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