She was thinner than she should have been. Deep vertical creases
between black brows, lines bracketing the mouth, smile lines deep at the corners of the eyes. But even so, looking younger than the thirty-four I knew she had to be. After the kiss, I held her off a half-step, hands on her shoulders, to look at her. She tilted her head, made an upside-down smile, and her brown eyes filled quickly with tears.
"McGee, McGee, McGee," she said. "God, it's so good!"
Hers is a moppet face, mostly eyes and a mouth made for laughing, helter-skelter crop of black hair, tidy little figure, and remorseless energies.
She looked at her watch. "Let's talk over a drink before we have to plunge into the damned traffic." She guided us into a three-deep bar, and moved around to the far side, around a corner, and while I was putting our order in, she managed to ease onto the last stool as it became vacant, hitched it close to the wall to give me a leaning space, my back to the neighboring stool.
"Your luggage?" she asked.
"Just what I carried off. Just this."
"Always simplify. Peel it all down. One of the rules of McGeeism."
I could see what four years of marriage to Geis had done for her. She had far more assurance.
She wore a dark green knit suit under a tweedy rain cape, and a frivolous little Sherlock Holmes hat that went with the cape. The diamonds in the wedding ring winked in the backbar glow as she lifted the Irish and soda to touch the rim of my gin over ice, and said, "To crime, Travis dear."
"And little women."
She drank and smiled and said, "But you had eyes for all the great huge broads, sweetie. What was that funny name everybody called that dancer? The one named McCall?"
"Chookie. She married one Arthur Wilkinson, who builds spec houses and makes her very happy indeed."
"Sends his love. He's as hairy and bemused as ever."
"And the Alabama Tiger?"
"The party still rolls on, never really quits."
"It's a lot cozier aboard the Flush, Trav. Golly, I miss that whole bit, you know? If Fort hadn't come along just when he did, I could have turned into a beach girl forever, and ended up as one of those nutty old biddies who go pouncing around after seashells. It was just right, you know.
My whole damned life fell all to bits and pieces, and you helped me put the pieces back together, and then I had to have somebody who needed me instead of the other way around, and Fort came by But... it was too short. Four years. Not enough, Trav. Very good years, but not enough by half."
"I would have come up, but I was over in the Islands, and when I got back your letter was two weeks old at least."
"He was buried on October tenth. My God, a beautiful day, Trav. One of the greatest you could ever see. A real sparkler. We knew. Right from the first night I dated him, he leveled with me. I went into it knowing. But you kid yourself... when you're that happy." She lifted her shoulders slowly, let them fall, then grinned at me and said, "You are certainly a pretty spectacular sight, man, around this pasty old town. I never saw you out of context before. You're a little startling. I was aware of people looking at you, saying with that size and that much tan, he's a TV actor hooked on sun lamps, or from an NFL team in Texas or California, or some kind of rich millionaire playboy up from Acapulco, or you have this big schooner, see, and you go all over the Pacific. Hell with them. Let them wonder. Now let's go home."
The rain had stopped but it seemed darker. The highways were wet. She had a very deft little hunk of vehicle, a Mercedes 230 SL, in semi-iridescent green-bronze, automatic shift. I am no sports-car buff. But I enjoy any piece of equipment made to highest standards for performance, without that kind of adornment Meyer calls Detroit Baroque.
She said, "I better drive it because I'm used to the special ways they try to kill you here, and the places where you've got to start cutting out of the flow or get carried along to God knows where."
"Fine little item."
"Fort's final birthday present, last May. It's a dear thing. If I do anything that bothers you, McGee, just close your eyes."
Glory and the car were beautifully matched. They were both small, whippy, and well-made, and seemed to understand each other. There was that good feel of road-hunger, of the car that wants to reach and gobble more than you let it. We sped north on the Tri-State, and she had that special sense of rhythm of the expert. It is a matter of having the kind of eye which sees everything happening ahead, linked to a computer which estimates what the varying rates of speed will do to the changing pattern by the time you get there. The expert never gives you any feeling of tension or strain in heavy traffic, nor startles other drivers. It is a floating, drifting feeling, where by the use of the smallest increments and reductions in pedal pressure, and by the most gradual possible changes in direction, the car fits into gaps, flows through them, slides into the lane which will move most swiftly. She sat as tall as she could, chin high, hands at ten after ten, and made no attempt at chatter until the stampede had thinned.
