Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Milagro in Santa Serena

The Milagro in Santa Serena

(Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved)

By Michael J. Fitzgerald

Amid all the worldwide 2012 hoopla and speculation about the end of days - by the devout, the doomsayers and the definitely deranged - a baby girl was born in the Pacific coastal Mexican village of Santa Serena at first light on Ash Wednesday morning. Her birth came just as the church bell was clanging loudly to call the faithful to a Roman Catholic Mass in the church by the town jardin.
There was an unusually bright star still visible in the early light, though only a few people - gringos or Mexican - took much notice of it. And those who did were used to the bright starry skies that are routine along the sparsely populated stretches of the Pacific coast, thinking the star's brilliance was simply some quirk of the atmosphere or perhaps a planet orbiting extra close to the earth.
Joe Martin saw it, waking up on the beach after a late-night margarita marathon that left his mouth cotton dry and his bladder about to burst.
His six-month leave of absence from his California newspaper was nearly done; his book on the financial meltdown in California still only a notebook full of random ideas and two boxes of research materials.
And his advance from his California book publisher was mostly gone.
He stared at the bright star, wondering if the sand fleas had left him any spot on his body unbitten during the night. It would be a hour probably before Pablo would open the restaurant just above him and he could get some orange juice, maybe with a little vodka or tequila, to ease his pounding headache.
Then the star simply disappeared, or as Joe would later write, "It was as if God flipped a switch and turned the light off."
In a way, she had.


The joke was as old as the U.S. space program:
A manned mission to the dark side of the earth's moon goes behind luna and lands, but is quickly out of radio contact.
When the spacecraft emerges three days later, the commander radios the earth.
"We have good news and bad news," he reports.
"The good news is that God exists and lives on the dark side of the moon.
"The bad news is, she is black and really pissed."
It was one of Joe's favorite jokes, particularly when he was around either racists or right-wing Christians who would try to bury him with arguments why he should hate a person of another race - or visit a particular Christian church to be enlightened.
A few words about his Roman Catholic upbringing usually shut them up. If not, he would pull out the joke.
On this particular morning, he was in no joking mood as he crawled out of his light sleeping bag. The night before he had gotten into a blowout argument with his best gringo friends in the village, who were concerned about his nearly non-stop drinking - and his obvious lack of interest in writing the book he had come to Mexico to work on.
Fran and Gregorio had known Joe for years in the U.S. in San Francisco, back when he was married and a 35-year-old investigative newspaper reporter on the fast track. So when he landed a book contract, they encouraged him to come and live in their upstairs guest casita, where he could work undisturbed and yet enjoy the ocean and surfing a block away as a break from writing about the economic disaster called California.
Instead of going home - after slamming a half-dozen of Pablo's industrial strength margaritas and cursing his friends - Joe Martin had gone back to the casita, grabbed his sleeping bag and come back to sleep on top of a surfboard while he watched the stars.
Had he not been so drunk, he might have also seen when the bright star appeared suddenly in the east, like a someone threw a switch.

Moira Walsh saw the star that morning, too, though in her case it was from her bed in a rooftop palapa only a short walk from where Joe Martin had been sleeping while the bugs chewed on him.
She hadn't taken too much notice at the time. And now her attention was focused between her legs, where midwife Lupita Alvarez was cleaning her up after a birth that Lupita said was 'muy facil' (very easy) compared to any she had attended to with Mexican women in the village.
Thirty-eight-year old Moira was the first gringa Lupita had helped with a birth and Lupita wondered if all gringa women had children so easy.
Moira's best friend Carlos was in the room, too, holding the newborn in its swaddling blanket. The infant's face was perfectly sculpted and already her eyes were open, fixing Carlos with a solid stare.
"Is it usual for a baby to have its eyes open?" he asked. "And she is smiling at me, I swear. Smiling."
Indeed, the hours-old infant was smiling and it was a smile that people later would report had the power to make grown men burst into tears when she fixed her eyes on them, even the gruffest, macho and most powerful.
The smile was later credited with the power to bring people out of deep depressions and making the stingiest of people generous.
Moira Walsh's daughter, they would whisper, was an angel.

Fran and Gregorio made their way down the hill towards the small Catholic Church along with villagers and some vacationing Americans. Now in their mid-50s, they had returned to the Catholic Church - at least the Mexican Catholic Church - after a 30-plus year hiatus during which they married and raised their children.
In retrospect, they wished they had raised their children with some kind of religious upbringing, but didn't dwell on it much. One day, shortly after they had moved to the village five years ago, on a whim Gregorio sat in the back of the church at a Mass and was impressed with the joyfulness of the service, even if he could barely figure out what the priest was saying during his homily.
"It's so different from the U.S.," he told Fran that day. "You can feel it in the church."
Fran thought what Gregorio was experiencing was ignorance because of the language barrier until she went with him to a Mass a few weeks later.
Now they rarely missed Mass when they were home.
This morning they were shocked to see an American priest on the altar, standing alongside the village's regular padre, Father Alberto Morales. The American priest had a shock of red hair that screamed of Northern Europe and a face that looked like a map of Ireland. Occasionally there were visiting priests, but they usually were from other parts of Mexico and spoke in dialects even harder for Gregorio and Fran to understand.
Father Michael Spanish proved to be classic Castillian, which perplexed some of the villagers but was welcomed by Fran and Gregorio who had studied the more formal Spanish before moving to the village. Five years into living in Mexico they were still occasionally struggling with the oddities of the local Mexican slang.
"There has been much said about this importance of this calendar year - 2012," Father O'Brien said, first in Spanish, then repeating his remarks in English for the 20 or so gringos scattered about in the church.
"Time to God is meaningless. Except in the sense that God knows that our time, the time of man, is limited here on Earth. In heaven, we will be with him forever. And so it is important to use our time on earth to his greater glory.
"The year 2012 is like all years and we should always be prepared for the return of our lord, Jesus Christ. And to face him."
Fran and Gregorio listened to the Irish's priests homily, thinking how much better it sounded in Spanish and reminding them of the contrast between this slightly dour visiting Irishman and Father Morales who sang nearly every phrase during Mass and who could barely contain his glee anytime he was up on the altar or greeting people in front of the church.
It was right about then when 94-year-old Tia Mele, the oldest Mexican woman in the village and wheelchair bound for more than 40-years, stood up and walked to the front of the church where she started to sing in a powerful, melodic voice.
People called it a miracle.
It wasn't the last one that day.

Pablo served Joe Martin his orange juice straight, with a double-shot of tequila on the side, as requested. Pablo had seen Joe drunk plenty - practically every night for months since Joe had made an unsuccessful pass at a 30-something-year-old American woman on vacation who was impressed that Joe was a writer, less impressed that he was over 50 years old and had trouble enunciating any word with more than one syllabus after two drinks.
Right after that, Joe started coming in before lunch for a quick drink or two. He told Pablo he was able to write so fast in the mornings he could get his work done in an hour a day.
If only that had been true.
But last night Pablo had witnessed Joe turn belligerent for the first time - and towards his gringo friends who were forever bragging to people in the bar about the important book Joe was writing and how he was a famous author from San Francisco.
On the deck looking out at a half-dozen surfers grabbing the first good sets of the day, Pablo saw that Joe was spiraling downward to the bottom of his life. Pablo's long-dead father, a farmer from the Mexican state where real tequila is made, would have said that maybe Joe was getting ready to eat the worm at the bottom of the bottle.
From two blocks away, the church bell started ringing, a persistent clanging that made Pablo wonder if some children had grabbed the bell rope and were making sport. But it didn't stop and Pablo knew that Father Morales would not allow it to go on without some reason.
In the centuries before, the church bell would be rung like that to warn of attacks by Indians, banditos or even the Mexican Army on a raid for supplies.
"Pablo, que es?" Joe asked. "La campana?"
Pablo just shrugged his shoulders, aware though that the clanging was getting on Joe's tender nerves.
Then a 10-year-old boy best known in the village for convincing naive tourists he needed money to help his sick mother roared past the deck at Pablo's shouting that people should come to the church to see el milagro.
"The miracle will be if that kid lives to see adulthood," Joe mumbled to himself.
The boy's mother actually was a successful street vendor who thought her son was in school every day while he was out caging money.
But when a second child - a six-year-old girl neatly dressed in her school girl uniform - came roaring past shouting about a miracle at the church, too, Joe thought, 'Why not? I could use one, myself."
He asked Pancho to pour his orange juice - and the tequila - into a plastic cup to carry to church.
For the first time in maybe months, Joe Martin's curiosity had been awakened, even if it was reeking of alcohol.
It was a small miracle in itself.

