She used to drop into the Blue Lagoon, where I played guitar and sang off-key in the late eighties. She often met a slim brunette who wore tinted glasses. Sometimes she sat at the bar and talked with Diego, the bartender. Early one night, I saw her leave with him and assumed she was his. Still, on a later occasion, we locked eyes as I sang a catchy West Indies tune―and she smiled.
The décor is South Pacific. Thatch ceiling, witch-doctor masks, totem poles carved from palm trunks. I’m in white ducks, a flowered shirt, and an old sombrero from Guadeloupe. It all helped to sell those tall drinks topped with a parasol that the tourists slurp. (The barflies were more into beer or straight booze, usually with their backs to me.) I played acoustic guitar, with the steel when I did Hawaiian. As you see, I sort of mixed the island cultures, but no one complained. It’s the thought of tropical isles, generic, that stirs the blood.
She half listened to Diego but watched me as I sang the Calypso ballad:
“Five thousand dollar, friend, I lost.
Woman even take me cart and horse.
Money was to buy me house and lot.
Money that was mine, this woman got.
Matilda . . . Matilda . . .”
Later she approached me as I sat at a table reserved for employees on our breaks. I forgot to exhale at the close-up of harmonious curves, full lips, and shoulder-length, glossy brown hair.
“I’m Renée,” she said in husky tones. “Renée Lamond. My brother owns this joint.”
“Steve Best,” I said, rising to clasp her hand. With a life to put behind me, I used my stage name in Florida. It was unknown in Texas, where I’m still wanted for smuggling.
“I love those island rhythms,” she said. “Awesome.” She sat down at my invitation. To explain her uniform, he said she nursed at the University Medical Center. My tan impressed her, and I told her it was from the sun, not my parents. She said her father was French, her mother Irish, and they’d come to Jacksonville when she and her brother were little. She ordered a Coke but didn’t touch it.
“I’ve seen you with Diego,” I ventured, seeking clarification.
She shook her head. “We dated, but it’s over. I’m making that plain tonight.”
“He thinks he owns me.” Her green eyes flashed. “I’m not his, I’m not anybody’s. I belong to me.”
“I’m glad to know that, Renée. I’ve been dying to meet you, but I thought I’d better cool it. He’s bigger than I am.”
“You don’t have to cool anything on his account.”
That struck me as highly inviting. “So you’re going to set Diego straight,” I said. “How do you think he’ll take it?”
“Calmly—if he wants to keep his job.” The glances he threw at us made me doubt that he’d just back off. Diego had hired me, but I saw eye to eye with Renée on ownership.
The following evening, she sat with a tall, dark man. He wore a tie, a gray suit, oxford shoes. They seemed to be arguing, and I didn’t like the way he leaned into her face. Diego was probably eavesdropping as he wiped the bar near their table. No one listened as I sang “The Banana Boat Song” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
At length the stranger stood up, and it was clear that Renée didn’t want to. He grasped her wrist, and a chair fell over as they left. I stashed the hat, dropped my guitar into its case, and slipped out behind them. I meant to step in if Renée was in real trouble.
They headed down a narrow side street, the man gripping her arm. I caught the words “You’re behaving like a tramp” and “I’m taking you to your place.” When they continued to walk, I figured she lived nearby.
Suddenly the world exploded, a huge sound-and-light show. When I opened my eyes, the moon and stars churned above me. I lay on the sidewalk amid scattered trash cans. Renée, kneeling, placed something soft under my throbbing head. I heard a man say, “We can’t get involved. Call an ambulance.”
I must have blacked out again. This time I woke on a bed, surrounded by white curtains and an IV rig. Presently Renée appeared in uniform and told me we were in the hospital where she worked.
“What happened?” I asked. The effort sent a thunderbolt through my head.
“You were mugged. Fortunately, we heard a clatter and went back to look. Whoever conked you didn’t take your wallet. What were you doing there, anyway?”
“Following you. I wanted to keep that guy from hurting you.”
“My brother Carl. Actually my half-brother, from my mom’s first marriage. He doesn’t like me hanging out at the Blue Lagoon. Even though it’s his, he considers it a dive.”
