Writer’s Note: It took me a while to decide on the name to replace Amos, with all the great suggestions you submitted–thanks for that. The last cut was James, Lucas, Abe, and Jake. The deciding factor of those was I liked a 2-syllable name best.
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A little cold front had blown through during the night. I had to take a blanket out on the patio to enjoy my coffee, but that made it special. All these years I’ve lived in the South, I’ve never grown to love the heat like so many Southerners do—or even begrudgingly tolerate it like most of the rest. I feel a spiritual connection with Yankees in that one way: what the hell were people thinking when they decided to live here during the summer months?
It was Halloween. I had my little bag of candy, although I doubted I would have a single trick-or-treater this far out in the boonies. I’d also made up little bags for Sabrina’s kids—I’d found out she has two, a nine-year- old boy and a daughter she described as “five going on fifteen.” I had a niece that fit that description, so I at least understood the concept.
As promised, I cleared my mind as best I could, then tried to concentrate on Sabrina as I walked the wheel. But I couldn’t hack it. The upcoming trip with Lucas was too present to be ignored. The golden-haired woman walking among a cluster of huts on some desert island, hand-in-hand with the girl I assumed was her daughter, kept intruding into my consciousness. The little girl was costumed as a princess, of course. What else?
Sabrina was delighted I’d thought of her kids. “Well, lookee here what my silver-tongued fiance’s made up for his step-kids to be. Won’t Samantha be surprised? She’s going out tricker-treating as a princess, needless to say.”
A little shiver ran down my back. “I always liked it when it got chilly for Halloween. But my costumes tended toward the heavy and exotic.”
“Somehow I’d have guessed that. But not so great for princesses. And of course her gown is light and flimsy.”
“Handmade too, I’ll wager.” Sabrina nodded. “And I’ll bet Samantha would rather freeze than allow a sweater to mar the perfection of her costume.”
Sabrina nodded again. “Definitely got herself a little stubborn streak.”
“From her mom, I suppose.”
“And don’t you forget it, buster. After we’re married good and proper, I get the remote on Tuesdays and Fridays, ‘else the wedding’s off.”
“Oh, no. Tuesdays and Fridays sounds more than fair. And if you’re a good little girl, maybe Sunday mornings too.”
Sabrina shook her head emphatically. “No chance of that, ‘cause I ain’t no good little girl. But then again, that’s probably OK since we won’t be watching TV on Sundays mornings.” I’d been waiting for it; this time I got my mouth into an O before she did.
Mrs. Ellis, a frail, white-haired lady in a cotton print dress, came up to my table before I’d finished my last cup of coffee. “Mr. Whittaker, I have a problem, maybe you can help me. George Foster fixed my water heater back six years ago and I didn’t have the money to pay him. But he disappeared before I saved it up. It’s been bothering me every since. It’s $40. Would it be OK if I paid it to you?” She carefully pulled a folded stack of bills from her sweater pocket.
“Certainly, Mrs. Ellis. He left some instructions that I found going through his papers. Let’s just see.” I pulled out my pocket notebook and pretended to examine a couple of pages. “Ah, here it is. ‘Mrs. Ellis. Tell her that after all this time, she only owes me ten dollars.’”
“Are you sure that’s what it says? It doesn’t usually work that way.”
“Positive. It’s written right here. Well, one thing we can both agree on about George Foster, he didn’t figure things the same way other people do. So I have to go by what he wrote down.”
“Well, that was sure nice of him. I hope you find him so I can tell him myself.” She gave me a five and counted off five ones. “There. Now I can quit fretting about it.”
This bit of deception, although in theory financially deleterious to my employer, didn’t cause me a moment of angst. But I hadn’t realized I’d been observed. As I rose to leave, Sabrina sidled up with a funny look on her face.
“Know what, Rick Whittaker?” she asked in a low voice. “You’re a nice guy. Who would’ve suspected.”
“Me? Nice? Nah, you must have me mistaken for somebody else. George Foster, maybe, although he’s a little older than me.”
She just smiled at me without answering and waggled her fingers in a small wave as I left.
I should have planned something active to fill the day, since I was way too jumpy to be sitting down. Tried to go through the computer files but couldn’t stay with it. Walked the wheel twice, which helped—for about twenty minutes. Had a martini with lunch, another at four. Read the same two pages in my book a half dozen times. The hours passed somehow; not sure exactly. I was at the boat ramp much too early for our 8 pm appointment, pacing. Good thing I didn’t have easy access to a pack of cigarettes, I’d have started smoking on the spot.
“Been here long?” were Lucas’ first words to me. I just shrugged.
