by Dennis Palumbo
This story first appeared in a short story collection, From Crime to Crime.
When it comes to solving mysteries, it isn’t unusual for the Smart Guys Marching Society–with the exception of Isaac, of course–to be totally at sea. I must admit, until one particular Sunday afternoon last spring, I never thought this would be literally true…
“Jesus, you’re a moron,” Fred said, sitting miserably on a bench near the cabin door. The usually unflappable lawyer was wrapped in a thin blanket, face half-hidden behind a scarf tied at his throat. Poor guy had been fighting nausea since we left the Marina.
Bill turned at the rail. “C’mon, I’ve always wanted to say that. Oh, yeah, and ‘Land ho!’”
Mark adjusted his dark-framed glasses, which looked particularly severe today, shielded beneath a Dodgers cap. “I swear, it’s that damned Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Scars kids for life.” Mark was prowling the deck, intently checking out the few other boats in the vicinity, though I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his new white deck shoes were doing major damage to his image as a hard-nosed journalist. Instead, I sat down beside Fred. “You want some Dramamine? My wife gave me extra.”
He sighed. “I want to be back on dry land, where civilized humans belong. In nice offices and bars and court rooms. Places that don’t rock up and down.”
Isaac stood at the railing with Bill, looking out at the waves. “Sorry you’re seasick, Fred. Luckily, I got my sea-legs many years ago, when I worked on a cargo ship.”
“Of course you did,” Fred murmured into his scarf.
It was a beautiful day out on the water, about nine miles from shore. Clouds towered like giant white shoulder pads, glazed by the dazzling afternoon sun. There was a sweet breeze rippling the twin sails above us, and the forty-foot yacht on which we were guests was being piloted from the fore-deck by a veteran sailor hired just for the occasion. In other words, it should have been one of those perfect California days, made famous by teen melodramas on Fox, sports car commercials and travel brochures. Despite Fred’s discomfort, it would have been, except for one undeniable fact: we were here because of a crime. In fact, a series of crimes so baffling that, as the facts were laid before us the rest of that afternoon, I wondered if even Isaac would be able to sort things out.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sitting on deck on a luxury yacht, drinks in hand, the distant outline of Marina del Rey sparkling like a necklace behind us, it was as perfect a setting as a meeting of the Smart Guys could aspire to. Not to mention the buffet, brought aboard before we disembarked by two smiling guys in white crew jackets, it was not only varied and delicious it was free, compliments of the yacht’s owner.
“Now this,” Bill had proclaimed as we first shoved off, sipping a Pina Colada and waving to the poor saps gawking at us from shore, “is the life.”
Mark had made a quick inspection of the yacht, admiring the rich sheen of the hardwood decking, the polished brass of the cabin’s exterior fixtures, the silken purr of the motor taking us past the break-water. “Wonder how much this baby goes for?” he’d asked at last, stretching out on the deck lounge. He took a swig of Corona Lite and squinted out at the water. “I mean, ballpark figure.”
“Trust me, you can’t afford a ticket to that ball- park,” replied Bill. He was standing at the build-it-yourself taco spread, getting needlessly creative.
“C’mon,” I said, nodding at his heaping plate of goodies, “we’re not even under sail yet. Besides, shouldn’t we wait for our host to appear before we attack the food?”
“Speaking of which,” Isaac said, zipping up a faded windbreaker that looked older than I am. “Where is our host? Not that I’m complaining, but…”
“Here I am,” came a voice from below deck. We heard the sound of footsteps climbing upward, toward us. Then we all turned as one as the cabin door opened–and out stepped the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life!
It had started out, three hours earlier, at my place, like any typical meeting of the Smart Guys. Bill had begun sampling the snacks even before I finished laying out the various cheese platters, baskets of chips and my wife’s sister’s new “crispy spinach” appetizer (don’t ask). Fred and Isaac were settled into their usual spots on my couch and corner armchair, respectively, and chatting amiably about the latest celebrity assault-and-battery case on the news. Some macho TV star had attacked his ex-wife’s live-in “life coach” and broken his nose. Our only missing member was Mark, who’d phoned earlier and announced he might have something special on tap for today’s meeting. I’d hoped he was talking about imported beer, since the supply in my fridge was low, and I was saving my last two bottles of Cabernet–the good stuff–for dinner with my in-laws, who were scheduled to arrive later in the week from the mid-west.
As I settled in my seat at last, understandably exhausted from my culinary labors and savoring a Dos Equis Lite, I tuned in to what Fred was saying to Isaac. “That’s where the cops made their first mistake,” he explained, wielding a Dorito chip with conviction. “Without a warrant, there was no way the judge would allow the marijuana found in the car. The search was illegal, so the evidence is inadmissible–fruit of the poison tree, as they say on Law and Order.”
