Full Text: Add Flesh to the Fire

For your reading pleasure, the full text of this Hitt novel, previously discussed here.

Onward.


1

THE DAY after I returned from taking a party of eight up to Sanford on the Saint John’s River, I sat around on the dock drinking from a bottle of rum. Not that I like rum—I don’t. But it’s cheap and you can get stoned on it as quickly as you can get stoned on anything.

In the distance I could see Key West and smell the ocean and once in a while I looked at The Shark. The Shark is my cabin-cruiser—pure white, about fifty feet long, it sleeps eight comfortably and ten with a little crowding. It’s got plenty of guts; those two inboards will deliver about twenty-five hundred horsepower. For its size it’s one of the best boats along the Keys; anybody will tell you that. It’s trim from one end to the other, rides low in the water and I’ve kept it in good shape. In fact, when you get right down to it, it’s the one thing I ever kept in good shape. There was a time when my marriage to Rose had been like the cruiser, sleek and sharp, but that had ended when she ran off with my brother, Howard. All that was left from the marriage was the boat, and for two years that had been enough. I made a living hauling fishermen and doing as little as possible; when I wasn’t doing that, I was drinking as much as possible. It was a road that didn’t lead much of any place but at twenty-six I had plenty of time to get my feet on the ground.

A motorboat went by and I recognized the fellow as a guy who made his living catching crawfish, more commonly known in Florida as Florida lobsters. I could have done the same thing but maybe I was a little lazy and I didn’t see much purpose in so much work. I did all right with the fishermen and sightseeing parties and I didn’t need any more than that. As I said, rum is cheap and when you live alone you don’t eat yourself broke.

I drank some more rum and lay down on the dock, feeling the bare boards against my belly and the hot sun burning in at my naked back. I would go to sleep after a while and after I came to I would have some more rum and maybe a steak. I had picked up a nice chunk of change for my trip up the river and for the first time in more than two months I could afford a girl in town. You don’t read about the girls in Key West in the advertising literature from the chamber of commerce, but they are there and they charge you plenty. If you’re lucky and you hunt, you can go it all night for fifty bucks, plus the drinks and plus the room, which runs it up to about seventy-five. The last time out it had cost me a hundred and the girl hadn’t been worth it. She wouldn’t be worth five bucks on a deserted island.

I rolled over, this time the sun in my face, and stared up at the blue sky. It was a hell of a life, I decided; a stinking life. You married one girl, thought she was everything you had ever looked for, and she was nothing but a tramp. You had a brother, a guy you gave money to, and while you were busy making money in real estate, they were busy making something else. You walked in one day and caught them and they laughed at you. It was hell.

I sat up, knowing that I couldn’t go to sleep, and reached for the jug of rum. Every time I closed my eyes I saw her dark loveliness, saw her smile, and it made me sick. Where were they now? I didn’t know. She had gotten a Florida divorce and they had gone north. He didn’t know anything except carpentry and she didn’t know anything but hopping tables so I supposed that’s what they were doing. Because he was my brother, I wished him better luck with her than I had had. I didn’t, however, think he would have it. She would find somebody else soon and would start going from man to man.

“It just drives me crazy,” she would often say when we were in bed.

“Crazy?”

“You know. Never enough.”

No, never enough, never enough of anything. Never enough of sex and never enough of money. Never enough of fancy clothes, parties, and liquor. And never enough of something else—men.

I had another drink from the bottle and thought of throwing the rum into the ocean. After two years she was still getting me down, and it didn’t make sense. I had been caught up with a slight shortage at Morgan Real Estate, trying to keep up with her spending, but I had straightened that out and I ought to be able to find a spot. Florida real estate was booming and anybody in the right slot could make a fortune. I had done it with Morgan and spent most of it on the boat, in addition to a split-level house that had gone back to the bank. Some of the land I owned had been converted into cash and this had gone to Morgan. Since that time I had been bumming, but I was now clean and I didn’t have to any longer.

I drank from the bottle again.

It wasn’t too bad a life. And I wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere.

I rolled over on my back, and stared up at the house. It was a big place, rambling and in need of paint and the grass was high in the front yard. I had promised Frank Stearns I would cut the grass with a scythe but I didn’t know how to use a scythe and I had never gotten next to the job. Frank was away most of the time, out after sea turtles which he sold in Key West, and only his daughter was around. Betty kept the house clean, took care of the rentals for the dock, and wrote to some guy in New York every day. She had quit college after her mother died in order to be with her father, and this New York fellow had been a senior or something. A month or so before, just after I started using the dock, he was supposed to come down for a few days but he couldn’t get the plane fare and he hadn’t made it.

I closed my eyes to forget about Betty Stearns and tried to shut out the memory of Rose. But she was there, and every bottle of nun brought her back. Every drink of rum put her in my arms.

“Clint.”

I didn’t look up right away. I knew who it was. Betty Stearns. She had a habit of sneaking up on me, barefooted, and she had a way of saying my name that seemed to give it some meaning. I knew what she would look like, what she always looked like. She never wore anything but a bathing suit, a one-piece black affair that barely covered her. She often came down to the dock and sat with her legs hanging over the side and talked.

She was beautiful, far more lovely than Rose had been, and more than once I had thought of her the way a man should think about a woman. But I had given up the idea. Frank Stearns would kill the first man who touched his daughter without putting a wedding band on her finger and, on top of that, he didn’t think much of me for not working any harder than I did.

“Clint?” Softer this time, more gently. “Are you asleep?”

“No.”

,”I didn’t mean to wake you.”

I rolled over and sat up.

“That’s okay,” I said.

She was standing there close to me, her legs brown and long and rather far apart. The black suit cut into her thighs, making twin ridges, and clung to her flat little stomach. Up above she wasn’t so flat and she wasn’t so little.

“Nice day,” she said.

“Fine.”

She had white blonde hair, lighter than mine, and it dropped down to her shoulders. Her eyes were blue, about like my own, and her red lips had the sensual pout you see on some girlie magazine covers. When I looked at her I thought of just one thing and I was glad I had a few extra bucks so I could go into Key West and kill the urge.

“You’re drinking again,” she said, sitting down and crossing her legs. “Aren’t you?”

“Not again,” I corrected her. “Yet.”

She turned her head, letting me see her profile, and followed the movements of a steamer in the distance.

“You could be out there making money,” she said.

“Could ?”

“You know you could.”

I tipped the rum bottle and took a drink.

“You’re like your father,” I said. “Preaching. What difference does it make what I do as long as I pay the dock fee?”

She was silent for a moment. Finally, her glance shifted from the sea and her eyes sought out my face.

“I hate to see somebody throw himself away,” she said.

“Anybody?”

“Anybody that I like. My father likes you and so do I. Don’t laugh. You’re not used to people liking you but we do. You mind your own business and your money is always on the line. It isn’t that. It’s just that you could do so much more that you aren’t doing. You’ve got one of the best boats in the Keys and it sits here.”

“It wasn’t sitting yesterday.”

“That was yesterday. But what about tomorrow?”

I shrugged. “Tomorrow is another day.”

She uncrossed her legs and lay down on the dock, one arm shielding her eyes against the sun. I was near her, very near, and I could smell the cleanness of her. She took a deep breath and those breasts of hers rose up high and proud.

“You’d better not drink too much,” she said. “There’s a man coming out here to see you.”

“Who?”

“A Mr. Gordon. He was out here yesterday.”

“What did he want?”

“Fishing party, I guess. He spoke of sailfish and tarpon.”

I forgot about Mr. Gordon right away. “That’s all the way up to Miami,” I said. “He know how much a trip like that would cost?”

“He didn’t ask and I didn’t say. He had a big car and he looked as though he could afford almost anything.” She paused. “His daughter was with him, too.”

“So?”

She smiled, uncovered her eyes and blinked up at the sun.

“He said it was his daughter but they didn’t look alike. He’s in his fifties, I guess, with dark hair and dark eyes, and she’s as blonde as I am.” She paused again. “She’s also got the shape of a chorus girl.”

“Is that against the law?”

“You know what I mean, Clint.”

I knew what she meant. You get all kinds. They come as father and daughter and they’ve got as much interest in fishing as I have in diving for pearls. The only thing they want is some place where they can be alone. I never argue with that kind. They pay their fee, I take them out to the fishing area and if they don’t fish they do something else.

Betty sat up and crossed her legs again. The suit was higher on her thigh now.

“Freddie wrote,” she said.

“That’s the guy in New York?”

She nodded.

“He’s getting married.”

“Married?”

“To some girl from the Bronx. They met only three weeks ago.”

“That’s tough,” I said.

Plenty of fellows had come from town and tried to date Betty, but she had always put them off. She said she was going steady with this New York boy and that she wouldn’t cheat on him.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she told me. “It’s better to find out now than later. Once you’re married and you have kids the door is locked.”

She was wrong about that but there was no reason to tell her so. My father and mother were divorced when I was eight and after the death of my mother three years later, an aunt, also now dead, had brought me up. I didn’t know where my father was but he had gone off with a young girl from his office and she had a baby, either by him or somebody else. The last I knew of him he was in Georgia barely making a living selling some kind of junk from door to door. I didn’t know if the girl were still with him or if he were alone but my guess was that he was alone. A girl who will run off with one man will run off with another.

“Here,” I said, reaching for the bottle. “You need the rum more than I do.”

She regarded the bottle with mild interest.

“I haven’t had a drink since I left college.”

“Maybe you haven’t had a reason until now.”

She shook her head. “Father doesn’t believe in girls drinking. He says a girl is apt to do things she shouldn’t when she drinks.”

I had a belt of the rum and placed the bottle beside her.

“What your father doesn’t know won’t give him a headache,” I said. “You have news like that and you need something to cut the edge.”

“Is that why you drink so much?”

“Huh?”

“To cut the edge?”

“Not with me. To forget.”

“Does it help?”

“Not always. Seldom. But I always hold out hope.”

Her eyes were serious. “What are you trying to forget, Clint?”

“My wife. Things. Life.”

“You can’t do it this way.”

“I’m almost ready to believe you. Today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow. What else is there?”

“To believe in something.”

“In what?”

“I don’t know. You have to find that for yourself.”

Another motorboat went by and the man waved. We waved back. I didn’t know what he was doing but I suspected it was something worthwhile and that was more than I could say for myself.

“What does rum taste like?” she wanted to know.

“Try it and find out.”

She frowned and then smiled. She had a full smile, one that washed over you and made the sun seem brighter.

“I had some rye in college once,” she said. “I had taken an exam and I had failed it and I didn’t know what my father would say when he found out.”

“What did he say?”

“Nothing. They made a mistake in marking the papa: and corrected it the next day.”

“But you had a drink?”

“Four or five of them and they made me feel funny. I was with some girls and boys and one of the boys got fresh.”

I looked at her in that suit and I wondered what she would do if I tried the same thing. The house was close, the boat closer, and nobody would have to know.

“You can’t blame the boy,” I said.

“Why not?”

I gave it to her straight.

“You’ve got a hell of a shape,” I told her. “You could be dressed in a burlap bag and still drive a man half out of his mind.”

Her face colored.

“Don’t say things like that, Clint.”

“I say only the truth.”

“It makes me uncomfortable.”

“No reason why it should. You know how you look when you run around in that suit. You must.”

“It is tight,” she admitted slowly.

“Tight is no word for it. It’s a third skin. Every afternoon when I’m in you come down here and you can’t be so innocent that you don’t know how I feel.”

“Clint,” she said, looking away from me.

I’m not the best and I admit it but I am human.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“That a little work won’t cure?”

“That a little work won’t cure.”

I pushed the bottle aside and moved closer to her. I could almost feel the heat from her body, almost taste her lips. It was wrong, all wrong, but in that second I didn’t care. For weeks I had been seeing her, secretly wanting her, and for weeks I had been afraid. But I was afraid no longer. “Don’t, Clint.”

But she couldn’t get away from me, couldn’t stop me. I had my arms around her, pulling her in tight, and my lips over her mouth. I heard another motorboat but I didn’t pay any attention to it. The owner of the boat could go to hell. Everything could go to hell.

“Please don’t,” she whispered.

I kissed her hard, burning my lips down upon her and then I lifted my head away a few inches.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t expect this,” I said. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know that this would happen. Every day you come down here and every day I see you this same way. I’m a man. I’m human. What did you think would come of it?”

This time is wasn’t my mouth that sought hers; it was her mouth that reached for mine.

“I’ve wanted you, too,” she breathed.

“How long?”

“I don’t know how long but almost from the first. I have another suit, Clint. I didn’t wear it. I wanted you to want me just as you want me now.”

“What about the fellow in New York?”

“We were just friends.”

“And that goes for us?”

Her lips were hot and wet against my mouth.

“It doesn’t go for us. That’s why I want you to be different, to be somebody. You’ve been hurt, I know you have, but everybody is hurt once in a while. You have to face it and conquer it and find something better.”

I kissed her again. She let out a little gasp.

“Not here,” she murmured.

“Where?”

“There isn’t anybody at the house.”

“The boat is closer.”

She kissed me again, driving her teeth up against mine.

“Why are we waiting? Why are—”

I got up, lifted her, and carried her to the boat.

“I love you,” she said once.

I didn’t lie to her. I didn’t know if I could ever love another woman. So I said nothing.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said.

My head began to throb.

“It isn’t too late to stop,” I managed to say.

Her eyes were soft.

“It’s too late,” she said. “And we both know it.”

She pulled away from me and in a moment she stood before me, her suit in a heap on the floor. I had never seen anything like her before. Her breasts were ripe and swollen, her tummy hardly any tummy at all, her thighs and hips rounded and generous.

“I want you to do the same,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because I’ve always dreamed of it that way.”

My hands shook and the throb in my head became more intense. She watched me, her face flushed, her eyes bright.

“Oh, Clint, Clint!”

She moved in against my body and kissed me, her mouth open and hot. She was wild, wild. I felt on fire, and as her hands roamed over my body I almost went blind. Holding her to me, I half-carried, half-pushed her to the bunk.

“I love you,” she said, when I put her writhing body down.

I went down there with her. “Baby!”

2

SHE STAYED until five and then she had to go back to the house. She expected her father early and wanted to be there when he arrived.

“Don’t let him know,” she said. “He would hate us both if he did.”

“I’m not painting any signs about it.”

“Was I that bad?”

“You were that good.”

“Kiss me and show me.”

When she left I walked with her to the dock and then watched her move toward the house. She was woman, all woman, and she was mine.

I found the bottle of rum and drank some. Now that it was finished I felt slightly ashamed of what I had done. She was too nice a girl to be shoved around. And what had I promised her? That I would work? Something like that but nothing beyond. She had talked of marriage; I had kept my mouth shut. She had said that when you did what we had done you ought to think in terms of it being for keeps. Maybe she was right, but if men married all of the girls they went to bed with bigamy would be the nation’s number one crime.

I emptied the bottle, thought of getting another one from the boat and continued to sit in the sun. Several boats moved along the shore toward Key West but one of them put in to shore. It was Frank Stearns and after he tied up at the dock he came down to where I was.

“Bad day,” he said.

“Was it?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s the way it goes,” I pointed out. “Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed.”

He was a short man, tanned from the weather and the sun, and he had a friendly smile.

“How was the trip up to the river?” he wanted to know.

“Nothing exciting.”

“Any fish?”

“No fish. One guy was drunk all the time and the others were down below doing I don’t know what.”

He scratched his head. “Funny, these tourists.”

“You can say that again.”

“One was around here for you yesterday.”

“So Betty said.”

“I offered my boat but he had his mind set on yours.”

“Well, I haven’t seen anything of him.”

“He’ll be back. He and his daughter.”

I’ll bet it’s his daughter.”

He ht a cigar.

“You don’t trust anybody, do you?” he inquired after he took a long puff.

“Not much. Not even myself.”

He thought about it for a moment. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “The bank promised me a loan on the boat and today they turned me down. Said the boat wasn’t worth the risk.”

It wasn’t but I didn’t tell him so. He knew as much about it as I did and he knew it was a piece of junk. Compared to The Shark it looked like a scow that had gone over a waterfall.

“So you get along without the money,” I said.

“I can’t.”

“Watch me and learn.”

He smoked on the cigar, thoughtfully.

“It’s different with you,” he said. “You’re single and you don’t have anything to worry about. Me, I’ve got this property and when Betty was in college I took out a mortgage on it. You know how the turtle business has been—not good. I got behind on the payments and now they want to foreclose.”

“Have them rewrite the mortgage.”

“They won’t. I asked them about that.”

“Why?”

“Because this is a good dock and somebody at the bank has his eye on it. That’s all I can figure.”

“Screw or be screwed,” I said.

“That’s a blunt way of putting it.”

“But honest.”

He started to sit down but changed his mind.

“Don’t say anything to Betty about it.”

“I won’t.

“She thinks things are fine so let her go on thinking that way.”

“Sure.”

He left me, walked along the dock, and my glance followed him. I had a few hundred, not much, but if it would help he could have it. In the two months I had been at his place I had come to like him. I grinned. Besides, I wouldn’t have to waste any money in Key West on some dame with dollar signs in her eyes. I had all I could take care of now—and more.

I was still thinking about fixing a steak when a new Imperial pulled up and stopped in front of the house. The man who got out had dark hair and he was big, not just tall but big around. I guessed him to weigh about two-fifty and as he came toward me down the dock I noticed he walked with a slight limp.

“You Clint Walker?”

I didn’t get up.

“I’m Clint Walker.”

He came up and squatted down beside me, breathing heavily.

“Not very friendly, are you?”

“It depends.”

“My name is Gordon. George F. Gordon.”

“Hi.”

“I was looking for you yesterday.”

“So I heard, but if you’re looking for sailfish and tarpon you might better drive up to Miami and get a boat there. I’ve got a friend I could send you—”

He waved the suggestion aside.

“The hell with the sailfish and tarpon,” he said. “They can keep them all in the damned ocean for all I care.”

Right off I didn’t like him. He had a big mouth and knew how to use it.

“The girl told me that’s what you were after,” I said.

He managed to sit down and I made up my mind that when it came time for him to get up he would have a miserable experience.

“I told the girl that because I wanted to talk to you. What else was I to tell her?”

“I don’t know.”

He ht a cigarette and blew the smoke in my face. That made me like him all the less.

“I hear you need money, Walker.”

“Who doesn’t?”

“I don’t.”

“Let me be the first to congratulate you.”

It didn’t bother him any. He just kept right on blowing smoke in my face. I found a cigarette, struck a match on the dry boards and did the same thing to him.

“Nobody in town has much good to say about you,” he said.

“I don’t bother anybody in town.”

“They say you’ve got a fast boat, the best along the Keys, but that you’ll only take a job that means a fast buck.”

“Why should I break my back for my money?”

“No reason. You think as I think.”

“Okay.”

He stopped the smoke business and so did I; it was silly. I wasn’t looking at him but at the house and Betty came out on the porch. I remembered how she had been down in the cabin and I wanted her again. At the moment I didn’t care if this Cordon fell off the dock and drowned.

“I’m not interested in fishing,” he said.

“Then why bother me?”

“For a couple of reasons. You need the money and your boat is ocean-going.”

“Ocean-going how far?”

“To Cuba.”

I suddenly began paying some attention to him.

“Cuba?”

“Just my daughter and myself.”

“That’s a strange one. You could fly there cheaper and quicker.”

“Maybe I don’t want to fly there cheaper and quicker.”

“You’re the boss.”

He flipped the cigarette into the water and a fish slapped at it.

“We’d have some things to take with us.”

“Most people do.”

“Heavy things.”

I didn’t care about that. The Shark could carry anything he could put aboard.

“Havana?” I asked him.

“No, not Havana. The coast. And at night.”

“Why at night?”

“I’m not wanted in Cuba.”

“I see.” My own cigarette went into the water and another fish made a pass at it. I yawned and looked toward the house again. “Thanks for nothing,” I said. “If you’re not wanted in Cuba you’re not wanted in Cuba. Who am I to put you ashore?”

He was patient. “If you don’t do it somebody else will.”

“Go ahead. Get yourself another sucker.”

She was out on the porch again, wearing the bathing suit, and all I could think of was how she had been without that suit on.

“For five thousand dollars?” he wanted to know.

I stopped looking at her real quick.

“Five thousand? Have you flipped your lid?”

“Not exactly. I want to get there and I’m willing to pay for it. You could sit around here for a year and not make that much money.”

“I’m not interested,” I said.

“How come?”

“Because there’s something wrong with it. It stinks, if you don’t mind my saying so. Five thousand is too much for a jaunt to Cuba. I could get in all sorts of trouble on a deal like that.”

“If you don’t take me up on it,” he reminded me, “somebody else will.”

“Let him.”

“But I want you and your boat.”

“There are others around.”

“Yours is fast?”

“It would take a PT boat to run me down.”

“That’s what I mean. I want speed and I want safety. Take away either one and I’m not buying.”

I got to my feet.

“Suit yourself,” I said. “You know what I think.”

He also got to his feet and he had just as much trouble as I had thought he would have.

“Think it over, Walker.”

“I already have.”

“No, you haven’t. You’ve rejected the whole thing before you know what it’s all about.”

“What is it all about?”

“Five thousand dollars. For a little work on your part you can be sitting pretty.”

“Nuts to it,” I said. “Take your business elsewhere.”

He shrugged his broad shoulders and moved away.

“You’ll be sorry.”

“So I’ll be sorry.”

He said nothing more and walked across the weather- beaten boards. After he got into the Imperial and turned it around I went aboard and started fixing some food.

The steak was pretty good but I didn’t eat much of it. I kept thinking of that fellow Gordon and his five thousand bucks. Five thousand was a lot of bucks. Maybe I was a sucker to have refused him. Five thousand would buy a lot of rum and a lot of leisure. I could find some dolly who was lonesome and take a run up the coast. In Florida you can always find some lonely girl in one of the bars or on the beaches. Some of them come down from the north, looking for big money that they don’t find. They work in the hotels and the clubs and some of them are knockouts. They don’t charge you anything and they give you everything they’ve got. It’s a nice arrangement.

I thought of going topside and getting a little more sun but settled on a—second bottle of rum. I sat in the galley, drinking the rum and looking around. The Shark was tight and compact and it could go like the hammers of hell. It may not have been the best boat along the Keys but it was one of the best and that was good enough for me. I could go any place with it any time and when I asked for power from the twin engines it was always there.

I was about half way through the bottle when I heard someone up above.

“Hey, up there!”

I walked out to the ladder just as she started down. She had put on a dress and heels. As she descended the ladder I saw more of her legs than the law allows even a traveling salesman.

“I thought you would be here,” Betty said.

“Where else would I be?”

“In town.”

She came up beside me and stood there. Her perfume was rich and thick and it filled the boat.

“I’m worried about my father,” she said, concern filling her voice.

“What did he do?”

She followed me into the galley and we sat down at the table. The dress was square and low in front and I could see part of her cleavage. Mentally, I ripped the dress off of her and put it back on. Then I ripped it off again and left it that way.

“He went into Key West,” she said.

“So?”

“He wants to sell the boat.”

“He won’t get much for it.”

“That’s the trouble. He’ll only get a few hundred and then what will he do?”

“There’s other work besides hunting turtles.”

“But he likes it. It’s all he’s ever done.”

I didn’t know much about Frank Stearns but I had heard in town that he used to drink a lot and then had quit. My guess was he was on his way to the nearest bar.

“You worry too much,” I told her.

Her eyes were serious. “He told me about the place and the bank, Clint.”

“He told me not to tell you.”

“He said he did, but you don’t know my father. We’ve never had any secrets from each other.”

I got a couple of glasses from the shelf over the sink and poured some rum in each.

“What about you and me this afternoon?”

She smiled. “That’s different. That’s a woman’s secret.”

I see.

“He wouldn’t understand and I couldn’t tell him that.” Her eyes clouded. “This about the place has got him upset and it’s got me upset, too. He mortgaged it to send me to college and I haven’t done a thing to pay him back.”

“That isn’t your fault.”

“I feel it is. If I had known—but he never said anything about it until tonight. Seven hundred dollars is a lot of money, Clint. Seven hundred dollars is an awful lot of money to be behind.”

I wondered how the bank had allowed him to get so far in arrears but I decided they had been gambling with him that it would be a good season. Actually, it hadn’t been a good season. The Shark was the only boat at the dock in addition to his own, and what he got from me wouldn’t put a dent in his debt.

“You need a drink of rum,” I said.

“What good would that do?”

“It might stop you from worrying.”

“But I want to worry. I want to worry so I’ll do something about it.”

I pushed the glass toward her.

“Maybe I can do something to help,” I said. ”

“But you don’t have any money. How could you? You never work.”

“Seldom,” I agreed. “You’re forgetting the river jaunt, though. I got a nice chunk of dough for it and I’ve still got it. Less the cost of four bottles of rum,” I amended. “That was cheap.”

“He wouldn’t take it from you,” she said. “He knows how you need it.”

“Which bank does he do business with?”

She gave me the name of the bank.

“I used to have some truck with them,” I said. “When I was in the real estate business I put some loans through there. I could talk to them.”

“Oh, would you?”

“Talk doesn’t cost anything.” I indicated the glass of rum. “Have a drink.”

“Do you think I should?”

“Relax. You’ll live longer.”

She tasted the rum and made a face.

“That’s awful!” she gasped.

“Just a second and I’ll fix it up.”

I got some coke and ice from the refrigerator and filled up the glass.

“That’s better,” she said, trying it.

We had a couple of drinks and I knew there was something on her mind. I wasn’t sure just what it was but I had a pretty good idea. When we got to the third drink she found the coinage to talk.

