Sunday, October 15, 2017

17. The Persieds

Michael arrived much earlier than usual.  He sprang from his boat with an expression of enormous relief and squeezed the blood in Derek's hands halfway to his elbows.

"Sorry, Michael," said Derek.  "I just forgot to call.  I didn't hear my watch."  He tried to flex his fingers.

"I see."  There was a hint of irritation, which made Derek wilt.  "Evie had a fit about it.  She wanted to come out here in the middle of the night to check on you.  She almost called Search and Rescue to get someone with a boat to go see if you were okay."

Derek batted himself. 

"No worry," said Michael.  "Better a mistake than a mishap.  You won't forget again."

Derek nodded.

"You look awfully tired.  Did you have a bad night?"

Derek straightened.  "It’s been an eventful couple of days."

"Oh?"

Mimi was still asleep in the tent, and Derek didn't see any point in trying to keep Michael from going up to the campsite, where no doubt he would discover her.  A routine had been established.  After carrying supplies up the hill, Derek and Michael would share coffee, and sometimes, when it was early like today, breakfast too.  Michael would find out, no matter what.

"I have things to tell you," Derek puffed as he lugged a carton of canned goods.

"I've got news too," said Michael, with a five-gallon water container on his shoulder, "about Dexter."

"Dexter?"

"Tropical Storm Dexter.  Remember I told you the other night about a tropical wave getting organized out by Africa?"

"Yes?"  Derek sensed this was going to be interesting.  He might be getting his hurricane.

"It's now officially a tropical storm, and he seems to be gathering strength.  They say by tomorrow he'll be a hurricane."

"Is it heading this way?"

"Too early to tell.  It could go almost anywhere, but here's as likely a place as anywhere."

"How far away is it?"

"Sixteen hundred miles."

"That seems a long way."

"Maybe so, but in less than a week it could be right on top of us."

As they neared the redoubt, Derek gazed above the saucer-sized leaves of the bay grapes in the direction where well beyond the horizon Dexter was warming up, tightening his spin.  The water was barely rippled and the only clouds in the sky were leftovers from yesterday's heat, the last straggled runners of a marathon.

He lifted the kettle from the stove and poured water into two cups that already contained spoonfuls of freeze-dried crystals.  They took their usual seats, Derek on the cooler, Michael on a limestone block.  “Derek?” a voice called.

Michael turned his head.  "Who’s that?"

He pointed sheepishly at the tent.

"No," said Michael.  “The girl?”

Derek nodded.

"Oh boy!" shouted Michael.  "You didn't hear your watch!"  He doubled over.  Coffee sloshed from his cup.  He laughed louder.  "Evie was worried you'd fallen off a cliff and drowned!  I told her not to worry, but I had no idea.  Wait till she hears about this!"

"Oh no, please don't tell her."

The tent flap opened and Mimi's tangled head poked from the mosquito netting.

"Hello there!"  Michael called.

"Uh, hi," she said. She pulled the tent flaps tighter around her neck. “I bet this looks funny.”

“Not at all, Miss,” said Michael.  “I hope you had a pleasant night’s sleep.”

The tent flaps closed.  Eventually she emerged and tip-toed through the minefield of pointy casuarina nuts and crumbly limestone pebbles to sit next to Derek.  She took the coffee cup from his hand and sipped from it. 

Derek watched as though spellbound.

"Ho, this island,” Michael said.  He chuckled again at Derek, awkward, but clearly in a much better mood than usual.

Derek announced, "I'll make oatmeal."  He mixed the ingredients, adding bran, raisins and currants, and recounted what was necessary of the past two days' and nights' events.  Michael swore when Derek told how he had been stung by the Portuguese Man o' War. 

“Oh, excuse me, Miss,” he said.

“Please call me Mimi,” she said.

Michael was amazed the student had recovered so quickly.

"He’s a hockey-player," said Mimi. “A goalie.”

Michael had no logical explanation for the men of two nights ago.  He was perplexed that they seemed to keep appearing with no clear purpose, and didn't buy Derek's cedar-poaching theory.  He said cedar poachers tended to be small-time, hit-and-run, and wouldn't bother to scout out a place at night, and it didn't make sense they would board the Admiral's boat, where presumably one of them had hit Mimi on the head.  "The only explanation I have is this island is haunted."

