There are no hundred percent heroes.
Every man can be broken when things happen to him in a certain order, with a momentum and an intensity that awaken ancient fears in the back of his mind. He knows what he must do, but suddenly the body will not obey the mind. Panic becomes like an unbearably shrill sound.
I was trying to explain this to Annie Renzetti, the trim, tidy, and loving person who had been an essential part of my life for many months. It was late June, summer season at the resort she manages, the Eden Beach near Naples, Florida. We were down on the beach, at the quiet end, beyond her personal cabana, sprawled on huge beach towels. It was difficult for me to carry on any kind of complex discussion and keep looking at her at the same time, especially when she was using a tiny white bikini to set off her golden-dark tan. I had never before been seriously involved with a short, slender, dark-haired woman. My taste had run to tall blondes with long long legs and good shoulders. Maybe in my ignorance I had thought the little ones too fragile. Found out they are not. At least this one wasn’t.
“Did it ever happen to you?” she asked.
“Not really, but I have been so close I know that somewhere, sometime, it could happen. We have a lot of myths in our society, Annie.”
“Please remember you are the only person in the world who is allowed to call me Annie.”
“I will never forget. I think the myth that has humbled Meyer is one of the worst: the myth of the unbreakable hero. I told him some stories. I thought one would make the right impression on him.
“A long time ago, in one of the wars we didn’t win, I had a company commander who was the best I ever saw. Quiet and competent and humane and tough. When bad orders came down, he’d find ways to sidestep them without getting himself or any of us jammed up. He took all the risks we took, and he tried to keep the risk factor down. He took damned good care of us, and when we lost people, it really hurt him.
“One day we had to go through a patch of Asian jungle which had a leech out at the tip end of almost every leaf and twig, swaying, waiting for something full of blood to walk underneath. The captain hadn’t been in leech country before, but the company had. There are two good ways to get them off: touch them with a lighted end of a cigarette or slide a sliver of bamboo under one up to the head end and give a little flip and he’ll come off. After you’ve flipped about ten of them off, you begin to get the hang of it. The thing I hated most about them was the way they would crawl through the eyelets on your boots and fasten onto you through your socks, swell up huge, and then get mashed by the pressure of the boot as you walked.”
“Hey, look!” she said, and showed me the goose bumps on her upper arm.
“Where was I?”
“I won’t even tell you.”
“Oh. Anyway, it was really a heavy fall in there, and they were coming down faster than you could get them off. And if you tried pulling them off, of course you left the jaws embedded and they would fester. So we broke out of the column and looked up and ran to where there were open places in the trees overhead, where they couldn’t fall down and you’d have time to get rid of the ones already on you. But the captain didn’t know the routine. He stood there, pulling them off, faster and faster, thrashing around, and finally he began screaming and running, falling down and jumping up, screaming and running. He was a good brave man, but this little thing came at just the wrong time and place; maybe it resonated with something in his childhood. It broke him. Also, it destroyed his authority over the company. He began to make mistakes. And one of them got him killed about three weeks later.”
“A couple of days after the leech business, one of the company clowns did an imitation of the captain fighting off the leeches. I decked him.”
“Strange thing, the clown got killed in the same weird skirmish that got the captain killed. The captain read the map wrong, and we went down the wrong trail.”
“But you couldn’t make Meyer understand what you were telling him.”
“I told you how it was. We knew Grizzel was a dangerous psychopath with nothing to lose and that he was probably on his way to see us. Meyer had never seen me bring in outside help before. So when Grizzel came up behind Meyer, spun him around, jammed that derringer into his gut and announced that they were both going to come over to the Busted Flush and visit me--and it would be the last visit Meyer would ever make and I would ever get--Meyer said he looked back into that man’s crazy eyes and saw something moving back in there, something without soul or mercy. He read his own death. He saw there was no hope. He turned into a robot, doing only what Grizzel ordered. He was broken and he knew it.”
“But he saw Grizzel fall dead, Travis! Didn’t that . . . ?”
“Maybe it helped, but not much. It’s been a year. We all miss the old Meyer. That’s why we cooked up this Toronto lecture thing. We had to be careful. If he’d suspected it was a put-up job, he’d have refused the invitation to lecture up there. His old friend Aggie Sloane helped us arrange it, after she flew down and saw Meyer looking so dwindled and withdrawn. She has a lot of clout. She talked to one of Meyer’s friends, a man named Pricewater, into backing out of a speaking engagement up there in Canada and asking Meyer as a special favor to fill in for him. The man pled illness.”
“Then I don’t understand about the niece.”
“That was another plot to get Meyer out of his shell. We phoned her. I told her about Meyer. She was hurt that he hadn’t come to her wedding in April and had just sent regrets and a check and the usual best wishes for happiness. And so she said she and her new husband would fly over as soon as she could take some time off. So of course Evan and Norma Lawrence arrived the day before Meyer had to fly up to Toronto for the two-week lecture series. So he insisted they live aboard his cruiser while he was in Canada. One of the captains from Charterboat Row is taking them out on day trips aboard the Keynes. We had two great schemes, and they just happened to overlap. Anyway, he’ll be back here July sixth and they don’t have to leave until the tenth. After that Aggie is going to send him off to cover something or other for her newspapers. She told me that any kind of depression can be cured if you move a person around enough.”
“Let me see, I keep moving you back and forth between Lauderdale and Naples. Feel depressed?”
“Let’s move up to your place and see if there is anything wrong with me that needs fixing.”
“Oh, no, you don’t! I’m a career woman, and there is my career sitting right over there, all two hundred rooms of it, dying for lack of attention.”
“Annie, we’ve been out here in the blazing sun, and we’re going to have to take showers anyway. Florida has a serious water shortage. Why waste a good shower?”
