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

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chapter 7 of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 7
A bark worse than a bite

It took us nearly 15 minutes to get the dinghy untangled from the davits and lowered. I wanted to swear at the boys for not putting it away property, but I suspected it was my wine imbibing the night before that had improperly set up the lifting blocks after our trip to the Anchor Inn. But it was still aggravating, made more so by Nym's impatience to get over to The Talking Mime and see what shooting was all about. I was less in a hurry, thinking we would likely be waved off and I also knew I would be rowing in both directions. I vowed to work on our outboard motor later in the day. It had become comatose as we prepared for our voyage last week. It seemed the motor ran fine in San Francisco Bay, but take the 5 horsepower Honda offshore, and it was balky at best.
As we pushed off from Rocinate, both boys bleated their dissatisfaction at being left behind again. But this time it was Nym who played the heavy, arguing that we didn't know what we would run into, and besides, she simply said so.
I marveled at Nym's ease of putting her foot down today, when yesterday she had wanted to bring the boys with us to the harbormaster's office. Then I noticed that instead of her Rocinante sweatshirt and shorts, she had on a very military looking shirt, long slacks, boots more suited to climbing than boating, and was wearing her police-issue mirrored sunglasses.
"You're going to buzz these guys," I said, laughing.
Nym stared at me from behind the mirrored sunglasses, trying not to smile, but I just shook my head at her chutzpah and then resigned myself to probably having to sit in the dinghy while she got aboard The Talking Mime.
In police culture, cops from one jurisdiction frequently give special favors (such as ignoring potential speeding tickets) to other cops, when the police flash their badges to identify themselves (better known as a buzz). In this case, I was more than a little doubtful my 105-pound wife was going to buzz her way onto the boat, but then last night I knew she would've drilled out the kneecaps of any — or all three — of the men threatening us if she knew it was the only way to protect her family.
She also knew — which she told me later — that because she had witnessed their boarding and was an officer of the court, her testimony about the way they boarded, and whether they had just cause to shoot would be given some credibility. As I rowed, she practiced giving hard looks. I tried not to stare, or laugh.
I began covering the distance methodically wth strong, hard strokes, trying to establish a sense of purpose in case the deputies were watching. We seemed to have the water to ourselves as we crossed the distance. In fact, I could only make out a few people on the pier and the shore that seemed to be paying any attention.
At about 50 yards from The Talking Mime, I could see the boat reflected in Nym's glasses, and I saw that one of the deputies was holding his pistol at his shoulder pointed straight up in the air while he spoke into a hand-held radio. Then he yelled directly at us.
"YOU! In the dinghy.
Stand off.
Don't come any closer.
This is police business."
I stopped rowing but didn't turn around. I imagined a flurry of bullets whisking through the water around me.
Nym stood, holding her badge and ID folder directly over her head, showing her other hand to be empty. "I'm a DA," she shouted, whispering "investigator," so low I could barely hear it.
"It's still a sin," I said, getting a smile out of her, knowing her strict Catholic upbringing was already nagging at her for not telling the cop on the boat her true status.
"Just keep rowing, smart guy," she said, still standing up flashing her badge, reminding me of that famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware.
As we bridged the gap, I kept waiting for a second challenge and I noticed in Nym's glasses that the cop had dropped both his arms to his sides, the radio still squawking with calls.  We were within 10 yards when the deputy told us to halt again, but this time his voice was tentative and instead of telling us to take off, he said to hold our position, as he disappeared down the hatchway and into the boat for a moment.
I nudged us closer, letting the light breeze move us in, thinking I would be rowing against the wind when we went back. Then another deputy, this one with his baseball cap on backwards, yelled for us to tie to the stern where a boarding ladder hung down over a tall transom. "Just you though, mam," he said to Nym. "Your buddy can't come aboard unless he's a DA, too."
Nym answered him by patting me on the head as she climbed out of the dinghy, disappearing out of my sight, down low behind the transom of The Talking Mime. I could hear her introduce herself, now that she was safely aboard and at the shooting scene she said "investigator," first, DA second. Apparently there was no objection, at least none that I could hear.
I felt my stomach tighten slightly, the same way it did whenever Nym walked into these situations and I knew about them. She was very fit, and three years ago had been nationally ranked in martial arts. But I knew her size made assailants and martial arts competitors more likely to underestimate her, though generally they regretted it.
I heard Nym give a girlish laugh, and there was some other laughter from the deputies. I heard one loud, "Oh shut-up" from one deputy, then some more laughter, then Nym's voice saying my name. I heard several words like "stiff, slab" and "body," hoping they were referring to whoever had been shot and not a comment about me.
"Sure, let him see this mess." It was the voice of the deputy with the backwards baseball cap. He had the same southern drawl that you frequently hear from almost any American airline pilot when they make their announcements.
I stuck my head up, eyes peering over the transom and saw Nym standing with the deputies, blocking the entryway to the trawler's cabin. There's was blood, plenty of it, and it occurred to me that I should hear some ambulance sirens pretty soon — unless someone was dead. But even then, I wondered, don't they always call somebody, even to make the official pronounciation of death?
"Alex, you can come aboard, but watch your step, there's blood just in front of you on the cockpit sole."
I crawled up the ladder, weighing in my mind whether I wanted to view a  corpse, still a little unclear about why Nym was laughing. I had once gone to a crime scene with her where a man had been killed in a knife fight in an alley. We heard the call on the police scanner on our way out for dinner and she convinced me it was a good idea.
It might've have been a good idea for her — she would get the case and already have it half figured out before she ever went into the office. But for me it prove so awful to see the bloody corpse that I skipped dinner entirely, nursing some wine. Nym devoured a rare steak. The victim hadn't been just stabbed, it looked like his assailant had attempted an appendectomy and maybe a tonsillectomy at the same time.
I shuddered at that thought as I swung my legs over into the boat, glad I hadn't had breakfast yet. Seeing a dead body before breakfast must be some kind of bad luck, I thought.
The cop who had first waved us off, now was sitting on the rail, looking very unhappy as his two partners stepped aside. I figured he had done the shooting and was going to have to do the explaining.  And I could see Nym kneeling down on the cabin sole, her back turned to me.
As I stepped closer and looked down, I could see she was tenderly cradling the head of the apparent shooting victim — a very large, very dead, male adult St. Bernard.
Chapter 8 - Call the coroner, or the pound?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Chapter Six of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 6
We meet an Oxymoron