“You can’t think much of me,” she said.

“Why not?”

“Because of this afternoon.”

“Why would I think less of you?”

“For the way I let myself go.”

“It wasn’t exactly one-sided,” I reminded her, having another shot of rum. “You rub two dry sticks together and you’re bound to get fire.”

I could tell that she was feeling the rum and when she leaned forward that dress dipped open in front.

“I meant what I said, Clint.”

“Did you?”

“About loving you.” She hesitated. “It’s funny talking about it.”

“Go ahead and talk.”

“It started the day you came here and it never stopped. I told you I used to write to that boy in New York but I didn’t. Maybe that’s why he found somebody else.”

“Maybe.”

“It’s been you, Clint—all the way.”

She was a sweet kid, and I didn’t deserve her. What did I have? All I had was a boat and the memory of a girl who was no good.

“Have another drink,” I said, tipping the bottle.

“I better not.”

“Why?”

Our eyes met and locked together.

“Because I know what will happen,” she said. “This afternoon was wonderful and I would want it to be that way all over again.”

I poured the drink anyway.

“Is that bad?” I wanted to know.

“It is if you aren’t married.”

“We aren’t the only ones.”

“What if I became pregnant?”

“Is that all that’s bothering you?

“Isn’t it enough?”

“You scare the hell out of me,” I said.

Her lower hp trembled.

“You don’t love me.”

I gave it to her straight.

“You wouldn’t want me to he to you, would you?”

“No, I wouldn’t want that. I never want you to he to me, Clint. I’ve told you the truth and I want you to do the same for me.”

I told myself that I wouldn’t bother her, that I wouldn’t touch her again, but I had been into the rum and nothing my mind told me did any good. We were alone on the boat, the house was empty, and no one would ever know.

“Clint,” she said as I came around the table. “Clint.”

I kissed her as she sat there, kissed her brutally, and then my hands were at her dress.

“You know what I want,” I told her.

“No!”

“And I know what you want.”

She tried to stop me, tried to fight me, but I was too strong for her. She made an effort to bite me once as I carried her to the nearest cabin but I only laughed at her and kissed her all the harder.

“Don’t,” she whispered, returning my kiss. “Please stop, Clint.”

“You don’t really mean that.”

“I don’t know what I mean. Oh, I don’t know.”

I kissed her again and put her down. She was crying, sobbing.

“I shouldn’t,” she said. “I shouldn’t. I shouldn’t, Clint.”

“What did you expect when you came here?”

“This,” she said simply.

“So?”

“It isn’t right. None of it is right.”

“Tell me why.”

She came toward me.

“This should be love, Clint.”

“Well, this is one kind of love.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s just sex.”

“Name me something better.”

She put her hands up to my hair and pulled my head down. Her lips, hot and wet were waiting for me.

“You fool,” she said.

She twisted her head from side to side, driving the kiss in. My hands went around her back and then her halter fell to the floor.

“I can kiss you differently,” I said, wanting to.

“Can you?”

I did.

“Oh, Clint, Clint, I love you!”

I pushed her to the bunk, and her body came to me, alive and filled with fury. We stay there, kissing, murmuring words to each other, crazy words, sounds that made no sense, holding the beauty of it off as long as we could. It came slowly, with deliberate impact, driving us both wild with the wanting. And when it happened it was the most wonderful moment of life, a moment of insane beauty and heavenly desire.

3

I WASTED my time going to the bank.

“A couple of years ago it was different,” the credit manager told me. “Two years ago you were responsible, but that seems to have changed. What have you been doing with yourself?”

“Knocking around.”

“That’s what I mean. We give you a loan on the boat and we may have to chase you to Mexico to collect.”

“I’m not going to Mexico.”

“So you say, but how do we know?”

“Okay,” I said, getting up. “Forget it.”

“I’ve already forgotten it.”

Outside the bank I hailed a cab and I told the driver to take me back to the dock. It was still early in the day, not yet noon, and I debated about stopping off for some rum. But I still had two bottles on the boat and if I got any fishermen I had to be sober. Most of the jobs come out of Key West but once in a while a party wants a boat that is big and fast and then they come looking for me. Actually, I could have done better somewhere else but I liked it at the Stearns’ place and I wasn’t starving to death. I wasn’t starving to death in more ways than one. That Betty was as hot as they came, even when she was afraid, and she had all of the equipment to go with it.

Tour boat?” the driver asked when he parked in front of the house.

“Mine.” I gave him a five and waited for the change.

“Sleek.”

“She’ll do.”

I tipped him a buck, waited for him to turn around and then started walking down to the dock.

“Clint.”

I changed my direction and moved back toward the house. Betty was standing on the porch. She was wearing that black bathing suit and it seemed to cover less than it had the day before.

“How did you make out, Clint?”

“Lousy.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“So was I.”

We sat down on the steps and I lit a cigarette.

“I’m going to get a job,” Betty said.

“Where?”

“In town—in one of the restaurants. The girls do well on that kind of work and I’ll have some money to help my father. If I can work and put what I make toward the loan we ought to get caught up.”

It made sense and I didn’t argue with her about it. Nights when her father was home it would be tough for us to get together but if we were determined enough we would find a way.

“You might be able to steer some fishermen out here,” I said. “If I could get a few good charter jobs I could make it up in a hurry.”

“It isn’t your problem.”

“Your problem is mine.”

“What about that Mr. Gordon?”

“He wanted me to run him to Cuba.”

“That would be a good trip.”

“Yeah, but there’s something wrong about him. Something mighty wrong.”

I finished the cigarette, flipped it into the weeds and said I had better get down to the boat. She was still sitting there on the porch when I left.

She had a cab come out for her around one o’clock and I spent the day washing the boat down. About three I had a party of four show up but they were cheap and we couldn’t agree on my terms. They drove away, boiling mad.

At a quarter of five I called it a day, got a bottle of rum and sat down on the dock, dropping my legs over the side. The water was clear and bright and a couple of fish moved about in search of something to eat.

My back was to the house and I didn’t hear the car come up and stop. The first indication I had of anybody else present was the sound of hard heels beating on the dry pine planks. I turned my head and looked and almost fell into the water.

She was blonde, a lighter blonde than Betty, but there all comparison stopped. She was about five-seven or eight and what her forty-inch bust did to the yellow dress was something to look at.

She came across the dock, the high heels of her black pumps making a lot of noise, and I didn’t need anybody to write me a letter that this girl wasn’t wearing any underwear.

“Get your money’s worth?” she wanted to know, coming up to me.

My throat was dry.

“Almost.”

She had a sexy face with a tiny nose and a pouting mouth. Her lips were dark red and full and when she smiled her teeth were white.

“I didn’t mean to be rude,” she said.

“You weren’t.”

“But the way you were looking at me—” She glanced toward The Shark. “Is that your boat?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re Clint Walker?”

“Yeah, I’m Clint Walker.”

I was going to get up but she sat down. When she put her legs over the side I got a good look at them. They were long and brown and had the shape of something you see in a stocking ad.

“I’m Vera Gordon,” she said.

“George Gordon’s daughter?”

“That’s right.”

She didn’t look at all like Gordon but that didn’t prove anything. Maybe she looked like her mother.

“So?” I said.

“You weren’t very polite to him.”

“I was polite enough. I just wasn’t interested, that’s all. He offered a deal and I tinned it down.”

“You turned down five thousand dollars,” she reminded me.

“And probably some trouble.”

“Trouble? What trouble could there be?”

“I don’t know. But for five thousand dollars there has to be trouble.”

She sat there swinging her legs and I kept watching them. A breeze came along, lifted her dress, and I saw her knees.

“You’re pretty big,” she said. “How big are you?”

“Six-three.”

“And about one-eighty?”

“One-ninety.”

“They say you’re pretty clever with a boat.”

“I know my way around.”

“They also say your boat is the fastest along the Keys.”

“I’ve never raced anybody, but maybe it is.”

“You could run over to Cuba and back easily.”

“I can. But I won’t.”

Five thousand was a lot. Too much. But—well, it was tempting. With five thousand I could help out Frank Stearns—just why I wanted to help him I didn’t know— and I could run over to Mexico. An American dollar goes a long way in Mexico. You can get three quarts of beer for fifty cents and steak runs you about a quarter a pound. Dock rent would be cheap and the women would be just as cheap.

They say other things about you,” Vera Gordon said.

“Such as?”

“How you short-changed everybody when you were married.”

I was surprised.

“You’ve really looked into me,” I said.

“Well, we wanted to know who we were doing business with.”

I shrugged. That was then. This is now. And you aren’t doing business with me.”

She laughed. “Stubborn?”

“Cautious,” I corrected.

“A cat is cautious, too, but it gets what it goes after.”

“Does it?”

“Don’t expect the price to go up.”

“I don’t expect it to go anywhere.”

I didn’t think she would drink any of the rum but I asked her just the same. She surprised me again.

“You could offer me a glass.”

“They’re on the boat.”

“Is that so far?”

I yawned and got up.

“I’ll get you one,” I said.

I don’t know how it happened. I had walked away from her and toward the boat, and then I heard the splash. I swung around fast and saw that she wasn’t there.

“Help!”

I ran over to the edge and looked down. She was struggling in the water, her hair tangled about her face and she was gasping for air.

“I—can’t—swim!”

I didn’t think about my clothes or anything. I just went over the side and into the water, catching her as I came up.

“Don’t fight me,” I said.

“You’re hurting me.”

“So what?”

My left arm was around her and I learned I had been right about the bra. She didn’t have one on.

I swam to the shore, maybe seventy-five feet away, and helped her get up on the bank.

“That was close,” I said.

“Thank you,” she murmured, trying to do something with her hair. That dress was plastered to her, just plastered.

“You’re welcome.”

“I don’t know how it happened. One minute I was sitting there and the next minute I was in the water.”

I reached for a cigarette, remembered that they were wet and threw the package away.

“You can’t go back to town that way,” I said.

“Not very well.”

“I’ve got a robe you can put on and we can hang your dress in the sun. It ought to dry before long.”

She seemed relieved.

“Oh, would you?”

“Sure. Why not?”

We went aboard and I showed her into the first cabin. Then I walked to my own cabin, got the robe and returned with it.

“You’re very kind,” she said.

“I’ll wait in the galley.”

“All right.”

She closed the door and locked it and I entered the galley. There was one bottle of rum that hadn’t been opened and I found it. I opened the bottle, poured out two drinks and sat down.

The robe fit her like a tent and when she came in she laughed about it.

“You are big,” she said. “Big and strong.”

“Have a little rum. It’ll warm you.”

“I’m not cold.”

“Have a drink, anyway.”

She took the glass and I carried her dress up to the deck. I was hanging it up when I noticed Betty standing on the dock.

“Clever,” she said without a smile.

“What do you mean?”

She nodded toward the car.

“You know what I mean. I turn my back for a few hours and you’re with another woman.”

“She fell in the water,” I said.

“I just bet she did.”

I jumped down from the deck and landed on the dock.

“Say, what is this?” I demanded hotly. “Who’s asking who what? The girl sits on the dock, falls in the water and I help her out. What’s so wrong about that?”

She was just as hot as I was.

“Fell or jumped?”

I hadn’t thought of that before.

“Fell.”

“What’s she wearing now? Nothing?”

“My robe.”

“Cozy.”

I scuffed my feet on the rough planks. I could see what marriage would be like with her; she wouldn’t trust me any farther than she could throw me. She wouldn’t trust me any farther than I had trusted Rose and that just wasn’t good.

“You get a job?” I asked her.

“That’s one way of changing the subject.” She tilted her head and I got a good look at her throat line. “Yes, I got a job. I start in the morning. Eight to five.”

“Good luck.”

“Is that all you can say?”

I wished I had a cigarette.

“What else do you want me to say? I tell you the truth and you don’t believe me. Don’t you think a guy gets tired of that?”

“I recognized the car,” she said, turning away. “You wouldn’t get tired of it not with that. Not with her. I saw her yesterday and I know what she’s like.”

I watched her go. I felt sorry for her, sorry for myself, but what could I do? She had her mind made up and that was that.

I returned to the boat and went below. Vera Gordon was still in the galley and she had poured herself another shot of rum.

“I heard what went on out there,” she said. “She your girl?”

“Not exactly.”

“I’m sorry I caused any trouble.”

“Forget it.”

She had tied the robe in the middle but it had loosened a little. What I saw gave me the idea that this might not be so bad, after all. I poured a drink of the rum, my belly on fire, and sat down at the table.

“Five thousand is a lot of money,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“Just going to Cuba and back.”

“That’s what makes it stink.”

She stood up and leaned over the table. What I saw was enough to drive a sane man out of his mind. This girl had been put together with one mold, just one, and afterward they had thrown the thing away. I had been to nightclubs and stag shows and I had never seen anything like it. This girl dripped sex all over the place, like a leaky faucet.

“When will my dress be dry?”

“Give it an hour.”

“So long?”

“There isn’t much wind.”

She tilted the bottle to pour some rum and then sat down again.

“You’re moody,” she said. “Moody as hell.”

“I was thinking.”

“About Cuba?”

“No, you.”

“Why me?”

“You must want to get there pretty badly.”

“Doesn’t everybody want something pretty badly?”

I knew what I wanted. I wanted it so badly from her, that I couldn’t see straight.

“You’ll take us there,” she said.

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

The rum was getting low and I was sorry about that I would have given twenty bucks for another bottle.

“Five grand,” I said.

“For taking us to Cuba and bringing me back.”

“You? Back?”

“Me. Why should I stay?”

“I don’t know. I just thought you would.”

She shrugged.

“It’s my father who wants to go to Cuba,” she said. “Not me.”

“He mentioned some heavy things he wanted to take along.”

“He’s a collector.”

“Of what?”

“Things.”

“Just things?”

“Yes. Just things.”

We killed off the bottle and I went topside to get the one from the dock. It still had a little in it not much, but it was better than nothing. On the way back I felt of her dress. It was almost dry so I took it along with me.

“I knew it wouldn’t take any hour,” she said when I came into the galley.

I gave her the dress. She got up and turned to go.

“I’ll have another drink with you,” she said.

“All right.”

“And think about Cuba.”

“I’ll do that.”

But I didn’t think about Cuba while she was gone— I thought about her. I thought about how she was built and the sultry curve of her lips and her blonde hair. I also tried to think about Betty. She had no business blowing up that way.

She was back in a couple of minutes and the dress looked tighter than before. As she came in she was buttoning the top button. I remembered, vaguely, that it hadn’t been buttoned before.

“Think any more about it?” she wanted to know.

“Not much.”

She picked up her glass and reached for the bottle.

“I’ll have that drink.”

“Go ahead.”

She put away the drink, ran the tip of her red tongue over her lips and smiled at me.

“Why don’t you come in and have dinner with us at the hotel?” she asked. “Mull it over until then and lei us know what you think.”

I knew what I thought already but going into town and having dinner with her was an interesting prospect. Betty would still be sore and there was no sense in hanging around The Shark.

“Okay,” I said.

“Make it nine-thirty.”

“That late?”

“My father will be busy until then.”

“Okay,” I said again. “Only dinner is on me.”

Her eyes were amused.

“With what?”

“I’ve got a few bucks,” I said.

“Enough to be independent?”

“Enough not to worry.”

She didn’t stay long after that and I walked with her to the car. She told me she would drive in for me but I told her that I would walk, that I wanted to walk. Walking would be good for me; it would give me a chance to consider this whole situation.

She gave me the name of the hotel and the room number, but she said she would be waiting in the lobby.

“At nine-thirty.”

“Right.”

4

I TOOK a nap for about an hour and when I woke up I counted my money. I had two hundred and forty-two dollars, not counting the change. That meant I was two hundred and forty-two dollars better off than I had been with Rose.

I opened a can of sardines, ate some of them and threw the rest away. After that I brushed my teeth, changed my clothes and went up to sit on the dock.

The Stearns’ boat was alongside, lifting and falling in the water. I glanced toward the house and ht a cigarette. There was nothing to do, and if I went into town so early I would only wind up in some bar and get half crocked. I lay down, feeling the late sun on my skin, and continued to smoke.

Five thousand dollars was a lot of money, but there was more to it than that. First, Gordon wanted to be landed along the shore, and second, there was that stuff he wanted to take along with him. It added up to more than five thousand dollars. It added up to a headache.

I don’t know how long I lay there but it was dusk when I got up. I ht another cigarette, walked across the dock and started down the road. Betty was waiting for me.

“I’m sorry about this afternoon,” she said. “I want to apologize.”

I stopped. She had on that bathing suit again and she was barefoot.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” I told her.

“Yes, there is. I acted as though I owned you. I don’t. I saw that car and the dress and I saw red. Forgive me?”

“Any time.”

She smiled and moved through the grass.

“He isn’t here,” she said softly.

“Who?”

“My father. He went to see a man about borrowing some money and he won’t be back for a long time.”

I knew what she meant, but I played it dumb.

“What’s that got to do with me?” I wanted to know.

Her reply was the naked truth. “We could go in the house,” she said. “We could go in there and he would never know.”

She was like some of the other girls I had known. You gave them a little pleasure once and they wanted it all of the time.

“I’ve got to go in to town,” I said, wishing that I could go into the house with her and at the same time glad that I couldn’t.

“Why?”

“Business.”

She had come up close to me and she stood there looking up into my face.

“Or the girl?”

“Now don’t start that again.”

She glanced away from me.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I keep telling myself not to be angry and I can’t help it.” Once again her eyes sought out my face. “It’s just that I love you so darned much, Clint. I don’t want to lose you to anybody.”

She began to cry and I didn’t know what to do about it. If I touched her, felt her in my arms, I’d never get into town and if I didn’t touch her she would be hurt.

“You don’t love me,” I said.

Her mouth twisted. “Oh, I do!”

“Because of what happened?”

“And before. Before it happened.”

“Look,” I said, trying to be patient. “You know what I am, you know how I live. What’s there in it for you?”

“But you could change, Clint.”

“I doubt it.”

“You could if you wanted to. You could make as much money as anybody along the Keys.”

“I don’t now,” I reminded her.

She didn’t say anything, just stood there crying. The , shadows of the night were getting thick and dark and all I could see of her were her arms and legs and face.

“I need your love,” she said finally. “I need it, Clint. I’m scared for my father and I’m scared for myself. I think of us without this place and what he would do and I feel lost.”

“You’ve got a job,” I said. “You can help.”

“I don’t want a job. Don’t you see? I don’t want one. I want to be a woman and live like a woman. I want to do the things a woman is supposed to do.”

“Such as?”

She held her head high and proud.

“Getting pregnant,” she said. “Isn’t that what a woman is intended for? To have children? To have babies and a husband and some sense of security?”

The breeze from the ocean was cool but I was burning up.

“Nothing’s going to happen,” I said.

“You make me feel cheap,” she said, turning away. “You make me feel so cheap I could drown myself. One minute I’m afraid and the next minute I want you so badly that I can’t think.” Her laughter was uneven and tormented. “Isn’t that what you wanted? Didn’t you want somebody nearby so that you wouldn’t have to go in to town?”

“Betty—”

“Didn’t you?”

She was crying again when I left her but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. She was just a kid off on the wrong foot and she would have to find the way by herself. I had made love to her and now she thought she owned me. Tough.

The road curved away from the ocean and it was dark in the woods. I tried to forget about her, tried to think of that five thousand dollars, but I couldn’t forget. She was a nice girl, better than Rose had been, better than any of them had ever been. Why couldn’t I see it? Why couldn’t I understand it?

I walked along the road, kicking at the loose stones, and in that instant I hated myself. I should have left her alone. I shouldn’t have had anything to do with her. She was looking for marriage and I wasn’t. It was as simple as that.

The road rose steadily, cutting between two high rocks. It was even darker here and my shoes made shuffling sounds on the stones.

Just before I passed between the rocks it happened.

They came from behind, two of them, and I didn’t have a chance. They were big men, both of them, and the one guy had something in his hand. It may have been a stick or a stone but whatever it was it hint like fury when he hit me over the head with it.

“Bastard!” the one man said.

I was down on my knees and trying to get up, but the thing kept banging me on the head and my whole world became an orbit of pain. Somebody kicked me in the ribs, once, twice, and I sucked in air. The air flamed against my lungs and I let it out in a feeble curse.

I didn’t remember anything after that. When I came to, it was darker and a gentle rain was falling From the dampness of my clothes I guessed I had lain there about half an hour.

I got up, staggering, and continued along the road. There were three or four big lumps cm my head and they hurt when I touched them. My ribs were sore and from the way my stomach felt one of the men must have kicked me there, too.

My wallet was still in my pocket but when I searched inside of it I discovered that my money was gone. I was broke. Flat. I didn’t even have enough change to buy a quart of rum.

I reached the main road and swung right, keeping to the shoulder and walking with the traffic. A quarter of a mile down the road a pickup truck stopped for me and I got in.

“Nasty night,” the driver said.

Sure is.

He sighed. “Well, that’s Florida for you. You come down here to get away from the rain and you walk right into it.”

We approached Key West and he asked me where I was going. I gave him the name of the hotel and he said he would drop me off there.

“It’s not my gas,” he explained. “It belongs to the crumb I work for.”

“Thanks.”

“I could use a drink,” he suggested.

“So could I but I’m fresh out of money.”

“That why you were walking?”

“Partly.”

He stopped in front of the hotel and I thanked him again. My head ached and my eyes felt funny but otherwise I was all right.

She was waiting for me in the lobby, reading a magazine, and when I saw her I just stopped and stared. She was wearing a black dress that was tighter than the yellow one.

“You’re late,” she said, getting up.

“I was delayed.”

She had fixed her hair differently, one side back over her ear and the other side fell forward close to her face.

“And you’re all mud.”

I hadn’t noticed it before but I was. There were brown spots on my knees and my shirt was smeared.

“I got corked,” I said.

“Corked?”

“By two guys. They got me on the road leading up to the highway and they took almost all the money I had.”

“Then you won’t be buying me dinner?”

“I don’t think so. Not unless they let me finance it.”

She leafed through the magazine and then put it down.

“Who would want to do a thing like that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But you get all kinds along the Keys. It happens to the best of us.”

She looked me over again, critically.

“You won’t be able to go into the dining room that way,” she said.

“Hardly.”

“I’m surprised you came at all.”

“Well, I said I would and I did.”

She picked up the magazine but she put it down without opening it.

“My father won’t be able to make the date,” she said.

“That’s too bad.”

“And I’m starved.”

I was a little hungry myself.

“I’ll have to give you a raincheck,” I said. “The next time I may not have such bad luck.”

She laughed and took my arm.

“Nonsense,” she said. “I’ve got a room and we can have dinner sent up there. I wanted to buy in the first place, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but—”

“Don’t argue with me. We can have dinner and a few drinks and we can talk.”

“About Cuba?”

“Not just that. Anything.”

I knew if I ever got her in a bedroom, talk wouldn’t satisfy me. There would have to be something else.

“Okay,” I said.

We rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and walked down to her room. She still held my arm.

The room was big and fancy. There was a huge double bed, a mirror covering one door and the furniture was modern.

“You order,” she said;

“Order what?”

“How about steak?”

“Steak would be fine.”

“And drinks. Not rum. Rye and ginger. Have them send up half a dozen.”

“Will do.”

I ordered the drinks and the dinners on the telephone and then we sat around and waited. She sat in a low chair, and as she crossed her legs I got a quick look at some creamy thigh.

“The men who took you over must have been pretty strong,” she said.

“They came from behind. One second I was on my feet and the next second I was on the ground.”

“I’d hate to be them if you ever find out who they were.”

“If I ever do.”

“They’d be creamed.”

“But good.”

A bellhop arrived with the drinks and I managed to come up with half a buck for a tip. I had twenty-seven cents left.

“To you,” she said, toasting me.

“And to you.”

We drank fast and steadily and by the time the dinners arrived we were dry. The guy set up a card table in the middle of the room, put the plates around on it, and asked if there were anything else we wanted.

“No more to drink,” she said.

I was disappointed.

The steaks were good and we talked as we ate. She was twenty-four, her father was retired and her mother was dead. She had lived in New York and Boston but she liked Florida best.

“That’s why I don’t want to stay in Cuba,” she said.

“What about your father?” He’s old enough to take care of himself.”

“You look as though you can do the same.”

“Not always,” she said, looking at me. “You’d be amazed at how defenseless I can be.”

“Would I?”

Her eyes were steady across the small table.

“I think you would be, Clint Walker. I really do.”

It was an invitation, the open door, but I didn’t grab it right away. There was something off-balance here, something that wasn’t straight, but I didn’t know what it was. She had the looks and the figure to have had any of a dozen men and she had picked on me.

“I could use another drink,” I said.

“You drink a lot, don’t you?”

“Enough.”

She got up and walked to the phone.

“I’ll have one with you,” she said.

“Then I’ll leave.”

“You don’t have to hurry.”

She ordered the drinks and then crossed over and sat down on the bed.

“You could make some money very easily,” she said. “Cuba isn’t very far.”

“No.”

“And there would be more trips.”

“How many?”

“Four or five.”

“Your father didn’t say anything about that.”

“I know he didn’t. He was waiting for you to make up your mind about the first one.”

It was big, very big. If old man Gordon were willing to pay five thousand dollars a run, it could add up to some real money.

“I’m still thinking,” I said.

The drinks came and there were six of them. After the bellhop cleaned up the table and left she said she was going into the bathroom for a few minutes.

“To get comfy,” she explained.

While she was gone I drank one of the drinks and tried to get myself straightened out. On twenty or twenty-five grand I could live like a king. But what did I have to do for it? Run guns? It sounded plausible. They were always fighting in Cuba and he had said the stuff would be heavy.

