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Authors: Kit Reed

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F
OR
D
ANIEL

FOR REALS

 

1

David Ribault

Thursday, before dawn

If there was a shift in the skies at his back just then— any change in the wind to signify what was coming, Davy didn't know it. The islands were at his back, the skies ahead, dark as fuck. He was on the last causeway to the mainland, getting cranked up to confront Rawson Steele, object?

Deconstruction.

Look, the first time he saw the guy, he was stealing a car on Front Street— at least Davy thinks he was. Last week he caught this well-dressed stranger hotwiring a needle-nosed Lexus with out-of-state tags on the main drag. Nobody steals cars in downtown Charlton, South Carolina, at least not this early; nobody lays his classy suit jacket across the hood while he's doing it: flaunting Hugo Boss on Front Street at an hour when no tourists come.

Perfect hair. That suit.
Not from around here.

Davy let it go by, but he unlocked his offices with the creepy feeling that he wasn't the first.

David Ribault's sense of order is profound. He can tell when something's wrong. An architect, he knows the location of everything in his office, down to the last pencil. He doesn't know how, he just knows how it is. It's what drove him to architecture in the first place. He wants to improve his part of the world with designs that can be set down and defined in terms of absolutes. It's about sorting out the mess and confusion of life, a least a little bit, with symmetry.

He studied the configuration of objects on his drafting table for too long, scowling.
Everything looks OK, but it isn't.
He couldn't pin it down, exactly. He just knew.

Don't be stupid,
he told himself, but it was creepy.

Then, driving back to Merrill's neat little steamboat bungalow on Kraven island that night, he slammed on the brakes. The sleazy hotwire wizard's car crouched in the no-parking zone outside the Harbor City Inn, vibrating in place like a dog that somebody told, “Stay,” and then forgot. Davy's back hairs bristled.
Not your car.

He saw the driver stalking up the walk to the hotel like he owned the place. However he charmed Martha Ann Calhoun at the desk, whatever he had to pay her, days have passed and that car is still sitting there. Did the big-city stranger come back and turn off the motor or did he leave it running in place until the tank burned dry?

“That car? It belongs to this big gun from New York, his name is Rawson Steele,” Merrill said when he came home fuming. “We had a great conversation.”

Davy's back went up. “Stay away from him, he's a sleazeball.”

She shut him down with a silky smile. “Well, he was very nice to me.”

So Steele hit on Davy's girl before he even knew it, worked his dark magic before he could go,
watch out.
Everybody knows him now, Kraventown is that small. He knifed his way in here like a tiger shark hunting in the swash, finds a way to get in your face, standing too close with that innocent fuck-me grin,
Can't they see the teeth?
It bothers him that nobody else got this warning vibe, not even his old friend Ray Powell— retired lawyer, runs Kraventown from behind the scenes.

It bothers him that nobody else got that warning vibe, not even meticulous Ray. Ray takes his time making up his mind, just not that day. Ray,
his friend Ray
walked Steele into Merrill's office at Town Planning and Zoning and introduced them smooth as Judas, and Merrill drank the Kool-Aid too, which bothers him the most.

Then on Friday she took his hands the way she does, laughing. “Come on, sweetie. Ray's giving the party at Azalea House.”

“For that guy.”

“Is that a problem for you?”

He was cool about it, neither here or there. “Sorry, I have things to do.”

They're too close to have to spell it out. She tried, “If you'd only
talk
to him. Really, he's in love with this place and so are you…” Then she read the sour look on his face and push almost came to shove; his smart, tough, longtime lover curled her fingers in the hollow at his throat, wheedling. “If you loved me, you'd come with.”

He managed not to say,
Not in this life.
He tightened his hand over hers, keeping it in place, and did the best he could. “Tell Ray I'm sorry, tell him something came up.”

Right. He should have gone, marked his territory, whatever men in love are supposed to do. Merrill came home glowing. “Davy, he can't figure out why you won't give him the time of day when he thinks you're doing great things here.”

What???

