It was twenty three miles off Point Conception in thirty knots of wind and twelve foot seas when the boat hit the half submerged container.
At least Benson thought it was a half submerged container. He later told me that he never really found out and it didn’t much matter. Could have even been a sleeping whale. Could have been a capsized boat already half sunk by the storm. All that really mattered was that it was big and hard and heavy and that Arial hit it at over eight knots of speed.
Containers routinely fall off of cargo ships and are made to stay afloat. They can float for weeks or even months, a few inches above the water, almost invisible during the day, completely invisible at night and do not appear on the radar screen. They can sink boats that hit them.
But so can whales and so can half sunken boats. Whatever it was, it was hundreds of feet behind the boat by the time Benson was somewhat awake. He picked himself up from the cabin floor where the impact had thrown him from the pilot berth. He stood there disoriented near the companionway steps that led to the cockpit. He had fallen asleep in his full foul weather gear, including his inflatable life jacket and harness, so exhausted he had not bothered to take them off. Just as well since he had perhaps five minutes to determine if the boat was going to sink and try to prevent it. No time to dress. Only time to scramble around and see if the boat was holed.
He should have been in court presiding over a complex trial involving the removal of a trustee. He should have been sitting at the bench watching legal counsel smoothly present cogent reasons and evidence as to why Beth Wright should not remain the trustee of her husband’s massive estate and, indeed, should return the half million she had spent on the damned boat he was now chasing down the coast of California. He should be acting judicial and wise and be thinking about eating dinner at Sams after the day in court, perhaps working out at the gym before dinner, then rereading Tolstoy before going to sleep.
Instead he was chasing a seventy year old woman down the coast in a storm and was quite possibly going to be dead in another half hour. That woman he was chasing was my client and he told me all this in a small hospital room in Mexico a little over a week later. And the judge who was telling me of his efforts to save his boat did not seem the same man who had ruled against my client in that hearing in San Francisco. I liked this one, the sailor, much better. So did he, I think.
He told me that he had hesistated at the bottom of the companion way steps, still groggy, trying to decide if he should check under the floor boards for incoming water or go on deck and check the rigging. A larger wave surged under the keel and heeled the boat far over to port. He automatically held onto the handhold near the companionway steps, then realized he had to reduce the speed of the boat to slow down any water that might be coming in forward. He hauled himself up onto the deck.
The wind immediately blew rain and salt water spray at his face and he blinked his eyes in the near total darkness. The computerized auto helm was keeping the boat on course, the seas coming from abeam, the wind off the starboard bow. He moved to the wheel and helm seat behind it, sat, and pushed the buttons on the autohelm panel so that the boat fell away from the wind. The speed and movement decreased slightly. He then let out the jib sheet so that the large forward sail was loosened and stopped propelling the boat. Immediately it flapped nosily in the high wind, the rope that had controlled the sail wildly waving and snapping back and forth, He knelt near the winch that controlled the line that would furl the jib around the forestay and he slowly wrapped the furling line around the winch. With the forward movement of the boat reduced the boat wallowed wildly and he was constantly thrown against the sides of the cockpit. He braced himself. He felt a surge of nausea. He began to grind in the furling line to roll the jib away.
The main sail was still up but triple reefed, so without the jib the boat barely moved forward. Most of the movement came from the large waves that rolled the boat side to side as he worked to get the jib fully put away. He hurried, knowing that he had to get below and plug any leak quickly or he would never find any leak in the dark and with water possibly covering the cabin floor. He thought about the life raft stowed on deck forward of the mast. Not yet. Maybe never. He muttered, “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” under his breath as he ground the line fully away.
He then lurched onto the cabin top to drop the main sail. He had to be at the mast in the middle of the boat to handle that sail and as he left the cockpit he automatically attached the snap shackle on his tether from his body harness to the jack line, the thick rope that ran down the length of the boat on the cabin top. That way if a wave knocked him off the boat he would still be attached to the jack line and the boat. To go overboard without a harness at night in these seas meant he would die. Simple as that.
A larger wave made him lose his balance before he got to the mast and he fell hard onto the cabin top, banging his knee on some of the cabin top blocks. Even through the thick foul weather pants the pain was intense. Swearing, he limped to the mast, let go the mainsheet, and pulled the thick folds of the main sail down onto the boom. The mainsail continued to wildly flap in the wind until he was able to tie several lines around the boom to keep the sail firmly in place.
With no sails driving the boat at all, the vessel wallowed even more and rolled from side to side steeply, the seas still hitting the vessel from abeam. Benson knelt on the cabin top for a moment, winded, still muttering “hurry, hurry, hurry” under his breath, his knee throbbing, his hands numb from the cold even in their thick gloves. He used his hands to push himself to his feet and bent over almost double, scrambled back to the cockpit and leaped into it. He started down the companionway steps to look for a leak when his six foot tether, which he had forgotten to disconnect from the jack line, came taut and pulled him back onto his back. He hit the cockpit deck hard, knocking the wind out of him.
He stared at the sky, momentarily not understanding what was happening. He saw the moon emerge for a moment from the cumulous clouds, suddenly shining brightly over the surging water. It was beautiful. For a precious moment he lay on his back, staring at the moon and the rapidly moving clouds, feeling wonder and adrenalin. And, at the moment, knee throbbing, fighting for his life, he suddenly realized that for the first time in twenty years…he was happy. No, not happy. He felt joy. Lying there, he began to laugh.
He pulled himself up, disconnected the tether, and half climbed half fell the seven feet down into the cabin. There was water on the cabin sole but it could have come from the spray pouring down from the cockpit and, indeed, pouring off his foul weather clothes. Holding onto the various handholds throughout the cabin he worked his way to the forward cabin, gingerly knelt down and pulled up the teak and holly floor board to allow access to the hull underneath. Every inch of a cruising sail boat needs to be used and underneath the forward floorboards was spare food and his water maker, a complex machine about four feet long that converted salt water into fresh water. Pulling a flash light from his foul weather jacket, he shone it down along the side of the water maker so he could see the actual hull.
He saw the inevitable wash of bilge water that every boat has, a few inches of dirty water sloshing around. If the boat had a hole forward, there would have been two feet or more of clean salt water in the bilge.
He left the floor board up and moved to the central cabin and pulled up the floor boards there. Again, no sign of additional water. He looked towards the navigation station at the panel which had the bilge pump alarm and high water alarm. Assuming high water, first the automatic bilge pump would come on lighting its pilot light, then, if the water was too great to be removed by the bilge pump, the bilge alarm pilot light would come on with a siren. Both lights were off.
He knelt there, trying to clear his mind. He knew the drill. In an emergency, stop and think before acting. Look. Think. Then act. The movement of the boat was making him nauseous again and his knee seemed to be throbbing more than before. He tried to concentrate.
He found it hard to believe that an impact that seemed so massive would not have holed the fiberglass hull. The boat had been rolled at least sixty degrees by the impact or he would not have been thrown out of his berth which had a small wooden wall along its side to keep him on the berth in rough seas. How could an impact that strong not have smashed a hole in the forward hull? He didn’t believe in miracles. And he could not raise the sails again and get the boat underway until he understood what damage, if any, had been caused.
Could the object have been soft so that the impact was muffled? A dead whale instead of a hard metal container? He tried to think if he had heard a crash before he was thrown from the berth. He thought he had and with the high sound of the wind and seas, for him to have heard it meant it was loud. Too loud not to have damaged something. His boat was built for heavy seas and world cruising and was tough. But not that tough.
He had to go forward and see if there was damage. And as he decided that, he suddenly realized what might have happened and it did not make him happy. The bobstay may have taken the impact…saving the hull itself from actual impact.
The bobstay was the metal rigging cable that ran from the very bottom of the bow to the bowsprit tip, the bowsprit being the spar that protruded out the front of the boat. The bobstay was the rigging cable that held the bowsprit firmly from the bottom, while the forestay went from the bowsprit to the top of the mast and the two whisker stays were cables that went from the tip of the bowsprit to the two sides of the bow. The four opposing cables held the bowsprit in position and the bowsprit was the spar that kept the entire mast secured from the bow of the boat. If the bowsprit went, the mast would come down and probably destroy the boat since two thousand pounds of ripped aluminum would be falling from seventy feet onto the deck.
A bowsprit allowed a boat to carry far more sail by extending the length of the boat…but had a real danger. The bobstay connected to the boat at the waterline in front of the bow, going from the bottom of the bow at an angle to the tip of the bowsprit which thrust ten feet ahead of the bow. In a head on collision, the bottom of the bobstay would be the part of the boat at the waterline that hit an object not so high that it would hit the bowsprit itself, nine feet above the water. If Arial hit a floating object dead-on, the bobstay would take the impact if the object was not high above the water.
And a damaged bobstay would mean that the entire rig could come down if he tried to sail. Indeed, could come down at any minute. A good thing he had dropped the sails. He rose and moved to the companionway steps, limping. He paused at the navigation table to check the radar screen. He saw the blip that was probably Beth’s Glory about eight miles to the south. No other blips on the screen, the California cost to the east, perhaps fifteen miles away.
Benson grabbed the spot light he kept in a bracket at the top of the companionway steps, switched it on for a moment to make sure it was working, stepped into the cockpit, snapped his tether to the jack line, and move along the deck to the forward part of the boat. Every thirty seconds the boat would roll hard to one side or the other as it wallowed in the swell, the wind still strong and now coming directly from the beam. Occasionally a wave would break over the side, the green water filling the decks almost to the tops of his boots. He moved bent over to the bow, leaned far over the side, and directed the flash light beam to the waterline at the bow.
With the swells still above twelve feet, the bow was alternatively buried in the water or high above it. He leaned further over the side of the boat, ignoring the water that would come up nearly to his waist when the boat rolled far over to the starboard.
He cursed under his breath. As he had guessed, the bobstay had taken the impact, indeed, the cable was clearly bent at the swaged fitting at its bottom, the cable itself partially ripped, some of its metal strands sticking out. It had hit whatever the object was perhaps a foot above the water line. He was lucky it had not parted immediately with the rig collapsing.
As he watched, the movement of the boat buried the bowsprit into the next wave and the bobstay stretched as the bowsprit disappeared for a few moments, the weight of the water pulling at the bobstay.
Benson fell back on the foredeck. He had to find some way to quickly reinforce the bobstay. It was only a matter of time until a wave hit it with such force that it would bring the entire rig down. He certainly could not sail the boat with the bobstay in such condition and if he turned on the auxiliary engine and tried to power to land, the movement of the boat would undoubtedly bury the bowsprit from time to time into the waves. Too dangerous.
A wave came over the side as he sat there, burying him in cold water, shoving him to the end of his tether against the lifelines on the far side of the boat. The cold water came down his coat at the collar, filled his boots. He stood up as the water fell away, his feet squishing in the water filled boots, and used the tether to pull himself to the windward side of the deck and made his way back to the mast. He kept heavy line there hanging on belaying pins, spare line for the many needs of a cruising boat. He pulled two half inch nylon lines from the belaying pin rail, each perhaps fifty feet long and carried them back to the bow. He was panting with the effort of keeping his balance and working on the moving deck.
Again a wave came over the rail and again he was knocked down, the water swirling over his body. The water pulled at the lines in his hands and he held them tight, feeling his tether strain against the harness. He swallowed some water and coughed. He didn’t feel so joyful now, he thought ruefully. He carefully tied each line to the lifelines at the bow so that they were quickly available.
The fitting at the bottom of the bowsprit was a large steel ring embedded into the fiberglass bow of the boat. It was apparently undamaged, the bobstay cable itself taking the impact. If he could fix one of the ropes to that fitting and tie it tightly to the tip of the bowsprit, that would reinforce the bobstay cable. Indeed, ropes had been the usual rigging on all vessels until the last fifty years and good half inch nylon line was as strong as steel. Even if the bobstay parted, the rope he had rigged could then hold up the mast.
But to get the rope attached to the ring bolt at the bottom of the bow was the problem. He would have to somehow loop it through the steel ring, knot it, then attach it to the rigging at the tip of the bowsprit nine feet above and eight feet forward. The ring down at the base of the bow was alternatively under four feet of water, then high in the air every sixty seconds as the boat pitched. And since it was nine feet below the deck level, it was far too low to reach from the deck or from the bowsprit itself.
He sat on the foredeck and tried to think it out. A wave of self pity came over him. What was he doing here, why was this happening to him? For a good thirty seconds he felt overcome with exhaustion and despair. With an effort, he pushed it aside. He had no time for that. And he knew what he would have to do, he just didn’t want to do it.
He had to tie himself to the boat, go over the side, attach the line, then pull himself back on board. He had to do it while waves were rolling the boat through sixty degrees of movement and burying the bow under four feet of water every thirty seconds. With a bum knee and exhausted. And if he could not pull himself back on board, he would be hanging there and eventually pass out from hypothermia and die.
He could put out an SOS. He could activate his emergency locating beacon, his EPIRB. This close to shore, the Coast Guard would pick up the distress signal from the EPRIB and be here in less than an hour by helicopter, could scoop him up and take him ashore. A boat from the Coast Guard would be here in less than half a day and could even tow him in.
They would terminate his voyage. If the helicopter was the savior, they would abandon the boat and it would wash ashore in perhaps twelve hours. If the Coast Guard boat came, it might tow him to safety but that would take at least a day and they would not allow him to take the boat out until it passed an inspection, the rigging was fully repaired. At least two or three days delay.
In either event, Glory would be out of reach and Beth gone. She might die out here. Might wreck her boat. Or…she might turn up in some Mexican port and he could try to have her committed. Or arrested. If he could find out which port she was in and get the Mexican government to cooperate. Damn her.
So, why not call the Coast Guard? That would be the sane thing. The smart thing. He was a middle aged judge of the Superior Court, a well respected and dignified legal personage and to risk life and limb trying to repair a vessel at sea was idiotic, the sort of thing a teenage show off would try.
He sat there, rocking back and forth as the boat rolled, undecided. What was it she had said in that last letter she had left for him in the last port when he arrived just six hours after she left? Suddenly he had to read it again. He stumbled back to the cockpit and down the companionway steps, this time disconnecting the tether. Below, after a moment, he leaned on the navigation table looking at the radar blip that was Glory.
The letter. She was writing about his father. As his father was perhaps two years after his father abandoned both him and his mother. Around the time his father had become Beth’s lover, he now knew. Almost forty years ago. He stood there, rocking back and forth, hearing water sloshing over the deck above him. Then he moved to sit on his berth, and, hunching over to keep the letter dry, he pulled it from his sealed jacket pocket and, using his flashlight, read the final pages.
Do you hate your father, John? You cannot hate that kind of man for being who he was. Your father burst with vitality as much as virility. When I think on him, it was that aspect of him that I think of first. Oh, yes, he would dominate the room when he entered. He was a presence that could not be ignored. And yes he was a man’s man, I suppose, and enjoyed it. But to me he was somehow a life force, alive and vibrant, willing to do whatever it took to seize whatever he could from the world. Including me, I suppose. They called him reckless and foolish and he did go through his own money. And much of my money, come to think of it. But he spent it not to buy things…but to buy experiences. He understood what so many of your generation still does not grasp-life is not about things but about memories, about risking all to buy the one thing that will matter-memories. He was irresistible because he made no excuses. He risked all and that was all right. He risked his relationship with you, I know. I suppose he destroyed that relationship. That was his only regret, he often told me, as the years passed. He told me he had lost the future when he lost you. It was the one of the few times I saw him cry.
He grunted in exasperation at the gushing, at the adoration of the man who had made his childhood a long dark struggle. He grimaced at the throbbing in his knee. He folded the letter carefully and put it back in the waterproof pocket. He sat on the shifting berth, rocking in the movement of the boat, staring at the blip on the radar that was Glory. Then he moved to the bow to take his chances.
A month earlier he sat with some impatience in his chambers watching three attorneys fidget. He wanted to go home. A jury had finally come in with a verdict only an hour before after a three week trial involving a bitter Will contest, he was planning to take the rest of the afternoon off and only the insistence of the Presiding Judge required him to remain in court and to be listening to the lawyers argue as to the need for a special hearing to grant a preliminary injunction.
He knew all three of the lawyers and didn’t like any of them very much. Springer was one of the top partners at a large firm, smart, self important and had a habit of blinking during argument. The second was me, Phelps, from a smaller office and I had a bad habit of becoming emotionally connected to clients and making their mole hills into mountains. Or so he thought. Unprofessional emotionalism he undoubtedly concluded though he never said that to me directly. Evans was a paper pusher who should never be in a court room at all but seemed to think he had the skill to handle trials and would pontificate while the jury yawned.
Benson felt like yawning himself and poked at the file on his desk without enthusiasm while Springer explained that an immediate preliminary injunction was needed to avoid further waste of the trust assets. It seemed that Beth Wright, the somewhat notorious society matron and socialite, was planning to pilfer the rest of the trust that her husband had left her and the family and sail off to Mexico. At least that was what she told her family. At seventy.
Her family hired Springer to stop her, I was hired by Beth Wright to keep them out of her hair and Evans represented some charity that was one of the ultimate beneficiaries of the Trust and didn’t want anyone spending a dime that would otherwise go to the charity.
Beth was apparently on her boat preparing it for its voyage but three members of the family were out in the court room waiting to see what would happen in chambers. As was a representative of the charity.
Benson considered his chambers as his sanctum and decorated it accordingly. Oak paneled walls lined with built in bookcases filled with law books. Comfortable Persian carpet on the floor, fine large mahogany desk and four padded leather chairs facing him. The only window in the room was behind him so he could watch faces in the full light. Aside from the computer monitor on his desk, the room resembled a law office from the 19th Century, an antique lamp on the corner of the desk, the blotter fine Italian leather.
Also on his desk were pictures of his son, Bill Junior, now in college and Benson’s fifty foot sail boat, Ariel. Since his divorce five years before the picture of his wife lay in the bottom drawer. Once in a great while he pulled it out and was always surprised at how beautiful she was. Then he would remember the arguments and drop it back in the drawer.
Springer was leaning forward and using his earnest voice. “Judge, this is not just about money. We don’t like her wasting assets, that’s true. But we are equally concerned for her own safety. At her advanced age she is intending a voyage of thousands of miles and we don’t even know if she has retained a captain and crew. For all we know she intends to handle this sixty five foot boat on her own!” He paused for effect. Benson kept his face blank.
Springer then looked at me. I was sitting back in his chair, a file in my lap, and I returned his look with some exasperation but said nothing. Springer shook his head slightly, “I know you and Mr. Phelps both own sail boats and love to sail. But, tell me, do you think a seventy year old woman can sail this boat to Mexico? It’s maybe sixty five feet long.”
That was my cue. I leaned forward in his chair, voice brisk. “Judge, there is no evidence she intends to single hand the vessel though for all we know she could. She and her husband sailed around the world thirty years ago, I believe. The boat is quite famous.”
“I know the boat,” Benson interrupted. “She’s in our yacht club.” He looked at Springer. “Counsel, you may wish to consider if that connection should cause you to ask me to recuse myself.” He tried to keep the hopeful tone out of his voice.