Her idea of getting comfy was to get down to as little as possible and still stay covered up. The negligee was pale blue and it had been built for her shape.

“I had a robe around somewhere,” she said.

I didn’t see any robe and she didn’t look for it. She moved across the room, her body something to speculate about, and picked up a drink.

“I like you,” she said suddenly.

“Do you?”

“I like men who are big and strong. You’ve also got a nice smile,” whether you know it or not.”

The drinks went fast. She sat on the bed and I sat on a chair and the way that negligee hung onto her was enough to blind me.

“Cuba,” she said when the last drink was gone.

“Yeah—Cuba.”

“Why don’t you?”

“I don’t know.”

“He won’t go up on the money.”

“I wouldn’t expect him to.”

“And you could loaf around after that and have fun.”

“Doing what?”

Her eyes were heavily lidded.

“If I know you, I need only one guess.” I started out of the room and past the bed, but that was as far as I got. She caught one of my hands and pulled me toward her.

“Don’t leave me,” she said.

I looked down at her. She was ready and willing and I had nothing but time.

“You’ll be sorry if I don’t,” I said.

“I’ll be sorry if you do.”

I remembered her from the boat, the way she had looked in my robe, and helpless desire swept over me. I smashed my mouth against her lips and lifted her to me.

“Cuba,” she said once.

“Anywhere,” I promised.

I kissed her again, letting my hand wander across the front of her body, feeling the warmth of her breasts through the thin, flimsy material. I got my hand inside the neck of the gown and she cried a little as I tore the negligee away from her.

“Clint! Clint!”

She couldn’t seem to wait until her clothes were out of the way. She kept moaning and clawing at me and I had to hit her once or she would have cut my face to shreds.

“Hurry, Clint!”

I pushed her down on the bed. My hand slid across the soft swell of her stomach and she rose to meet me, gasping.

Her body lifted, moved away, lifted again. I kissed her, tasting her tears of passion, and then lost myself in the violent caress of her flesh.

5

I DIDN’T wake up until noon the next day and I had a fierce headache. As soon as I got out of bed and could find the bottle I gulped down a couple of aspirin and prayed they would help. Even the coffee didn’t smell right when I made it and I couldn’t eat the eggs after I fixed them. I was a mess.

I sat at the table, smoking, and thought about the night before. It had been some night, one that you read about but seldom live long enough to enjoy.

I got up from the table, threw out the coffee, and decided to get some sun. Later that day I would go to the hotel and visit her father. If the offer still stood, at five grand a shot, I was in the market to be bought. What did I care what he took to Cuba? It was none of my affair. If he wanted to waste his money that way, that was up to him.

The sun was out, hot and bright, and I stretched out on the dock. I still had a couple of bumps on my skull and my head ached. If I ever got my hands on those guys—but I wouldn’t. The money was gone, I was flat, and I might just as well accept it.

Baby, I thought thinking of Rose; baby, if you could only see me now. You’d laugh yourself silly, you stinking tramp. I’m right where you wanted me to be, down as far as I can go, and you’re probably no better off than I am. If Howard had half the brains I thought he had he’d have kicked you out a long time ago. Who are you with now? Where are you? How many men have you had that he knows about—and how many he doesn’t know about?

The sun felt fine and my head began to stop aching. Sweat was on my back and along my legs but I just lay there soaking up the heat. Some boats went by but I didn’t pay any attention to them. The Stearns boat w alongside the dock and that was unusual. Generally Frank was out early and he stayed late. Well, it was his business. If he didn’t want to hunt turtles, he didn’t want to hunt turtles.

I must have gone to sleep and when I awoke I was soaked with sweat. The headache was gone and my mouth was dry. I sat up, blinking against the sun, and saw Frank Stearns coming down the dock toward me. I became interested right away. He was carrying a bottle and it looked almost full.

“Hello, Clint.”

“Hiya.”

“I was down here before but you were dead to the world.” He sat down beside me and I could smell his breath. He had been drinking heavily. “Drink?”

“Thanks.”

“It’s rye.”

“So what?”

I took the bottle and the drink burned my throat. I started to hand him the bottle but he shook his head and I took another swallow.

“I shouldn’t be doing this, Clint.”

“You do what you want.”

“I know, but it isn’t right. The money I spent on whiskey I should have taken to the bank.”

“They’d have pinned a medal on you for it.”

“It was only fifty dollars that I managed to borrow in town. It wasn’t much.”

“Not when you owe as much as you do.”

He closed his eyes and rocked back and forth. I couldn’t be certain but I thought he might be crying.

“Betty took a job in a restaurant in town to help out.”

“So she said.”

“It’s a shame, a damned shame. She shouldn’t have to do that.”

“Why not?”

He opened his eyes and looked at me. I was right—he had been crying.

“Because with her college she’s equipped to do better than that.”

“Such as working in an office?”

“Well—”

“Don’t kid yourself,” I said. “The boss in an office pays a girl fifty dollars a week and he thinks he’s doing her a favor. That same girl, if she gets herself set in a good eating place, can make as much in two days. And she doesn’t have to declare it for income tax. That’s a big difference, isn’t it?”

“I suppose it is.”

“How do you think the doctors get so stinking rich? When they get paid in cash they forget about it. I had some truck with a lawyer once and he gave me fifteen percent off for cash. Know the reason why? A check can be traced and cash can’t. Getting right down to it, waiting on table isn’t a bad job at all.”

“But the things a girl has to put up with. You go in to Norton’s Diner and just listen to some of the stuff the men say to the girls in there.”

“Sure, the guys make passes. And the cheaper the place, the more the passes. Only you don’t have to worry about Betty. She can hold her own, no matter where she is or who the guy is.”

“I hope so. Give me that bottle.”

“Help yourself.”

He took a long drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his free hand.

“I had you tagged wrong,” he said.

“Did you?”

“Real wrong. Betty told me about going to the bank and trying to get a loan for me. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“There isn’t everybody who would do that. I’ve lived my whole life along the Keys and there isn’t anyone who would as much as sign a note with me.”

“That’s the way it goes,” I said.

“Then you come along and try to do what nobody else would do.”

“I’d expect the same thing from you.”

“And you’d get it.”

We sat there in the sun for a while, saying nothing, just passing the bottle back and forth. The bottle didn’t last very long and when I threw it over the side it made a big splash as it hit the water.

“We should put a message inside of it,” I said. “Maybe somebody would come to our rescue.”

“Stop being funny.”

“I’m trying not to be. A man losing his place isn’t very funny. It’s pretty serious.”

“Indeed it is.”

“But don’t give up on it yet,” I told him. “I’ve got a big job coming up and if it goes through I’ll have the dough to lend you.”

“You don’t know how much I need.”

“I know all right.”

“Anyway, you don’t pick up that kind of money from a fishing party. You’d have to run for two weeks solid to earn that much.”

“So?”

“And you wouldn’t. I’ve seen you turn down good parties.” He glanced toward The Shark. “If I had that land of a boat I wouldn’t have any worries. I’d work out of Key West and I’d keep her bumping from daylight to dark.”

“Maybe I will.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve seen your type along the Keys before. You make enough for booze and eats and fuel and that’s all you care about.”

“How much more have you made from hunting sea turtles?”

“At least I’ve been working.”

“And that’s about all you can say for it.”

He didn’t have any argument there and he remained silent. I watched The Shark rise and fall gently in the water and I felt a sense of pride. She was a good boat and she would take me wherever I wanted to go. For a second I thought of getting on board, casting off, and moving up the Keys away from Vera and Betty and everything else. I could find another dock, pick up a few fishermen and make a living. I didn’t have to load myself with old Frank’s problems and I didn’t have to take any chances running to Cuba. The way I was going was insane and it meant only trouble. I’d had enough with Rose, enough to last me forever.

“You got another bottle?” I asked him.

“Up at the house.”

“Why don’t we get it?”

“I’m half loaded now.”

“You might as well be all loaded.”

It didn’t take much to get him started toward the house. He was filled with self-pity and there was only one thing that would kill it.

We walked along the dock. He staggered a little.

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he said.

“How come?”

“I feel guilty as hell. I had fifty bucks and it’s shot. And while I’m drinking with you, Betty is breaking her back over a bunch of dirty dishes.”

I waited for him on the porch. When he came out of the house he had another bottle of the same brand in his hand. We sat on the top step and swapped the bottle back and forth.

“You like my daughter?” he asked suddenly.

“She’s a nice girl.”

“She better stay that way.”

“What are you driving at?”

“You know what I’m driving at I wouldn’t be saying this if I wasn’t drunk but I am drunk and I am saying it. You would take her in a minute, Walker, if you got the chance. I’ve seen you watching her when she walks around in that bathing suit and what I’ve seen in your eyes is what a hound dog feels in spring.”

“I didn’t ask her to wear that suit.”

“I’ve asked her not to. I’ve asked her to put on a dress or something and cover herself up. Before you came here, Walker, it was all right. But right afterward it was no good. You’re a hard one—don’t tell me you’re not— and it wouldn’t mean anything to you that she’s a virgin.”

“I wouldn’t do a thing like that,” I said.

“Not unless you got the chance.”

We argued about it some and it was a silly argument. He was as drunk as they come and he didn’t know what he was talking about I listened to him, and wondered what he would do if he knew that she had belonged to me. My guess was that there was a gun somewhere in the house and that it wouldn’t take him very long to find and load it.

“I’m tired,” he said finally. “By God, I’ve got to lie down.”

“Go ahead.”

He did and pretty soon he was asleep, his legs hanging down over the steps and the rest of his body on the porch.

r walked through the weeds and toward the dock. The sun seemed hotter than ever and the liquor poured out of my skin in steady streams. There wasn’t anybody around and the people in the boats further out couldn’t see much so when I reached the water I stripped down to my shorts and dove off the dock.

I stayed in the water about ten or fifteen minutes and when I came out I felt better. I lay on the dock in the sun and dried off. As soon as I was dry I went aboard The Shark and stretched out on the first bunk I found. I was tired, dead tired, and it wasn’t long before I drifted off to sleep.

Somebody shook me and I mumbled, lifting my head from the pillow. I was dressed in shorts and nothing else. “Clint!”

It was Betty and I sat up. She was standing over me, her face white.

“Hi,” I said.

Before I could move she slapped me across the face. The blow stung and made my head ring.

“What’s that for? A present?”

“Damn you,” she said savagely.

She tried to hit me again but I grabbed her hand and twisted her wrist. Her lips curved with pain.

“You blow your stack or something?” I wanted to know.

Her eyes were filled with something close to hate.

“You and your drinking,” she said.

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“It’s bad enough when you drink, but its even worse when you get my father in on it.”

She made an attempt to free herself but I held on.

“I didn’t get your father in on it. He got me.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Well, he did. He borrowed some money in town and bought the jugs. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Some of the hate left her eyes.

“Let me go, Clint.”

“And get smacked again?”

She shook her head. “No, I won’t. Maybe you’re telling the truth.”

“I am.”

I released her and she rubbed her wrist.

“You’re awfully strong, Clint.”

“Sorry but I don’t like to have people wake me up like that.”

She didn’t seem to notice that I was wearing only shorts. She sat down on the edge of the bunk.

“What am I going to do, Clint?”

“About what?”

“Him.”

“Let him sleep it off. In the morning he’ll have a hangover that’ll be fit to kill a horse.”

She was wearing a pink uniform, something that must have been provided by the place where she worked, and it was plenty snug against her body.

“It’s why I’ve been staying here with him,” she said. “To keep him from drinking.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“He used to drink terribly. That’s one reason why he can’t get any help now. People know him and they think he’ll do the same thing again. You can’t blame them.”

I rubbed my hands against my bare thighs.

“He sure tied one on,” I said.

She took a deep breath. “I was shocked when I came home and found him on the porch. I blamed you for it Clint. I apologize.”

“That’s all right.”

“What else was I to think? You’re always drinking and he’s been good for so long. I thought you had talked him into it.”

“I didn’t have any money.” I told her, briefly, what had happened the night before. “I’ve got enough for a postage stamp and that’s about all.”

“You should have gone to the police.”

“What good would that have done? Who would they have chased? I didn’t even see the guys.”

“It’s a good thing they didn’t come at you from the front.”

“From the front it would have been different.”

“I’d bet on that. Somebody would have gone to the hospital.”

“Two somebodies.”

She reached out and took one of my hands. Her fingers were warm and soft.

“There’s one thing about his being drunk,” she said quietly.

“What’s that?”

“I won’t have to sleep in the house tonight.”

There she was, waiting for me, wanting me, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I had to see Gordon at the hotel and it was hard to say how long the session with him would last. There was Vera, too. I couldn’t wash the luxury of her body out of my brain. Something about her had gone down inside of me, way deep, and even several hours later it was still there.

“I can’t,” I said.

She was hurt. “You don’t want to.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I suppose you’re going to town?”

“Yes.”

“To see that girl?”

“No.”

“Don’t he to me, Clint.”

“I’m not lying.”

She let go of me. She sat there with her hands in her lap, twisting them around and around.

“You are lying,” she said. “I feel it. I know it I heard the car when it came in this morning. I heard her laugh and I saw you lean inside the car and kiss her.”

“Spying?”

“No. My father was asleep and I sat at my bedroom window watching for you. I would have come down to the boat with you. I would have done anything for you, Clint. Anything.”

I didn’t know what to say. She was a good girl, and I hadn’t treated her fairly. In that instant I was sorry that anything had ever happened between us. When a man is built the way I am he should go for a girl who doesn’t count, who doesn’t care. You get them in the bars or in the houses and when it is over there are no regrets. A nice girl remembers. She doesn’t want to forget.

“Clint?”

“Yes?”

“I can’t blame you. Men are different from women. It’s just difficult for me to understand it, that’s all. A man wants one thing out of life and a woman wants another. I can’t tame you. I shouldn’t try. I should be glad that you were mine for just a little while.”

I hadn’t cried in years but I wanted to cry then. Why couldn’t I see things the way she did? Why couldn’t I feel the way she did? It would have been better, safer, and the torment inside of me would have died.

“Baby,” I said a little desperately, going for her. “Baby.”

“No, Clint.”

“Why not?”

“Because you have changed. I have changed. It isn’t the same, not now.”

“Don’t you love me?”

“It isn’t that. I almost wish I didn’t. It would make things easier. It would—”

She was still talking when my lips found her mouth and my arms brought her to me. I took her down on the bunk, my hands seeking her, and she began to moan and rock her head from side to side.

“Clint—”

“I want you,” I said.

“Clint—”

I was brutal with her. I had to lose myself in her, forget everything else, cling to the goodness of life. It was my only hope. Vera was dangerous, as dangerous as they come, and what her father wanted me to do was even more dangerous. I had love here, love that was sweet, love that belonged to me. To throw it aside was the mark of a fool. “Baby!”

I loved her and loved her but even as I did I knew that this wasn’t enough. There had to be more, much more.

6

VERA WASN’T in the lobby and I was disappointed about that. I even checked the bar and the dining room but I couldn’t find her. Before going over to the desk I tried calling her on the house phone but she didn’t answer.

“Gordon,” the desk cleric said when I asked him. “He’s in four forty-five.”

“Thanks.”

“I think you’ll find him in. He just went up a few minutes ago.”

“Thanks.”

I took the elevator to the fourth floor and had no difficulty locating the room. I knocked a couple of times and waited.

“Who’s there?”

“Clint Walker.”

“The man from the boat?”

“That’s right.”

“Just a minute.”

It was more than a minute but after a while the key turned in the lock and the door was flung open. Gordon was wearing a red robe and he held a drink in one hand.

“I thought you would come,” he said.

“You knew I would,” I corrected him.

He laughed as I entered.

“Have it your way, Walker.” He closed the door and walked to a small serving-table. “Care for a drink?”

“Okay.”

“Rye or scotch?”

“I don’t like scotch.”

He put his glass down and poured out a healthy drink.

“You’re probably more used to rum.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s cheaper. You can get tanked up on a few bucks.”

I looked for a place to sit down but there wasn’t any. Clothes were all over the bed and the chairs. The room looked like somebody had thrown a bomb into it.

“There’s nothing wrong with rum,” I said, tasting the rye.

“I didn’t say there was. It’s a hot weather drink. But it’s also convenient.”

“Naturally.”

“Half the drunks you see in the tropics got that way on rum. The trouble is that they stay that way. Next to wine rum will chew a man’s brain apart faster than anything going.”

I finished the drink and carried the glass over to the serving table.

“Let’s get down to cases,” I said. “What do you want me to do for five thousand dollars?”

“I told you. Take me to Cuba.”

“You and what else?”

“If I m paying the money that’s my business.”

“Not exactly. It’s mine, too. If it’s guns I want to know that also.”

He threw some of the clothes off the bed and sat down. He motioned for me to do likewise. I did.

“It’s both,” he said. “What good are guns if you can’t shoot them?”

“Not much,” I admitted.

“You have any reservations about this?”

“How many trips?”

“There would be several.”

“At the same price?”

“At the same price.”

“Then, I don’t have any reservations.”

He was heavy and the bed sagged under his weight. I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees.

“I looked a long time to find somebody like you,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t easy. I needed a boat that was fast and a guy who had guts.” He looked at me. “I think you’ve got guts.”

“For the kind of money you offer I could go out and buy a whole new set.”

“You’ve also got a sense of humor.”

“You need it. If you don’t have it in this life you’re done.”

He got up from the bed, lumbered over to the serving table and fixed himself another drink. He didn’t speak again until he had put it away.

“I’d want to land at night, between Cardenas and Matanzas. Could you do that?”

“There are lots of coral reefs.”

“I didn’t ask you about the reefs, Walker.”

I had been there once before, with an old guy and a showgirl. The old guy had slopped up the booze and the girl had come up on deck with me. We hadn’t stayed on deck very long. I had let the boat drift and we had gone down below.

“I could get you there,” I said.

“Fine!”

“When would we make the first trip?

“Give me a couple of days.”

“All right.”

“You get your boat ready and I’ll get the other things ready.”

“Okay.”

He poured another drink for me and brought it over. “The revolution is important,” he said. “Much depends upon its success or failure.”

“To you, you mean?”

“Not just to me—to the five million people who live there.”

“Five million eight hundred thousand.” He grinned. “You’re smart.”

“Not very.”

“The Pearl of the Antilles,” he said, sitting down again. The bed squeaked and I spilled some of my drink.

“Why do they call it that? I’ve heard the expression before.”

“Because of its beauty and natural wealth. Cuba comes from the Indian word Cubanacau, meaning center place.”

“Now I’m getting an education.”

“It’s also called the Isle of a Hundred Harbors.”

“Sounds fair enough.”

“Damn, you’re cynical.”

“What do I care about Cuba?” I wanted to know. “It’s the dough I’m after.”

“That gives us something in common.”

“Then you’re not part of the revolution?”

“Only to the extent of providing them with guns. I get my pay and you get yours. It’s a satisfactory arrangement. This isn’t the first service I’ve rendered to an oppressed people and it won’t be the last. These people need help and as long as they’ve got the money I’m willing to give it to them.”

“But not for free?”

“No, not for free.”

Vera had said her father was staying in Cuba and I asked him about that.

“Only until all of the guns are ashore,” he replied. “What would I want to get mixed up in the whole mess for? By the time you make your last trip I’ll probably be sick of eating arroz con polio.”

“What’s that?”

“A chicken and rice dish.”

“Don’t bother to invite me. I’ll take my chicken without any fancy names.”

We drank and talked and he told me of one time that he had been stabbed in the back and nearly died. It had happened in the tropics and he had been treated by a native doctor.

“I was laid up for three months,” he said. “The doctor knew less than I did about how to fix a stab wound.”

“Let’s get back to the present,” I suggested.

“Oh, sure. All right. What is it you want to know?”

“Several things. How will you get the guns and ammunition to the dock?”

“By truck. I’ve arranged for that.”

“That means getting the old man drunk. I wouldn’t want him to know what’s going on.”

“What old man?”

“The one who owns the dock. And it means getting his daughter in to town for a little fun. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”

He grinned and nudged me. “Having fun with that would be all right,” he said. “I saw her in a bathing suit the first day I was out there, and she looked like stuff.”

“You can’t prove it by me.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“What if you don’t?”

“Come off it, Walker. I’d like to have a load of guns in Cuba for every time you’ve had her down in the boat. Not that I blame you. She’s a dish that you don’t turn away from.”

“Are we talking about the girl or what we’re going to do?”

“What we’re going to do.”

“Let’s keep it that way then.”

“Go on.”

“I want a thousand bucks advance—right now.”

“You haven’t done anything yet.”

“Maybe not but I still want it.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“For the same reason I should trust you,” I said. “I’m not shooting for marbles in this game. I want as much as I can get. You want the same. If we don’t work together neither one of us is going to get anything.”

“You wouldn’t,” he said. “I would. There are other boats.”

I stood up.

“Go ahead and get them.”

He also got to his feet.

“Don’t get hot, Walker. You can’t afford to walk out on this and you know it.”

I knew it. Ever since Rose I had been reaching for the top and finding bottom. But with twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars my worries would be nil. Maybe I would sell the boat and go back into the real estate business for myself. I didn’t know. But there were two things I did know. He had a daughter who was all sex and he had the money to go with it.

“A grand,” I said. “Tonight.”

He laughed. “You’re stubborn.”

“Would you want me otherwise? A stubborn guy does a good job.”

“Maybe.”

I started for the door, hoping that he wouldn’t let me reach it.

“Just a second, Walker.”

I stopped, turning around. He had gone over to the dresser and had opened the top drawer. I stood there while he counted out the money.

“A thousand,” he said coming toward me.

I held out my hand.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t let me down or you’ll never live to regret it.”

I wont.

“I mean it, Walker. Once I gave a guy five hundred to do a job for me and he ran off.” He paused and grinned. “He didn’t run far. I lost the five hundred but he lost something that was much more important.”

I didn’t ask Gordon what the guy had lost. I knew. His life. There was no fooling here. This was business, big business and rough. Now that I had taken money from Gordon I was in it all the way up to my neck—and then some.

“Let me know when you’re bringing the stuff out,” I said.

“I’ll be in touch.”

“I’ll get the old guy drunk and bring the girl to town. You don’t need me there to load. Just don’t put everything on one side. Keep the weight even.”

“And to the rear?”

“And to the rear.”

“You don’t have to tell me what to do,” Gordon said.

“I know as much about boats as you do. Do you think I was born yesterday?”

“No.”

“You do your job and you’ll be well paid. You ask no questions and you get no answers, other than what I have already given you. Understand?”

“Perfectly.”

He held out his hand and I took it. It was a fat hand, and it felt like putting your fingers around a wad of damp clay.

“I’m glad you came in,” he said. “You’ve got the boat and you’re the type.”

He let go of my hand and I stuffed the thousand bucks into my pocket.

“I was looking for your daughter,” I said.

He was amused. “You think she’s pretty?”

“Beautiful.”

“A lot of men have thought the same thing.”

“I imagine so.”

“But she doesn’t go with the deal.”

“I didn’t say I thought she did.”

“Just so that you understand it, Walker. Just so that you understand it. A man of your make-up is after only one thing and she isn’t that kind.”

I felt like laughing at him. He was a stupid fool. She was that kind with me and that was all that counted. The next time I would have to be careful. We wouldn’t be able to use her room. If he ever found us there together it wouldn’t be good.

“Tell her I was asking for her,” I said.

“I will. Glad to.”

“If she wants to take a spin in the boat it’s always there.”

“I’ll tell her that too.”

I opened the door and stood there for a moment, staring straight into his eyes.

“You’d better be right about all this,” I said slowly. “You aren’t the only one who makes the rules. I have some of my own.”

“Don’t worry.”

“I’m not, right now, but don’t give me any reason to worry. I like to sleep at night.”

“Rest easy.”

I stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind me. There was something about that guy that was sinister and I was glad to be away from him. I would be even happier when the whole thing was over and done with.

The elevator was slow in coming up and I felt the money in my pocket. There was enough there to bail Stearns out of his troubles with the bank and about four hundred left over. Four hundred could take me a long distance, if I wanted to go. I could pull out from the dock the next day, saying I was going for fuel, and never return. It was a big world and if Gordon found me he would be welcome to take anything he could get. My guess was that he wouldn’t chase me for a lousy thousand dollars, that he would take his loss and look for someone else. What he’d told me about the other guy was probably a bluff. If Gordon had been burned once he wouldn’t take a chance on being burned twice. That didn’t make sense.

The elevator came up and I got in. We made the lobby in silence and I got off. The bar was to the left and I walked in there. A few couples sat at tables but there was no one at the bar. I found a stool at one end, climbed up on it and ordered a whiskey sour.

“Real sour?” the bartender asked.

“Real sour,” I nodded.

It was—the first sip locked my jaws together. But I hadn’t had a whiskey sour in months and it tasted fine. The second try went better and pretty soon I was after another one.

A girl came in and sat down at the bar. She had long legs, was wearing a low-cut dress, and she had all the trademarks of a girl who could be bought for a night. But I wasn’t interested. I had my own problems and the more I thought of them the bigger they became.

Running guns was a dangerous business and if I got caught or somebody turned me in, I could wind up in a little room with a lot of iron bars. In the past, while married to Rose and playing with Morgan Real Estate money, I had been fooling with the other side of the law. But that had been nothing like this. What did they do to a gun runner? I didn’t have the faintest idea. All I knew was in this deal I could get it from two angles— from the law and from Gordon—and I didn’t know which one would go the hardest on me.

“Another drink, sir?”

