“You go,” Mick says. “I’ll wait here until you want to leave. Or, if you decide to stay for a while, text me and I’ll come back for you later.”
Ayers nods and rubs Gordon’s bucket head. She has missed him, and when human words and emotions fail, animals still provide comfort.
She climbs out of the Jeep. It’s broiling in the sun, and Ayers’s stomach roils with last night’s tequila and that stupid cigarette. Her best friend is dead. Ayers stops. She’s going to vomit or faint. Her vision splotches. One of the West Indian women—Dearie, she has a beauty shop up behind the Lumberyard building—takes Ayers’s hand and all but pulls her up the hill.
She sees Huck hurrying off his porch, where a group of men—some white, some West Indian, some in uniform, some not—are gathered. A West Indian woman named Helen—she was LeeAnn’s best friend—emerges from the house with a pot of coffee and starts filling cups.
“Oh, Huck,” Ayers whispers. She stands with her arms hanging uselessly at her sides, tears streaming down her face as he gathers her up in a hug. He’s a big bear of a man with a bushy reddish-gray beard and the ropy, muscled forearms of a fisherman. He’s missing half his left pinky thanks to a feisty barracuda. He’s an island character, nearly an icon. Everyone knows Huck, but few love him like Ayers does, and like Rosie did. He was more a father to Rosie than Rosie’s own father, and the same can probably be said for Ayers.
“Is it true?” she asks.
He lets her go. “It’s true,” he says. His eyes shine. “Helicopter went down. They were headed over to Anegada for the day, I guess.”
Ayers has questions. “They” means Rosie and the Invisible Man, but why did they take a helicopter and not a boat, like normal people? Too slow, she figures. Helicopter is faster and makes more of a statement. What happened? Who was this pilot, Stephen Thompson, and did he not check the weather report? Aren’t there rules, the FAA and whatever?
But those questions don’t matter.
“Maia?” Ayers asks.
“She’s at Joanie’s,” Huck says. “I talked to Joanie’s parents. They had planned to take the girls to Salt Pond and then to hike Ram’s Head in the late afternoon once it cooled down, then have dinner at Café Concordia. I told them to go ahead with their plans. Maia may end up hating me for it, but I want her to have today. I’ll tell her when she gets home. I was hoping you would be here when I tell her. She likes you. What does she always say? You’re like her mom, but…”
“But better,” Ayers says. “Because I’m not her mom.”
“She’s going to need you now,” Huck says. “She’s going to need you a whole lot.”
“Okay,” Ayers says, but she can barely get the word out because she’s crying too hard. It’s fine, she thinks. She’ll cry now, she can fall to absolute pieces now, but there’s a twelve-year-old girl depending on her to be strong, and, dammit, Ayers isn’t going to let her down.
Cash treats his mother like she’s made of bone china. She’s not, he knows—she has kept a stiff upper lip thus far, and she looks pulled together. Her chestnut hair is in its usual fat braid with a swoop of bangs that dips toward her right eye. For Cash’s entire life, his mother’s hair has looked exactly the same. They used to tease her about it, but now Cash finds it soothing. If Irene braided her hair, some essential part of her is intact. He can’t imagine what must be going through her mind. It’s bad enough that Russ is dead, but to die in such a dramatic, suspicious way, in a place none of them even knew he was, and then to find out that he has “concerns” and owns property here? It’s also an unusual burden to be on such a somber mission in such an achingly beautiful place. It’s bright, sunny, and hot. The air is crystalline, and the water is turquoise, more beautiful than any water Cash has ever seen. The islands are green and mountainous—volcanic, he learned, when he did a little research. There are enormous yachts anchored in the harbor with people out drinking, barbecuing, playing reggae music. The ferry is abuzz with excited tourists talking about fish tacos at Longboard and snorkeling at Maho Bay. Cash picks three seats on the far right side of the boat. He and Baker have barely spoken a word to each other since meeting up in Atlanta; Russ’s death hasn’t changed the fact that Baker is one of Cash’s least favorite people on planet Earth.
They take the seats on either side of their mother, buffering her. Winnie hangs her head over the lower railing, panting at the ocean. She’s a mountain dog; this is all brand-new to her.