“Have you ever seen anything that you couldn’t explain?” he asked me as we launched the boat and settled in. I had to confess I hadn’t. “I did one other time, in Vietnam. A woman walking on the deck of our boat, bending over the sailors who were dozing at their guard positions. She would look carefully at the face of each one, then sort of shrug and move on. She was small like a Vietnamese woman, but with decidedly Caucasian features. I watched her for about fifteen minutes, scared shitless and yet excited to be watching, before she wandered to the end of the deck and sort of disappeared.” Lucas shook his head as if clearing the memory. “Vietnam was supposed to be full of ghosts. The men who’d been there awhile talked about them occasionally, if there was a group together late at night and an excuse. But for some reason, they never seemed to be the ghosts of soldiers, even gook soldiers. Usually women.” He pulled a cross on a chain out from under his shirt. “I’ve worn this ever since. Don’t know if it helped keep me safe the rest of my tour, but one time we were heading upriver and it starting getting warm on my chest and five minutes later we triggered an ambush. But we were in other ambushes after that, and it never warned me again. Maybe because I didn’t do anything with the advice the first time.”
After that the noise of the motor made conversation impossible, so I huddled down behind the windshield. The wind had more bite than you’d expect in October, even considering the little cool front. Made my eyes water and my nose run.
Being out on the water at night for the first time was a strange experience. You can’t really see much of anything. The moon was up but small, and that plus the scattered clouds made it damned dark. Forms that were probably islands just showed up, slid past, and disappeared. I hoped nothing was out there to run into, because no way could we have seen it in time to stop.
We ran hard for more than an hour. A little more than halfway there we rounded a point—or at least we made a sweeping turn around something, although I couldn’t see what it was—and the waves picked up noticeably. Still, it was a smooth and easy ride; as a lifelong landlubber, I was intensely grateful. In a car the drone and gentle motion would have made me sleepy, but I was too keyed up to even consider nodding off.
I was just about convinced Lucas was like one of those taxi drivers in a city where you’ve never been who takes you around the corner by way of the airport to drive up the fare when he cranked back on the throttle. The boat settled onto its hull—we’d been seriously planing this whole time—the breeze dropped off, and the night got quiet and still.
We were heading toward a dark mass that looked just like all the other dark masses we’d passed. I searched everywhere for a light but saw nothing. “Is this it?” I finally whispered. No reason to whisper, of course, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Lucas just shook his head and pointed vaguely off to the right. We angled closer to the land until I could just see the waves from our wake rolling up onto the bank. Something splashed maybe ten feet away, but I didn’t spot what it was.
Up this close to shore and moving this slowly, there was very little wind. Lucas pulled a thermos out from under his seat and poured us each a cup of coffee. In real mugs, not plastic or polystyrene. The heat felt great on my hands and even better on my lips.
“How do you know how deep it is here?”
“Oh, long as I’ve been doing this, I guess I’ve memorized every contour of the ocean floor in a fifty square mile area.” He waited a few beats before chuckling low and pointing to a depth finder. “I’m a firm believer in technology. With a depth finder and a GPS, as long as your motor runs and you pay attention to the weather and your fuel gauge, you’re not likely to get in too much trouble.”
He put the boat into a gentle turn around the island, and a couple of minutes later pointed just off to the left. And there it was.
From that distance I wouldn’t have recognized it as a fire. But as we moved closer and settled into a course where there were no obstructing trees, it quickly because obvious that’s exactly what it was. A big fire, fairly high up on the island. None of the other islands we’d passed had any noticeable elevation.
Maybe fifty feet off the shore, Lucas idled the motor and put the boat in neutral. We just sat there without speaking, rocking gently on the slight waves. There was absolutely nothing to see other than the fire, probably several hundred yards inland although it was hard to judge the distance.
Finally I spoke, still in a whisper. “And no one lives on the island?”
“As far as I know, no.” Lucas wasn’t whispering, and his voice seemed shockingly loud under the circumstances. “But who knows for sure? I’ve never actually explored it.”
“Don’t you feel it?” He studied me for a long time, eyes narrowed. “You don’t, do you. That island is telling me loud and clear it’s not a friendly place and I’m not welcome. But it’s not telling you a damned thing. Isn’t that something?”
“How do you know it’s not a bunch of kids who come over for a Halloween party every year?”
“I don’t for sure, although I’ve never seen a sign of anything like that. But we can check for boats if you want to.”
We spent the next hour circling the island slowly. In the end, I had to admit he was likely right. No huts either, needless to say, much less a golden haired woman walking along the shoreline.
I didn’t say anything, but I knew I’d be back during daylight. Wasn’t sure the best way to make that happen, but making it happen had risen to number one on my list. Even ahead of finding Lacey.