“Keep them rolling.”

Five trips to Cuba meant twenty-five grand and that was a lot of money. One of the things about it that I didn’t like was where I had to land the guns. Cardenas and Matanzas were both pretty good-sized places and they were only about twenty-five miles apart. We would have to be careful and lucky and sometimes it’s hard to be both. I had been to Cuba several times and all I had seen had been poverty. Thinking about the way some of the people existed, it was no wonder the country was always torn by revolutions. Oh, there had been some improvements in education but the general standard of living wasn’t what it should be. Sugar was the main crop—Cuba raises more sugar than any other country in the world—and the tourist trade is second in importance. Revolutions, of course, do not help the tourist trade—you go there for a visit and you don’t know whether you get a bullet through the head or a woman in your room. What the country needed was a government that was steady and safe, a government which people could trust I couldn’t help but wonder if guns could accomplish this purpose.

“The young lady wondered if you wished to have a drink.”

I looked at the girl. She was smiling, her legs crossed, and what I could see of her legs was worth looking at.

“Thanks, no.”

“It’s your business.”

“Sure it is.”

The bartender leaned across the bar.

“She is a nice girl,” he said.

“Naturally.”

“One of the best in Key West.”

“How do you know?”

“I get my pay that way.”

“Try somebody else,” I told him. “It isn’t quite the night for this boy.”

The girl lost her smile when he told her of my refusal and she uncrossed her legs. I grinned a little and finished my drink. Any other time I would have been interested but that night I had something else on my mind. Vera Gordon. I knew it was wrong, and yet I couldn’t wash the memory of her out of my blood. I wanted to drown myself in her beauty, in all the secrets of her body.

“More, mister?”

“More.”

Another man had joined us at the bar and the girl was talking to him. She was smiling and laughing. She had found a customer and the next day she would be able to pay her rent. His one hand was hidden from view but I knew where it was. Her kind of a girl plays that way. She lets you know most of the land before you start to build your house.

I drank and thought about going back to the boat. Old Frank was drunk, finished for the night, and there wasn’t anything to stop me from seeing Betty. She had been mad at me in the cabin, but I knew that she would come to me again. In a way, I felt a little ashamed because of it. She was a fine girl, better than I had a right to ask for, but I didn’t love her.

“You’re getting drunk,” the bartender said.

“Not me.”

I put a ten on the bar and had another. Maybe I was getting drunk. So what? Liquor was a poor substitute for what I really wanted but when you only have a second choice you take it.

“On the house,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“But no more.”

“Okay.”

I tried to think of my life in relation to the future and it was impossible. Twenty-five thousand dollars was beyond my understanding. It meant security, a new freedom, and once the mission was accomplished I would be through with Gordon. I would be through with him unless his daughterh…

Twenty-five thousand bucks and Vera. It was some combination. It was a combination that couldn’t be beaten. If she thought half as much of me as I did of her it would be a world-beater. I would put the money in the bank, maybe buy a little place in Key West and settle down to running fishing parties. I could do well at that, as well as I could do in real estate, and my hours would be my own. It would be a good life, the kind of a life a man was meant to lead, and together we would share it fully.

I had to forget about Betty. She stood for the simple things and the simple things weren’t for me. Someday she would find a man who believed as she did and then she, too, would be happy. She would remember me, perhaps, because I had been the first, but that would be all. She would have children, beautiful children, and in these she would find her reward.

“Another,” I said.

“No, no more.”

I picked up my ten.

“The hell with you.”

“Don’t get nasty.”

I got off the stool and staggered away from the bar. Something told me I had to get back to the boat. Maybe Vera would be there.

7

THE CAB driver was nearly as stoned as I was and we almost hit a car on the way out to the Stearns’ place. I called him a name, and he asked me if I wanted to get out. I told him to keep on driving and to stay on the road.

“It’s my own cab,” he said. “If I want to slop up the whiskey I slop it up.”

“Some business.”

“Lousy. You never get anywhere driving a cab. You can push one of these crates for the rest of your life and you wind up right where you started—in the bottom of the sink.”

He turned off the main highway, unmindful of a truck bearing down on us, and struck the shoulder of the road with one of the front wheels. I bounced up off the seat and cracked my skull against the roof of the car. He was quite a driver. He should have been behind a plow on some farm.

I guess I paid him with a ten. I don’t know—it could have been a twenty. Anyway, I told him to keep the change.

“I’m fresh out of change,” he said, not thanking me. “I spent every nickel I had on a dame who wouldn’t come across.”

“Bad luck.”

“It could be worse. I’ve got a wife at home who never says no,” He laughed. “To me or anybody else. You ever have a wife like that?”

“Once.”

“What’d you do? Drown her?”

“I should have.”

“That’s what I should do. Push her head in a damned tub of water and collect the insurance.”

He tinned the cab around with no little trouble and drove up the road. I had a good idea where that ten or twenty would go. To some dame. He would land in Key West, hit the first bar, and his wife wouldn’t see a penny. Well, it was her tough luck—and his. I should worry over somebody I didn’t even know.

I picked my way through the weeds and looked at the porch. The moon was out, low and bright, and I could see him still lying there. He was snoring and I had the urge to laugh. When he woke up in the morning he would be so stiff he would hardly be able to walk.

There was another place I looked—at the windows upstairs. Was she there, watching me?

“Clint?”

“Hello, baby.”

“You can’t see me but I can see you.”

“That’s not telling me anything.”

There was a long silence. I could hear the sounds of the cars on the highway and the water lapping against the shore line.

“You’re drunk, Clint.”

“I’ve had a few.”

I started for the house.

“Don’t come up here, Clint. Don’t try it. I don’t want you to.”

I stopped and stood still.

“Oh, hell, he’s dead to the world.”

“It isn’t that.”

“What else is there to stop us?”

“I don’t want you when you’re drunk.” I thought she was crying. “It isn’t right that way.” She almost choked on the tears and I could barely hear what she said. “There’s a girl on your boat Clint. She’s waiting for you.”

She was burning it into me and that made me sore.

“So I won’t be alone,” I said.

“Clint—”

I turned on my heel.

“You can go to bed now,” I said. “You know all there is to know.”

I didn’t care if I hurt her, didn’t care what I did. Vera had come to me and that was what I wanted. I was suddenly angry with myself for having drunk so much. I wanted to be sober with her.

“Clint—”

“Good night.”

I caught my foot in some weeds and almost fell. Cursing, I stumbled forward and made for the dock. Drunk or not I would have her. I would tell her how much I loved her, how much she meant, and everything would be all right. I would hold her in my arms, her body against my own. She would be mine, all mine, and nothing would ever make us part I would make her happy, and I wouldn’t stop until the sun was bright and hot outside. I laughed and found the dock. I might not stop then. I might not ever stop.

I don’t know how I got on board. The steps going down inside were steep and I had to hang on to the railing. At the bottom I missed the step and slammed into the wall. I hit my nose and my teeth and as I got up from the floor I felt my teeth with my tongue and found none of them broken, but there was blood in my mouth and it tasted funny. Those whiskey sours had done a job on me, a real job. I started along the passageway, bumping from one side to the other.

“Is that you, Clint?”

I stopped, breathing heavily, and rubbed my face with one hand. I knew that voice and yet I didn’t. Vera Gordon? She had a low voice, not quite so sexy, but everything was fogged up and I might be wrong. I closed my eyes and tried to remember how she sounded. I couldn’t. And then, suddenly, it came to me. I had heard that voice before, thousands of times. I had heard it in the heat of argument and I had heard it in passion.

“Oh, God,” I said.

I didn’t move. I just stood there, feeling the blood in my mouth and shaking my head. It wasn’t right, not this. This was out of the past, something that I had forgotten, something that had died. The liquor slammed against my brain, slid away, slammed again. I didn’t deserve this!

“Where are you?” I could hardly talk. “Where the hell are you?”

“In here.”

A light blazed in one of the cabins, spilling into the passageway, and I moved forward. I was sweating, trembling, my hands balling up into huge fists. She had gone away from me and now she had returned. I wanted to smash her, destroy her. She was as deadly as a cancer, a sickness that I had carried with me ever since I had known her.

I reached the doorway, started inside and stopped.

“Well,” I said.

She was on the bunk, all stretched out, and she wore nothing but a black bra and a pair of thin net panties. She lay there, smiling up at me, and the smile brought back memories that had long since left me. I remembered the first time I had made love to her—she had been smiling at me then, too. The smile had been a challenge, an invitation, an open acceptance of what I wanted to do.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” she wanted to know now, still smiling, her eyes on my face. “Or can’t you talk?”

I leaned against the door casing, feeling the weakness in my knees.

“What is there to say?”

“You could say hello.”

“Hello.”

She swung her legs over the side of the bunk and sat up.

“You smell like a broken bottle of whiskey,” she said.

“What’s it to you?”

She shrugged.

“You never used to drink very much.”

“You drove me to it.”

“That’s right, blame me for your own weakness.”

“Put some clothes on,” I said.

“It’s hot in here and I’m comfortable this way. Besides, I could have taken off everything.” She laughed. “You used to like that. Remember?”

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

She gave me that smile again. Her teeth were white behind the smile and her lips were full and ripe.

“I wanted to see you.”

“After two years?”

“I’ve missed you, Clint.”

“Tell me another.”

Her face became serious.

“It isn’t a lie—it’s the truth. You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

“And I don’t care.”

“Don’t you?”

“No.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Believe what you want. You meant something to me at the start but in the end you killed it. You had a choice and you made it. You wanted a divorce and you got it. What is there left for us?”

She got up from the bunk and came toward me. The liquor still fogged my brain but I knew what I was looking at. She was as good as ever, maybe a few pounds heavier, but she breathed sex with every motion.

“I never married your brother,” she said, swaying very close to me.

I could smell her perfume and the deeper, heavier woman smell of her, and my head pounded.

“It didn’t figure that you would,” I said. “Both of you had what you wanted without marriage.”

“It wasn’t that,” she said.

“Sex. Give me another word for it.”

“I’ve come to learn that there’s more to life than just that, Clint.”

“Let me be the first to congratulate you.”

“Don’t be fresh. I didn’t come here for that.”

“What you came here for, baby, you could pick up in any bar.”

“Shut up.”

“I won’t shut up. What do you think I am? Nuts? You run off with my own brother, get a divorce—he was better than I was, you said—and two years later you show up. You want me to roll out the red carpet? You want me to stand on my head?”

“I don’t blame you for being bitter.”

“Bitter doesn’t describe it.”

She tried to reach up and touch my face but I jerked my head aside.

“Have you ever been in Georgia, Clint?”

“Two or three times.” I didn’t know what she was getting at. “With my father when he was alive.”

“Columbus?”

“No, not there.”

“You don’t know what it’s like in the summer. Hot? My God, it’s hot. You cross the street and your shoes stick to the tar and you can smell an ice cream parlor a block away. That’s where we went after we left here. Columbus. I got a job in a restaurant, waiting on soldiers from Fort Benning, and you have no idea what it was like. The other girls put out for the soldiers and they were after me all the time. But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that Howard wouldn’t work. He took most of my money and drank. And there were other women. One day I was sick and I went back to the room early and I found him in bed with the girl from across the hall. It was all I could stand, all I could take. I left him that night and I never saw him again.”

“Where is he now?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.”

When we were growing up Howard and I had been very close and when I made money I had given him money. I wished I knew where he was, what he was doing. After all, he was my brother and I blamed Rose for what had happened more than I blamed Howard.

“What did you do after that?”

“I took a room alone and I saved my money. As soon as I got a few hundred together I went to New York.”

“A big jump.”

“Bigger than I should have taken.” She hesitated and looked up at me. “I’m not proud of what I did after that.”

“You shouldn’t be proud of anything you’ve done.”

What I said didn’t seem to bother her any.

“I used to dance,” she said. “Before I met you I danced in a night club once.”

This was something I had known about her. I always felt that it had been a strip act.

“Go on,” I said.

“I joined a carnival.”

“About your speed.”

“In the girlie show.”

“That adds up.”

“The money wasn’t so bad.”

“During the show or afterward?”

This hurt her.

“Your mind is only on one thing,” she said. “I have been lots of things in my life but not that. I don’t say there wasn’t the opportunity. Every guy who comes to a carny thinks all the girls can be had. You get offers and some of them are big, but if you’re smart you turn them all down. You get paid to do a dance and that’s all you do. I didn’t even take part in the second show, the one they charge extra for, where you strip all the way down. I was the only girl who didn’t and that cost me my job. Either do it or quit, the boss said, so I quit.”

“And came back here?”

“And came back here.”

“How did you find me?”

“It wasn’t hard.”

“How?”

“I remembered the bank where you used to do some business. I went there this afternoon and the man who had talked to you about a loan had your address. He was very helpful.”

“From now on I’ll stay away from banks.”

“Am I that displeasing to you?”

“You ran away from me and now you’ve come back. I don’t want you back, Rose. You ought to know that.”

“I know only one thing,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“You, Clint.” Her voice was low and soft. “I wasn’t right for you before but I am now. I’ve learned a lot I’ve changed. Two years have changed my way of thinking, even of living. I was crazy to get mixed up with your brother. But all of us make mistakes, don’t we?”

“You made one coming here.”

There were tears in her eyes.

“Did I?”

She was a woman, raw and inviting, but I wouldn’t touch her. She was as poisonous as one of the snakes in the Everglades.

“You can’t stay here,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because you can’t.”

“Where will I stay? I’m almost broke.”

“That’s your problem.”

She turned away, crying.

“I counted on you, Clint.”

“There was no reason why you should. The divorce finished it for us. You have your life and I have mine. We both want different things. It’s time you understood that.”

She swung around to face me. She wasn’t faking the tears; they were real enough.

“I want a home and a family,” she said.

“You should have thought of that before.”

“I want to be married and safe.”

“Find yourself another boy.”

She shook her head. “You are cruel,” she said. “Cruel. Is it the girl up at the house?”

“Come again?”

“I saw her. She’s pretty and when I asked for you she looked at me as though she hated me. What have you been doing? Sleeping with her?”

“I wouldn’t tell you if I had.”

“I know you have. That makes you no better than I am. So I ran away with your brother—you found another woman. Does that make us different? Or is there a double standard? It is all right for a man to have another woman and wrong for a woman to make an error and have another man. You answer me, Clint. Is it?”

I didn’t want to argue with her, didn’t want to be near her. Just her presence brought back many of the things from which I had been trying to escape.

“Get dressed and get out of here,” I said.

“Clint—”

“I mean it. We aren’t married any longer. What I do is my business and what you do is yours. The fact that we once lived together doesn’t mean anything.”

She sat down on the bunk and for a brief instant I felt sorry for her. My brother should have married her, should have made a home for her. What did she have left? Nothing, that’s what she had left. And what did I have left? Hell, I had plenty. I had The Shark and the chance of making twenty-five thousand bucks. And, with luck, I would have Vera Gordon. No sane man could have asked for more.

“You could help me out,” she said.

I reached into my pocket.

“Would a hundred help?”

“I didn’t come here for money—not exactly.”

“Well, that’s all you’re going to get and you’re lucky to get that. I can give you a hundred to help you get started. You can get a job in Key West or someplace and you’ll get along all right.”

“I’d rather stay here.”

“You’re not going to stay here. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

I walked over to her and held out the hundred. She took it, folded the bill and pushed it inside of her bra.

“I guess you mean it,” she said.

“I guess I do.”

“It could be good for us,” she said, trying again. “I’m not the same girl I used to be. I want something out of life, Clint. Not just sex. Sex is a part of it but only a part. I’ve found that out. When I married you it was because of it, mostly, but since I’ve been away from you I’ve found out there was something else, too. You were good to me, Clint—in more ways than one. Two years isn’t a long time but in two years a girl can find herself. I have. That’s why I’m here. I thought we could pick up the pieces and start all over again.”

“You thought wrong.”

She got to her feet and picked up her dress. It wasn’t until then that I noticed the suitcase near the door. She had come to stay and I was kicking her out. There wasn’t anything else I could do. Even if I wanted to keep her around she would only spoil things. My deal with Gordon was strictly private and the less anybody else knew about it the better off I would be.

“I’ll stay in Key West for a while,” she said, slipping the dress over her head. “You may change your mind.”

“Don’t hold your breath waiting.”

The dress was one of those sack affairs but it looked good on her. That I couldn’t help noticing.

“How am I going to get out of here?” she inquired.

“I’ll call a cab from town.”

“From where?”

“The house.”

A faint smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

“Do you suppose she will let you?”

“You’ve got her tagged wrong.”

“Have I?” She was amused. “A pretty girl like that and a lonely man like you? I’m surprised I didn’t find her down here at the boat.”

“Cut it out.”

“You’re not kidding me,” she said. “I know you well enough to know you couldn’t stay around her five minutes without making a pass.”

“I never did that with any girl when we were married.”

“But you aren’t married now.”

I picked up her suitcase and we didn’t talk as we left the boat. I thought she was crying again but in the darkness I couldn’t be sine. The heels of her shoes made a lot of noise on the rough planking of the dock.

“You wait here,” I said when we were close to the house. I put the suitcase down. “I’ll call the cab from inside.”

“Tell them to hurry.”

“Don’t worry. I will.”

She stood there in the weeds and I walked over to the porch. Stearns was still in the same position, snoring loudly. I made my way around him and entered the house.

“Who’s that?” Betty wanted to know from upstairs.

“Clint.”

“What do you want?”

“To use the phone.”

“As long as that’s all you want, go ahead.”

The phone was in the hall and I managed to find it. I ht a match, dialed, and some woman answered. Yes, they had an available cab. Yes, it would be right out. Yes, she knew where the Stearns dock was located.

Outside again, I ht a cigarette and inhaled the smoke. If the cab were ten minutes getting out here it would be about nine minutes too long.

“You get one?”

“Sure.”

“Can I have a cigarette?”

“Hell, don’t you have anything?”

“I told you I was broke, didn’t I?”

“How did you pay for getting out here? Let the guy park with you?”

I held a match for her and I could see her face. I was immediately sorry that I had said such a thing. Maybe she didn’t deserve much but she didn’t deserve that. She seemed to be trying to square herself away and I had to give her credit for that. When I got right down to it, I wasn’t a great deal better than she was—if as good.

“I want to see you again,” she said.

“Don’t bother.”

“But I do.” In the darkness one of her hands found my arm. “You’re bitter now and I can’t blame you. But when you’re sober and you’ve thought it over you may not feel the same.”

“Fat chance.” I took my arm away from her. “You go your way and I’ll go mine.”

“It’s your decision, Clint.”

“You’re damned right it is.”

The cab came pretty soon and she got in. I didn’t even help her with the suitcase.

“Goodbye, Glint.”

I said nothing.

After the cab had gone I started for the dock and then turned back toward the house. Why be proud? Her old man was drunk and she was as ready as she would ever be.

I entered the house and began climbing the stairs. She wasn’t Vera but she was a girl and right then I needed a girl. The way Rose had looked in the cabin had set me on fire.

“Clint! Don’t come up here!”

It didn’t stop me in the least. I kept right on going.

“Clint, I’m telling you—”

I found her in the bedroom, the one over the porch. It wasn’t light in there but I could see her body outlined against the backdrop of an open window. It was hot in the room, hotter than outside and I suspected she wasn’t wearing any more than her skin.

“Who was the girl?”

“My former wife. I sent her packing.”

“Was that nice?”

“It was the only way.”

“She didn’t say who she was. I thought—”

“I know what you thought,” I said. “You thought she was a girl from town, somebody I picked up.”

“Yes.”

“Now you know.”

I began to take off my shirt.

“The other girl was out here, too. The one with the big car.”

I had missed her. What lousy luck.

“When was that?”

“Before dark. I told her you weren’t here and she looked angry.”

I got out of the shirt.

“They want me to take them fishing. Maybe I will.”

Her voice came at me across the room.

“Or something else, Clint?”

“No, not that,” I lied. “It’s business. You know how nutty these people are. You get all kinds.”

“Not always as pretty.”

“Maybe not, but I don’t have anything to do with that. They’re loaded with cash and if I don’t take it somebody else will.” I patted the money in my pocket. “I saw the old man tonight and he gave me a grand in advance. Can you imagine that? A grand! It’s enough, more than enough, to straighten your father up with the bank.”

I could hear her suck in her breath.

“You don’t have to do that, Clint.”

“I know I don’t have to—I want to do it.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve lost things in the past—a house—and I know what it means. Once he’s settled down he’ll square away and he can pay me back as he goes along. I’m not worried. All he needs is a chance and if I can give it to him, that’s for me.”

“You’re sweet,” she said.

I almost fell down as I got out of the rest of my clothes. The liquor was still in me, and though I wasn’t as bad as I had been I wasn’t sober, either. Sure, I would give Stearns the money. Out of twenty-five grand it wasn’t much. And she was worth it. She was, for my purpose, worth every cent of it. She would earn it in bed. She wasn’t Vera but she was a girl and the way I felt I had to have somebody. Somebody. Anybody but Rose.

“Clint,” she said as I went to her.

I caught her there by the window, took her in my arms, felt the warmth of her body.

“We mustn’t, Clint,” she murmured.

“Why not? He’s out like a light and he wouldn’t know daylight from dark if you caught it in a paper bag and handed it to him.”

I didn’t wait for any more. She was in my arms, and I had to have her. Savagely, I caught her head with my left hand and forced her lips to my mouth, my hand in back of her head, my whole mouth open.

She wasn’t Vera Gordon and she wasn’t Rose.

But she was a girl.

8

THE NEXT morning I cleaned up the inside of the boat—there was no good reason for it except that I wanted something to do—and then I went outside. Stearns was on the dock, pacing up and down like a caged fox.

“If I could only get rid of this headache,” he said. “I must have tied one on.”

“You sure did.”

“Got anything I could take?”

“Only Bromo.”

“I’d take rat poison if it would help.”

I left him on the dock and took the ladder down inside. It took me a few minutes to locate the Bromo and then I drew half a glass of water. I didn’t mix it until I was on the dock.

“This’ll fix you up,” I said.

He drank it down and made a face.

“I’m off the booze,” he announced, handing me the glass. “I was off it before and now I’m off it again.”

“Until the next time.”

He grinned. “You’re so right.”

“All you need is an excuse.”

“Well, I had one last night. I ran all over Key West , and the best I could borrow is fifty bucks. I can name you half a dozen fellows I helped out years ago and they wouldn’t even listen to me.”

“That’s the way it goes.”

“I’ve given up on it. The bank can have the place and stick it. Somebody on the board thinks this dock is worth money and that’s the reason for the pressure. You can’t fight things like that. I’ve got an idea that’s why they gave me the loan in the first place, to suck me in. They know what the turtle business is. If they had given me the money on a twenty-year plan it would have been all right. But these ten-year mortgages break your back.”

“Let them go and scratch.”

“That’s easy enough for you to say because you don’t own the dock. You know what it means to me and Betty?”

“You don’t have to tell me about it. I’ve been through it myself. It’s tough to lose what almost belongs to you.”

“Real tough.”

He was standing on the edge of the dock, looking down into the water, and I knew there were tears in his eyes.

“I had a run of luck,” I said.

“Luck?”

I dug into my pocket and got out the roll of bills. There was nothing smaller than a twenty, nothing larger than a fifty, and I counted out seven hundred. Don’t ask me why I was being so generous; I don’t know why. I guess I liked him and liked Betty and didn’t want to see them pushed out into the cold. Besides, seven hundred didn’t mean much out of twenty-five thousand.

“Here,” I said, holding out the money.

He just stared at it. He wet his lips with his tongue, rubbed his hands together and glanced up into my face.

“Where did you get that?”

“I said I had some luck, didn’t I?”

“It must have been big luck.”

“It was.”

“How much is it?”

“Seven hundred. Enough to straighten you out with the bank.”

This time I could see the tears in his eyes.

“I don’t know how or when I can pay you back,” he said. “You know how things are.”

“Clean up your boat and take out fishing parties.”

“I’ve thought of that.”

“You get more money from tourists than you do from turtles. And it isn’t as much work. All you do is take them out and let them slap their lines around in the water.”

He nodded. “Maybe I will. You seem to be doing all right,” he added. “I haven’t seen that much money since they gave me the loan.”

“Take it.”

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

“I know what I’m doing. Take it.”

He took the bills and crushed them in one hand. I could imagine how he felt. A rock had been lifted off of his head and he was free.

“I can’t do it today,” I said, “but tomorrow we’ll celebrate. I’ll get a couple of jugs and we’ll knock ourselves out.”

“I just swore off.”

That was all I needed.

“Oh, forget that,” I told him. “You can have a few drinks with me on a friendship basis.”

He thought a moment.

“I guess I couldn’t refuse that.”

He would have more than a couple. I would get him so drunk that he wouldn’t even come to if somebody blew up his dock.

“There’s a funny thing,” he said suddenly, putting the money into his pocket. “You know I slept on the porch last night?”

“I don’t know where you slept, but you were on the porch when I left you.”

He blinked his eyes against the sun and his tears were gone.

“Somebody came out of the house early this morning.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I don’t know who it was but I remember now that I heard the noise.”

“Maybe it was Betty looking for you.”

“No, it wasn’t Betty. These were heavy footsteps, like a man’s.”

“I see.”

“Another funny thing,” he said. “I thought it might be you.”

He had me sweating.

“It wasn’t me.”

“Sure about that?”

“Positive.”

He seemed to accept my denial.

“Then it must have been some fellow from town. I knew when she went to work in that restaurant that it was a bad thing. A girl working in a restaurant meets all kinds of men, some good, some bad. The worst part is that a good girl usually falls for the bad in a man. If I thought for one minute—”

“You were drunk. You could be mistaken.”