Moira Walsh looked out the window at the town and heard the persistent church bell calling the village. Next to her, the baby she had decided to call Isabel, was sleeping after Carlos had cradled her for nearly an hour, talking to her about anything he could think of. Whenever he spoke, she smiled at him, and he was mesmerized by the smile.
Baby Isabel's father was long gone, gone even before Moira realized that she was pregnant. Paulo was a tall, handsome Mexican man traveling through the village, dressed a monk's garb. He told Moira he was a pilgrim on a spiritual journey, headed to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
He and Moira were alone together for just one night - a night marked by late-night drinking, smoking a lot of high-grade marijuana and endless conversation about the universe that lasted until dawn when Paulo told Moira he needed to continue his journey south to Barra de Navidad before he headed to Mexico City and the shrine.
Moira told her friends that nothing had happened - sexually - between she and Paulo in that one night, a least nothing that she could remember with any degree of clarity.
But two months later there was no denying she was pregnant.
Now looking at baby Isabel , Moira saw her life taking a turn away from living day to day on a beautiful beach, flirting with tourists and Mexican men with equal ease whe not hawking her jewelry and artwork. Now she was a mother with the responsibility of a child, a responsibility that scared her a little, but filled her with joy, too.
Baby Isabel's eyes snapped open, as if she could hear the internal monologue of her mother about the future and the joy she felt. The same smile that had so transfixed Carlos came across Isabel's face, making Moira's tears well up.
And as Moira cried and baby Isabel started making a gurgling noise that could almost be interpreted as a laugh, Moira noticed Isabel's eyes for the first time.
Her left eye was an incredibly deep ocean blue.
Her right was clearly the most beautiful shade of brown imaginable.
And when Isabel opened her mouth to give that gurgling laugh again, Moira could clearly see inside her tiny mouth.
There were two tiny baby teeth starting to show in Isabel's lower gums.

As Joe arrived at the church all he saw was pandemonium. Half the people were on their knees, their eyes cast upward, others had gaping jaws as Tia Mele would let loose with one spiritual song after another while she stood next to the priests on the altar.
Father O'Brien, unfamiliar with Tia Mele's long-term confinement to a wheelchair was perplexed by the fuss and was urging Father Morales to get the singing and swaying congregation under control so they could complete the Mass.
Father Morales was crossing himself so fast it looked like he might poke himself in the eye and didn't seem to hear O'Brien at all.
Near the back, Fran and Gregorio were working their way forward, past the worshipers to get closer to Tia Mele. She was a favorite of theirs in the village and they frequently stopped by the chat with her in her small shack on a side street near their home.
Two years before, they had asked her if she would accept an electric cart to get around but she declined. She said her wheelchair - a gift of the village many years before - was good enough. When she couldn't get around it that, she would say, she would let God take her to heaven any way he wanted to.
Today it seemed like God might let her run there, Gregorio thought.
Joe tossed his orange juice and tequila into a trash can outside while he pulled out a small reporter's notebook and pen from his pocket. He looked like hell. His hair was matted from sleeping on the surfboard, his face unshaven, his clothes wrinkled and soiled beyond even the lax standards of this beachside village, used to tourists drinking too much and dressing inappropriately.
He saw Fran and Gregorio moving up the side aisle toward the front and caught a smile from Fran that said his drunken ramblings and rage from the night before had been pushed aside. Gregorio motioned to him to come up front - and fast - and for a moment it seemed to Joe like perhaps there was some kind of medical emergency.
The Irish priest's face was beginning to get the beet red, ruddy-look that Irish get when they have been into the whiskey for too long. Then the priest actually put a finger inside his clerical collar as if to let off a little steam.
Father Morales - who always talked to Joe about coming to church with Fran and Gregorio whenever they met - looked happy and bright while he tried to talk to Tia Mele, still belting out tunes like a Mexican Ethel Merman.
Joe pushed forward, trying desperately not to step on any of the people who had chosen to go from simply kneeling to becoming completely prostate on the church floor. Joe suddenly connected Tia Mele with the wheelchair and remembered that she was a local character and a favorite of Fran and Gregorio.
As he got to the altar at the same time as his friends, Tia Mele stopped singing and the church went completely silent.
"Mr. Joe Martin," Tia Mele said in perfectly accented British English, "Would you like to dance with me?"
Fran looked at her husband Gregorio and nearly fainted.

Gabriel, Michael and Christopher sat on a white marble bench, a flock of snow white doves in front of them.
The trio's wings were neatly tucked behind them as they tossed peanuts a few at a time to the doves, who waiting patiently for each throw.
In human terms, Gabriel, Michael and Christopher were an unmeasurable distance from the planet called earth, but simultaneously actually on earth, too.
It was one of those ecclesiastical riddles one learns the answer to only after going to heaven.
If you took away the white robes and the misty cloudy atmosphere that seemed all around them, the trio looked like three retirees on a park bench in Florida, a little bored and all buried in their own thoughts.
Gabriel threw enough peanuts to the doves to feed a small Mexican village - another side benefit for all heaven's inhabitants. You can eat as much as you want.
But then he asked the nearly sleeping Michael and Christopher about Santa Serena.
"So what exactly is going on in that Mexican village? Gabriel asked.
"You don't know?" Christopher responded.
"No," Gabriel said, "I am not omniscient, like She is, thank you very much."
Michael shook himself awake.
"Careful Gabe. That sounds very close to envy. And we can't have that can we?
Gabriel stood up and waved his hand, clearing away the mist, revealing a scene of the Catholic Church in Santa Serena where Joe Martin was being dragged around in front of the altar by the ancient Tia Mele, doing something resembling a cross between the foxtrot and the Lindy Hop. He also looked like he might actually be enjoying it.
"So, what exactly is that?" Christopher asked. "And don't say foxtrot if you don't want me to twist your wings.
"I remember her. She used to travel a lot when she was young and carried my image on a medal around her neck."
Michael leaned forward, absent-mindedly reaching in his robe for eyeglasses, a visual crutch he never had need of but a habit he had picked up when spending time on earth observing the Watergate hearings.
"I see the hand of Sofia in this. She loves these little Mexican villages. Wait. I think that half-swacked guy dancing is on schedule for a suicide attempt pretty soon, isn't he?"
Gabriel snorted.
"Ooooh. So now who's trying to be omniscient?