“New buildings
and
renovations. What you did at the Lanier plantation, the big houses on Front Street, the Gaillard, for instance, the clinic. At least give him a chance!”

He loves her so he kept his mouth shut.

According to Ray, Rawson Steele worked that party like a pro. He'd played the genial, clueless tourist, “
Say
,
where's the best fishing, who makes the best crab cakes, are there any Civil War relics left on the island?”
translated: Confederate gold. He followed up with
“Who keeps up all these great old houses”
a beat too soon, Ray told him, which meant, “
Who are the first families?”
By the time the Japanese lanterns burned down and his guests were wandering off into the Carolina night, this aggressively charming intruder had his host backed into a corner. He was oblique, nothing stated, but all those questions narrowed down to:
“What would it take to buy these people out?”

Davy said, “He looked like trouble coming in.”

Ray, who'd planted torch
è
res along the walks at Azalea House and fired up his champagne fountain in this guy's honor, finished, “Turns out you were right, Ribault. You. Were. Right.”

Here in the low country, on the barrier islands along the Inland Waterway, on Kraven island in particular, people don't land on you like that. They don't expect you to unzip your fly at the first party and show them your junk. In these parts folks amble in, and if there's something on their mind they take their time getting around to it, idling until you ask.

Ray backed off that night and he wasn't the only one. In the low country, people do these things so smoothly that outsiders never know. Davy kept his distance, but every day he has coffee with the dawn patrol at Weisbuch's store, and he hears. They say Steele is here for something about their island— land, he thinks— which puts David A. Ribault of Ribault Associates, Architects, squarely in his sights, which is a problem for him. Davy isn't OCD exactly, but as a kid he fell in love with symmetry, and he became an architect because of the need to put things right. He'd like to take the jumbled mass of the town, all these decaying houses and ramshackle shanties and cheap new buildings badly designed, and find a way to improve them, daring to hope that will make things better for people living here, whereas this bastard, bastard … He doesn't know. But he does.
He wants to fuck up our island.
No.
He wants to fuck us up by messing with everything we care about.

For days he and Steele circled each other like dogs deciding whether to fight or not. He'd just as soon they didn't, but when he slouched out of Weisbuch's early yesterday, Steele blindsided him. “Ribault!”

“Shit!” Bastard, bastard: hot coffee everywhere.

“We have to meet.”

“Whatever happened to hello?”

Eyes narrowed: “Urgent matter.”

“Say what?” Davy was not about to ask why. He wasn't about to say yes, either.

“We need to sit down.” Steele was all Abe Lincoln forelock and disarming, trust-me grin, but those black eyes darted here, there. With a fake half-smile, he rushed on. “Not here, over there on the mainland, where it's…”

Fill in the blanks.

“It's…” Davy prompted, leaving Steele a space to put the rest, but Steele didn't.
What does he want from me?

“How's tomorrow?”

Davy studied the lanky Northerner: dark hair, dark, deep-set eyes, really does look like Abraham Lincoln on a good day, except without the beard.
Would you trust this man?
Davy doesn't trust anybody much, except Merrill. And Ray, who yanked him out of Charlton Community College and drop-kicked him into New Haven to start all over again at Yale. “What for?”

Steele used the proffer: big man extends hand with generous grin to prove that he's bigger than you. “Rawson Steele.”
Shake.

“I know.” Davy shook, sort of, in a classic feint-and-lunge. Two guys who don't like each other much, bent on faking each other out.

“We need a time certain.”

“I need a reason.”

Steele countered with the blow-off line of the century. “I'll explain later. Tomorrow?”

Davy wheeled. “Can't. Busy.” Take
that
and fuck you.

“Wait!” Steele followed, matching him step for step. “This is…”

“What?” Davy snapped around in a full 360, glaring. “What!”

“It's…” This is when he got weird. “I don't want to cause a panic but this is serious, and you look like the right man…”

If I ask, he wins. Make him wait.

Steele waited a beat too long. He said, “Something's about to,” and didn't finish. He said, “It's just.” But he didn't say just what. He said what was a good place on the mainland, where they could meet out in the open, where no third party can plant a bug. As if granting a concession, he said, “Name the place.”