“I suppose so.”

“Betty doesn’t act like that kind of a girl. When she goes all the way it will be for keeps and with a ring on her finger.”

“I hope you’re right. I’ve tried to bring her up that way. It hasn’t been easy, being both a father and a mother, but I’ve made every try to do the job.”

“And a good one you’ve done.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard for a man to talk to a girl and tell her the way things are. You get embarrassed. Sex can be a big part of life and life without it doesn’t mean much. When her mother was alive—well, why go into that? Her mother was a lot like Betty, built just the way she is. Even when she got older she had a fine shape.”

He continued to talk about his dead wife but I wasn’t listening to him. I had been lucky that morning and I wouldn’t press my luck again. Not that I was afraid of him. I wasn’t, but I didn’t want a bullet in the guts. And that’s just what he would do. His world was wrapped around his daughter and anybody who bothered that world was in dangerous territory.

“I’ll go to the bank,” he said after a while.

“That’s what I would do.”

He laughed. “Knock those bastards down. They’re so high and mighty.” He laughed again. “I can’t thank you enough, Clint Walker. You’re a real friend.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I just hope I didn’t cut you short.”

“You didn’t.”

He said he was going to walk, that the walk would do him good, and he left. He walked with his shoulders back, real square and straight and his head was held high. When he got to the end of the dock he turned and waved at me and I waved back.

“Make it scotch,” he said.

“Anything you want.”

After he had gone I lay down on the dock and stretched out in the sun. I didn’t feel so hot myself. I’d had a lot to drink the night before and I had had very little sleep. Not only that, but Rose bothered me. She always bothered me. I had been running from her for two years and now she had come back. Well, I wasn’t going to have anything to do with her. I was determined about that. If she came to the boat again I wouldn’t give her a dime. She could make her own way.

I closed my eyes and grinned up at the sun. So she had been with a carnival and she had stayed a good girl. Like hell she had. Maybe Howard hadn’t worked out, but she must have tried other men. I wondered how many. She wasn’t the kind of girl who went without her sex for more than twenty-four hours at a stretch. If she hadn’t done it for money then she had done it for just plain fun.

But there was something else annoying me more than Rose. It was Betty. I had been pretty well sacked the night before and I couldn’t recall all that I had said. Had I promised marriage? I didn’t know. Perhaps I had. A man holds a desirable girl in his arms and he’s apt to promise anything. But Betty was not a slut picked up from the streets and I respected her for that. She was in love, or she thought she was. One thing I said did hurt her, though.

“You called me Vera once, Clint.”

“Did I?”

“Who is Vera?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just somebody?”

“I don’t like that name.”

“Why not?”

“It sounds tough.”

I held her in the night and I thought she was Vera. It was dark in the room—it wasn’t hard to think that. I had taken her body, accepted her love, and made believe it was Vera Gordon. It wasn’t right, but Vera had done something to me and I couldn’t change it. I yearned for her, every nerve cried for her, and anyone’s body would have been hers.

I closed my eyes to the sun, saw the blonde of Vera’s hair, the shape of her figure. She had been out to see me and I hadn’t been there. What lousy luck. The next time it wouldn’t be the same. The next time I would be waiting for her. And sober. I didn’t need any liquor, not with Vera. All I needed was time. All I needed was to have her close, to know her again, to keep on knowing her forever.

I had it bad. There was no doubt about that. I had so bad that I couldn’t think of anything else. Except twenty-five thousand dollars. I could think of that. I could think of that and not half try. Twenty-five thousand big bucks could create a different world, a world of pleasure. And with it might come Vera. That was the bonus. She was one in a thousand, one in a million and she had belonged to me that night with sheer abandon. Sober, I wanted her. Drunk, I wanted her. Any hour of the day or the night, I wanted her. I had to have her, and I would have her. If it cost me every cent I had and the boat, I would have her.

I continued to lie there, soaking up the sun. There were a lot of things I should be doing. I had a set of new thin head gaskets from a mail order firm, and these, once installed, would add power to the boat. My guess was that they would load me down heavily with guns and we would ride low in the water, so I would need all of the extra power I could get. Yet I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t move. Tomorrow was another day and today could take care of itself. I had plenty of power, anyway, more than enough. It would be a short run to Cuba but getting close to the shore could be a problem. I’d have to watch the coral-reefs. A coral reef could ruin the boat and the whole venture. Once you went up on one of those you stayed—or you sank.

It must have been around three when the Imperial pulled up in front of the house and stopped. I turned my head, hoping that it was Vera, but it was Gordon. He came lumbering toward me down the dock.

“The life of ease,” he said.

I sat up.

“Nothing like it,” I told him.

He had a cigar in his mouth but he wasn’t smoking it. He was chewing it.

“Just checking,” he said. “I didn’t think I would find you here.”

“Why not?”

“A man with a thousand dollars is apt to do anything.”

“Not if there are twenty-four more behind it.”

He sat down with effort and tried to cross his legs. He couldn’t. His legs were too fat and his stomach was too big. Sitting there, he looked like a toad on a log.

“Tomorrow night at nine,” he said. “Well bring the guns in by truck. Be ready to leave by twelve.”

“All right.”

“You spoke about the old man.”

“I’ll get him out of the way.”

“And the girl?”

“I’ll take her to a hotel.”

He permitted himself a faint smile. “I figured you must be getting some of that,” he said. “She’s something in a bathing suit.”

“She’s all right.”

“But she might cause us trouble.”

“How do you figure that?”

“If your intentions aren’t serious she might go to the police. That’s all we would need. If the guns don’t get to Cuba, all of them, the cause is ruined.”

“She won’t go to the police,” I assured him. “She thinks I’m quite a guy and I’ll let her go on thinking so.”

“Very well.”

He threw the cigar into the water but the fish didn’t go for it. I ht a cigarette and watched him through the smoke. There was something funny about this guy, very funny.

“What are you going to do with the guns?” I asked him.

He reached for another cigar.

“There’s only one thing you do with guns. You shoot.”

“That follows.”

“The proper amount of guns in the hands of the right people can bring about a whole new government for Cuba.”

“Or any other country.”

He nodded. “I wasn’t going to tell you much about this but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t know. Cuba has never had an honest government.”

“The last guy got out with a couple of million dollars.”

“Or two hundred million, depending upon which story you believe.”

“Two million or two hundred it’s a lot of change. There must have been plenty of graft.”

“There was. Bleed the poor and feed the rich, that was the theme. The aim now is to bring honesty to the government, to nationalize the sugar industry, to give every worker his place in the sun, to hold elections the way they should be held.”

“At the point of a gun?”

“Only to the extent of gaining power. After that it will be up to the people. A president is supposed to be elected every four years but one man held power for over twenty. The theory of Cuban government was one of democracy but it has always been a dictatorship. One man takes control and then another. Nobody knows where he is going. The worker in the sugar field is a slave to the whim of the leaders.”

“And you expect to change all that?”

“We wouldn’t be spending such a sum of money with you if we didn’t think so.”

“What do you get out of it?”

“A flat fee.”

“And a post in the new government?”

“Perhaps.”

“You hope.”

“Yes, I hope. There’s enough in Cuba for everybody, with some left over. If I am offered my share I won’t refuse it.”

“Some democracy.”

“It’s legal.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”

“I was running guns and helping in revolutions before you knew what it was all about. I’m tired of it, Walker. I want to earn my nut and quit the whole business.”

“This could be it.”

“This is it.”

He didn’t stay long after that. I asked him some questions but he didn’t answer me and I let the business drop. He was paying me well for the job and what he did with the guns was no affair of mine. As he had told me before, if I didn’t do it somebody else would. I didn’t feel guilty. Cuba was a melting pot and somebody was always throwing something into the pot. Perhaps he was sincere. Free elections and a free people would be a good thing for everybody. Since the previous revolution the tourist trade had fallen off and the country needed that. The country also needed the investment of American dollars to bolster the economy.

“The boat will be ready,” I said when he got up to go.

“It better be.”

“And so will I.”

“If you aren’t you can imagine what will happen to you. This isn’t a game, Walker. This is a deadly serious thing.”

“For twenty-five grand anything is serious.”

“Is that all you think about?”

“Name me something better.”

He left, chewing the cigar, and I lay down again. The head gaskets could wait. Everything could wait. Everything except one. That couldn’t.

Shortly before five I changed my clothes and started walking toward town. Stearns hadn’t come back yet and I had an idea he had ended up in some bar. On the way I met a cab and Betty waved to me. I waved back. She probably wondered where I was going but that didn’t bother me in the least. I knew where I was going. And I knew what I was going to do if I got the chance. I walked faster, thinking about it.

The lobby of the hotel was deserted and the house phone vacant. I called her room and had to wait a long time for an answer.

“Hello,” she said. She had a deep voice on the phone, slow and sexy. It sent a hot streak up my spine. “Who is this?”

“Clint. Clint Walker.”

“Oh, yes. Clint.”

“I thought we might have dinner together.”

There was just a brief silence.

“I’d love that,” she said. “It would be nice.”

My throat was dry.

“Shall I come up?”

She laughed and her laugh was sexy, too. “You’d better not. I just got out of the shower and I’m standing here—well, you know how.”

I closed my eyes. I knew how. I could see her, all of her loveliness. I wanted to hang up the phone and run for the elevator. I wanted to get to her before she found a robe or a negligee, before she could put on anything at all. But I knew it wasn’t the time.

“I’ll wait for you in the lobby,” I said.

“Fine.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

That laugh filled my ears.

“I won’t be that long. Ten minutes.”

The ten minutes I waited was eternity. I bought a paper at the counter, tried to get interested in it and couldn’t. There was an article in there about Cuba but I didn’t read it. What did I care about Cuba? I was being paid to run guns and that was my first concern.

She was lovely when she appeared. She wore a blue dress that flattered her breasts and hips, if they needed flattering, and there was a narrow belt that showed how small she was in the middle. I watched her legs as she came toward me across the lobby and that same feeling crept along my spine.

“Hi,” I said, getting up, leaving the paper on the chair. “You look good enough to eat.”

She tossed her hair, fluffing it out.

“Do I?”

She stood there before me, her lips parted in a smile, smelling sweet.

“You’re the most beautiful girl in Key West.”

“Thank you, Clint.”

“Don’t mention it.”

We had dinner in the hotel dining room but we didn’t eat very much. We had one drink but when I asked her about a second she said $he didn’t want any more.

“I can’t stay very long,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I have to meet my father.”

“Oh?”

“He’s upset about you, Clint. He’s afraid you’ll back out at the last minute.”

“I won’t.”

“I told him you wouldn’t but he’s never sure of anything. He’s had too many disappointments in life not to see the dark side.”

“Twenty-five grand is twenty-five grand,” I said. “You don’t pick that much up off the streets every day.”

“That’s what I told him.”

“Tell him again.”

“I will.”

“You’re going with us?” I asked.

“On all trips.”

“What happens after the last one?”

She shrugged. “I’ll be able to relax for a little while.”

“Won’t you worry about your father?”

“Yes, I’ll worry, but he’s been in these revolutions before. He knows what he’s doing. But he’s getting older and he can’t keep it up forever. I hope this is the last.”

“It should be.”

She toyed with her empty glass. “I dream of a quiet decent life. Ever since I can remember we’ve been on the go. It isn’t good. You need a home, a place to fasten your roots.”

“And marriage.”

“That too, for a girl. A girl needs marriage and children and a man to love her.” She smiled. “Not in the way you loved me, not just that, but in other ways, too. One is as important as the other.”

“I’d like to put in my bid,” I said.

“For what?”

“For you.”

I thought her face colored slightly.

“You hardly know me, Clint.”

“I know enough. I knew it the moment I saw you.”

She wasn’t convinced. “Do people know those things so quickly?”

“I think so. You see a girl and you either like it right away or you don’t. You see hundreds of them, thousands of them, and out of it all comes one that is for you. You know it without being told, without having to think. It’s just there and no matter how much you fight it it stays with you.”

Her one hand crept across the table and her fingers found my arm. She kept squeezing my arm, pushing the tips of her fingers down into my flesh.

“I’m glad,” she murmured. “I think I felt it, too.”

“Did you?” I stroked her fingers with my free hand. “What did you feel?”

“That I wanted you.”

“As much as any other man?”

“More. Before—I’m being honest with you—I thought I wanted what a man could give me but with you it was more than that. You—Clint, you weren’t the first.”

“I know.”

“Does that make me awful?”

“No.”

“Some men would think so.”

“I don’t. Most people think there is one set of rules for a man and another set for a girl. I don’t.”

Her fingers went deep into my arm.

“What goes for one goes for the other?”

“Yes. To a certain extent. A man seldom has any worries if he plays around but a girl does. It’s a chance she takes.”

“I know. I saw it in college. One month a girl was safe and the next month she was on her way to having a baby. But people who are in love should have a baby as quickly as they can and as many as they can.”

I lifted her hand and kissed it.

“You don’t have to meet your father,” I said.

She looked at me silently. Everything I wanted to see was in her eyes.

“He can get along without you,” I said.

“Maybe.”

“I know something that we would both rather do.” I kissed her hand again.

Her eyes were frank. “I don’t deny my own feelings.”

“Nor I mine.”

I paid the check and we left the dining room. We both knew where we were going and I didn’t have to lead her over to the elevator. She took my arm firmly. I decided that this would be a night to remember.

9

THE NEXT MORNING I tore the motors apart and installed the thin head gaskets. Stearns came down just as I was finishing and wanted to know what I was doing. I told him.

“She had enough power before,” he said. “You want to pull the deck loose?”

The motors sounded good when I started them up. Of course, I couldn’t tell much tied up at the dock but the thin gaskets were supposed to add one full point of compression and that’s a lot.

“Sweet,” Stearns said. “They click like two clocks running side by side.”

“You should do the same with your scow.”

“Maybe I will.”

I cut the engines and while I washed up he went topside. The night before I had picked up two bottles of scotch but it was too early in the day to start him drinking. Afternoon was time enough and by nightfall he would be as slopped as they come. The only other problem was to get Betty into town but I didn’t think that was much of a problem. She never got out and we could always take in a movie. Or do something else.

“Somebody here to see you,” Stearns called down.

“I’m coming.”

I didn’t know who it was but I hoped it wasn’t Gordon. There was no reason for him to visit the boat. Our arrangements were set and we both knew what we had to do. I didn’t think that Stearns was apt to draw a fine line between what was right and wrong but what he didn’t know wouldn’t bother him. If he were aware that I was getting twenty-five thousand bucks he might want part of it and I wasn’t sharing the loot with anybody. It was my boat, my neck, and what I got belonged to me.

I climbed the ladder and stood on the deck. My fears that it might be Gordon were unfounded. It was Rose.

“Hi,” I said, wishing she were a hundred miles away.

“You took your own good time,” she said.

I jumped down to the dock. She was wearing shorts and a halter and when she dressed that way she was pretty much all woman.

“If I had known who it was I’d have taken longer.”

“No doubt.”

Stearns was watching us, looking uncomfortable, and I introduced them. Rose merely nodded but I could tell that Stearns wasn’t missing one line of her body. I didn’t see how he could.

“I thought I was through with you,” I said.

She smiled. “You know what they say about a bad penny.”

“Or a bad woman.”

“Don’t get personal.”

We stood there, none of us saying anything, and Stearns continued to look at her. Lazily, she adjusted the strap on her halter and he followed every movement. His interest in her gave me an idea. He was a man and she was a woman and I had two bottles of scotch. It was a combination that could be potent.

“Let’s have a drink,” I said. “What the hell else is there to do?”

“I could use a drink,” Stearns said, wiping his forehead with one hand. “I was going out for turtles but they can wait.”

“What about you?” I asked Rose.

She fooled with her halter again.

“Twist my arm,” she said.

We went aboard and it wasn’t long before we were deep into the bottle of scotch. I began to wish that I had gotten more. Rose could put it away straight, and never blink an eye.

“You taught me,” she said once.

I had like hell. She had taught me. The only thing I ever drank until I met her was beer, and very little of that.

“Scotch is a good drink,” Stearns said. “It hits the spot.”

“Right on the head,” I agreed.

About the fifth drink he said he had to go up to the house for some cigarettes and while he was gone Rose tried to sit on my lap.

“You know what brought me out here,” she said.

“Save it for the next guy.”

“I ought to slap you for that.”

“Go ahead.”

She did. I rubbed my cheek and laughed at her.

“Want to earn five hundred bucks?” I inquired, feeling her close, knowing that she could be mine if I wanted her.

“Doing what?”

“Keeping the old guy busy for the next five nights.”

I thought she was going to slap me again.

“Say, what do you think I am?”

“If I told you I’d be right the first time.”

She poured another drink and sat down at the table.

“You don’t believe anything, do you?”

“Not much.”

She tasted the drink. “I thought there might be something for us, Clint.”

“There isn’t.”

Her eyes were misty. “Nothing left?”

“Not a thing. The barrel is empty. The past is shot. You live for tomorrow.”

She finished the drink. “What do I have to do for the five hundred?”

“Keep him busy. Get him drunk. Anything. Just make sure that he isn’t here around nine o’clock every night.”

“That shouldn’t be hard. You saw how he looked at me?”

“I saw.”

“Filthy old man. I’d take a buck for every time he undressed me mentally.”

“It wouldn’t amount to much.”

“Why not?”

“Because he took your clothes off once and left them off.”

“I wish you would do the same. I wish it were the same for us as before. You don’t know how much I want it that way, Clint.”

I ignored her. “You’ll do it?”

She nodded. “Not for the money. For you. I’d do anything that you asked me to do.”

“I’ll bet.”

Her lips formed an oval. “Ask me and find out.”

“I already have.”

When Stearns came bade he said he couldn’t find any cigarettes so I gave him one. He was quite a long way from being drunk but he was feeling the drinks and that pleased me.

“You two have a party,” I said, getting up. “I’m going to take a walk.”

This satisfied him and he merely nodded. I guess he was thinking of all of the bunks on the boat and what he could do about them with them. Rose merely looked at me, her face hard, and said nothing.

I didn’t walk far, just along the shore, and then I sat down. It was the wrong thing to do to Rose but I didn’t owe her anything and she couldn’t earn five hundred dollars easier. For the first time, I think, I realized that I had never loved her, not the way, let us say, that I loved Vera Gordon. Oh, there was sex with Vera, more than one man’s share of it, but there was much more needed than that. When I held Vera in my arms the world stood still and when I was away from her there wasn’t any world, only the hollow feeling of waiting that no one else could fill. Rose was simply another woman who could be bought for a price—no matter who paid the money, no matter who the man was. She was for sale and I had bought her. She was no longer my wife. She was a memory that had shattered in a thousand pieces.

I lay back on the sand, closing my eyes. Five days, five days more and I would have all of the money I needed. What was it Vera had said?

“I’ll go with you,” she had said. “All I want is you, Clint. All I’ll ever want is you.”

“I’m glad you do, because I want you.”

“Show me.”

I had shown her, shown her in the only way I knew how. It hadn’t been the cheap sex of Rose or the innocent sex of Betty. She had melted against me, and I had given her all that a man could possibly give a woman. Later, in my arms, she slept but I remained awake, restless, unable to comprehend all that was happening to me.

In the morning I left her. I had told her about Betty, what I had to do, and she had understood.

“It’s for us,” she had said.

“All of it’s for us.”

“And the money.”

“That’s for us, too.”—

Now as I lay on the bank it all came back to me, all of the beauty of it, all of the wonder. Once we had the money things would be the way they should be. We would buy a small place in Key West and I would use the boat to haul fishermen. Maybe I wouldn’t get rich but I wouldn’t have to be rich to be happy. I would have her, every moment of every night, and this was all I would ever need. Someday she would give birth to a child and then it would be complete. I didn’t much care whether it was a boy or a girl but I thought I wanted a girl, a girl with blue eyes and her hair and her smile, a girl who would always remind me of her.

Love? Yes, it was love, the only time I had ever known real love. I thought I had found it with Rose but that had been a fraud from start to finish. She claimed there hadn’t been other men, other than Howard, but I didn’t believe that. She had picked up with Stearns willingly enough, hadn’t she? Most likely it had been the same with many other men. And she had been with a carnival. Most girls don’t travel with a carnival without giving themselves to somebody. It’s either the owner of the show or one of the workers in the show and, if the girl goes low enough, the men in the audience for money. I had been to several carny girlie shows and most of them had been the same. For fifty cents they put on a dance, wearing tights and a bra, and for an extra buck you could stay and see them do it naked. When they danced naked they came out front, to the end of the platform, and they let the men touch them wherever the men wanted to. If a man had money he could make a contact. They had it to sell and they didn’t care how they earned their wages. Usually such girls made more on the flat of their backs than they did standing up and dancing. My guess was that Rose had been one of these girls, that she had tired of the life and that she had come back to me simply because there wasn’t any place else for her to go.

“Clint?”

I sat up, realizing that I had been asleep, and yawned. The sun was lower now, redder, and it washed against the surface of the sea. In the distance a sailboat cut along smoothly. I wondered vaguely where the wind came from, since there wasn’t any wind along the shore. The heat was oppressive, dense.

“Hello,” I said.

It was Betty and she was standing above me, looking down. She was wearing her uniform and I noticed a coffee stain down the front of it.

“Where is my father?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Isn’t he at the house?”

“No. I called for him and looked in every room and he wasn’t there.”

“Maybe he went to town.”

“Why would he do that?”

I got to my feet and yawned again.

“He had a bottle,” I said. “He was hitting it up pretty hard.”

“I saw the bottle on the porch. Scotch. It was empty.”

“It was almost empty when I saw him with it.”

“I wonder where he got the money?”

“Well, I gave him money for the bank and a little extra, and he was in town during the day. I’d say he bought a jug and then went back for more.”

“Damn,” she said.

I picked up a stone and tried to skip it across the water.

“Get off his back,” I told her. “He’s just celebrating a little bit.”

“While I slave in a hot restaurant?”

“Well—”

“It isn’t right, Clint and you know it isn’t right. He won’t stop with one drink or two. He has to get himself down and out.”

We left the bank and walked toward the house.

“I’ve got a thought,” I said. “Let’s go in town for dinner.”

“There’s plenty to eat in the house. Save your money.”

She was being stubborn and that wasn’t good. I had gotten rid of Stearns and now I had to get her away from the dock.

“We might take in a movie,” I suggested. “I don’t know what’s playing but it’s better than sitting around here and counting noses.”

She laughed and came in close to me.

“You’re crazy,” she said.

“I don’t care if I am.”

“But I like you crazy. I like you just the way you are.”

“I’m a little nuts about you, too.”

I felt bad about lying to her but the choice wasn’t mine. She was in the way and the only method I could use to get her out of the way was to he to her, to string her along until the time came for us to separate.

“A movie might take my mind off my father,” she decided as we reached the house.

That’s the spirit.”

“And we might see him in town. If we could only get him to come home I wouldn’t worry so much. He won’t take a taxi and you know how those cars are on the highway. He could stagger in front of one and that would be the end of him.”

I considered changing clothes, rejected the idea, and followed her into the house. All of the windows had been left down, the doors closed, and it was somewhat cooler in the house than it was outside.

“I’ll have to dress,” she said.

“All right.” I had to play this all the way up to the hilt. “I’ll help you.”

She laughed, standing on the bottom step of the stairs and turned to me.

“We’ll never make that movie if you do,” she said.

I knew she expected me to kiss her and I did. I drove my mouth down on her lips and I held it there a long time.

“I’ll be a good boy,” I said.

“You’re undressing me already.”

“Just the buttons in front.”

“That’s how it starts, isn’t it?”

“Everything starts somewhere.”

I followed her up the stairs and her hips were in front of me. They were rounded, swinging just right, and in that second I wanted her. It was an insane desire—who could want another woman after Vera?—and I fought it down.

We entered her bedroom and she started undoing the rest of the buttons down the front of her uniform. I had gotten the top two or three, enough to expose her pink bra.

“Will it be like this after we’re married, Clint?”

I swallowed hard. How do you lie to a nice girl? It isn’t easy. But again, the choice wasn’t mine. Twenty-five thousand dollars and Vera Gordon were riding on everything I did.

It’ll be even better,” I said, going to her. I took her hands, held them for a second, and then I went after the rest of the buttons myself. I’ll dress you and undress you and there won’t be a thing that you do that I won’t help you with.”

“You’ll even get me ready for bed?”

“That’s just undressing. Why put on something that you only have to take off again?”

She held my face in her hands and kissed me on the forehead.

“You are crazy,” she whispered. “You’re real gone.”

“Over you.”

“And it’s the same with me.”

“Is it?”

“You know it is. I work in a fog, live in a fog. I keep thinking what it will be like for us to be together all the time.”

“It’ll be wonderful.”

“I think so. No, not that. I know so. I know enough about boats to help you and understand your work and that ought to be an advantage. So many wives don’t know what their husbands do—or even care. All they are interested in is that they have enough money to spend and that the bills are paid on time.”

Her heart was in her eyes when she looked at me.

“What should I wear, Clint?”

“Go the way you are.”

“Oh, silly!”

“I don’t care,” I said. “Anything.”

She walked over to the closet and brought out a yellow dress.

“This is about the only thing I have that’s decent.” She held it up to her chest. “It’s tight but what can I do?”

“Nothing. Put it on.”

She got into the dress, zipped it up the side, and it was tight. I almost wished that things weren’t as they were, that this was all in life that I had to have. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. There were twenty-five thousand bucks and a girl who could help me spend it.

“I’ll fix my face,” she said.

