After seven years of bickering and fussing, the Fort Lauderdamndale city fathers, on a hot Tuesday in late August, killed off a life style and turned me into a vagrant.
“Permanent habitation aboard all watercraft within the city limits is prohibited.”
And that ordinance included everything and everybody from the Alabama Tiger aboard his plush ’Bama Gal, running the world’s longest floating houseparty, all the way down to the shackiest little old pontoon cottage snugged into the backwater mangroves.
It included Meyer, the hairy economist, living comfortably aboard his dumpy little cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes, low in the water with the weight of financial tomes and journals in five languages and chess texts and problems in seven.
It included me and my stately and substantial old barge-type houseboat, the Busted Flush. The edict caught me off balance. I had not thought I was so thoroughly imbedded in any particular environment that being detached would be traumatic. Travis McGee is not hooked by things or by places, I told myself.
But, by God, there had been a lot of golden days, a lot of laughter and happy girls. Moonrise and hard rains. Swift fish and wide beaches. Some gentle tears and some damned good luck.
Maybe that is what made the gut hollow, an old superstition about luck. Long long long ago I stepped on a round stone in darkness and fell heavily at the instant that automatic weapons’ fire yellow-stitched the night where I had been standing six feet four inches tall and frangible. I had two souvenirs from that fall--an elbow abrasion and the round stone. I still had the half-pound stone after the elbow healed. I kept it in the side pocket of the twill pants. Then they leapfrogged two battalions of us forward by night to take pressure off some of our people who’d dug in on the wrong hill.
Our airplane driver didn’t care for the attention he was getting and kept his air speed on the high side as he dumped our group. I came to the end of the static line with one hell of a snap, and there was such a sharp pain in my ankle I thought I’d earned another Heart. I pulled the shrouds around, landed on shale, favoring the right leg, rolled and unbuckled, unslung the piece, and listened to night silence before I felt my ankle. No ripped leather or wetness. Pain lessening. Then I missed the round rock. When the chute popped, the rock had popped the pocket stitches, and it had gone down the pant leg, rapping the ankle bone on the way out, hurting right through the oiled leather of the jump boots. And I felt at that moment a terrible anxiety. “My rock is lost. My luck is lost. Some bastard is sighting in on me right now.”
Later I realized that I had made some bad moves during those next five days before they pulled us all back.
This was the same feeling. I’d clambered up onto the sundeck of the Flush so many mornings at first light and had looked out at my world from the vantage point of Slip F‑18 and known who I was. True, the great panorama of the sky had been dwindled over the years by the highrise invasions. But it was my place. I’d taken the Flush out a hundred times and brought her back and tucked her, creaking and sighing, against the piers, home safe. Safe among her people and mine.
I guess there weren’t enough of us, all told. The City Commissioners authorized a survey and found out there were sixteen hundred people living on boats within the city limits. That isn’t much of a voting block in a place the size of Lauderdale. And boat people are not likely to act in unison anyway.
We’d all been pretending it would be voted down, but they made it unanimous.
So all day Wednesday, little groups formed, re-formed, moved around, broke up, joined up again aboard the watercraft at Bahia Mar.
Meyer lectured an embittered audience aboard the ’Bama Gal, standing on the cockpit deck amid a decorative litter of young ladies, quaffing Dos Equis, spilling a dapple of suds onto his black chest pelt.
“They say we have added to the population density. Let us examine that charge. Ten years ago perhaps a thousand of us lived aboard cruisers and houseboats. Now there are six hundred additional. During those ten years, ladies and gentlemen, how many so-called living units have appeared in this area? Highrise, town houses, tract houses, mobile homes? They were constructed and trucked in and slapped together and inhabited without thought or heed to the necessary water supply, sewage disposal, schools, roads, police and fire protection. All services are now marginal.”
“Fiffy thousand more shore people, maybe, huh?” said Geraldine, mistress of the old Broomstick.