I had to smile at that, knowing he didn’t want this case. But I kept my eyes on Springer who was shaking his head. “No, your Honor, we are convinced that you will be able to put aside that ancillary connection with Ms. Wright. And your expertise on sail boats perhaps will be valuable in determining whether her anticipated voyage…and its expense…violate her appropriate duties concerning the Trust. She plans to leave next week. We need to move on this quickly.”
I kept at it. “The Trust is clear, Your Honor. Income and right to invade corpus are granted to Ms. Wright. She has every right to plan this voyage. And probably can sail that boat better than anyone else. There is no evidence of incompetency before any court.”
“The right to invade corpus is predicated on need, not a whim, Your Honor,” Leaning on the Judge’s desk, Springer clasped his hands in front of him. “This vessel has cost the Trust close to five hundred thousand dollars to upgrade and repair thus far…”
“Mr. Springer can’t have it both ways. First, we are acting dangerously. But when we spend the money to make the boat safe, we are violating our duty to the Trust. What would he have us do?”
“That’s easy. Not take this voyage. Go on a cruise ship if you want to see Mexico at her age. She has wasted her own allowance from the Trust, now invades the monies that should rightfully go to the heirs…” He looked at Evans. “…and to the charity.”
Evans took his cue “That’s right, Judge, and our needs, with all due respect, should trump those of an elderly lady who seems to be going through her second child hood.”
I saw my chance. “Mr. Evans apparently confuses immaturity with love of cruising. My client wishes to sail on a major cruise one more time in her life. She has the expertise and boat to do so. She is a beneficiary of the Trust, not just a trustee. She has the right to plan and implement this voyage.”
Benson concluded he had to get involved. He opened the file and glanced at the pleadings. “Mr. Springer, so we are clear, you are not alleging incompetency but merely claiming wastage of trust assets. Correct?”
Springer leaned back and the thick leather creaked. “Assuming the injunction is granted and this trust asset…the vessel…is kept in port, it is our intention to explore whether Ms. Wright may need some help in the handling of her affairs….”
Now I was genuinely angry. “Wait a minute. This is the first I have heard of this. I have not seen one iota of evidence of incompetence presented aside from the fact that Mr. Springer and the heirs have evidently concluded that owning a sail boat and spending money on it is insane in which case at least two people in this room are insane…” I owned a racing sloop as Benson knew.
Benson chuckled at that, his eyes falling on the picture of his boat. “Mr. Springer may be quite right in that regard.” We three lawyers all had to smile slightly but the tension in the room did not abate. Benson noted that and continued. “The papers do not mention competency so that is not before me at this time. The sole issue is a trustee perhaps wasting trust assets and leaving the jurisdiction. Are we agreed on that?”
We all nodded.
“And if Mr. Springer wishes to expand that issue to competency, that is a matter for the probate court to consider in the future, not now and the process for that is quite clear.” Benson directed his gaze at me. “Counsel, is it truly her intention to leave the State next week with a trust asset worth…what?..a million dollars?”
I felt and looked uncomfortable. “She certainly is considering it, Your Honor. But she also intends to return and the Trust asset will be in expert hands.”
Springer grunted, “Safe hands? A seventy year old woman who has spent her entire trust allowance and seems to plan a voyage on an sixty five foot sixty year old vessel? I don’t see how this meets her fiduciary obligation as to trust assets. If she wants to sail the Bay, maybe. Mexico? With a million dollar asset of the Trust? No way.”
Benson closed the file. “Well, this is not the time to argue the matter. I will set the hearing for the preliminary injunction for day after tomorrow. Counsel will provide me their pleadings by close of business tomorrow. Meanwhile, I would expect Ms. Wright to appear at the hearing, Mr. Phelps, and, Mr. Springer, I don’t want to hear about competency issues at all. Those are not before the court and I don’t want them used to effect the decision.”
“That was not my intent, Your Honor,” Springer said coloring.
“Good. Now talk with my clerk so we can get a time. Good day gentlemen.”
He watched us file out of his chambers, opened the file and read the pleadings for a few minutes, then sighed and picked up the phone. As he later told me during some long evenings in that Mexican town while we waited for him to heal enough to fly back home, visits to his mother were always a challenge. And it was time to see his mother again and he had already put it off for a week using the ongoing trial as an excuse.
Back in those days you still had a central telephone desk for rest homes. The rest home reception telephone board was busy as usual. He held the receiver to his ear thinking, then hung up, stood up and pulled off his robe. Might as well just see her on the way home.
She hadn’t objected when he had suggested she move to The Wentwood a year before. Already advanced in her emphysema, she had trouble getting places with the oxygen tank on a trolley she carried with her. That’s what she said. He suspected she was embarrassed being seen out of her condo with a tube in her nostrils and a metal tank clanking along behind her.
Once beautiful, now emaciated, her inability to breathe not only eliminated her energy but seemed to eliminate any interest in much of anything. His visits had become agonizing simply because they had nothing to say to each other given her utter indifference to his career, his failed marriage, his sailing and, essentially, his life. She would occasionally brighten when he discussed her grandson Bill, Jr. but only Bill being present would cause her to sit up and involve herself in discussions.
Maybe it was his desperate search for a topic that made him bring up Beth Wright that evening as he sat in her room watching her lie in bed staring at the television whose sound was turned all the way down. Her room had a few pictures from home, quite a few mystery books cluttering the bookshelves, more cosmetics than the average teenager, but little else. Her assigned social worker from The Wentwood complained that she spent most days in her room, disdained the various activities The Wentwood offered. He had chosen The Wentwood thinking she would mingle with the other elderly society people. She had just shrugged when had he told her she should get out of the room more.
This evening he picked up one of her magazines on the bed. Glamour. He idly opened it and looked at the lovely models. “You knew Beth Wright, didn’t you? The lady with the home in St Francis Woods? The one in my yacht club?”
Something in her silence made him look up. She was glaring at him but said nothing. An uncomfortable moment passed. “Anything wrong?”
She took as much of a breath as she could, head still on the pillow “What about her?”
He blinked and wondered what the problem was. “Have a case involving her right now. Something to do with her husband’s trust. You did know her, right?”
She didn’t answer but move her gaze to the silent television screen. On it a car chased another down San Franciscan streets.
He sighed and wondered when he could decently leave. He was sure she was just as miserable having him here as he was to be here. He was about to ask about her next medical exam when she spoke.
“She’s a whore.”
She said it without particular rancor, without much emotion at all. As if describing the weather. He sat up and stifled a smile. “I doubt if that’s the case now. She’s seventy or so.”
“Seventy three. She lies about her age.” She kept her eyes on the television.
He smiled now. “Guess you two are not the best of friends.”
His mother moved her tired eyes to him. “No. No, we are not. I do not want to hear more about her, please.”
He stiffened in the chair. “If you wish. I had no idea there was such bad blood. Weren’t you school chums or something? At Radcliff?”
For a moment he saw the old flash in his mother’s eyes, eyes that had intimidated him for most of his life. Her voice was ice cold. “As I think I just said, I do not wish to discuss that woman. Please adhere to that request.” She held his eyes for a moment, then returned to staring at the silent screen.
As he was leaving, the nurse pulled him aside in the hallway. His mother was not taking the suggested medications, was never leaving her bed now, and simply ignored instructions.
“That’s nothing new,“ he commented with a grim smile.
The nurse was a heavy woman, hair dyed improbably red, a rather disheveled pale green uniform. She was in house to the institution, and was not about to be fobbed off.
“Judge, if she won’t take her medications, we are not responsible for the outcome. She is getting worse every day and we don’t promote suicide by our guests.”
He blinked at that and felt his anger rising. “Guests? You call them guests? I believe she lives here.”
She flushed. “Our residents, then. You should use your influence…”
“I have none.” He surprised himself by the harshness of his own voice. He sighed. “Look, she is a strong willed woman. Always has been. She makes up her own mind.”
The nurse glanced at two elderly ladies who were walking down the hall, arm in arm, and pulled Benson aside into a small alcove down the hall. “Why is she doing this? Doesn’t she have something to live for? You’re her son. Can’t you find something to…to inspire her to want to live?”
He studied the carefully bland pictures on the wall. Impossible landscapes in a pastoral world that never existed. “She does love her grandson. But he’s away at college back East.”
“A visit by him, then? Sometimes even a few days visit reminds them of why they need to live.”
He hesistated. Bill hated coming home since the divorce. Both parents competed for his attention, he had told Benson, and he could never win. But he seemed fond of his grandmother. “He has finals but I’ll call him. Tell him it might be a good idea.”
“And that way you get to see him too,” she said with forced cheerfulness.
His voice became stiff. “Quite. Thanks for the thought.”
She smiled at that. “You look just like your mother. That’s how she reacts to my recommendations.” She gave him a significant look and walked down the hall.
“Touché’” he thought, smiling faintly.
The hearing for Beth Wright began late because Benson couldn’t stop an attorney in a prior hearing from reading into the record most of the findings of his expert. Why he did not simply enter into evidence the entire written report was beyond the judge but the other party did not object and Benson did not like to interfere with how an attorney presented the case. He leafed through the pleadings involving Wright while the attorney droned on, had the attorneys agree to submit the matter for his decision in a few weeks, and nodded at his bailiff to call the next matter, the Wright case.
Springer moved to one of the two tables for counsel, followed by three family members, two middle aged men in business suits and a remarkably pretty blonde woman in her early thirties. An elderly matron in a tan pant suit followed Evans who represented the charity and they sat at the far end of the petitioner’s table, letting Springer and his group monopolize most of the table. The pretty woman noticed Benson looking at her and looked directly back, unembarrassed. Nice eyes, he thought, quickly looking down at the briefs in his hands. The two men in business suits muttered together with Springer, the young woman largely ignored.
In the spectator’s section I glanced back at the swinging doors at the back of the court room. I had a real problem. I hesitated, then moved to the Respondent’s table on the other side of the room from Springer and his clients. Benson saw that I was not accompanied by my client. Benson leaned back in his chair and drummed his fingers on the bench. I saw that, glanced over my shoulder, saw no Beth Wright coming through the door, and felt grim. Springer was still speaking in low tones to one of the two men, glancing at me as he did so.
Benson leaned forward. His voice was soft, something that was a warning to lawyers who knew him. “Counsel, I do not see your client. Perhaps you know when we may expect her?”
I spread my hands. “She advised me she would be here, Your Honor. Perhaps if you give me five minutes I can try to call her again?”
His voice remained ominously quiet. “The Court is not in the habit of adjusting its schedule to the convenience of the parties, Mr. Phelps.”
“Perhaps I could look in the hall, then?”
The door burst open and Beth Wright entered the court room. Benson instantly recognized her from occasional parties at the Yacht Club and her very occasional pictures on the society pages but he had not seen her for some years and was somehow surprised that she still seemed youthful and vibrant. Indeed, strangely attractive. Dressed in a flowing long dress, bright blue, a very long scarf and a white beret, she flowed down the aisle while putting her cell phone away in her large purse, muttering under her breath as she tried to fit it into the crowded purse.
She seemed to exude energy, enthusiasm and confusion at the same time. She finished fumbling with her purse as she approached the front of the court room, glanced around, saw me, and strode to my side at the Respondent’s table. Looking over at the Petitioner’s table she smiled in their direction, then noticed the young blonde and her eyes widened.
For a moment she and the young woman exchanged long looks. Then Beth said in an amused tone, “Ellen? Et tu?” The young woman blushed.
Benson was having none of it. “Ms Wright, I believe? You are late for this Court.”
She turned her eyes to Benson, face still slightly amused. She tilted her head slightly, studying him. Somehow it made her appear girlish. Benson wondered if she had ever been beautiful. He doubted it. As if reading his mind, she tossed her head back, almost defiantly. “You are right, Your Honor, and I apologize profusely. I have no legitimate excuse except a desire to appear respectable to this Court. An hour ago I was covered in oil from the bilge and in overalls.”
“Perhaps you should have put aside the morning to prepare for this hearing, Madam. Your voyage is not a given.”
Her smile faded a little but her voice was strong. “Oh, yes, I understand. My nephews and now my niece are deeply concerned with my waste of money and also claim to be concerned for my sanity in seeking this last adventure. They come to you for help.”
“They come to me for justice, Madam.” Benson was a little surprised at his own pompousness. Something about her bothered him. I recognized that the exchange was going badly and whispered for her to sit down and be quiet. She sat, still smiling faintly up at him. He felt her measuring gaze and it made him even more annoyed. He turned to Springer.
“Counsel, you may present your case now.”
Springer opened a file on the table in front of him, took out some notes, walked to the podium that was midway between the two tables. He carefully arranged the papers, then held the rostrum with a hand on each side. Benson studied the young woman who Beth Wright had called Ellen. Short curly blonde hair, a perky slim body, athletic, tan skin, large blue eyes that were looking right back at him. He quickly looked away towards Springer, but not before he noticed the older nephews watching his reaction to their lovely cousin. He frowned.
Springer’s voice was strong, calm and professional. “Judge, we are not here simply to protect trust assets but out of an equal concern for Ms. Wright’s safety. She is spending money she does not have, invading Trust corpus that should be used for the care and needs of the following generation and charity…and doing so based on what can only be called a desperate attempt to regain a long lost youth.”
Beth Wright made a snorting tone. Benson glanced at her with annoyance and I put my hand on her arm.
Springer made a point of looking in her direction. “Let me state that I greatly admire Ms. Wright’s energy and spunk. But…all of us are getting older…” he smiled in the direction of Benson who kept his face blank. “And all of us have dreams of doing what we used to do in our youth.” He gracefully raised one hand. “More power to her. Except for two salient points. First, she is intending to do something simply beyond the physical wherewithal of even a thirty year old experienced sailor. Second, she is using money that does not belong to her.”
“Let us discuss the latter issue first. She is the sole trustee of her deceased husband’s trust and is charged with the highest fiduciary duty to protect trust assets. But as our pleadings and the declaration of Arnold Beck, CPA , indicates, she has ignored that duty, routinely gone beyond her allowance of receiving all the income from the Trust, and has routinely invaded the Trust corpus to increase her income. Each time she does so she reduces the remainder that will go to her niece and nephews and this worthy charity. And she has done so each year for over a decade.
“That was bad enough but we let it go on, loving her and respecting her as we do. Only now…when she has invaded in the space of six months a sum equal to what she used to invade in five years…must we finally protest.” He gave a sorrowful sincere look at Benson who quelled his sense of impatience and turned to the fifth page of the moving papers.
“Counsel, you are aware of the broad language granting her the right to invade corpus, indeed, remarkably broad language. All the cases you cite to limit that right relate to more traditional language. I do not see any cases that address language similar to this Trust. Did you find any?”
Springer looked a little less comfortable. “There are no cases in California precisely addressing the language at issue. However, as pointed out in our brief, the fiduciary obligations would apply to the language at issue and certainly invasion of the corpus so as to gut the remaining trust assets is not in conformity with fiduciary duties.”
“This Court would find it easier to agree to your broad interpretation of fiduciary duty if you found a case that considers the language at Bar.”
“And we would have been delighted to provide it. However, common sense and common justice would indicate that Ms. Wright cannot use the Trust for her personal piggy bank.”
“No?” Benson leaned back in the chair and fixed Springer with one of his famous glares. “Even if that is precisely what her deceased husband wanted? It was his money to give to whoever he wanted…and his wording…” Benson flipped through the file until he came to the right wording. “…So long as my Spouse, Elizabeth Wright, occupies the position as sole Trustee she shall be given the unfettered discretion to utilize the assets of the Trust, both income and corpus, as she sees fit to provide for herself and those of my heirs as she deems appropriate from time to time, up to the entire Trust corpus.” What am I missing here, Counsel?”
“He states, “provide” for herself which we contend relates to the necessities of life, not the necessities of whim, Your Honor.”
“Where does it say, “necessities of life,” Counsel?”
Springer was blinking rapidly now. “We contend it is implicit in the word, “provide for herself,” Your Honor. He certainly did not mean provide whatever you may want, including a million dollar yacht spree.”
“No? No?” Benson looked over at me and when I am winning by saying nothing, I try to keep saying nothing. I was enjoying letting the Judge carry the argument. “Mr. Phelps, do you contend that she may spend whatever she wants on whatever she wants regardless of the rights of the remaindermen?”
I knew a possible trap when I hear one and as I stood up it was clear I had to respond carefully. “Whose money is it, Your Honor? I contend it was Mr. Wright’s and she is free to do whatever he says she can do. If he wanted the remaindermen to have veto rights, he could have given it to them. He did not. What he clearly wanted was for my client to do what she wanted with the money and what was left over, if anything, goes to the nephews and the niece and charity. It’s his money. He could have told her to burn it and the Court would have to follow those directions.”
“With no regard for the remaindermen at all?”
“Only the regard Mr. Wright wanted them to have…which is none. Provide does not mean provide only for necessities. It means what it says…provide.”
“And do you have law defining that term, Mr. Phelps?”
It was my turn to blush. “No, Your Honor. Not on those specific words.”
“So, the definition you just provided is the world as seen by Phelps, is that correct?” There was a slight twitter in the court room which Benson ignored. “I seem to be the only person in this court room insisting upon law being found to support arguments, gentlemen. Law, not opinion of counsel, however respected and eminent they may be.” He started to read a part of my brief flipping the pages.
“Grumpy man,” Beth Wright muttered under her breath but loud enough to be heard. He looked up angry, expecting her to be leaning over and saying it to me. Instead she was looking directly at him but smiling brilliantly and, oddly, fondly at him.” He glared at her. Her smile became, if anything, even warmer and she tilted her head again.
I leaned over, angry, telling her to be quiet, seeing our advantage so far in the argument evaporating if she taunted the Judge. Benson saw me and for an instant saw himself as the others in the court room must see him. As a fear inspiring ill tempered but intelligent senior Judge. Indeed, as a brilliant but angry middle aged man. The instant revelation was somehow stunning to him. He blinked and realized that Beth Wright was studying him closely now, watching him, watching his face, her smile now altered to a look he could not define. He felt a surge of real annoyance and sat up straighter. Her look changed to one of disappointment. As if he had failed some test. He flushed now.
“Mr. Phelps, you may wish to discuss with your client the law as to contempt of court. Meanwhile, counsel, I want this hearing adjourned until tomorrow at eight in the morning and I want law on the issues that I have presented delivered to this court by five o’clock today.” He paused noticing the Bailiff was looking upset. He didn’t want to have to open the court room early. Benson ignored him. “The additional law will not be longer than five pages from either party.” He glared in the direction of Springer. “Counsel, I do not want you to waste time arguing as to your concerns for the safety or competency of Ms. Wright. That is not an issue before this court.” He glared at Phelps. “And I do not want opinions absent statute or case law to back them up. I hope that is clear.”
He stood, not looking in the direction of either Beth Wright or her young niece, picked up the file, and walked quickly back to chambers. Flustered and angry. And not sure why.
