The room looked like an alligator farm. Rumpled clothes had been scattered to the four winds. Two bodies lay atop the king size bed, dead to the world. Bedding had pulled loose from the mattress and was scrunched around them like a cloak. Two heads shared the same pillow, submerged into its down surface. His chin rested on her shoulder, hers on the top of his head. His right leg and arm draped across her body, trapping her right leg between his thighs.
BBBBBBZZZZZZZ. Tommy's watch alarm began a soft but insistent buzz against his wrist. Slowly it brought him to semi-consciousness. He blinked to clear the sleep from his eyes, lying still to get his bearings. Catherine hadn't stirred. Tommy tried a gentle shake. "Time to get up luv."
"Hhhhmmm," she groaned, not really hearing him.
He tried another tack, blowing across her right ear. Tossing her head, she absently batted at the breeze, as if swatting a mosquito. Settling back onto the pillow, she continued her slumber. Drastic measures were called for. Sliding out of bed, he crossed around to her side. "Last chance," he said loudly, rubbing her back. No response. Taking a handful of covers in each hand, he knelt down and yanked hard. Her eyes flew open as she felt herself airborne. Landing against his chest with a thud, she let out a whoosh of breath. He'd caught her against him, nestling her into his embrace. Her gaze locked onto a pair of gorgeous blue eyes. "Good evening luv!" he said cheerfully.
"Its party time!" He scooped her upright and began dancing her around the room.
"If it's a slumber party, I'm all for it."
"NO! It's a dance party!" he enthused, whirling her faster.
"In that case, I think I'll sit this one out," she murmured, dead weight against his body. It was all he could do to hold her. Gravity was trying to claim her for its own.
Slowing his tempo, he came to a halt near the door of the master bathroom. He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. "Come on luv, rise and shine. They're expecting us."
"They're expecting YOU. I'M going under duress," she said wearily, making once last attempt for the mattress.
He cut her off at the pass. "Duly noted. Now scoot," he said, swatting her gently across the bottom. "You'll feel better after a hot shower."
"Don't bet on it. I'm a late bloomer."
He stole a quick glance at her breasts. "And what lovely blooms they are, too," he said with genuine appreciation.
"Can the gardening metaphors, Tommy." Dragging her feet towards the bath, she reached into the oversized shower and turned on the water. Stepping in, she let its soothing heat bring her back to the land of the living.
"I'll go use the guest bath."
"WHAT?" she called, trying to be heard over the running water.
"I SAID I'LL USE THE GUEST BATH!" he called back, raising his voice a notch.
"I CAN'T HEAR YOU!"
"NEVER MIND!" Wrapping a towel around his waist, he gathered his toilet kit and headed across the carpet toward the opposite end of the apartment. He was waylaid by the chiming of the doorbell. "Paul'll get it," he thought, continuing on. He shook his head absentmindedly. "Paul's on the beach, remember? If you want anything done..." He retraced his steps, and moved toward the door. He looked through the peephole and saw a uniform. "Who is it?" he called cautiously.
"Captain Ramirez, Mr. Crown. Rio police."
Tommy felt a cold chill run down his spine. "Not now. Not yet," he thought, stalling for time.
"Mr. Crown?" the man said more insistently.
"Nothing for it but to play it out," he thought. "Yes Captain, how can I help you?" he said, opening the door widely. He stepped aside, ushering his uninvited guest into the living room. "May I offer you something?" he said graciously.
"Thank you, no. I'm on duty." He walked slowly around the room's perimeter, taking in the ambience. His eyes took in the plethora of objects d'art on the walls.
Tommy watched his progress warily, deciding to speak only when spoken to. He knew the man was deliberately drawing out the silence, attempting to heighten the suspense. He'd used the technique himself during protracted negotiations. "Ball's in your court," he thought, projecting a "Never let 'em see you sweat" veneer.
Finally, Ramirez faced his quarry squarely. He got right to the point. "Mr. Crown, we received a telex from Interpol late last night. It seems several concerns in New York City were suddenly deprived of your company. They thought that perhaps you might have decided to visit our beautiful city." He did a half turn toward the windows, waving his left arm expansively toward the view.
Catherine turned off the shower and stepped onto the rug. Toweling off briskly, she reached for the bathrobe hanging on the hook behind the door. It fit like a glove. "One-stop shopping," she thought, snickering. "One date with this guy and you can stop shopping for the rest of your life."
She moved across the threshold into the bedroom. Approaching the walk-in closet to her left, she stopped abruptly. Hearing voices, she paused by the door. "Who's he talking to?" she wondered. Ducking behind the door, she eased it open a crack, thrusting her ear at the empty space.