Davy didn't. He just grinned. “No bugs?”

“You heard me.”

Davy studied him: silk shirt, hundred-dollar jeans and four-hundred-dollar high-tops. Like he went into Barneys and said, “country” and this is what he got, never looked at the tags, just let them run his plastic, all condescending, thinking:
South Carolina? Hicks. This is good enough for them
.

Davy's grin spread.
Welcome to the boondocks, friend.
He held off answering until he had Steele gnawing the cuticles around his buffed fingernails. “Historic Charlton waterfront?”

“Someplace convenient to your office.”

So you did break in, you condescending fuck. Like I'll take you into the back room and show you everything.

They faced off like captains of opposing teams, hicks versus assholes. “Outside, no bugs? Then you'll want the Front Street Overlook.” Davy flashed his best hick grin.

Steele didn't bother to fake a smile. “Directions, please. I need to tell my phone.”

Like any app could track the network of causeways and bridges linking the barrier islands to town. He really is not from around here. Pissed, he started before Steele hit
record:
“OK, Lewis Cooder bridge off Kraven, take Route Six across Poynter's island to the Calhoun bridge to the causeway. It's a straight shot to the Bartlett Fork. Now, look sharp and watch the signs or you'll end up at the base on North Island, apologizing to the MPs on the gate. Got that?”

As if. Steele was all thumbs. Grinning, Davy went on. “Your next turn's at the three-foot-tall milestone, you can't miss it, big block letters. Take a right and you're headed for Charlton.” The milestone reads:
RIBAULT ROAD
. His family was in the first wave of Huguenots, so far back that people forget. “Charlton High's on your left, we used to. Never mind. Bear right at Pinckney Street. Big money built on the waterfront, it's all Tara and Belle Reve on the left, facing the bay. Look for the Overlook where the live-oaks thin out?”

“Wait!”

“Live-oaks, did you not Google us?” He was gratified to see Steele, all thwarted and fuming when all he has to do is get a damn map. Grinning, Davy dragged it out, “You know, all Spanish moss, like gorilla armpit hair? At the Tanner house, pull into the lot across the street.”

He had Steel barking with frustration. “Tanner house?”

“Man, it's on all the damn posters! Civil War hospital. They rolled all the crippled Yankee soldiers out on the porch to watch the sun come up.” Davy finished with his easy, trust-me grin. He laid back for a minute, wanting Steele to process what he said next.

“You wanted a place that can't be bugged.”

“Right. Privacy.” Steele fixed Davy with those dead-black eyes. “You'll need it.”

“Nope.” Nobody tells Dave Ribault what he needs without it costing. Fool Yankee, with his No Bugs.
I'll show you bugs.

Steele dropped the next words like bricks. “You don't know what you need.”

Raising the possibility that after last night he and Merrill …
Don't, Ribault. Be cool.
“I'll be under the Charlton Oak, big tree, big plaque. You get one half-hour, tops.” Then he walked right into it. “What time?”

Steele made a quick calculation: turned out it was get-even time. Given their schedules and whatever he has on his plate that he needs to keep private Steele said, “Early.”

“How early?”

“At 4:30,” the Northerner said with a
gotcha
grin. Then he drove in the last nail. “If you want everything you care about to be where you left it when you get home tomorrow…” he said, but did not finish. Son of a bitch walked away whistling through his teeth like Davy ought to know the tune and pick up on the words, but, shit.

He went to work pissed off, and drew and redrew a site plan because he couldn't make it come out
right.
It made him late getting back to Merrill's house so he stayed pissed off, and when he rolled into the driveway, his bad day personified was standing with Merrill at her front door, two heads bent under the yellow porch light. Close. Like they were colluding.