"What?" said Derek.

"Or so they say."

"Are you kidding?"

"I don't know," said Michael.

"You don't know if it's haunted, or you don't know if you're kidding?"

"I don't know," Michael repeated.  "I don't know what to think about ghosts."

"Oh, come on," said Mimi.  She watched the men exchange glances.  Neither seemed to be joking.

Michael said to her, "Bermuda is a very old country.  A lot of people have died here, in funny ways, in these little islands.  I don't know if I believe in ghosts.  I've never seen one, I don't think".

"You don't think?"

"I've seen a lot of peculiar things, in the sky and in the water and over the water.  There are a lot of things I can't explain.  Tea Kettle Island is one of the stranger places.  I've spent a lot of time out here by myself, and although there's nothing here I can think of that could possibly harm me, there have been times, even during the day, but especially at night, when I've felt my skin crawl — really crawl."

"You too?" asked Derek.

Michael nodded.

"By the water tank?"

“Yes, there. Not always there, other places too, but that’s the main one.  I thought about warning you about it. Now I’m glad I didn’t.  It would have biased the experiment.”

Mimi let her feet drop to the ground.  "No way."  This was too bizarre.

Derek was pacing thoughtfully with arms folded.  The spoon he had been using to stir the oatmeal was in one hand, sticking straight up, and eventually the goo flowed onto his fingers.  He licked it off and said, "It would explain the two on the old house, the two in the hats.  Something touched my neck, too, I think."

"The men I saw weren't wearing summer clothes," said Mimi.  "I think they wore boots, and coats or jackets of some sort.”  She said.  “And my towel moved. I thought it was Derek, but it wasn’t.”  She looked at him.

“It wasn’t,” he said.  He added, “How did my shorts disappear the night you arrived?”

“That one might just be you drinking too much and taking your clothes off and forgetting where you put them,” said Michael.

Mimi laughed.  “They actually just fell off the wall where you were lying. They were right next to it, but in kind of a dip in the ground, so you couldn’t see them.  Probably not a supernatural event.”


“But the others?” Derek asked.

Mimi said, “C’mon.  You’re the scientist.  There has to be a more logical answer.”

"I don't know," said Michael.

“And someone did bonk you on the head,” Derek said.

“What? When?” Michael asked.  Mimi repeated what happened on the boat, finishing with,  
"Ghosts wouldn't be able to hit you on the head, would they?  They go through things, and they're transparent, not real-looking.  I mean, if they exist." 

“You weren’t hurt?”

“Just a bump.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.  That doesn’t sound like a ghost.”

"Do you think we shouldn't stay here?" she asked.

Michael looked at the faces of the two younger people and knowing what was developing between them couldn't possibly tell them not to stay together, and where else could they stay?  He was pleased for Derek.  After their first drunken evening together, during which Derek had provided a sorrowful rundown of the disappearance of his wife, Michael had said to himself, "Here's a fellow who needs some attention."  Sally Pettibone had been an attempt to get him some, but that had been a failure, all hope evaporating when the winsome Miss Mimi appeared from the forest, holding Derek's shorts.  Now Michael believed he knew why this had happened.  He wanted to rejoice!  How things had turned around for Derek.  Surely this was why he had lied to him, encouraged him to come here.  He wanted to hurry home and explain to Evie that besides being a Fisheries Warden, it seemed he was some sort of international love-deity — The Mid-Ocean Love God — put on earth to heal injured, heart-broken cast-offs from far away.  Michael was awash in the possibility he had performed something this beautiful.   He was suddenly confident.  Nothing would come between Derek and this little sweetie!  It was his decree.  "Why not?" he asked. “Everything will be fine.”  He grinned at him, and then said, becoming even larger, "I've got a fun idea.  Why don't Evie and I come over tonight and stay late?  I think she'd go for that.  This is the best place in Bermuda to watch the Perseids, and tonight is the night."

"The what?" asked Mimi.

"The meteor shower," said Michael.  "We just lie out here on the rocks and watch the action."

"That's tonight?" asked Derek.

Michael nodded.  "There were quite a few last night too.  You must not have been paying attention."
           