"Received a telex from Interpol .Several concerns in New York City," she caught snatches of the conversation. "Aw, SHIT Tommy! I KNEW it was too good to be true!" she thought dejectedly. "DAMN you!" She'd heard enough. She drew back and closed the door softly. "Well Catherine, you can kiss Monaco goodbye," she said, throwing up her hands.
She stomped inside the closet, flipping through the clothes. "We're NOT gonna go around again, Tommy. THIS time your ass is grass! Now I call the shots!" she mumbled angrily, shrugging out of her robe and pulling on underwear. Hangers rattled and fell to the floor. She grabbed a white shell top, summer weight blouse in a bright floral print, white slacks and a pair of white sandals. Tossing them on the bed, she strode over to the vanity. Pulling out the drawers, she found a hair dryer and brush and began fluffing her style back in place.
Ramirez walked to the opposite wall. Absently fingering the frames, he reached up to touch one canvas. Crown was in his peripheral vision. He'd remained standing. The man's body language was relaxed but on alert. "Cool, that one," he thought. "And tough," noting that Crown had not flinched during his opening salvo.
"Real?" He drew back from the painting, conceding the fact that he could not easily intimidate the man.
"Very," Tommy replied, intending a casual rebuke.
Ramirez kept his back to Crown, assuming a parade rest stance. "I've heard it is very difficult in New York telling what is real. I'm sure YOU have no such trouble. You have such a HISTORY in the arts."
"So he knows about the galleries too." Tommy's mind shifted into high gear. "OK. Let the son of a bitch work for his money. I practically INVENTED the cat and mouse game."
"You were observed visiting the museum this morning,"
Ramirez prompted, knowing it was going to be an uphill conversation.
"Is that a problem?" Tommy asked pointedly.
"Not at all," Ramirez replied casually. "We encourage our citizens to make use of our cultural facilities."
"But I'm not a citizen."
"No, you are not. You are an, shall we say, IMPROMPTU visitor?" he said, his inflection underlining the fact that he knew why Tommy had chosen Rio. "But we welcome one and all "
Tommy finished the sentence for him. "Provided they stick to the standard tourist protocol?"
"You are most perceptive Mr. Crown. We are a small city after all. Nothing like your New York."
Tommy almost laughed at Ramirez's clumsy attempt at downplaying the city's valuables. "You're worried about me, aren't you? Course you are, why else would you be here? Probably dying to know why I spent so much time with the Chateaubriand. Well, worry away my friend, worry away." he thought.
Ramirez had started to sweat, despite the air conditioning. Crown's lack of response was beginning to grate on him. "Not going to make it easy are you? Your reputation as a bastard in the business world is well deserved. Well, I can be a bastard too," he thought.
He decided to concede defeat. Nothing would be gained by badgering the man. There would be other days. "I hear you have planned a nice party for tonight," he said, taking in Crown's state of undress. "I shall leave you to it. Good evening," he said. He started across the rug.
Tommy escorted him to the door, adopting the air of gracious host. "Nice to have met you Captain. I'm sure I'll see you again soon."
"You may count on it Mr. Crown," he said, stepping into the hall. "You may count on it." His words echoed off the ceiling.
"Allow me," Tommy said, keying the elevator for him.
"Thank you," Ramirez replied, striding confidently into the car as the doors slid open.
"Not at all." Tommy watched the doors slide closed. Not until he heard the car start down did he turn to go back inside.
Catherine sat on the bed, slipping on her slacks and top. She'd chilled out a bit in the few minutes she'd spent on her hair. She'd heard the front door close but decided to give it a few minutes before going into the other room. "I think I'll play it cool for awhile. No sense spoiling the party for everyone else. But that man and I are gonna have a heart to heart damn soon!"
Tommy stood leaning against the front door, his head resting against it, palms on either side of his shoulders. "He's gonna be trouble. Too much like me." He rubbed his forehead.
Catherine strode confidently into the living room. "Got
a headache?" she said curtly.
He tried a casual push away from the door, deciding to play dumb until he could sort out this latest development. "Just a small one," he lied. "Jet lag. I'll be OK once I jump in the shower."
She let it pass. Walking over to the coffee table, she picked up his kit and tossed it his way. "Hurry and get ready. Don't want to miss your own party."
He caught it deftly in one hand and headed for the master bath. "Right. Be out in a few." Once inside, he adjusted the shower, stripped and climbed in. " What's with her? I know I woke her up but I didn't think I pissed her off THAT much." Shrugging, he continued his shower. "I suppose I'll hear about it sooner or later."
She sat on the couch, replaying the eavesdropped conversation in her mind. "New York's history as far as Brazil's concerned. Fishing expedition, or do they know something I don't? Trying to spook him, or just keeping tabs for big brother?" A frustrated sigh punctuated her thoughts. "I'll find out soon enough."