It's not that she's Davy's private property, but they are, by God,
together,
everybody knows that. He got out of the car locked and loaded, but by the time he crunched through the azaleas Merrill was inside and Steele was gone. He didn't ask and she didn't say, they just sat down to a late supper in front of the TV so nobody had to talk, but it ate him out like a mess of chiggers, burrowing under the skin. He'd do anything to make it stop: pace, eat, confront her, but he didn't know what.

They collided in her kitchen in the middle of the night and faced off like gladiators— why?

He thinks he snarled,
What was that with you and Rawson Steele?
and they had words. She cried,
That's what I'm trying to find out,
which should have diffused it— if he'd just let it go, but he couldn't, so push came to shove the way it does with them: her strong mind, his will. By the end he was raging,
Dammit, I moved all the way out here just to be with you
and Merrill said if that's the way he felt about it, he should damn well put up or shut up and God help him, he doesn't know which. It was stone dark when he slipped out of bed today with all that between them, and nothing resolved. He could care less whether Steele's stupid meeting comes off, but the fight stuck to his hide like a burr under a saddle and rubbed him raw. OK, he fled the scene of the crime. He left Kraven island long before Boogie Hood shuffled out of the back room to start the coffee, raised the Rolos and turned on the light in front of Weisbuch's store.

Now

Driving to town in the dark, he broods. Why this frontal assault on Kraven island, and his girl Merrill in particular? What, exactly, is driving Rawson Steele?

It's so early that no birds fly. The only sign of life in the sky above the Inland Waterway is a transport plane taking off from the base at North Island. Even the bugs seething in the marsh grass along the causeways are still. He should have but didn't leave some kind of note for Merrill, she won't mind, they don't take each other for granted, they're not on that kind of footing, but after last night … At the end it got ugly, both of them hurt and angry, tearing up the night.

Oh shit.
Oh, shit.

Anger twists in his belly like a mess of gators seething in the marsh. He wrenches the car off the road at the Overlook and pulls into the parking lot. Four
A.M.
Good. He's first. Fine. Go out on the breakwater and watch the morning come up. Make the bastard wait. From the breakwater, he'll see Steele's car coming before the fool figures out where to park. Given the lay of the land, he'll have to stand up with a big, hick wave before Steele even knows that his mark or his quarry, nemesis or whatever, got here first.

Davy will write his first line based on the look of Steele as he approaches, gauge his intentions by the way he walks. See if he gassed up that Lexus or hotwired another car. Make him wait until he's gnawed his fingers raw, and make him wait some more. If he so much as looks like he's fixing to leave, keep him in place with one phone call: “Bridge is up, be there soon.” String it out, Ribault. String it out. Eventually his mark will get sick of pacing and sit down under the famous Charlton Oak. Being as he's not from around here, he'll lean against that big, speckled trunk and start messing with his smartphone, Davy thinks, everybody does.

That's when I drop down to the fisherman's ledge and come back around on him, so it looks like I just drove in.
He'll give Steele his patented sweet, apologetic grin, show his empty hands and go, “Hey. Don't get up.” By that time the Northerner's pants will be alive with redbugs: chiggers gnawing through his thong or burrowing deep inside the butt-crack of those high-end jeans. At this or any other hour the little fuckers snap to and swarm out of the bark or up from the Spanish moss the second they smell fresh meat.

It's a pleasure to think about them having whatever urgent conversation Steele planned while he's all distracted and crazy because he can't let Merrill Poulnot's lover, her
partner
see him scratching his butt.

There is a shift in the air— an atmospheric tremor, as though something tremendous just stirred and came to life, but he is too angry to mark the difference.

Whatever was about to happen just happened, but Davy doesn't know it yet.

Instead, his heart is running on ahead. He has to get done here and rush home before Merrill even thinks about waking up. He has to make things right. The more Davy mulls it, the more he thinks her ultimatum is directly caused by this fucking Steele, an observation he is too messed up to parse. Where is the fucker, anyway? If it gets to be five
A.M.
and he hasn't showed, the hell with him. They're done. He'll wait until the last trawler passes, guys he knew in high school fixing to cast their nets out there just like their fathers did. When he studied architecture and set up shop on Charlton Street, he had great dreams. Instead it's a constant tug-of-war between his vision and predators like Steele, and if he envies the shrimpers a little bit? Well, yeah. So cool, spending your days out on the open water, nothing to think about; cast the nets and drift until sunset, haul in your catch.