While she fixed her face I went downstairs and called a cab. As soon as I hung up I walked outside and sat down on the top step. I was still sitting there when she came out and joined me.

“We forgot about eating,” she said.

“Are you hungry?”

“Not after working all day in a restaurant.”

“Neither am I.”

I put my arm around her and she rested her head on my shoulder.

“I love you, Clint.”

“And I love you.”

“I love you so much that nothing else counts, nothing else matters. You could have taken me up there in the room but you didn’t. I love you for that, too. There is a time and a place for everything.”

“Your lipstick come off?”

“It isn’t supposed to.”

I tried her lips and it didn’t come off. We were still kissing when the cab arrived.

“Second trip out here today,” the driver said as we got in.

“My father,” Betty said.

“I don’t know who it was. Some old guy and a young girl. They were both potted.”

“Oh, no!” Betty exclaimed. “He never did that before.”

“There’s always a first time,” I assured her.

We didn’t say much on the way to town but she snuggled up to me and my arm was across her shoulders. Once my hand went a little low, touching her, and she tilted her head as though she wanted me to kiss her. I did.

“We don’t have to go to the movies,” she said softly.

“Huh?”

“You know what I mean.” Her lips moved against my mouth. “Don’t you?”

I knew and a hidden flame within me began to blaze furiously. I thought of the night ahead, struggling against the urge, but all reason was swept aside in a wave of need.

“Take us to a hotel,” I told the driver.

“Any particular one?”

“What difference does it make?”

The driver made no comment and he stopped at the first hotel on the way. It was a small place without a bar but I knew it was clean. I had been there once with a fifty-dollar-a-night girl and we had had to send out for our liquor.

“Thanks, mister.”

We didn’t have any luggage and the clerk at the desk asked for the fifteen dollars in advance. I paid him and he smiled. We weren’t kidding him any. He knew why we were there and what we were going to do.

“We could have saved the money,” Betty said after we were in the room. “The boat and the house are for free.”

“Well, I thought we were going to the movies.”

“Did you?” She came into my arms. “Did you, really?”

“Sure.” Then I laughed. “Now I’ll tell you another.”

She was wild that night, and I lost myself in her flesh.

“I’d kill myself if this weren’t for real,” she said, her lips greedy on my mouth. “I wouldn’t want to live without you, Clint.”

At ten I told her I had to leave.

“I’m taking out a party,” I said.

“At this time of the night? What can anybody do at night?”

“Maybe the same thing we did.”

“I hope it’s as good for them as it was for us.”

“So do I.”

“Do you suppose my father—”

“You couldn’t blame him,” I said. “He’s human.”

She put on her dress and combed out her hair.

“I’m ready,” she said.

We walked to the door.

She was ready.

I wondered if I was.

10

WE DIDN’T get away from the dock until midnight.

“She’s heavy,” Gordon said as the motors rumbled and the water slid away from the bow. “Heavy.”

The Shark was well loaded—every cabin had guns stacked to the ceiling, plus ammunition for them forward in the galley. She rode low in the water but she was well balanced and she handled perfectly.

I watched the lights of Key West fade into the distance and then I put on more power. The thin head gaskets made a difference, a big difference. The Shark had almost as much snap as she had when she was running empty.

“Nice night,” Gordon said.

“Not bad.”

“Good moon.”

“Perfect.”

I checked the compass and held the wheel steady. We were running almost dead south.

“You know where we’re supposed to land, Walker?”

“I know.” *

“You can get us in there?”

“You’re trusting me, aren’t you?”

He grunted and remained silent. I was just as well satisfied. I didn’t want to talk to him. There was nothing to talk about. We had cleared the shore and we were in open water. About seventy-five miles away lay our destination.

A coastal freighter plowed through the sea and I cut around that, catching some of the waves; they rocked us high and hard. The wheel pulled in my hands for a few moments and then we were going smoothly again.

“Another one like that,” Gordon said, “and I’ll toss my cookies.”

I motioned toward the railing.

“Help yourself. It’s a big ocean.”

Vera was down below, fixing a drink for her father, but I had told her I didn’t want any. I knew the bay we would hit, and I didn’t want even a small amount of liquor clouding my mind. My brain had to be clear, my senses alert. For Gordon, it didn’t matter. He had to be only sober enough to pay me the four thousand I had coming.

“The same arrangement tomorrow night,” Gordon said.

“Okay.”

“And for three nights after that.”

“Okay.”

“You can get rid of the girl and the old man?”

“I did it tonight didn’t I?”

“Yes, but can you do it again?”

“Leave that up to me.”

I felt sure that Rose would be able to take care of Stearns and his daughter didn’t know whether she were on foot or on horseback. All I had to do was take her to town, do what I had done this night and everything would be fine.

“When do I get my dough?” I inquired.

“We aren’t there yet.”

“So?”

“You get three thousand as soon as the guns and the ammunition are off the boat.”

“You’re counting wrong. I get four thousand.”

He laughed and slapped me on the back.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” he said. “The one thousand is insurance—so you don’t forget to come back.”

“I see.

“One trip isn’t any good and neither are two. It has to be all five or the whole plan will fall apart.”

“It’s a hell of a lot of guns.”

“There’s a lot to this, Walker. You don’t realize how big it is. There are millions at stake.”

“For you and the others?”

“I only want my rightful share. I do a job and I expect to get paid for it. You do a job, as you’re doing, and you expect to get paid for it. That makes us come out of the same piece of cloth.”

In earlier revolutions thousands had died and in this revolution other thousands would probably die. Down below me, in the cabins, were the tools—of death. I was delivering death. Or was it freedom? I didn’t know. All I knew was that this whole effort would be worth twenty-five thousand bucks to me.

“Here’s your drink,” Vera said, coming up to her father. *

“Thanks, daughter.”

“Only don’t drink too much.”

“Do I ever?”

“Sometimes.”

He grunted again and accepted the glass.

“This is to luck,” he said.

I glanced at the compass, then away from it and at her. She was wearing a white blouse and a pair of black toreador pants. Before we had left the dock I had seen her down below and I knew that the pants were so tight that she would be pressing her luck if she ever tried to bend over in them.

“Hell of a drink,” her father said and threw the glass over the side. “You put too much ginger ale in it.”

“Sorry.”

“I’ll fix my own,” he said, departing. “Then I know it’ll be right.”

As soon as he was gone she came in next to me.

“Put your arm around me, honey.”

I did and I felt the thin material of the blouse.

“He won’t be back,” she said. “He’ll sit down there with all those guns and drink.”

“I didn’t know he drank so much.”

“He doesn’t usually. But all this has made him nervous. This is the biggest thing he has ever had, really the biggest.” She took my hand and put it where it would do the most good. “Four more trips like this and it’s over and done with.”

“I’ll be glad when it’s finished.”

“So will I.” She threw her head back, breathing in the salt air. “Aren’t you nervous, too?”

“Some,” I admitted.

“But not enough to quit?”

“No, not enough to quit.”

“He’s staying on the island,” she said.

“I gathered as much.”

“I’ll have to take care of each shipment of guns and I won’t be able to see much of you.”

“That’ll make it hard on me.”

“Me, too. I’ll think of you being with that girl and I’ll hate every minute of it.”

“She doesn’t count.”

“She might.”

“No, she won’t.” Now I was lying to her. “I take Betty to the movies and that’s that.”

“I wish I could believe you.”

“You can.”

“She has a nice shape.”

“Not as good as yours.”

“Honest?”

“Honest.”

“The first time I came down to the dock I saw her in a bathing suit. I thought she was one hundred percent woman.”

“But not for me.”

“I pray not.”

I kissed her and her mouth was open and hot.

“Let go of the wheel,” she begged.

I cant.

“We’ve got plenty of time.”

I knew what she was driving at and I was all for it.

“Not now,” I said. “Later. We’ll take our time coming back.”

“What will we do after the last trip?”

“I don’t know.”

“Could we go to Mexico?”

“There’s no place that we can’t go.”

She sighed. “Mexico is beautiful,” she said. “And cheap. You can get a furnished house with servants for about twenty dollars a month American money. With twenty-five thousand dollars we could live there for years.”

“I thought you liked Key West.”

“I do, but we both need a vacation. We can take some time in Mexico and then come back to Key West.” She paused. “It’ll be wonderful being there with you,” she went on. “We can make love and sleep and drink and not care what day it is.”

“That means taking all that money with us.”

“Don’t you have a place to keep it?”

“There’s a safe off the galley,” I replied. “My father used it for insurance papers and stuff like that. I guess the money would be secure in that and after we get to Mexico we could put it in a bank.”

“We?”

“What’s mine is yours.”

This time it was her mouth that sought my lips.

“For always, Clint?”

“Until one of us drops dead and after that, too. The one who lives on will always remember.”

I wasn’t paying much attention to the compass. Her lips were close to my mouth, moving, her breath warm and sweet.

“I know I would, Clint. A woman usually outlives a man. It scares me!”

“Why?”

“Because I wouldn’t want to be alone.” Her lips became wild. “I want you now. I want you terribly, Clint. Why can’t we?” she pleaded. “Why can’t we?”

“I have to get this boat to Cuba. Keep it up and I won’t care if we ever make it or not.”

She broke away from me and walked to the railing.

“I guess you’re right,” she said. “We have to get there.”

“No two ways about that.”

“So much depends on it. So much.”

“How much?”

“More than you know.”

I checked the compass and brought the boat back into position.

“I don’t know anything about it,” I said. “I don’t even know why they want to have a revolution.”

“Didn’t my father tell you?”

“Not clearly.”

“Then perhaps I shouldn’t.”

“That’s up to you.”

She was silent for quite a while. The boat was operating fine, better than it ever had before, and we were making good time. The sea was calm, almost like a mirror, and the night was all around us.

“It has something to do with the gambling,” she said.

“Gambling?”

“Yes. Gambling is big business in Cuba. Millions of American dollars are invested in it. Once the revolution is complete the new government will probably encourage gambling. Millions more will pour into the island.”

“I see.” It made sense, plenty of sense. “Gambling is linked with the tourist trade and that’s Cuba’s second largest industry.”

“Now you’ve got it.”

“I wondered how your father could pay five thousand dollars a trip for guns.”

“It’s pretty simple when you get right down to it.”

“Yes, it is. This time there’s a group of Americans working behind the scene.”

“A small group.”

“They don’t care about the sugar workers or any of the other natives, do they?”

“I’d imagine not.”

“It’s big money against little people.”

“You’ve put it nicely.”

I was suddenly upset about my part in the affair. If the guns would buy a true freedom for the more than five million people of Cuba that was one thing; but this gambling business was another. Blood would be shed because of huge interests and in the end the natives would be as bad off as they had been at the start—perhaps worse. I tried to think of them in terms of families, of children growing up, of men working with their hands to support those families. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

“What if I didn’t go on?” I wanted to know.

She came away from the railing and moved toward me.

“What are you talking about, Clint?”

“Just what I said. Supposing I turned this boat around and went back to Key West. What would happen?”

She gave it to me straight. “He would kill you.”

“Who?”

“My father.”

“It’s that serious?”

“It’s that serious.” She tugged on my arm. “Clint, you can’t. You can’t even think of such a thing. You gave your word, you came into this, and now you have to follow it through. There isn’t any other way. If there were I would tell you. But I know what this means to my father. He is responsible for the money, for the guns, for everything. It’s his last job, his very last and he can come away from it rich. He wouldn’t listen to you or to me or to anybody. Do you know what he went through to get the guns and ammunition? It took weeks of planning, of search, of risk. He hasn’t forgotten that and he won’t forget it. He’s in this all the way, Clint. So am I. So are you. We can’t change that now. I wish we could but we can’t.”

She was right I was in it and I had to see it through. Not only that if it weren’t me it would be somebody else carting the guns. And at the end of the string there was twenty-five thousand dollars. Or twenty-four. Either way it was a lot of money. It would buy me a new life, a future with Vera, and the poverty I had known for the last two years would be gone. After our trip to Mexico we could settle down to a normal life. Perhaps I would sell the boat. I didn’t know. The real estate business in Florida was always good and I had made money at it before. There was more to it than hauling fishermen. We could join the best clubs—I had belonged to some of them once—and I would keep her decked out like a fashion model.

“You aren’t saying very much,” she said.

I’ve been thinking.”

“About what?”

“About us. About what all this means.”

Her hand was still on my arm and she squeezed it.

“You don’t know what it means to me,” she said. “I’ve been all over, seen so many things, and yet I have had nothing.” Her fingers dug into my arm. “Not until I found you, Clint. Finding you has been the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“And me.”

“Love is more important to a woman than it is to a man, Clint. A woman has to have love. She has to be wanted and pursued, to be conquered.”

“That’s pretty much the same as it is with a man.”

“No, it isn’t. A man can buy love. A woman can’t. There isn’t a night in the week that a man can’t buy love. Oh, it’s physical, I’ll grant you that but most of a man’s love is physical.”

“Do you believe that?”

“Don’t you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Would you be in love with me if I were ugly?”

It was a good question and I told her so.

“But it isn’t fair,” I said. “I was attracted to you first because of your beauty. But there has to be more to it than that, more than just physical love. A man, believe it or not, seeks the same thing a woman seeks. When they meet and come together, there’s bound to be a fire.”

The wind had come up slightly and it whipped against our faces.

“You were married before?”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t find what you were after?”

“I found none of it. It was all physical, nothing else, and even the physical side wasn’t the best. She was a tramp and I was simply a port in the storm of her life.”

“I hope you don’t think that of me..”

I kissed her, smashing her lips back and finding her teeth with my tongue.

“This is love,” I said. “This is the way love should be, the way it was meant to be.”

She returned my kiss.

“Yes, Clint. Oh, yes,” she said.

Gordon was on deck, feeling the liquor, when we sighted the black hulk of the island in front of us.

“Cuba,” he said.

“That’s it.”

“Fast trip, Walker.”

“Not bad.”

“This boat could run away from anything.”

“It can hold its own,” I agreed.

“I hope we’re right,” Vera said. “In this half light I don’t know how you can tell.”

“I can tell.”

Gordon had a flashlight and he held it over his head, blinking it on and off a half a dozen times. Immediately there was a similar response from the shore.

“This is it,” he said. “On the nose.”

I had cut back the speed of The Shark and we moved in slowly. I leaned forward anxiously, ready to slam it in reverse if we touched anything. We didn’t. It was a good cove, very deep, and I was able to take the boat right up alongside the shore.

There were a lot of men waiting for us and they came on board like flies. One of them was an American, apparently on friendly terms with Gordon, and he shouted orders in Spanish. Cartons of rifles began spewing up from the belly of the boat and these were passed, chain fashion, to the shore. I guess they had a truck or a couple of jeeps nearby because I could hear them being loaded. It was all done in darkness and after the first instructions in Spanish there was no further talk. Gordon and the other American were drinking from a bottle and Vera leaned against the railing, watching. Once her father offered her a drink but she said she didn’t care for any and that was the end of that. He didn’t offer me any and I didn’t ask. My nerves were on edge, my stomach muscles tight, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

It required about half an hour to unload the boat and then Gordon gave me my three thousand dollars.

“Don’t forget tomorrow night,” he said. “Try to make it about the same time.”

“Okay.”

“You know what to do with the old man and the girl.”

“Sure.”

He laughed and dropped the empty bottle into the water.

“The girl especially,” he said. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did. You can have your cake and eat it too.”

There was a short conference between Vera and her father and then Gordon and the other American went ashore.

“Good luck,” Gordon said.

“The same to you.”

I eased The Shark away from the shore and turned the bow toward the coast of Florida. Slowly the land slid away and shortly we were at sea.

“Number one,” I said to Vera. “One down and four to go.”

She came to stand beside me.

“It was easy.”

“When you know how.”

“You must have been born with a chart in the seat of your pants.”

“No. I learned from my father. He was excellent with a boat and he taught me just about everything that he knew. Night trips were a must.”

“Well, it came in handy.”

“Yes, it did.”

“Money in the bank.”

“Money for us.”

We kept on course for about an hour and then I cut the engines. She was there with me, wonderfully sweet and close, and I couldn’t wait.

It happened there on the deck with just the moon to watch us. I don’t know how long we drifted but it was quite a while and the sun was up hot and bright when we put in at the Stearns’ dock.

“Tonight,” she said.

“Tonight,” I agreed.

Her head was tilted, her mouth waiting to receive my kiss.

“I can’t wait, Clint.”

I kissed her.

“Neither can I.”

11

I SLEPT UNTIL the middle of the afternoon and when I woke up I looked around the boat. The cabins were a mess and most of the bunk covers had grease on them. I thought about it for a moment and grinned. For the kind of money I was getting I could stand a little destruction. Hell, for twenty-five grand they could have the bunks.

I fixed some eggs in the galley but I couldn’t eat. Today was another day and tonight was another night. I had to count on Rose getting Stearns away from the house and I had to take care of Betty. I grinned again. I had to take care of Betty in more ways than one.

Stearns was on the dock when I came topside and he waved when he saw me.

“Thought you died,” he said.

“Wouldn’t have surprised me any if I had.”

I jumped down to the dock and landed next to him. The first thing I looked at were his eyes and they were red. He looked as though he had had quite a night.

“That young stuff will kill you,” I told him.

“Huh?”

“The girl. The one yesterday.”

“Oh, her. Rose.” He fumbled for a cigarette. “All we did was have a few drinks in town and talk.”

“I’ll bet.”

“That’s the truth.”

“Some people talk in bed and some people talk sitting down. What did you do?”

“Not in bed,” he replied. “She stays in a hotel but I didn’t get within a quarter of a mile of her room.”

I didn’t know whether he was lying or not but the fact that she might have played it straight with him sort of burned me up. She was getting a hundred bucks a night to be nice to him and if she didn’t watch it she had a fair chance of ruining the whole arrangement.

“You seeing her again?” I wanted to know.

“Tonight. If I get some money,” he added. “You can’t go out with a girl if you don’t have money.”

This was costing me both ways.

“I’ll give you some,” I said. I got out my wallet and removed a fifty. “Will this help?”

“I already owe you a lot.”

“Forget it.”

“I can’t forget it. You came across for the bank and now you’re coming across for something else. It doesn’t seem right.” He puffed on his cigarette. “I should be out for turtles, that’s what I should be doing. But this morning I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. My head was so big I could hardly get it through the doorway.”

I pressed the fifty into his free hand and told him to have some fun.

“You’ve been working too hard,” I said. “And worrying too much. Add the two together and you’ve got enough to drive any man to drink.”

He protested again, only mildly, and put the fifty in his pocket.

“Betty was sore at me,” he said.

“For what?”

“About the girl. Did you tell her?”

“No.”

“I don’t know how she found out.”

“Neither do I.”

“But she did. She was waiting up for me when I came in last night and she raised particular hell. Go with a woman your own age, she said. Maybe, when you get right down to it, she’s right. Only what the devil? There’s no harm in me buying a few drinks and having a little fun, is there?”

“I wouldn’t think so.”

“This girl Rose is nice, very nice. She was married to some guy but he left her. You have to feel sorry for a girl like that.”

She had really put it on thick, as thick as a carpet.

“You sure do,” I said.

A motorboat went by and Stearns squinted into the sun, following the movements of the boat.

“I’ll run in to town and see her,” he said. “She said she would be out looking for a job in the morning but that she would be in her room in the afternoon. I told her I’d make it if I could. The fifty does the trick.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Betty will be sore again but I can’t help that. You live once and if you don’t do it the first time out you don’t do it at all. I haven’t paid any attention to a woman since my wife died and a man shouldn’t exist that way.”

“There are some things you have to take care of,” I said.

“No, not that. Not what you mean, not exactly. I’m not too old for that sort of thing—I don’t think I am, anyway—but that isn’t the most important. The most important is to have somebody you can talk to, somebody who will listen.”

He and I were pretty far apart on what we wanted from a girl but if he was satisfied with a lot of conversation that was all right with me. If he wanted to miss out on what Rose could give him that was his business.

“Let me know if you run short of money,” I said. “I had a little luck and there’s more where that fifty came from.”

“I won’t bother you again.”

“Why not? Money is made to be spent.”

“No, I’ll get back at the turtles tomorrow. The market isn’t bad right now and I ought to be able to make my own way. Betty’s working will help and before we know it we’ll be in the clear.”

He departed shortly after that and I watched him go. He didn’t stop at the house but kept on toward town. My guess was that he would get drunk again and that tomorrow would be the same story. Well, it was all right. A fifty here and a fifty there didn’t amount to much, not with what I had at stake. The main thing was that he shouldn’t suspect anything about what I was doing.

He had been gone about half an hour when a cab came down the road and stopped. At first I thought it was Betty coming home early but when the girl got out I saw it was Rose. She came toward me down the dock.

“Hi,” she said.

I had been sitting down and I got to my feet.

“You did a good job on the old boy,” I said. “Whatever you did to him he’s been bitten bad. He’s on his way in to see you right now.”

“I thought as much. I saw him on the way out but I didn’t have the cab stop.” She made a face. “I’ll probably see enough of him tonight.”

“You’d better.”

She was wearing a white skirt and white blouse and both were snug against her body. Anybody who didn’t know her would have thought she was class.

“I want my money, Clint”—“For what?”

“For last night and tonight. You pay me as I go along.”

“That wasn’t the deal.”

She had on some kind of perfume that was strong and the odor of it filled my nostrils.

“Deal or not that’s the way it’s going to be. What do you think I live on, for Pete’s sakes? My looks?”

“You could.”

“Don’t be wise.”

“Who’s being wise? You sold your looks in the carnival.”

“And that’s all.”

“You’ve got me laughing. Do you expect me to believe that?”

“I don’t care what you believe,” she said firmly. “I just want my money.”

“You give me the impression that you don’t trust me.”

“I don’t. You’re not paying a hundred dollars a night for nothing. You’re up to something, Clint, and for all I know you might take off and leave me hanging in the air.”

I hadn’t thought of doing this before but it was a possibility. After our last trip to Cuba Vera and I would head for Mexico. Even if I left Rose broke it would serve her right. She had run away from me before and now it was my turn.

“Okay,” I said, getting out my wallet. “Any way you want to do it.”

“This way suits me fine.”

I gave her the two hundred. Why try to cheat her out of it? She was earning her pay and she had the money coming. Who wouldn’t invest a hundred bucks—or, more —to pick up five thousand?

“Thanks,” she said, taking the money.

“Don’t mention it.”

She glanced toward the cab and then back at me.

“He’s some talker, Clint.”

“No doubt.”

“He worries about his daughter a lot.”

“No reason to.”

Her smile was mocking. “Isn’t there? With you around? I’ll wager you’ve chased her into the house more than once. Her and that bathing suit. Even I wouldn’t be seen in a thing like that.”

“I suppose you’d rather go naked?”

“Oh, shut up.”

“She’s a nice girl,” I said. “A very nice girl.”

“And I suppose I’m not?”

“You aren’t.” The cab driver honked his horn but she didn’t move. “Do anything you have to do to keep him busy,” I said. “And I mean anything.”

“Such as?”

“I don’t have to tell you. You know what I mean.”

That cut her and cut her deep, but I didn’t care. What if she had been my wife at one time? All that was done with and passed. I was paying her to do a job and I expected her to do it.

“You’ve got a rotten mind,” she said, turning away. “A filthy, rotten mind!”

I watched her go. Maybe I was wrong about her and maybe I wasn’t. What did I care? She hurt me when she ran away with my brother and now I had hurt her. We were even.

A few minutes after her cab left, another one came down the road and stopped in front of the house. But this one didn’t wait. This one just turned around, backed into the weeks, and headed in the direction of the highway.

Betty saw me and waved. She was wearing shorts and a halter and she had her pocketbook slung over one shoulder.

I walked toward her.

“Short day,” I said when I reached her. “I thought you didn’t get through until five.”

She slid the strap off her shoulder and swung the pocketbook back and forth.

“When you quit you don’t wait until your time is up,” she said.

“Quit?”

“Just that I would have been here sooner but I had to go out and buy something to wear. They wouldn’t let me wear the uniform because they were afraid they wouldn’t get it back.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t blame you. Hopping tables is no joke. You wear your legs off up to your knees and all you get for it is a dime or a quarter.”

“And a boss who’s all hands.”

“That, too, sometimes.”

“He never bothered me before,” she said. “Not until today. He kept looking at me, but that part was all right. Then today I was in the storeroom and he came in and slammed the door shut. He wasn’t going to let me out. He said he had all the other girls and that he was going to have me.”

“The bastard.”

“I think I may have called him that. I don’t know. I was scared and I yelled at him. It was the yelling that made him stop. He asked me to be quiet, begged me not to make so much noise, and then he said I was finished. But I had already quit. I quit the moment he came in there and closed that door and said what he did.”

“I don’t blame you.”

“I thought of you, Clint, of how everything is so wonderful with us. What he suggested was dirty.” She blinked away a couple of tears and managed a smile. “Are there many men like him?”

“Some.”

“I’m glad you’re not.”

I felt cheap and dirty. She believed in me and I was misleading her. In that instant I wondered what she would do after I was gone, what she would think of me. Would she hate me—and all men? I had seen it happen before. She was a toy in the hands of fate, in my hands, and anything that happened to her wouldn’t be right.

“Your father went to town,” I told her.

“I know. I saw him. I had the cab stop and I tried to get him to come home with me but he wouldn’t. He said he was old enough to know his own mind, to know what he wanted to do.”

“Maybe he is.”

“With somebody so young?”

I shrugged. “It isn’t unusual. It happens lots of times. There may be nothing to worry about. They’ll spend a few evenings together and then it will end.”

“Do you think so?”