Toweling off, he stepped over to the sink, got out his gear and grabbed a quick shave. Running a brush through his hair, he glanced at his reflection and decided his looks wouldn't scare them off the beach. He tossed everything back in the kit and walked out to his closet. "Bless you Paul," he said, noting his favorite tropical clothes were all standing at attention, awaiting his selection. He threw on jeans and a white long sleeved shirt, then slipped his feet into a pair of dark brown leather sandals. Satisfied, he picked up his wallet, keys and cell phone, stuffing them into his pockets.
"Coming!" He said, hurrying out to the foyer.
"So's Christmas!" she said, rising from the couch to join him.
"It's gonna be a looooong night," he thought ruefully as he locked and closed the door.
He ushered her quickly into the elevator and keyed it down. As the doors slid open, Catherine made for the lobby. After the air-conditioned comfort of the condo, the humid air took some getting used to. "Whew!" she said loudly.
"Come on, an old Monaco girl like you?" he kidded.
"Noted for its absence of palm trees."
"Come on, old Martinique boy like you?"
"Mr. Crown? Your cab sir," the doorman said formally, waving the car into position.
"Thank you." He allowed the doorman to open the rear door, then assisted her inside.
"Tsk, tsk, getting spoiled already," he chirped. "Gave him the night off, remember? It may interest you to know that I DO mingle with the masses on occasion," he said, slamming the door. "Yacht Club, please," he instructed the driver.
"Oh, yeah," she said absently, remembering the afternoon's exchange. A thought struck her then and she asked, "Why are we going to the Yacht Club? I thought the party was on the beach?"
"It is. The club's hosting the cocktails and canapes. I just need to make sure of some arrangements."
"AGAIN with the arrangements!"
Sensing her impatience, he hastened to explain. "Had to wait for the beach crowd to thin out."
"I'd have thought you'd commandeered the whole area," she said, her tone just a bit on the haughty side. "You mean there's SOMETHING you can't buy?" She gave him a "wonder of wonders" look, clutching a hand to her chest. "Be still my heart!"
He turned sideways to look at her. "For your information, my sweet, Rio's beaches are strictly public."
"Bet that was a come down," she said, treating him to an unconcealed smirk.
"I got over it. Ah, here we are!" They pulled up to the club's front entrance. Catherine was surprised at just how close to the water their condo was. They couldn't have gone more than a mile. Pulling his wallet out of his back pocket, Tommy paid the driver, adding a generous tip.
"Thank you sir!" the man said enthusiastically.
They alighted from the cab quickly. "I think you made his year," she said, amused.
"I do my part. Shall we?" he said, extending his left elbow.
"Lead the way," she replied, slipping her right arm through the space he'd made.
They reached the door. Tommy swung it open, allowing Catherine
to proceed him. They entered a large foyer decorated in a nautical
motif. It led into a large wood-paneled hall that seemed to go
on forever. Huge picture windows allowed great views of the marina.
Along the back wall was a large well stocked bar staffed by uniformed
bartenders. Wait staff circulated among the guests, passing trays
of appetizers and canapes.
"Mr. Crown! Mr. Crown! Over here!" Tommy swung his head toward the sound. A tall lean man in shorts and sport shirt was gesturing in their direction.
"Jack!" Tommy trotted quickly in his direction. "Come on. I'll introduce you," he said, pulling Catherine along by the hand.
The two men shook hands warmly. "Gotta hand it to you boss. When you fly the coup, you really FLY the coup! That was one sweet piece of aircraft." Jack didn't wait for introductions. "Flown you all over creation and finally get to meet you. Jack Jacoby" he said, thrusting out his hand.
"Catherine Banning" she smiled back, shaking his
"She likes your technique," Tommy put in.
"Beg your pardon?" said the flustered pilot.
Catherine put him at ease. "He's referring to your flying. I told him your landings were very smooth."
"OH! Thanks. I love to fly. Always a pleasure when somebody appreciates it."
"What are you drinking?" she asked.
"Oh, you don't have to ."
"Watch it. Last time I let her buy ME a drink, I almost wound up wearing stripes." Tommy chuckled.
"Found out he wouldn't play nice in his sandbox?" He grinned over at Tommy, who promptly rubbed his left earlobe and looked at the floor.
"I always did enjoy digging up the dirt," she said flippantly, enjoying Tommy's embarrassment. "But I've been known to go easy on first offenders."
Jack laughed. "In THAT case, I'll have a large draft."
Catherine hailed the bartender. "Large draft, vodka rocks and scotch neat."
As their drinks were set before them, Tommy suddenly became serious. "You saved my neck mate. Thanks."