      The next morning was as foggy as San Francisco Bay at its worst and we were all asleep at 8 a.m. or so when some passing boats threw large enough wakes to stir all of us and send my bottle of Bailey's — left on the galley stove — crashing onto the cushioned bench next to the table.
I rocketed out of bed to retrieve the bottle, thinking a lot more about my need for a future nightcap than the probable mess. The Bailey's was OK, but we rocked for a few moments as the boat settled down.
I looked out the porthole to see if I could spot who had shaken us, and I saw that Rocinante and the 20 or so other boats hanging on the buoys looked as disorganized as a Little League team on its first day of practice. The still air was letting each boat rock and drift pretty much in its own pattern. Rocinante seemed to be feeling some deep current with its keel, because our bow was still clearly facing the ocean while some pointed to Santa Cruz and others looked squarely at the windows of the Anchor Inn.
A 60-foot Cheoy Lee ketch was nearest to us with the name Golden Wings, painted in gold letters on its teak stern. A handful of well-varnished boats, mostly sailboats, were moored, too, with handful of large motoryachts. I wondered how many of them we would see in the Channel Islands and points south along the coast where I figured we would be in a few days.
I had originally planned to pull out today for a short sail over to Monterey Harbor for an overnight, followed by another push in a couple of days south around Point Conception and on to San Miguel Island, the northernmost of the Channel islands and a bit mysterious. There is a wonderful, if somewhat tricky entrance to an anchorage on San Miguel Island where we had spent the night two years before.
Still feeling the ache in my shoulders from the all-night sail from San Francisco, I decided to not even raise the issue. I thought Nym was likely already planning a day ashore to do some sleuthing, sleuthing that definitely included talking to the coroner if she could find him.
I finally spotted the culprit that had likely awakened us with its wake — a 25-foot, twin-engined powerboat  with "Santa Cruz County Sheriff" painted in two-foot high letters on the side. It was out near the edge of the buoys, moving cautiously like a dog sniffing for something. It slowed way down as they approached a 70-foot fishing trawler. The trawler was anchored just outside the buoys in an area where people too cheap to spend $20 for the peace of mind a buoy buys drop their anchors. If I have the option of paying a reasonable fee to a local municipality (which becomes liable for my boat if the buoy breaks loose) or relying on my anchor and chain, I almost always opt for the buoys on the theory that my chain and anchor have a definite lifespan that's shortened every time I use them.
Nym thinks I just hate pulling up the anchor.  She's right about that, too.
The sheriff's boat circled the trawler, this time as the boat's stern swung towards us in the waves. I reached for the field glasses, and after getting everything in focus saw the name. I read it again, always amazed at the names people give their vessels. Looking closer, I realized it looked like a commerical fishing trawler but was really some kind of personal yacht. It was too fancy for a commercial boat. And the name The Talking Mime, seemed out of place for a fishing boat that went after tuna, or squid, or whatever they can catch.
I shouted to Nym that she had some of her law enforcement colleagues to thank for rocking us out of our bunks and that the sheriff's boat looked like it was looking for something on The Talking Mime.
"Dad. Did you say 'Talking Mime?'" Jacob asked from the V-berth. "Isn't that one of those oxymorons, like when you say military intelligence or jumbo shrimp?"
I smiled as only an father - who is also an English professor - does when their child grasps a concept, until it was shattered by his brother Jerrod.
"That's an oxy, you moron," he screamed and I heard the tumbling and wrestling start in the v-berth cabin. "Anything gets broken, you clean the decks all day, bozos," I said.
Back in the galley Nym was already making coffee, dressed in an ankle-length nightshirt she favored on cool mornings like this. On the back it says "Admiral of the Fleet," and there were times when she meant it.
"What's going on with the sheriff's boat?" she asked, obviously still sleepy or she would already be up on the deck with the field glasses.
"I'll go look," I said, pulling on some jeans and a sweatshirt as I realized how cold it seemed below decks, even as the sun was beginning to push some of the gray back.
Out in the anchorage, the sheriff's boat was circling The Talking Mime like a matador circles a bull, swooping around fast, stopping, then turning and swooping again, but in the other direction. The motion of the sheriff's boat was rocking The Talking Mime with its wake and it was hard to tell just what the deputies were thinking. I counted three men, one carrying a hand-held radio, one driving the vessle and a third securing fenders alongside the side of the boat.
"I think the guys on that sheriff's boat are going to board that big trawler out the edge of the anchorage. I don't see any crew above decks on the trawler though."
Rocinante has visited harbors all over the California coast in the 10 years we've owned it, not to mention many hours in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento Delta. We have witnessed quite a few U.S. Coast Guard boardings of vessels — ostensibly to check for safety equipment — but there was a such a disproportionate number of boats stopped that had bikini-clad crew I often wondered whether safety or skin was the issue. Still, I had never witnessed the Coast Guard board a boat that was unoccupied. But then, these were cops. And for a minute I wondered if maybe the boat was stolen. It's rare, but it happens.
Nym came up on deck and we traded the field glasses back and forth, watching the three deputies, clad in short-sleeved, dark-blue shirts and matching shorts, now side-tied to The Talking Mime. Their shorts gave me great hope that it might actually be warm later today.
Nym peered intently, put the glasses down and then peered again.
"I'm sure," she said.
"I'm sure that one of those deputies was sitting at the bar last night when we went in," Nym said. "He was the only one in the place with a decent haircut — except for you, of course."
I shook my hair in mock indignation, but didn't doubt Nym's observations. Our 10x50 binoculars could almost count nose hairs at this distance,  and I was sure she had picked him out.
"I remember him because he watched us the whole time we were there," she said. "Even when we had that visit from the planet of the apes."
I suspected that the deputy might have been staring more at Nym than all four of us. She had been certainly the best-looking woman in the place. Well, actually she might have been the only good looking woman in place.
Jerrod and Jacob popped their heads up out of the forward hatch, hollering back to us in the cockpit in the middle of the boat. "What are you guys talking about up here? Can't you see we youths need our sleep?" Jacob said.
I was pleased to see they had apparently not broken any bones and were, I hoped, going to now shift into their Hardy Boys personalities, which although pretty boisterous, was at least survivable on the boat.
"It look's like some sheriff's deputies are going to board that fishing boat or yacht, out at edge of the anchorage," I offered. "If your Mom would quit hogging the field glasses, I could tell you more about what's going on."
I turned to see if Nym was going to give me a hard time, but she was still staring intently, barely moving at all.
"Alex, they all have their weapons out. One is staying in the sheriff's boat, the other two are boarding. They have a pry bar, too. The one who was watching us last night is working the lock with the bar, I think. Damn. His back blocking the door now.
     Nym watched for another few minutes while I nudged her, trying to get her to give me field glasses back. She didn't take the hint.
"JESUS!" Nym suddenly shouted.
She almost dropped the glasses from her neck, snapping them back up to her eyes while I looked off in the distance, trying quite unsuccessfully to see what had startled her — Nym who never swore.
Then I heard the sharp report of the gunshots that Nym had seen. She told me later that she saw the gun flash — four times — all so fast and unexpected it had startled her.
"They're just staring down in the cabin now with the door open," she said, still peering through the binoculars. "The closest deputy still has his weapon pointed down into the cabin like he's ready to fire again.
      Somebody just got hurt Alex," she said shaking her head. "I think somebody just got hurt really bad."
 Next: Chapter 7 - A bark worse than a bite