“I wouldn’t say so if I didn’t. The girl was out here just a little while ago, looking for him, and she’s lonely. So is he. It’s a natural thing for them to share what they feel.”

“The way we do?”

“No, not the way we do. In another way. It’s like a brother and a sister finding comfort in each other’s company. It doesn’t have to mean anything beyond that.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen him this way before.”

“Maybe he didn’t find anyone he could talk to before. We all need somebody.”

“As I need you?”

“Something of the sort. And as I need you. If all of us lived alone, within ourselves, it would be a mighty dull world.”

“You talk just like they used to teach us in college.”

“It makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“I guess it does.”

It was rather early to take her to town but if we ever got inside that house she wouldn’t want to leave, and if I took her down in the boat she would see the grease on the floor and the bunks and would know that something was up. Maybe I was being too cautious about the arrangements but it was better to be safe than sorry. What she didn’t know wouldn’t bother her.

“Why don’t we both change and go to town?” I suggested.

Her eyes were frank. “And do what we did last night?”

“Would you want it any other way?”

She didn’t answer me.

“He won’t be home,” she said. “He won’t be home until late. We can swim and fix hamburgers over the charcoal spit and just relax.”

She was going to be difficult and that wasn’t good. If she didn’t want to go to town I couldn’t force her. She had a mind of her own and she was very capable of using it.

“I’d rather do it the other way,” I said.

“But I wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“You don’t know how cheap I felt going in that hotel with you,” she said. “And the way that clerk looked at us. He knew why we were there. I wouldn’t do it again, Clint. This has to be right for me or it isn’t right at all. I can’t hide in a strange room for a few hours, wondering what people will say, what they will think. I want this to be the best for us and I don’t want to share what we have.”

There was no use arguing with her. This was a bridge I had to cross, one way or another.

“Okay,” I said.

She brightened.

“Shall we swim?”

“Whatever you say.”

She turned away from me.

“I’ll get my suit on. Wait for me.”

“Okay.”

She ran to the house and up the steps and I returned to The Shark. Things were going rather badly but even in my frustration I could see her point of view. She must have felt like a prostitute going to that hotel room with me. Why it was different there than at home I didn’t know, but as long as she was of that opinion I had little chance of swaying her.

While I was down below I checked the fuel in the tank—there was plenty—and changed into a black pair of trunks. When I reached the dock again she was just coming down the porch steps.

That black suit of hers looked tighter than ever and when she walked every part of her moved. I might be in love with Vera Gordon but I had to admit that this girl had it in generous portions.

“Looking at something, Clint?”

“You.”

She was amused. “And what do you see?”

“A big bed that’s about ten feet wide.”

“Silly!”

Together we dove off the dock and we swam for quite a while. She was an excellent swimmer and once she pulled me under. When I came up she was laughing and her wet lips kissed me on the mouth. “This is the life,” she said. “Perfect.”

She lay floating on her back, looking up at the bright blue sky.

“Tell me it will be this way always, Clint.”

“It will be.”

“Marriage won’t spoil it?”

“Marriage will be the real start,” I lied.

Later we swam to the shore and sat on the sand.

“Tell me something,” she said.

“I will if I can.”

“You gave my father money for the bank?”

“Yes, I did.”

She was looking at me closely, her eyes serious.

“It was quite a lot of money, Clint. It was more than you’ve had at any one time since you’ve been here. I know that. It’s got me worried. I don’t want you to do something wrong just to help us.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“You were out all night with the boat.”

“I told you I had a party.”

“How much can you earn from a party? When I stopped and talked with my father I offered him ten dollars, thinking that he didn’t have any money, and he showed me a fifty dollar bill. I asked him where he got it but he wouldn’t say. I know he must have gotten it from you. And you don’t lend out or give away fifty dollars on the strength of one party.”

“On this party you could.”

“It must have been some party.”

“It was.”

She dug her toes down into the sand. The action made the muscles ripple along her legs all the way up to her thighs.

“You’re keeping something from me, Clint.”

I pretended to be angry. “Don’t you trust me?”

“I trust you. You know that. I trust you in more ways than one. But Clint, hardly anybody takes a boat out at night unless they’re up to something. Are you, Clint? Are you up to something?”

She would know sooner or later and now was as good a time to tell her as any. I had to depend on her love for me and hope that she would understand.

“These people have some stuff they want moved,” I said, trying to make it sound simple. “To Cuba.”

“That’s quite a trip.”

“That’s why the money is so good.”

“What kind of stuff is it?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. They have a truck come down about nine o’clock and they load up the boat. What they take is their own business.”

“But it’s your boat.”

“And it’s their money.”

She lay back on the sand and twisted her head so she could look at me. The front of her suit had gone down lower, just clinging to the shelf of her breasts. The hollow between them was warm and deep and dark.

“I saw the tracks of the truck in the sand,” she said. “Duals. But I wanted you to tell me yourself.”

“So I did.”

“Is that why you took me to town last night? You didn’t want me to know, is that it?”

“Partly.”

“Partly? Or is that all of it?”

She took deep breath and how she could do it in that suit was more than I knew.

“I want to believe you, Clint.”

“You can.”

“Don’t ever lie to me. I haven’t lied to you and you shouldn’t to me.”

“I’m not.”

She changed her position on the sand and rested her head on my lap.

“It’s just that I love you so darned much.”

“And I love you.”

“I wouldn’t stop you if you tried to kiss me.”

I kissed her, my hands fastened in her wet hair, lifting her.

“Who are they?” she wanted to know when the moment had passed.

“They were down here one day looking for me. You were talking to them.”

“The old man and his daughter?”

“Yes.”

“Did she go with you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And it was just the one trip?”

“No, there are four more. Tonight and three more nights after that. When it’s done with I’ll have some money.”

“You didn’t tell my father?”

“Why should I? I pay my dock rent and I’ve helped him out. What I do is my own affair.”

She thought a moment. “I won’t tell him either,” she said.

“I wish you wouldn’t. He might get the wrong idea.”

She looked straight up into my eyes.

“I might have the wrong idea myself.”

“Tell me more.”

“The tracks of the truck were deep in the sand. That truck was carrying something heavy.”

“Go on.”

“I’ve read about Cuba. All they do is fight or talk about fighting. Once, a long time ago, somebody wanted my father to run guns but he wouldn’t do it.” Her eyes grew wide. “Is that what you’re doing, Clint?”

She wasn’t so stupid. She hadn’t gone to college for nothing. She could add two and two and come up with four.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said. “I only know that they pay me well for what I do and that I need the money.”

“What if you get caught?”

“I won’t.”

I felt her tremble.

“I’m afraid, Clint. Afraid for you. If you’re doing what I think you’re doing something awful could happen to you. I didn’t like the looks of the man or the girl. They were hard.”

She kept on talking but I didn’t listen to her. No matter what I did she would stick by me. I had gone to a lot of trouble for nothing. Her love for me was bigger than the world in which she lived, bigger than right or wrong, even bigger than her loyalty to her father.

“Let’s go up to the house,” I said.

“I knew you would want to do that.”

“Did you?”

“I can tell.”

We walked toward the house, my arm around her waist and feeling the closeness of her body.

“That girl going on the trip with you tonight?”

“Yes.”

“And the other nights?”

“Yes.”

We climbed the steps.

“I think I hate her,” Betty said.

“Why?”

“Because she’s pretty and I can’t trust you that far.”

“Thanks for the compliment.”

“Oh, I don’t mean because of you,” she was quick to say. “It’s just that some girls get what they go after. And she looks like a man-eater.”

A few minutes later, she forgot all about Vera, forgot about everything except what the moment offered us—a moment of passion and of accomplishment.

I didn’t even hear the truck when it arrived at nine.

After all, a man can pay attention to only one thing at a time.

12

THE NEXT day started out the same as any other day but it didn’t end up that way.

I was up early—Vera and I had made love the night before on the deck and we had gotten some sleep—and when I jumped down to the dock Betty was there waiting for me. She had on that black bathing suit but as I looked at her I didn’t see Betty Stearns. I saw Vera Gordon, her fluid body pale in the moonlight, felt the fury of her lips on my mouth, sensed again the excitement that had flooded through me.

“Good morning,” Betty said.

I though she sounded cool.

“Hi.”

“How was the trip?”

“Smooth as glass.”

It had been a good trip, the sea peaceful, and we hit the cove right on the nose. Gordon was sore because we were a little late but I told him I had some trouble with one of the engines. That, however, was not true. I had experienced quite a lot of difficulty getting away from Betty. She had wanted to go along and it had taken me a half an hour, plus something else, to convince her that she shouldn’t, that it wasn’t any place for her.

“He’s sleeping it off,” she said.

“Your father?”

“I wouldn’t be talking about anybody else.

“He must have let himself go.”

“All the way this time. I had to help the girl get him out of the cab.”

“Fine thing.”

“Then the cab driver got mad and wouldn’t have anything more to do with us. He kept hollering for his money and after he got it he drove off. We had to wait an hour for another cab from Key West.”

I froze up inside. Rose should have stayed in town and not come out to the house. When she was drinking she talked and she seldom cared much about what she said.

“You two get acquainted?” I inquired.

“Enough to find out that she’s your ex-wife.”

“I see.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It didn’t seem to be important.”

“Important! Nothing seems to be important to you, Clint. First it’s that thing about those other people and then it’s this about your former wife. Don’t you think I’d like to know these things?”

She had me. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“I’m wondering if you’re sorry about something else.”

“Such as?”

“Me.”

“Oh, come off it.”

“No, I won’t come off it. I lay there all night wondering if you really love me. I even cried. I couldn’t help it.”

“I said I loved you, didn’t I?”

“You have to more than say it. You have to mean it. And I have to believe it.”

“You can believe it.”

Her eyes never left my face.

“What am I to believe? This girl shows up, you give my father money and he gets drunk with her. It almost looks as though you planned it that way, that you wanted it that way. Did you?”

“Would I do a thing like that?”

“I don’t know what you would do.” Her face was filled with misery. “I just don’t know. I thought I did but something has happened. Something has changed.”

She was getting out of control and this meant problems. If she decided to go to Stearns about what I was doing the old man might get his back up and put a hitch in my plans. The only thing I could do with her was to make her feel that I wanted her, that I had to have her. The boat was handy, her father was drunk and the road was clear.

“Baby, you’re crazy,” I said, reaching for her. “You’ve got this whole thing figured wrong.”

She avoided my hands.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Yes, you have. You see one thing and you believe another.”

“I see some things you didn’t tell me about.”

She kept moving backward, away from me, but I finally caught her shoulders and pulled her in close. I kissed her on the mouth, hard, but she didn’t return the kiss. She was like a shock of wheat in my arms, limp, unresponding.

“It’s for us,” I told her. “Everything I’ve done is for us.”

“You have a funny way of doing it.”

“I’ve loved you and I’ve been good to your father. What more do you want from me?”

“The truth, Clint. Only the truth.”

It was the one thing I couldn’t give her.

“Trust me,” I said.

She pressed in against me.

“I want to. I want to so very much. But—”

Again I kissed her and this time, briefly, her lips returned my kiss.

“Let’s go down below,” I said.

She tried to push away from me.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You know what will happen and so do I.”

“Well?”

“I don’t want it to happen, not any more.”

“Not any more;?”

“Not until there’s a ring on my finger, Clint. When you put that ring on my finger I’ll be yours, all yours. But until that time it can’t be like that for us. I’m not going to worry, to be afraid. It’s different with you. You could leave me tomorrow and there isn’t a thing I could do about it. You had one wife and you’re divorced from her. With me you just have to walk out and never come back.”

“As though I would.”

“I’m not saying you would. I just don’t want to expose myself. I’ve read that when a girl gives herself to a man before marriage it changes the whole aspect of love. I wasn’t sure about it then and I’m not sure about it now but I don’t want to take a chance. You have had other girls. I know you have. Who am I to think I’m better?”

This whole argument was pointless. Regardless of what I said I wouldn’t be able to convince her of my sincerity. She had arrived at a conclusion and there would be no swaying her from it.

“Let’s let things go the way they are,” I said.

“That’s the way I feel, too.”

I released her then.

“Don’t say anything to your father about this,” I cautioned her. “You upset what’s going on and it means less money for both of us.”

I had over seven thousand in the boat’s safe but I had to have more. I had to have all of it—the money and Vera Gordon.

“I think he should know,” she said.

“What good would it do to tell him?”

“It’s his dock.”

“And I pay my fee. Hell, I’ve done more than that. Give me a break, will you?”

She thought it over for a little while.

“All right,” she agreed. “But you be careful. Don’t get yourself into any trouble and don’t get us into any either.”

“Don’t worry.”

“I wish I didn’t,” she said as she started to leave.

After she was gone I ht a cigarette and thought about things. I should never have fooled around with her in the first place. She was looking for the end of a rainbow and she had made up her mind that I was at the end of it. Well, I wasn’t. She had to go her way and I had to go mine. There was nothing for us to share.

I was still standing on the dock, wishing that all of the trips to Cuba were over, when a cab arrived and stopped. I knew who it was even before she got out. Rose. Rose after more money. I dropped the cigarette into the water and watched her approach. She was wearing a red dress that was all shape and her high heels made a lot of noise on the rough planks of the dock.

No wonder they had hired her in a carnival. She had the build to match the best of them.

“You look rugged,” she said.

“Do I?”

“Not even shaved.”

“Nuts to it.”

“You didn’t used to be this way.”

“This is a new era.” I found another cigarette. “What do you want this time?”

“Money,” she replied simply.

“That adds up.” I reached for my wallet. “Another hundred.”

“Not a hundred.” She smelled fresh and clean, like she had just gotten out of a shower or a bath. “Not a hundred this time, Clint.”

“Then the whole batch. Three hundred. I’m taking a chance on you, though. I don’t even know if you’ll be around to earn it.”

I held out three hundred-dollar bills but she didn’t take them.

“A thousand,” she said.

I didn’t light the cigarette.

“Hey, what is this?” I demanded.

“Easy. It’s my pay.”

“I didn’t promise you that kind of money.”

“What if you didn’t? I say to myself, Rose, you’re being a damned fool. I say to myself, Rose, he’s up to something big or he wouldn’t give you a nickel for your time. Am I right?”

“We made an agreement.”

“Agreements are made to be broken.”

I was bitter. “Like the marriage vows?”

“We aren’t talking about that now. We’re talking about a thousand, a cool thousand that can give me a fresh start. I know you, Clint. For some reason or other you want old man Stearns out of the way every night. You say it’s worth a hundred a night. I say it’s worth a thousand.” She smiled brightly. “And what I say goes or the arrangement is done.”

She was holding me up for the money but I needed her and maybe it was cheap for what she was doing.

“You talk too much,” I told her, pocketing the three hundred. “You told his daughter that we had been married. There was no reason for that.”

“It just slipped out that’s all.”

“Slip or not you gave it away. I suppose you even told the old man?”

“No, I didn’t. I told him that I had known you but nothing more. He thought he had stolen me away from you and he was worried about it. Isn’t that a laugh?”

“The funniest thing I’ve heard this morning.”

She tapped her foot. “I want my thousand, Clint. If I can’t have you I want as much as I can get.”

“And have you take off on me?”

“I won’t take off. I’ll do what I said I would do. Frankly, I don’t mind the old man. He keeps his hands to himself, drinks and talks. I can put up with it for three nights more.”

I hated to pay her a thousand but she had me in a corner. There were two routes out of that corner—one was to pay her; the other was to run.

“Where’s your hotel?” I asked.

“What’s that got to do with it?”

I laughed. “You don’t think I keep that amount of money on the ship, do you? I’ll have to come into town, get it out of the bank and bring it to you.”

She gave me the name of the hotel and the room number.

“This afternoon,” she said.

“Around three or four.”

“Just don’t forget—if you know what’s good for you.”

“I won’t.”

“Be sure that you don’t.”

After she left in the taxi I went below in The Shark and got a thousand dollars out of the safe. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it but I had to have it with me just in case.

It was quite a walk to town but I walked fast and I was there before one. As soon as I reached Vera’s hotel I phoned her from the lobby.

“I’ve got to see you,” I said.

“I’m not dressed yet but you can come up.”

Suddenly I was feeling good.

“Don’t get dressed,” I said. “Clothes only get in the way.”

Her voice was husky. “So early in the day, Clint?”

“Any hour of the day or night—with you.”

“Just hearing your voice does things to me.”

“And just thinking about you does something to me.” I left the phone and walked to the elevator and got on. The girl who operated the elevator gave me a smile but I was hardly aware of it. Vera was mine, all mine, and she wanted me just as much as I wanted her.

Her door was unlocked and I entered without knocking. She lay on the bed, wearing a pale blue negligee that revealed as much as it concealed.

“You just caught me,” she said. “I was going to get ready to go out.”

I sat down on the edge of the bed.

“I was afraid I had missed you. I wanted to see you before you made a deal on any more guns.”

She sat up quickly, the negligee spilling open in front.

“What are you talking about, Clint? The deal was already made by my father. All I do is check in to let them know the boat will be ready.”

“That’s what I mean. I don’t think the boat should be ready—not tonight or any other night.”

She bit down on her lower lip and tossed her head.

“Clint, what are you talking about?” she asked the second time. “Last night everything seemed just right and now you’re upset.”

“I am. The girl knows.”

“The one at the dock?”

“Yes, that one.”

“Buy her off.”

“I can’t buy her off. She isn’t that kind.”

“What about her father?”

“He doesn’t know yet.”

She untied the bow at the top of the negligee and my head began to throb. The throb started at my eyes and went all the way back to my neck. She was the most desirable creature I had ever known and I had to sit there and talk business with her.

“That’s something,” she said. “I don’t see what we have to worry about.”

“She might go to the police.”

Worry filled Vera’s eyes. “Do you think so?”

“I don’t know. I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times and I always get the same answer. I don’t know.”

“Have you tried being nice to her?”

“Yeah.”

Silence crept into the room. From outside I could hear the sounds of traffic in the street below. Somebody knocked on one of the doors further down the hall and a man shouted a reply.

“As nice to her as you have been to me, Clint?”

I felt uncomfortable and rubbed my chin. How do you answer something like that? You love a girl and you play around with somebody else, but you don’t come right out and tell her what you’ve done.

“It’s all right,” she said softly. “She is pretty and I don’t blame you. But there’s something bad about it—it could complicate matters. If she’s angry with you she might go to the police. That wouldn’t be healthy for any of us.”

“No.”

“All we can do is cross our fingers and trust that she won’t.”

I didn’t look at her just then. I couldn’t look at her. If I looked at her the need for her would overpower me and I wouldn’t be able to say what I had to say.

“Look, Vera. Look at it this way. Something may happen and it may not but let’s not run the risk. I’ve got seven thousand, a little better, salted away. It’s a start. Others have made a go on less. We can go to Mexico, just as we planned, and when we come back I can get into something safe. The boat is worth quite a bit of money and we could sell that. It wouldn’t be as much as it would be this way but it would be honest. Don’t you see?”

I guess I sounded a little desperate.

“Don’t you understand?”

“What about my father?”

“We could pick him up. He could go with us.”

She stirred on the bed and I felt the nearness of her body.

“Do you know what they would do to him?” she asked. “The ones behind this. They would kill him or have him killed. And Clint—the same thing could happen to you.”

“Me?”

“They know who you are. They know your boat. No matter where we went they would find you and they would find my father. You commit yourself to doing a job and you just can’t walk out on it when it’s only partly finished. It’s one of the conditions you accept when you take a job, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so.”

“If you hired somebody to work for you and he quit what would you do?”

“Get somebody else.”

“But they can’t. There isn’t time. They—the people behind this—know much about Cuba, know when the time is right. The time is now, immediately. The men are ready, some of them from Mexico, and they need the guns and ammunition. Everything else is set. This is all that has to be done. An additional week might be too late. Another week might mean failure. And they don’t intend to fail—because of you or my father or anybody else. There is too much in the balance for that Clint too much. Lives don’t count. Only success for the revolution.”

“They must be deep into the government.”

“They are. Of course, they are not known because that would mean death. They didn’t fool around before.”

“I read something about it but I’ve forgotten most of what I read.”

“There were trials, military trials, and nine out of ten went before firing squads.”

“A repeat performance,” I said.

“No, not this time. The people we work for only want control, nothing else. Some will have to leave Cuba but there won’t be any mass killings.”

“Gangsters.”

“I don’t know. Maybe they are. Maybe not. I’ve met only one of them, with my father, and he seemed all right.”

I lay down on the bed, knowing that I couldn’t change the way my life was going, conscious of her being near to me. I didn’t want anything to happen to her or to her father or to myself, for that matter. I had gone into this with my eyes wide open and if what I saw didn’t appeal to me it was my own fault.

“It might be worth it,” I said.

“It is worth it, Clint. We won’t be rich but we won’t be poor, either. And we’ll never have to be afraid. That’s important to you and it’s important to me. If we left them now, if we gave it up, we would never know when death would be around the next corner. This way we have no worries.”

“They wouldn’t bother you.”

“Why wouldn’t they? I’m in this, too. My father is in Cuba and I’m here in Florida. It’s up to me to see that the guns keep moving. I would be as much to blame as you are, or more. They have my father, so they wouldn’t have to look for him. But they would hunt for us and they would find us. If there were any other way, any possible way, I would go with you. I would forget about it too. But I’m scared, Clint. Terribly scared.”

I put my arm around her, beneath her shoulders. She was shaking. I caressed her, lying there and thinking. The world was a big place but if somebody wanted to get you it could always be done. It might take time and money but if the desire were there it would simply be question of time. I didn’t want her to be frightened, jumping whenever a door opened or a strange man passed near her. I wanted her safe and secure, all of her loveliness mine, all of her body and mind belonging to me.

And seven thousand wasn’t much money. We wouldn’t be able to go far on it. We wouldn’t be able to go far enough. The alternative was to do the job and get paid for it. Once the job was completed we would have nothing to worry about. We could go where we wanted to go, do what we wished to do. No one would be following us. Our lives would be ours to live and the past would soon fade away. Maybe running guns wasn’t right. But maybe a lot of things weren’t right. Who was I to judge? Our own country had been given birth because of a revolution and perhaps this same thing was right for Cuba. If Americans had money invested there no one could blame them for trying to recover it. If a man loses a dime he looks for it. If the same man loses a million he fights for it.

“We’ll go on,” I said presently. “We’ll make the trips, deliver the guns and other stuff to them and then get out of here.”

She snuggled up to me.

“Mexico,” she said.

“For a while, then back here.” I kissed her. “If you want to.”

“Anywhere with you, Clint.”

“No, it’s up to you, too.”

We kissed and clung together. Her lips were demanding, her body filled with fury. I could feel the burning desire of her flesh beneath my searching hands.

“We were made for each other,” she whispered.

“Cut from the same piece of cloth.”

She twisted her head, driving the kiss in.

“I want you,” she begged.

I gave her her wish….

She was lovely…

Later, after I left the hotel, I felt ashamed of myself for having shown my weakness, for having wanted to pull out. There was nothing to be alarmed about. The first two trips had gone fine and there was no reason to believe that this wouldn’t be true of the others. In less than a hundred hours the task would be done and we would be on our way to Mexico. There would be a considerable sum of money in the boat’s safe and the future would be bright.

Rose’s hotel was only a couple of blocks away and I walked over there. I found her in the lobby reading a magazine.

“It’s about time,” she said, throwing the magazine aside.

She was seated on a sofa and I sat down beside her.

“This is robbery,” I said.

“You can call it by any name that you want.”

“I will.”

She recrossed her legs, deliberately taking her time, and I watched a man sitting opposite follow her movements.

“We could patch things up,” she said. “We could patch things up between us.”

She had the day’s best joke.

“No,” I told her.

“It wouldn’t be the first time that a woman left her husband and came back.”

I got out my wallet.

“The thousand is cheaper,” I said. “And better. When you made a path away from my door it was for good. I made a fool out of myself over you before and I wouldn’t do it again for another ten years added to my life.” I counted out the thousand and the man opposite counted right along with me. Here,” I said, handing it to her. “I’m keeping my part of the bargain and I expect you to keep yours.”

She put the money into her pocketbook without counting it.

“It’s second choice,” she said. “I want you to know that.”

“Come again?”

“I would rather have you. I would rather have what we lost. But if I can’t have you then I have to settle for the money.” She leaned back, closing her eyes. “I don’t know what it will buy,” she said. “I don’t know what it will bring. All I know is that you have to have money or you’re a nobody.” She opened her eyes and looked at me. “I hope the money you’re making will bring you some kind of happiness.”

“It will.”

“With another woman?”

“Few men travel alone.”

“Is it the girl at the dock?”

“No.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. It isn’t any of your business.”

She turned to the side, toward me, exposing one knee.

“I think you’re going to be sorry,” she said.

“No, I won’t.”

“You’re into something that’s bigger than you are, Clint. I can tell. I didn’t live with you for nothing. When you’re worried you have a little cough that I doubt if you even notice. You’ve done it four times sitting here. And you did it before.”

“You’ve got your money,” I said, annoyed. “Where I get mine is my own affair.

“Yes, it is. But I worry about you. I don’t suppose you believe that, do you?”

“Hardly.”

“Well, it’s true. We’re no longer husband and wife but the memories come back, Clint, and they mean something. I thought when I left you that they would never bother me, but they have. I didn’t have to return to Key West. I said there was nothing else but there is always something else and somewhere to go. No one is alone in this life, not unless he wants to be. I think you are—but I don’t think you know it.”

“For a thousand bucks I get a speech,” I said, disgustedly.