"We jump off this thing at Rockland Road," she said, "and take a mess of shortcuts you couldn't possibly find again, and end up at Lake Pointe, with the terminal E, twenty-five bitch miles from O'Hare, where awaits a shaggy house, shaggy beach, shaggy drink in front of one of the better fireplaces in the Western world."
"Will I be staying near there?"
"In there, stupid. Not in the fireplace. There's a ton of room, and help to run it. And a lot of talking to talk, dear Travis."
On some of the curves of her shortcuts she showed off a little, but not enough to break the rear end loose. She knew the route through the curves and laid the little car on the rails through each
one, steady as statues.
She laughed, and it was a fond laugh. "That man of mine. That Fort. Do you know what came with this thing? Lessons from a great old character named Kip Cooper who raced everything on wheels on every course there is. When old Kip finally approved, then and only then was this my car. Have you still got that absolutely ridiculous and marvelous old Rolls-Royce pickup truck?"
"Please, you are speaking of Miss Agnes. Yes, but lately I'm feeling wistful about her. She's becoming obsolete. You have to be up to speed when you bust out into the turnpike traffic, or you're a menace, and the old lady just hasn't got enough sprint. She accelerates like the average cruise ship. I'm going to have to save her for back roads, lazy days, picnic times."
We slowed and went between fat stone columns. Private. Slow. Lake Pointe. Residents and guests only. In the gray light through the branches of the bare black trees I saw fragments of houses, a wall, a dormer, a roof angle. When the leaves were out it would be impossible to see them from the smooth curves of wide private asphalt road.
Glory drove to the far end of the area, by a sign that said Dead End, and into a driveway. She parked by garages. The house faced the dunes and the lake. It was a long house, of gray stone, pale blue board and batten, dark blue tile roof. We went in through a side door into a foyer, and a big broad smiling woman in an apron came to meet us.
"Anna, this is my old friend Mr. Travis McGee. Anna Ottlo."
"I am please to meet," Anna said, bobbing her head.
"Trav, you're in the east wing. Anna will show you the way. This is going to be just the two of us, informal. I'm going to change to a corduroy jumpsuit, if that clues you."
"Miss Glory, the Mr. Andrus was phoning again. Best thing, I told him, you phone him in the morning, yes?"
"Perfect, Anna. Thanks."
I started to contest Anna to see who would carry my flight bag, but she looked so distressed I had to let her have it. I was put in a fine room, more apartment than room. There was a hidden unit of stove, sink, and refrigerator for breakfast. She showed me the button that rolled the panel back to expose the built-in television set. She showed me where the light switches were, and where I could find more clean towels.
After she left me, I unpacked, changed from the suit to the pair of slacks and gray flannel shirt I had stuffed into the bag as an afterthought. An ancient and treasured shirt, that good Limey wool that turns softer as it grows older. French doors opened onto a planked deck facing the expanse of dunes and wind-twisted dwarfed trees between the house and the lake shore. The temperature was dropping, the wind increasing out of the north, and in the last grayness of the day I saw a full line of red in the west, like distant cities burning. The cloud cover was breaking up and I saw the first star. Wish I may, wish I might... I found myself wishing that Glory Doyle Geis would find some good and rewarding thing to do with her life from now on in, find someone who would sense how much she had to give, and how badly she needed someone to need her-as Fort Geis had.
The wind began to search out my tropic bone marrow, and I could smell a sourness in the wind.
I remembered that it blew across a dying lake. For a hundred years the cities had dumped their wastes and corruptions and acids into it, and now suddenly everyone was aghast that it should have the impertinence to start dying like Lake Erie. The ecology was broken, the renewing forces at last overwhelmed. Now the politicians were making the brave sounds the worried people wanted to hear.
Now they were taking half-measures. Scientists said that only with total effort might the process be slowed, halted, reversed. But total effort, of course, would raise havoc with the supposedly God-given right of the thousand lake-shore corporations to keep costs down by running their poisons into the lake. Total effort would boost the tax structure to pay for effective sewage disposal systems.
So in the night wind, the lake stank, and I went back in out of the wind, and thought of the endless garbage barges that are trundled out of Miami into the blue bright Atlantic. People had thought the lake would last forever. When the sea begins to stink, man better have some fresh green planets to colonize, because this one is going to be used up.