Friday, July 16, 2010

Chapter 5 of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 5
Of stuffed mooseheads and stranger things

     Whether it was Nym's charm - or the fact that we were so simply dishelved and tired - it's hard to say, but the three barflies, or maybe should I say bearflies, seem to decide we might just be harmless tourists. Their sudden rudeness and confrontational style evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, and Jacob, Jerrod and I sat back down while the three men pulled up chairs to sit down.
The first man who had come to the table confessed that, yes, he was a commercial fisherman and he had found all kinds of weird things in his nets and tangled on his lines — hypodermic needles, bales of marijuana, and once a mounted moose head that was weighed down with a cement block but floating just below the surface. He said he personally had never found any human remains in 15 years of fishing, though when a boatload of immigrant Chinese sank last year near Point Sur, other fisherman only a few miles south had recovered several corpses. We bought the trio a round of beers, and vowed to visit their fishing boats in the next few days. We even offered them a tour of Rocinante, hoping, of course, that when they slept off their beers they would forget the whole notion.
Later, in the rowboat on the way back out to Rocinante (bobbing peacefully on its mooring), the boys asked me what we would have done if the three men had decided to take a poke at us. "Your mother probably would've fired a couple of rounds into the ceiling, like in a western," I said. "What do you think?"
Jacob said he figured a hammerlock would have put the man he had targeted out of commission with a good twist of his neck. Jerrod said he thinking he would use a shoulder throw on the fellow who was most likely to charge at me. "Coach says it's illegal," Jerrod said.
     "True." I said, "But not in a bar fight."
I rowed quietly, both proud - and a little disturbed - that my 15-year-old boys could have such an intuitive grasp of bar brawling without having ever been in one. Two years of grappling on a high school wrestling mat had apparently taken away fear of physical contact. I didn't want to disavow them of the idea that might be some rules of encounter even in the Anchor Inn.
Nym laid back on the rear seat and watched the stars like a lady of leisure as I pulled against the light breeze and the swell that was left over from earlier in the day. It was a postcard-perfect night, with a partial moon and some reflection of light off the water. In the distance we could hear the surf crash against the beach and the occasional cry of seagulls as they argued over food.
Back on board Rocinante, we all got ready to turn in, the summer fog creeping around the Santa Cruz headlands and headed our way. There was an unmistakable summer chill in the air which promised to drop some moisture on the deck before morning, a prospect which was fine with me. The moisture would be condensation and fresh water, not the salty mess that was crystalized on most of the cabin top.
I secured all the topside accessories, the cushions, lines, fenders and lawn chairs that might take flight if the wind came up strong in the night. Some of my worst scares at anchor — or on a buoy like tonight — came when an empty aluminum beer ban would go skittering across the deck in the, sounding like a 747 attempting to land. Up on the bow, as I checked the line secured to the buoy, I noticed there were even more seagull droppings, perhaps the leavings of the gull who had deposited the hand on our deck. There was no trace of blood, which surprised me, but then again, the hand apparently had been in salt water. Wilma Krebs had said what little blood might have been resident, probably bled out long before it crashed landed on Rocinante in the mouth of the seagull.
 I stared at the spot where we had spied the hand first for several minutes, wondering where the rest of Mr. X might be. It seemed common knowledge at the bar that the hand was actually that of a man, not a woman. Indeed, by the time we left, our three new-found fishermen friends, told us that most people thought that the man was probably in his 40s and, of course, the ring suggested that he was quite wealthy. I hoped that tomorrow we would be let in on the coroner's findings, though after hearing the remarks in the bar about the coroner's early morning drinking habits, I wasn't too hopeful of learning much.
Nym was hard at work in our cabin by the time I went below, tucking the boys in who were already nearly asleep, close to 11 p.m. Jacob had his Gameboy on his chest on with his eyes closed and Jerrod had one eye open, looking up at the stars through the forward hatch, still open from my earlier exit that morning.
"You want me to close it up for the night?" I offered. Jerrod shook his head and I was grateful that at 15, I no longer was responsible if he — or his brother — got cold in the night. They could get up and close the hatch themselves if the cold air got to be too much.
It was warm in the aft cabin, where Nym was already at work with her yellow notepad and a stack of blank index cards next to her. She had a half-dozen clippings on my side of the bunk, all of which she grudgingly moved when I came in to the cabin. She looked so intent that I wondered if she had found something or was just trying to block all the wonderful sounds of the ocean around us. I noticed a tornado outline in the works on the yellow pad, with a well-drawn diamond ring in the center. Before the boys were born, Nym had flirted with the idea of becoming a commercial artist, but found investigative work more fun and in some ways easier to work into the schedule we kept.
I undressed, slipping on my a nightshirt Nym called my Ebenezer Scrooge outfit — it can get damn cold — and I struggled with sleep for a half-hour. I finally gave up on sleeping and decided to read, my afternoon nap overcoming the fatigue and even the effects of two glasses of wine at the Anchor Inn.
It felt good to be back on the boat, well away from shore. Even though our encounter had gone all right with the fishermen, I didn't like the stares we were receiving from the other locals perched at the bar. They seemed more like residents of some small-town in the rural South than California coast dwellers. When the boys were still toddlers, we had drove a motorhome through several southern states, including Georgia. Many miles from Atlanta, we stopped at a widespot in the road at a diner for breakfast. The place looked like a run-down railroad car from the outside but had a nearly full parking lot. The diner was complete with checkered tableclothes and long strips of flypaper hanging from the ceiling covered with hundreds of flies, many still alive and buzzing with indignation.
All I knew that morning was the food smelled great when I walked in, though my eggs, potatoes, bacon and toast had more grease on the plate than I would cook with in a month at home.
We got the same brand of hard stares in that diner years ago that we had at the Anchor Inn. And so that morning I was somewhat relieved to see a Georgia State Trooper walk in and sit down at the table connected to ours. He was a beefy guy, looking like he probably played football for Georgia Tech or perhaps had even left the state for the far reaches of Alabama. He didn't return my hello as he sat down. He just stared at my over-the-ears-length hair. He sipped a cup of coffee for a few minutes while I shoveled in my breakfast. And then he reached over to our table picking up — and putting on —  my aviator-style Foster-Grant sunglasses.
"They sure look good on you Roy," one of the men sitting at the  diner counter shouted over to him.  (Nym would later introduce me to the expression white trash when she described the man sitting at the counter.) I smiled at the Trooper and he smiled back. He continued to smile as he adjusted the sunglasses on his nose, and keep the smile in place while he stood up and walked out the door to his cruiser and drove off.
I remember telling Nym quietly, "it seems the New South I have been reading about is a lot like the Old South."
Nym poked me with her elbow.
"If you're not going to go to sleep, why don't you help me think aloud about this?"
I mumbled something about being tired, but she showered me with newspaper clippings for my troubles.
"Okay," I said. "Here's my two cents and then I'm going to go to sleep and have a nightmare about a seagull flying around with me in its mouth.
"Those people in the Anchor Inn were way too surly to us. It was like we're responsible for someone being killed. Almost like blame us for it."
Nym grinned and stuck an index card in front of my nose with the words "Diamond ring. Big spender, Town secret?" written on it, with connecting circles.
"No, I don't think they blame us for the death, Alex. But they do blame us for drawing attention to it. We found the hand and now there's police and a coroner's investigation.
      "How many men could walk around that town with that big a diamond ring and not be noticed by somebody? I bet they have a pretty good idea who it is.... well... was. I just wonder how the hand got separated from the rest of him."
I swung my legs out of bed and decided to get a glass of Bailey's Irish Cream to put me to sleep.
With severed hands, crazed seagulls and a semi-hostile town keeping secrets, I was going to have a splendid night and splendid dreams.
Chapter 6: We meet an Oxymoron

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chapter 4 of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 4
Service with a smile, sort of