"No sweat," Jack winked at Catherine, then looked over at the wall. "How else was I gonna get paid?" He took a long swallow of beer.
Catherine leaned toward Jack, talking in a conspiratorial whisper out of the side of her mouth. "A real tightwad, is he?"
Jack's eyes twinkled. Her spirit was catching and he picked up the opening quickly. "Yeah. Packs it into real tight wads. Love it." They laughed, enjoying the double entendre.
Tommy laughed, downed his drink and shoved away from the bar. "My friends, it's been a real pressure, but I do have guests to attend to," he said offhandedly. "Enjoy mate." He touched Jack's shoulder in farewell, then walked across the room.
"Later, boss," Jack called back.
Jack and Catherine stood in silence for a few minutes. They watched Tommy leave through the waterside door.
"You like him a lot don't you?" she asked.
"Yeah. We go back a long way." He took another pull at his beer, draining the contents.
Catherine hadn't known that. She was suddenly intensely curious. "Another round?" she asked, hoping to keep him talking.
"No thanks. Better pace myself. I hear it's gonna be a big wing ding tonight."
"Always the pilot?" She admired the man's common sense.
He smiled and raised his empty glass. The woman was perceptive. He liked that. "Never know when I might be needed. Now even when I'm not scheduled to fly I keep the same habits."
"How did you two meet?"
"We ran into each other."
"I mean we LITERALLY ran into each other." He paused and smiled at the memory. "It was back in the mid eighties. Boss was onboard a charter I was flyin' for some bigwig who thought he was somebody. I mean a complete and total asshole. Wouldn't know manners if they bit him in the ass. Anyway, I'd been flyin' for this guy for about a year. Had to. Needed the money. My dad had been ill for a long time and when he died, I'd had to pay the hospital bills. Mom couldn't. They'd never had much." He sighed abruptly and ran a hand over his face.
Catherine saw the tears well up in the man's eyes. "Sure I can't offer you a refill?" she asked, raising her own glass.
"Thanks," he said softly, his eyes on the bar. "Eat more and drink less later Jack ol' boy," he said, patting his stomach.
She gave the bartender the high sign. "Two more of the same please."
The drinks arrived in short order. He stood and nursed his
draft, she her vodka. After a few moments, he broke the silence.
"Sure you wanna hear this? There's really not much to tell.
Wouldn't want to bore you."
He sighed again, as if to purge the painful memories. "Okay. Like I said, I was flyin' this Lear and this jerk I was workin' for was raggin' me to death about why I refused to fly that night. Just all over me. Now, I worked for the guy. But it was snowin' like hell. Commercial flights were all grounded. I mean, I'm the captain. I'm responsible for everybody's safety. And safety comes first. I don't care WHO says otherwise. Wasn't about to become a statistic for HIS stupid ass."
Catherine nodded in agreement. "And he gave you the 'While you work for me, you'll do as you're told' speech."
"You got it."
"Charming man. Sounds like my father."
"A real peach," he said sarcastically. "And the worst of it was, he left the cockpit door open. So his guests got an earful of him calling me everything but a human."
"So I take it you made his day?"
"Sure did. Clint Eastwood couldn't have done it better. Got nose to nose with the guy. Told him I wasn't killing everybody onboard to please him. Told him if that was what he wanted, he could TRY to get another pilot. 'Course he reminded me about that nice little iron clad contract he had hanging over my head. I told him to screw the contact 'cos he wasn't gonna get the chance to screw the people on this plane."
"Good for you! What happened?"
"I spun on my heel and stomped off, right into the boss. Turns out he'd been in the forward head and heard the whole thing. I smacked into him as he was coming out."
"But you didn't know that then."
"Nope. Didn't know how long he'd been in there. First impression I got was a bird's eye view of his dress shirt. It was so quiet in that cabin you could hear a pin drop. I mean nobody even breathed. Other guy's yellin' over my shoulder, tellin' me how bad he's gonna ruin me."
"The old 'You'll never work in this town again!' routine?"
"Yep. And the boss is standin' there cool as a cucumber, arms folded across his chest, just takin' the whole thing in. Our eyes met and I saw that look, you know the one."
"Like Gibraltar will move before he does?"
"Yeah. Just stood there. Never said a word. NOW I figure I've got TWO pissed off bigwigs to deal with. I think I got an apology out. Tell you the truth, I was too pissed off to care at that point."
"Why was he even ON that plane?"
"This is the best part, " Jack said enthusiastically. "They were gonna go to a business conference in London. The boss was just gettin' rollin' in those days so the big boys didn't take him seriously, figured he was strictly minor league."
"The biggest," Jack agreed. "To make a long story short, after a second I backed up and let him pass. He goes back to his seat, pulls out his briefcase and starts going over papers like nothin' ever happened."