Fuck Steele, with his “I'll explain later.” The light is changing and he has things to do. Get home, take Merrill by the hands and not let go until they've ended this, he tells himself, without knowing what
this
is.

Then sirens tear up the sunrise, the blat and confusion of some new emergency. Warning?
Warning.

Trouble out there somewhere.

He is up and running too fast for thought to catch up, shaken, worried and wondering.

Where?

 

2

Merrill Poulnot

Yesterday morning

Nobody saw this coming.

Waking up in our usual lives on Kraven island yesterday, who knew? Lying there with Davy, doing everything we loved to do, I didn't have a clue. When we're linked, we're one body; when we're apart, we're like twins separated at birth— if one of us is hurt, the other flinches, but now …

Who knew? How could anybody know?

Look at us the way we were, lounging in the sweet morning air, lazy islanders getting up to go about our business: Davy and me lying close, the hundred other souls stirring around us hitting the snooze alarm, putting off the usual things— making coffee, putting out the dog. We were so
ordinary.

Yesterday.

Yesterday I was troubled by certain things, but nothing that hasn't worried me every day since I moved out on Father and left my little brother there with him.
Ned won't have the same problem,
I told myself;
boys don't,
but I felt shitty about it. He was only six. I put sweet old Patrice in place to make sure of it, she was with us before Neddy was born, before Mother left us in the middle of the night. I ran away to save my life. I had to separate, rent a room and find a job, get into college— with funding— and come back strong enough to turn three lives around. I started with mine.

“Patrice will take care of you.” I gave Neddy a phone. I showed him how to use it, walked him through a list of things to do in case of this, in case of that, thinking,
Thank God he's not a girl.
He was so grown up, reciting the list, all smart and proud. I promised to come see him every day, and I did.
Patrice will know what happens before it happens,
I told myself;
Patrice will take care of him,
and she did, and I checked on them daily. I went to junior college in Charlton so I could get back to the house every night, and by the time I went to State, Ned was tough enough to handle Father— and we had Patrice. We talked every night. On the phone with people you love, you can tell whether they're lying or not. It's in that vibe, or hesitation: some offbeat note in the voice.

Neddy doesn't lie, and Patrice can't. Every time I came home I looked for evidence:
One mark on my kid brother and I come down on him with the full force of the law.
I thought,
Child Services.
I thought,
The courts won't care who Father is or who his people were, when I graduate, Neddy will come to live with me.
I thought once I had the job, got this house, the court would let Ned decide, but I was wrong. I'm too young, I'm living with a man, we're not married, bad influence. QED. Meanwhile Father's at Trinity every Sunday, front row, kneeling on the spot where the first Poulnots knelt down to pray: solid citizen, the last in a long, long line of Hampton Poulnots. Until he stepped down for reasons he won't talk about, he was a judge.

I love my brother, but given what came down after Mother left, I can't be there at night. Instead I go every day, assess the situation. Make mental notes, one of those things I can't tell Davy about, or won't,
never let the people hear you grind your teeth
. Yesterday I found Father at the kitchen table with his
TELL IT TO THE JUDGE
coffee mug and his oatmeal, everyday Father, making the smile he uses when he knows he is being watched, sweet old man, wouldn't hurt a fly.

“Where's Neddy?”

He looks up:
Oh, it's you.
“What?”

Things have always been bad between us. “Ned. You know, Edward Poulnot, your only son?”

“At that damn computer, he's always at that damn confuser— I mean computer. If he's playing those games I'll go up and…”

“Don't.”

The rest of the sentence goes:
Tan his hide.
My father, the retired judge, leader of men, back-benched at town meetings, contains the rage, but I know.

“Just don't.”

Blink. Blink. “I wouldn't think of it.” Pillar of the community, butter wouldn't melt, sweet old Father, mild as milk. Fine old family, solid citizen— that's what most people think; they'd rather not know. He needs the applause.

