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The Mystery of Dolphin Inlet, страница 1


The Mystery of Dolphin Inlet

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The Mystery of Dolphin Inlet

























  Copyright © 1968 by James Holding.

  Published by Wildside Press LLC



  For that tireless fisherman, my son.



  The knife went in sweet and easy. Its point was like a needle and its edge like a razor. Without a pause or a hitch, it swept down smoothly against the backbone the full length, and sliced out free an inch from the end. Then, tight up against the tough skin, sawing back and forth with a little rocking motion, it came back again.

  Behind me, a voice said, “How beautiful!” A girl’s voice.

  I looked over my right shoulder in surprise. “It’s just a Spanish mackerel,” I said. “Nothing beautiful about that.” I flipped the fillet to one side and turned the fish over to cut out the other one.

  “Well, I think there is,” she said. She didn’t move, just stood there behind me at the cleaning table by the tubs, watching me. “The way you’re cleaning it.”

  I didn’t turn my head. “I’m filleting it,” I said.

  “Whatever it is, I think it’s beautiful, in a way. I mean your economy of motion. The way you know exactly where to cut and how, don’t you see?”

  How about that? I’m filleting a three-pound Spanish mackerel for Mrs. Ferguson, and it’s beautiful! It was a new angle. I’d never heard that one before.

  “It’s all in the knife,” I said to her self-consciously. “If your knife’s sharp enough, there’s nothing to it.”

  I must have sounded sharp myself, or nervous at least, because out of the corner of my eye, I saw my sister Gloria, behind our display case, giving me one of those looks of hers that says, just as plain as words could say it: Relax, now, Pete, even if she’s a girl. She won’t bite you. I can’t wait on her till I finish with Mrs. Ferguson.

  That’s quite a lot to put into one look but my sister Gloria can do it easy. She does it all the time. Because she knows that as much as I like girls—and I like them a lot—they make me kind of nervous. The minute I get alone with one, no matter how nice she is or how well I know her, I kind of tighten up and begin to act slightly like a jerk. Girls make me feel awkward and ugly, and I get this uneasy feeling that they may be laughing at me, you know what I mean? Anyway, it sometimes makes me sort of abrupt and grouchy-sounding when I don’t mean it at all, when all I want is to be natural and cool like the other guys at school are with girls.

  Gloria says I’m shy, that’s all, but there’s more to it than that. I guess if I was a girl and was looking around for a boy to date, I wouldn’t pick out a guy like me. And you know why? Because I am pretty awkward and ugly, to tell the truth. And what’s more, I smell of fish all the time.

  Gloria argues with me about it a lot. She claims I’m awkward, maybe, but only socially, not physically. Only when I’m around girls and can’t force myself to give out with a lot of gushy sweet talk. She points out that I’m not awkward at all when it comes to diving, swimming, fishing, cleaning fish and stuff like that. Only she never said I had economy of motion, either!

  So maybe I’m not really awkward, but there’s no doubt about my being ugly. Even Gloria can’t argue away this jagged scar across the side of my face that makes my cheek look like a streak of white lightning had landed on it and stayed there. When I was twelve, Pop took me out on the Gulf in his boat one day, and I was fooling around with a weighted hand line, leaning over the side and hauling up fast, just for practice, when I jerked the line too hard and it came shooting up at me out of the water like a rocket—I still dream about it sometimes—and the hook went into my cheek under my left eye. The backlash of the sinker pulled the hook through my cheek and almost tore it in half, clear down to my ear lobe. It was a real mess. Pop got the hook out, but we couldn’t get the tear cleaned up and stitched until maybe four hours later when Pop finally got his boat in off the Gulf through a squall that hit us. So the scar isn’t very pretty.

  Oh, I’m ugly, all right, whatever Gloria says about my being nearly six feet tall with the right muscles in the right places and sun-bleached hair and friendly eyes. Without my scar, maybe I’d be halfway decent-looking—like Mike Sebastien, the Perdido Key policeman who’s always hanging around our place courting Gloria. But with this scar, I’m a seventeen-year-old monster, that’s all. Face it.

