Following is chapter 1 or my new Al Pennyback mystery, Dead Man's Cove.
I hate boats.
I grew up in a small community in East Texas; the largest body of water was a lake about twenty miles from my hometown, and the muddy Sabine River that forms the border between Texas and Louisiana; during the dry season, it’s so shallow you can wade across it. When I joined the army right out of high school, I picked that service because my eyes were not good enough to be a flier in the air force, and the navy and marines spent too much damn time on boats, or ships as the recruiter corrected me when I visited the recruiting station in Houston. Didn’t matter what you called them, boats or ships, they spent too much time on water, and for me, water was for drinking or bathing; swimming as long as you could see the bottom of whatever it was you were swimming in.
Like I said, I hate boats. But, here I was, on a Friday afternoon, standing on the stern of a boat watching the wake behind us as we cut through the slightly choppy waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the land just a smudge on the horizon behind us and to the left, and nothing to the front or right but water.
My friend, Quincy Chang, a partner in Holcombe, Stein and Chang, the law firm that has me on a ten thousand buck a month retainer, stood next to me, a martini glass in his hand, looking as calm as if we were on the balcony of his Watergate condo gazing down at the traffic. I was empty handed. Empty handed because I was grasping the rails with all my strength.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Quince said, gazing out at the water.
“I suppose so. When will we be getting to . . ., what was the name of the place we’re going?”
“Dead Man’s Cove; it’s a small community on an island at the northern end of the bay. We should be there in a couple more hours. What’s with you, Al? You’ve been acting like an expectant father ever since we left the marina.”
Okay, so I have this thing about water. But, I also have a thing about sharing my phobias with other people.
“I’m just not too good at standing around doing nothing,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s that. Hell, you spend hours sitting around meditating. The look on your face is not from boredom, my friend. I think you’re just scared shitless and are afraid to admit it.”
“I am not scared. I just don’t particular like traveling by boat.”
“What’s wrong with it? This is a neat way to travel. Just look at Sandra; up there on the bow showing off that hot body of hers.”
He was referring to Sandra Winter, my live-in soul mate – girl friend – hell, I wasn’t sure what the proper label was for her, but she’d been more or less staying at my place more than her own since we decided to have an exclusive relationship. She did look beautiful, lying on her back, her flat stomach, smooth thighs and perky breasts soaking up the sun.
“She likes flying, too, and you know how I feel about that; I’d rather jump from a damn plane than land with it.”
“Al Pennyback, you’re a real piece of work. You can face an armed man with nothing but your bare hands without flinching, and you get itchy on a perfectly safe boat or an airplane.”
“Yeah, but when I’m going up against some goon, I have a measure of control. Other people are driving airplanes and boats. Besides, when I fight, I do it with both feet on solid ground, not with thousands of feet of air or water beneath me.”
He laughed and shook his head.
“What you need is a good drink. What say I make you one of my special martinis; like James Bond, shaken, not stirred?”
He had a point. It was, I suppose, a bit childish to be afraid. I could swim; so if the damn boat sank, I could swim toward the west and eventually make land.
“Okay, I’ll have that drink, but make it Vodka. Gin stays with me too long.”
He drained his glass and turned to go to the galley. Just then, the boat hit a wave and the bow rose. I could feel my stomach do cartwheels. I wheeled around and grabbed the rail again.
“On second thought,” I said. “I think I’ll wait until we get to the dock.”
He laughed as he walked away, hanging onto the railing for balance as the boat pitched up and down. It didn’t seem to bother him, but I was wishing I was anywhere else but here.
Quince had made a rare visit to my farm in Montgomery County, just off River Road to the west of Potomac Village, the night before. He arrived just after Sandra and I had finished supper and were sitting on the sofa in the living room cuddling.
The cuddling had to be put off, and we broke out the vodka and I made vodka and tonic for Quince and me, while Sandra poured herself a glass of white wine.
He said he’d come rather than call because he wanted to invite us for a special weekend. A client of his, a commodities broker named Gaylord Wellington had a yacht – that’s the term he used, yacht – and was inviting Quince to sail with him to some place called Dead Man’s Cove for the weekend, and had told him he could bring some friends along. He said that when he told Wellington about me, the dude had insisted that he bring me. I was about to turn him down, when Sandra put her wine glass on the coffee table, put her arms around my shoulder, leaned in so that her silky blonde hair tickled my cheeks and said, “We’d love to.”
So much for me being in control of my life; I’d never told her how I felt about boats, and with her breast massaging my arm, it didn’t seem like the right time.
It was mid-September, and the weather in the Washington area was swinging from desert hot to the nippiness of autumn, but Quincy said that it was forecast to be sunny and only mildly warm on Chesapeake Bay for the weekend, which caused Sandra to say that she could do some last minute sunbathing to reinforce her tan for the coming winter. Now, as much as I hate boats, the prospect of seeing her for most of the weekend in one of those bikinis she had, that barely covered the essentials, was tempting, so I agreed.
