“I’m going out to get some air, Mom,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”
“Was there anything in the bedroom?” she asks.
“Not really,” Cash says. “This is like the house of a stranger.”
“Well,” she says.
He finds Paulette out on the front deck, reciting a shopping list to someone over the phone. When she sees him, she hangs up and lights a cigarette. He’s encouraged by this gesture. He needs to talk to the real Paulette Vickers.
“So, what do you think of the house?” she asks.
“I have some questions.” His voice is low. He leans his forearms on the railing and she follows suit. Together, they gaze out at the vista—the glittering aquamarine water, the lush green islands, the sleek boats that must belong to the luckiest people in the world. Maybe Paulette takes this landscape for granted, but for Cash it’s like discovering another planet. “I’d like to talk frankly, without my mother present.”
“I’ll answer what questions I can,” Paulette says.
“This is my father’s house?”
“Where are all of his things? His clothes, for example? His shoes, his bathing suits, his deodorant? It’s as anonymous as a Holiday Inn.”
“Nicer than a Holiday Inn,” Paulette says.
“Please don’t dodge the question,” Cash says. “If he was staying here before he left on that helicopter, where are his things? Did someone go through the house?”
“I did,” Paulette says. “I had strict orders from Mr. Croft’s secretary to rid the house of all personal effects.” She pauses. “So as not to upset you. Or your mother.”
“So where are they?” Cash asks.
“Packed up,” Paulette says. “Mr. Croft sent someone to collect them this morning.”
“Did he,” Cash says. “Does Mr. Croft have a house on St. John as well?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Paulette says.
“What does that mean, not to your knowledge?” Cash says. “You’re a local with a child in the schools. You work for a real estate agency. It seems like you would know whether or not Mr. Croft has a house here.”
“Down here…,” Paulette says, “a lot of the high-end properties are owned by trusts. People come to the islands to escape, Mr. Steele.”
To hide, Cash thinks.
“Can you tell me where Mr. Croft does live?” Cash says. “Where is his business located?”
“Again, I’m not certain…”
“Paulette,” Cash says. He feels himself about to lash out at her. She seems nice—lovely, even—and he can’t understand why she’s giving him the run-around. “I’m sure you can see that we’re grieving. My brother and I lost our father, my mother her husband. If he’d died of a heart attack at home, this would have been tragic enough. But he died here, in a place we didn’t know he’d even visited, much less owned property in. The details we’ve received are sparse. Part of the way the three of us are going to process our loss is to find out exactly what happened. We need to talk to Todd Croft.”
“That would be a start, I suppose,” Paulette says.
“Do you have a phone number for him?”
Paulette laughs drily. “For Mr. Croft? No, I’m afraid not. I’ve never met the man. I’ve never even spoken to him on the phone.”
“You’re kidding,” Cash says.
“I deal with his secretary,” Paulette says. “Marilyn. She called your mother, so your mother has her number.”
“But it’s Mr. Croft who pays you,” Cash says. “Right?” He nearly says, It’s Mr. Croft who pulls the puppet strings. He pulled Russ’s, or at least that was how it had seemed.
“I was paid by Mr. Steele directly,” Paulette says. “In cash. And occasionally by Mr. Thompson.”
“Mr. Thompson?” Cash says. “Who is Mr. Thompson?”
“Stephen Thompson,” Paulette says. “He was their associate.”
“Their associate,” Cash says. He feels like he’s on a detective show, only he’s the new guy, first day on the job, trying to figure things out. “Do you have a number for Mr. Thompson, then?”
“I do,” Paulette says. She stares at the glowing tip of her cigarette.
“Mr. Thompson is dead,” Paulette says. “He was the pilot.”
“He was the pilot,” Cash says. “And the third person who died, the local woman, she and my father… were involved?”
“I’m not comfortable discussing that,” Paulette says.
“I have a photograph of them together,” Cash says. “It was in the drawer of the nightstand.”