  And I smell of fish all the time, like I said. It’s true. I do. Because my father works this commercial fishing boat, fishing the Gulf. He sells most of his catch to the wholesaler in Sarta City, and what’s left he sells at retail in a little fish market he built right in front of our old house here on the bay side of Perdido Key, just east of Fiesta Village. My mother died a long time ago, but Gloria, my older sister—she’s nineteen—she takes care of the fish market while Pop does the fishing. After school and during vacations I help Gloria out in the fish market, cleaning and filleting the fish she sells, packing in the ice for our display case and, now that I have a driver’s license, delivering fish in our old pickup truck to our customers up and down the Key who order by phone or leave standing orders. Sometimes, for a treat, Pop lets me go out with him and his crew on the Gulf for a day or a night with the nets. One time last year, just before Christmas, I went out with him and we brought in over eight thousand pounds of mullet! That’s a lot of fish. The wholesaler took the eight thousand pounds and there was enough left over to keep our smokehouse going for days. Folks down our way like smoked mullet better than candy bars.

  I love to go out with Pop but the hours a commercial fisherman works are murder when you’re a kid going to high school. So I spend most of my free time helping Gloria at the fish market. When I finish high school, though, my idea is to go to the university and get smartened up on navigation and oceanography and stuff like that, and then, with Pop as a partner, get hold of a modern shrimper and make a career out of commercial fishing. You can make a bundle that way if you go at it right.

  Anyway, you can see why I smell of fish most of the time. No matter how often you wash, shower or swim, if you’re working with fresh-caught fish a lot, it’s hard to get rid of the smell.

  I took another quick peek over my shoulder—the left one this time, so I showed my scar—at this girl my sister Gloria wanted me to be polite to, and I must admit she wasn’t bad-looking. She had dark-brown hair, natural color, and blue eyes with long lashes and the top of her head came to about shoulder height on me. She hadn’t spent much time in our South Florida sunshine lately because she had on cut-off blue jeans and a short-sleeved blouse and her bare legs and arms were an indoor white color. But nice.

  She was smiling at me. When she smiled, she opened her eyes wide and one corner of her mouth went up higher than the other, kind of lopsided. But nice, you know? “With the sharpest knife in the world, I couldn’t do what you’re doing,” she said. “I can paint pictures with a palette knife, but I can’t fillet a fish. Do you mind my watching you

  “Go ahead,” I said, thinking to myself she had a nice voice, too, and she ought to weigh out at about a hundred pounds on the fish scales. She looked to be about sixteen or seventeen, I figured.

  I finished with the mackerel and gave the fillets to Gloria to wrap up for Mrs. Ferguson, who was looking in her purse for money. While I ran water from the spigot over my hands and wiped off the cleaning table, I said to the girl, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

  “No, I’m a tourist,” she said. “My mother and I are staying up at the Freebooter in a housekeeping cottage for ten days before Easter.” The Freebooter is about the only big tourist place we’ve got on Perdido Key. It’s a deluxe four-star restaurant at the north end of the Key on a nice beach with a cottage colony around it.

  “We’re doing our own cooking, mostly, and the Freebooter manager told us this is the best place to buy fish,” the girl explained. She tossed her head back with a little sideways motion and her hair swung around behind her shoulder. It was a habit she had, I noticed later. “Mother’s waiting outside in the car.”

  Gloria finished wrapping up Mrs. Ferguson’s fish and took the money for it and rang it up on the cash register. She was ready to wait on the girl. I said, “Where do you live?”

  “Tallahassee. My father’s a lawyer. He’s coming to join us here in a few days.” She laughed. It was a nice hearty laugh, not a giggle. “He’s really the one who needs the rest, not Mother and me.”

  “He’ll get plenty of rest on Perdido Key, all right,” I said. “It’s pretty dead around here.”