Tea Kettle Island may have been the best place on Earth that year to watch the Perseid meteor shower.  The North Atlantic was beneath the densest patch of the two-day collision of atmosphere and asteroid cluster, and above Bermuda the sky was clear.  Tea Kettle Island, the remotest and darkest place in the little country, was perfect. 

Michael and Evie and Derek and Mimi sat in pairs within the embrasures at the redoubt.  The pie-slice notches, designed as cannon ports, were ideal two-person vantage points from which to watch the sky.  At the start of the extravaganza, which commenced shortly after sunset, the couples challenged each others' powers of observation and levels of enthusiasm with loud yells of "There's one!" and whoops of excitement.  Some of the meteors were brilliant, long-tailed, and long-lived enough to rip the night into noon-hour daylight, causing all four to scream and laugh for several seconds.  Others were sneaky, little gleaming specks never getting beyond the peripheral vision of only one or two observers.

Michael and Derek handed a bottle back and forth across the dangerous airspace in front of the embrasures.  At one point, Michael reminded Derek not to lean so far out.  "Your gruesome death on the rocks below would not enhance this evening, my friend," he said.  He was kidding, knowing nothing would happen to interfere with this beautiful thing he had accomplished.

It didn't take long for Derek and Mimi's competitiveness to fail.  Derek became oblivious to the spectacular goings-on in the atmosphere when Mimi and ran the arch of her foot up and down his leg.  "You have nice legs," she whispered.  "They make me excited."  As if beaned by a flaming chunk of sky, he collapsed.  She climbed on top of him.

The slightly older married folks in the adjoining embrasure carried on, whooping unchallenged until Evie peered over the top of the wall to take a look.  It was apparent that for Derek and Mimi, astronomy had ended.  She nudged Michael.  "Take a peek," she said.

He did, and almost fell to his own death, trying to contain his glee.

"Let's go," said Evie.  "They give me ideas."

“Oh, I like your ideas,” he said.

Evie and Michael tried to steal away, but their combined mass was too great to sneak past unnoticed.  Derek and Mimi insisted on walking them to the boat and seeing them off.  After numerous inebriated hugs, and a few more communal whoops at the sky, the Spencers disembarked.

Michael decided to detour through Castle Harbour instead of going straight up the eastern shore into St. George's.  He had drunk more than he should have, and didn't want to tempt fate with the inevitable chop in the open water along St. David's Head.  The relative shelter of the harbour would provide a longer but much smoother ride, and the extended trip would allow them to see more of the meteors.

The two-mile fetch of harbour was completely flat, streaked by clean swaths of amber-yellow from the street lights of the airport.  Michael stood at the binnacle and Evie wrapped an arm around his waist.

“Speed up,” she said. “I want to be home now.”  She placed her hand over his on the throttle to make him accelerate. Then suddenly, in the middle of the harbour, she changed her mind, and pulled his hand back.  She forced the engine to idle, and the whaler leveled out in a mattress of foam.

He was very amused.  "Not here, Baby, there's oil all over the floor."

"Shhh," she said, and she whispered harshly, "look!" 

Crossing a light swath close to shore was a small, dark boat, traveling slowly without running lights.

"Where do you suppose a tiny little boat like that's going?" she asked.

Michael squinted and said, "Either open water, or Tea Kettle."

Evie dropped her hand.  Michael tapped the throttle forward and muscled the boat around.  They followed at a distance, and back outside the harbour lost sight of the craft in the dark.  Michael cut the engine to listen.  The little boat was still moving and seemed very close to the island.  Michael started up again and continued until about four hundred yards offshore, where he stopped and scanned with binoculars.  Almost instantly, he spotted a hand-held light moving at the beach.  It disappeared as though whoever was carrying it had entered the grove, on the path to the redoubt.  "Right," Michael said, and as he gunned the engine, "Ghosts my ass!"

He misjudged his speed and rammed the boat already moored off the beach, an aluminum dingy painted black with a small outboard engine.

"You drunken twit!" Evie shouted, before leaping into the water.  She splashed onto the beach and said, "I'll find Derek!" and then disappeared into the trees.

Michael hurled the anchor.  He waded ashore and set off after his wife.  He heard her swearing like a sailor before he saw her up ahead at the redoubt.  She was rolling on the ground with someone, kicking and punching.  It was a fat but agile man, who squirmed loose and bolted for the path where Michael was standing like an Easter Island head.