Bill smiled. “That’s where Fred gets all his legal information.”
Fred scratched at his trim, reddish-brown beard. “No, just the nifty jargon. Plus I get to fantasize about having a hot new female protege every year or two.”
We’d just begun discussing what topic area might make for a spirited debate that day when my land-line rang. It was Mark. “What’s the word?” I asked, hoping the answer would be Heineken. At least a six-pack!
“The word is, it’s a go.” Mark’s voice carried its usual authoritative zeal. “The meeting is moving. Get everybody down to Marina Del Rey, the docks near the yachting club. And make it fast.”
“I live to serve,” I said, sighing. “Anything else, Captain Bligh?”
“Yeah. Bring sunscreen.” He hung up.
Which is how the Smart Guys Marching Society ended up lounging on the sun-dappled deck of a luxury yacht, riding a lolling sea off the coast of Southern California, being introduced by Mark to the blonde, twenty-something goddess who’d just joined us on deck. She wore a flowing wraparound skirt and tight, midriff-baring white shirt that emphasized her smooth, sculpted curves. Her feet were bare, nails painted a frosted pink. Her name was Lisa Norton.
“Thanks so much for doing this, guys,” she was saying, smiling against the sun-glare. Her beautiful, open face was shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat. “Especially on such short notice.”
“Our pleasure,” Fred said. I swear he almost bowed. Not that I have a right to judge. To be honest, it was pathetic –four middle-aged married men, gawking like awe-struck teenagers as Lisa gracefully pulled up a chair. Tanned and glistening, she had the warm smile of a beauty contestant and the gym-toned body of a fitness model. Only Isaac, rising to shake her hand, seemed less smitten than intrigued by our hostess, until she searched his face with those liquid blue eyes, as though looking for a kindred soul, and even his old gaze softened. Then, his face oddly unreadable, Isaac sat back down again.
As Fred and Bill took turns offering Lisa various drinks and tidbits from the buffet, Mark settled in his own chair and sat forward. “Guys,” he said, “believe it or not, there’s a reason we’re doing this on a boat, out on the ocean.”
Bill savored his drink. “You mean, a reason beyond the sheer decadence and coolness-factor? Not that I actually need one…but, sure, let’s hear it.”
Mark shook his head. “I’ll let Lisa tell her own story. I just wanted to explain how we met.”
“To hell with us,” Fred said. “How are you going to explain it to your wife?” His mood having suddenly improved, he pulled off his blanket and scarf, to reveal his standard attire of Polo shirt and pressed shorts.
“Very funny.” Mark turned to Lisa. “Sorry. They don’t get out much.”
Her smile was both understanding and self-assured. I had the feeling that our reaction to her was just a daily occurrence, to which she’d long become accustomed.
“Anyway,” Mark said evenly, turning back to the rest of us, “I got a call yesterday from Lt. Steve Hartwell, that cop buddy of mine you guys met once. Remember?”
“Sure,” I said. “Looked like a linebacker. Engaged to that nice public defender. Carolyn Something.”
“They’re married now,” he said. “But the point is, he called because Lisa had first gone to the police with her story. Which, I must admit, they initially discounted.”
“Let’s be honest.” Lisa looked at Mark. “They thought I was crazy. Either that, or some kind of publicity-seeker. One officer I spoke with actually referred me to a mental health clinic.” Then, to my surprise, her face fell. “Not that I blame him. I barely believe it myself.”
Mark nodded sympathetically. “To her credit, Lisa persevered, and was finally transferred to Hartwell’s desk. He’s as baffled by her story as anyone, but at least he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Remembering how helpful we’d been before –” Here he paused, and nodded at Isaac. “Well, at least how helpful one of us had been…anyway, Steve gave me a call and suggested that Lisa meet with us. That maybe we’d be able to make some sense out of the whole thing.”
Bill gave her an encouraging smile. “We’ll certainly do our best.”
I took this as my cue. “So, Lisa, how would you like to start? Perhaps you could tell us a little about yourself to get things moving.”
She nodded. “Not much to tell. I was born and raised here, in Santa Monica. Went to UCLA as a business major. For the past four years I’ve worked as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical firm.”
“She’s done pretty well, too,” Mark added. “Lisa told me earlier she’s vice-president of her branch office. Manages a half-dozen employees.”