  She didn’t offer any comment on that, but drifted over toward Gloria and said, “This is Hobbs’s Fish Market, so I guess your name must be Hobbs.”

  I didn’t know whether she was talking to me or Gloria so I didn’t say anything. Gloria said, “Yes, his name is Hobbs, and so is mine. He’s Pete and I’m Gloria, and what can I do for you?”

  “Do you have any shrimp?” the girl asked.

  “Yes, very nice. Dollar fifty a pound green, and a dollar seventy-five cooked and cleaned.”

  “I’d like a pound cooked and cleaned, please. And a couple of fillets of that kind of fish Pete was just fixing.” The girl used my name as naturally as if she’d known me all her life.

  “Mackerel?” Gloria said. “Okay. I’ll have to deliver the shrimp to you though if you want it cooked and cleaned. There’s none ready right now. Did you say you were at the Freebooter?”

  “Cottage twelve,” the girl said.

  “We’ll deliver the fish and shrimp this afternoon, then, if that’s all right?”

  “Of course. Our name’s Frost. I’m Susan Frost.”

  “Pete’ll deliver it,” Gloria said with a sidelong look at me. She wants everybody to have a romance. She’s always trying to work it so I’ll fall for somebody she thinks is my type. I guess she’d already decided that this Susan Frost qualified for me, and this time, I was all for it. “Pete drives our truck,” Gloria went on while she rang up Susan’s money on the register and made change. “He’s old enough to have a driver’s license now, isn’t that nice?”

  I could have crowned her. Now she’d as much as told Susan Frost how old I was. And if Susan thought I was as young as that… Suddenly I caught myself. Susan Frost was a perfect stranger. Why should I care what she thought of me?

  My thoughts were going around in my head like torn-up paper in a high wind when Susan Frost thanked Gloria and turned to leave. Just as she went out the door, she flashed me a quick smile and tossed her head that funny way so her hair swung, and said, “See you this afternoon then, Pete,” and let the screen door slam behind her.

  Nobody else was in the shop just then, so Gloria looked over at me and grinned and said, “You look like a stranded grouper with your mouth hanging open, Pete. How about Miss Susan Frost of Tallahassee? Isn’t she a darling?”

  “Huh,” I said. “I didn’t notice.”

  * * * *

  Three hours later I was admitting to myself that I had noticed, though. I wouldn’t have said it exactly like Gloria—that Susan Frost was a darling—but there had been something about her. I remembered with considerable surprise that I’d felt quite at ease when I was talking to her. And Susan was certainly an eyeful when it came to looks. I began to whistle as I drove the pickup north on Gulf Road—the only paved road that runs the full length of Perdido Key.

  Perdido Key is about ten miles long, maybe a mile wide at its widest, and it runs roughly north and south just a rifle shot off the west coast of Florida opposite Sarta City—where I go to school—and is connected with it by a long causeway between the island and the mainland. Perdido Key’s got Sarta Bay on one side of it, and the open Gulf of Mexico on the other. It’s got Fiesta Village, where our fish market is, at the south end of it, and the Freebooter cottage colony at the north end. In between there isn’t much of anything except flat sandy stretches of deserted landscape, some open and some wooded, between the bay and the Gulf.

  I don’t mean it’s completely deserted. There are a good many homes ranging from mansions to shacks scattered the length of the Key along both sides of Gulf Road. I’d say the population of the Key is maybe fifteen hundred people, mostly Sarta City folks who like the isolation and quietness of the Key and commute across the causeway to work and play in Sarta City. As I say, we don’t get many tourists, because Perdido is still sleepy and unspoiled. And everybody on the Key aims to keep it that way if possible.

  When I realized I was whistling, I tried to figure out the reason why, because I’m not much of a whistler or singer, usually. And I finally came up with the idea that maybe I was feeling cheerful over the fact that I was going to see Susan Frost again in a few minutes when I handed over her shrimp and fish to her at the Freebooter.