"So what happened to the flight?"
"Idiot got on his cell phone, came up empty on pilots and had to cancel. I hated that damn phone. Always had to tell him not to use it until we were at cruising altitude. Screws up the navigation gear."
"And crashes weren't the "in" thing in aviation that year?"
He threw back his head and laughed. "Not that year, no." he said.
"So he was looking over papers and " she prompted.
"AND I never heard another word about it. Figured I'd go back to my hotel while I still had a room and start looking through the classifieds. So I bought a paper and started thumbing through it. The financial page had something about a big buy-out but I never really follow those things so I didn't think too much of it. These guys have so much going, you need a scorecard to keep track of it."
"Ain't it the truth." Catherine knew first hand what a labyrinth Tommy's affairs had turned out to be.
"SURE you want to hear this?" he teased, knowing she was dying to hear the end of it.
"Are you kidding? It's just getting good!"
"Well, next day I get a phone call. Some lawyer asking if it would be convenient for me to meet his client that afternoon. I'm thinking 'Here it comes, I'm gonna get slapped with a lawsuit'. "But I figured what the hell, I'm ex Air Force. Might as well go down swinging, so I agreed."
"So you met this mystery man?"
"Yeah. In an office building in Manhattan. Followed instructions to the letter. They showed me into this big waiting room and I mean I started sweating bullets. I was starting to wonder if I needed my OWN lawyer. Just then the secretary showed me into a big office and who's sitting behind the desk but the man I ran into the night before!"
"At first. But he invited me to sit down, asked me how I took my coffee. That threw me. Bigwigs just don't do things like that. At least not the ones I'd worked for.
"He tells me the jerk is out of the picture for good. Seems that buy-out I read about effectively put him out to pasture. I put two and two together and knew what had happened. Seems after the boss got through with him, he didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of."
"The papers he was reading on the plane were the buy-out documents?"
"You don't miss a trick do you?"
"That's what they pay me for. THEN what?"
"THEN he asks me if I'd like to come fly for him."
"And you were "
"Flabbergastered. My mind couldn't make the transition
from on the skids to gravy train that fast. I didn't even know
this guy! For all I knew, he was a bigger jerk than the jerk.
After all, he didn't say anything after I bumped him."
"Did you ask him why he'd make such a generous offer to a total stranger?"
"Ooohhh, no one's ever a TOTAL stranger to him. If he's gonna do business you can bet he's checked you out six ways to Sunday, so I'm sure he had a dossier on me an inch thick. These types always do. But yeah, I did ask. Know what he said?"
"I wasn't much interested in that company. Dime a dozen. But I AM interested in you."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. Gave me carte blanche. Plane, crew, mechanics, the works."
"And you've been with him ever since?"
"Ever since. Wouldn't even CONSIDER goin' anywhere else. And believe me, I've had offers. Word gets around you work for him, your stock goes up." He paused and took another sip from his glass. "You know, he's not really a bad guy, just tough sometimes." Jack said, feeling a need to defend his boss. "I mean, I wouldn't fly him if he was. My license means everything to me."
"I know. He's just too intelligent for his own good. They bore easily."
"He just seems so, I don't know, restless these days. Like he's off course in a storm. Ya know?"
"He sure put ME back on course. Paid the hospital tab, set my mom up in her own mobile home in a Five Star retirement community. Credited my bank account with enough that I could retire anytime I wanted. And that was BEFORE I flew my first leg for him. Even now, anytime I fly I get treated like royalty. It's always please and thank you. Puts me up at the best hotels. Asks and TAKES my advice. And the funny part is, there's no contract, no strings of any kind. Never did figure that out. I think if I decided to take a hike, he'd personally drive me to the airport."
"Maybe he identified with you."
"Maybe. He came up the hard way you know. Not like most of these blue bloods.
"Haven't we all." She raised her glass in salute.
"You're the genuine article. A straight arrow."
"I mean it. I've never seen the boss like this. It's like he's finally figured out what it means to be alive. YOU did that. Used to be he'd run like hell after a few flings with a woman." He stopped, letting the pregnant silence build. "Guess I shouldn't be talking about this."
"'S'OK. I promise I won't breathe a word."
"Just don't use it against him," he said sharply. "He's taking a big chance opening up to you."
She rubbed his arm reassuringly. "I won't," she said sincerely. "Big chance for me too," she confided.
After a bit he said, "They way I figure it, the boss needs direction."
"What are you thinking?"
"Bush pilot buddy of mine took me up the other day. Let me show you what he showed me after we came down," he said, removing an envelope from his back pocket.
Catherine leaned in closer as he spread the paper out on the bar. What she read appalled her. "Can I take this?" she asked.