That evening after a workout on weights at his gym, Benson took the additional briefs filed by the parties to read while he ate his dinner alone at Sams, the old downtown restaurant that he used for his solo dinners two or three nights a week. They knew him well there, immediately sat him at a small table near the rear of the restaurant and brought him his standard dinner of mock turtle soup, green salad and rare steak without him having to order. The second oldest restaurant in San Francisco, it featured gruff male waiters, beat up tables and chairs, linoleum floor, polished dark pine walls with hunting water colors interspersed, and large polished mahogany booths that had seen tens of thousands of business deals made by its clientele over the ninety years of its existence.
“Grumpy waiters for a grumpy judge,’ he muttered to himself as he read the briefs. He noticed that I had found one case somewhat on point from Indiana, not binding on the Court but useful. In that Will contest case, relating to the duty of a mother to provide for the children, the court had held that what is “provided” must go far beyond mere food and board but goes to all the things that a parent should provide to a child that the parent loves. Springer had found an obscure definition of “adequate provision for my darling wife” in an 1887 Will contest case from South Carolina. The definition actually did relate only to necessities of life. Benson wondered how many associates at Springer’s firm had devoted desperate hours finding the case.
He leaned back in the chair and paused in his reading. He had made them jump to his tune. Made them stop everything to meet his needs. He had flexed his muscles. Despite the fact that he had already made up his mind as to the case. Beth had won, as far as he was concerned. So, why had he forced them to brief further and do so immediately?
He knew why. Between Ellen’s defiant return look as he studied her beauty and Beth’s equally defiant explanation as to why she was late, he had plenty of reason to want to flex his muscle. To show them who was boss. But even more, Beth’s look of disappointment at his rather bullying tone lecturing counsel made him both uncomfortable and defensive. Far more defensive than he should have been. He had been treated to a lot tougher and outspoken resistance in three dozen other trials without such overreaction on his part.
He sighed and began to play with his food. Only then did he remember his mother’s words about Beth Wright. Whore. He chuckled. Then he paused. The Rules of Conduct for a judge required him to recuse himself if there was any possible bias or conflict of interest. He had advised counsel that he knew Beth Wright from the yacht club and they had waived that potential conflict. However, he had not told them of his own mother’s comment about her. Or that obviously his parents had known Beth and her now deceased husband and there was bad blood.
Did his mother’s comment influence him? He doubted it. Indeed, he had forgotten she had said that during the hearing. But did he not have to advise counsel? To recuse himself?
He was annoyed with himself now. He clearly had to so advise them and do so tomorrow morning. And since Springer must know his petition was in deep trouble he would undoubtedly use this disclosure to challenge Benson if he did not recuse himself. He had wasted thousands of dollars of tax payer’s money listening to an argument that he was not going to be able to decide. He shook his head in self disgust.
He and the Presiding Judge already had a stormy relationship. Three years before, after an argument between them, Presiding Judge Wringly had assigned him to Law and Motion for six months just to show him who had the power. Benson had meekly done his job in that busy department though he personally found the task boring. He liked complex trials, the more complex the better, not just deciding law and motion seven hours a day. I had appeared before him on several cases in Law and Motion, some high publicity, and knew he had done a good job. But he clearly did not like the tasks usual in Law and Motion. After he had done his time, Wringly had put him back into complex trials and hearings but the tension remained.
If he recused himself Wringly would use it as another example of wasting juridical resources, would demand to know the details of why and inevitably what his mother had called Beth Wright would be gossip around the court. He shook his head in frustration.
He thought about his mother and Beth Wright. They were the same age but one seemed twenty years older than the other. The emphysema, undoubtedly. Well, perhaps not undoubtedly. His mother had always seemed old. Or at least grim and determined. Was she like that before his father left them? He tried to think back to any experiences before he was five but could remember nothing.
His first memory with any real clarity was when he was seven or so, his mother helping him study, both of them in that dark living room in the family home in the exclusive Sea Cliff neighborhood, the large house cold and musty smelling. His father had already left, that was clear, since he remembered she was dressed mostly in black which is what she had worn for the initial few years after his father had disappeared. Black in that dark house. A feeling of depression swept over him as he remembered those dismal years.
And mentioning his father was clearly forbidden in his childhood home. Never named, no questions tolerated. Visitors to the house never brought up the topic, nor other members of her family. His father’s own family never visited the house. Benson was in high school before that topic was literally put on the table with his mother. He was supposed to do a family history for class and spent a week trying to decide how to bring up the topic. Finally, he had left his half finished paper on the living room coffee table, open to the page which was to trace the family tree. The paper stayed there for two days before it disappeared. The next day it was back, his mother’s neat hand writing inserted in the formerly blank part of the paper:
William Benson, a prominent San Franciscan attorney from a distinguished old San Franciscan family, attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School, graduating with honors from both institutions. He practiced law in San Francisco and abroad. He married Elaine Sloan in 1920 and they had one child, John Benson, born in 1955. The parents were divorced in 1960 and William Benson now lives abroad.
They had never spoken of the paper. He had simply copied her words and turned it in.
The waiter came over. He had served Benson for over a decade and was clearly concerned that Benson was not finishing his steak. He leaned over and spoke softly in his Italian accent. “Judge, the food is all right?”
“Fine. Fine. Just thinking. Coffee now would be good.”
Fifteen years before, while he was still in private practice, he had regularly used an investigator for location of witnesses and on a whim had asked him to locate his father. The next day he had called the investigator and cancelled the assignment. Now he wished he had carried it through.
That night, around eleven, found him in his attic. He had kept the home after his divorce, paying handsomely for it. But he liked the relatively small house not far from his mother’s home in Sea Cliff, not nearly as grand but comfortable and he liked his comforts. From the top floor rooms you could see the Golden Gate and he had made one of the bedrooms his study so he could read briefs while watching the ocean fog pour through the Golden Gate.
But now he was dressed in jeans and an old shirt, in the upstairs hallway, tottering on the wooden ladder that led to the absurdly small entrance to the attic. He muttered obscenities as he pulled himself up, feeling the heat of the insulated space, smelling the mold of old cardboard boxes. The crawl space was only about four feet high, the room filled with discolored card board boxes, old clothing, Christmas ornaments.
Holding the flashlight in his mouth, he crawled among the boxes to the far side of the attic and found his mother’s boxes. When she moved to The Wentworth he had put most of her furniture and clothes in storage but her personal papers were here. They both pretended she might eventually return to the large home in Sea Cliff and he paid the monthly storage fees without comment. But the personal papers he felt had to be kept with him. Her mouth had tightened when he told her he was keeping them, but she said nothing.
It took him twenty minutes crawling about to find the box he wanted. He had noticed it when moving the boxes from her home that rainy Sunday afternoon. Most of her boxes of papers were in banker’s boxes, crushed and dirty, but all carefully dated with descriptions of the papers inside, his mother’s neat printing not changing over the years. This box was unmarked, a typical banker’s box, and taped closed. He put it between his legs, sitting on the plywood floor of the attic, pulled out his rigging knife and cut through the tape.
His mother’s neat writing was on a large sheet of paper on the top level of the box. It said, simply, “Private Papers. Not To Be Read While Beth Wright is Alive.” He hesistated for less than ten seconds, pulled off the sheet of paper and looked underneath. There were four smaller shoe boxes below. Again, with his mother’s neat writing, this time simply with dates. The first box was labeled 1946-1950. The next box 1951-1955. The third box was 1956-1966. The last box was unlabeled. He opened the last box. Perhaps a dozen letters neatly laid in it. He picked up the last one, dated April 10, 1975.
He quickly turned to the last page. It was signed “Bill.” His father. It was scrawled in very poor penmanship on unmarked paper, smudged, a fountain pen. He read its last paragraph above the signature.
“Beth, we go round and round on the same topic. He is my son. I want to visit with him before I die. That can’t be far away, now. Is that too much to ask? I am tired to death of you playing the victim over and over. We both know why I left was not as simple as you make out. But that is ancient history. I want to see him. I promised you I would not do so without your consent. Now you threaten all sorts of monetary penalties if I so dare…to stop me. Well, I am keeping my word but now need you to be reasonable. Will you not? I am asking one parent to another.”
That was the last letter. Benson had been starting law school when the letter was written, twenty two years old. He mother had never mentioned any contact with his father at any time. He leafed through the earlier letters in the box. All were from his father. Copies of her responses, if any, were apparently not kept. The writing deteriorated markedly in the early sixties. He wondered what his father had looked like. There were no pictures around the house, of course, and he could not remember much of anything before he was six. Perhaps Harvard or Stanford had a photo. Benson studied the earlier handwriting. It was a scrawl, large letters, a few misspellings. By the seventies it was truly erratic. Drugs? Drink? “Guess her allowance mattered more than seeing me, you son of a bitch,” he muttered.
He stared at the crumbled papers in his hands. Then he carefully put them back in the shoe box, replaced the shoebox in the larger box and shoved the box towards the entrance to the attic. It took him a good ten minutes to maneuver the heavy box through the entrance and down the ladder. He carried it to the desk in his study. By then it was after midnight and he showered again and went to bed and dreamed of dark days in the family home in Sea Cliff studying incomprehensible math problems with an angry mother.
By seven the next morning, he had arrived early to his court room chambers. He only had five hours of bad sleep but he knew what he had to do. He sent an e mail to the Presiding Judge asking for a meeting later that morning, then when his Bailiff arrived around eight, pushed the button for him and told him to send counsel into Chambers when they arrived. The Bailiff wanted to ask what was happening but seeing his expression, just nodded. Benson put on his judge’s black robe. He felt a little better. He sat behind his large desk and sighed. Then Benson idly leafed through the expert’s report from the case that he had heard before the Wright case, and looked up when Springer, Evans and I knocked at his door.
He remained seated as we came in, all of us looking curious but not overly concerned. “Gentlemen, there is coffee over there.” He gestured to the chrome coffee thermos and ceramic mugs on his side table. He watched as we poured cups for ourselves, Evans putting in a surprising amount of sugar, and then we sat on the comfortable padded leather seats before his desk.
“Counsel, I am recusing myself from this matter. Last night I did some study of family history and, frankly, have discovered sufficient connection with the Wright family and, indeed, with Ms. Wright, that I do not think I can proceed to hear this matter. I will speak to the Presiding Judge this morning and find you another court room if one is available.”
As he expected, I was not happy and tried to think of a way to keep Benson hearing the matter while Springer looked relieved. Springer leaned forward. “Judge, it may take a day or two to find that court room with the budget cuts.”
“Quite possible. But I’ll see what I can do.”
“During that delay, I think we need an order for Ms. Wright to remain in port with that valuable trust asset. I think she’s about ready to sail.”
I flared. “Just wait a minute here. They have won no hearing. Have not proven a thing. All that is happening is that the Judge has discovered a past connection with this family…and suddenly an order restricting my client’s freedom is appropriate?!”
Springer’s voice was tense now. “If she sails tonight, it matters little what this Judge says or what Judge is assigned. We need this to keep the status quo for a few days, that’s all.”
“It is restricting the freedom of an adult without good cause or a showing of need.”
Benson held up his hand to silence us both. “Mr. Phelps, is she planning to sail in the next few days? Is the vessel fully ready?”
“I don’t believe so, Your Honor, but that’s not the point.”
“As you know, a preliminary injunction only exists to maintain the status quo for a small while until a full hearing can be granted. Mr. Springer has a point if your client is planning to leave the jurisdiction. If she is not, the order would have little effect on her.”
I shook my head. “Your Honor, with all due respect, it is imposing a restriction on a lady of sterling reputation which implies that she has acted wrongly with this Trust. It is a public document. I don’t have to tell you that the effect will go far beyond a few days delay in a voyage and I am sure counsel will argue to the next Judge that the preliminary injunction infers that a permanent injunction should be granted.” I was truly upset and blinked rapidly as I spoke.
Springer sat up. “I resent counsel concocting future arguments for me, Judge…”
Benson held up his hand again. “Easy, counsel. I will make an order granting the preliminary injunction for one week only, and will state in the order that it infers nothing and that it is only necessary due to my need to recuse myself.” He looked hard as Springer. “I am sure counsel will not engage in such inappropriate arguments.” He looked hard at me. “She can delay her voyage a week, Mr. Phelps. Simple as that. I can’t have her leaving the jurisdiction while a new judge is found. That’s it. Thank you, gentlemen.”
We both wanted to say more and we both controlled ourselves. Evans had said nothing and didn’t need to. Few argued with Judge Benson once he had spoken as he had. He pretended to study the expert report on his desk while we rose and left the Chambers to tell our clients the news. He waited three minutes then walked through the door to his court room.
He was a little self conscious, but the formal black robe and the high bench helped. He sat at the bench, arranged his pen, turned on his computer, then looked out over the court room and was surprised to see Ellen sitting next to Beth at my table. He blinked. Ellen blushed, Beth beamed and I stood. “Your Honor, Ms. Ellen Wright is not represented by me but asked to make it known that she no longer supports the petition filed by Mr. Springer and fully supports her aunt’s desire to make this voyage.”
Benson studied us. Beth was dressed in another long gown, this time bright green, a very long scarf draped casually around her neck, head bare. Again, she gazed at him with her head slightly tilted and he noted she was well tanned. Next to her Ellen seemed pale even though tanned and now Ellen was blushing. Ellen fit very nicely into a tight fitting but formal suit, and Benson noticed she wore no nail polish. He looked over at Springer’s table. Evans and his matronly client, this time in pink, were sitting but Springer was standing next to his two middle aged clients. He noted that both were again dressed in business suits, both grey haired and meaty. They couldn’t be the same generation as Ellen.
He turned back to me. “Counsel, if you are not representing her, why are you speaking for her?”
Benson could be like that. I frowned and turned to her. Ellen took a breath, stood, and blurted out, “Your Honor, I just want to make sure that you understand that I misunderstood…that is, I was misinformed…and believed wrongly, that the voyage should be terminated. I mean, I have as much interest in the boat as my cousins and I don’t think they are right to object…”
His eyes turned from her pretty earnest face to Beth who, he noted, was studying him again, still smiling. For a moment their eyes locked. Her smile faded but her eyes did not move from his gaze. His voice was a little stiff. “As I explained to all counsel in this matter, I am recusing myself. It would appear our families have had more interaction than I once thought…”
“Oh yes,” Ellen said, half laughing, still standing. “That’s certainly true.”
Beth saw Benson’s face change and put her hand on Ellen’s arm. “Dear, I think the Judge wants to talk without interruption.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Ellen sat down, blushing again.
Benson saw all of us attorneys staring at him and to his own consternation felt a flush growing on his own face. He studied his hands on his desk for a moment, regaining control. “The past connection has compelled me to recuse myself from this matter.” He looked at Beth now. “Another judge will hear this matter, and that will occur later today or early next week. Meanwhile, I intend to impose an injunction as to removing the vessel from the jurisdiction for one week until the successor court may determine appropriate action.” Her expression, if anything, was somehow compassionate and understanding. Pitying? Again, he felt increasing annoyance.
He directed his next statement to the Court reporter who was to transpose his order and kept his eyes on the reporter as he dictated.
“The Court has determined that it is necessary to recuse itself from hearing the instant matter which will be assigned to another department as soon as practicable. The court anticipates it will take several days to find an available judge. For that reason, and only that reason, the Court will grant the preliminary injunction for a period of one week from today’s date. The Court emphasizes that this granting of the injunction does not reflect at all on the Court’s anticipated ruling. It is done for the sole purpose of keeping the trust asset within the Court’s jurisdiction pending the ruling of the appropriate Court. As far as this Court is concerned there has been no evidence developed that would reflect in any negative manner on Ms. Wright as a Trustee.”
He looked up and his eyes could not help turning to Beth. Now she looked at him with what seemed motherly concern. He quickly looked down at his hands on his blotter. “Counsel, I will advise all three of you as to the Department which the Presiding Judge locates. That should conclude this.”
He looked up as we lawyers and our clients began to pack up our papers from the respective tables. Ellen was leaning across Beth, talking to me in a low tone, trying to understand what the injunction meant. Beth was looking at Benson, her face untroubled despite the injunction, a slight smile. Looking away quickly, Benson clicked his mouse to bring up the rest of his calendar for the day when Ellen’s voice brought his attention back to the respondent’s table. She was standing, hands at her side, face flushed and looked outraged. Their eyes met and she shook her head slightly and then burst out, “You are doing the wrong thing, Judge. The absolutely wrong thing. You know that. You can’t restrict my aunt like this. It’s not right.”
“I think you’re just upset about the wrong thing. You should forget what happened with your family. It was eons ago. You shouldn’t punish her like this. Not someone with her spirit.”
He felt a rush of his anger, heard the Court room go dead silent. He fought to keep his voice steady.
“Madam, the cause of my recusal is not known to you and I suggest you do not attempt to determine it and suggest strongly you do not postulate reasons in a public forum. Is that clear?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it, Beth holding her arm tightly. Ellen nodded with clear reluctance.
“I am glad that is clear to you, since one more word and I would find you in contempt. Mr. Phelps, she is not your client but you would do well to remove her from the Court and explain to her that the injunction is for seven days only…”
To his shock, Beth then laughed with real humor. “Oh, John…Judge..sometimes I feel as if I have known you your whole life. That tone…But you are absolutely right, this is not a real inconvenience and I realize it is something you have to do. Come, Ellen.” With that, she stood up, took Ellen firmly by the arm, and pulling her, walked out of the Court room while I stared at the Judge, wondering what he would do. Indeed, both Springer and I watched Benson waiting for his reaction.
He stared at their departing backs, gritted his teeth, then glared at me, shaking his head. “Mr. Phelps, you have your work cut out for you,” he snapped.
Relieved, I smiled. “Don’t I know it, Your Honor,” and continued packing away my papers.
Once a month on a Wednesday night at six o’clock Benson ate alone at the yacht club since the cruising committee met at seven thirty afterwards and he headed that committee. The agenda this month involved a raft up of various members’ boats in the Delta planned for the following month and a dozen details had to be worked out with the unruly committee.
At six fifteen he was eating trout in the elegant dining room, glancing at the setting sun through the large windows that covered the western side of the Club as he worked on a budget. The oldest and most exclusive yacht club in San Francisco, it jealously guarded its ideal location on the city front on city land rented to the elite club for a fraction of its value and also maintained a carefully selected membership. A doorman was permanently on station next to the elegant mahogany entrance doors that fronted the marina and the dining room facing the Golden Gate Bridge was a throwback to the days of high end London gentleman’s clubs. White table cloths, monogrammed dishes and silverware, hushed tones, teak paneled walls and comfortable padded chairs. In the foyer flags from hundreds of other yacht clubs from around the world brought back by cruising members hung on the walls, and next to the front door the hundreds of racing trophies won over the decades gleamed inside glass cases in the subdued light.
Benson was making notes on the proposed agenda for the meeting when a shadow fell across his table and he looked up to see Ellen Wright standing there. Beth was a member so her family would be allowed in, he realized. Somewhat reluctantly, he rose.
She was in tight jeans and a baggy sweater, blonde hair disheveled, looked nervous but determined. “Don’t get up, Judge. I just wanted to apologize for my outburst. In court. Aunt Beth told me I was acting the fool. I think she was right.”
