Authors: Jeanette Baker
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Contemporary Romance, #Adult, #Sex, #Law Enforcement, #Man Made Disaster, #Land Pollution, #Water Pollution, #Radioactivity Pollution, #Detective Mystery, #Rural, #Small Town, #Suburban, #Urban, #Wilderness, #Louisiana, #Maryland, #Christianity-Catholicism, #Science-Marine Biology, #Social Sciences-Geography, #Fishing-Fresh Water, #Fishing-Salt Water, #Boat Transportation, #2000-2010, #1960-1969
“This job isn't a popular cause around here. Close as we are to our nation's capital, there's still a states' rights mentality here on the peninsula side of Maryland. Folks don't like squealing on one of their own.” Cliff didn't like it himself. He'd grown up on these waters. There wasn't a man within fifty miles of the Cove that he hadn't sworn and fished, arm-wrestled and slept off a drunk with. An investigation could lead to a fishing blackout. “Can you do that, Libba? Do you have any experience with people spittin' on your shoes or in your face when you tell 'em they can't go to work in the mornin' to feed their families?”
“So far, no.”
He nodded. “Fair enough. Come on in day after tomorrow and we'll talk.”
Verna Lee returned with a pitcher of tea, two sweating glasses and a flask filled with a clear liquid. “Help yourself,” she said. “I've got a few things to do in the back. Holler if anyone comes through the door.”
Deciding against the sugar water, Libby picked up her glass and sat down across from Cliff. “Are you worried?” she asked bluntly.
His smile was grim. “I'll tell you that when you're officially on the payroll.”
“I'll be in day after tomorrow.”
“Don't disappoint me.”
She drained her glass and looked around. “Verna Lee's done well for herself.”
Cliff looked around. “It's a nice little place.”
“My daughter thinks so, too.”
“How old is she?”
Libby laughed. “Exactly.”
“This promises to be an interesting summer,” Cliff observed. “All kinds of people are coming home.”
“If you're warning me that Russ Hennessey is planning on taking over his daddy's fishing fleet, don't bother. I already know.”
“That one could be difficult for you, Libba. I don't need a conflict of interest here.”
“Don't be ridiculous, Cliff. That was a long time ago. We married other people.”
“And look how that turned out.”
Libby raised her eyebrows. “Since you're so well informed, how did it turn out?”
“It doesn't take a genius to figure it out when you both come home divorced.”
“I'll be leaving now,” she said politely. “Give Verna Lee my regards.”
“Will I be seeing you day after tomorrow?”
“You can count on it.”
Clifford Jackson, his forehead wrinkled in concentration, stared at the door for a long time. He liked Libba. He'd always liked her and respected her, too. He felt the same way about Russ. Hell, he'd known Russ Hennessey most of his life. There was a streak in him that some would call soft. Clifford knew better. Whatever it was that drove Russell Hennessey had nothing to do with softness. He was smart. He liked to read and he was a whiz at numbers. Every once in a while his conscience showed up as a dangerous penchant for the underdog in a town where redneck mentality was as homespun as cotton candy at a carnival.
Cliff had first witnessed it in the second grade at Lafayette Grammar School. He'd been one of six black students in a classroom filled with the offspring of illiterate crackers from the soybean fields and the affluent few from the socially correct side of Marshyhope Creek. Russ had been one of the latter. From the sidelines, Cliff had watched the kickball and foursquare games of the white boys with interest and more than a little longing. It was Russ who suggested that he play. Even in 1974, black children did not assume their welcome. Clifford's mother had warned him expressly of the dangers of overstepping his place. It was Russ who'd noticed him first, hanging back, pretending not to show his need.
At first, Cliff believed it was the promise of his height and shoulders that attracted Russ's attention. Later, much later, he realized that Russ was a law unto himself. He flouted convention whenever possible, and nothing lit the fires of his temper more than inequity, whether it was on the docks, in the classroom or on the football field. Russ Hennessey didn't care about the color of a man's skin any more than he cared who his father was or on what side of Marshyhope Creek he was born. He'd worked the trawlers with shrimpers and dockhands, black and white, since he was seven years old. According to Russ, the measure of a man was the effort of his hustle. He'd decided early on, when Clifford stopped a fly ball in the outfield with a dive that bloodied his nose and broke his finger, that Cliff Jackson measured up just fine. And because it was Russ who passed judgment, everyone else accepted it as well.