Moira was wobbly as she came out of the tiny bathroom of her casita, Carlos on one arm, Lupita on the other.
Baby Isabel had been born hours before and Moira was just beginning to feel her strength come back.
Lupita gasped when she looked over at the small bassinet where Isabel had been sleeping before she and Carlos hoisted Moira out of bed for the bathroom trip.
Carlos and Moira stopped in their tracks, too.
Baby Isabel was not Baby Isabel anymore. She stood tall in the bassinet, spinning the mobile of dolphins and sea creatures around, as tall as the mobile was above the bed. Her baby hair was gone, replaced by nearly shoulder-length auburn tresses. And her baby diaper and shirt were gone, too. Now she wore a white, long-sleeved dress with gold trim that fit her perfectly.
Anyone walking into the room would have said she was five or six years old and dressed for a school play.
And when she gave Moira big smile, there was mouthful of teeth showing.
"Santa Maria," Lupita said, making the sign of the cross repeatedly.
Moira and Carlos maneuvered over to a pair of kitchen chairs, where they carefully sat down, never taking their eyes off the baby-now-child Isabel.
Isabel stopped smiling for a moment and looked at them curiously, like a child might do when presented with a new toy or something foreign to their experience.
"Oh my God," Moira said. "She's going to say something. She's going to talk. Carlos, she's going to talk. Lupita, pienso que la nina va a hablar!"
"Es un milagro senora, a milagro," Lupita cried, dropping to her knees and beating her breast as she repeated "Santa Maria. Santa Maria, Santa Maria."
Exactly what happened next was subject to debate, even among Moira, Carlos and Lupita.
Isabel either floated or stepped down from the bassinet onto the floor.
And on what had been bare feet in the bassinet suddenly were wearing exquisite golden slippers.
But each of the three adults agreed that they heard Isabel speak, each in their native language, the message exactly the same.
"Take me to Father O'Brien in the church, please."

Tia Mele sat in her wheelchair again, the same chair from which she sold small items every day, outside her home not far from the church. Many of the people in the church were already filing out, stopping to say hello to her and comment on the miracle of her walking and dancing before heading to their homes and into the village tell everyone what they had seen.
The Mexicans Catholics seemed a little more sanguine about witnessing miracles than gringos, Joe thought, his heart still pumping hard from dancing.
Tia Mele said nothing, and seemed almost returned to the way she had been, except that the deep age lines in her face were gone and her sad smile had been replaced by one appropriate for a child seeing a birthday cake for the first time.
After being whirled around, Joe had stood by while Tia Mele faced the congregation and sang one final joyful song before making her way slowly to the back of the church and her wheelchair.
Father O'Brien was sitting in the chair reserved on the altar for the priest saying the Mass and wiping his sweating head with a white handkerchief. He had given up trying to get Father Morales to control the service.
In all the chaos, the Mass was actually never completed and O'Brien was trying to figure out how to get Morales back behind the altar to prepare Holy Communion for the handful of church goers who were not leaving.
He was also trying to figure out who the disheveled man was by the altar who had been dancing with the Mexican woman. When O'Brien heard her speak English - with what he thought was a decidedly British accent - he began to wonder if he was headed down the road to the onset of the same Alzheimer's disease which had seized his Irish mother years before.
I am only 60-years-old, Lord, O'Brien thought. Please spare me and let me be of use to the people.
Joe realized that he hadn't written down a single thing and motioned to Fran that he needed a pen. Somewhere in being grabbed by Tia Mele and twirling about, he had kept his reporter's notebook safe in his pocket but his pen had gone walkabout.
And he needed to make some notes, he was sure.
He also was developing a powerful thirst for a margarita - maybe several - but let his newsman's instincts keep him at the church where he knew he had just witnessed something incredible.
He couldn't bring himself to call it a miracle. Too many years of starting out skeptical and then sliding to cynical as a newspaper reporter couldn't allow him label what he had seen as miraculous.
But what would he call it, he wondered?
As Fran tossed him a pen from her purse, he looked up to see a young woman of maybe 20 years with sparkling auburn hair walking across the jardin towards the church, gold slippers on her feet and wearing a white dress trimmed in gold that made him think of a Hollywood movie representation of an angel.
The people in the square were murmuring as she walked past. They were looking at her as if she was a movie star and while Joe couldn't understand all the Spanish, he heard the word "milagro" being said aloud repeatedly by dozens of people.
Later, Joe would write that a blind man begging by the fountain suddenly had his sight restored, a deaf six-year-old boy covered his ears when he heard sound for the first time in his life and a teenage girl on crutches whose legs were crippled from polio suddenly sported muscles in her calves and thighs and walked normally.
Joe could see the woman's eyes clearly from the front of the church as she entered, parting the crowd at the door. She never looking to the side, just straight ahead at the altar. She had a small smile on her face, though she looked serious at the same time.
The Mexicans and gringos still in the pews in the church stared at her openly with an epidemic of signs of the cross breaking out.
She stopped at Tia Mele's wheelchair for a moment and gently stroked the old woman's hair, then marched straight towards the altar where Father Morales stood with his mouth wide open, Father O'Brien clutching his crucifix in both hands over his heart.
"God have mercy," O'Brien said. "God have mercy."
He need not have had any doubts.

Father O'Brien clutched his crucifix ever more tightly as the woman approached the altar, her face changing into a shape that O'Brien thought looked a lot like his late sister Anne. His mind was racing. All his years of training as a priest, his work studying religious tracts and personal prayers had not prepared his to meet face to face with, well, what, he thought?
First a wheelchair-bound woman is singing and speaking in English - followed by her doing the Lindy Hop - and now a woman so beautiful and, well, frankly angelic-looking was coming straight to him, freezing time and space.
He was afraid his heart would burst and he would have a heart attack.
And he was afraid that this vision in front of him might appear to be a vision of heaven but in reality a representative of something much darker.
She stopped at the foot of the steps leading up onto the dais where the altar was, as if she could feel his doubts and fears. She stood very still, watching him, her facial expression changing slightly in tiny waves that washed across her cheeks and eyes, not all at once.
O'Brien was transfixed by her eyes - one blue, one brown - and couldn't get the thought out of his head that the woman's eyes were as hypnotic as a cobra's.
"Padre," she said. "Padre, let me come to you. You have nothing to fear."
And while Father O'Brien seemed frozen in place, he was in good company.
Father Morales thought his feet had turned to cement.
And Joe Martin, hungover newspaper reporter, was feeling disbelief, awe, relief and terror simultaneously when the vision in front of him turned her eyes fully on him and smiled.

"The Miracle at Santa Serena" was a best-seller before a single copy hit the bookstores and the electronic book warehouses.
It carried both Joe Martin and Father Michael O'Brien's names as authors, though much of the book was based on a series of newspaper and magazine articles written by Joe that had reached a worldwide audience.
He couldn't keep up with the demand for his writing and when his California publisher asked him to drop his contracted project for a book about the Santa Serena "miracles", Fran and Gregorio said it was truly a miracle, certainly for Joe.
Television reporters from all over the globe were slow at first to take up the story amid a world in turmoil with environmental woes, politics and war dominating their airwaves. But when the film crews finally came to Santa Serena weeks after Ash Wednesday they found nothing much to film, except for Tia Mele who would stand up out of her wheelchair for a moment on request - for 100 pesos or more - but refused to utter a word of English, no matter how much people begged or how much money was offered.
The villagers, ever resourceful, produced enough miracle souvenirs and related items that it doubled the average income of the village within weeks. And the tourists who flooded the streets were no longer just young surfers intent on finding the best ocean waves and a hookup with the sex of their choice after dark. The tourists now included many older, less margarita-inclined folks who dropped in to say prayers at the church and walked by Moira and Joe's house snapping photos like it was a shrine itself.
Moira and Joe were married a month to the day from Ash Wednesday, in the church where the angel who people claimed was the earthly embodiment of the martyred St. Sofia came. Fran and Gregorio stood up for them and both Father O'Brien and Father Morales conducted the marriage and Mass in a church packed to the rafters.
Tia Mele was asked to sing, but declined politely.
On occasional mornings in Santa Serena, Joe and Moira would step out of Moira's house onto the veranda overlooking the street with baby Isabel in their arms where they would wave to the people walking by.
Joe had found Moira that Ash Wednesday morning at her house, cradling an infant in her arms when he left the church on Father O'Brien's insistent instructions to go help a young mother who was in desperate need, he said.
The baby had one blue eye and one brown eye and smiled at Joe that day when he entered the room.
Joe later told Fran and Gregorio it was love at first sight - for all three of them.
On some early mornings, the new star that puzzled astronomers (finally named SDSSpX1 after a worldwide debate over where the star actually is) would appear suddenly in the coastal Mexican sky, then wink out sometimes just minutes later.
Other times it hung in the sky for an hour and only visible along a very short stretch of the Pacific Coast - a natural phenomenon that smashed so many established scientific theories it was regarded as a hoax by many astronomers, at least until they traveled to Mexico and viewed it themselves.
No amount of video or still photography could convince them.
Whenever the star appeared, and baby Isabel was outside and awake enough to see it wink on, she would smile at it.
Someday she would tell the world its secret, just like she told Father O'Brien.


(Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, August 6, 2010

Chapter 12 of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 12
Not just a great brandy

When we climbed into our aft cabin bunk that night - after an animated dinner with talk of hit men and crime - we could see the two guards posted on The Talking Mime and a Sheriff’s Department patrol boat tied off the stern.
The water was lit up with the deck lights of the boat, casting a big pool of light for 100 feet around the boat and drawing hundreds of small fish to the surface, much to the amusement of the guards. I could tell I was getting into the spirit because all I could think was what a target the boat made, lit up like that, the guards clearly visible. Visions of one of the Die Hard movies - and an anti-tank weapon - flashing through my mind.
      The 'floater' off Breakwater Cove in Monterey, turned out to be a dead dolphin tangled in some very strong fishing line. Tragic enough for me, though. I love to watch the dolphins bounding around the boat when we sail.
     Still, that it wasn't a human corpse - and possibly the rest of the body that went with the errant hand that had landed on our deck carried by a seagull - was almost a letdown. I realized my patience for this mystery was growing thin.
Suddenly I was tired of Capitola, the hand that had landed on my deck, the whole mess. I wanted to unhitch Rocinante in the morning and move further south, away from dismembered bodies and what felt like a pretty unfriendly town. I had been planning a summer of Southern California — warm beaches and sand — and this Northern California fog was starting to induce some serious depression.
Nym was positively perky, furiously making notes on a yellow legal-size note pad. If that were me, the notes would either be for short stories or novels yet to be considered, or doodling while I avoided both. With Nym, it was her way of analyzing problems.
I crept into the cabin with a small bottle of Bailey’s Irish Crème and two small glasses. I kept Bailey's on board as a hedge against nights when I couldn’t sleep. It was also there when I needed to slow Nym down to the speed limit so I could rest. Between all the coffee we had with Wilma Krebs in the morning and an afternoon of talking about the fingernails  - and saving the Talking Mime from sinking - we would be lucky to get to sleep before dawn.
“For me!” Nym squealed, Bailey’s being one of very few alcoholic beverages she enjoyed. “I thought we were out.” Nym smiled, then gave me one of her looks that said she suspected I had other secrets stashed on the boat that she would either ferret out in the morning, or try to get out of me tonight before she would let me close my eyes.
“There’s not a whole lot, but we can share,” I said.

     While Nym stared at her notepad and sipped from her glass I held up the large scale chart of Catalina Island, a few days of relatively easy sailing to the south where the water was most likely 70 degrees instead of the 55 here, the sun shone most days all day, and the water was so clear you could see your anchor in 50 feet of water.
“Beaches, bathing suits, hot weather. Boys off the boat and safe,” I said very softly holding the chart in front of me. I took Nym’s glass of Bailey’s from her hand as if to fill it, holding it just beyond her reach.
“Not funny Alex, give me the Bailey’s back. I’m trying to think.”
I held onto her Bailey’s and decided to try a  little more nudging.
“Swimming, fishing, sunbathing,” I said throwing my last trump.
Nym looked over the top of her tiny reading glasses, cocking her eyebrow. “The boys haven’t had a chance at surfing here yet, so let’s save the warm water for later. And besides, Professor Cameron….”
I winced at the Professor comment. We have an unwritten rule that says I don't call her Officer and she doesn’t call me Professor when we are on vacation. So I knew it meant that it signaled a serious discussion, prompting me to pour more Bailey’s in my glass and stretch my brain as to where I had another, unopened bottle stashed.
“Besides, Officer Nym, we are on vacation. We as in you and me and the boys,” I said. “And unless you are not the woman I married, I think you are getting sucked in deep into all this intrigue. I’m not sure I want to spend our summer here. I just want the fog to lift and us to get underway.”
Nym ripped off the cover sheet of the pad she was working on, holding it up to me in much the same way as our cat Thompson (short for Hunter S. Thompson) would do with any of the prizes he found hunting in our small backyard. I exchanged it for the glass of Bailey’s, giving up for the moment but hoping that the break in her scribbling might give me her full attention and to show I was serious, and getting more so as the Bailey’s was taking hold of my tongue.

I looked at the notepad, marveling at the neat writing Nym always produced. My lecture notes, or notes for writing, had to be transcribed within a few days or I would lose their import forever. I kept notebooks in my desk at the university from years ago mostly as memorabilia.  The handwriting in them was as unreadable as if they were written in Sanskrit.
“I’ll play for a minute,” I said. “Who is this Charles Martell, other than someone who makes great brandy? You have him listed with a ‘Madame X’ and Rojas on the Talking Mime. I thought Wilma didn’t know who the other people on the boat were.”
My stomach began to sink slightly as I realized that Nym was not just doing some notes, but her brain was fully engaged, a wonderful thing to watch unless you wanted her to do anything else. Her concentration was startling.
“Wilma didn’t know who they were, but that’s why you have to read newspaper articles more closely,” Nym said, her little grin getting bigger.
She reached for the bottom of the bed, pulling a stack of newspaper clippings with a cover sheet marked “Salinas Californian,” shuffling the bits of paper until she found on from the social page from several weeks ago. I tried to remember when I saw her going through the papers and clipping, wondering if she ever slept or if I was getting dangerously oblivious to my surroundings.
“OK,” she said, “Listen to this and you tell me. Quote: Charles Martell, owner of Martell’s Liquor stores of Salinas, Sacramento and Fresno missed Friday night’s Rotary Club installation dinner where he was supposed to be installed as membership committee chair. His wife Helga attended in his stead, accepting the chairmanship for him. Helga said he was on a fishing trip with his longtime friend Frank Parker. End quote. You have to love these small town newspapers Alex.”
I was happy to hear that I was back to Alex and ‘Professor’ had dropped out of the conversation. But I groped for something really detective-like to say.
“Sounds pretty thin, Cameron,” I said in as gruff a voice as I could muster without breaking into a laugh. Then I gave up and chuckled. “Damn Detective, you are good. Are you going to row to shore and call Wilma tonight or save this good news until tomorrow.”

Nym smiled, watching me carefully roll up the chart of Catalina Island. It was obvious I wouldn’t need it for at least a few more days.
“I want to investigate a little more about this Mr. Charles Martell before I call her.”
I sucked in a breath. “Nym, please just call Wilma and let her know what you think you found, otherwise…”
Nym leaned forward. “Just one phone call Alex, I promise. Everybody gets just one phone call, right? Then I'll call Wilma.
Oh, and I need to break our no-Intenet rule and take the ship's computer into shore."
I leaned my head back again the cabin wall and looked forward where Jacob and Jerrod were sitting on their bunk, looking back down the hallway at me.  I felt my head nod with a resigned ‘yes’ motion, and got the inevitable war whoop that the boys have developed over the years into a family staple why Nym grabs the bit in her teeth on a case like this.
“Whoop, Whoop, Whoop!” the boy screamed.
     "Mom's on the case. Whoop, Whoop!"