He was already standing. He was still in his suit and tie and the difference in their dress made him feel like an angry father. “It’s quite all right, Ms. Wright. I’m used to hearing a lot worse in my court room.”
She smiled and it reminded him of that brilliant smile Beth could bestow. “I’m sure you have. I’m amazed you can take that day after day. It must wear you down terribly.”
He shrugged, smiling faintly now. “There are benefits. I get to yell at lawyers from time to time.”
She laughed. “Now, that would be a huge benefit for me. It’s so…so dark and negative there. Not like the sea.”
“You sail a great deal?”
“As much as I can. Aunt Beth takes me out all the time. And I’m on a racing team. The navigator. The Aleta? We hope to race to Hawaii next year. Beth says we might win that one. You know, she’s a really great sailor.”
“Which is why she shouldn’t be stopped.”
His voice tightened. “I’m not hearing the case any longer, Ms. Wright.”
She shook her head. “I know that. I wouldn’t even be saying this if you were. Wouldn’t be right to talk about it out of the court room, right?”
“Right. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to work on the budget for the cruising club.”
But she did not leave. She just stood there looking at him. For a moment they remained standing there, looking at each other. He wondered if she was going to blurt out something embarrassing yet again and was about to ask her once more to let him work when she reached into her pocket and pulled out a wad of crumbled paper. She held it in her hand, looking at it.
Then she looked up, face blushing. “I think you might find this something you want to read. I mean, I would if I were you. It was written to my aunt from your father. I just think you should read it. At least this one letter. To clear things up. Aunt Beth doesn’t know. But…well, if you want to read it, here it is and if you don’t, just leave it in my locker downstairs.” She was almost stuttering at the end, dropped the letter on the table, then rushing away.
He called after her, “I really don’t want to read this, Ms. Wright…”
She called over her shoulder, “Then just put it in my locker,” but did not look back and continued out of the dining room.
He sat down, annoyed. All this old history. All this old embarrassing history. And it seemed that the Wright family had a proclivity for dragging it up again and again. He wouldn’t read the letter. He concentrated on the budget, trying to ignore the sheets of wrinkled paper across the table from him. He made it for almost ten minutes before he pulled the letter towards him and against his better judgment began to read. No date. He recognized the scrawl.
Down here, your letters keep me sane, sweet Beth. As I promised, I keep all of them, you know, and, no, you shouldn’t come here now. Far too dangerous right now. Maybe never. It has been made clear to me that I am causing problems and that Americans should not cause problems down here. And you know who said that? The local police captain. I think he wasn’t threatening. He was warning. Now with my friend dead, my local clout is minimized. So, why not leave, you say?
For the same reason I came, of course. That hasn’t changed. And you, of all people, know that I find doing the wrong thing addictive. You were one of my addictions. Still are, I guess. Eleanor called you that, do you know that? Among other things.
I think of you most at sunset, I find. Like now. Looking out over the ocean, which is not surprising given what happened. Odd that I am here now and you are there and that all our plans are where they are. I think of all that each of us gave up for each other. And now, apart.
When one surrenders to passion and the result is intense but finite…very finite…then the scales of judgment are made much clearer. If you and I married, then we would have the rest of our lives to decide if we were right. We could always keep trying. But apart, such as this, possibly forever, we have finite time…what?...fourteen months…two voyages…that small time to weigh what we had against the destruction we caused by our passion. In my case, by far the worst is not Eleanor…she is strong and is probably happier to have that “permanent teenager” as she called me, out of her life. No, it is John, who she will make sure I never know. I have now lost you. Have lost John. For those fourteen months.
I think of that at sunset and do get blue. Sounds like a bad jazz song. I am maudlin. But such hackneyed phrases are so on point, so often. Sitting around encased by hatred, hated by my ex-wife, distant from the woman I love, such reactions are to be expected.
I cannot go back. At least now. She will thus have exclusive control of what John knows and how he develops. Indeed, what everyone there knows and thinks. That’s the price of my earlier choices, I supposed. But I have a favor to ask and someone like you just might be able to do it.
Will you make sure he is OK? I don’t mean get to know him. Just watch over him. At least from a distance. You can do that, I know. You did that for your own father, I know. Just to make sure Eleanor does not turn him into herself…stiff, brilliant, angry, competent, a shell of high quality steel with no passion inside. Except for order, for rules. Passion for having lack of passion. Good rules, usually. But a life of rules. I don’t think she is always right. Maybe, just maybe, he can evade that. And now I am not there to counteract that. But you are. Let me know. I know it’s unfair. Life is unfair. I am unfair. But will you?
Benson read it twice, then smoothed out the wrinkles and folded it correctly. He smiled grimly. Just as his mother would have done. The sun on the Bay was deep red now, the sky darkening. He was not happy to have read the letter. “Don’t mention the allowance she was sending you, did you, old Dad?” he thought, “The money you received to make sure you stay away? That was your sin, you bastard. Not Beth.” He found he had crumbled the letter in his hand. He again folded it carefully, placed it his breast pocket and finished his trout.
On the way home from the meeting he called Gail Treadwell who he was taking to the dinner and the symphony Saturday night. Somehow, the thought of a typical date of dinner at a good restaurant, Beethoven until ten thirty, sex until midnight, and brunch in a carefully downscale small café among the other well heeled sophisticates of San Francisco was simply depressing. Boring. She didn’t answer and he listened to her soft but professional voice on her voice mail and decided against leaving a message. He drove home to the letters from his father to his mother waiting on his desk.
Thursday he left Court an hour early to visit his mother. He was still smarting from the implied rebuke the Presiding Judge had given him. That judge had assigned the Wright matter to a woman judge who Benson knew wanted his seat in the complex trials department but who was so junior she remained in criminal. Over lunch with the Presiding Judge a month before the Wright case had come to his department, Benson had made it clear in his indirect way that he felt she was not capable of moving up the judicial hierarchy. Without conferring with him, the Presiding Judge had sent the Wright case to her.
So Benson was not in a good mood and perhaps should not have chosen that time to visit his mother. In his pocket were two of his father’s letters he wanted to discuss with her.
He timed his visit to be shortly after her dinner and he knew they served dinner at five thirty or so. For the last several months she had her dinners delivered to her room. Her tray was being removed as he entered the room and he noted that she was in bed and had barely touched her food. He let the server squeeze past him with the tray and watched as his mother nodded at him, face grim, and she turned the sound off on the television but, again, left the screen on. Their conversation was in the flickering light of the screen.
She was gaunt but perhaps more alert. She examined his face as he leaned over the bed to peck her cheek. As always, the oxygen clip in her nose made him uncomfortable and she saw that. She pulled it out and laid it on the bed besides her. She faced him and said nothing.
“Mother. You are feeling better?”
She blinked in annoyance. “No, of course not. I am dying. I should feel worse each day, I expect. Which I do. What is wrong?”
He sat on the uncomfortable chair next to her bed. “You are not dying. Unless you decide you want to in which case you will inevitably fade away. That’s not like you, I would hope.”
“No pep talks, please, John. We are far beyond that nonsense. Of course I am dying. I can barely breathe now and we both know what that means. I am not afraid or upset. As you can tell. But you are upset. What is wrong?”
“Just the usual nonsense with the Presiding Judge. I can’t stand the man.”
“Nor should you. He always was a bully. His father was a butcher, I believe. Or, at least in meats. Wholesale meats.”
“What his father did doesn’t bother me, Mother. It’s what he does and mostly what he does is kick me whenever he gets a chance.”
“Well, you got into that silly argument with him. Three years ago? Four? It does not pay to argue with your superiors, now does it?”
“I should go along with whatever nonsense he promulgates?”
“If you do not, then don’t whine when you pay the price, son.”
He sighed and looked out the window. In the distance he could make out the lights of downtown coming on. The wind was rising and the tree outside the window brushed against the pane. Should be good wind for a sail this weekend. He needed it.
He looked at his mother and realized she was waiting for him to speak. He felt a surge of resentment, suddenly. “Mother, did you pay my father to stay away?”
His mother did not react other than continuing to look at him, perhaps a slight tightening of her mouth. “That’s an odd question. And completely out of context. Has that woman been talking to you?”
“You mean Beth Wright?”
“No. I read some of his letters to you.”
At that her face hardened. “Without my permission? Just crawling around my things?”
“If you paid my father to stay away, you took my father away from me. I think that justifies my examining some ancient letters to you. Your letters to him were not in the box, I note.”
“Do you, now? Well, I’m sorry. I did not keep copies. Most people don’t. Or, perhaps you think I am lying. Perhaps you should go through my drawers here? Or simply notice my deposition and examine me under oath?”
“You are evading the question. Did you pay him to stay away from me?”
“You have behaved like a sneak and you owe me an apology.”
“You will get it when you answer my question. Did you pay him or not?”
“I did not.”
“His letter said you would punish him financially if he came to see me.”
She grunted in exasperation. “He was always dramatic as well as inaccurate. All the money sent to him was his own money. He could have obtained it at any time by a simple demand to the bank. He trusted me. Knew of my expertise. I handled his money. His money. After he left, after he had wasted most of his wealth, he turned to me to keep what was left. He certainly did not trust that woman to do that. Nor should he have.
“You handled his money? For his account? After the divorce?”
“He asked me to. That should give you some idea of his own opinion of his own self control.” Her voice was harsh but almost broke. She stopped and took two labored breaths. She looked at the oxygen line but did not put it back in her nose. She glared at her son. “I would parcel out the money so it would last him. I invested it wisely for him. Or rather my people did. That was our relationship.”
“And you never told me.”
“I saw no point. And you never asked. You didn’t seem to care.”
He sat forward, face flushing. “He was my father. Don’t you think you owed me the courtesy of letting me know you were handling his money?”
She blinked at that. “Courtesy? That’s an odd word. Of course I did not owe you any explanation. It was between he and I.”
“He was my father.”
“In name only. Biologically only. He was not there for you. I was.”
“He wanted to come back. He said so in that letter. You threatened to cut him off if he came to see me. Do you want to see the letter?”
She laughed, not a pretty sound, then gasped a little to catch her breath. “Drama, Oh, Bill loved the drama. It was his own money. Maybe I wouldn’t have handled it any longer if he returned. But it was his money, he could have pulled it out at any time. And he knew it. He was just making his usual excuses for not coming through for you.”
He leaned back. “Did you tell him that?”
“I didn’t have to. He knew. It was a silly game he played. Nothing was ever his fault. He always was forced to hurt others, never chose to do it on his own. He always…” she stopped and looked away at the wall. There was a long moment of silence. When she turned her face back to him she was again in control. “I am waiting for my apology.”
He was strangely out of breath. “I do not think I owe you an apology for trying to find out about my father. To have to learn about him from strangers.”
“Strangers? You mean Beth Wright? Is she causing you to act like this?”
“Like this? You mean trying to find out what happened to him? Why he’s gone? That’s not her. She has said less than a dozen words to me. I shouldn’t have to even ask. You should tell me.”
She looked at him with a strange expression. Then to his consternation he realized it was fear. And some shame? She was afraid of this conversation. He had never seen her afraid before and it shook him. He leaned back in the chair, not knowing what to say. After a moment she reached with trembling hands and reinserted the oxygen clip into her nose. He felt sad suddenly, so sad.
He looked out the darkening window, not looking at her for a few moments. Then, determined, he brought his eyes down to her face. She was looking at her hands folded in her lap. He kept his voice steady. “Why were you handling his money?”
She said nothing for a few moments and when she began to speak she kept looking at her hands. “He was an intelligent man. He realized that he had a…a sickness. A need. He needed…needed excitement. Wherever he could get it. Gambling. Risky activity. Adventure, he called it. Traveling at great expense.” She looked up now and met Benson’s gaze. “Women.”
She laughed briefly and bitterly. “Beth Wright. And two dozen others. She always thought she was so special. She gave him her own money so that he could deteriorate faster. The ‘Love of the Century,’ I’m sure she called it. But she was far from the only one. I wonder if he even liked her. After all…” She hesistated, then went on. “After all, when all was said and done, he married me. A woman like me. And had a child by me. The others…they may have played to his weaknesses, may have eventually allowed him to ruin himself. But it was me and what I did that kept him going. And who he chose to marry. He understood that much.”
Her eyes were bright, her face flushed. She fixed Benson with her eyes. “You. You were the one thing he did not ruin. The one thing in our marriage I could protect from his…his proclivities. He knew it. I knew it. That was our understanding. One reason I agreed to handle his money, give him his “allowance.” You were the one thing. Do you really think I could have stopped him from coming up here to see you? If it really mattered to him?”
Benson now looked down at his hands clasped in his lap. He said nothing.
She regarded him a moment then continued. “I do respect him for many things. He was powerful. Magnetic. Brilliant. Brave. Handsome. Cultured. He wanted to do good, perhaps. He said so, at least. He simply…was weak in some respects.”
Benson remained silent. She sat up in the bed. “But what I respect him for most is that he left you to me. He let me save you…protect you…from his…his darker side. He would have overawed you. A man’s man. What every boy would love. He could have done that. We knew that. Both he and I knew that. And he stayed away. That…that was good of him.” She reached out and touched Benson’s hands. “Perhaps the best thing he ever did.”
To his shock he saw her eyes well up. Slowly, he held her hand in both of his. Her hand was cold and stick like. He felt as if he could break it by squeezing it. He took several deep breaths. “Tell me about him. Tell me what I should know. Why did he end up in Mexico?”
She looked at their hands together. “Do you really need that? Does it matter?”
He said nothing, just looked at her.
She sighed, glanced at his expression, then back to their hands still clasped together. “I can tell you one thing…it was no romantic jaunt to run away with Beth Wright. She may have hoped that. But it was far more than that. And that may give you…some understanding. Of him. Of why he left. She mattered not one whit in the real scheme of things. Don’t believe what others may tell you.”
“So, you tell me.”
She leaned back on the bed now, still holding his hand. A few moments while she breathed as deeply as she could. “He went there to help a friend and client. A class mate in law school. Edwardo Alverez. From a fine Mexican family. Great landowners. Direct decedents from Spain.”
“Of course. That’s what made them so fine.”
She looked at him coldly. “I understand you hold an elected position, John and are required to comply with our current insistence of equality of all persons. But I am sure you know better. Please let me proceed.”
He controlled himself and after a few moments she continued, eyes far away. “He was doing well, then. We were doing well. You were still in diapers. He had made senior partner at the Hooper firm. He had won that Oswald Trust matter. I…I was willing to ignore the…the foibles since I thought they mattered little in the mix of things.”
She looked at John then. “I lived for you, then. You filled my life. I did investment advising in the mornings three days a week but the rest was for you and my family. And if he chose to waste some thousands at Reno on a weekend…and who knows what else he did…I was bothered but not overly concerned. He was a full blooded man. He lived…lived hard, I think is the phrase the media uses now. Lived hard…” Her voice faded away.
He was going to ask questions, but she continued before he could. “And Edwardo’s family had finally obtained a judgment. Against a counterfeiter of their products. A man from Spain who was counterfeiting their lubricants. They made specialty lubricants. Something for big machinery. With all sorts of formulas. They had plants in several countries. This man…Oliviera…had started as a distributor of their product in Europe, then began counterfeiting it all over the world.”
His mother smiled, remembering. “Your father did a brilliant job. He obtained a judgment in the United States. They had entered into a contract here or something like that. He crowed it gave him jurisdiction against them here.”
“That would be right if the contract so provided. Wonder how he got them to sign such a contract.”
“He could charm anyone any time. He charmed me.” She smiled now and suddenly was thirty years younger. He remembered how coldly beautiful she had been, a cold beauty that could be suddenly lighted by her brilliant smiles. Smiles that smoothed out the hard luster of her blonde beauty and ice blue eyes.
She kept smiling as she remembered. “Then after those thieves had foolishly signed the contract, he sued them for breach and entered a judgment right here…then had it entered in Spain, in Barcelona, which was a corrupt court but he did it…then had the police in Spain seize all of Oliviera’s counterfeit inventory in a factory in Barcelona, seize the products off the shelves all over Spain. In much of Europe.”
“Must have taken some time to do all that…get the contract signed, wait until they breach, get a judgment here, get a judgment in Spain, enforce it.”
“Three years. His partners were a little upset it was taking so much time…but Edwardo was an old friend, the damages were big, they earned a lot in fees. And he loved it. International intrigue.” She almost giggled. He realized she had been excited as well.
“Your father traveled to Spain four times to have it enforced. He used local counsel to assist, of course. Then over the next six months had it enforced all over Europe.”
“Not an easy task. Impressive.”
“Took him another six months and there was a big hearing in Madrid, then Barcelona, Brussels. And one of the judges had to be removed. Much cloak and dagger stuff, I believe. And it turned out this Oliveira fellow was in organized crime. Your father had a body guard when he was in Spain. He loved all that. Adventure, you know…” She smiled again, remembering and the smile was not contemptuous. For a long moment she sat there, eyes downcast, remembering and catching her breath.
Then she squared her shoulders and met his eyes. “All that went well and Oliveira was knocked right out of Europe and your father was the hero. But all that happened is that Oliveira found some new partners and went to Cuba and opened a plant there.”
“Cuba? This was before Castro. Trujillo, right?”
“Utter corruption, then. You have no idea how powerful organized crime was in that island back then, before Castro. Of course, he was the ultimate criminal, eventually.”
“Dad couldn’t get it enforced in Cuba? With organized crime running that country? Of course. Makes sense.”
“That’s what your father said. Those precise terms, ‘Makes sense.’ You sounded like him, then.” She looked at him, eyes narrowed a bit.
Then she continued. “He was furious with himself for not anticipating that. Wasn’t made a part of his overall strategy, he said. He blamed himself. The clients didn’t. His firm didn’t. But he did. He had…a sense of duty as to his clients that, sadly, did not extend to his family. He was very hard on himself when the products started turning up in Mexico, then all of Latin America only a year after Oliviera was closed in Europe.”
Benson dropped her hand and leaned back in the chair. “That’s the problem with international counterfeiters and criminals. With seeking effective judgments abroad. You chase them around with our clumsy expensive court tools and they cross a border and start up right over again. Each nation needs its own judgment entered, each move across a border starts the process up again. And counterfeiters can move faster than the courts. Surprised he didn’t take that into account.”
She regarded Benson coldly. “Your father was a superb lawyer, young man. You are not his judge. He did an excellent job and if you think he gave up just because this thief tried to hide in Cuba, think again. He was not like that.”
Benson flushed a little. “So, what did he do?”
“Apparently the problem was that Cuba was quite advanced in terms of technical skills to set up and run such a business but was lawless. An unusual combination. He was told it was too dangerous to go to Cuba. Told that by Cuban lawyers. They told him he should try to stop the imports of the counterfeit products at the border of less corrupt countries. Or he could bribe a lot of judges in Cuba. Or join with a competing family in the crime business to try to counter Oliviera’s connections. He had that choice.”
“Cuba or not, he would be violating the law. And the Code of Ethics. They would have taken his Bar card, that’s for sure. You can’t play the game like the counterfeiters do.”
“He would not have done such a thing under any circumstances, young man,” she snapped.