Verna Lee walked out of the kitchen. “What was that all about?”
Cliff shrugged. “You heard as much as I did. She's got the right credentials. Lord knows she'd be accepted around here. One of their own, so to speak.” He grinned. “You could say a ripe peach just fell into my lap.”
“You might be taking on more than you can handle.”
“So, what else is new?”
“Sometimes it doesn't pay to rehash the past, Clifford. You dig too deep and everything around the hole starts to crack.”
“Tell me something I don't know.”
“Libba Jane's daughter doesn't concern herself with appearances and she won't be happy when her mama tells her they aren't going home. Your new employee may not last.”
“I'll take my chances.”
“I always thought yours was an unlikely friendship.”
“Yours and Libba Jane's.”
Cliff shook his head. “Libba and I knew each other, but Russ was my friend. We lost touch for years until I took the job with the EPA. I was looking for an architect to remodel the house I'd bought in Georgetown and his name came up. Apparently he and his partner had a high-profile firm specializing in unique designs. Russ didn't disappoint me. Why he sold out is a mystery to me. He had to be making money hand over fist.”
“It doesn't surprise me at all,” Verna Lee said. “Russ always was a homebody. His daddy's company wasn't big enough for both boys and Russ always was odd man out.”
“Why was that?”
Verna Lee shook her head. “Who knows why a parent prefers one child over the other? Jealousy, maybe, or else old Beau Hennessey knew that Mitch wouldn't make it anywhere else? All I know is that if there's anyone who belongs in Marshyhope Creek, it's Russ. His roots go back two centuries and he loves the place.”
Cliff thought back to their occasional conversations and remembered Russ's answer when asked of his future plans. He'd shrug and grin, replying that he'd finish school, settle down in the Cove, marry Libba and raise another generation of Hennesseys to terrorize the peaceable citizens of Marshyhope Creek.
Libba Delacourte. Now, there was one fine woman. Not that he would verbalize that sentiment in front of Verna Lee. He didn't consider himself particularly intuitive, but even he could feel the animosity between the two women when they were together.
Still, even now, seventeen years after high school, thinking of her made Clifford smile. There had been no one sweeter, smarter or prettier than Libba Jane Delacourte. It wouldn't have mattered even if they had been the same race. For as long as Cliff could remember everyone knew that Libba belonged to Russ. She'd soothed his temper, forgiven his wildness and balanced his quicksilver moods with nothing more than a quiet whisper. Everyone with eyes could see how she felt about Russ Hennessey and that was her problem.
Bright, ambitious, elegant, the town's golden girl was meant for much more than a two-bit town full of rednecks. Libba had been as antsy to leave the stranglehold of Marshyhope Creek as a rat stuck too long in a coffee can. Cliff knew it, her teachers knew it, her parents wanted it and Russ suspected it, but her dreams didn't threaten his until the day he watched her rendition of Julia in Chekhov's
A Doll's House.
Cliff remembered the way the drama class sat that day, mesmerized, allowing her voice to wash over them, humbled by her talent, touched by her symbolism, shaken by the combination of words and thoughts that had taken root in her mind.
The rest of that day, Russ had been strangely quiet. By Monday of the following week he was himself again, but Libba was different. There was a glow to her, a guarded sensuality that wasn't there before, and her behavior toward Russ was definitely more proprietary. Clifford had known what it meant right away. Coming from a different world, he wasn't as particular about matters of the flesh as were those who lived on the
side of Marshyhope Creek. Russ had staked his claim and that claim was Libba Delacourte. At the time, Cliff had deemed it a senseless gesture. He would have sworn on his daddy's gravestone that Libba and Russ were paired up permanently. It was as plain as the red in her cheeks when she looked at him. Who would've ever thought the girl who loved literature would turn into a scientist?
“I never could figure out why Libba ran off like that,” he mused.
Verna Lee snorted. “Libba Jane had Hollywood on her mind. She wanted to be an actress. She would have taken off with anyone who promised her a stab at it even if he didn't have all that hair and white teeth.”
Cliff was losing interest in the conversation. Verna Lee was having her usual effect on him. His gaze lingered on her golden skin, her sultry mouth, her wild tawny hair and settled on her long, long legs. “Why are we talkin' about this?” he asked.
She laughed and moved toward him. “I'm open for another two hours, Cliff. Come back later.”