Standing there, clutching the rail and trying not to heave lunch, I was having second thoughts.
Breakthrough was the name of the boat we were on. It looked like a cross between a squashed tugboat and an oversized rowboat with canopies, with a little roof over the rear deck and a pointed bow deck with just enough room for a person to stretch out to sun bathe or fish. A rubber boat was lashed to the top over the wheel house. The main part of the body of the boat was a gleaming white, with dark wood covering the upper structure. It was about forty feet long and ten feet wide at the widest point which was near the center. I guess it was beautiful to anyone who liked boats, but I was distracted by the way it bobbed up and down whenever we hit a wave, so I didn’t really appreciate its beautiful lines or the power of the engines that drove it through the water. All I wanted to do was get off the damn thing as soon as possible.
We passed through the area of choppy water and it settled down again, now only sort of rocking gently from side to side. Of course, that didn’t do a lot for my queasy stomach either, but, I could at least now move along the rail toward the wheelhouse without feeling like I would be pitched overboard.
I made my way forward and up the ladder to the wheel house. Quincy’s client, Gaylord Wellington, a captain’s cap tilted rakishly on his head, and a martini in his left hand, was standing gazing out the front windscreen, his right hand resting on the wheel. He turned and put the martini glass to the bill of his cap as I entered.
“Ah, Mr. Pennyback,” he said. “Are you enjoying the voyage?”
“Just call me, Al,” I said. “It’s okay, I guess.”
“You don’t sound like you really like it. Boats are, I take it, not your preferred mode of transportation.”
He put his drink on the shelf in front of the wheel and took off his cap. His hair was combed over his forehead, covering a large bald spot, and his forehead was peeling from the effects of sunburn.
“You shouldn’t be ashamed of that,” he continued. “Boating is not for everyone. Although, from the stories Quincy has told me about your time in the army, I would have thought you’d spent lots of time on them.”
I’d spent more time than was comfortable on them, in fact; from going out the escape hatch of submerged submarines to sneaking onto some dark foreign beach in an inflatable boat, my time in the army had been too much on water for my liking.
“Unfortunately, that’s true,” I said. “But, I never liked it. Never liked flying either.”
“But, Quincy said that you were a paratrooper.”
“I was; and, I always preferred jumping from a plane to landing in one.”
“I was never in the army myself; but, I’ve never understood people who would jump from a perfectly good airplane.”
A lot of my friends in uniform shared that view as well. Each to his own, I always say.
“It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it.”
“He’s telling the truth about that,” Sandra said.
We hadn’t noticed that she’d left the bow deck and made her way to the wheelhouse. She’d thrown a light shawl over her shoulders, which only accented the thrust of her breasts, and her long, athletic legs, bronzed from the sun, were on display. Wellington’s attention was drawn from the water ahead to the sight; which worried me, not because he was ogling my girl friend’s legs, but because I wanted him to be alert to any hazards that might be lurking just beneath the surface of the bay.
“Ms. Winter,” he said. “Welcome to the bridge. Can I offer you a small libation?”
“Thanks, but no,” she said. “And, why don’t you call me Sandra? Standing here dressed like this, it hardly seems fitting to be so formal.”
“Very well, Sandra,” he said. “I’m Gaylord to my friends. You don’t want to know what my enemies call me.”
She laughed and walked over, leaning against me, her hips touching mine.
Take that, I thought; that’ll teach you to flirt with my girl. Okay, so I was noticing his attentions to her; so, sue me.
Like most guys who flirt with every woman they meet, though, he took it in good humor. I can respect a man who knows when he’s lost.
“When do we get to land?” Sandra asked the question that was on my mind.
He looked at his watch, an expensive Cartier, and smiled.
“You landlubbers can quit worrying,” he said. “We make the dock in less than an hour.”
I looked forward. I guess the light smudge I saw on the horizon was land, but couldn’t be sure. We didn’t seem to be moving that fast, but, he was the expert here, so I took him at his word; and, hoped he was right.
“Where’s Quince?” Sandra asked.
“I think I saw him go below,” Wellington said. “Probably went to the galley to mix up a pitcher or two of martinis for our docking ceremony.”
“Docking ceremony?” Sandra and I asked in unison.
“Oh, he didn’t tell you? Our friends always meet the boat at the dock, and we have a little ceremony. It’s sort of to get the party started.”
I’d been looking forward to getting some solid food in my stomach before the weekend festivities began; which, I assumed would involve large quantities of liquid refreshments; and, from the look on Sandra’s face, I could tell she was thinking the same.
“Maybe I should go and see if he needs a hand,” she said.
“Good idea; I think I’ll join you,” I said. “Call us when you see the dock, Gaylord.”
“Trust me,” he said. “When we’re coming in to the dock, you’ll know it.”