“You’ll get more than that. You’ll get every dollar’s worth. I’ll keep Mr. Stearns so busy that he won’t even know that he’s got a dock, let alone what you’re doing— maybe with his daughter—while he’s away.”

“You’d better.”

Her voice softened. “I don’t want it like this for us, Clint. You know that. I’ve told you. I’ve changed in two years and so have you—me for the better and you for the worse.”

“More speeches?”

She shook her head. “No, not that. The truth. And the truth hurts, doesn’t it? Oh, I know how you look on me. I’m no better than a prostitute, a woman who would chase any man.”

“You did before.”

“That was before. This is now. I said that I had changed and I meant it. What I want now is a home and kids and a normal life. I want a husband to love me and I want to live with him until the day I die. Is that unusual? Is that something to be ashamed of? I don’t think so. I’m ashamed of the past, of what I have been, but I think that out of it all I can become a better person. Experience is a bitter teacher; still there is nothing like it I know what makes a man happy, what makes him unhappy. How many women know that? Less than you would think. Does the girl at the dock know? Does she?”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Or the other girl, whoever she is?”

“I said to shut up.”

“I won’t shut up. I’m trying to fight for something that I want. Something that I need. I would be less than a woman if I didn’t.” She reached into her pocketbook and removed the money. “Do you think this matters? Do you think this counts? It isn’t anything at all compared to what I really want.”

“You took it,” I reminded her.

“Yes, I took it. I didn’t think you would pay me and I wanted to stop whatever it is you’re doing.”

“Nobody can stop me.”

“Somebody will.”

I stood up. This conversation with her was pointless. She didn’t love me, she had never loved me. She thought I had a few bucks and she wanted a part of it. So I had paid her, and paid her in advance. What complaint did she have?

“So long,” I said.

“Clint?”

“Yeah?”

“Be careful.”

I laughed at her. She didn’t know what this was all about, couldn’t even guess. As long as she did her part with Stearns, keeping him busy and drunk, the road ahead was clear.

“Follow your own advice,” I said. “Only don’t name the first one after me.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I ought to slap you for that.”

“Go ahead and you’ll get your arm broken.”

She returned the money to her pocketbook.

“Just be sure you don’t get more than that broken, Clint.”

I got to my feet.

“I can take care of myself,” I said.

“I hope so.”

“Just don’t bet against me.”

I left her sitting there, her legs still crossed, and moved across the lobby to the big front door. I was sweating and I knew why. Some of the things she said had made sense.

13

THE THIRD and fourth trips went very well and Rose kept her part of the agreement. Stearns went to town every evening and one night he took on so much booze that he did not get back to the house until nine the next morning. I was checking over The Shark, looking to see if anything had to be done before the final haul, and saw him fall flat on his face when he got out of the taxi. The taxi driver wouldn’t help him, just drove off, and I walked up to see what I could do.

“On your feet,” I said, grabbing him by the shoulders.

“Aw, let me alone.”

I lifted him.

“You can’t sleep here.”

He blinked his eyes at me.

“This is my place and I can sleep anywhere I want. You ask anybody and he’ll tell you that a man can do what he wants on his own piece of land.”

I shoved him toward the house.

“In bed,” I said.

He tried to fight me going up the steps but I hooked my left arm under his knees, my right arm around his shoulders, and carried him.

“I don’t want Betty to see me.”

“You should have thought of that before.”

She saw him, all right. She met us at the door, wearing that black bathing suit, and there was a hard look in her eyes as she glanced up into my face.

“Thanks,” she said.

I paused, holding him in my arms.

“I didn’t get him drunk,” I told her. “I’m only helping the guy.”

“You gave him the money.”

I had, every day.

“You leave Clint alone,” he mumbled. “Clint is all right.”

She made a face and held the screen door open. I carried him inside and up the stairs. He wasn’t very heavy but by the time I reached the top I was breathing heavily.

I took him into one of the rooms and put him on the bed. It was hot in the room, and I opened the window. Before I left he was sound asleep and snoring loudly.

She was on the porch, leaning against the railing.

“No more money for him,” she said.

The heat filled the day and I unbuttoned my shirt.

“I only tried to help him out.”

Her eyebrows lifted.

“You call getting him drunk helping him?”

I took off my shirt. I was naked and brown, stripped to the waist.

“He did it by himself, Betty.”

“But he couldn’t have gotten drunk if you hadn’t given him the money.”

“Okay, have it your way.”

“I will. I certainly will have it my way. The last few nights I have seen what goes on here and I don’t like it. I don’t like the girl who drives out in that big Imperial and I don’t like what you’re doing. It’s time we settled this one way or the other, Clint.”

Her anger was not unexpected. She had been very cold the last couple of days, hardly speaking to me. Once when she was in swimming and I had joined her she had left the water.

“It’s just tonight,” I said. “Tonight is the last.”

“And after that?”

“What happens after that is up to you.”

She turned her head and looked out toward the sea, but I suspected that she wasn’t seeing very much of anything at all.

“I don’t believe you,” she said slowly.

I walked over to her and would have kissed her but she wouldn’t permit it.

“You believed me before.”

“That was before.”

“Is before different than now?”

“Very much.”

“Why?”

“There’s that girl, for one thing. She’s with you every night.”

I swung my shirt back and forth. It was damp from sweat and I could feel the dampness against my hand.

“She’s the boss,” I said. “You don’t fight with the boss just because she happens to be a pretty girl. She has to go with me. I don’t ask her.”

She slid down from the railing and stretched, her hands over her head. I hadn’t touched her in days and I had the urge to rip that suit off her. Her father was drunk upstairs; he wouldn’t know. And this would be the last time, the very last. I would never be after her again. Once this night was done I would have everything that I wanted.

“I know how long it takes for you to make Cuba and back,” Betty said. “I know when you leave and I know when you return.” She smiled, faintly. “You must have fun either going or coming.”

I sure did have fun, that was for sure. Every night. Every night with just the stars and the moon and the sky above us.

“You’ve got your mind in the gutter,” I objected. “It takes time to unload and I don’t run the boat wide open.”

“No longer to unload than to load.”

“Well?”

“That’s half an hour, not even that long last night.”

I didn’t know why I was fooling around with her. All I had to do was get through the day and the night and it would be all over. I had talked with Vera’s father the night before and he had said he would go to Mexico with us but that he would leave us there. I didn’t know what he was going to do with himself and I hadn’t asked. The less I saw of him the better.

“Let me know if your father needs anything,” I said, going down the steps.

Her voice followed me.

“Remember what I said about the money, Clint. You give him more money to drink on and you may not get out of here tonight.”

I came to a dead stop and swung around.

“Don’t get any ideas,” I said. “This is his dock and if I get into any trouble he’ll be in it just as deeply as I am.”

I could see that her chin was unsteady, her eyes clouded with tears.

“You aren’t the same man,” she said.

“You won’t let me be.”

“It isn’t me, Clint. It’s you. Until this whole mess came up you were more gentle.”

We could have talked about it all morning and gotten no further than we were. She had looked for one thing in me and had found something else. It wasn’t my fault. Circumstances alter a man, after all.

“I’ve got work to do,” I said.

She opened the screen door.

“So have I. In the house.”

I slung the shirt over one shoulder and returned to The Shark but I didn’t do any work. I went down inside, opened the safe and counted the money. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to count so much money. It was even better to hold it in my hands. Here was security, here was the promise of tomorrow and all the tomorrows that would come after that. Here was my life with Vera, here was the guarantee against poverty and uncertainty.

That afternoon I thought of going into town to see her but refrained from doing so. She said that she had many things to do and that she would be busy until it was time for the truck to come out. I settled on going out to the dock and lying in the sun.

I guess I must have fallen asleep and when I came to, Stearns was standing beside me. I sat up.

“Feel better?” I wanted to know.

He looked like the devil.

“Got a Bromo?” he asked.

“It’s all gone.”

He made a production of sitting down.

“Hell with it,” he said. “It serves me right, getting so looped.”

“You were feeling no pain,” I assured him.

“I do now.”

“Everyone pays for what he does.”

I offered him a cigarette but he refused it.

“I need some money,” he said frankly.

“Who doesn’t?”

He spit toward the water.

“This is her last night in Key West,” he said. “I’d like to see her.”

“Go ahead.”

“But I can’t do it when I’m broke.”

“Fifty dollars a night is a lot of money,” I told him.

“I don’t go through it with her. She isn’t that kind. We have dinner and a few drinks and just talk, nothing else. I stay with her until about eleven and then she sees me off in a cab. The trouble is I don’t come right back to the place. I get to thinking and I hit one bar after another. Last night was the roughest. Last night I ran into a woman about my own age and we got along fine. I wanted to see her tonight but she’s tied up, sitting with her grandchildren. And I did want to see the girl again. Rose has been nice to me, Clint. I can talk to her and she listens.”

Betty would be sore at me if I gave him money but I had to have him out of there and it was the only way I could arrange it.

“Okay,” I said, hunting through my wallet. “Have a ball.”

He took the fifty, folded it and shoved it into one of his pockets.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said.

“Take your time.”

“No, I mean it. This is my last night with the booze and then I’m going on the wagon again. The woman I told you about seems steady and decent and she doesn’t care much for drinking. She drinks only ginger ale and I guess if it’s good enough for her it’s good enough for me. Starting tomorrow I’m going back at the turtles. If I can get the boat cleaned up I may be able to get a few fishing parties. The way I look at it I’ve just been horsing around and getting nowhere fast. A man can’t keep himself hanging up in the air forever.”

“No.”

“You have to have a purpose in this life, Clint, or you’re licked. That’s been the trouble with me these last few years—no purpose. All I’ve done is go from one day to the other and let the next day take care of itself.”

He rambled on and I lay back, listening to him. He had a fine dock, he was saying, and if he worked things right he ought to get enough boats out of Key West to meet the bank payments with the rent paid him. As for Betty, she could take care of the house until someday when she found a man she wanted to marry.

“They could live with me,” he said. “I could use one room and they could have the rest of the house. I wouldn’t bother them any.” He glanced toward the sea. “It’s a good place to raise kids, a fine place to raise them. And after they get older the school bus goes right down the highway.”

I didn’t have much to say to him and he finally left. In a way, I was sorry that I wouldn’t be seeing him again. He wasn’t a bad guy.

Later that afternoon I took the boat down to Key West and got a load of fuel. The tanks were big and we would have enough to take us to Cuba and then on to Mexico. On the return trip I opened her up and let her run. Those thin head gaskets had boosted the compression of the motors and I could feel the surging thrust of power beneath me. I shot past a sail boat, pushed down a mountain of waves, and I laughed. I felt good. Hell, I felt more than good. I felt tops.

After tying up at the dock I went below and tried to get some sleep, but I couldn’t. When I closed my eyes the past was all jumbled up with the future and my nerves were taut. I lay there, sweating and smoking, trying to think. What if something went wrong? But nothing could go wrong. The four previous trips had gone off well and there was no reason to believe that the last one would be an exception. All we had to do was make Cuba, unload the guns and ammunition, and take off. Mexico was the next stop. After that the world would be mine.

The truck arrived early that night, shortly after eight, and we began loading the heavy cartons. Vera came out in the truck and she came on board, carrying a suitcase. She was wearing shorts and a halter and her hair was tied back with a red ribbon.

“What can I do?” she asked.

“What you always do. Just stand there and look pretty.”

“I could do a better job of it if you kissed me.”

I kissed her.

“Better?”

“Much better.”

There were four men with the truck but even with me helping it took us longer than half an hour to get everything put away. As soon as we were finished she paid the men. One of them thanked her but the others didn’t. They shuffled off into the gathering darkness, talking in low tones.

As we pulled away from the dock I looked back wondering if I should have any regrets. I was leaving Betty forever, Rose forever—leaving behind me two years of emptiness.

“The final swing,” I said to Vera.

She was beside me, the wind in her hair, all of her loveliness close and comfortable.

“We’ve both waited for this, Clint.”

“I know I have.”

I lit a couple of cigarettes and handed her one.

“I hope you brought the money.”

“I brought it,” I assured her. “It’s in the safe.”

“When we get to Mexico you’ll have to put it in the bank.”

“When we get to Mexico we’ll have to get married.”

She put her head on my shoulder.

“You’re sweet,” she murmured.

About twenty-five miles out we hit a thunder shower and there was a lot of wind with it The Shark rocked and rolled in the ocean and I had difficulty keeping her on course. I told Vera to go below out of the storm and she did, but as soon as we were clear again she was bade beside me.

“You’re soaked,” she said.

“What’s a little water?”

“Will this make us late?”

“Not much, if any. We got away earlier than usual.”

We had time to stop and do what I wanted to do, but when I suggested it she said we should wait.

“After tonight you won’t have to wait,” she said.

“Never again.”

Our lips were together, hungry lips that wanted, lips that were filled with fire.

“I’d better watch the compass,” I said unsteadily. “We didn’t miss the cove before and we don’t want to miss it now.”

The Shark moved on through the night, the darkness all around us. The moon was clouded over and I could see only a couple of stars. She put her arm around my waist and snuggled up to me. Every once in a while we kissed and when we did my need for her felt greater than any other need possible.

“I love you,” I said.

“I should hope so.”

“Love me?”

“With all my heart.”

“And your body?”

“That and my soul.”

The moon had come out by the time we reached Cuban waters and that was a help. I slowed The Shark, feeling my way with the aid of the compass, and I saw the blackness of the island ahead of us.

“There’s the light,” she said. “How do you do it?”

“It isn’t hard.”

We went in, just as we had before, and they were there to meet us. Her father came on board first and I could smell the whiskey on his breath.

“There’s no time to lose,” he said. “Somebody must have talked and we lost one load of guns.”

“That’s not your fault or mine,” I told him.

“No, but it’s serious. Every gun is important. Every bullet. Once the revolution is started it can’t be stopped. It will spread through the island and destroy everything in its path. Or be destroyed,” he added. “We’ve done our best. No one can ask for more.”

Previously I had not helped unload the guns but this night I did. I was anxious to get out of there, to leave Cuba behind. Tomorrow we would be in Mexico and tomorrow we would be free.

Before we left, the other American came on board and talked with Gordon. They were at the other end of the boat and I couldn’t hear what they said but I thought they were arguing. When the stranger departed he told me to take it easy and I told him to do likewise.

The sea was calm and we slid between the coral reefs. Vera was on deck and so was Gordon.

“Drink?” he asked me.

“I could use one.” My stomach was tied up in knots. “Thanks.”

He handed me the bottle and I drank from it. It was scotch, warm, and it burned my throat going down.

“Haven’t you forgotten something?” I said, returning the bottle.

“Such as?”

“The money.”

He laughed and slapped me on the back.

“I never saw a guy so hungry for a buck.”

“Well, I didn’t do it for anything except money.”

The moon had clouded over again and it was quite dark. I couldn’t see him plainly but Vera had changed into something white and I could dimly see her leaning against the railing.

“I thought you did,” he said. “I thought you did it for her.”

“That—and the money.”

He must have emptied the bottle because he threw it away.

“She tells me you’re heading for Mexico.”

“Correct.”

“For a little fun and to forget.”

“Right again.”

He was behind me now and I suddenly felt something bard in my back. I didn’t know what it was and I started to move.

“Take us to Florida,” he said. “Or have your guts spilled all over the deck.”

I knew what that thing was then—a gun, the hard point of it sitting right over my belt line.

“Don’t try anything with me,” I said.

He laughed. “My God, listen to the guy, would you? I have a gun on him and he cracks wise.”

My hands were hot as they gripped the wheel. I didn’t know what to think. She was still standing against the railing, saying nothing.

“Vera,” I began.

“Do as he says.”

“Why?”

She came away from the railing, walking slowly.

“Because if you don’t you’ll never see Florida again.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

She was close to me and I could smell her. Her laughter, trailing through the night, was musical and low.

“You’re the world’s biggest sucker,” she said. “You ought to know that, Clint.”

I thought I saw it. The facts were there and there was no disputing them. I had ran their guns for the revolution, and I had the money in the safe. It was neat a glove that would fit either hand.

“You bitch,” I said to her.

Her laughter came again.

“It had to be somebody,” she said. “It happened to be you. Don’t feel bad about it.” She then spoke to Gordon. “The money is on the boat.”

I thought the muzzle of the gun relaxed its pressure just a trifle.

“That’s fine. You’ve done your job well, Vera.”

“And I get my five thousand?”

“Of course you do.”

“I’d better.”

“As soon as he digs it out you will.”

They were going to strip me clean. I wouldn’t have a thing for what I had done. They would take the money and I would be right back where I started.

“You’re not his daughter,” I said.

There was contempt in her voice. “I wouldn’t own him for a father.”

“You’ve got no complaints,” Gordon said. “You did all right on that pitch in South America and you’re doing all right here. You stick with me and you can make more than you do by selling yourself to any guy who comes along.”

I was sick, sick. She was worse than Rose, worse than any of them. She had given me her body and I had accepted it. I was finding out now that her body was the only payment I would ever get. She was something less than a common prostitute.

“You won’t get the money,” I said.

“We’ll see about that,” Gordon decided.

“Try and get it.”

“I will.”

Silence fell over the boat. There were just the sounds of the motors and the slap of the water against the hull. I checked the compass and changed direction. I was no longer interested in Mexico. I just wanted to get out of this, to find a bar and drown the whole miserable mess.

How had I loved her? Had I really? Those were the questions that raced through my mind. I closed my eyes, feeling the gun at my back, and saw Betty’s face.

I tried to change that face, to put Vera’s in place of it, but the illusion wouldn’t come. The face was there, smiling, encouraging. Was it love? Maybe. She was a clean girl, fine in every way, and she bad given herself to me. She had given all that a girl could possibly give and she had asked for nothing except consideration. I had been unfair with her, brutally so, and I had accepted her as I had accepted other girls. Guilt filled me then, the hollow guilt of knowing that I had been wrong. She deserved more and she deserved something better. If I ever got out of this—

“Where do you want to go?” I asked Gordon.

“The Stearns’ dock.”

“The car will be there,” Vera said. “I arranged for a man to bring it from town. I didn’t want him to wonder why I hadn’t stored it.”

“Smart.”

I tried to figure how I could get out of this fix but he had a gun behind me and you don’t argue with a gun. That is, you can argue but you can’t win. Your belly develops a hole that nobody can fix.

“You thought you were so smart,” Gordon said. “Now you can see just how smart you really were.”

“Not very.”

“A little flesh goes a long way, doesn’t it?”

“It did with me, that’s for sure.”

“You had your fun,” Vera said. “What you didn’t get from the Stearns’ girl you got from me.” She sighed. “It wasn’t bad, I have to admit that. You are a rather adequate lover.”

“You ought to know,” Gordon decided. “You’ve had enough of them.”

“Let’s not get personal.”

“This whole thing is personal.”

I started to reach for a cigarette but the gun prodded me and I changed my mind. We still had quite a distance to go but he could kill me and throw me over the side and no one would ever know the difference. I didn’t know what he knew about boats, if anything, but almost anybody could get The Shark to shore.

“Did you think I would pay twenty-five thousand dollars for what you did?” Gordon inquired of me.

“You set the figure. I didn’t.”

“And Vera, here, set the atmosphere.”

“All right, so I was a sucker.”

“You’ll know better next time,” Vera said.

“You can say that again.”

“They’re all the same,” Gordon said. “A guy owns a boat and he wants to make a small fortune with it. Where do they think I get off? I arrange for the guns, plan the details, and I only pick up fifty grand for all of my work. Am I going to split that with anybody? Like hell I am. If I kill the pig I’m going to have the meat.”

We continued on toward the Florida Keys. He kept the gun at my back and none of us said anything. There was nothing much to say. I had walked into a trap and the trap had closed. I was bitter about it, of course, but I also realized that if you reach for the moon you’re apt to wind up with nothing. And that’s just what I had— nothing. Nothing but that money in the safe, money that might cost me my life if I tried to keep it.

Dawn arrived and with it the first rays of a hot sun, a sun that crept up over the horizon and blazed red.

“Let her drift,” Gordon said.

“Huh?”

In the distance was the Florida coast.

“I said to let it drift.”

I cut the engines.

“Where do we go from here?”

“Down below.”

“You’re the boss.”

The gun jammed against my spine.

“I want that money, Walker, and I want it now.”

It was the moment I had been waiting for.

“You’re not going to get it,” I said.

“Well see about that.”

“So we will.” I glanced at Vera. “You thought you were smart, didn’t you? You talked about Mexico and having the money with us so that it would be right here.”

She smiled. “You fell for it, honey.”

I had. Every cent I owned was in that safe.

“You fell for something else, too,” Gordon said. “Remember the two men who jumped you that night? They were my men. I wanted you broke, wanted you flat. It’s easier to hire a guy when he comes to you on his knees.” He moved the gun. “Let’s go, fellow. We’re wasting time and in my business we don’t waste time.”

It was a crazy thing to do, but I went for the gun. He was behind me and he had the advantage. Before I could even turn around he hit me over the head, splitting my scalp, and I felt the hot, sticky rush of blood.

“Kill him,” Vera shouted.

He almost did. That gun was all over my head, and I felt my knees growing weak. I grabbed for the wheel, missed it and fell down. Desperately I tried to get up, to reach for his legs, but he had moved away from me and the gun was pointed straight at my face.

“You give me the money or you die,” he said calmly.

There are some things you don’t fight against, and this sure was one of them. Blood was all over my face and hands and the urge to destroy him was lost in a wave of pain.

“Follow me,” I said, crawling to my feet.

“I’m right behind you.”

Down inside the boat I had difficulty remembering the combination to the safe. Was it eighty-four to the right or eighty-four to the left? Cursing I tried both. It was eighty-four to the left.

“I spent some of it,” I said as the door opened.

“I don’t care about that. What’s left is enough.”

I saw him reach in and take the money and I thought of all of the things I was going to do with it. Now that I looked back it was a joke, a wild joke that had been filled with impossibilities.

“You never get anything the easy way,” I said.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

Back up on the deck he told me to get underway again. I did. I squinted into the sun, trying to blink away my terrible headache, and I knew that my face was caked with blood. I ran one of my hands through my hair and discovered three or four cuts. One of them was deep and still bleeding.

I don’t know just how I made it to the Stearns’ dock but I did.

“Thanks for the trip,” Gordon said, jumping down. He made no effort to help Vera. “It was a pleasure.”

“All of it yours.”

The Imperial was parked near the house and they drove away. As soon as they had gone I lay down on the deck of The Shark and made an effort to keep from crying. I couldn’t. Everything was gone. Everything. I had nothing left.

14

IF YOU write to a chamber of commerce in Florida you’ll be sent a nicely printed folder that tells you all about the attractive features of the state. One of the things stressed, if it comes from Key West, is that the fishing is good. It is. I ought to know because I make my living at it. A living for me and my wife.

The tourists keep me pretty busy. The Shark is a sleek boat and I have come to know the fishing grounds as well as I know daylight from dark. Sometimes I have a full load, sometimes a light one, but at the end of the day I have made my nut.

I like the end of the day best. It is then that I can think, that I can remember. And she is always there, close to me, loving me, her lips warm and soft. “I love you,” she says. “And I love you.”

We talk about having a child, either a boy or a girl, and one of these months it’s going to happen. We’re saving toward it, planning on the event.

“I want a boy, Clint. Like you.”

“And I want a girl. Like you.”

We say these things at night, when she comes into my arms.

“And to think, Clint, that I almost lost you.”

“I almost lost myself.”

Some of the tourists who come on board The Shark leave newspapers behind and if I’m at the dock, waiting for new customers, I spend my time reading. The other day I saw Vera’s picture in one of the papers. Beneath the picture was her death notice. She and Gordon were killed running guns in one of the South American countries. I wondered, reading it for the second time, what good the money had done them. They were dead and I was alive.

I don’t know what happened to the guns I hauled to Cuba and I care less. Perhaps the government seized them and maybe someday they will bring more blood and terror to the island.

Stearns is back in the turtle business and has stopped drinking. He’ll never get rich hunting turtles but he makes enough to pay his mortgage at the bank and with Betty helping him out—she has an office job in Key West—he manages to get along.

As for the money he owes me, I’m taking it out in rent—we live on the second floor of his house—and this makes it easier on him. It isn’t much of an apartment and my wife complains about the makeshift kitchen but it is close to my work and it’s good enough for the time being.

I seldom see Betty except on weekends, and I have noticed that she has diseased the black bathing suit. She wears something red that fits her and when her boy friend comes out from town—he’s a lawyer, I think— they swim near the dock. We’re friendly and we speak but it doesn’t go beyond that. It never will again. She has her life and I have mine.

“She’s pretty,” Rose often says.

“And so are you.”

We don’t have very much, just each other and the boat and fifteen hundred dollars in the bank. The fifteen hundred is the money I paid her to entertain Stearns— the money she offered me when they took me to the hospital to patch up my head. I was in the hospital only two days but she was with me every chance she could get.

She is a changed girl, a good wife, and I think we will make out fine. There is no reason why we shouldn’t. We have made mistakes, but we learned from them. Others may not be so fortunate.

THE EN

One Response to “Full Text: Add Flesh to the Fire”

  1. […] Full Text: Add the chops on "Orrie Hitt: The mean … My own cigarette went into the water and made other fish to pass it on. I yawned and looked back toward the house. "Thanks for Nothing," I said. "If you did not Cuba're but not wanted in Cuba. Who am I to set up translation ASHO? …. I a couple of glasses from the shelf above the sink and had poured some rum in each.?" What is with you and to me this afternoon, "she smiled." That is something else. This is a woman's secret. "I see." I would not understand, and I could not tell him … […]

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