"Be my guest."
"Thanks," she said, slipping it into the pocket of her slacks. "Jack, can I ask you something?"
"Have you noticed anything going on with Tommy lately? Anything out of the ordinary?"
"With the boss, you don't know WHAT'S ordinary," he snickered.
"OK", she conceded. "Anything more out of the ordinary than usual?"
"No, not that I can see. Why? What's up?"
"Don't know. Just a feeling I get. I can't pin him down. I think he's being deliberately evasive."
"That's the boss. In his line of work, doesn't pay to tip your hand. You might get it chewed off."
"It's more than that. He had a visitor at the condo tonight."
"Don't know. I happened to overhear them and only caught part of it. But I think his chickens are about to come home to roost. AND I think he's getting ideas. I hate to admit it, but I'm afraid for him. For us."
Jack smiled. "You really DO care for him don't you?"
"Very much," she whispered. "That's why I don't want to see him blow it. He was lucky once. That's not gonna hold. He's no pro, but he doesn't know that. I've seen guys get addicted to doing this kinda stuff."
"Have you tried talking to him?"
"Yeah. It was like talking to a fence post."
"Don't push it. He tends to clam up. Just trust him. He always lands on his feet."
"Why do I always have to trust HIM? Why can't HE trust ME? Isn't that what a relationship is supposed to be? I HATE it when I can't DO anything!"
"He touched her shoulder. "That's because you're like two peas in a pod. Action junkies, both of you. Take it from an old military man. Doesn't make it. Trust ME now when I tell you I'll be alright. He'll open up once he knows he's safe."
"You know something, don't you?"
"Not really," he said evasively.
"Jaaaack," she chided, giving him a sidelong stare. She realized she was outgunned. He was doing a Tommy number, looking right at her, his expression blank. "Would you tell me if you DID know?"
She sighed forcefully. "Why does that not surprise me?"
"Dunno," she mimicked. "You two separated at birth or something?"
Laughter snorted through her nose, in spite of her efforts at self-control. "Well, gotta run," she said, reaching out to snag an appetizer off the tray of a passing waiter. "Just realized I'm starving," she added, patting her stomach for effect.
Jack watched her sprint for the marina-side door. She moved as if her life depended on it. "Here we go," he thought. "Fireworks should be interesting."
Tommy strode confidently onto the dock. He stopped, raising his hands to his eyes to cut down the glare. He stood silently for a few seconds, watching the staff making the rounds of their clients' slips. One man stood out. His weathered face, work-roughened hands and practical clothing singled him out as an old salt. The rolling decks didn't even slow him down. He stepped confidently between them with expert ease. Back on the dock, his attention centered on a suspect line. He re-secured it with a clove hitch. "Yes, you'll do. Very nicely. Very nicely indeed," Tommy thought. He moved closer to the slip in question.
Looking up from his work, the man spotted Tommy. "Help ya?" he asked.
"Yes, thank you. Thomas Crown," Tommy replied, extending his hand.
The man quickly wiped his hands on his pants. "Bill Baxter. Can I do for ya?" He looked Tommy over, as if trying to place him. "CAT! Racing cat. Right?" he said, as recognition dawned. "Knew I'd seen yer face somewheres! Big article on ya in "Yachting" awhile back? C'mon. Let's go," he motioned. Tommy let him lead the way.
The two men walked down to the dry dock area, where the staff was supervising the offloading of the star attraction. "EASY with 'er boys! Watch the pontoons!" Bill yelled. He watched earnestly as they settled the cat into her berth.
"I see my reputation precedes me," Tommy said neutrally. He knew what was coming.
"Heard you flipped her a good one," Bill said disapprovingly, running his hands lovingly over the mangled rigging. "That true?"
"Yes, well. I tend to get a little carried away," he said sheepishly, scratching his left eyebrow. "But she's my baby and I'd "
"Understand somethin'. I don' care who ya are. Don' care how much money ya got. Don' care what ya done in New York. Cuts no ice with me. Ya don' start takin' better care of this girl here," he said emphatically, still caressing the cat, "you and I are gonna part company real quick!"
"I assure you " Tommy framed a reply but was cut off in mid sentence.
"Assure THIS!" he lunged toward Tommy, pointing a finger into his chest. "I'm tired a you playboys always thinkin' ya own the damn world! Haven't got the sense God gave a rock. Your BABY!" he spat out the word, "NOBODY who loves boats does this for FUN," he said, gesturing toward the damage. "Meybe if ya got into a tight spot and had to bail, but not for FUN!" He paused to let his words sink in. "Racked up the boat AND put your crew in jeopardy. Any man does that, gets on my bad side real quick!"