Nym was wrong about the coroner but right that it was a man's hand, not a woman's. She was also wrong that Capitola was always friendly little town to strangers. To tourists maybe, but tourists are tourists and strangers, well, they're different. And we had crossed that line when we found the severed hand on the bow.
After the afternoon of reading clippings and a dinner complete with a nice Merlot and my special boat-chicken casserole, we rowed in to shore with the boys for a nightcap at the Anchor Inn saloon and dessert for Jerrod and Jacob. Nym insisted on carrying in her waterproof shore bag which usually contained a flashlight and some safety gear in case we tarried ashore and had to row out after sunset.
     The Anchor Inn was decorated in a combination nautical/sports bar/pub-restaurant motif that likely drove anyone crazy who tried to figure out what the owner had in mind. I had given up on the no-TV rule before we even rowed in, figuring that the boys deserved a little TV time at the place after being such good sports and helping with the research.
We chose a table in the back side of the bar, 20-feet from the big-screen TV, where the boys could watch TV and we could also see Rocinante rocking in the now settling water in the harbor. A 60ish blonde waitress, sporting an impossibly high beehive hairdo from the 1950s looked at our matching Rocinante sweatshirts as if they said "Hells Angels, Oakland Chapter" and avoided eye contact with us.
Nym stared at her long enough that the waitress finally made a big flourish out of walking over with her cocktail tray and stopping in front of the boys watching television. "Help ya?" she asked, more of a statement than a real question.
I thought perhaps a little charm might help so I asked what she recommended.
"Another restaurant if it was me, mister!" she laughed nervously. And I laughed, and Nym laughed, too, but it was thin, nervous laugh that I followed with an order of wine for Nym and I and Dr. Peppers for the boys.
"Would you recommend the dessert?" I asked as a last shot for getting at least a neutral response. "You can eat it, I wouldn't," she said walking away.
Nym and the boys looked at me as if I had insulted the waitress, but I shook my head. "Oh no! Don't blame this one on me. Did you you guys eat here earlier and not tip her or something?"
A basketball game grabbed Jacob's interest while Jerrod studied the bar and the waitress. It was about 8 p.m. and I hoped we were going to be treated to a nice sundown before the fog rolled in for the night. The California coast in summer vacillates between socked in fog and sun, with Capitola right on the edge. I stared at the horizon, trying to figure out if we would be rowing back to the boat through mist, or actually get to see some stars tonight.
"It's kinda weird Dad, but, the waitress isn't acting all bitchy at the people at the bar," Jerrod said.  "And, uh, Dad. About three of the guys are staring at us. Uh, Dad, one guy is pointing at you."
I grimaced, thinking about the men who had been arguing in low tones when we walked in. Had we been a little farther south, I would have guessed they worked on an offshore oil platform. It had been so many years since I've had anything remotely close to trouble in a barroom that my senses were dulled. I looked around without making eye contact and realized that the Anchor Inn was one place during the day, quite another at night when most of the tourists head into Santa Cruz and the boardwalk - or to the better restaurants of Monterey.
The peanut shells on the floor reminded me of a night in Buffalo, New York 25 years before when a group of eight of us from Canisius College were confronted by five very large, very angry longshoremen who objected to our long hair, our youth, and finally, our existence on the planet and started a brawl that only ended when I was able to bring a folding chair across the noses of two of the men, dropping them to the floor.
     Now in the Anchor Inn,  I decided that it would likely take a good Louisville Slugger to dent the heads of men I had seen on the way in. And my reflexes and wrists were pretty soft from years of working on a computer keyboard and giving lectures to undergraduates.
"You found the hand."
It was a statement. Not a question, and it came from a bearlike man in a plaid shirt and baseball cap that said "San Jose Sharks." He and his three friends had ambled over slowly while I was checking the room for graceful exits.
"I asked you a question, bud."
It was certainly not a question and I was not his bud by any stretch, but I could feel my adrenalin beginning to surge through my arms and shoulders as two other men — equal in size and manners — edged up closer to the table, dwarfing us, all still seated.
"We certainly did find the hand," I said, wondering what that admission was going to mean to these people. They're limbs seemed intact.
"I hope that's all we find, it was quite enough."
I realized as I finished my sentence that I had stood up without even being aware of it. And I had stood suddenly enough that the three men backed up a step, interpreting my movement as a threat. I realized that Jerrod and Jacob had stood also, trying to look a lot older than 15, and that at their last wrestling match weigh-in, they topped 170 pounds each. At nearly 6 feet, they were probably more imposing to these guys than I was.
I could feel my heart beginning to pound, the situation moving a little too fast, too many questions, and in the dryness of mouth I remembered the last fisticuffs I had gotten into - many years back - when Nym and I were dating. After a dinner at Fisherman's Wharf restaurant I ran through the rain to get my car only to return to find Nym struggling with a man near the entryway of the restaurant. I thought he was trying to steal her purse — then I realized he was assaulting her and ripping her dress off, in nearly full view of the restaurant. Nym told me later she never wanted to see me in that kind of rage again, and that I had nearly clawed the man's eyes out in a manical fit. The police told me that I bit the top of the man's ear off — I still don't remember that — and I had to take penicillin for 10 days, as a preventive.
The boys eyes were flickering back and forth from me to the men and then to each other, the same flickering I had seen many times when they wrestled and were just about to dive across the mat to drop and opponent for a takedown. The three men were standing very still - no moving or talking - just staring at us with a dull look that suggested the movie Deliverance. I found myself wondering if I should grab a chair to swing or simply go straight to being a madman and bite someone's ear if they moved towards us.
"Are you three all professional fishermen?" Nym's soft voice came from behind me.
It broke the silence that had descended on the bar. In our male-lion, protect-the-species-mode, we had forgotten that she was even sitting there.
"You guys have that look of men who spend a lot of time on the water."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nym flash her best "you big strong man" smile and all three of us Cameron men exhaled silently.
Nym only turned on that voice when she had everything so completely under control that even the President of the United States couldn't make her sweat.
 We knew from that same voice that somewhere within easy reach in Nym's shore bag at her feet, was her police issue .38 special revolver, her badge identifying her as a special investigator with the San Francisco District Attorney's office, and a pair of much-prized handcuffs that had once been on the wrists of Charles Manson, a gift to her from a friend in the FBI.
There would be no trouble in the Anchor Inn tonight. But no dessert either.
Chapter 5 - Mounted Mooseheads and stranger things

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Chapter 3 of the novel, The Talking Mime

Chapter 3

We had been away from most newspapers and television for several weeks. I have a rule about not reading newspapers or watching television when we're doing our summer cruising — a rule which drives Nym crazy, but one she respects, grudgingly.

