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Under Cover of Daylight

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Under Cover of Daylight

  Under Cover of Daylight

  James W. Hall

  This book is dedicated with love and admiration to STERLING WATSON

  Very special thanks is also due to Les Standiford and Captain Alex Kitchens without whose help this book would not have been written.

  There is the calmness of the lake when there is not a breath of wind; there is the calmness of a stagnant ditch. So it is with us. Sometimes we are clarified and calmed healthily, as we never were before in our lives, not by an opiate, but by some unconscious obedience to the all-just laws, so that we become like a still lake of purest crystal. ...

  Henry David Thoreau

  A Writer’s Journal


  July 1966































  July 1966

  STANDING IN FRONT OF HIS DRESSER MIRROR, the young man pointed the revolver at his reflection. He held it there until the waver in his hand had subsided. He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, and brought the revolver down.

  After he had replaced the pistol in the tackle box, he slid it back onto the shelf and shut the closet door. He went into the bathroom, washed his face, brushed his teeth. Outside, he stood on the veranda for a moment, looking out at the ocean. A flock of pelicans glided past, a few yards above the water. He watched them till they were out of sight, then walked down the long rutted road to the highway.

  He came to the highway just as the Postal Service Jeep was pulling away from the mailbox. He opened the mailbox and quickly removed the package. There was a birthday card taped to the lid of the box. He tore that open. It was an accordion card. A fisherman in a rowboat had hooked a small fish which was about to be swallowed by a bigger one, and on like that as the accordion opened until the last fish was twice as big as the fisherman’s boat. The printed message said, “Have a Whopper of a Birthday.”

  There were two black-and-white photographs inside the envelope, too. In one a balding man was holding up a salmon in each hand. He was smiling. In the other a graying woman was holding a salmon bigger than either of the man’s. She smiled as well. The young man studied each of the photos for a moment, then opened the package. There were two hand-tied flies in the box: one a replica of a tiny field mouse, the brass hook curving out of its belly; the other a bright imitation of a dragonfly. “Take a shot at these,” said the note. “Happy Nineteenth from the frozen North. All our love. Wish you were here.”

  It was an hour before he got a ride. He had walked almost five miles up the highway by then. The driver was a tourist from Michigan, driving a rental car. He drove with one hand while he pawed with the other through a stack of photographs. He held each one up in turn for the young man to see, then took a long look at each of them himself. The man had been charter fishing in Islamorada for the last month. He’d been after snook mostly, but he’d also gotten tarpon and permit.

  The man didn’t seem to notice that the young man did not talk. The young man looked politely at each photograph, nodding the same way each time. By the time they reached the outskirts of Miami, the photographs were exhausted and the man began to concentrate on the thickening traffic.

  At a light in South Miami, without any announcement, the young man got out of the car. He walked quickly down a side street until he found a phone booth.

  He stepped inside it, closed the door, and brought the phone book up. He turned the pages till he came to the proper one, ran his finger down the list of names, stopped finally on the name he was after. He stared at the page for a long time, then let the phone book fall back to the end of its chain.

  From his back pocket he withdrew a street map. He unfolded it and studied it for a few minutes. He peered out at the street sign near the phone booth and spent more time looking at the map. After refolding the map and putting it back in his jeans, he stepped out onto the sidewalk and began walking.

  He was wearing canvas boat shoes, no socks, a dark green T-shirt. His hair was sun-scorched blond and cut in a flattop. He was an inch below six feet and gristly thin. His arms and face were deeply tanned. His dark blue eyes seemed focused on some distant point, practiced in scanning the horizon for some subtle disturbance.

  With long strides he walked out of the small shopping district, across Dixie Highway, and along the perimeter of the university. Past the practice fields and parking lots into the shady neighborhoods of Coral Gables.

  It was five o’clock when he reached a curvy, narrow street that ran along the edge of a golf course. The young man glanced down the street and then turned and retraced his steps for half a mile to a small park where there were a few swing sets and a long slide. He sat in the shade of a live oak, watching a black woman in a white uniform entertaining a white child. After an hour the two of them left, and he was alone as dusk came on.

  At eight-thirty, as the darkness settled finally, he rose and returned to the curvy street. He cut through a vacant lot and walked along the rough of the golf course. Staying near the thick shrubbery, he made his way to a one-story white stucco house with a tiled roof. Light came from the patio doors, and there were the sounds of dishes and silverware from the open kitchen window.

  The young man crouched behind an oleander shrub about ten feet from the patio and watched the lighted windows. Once a child’s voice called out the name of some pet, and an hour later the young man could hear a woman’s voice as she chatted on the phone while she paced in front of one of the back windows.

  At around ten o’clock the house went dark, but the young man continued to stare at it. It was an hour and a half later when he heard a car arrive around front, and a few moments later the front door slammed. A light came on in the living room, then the kitchen. The young man stood and edged closer to the kitchen window, pressing his back against the rough side of the house.