“So? What did he do?”
She held her head high. “He was brilliant, as I told you. He stared at a wall in our study for about a day, just sat there and stared at the wall thinking. Oliviera had good connections in Cuba, you understand. Perhaps his own family was in some crime family there, I don’t remember. But he was well connected and could not be stopped. So, your father thought about it and realized that his friend’s family was just as well connected in Mexico, although not criminals and quite capable of using their plant in Mexico with impunity and good political connections should it be necessary to put Oliviera out of business. Your father realized his court efforts would not work. So, he made a brilliant decision. They would counterfeit the counterfeiters.” She smiled with ancient pride.
Benson was not convinced. “And how was he to do that?”
“Well, the market was going to be ruined by cheap imitations anyway. The poor quality of the counterfeits. So why not create a lower level grade and flood the market with genuine but cheaper product at about the same price with a discount for those who want to upgrade? But to upgrade, you can only buy from direct from the manufacturer.”
“I don’t see how that would help.”
“Because you are, dear, a mere lawyer, even if a judge. Your father was a much broader thinker. He thought of the business context. His case was only part of an overall campaign. He was unique in that respect. A strategic thinker.”
Benson felt his resentment rising. Did she hate or love his father? Then he wondered if he was jealous of her obvious regard for his dead father. He wondered at himself. “OK, educate my limited mind. How was this going to drive Oliviera out of business?”
His mother heard his tone and her own voice stiffened. “We had a safe locale, Mexico, that was as cheap as Cuba. We would not face political pressure since your father represented a powerful family. They knew customers were already buying cheaper product. Those customers were simply price conscious. So, match the cheaper product price with genuine but lesser product, but bring them to the higher end by the discount and by the better performance and support once they see they need the better product based on performance tests over time.”
“Oliviera would still sell the garbage in high end packaging, wouldn’t he?”
“He’d try…but the customer would already be buying from us, would have to buy direct or we would cut them off and we would tell them why. The low end product was to get us in the door so we could educate the customers. And they would get an incentive to buy from us. Then we slowly but surely discontinue the low price line once Oliviera was out of our business and looking for a new victim. Beat him in the market place.”
“Or ruin one’s own reputation by cheapening the product.”
“It was already being ruined. The product was already out there. We simply would make it for a long enough time to bring the customer back to our better product.”
She blushed. “Yes, your father and I considered the clients as part of us. Or, rather, we were part of the clients. Always talked in that manner. Especially with an old friend such as Edwardo.”
She sighed and breathed a while, catching her breath. “So, they set up the new cheaper product plant and implemented your father’s plan. Took another few years but Oliviera finally stopped producing. But..” Here she hesistated, girding herself. “Your father spent more and more time in Mexico. Running the plant. Living with Edwardo and his family. More and more time with their business and corporate issues. Almost an in house attorney after a year or so. He started out being there a few weeks a year. Then a few months. Finally…well, finally, almost all the time.”
“Mexico appealed to him. It had “edge” he called it. He liked the slight edge. And living with a rich and powerful family…and without me there to control his instincts…his proclivities…well, you can imagine what eventually happened. By the time you were five it was over. I found out about his…activities. About that woman going down there to be with him. To betray her own family. On that damned boat…”
Her face had lost its glow. She appeared an old and feeble woman again. Watching that change, Benson felt anger at his father growing. He wondered what his mother was like before his father chose Mexico and Beth…or Mexico and the dozen women…over his mother. And over his own son..
She looked up and saw his expression. She tilted her head slightly. “I don’t want you angry at him. Or resentful. I had plenty of that for both of us.” She smiled grimly looking at the silent flickering screen of the television. “Oh, I raged. I bellowed and whined and pouted and swore vengeance. For months. Years. Oh, yes, I was the wronged wife and acted it.” His mother then looked at him. “But I soon realized that he had left me a precious gift. You. You away from him and his influence. That would allow me…to avoid history repeating itself in your life.”
He laughed shortly without humor. “Until my own divorce, that is.”
She nodded. “Yes, you and that young woman…Amy...You were just like your father when you picked her. Your marriage was in deep trouble from the beginning, unless I miss my guess. She didn’t know how to treat a man such as you.”
He shook his head. “No, you can’t blame just her. I wasn’t happy with her, that’s true. But that…that isn’t necessarily her fault.”
His mother snorted. “Of course it was. She was empty glamour. Beautiful, a good hostess, not very unintelligent. But not enough for a man like you. I told you that even before you married her. She had no depth. No intellectual curiosity. She was…” she hesitated then plunged on, “she was similar to your father’s bimbos, if you forgive me.”
He leaned back in the chair, glowering. She saw that, and said sharply. “You asked for this conversation, John. Not I. I cannot help it if you don’t like what I am saying.”
“Was Beth Wright a bimbo?”
It was as if he slapped her face and he instantly regretted it. Her tone was icy. “Beth Wright was and is a disgrace to herself, her family and to all we stand for. She had no excuse. She was intelligent, somewhat attractive, well educated, from a good family and had a wonderful husband. She was not a bimbo. She was much, much worse. She…” she stopped herself and stared at the flickering television screen again.
For a very long minute neither spoke nor looked at each other.
Still looking at the screen, she said softly. “I am tired now. I think I need to go to sleep.”
“I’m sorry I brought this all up.”
She looked at him then. He could not read her expression. She nodded but said nothing. He stood up, pecked her dry cheek again, started to say something, stopped himself, and left.
Five days later, reading Beth’s second letter, he realized that his mother’s truth was one of many. Only one. Carefully crafted with a great deal of truth in it, perhaps. But only one.
He had carefully rigged his cruising boat for single handed sailing. He had made all sorts of excuses to himself for the added expense, the carefully thought out running rigging that allowed most of the sailing maneuvers to be performed from the cockpit near the helm, the electronic autohelm that allowed the boat to steer itself in all but the most stormy seas, the complex electronics with repeaters in the cockpit and the forward berth so that from the wheel or the berth he could check course, see the radar, check the engine gauges and sail trim. It had cost tens of thousands to equip the boat for sailing by a single crew. And the simple reason for the expense was that he would rather be at sea alone than anywhere else with anyone else.
Oh, he had raced and he had done some major cruises with crew. Indeed, he had sailed to Hawaii and back with crew, up and down the California coast a half dozen times, when married had chartered boats with other couples in the Caribbean. But when all was said and done, he preferred to be utterly alone on his 48 foot heavily built sailing cutter, Bach on the stereo, no other boats even in sight. He found some peace out there. And as close to contentment as he could achieve in his urban bound high stress life.
He decided to anchor out that Friday night, alone, at Angel Island, a large island in the center of San Francisco Bay, only four miles from his Yacht Club. It still surprised him how few boats would anchor out on the typical weekend, perhaps a dozen boats in the entire seventy mile long Bay, and usually he was the only vessel anchored at Point Blunt, one of the fine anchoring grounds on the eastern side of the island. From there he could see the lights of the City but would be utterly isolated, alone and watching the fog slowly dim the lights.
He planned he would have a relaxing Friday night anchored there, do some sailing Saturday, perhaps stick his nose out the Golden Gate for a few hours, then back to his dock in the San Francisco Marina for his date Saturday night. He realized as he dropped his lines at the dock that he would have rather anchored both Friday and Saturday night and forget the symphony with Gail but he had never called her and could not cancel at this late hour.
Sun still a little above the horizon, about to dip into a fog bank fifteen miles out the Gate. Cool wind from the west at fifteen knots, just the right amount for his sixteen ton cruiser. He scrambled back to the wheel after dropping the last forward lines on the dock, put the vessel in reverse using his auxiliary diesel engine, and backed out into the Marina’s main channel, waving at some nearby boats in the marina. They were getting ready for Friday night races, informal easy races that yachties enjoyed, invariably ending up with drinks and dinner in the Club. Benson smiled back at them but was glad he was leaving that bustle. He thought he glimpsed Beth clustered with some other club members on the dock but wasn’t sure it was her.
As he left the Marina powering north, the wind hit the boat from its port or left, side, coming in from the Golden Gate. Using the engine, he turned the boat into the wind so he could raise the sails, turned on the auto helm, the electronic device that steered the boat on a compass heading he had set in a keyboard next to the wheel, and rushed forward on the cabin top to raise the main sail. The main was the largest sail set in the middle of the vessel, the sail on the long boom that spanned two thirds of the length. With the foresail, the jib raised, the boat would have its usual set of sails in use. The wind was now strong as the boat turned northwest and motored directly into it.
He kept one eye on the numerous smaller racing boats maneuvering close by, each maneuvering for advantage over its competitors near the race starting line. With his motor on, they all had right of way over him, being under sail. He muttered to himself as he loosened the halyard to raise the main, pulled it up as quickly as he could, the wind whipping the sail. The boat pitched in the chop coming in from the Gate. He could hear several of the crews on the various racing boats shouting at him, some saying hello, others warning him to stay clear as he, bent over double, rushed from the mast back to the cockpit, keeping one hand holding onto the life line safety rails along the side of the boat as the boat pitched. Jumping into the cockpit, he tightened the rope that controlled the angle of the main sail, the main sheet. He then used the motor to turn away from his previous course dead into the wind, and felt the boat surge as the main caught the wind on its port side and began to heel the boat over as it accelerated towards Angel Island.
He carefully maneuvered the boat through the racers, then, now sitting at the padded seat behind the boat’s wheel and holding the wheel with his left hand, loosened the roller furling line and released the forward jib sail in a single slow movement. The jib was a large one, large because it was attached to the far end of the bowsprit, thus given an extra eight feet of length. He wrapped the jib sheet around the winch, and, using the autohelm to keep the boat on course, grabbed a winch handle and ground the jib sheet in, watching the sail stop flapping and come in tight on the right or starboard side of the boat. The boat heeled over even more from the wind hitting its port side and accelerated powerfully, now under full sail, The racers were behind him, Angel Island a little less than four miles ahead. He studied the set of the main and jib sails a moment, adjusting the course slightly to keep them perfectly filled. He sighed. Then he turned off the engine, switched off the auto helm, and relaxed behind the wheel steering, feeling the large powerful boat vibrate under his hands on the wheel as it moved through the water at seven then eight knots then nine knots.
Once away from the boats preparing for race, the only other traffic before Angel Island was a massive tanker on the way out the Gate. Benson adjusted his course to pass behind it and felt the pressures of the court ease away as he was enveloped in the wind and salt air. He could put music on, the controls for the stereo being at hand near the helm, but did not. He only wanted to listen to the sound of wind and water.
He leaned back in the helm seat looking up at the sky, darkening blue with wisps of fog blowing in fast from the Gate. For the next ten minutes he concentrated on the boat, adjusting the sails, balancing the wheel, bracing himself against the twenty degree heel, glancing at the instruments as he brought the speed up to close to nine and a half knots. Not bad in this wind.
The wind was getting colder as the west winds brought cold wet air into the Bay from deep ocean. The hot air in the Sacramento Valley ninety miles to the east rose and the vacuum sucked in wind from the Ocean through the only gap in the coastal mountains, the Golden Gate. That meant that every afternoon from Spring through Fall one had heavy north west or west winds, always over twenty knots, often to thirty knots. Good wind and with relatively flat water since the Bay was almost entirely enclosed. High wind. Flat water. Perfect for sail boats. Perfect for heavy cruising sails boats such as Ariel.
And perfect for Benson. For the first time that day he smiled. His mind emptied. He allowed himself to stop thinking, stop worrying, stop planning and just experience the feel of thirty five thousand pounds of vessel sliding through the water at over nine miles an hour powered solely by the wind. Behind him he heard the gun marking the start of the race, but that race was close to the yacht club, indeed directly in front of the windows of the club overlooking the Bay so that other members, enjoying drinks, could watch their fellow members race around the buoys.
His mind wandered to Ellen Wright, Beth’s niece. Pretty, perky blonde, young firm body, the type that had always drawn him. Less threatening to him than the classic beauty of his ex-wife. Or of his mother, he suddenly realized, with a slight smile. He thought of Beth. She must been a bohemian, way back in the fifties and sixties, a beatnik, one of those trust babies with plenty of money that could enjoy the image of the alternative life style. Not that pretty but energetic and sexy as hell. He grinned. A man like his father would have loved that look, he was sure. Especially with the Ice Princess, beautiful blonde Eleanor, back at home.
And the Ice Princess was dying now, bitter and stark while Beth still floated along, spending other people’s earned money, planning to recapture her youth in another off shore cruise, but using money accumulated a hundred years before by her hard working grandfather. Hard workers supporting those who only spend. Like John Benson was doing with his own ex-wife. He realized his hands were tight on the wheel. He forced them to relax. Good thing he was not hearing the matter. He truly was prejudiced, he realized.
He had recently seen the movie Out of Africa and, like all the rest, had been much affected at first by the love between the main characters, the lovely dedicated Danish gentlewoman Isak Dinesen, in Kenya in the first decade of the 20th Century, trying to make a go of a coffee plantation while her safari hunter handsome lover swept her away from her mundane cheating husband and showed her a deep and true love amongst the sun crusted plains of Africa.
A key scene-he plays Mozart out in the bush to see how the monkeys react…”First time they’ve heard Mozart…let’s see how they like it!” the character played by Robert Redford says breathlessly to the character played by Meryl Streep. And from that time forward she would know he was back from Safari by his playing the Mozart record on her veranda and she would rush in from the fields into his arms. High Romance and he had actually blinked back tears when the male character died in a plane crash on the African plains.
Nonsense. All bunk. He had read the actual history a few months later. She had come to Africa using her family’s money, had started a coffee plantation on land far too high in altitude against the advice of all the local experts who told her the altitude was too great for coffee. She thought coffee was somehow upper class, unlike the local crops that could grow at that altitude. The locals were right, her crops were poor or failed and she was lucky when a fire burnt her farm down shortly before bankruptcy. Meanwhile, she had almost bankrupted her family back in Denmark always begging for more financing which they reluctantly provided. And while they scrimped and saved, she hardly noticed the losses in money, tracing about the countryside with her lover while the farm collapsed.
As for her lover, a local friend explained to the historian that it was his usual method to play Mozart for all of his lovers to announce his return and that he had half a dozen scattered around the local farmsteads. He may have been fond of her…but probably was just as fond of the others and when her money ran out, it was likely he would have left. His death in a plane crash was mourned by few and he may have been drinking when that accident occurred.
Benson snorted as he tacked the boat, bringing its bow through the wind so he could come up on the east side of Angel Island, the side protected from the west wind. Dinesen had returned to Denmark, leaving behind the ruined farm, wrote her novels and essays romanticizing her African adventures, made good money as the Europeans ate up the exotic stories of Africa that they thought were true, and she became a celebrity. All lies.
Well, not lies. Just biased views of reality. With convenient gaps in observation. A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. So do women.
In the wind shadow of Angel now, he turned the boat directly into the slight wind, switched on the engine, rushed forward to drop the main while the boat again pitched in the small chop, raced back to the cockpit to loosen the jib sheet and grind the jib in using another winch for the roller furling which wrapped the jib around the forward cable stay that also braced the mast up. He then raced back to the bow to ready the anchor for dropping. He was panting a bit as he hung the anchor below the spar that protruded eight feet before the boat, the bow sprit. If he pushed a metal lever on the anchor windlass, the anchor chain would be let loose and the anchor would drop into the water.
One does not really drop anchor. Instead, one hooks the anchor in, its curved prow burying itself in the sand or mud. One must be moving backwards slowly to effectively hook the anchor in and once the anchor was hanging down, ready to let go, he rushed back to the cockpit over the still pitching deck, changed gears into reverse at minimum speed. Once the boat began slow rearward movement, he rushed to the foredeck again, released the anchor, and watched as it slid into twenty five feet of water. He let seventy feet of chain run. He pushed the metal toggle that stopped the chain from running out, saw the chain tighten as the anchor dug into the mud, then raced back to the cockpit, put the gears into neutral and then turned off the engine. He was anchored.
Suddenly, no sound of the motor. He sat in the cockpit, savoring the moment, the boat rocking gently, the lights of the City almost hidden by the thick fog that was now racing past the Golden Gate. Behind the Island where he anchored, in the wind shadow, the cold wind had not yet replaced the warm air of the afternoon and he was comfortable as he sat and watched the fog begin to fill the bay. He would make his dinner soon in the galley below with its propane gimbaled stove and oven but he wanted to sit and do nothing for a while, just watching the sky darken.
Undoubtedly by the time she was writing, Dinesen believed her own tale. She may have believed it when she lived it. But would she have been so romantic if the success of the farm was necessary to actually put food on her table? If she had to work the twelve to fifteen hour days that most farmers worked to keep going? Would she have found the African scenery so alluring if she was trying to work her food from it? Ask the farmers starving in Africa now!
But…and here he leaned back and stared at the sky directly above, still clear, stars beginning to emerge…but then no wonderful story would have been written. She would have worked the farm, maybe sent some money back home, developed a good barley or wheat crop…and that lovely story, that lovely lie would remain untold.
Nietzsche said all art is a lie. All art. All art pretends to be something it is not. Mona Lisa…a picture that is really only colored oil on canvas, not the face of a woman…it is an illusion, another word for a lie. So what if Dinesen created an illusion? Was it still not beautiful? Should DaVinci have put a sign under the painting reminding people that they were looking at colored oil on stretched canvas?
He stood up. He would make his dinner and read some more of the letters from his father he had brought on board. Good bed time reading.
August 14, 1960
You castigate me for being drawn to “adventure,” and you infer I am juvenile. You quote poets about those that “sit and wait” and tell me the adult thing is to be responsible, not adventurous. Then…and you know this is true…you ask me for every detail of my life down here, ask about what happens with the “rascals” that are my opponents and how the policia and I are handling the myriad threats. Forgive me, sweet lady, but you protest too much. Face the truth. You should come down here. Yes, you! You should see what draws me and it is not just danger. Darling, we have become stilted. Stuck in our own comforts. We have lost the bright colors. Yes, you have a toddler now. We have a toddler. But, guess what? They have babies here as well. Lots of them.
You remember Captain Hernandez? The chief federal policia in this town? Well, I see him daily, often many times a day and he has made it clear to me that he will watch over you when I am not in town. Just try it for a few weeks…see if it is perhaps a little better than you fear. Write me.
August 24, 1960
Yes, there are hospitals here. Not an hour away. And we would get a police escort if we needed to go, sirens wailing, great excitement. You would have half a dozen maids, servants, all the things you love, and Edwardo promises a trip to Mexico City once a month. John would learn Spanish as his second language. Think of that and the advantages. Yes, there is some tension. Oliviera is not passive. But neither are we and he is playing in our ball park now. Come.
Benson read the letter twice. It was one of the first in the box of letters from Mexico…his father must have arrived to stay some months earlier. Not the letters of a man abandoning his wife and child. Not a man running off with Beth Wright. Immature, perhaps. A bit too enthusiastic. But a man clearly in love with his wife. And son?