And what did I need? I needed to go upstairs and speed-read my brother's face, looking for bruises; ruffle his hair, checking his head for lumps. I needed to look into his face and without waiting for the answer, find out from Ned without having to ask,
Are you all right?
It hasn't happened yet, but I worry. All these years and it's still precarious. Patrice is embarrassed by the extra money, but she understands, and she knows why I can't be there. Grandmother left me a little so I can afford to do this— did she know before I knew? Father drove me away with his drunken rages, the night crawlers: Father in my room; I was never sure what, or why.
Ned's fine,
I told myself
. He's a boy.
He'll be fourteen next month, and he's already big enough to hit back.

“I'll just run upstairs and tell him hey.”

I found him staring into the magic box. I know what Ned is looking for: power, and in the game, he's deep into it, scheming, slashing and blasting his way to the top level of that gorgeous CG mountain. He didn't even hear me come in.

I began, just the way I always do. “Are you OK?”

Then I watched reflected fires and explosions playing on his face. He said, without looking up, “I'm fine.”

Ned, Edward LaMar Poulnot, you look so much like our mother that it breaks my heart, sitting there mousing and grinning as the neon blood flies, lighting you up and filling your world here, and inside that game. I know you have something going with your friends in there; I know you talk to them in the night, tapping into the chat box with one hand while you mouse deeper and deeper into the game, the game! I was a gamer once; I know it doesn't matter which game it is, when you're into it, that's all you are. It swallows you whole, and if I watch for more than a minute or two I'll get sucked in and there will be two of us sitting here, lost in space and it will be wonderful, at least for a little while.

“Don't you have school?”

“Home sick.”

“You look fine to me.”

“Sore throat. Sent home yesterday, in case. If my tongue turns red around the edges, it's strep.” The magic box makes that
kphchuuu
sound better than kids do, and on the screen, whatever he is fighting dies. “Got a note from the nurse.”

“Show me.”

“Can't, I'll miss the…”
Kphchuuu!

“If you say so. If you're not up and around when I get here tomorrow, we're going to the clinic on Poynter, so Dr. LaPointe can culture your throat, you hear?”

KPHU, SKLZZT. FOW!
A flying reptile thing swoops down on his character. “I
said,
do you hear?”

That thing is poised to destroy you
.
Neddy, watch out!

BLAT!!

Oh, thank God.
“Earth to Ned.” Late.
There's a hidden button on that sword. If he can only find that red button in the hilt
 … One more minute and I'd be late.

“OK.”

“Sick, huh.”
Oh look, stairs up to a
—
temple? Neddy, watch out for the …
I have to go. “Call me if you get worse. Say hi to Patrice for me.”

BRAAAACK
 … Sweet grin as he waves. “Later, dude.”

It was a relief to get to work, where I know what to do and how to do it and my check comes on the last Friday of the month.

Then at the end of the day the gorgeous stranger I met through Ray Powell showed up at my front door—Ray's friend—at least I think he is—Rawson Steele. I looked into his face and I thought,
Ray, we need to talk.
Rawson tried to smile for me but his face wouldn't hold still. The lines changed like crystals in a kaleidoscope, so fast that I couldn't read anything but this: he needed me. It was mysterious. Intense. His voice escaped him almost by accident. “There's something I have to find out, it's…”

It was interesting, Rawson Steele all urgent and vulnerable. Here. I touched his arm. There was a little electric shock as we connected, a current so strong that I had to ask, “Are you all right?”

“Ms. Poulnot.” He began, but couldn't quite get it out:
this is so hard.
“Merrill, there's something I have to…”

Davy roared into our driveway just then and broke the connection. He banged on the horn at the sight of us, cutting an angle so sharp that oyster shells sprayed like spit, and when I turned back to Rawson Steele to ask him what he needed from me, or why, he wasn't anywhere.