She was a journalism major in college and is still hooked on the news of the day, frequently interrupting my writing with some tidbit from NPR that falls on my deaf ears.
        The laptop computers stay home, too, no hardship for me, but sometimes for the balance of the family.
I take my fiction writing relatively seriously, much more so than my publisher and my agent who were still waiting for a big book after three modestly successful novels in 10 years about the intrigues of university life. Since taking a position teaching American Literature at the University of San Francisco, I found that I had plenty of plot lines right outside my door on the campus, but precious little time to write with the staggering number of papers to grade. When Jerrod and Jacob were very young, I had tried my hand at some newspaper writing and gave it up when my editors tried to make me parargraph every sentence and rarely let me put together a story of more than 500 words.
      It might have been than experience that made me so dogmatic on our summer sailing trips, or perhaps it was the peace and quiet — and not hearing about the latest stock market problems or the riots in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Nym and I rowed quietly back out to Rocinante where the boys stood on deck, pretending to be bored but twitching with excitement to hear what had happened in the Harbormaster's office. I had made them stay behind, partly to get cleaned up before coming ashore, but also so that if things got complicated and we were gone, someone would be around the boat to keep an eye on things.
I opted for a nap, while Nym filled the boys in on our adventure. Then I heard Nym shout that she was leaving with the dinghy — and the boys — for some exploring in the town. It sounded like a lot of fun, but I was still a little nervous about leaving the boat unattended. 
I checked the bowline one more time, saw that the wind was still light and likely to remain so, and headed into the aft cabin where my bed looked more comfortable than it could possibly be. There's nothing quite like anchoring when you are tied to a buoy  attached by 3/8  inch chain to a one-ton block of cement sunk 10 feet in the sea bottom.
I all but passed out when my head hit the pillow and dreamed of our trip down and had visions of Wilma Krebs on the bow of my boat, checking for fingerprints around the deck and collecting little particles and feathers so she could track down the gull.
Sleeping on the boat is usually very peaceful for me once I settle in to the rhythm of the water. In an anchorage like this, motorboat wakes can stir things up a bit, but that afternoon I slept soundly, with the waves keeping the boat lifting and dropping gently with a regularity that would've put me to sleep if I hadn't already been so drowsy.
Sometimes at anchor I'll have awful dreams about the boat. The most common has the boat in shallow water and the tide going out. That had happened to us once in the Sacramento River Delta, earning us a nice photo in a sailing magazine of the boys and I cleaning the bottom of Rocinante while she sat high and dry on her side.
I had just awakened and fallen back into a sleep that was leading me to a dream about Ingrid Bergman — another favorite dream topic — when I was startled awake.
"Yo! Daddo!"
I heard the shout from the stern of the boat and rolled over wondering why they were back already , only to read the clock — 1400 hours. Good God. I would never get to sleep tonight, I thought.
They had been gone three hours, now it was just 2 p.m. and I realized that the wind had come up and with it some sizable swells that were making Rocinante creak in the wind as she rode on the chain. Jerrod and Jacob and Nym were bouncing pretty wildly right near the ladder and as I came up the companionway, I could see that the dinghy was riding low with groceries and two large sacks of plastic-wrapped newspapers in the back.
"Mom bought every newspaper for the last month, Dad," Jacob shouted, beating his brother to this bit of news by seconds. Nym cut Jacob off with a quick hand motion before I found out what it cost to  buy the last month's worth of the Monterey Peninsula Herald, the Salinas Californian and Santa Cruz Sentinel. Luckily they were all relatively small-town newspapers or the dinghy might've foundered from the weight of the newsprint.
When I saw the papers, I knew what we were in for. The "no newspaper" rule was out the window and there was little use arguing.
We had done something similar when we lived in Sacramento for a year and I was a visiting professor, teaching about the political writings of Norman Mailer to some generally unappreciative feminists at California State University, Sacramento. Nym worked part-time as an investigator for the Sacramento County District Attorney's office, as she does now in San Francisco, but she became obsessed with a rapist who lurked along a jogging trail adjacent to the American River, waiting for solitary women victims. The police kept issuing lots of "be careful out there" stories, but seemed unable — Nym said uninterested — in catching the perpetrator despite the howls of protest from the community that wanted the guy caught and locked up.