Tommy couldn't remember ever being struck speechless. "I can't BELIEVE I'm standing here taking this! NOBODY talks to me like this!" he thought, dumbfounded. Yet with each tirade, Tommy found his respect for the man growing. "He's his own man. And damn the consequences."
"Well?" the man said impatiently. "What's it gonna be? I got a marina to run."
"Then you'll take her on?" he said quietly. He had to have this man in his corner. Success depended on it.
"I work on her MY way. No fancy schmancy racing "experts", he said, punctuating the last word in quotes with his fingers.
"You got it. Anything you need, put it on my tab." he answered without hesitation.
"Oh ya can bet on THAT! Gonna take a heap o'work to put 'er right in time fer New Years Cup. 'Specially with that extra equipment ya want. Marine radio, stowage Ya gonna race or watch?"
Tommy ignored the question by posing one of his own. "And the second?"
"Ya start treatin' 'er with the respect she deserves."
"No more grandstanding."
Tommy held out his hand. "Done?"
Seconds ticked away. Finally, Bill took Tommy's hand and shook it vigorously, admiring the man for taking the dressing down he'd been given. "Done!" he said, cracking a big smile.
"You were going to do it all along weren't you?" Tommy said slyly.
"Couldn't leave a pretty lady in distress now, could I?" he said, a twinkle in his eye.
"Why the act?"
"Oh, it was NO act. Never hurts to know who you're dealin' with." He looked Tommy squarely in the eye.
"Indeed," Tommy agreed knowingly. The man was no pushover. He'd have to finesse the situation. "I'll leave you to it then. Thanks, mate." He turned in the direction of the clubhouse.
"Where c'n I reach ya?" Bill called.
Tommy stopped, pulled out his wallet and fished for one of his business cards. "Have a pen?" he asked. Bill produced one. Taking it, Tommy wrote both his home and cell phone numbers on the back and handed it over.
"Good 'nuff. Be in touch." The sailor turned and spoke to the cat as if she was his child. "C'mon me lovely. Papa's gonna get you shipshape. Don' ya worry.
On his way back to the clubhouse Tommy turned to watch the man unobserved. He smiled as he caught the man's last words. He always got the best.
Catherine hit the door at a fast jog. Though unfamiliar with the grounds, she thought her best chance to get to the bottom of this little mystery was to try and catch Tommy off guard. She noticed several outbuildings and ducked into one of them, just in time to avoid being seen. Her nose rankled at the smell of motor oil and gasoline. Feeling along the wall, she found a light switch and flipped it. She found herself shoulder-to-shroud with an old Johnson outboard. She breathed a sigh of relief at her good fortune. Any closer and she'd have been tie-dyed. She moved quickly through the building, noting nothing of interest. It appeared to be a machine shop of some kind.
Exiting on the other side, she flipped another switch, sending the building into darkness once again. "If at first you don't succeed .," she muttered. She took a minute to survey the landscape. Spotting a much larger building, she decided to take a stab. "That one looks promising." Glancing quickly to each side, she made sure the coast was clear. Leaping outside, she barreled toward it, reaching it without being detected.
This one was open to the ocean side and appeared to be a boat storage area. "Will you look at this!" she said softly, marveling again at how the super rich spent their pocket change. "Half the national debt is in here!" Her hand moved unbidden to stroke the sleek sides and teak decks of the big cabin cruisers, finding them surprisingly soft to the touch. "HE-LLO!" Her peripheral view caught a snatch of a familiar pontoon. "Unless I miss my guess .." She was just about to start forward, but a booming voice stopped her cold.
"Help ya?" he barked out, letting her know she was in a restricted area.
She jumped. He'd come out of nowhere. The source of her fright was built like a fireplug and twice as solid. "For a little shit, you've got a hell of a mouth mister." She paused to think things through. "He wants to know what you're doing here. Just play it cool. Do what you do best in situations like this. LIE."
She turned on her best little-girl-novice charm. "Hi. I'm a guest with that big group over there," she said, pointing toward the beach, "and I was wondering what all these boats are for. I just love to look at them. They're so pretty." She hoped she was laying it on thick enough. He didn't seem to be buying it.
"These here are cruisers," he answered, patting the hull of the one she'd touched. "Ya wanna go in style, they're yer best bet."
"I see. And what's that one over there?" She gestured towards the disabled cat.
"Catamawhat?" she faked.
He wasn't sure if she was deaf or dense. "CATAMARAN!"
"Oooooh. What's it do?"
"What happened to it?" She nodded toward the broken mast.
"I can SEE that, asshole! My, but we're a wealth of information, aren't we?" she thought disgustedly, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.
"Did something hit it?" she tried again.
"Was it an accident?"