“No argument there. But you should have said something. I might have slugged him.”
“It would serve him right. He’s another one who thinks he owns me.”
“You’re lucky to have a protective brother. Why were you putting up such a fuss?”
“It’s a little complicated. I didn’t want him in my apartment because of Margo―Margo Spellman, the journalist. We go way back. She’s staying with me to be near her doctor boyfriend―and write articles Carl would like to stop.”
“Well . . . Carl’s big-time in the banking world, and Margo’s not their best friend. But let’s drop it for now. You should rest. Your scan shows a slight concussion.”
On Renée’s next visit, I learned that Carl owned night clubs and other properties along the city’s waterways. He had a bodyguard. Was that who decked me? He may have thought he was protecting his boss from a stalker.
I was discharged the following afternoon with instructions to stay in bed. After a soup-and-aspirin supper, I returned to work. I didn’t see Renée. During a break I sat at a table feeling wiped out. Diego joined me. As usual his jet-black hair was combed and his face shaved. His smile and manner were easy, yet he seldom looked at me directly. I noticed long scratches on his left cheek and through the Cuban flag on his right forearm.
“What’s up?” I asked.
He absently tapped the table. “Renée’s home sulking,” he said. “I’m gonna ask you to do me a favor, Steve. We had a spat, and I’m afraid she’ll hurt herself. She goes crazy.”
Recalling her intention to leave him, I guessed the gist of their argument. I didn’t see why it should have upset her, but I was interested enough to be drawn in. “You’d like me to call her,” I said.
“I tried. She won’t answer.”
“So what can I do for you?”
“You could drop by there, just for a minute. See if she’s all right. It’s just around the corner.”
It sounded reasonable, like he hoped I’d smooth things over for him. He gave me the address. I didn’t tell him he was wasting his time; I welcomed an excuse to see Renée. To make a good impression, I’d be equally friendly with the two roommates.
I walked down the same streets, warily in the deepening shadows. Shortly I emerged into a decent, well-lit section. I buzzed Renée’s first-floor apartment. No answer. Either the girls had gone out or weren’t receiving. Maybe they thought it was Diego back for another try. “Renée,” I called, “it’s Steve Best.” Then, “Margo—are you in there? I’m a friend of Renée’s.”
Rapping on the door, I was surprised to find it ajar. I opened it and called again. “Renée. Margo.” Still no answer. In the dim interior, I saw broken dishes, spilled flowers, an overturned lamp. The screen of a computer cruised through starry space, and a ceiling fan turned slowly, clicking.
I went in, shut the door, and crossed to a nook with opposite doors to a bedroom and a bath. Glancing into the lighted bathroom, I saw blood on the white rug and a bloody carving knife in the sink.
I heard a bird twitter and switched on a bedroom light. Nobody was there.
Wrong. A body was. A young woman lay sprawled on a twin bed. It wasn’t Renée, so it must be Margo. Unmistakably dead.
The slip she wore was bloody from multiple stab wounds in the neck and torso. Her eyes and mouth were open, fixed in terror and pain. Steel wire bound her hands in front, and tinted glasses lay crushed on the floor. A frightened canary jumped back and forth between perch and swing. As I recovered from shock, I picked up the phone to dial 9-1-1.
But― My voice would be on record. I’d be Suspect Number One!
And if I just slipped out, Renée would find her friend . . .
Now the doorbell rang. Not her―she’d just enter. Another ring. I waited for the caller to leave. But the door opened and a man in hospital greens, young, intense, stepped in. We swapped identities. He was Clive Youman, an intern at the University Medical Center―Margo’s boyfriend. Careful; he might be the murderer returning to the scene of the crime.
“Where are they?” he asked.
“Try the bedroom.”
He strode past me, and the canary chirped. I heard him gasp, “Good Lord!”
As I watched, he felt her neck for a pulse. Then he sank into a chair, his face in his hands. Finally he focused on me. “Why? Why did you do it?”
“I didn’t. Diego at the Blue Lagoon sent me to check on Renée.”
“That guy― He kept hanging around, wouldn’t leave them alone. If you’re connected with him―” He reached for the phone but halted at my next remark.
“Maybe Diego scored and you knifed her out of jealousy.”