“You're a tease, Verna Lee.”
“Sometimes,” she admitted. “And sometimes I give you everything you want. That's the reason you keep coming back.”
She was wrong, but he didn't contradict her. He didn't know what he wanted from Verna Lee Fontaine, but it was more than sex. “Not everything,” he said, leaving the implication open, waiting to see where she'd take it.
Verna Lee ground a fist into her waist. She looked like an Aldo Luongo painting, one long golden leg exposed by the slit in her turquoise sarong, tawny curls spilling over bare shoulders. Her voice was soft, regretful and thoroughly serious. “Let's just say I've had enough of upwardly mobile black men trying their hardest to pull themselves up the corporate ladder. I've been that way before. I won't make the same mistake again.”
“Maybe you picked the wrong man.”
“No doubt of that.”
“Why not give it another try?”
“Are you willing to give it all up and buy me out of half my store?”
“Not a chance.”
She nodded. “You have your answer.”
uss removed the pencil tucked behind his ear, made an adjustment to the weekly report, entered the numbers on the adding machine and frowned at the result. To say that the books were in bad shape would be an understatement. The late Mitch Hennessey had no head for business. The most Russ could hope for was to break even. More than likely he would operate at a loss, dipping into his own retirement savings. For how long was the million-dollar question. He left the thought hanging. Billy Dupree, baseball cap in hand, stood in the doorway of the office.
Russ grinned. It was time to teach these dinosaurs how to fish. “Where've you been?” he asked Dupree. “I thought you'd never get here.”
Billy pulled a toothpick from his mouth. “We're all waitin' on you, Hennessey. Two trawlers and their crews. You still know how to crab, or am I doin' all the work? Could be that fancy degree of yours made you soft.”
Russ grinned. “Up yours, Dupree.” Shrugging a faded gray sweatshirt over his head, he preceded Billy out the door.
They climbed into a long, narrow workboat. Russ pulled up the throttle to full speed, signaled two other boats to follow, and headed toward Irish Creek, steering the thirty-five-foot workboat through the heat and shrouded stillness of water and woodland. Two hours later, he slowed down to a two-knot crawl and began laying out his first trotline with the ease of a master. When two were in place, he began the harvest. At a regular, almost mechanical pace, he pulled his bait up from the depths and passed it over the roller, allowing it to submerge in the water behind them. A crab clung tightly to each piece of brine-pickled eel. Like clockwork, before the crab broke water, he slipped a net under it, superficially glancing to see if it met legal size requirements, five inches across the back shell. Sure enough, almost every bait had a crab attached, hanging on with powerful claws and chewing on eel. With practiced ease, he plucked them off the line and tossed them into baskets.
“You were right, Hennessey. I never would have thought to look on this side of the water,” Billy said, nearly four hours later. “There's a powerful lot of crabs in this creek. Most of 'em over six inches. This size'll fetch top prices at the wharf.”
Russ lit a cigarette and leaned against the bait tank. “Hell, I'm just warmin' up. Stick with me, Dupree, and see if your take isn't twice the size you're used to.”
Billy lifted his hand in a mock salute. “Aye, aye, Captain. Lead the way. You won't find me complaining.”
When the baskets were filled to the brim, the men pulled up the nets and turned their boats toward Marshyhope Creek. Russ was tired and muscles he'd forgotten he owned, ached. He rubbed the back of his neck and stared out across the bay. Splayed across the horizon like a penny on the railroad tracks, the sun's rays had turned the channel into a river of gold. Pilings and an occasional trawler stood silhouetted against a blazing sky. Behind them, a purple dusk dogged the boat's wake. Ahead, a copper-splashed path beckoned. Summer on the Chesapeake, the promise of heaven, or as close to it as a man had a right to see. For years, Russ had taken it for granted. He never would again. “What are the chances you can unload the catch today?” he asked.
Billy maneuvered the boat close to the mooring and waited while Russ jumped out on the dock. “I'll call ahead to make sure,” he said, “but I don't think you'll have any arguments about fresh crab whatever the time of day. I'll inspect the catch tonight, check to be sure they pass muster and see you tomorrow.”
The call came before dawn the following morning. Russ fumbled for the telephone through a sleep-induced fog. “Holy shit, Dupree,” he snarled when he heard the waterman's voice. “It's four o'clock in the morning.”
Dupree's words were terse, angry. “There's something I gotta tell you.”