“They say we have created sewage disposal problems,” Meyer intoned. “Doubtless a few of the live-aboard people are dumb and dirty, emptying slop buckets into the tide. But for the majority of us, we have holding tanks, we use shoreside facilities, we want clean water because we live on the water. Thousands upon thousands of transient cruisers and yachts and houseboats stop at the area marinas every year. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of marine hardware, paying a high ticket for docking privileges and bringing ashore a lot of out-of-town spending money. And we all know, we have all seen, that it is the transient watercraft which cause a sewage disposal problem. They do not live here. They take the easiest way out. They do not give a damn. But will the City Commissioners pass a law saying transients cannot stay aboard transient boats? Never! Those transients are keeping this corner of Florida green, my friends.”
He was applauded. Yay! We would march on City Hall. They would see the error of their ways.
But Johnny Dow put the whole thing in perspective. He cleared his throat and spat downwind, turned away from the rail and said, “Ad valorem, goddamnit!”
“Speak American,” said one of the Tiger’s playgirls.
“They hate us. Them politicals. You know what they make their money on. They come from the law and real estate and selling lots and houses. Ad valorem. We not putting dime one in their pockets. They drivin’ past seeing folks live pretty free, not needing them one damn bit, and they get scalded. We’re supposed to have property lines and bushes and chinch bugs and home improvement loans. Jealous. They all nailed down with a lot of crap they don’t like and can’t get loose of. So here we are. Easy target. Chouse us the hell out of town forever and they don’t have to see us or think about us. Figure us for some kind of parasite. Scroom, ever’ damn ass-tight one of them. Can’t win this one, Meyer. We’re too dense, and we make sewage. Easy target. Neaten up the city. Sweep out the trash. Ad valorem.” He spat again, with good elevation and good distance, and stumped across the deck and down the little gangway and off into the blinding brightness of noontime.
Meyer nodded approvingly. “Scroom,” he murmured. The end of an era.
We walked together back to the Flush and went aboard. We sat in the lounge, frowning and sighing.
Meyer said, “I saw Irv. He said something can be worked out.”
“Something can always be worked out. Sure. If a man wants to live aboard a boat, something can be worked out. If he can pay the ticket. A man could buy a condominium apartment right over there in that big hunk of ugly and make it his legal and mailing address and stay there one night a month and aboard all the other nights. Can something be worked out for all the people who get hit by the new law?”
“Then it isn’t going to be the same, old friend. And do we want any part of it, even if I could afford the ticket?”
“You short again?”
“Don’t look at me like that.”
“You in the confetti business? You make little green paper airplanes?”
“I have had six months of my retirement in this installment, fella.”
He beamed. “You know, you look rested. Good shape too. Better and better shape this last month, right?”
“Getting ready to go to work, which I seem to remember telling you.”
“You did! You did! I remember. That was when I asked you if you would help an old and dear friend and you said no thanks.”
“Meyer, damnit, I--”
“I respect your decision. I don’t know what will happen to Fedderman. It’s just too bad.”
I stared at him with fond exasperation. A week ago he had tried to explain Hirsh Fedderman’s unusual problem to me, and I had told him that it was an area I knew absolutely nothing about.
Meyer said, “We have thirty days of grace before we have to move away, boat and baggage. I just thought it would be a good thing to occupy your mind. And I told Hirsh I knew somebody who maybe could help out.”
“You got a little ahead of yourself, didn’t you?”
He sighed. “So I have to make amends. I’ll see what I can do by myself.”
“Stop trying to manipulate me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Take a deep breath and say it. If it’s what you want, take a deep breath and say it.”
“What should I say?”
“Take a wild guess.”
“Well . . . Travis, would you please come with me to Miami and listen to my old friend Hirsh Fedderman and decide if you want to take on a salvage job?”
“Because you ask me so nicely, yes.”
“But then why was it no before?”
“Because I had something else shaping up.”
“And it fell through?”
“Yesterday. So today I need Fedderman, maybe.”
“He is a nervous ruin. He’s waiting for the roof to fall in on him. If it would be okay, how about this afternoon? I can phone him?”
Fedderman asked us not to arrive until quarter after five, when both the female clerks in his tiny shop would be gone for the day. I put Miss Agnes, my Rolls-Royce pickup, in a parking lot two blocks from his store. He was in mainland Miami, a dozen blocks from Biscayne and about three doors from the corner of Southwest Eleventh Street.