"I've never seen a sailboat like THIS before." She needed to turn up the heat if she wanted a look at Tommy's cat. If she'd pegged him right, her next volley would raise his hackles. "Not much to it, is there?"
It worked like a charm. He strode over to the cat, putting
his body between her and the pontoons. She stuck like glue, deliberately
invading his body space. She hoped the move would put him off
balance, but he countered and stepped into her.
"Curious little thing, ain't cha?" he said, fixing his gaze on her.
"Great! Last thing I need is to have him remember me. Time to back off." She tried another approach. "I'm sorry if I offended you. You must love your boat very much."
"Beg your pardon?"
"Said it's not mine!"
"I see." They had obviously reached a stalemate. Not much point in pumping him further. The trick now was to slide out of the situation gracefully. She was about to come up with an exit line, when she noticed the radio sitting on the far pontoon. She tried to recall what little she'd seen through her binoculars that day on the yacht. "She's a racer. She was stripped for action when I saw her. What's he need a radio for?" she reasoned.
"Best be joinin' yer group miss." His tone made it clear she'd worn out her welcome.
"Yes. It IS getting late. Well, thank you for your time." She waved goodbye. "I just LOVE these boats!"
She left through the opposite door, knowing she'd have to stay on the beach until he'd lost interest in her. He'd seen right through her. "Either I'm losing my touch, or he's got another one in his hip pocket," she sighed. She decided to wait it out under a palm tree. She stole a quick glance at the clubhouse. No sign of Tommy, but she noticed his guests beginning to stream toward the beach. There were several people she recognized from the plane. "Good. I can mingle with them and blend in."
Tommy pulled the clubhouse door open. He was glad to see his guests heading outside. He needed a minute alone with Jack. Once his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, he sought out his pilot and hurried to his side. "Where's Catherine?" he said, surprised to see her gone.
"Boss, I need to talk to you about that "
BBBBBRRRRR! Tommy reached into his pocket, whipped out his cell phone and pulled up the antenna. Holding up a finger, he pressed the answer button and said, "Hold that thought."
"Bill at the marina."
"Lady just left here, snoopin' around yer cat and askin' questions."
"What'd she look like?"
"Slim, redhead, kinda tall. White pants and a fruity colored lookin' blouse. And SANDALS! Who comes lookin' in a dry dock wearin' sandals!"
Tommy chuckled. His bloodhound had picked up the scent.
"Whatcha want me to do? Call the law? Didn't tell 'er nothin'."
"No, it's OK. Just keep it between us. I'll take care of it."
"Yer the boss."
"Thanks for calling."
"Don' mention it."
Tommy clicked off and popped the antenna down. He was still chuckling when Jack interrupted his reverie.
"Boss, we got trouble. Your lady just flew outta here like her tail was on fire. She's been puttin' the screws to me, trying to see what you're up to."
"You're not the only one."
"What do you mean?'
"That was Bill at the marina."
"Guy you hired to get the cat in shape?"
"Yeah. Seems little Miss Marple paid him a visit."
Jack's laugh matched Tommy's. "She a female version of you."
"Don't remind me. At least not until we get this thing in the bag."
"Speaking of bags, might not be a bad idea to put her on ice for awhile. You know how she dogged you in New York."
"Yes," Tommy groaned. "I have first hand knowledge of the lady's proclivities. Don't worry. I'll handle her."
"Better handle HER, before SHE handles YOU. She told me about your visitor at the condo tonight."
"She knows about that?" "That explains a lot," he thought
"Yeah. Seems she overhead some of what you said. Who was it?"
"Local police captain. Played twenty questions about New York and came up empty."
"Boss, be careful. Don't get caught in a squeeze. You've got no clout down here."
"Point taken. Now how about the crew? They get in alright?"
"Yeah. Ran into Smitty at the airport when they were offloading the cat."
"They keeping a low profile? We don't need anybody on the circuit getting wind of this."
"Low as can be. Cat was covered the whole trip. Best budget
hotel money can buy. They know better than to start spreading
"Good. Listen, give me Smitty's number there will you? I need to see him."
"Figured you would. Got it right here." Jack slid the paper across the bar toward Tommy, who promptly slipped it into his shirt pocket.
"NOW, you're out."
"But boss "
"NO buts. You've got a mother to take care of."
"Which I wouldn't have, if it wasn't for you. I owe you."
"You owe me nothing." Tommy met and held Jack's gaze. "Besides, good pilots are hard to come by," he said, his voice taking on an uncharacteristic softness.
"Just ask the jerk," Jack replied, his voice full of emotion. "Weeellll, guess I'll go make like a tourist then. Call if you need me?"
"You bet. Take care mate."
"Good luck boss.
Both men clasped shoulders briefly, then separated and headed toward opposite beachside doors.