Once again, I flashed on the image of the girl Margot on the concrete floor at the Swap Shop when Collazo had pulled back the tarp. She would still be in the shop, scowling at Madame, if she had not spoken to me.
“What are you thinking?” Rusty asked after the waitress left with our orders. My eyes had been focused on the docks across the way, but my mind was filled with images from the past few days. The sound of Rusty’s voice brought me back to the restaurant.
“Huh? Oh ... I don’t know. I guess I was thinking about the people who are so desperate to get to this country that they’ll get involved with monsters like this Capitaine Malheur. Think about how bad it must be if the alternative to Malheur is even worse than he is. They climb aboard these crowded, rickety boats, leaving behind their families and all that was familiar. For freedom. And then they end up in the hands of a man like Capitaine. God, Rusty, what he did to that girl?” I pressed my hands against my eyes, trying to wipe the images away. It didn’t work. I tried to focus on Rusty’s face. “It probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t talked to her.”
“Hey, stop talking like that,” he said.
“Think of the courage it took. She went against her culture. She spoke to me, told me Malheur killed her brother. She was trying to bring Malheur down for that.”
“See, so if it hadn’t been you, she would have talked to someone else. It certainly wasn’t your fault.”
I propped my elbows on the table and leaned my chin on my clasped hands. “Maybe. But your saying that won’t make this feeling in my gut go away. He’s got to be stopped. I’ve got to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to Solange.”
“Seychelle, why do you think that hasn’t happened yet? Malheur could have killed her. I mean, let’s go all the way back to why she was alive in that boat. Why did he take the risk that someone would find her?”
“We don’t know that he put her in the boat. Maybe she escaped?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and his eyes focused on something in the distance on the other side of the canal. It was almost totally dark, but across the way, in the branches of a dead tree, I could see the silhouette of an osprey against the pinkish gray sky. “I think if she was just any restavek, she would be dead by now.”
He reached across the table and took my hand. I felt that titillating surge of excitement and dread that I get when I know my relationship with a man is about to change from friendship to something else.
“Seychelle, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you,” he said.
“Rusty, the other night—”
“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk about. And I’m not real good at this kind of thing. Talking about it, anyway.”
His “aw shucks” demeanor was incredibly disarming. “I can’t figure you out, Rusty Elliot.”
“What do you mean?”
“You come across as this simple down-home Georgia guy who’s trying to stem the tide of illegal immigration, and then ... I would say that little ‘second home’ of yours back there is worth close to half a million. Either Border Patrol agents make a lot more than I thought, or you’re not who you let on to be. You tell me.”
The way his smile glowed in contrast with his tanned cheeks, it made me want to forget all my questions and just kiss him.
“Okay. I do wonder what kind of thing you’ve been imagining, but here’s the truth. The beach condo was my mother’s. Her second home. We always had a beach house in South Florida, this one’s just the most recent. My mother was a Depression baby and she saved everything. Over the years it mounted up. The real family homestead is up on Jekyll Island in Georgia. I keep that rented out most of the time now. I’ve tried to dodge around it, make my own way in the world, but the fact is, my mother was wealthy, and I was her only child.”
“In other words, you don’t need to work. You just chase after bad guys for the fun of it?”
His grin grew wider. “And to meet beautiful women.”
“Hey, I thought you said you weren’t very good at this?”
The waitress arrived, bringing our appetizer of blackened grouper bites and a couple of beers. He let go of my hand, and I dug in with relish.
After what I had been thinking about earlier, I was worried I might have lost my appetite, but not with Tugboat Annie’s grouper sitting in front of me. Rusty didn’t try to talk as we ate, and he jumped another notch in my esteem as a result. When we finished, he waved to the waitress for two more beers.
“I really need to check in with the station, and I left my cell in the truck back at the condo.” He looked around at the interior restaurant. “There’s got to be a phone around here. I’ll be right back.” He headed through the double doors into the bar. Once he was out of sight, I took the opportunity to get up and stroll up the dock to see Port Laudania from another angle.
At the far end of the dock I heard the noise of a large engine firing up somewhere across the canal. Through some shrubbery I saw another terminal building and could make out the outline of a small ship’s bow poking out of the trees. I didn’t remember that the port continued that far up the canal, but they are always building new docks at the commercial ports in Florida. I closed my eyes for several moments to get them accustomed to the darkness. When I opened them, I could easily make out the first few letters of the name on the bow: BIM. Just then the red navigation and masthead lights blinked on.
“Shit!” I said aloud. I began running, dodging between the tables, barely aware of white moon faces and startled eyes staring up at me. I had to find Rusty.
I pushed through the swinging glass doors that led to the inside bar and hollered at the bartender, “Phone?” He pointed at the opening in the wall next to the front door. After shoving my way through the crowded bar, I finally made it to the phone, only to find some young, heavily made-up twenty- something in a miniskirt and tube top screaming into the handset.
“I don’t give a fuck what you say, you son of a bitch,” she said, holding the phone away from her ear and hollering directly into the mouthpiece.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you see where the guy went who was on the phone here?”
“Fuck you,” she said, and turned her back to me.
Try as she might to be intimidating, it wasn’t working. I was tempted to try one of B.J.’s fancy aikido moves on her, but I just used the strength in my swimmer’s arms instead. I grabbed her by the shoulder, spun her around, and pinned her to the wall with my forearm across her throat.
“I asked you a question. Have you seen a blond guy, late thirties, wearing cargo shorts and—”
“He got pissed off waitin’, cussed me out, and took off out the front door. Now let me go, bitch.”
Part of me wanted to take her into the ladies’ room, stick her head under the faucet, wash all that makeup off her face, and continue the soap treatment on the inside of her mouth. Instead, I said, “Thanks,” and pushed my way out the heavy wood front door.
The parking lot was full of cars, but there was not a single person in sight. I called Rusty’s name a couple of times but knew that if he was in a car or on a boat with the air-conditioning running, he’d never hear me. Thinking I’d missed him somehow, I pushed my way back through the bar and out to our table. Still no sign of him there, and I knew that if I searched much longer, the Bimini Express would be long gone. I had no desire to take on Malheur myself, but maybe I could delay the little freighter from leaving until Rusty could get there with the authorities.
I saw our waitress standing by another table, and I interrupted her recitation of the daily specials. “When my friend comes back to our table, tell him I took his boat and went across the canal to that big ship down there, okay?” I pointed at the Bimini Express, and she nodded, turned to the young couple at the table, and started reciting the night’s specials all over again. I just had to hope she would remember.