Chapter 13 - Goodbye Catalina? 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Chapter 11 of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 11
The Woman's Touch

     Wilma Krebs settled her bulk onto the comfortable couch behind our teak table and ran her fingers through her hair with the same exasperated motion that most men do with shot haircuts.
“There are advantages to having women detectives at crime scenes,” she said. “My men opened that container in the bathroom that said ‘shit paper’ written on it and when they saw it was full of toilet paper that’s as far as they got. Their mother’s probably did all the dirty work when they were kids. Christ, most of deputies wives probably pick up their husband’s dirty socks off the floor.”
      I wondered immediately if Wilma was married and what kind of relationship she might have with her husband. But I decided not to dwell on that thought for long and kept my eyes focused on the nearly brewed coffee.
It turned out that Nym had seen the toilet paper receptacle in the forward head, noting from the dirt on the floor that it had been moved. On most boats — particularly where the captain is worried about stopping up the rubber hoses that transfer the waste water (and anything else) from the toilet to either a holding tank or overboard — there’s a cute container for soiled paper and strict instructions not to flush paper.
       Rocinante has the same rule, particularly because I have spent many hours freeing up stopped up toilet hoses.
“The nails were wrapped up tight in a piece of off-white tissue, like kleenex,” Nym said. “That’s why I noticed. The tissue was a slightly different color than the toilet paper.” I marveled at the female immune system. I was sure if I stuck my hand in a poop-paper container without gloves, I would come down with a nearly instant case of Black Water Fever.
We all stared at the five finger nails, now secure in a clear plastic evidence bag in front of Wilma on the table. I shuddered, thinking how they probably were removed from the hand. But I couldn’t see them closely enough to note any tool marks or breaks from being forcibly pulled out.
“My instincts tell me that these are from the hand that landed on your deck. And we’ve got a pretty good idea whose hand it might be,” Wilma said, sighing. “Forensics will tell us for sure, but the nails go with hand. Christ, I hope the sheriff gets back early from his vacation.”
      I remembered looking at the hand on the desk in the harbormaster's office and couldn't remember if there were still fingernails attached.
Jacob and Jerrod couldn’t contain themselves any longer and started firing questions at Wilma, doing a passable imitation of the White House press corps. I jumped in and shouted “Enough!” I could tell Wilma was going to tell us something, but only if we gave her enough room to let a few words out of her mouth.

      Wilma nodded toward the coffee mugs on the counter and while I found one that was relatively clean. She sighed again and started filling in some gaps while I played boat steward.
“A month ago that boat pulled in full of party people, bunch of rich-looking people, pretty common this time of the year. About a half-dozen men and about as many women. You could tell they didn’t get out on the water much. All generally pale skins, except where they got sunburned sitting out on the decks of the bars in town. They threw a lot of money around for a couple of days, then a limo showed up one afternoon and took most of them up to San Jose and the airport.
I set a coffee mug down in front of Wilma while she paused. She chewed on her lip, as if she was trying to decide whether to tell us anymore or just thank us.
      Maybe it was Nym's coffee, but she took a breath and let go again.
“We talked with the limo driver who took the people,” she said after a moment. “And of them we think was Johnny Rojas, even though he used the name Franklin Parker when he was in town. At least he used some credit cards named Franklin Parker.”
Nym’s right eyebrow shot up slightly, but I wasn’t sure whether it was at the name Johnny Rojas or if it was Franklin Parker. One name sounded like a gangster to me, the other someone who gave a lot to charity, played polo on the weekends and probably sat on the boards of corporations.
Nym shot me a look that clearly said, ‘don’t ask’ anything right now. So I picked up the coffee pot and waved it at Wilma, who shook her head and studied the outside of the mug for a moment. Then Nym spoke up for the first time since Wilma had started sipping the coffee.
“I heard Rojas was killed in a boating accident more than a year ago,” Nym said. “It was in Florida, wasn’t it? Somebody supposedly ran over him with a big ski boat and he was hit with the propeller. They said they only found parts of him.”
      I envisioned a seagull flying the thousands of miles from Florida to California, all with an intact hand its mouth. I almost laughed.
       Nym caught my eye and gave me another sharp look. She knows how my mind works and most of the time would have laughed, too. But she was in full investigator mode and jokes were mostly off limits.
Wilma waived her coffee mug at me, changing her mind about pumping more caffeine. “I had never heard of him until we got an anonymous call at the Sheriff’s Department that he was in town using the name Franklin Parker,” Wilma said. “We’re still not sure it was Rojas. We didn’t get any pictures of the guy, but a couple of the people who saw him here have I.D.ed a mug shot of Rojas. But it's not a sure thing.”
The boys were beginning to get restless, conditioned by years of television in which most mysteries are solved in a half an hour. I was getting a little impatient, too, and decided to go ahead and push a little.
“I don’t mean to sound too ignorant, but I don’t think either the boys or I know who this Rojas is, or what the connection is to the fingernail collection you have on my table,” I said.
 Wilma actually smiled. “Fingernail collection. Ha! You’ve got a cop’s sick sense of humor,” she said.

     While I decided it was ok to beam just a little, Wilma opened the evidence bag and peered in. “I don’t know whose fingernails these are, but I do know that Johnny Rojas, aka Franklin Parker, aka William Patterson, aka Simon Sayes, was — hmm... maybe is — an honest-to-god hit man, according to what I've read. He was arrested several times in the late 1990s in New Jersey. Then he testified in one of the Gambino-family trials and disappeared. Maybe into the Witness Protection Program, I don’t know."
I couldn’t resist.
“Simon Sayes? You're kidding. Simon says? Was he a comedian, too.”
Wilma laughed again, but quickly zipped up the evidence bag as if she was afraid the fingernails would leap out. “The FBI won’t tell us if they think he's still alive. So I think it might have been Rojas in town.”
It was an impatient Nym who asked the obvious question. “Did we find Johnny Rojas’ hand on our deck?"
Wilma slugged some coffee and then said a tentative no. “The hand was in pretty bad shape, but the thumb print was good enough to lift a print. doesn't match what’s on file for Rojas. But that diamond ring was seen on the hand of one of the other men from the boat. The whole bunch paid for everything in cash, so we didn’t get anything on the other people except for some physical descriptions. The waiters and waitresses were a lot more interested in how big the tips were than what these people looked like.”
I grabbed the coffee pot and leaned over to top off the coffee cup for her while she and Nym had a side conversation about the general lack of cooperation between the federal government and local authorities. I couldn’t understand much of it, except it sounded more like people complaining more about their HMO health coverage than some big crime scenario.
      "So, why did you search the boat in the first place?" I asked. "Were you looking for some clue where Rojas might have gone?"
       Wilma waved her coffee mug at me again and got her refill before answering.
      "Yes and no. You finding the hand with the diamond ring and the I.D. of Rojas made that boat a pretty hot ticket to take a look at," she said. "So you could say we were kind of fishing, at first."
       I winced at Wilma's bad joke, as Nym jumped in.
     "Whoever tried to sink the boat wasn't worried about these fingernails," Nym said. "There's something else on that boat they don't want anyone to find, I bet."
       Wilma grinned and nodded her head and sighed, a big, I'm-tired sigh.
      "Absolutely," she said. "And thanks to all of you, we have some time to check out just what that is."
      We were just finishing up the pot of coffee - the boys beaming - when Wilma's police radio crackled to life with the voice of one of the deputies stationed on The Talking Mime.
       "Sheriff Wilma, dispatch just radioed and said they heard Monterey Harbor Patrol talking about someone spotting floater near Breakwater Cove a few minutes ago."
      I looked at Nym and mouthed the word "floater."
     "It's could be a human body, Professor Cameron," Wilma answered without being asked. "But it could also be a dead dolphin or something else."
      Jacob and Jerrod looked at each other and I knew a new term was now burned into their memories and would be popping up for the rest of the trip. And I also suspected that my crew would now suddenly be much more interested in leaving Capitola and heading south across the bay to the city of Monterey - perhaps to find a berth at Breakwater Cove Marina.