  A fat man in a dark blue suit was in the kitchen. He had black, shiny hair that was parted in the middle and a small mouth with fleshy lips. The man dropped his keys on the kitchen table, took off his suit coat, and let it fall to the floor. He poured himself a tea glass full of scotch, and before the young man could move away, the fat man lurched out of view and suddenly swung open the kitchen door and walked outside.

  The young man flattened himself against the wall, and the fat man stood on the paving stones a few feet away and poured some of the scotch down. He turned away from the young man, mumbled to himself, and walked across to the patio, which was partially lit from the kitchen light. The fat man stood for a moment next to a chaise longue, then bent over and vomited into a flower box.

  When he was finished, he wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his white shirt and let himself down carefully into the chaise and took another belt of the drink. The young man waited for a few minutes more until the fat man seemed to be dozing, his glass on the patio beside him.

  He opened the kitchen door carefully and slid inside. He stood there and looked around the kitchen for a few moments, then picked up the man’s suit coat. Inside the breast pocket he found the fat man’s wallet. He took the man’s driver’s license out and inspected it.

  After a few moments he put it back in the wallet and replaced the wallet in the coat and dropped it again on the floor. He took t
he keys from the kitchen table and walked back outside and walked over to the chaise.

  He grabbed the fat man by the front of his shirt and hauled him upright. The man giggled. But when he was on his feet, he stiffened and drew back and peered into the young man’s face. The young man turned him and prodded him forward with one hand, gripping the fat man’s shirt collar with the other.

  The man stumbled ahead, saying nothing, wavering as he walked. The two walked around the side of the house and came to the driveway. A ’65 Buick coupe was parked there, its grille buried in the hedge. The young man gripped the man’s collar tightly and looked down at the smashed-in front right headlight on the Buick. He took a deep breath.

  The young man turned the fat man around, leaning him against the passenger door.

  “I don’t know you,” the fat man said, uncertainly.

  The young man stepped back a step and cocked his right fist to his shoulder and slammed the fat man flush on the nose. The man sagged, and the young man held him against the car while he opened the passenger door. The fat man was perhaps twenty, thirty pounds heavier. The young man got the door open and muscled the man into the seat. He closed the door and stood still, breathing hard, listening.

  He got into the driver’s seat, fumbled with the ignition key, jammed it finally into the slot. Glancing back at the house, he started the car. He backed it out the drive, hitting the power brakes too hard and making a small screech as the tires hit the pavement.

  He looked again at the fat man’s house. A dark figure was standing in the shadows on the front porch. Maybe a stone statue, maybe a child, a large dog. The young man put the car in gear and carefully pulled away.

  The fat man came to in about ten minutes. The car was stopped at a red light, the intersection empty, streets empty in every direction. A black man sat outside the office of an all-night gas station, listening to his radio, looking at the Buick.

  The fat man blinked, stared at the young man, then across at the gas station. He had the door open and was in the street before the young man could step on the gas. The fat man was running into the gas station, waving his hands, stumbling. The black gas station attendant watched him come toward him, then rose from his chair and hurried inside the office.

  The young man pushed the shift lever to park, threw open the door, and ran after the fat man. He caught up to him at the door to the gas station office. The black man had a small-caliber revolver pointed at the fat man, and sweat had broken out on the black man’s forehead.

  “Come on, Dad,” the young man said as he put his arm around the shoulder of the fat man, taking a twisting grip of his underarm. He said to the black man, “One too many. Celebrating my birthday.”

  “Get on out of here, the both of you,” the black man said.

  “Help me,” the fat man said. “This guy’s kidnapping me.” He tried to wriggle free of the young man’s hold.

  The young man shook his head at the black man. “He gets like this.”

  “He surely do,” the black man said.

  The fat man broke away from the young man’s grip and ran back toward the car. Halfway across the gas station lot he stumbled and fell to his knees.

  The young man trotted over to him, dragged him up, and together they staggered back to the car. The fat man was breathing very hard, sweating heavily. Again the young man pushed him into the car and came around and got behind the wheel.

  “Who are you?” the man said, out of breath.

  The young man said, “If you try anything like that again, I’m going to kick the shit out of you. Just sit there.”

  “I know,” the fat man said, tilting his head, his eyes focusing on the young man’s face. “I know who you are.”

  The young man was silent, driving carefully, keeping the Buick at the speed limit.

  “It’s the anniversary,” the fat man said. “I know that. You think I’d forget?”

  “Shut up,” the young man said.

  “You don’t think I’ve suffered, is that it? Is that what this is? You going to torture me, get even, is that it?” The man mumbled to himself. “Tell me. You’re the kid, right?”

  The traffic lights were behind them now. It was just a long strip of highway with packing plants and a few motels, and then they came to Florida City and hit the rougher asphalt road running through the Everglades down to Key Largo. There were no other cars. The sky was clear. The young man kept the car at seventy.

  The fat man screamed for help. He turned in the seat and yelled into the wind back toward Miami. The young man nudged the car up to seventy-five.