In the main cabin of his boat, rocking gently at the anchorage, hearing the fog horn on the island’s headland not half a mile away, Bach softly on the stereo, his dinner dishes still not cleared from his table, good brandy in a snifter at hand, he gently rubbed his fingers over the yellowed paper. He has simply grabbed a few of the earliest letters when he packed his things for this anchoring out. The remaining three letters he had brought, written about nine months later, did not plead for her to come, simply chatted about life in a small Mexican city in the early sixties, talked obliquely about efforts to outmaneuver Oliviera, responded to her letter about San Francisco office gossip. Chatty. A bit stilted.
Were some letters missing? What happened in that nine months to make him give up on getting his wife and son to join him? What had she answered? Benson didn’t want to drag his mother back to that topic. But it mattered to him.
Leaning back on the soft green suede salon seat in the main cabin, studying the beveled and stained glass of the overhead skylight, he remembered a truly unpleasant case he had heard when a new judge. He had been assigned to divorce court for the first six months, had been desperate to get out of it, exhausted at the end of each day by the bitter wrangling over custody and money, often one used to get the other. A long way from the corporate law he had practiced. Certainly not the intellectual challenge he had hoped for when offered a judgeship. He felt sordid and used.
Mid eighties. Desertion of fathers was a pretty common theme back then, with fathers often leaving the jurisdiction to avoid alimony and child support. The district attorneys seldom enforced court support orders and such tactics would make the mother destitute, the children often hungry, and the father a fugitive. Benson smiled grimly. One benefit of the women’s’ liberation movement was that women now often had good jobs and the desperate plight of abandoned ex wives was no longer typically a matter of actual survival. Divorce meant poverty for the mother more often than not in the late seventies and eighties.
But the case he was thinking of involved a very different problem. The grandparents were fighting to keep custody of a child from a father who returned after his ex-wife died, demanding parental rights. He would take the child and move to Alaska. The grandparents, who had raised the nine year old child from when he wore diapers, were fighting desperately to keep custody, their lawyer asking why a man who had demonstrated complete lack of responsibility by abandonment should be allowed to move to the wilds with a child he hardly knew.
Throughout the hearing the grandparents had sat at the Respondent’s table, holding hands, eyes fixed on Benson with quiet but palpable appeal. The returned father, a burly, red-faced man in his late twenties, spent most of the hearing staring at his hands clasped on the table in front of him, dressed in an ill fitting suit clearly purchased for court, his hands permanently lined with grease. Once in a while, when the grandparents’ lawyer would say a particularly insulting comment, the father would look up at Benson, eyes hard, glistening. He would then quickly look down at his hands again while his attorney leaped to his feet to protest.
Fearing he was losing the hearing, his lawyer in rebuttal had called a psychiatrist to justify the abandonment eight years before. And the witness he called was a famous expert, Doctor Gerald Stein, who normally testified at far more important matters involving far more money. Benson was surprised at his appearing in divorce court. He had last heard of him testifying in a murder case involving a millionaire stock broker and Benson knew he was not often an expert in court. But if Benson was surprised, the grandparents’ attorney was truly concerned. He had nowhere enough in his litigation budget to counter such expertise and objected strenuously to the last minute testimony, asking Benson to voir dire the witness to determine relevance of the opinion.
Stein was a large man, not quite fat, in his late fifties, dressed in a not too clean three piece suit and with a very slight German accent. Salt and pepper hair and beard, watching the proceedings with some detachment. He sat behind the Petitioner’s table, hands folded in his lap, watching Benson with mild curiosity. Benson knew he had written two dozen psychiatric texts and was considered a dangerous witness to cross examine. The newspapers had stated his testimony saved the stock broker from execution. Benson and Stein regarded each other for a moment.
Benson leaned forward on the bench. “Doctor Stein, is the Petitioner your patient?”
“No, sir, he is not.”
“You have examined him?”
“I have not.”
Benson raised his eyebrows. “Yet, you feel you have relevant testimony to present to the Court?”
“I have no idea, Your Honor. I do not know what courts consider relevant.”
The husband’s attorney rose to his feet. “Your Honor, the character of my client has been consistently and, I may say, ruthlessly impugned for the past two days. Opposing counsel infers, indeed, alleges that the child will be subjected to actual harm if he is in the company of his own father. All because my client felt compelled to leave his wife eight years ago. The expert will testify as to the fact that such alleged abandonment does not necessarily demonstrate either an evil character or inherent lack of responsibility.”
The grandparents’ attorney stood to argue but Benson held up his hand, eyes directed at Stein. “Doctor, do you feel qualified to testify on that topic, never having even examined this gentleman?”
Stein glanced at the father who was, as usual, staring at his own hands. “Qualified yes, though an opinion as to general conditions does not necessarily pertain to particular cases. I suspect that what occurred was neither unique nor particularly mysterious. Indeed, it is an increasingly common event in this era of subjective criteria for parental responsibility. I know nothing particular about this man. I know a great deal about the situation.”
“You do? How?”
Stein turned his full attention to Benson now. His eyes were steady and, perhaps, slightly amused. “Your Honor, we all wish to consider ourselves unique and in control of our destinies. Would that were true. Upon certain factors occurring, most of us do remarkably similar things. React in quite predictable ways. That, itself, is not surprising. Place food before a dog and it eats. What is surprising to those who consider humans as constructs of a divine being or results of environmental events only is that the same factors, however complex, often have the same cause and effect in our far more complex decision making processes and societal factors are of limited effect…”
The grandparent’s attorney seemed beside himself and interrupted, “Your Honor, I asked for a voir dire, not his entire testimony before he is even under oath. This is absolutely improper.”
Stein blinked, glanced at the grandparents’ attorney, then looked back at Benson, waiting to see his decision.
Benson studied his notes before him on the bench, drawing tight circles with his pencil, thinking for a few moments. “Doctor, if all you can do is testify in the general, and I am compelled to place the child in the care of a man who abandoned him almost a decade ago, about who you and I know next to nothing, should your general opinion act to make me believe I am protecting the child adequately? Would you rely on your general opinion in allowing the child to move to Alaska?”
Stein did not hesitate. “I would not. When the welfare of a child is at stake I think general opinions must give way to particular facts. You must examine this father under oath and in detail and form your own conclusions.”
The husband’s attorney began to splutter and the grandparent’s attorney was smart enough to sit down and shut up, but Stein and Benson regarded each other in silence. Benson again held up his hand to silence the husband’s attorney, eyes still on Stein. “Yet, you are here to testify, Doctor? Why?”
“Why, indeed. The young man who seeks custody of this child saved the life of a patient of mine who I regarded as a man of true distinction. He did so at some risk to his own safety. He did so knowing that it would have no possible benefit to himself either pecuniary or in self regard since no one would ever know aside from my patient and his psychiatrist who must, perchance, keep the circumstances privileged.
“I know this man only from that single incident, as related to me, and from my study of the situation in which he found himself eight years before. My testimony would be of limited value, though perhaps interesting, and should not be relied upon in to any great extent to determine if a child is being relegated to unsafe conditions. I am here gratis since I feel it is owed to this young man in light of his past act. I doubt if my effort will do him much good. His attorney still chose to ask me to testify so here I am.”
Benson smiled. “Such brutal honesty as to relevance of testimony is rare in our corridors of justice, Doctor.”
‘As far as I can see, honesty of any sort is rare in these corridors…with all due respect.”
Benson laughed. “We do our best. But I will not let you testify, Doctor. I will instead form my own opinion on the facts before me.”
Stein nodded. “I think that is wise, Your Honor.” Stein nodded at the father, nodded to the Judge, pointedly ignored the lawyer representing the grandparents, and slowly walked with dignity from the court room.
Benson ruled in favor of the grandparents and two months later Benson bought an hour of Stein’s time at his elegant clinic in San Francisco. He closed off a court hearing a bit early and drove to Stein’s in the early rush hour traffic which seemed to begin at three in the afternoon these days.
The office was in a restored Victorian mansion in Pacific Heights, set back from the street on a steep hill which allowed a view of the Golden Gate and the incoming fog. Near the door a small brass plate announced that the mansion was Stein’s clinic. As Benson waited outside the heavy carved oak door, he noted several boats on the Bay that late Tuesday afternoon and wondered who had time to sail during the week. A middle aged powerfully built black man in a white uniform opened the door, took his name, studied him a moment carefully but politely. He then asked Benson to follow him through a bare small waiting room with three ugly plastic chairs through a thick white security door to emerge into a surprisingly elegant foyer which must have once been the main hall of the mansion. The man did not pause but started up two flights of Persian carpeted stairs. Benson followed.
Benson had an impression of fine antique furniture in the quiet foyer, as well as oak paneled walls. He followed up the two flights, his footsteps muffled on the thick carpet. He could just make out the faint sound of a fog horn from the Bay. He noted there was a small elevator but apparently his guide felt it was not needed for Benson. It wasn’t. Benson worked out almost every day. He now made it a point of keeping up with his muscular quick moving guide.
They passed a locked heavy wooden door on the second floor landing and continued to the third floor. Benson decided the second floor must have the in house patient’s rooms. He wondered how Stein had been able to get his zoning variance through. He had not known this clinic existed and he did not live that many miles away.
At the third floor landing the man opened another carved oak door and showed him into Stein’s office. It was empty, wind blowing through partially opened French doors on the far side of the room behind an impressive desk. A large globe stood to the side of the desk, some book lined walls, another window. Through the French doors there was a small balcony and through tree branches overhanging the balcony Benson could again see the Golden Gate.
“The Doctor will arrive in a few minutes. Would you like tea or coffee?”
“Feel free to push that button if you need anything.” Another appraising look and he closed the door gently behind him.
Benson grinned. Combination nurse, servant and body guard, he decided. He glanced at the books which were mostly psychiatric texts. Then he noted that on the top shelf was Tolstoy, Austin and Stegner in leather bound editions. He nodded to himself and then walked to the French windows and stood on the balcony. He was still there, staring out to sea, when Stein entered a few minutes later.
Benson turned, a little embarrassed to be found behind Stein’s desk. Stein didn’t seem to notice, walking slowly to his desk motioning Benson to one of the three padded leather chairs facing the desk. Stein sat heavily, He was in the same disheveled three piece suit he had worn in court. A pocket on the vest was torn. He sighed and looked at the judge who was sitting down in the chair nearest the balcony.
“Judge, I am flattered you wish my consultation. You are the first judge who has done me that honor.”
Benson looked carefully to see if there was any sarcasm in that comment. He could not tell.
“Your comments in court the other day caused me to do some thinking. Brooding, actually. I thought it might be useful to ask you some additional questions.”
“As a patient or as intellectual curiosity?”
Benson paused. “I would not be here if it did not concern me directly, obviously. It is nothing to be embarrassed about. My father abandoned my mother and I before I was five. Died abroad not too long ago, I believe.”
“You believe? So, you never established contact with him?”
“No, nor he with me.”
“He, I care little about. He is not sitting here. You are. Did you attempt to contact him? Did he evade you?”
Benson shifted in his chair. “That’s not really why I came to see you, Doctor. I was interested in his motivation.”
“Understood. And not interested in your own, I take it?”
Benson blinked at that. “I fully understand my motivation. He abandoned me and my mother, did not try to contact me, to help me, to even see if I was alive. Such a man does not deserve a relationship with his son.”
Stein picked up what appeared to be a spent fifty caliber shell casing on his leather blotter and began playing with it with one hand, eyes on Benson. “Perhaps not. Why did he fail to contact you?”
“That is one of the reasons I have come to see you. To learn about motivations of people such as him.”
“I am confused. You just told me you neglected to establish contact precisely because he did not deserve to know you thus you must have concluded his motivations were dishonorable. Yet you ask me what his motivations might be?”
Benson studied Stein a moment before responding. “Touché, Doctor.”
Stein shook his head. “We are not in Court, sir, and I am not at attorney conducting a cross examination. We are both grateful for that.”
“I am interested, however, in why you are here and we both know it is because you now question the wisdom of your failing to make contact with your previously rejected father.”
Benson sat up, flushing. “Rejected? He rejected my mother and I.”
“Perhaps. We don’t know. But we do know that subsequently you rejected him.”
“He never tried to contact me.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps he was unable. Perhaps he was ashamed. Perhaps he was fearful. Perhaps your mother prohibited him. We simply do not know.” Stein leaned forward, tapping the shell casing on the blotter. “What we do know is that you did not contact him and you made that decision out of a mixture of anger, resentment, jealousy, and hurt and now question whether that was the right reaction since…”
He stopped, seeing Benson’s expression. A moment of silence. Stein leaned back. “I do not normally treat patients who are not in extremis, Judge, precisely because my technique…my personality…does not conform to the gentle treatment now not only in vogue but probably appropriate for the bulk of adults today.”
“I can take what you have to say.”
“But that does not mean I should say it. I often question my own skill when dealing with an intelligent adult obviously in great pain who is not mentally ill.”
“Pain? I don’t feel pain, Doctor. I do want to know why…”
“Let us be honest with each other, sir. I question the quality of my skill. I do so because I have just exposed deep pain and I can see it and you can feel it and you are here because you are an honest man who questions the justice of your own actions…and miss your father terribly.”
Benson said nothing, just looked at the doctor. Stein continued. “I am not qualified to provide treatment to you. Perhaps because I recently placed my own father in a rest home over his strident protests and I am filled with guilt and resentment. He made claims that I think are wrong but cut deep into my own psyche. But perhaps I can answer your questions, so please pose them. I will not charge for answering them and will not treat you.”
Benson swallowed. What was happening? He had never even thought of his father while growing up. His mother never mentioned him. It was if he was dead. A subject not to be discussed. Yet here he was almost incapable of speech. He shook his head angrily. “This is remarkable to me, Doctor. I guess inside I am still a teenager.”
“No, inside you are still five years old wondering where your father has gone. That is not only understandable but deeply hurtful to you. At some point, for reasons I do not know, you decided he was wrong to have done that. But…and this is vital, Judge…as angry as you are, you also miss him. Want him. Want to know if he can still be part of your life.”
:”He is dead.”
“He can still be part of your life, of course. As a memory. As a guide…”
“Guide? When he left his son and mother and disappeared?”
“Guide. As what to not do, perhaps, but a guide nevertheless. You have children?”
“A young son Bill Junior. My father’s name was Bill.”
“You elected to name him after your father, then?”
“My mother suggested it. And after my grandfather, I think.”
“And you have sworn to yourself to not to do to your son what your father did to you, correct?”
Benson smiled a bit stiffly. “I am quite predictable, I suppose.”
“We all are, as I explained in court. And one of our most common predictable aspects is we hope we are not predictable.” They smiled at each other.
Benson studied his hands in his lap. “My mother would never discuss the…the situation. She dated some men but clearly was not going to marry again. She was quite lovely, had plenty of proposals. But …I could tell she was…injured by what happened.”
“And you were protective of her, of course. Angry that he would do that to her.”
“Of course. Oh, my mother and I argued a lot, especially when I was a teen ager. I could tell she felt the need of a man to control me. Once in a while one of her men friends would try to give me advice.” He grinned, remembering. “Never worked. I knew they only were there for my beautiful mother. They were…politicking me.”
“And that made you contemptuous and even more angry…your father should have been there.”
Benson met Stein’s gaze with a look that would later be a warning to hundreds of attorneys who appeared before him. “Damned right, he should have. Some men are simply no good. I have been around enough to know that.”
“Evil does exist, judge. I am convinced of it. I am from Germany, you perhaps know. A Jew. I know evil exists.”
“I didn’t know. That shell casing from the War?”
Stein seemed to notice the shell for the first time. It was still in his hand. “I was in the Pacific. This was from a gun that shot off my large toe. I was treating a Japanese soldier at the time. My company machine gunner shot at me in error, presuming I must be Japanese.” He looked up with a slight smile. “That was the first and only time I was mistaken for a Japanese person.”
They again smiled at each other. Stein continued. “You wish to know if your father..people such as your father…may have mental conditions that would justify his actions in some way or at least explain them, an illness perhaps, so that you would no longer feel such anger, hurt and resentment. You wish to understand him better to remove some of the pain. Is that accurate?”
Benson leaned back, feeling oddly angry that Stein was dissecting his feelings. “You’re the doctor. You tell me.”
Stein shook his head again. “No, this will not do. I am not your mother’s companion, I am not one of the lawyers seeking your favor, I am someone you sought help from and you are now resentful of my questions. Mostly due to my clumsiness in posing them, I expect. But your resentment will color the usefulness of any answers I can give.” He leaned forward and took out a gold pen from a holder on the desk, looked around for a pad of paper, found it, and scribbled on a piece of paper.
Benson sighed. “I apologize for that juvenile response. I am clearly upset.”
“Do not apologize. You deserve to be upset. I deserve to return to classes on interaction with possible patients. But you are intelligent and love to read…”
“How do you know that?”
“Whenever we are not making eye contact you lovingly glance at my books. So do I. We share that love. That love will be useful now. Here is a list of four books on the topic which you are intelligent enough to read and grasp. If you have questions, you may pose them to me after you have read them. That is the best I can do.”
Benson took the list and glanced at it. Stein’s writing was remarkably neat, almost a woman’s.
He folded the paper absently, not looking up. “Doctor, I would like to…to come back and discuss this further. Perhaps when I am less…emotional about the topic.” He did not look up, oddly nervous about the response.
“Judge, I would be delighted to have you return. But first, you must read those works.”
Benson looked up at that. “I have homework to do before my next class?” He instantly regretted that comment.
Stein smiled, seeing his reaction. “You surprise yourself, Judge? You are surprised you are acting as a rebellious youth now?”
They both laughed at that. Benson realized he liked this gruff Doctor. Stein continued. “I want to see if you will read those books, Judge. If this issue is of such import to you that you will follow it through. You are a success in your field. Have a good relationship with your son, I imagine, and with your wife.”
“Well…most of the time.”
“Which is more than many. Shaking the fruit off this tree may not be what you wish to do. If you do, we will proceed. If you do not, that is perfectly acceptable and you will save several hundred dollars by not having to purchase the books.”
Benson looked at the list on the now crumbled paper. “You wrote one?”
Benson looked up. “Then I shall read it.”
“It’s the lesser work of the four, I think. I have no children and I think it distorts my thinking. I will not continue my efforts in that particular field.”
“One has to experience something to know it?”
“No, I do not think so. But my thinking is somewhat shallow and I think it may be based on some deeper issues I have concerning parenthood. It is good work, I think. It is not great work.”
“And you only like to do great work?”
Stein smiled. “A judge and a psychiatrist. Any conversation will be questions back and forth until the end of time.”
They laughed and Benson rose. They shook hands and Benson told him he would call him when he had finished the books.
He never did call Stein. He never read the books.
And now, sitting in the gently rocking teak paneled salon of his sailboat, he wished he had. He didn’t even know where the list was. It had been almost twenty years ago. He wondered if Stein was ill. Or dead. He couldn’t remember seeing him in court for some time. He should have read the books.
The next day his race down the coast after Beth began.
Saturday early afternoon he passed Glory about a mile west of the Golden Gate as he was returning from his quick jaunt into the ocean. He was returning to his berth. He planned to arrive at his berth, put the boat away, change to a suit and pick Gail Treadwell up for dinner and the symphony at six thirty.