Michael saw his wife rise for another pounce and looked beyond the large, panicked figure hurtling directly at him to Derek, who was shirtless, on all fours near where Evie and the man had been battling.  He was groping blindly with one arm.  The other was pressed across his eyes.  Michael couldn't see Mimi anywhere, and stepped aside as Evie again hurled herself onto the fat man and pounded his skull with her fists.  Michael was surprised.  The fat man stumbled, but was able to toss her off and resume running.

Evie stared up at her husband.  "Do something, stupid!" 

Michael had already done something.  He had scooped up an implement he had stumbled over on his way to the redoubt, a tool with the heft and approximate dimensions of a cricket bat.  He turned and sprinted after the doomed man, who, unfamiliar with the treacherous pattern of cedar roots and Spanish bayonets, was taking sissy-steps in the dark of the palmetto grove.  Michael closed on him.  When he was within a few feet, a meteor flash penetrated the crowns of the trees and illuminated a conveniently sweaty bald spot.  There was a clang, the sound of galvanized metal making contact with naked head, and then silence, save for Michael's easy breathing.  "Oh dear," he said.  "Funny things, those meteors."  He left the fat man on the ground and ran back to Evie.

"He was killing him!  He was suffocating Derek, with this!"  She held up a heavy plastic sack that had drawstrings around the opening.  Cement powder fell out.  She tossed it aside.

Derek was gagging and splashing handfuls of icewater from the cooler onto his face. "They took Mimi!"

"Who did?"

"Another man, a thin man."  Derek hugged the cooler, and retched.

Evie placed a hand on the back of his neck.   "Find her," she said to her husband, who was already gone.

The fat man was wobbling to his feet.  Michael kicked him in the chest, which sent him crashing onto dead palmetto leaves, then placed a foot on his rubbery torso and pushed the point of the spade into the center of the fleshy throat. "WHERE'S THE GIRL?" he yelled.

"Fugg off," the fat man gurgled, and Michael applied pressure to the spade. The man's eyes closed.

"Where is she?"

"Huh!"  The fat man seemed to laugh at Michael.  He didn't know he was taunting a minor deity, the recently appointed Mid-Ocean Love God, who now, for the first time in his life, intended to go beyond a punishing handshake or a slight tap on the head with a shovel.  He raised the spade high, but as the blade reached the top of its murderous arc, a commotion on the path ahead caught his eye.  "Oh Lord Jesus," he said.  His skin began to crawl like a centipede under a heat lamp.

A soldier was approaching Michael and the fat man.  In his arms was Mimi, close against his chest.  Her wrists, knees and ankles were bound with duct tape, another strip was across her mouth, and a square was plastered over each eye.  "Please help."  The ghost spoke softly and sorrowfully, “I fear she may be injured, and I am unable to loose these bindings."

The booze, an adrenalin lapse, and the sight of the ghost hit him all at once.  He lowered the spade and used it to prop himself up by jamming it into the nearest elevated surface, the abdomen of the fat man.

"Nngggh," said the fat man.

"Just put her down, please," Michael whispered.  He was making gentle motions with one hand and raising the spade with the other. 

The ghost seemed confused.  "Take her," he said.  He held her forward.         

Michael dropped the spade and gathered Mimi in his arms.  He turned to run, but a cold breeze flowed past and took his legs away.  He staggered.

Reginald removed his coat and spread it on a flat patch of soil.  "If you would, rest her here.  I will stand guard as you cut her free.  You have a blade?"

Michael carefully set her down and crouched forward to protect her.  Saying, "It's okay, Sweetheart, it’s me, Michael.  You're safe," with trembling hands he tugged at a corner of the tape across her mouth.

“Get this tape off me!” she yelled, kicking her legs.

“Are you hurt?”

“Get this off me!  I can’t see!”




"She's not hurt," Michael said to the ghost, removing a jack-knife from his pocket.

"Oh, thank you," he said, gazing up.  A brilliant meteor burned from one horizon to the other.  He smiled benignly at Michael and placed a frigid hand on his shoulder. 