Chapter 12
Not just a great brandy

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chapte 10 of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 10
Five nails in a coffin

As I drove a wooden plug into the cut hose as a safety precaution, I heard the heavy thump of boots on the deck as the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's office came to the rescue. The voices were familiar - it sounded like the deputies from the day before - and then another raised voice starting barking orders, a voice that was much more familiar.
       It was Wilma Krebs, Santa Cruz County Undersheriff, who sounded simultaneously relieved and quite pissed.
She and Nym exchanged words above decks in the cockpit and then I heard the sheriff's boat roar off, probably to get more pumps or to arrange for some other docking somewhere for The Talking Mime. One deputy stayed aboard, looking down at me through a porthole. When I gave him the thumbs-up sign to indicate we had found the leak, he grinned and stood up away from the window.
     Jacob and Jerrod had done a great job scrambling around the boat, closing all the thru-hulls and looking for any other leaks. The years in the boatyard working on our boat were paying off and I realized that they could probably start doing a lot more mechanical work about Rocinante in the future.
       It turned out that the toilet hose was the only real leak in the boat. All the rest of the thru-hulls were fine. And thanks to boys, closed and secured.
"You people certainly get around," Wilma said as I came up into the cockpit. "I appreciate you saving this tub. And I want to see this cut water hose your wife told me about. Obviously we missed something yesterday when my men tossed the boat. I guess we'll look again when the water goes down. Somebody didn't want the boat searched a second time."
As she said, "we'll look again," Nym's eyes lit up almost as brightly as when I gave her a diamond anniversary band, 10 years into our marriage.  Both boys popped their heads from the forward cabin, the same look across their faces.
"Oh no! Absolutely not," Wilma said, raising her hands as if she was about to push against a wall. "You're civilians and even if you found something, then I can't use it as evidence."
I opted to stall for a moment, offering that while I certainly agreed, couldn't we help check the boat over for any other possible leaks, just in case? Whoever had tried to sink the boat, might have some other less-obvious devices ready to go. The thinly veiled excuse placated her just enough to nod her head slightly, which catapulted Jacob and Jerrod back into the forward cabin where they had been rummaging before she arrived.
"You know Wilma, you don't exactly have a pristine crime scene here anyway," I said. "We've been crawling over every inch of the boat for the last half-hour looking for leaks. And now that we know someone tried to sink the boat, well, if you would tell us what you think might be here? We might have already seen something and not recognized it."

Wilma Krebs, sat down on the settee, looking like a female James Earl Jones and for the first time in my life, I understood what the expression, "weighing the alternatives," really means. Wilma tipped her head left, then right, moving her tongue around over her teeth like she had just eaten a doughy burrito. She looked up at the cabin ceiling for a moment, then back down directly at Nym, who hadn't said a word, but was wearing a slight smirk that told me I was on the right track with my argument.
"OK. Here's the deal," Wilma said. "You keep looking around for boat problems that might sink this thing, while I wait for my deputies to get back here. I can't really say what we are looking for, but make sure we're going to float. My deputies aren't exactly skilled in this area."
Nym and Wilma disappeared into the aft cabin and head to take a look at the severed hose. I could hear them speaking in low tones and could only make out a brief "Jesus" from Wilma, probably when she saw the cut hose.
     Then I had another thought: Why not deputize Nym (or all of us) which would then make any evidence we found admissible in court.
     I plunked down at the navigation station in the main cabin, where nautical charts for the west coast of Mexico and Baja California were on the counter with casually drawn stars and pencil marks on them. There wasn't really a course plotted - there were no lines or compass headings to indicate direction or speed - but it looked like someone had wanted to highlight places on the coast. Most of the points were not ports, but anchorages.
     I turned on the Global Positioning Unit and electric chart plotter, which had several dozen saved programs of courses to west coast destinations, arranged alphabetically by port. It was quite different from my GPS.  I have never totally trusted the electric charts on Rocinante, preferring instead to work on paper. I made a mental note to get Jacob to rearrange the waypoints in the GPS and electric charts to show me the most recently accessed charts and destinations, provided Wilma let us stay on the boat and tinker that much.
      Next to the navigation station there was a coffee mug, half-filled with what looked like days-old coffee, judging from the bacteria floating on top. I marveled that the cup stayed upright — considering how much the boat had listed at the worst of the flooding. It also was interesting that the deputies hadn't touched it. I kept my hands away from it, too.
     I could feel that the water in The Talking Mime was starting to drop quickly. The boat had stopped wallowing in the swell and was only about 10 degrees off level.

     I was making some progress on the GPS - to see where The Talking Mime had likely come from the most recently - when I heard Nym call me from the aft cabin.
"Alex, Wilma's going to come over to Rocinante when the boat is all pumped out and secure. And they are going post a guard here. Why don't you and the boys go back over and put on some coffee. One of the boys can come back in the dinghy in a half-hour or so if I need a ride over. Or I can catch a ride with Wilma on the sheriff's boat."
I was clearly being dismissed, as my coffee is so bad, some of my faculty colleagues at the university boycott the pot in the faculty lounge if there's any chance I've been near it. But it was obvious Nym wanted a few moments with Wilma without any other ears around. My adrenalin had worn off anyway and a cup of coffee - even mine - sounded good.
It took a measure of stern fatherly urging to get the boys to disengage from the forward cabin where they were looking through some magazines. But I drew a happy sounding war whoop from both of them in the dinghy when I told them the undersheriff was coming to Rocinante for a visit. They were still bouncing around as we were about 100 yards away, when Nym came out on the stern and shouted for us to come back.
      "Hey! I'll go with you. Wilma is too nice to make her suffer through your coffee."
     I ignored the insult as we rowed back toward Rocinante, the mid-morning sun feeling good.  I could feel the day slipping away from me at light speed. I had wanted to begin a draft of new book on the trip, a way of avoiding several unfinished manuscripts in my desk back in my university office. But so far the sailing life - and this adventure - was intruding. Then again, I was just procrastinating, too.
Wilma had said she and the lone deputy on board would be fine - the boat seemed safe and was floating level when we left. And the sheriff's boat was already at the dock near the Anchor Inn and would likely return shortly.

The boys were watching a pod of dolphins in the distance, and Nym had a mysterious smile on her face. I knew that once we got aboard Rocinante I would hear a preview of what Wilma was going to tell us. Or perhaps they found something, I thought. Most of the time, Nym likes to treat Jerrod and Jacob like the Hardy Boys. But this particular mystery was too close to us and had enough danger that she seemed to want to keep them at a distance. Criminals and their minds is her area of expertise anyway, not mine, so I rowed and made some mental notes on what I wanted for a late breakfast or lunch and tried to guess if we would end up dining with Wilma.
I saw the sheriff's boat leaving the dock, where the breakfast crowd had gone back inside as it appeared the boat was safe after all. We clambered aboard Rocinante, and, predictably, the boys quickly commandeered the dinghy to row over toward the dolphins.
      Seeing some fog blowing in, I threw them two windbreakers and a gratuitous "be careful," as they rowed off.
       In the cabin below, Nym started the coffee while I waited for her to break silence.
Finally, I gave up and asked. "Is it a sorority secret? You know the boys might not be gone long. They'll be back for food as soon as they realize they haven't eaten."
Nym sat down on the settee before speaking, looking at that back of her hands for a moment.
"I think I found his fingernails," she said, a small smile growing as she spoke.
"Whose fingernails?" I asked, then I realized quickly who she was talking about.
     "Kee-rist!" I said.
"Yes, I think so," Nym said. "Five entire fingernails. From the hand we had on our deck."