Nym studied news reports, looking at where he had struck, at what time of day, what his likely escapes routes had been. She put together a logical case describing a pattern — and where she thought the rapist would likely strike next. She ended up making the news herself when her boss discounted her theory completely and she went out, alone, to stake out a lonely stretch of the trail for several days.
      All without telling me.
Late one afternoon she was sitting under an eucalyptus tree a mile from downtown Sacramento when she heard a scuffle nearby and ran out to find the trail-side rapist pulling a woman jogger off the trail, a cloth stuffed in her mouth so she couldn't scream. Nym ran up and when he turned, she emptied a 24-ounce can of orange Day-Glo paint all over the face, arms and chest of the would-be rapist, most of which he was still wearing five hours later when the police responded to a report of an oddly colored man reeking of paint thinner who was trying to board a Greyhound for Los Angeles.
"Mom's on the case," Jerrod yelled as they dragged the newspapers and groceries below.
"She's a little out of her jurisdiction, too," I said, regretting it instantly when I felt her eyes on the back of my neck. I opted to smile and get the wine chilled for what was probably going to be a long afternoon of looking at mediocre writing on banal topics — and all printed in 9 point newsprint type.
Nym's methodology was like that followed by a lot of detectives in  novels. She would amass her evidence and pin up notes, ideas, and news clips in a melange on a bulletin board so she could visualize and make connections between disparate events and ideas. I had taught her the technique when we were first married. In literature, we call it a tornado outline, in which the main theme usually jumps off the page at you after a little staring. We kept a 2 foot by 3 foot bulletin board stowed on Rocinante for just such a purpose but it had only been used by me up until this point for writing projects — not junior crime stoppers' stuff.
After a snack of peanuts, we settled in around the table, but after about a hour of quality time of the family reading, I realized we were rocking just enough that my eyes had trouble focusing on the newsprint. The curse of being nearly 50 was that I now had to buy reading glasses in packs of three at the drugstore, usually getting several different strengths, for different jobs. Today the newspapers seem to demand pretty powerful lenses which were making me a bit queasy as the rocking continued and I began to worry about a summer windstorm. The bulletin board was littered with some clippings but still looked pretty bare.
"Mom, what are we looking for?" Jerrod asked.  "Somebody who lost a hand and is offering a reward?"
Jacob snorted from the V-Berth where he had retreated with his Gameboy, opting not to get his hands dirty on the newspapers. "Yeah, look in lost and found, under body parts..."
My offering was just as bad. "It might be less obvious than that boys. I think your mother is going to say, 'Look for missing persons first, attacks by crazed flesh-tearing seagulls second.'"
I was about to make a really bad joke about the hand belonging to Tippi Hedren, star of the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, "The Birds," when I noticed Nym had stopped reading and was staring at Jerrod and I over the tops of her reading classes, with only a trace of a smile.
"I hope you guys are more observant than funny," she said, shoving us each another stack of newspapers. "I do want you to look for missing persons, but also anything else weird.
...Grave robberies.
Theft of a corpse from a hospital.
A motorboat accident.
A missing scuba diver..."
Jerrod and I held up our hands in mock surrender and Nym smiled, returning to her stack of newspapers and I felt myself falling asleep as I scanned the Santa Cruz newspaper with its endless stories about planning commissions, rezonings for new sewer connections and some social event calendar items that made me long for being back out on the ocean. It was reminding me of a friend in college who had worked at a film lab, processing people's snapshots and making prints. I offered that it must be something to see all those different people and what kind of pictures they took. My friend said he would swap jobs with me in a minutes — I was working in the library, checking out books and refences for co-eds — because the pictures he developed and printed documented, he said, the most boring people on the face of the earth.
My eyes were wandering for the porthole by 4 p.m., nearly two hours into the research and many papers to go. Jerrod had started reading just the comics pages of each newspaper, clearly not part of the rules, but had great sympathy.
Nym snapped us all out of it with her clear, part-time DA voice.
"We have to go back through all of these papers again. We can't assume we're looking for an incident dealing with a woman," she said, drawing looks from all three of us.
       She grabbed the stacks and newspapers and started dealing them out to us again, like a dealer at a poker table.
       "I think that might have been a man's hand, not a woman's. I just wish I could remember the ring better. Maybe the coroner will be able to tell us something tomorrow."
NEXT: Chapter 4, Service with a smile