“It’s a great group,” she said. “All solid, hard workers, especially my newest guy. Kenneth Jarwin. Guy’s a real dynamo, always angling for more face-time with me. He says he wants to learn everything I know about the business.” She laughed. “Which is sales-speak for he wants to steal my job.”
“Kenneth isn’t harassing you, is he?” Bill asked.
Here, Lisa tilted her chin up. “Oh, no. Nothing like that. Besides, my boyfriend’s a personal trainer and third-degree black belt. Kenny’s ambitious, not stupid.”
“Oh,” Fred said quietly. “Your boyfriend.” I could swear, at that exact moment, a huge cloud passed overhead, dimming the sun.
“Yes. Jack.” Lisa took off her hat, and tossed her luxurious hair. “I met him last year when I needed help training for the Iron man Triathlon in Hawaii. I was determined to place better than third when I did it again this year.” Her eyes shone proudly. “We’ve been together ever since. He’s very…motivating.”
By this point, Bill was chomping noisily on some blue corn tortilla chips with what can only be described as a passive-aggressive intensity. But I digress.
“Anyway,” Lisa went on, “up till last Saturday, everything was fine, though I miss Jack terribly. He’s on a spiritual retreat in the Amazon rain forest, totally cut off from all contact with the world. So, as you can imagine, it’s been pretty lonely at night in the condo. And, then, to have all this happen…” She paused, as though hesitant to go on.
“It’s okay,” I said, in my best clinical tone. “Take your time. Now, what happened last Saturday.”
Lisa paused again, gathering her thoughts. “That was the day of the regional sales conference, a week ago yesterday. So that would be last Saturday, March 24th.” A rueful grin. “I’m kinda anal when it comes to numbers. Dates and times. Goes with the job, I guess.”
“An admirable trait, in my view,” said Isaac. I glanced over to find him sitting contently on his deck chair, sipping a Diet Coke. Up until that point, to be honest, I hadn’t even known if he’d been listening.
“Was it an all-day sales conference?” Fred asked.
She nodded. “Yes, and all my people attended. The whole office. Afterwards, I got a ride back to my place with Kenneth Jarwin. So naturally I invited him in for a drink, and to discuss the day’s activities.”
“How long did he stay?” Mark asked.
“Till about ten, I guess. We had a couple of glasses of wine each, went over some paperwork we’d need for the following Monday, then he left. I was pretty tired after the long day, so I undressed and went to bed. Oh, but I did have another glass of wine. Right before.”
“Is that important?” I said.
“I think so. Because ? well, I’m usually a pretty light sleeper, but that night, I slept like a log. Then, when I got up the next morning…”
“That would be last Sunday,” Fred said.
“That’s right. When I got up and went into the bathroom, I saw something in the mirror. I sleep naked, of course, and –”
“Of course,” Fred said.
“Who doesn’t?” Bill added.
Lisa seemed oblivious, intent on telling her story. “Anyway, when I looked in the mirror, I saw this…” She sat up straighter and lifted the sleeve of her shirt. There, right where her toned upper arm met her shoulder was a faded tattoo. In black ink, formed of block letters, it spelled out just one word: “Glendale.”
At her nod, we all leaned in, peering at the tattoo. “Glendale?” Bill said. “As in, the city of Glendale?”
“Believe me,” Lisa said breathlessly, “I had no idea what it meant, and certainly no idea how it got there, though I realized right away there was only one possible answer…somebody had gotten into my room and put it on my arm while I slept.”
“And you didn’t wake up?” Mark looked dubious. “I know a little about tattoos. They require needles. And they hurt like hell.”
“I know.” She shifted in her seat to give us a better look at her arm. “But, look…it’s not a real tattoo. It’s been stenciled on. Like one of those fake, press-on tattoos, but with some kind of indelible ink. I oughtta know, I spent an hour frantically trying to scrub it off. That’s why it’s so faded now, but that morning when I first saw it, it was shiny and fresh.”
“But who could’ve done it?” Fred asked. “And how did he or she get into your place after you went to bed?”
“That shouldn’t be too hard to dope out,” Mark said. “Lisa, who has a key to the condo?”
“Besides me, just Jack and my father, who lives in Bel Air. But he’s in Europe on business at the moment.”
“Nobody at work?” I asked.
She pondered this. “One time, two months ago when Jack and I went to Rio, I asked Kenneth to drop in a few times and water my plants. I remember I gave him a key.”
“Did he give it back?” Bill asked.
“Now that you mention it, no…I mean, I don’t think so.” Her brow furrowed. “But it couldn’t have been Kenneth. That’s…that’s crazy!”