There was a dusty display window, with a steel grill padlocked across it. Gold leaf, peeling, on plate glass, said ornately “FEDDERMAN STAMP AND COIN COMPANY.” Below that was printed “RARITIES.”
Meyer tried the door, and it was locked. He knocked and peered into the shadowy interior and said, “He’s coming.”
I heard the sound of a bolt and a chain, and then a bell dingled when he opened the door and smiled out and up at us. He was a crickety little man, quick of movement, quick to smile, bald rimmed with white, a tan, seamed face, crisp white shirt, salmon-pink slacks.
Meyer introduced us. Fedderman smiled and bobbed and shook hands with both hands. He locked the door and led us back past dim display cases to the small office in the rear. There was bright fluorescence in the office and in the narrow stock room beyond the office. Fedderman sat behind his desk. He smiled and sighed. “Why should I feel better?” he asked. “I don’t know if anybody can do anything. The whole thing is impossible, believe me. It couldn’t happen. It happened. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t sit still or stand still since I found out. Mr. McGee, whatever happens, I am glad Meyer brought you to hear this crazy story. Here is--”
I interrupted him. “Mr. Fedderman, I try to recover items of value which have been lost and which cannot be recovered by any other means. If I decide to help you, I will risk my time and expenses. If I make a recovery of all or part of what you have lost, we take my expenses off the top and split the remainder down the middle.”
He nodded, looking thoughtful. “Maybe it wouldn’t fit perfect, because what is lost isn’t mine. I understand. Let me tell you.”
“Go slow because I don’t know a thing about stamps and coins.”
He smiled. “So I’ll give you a shock treatment.” He took a desk-top projector with built‑in viewing screen from a shelf and put it on his desk and plugged it in. He opened a desk drawer and took out a metal box of transparencies and fitted it into the projector. He turned off the light and projected the first slide onto the twelve-by-fifteen-inch ground-glass viewing area.
A block of four stamps filled the screen. They were deep blue. They showed an old-timey portrait of George Washington. The denomination was ninety cents.
“This was printed in 1875,” Fedderman said. “It is perhaps the finest block of four known, and one of the very few blocks known. Superb condition, crisp deep color, full original gum. It catalogs at over twelve thousand dollars, but it will bring thousands more at auction.”
Click. The next was a pair of stamps, one above the other. A four-cent stamp. Blue. It pictured three old ships under sail, over the legend “Fleet of Columbus.”
“The only known vertical pair of the famous error of blue. Only one sheet was printed in blue instead of ultramarine. In ultramarine this pair would be worth . . . twenty-five dollars. This pair catalogs at nine thousand three hundred and will bring fifteen at auction. The top stamp has one pulled perf and a slight gum disturbance. The bottom stamp has never been hinged, and it is superb. Quite flawless.”
Click. Click. Click. A couple of crude bears holding up an emblem, with “Saint Louis” printed across the top of the stamps and “Post Office” printed across the bottom. A block of six brownish, crude-looking five-cent stamps showing Ben Franklin. There were no rows of little holes for tearing them apart. A twenty-four-cent stamp printed in red and blue, showing an old airplane, a biplane, flying upside down. And about a dozen others, while Fedderman talked very large numbers.
He finished the slide show and turned the bright overhead lights back on. He creaked back in his swivel chair.
“Crash course, Mr. McGee. I’ve showed you nineteen items. I’ve bought them for a client over the past fifteen years. Right now there is another twenty thousand to spend. I am looking for the right piece. Another classic. Another famous piece.”
“Why does he want them?” I asked.
Fedderman’s smile was small and sad. “What has he put into these pieces over fifteen years? A hundred and eighty-five thousand. Plus my fee. What do I charge for my time, my advice, all my knowledge and experience and contacts? Ten percent. So let’s say he has two hundred and three thousand, five hundred dollars in these funny little pieces of paper? I could make two phone calls, maybe only one, and get him three hundred and fifty thousand. Or if I spent a year liquidating, feeding them into the right auctions, negotiating the auction house percentage, he could come out with a half million.”
Excerpted from The Scarlet Ruse 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.