By the time Davy came into the house it was like the stranger was something I had imagined. Davy didn't kiss me, he just set his jaw and went all stony, so I knew it was real. He stood there waiting for me to explain. He'd rather die than ask, but he wouldn't let go. We sat down to eat angry, watched TV angry, turning up the volume to avert the confrontation. We went to bed angry, couldn't sleep. Got up and had the fight, and whose fault was that?

I was too upset to lie awake feeling bad about it which I did— feel bad, I mean. Last night I didn't care what Davy said or did to make up, I was that pissed off, so I took a damn pill. If he tried to apologize I wouldn't know it. If we turned over in the morning and rolled together the way we usually do— well, I couldn't think about that. Not the way I was. I clamped my pillow over my head and around my ears to shut him out, and I felt good about it. Cut off from Davy, snug and drowsy in the dark.

Until, without warning and with no sense of transition …

This.

 

3

Davy

Thursday

Two cop cars and an ambulance stream past, heading out Ribault Road. Trouble on the base, he thinks. There's always trouble at the base. On North Island the front and back ends of war rub up against each other and strike sparks daily, old vets and new war wounded laid up in the base hospital while buzz-cut eighteen-year-olds train to feed the war, result: bar fights and domestic violence. Losses on night marches—AWOL via the marsh.

Then a procession of EMTs and fire trucks makes the V-turn, heading out Ribault Road.
This is bigger than I thought.
Davy checks his phone; after five, and no Steele. History tells him that even at this hour, any kind of commotion on the base jams up traffic at the Bartlett Fork.
Five more minutes,
he tells himself.
If he made it around the Fork he'll be here by then.

Police set up a checkpoint as he watches, waving island-bound traffic to the old Burton road. Dude, you can get there from here but it takes hours. Right. They're already backed up bumper to bumper from here to the county's built-in bottleneck, the circle at the Bartlett Fork.

He'll have to wait until the cops step aside and traffic actually moves. With things the way they are, it could eat up the rest of the morning.

Just when he has to get home.

Fucking Steele.
What did he want with me?

Home.
Why isn't he here?

Home invasion by Rawson Steele.
Why was he on my porch last night, standing too close to my girl?

The porch is Merrill's, but they've been together for so long that he forgets. With no sign of Steele and whatever hangs between the two of them still pending, Davy goes back inside his head and broods. She has to see through this guy, right? Walking in with sharp elbows and that loaded smile, who would not? In the South, you're brought up to be polite, smile for the stranger, at least until he shows himself for what he really is.

Whatever that is. Davy groans.

Does Steele want something that we don't know about? Oil beneath the surface of Kraven island? Confederate gold buried under the Tanner house or in trunks at the bottom of the lake? Pirate treasure in a drowned ship out there beyond the sand bar on the ocean side? Treasure hunters have dug all over the island and sent divers down into those waters for going on two hundred years, and the most anybody ever found was Earl Pinckney's Spanish piece of eight, and that washed up on the beach when they were ten. Maybe the island is hiding some great natural resource that we don't know about; turn our backs and he'll leach it out of the ground, bleed us dry without us knowing until it's gone.

Or he's a developer, all charming at first, vampire just waiting for you to invite him in. He'll buy out the homefolks one by one and level the island to do … what? Desecrate the place?

Will it be condos or plastic pseudo plantation houses with vinyl columns on the verandas and fake flowers in PermaStone urns? Great big honking casino, more likely. Megamall, harbor expansion that takes out our waterfront, so giant cruise ships can unload tourists to trash the island, some damn thing to wreck our lives and ruin the terrain, like a …

Davy is— Oh shit, he's circling the drain.

Like he could win me over before the sun comes up. Does he not know what I do for a living?

That's the bad thing about meeting: “Someplace convenient to your office.” Yeah. He does.

If he thinks I'll cough up deeds and property lines just because he asks, he's shit out of luck. I'll kill him first.

The problem being that Davy isn't sure. Steele is like a Chinese puzzle— you can't solve it, and you can't let it go. His mind is whirring like a rat trapped in a gerbil wheel.