“But didn’t you say you slept soundly all night?” I reminded her. “And that this was unusual? Maybe he slipped something in your wine glass, right before he left. You did tell us you had another glass before going to bed. Maybe there was some kind of sleeping drug in there.”
Fred waved his hand. “But wait a minute…what about the tattoo itself? ‘Glendale?’ What does it mean?”
“Maybe a practical joke,” I suggested.
“I wish.” Lisa’s voice grew firmer. “Because later that morning, I saw a breaking news story on TV. The night before, some men had broken into the Glendale Savings and Loan. They’d gotten into the safety deposit boxes and escaped with a load of cash and valuables.”
“That’s right,” Fred said. “I saw something about it on the news myself.”
“Jesus, Lisa,” I said. “After that, you must’ve really been shaken up.”
“Tell me about it.” She shook her head. “I didn’t know what to do. It seemed…incredible. Crazy. I thought of calling the police, but what could I tell them? That somebody had snuck into my bedroom and tattooed the word ‘Glendale’ on my arm while I slept? And that it must have happened at about the same time crooks were robbing the Glendale Savings and Loan? I mean, who’d believe it? Hell, I didn’t believe it…”
“You could’ve shown them the tattoo,” Bill said.
Fred frowned. “They’d just think she did it to herself, or had a friend do it for her. That she was just some kind of…well…”
“Some kind of nut,” Lisa finished for him. “Exactly.”
“So what did you do?” Mark said.
“Well…to tell you the truth…nothing.” She sighed. “I guess I hoped some friend or other would finally confess to the prank, and that maybe the fact that the tattoo said ‘Glendale’ was just a weird coincidence.”
She brushed her hair back from her sweat-sheened forehead. The sun was beating down harder now. I could feel its bite on the back of my neck. “I know, it makes me sound like an idiot…” She looked over at me. “Or else the Queen of Denial. But I honestly didn’t know what to do…so I didn’t do anything. And then, that very next night–”
Fred stared. “You’re kidding.”
She shook her head. “Even though it was a Sunday, there were some papers I needed at the office, so I drove over to get them. It was about five in the afternoon. As I expected, the office was empty…except for Kenneth. He explained that he had some extra work he wanted to get done himself. We exchanged a few words while he helped me find the papers I was looking for. He even put them all together in a manila envelope and handed it to me. Then I went home to grab a bite and do a little work. Before long, I felt kinda sleepy, so I thought I’d lie down on the couch…just to rest my eyes, you know?…”
“You fell into a deep sleep,” Mark said.
“Did I ever,” she said. “And I didn’t wake up till the next morning. Monday morning. I was still in my clothes from the night before, so I went into the bathroom to take a shower. But when I started to undress…”
“No way,” Bill said, eyes wide.
She took a breath. “I–I know this is weird, but I guess I better show you.”
Without another word, she peeled off her shirt to reveal a skimpy bikini top. To a man, all we could do was just…stare. Whether in response to the sight of her full breasts or to the fact that tattooed across the top of the left one was another word in block letters, I couldn’t exactly say. Maybe a little bit of both. Lisa stood then, and reluctantly pointed to this new tattoo. It read “Hauser.”
“Hauser?” Bill was the first to find his voice. “What’s that mean?”
“I had no idea,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it… it had happened again, while I slept on the couch. But I was in my clothes! So how did he–whoever he is–how did he do it without my knowing? You see what I mean? Somebody had to sneak in, unbutton my blouse, stencil this tattoo on my breast and button up my blouse again.” She looked achingly from one of us to the other. “I know it all seems…I don’t know, funny or some- thing…but not to me. I was more freaked out than ever. Especially when I turned on the morning news ?”
“And saw the story about Hauser Ford,” Fred said evenly. “I saw it, too. The Hauser Ford dealership on Lankershim was vandalized during the night. Office ran-sacked, two SUV’s stolen and taken for joyrides. They found the cars later, abandoned, in East L.A. The cops figure it was an inside job, since the alarm had been disconnected.”
“I remember reading that story, too,” Mark said. “No leads on those perps either.”
“So the tattoo predicted…another crime?” I said.
Lisa nodded. “I know, the whole thing sounds crazy. By now, I started to think I was crazy, but more than that, I was scared. Really terrified, you know? I mean, what if this wacko did it again and tried to hurt me? Or even–”
She put her hands to her face. “I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t call my friends because they’d think I was just kidding or something. I couldn’t even reach Jack out in some jungle somewhere…”
Bill shook his head sympathetically. “Men can be so selfish sometimes.”
I gave him a look. Puh-lease. Meanwhile, we couldn’t help but notice the tears welling in Lisa’s eyes. “For the first time in my life, I felt alone,” she said softly. “Vulnerable…” She sat back in her chair and composed herself.