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chapter 2 of the novel, 'The Talking Mime'

Chapter 2
The Harbormaster

The Capitola Harbormaster's office has all the normal tide tables, pamphlets on the ABCs of boating safety and local restaurant guides you find in most of the small harbors up and down the California coast.

This morning, however, the 15-by 25-foot wood-frame office overlooking the anchorage was dominated by a small, red Igloo cooler sitting on the desk of Harbormaster Harry Brookmun, which Brookmun, Nym and I took turns staring at.

Inside, neatly packed by Nym in ice and locked in a ziploc bag (16 ounce), was a severed hand, sporting the big diamond ring that we had found on our deck after a seagull gave up and flew off - but only after making one more run at trying to lift it off the deck of Rocinante.

It took us nearly a half-hour to get the Monterey Bay Coast Guard on the VHF radio, which after some discussion, decided body parts being carried by seagulls weren't under their jurisdiction, particularly because we were sitting hooked on a buoy belonging to the Capitola Harbor District. The Capitola Harbormaster wasn't monitoring the VHF radio at all, so I broke my rule and used our emergency-only cellular telephone, dialing 911 and creating a panic in the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office before they finally realized there was no real emergency, just an understandably gross situation.

"The Undersheriff's on her way," the harbormaster said, listening to the police scanner on his desk. "Tolliver, the real sheriff, he's on vacation up north someplace chasing after abalone."

Gerald Tolliver, elected for six consecutive four-year terms, was a legend even in San Francisco for his low tolerance for outlaws and his high tolerance for Grey Goose vodka. I was a little sorry I wouldn't get the chance to meet him, given all that I had read about him in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The three of us sat transfixed by the cooler, as it sat like some kind of shrine on the corner of the gun-metal gray steel desk. I made a mental note to donate the cooler to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department — or the harbormaster's office — because there was no way it would ever hold a cold beer for me again, provide cold storage for shoreside picnic lunches, or even be a basin for fish we had caught.

"Maybe just once more, before the undersheriff gets here, you could tell me again about the bird and this hand?"

Brookmun was well-dressed for the part of the harbormaster, even though the pictures on the wall behind him gave away the fact that for nine months of the year he taught geometry and wood shop to high school students in Seaside. He had the look of someone who breezed through the ranks of Boy Scouts, Sea Scouts, and Explorers, but came up short on the examinations to go the Naval Academy and now was stuck dealing with exploding hormones in high school classrooms while he tried to explain the dramatic importance of the Pythagorean Theorem.
He stared at us, after asking his question, with a brooding look I would be willing to wager he practiced daily in the mirror before facing his classes.

"One of our sons saw, well, recognized, that it was a human hand," Nym offered for the third time.

"Our other son saw it and went into the head and vomited."

I closed my eyes briefly, waiting for Nym to recount my episode of decorating the foredeck, but she as she was warming up to it, she was cut off by Brookmun, who adopted an exasperated tone.