Wait!
While he was brooding, the pink light in the sky turned blue. It's late! He needs to hurl himself at that traffic jam and hope to God that he gets home before Merrill signs off on him.

It takes some fancy dancing to make it through the second check point at Ribault Road, but Davy manages. He went through Charlton Primary with most of these guys. He's making decent headway when sirens pull him over: with Charlton cops already out there, fire trucks and emergency vehicles from towns surrounding stream past him, headed for the Bartlett Fork.
Trouble at the base,
he thinks.
Really bad trouble at the base.

He's moving an inch at a time, banging on his car radio because for whatever reasons, reception is totally whacked. Every few minutes another gang of sirens pulls everybody over while more cop cars, fire trucks, wreckers, ambulances pass. Traffic seizes up altogether a crazy half-mile short of the circle.
Not now. Not when I'm so close!
A good half-mile of outgoing cars clogs the road between here and the circle, more are piling up behind him and the sun is high.

He should call or text Merrill, but the signal is crunchy and he doesn't know what to say.
Bad idea. Wait. I'd better talk to her;
he hits One on his speed-dial, and his phone? His service makes calls from the causeway dicey on the best days. Now the signal is all fucked up.
What, did lightning take out the phone towers?
He needs to fix what he wrecked, and he can't do it by phone. He needs to look into those hazel eyes and try to guess what she's thinking, what he has to do, he …

Doesn't know.

Anybody with half a brain would do what people behind him are doing: crunch over the median divider in a complete U-turn, incoming traffic from the islands or no, and head back to town. Makes sense, the morning's shot, but he can't. He's too in love, or driven, or whatever it is, to quit now. It's all he can think about. Dumb, sticking wallpaper music into his CD deck, like that would take his mind off the fact that nothing is moving and for the moment, there's no place to go.

How long has he been sitting here? Another half-hour, and nothing's moved. Crazy, stupid, stupid-crazy Dave Ribault, waiting like a toad. It's time to charge the median, make that Uey and head back to town, where he can make this call from a landline, no interference breaking up the important things they have to say. He guns the motor. Wait.

This is bad.

There is no incoming traffic.

Not one car or truck has come in from the barrier islands—no military personnel or official vehicles coming back from whatever disaster at the base.

The car in front of him jerks to life and Davy's heart fast-forwards.
At last.
Clinch, reconciliation, and then …

Then he rounds the last bend.

The causeway to North Island is all but empty. The trouble isn't on the base. It's out their way, maybe on Poynter's island, or,
my God! Kraven
. Davy's jaw seizes up. His teeth collide with a padlock
click
. He tries the car radio again but gets nothing but white noise.

Five more minutes and all his joints will rust. Time crawls. His car crawls. The skin on the back of his neck crawls. Ahead, orange cones and yellow plastic barrels mark a checkpoint, OK, SOP. Usually checkpoints are manned by guys like the ones he charmed his way past in town; if it's Bobie or Jack Stankey, he'll go, “Hey,” and they'll go, “Well, hey.” All he has to do is grin, hark them back to something they did after the Moultrie game in senior year and they'll flag him through. But this is a military operation: four Humvees from the base crouch with shoulders hunched, filling the road.

Roadblock, here at the bottleneck, and it's … He checks his watch. It's well past noon.

This is really bad.

MPs with handhelds and clipboards stand next to the military Humvees, grilling drivers of outgoing cars, checking licenses and registrations, car by car. They work in pairs, peering into backseats, popping every trunk. Other MPs are stationed around the circle, flagging cars onto this exit or that. They're diverting most drivers onto the dirt road through the Bartlett woods. It takes you back to downtown Charlton, but not anytime soon, and the rest? From the looks of it, only a few cars make it onto the causeway home. Certified islanders, Davy thinks, and he's not sure how this will play out. Although he was born in Charlton, he didn't move out to Kraven until Merrill loved him well enough. Now they live together in the little clapboard house on Poulnot Street. Look, Officer, it's been five years. He's done some of his best work on Kraven island so, is he a certified islander or not?