“Do you feel you can go on?” Fred asked, offering her a glass of sparking water.
She nodded stiffly, then took a sip of water. “You’re all being so kind,” she said. Then she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I must look terrible.”
“Hideous,” Fred said, grinning.
Lisa laughed appreciatively. Then, as though to pull herself out of the doldrums, she sat back and stretched languorously. Fred and I exchanged guarded looks. Finally, after a long, awkward silence, Mark stepped up to the plate. “Was that the end of it?” he asked her.
Her mood grew somber again. “If only it were. Like I said, I didn’t know what to do. I was too scared to leave the condo, but, at the same time, afraid to stay…you know what I mean? Finally, I forced myself to go to work, but everybody could tell I was upset about something. My secretary, Betty, kept asking me about it, so I pulled her into the ladies room with me and showed her the second tattoo. This one over my left breast.”
We all knew which one she was referring to.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Betty just started laughing. She said she loved it and wished she had the balls to do it herself.” Lisa managed a smile. “I knew then that I wouldn’t get anywhere telling her the real story. She’d never have believed me.” She sat forward, hugging herself tightly. “But I also knew I couldn’t go home alone that night, not to my place. So I booked a room at the nearest Marriott.”
“What happened that night?”
“Nothing. I hardly slept, of course. I’d double-bolted the hotel room door, checked the windows, all that. But I figured I had to be safe; nobody even knew where I was.”
“Not even from work?”
“Well, I had to tell Betty and Kenneth in case something important came up, but like I said, nothing happened that night. I woke up and checked myself out, front and back view, in the bathroom mirror. No new tattoo.”
“Did you go back to your place then?”
“No. I didn’t want to push my luck. So I stayed at the Marriott another two nights, without incident. And then… well, I guess that brings us to Friday night…”
The hot sun had continued to bake the deck. We were all sweating profusely now, wiping our brows and digging in the mini-fridge under the buffet for more drinks. Lisa polished off her sparkling water and looked searchingly from one of us to the other.
“We’d had a birthday party in the office Friday for Betty, so things didn’t break up there until about eight. I guess I’d had a bit too much to drink, because Kenneth offered me a ride back to the Marriott. On the way, he kept asking me why I was staying in a hotel, so finally I told him I was having some work done on the condo. Since Jack was away, it was a perfect time.”
“Did he believe you?” Mark asked.
“I think so. Anyway, he walked me up to my room and I opened the door.”
“Did he come in with you?”
“No. We chatted for a minute or two in the doorway and then he shook my hand and said how grateful he was for all that he’d learned working with me. I was a bit taken aback, I guess, but then we said goodnight and he left. I stripped for bed and lay down, but my head was swimming a little from the party and I couldn’t get to sleep. I picked up the TV remote and channel-surfed until I found something soothing. It was an old black-and-white movie on PBS, Orson Welles doing some Scottish play. Anyway, the next thing I knew, it was morning. I’d slept through the night.”
“Oh boy,” I said. “I’m almost afraid to ask.”
Lisa looked down. “I know. The moment I woke up, I was in a panic. I ran to look in the mirror, and…well…” She sighed, and slowly got to her feet again. As we all watched, transfixed, she unfastened the long silken skirt to reveal a minuscule thong. Now she stood wearing nothing but the skimpiest bikini I’d ever seen, and a look of sheer terror. With a trembling hand, she pointed to a spot on the top of her thigh. There, in the same black ink, was another stenciled tattoo. It read “Nelson.” Before any of us could speak, she burst into tears again. Real, choking sobs this time, her face in her hands. “I don’t understand!…how did he find me at the hotel? How did he do it? And why? Why me?”
I turned to Mark and Fred. “Does the name ‘Nelson’ mean anything to you guys?”
“Hey,” Bill snapped, “what am I, chopped liver? I watch the news just like everybody else. Man, just ‘cause I’m in the arts, I gotta take shit–”
“Chill, will ya?” Mark lifted his cap and swept his hand through his sweat-beaded hair. “Yeah. I know the name. Nelson Electronics, in Burbank. They got a store the size of a city block. There was a break-in.”
Fred took a long pull on his Corona Lite. “That’s right. The night manager got robbed at gunpoint late Friday night. The crooks got away with cash and as much high-end computer stuff as they could pile in their van.”
“Their blue Chevy van,” Bill said with emphasis. “I happened to watch a very detailed report on the local CNN channel yesterday. Right after an interesting documentary on political turmoil in South America. Anybody else happen
to catch that?”