Chapter 11 - The Woman's Touch

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chapter 9 of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 9
Shouting fire in a crowded theater

     When someone yells "the boat is sinking," aboard a cruising sailboat - and you happen to be the captain - it's about the worst thing you can possibly imagine.
And when you find out your boat is not sinking and that the person who told you it was is within reach, their life as they have known it is over — at least on Rocinante.
As I snapped out of my sleep, I assumed that nearly $150,000 worth of fiberglass, teak and loving affection was in trouble and maybe headed for the bottom of the bay, which I knew was 20 or 25 feet below me. In seconds,  I was calculating salvage costs in my head, wondering how quickly the boat could be going down, where all the thru-hulls were located, and any tiny errant leaks I had been ignoring but simply pumping out of the bilge out every day.
Oddly, I could tell that Nym and the boys seemed clear of the boat, their voices carrying from above me down to the aft cabin where I was still stretched out trying to sit up, my notebooks crashing to the cabin sole with an assortment of pens, pencils and other detritus slipping across the cabin.  I mentally prepared a list of things I needed to grab, if Rocinante's bilge pumps failed to get enough water out of the ship for me to see what might be filling her up.
And then I thought it was all some kind of really awful bad dream.
I could still hear the shouts of Jacob, then Jerrod, saying "It's sinking. Dad! It's sinking," but their cries were getting fainter and fainter as I sat up. I stereotypically pinched myself to see if I was awake, a trick my mother taught me when I had nightmares as a child.
I swore at the welt I raised on the back of my hand and scrambled into the main cabin where a quick visual survey of the cabin told me the boat was upright and seemed fine.  I bolted up the companionway ladder to the cockpit, thinking that maybe it was the dinghy was swamped with the boys and Nym aboard.
I could hear more voices as I popped out, neatly putting my hand on the railing where a seagull had just deposited a present.
Nym and the boys were in the dinghy all right, but it was fine, listing slightly to port as it headed across the water toward a badly listing Talking Mime. The Talking Mime's deck rails were clearly visible with the yellow crime scene police tape. The starboard side was still about two feet above water, when it should have been four feet at least, a telltale that there was a lot of water below decks sloshing around. With the heavy — and 10 foot tall — flying bridge above decks, there was a danger the boat could just roll on its side.
     If it did, it would sink very fast.
"Come back! Wait! Hey," I shouted to my crew. They were nearly halfway there. And I didn't want the boys to get aboard The Talking Mime and go below.  They might be trapped if the boat rolled over and although they believe themselves to invulnerable, I know they are not. I shouted again, then realized that I would have as much luck recalling the charge of a battalion of Bengal Lancers than getting the boys — or Nym — to come back.
The twins had spent the last five years hanging around in boatyards and helping with maintenance on Rocinante and I was confident if there was an electric bilge pump switch to throw, they would find it - if it wasn't already below the rising waters in the cabin. I was worried about random electrical currents shooting about in the cabin if the ship's batteries were below the water.  If that were true, the pumps might not work at all anyway.
I watched through the field glasses as Jerrod and Jacob scrambled out of the dinghy. Jerrod went into the cabin, probably look for a  bilge pump. Nym stayed in the cockpit of The Talking Mime where I could see her going through the lockers in the back, where an emergency pump might be found.
I turned toward the shore where the remnants of the breakfast crowd had gathered on the deck of the restaurant to watch the show. Already, Jacob was rowing back to me in the dinghy, throwing a small wake, he was pulling so hard. I hoped that his leaving his mother and brother on The Talking Mime was a sign that Jerrod had already found the switch for the pump to save the sinking boat. But I was still concerned that any pump could overcome the water that might be coming in — and pump out what was already making The Talking Mime roll like a drunk on Saturday night.
"Dad! Dad!"
Jerrod was 50 yards away, half standing up in the dinghy, his voice carrying across the gulf. "Mom wants your big flashlight. And Jerrod wants our extra pump."
I dove back belowdecks, cursing silently when my Eveready Commander flashlight was missing from its hook, its lens cap mysteriously sitting on my navigation station, an indicator that the body of the flashlight and the batteries were in the V-berth where the boys slept, part of some electronic experiment going on. My main backup flashlight — hidden in the compartment with the cleaning supplies — was where it was supposed to be and by some miracle so was my portable electric bilge pump, which gave out its signature groan when I threw the switch to test it.
I grabbed four life jackets on my way back up the ladder, just in time to hear Jacob unceremoniously slam the dinghy into the side of Rocinante in his excitement. I tossed the life jackets in, holding onto my flashlight and bilge pump, beginning my lecture even before I lowered my rump onto the rear seat in the dinghy. "You guys should not have gone over to that boat. It could sink in a second," I said, knowing it probably wasn't true, but certainly sounded convincing.
"Mom said you would be mad, but you would've gone over if you had been in the dinghy already."
     It turned out that the Nym and the twins had been heading over to The Talking Mime to take a look when they saw that the ship was listing badly.
That's when the shouting started to wake me up.
I opted to put on my brooding, resigned look as we covered the distance between the boats. Jacob's wrestling muscles translate well for pushing our 11-foot hard frame dinghy through the water. From 100 yards, I could see the outlet for The Talking Mime's bilge pump which was putting out water at a furious rate, and I wondered for a split second if Jacob had started the engine and was using its water pump to empty the bilges. There was no tell-tale smell of diesel burning, though, and my respect for the power of the pumps on the boat went up.
Nym met us at the stern of the boat, grabbing the lines and acting quite official. "I think it might have been the sharpshooter," she said as I climbed aboard. 'That dog didn't have that much blood around it. I think maybe a couple of his shots went wide in his panic. he could've ripped through the bottom."
The rail on the boat did seem to be rising now, and while I could see some water inside the cabin on the floor, it was only a few inches deep on the low side. Nym's theory dovetailed with my assessment of the competency of at least on the one deputy who had done the shooting. And if she was right, we could be looking for a couple of holes least than an inch in diameter — still a problem, but fixable if there were some emergency plugs on board.
Both boys were crashing about below on the boat, doing a passable imitation of the deputies who had been going through the boat hours before. "Look around for the batteries and close all the thru-hulls," I shouted. A backsiphon could only add to the incoming water while we looked for the source. Jacob found the batteries — six giant, golf-cart type units, enough to keep the pumps working for hours if necessary, and by some miracle, they were only about half submerged with an assortment of switches to isolate individual batteries as needed.
I began to breath a little easier, but still insisted that everyone put on a life jacket in case the pumps failed and we had to make a hasty exit. Nym headed into the aft cabin to look around while I pulled up some boards covered with dried blood to see if one of the bullets had passed through the dog — and the boat.
From shore the wail of sirens joined the crowd noises. I began to worry that our presence on The Talking Mime might be misinterpreted by the authorities.
I was looking for some rags and plugs when I heard a crash from the back of the boat  and Nym called me from the aft cabin. "I think I found the leak, but you should keep checking," she said as I walked in.
     Nym had shouldered the door to the other bathroom open, knowing there was a marine toilet inside - with a big thru-hull to let sea water in to flush the marine toilet.  "The door was locked," she said.
She stepped back to show me the gleaming white marine toilet, and the two-inch hose to the unit which was cut - a neat cut, several inches above the valve where it connects to the toilet.  And judging from the lines of the boat, the valve was about a foot below the normal waterline. Water was gushing in a furious rate and draining down into the bilges.
I quickly threw of the lever for the toilet thru-hull and stopped the inflow of the water.
"I don't think this can be blamed on bad aim with a gun," Nym said.
 I didn't disagree.
Chapter 10 - Five nails in the coffin