“This can't wait. I'll meet you at the dock. If I'm wrong, I'll buy you a beer. Hell, I'll buy you ten beers.”
Russ stared at the phone, groaned and climbed out of bed.
Less than twenty minutes later, the two men faced each other on the dock. “This better be good, Dupree,” Russ said.
The waterman pulled his cap down low over his eyes.
is hardly the word I'd use.”
Russ controlled his temper. Billy, a brawny independent young Frenchman, wise in the ways of his ancestors, would not be hurried. “Are we going somewhere?”
“Shad Landing and we're going alone.”
Russ's eyes narrowed. “Shad Landing's closed to trawlers. It's illegal to fish there. The quickest way to close us down is to operate in illegal fishing grounds.”
“We won't be taking no trawler, and whatever the government says, it's still the best place to pick up a cross sampling of crabs.”
“All right. Let's get to it.”
“You're the boss.”
Russ kept his thoughts to himself as he watched the waterman expertly maneuver the craft through the shoals, back across the bay and into outlaw waters. Billy pulled in his trotlines and unhooked the crabs, tossing them into baskets.
Russ set his teeth. Crabbing off of Shad Landing was strictly prohibited. They would be arrested on the spot if anyone reported them. Still, Billy had worked the waters of the Chesapeake islands with his father since he was four years old. If anyone knew what he was doing, it was Dupree.
Without a word, Billy turned the boat and motored back to the docks. He jumped from the boat to the pier and secured the lines, all without a word of explanation. Then he picked up the basket. “Come with me. I want you to see this.”
Twenty minutes later, Billy had the crabs laid out execution style so their underbellies were exposed. Russ stared in shock. From stunted claws and suspicious-looking lumps to oozing abscesses, every one, without exception, was horribly mutated. “What in the hell is going on here?”
“I don't know.” Billy took off his cap and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “At least thirty percent of yesterday's catch looks like this, too, I think.”
“What do you mean,
Dupree wet his lips. “I buried the diseased ones, otherwise I wouldn't have dragged you out this morning to show you what they look like. I was hoping Shad Landing would be different.”
“You're not telling me anything.”
“I sold off most of the catch without inspecting 'em.”
Russ felt like he was choking. “You did what?”
“I'd sold about a quarter of 'em without even looking at 'em. It's the way things are done now. The wholesalers and restaurants come by and order, then the flunkies come in and pile the crabs into buckets. No one looks at them until the cook drops 'em into boiling water.” Sweat rolled down his forehead. “You're gonna be getting some calls on this. I was hoping Shad Landing would be different. There's no way we can sell 'em.”
“You got that right. Put these on ice,” Russ ordered. “Call the lab in Salisbury and tell them to send someone out here. Meanwhile, I'll call the distributors and tell them we can't deliver our orders until this is straightened out.”
“Have you thought about what it's gonna do to us, Mr. Hennessey? Even if we spread out the crews on the shrimp boats, we'll have to lay off the crab skippers.”
Russ rubbed his temples and swore. All this before six in the morning. “We have no choice. These animals could be poisoned. I can't be responsible for that.”
Russ crushed his cigarette under the heel of his shoe, then he sat down behind the desk and switched on the lamp. Posted on the wall was the phone listâmostly on-call numbers of the local seafood distributors. He started at the top with Angelle. Offering as little explanation as possible, he moved down the list, smoothing the waters, promising future orders, wondering how long it would be before every supplier on the shore knew he'd supplied stunted crabs to the Cove and if the honest business practices he prided himself on were ashes on the wind.
He was on the
s, methodically checking off names, his speech so rehearsed it sounded genuine, when he came to an unfamiliar name. Nothing much changed in Frenchman's Cove. Family businesses were generations old.
An odd name on this side of the bay. He pulled the file, opened it and skimmed the page. It was his brother's medical record. John Diedrich was Mitch's oncologist.
Russ frowned and began to read more carefully, paying particular attention to the dates, leafing backward until he came to the beginning. His hands shook when he closed the file, turned off the light and walked to the window.
He stared out at the darkening sky. It would rain tonight. Mitch had never liked rain, not like he had, not like Libba, either. Strange that she should come to mind at defining moments of his life. Maybe it wasn't so strange. She'd been there for all of them. The three of them were inseparable.
Mitch, Russ and Libba Jane,
people would say, almost as if the three names were one word.
