“How do you know? You been checking up on me, Agent Elliot?”
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t have let this child go into the hands of people I knew nothing about.” He pointed down toward the cuddy cabin where Solange, lying on her belly on the blue canvas mattress, watched us with her head propped up on her two fists.
Rusty looked at his watch. “Hey, it’s almost five-thirty. You getting hungry?”
“I guess I could use a little something. I haven’t eaten much all day.”
“What do you say we take the boat down the Intracoastal a bit and hit one of those waterfront restaurants? That would also give us the chance to talk in private.”
I had just been thinking about getting a look at Port Laudania, and here was the perfect way. “Sounds good to me, except, there’s this place up the Dania Canal—”
“Sure, I know the place. Tugboat Annie’s? Perfecto. Then I’ll be able to say—”
“Just stop it right there,” I said. “There is nothing original about making a Tugboat Annie joke to me.”
Tugboat’s was a favorite waterfront bar and restaurant with an outdoor dining area that served up barbecue and reggae, along with cans of Off on weekend afternoons for those brave enough to face the no-see-ums. Their logo and namesake was a caricature of an old crone smoking a pipe, leaning out the wheelhouse window of a tug. I’d been the object of way too many jokes that noted some physical similarities between the crone and me. I kept pointing out to folks that I’d never smoked a pipe.
“Okay, I promise. No Tugboat Annie jokes if you’ll lay off the name of my boat.”
“Deal.” I shook his hand, then peered down into the cuddy cabin. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s get you back to Auntie Jeannie.”
The boys were still splashing and shouting in the pool, but Jeannie had installed herself on a wrought-iron bench that looked far sturdier than the webbed pool furniture. The bench backed up against the wood fence around the pool and Jeannie looked absolutely regal surveying the pool deck from beneath the brim of a white floppy hat. She turned to us and waved as we came around the corner and up the steps from the docks.
“I wondered where you two had disappeared to.” Rusty had stayed behind to prepare the boat.
I pointed to the north end of the dock. “Rusty’s boat.” I sat down on the bench next to her, and Solange squeezed in next to me. “I don’t get him, Jeannie. On the one hand, he does a damn good job of playing the rustic redneck type. But then there’s this condo with a million-dollar view, finished like something out of Southern Living magazine. And his boat down there? It’s old, but it’s immaculate. He wants me to think otherwise, but my guess is it’s professionally maintained. Where does a Border Patrol agent get the money for all this?”
“You like him, don’tcha .”
“Seychelle, my friend, you are so transparent. Soon as you like a fellow, you start picking on him. I pity the poor man you marry.”
“Marry? Why’s everybody got to talk about marriage all the time?”
“Everybody? Seems like I’m the only one around here just now.” She leaned forward and looked past me at Solange. “Tell me, missy, did you discuss marriage with this lady?”
Solange giggled and hid her face behind my back. Whether or not she understood Jeannie, the tone of voice and the face were enough to make anybody crack up.
“Seems to me, Seychelle, that you are the only other one around here who could have been contemplating marriage just now. Hmm ... Was it to B.J.? Or to Rusty?”
Rusty came bounding up the steps from the docks.
“Oh, uh, Jeannie and I were just talking. Jeannie, Rusty and I are going to run up to Tugboat Annie’s in his boat and get some dinner. That is, if you don’t mind.”
“You go on. After all, this is just what I went to law school for—to be a babysitter.”
“I’m sorry. Forget it. We’ll stay.”
“Girl, you are taking me way too serious today. You two go on. You’ve got a lot to talk over. Besides, my boys are always with me. And this little thing?” She reached over and poked Solange in the belly button. “She’s so quiet you don’t hardly notice she’s around.”
“You want us to bring you something back?”
I told Rusty I would meet him at the boat after I put a note on the Jeep for Pit. He ran upstairs to grab his wallet. I peeled Solange’s hand out of mine, knelt down next to her, and told her good-bye for now. The look on her face made me feel like a real creep, and I could feel her eyes on me as I crossed the pool deck on my way to the parking lot.
After I’d finished the note to Pit, I noticed the dark clouds gathering out west over the Everglades, and I decided to take the time to snap the side windows back onto the Jeep. I didn’t have a rain jacket, but I did find an old zip-front hooded sweatshirt.
Rusty and I arrived back at the boat at nearly the same time. Without a word, I untied the dock lines while he started the engines. We were like a couple of kids trying to sneak off.
“So,” Rusty said over the noise of the idling outboards when we were about five yards from the dock, headed north up the Intracoastal. “I hardly recognize you without your shadow.”
I turned away from him and looked through the windshield, up the waterway toward the Sheridan Street Bridge. The sun had slid behind the mass of clouds and squalls out to the west, bringing on an early twilight, and the cars driving over the metal grate in the bridge already had their headlights on. The air had that thick, menacing feel of an impending storm.
“I know what it’s like,” I said, “to really want to have a mom. At least when I was Solange’s age I still had my dad.” Rusty put his hand on the back of my neck and squeezed lightly. I felt his touch course through my body like heat lightning.
“Hey, I was just kidding,” he said.
“I know, but I can’t get over thinking about how alone she must feel.” I looked into his eyes. “Sometimes ‘alone’ feels really rotten.” I turned away again and spoke to the mangroves on the west bank of the Intracoastal. “The thing is, I don’t know how to be a mom, and I can’t be her mom.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. You’re doing all right with the kid. In fact, it’s kind of neat watching you with her. There’s some kind of special bond between you two.”
“Thanks,” I said, keeping my face toward the mangroves, not wanting him to see how much I wanted that to be true.
We squeezed into the last little bit of space at the restaurant’s dock. Before long, boats would start rafting up, tying to the outside of other boats, and later in the evening, they would be three deep in places. The restaurant was already crowded, but we got one of the high bar tables outside with a low powerboat at the dock in front of us. There’s nothing quite like waterfront dining when your view turns out to be the glossy fiberglass sides of fifteen-foot-high sportfishermen. Although we were a little downstream of the port, I sat on the side of the table that looked up the canal and had a great view across the water to Port Laudania. The lights around the port were blinking on as the last traces of daylight were swallowed by a low, dark sky.
Directly across from the restaurant, the pitted concrete dock was empty. The only things tied to it were the huge tires that served as bumpers along its entire length. A hundred feet or so back from the dock was a large white aluminum building with a green sign that read “G&G Marine, East Terminal.” A crane, tractor-trailers, and containers all sat idle. It was well after quitting time, and if there was anybody over there, I sure couldn’t see them. There wasn’t any sign of the Bimini Express. But, really, I wasn’t even certain this was where the little freighter was likely to dock. Here or in Miami? For all I knew, Capitaine had already left. On the other hand, would Malheur leave without tying up that last loose end that was Solange?