Monday, July 19, 2010

Chapter 8 of the novel, The Talkiing Mime

Chapter 8
Call the coroner or the pound?
Seeing the dead dog, all I could think about was a pooch named Neal, a martini-guzzling St. Bernard, a stock character on a 1950s television program "Topper." The program had become a fixture on TVLand reruns which I had gotten hooked on last winter when I was down with the flu. I flashed for a moment on Leo G. Carroll, the star, and how he would spar with the dog over the martinis and it made me sad, and a little angry. In death anyway, this dog hardly looked vicious.
Whether Nym was thinking about Neal or not, I don't know. She held the dog's head in both hands for a few minutes, as if the dead animal could tell her secrets. I stayed back by the transom and out of the way of the deputies who had suddenly started to methodically tear the boat apart — confirming for me an earlier guess that they thought there were drugs aboard. I caught several looks from the deputies that warned me not to move too far into the boat, an idea that didn't appeal to me at all, anyway. In fact the sight of the dog confirmed my feelings that perhaps Rocinante should slip her lines and head south, away from what seemed to be a center of mayhem, not a tranquility base.
 "Why do people do this?" Nym said, looking up at me.
I erroneously thought she was talking about the sheriff's deputy pumping four rounds into the dog, then realized she was talking about whomever left the dog locked on the boat.
"The poor thing was probably starving and when he saw someone break through the cabin door. He was delirious, not dangerous."
But the deputy who had done the shooting disagreed from the navigation station where he was standing, pulling out the ship's papers and generally making a mess of the countertop. He voiced his defense in relatively hushed tones — probably so his two partners in the bow cabin of the boat couldn't interject.
"Damn dog came right at me," the deputy said.  It was barking and snapping like crazy. It could have rabies, you know."
Nym and I looked at the deputy — now I even recognized he was the one at the bar last night — and I thought he had a far greater risk of catching herpes from one of the women in the bar  than rabies from this likely pedigreed animal. But I held my tongue. He had just fired four bullets into a dog and still seemed edgy.
Nym felt around the dog's wounds, commenting that he hadn't really bled very much - at least not for an animal his size. "The tag says his name is 'Tiny'" Nym said. "That's two weird names for these people. First the boat, and now a moose of a dog named Tiny. I hate it when people give animals ridiculous names."
Nym's hands had some blood on them from the dog, but even with the blood around the cockpit, it didn't look like the movie scenes where gallons of blood seem to fill the screen whenever anyone is shot. I could see where some of the blood had dripped down between the deckboards, into the oily bilges around the engine — a combination that was going smell as ugly as a roadkill skunk if it wasn't cleaned up.
"What is your protocol for something like this," Nym asked, wiping the blood off her hands with a towel from the cockpit sole. "In San Francisco, we usually would have to treat this like it was a human shoot. People take their pets pretty seriously."
The three deputies paused in their searching, looking at Nym as if she had asked them to explain the quadratic equation to her. Their looks hardened, too, as if they suddenly realized that this perky woman with a badge was actually associated with a district attorney's office — not the cops — and that put her somewhere in the netherland between friend and enemy, depending on the kind of questions she asked.
"We had a warrant, counselor. A warrant to search this barge. And I don't know what we do about the dog, but I'm not worried about it."
I noticed that the deputy speaking had a name tag said M. McGuire, and while I couldn't say much about his choice of fashion in wearing his hat backwards, he did seem to have a grip on procedure, and he was definitely less destructive than his two colleagues who seemed to be under his command, but in a sort of corporal-private relationship.
Nym motioned to me to move over to her and we carefully stepped down into the salon of the boat, which in the interior showed a carefully built luxury yacht, not just a souped-up fisherman's toy. The  floor was teak and holly with built-in mahogany bookshelves, fancy electronics and a stereo. At one end of the salon, a projection television with a screen that looked six or seven feet wide.
In the forward cabin, all three deputies had ripped open a mattress and were spreading the stuffing all over.
"Is this a drug case?" Nym asked. "Because if it is, I would be surprised if they hid the stuff in a mattress."
This time, when the deputies paused, it reminded me of one of those scenes from a horror movie, when the monster suddenly takes notice of the hero and the audience collectively groans at him for drawing attention to himself.
"You know, you'll be a good witness if the owner files a claim for that mutt," McGuire said. "But you are way out of your jurisdiction here and we have a lot of work to do."
I waved to say goodbye, gripping Nym's arm, even though I knew she would be angry later that I was being "husband." But I didn't like the deputies faces and it occurred to me that if they didn't find what they were looking for, we might not be welcome at all.
We backed out of the cabin, carefully stepping by the dog.  I bent over and gave him a little pat on the head, dead or not.
The wind was starting to come up, and as we rowed back, Nym turned around several times, looking at the boat and listening to the sounds of things crashing from as the deputies continued their rough quest for something. She was quiet, which I decided to interpret as thoughtfulness about the shooting, and not pique at me for encouraging our exit.
At Rocinante, Jerrod and Jacob lounged in the cockpit, feigning complete indifference to anything short of an Elvis sighting, but we hadn't even grabbed the ladder to tie up the dinghy before they began screeching like spider monkeys, firing questions at us about the shots, and who was killed and what did they look like, and was there blood...
"I bet they were looking for the body that goes with the hand," Jerrod said. "Murder. Right over there!
Nym groaned as we swung up onto the ladder and handed the lines for the dinghy to the twins. "Only in a very bad, very bad novel, would there be a body on that boat," she said. "Those deputies are after some of drugs, I think. That's one reason they were so trigger happy. I think they expected resistance."
     And it was dog they shot,"she said, " I think it scared the deputies quite completely. It's dead, boys. The shots were one of the deputies killing it."
     Jerrod and Jacob looked at Nym, uncomprehending. "They shot a dog?" they said in unison. "What assholes."
     Before that train got too far down the tracks, I jumped into the conversation and said we needed to get about our day with some boat work and plans for heading south again. The boys grumbled, but starting eying the dinghy and the shoreline where some surfers had arrived and just started catching some low rollers.
     Alone later with Nym, I asked her why she didn't press the officers about what the warrant was for and she said that she decided to get that information from our friend Undersheriff Wilma Krebs, later in the day.
     "Those deputies told me more than they should have anyway," she said. "And by the way, I don't think they were looking for drugs. No dog of their own to sniff the drugs out."
     Duh, I thought to myself, I knew that.
     In the distance, we could see the deputies were already putting up that familiar yellow crime scene tape - police tape - around the cockpit of the boat. Then we saw the dog - or at least something large wrapped in a blue blanket, being hauled by two of the deputies and put into the Sheriff's boat.
     "Apparently there's no need for any shooting team," Nym said. "In San Francisco, that boat would be swarming with people. And probably somebody from the Humane Society."
The trip to The Talking Mime had stolen away all of the morning, and I went below decks and cracked open a beer at my navigation station. I began writing a letter to my publisher, telling her that my book outline would be coming within say, three weeks, giving myself a long deadline for a 10-page outline, but not so long that I could ignore it completely.
     Jacob and Jerrod stayed on deck for at least an hour, watching the deputies finishing their taping and then roar off in the Sheriff's boat, back to shore. The boys came below, still muttering about the deputy shooting the dog, and still somewhat puzzled.
     The afternoon disappeared for me in a haze of writing and puttering on the boat. Jacob and Jerrod rowed over past The Talking Mime several times to check it out. Many other small boats did the same, curious about the yellow tape. At one point, I noticed several people up on the outside deck of The Anchor Inn, looking through field glasses at the boat. Nym was buried in her yellow notepad.
     But then the sun started sinking towards the horizon and the fog rolled in, making The Talking Mime disappear, then reappear, winking in and out of the fog bank on the edge of the anchorage.
     Later, right after sundown, Nym whipped up a great chicken dinner in the galley and the four of us ate quietly while I pondered what I needed to do to get the boat ready for the rest of our trip.
Nym and I shared a bottle of wine and talked about what she wanted to do (keep asking questions) versus what I wanted to do (sail south, soon). The boys begged to take a night row in the dinghy around the anchorage to look at boats in the dark.
I vetoed the idea, though I noticed some dinghy traffic coming and going from the Anchor Inn dock and a few cruising the anchorage.
And as is so often the case for me, a couple of glasses of wine, and the big dinner sent me to my bed in the aft cabin by 9 p.m. - ostensibly to read. Nym climbed in shortly thereafter, sans her yellow notepad and we both fell asleep, the rocking of the boat as gentle as a cradle.
     An odd day, I thought, disturbed by everything that had happened.
     It was just at first light the next morning, as I worked my way out of a dream, that I heard Jacob holler from the boys' bunks in the V-berth, his voice cracking like he was still 13-years-old.
"Dad! Dad! 
The boat's sinking. 
I am NOT kidding.
Get up!
Get up now."

Chapter 9, Shouting fire in a crowded theater