It takes only twenty minutes to reach St. John. Cash has read that it’s a smaller, more rustic cousin of St. Thomas. There are no traffic lights, no chain stores, and only one small casino, The Parrot Club. Seventy percent or more of the land on St. John is owned by the National Park Service. It’s for hikers and snorkelers, birders and fishermen, people who love the outdoors. Cash likes the sound of it.
Or he would, under other circumstances.
Cash had spoken with Paulette Vickers on the phone. She told him she was the property manager of Mr. Steele’s villa. The phrase “property manager” triggered a memory of something Irene had told him.
“Are you the one who identified my father’s body?” Cash asked.
“That was my husband, Douglas,” Paulette said.
“And your husband knew my father? Knew what he looked like? And my father was dead? And the man who was dead was actually my father, Russell Steele?” Cash had paused. “I know these questions sound strange. It’s just that I’m in a state of suspended disbelief.”
Yes, yes, she understood, she said. Though how could she, possibly? Paulette said that she took care of maintaining the villa in the summer months, when Mr. Steele was away, and that Douglas did all the handyman work. When Cash had asked how long his father had owned the villa, Paulette had been slow to answer. She said that she had “inherited” the villa from another property manager three years earlier. She wasn’t certain when Mr. Steele had bought the villa; she would have to check the files.
“All right, I’ll wait,” Cash had said, and Paulette had laughed.
“How are you related to Mr. Steele?” Paulette had asked. “Marilyn, from Mr. Croft’s office, said only that a family member would be calling.”
“I’m his son,” Cash had said. “His younger son. My brother will be coming as well, and my mother, Irene. Mr. Steele’s widow.”
This had elicited a long pause from Paulette. “I see,” she said.
“Is there a problem?” Cash asked. He meant aside from the obvious problem that his father was dead under mysterious circumstances.
“Not at all,” Paulette said. “I didn’t realize Mr. Steele had sons, but then again, he was a very private person. He liked to keep a low profile, to be ‘invisible,’ he used to say. The villa, as you’ll see, has everything: a pool and a hot tub, a shuffleboard court and a billiards table, multiple decks and outdoor living spaces, nine bedrooms, seven of them en suite, and, of course, a private beach. There was no reason for him to leave the property, and he rarely did.”
Cash’s head was spinning. Nine bedrooms? A shuffleboard court? A private beach? It just wasn’t possible. Cash thanked Paulette, given her the details of their travel, and hung up.
Cash and Baker help their mother off the ferry while Winnie goes nuts, pulling on the leash, intrigued by so many new smells. Cash sees a West Indian woman in a purple dress waving at him. Is that Paulette Vickers? How would she have recognized him? He wonders if Paulette had been friends with Russ, if maybe Russ had shown Paulette pictures of his family at home. But then Cash remembers that he told Paulette he was bringing his golden retriever.
He strides up to her and offers his hand. “Paulette, I’m Cash Steele. Can we get into your car and away from here with minimum fanfare?” It has only just occurred to Cash that there might be some attendant celebrity to being the family of the man who died in the helicopter crash on New Year’s Day.
“Yes, of course,” Paulette says. She waits, smile plastered to her face, while Irene and Baker approach, and then she offers Irene her hand. Irene stares.
“You knew my husband?” Irene asks. “You knew Russ?”
“Mom, let’s get to the car,” Cash says.
Baker smooths things over by taking Paulette’s outstretched hand and saying, “Very nice to meet you. Thank you for coming to get us. What a beautiful island.”
Cash gives Baker a hard stare. It is a beautiful island, but it hardly seems appropriate to say so.
Paulette, although she must realize that the three of them are numb with shock and grief, prattles on about the sights as though they are run-of-the-mill tourists. The town is called Cruz Bay, it’s where the “action” is, the shopping, the restaurants, the infamous Woody’s, with its infamous happy hour.
Happy hour? Cash almost interrupts Paulette to remind her who she has in her car, but his mother puts a hand on his arm to silence him.
Winnie’s head is out the window, and Cash decides to follow suit and turn his gaze outward, tuning out Paulette. Baker can handle her.