  “I got a family,” the man yelled at him.

  The young man turned his head and stared at the man.

  “I can give you money. I got money. Whatever you want.”

  “I want you to know,” the young man said. “Know how they felt.”

  “You’ll get prison,” he said, all menace.

  The young man smiled and pushed the car on. “I’ll take what’s coming to me,” he said.

  “I was just your age, for chrissakes,” the man said. “It was a careless mistake. A kid’s stupid mistake.”

  The car was up to eighty by the time they rounded the long curve and came up to Jewfish Creek Bridge. The car hurtled up the ramp of the bridge, left the ground briefly, and the undercarriage banged on the other side. The fat man grabbed for the door handle. Sober as hell now. Adrenaline sober. Night air, going eighty-five through the dark sober.

  The young man’s foot drove deeper into the accelerator pedal, and he watched the flash of guardrails, saw Lake Surprise appear, the car slewing right, a tired slipping off the edge of the pavement, catching in the shoulder, twisting the wheel from his hands, and he didn’t try to recapture it, and the Buick rammed through the guardrail, sailing out into the water. The young man thinking, Yes, this is exactly right. Exactly as it should be. Yes.

  There was the short flight, the pounding drop, the spray of glass, the sledgehammer to his chest. The warm water of Lake Surprise flooding in. And he lost consciousness.

  When the young man woke, he heard the faint wail of sirens. Water was up to his shoulders. His chest ached, ribs burned. He climbed out the window, slogged around the car to see about the fat man. A wedge of glass had opened the man’s throat, and his head rested on the back of the seat. Dark syrup rose at the gash. If he wasn’t dead just then, he was about to take wing.

  The young man went back to the driver’s side and leaned in and hauled the fat man across the seat, head lolling, and he wedged him behind the steering wheel. Then he swam and waded two, three hundred yards through Lake Surprise to the mangroves. And climbed into them. Wet, hurting, nothing numb, not the least in shock. Feeling every mosquito sting.

  He stayed for the whole show. There was nothing dramatic about it. Just men working, figuring out. A physical problem with winch, long cable. Cops wading out with the ambulance boys. No one looking around for a passenger. Just another drunk who’d lost control.

  He watched it all. And finally, an hour or so before dawn, it was over. They were gone. Lake Surprise was calm. It went from oily black to gray to green. An early-morning fisherman arrived in his skiff and began casting into the shadows along the shoreline a mile away.

  The young man worked his way through the dense mangroves up to the highway. He was having trouble taking breaths; his hands were shaking. There was blood coming from somewhere inside his shirt. It was only a three-mile hike back to his house, but it took him two hours.


  THORN WATCHED HER STANDING at the shore, up to her ankles in Lake Surprise. The moon had laid down a wide silver path across the water, and a light breeze was blurring patches of the glassy surface. For the last few minutes Sarah Ryan had been standing there, gazing out at all of it.

  Not turning around, she asked, “So what’s the ceremony?”

  “There isn’t any ceremony,” Thorn said. “I just sit here, try to be quiet.”

  “You don’t get in the water
? You don’t do anything?”

  Thorn sighed. Maybe it’d been a mistake bringing her. She’d wanted to come since he’d known her—what?—a little less than a year. Soon as she found out about his ritual, she wouldn’t leave it alone. Started hinting around that June. By the first of July she was out in the open about it. Take me along. I won’t bother you. I’ll participate, do whatever you want me to. OK, so he’d let Sarah, his lover, come along. Maybe to tell her the details, fill in blanks he’d not even revealed to Kate. He had thought they were ready.

  But who showed up? This other Sarah. Sarah-the-Public-Defender, cross-examiner of cops, used to prying open clamped mouths. Intolerant of lazy emotions. Breezy and tough. And what he’d planned on saying, the confession he’d been rehearsing for weeks, had gone cold and quiet.

  Still looking out across the sound, Sarah said, “Well, I’m going for a swim.”

  “Look. Point is, this is my one day a year. Like going to the graveyard, flowers on the grave. Like that.”

  “The overexamined life is not worth living,” she said. “Haven’t you heard of baring your soul and getting on with it?” She turned and the moon gleamed in her dark hair.

  “I’ve heard of it,” said Thorn.

  Sarah shook her head and said, “And then there’s the theory of swimming your way to mental health. Getting out there, exposing yourself to the waters.”

  She peeled off her khaki camp shorts. No underwear for Sarah. The T-shirt next, and she was there naked in the moonlight. Full moon. Two hundred yards from U.S. 1. The cars rumbling across the grating on Jewfish Creek Bridge. She let Thorn take in her silhouette. She was tall with wide shoulders and thin limbs. And had a gawky gracefulness to her movements, like a fashion model slightly out of practice.

  “Watch out for lemon sharks.” Thorn felt himself hardening for her.

  “Let them watch out.” She hesitated for a moment at the shoreline, took a deep breath, and waded out into Lake Surprise, into the meadow of light from that heavy moon.

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