“What?” he fired. “That’s insane. Why would I come back?”
“To wipe off fingerprints, take a last look—”
“Damn you! And why would I ring the bell?”
I had to admit his logic there. He, on the other hand, had good grounds to suspect me. Now he was up again, gazing at the body. His next words bared his rage and torment.
“You came here for whatever sick reason . . . tied her hands. Why did you do that before you stabbed her?―over and over again!”
“Yeah, right. And I hung around while the blood dried and friends dropped in.” But my protest hadn’t answered his question: Why were the wrists wired together? And where did Diego have his “spat” with Renée. Or could it have been with Margo?
At that point, there was a hard rap on the front door. “Open up! Police!”
Why the police? I thought. Someone sent them. And half to myself, half to Youman: “Sent me . . . left the door ajar . . .”
“Diego set you up. And I stumbled into it. Looks like we’re in it together.”
Acting on a hunch, I said, “Check her fingernails.”
“What? No. We mustn’t contaminate the crime scene.”
“Just her right hand, while you have a chance. Check the nails.”
Another loud rap. “Open up or we’ll force the door.”
Youman bent over the body as I called out, “It’s unlocked.”
I met two cops. One said, “We’re here to investigate a report of a homicide.”
“In there. A doctor’s with her. You’ll find a knife in the bathroom.”
One cop held me at the bedroom door while the other went in. “Who called you?” I asked.
My guard took his time before replying. “Anonymous.”
Youman held something to the light of a table lamp, something on the point of a penknife. “It looks like skin,” he said, puzzled. “Red and blue skin . . .”
“From Diego’s tattoo,” I explained.
He put the specimen in a pill bottle. I told the police to look for Diego at the Blue Lagoon, the bartender with scrapes on his face and arm. The doctor’s presence, and my protest that I wouldn’t have waited for the blood to clot, may have won their respect. We were told to report to headquarters.
On my way to the door, I passed Renée’s brother looking cool in Banana Republic cotton. I watched as he spoke to a cop and stepped to the bedroom, where he stood awhile in the doorway, seeming stunned. Then he sat down at Margo’s desk and turned off the computer. Just trying to be helpful, I thought. But I wondered why he slipped a disk into a pocket of his jacket.
Later, at the Blue Lagoon, I couldn’t find a B string in my guitar case. Grimly I realized why he’d bound her wrists: the wire would point to me. Diego had me in mind before he killed her. I forgot some words as I sang the first set. The frame-up still haunted me―and something else. Something Renée had said about Carl and Margo . . .
Renée came in and we took a booth. I saw that she’d been crying. When I told her Diego had been arrested, she said, “I hope he dies. He killed my dearest friend.” She wiped her eyes.
“But why Margo? I thought it was you he lusted after.”
Her gaze was reflective. “I think he was under orders. Margo was on to something big.”
“So big they had to shut her up?”
“She was an investigative reporter, Steve. She was about to expose a rash of bank frauds where the CEOs loot the till and the government has to cough up. It’s like a spider web spun out of Washington, with kickbacks to public officials.”
“How did Diego know it wouldn’t be you who found her?”
“Maybe he heard Carl tell me to meet him for dinner.”
I had watched her brother—Diego’s boss and a cog in recent bank mergers―pocket Margo’s explosive work, but I didn’t mentioned it. She’d had enough for one day.
We split a beer and soon felt better. Her hand on mine, and her limpid green eyes, held me a moment as I rose to play. I rendered “Blue Hawaii” with soulful wipes of the steel. When I returned her gaze and sang
“Come with me . . .
While the moon is on the sea.
The night is young and so are we . . .”
she nodded eagerly.
Author’s note: Words to eight bars of “Matilda” are quoted from Legit Fake Book, No. 1, Copyright © 1963, Larrabee Publications, Inc., 39 West 60th St., New York 23, N.Y. Words to eight bars of “Blue Hawaii” are quoted from The Musicians Fake Book, Copyright © 1991 CPP / Belwin, Inc., 15800 NW 48th Ave., Miami, FL 33014; and copyrights are cited by Famous Music Corp. 1936, 1937, 1963, and 1964.