Paulette exhales a stream of smoke and casts her eyes down.
“What’s her name?”
“Again, Mr. Steele, I’m not…”
“Paulette,” Cash says. “Please. Please.” His voice breaks, and he fears he’s going to cry. He wants to go back to New Year’s Eve, or even to New Year’s Day, to the mortifying and yet inevitable conversation with Glenn the accountant. He wants his father to be alive. Cash will confess his failure with the stores and he won’t go to Breckenridge to waste away the rest of his young adulthood. He’ll enroll at the University of Colorado, Denver. He’ll get a degree. He’ll make something of himself. But he wants his father back. His desperation creates a sour taste in his mouth and he inhales a breath—the honey scent of frangipani combined with Paulette’s secondhand smoke.
Paulette looks at Cash. She must sense his pain, because her brown eyes well with tears. “Rosie,” she says. “Rosie Small. She was the daughter of LeeAnn Powers, who was married to Captain Huck. LeeAnn died five years ago.” Paulette taps her ashes into the bougainvillea below. “There’s going to be a memorial service tomorrow at the Episcopalian church, with a reception following at Chester’s Getaway. If you go to either the service or the reception, you’ll find people who can tell you more. But I’d advise you to be discreet. And to go with an open mind and an open heart. Lots and lots of people on this island loved Rosie Small. And almost no one on this island knew your father. Like I said, he preferred to remain invisible.”
Cash turns around to face the house. “And we can stay here a few days?”
“As long as you want,” Paulette says. “It’s yours now.”
“Okay, thank you, Paulette,” Cash says. “Really, thank you.”
“God bless you boys,” Paulette says. “And God bless your mother.”
Joanie’s parents, Jeff and Julie—they are a self-proclaimed “J” family—pull into the driveway at six o’clock on the dot. Huck somehow managed to get everyone out of the house except for Ayers. She is sitting at the counter, wringing her hands and staring at a bottle of eighteen-year-old Flor de Caña rum like she’s drowning and it’s a life raft. Huck nearly suggests they both do a shot to fortify their nerves, but then he thinks better of it.
As his grandfather used to say: hard things are hard. Huck has done plenty of hard things in his life. He was drafted into the Vietnam War right out of high school. He had been born and raised on Islamorada in the Florida Keys, so he thought the U.S. Navy would be a natural fit, and he was happy because in the navy, you didn’t get shot at. But choice was for those who enlisted, not for those who got drafted, and the powers that be placed Huck in the Marine Corps. His first year in Vietnam was spent facedown in the mud, in the jungle, in the rice paddies, fearing for his life every second of every day, developing an addiction to nicotine that he still can’t shake.
Later, years after he got home, he had to put his then-wife, Kimberly, into rehab for drinking and serve her with divorce papers.
He buried his sister, Caroline, who died of brain cancer at forty-one, and his mother, who died of heartbreak over Caroline, and eventually his beloved father, the original captain, Captain Paul Powers, who had run a fishing charter out of Islamorada for fifty years and whose passengers had included Jack Nicklaus and Frank Sinatra. He had taught Huck everything he knew about fishing and about being a man.
It was after his father died that Huck moved to the Virgin Islands, where life was easy for a long time. He bought his boat, started his business, and met and married LeeAnn Small, an island treasure. Huck would name burying LeeAnn as the hardest thing he’d ever had to do, but only because he had loved the woman so damn much.
This would be harder.
Maia comes bounding into the house, her skin burnished from a full day outside, even though Jeff and Julie are fastidious about sunscreen and bug spray. The smile on her face is proof that he was right: she had a happy day. Maybe the last happy day for the rest of her childhood.
He doesn’t want to tell her.
Maia sees Ayers and goes right to her for a hug. Huck catches Ayers’s expression over Maia’s shoulder; her eyes are shining. He doesn’t have but a few seconds left before Ayers breaks down.
They should have done the rum shot. He’s shaking.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com