I ignored him, keeping my eyes trained on Lisa. She’d seemed to deflate suddenly, collapsing back into her seat, head bent over her knees. Her rich blonde hair curtained her face, so that her soft weeping was even more muted.
Fred leaned toward her attentively. “I know how frightening this has been,” he said.
“You don’t know,” she said fiercely, between sniffs. “You can’t…”
“That brings us up to yesterday,” Mark said quickly, in an attempt to keep us on task. “Saturday morning. What did you do then, Lisa? After you saw this new tattoo?”
She finally looked up, beautiful face streaked with tears. “I was almost afraid to turn on the news, but I did. And before long, I saw the story about the robbery at Nelson Electronics. That’s when I knew I had to go to the police. So I did.” Lisa sat up straighter then, trying to compose herself. As though to cover the tattoo on her thigh, she slowly crossed her long, tawny legs. “As I told you already, the first officer I spoke with thought I was some kind of publicity-seeker,” she went on. “He said they often have people coming in after a big crime, claiming to know something about it. He said, ‘Yeah, we get wing-nuts like that in here every day. Though they usually don’t look like you.’ Then he made a pass at me.”
“Oh, great,” Fred said, sighing.
“Then he sent me to another officer, the one who suggested counseling. He was a lot nicer, but I just hated that nobody believed me, so I insisted on seeing somebody higher up. That’s when I was sent to Lt. Hartwell.” She looked over at Mark. “I don’t think he believed me, either. But at least he called you, to see if you and your friends might be able to help.”
“We’re glad you did,” I said.
Mark adjusted his glasses. “When Lisa and I spoke earlier, she told me she’d contacted her father in Europe and arranged to sleep here on his yacht at the Marina last night. And you did, right, Lisa?”
“Yeah, probably,” Bill murmured.
“But that doesn’t solve anything,” she said. “I can’t stay awake forever. So I thought I’d have Dad’s pilot take the yacht out today. That I’d spend the night miles away from shore, on the ocean. Nobody can get to me tonight.” A long pause. “At least, I hope not. I don’t think I could stand finding another tattoo on me.”
“Not only that,” Bill said. “Where the hell would he put it?” I gave him another look. He just shrugged.
“So,” Fred said to Lisa, “that’s your plan? To sleep out here on the boat tonight?”
“Yes. I guess I hoped you guys might stay with me…” She looked away. “I mean, there’s Captain Dan, Dad’s regular pilot. He’ll be in the wheelhouse. But I don’t really know him. And if even one of you could…” Here she leaned forward, face soft and open, eyes beseeching.
Fred cleared his throat. “Well, I’d like to, but I…I mean, I’m sure we’d all like to help, but…”
Mark folded his arms. “Wait a minute. I think your plan to stay out at sea is a good one, Lisa. At least for tonight. But let’s not forget our real purpose here, which is to figure this whole thing out.”
“Are you saying you have some ideas?” I asked.
“Damn right I do,” he replied. “For one thing, I think we all know who the creep is that’s been doing this.”
“We do?” Bill said.
“Sure. That Kenneth guy. Kenneth Jarwin.”
“But how?” I asked.
“Think about it,” Mark said. “The first night, working late with Lisa, he could easily have slipped something into her wine glass. Something that knocked her out. Then he comes back later and, using the key she’d given him some months ago, apply that stenciled tattoo on her arm.”
“Okay, I can see that. But what about the next time? Lisa had gone to the office to get some papers–”
“That’s right. And who does she find there but our friend Kenneth? He puts the papers in a manila envelope and hands it to her…see what I’m saying?”
Mark sighed, impatient. “When I was in covert ops, we had all kinds of ways to drug or poison someone. All Kenneth had to do was apply some sticky, slow-acting drug to the edge of the envelope. So that when Lisa takes it, the drug is transferred to her hand. Couple hours later, back at home, she falls into a drugged sleep. And again, Kenny-Boy comes in and this time tattoos her boob–” He glanced at Lisa. “Sorry. Left breast.” She shrugged, and waved it away.
“I see where you’re going next,” I said excitedly. “On Friday night, after Kenneth walks Lisa to the door of her hotel room, he gives her a handshake, thanking her for her support and everything. But what if he had that same drug on his hand…and so transfers it again to Lisa.”
“Exactly.” Mark adjusted his glasses importantly.
“But hold on,” Fred said. “Why wouldn’t the drug affect him, too? I mean, it’s on his hand as well.”