Mitch had been a sun-worshipper, refusing to wear a hat on the boats even when his freckled Irish complexion had burned to a painful red. Russ, blessed from birth with an extra dose of melanin that darkened his skin to a bronze glow, had teased him, calling him Rudolph and Pinkie and every other cruel, ego-shriveling name brothers forced to compete almost from the hour of their birth often do.
He thought of Mitch as he'd last seen him, bitter, edgy, hard-drinking, desperate for a cure for a disease that had none. Mitch, his brother, his nemesis, his shadow, his womb-mate, riddled with and battling cancer for
years until he'd succumbed six months ago. Russ blinked away the moisture gathering at the corners of his eyes. Why hadn't anyone told him sooner? Why had Mitch downplayed his illness? They were brothers, dammit, twin brothers. Whatever their differences, they were family, flesh and blood. Who had decided that Russ, the oldest, would be the one to leave, the banished brother, excluded from the family legacy? The answer was a rhetorical one and
was too strong a word. He had never seen eye to eye with his father, and unlike Mitch, he had a good head for the books. It was logical that he should be the one to go on to college, make his way doing something else. Hennessey Blue Crab and Fishing couldn't pay the bills for more than two families. Even that was stretching it. Still, Mitch was his brother. If he had known, he would have come home sooner, when it could have made a difference.
It was after nine when Russ climbed into his Blazer. He pressed down on the clutch and shifted into first gear. The day had been long and he was tired, but he didn't want to go home.
When had Hennessey House last been home? The answer was immediate. When he'd lived there with his parents and Mitch. Now his family was gone, with the exception of Tess, and her mother kept her under lock and key at the judge's big white house outside of town. No, he wouldn't see Tess tonight. He wasn't in the mood. He needed a drink and a smoke.
Leaving the town limits, Russ followed the back road toward Frenchman's Bend and Cybil's Diner. Pulling into the gravel parking lot, he rolled to a stop. Strains of Reba McEntire drifted through the night. He turned off the engine. Leaving the keys in the ignition, he walked inside. It was darker than a tar pit at midnight. Russ leaned against the doorjamb, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Cybil's Diner wasn't really a diner, it was a bar. The name was a holdover from the prohibition era when liquor was traded, gambled, sold and consumed in the back room behind the eating area. Eventually the wall had been knocked out, a pool table installed, and the last patron who remembered ordering food from Cybil died of old age. The fact that it was the only bar between Frenchman's Cove and Marshyhope Creek and every man in town, professional and blue collar, frequented its sagging, vinyl-covered booths and bar stools, kept it from becoming seedy.
Russ walked in and hesitated briefly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. It was a blinding ninety degrees of wet humidity outside in the evening heat, but here in the bar the shadowy darkness was the same at noon as it was at midnight. He looked around and experienced a rush of nostalgia. The same uneven, cleat-gouged floor, the hazy tobacco-filled air, the hard click of cue against ball, the occasional shout of laughter from a hard drinker who'd tipped one too many.
Some things were different, of course, a testimony to the passage of time. The gray-green, black-and-white RCA featuring Walter Cronkite had been replaced by Peter Jennings on a color Toshiba. The big news was the Middle East, not Vietnam. A We Accept Personal Checks and Credit Cards sign sat on the bar, and there were women in the room. Women who wore their skirts long and their hair short, women with monogrammed T-shirts and painted toenails peeking out from silver-and-beige mules, women who sipped pink-and-green drinks with umbrella-studded fruit. Russ missed the old days of peanuts and beer. He didn't recognize anyone, but it was still early.
Something soft and deliciously curved pressed against him. “What'll you have, stranger?”
Russ looked down at the inviting female rubbing her breasts against his arm. “Beer.” His voice was huskier than usual. He cleared his throat. “Whatever's on tap.”
“You got it,” she purred. “Don't go away, now. My break's in ten minutes and I want to spend every little bit of it with you.”
“I'll be here,” Russ promised.
True to her word, exactly ten minutes later the barmaid slid under his arm, leaned against him and stuck her tongue in his ear. “Wanna dance?” she asked breathlessly.
Russ, experiencing a similar change in his breathing pattern, decided that dancing was better than what she obviously had in mind. He swung her out into the middle of the floor and pulled her into his arms.
“I'm Rosalind,” she said before plastering herself against him. “Who are you?”