"The bird, tell me about the bird again, please." His facial expression was flat, but I began to wonder if he was trying to play cop before the police actually arrived. His uniform was a little too clean, his shoes looked like they had been spit-polished by a Marine, and his haircut was dorky, for even a high school teacher.

"Are you asking if it had any scars or distinguishing marks," I quipped, regretting it immediately when I saw the look on Nym's face and the redness growing around Brookmun's ears. My sharp tongue has gotten me in lots of trouble over the years but I always see clearly when I should've kept my mouth shut well after I've let go with a few bon mots.

Brookmun's face did tell me that he had already been having visions of "Hard Copy" or "A Current Affair," as this might be his moment in the limelight, certainly the biggest event in Capitola in some time. Already he had told us not to even leave the Harbormaster's office, until the police arrived. I wasn't sure a harbormaster had that kind of authority, but his coffee was passable and it seemed only reasonable to wait for the police.

I was getting cranky and more than a little uncomfortable, with both boys waiting out on Rocinante, where I knew they were contemplating the short swim in to the pier because they were missing all the excitement. As we rowed away in the dinghy for shore — the cooler between Nym and I on the floor of the boat — I had warned them there might be sharks lurking. And between that warning and the cold water, I though we were probably safe for another hour or so before they showed up — dripping wet.

"Professor Cameron, there's no need for sarcasm," Brookmun said. "If we knew what kind of gull it was, it might help tell us where the gull picked up the hand and lead us to the killer."

I bit my tongue while I envisioned a seagull picking up the hand and flying from anywhere. It had barely been able to pick it up on our deck, a thought that disturbed me even more now. Perhaps the rest of the body was bobbing near my anchor chain right now. I shuddered at the thought of the boys spotting a floater after their reaction to the hand.

"Sorry," I said, "But maybe we should just wait for the sheriff. Excuse me, undersheriff. I'm beginning to believe this is all a bad dream."

Blackmun slid back in his chair and sighed the same sigh the boys perfected the week I had the flu and canceled our Disneyland trip the year before. They noted, quite accurately, that I have never been too sick to go sailing, but the mention of a theme park, a shopping mall, or visit from my mother-in-law has been known to bring on violent fits of sneezing and the approximate symptoms of recurring malaria.

We stared at the cooler for a few minutes of reverent silence, only to be startled by the slam of a car door, followed closely by the harbormaster's door opening and the arrival of the undersheriff, who brought in a gust of wind and highway dust with her.

If the severed hand with the diamond ring on the deck of Rocinante was a shock, Undersheriff Wilma Krebs came as a first-class surprise.

Barely five feet tall, and at least 160 pounds, she sported a knot of blonde, tightly-curled permed hair, and looked more like she belonged in a toll booth on the Golden Gate Bridge than in the uniform of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department. She was wearing a .45 caliber automatic pistol that, on her, looked like cannon. Her shoulders were square and squared off with her hips, though she didn't appear fat as much as brick solid. And right here in trendy, nearly completely caucausian Capitola, Wilma Krebs was also clearly African-American, reflecting an almost blue-black skin tone that was as beautiful as it was hard to miss.

She spoke in a short, barking voice that made Harry Brookmun pop up out of his chair, as if his principal had arrived and found him sleeping in class.

"Harry, I forgot my rubber gloves. If I'm going to shake hands with whatever you people have in that bucket there, I want some protection."

Wilma turned to look at us, giving us a perfunctory grin while Blackmun scrambled through a cupboard behind his desk. She did a thorough visual examination of the room, slowly turning, taking in every detail as if she had a camera implanted in her eye, finally coming all way the way back to us where she stopped.

'You're the folks on that pretty sailboat that came in last night?" she asked, drawing the expected smiles from Nym and I.

"Is it named after Don Quixote's horse."

Wilma didn't wait for our response, but instead reached for a set of gloves offered by Blackmun.

Competent, quick-witted and even literate, I thought. Maybe it was going to be a good day after all.

She popped the lid on the cooler slowly, as if it might hold something that could jump out at her, then she gently reached in, poking the ice aside to get to the bagged hand. She lifted it out, the plastic bag dripping and the hand looking more like a piece frozen salmon than anything else. For just a moment I had a sharp jab of fear that it was a piece of salmon that the boys had somehow made look like a hand — complete with the dimestore jewelery just to fool me.

But when Nym stood up with me, to peer from a few feet away while the undersheriff laid the hand on the desk top, I knew what I had seen was real and that joking aside, we had found a damned body part on our deck.

Wilma held the hand, still in the bag while Blackmun grabbed some paper towels and put them next to the bag, anticipating Wilma's next move to get a closer look.

"Well, I'm glad you got this thing a little cold," Wilma said, unzipping the top of the bag and peering in as if there was a ham sandwich encased. "Human flesh gets pretty rank even in a seawater bath. And this is pretty decomposed. Another day and that nice ring would be on the bottom of the ocean. Hmm..."

Wilma slid the hand out of the bag onto the towel, poking it again with fingers and then putting a flat piece of paper at the wrist. "I was hoping you were maybe a shark attack victim, or part of somebody who drowned," she said, speaking to the hand.

"Afraid not."

She slid the hand back in the plastic bag and put it back in the cooler as carefully as if it was radioactive or plastic explosive, snapping the gloves off, and tossing them into the trash. "I don't know where the rest of her is, but somebody cut this hand off with something very sharp. It's as clean as a cleaver cut, or a meat saw, maybe. Maybe even an electric carving knife."

She turned to the harbormaster, who had backed up away from his desk, and looked a little ill. He hadn't moved the whole time she was examining the hand.

"Put some fresh ice in that cooler, will you Harry? No telling how long it will take me to find the coroner in Santa Cruz — whatever bar he's having his breakfast in."

Next - Chapter 3: Research