“Maybe it did,” Mark answered. “But, remember, all he had to do was stay awake longer than Lisa. Just long enough to sneak into her hotel room and tattoo her thigh. Or maybe he’s built up some kind of immunity to the drug. I’ve heard of operatives who’ve managed to do that kind of thing.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Another problem. How does he get into the hotel room?”
Mark smiled. “Probably the same way I’d do it. Hell, the same way I’ve done it. He just had to make nice with a maid he spotted in the hallway and, while she’s distracted by his flattery, he lifts her master key. Boom, he’s in.”
Bill scratched his chin. “Okay, assuming he’s the guy. Why is he doing this? And how the hell does he know about these crimes that are going to be committed? You saying he’s some kind of mind-reader, too?”
“No,” Mark replied. “And, you’re right, I haven’t yet worked out how he knows about the various crimes. At first I thought maybe he knew about them because he’d actually planned them. That he was some kind of criminal mastermind, with underlings who pull the jobs for him. If he knew about them in advance, he’d know what tattoo to put on Lisa.”
“But again, why?” Bill insisted.
“I have a thought,” Fred said quietly. “Remember, this Kenneth was pushy, overly ambitious. Lisa said herself she suspected he wanted her job. Isn’t that right, Lisa?”
She nodded. “That’s what I’ve always thought.”
“Then what better way to get it than to drive Lisa bonkers?” Fred took an egg-roll from its bed on a spray of lettuce and popped it in his mouth. Apparently his bout of sea-sickness had ended. “Think about it,” he said, chewing thoughtfully. “Lisa starts to believe she’s losing it, and has to resign her position. Maybe she sees a shrink who advises her to get away for a while, take a long rest. And then who’s ready to step up and take her place? Our boy Kenny.”
Fred glanced expectantly at the rest of us. “Well? Is anybody else with me on this?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Frankly, I still don’t buy Kenneth as the brains behind a series of unsolved crimes. I mean, what is he ? Professor Moriarty? Besides, there had to be easier ways to get Lisa’s job, right? He could file a phony sexual harassment suit, or start horrible rumors about her. But to orchestrate all this…?”
There was another long silence, as we sat in the sizzling heat and lazily rode the waves. Lisa, calmer now, leaned back in her chair, undeniably striking in her brief bikini, a vision of vulnerable sensuality. Finally, as if breaking a spell created by too much sun, sea and skin, Mark turned to Isaac, who’d sat in his customary silence throughout almost all of Lisa’s story. “Well, Isaac,” Mark said. “I can’t help but wonder…what do you think?”
Isaac stirred, as though from a half-doze, and blinked in the wicked sun. Then he leaned forward in his deck chair and smiled at Lisa. “I think, my dear,” he said, “you have a wonderful career ahead of you.”
“In show business, of course. You’re a wonderful actress.”
She started. “What–?”
“And I trust you’ll get all the help you’ll need from our friend in the theater here,” he continued, turning to Bill. “Since he’s the one who put you up to all this.”
Bill stiffened, eyes wide. “Now wait a–”
Isaac chided him with an archly raised eyebrow. Then, to my utter amazement, Bill suddenly broke into gales of laughter. “Goddammit, Isaac, you got me!”
“What?” It was Mark, clearly as stunned as I.
“You mean–?” Fred was on his feet, open-mouthed. By then I’d turned back to Lisa, who was laughing now herself. Beautifully, of course. Perfectly, in fact. But unquestionably…laughing.
Meanwhile, Mark had taken a menacing step toward Bill. “But how did you–?” Mark was actually sputtering. “If this was just some kind of act, how come Steve Hartwell called me about Lisa, and–”
Isaac sat back, hands behind his head. “Because your friend the lieutenant was in on the gag. I suspect Bill had no trouble talking him into playing a little trick on you.”
“None whatsoever,” Bill replied. “He said he only wished he could be here to see the look on Mark’s face.”
“Some friend,” Fred said sourly. By this point, Lisa had fastened her long skirt around her waist again and slipped on her shirt. Isaac nodded to her appreciatively.
“It was a clever ploy, Bill,” he said. “Using a young woman so stunning, we’d be both distracted and hell-bent on helping her, and of course, the strange story itself…especially the mysterious tattoos that required her to keep shedding her clothes, down to a bikini.”
Bill beamed. “Nice, eh? A brilliant directorial touch, if I say so myself.” He looked over at Mark, Fred and me. “First rule of the theater: know your audience. I knew you guys would just drool and go stupid.”
Fred glared at him. “You are so dead, man.”
“Maybe. But, just in passing, I’d say you gentlemen aren’t gettin’ enough at home.”
Mark turned to me. “I say we toss his ass overboard.”
“Works for me,” I said.