  One thought led to another and pretty soon I got to thinking that I’d like to date Susan Frost. After all, she was going to be here a week or so, and she probably didn’t know any boys on the Key. Maybe she’d be glad to have a local guy date her a few times while she was here. And why shouldn’t I be that local guy? Even if I am ugly and nervous around girls?

  Then it hit me with a bang that I’d been working in the shop all day and hadn’t had a shower since, and I probably smelled to high heaven of fish!

  What kind of chance would I have of dating Susan Frost if I smelled like low tide in a mangrove swamp when I asked her? I worried about that until I remembered my swimming trunks under the seat of the pickup. I always carry a pair of trunks there so I can take a little dip in the bay or Gulf if I have a few minutes to spare while I’m delivering. So why shouldn’t I pull off the road now and take a quick swim in the Gulf and try to wash off some of the fishiness before I saw Susan again? Before I delivered her fish? Before I asked her for a date, in other words?

  It only took me a minute to make up my mind. I was about halfway to the Freebooter and on a pretty deserted stretch of road where the Key narrowed down to about half-mile width and there wasn’t anything on either side of the road except woods. I’d never stopped just here before. I pulled up under a couple of cabbage palms on the right side of the road and scrabbled around under the truck seat until I found the swimming trunks. Then I put the truck keys into the pocket of my jeans where I keep my wallet and, crossing the road, I headed into the woods that lay between me and the Gulf.

  The woods were pretty thick—made up mostly of live oaks, slash pine, cabbage palms, some pepper trees and Australian pines and a mild sprinkling of palmettos, sea grapes, myrtle and miscellaneous underbrush underneath the taller stuff. It wasn’t hard going, though; in fact, it was open enough to let me make pretty good time.

  A little way in, I could hear the Gulf surf crashing ashore ahead of me. All around me, the woods were alive with birds chirping and singing fit to kill. A mockingbird lit on a branch not three feet from my nose and began to give out with the harsh notes of a blac
kbird’s song. As I pushed ahead toward the Gulf, I heard the subdued humming of bees coming from somewhere to my right, and a minute or so later, a strong, shrill whistle sounded from the tangle of underbrush to my left, like a cardinal’s whistle, only louder. I figured it was probably the mockingbird again, showing off his copycat ways and warning me to stay out of his territory.

  It took me maybe ten minutes to walk through the patch of woods before I came out on the Gulf. And I just stood there at the edge of the woods for a minute gawking at what I saw. For it was really something.

  I’d come out into a beautiful natural cove with a narrow crescent beach of pure white sand as fine as powdered sugar. It stretched away to my left about two hundred yards to where a pointed tongue of land, shaped like the backward-sweeping dorsal fin bf a dolphin, stuck out into the Gulf in a northerly dilution to form the inlet in which I stood. To my right the beach curved another couple of hundred yards to, a point opposite the fin-shaped promontory, where the coastline of the Key returned again to its straight northerly line. The mouth of the inlet was maybe a quarter of a mile wide, and the Gulf waves came rolling in through it.

  As a bathing beach, this was as nifty as anything I’d ever seen. And I hadn’t even known it was here, because you’d have to come at it from the land side to see how nice it was. From the Gulf, unless you were close inshore as you sailed by the inlet mouth, you wouldn’t know it existed because it was pretty well masked by that dolphin-fin tongue of land.

  Anyway, it was just the thing for a quick swim to rinse away my fishy smell. I looked all around, up and down the beach, and there wasn’t a living soul besides me to be seen, or a house even. Talk about privacy! The only sign of life was a quarter of a mile out in the Gulf, where a fisherman with a big straw hat was sitting in an anchored outboard with a pole over the side, drowsing in the sun while he waited for a strike. His boat was outside the inlet mouth. Maybe he lives around here, I thought, and if so, I guess he won’t mind if I take a short dip in his inlet.

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