“I have got to learn to start saying no to you.”
She rolled onto her elbows and looked down into my eyes. She pursed her lips and raised her thick dark brows and said, “Now that is a very good question. A very good question indeed. Why should I start that?”
So we picked up our gear and climbed the steps to the shallow porch of the manager’s cabana, up on pilings six feet tall. We had half a bottle of red wine left from the previous evening, and I mixed it half and half with club soda and lots of ice, for tall spritzers. She dimmed the daylight in the bedroom by pulling the draperies almost across. We sat on the bed and sipped the spritzers and grinned at each other. Finally we set them aside, and I took all of her out of her scraps of bikini, admired her every inch at close and loving range, and in due time, with knowing effort, set her to hooting and whimpering and finally sighing deeply and long.
I did not know the relationship was in any difficulty until after our showers, after we were dressed and I was ready to drive back to Lauderdale and she was ready to go back to work. It was a banquet night for some fraternal order and she wanted to watch it very closely, as it was their first arrangement at the Eden Beach.
I said, “When can I come back? When can you drive over? Seems to me I’ve asked before.”
“It’s pretty damn convenient for you, Travis.”
“I’m not sure how you mean that.”
“I’m not really sure either. It just seems to me you’re kind of a lucky chauvinist.”
“Now hold on! We are pretty damn convenient for each other, if you want to put it that way. I wouldn’t exactly call you unfulfilled, lady.”
“Bragging about your work?”
“I’m sorry. I’m trying to hurt you, I guess, but I don’t know why.”
“I thought we got on together pretty well.”
“We do, we do. Of course we do. Maybe it’s some kind of chronic guilt. I used to have the guilts when I worked for Ellis and lived with him. Everybody is supposed to have the right to live as they please these days. Oh, hell, I know what it is, but I hate having to try to explain it to you.”
“We’ve talked a lot, Travis. That’s been such a big part of us, all the good talk. And you’ve told me about the loves you’ve had and the way you lost them. But . . . I sense a kind of reserve about you. You seem to be totally open with me, but some part of you is holding back. Some part of you doesn’t really believe that you are not going to lose me also. So you cut down on the amount of loss by not getting as deeply involved as . . . as we could be involved. Do you understand?”
“I’m trying to. I’m not holding back. I don’t think I am. I tell you I love you. Maybe oftener I should tell you?”
“It isn’t words or deeds, dear. We’re never part of each other. We are each of us on the outside of the other person.”
“And this is no time for a bawdy comment.”
“No, it is not!”
“Are you talking about marriage, for instance?”
“No, dammit! But I would like it if we lived closer together and saw each other oftener.”
“Hell, I wish you’d pick up your life savings, separation pay and all that, and move aboard the Flush.”
“You know better than that. I really really love it here. I’m doing one hell of a job. It shows in the figures I send in, and in the appreciation they’re giving me. I’m just about the best manager in the chain. I like working with people, finding the way to approach each one to make him or her do a better job, to motivate them. Because of me this resort hotel is clean and profitable and fun.”
“Okay, already. Why can’t you just settle for what we have? I think it’s a little better than what most people settle for.”
She sighed and leaned against me, then reached up to kiss the side of my chin. “Okay, McGee. I’ll try, but something about us hasn’t quite meshed yet. Maybe it never will. Who can say? Run along. Drive carefully. Phone often.”
The fifth of July began with heavy rain from a tropical depression in the Atlantic east of Miami, a warm rain accompanied by random gusts of wind.
By ten in the morning, the rain had diminished to a misty drizzle and Meyer’s stubby little cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes, had left the gas dock at Pier 66, Fort Lauderdale, proceeded under the bridge, past the cruise ships tied up at Port Everglades, out the main channel and past the sea buoy, and had headed on an east-southeast course, the blunt bow lifting with the chop, mashing out small sheets of spray each time it fell back.
An old man in a condominium apartment facing the sea was looking out his sixth-floor window at the time of the explosion and was able to fix the time of it at precisely 10:41 Eastern Daylight Time.
A cabin cruiser was inbound from Nassau, heading for the channel and wallowing a little in the following sea. It was the Brandy-Gal out of Venice, Florida, owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Simmons Davis. Mrs. Davis was in one of the two fishing chairs, the one on the starboard side, and her husband was at the wheel up on the fly bridge. They both testified that when the two cruisers passed each other, a slender dark-haired woman in an orange string bikini had waved and Mrs. Davis had waved back. They had both seen a bulky man at the wheel and a blond man in the cockpit, coiling and stowing a line.
Mrs. Davis said she remembered being amused at the unusual name on the cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes; she knew that any mention of Keynesian economic theory tended to make her husband very cross. And she remembered thinking that the chunky little cruiser did not take the chop very well, and that if it were hers she would head back to the Inland Waterway. Also, she thought it seemed to ride too low in the water.
She estimated that it was two hundred and fifty to three hundred feet from the Brandy-Gal when it blew up. It was there, and then suddenly the only visible thing was a white bright glare, larger than the cruiser, with small objects arching up out of it. There was a sound she described as being both sharp and heavy, a kind of cracking whump that made her ears ring, and she felt heat on her face. Simmons Davis wheeled the Brandy-Gal about and went back in a hopeless search for survivors. He knew he was in eighty to a hundred feet of water. He rigged a small spare anchor to an orange float with ample braided nylon line and flipped it overboard. Then he and his wife, using scoop nets, picked up the few floating bits of debris. Half a scorched life ring. A soiled white cap with a blue bill, part of it still smoldering. The lid from an ice chest.
Excerpted from Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald. Copyright © 2013 by John D. MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.