Wind from the west straight into the Bay at twenty knots, following sea at about eight feet and he was surfing down the swells with his sixteen ton vessel, enjoying it tremendously. The seas from behind would seldom strike the vessel’s stern dead on, so the boat would swerve from side to side. It was important to anticipate the next swell, adjust the wheel just before it arrived, and if done just right the boat would stay on course and slide down the face of the swell, adding two or three knots to its speed before the wave would pass. Then there would be a pause of perhaps half a minute while the boat slowed down in the trough, then he would feel the water build behind, and would catch the next wave for another ride down the face of next swell. With the wind dead behind, the boat was moving through the water even without surfing at a good seven knots and when surfing at nine or ten knots. A great and wild ride. Or, as Benson once told a passenger, a ride on a sixteen ton surfboard.
The boat swerved and swayed, the wind, deceivingly mild since it was coming from behind the already moving boat. It was relatively warm in the bright sunshine of the afternoon. The task of surfing a large boat took great concentration if the wave was to be caught right and aside from glancing around from time to time to make sure none of the smaller boats coming out to the ocean were in the way, and looks behind to make sure incoming ships were at a good distance, he spent his time staring at the sail trim and feeling the swell beneath the boat so he could gauge by feel when to prepare for the next following sea. Because of that concentration Glory was almost past him before he realized that it was Beth’s boat and it was going to sea. In clear violation of his own order.
He stared at the slim long silhouette of the classic wooden racing sloop, its varnished mahogany cabin top shining in the sunlight, white smooth hull, sixty five feet of absolute beauty. Tall mast, white sails pulled in tight as it beat into the wind, heeled over away from Benson, the bottom freshly painted and showing bright red due to the angle of the heel of the boat. The person at the helm was in full foul weather gear, thick red bib pants and heavy coat, hood pulled up over the head to protect against the spray that beating into a eight foot chop generated. He could not see the face nor discern if it was Beth at the wheel. Whoever it was appeared alone on the boat…then it raced past, perhaps a quarter of a mile to port, the combined passing speeds of the boats having them distance themselves at close to fifteen knots.
He stared back at Glory for a long moment and without his concentration on his course the next following sea hit the side of his stern and Ariel swerved around completely out of control, falling down the side of the large swell, the main sail boom swinging wildly across the deck to the low side starboard side in an uncontrolled gybe. The boat was then heeled sixty degrees, almost on its side as it slide sideways down the wave, coming to a splashing crash at the bottom of the trough, white water pouring onto Benson as he lost his hold on the wheel and began to slide across the cockpit to the low side.
He swore loudly trying to regain his balance but with the mainsail now on the low side and the fore sail back winded on the other, the boat was pinned down on its starboard side. Then the next wave hit, lifted the boat high and pushed its stern around and the boat was swept back over onto its port side. The main sail swung back to its original position which was now the new low side of the boat, the boat now pinned down on its port side. Benson again lost his hold in the tilting cockpit and fell down to the port side of the cockpit, hitting the cockpit wall hard, the wind knocked out of him. He fell back flat on his back. He was stunned a little. He felt the boat begin to rise to the next wave and grunting, pulled himself up and grabbed the wheel, trying to turn the boat to bring its stern back dead onto the oncoming wave.
He failed, the main on the wrong side of the boat for that maneuver would not give him enough power in these seas to quickly turn the stern and the boat was again hit on its beam, heeling far over, cockpit filling with water, the tip of the boom actually in the water. But this time Benson was braced and stayed at the wheel. The moment the wave passed he quickly moved to the winch that controlled the main sail and used it to grind in the main sheet, the rope that controlled how far out the main was set. He ignored the next wave which again pushed the boat far over on its side, filling the cockpit, while he ground the main fully in, tight in the middle of the boat.
Sloshing through the water in the cockpit, he moved back to the wheel and, waiting for a pause between the oncoming swells, pivoted the boat to the West again, towards the ocean, the wind and the waves. The main sail was now set for this course into the wind but the jib was far too far out, still set for downwind. Turning on the autohelm to keep the boat facing the wind and waves, he moved to the jib winch and, panting now, began to grind the jib sheet in, bringing the jib in tight to the boat, the boat now heeling over as far as Glory had been. The water in the cockpit began to pour out of the cockpit drains as he adjusted the sails to follow in Glory’s wake. He felt Arial accelerate as the now properly set sails gave her power. The boat was again in control. For the first time he could look up from his tasks. Glory was now a good mile ahead, slicing through the waves with elegant ease, easily going three knots faster than Ariel
“Bitch,” Benson muttered under his breath, watching the boat increase the distance between them. But he didn’t even know if it was her. Could have been anyone in that foul weather gear. And a seventy year old woman sailing a sixty five foot racing sloop on her own? That seemed improbable. Could be anyone.
Somehow, he knew it was her. He just knew it. Who else would take the boat out? Her niece? That was just as crazy as Beth taking the boat.
Perhaps there were other crew below. No reason to assume everyone would be on deck. It’s tough being below in a chop such as this but experienced crew would not get sea sick necessarily. He thought about calling the Coast Guard and advising them the boat was leaving in violation of a court order. He wondered if they would care. They were federal, enforced maritime laws. In another hour she would not even be in US waters for all he knew. They’d come out if her boat was in danger. It was not.
Nor would police come to sea. They would arrest her if she was on board when she came back to port. If she came back to port.
While he was thinking his boat was pounding into the oncoming waves, heeled far over, spray drenching him. He did not even have his full foul weather gear on, having dropped his jacket and pants down below when he turned to go back in the Gate. When going downwind you normally didn’t need much gear, since the waves are not crashing into the boat. He was now drenched and cold, angry and bruised and uncertain what to do.
He had a cell phone, didn’t use it much, didn’t trust these relatively new and expensive contraptions. The court had insisted each judge have one. He never knew who to call with it. And the sound was often scratchy. But now it might work. It was down below. Turning on the autohelm on course to follow Glory he started to go below. He planned to phone me, her lawyer, and ask me if I knew where my client was. He figured I must be listed.
Then he stopped. It was Saturday, I would not be in the office and it wasn’t even Benson’s case any longer. It was none of his business if she was out here. For all he knew, the new judge had voided his past order.
But that new judge would have told him. As a courtesy to a senior judge. Unless the presiding judge told her what Benson had said about her qualifications. He sat behind the wheel, letting the auto helm steer the boat, looking after the Glory, now a mile and a half distant. He didn’t know what to do.
Gail Treadwell and the symphony were waiting in a few more hours. A good dinner at a good restaurant near the symphony hall. Pleasant conversation, pleasant sex, a relaxed brunch the next day. He had a Will contest trial beginning Monday and would get plenty of sleep by going to bed early Sunday evening. He had no time for this nonsense. He would now sail back to his berth, and tomorrow, after the brunch, call the police captain he knew and make sure the various ports down the coast checked out if this was truly Beth on the way to Mexico or not. If it was, and the order was in effect, they would seize the boat. If it was not, he’d let the attorney for the heirs know the boat was last seen going out the Gate and let them handle it.
That was the adult thing to do. Hell, it might be anyone going out the Gate. Even if it was Beth, she might be turning around in half an hour and go back to her berth. Then even though she was technically in violation of the court order, it was not a major violation and no big thing. Without thinking, he had adjusted the sails, grinding the main a bit further in to maximize speed. He fell off the wind a little. That also would increase Ariel’s speed. She never liked being too tight on the wind. He watched as the knot meter climbed up to seven knots. He played with the wheel a bit, trimmed the sails a bit. Seven and a half knots. She felt good and powerful. He grinned.
He looked up. Glory was no longer increasing the distance. Ariel was not gaining but no longer losing and there was perhaps two miles between the two boats. He patted the wheel. Damned good boat, keeping up with a sixty five foot racer. Even if an ancient racer.
The Gate was six miles behind him now. If he hoped to get back on time for Gail he would have to turn around quite soon. Perhaps another ten miles ahead in the West he could see the fog bank that usually hung there during the long summer days to be sucked into the Bay each night as the winds increased and the temperature dropped. Glory was still heading due West, towards the large buoy called the Light Bucket that was ten miles out the Gate and was the turning point for all the ships, the point where they would turn to go North or South, beyond the shoals that bracketed the Golden Gate. From this distance he could not tell if there was still only one person in Glory’s cockpit.
He suddenly decided to at least follow her to the Bucket, to see if she turned around or was heading South. That meant he would not get back in time for the symphony. He’d make some excuse to Gail. He’d call her, plead a problem with the boat, apologize. Oddly, he felt suddenly relieved. He realized to his surprise that he’d much rather sail after Beth to the buoy than trudge with Gail to the symphony. Even if Gail was somewhat attractive and thirty years younger than Beth. He laughed. What would Stein say to this? He put the boat on autohelm and went down to get his cell phone.
Glory had turned south perhaps a mile before the Bucket and with the wind on her starboard beam she rapidly accelerated to at least nine knots, more probably ten. By the time he also turned south she was a good four miles ahead of him, perhaps more. It was late afternoon and the fog was beginning its nightly move towards the Bay. He was in the fog even before he turned south. At first it was not very thick and he could follow Glory by eye. Within an hour, it was thick enough to reduce visibility to less than a mile and he positioned himself in his cockpit so he could see his radar screen at the navigation table below by looking down the companion way stairs into the cabin below.
Before she disappeared he had noted her position on the radar and kept her directly ahead on the screen. He saw some larger blips of ships four or five miles further out to Sea, a smaller blip, perhaps a fishing boat, coming towards him but not on a collision course. Glory was still drawing away. He could not match her speed on a beam reach, she would gain two or three miles on him each hour. But the radar had up to twenty four miles of range. He would not lose her.
He had made some coffee on his propane stove below, pouring it into a thermos which he put near him in the cockpit. The soft sound of the boat cutting through the waves, the slight purring of the autohelm motor as it adjusted his course, the wind moving the fog to the West, towards the land, invisible now. All sounds he loved.
He had also changed into a thick sweater as well as the foul weather gear he had dropped on the cabin sole below. He felt warm and drinking the coffee, relatively content. He had plenty of food and water on board, certainly enough for a single man for a good week and he fully intended to catch her up within a day.
He didn’t know when he decided he would chase her down. He just found himself doing it. He called the court room voicemail before his cell phone lost contact with San Francisco and left word that the trial would have to be continued until Wednesday. That would allow him to catch Beth on Sunday, leave the boat probably in Monterey, rent a car and get back to Court. He’d pick up his boat the following weekend. Monterey was about a twenty four hour sail south of the San Francisco Bay, an easy sail, but he knew from experience that the wind would die close once he was in Monterey Bay, especially late at night. Without the thermals pulling the air in that San Francisco enjoyed, Monterey would have no steady high wind each night. Most evenings there had light winds or no winds.
And with less wind, he would turn on his engine and while its top speed was only seven or eight knots under power, he suspected that Glory would have either no engine or an ancient pile from decades before, probably only enough to putter along at three or four knots. He would catch her during the calm, using the motor, and call on her to heave to and answer to the judge. He grinned at the thought. Somehow tracking her down and forcing her back personally made him feel good…good and effective. He was not sure why. Somehow it mattered. This had become some odd sort of adventure to him, one not sought, but thrust upon him…and he was up to it. And so was his boat.
With the autohelm steering, he went below to make some scrambled eggs. He was thankful he had planned on anchoring out and had stocked the boat's refrigerator with a little food. He kept glancing at the radar screen which was at the navigation table across the cabin from his galley and ate the eggs at the sink, one eye on the radar, the other on the instruments that showed force and direction of the wind, boat speed, depth. It was automatic with him. He had cruised thousands of miles, often single handed, and doing tasks while keeping a wary eye out was second nature.
Glory was still increasing the distance. He played with the controls of the radar with one hand, holding toast with the other, and found her precise distance. Four and a three quarters miles ahead now. As long as this wind held Glory would keep increasing the distance. Assuming the wind died and his motor could move him three knots faster than Glory could motor, he would only catch her in Monterey if she stayed within twelve miles or so. He assumed she would only stop in Monterey long enough to top up on fuel, maybe water, just maybe to pick up or drop off crew or get some sleep.
He paused in his chewing. If she had been stocking the boat for weeks, as one of the lawyers had said in Court, then there was no reason to stop in Monterey at all. She could be planning to go without stopping all the way to Mexico. Would she?
Most cruisers did stop at the few available ports along the wind bound and dangerous California coast. Indeed, in the full fifteen hundred miles of Coast there were less than a dozen places to safely anchor. Monterey was a typical first stop for south bound San Francisco boats, a place after a brief sail which was ideal to test gear and see what had not been properly installed. It allowed one to get some more fresh food, check out the rigging, etc. before the big push down to Los Angeles. Between Monterey and Los Angeles was Point Conception, the “Cape Horn” of California, a rough patch with typical winds above forty knots and confused seas.
Going south, however, Point Conception was not usually a big problem. Glory was a large powerful boat. She might just keep going past Monterey. If properly crewed, she could sail two thousand miles or more without a break quite easily. The tip of Baja was about fifteen hundred miles south of San Francisco. She didn’t have to stop at all.
He sat at the navigation table, toast forgotten in his hand. He pulled out a chart of the California coast, pulled out his dividers and began plotting distances and possible ports of call. He would glance at the radar screen as he worked out possible variations of her voyage down the coast, noting her distance ahead continue to grow. She was over five miles south of him now.
He leaned back on the navigation table seat. Chasing a faster boat, probably fully stocked, down a dangerous fog bound wind bound coast, not fully stocked, food only enough for a few more days, water for another week. His fuel tanks were half empty. He would have to stop in Monterey even if she did not. That would give her another twenty mile advantage. He could only cut the distance when there was little or no wind. She might have crew aboard, thus be able to carry full press of sail. He would have to sleep with the autohelm on and would become increasingly tired since that meant he would have to set the alarm to wake him once an hour to check things out.
He was going to lose her. Only a question of time.
Then he stopped himself. Lose her? What does that mean? Since when was he chasing this boat to Mexico? If she didn’t stop in Monterey, he would anyway, stock up, and go back to San Francisco. Simple as that. If she was in violation of a court order, it was up to the new judge to worry about it. If she had slept with his dad…if she had taken his dad from him…well, so what? That was forty years ago and ancient history. He threw the dividers down. Enough of this nonsense. What the hell was he doing out here anyway?
He went back on deck. Fog thick, visibility in the dark air less than a half mile. Long easy swells from the beam, wind still good, perhaps twelve knots on the beam, boat easy under full sail, speed a little over seven knots. He glanced at the instruments, settled into the cockpit under the dodger so he could still see the radar screen, pulled out some gloves from his foul weather jacket and put them on. The damp air was condensing on the dodger, the “windshield” and canvas awning that covered the forward part of the cockpit and gave a little protection from the wind and spray. Back at the wheel the dodger did not give any protection but forward of the wheel, nestled down sitting, the dodger gave almost full protection and it was here he sat. He had designed the vessel so he could sit there, autohelm steering the boat, radar and instruments visible below from this position, as comfortable as one can be at sea on a relatively small vessel.
And it was here he sat and wondered at what he was doing. The whole business with Beth Wright was an aberration, he realized. A disruption to his entire life. Hurting his relationship with his mother. Must have something to do with some hidden issues involving his father. He should have read Stein’s books. Maybe, if Stein was still practicing, he should make an appointment. Why should he care if his dad’s mistress is acting nuts and going to sea while senile? Whore or angel, it didn’t matter now. His dad was dead. He wasn’t coming back. Good man or bad man, he wasn’t coming back.
He felt deep sadness overcome him suddenly. He was surprised. What had he buried down there? Stein was right, he should have confronted it, not ignored it. Now he was sitting twelve miles out to sea, continuing a trial so he could chase a nutty old woman down the coast. That was nuts. He was acting nuts. He should spend time with an expert to help him work through all this and stop this silly reaction.
He fiddled with the sheets and adjusted the auto helm slightly. Another quarter knot. He snuggled back in his corner, gloved hands clasped in his lap, looking at the thick fog pass over the boat towards the coast. The only sound the seas and the wind.
The letters. The damned letters. He wished he had never seen them. Somehow his entire balance in life had been upset by disruption of his unstated assumptions. He had assumed his father ran off with another woman and abandoned his mother and himself, never to be heard of again. Now he knew his mother and father kept in almost monthly contact for decades, she handled his money and he left long before Beth Wright was in his life. Begged his mother to join him. Then stopped nine months later.
But he stopped begging her to come long before Beth went down there. At least it looked like that. She joined him when he was already separated from his mother. His mother rejected him due to myriad other women? Possible. But she already knew he was doing that while here and didn’t mind all that much.
As for him, it didn’t sound as if the ladies of Mexico kept him there. Not if he was asking her to join him. It sounded more as if it was the “edge” of adventure that drew him, not the ladies. Or the ladies were only part of something much more.
And Beth wrote that his father said losing him as a son was his greatest regret. So, why didn’t he try to contact Benson? Because his mother handled his finances? That made no sense, any number of experts could have do that. Why did he stay away? “You asshole,” he muttered in the thick dark, “look what you’ve done to me.” He shook his head.
He’d regain his balance in Monterey. In the light of day. Be back in the court room by Wednesday. This wouldn’t matter in another week.
The wind died to almost nothing by midnight but before that, when it slipped to five knots of wind, he had started his engine and powered up to his maximum speed of seven knots, keeping the sails up so long as there was any wind at all. He had decided to skip trying to sleep and to spend the night watching the instruments and sail trim, seeing how close he could get to Glory.
The wind died for Glory before it died for Ariel, following behind, but he was disappointed to note that Glory must have replaced her old engine for she was still going over six knots even when the wind died entirely. Ariel was just barely faster.
By the time the two boats were motoring there was twelve miles between them. Still in thick fog, Benson watched the radar screen as the huge scallop in the coast, Monterey Bay, approached, curious to see if Glory would angle towards the city of Monterey at the southern end of the large bay or keep well out to sea to continue on towards Point Sur. Whether or not she angled in towards the city, he knew he was going to Monterey. This chase was over for him. He either boarded her in Monterey or gave it up.
By three AM he had drunk two more thermoses of coffee, had finished the candy bars he kept as a reserve snack, and was almost dozing in the cockpit. The fog was raising now, perhaps five hundred feet above the water, and far to sea he could now make out the occasional lights of the large ships that plied up and down the coast. Glory was still eleven miles ahead, far too far for him to make her out by sight and he was brooding as to what the presiding judge would say if he knew what Benson had done. Damn him, anyway. He’d always find a way to criticize.
Dead calm, so he had dropped the main and furled the jib sail an hour earlier, carefully coiling the various lines for later use. He thought about reading some of the books he brought along or listening to music, anything to keep him awake. He had tried the cellular phone several times but could get no single this far out to sea. There was no one to call in any event. Too early on a Sunday morning. Of course the court and the attorney offices would all be closed.