Lisa stepped toward Bill, smiling at the rest of us. “God, you should’ve seen your faces when I started showing you the goods. I swear, I almost lost it a couple times.”
Isaac nodded. “They were indeed putty in your hands.”
She eyed him wryly. “Hey, don’t think I didn’t see you checking me out, mister. You’re not dead yet.”
“What clues?” I asked.
“There were a number of hints planted throughout Lisa’s bizarre narrative,” Isaac explained. “For one thing, Bill was careful enough to have the tattoos point to specific real crimes, things we’d have seen on the news.”
Bill favored us with another smirk. “Second rule of the theater: verisimilitude. That means, using the kind of legit details that give credibility to your story.”
Mark grunted. “Yeah, we know what it means.”
“Moreover,” Isaac went on, “Bill wisely selected only unsolved crimes, so that no information would likely come out to contradict whatever theories we might come up with.”
“Like Kenneth Jarwin being a criminal mastermind,” Bill said, chuckling. “He’ll love that.”
“He’s a real person?” Fred said.
“Yeah, my stage manager. I couldn’t resist.”
Isaac sighed. “Apparently, you also couldn’t resist tweaking us a little about Lisa’s boyfriend, Jack. Come on…a spiritual quest in the Amazon rain forest?”
“I bought it,” I said, defensively.
Lisa shook her head. “Believe me, Jack couldn’t find the Amazon on a map. Not exactly his skill-set, if you know what I mean.”
“So at least he’s really your boyfriend?”
“No, my husband.” With that, she took a preposterously huge diamond ring from her shirt pocket and slipped it onto her third finger, left hand.
“Your husband?” Mark said.
“Yeah. And he can’t wait to meet all of you. He’ll be waiting at the dock when we get back.”
“Look forward to it,” Mark grumbled.
Bill sipped his beer. “Jack really is a trainer and martial artist, too. But just for the love of it. He’s the heir to some mining fortune. Worth millions.” He swept the deck with a sweep of his hand. “This is his boat, in fact.”
As we were still letting this sink in, Isaac turned again to Bill.“I think my favorite clue was when you had Lisa describe what happened Friday night at the hotel.”
“I hoped you’d get that one,” Bill said.
“What about it?” I asked. “Lisa said she couldn’t sleep, so she ended up watching something on PBS.”
“Yes,” said Isaac. “Lisa said she saw Orson Welles in ‘some Scottish play.’ Of course, I knew instantly then that she was an actress. Actors are notoriously superstitious when it comes to Shakespeare’s MacBeth. They refuse to even say the name.”
“And you shouldn’t have,” Lisa said seriously. Then she reached for a salt shaker on the buffet table and tossed a pinch of salt over her shoulder.
Isaac watched her with bemusement. “Even the fact that you said you tried to scrub the first tattoo off suggested the play to me. As Lady MacBeth says, ‘Out, damned spot.’”
“All part of the script,” Bill said. “Though I did wonder whether you’d get that subtle reference.”
“The point is,” Isaac went on, “once I knew for sure that Lisa was an actress, I suspected that Bill might be behind the whole thing.”
“Well, I’ve known Lisa for years,” Bill explained. “I’m directing her now in a production in Long Beach. She’s a wonderful actress, as you could all see. And a helluva good sport.”
She smiled demurely. “I guess I love a challenge. Besides, it was such a great part, how could I say no?”
“Thanks,” she said. “Though I can’t wait to get home and wash these fake tattoos off. They’re hardly indelible, of course. But they can be stubborn.”
“I suggest a drop of baby oil,” Isaac said helpfully.
By now, the sun had begun to slide toward the horizon, so Lisa went forward to tell Captain Dan to turn us around and head back to the Marina.
On her way, she looked back at us over her shoulder. “Thanks, guys. Best acting exercise I ever did.”
As soon as she left, Mark looked pointedly at Bill. “Okay, you got us. I just have one question: why?”
Bill shrugged. “I don’t know, I thought it’d be funny. Plus, I figured the occasion demanded it.”
“What occasion?” I asked.
It was Isaac who answered. “Think about it. Remember how specific Lisa was about the date on which she received the first tattoo? She said it happened last Saturday, March 24th. That was a nice touch, too, Bill.”
Bill bowed in his seat. “Great minds think alike.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“We’ve had such an eventful day,” Isaac said, “I suppose none of you noticed today’s date. If last Saturday was March 24th, and yesterday was Saturday the 31st, that makes today–”
“April 1st!” Fred said, groaning.
“That’s right, fellow Smart Guys,” Bill said, with a deeply satisfied grin. “April Fool’s Day!”
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