Michael was nauseous.  His knife shook in his hand.  If he tried to cut the tape, he might cut Mimi.  He needed a flashlight.  He needed to lie down.   The ghost said, "Robert has apprehended the villain at the rampart. Come.”  In a blink he was gone and his coat had vanished as if it had never been there.  Mimi was curled in the dirt.  Michael lifted her and carried her in his arms up the hill to where Evie was tending to Derek.

“How is she?” Evie stood to touch her. “What happened?”

“Okay I think.  They taped her up.  I need a light to cut her free.  What do we do about this?”  He pointed at her taped eyes.

“I’m fine,” Mimi said. “Please get this tape off of me.”

“Set her here.” Evie directed Michael to his morning coffee rock and Michael set her down. “Give me your knife, and shine that flashlight over there.”  As Michael shone the light, Evie crouched in front of Mimi and cut the tape around her ankles, knees and wrists.  “Hold still, love,” she said, and pulling very slowly and downward she gently peeled the tape from her eyelids.

Derek was hovering behind, slightly disoriented.

Michael looked at him.  “You okay mate?”

Derek bent over in a coughing fit

"He’s coughed most of it up, and there was a lot in his eyes.  I think we got it out.  Where are those men?”

“Out of commission,” said Michael.  

“Now to make sure they don’t go anywhere.  Knife please.”  Michael took back his knife and cut down Derek's clothesline.  He sawed it in two as he marched downhill to the fat man, who was crawling away.  Michael kicked him in the ribs.  The fat man dropped to cover himself and Michael planted a knee in the middle of his back.  He grabbed the wrists to bind them.  Ridiculously, clenched in one of the chubby hands were Derek's famous sunglasses.  Michael bent the arm up toward the thick neck until they fell free.  Then he tied the wrists tightly.  "I hope this hurts like hell, you piece o' filth," he said.

He found the other "villain" lying face-down at the rampart, as the ghost had said.  He was moaning, and bleeding from his forehead.  His arms and legs were bent peculiarly behind his back as though he had been bound, but there was no rope.  Michael obligingly trussed him up.  He returned to the redoubt, pausing to gather Derek's sunglasses along the way.  Derek and Mimi were sitting quietly, holding hands, with Evie hovering above.  She said to her husband, "Let's get off this island."

"Absolutely," said Michael.  “Derek, are you okay?”  He handed him his sunglasses.

He answered, “Is Mimi okay, did they...?”

“No they didn’t.  She’s okay.”

“I’m fine,” she said. “Are you okay?” 

Evie asked, “Mimi, where did you leave your shoes?”

Mimi pointed off into the dark. “Over there, somewhere.”

“I’ll find them.”  Derek walked a few steps, and found his shirt.

Michael said, “Forget the shoes, where’s the gun?”  He lifted Mimi the way he picked up Anna when she was asleep.

“I can walk,” she said.

“It’s okay, dear, I’ve got you.  Derek, where’s the .22?

“It’s in my tent.”

“Get it.”

“Should I load it?”

“No, just get it, and the bullets too.” 

Derek was moving slowly. 

Evie, help him.”

The foursome passed the motionless, prone figure of the bound fat man, but ignored him as though he'd been a rotting log.  Before boarding the Whaler, Michael cut a section from the fuel line in the other boat.

He held the engine at full throttle all the way to the Fisheries Division office, even through the narrow passage beneath the causeway.  Several times during the crossing he was racked by deep, strong shivers.  "Damn!" he exclaimed.

Mimi buried her face in the hollow of Derek's bleeding neck.  The breeze had revived him and he pressed his lips against her warm forehead.  "Are you sure you’re okay?" he asked. 

“I’m fine.”      

Evie climbed out at the high jetty and reached down to help Mimi.  Derek placed his hand on her bottom and pushed from below, which was not necessary.  He scrambled up by himself and for a moment stood blinking under a light standard like a turtle.  Evie pushed him next to Mimi as if arranging them for a photograph and they held hands.

After tying off the boat, Michael climbed ashore and threw the car keys to Evie.  "Take them home and make them comfortable," he called.  "Take them to the hospital if they need it.  I'll wait here for the police."  He started toward the office.

"Michael," Evie called, and her voice broke.  She ran to him.


"Oh my goodness," he said.  He beamed at his wife, then hugged her like a bear, then kissed her eyelids.  He pressed his nose to hers and whispered, "God, Evie. You wouldn’t believe it.”

Continued...

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