He realized with a slight shock that no one would particularly care that he was out to sea unexpectedly this night. That thought made him pause…but he noted a sense of freedom arose from it. He could just keep going and aside from some court personnel, the lawyers putting on the trial and perhaps Gail and another girl friend or two, no one would be much bothered. Bill, his son, would salute him for not becoming as stodgy as most men his age. His mother? He didn’t know how his mother would feel.
He checked the radar again and his pulse quickened. Glory was angling in towards Monterey. She was planning to stop there. He hurried down the companion way steps and worked the radar controls. A little less than eleven miles ahead now. He would get into port only about three hours after she entered port. Unless she moved very quickly while in port, he could catch her, quite possibly. He grinned. Wouldn’t she be surprised.
He moved to the navigation table and did some computation on the edge of the chart of Monterey Bay. Glory would enter the municipal marina at about two in the afternoon unless the wind came up. With good wind she would get in before noon. He would arrive a little over two hours later if motoring, three hours later if under sail since Glory was so much faster under sail. He thought about using his VHF radio to call the Marine Operator and get connected to the Monterey police. Ask them to seize her and the boat. But he didn’t even know if it was Beth on board. He didn’t know if any law or court order had been violated. Hell, it could be her nephews taking the boat out with her consent. Unlikely, but possible.
No, he’d check it out himself, pull in alongside her and walk over and see what she had to say. He yawned. He thought about more coffee, decided against it, and moved to the cockpit again and, after a moment, walked to the bowsprit at the far end of the boat. This far forward the motor was muffled, the sound of the bow wash drowning it out. He moved further forward to the end of the bowsprit, carefully moving on the narrow wooden platform built over the top of the bowsprit, hands on the strong stainless steel railings on both sides of the platform. At the far end he maneuvered himself into the small seat he had built at the very end of the bowsprit. He swung his legs over so they hung out over the front of the bowsprit, leaning back on the fore stay cable to which the jib, directly behind him, was attached.
This was one of his favorite places, the place he would go when single handing to stare at the sea and sky, suspended eight feet before the boat, the water splashing against the bow of the boat eight feet behind, nine feet down. He was, quite literally, sitting on a stick protruding in front of the boat. He had often sat there for hours, at times seeing dolphins plunging in front of the boat below him. At night in phosphorescence seas he could see their glowing torpedo like forms thirty feet below the surface race to the air, leap two or three feet above the water, and plunge in, the glowing water exploding in green spray.
No dolphins tonight, however. Just the sound of the bow cutting through the water, the distant sound of the engine powering the boat, a very faint sound of a fog horn from Santa Cruz, ten miles to the West. He leaned his chin on his arms holding onto the steel rail in front of him and stared into the dark night.
The wind returned about seven in the morning when he was about half way through Monterey Bay. The city of Monterey was about half a day away to the south. The sun shown dimly in the hazy early morning. It was still too early for recreational sail boats to be out on a Sunday morning but he saw several fishing boats scattered about. In the far distance, with binoculars, he could make out the larger hotels of Monterey and, just perhaps, the white dot that was Glory’s sails. With the wind he knew she would raise sails and pull away from him. He sighed, ate some cold cereal in the cockpit, and watched as the radar blip that was Glory increased the lead minute by minute.
He then raised his own main and jib, wind again coming from a little aft of the beam, worked the lines and course to maximize speed, but the wind was less than ten knots and he could barely keep the boat above six knots. In these light airs, the faster ex racer Glory would easily make eight or nine knots.
He felt jaded and a bit groggy. He wasn’t used to all night watches. After some reflection, he decided to call the Harbor Master at the Monterey Municipal Marina and reserve a berth for the week and, not incidentally, ask him to make sure Glory did not depart before he arrived. He would mention he was a judge and expected the Harbor Master would comply.
He called on the VHF radio for over ten minutes. No answer. The Harbor Master office should be in range. He increased the power setting to the maximum six watts. Still no response. He was annoyed. They should keep a constant watch. Sunday morning or not, there should have been a response from the Harbor Master. On a whim, he decided to try to call Glory. Keeping the VHF on channel sixteen, he pushed the transmit button again. “This is sailing vessel Ariel calling sailing vessel Glory. Ariel calling Glory. Ariel calling Glory. Come in, please. Over. He tried that for ten minutes and received no reply. Again, someone should be keeping a radio watch. Bad seamanship, he thought grumpily. He decided to make some more coffee.
The wind continued to freshen and by noon, as he approached Monterey, it was well over fifteen knots, a nice breeze still from the north west. By this time dozens of sail boats and fishing boats were within a few miles of the marina and Benson had long since lost the blip that was Glory among the many other targets on his radar. The air was hazy with visibility no greater than five miles. The air was warmer than San Francisco Bay but still only in the sixties. He kept his eyes out for Glory but could not identify her. He still had not found someone to answer the VHF at the marina and was extremely annoyed when his repeated calls were finally answered a little after noon.
“This is sailing vessel Ariel. I’ve been calling for five hours. I thought you people kept a watch on channel sixteen. Over.”
The young male voice on the other end did not appear overly concerned. “We’ve been having some radio problems. Finally fixed the thing. You in trouble? You should call the Coast Guard, if so. Over.”
“I need to reserve a visitor’s berth for the coming week and I need you to hold a boat that may be berthing there about now. Sailing vessel Glory. Please hold her. Over.”
“Hold her? We have no authority to hold a vessel. Please explain. Over.”
“I am a superior court judge. Judge John Benson. I believe that vessel has been removed from San Francisco Bay in violation of a court order. I need to check out to see who is on board. I should arrive in approximately two and a half hours. Over.”
“Judge who? Over.”
“Judge John Benson. It was my order. The vessel is Glory. A sixty five foot sloop. Can’t miss her. Over.”
There was a pause. Benson presumed he was checking the various docks. He waited, impatiently drumming his fingers on the navigation table, nervous to be stuck below decks with so many small boats about. He adjusted the range of the radar to minimum to see if any boats were nearby. Finally, exasperated, he dropped the microphone, rushed to the cockpit, looked around, saw no boats within a quarter of a mile, then raced down to the microphone again. Still no response. “Incredible inefficiency, “ he mumbled to himself.
Finally, “Can’t see the fuel dock from here, Ariel may be there. Can’t see any boats like that nearby. Over.”
“Can you ask the fuel dock to hold her? Over.”
“It’s private. They do pretty much what they want. You could phone them. Over.”
“I’m too far out for the cell phone. Do they monitor Channel sixteen? Over.”
“Sometimes. When not pumping gas. They don’t always answer.”
“Like you? Over”
There was a long pause. “Dock C-43 is your berth for the week. Check in to pay when you arrive. Over and out.”
Even more annoyed, Benson rushed to the cockpit again. Very small boats often don’t appear on radar and he did not trust relying on it when Monterey Bay was this crowded. He decided to concentrate on sailing the boat for maximum speed and just get there and stop her himself.
He always enjoyed working Ariel and in fifteen knots of wind with plenty of sea room she was in her element. He soon had her up above seven knots steady but then realized that a race of very small boats, most filled with children, was spread out a mile in front of him this Sunday afternoon, effectively blocking the entrance to the Marina. He had to reduce sail and navigate around the tiny boats, hearing the excited shouts of the children as they maneuvered for position around the racing buoys. He had once done that type of racing with his son, Bill. But Bill had never really enjoyed sailing, not as he did. Like his mother in that regard.
He finally gave up and decided to drop the sails and simply motor through the race but it was closer to three hours than two when he came into the Marina. He immediately motored around the various docks, including the fuel dock. No Glory. He had not seen her leaving the marina but that was not surprising. Unless she had left within the last hour she would have been out of sight, heading due West to get around Lovers Point while he came from the North.
He felt sleepy, grumpy, and disappointed. He maneuvered Ariel to the fuel dock, waited until a small fishing boat topped its own tanks, and finally motored his vessel into the vacant spot on the fuel dock, jumping off holding two dock lines attached fore and aft on Ariel as he inched her alongside the eighty foot dock.
He was tired and a little stupid and came in a bit too fast and hard. He heard the hull bump then scrape along the dock, swore under his breath as he quickly cleated the rear line to the dock and threw the forward line to the fuel dock attendant standing nearby. The attendant caught the line and ran forward to cleat it up. Benson stood up stiffly, stretching his back. The dock was protected from much of the wind coming off Monterey Bay and the sun felt warm on his face. He looked at the scrape on the side of the hull and muttered more obscenities. He must be tired to have done that.
The kid at the fuel dock was about nineteen, in the mandatory jeans and dirty shirt that all kids seemed to wear now, pimply face and baseball cap reversed and pushed back on his head. He was watching Benson check out the hull and might have been grinning a little.
“You single hand much, Mister?”
Benson controlled his annoyance as best he could. “Often enough. Been a long night. Top her up with diesel, please. And I need to top up with water as well. You see a sixty five foot classic racer come by this morning?”
The teenager was pulling the heavy fuel hose towards Ariel’s fill hole at the stern and didn’t answer. Benson jumped back on board and used the custom key wrench to twist open the two fuel fills which were at the stern behind the cockpit combing. Then he hurried below to grab some paper towels to stuff around the fills to catch the inevitably spilled diesel.
Once the fuel was being pumped the kid immediately pulled the water hose over and Benson moved forward to open the deck fitting which led to Ariel’s two large water tanks. He maneuvered the water hose into the water fill, signaled for the boy to turn on the water, and heard the stainless steel tanks below decks vibrate with the sound of pouring water. With the boat being filled at both ends he finally looked up but the teenager was now standing near the pump talking on his cell phone.
Benson waiting impatiently for him to finish and then raised his eyebrows. The kid looked at him blankly. Benson tried to keep his voice level. ”Did you see a sixty five foot classic sloop come by this morning?”
The kid flushed but Benson’s authoritarian tone had its effect. “No, Sir. At least not here. But I just got in at eight.”
“You open all night?”
“Nope. I’m just saying if it was in the Marina before then, I wouldn’t have seen it. That’s all.” He was sullen. Benson looked around for a phone booth. Back in those days every fuel dock had one and he went below to get some change. As he was coming up the companion way stairs he heard a child’s voice calling him.
“Mister. You on the boat? Mister?”
He came up to the cockpit and saw a young boy, perhaps ten, standing on the fuel dock, impatiently shifting from foot to foot. Jeans and a dirty shirt. In his hand he had a large manila envelope. The kid seemed relieved to see him. “You a judge, Mister?”
Benson saw the teenager glance in his direction, then concentrate on the fuel fill, adjusting the flow to avoid overflow of diesel. Benson felt the boat shift as it become heavier in the water, taking in tons of fuel and water. “Last I looked. Who told you that?”
“The old lady said to look for you and give you this.” He held up the envelope.
Benson stared at the boy for a moment. The boy stepped back a foot. “Where’s the old lady now, boy?”
He swallowed. “I don’t know, Mister. She just gave me this envelope and told me to give it to you when you came in. She said you’d be down here.”
“Did she, now? When?”
“I don’t know. Maybe two hours ago. Maybe three. I don’t have a watch. She said you’d be here, that’s all. I didn’t do nothing wrong. Just me and my friends playing down at the pier and…”
“And where is her boat, now?”
“I didn’t see no boat. She just came up to us. We were at the fishing pier. I’m just to give you this…”
“You didn’t see any boat at all?”
“She had a boat? We didn’t see any boat. She just gave us this and five dollars and walked away. You want this or not, Mister? She said I could keep the five bucks even if you didn’t show up. She’d pick up the envelop later if you didn’t come by.”
Benson found himself looking around for Beth. He stopped himself. She’d be long gone by now, gone long before he even entered the Marina. And ten miles away or more, around Lover’s Point over an hour ago in this wind. The boy was staring at him. So was the teenager. He sighed and held out his hand. The boy reached over the boat railing, gave him the manila envelope and ran off.
Heavy envelope, at least twenty pages inside. No address on it. He saw the teenager still staring at him. The kid looked down quickly when Benson glanced in his direction. Benson went below with the envelope. He threw it on the navigation table and sat down looking at the radar screen. There must be a hundred blips within maximum range. Any of them could be Glory. Sunday afternoon in a busy marina. He didn’t even know if she was sailing with crew. But one thing he did know. She knew he was following.
He looked at the envelope for a long moment, oddly hesitant. Then he tore it open. A letter from her, perhaps three pages long, handwritten, And…a letter on yellowed paper. Thick. At least fifteen pages. To his shock, on the first page it was addressed to “Johnny Benson.” He quickly turned to the final page. His father’s signature. No date. He felt a shiver run through him. He stared at the writing, actually hand printing. He read the first paragraph;
If you are reading this, then my plans to see you and be with you have failed. Actually, that’s quite likely, as I think on it. But I do want you to know something about your father, something about who I am, why I am not there, and, just maybe, to forgive me for not being there. I want you to have another side of me than your mother is likely to have given you. Oh, my side will be prejudiced, one sided, defensive, I guess. But if you take mine, compare it to your mother’s and use some common sense, maybe you’ll get the truth?
One problem I have is I don’t know what age you will be when you see this. College, I expect. Maybe in business already? A law school? But you might just be a teen ager. So, I can’t really write this to “you,” since I don’t know who you are. I hesitated long and hard before even starting this for that very reason. But child, youth or man, someday you will want to know about me, that I am convinced. And I think I have a duty to try to explain. So, rather than concentrate on you, as the reader, let me concentrate on facts and events. And my own feelings as to why I have to do this.
This may become a defacto journal since these events are still happening. If the letter has to stop suddenly, I will make sure it gets to a person who will get it to you…maybe hold it for some time until you are ready to see it. If I’m dead, probably no hurry. Now that I think on it, I may ask her to destroy it if it would just hurt you or other people. I will think on it.
“Mister? Judge?” It was the voice of the teenager at the pump. Reluctantly, he put the letter down and climbed back to the cockpit. The water hose and fuel hose were both pulled back to the dock, the boat filled. He handed his credit card to the teenager and moved to the fill holes to replace the caps and tighten them. To his shock, his hands were shaking slightly. He stopped himself, still kneeling near the water fill, staring at his hands.
“You OK, Mister?” The teenager was looking at him, eyes wide.
“Fine. Just fine. Where is dock C-43?”
The boy pointed to the northern part of the Marina and continued to run the card. Benson stood there, watching the small boats leaving the Marina on this hazy Sunday afternoon, hearing the laughter of children and the buzz of voices. He signed the slip, noting automatically how expensive diesel had become, and walked back to the helm.
The kid expertly grabbed the two dock lines tied to the boat in both hands, standing in the middle of the dock, looked at the traffic in the channel near the fuel dock, nodded at Benson as the Judge started the engine, then threw the lines on board while Benson slowly motored away from the dock to the northern end of the Marina, still in a daze. This was the first time he had even had a single communication from his father, he realized with a shock. The first time. Over the age of fifty and his father is writing to Johnny. The first time his father had ever communicated directly to him.
C-43 had a large power boat to one side of the slip and a dilapidated thirty foot sailboat on the other. No one was on board either and he carefully motored the boat into the slip, not intending to repeat the bump at the fuel dock. He grabbed the two lines the kid had thrown to the center of the boat, jumped onto the dock and ran first to the stern then to the bow, cleating both lines tight. The sun was warm now, the large powerboat blocking the wind entirely. Benson climbed back onto Ariel, shut off the engine, and, taking his father’s letter from the navigation table where he had thrown it, moved to the cockpit and sat down.
The next paragraph had a gap between it and the previous paragraph.
Nice night as one only gets south of the United States. Sitting here in a large house without electricity, only kerosene lamps. We could turn on the generator but I hate the noise. Amazing how unimportant all those things can become, Johnny. I hope you get to learn that someday.
So, let’s get to the exciting part right away that may make you want to read about your old man. Right now, at this very moment, at least one and possibly two men are trying to find me so they can kill me. Sounds more exciting than it is, I’m afraid. What annoys me is that they have only been paid five hundred dollars for the job with a bonus of only three hundred dollars if accomplished within the next ten days. I am insulted. A member of the Bar should be worth a thousand dollars at least, don’t you think?
So, I’m sitting here with a revolver on the table next to me and a friend/body guard who is moonlighting from the federal police in the next room and if a court hearing happens in another two weeks, all this will be past. But I can’t just travel around, have to be here for the next week and this is a good time to write to you.
The fellow who wants me dead has already had my good friend murdered. Possibly. Don’t know for sure, really. And my enemy has wanted me dead for almost a year now and unlike the movies, he’s simply not very good at it. The first fellow he hired went immediately to the police which is why we know what is happening. The second fellow he hired shot himself in the foot while practicing! He is in the jail hospital right now. My enemy finally had to go to Mexico City to find someone who wasn’t a clown but my police friends tell me my enemy is just too cheap to spend what it costs for very good people.
These one or two looking for me are “adequate” according to my friends. Not Day of the Jackal sorts, just run of the mill sorts. One of them was seen around town asking about me in what he thought was a subtle way but I have been here long enough so that I and the police knew about it within an hour. He had disappeared but we know who he is, have a good description, and he is running from the police while I am hiding here. Why do we think two? Because he asked if someone had been by asking for him. Then the fool gave his name. That should give you some idea why this isn’t like the movies. These guys are just stupid.
Meanwhile, my enemy is on the run, the police looking for him, now he’s hiding out. I bet we are both within a mile of each other, maybe five miles, both hiding in houses, playing like we are in the movies, me the good guy running from assassins, he the bad guy running from the police. He thinks of himself as Humphrey Bogart, the cops after him. I must be Paul Newman, in that case. A little heavier, but let’s not think on that.
I don’t know if he killed my friend Edwardo, a man who was almost a brother to me. Edwardo died in an automobile accident…hitting a tree. He wasn’t drunk and had driven on that road most of his life. No skid marks, a quiet night. But somehow his car hit that tree and he died. About three months ago. Can’t prove anything, of course. But when he died most of my clout here died and yet I find it hard…very hard…just to walk away. As your mother said I should, I might add.
Am I the good guy bringing justice to the wild west? I’d like to think that. But it gets more complicated, of course. The police are on my side mostly because Edwardo’s family bribed them to be. Not all, but most. And they are after this guy not because they caught him counterfeiting product or stealing but because we got him not paying land tax and maybe embezzling from his partners who have clout in this town…and not reporting his income…and now trying to have me shot. I’d like to think the latter charge is the important one..but this is Mexico. The police are likely to think the first one is the most important charge.
I do miss you and getting to know you. I wonder all the time what you are like. And you are alone with your mother in the United States and if she knew what was happening here, she’d just get that censorious look she gets when looking at Mexican food, shake her head slightly, sigh, and change the subject.
Despite himself, Benson laughed. That was precisely what his mother did. She had not changed one iota in…what…thirty years?
I tried to talk her into coming down here with you many years ago. She resisted. She was right, I now realize. Though perhaps for the wrong reasons. At the time, about when I first came down here, I thought my contacts, the family that was my client, the police that promised protection, would be enough. That it was no more unsafe than in, say Oakland or Hunters Point. But I now know I was naïve.
This is a world far, far more complex than I first thought. It’s not San Francisco with crooked cops or organized crime. Hell, San Francisco does have crooked cops and organized crime. No, this is different and the longer I am here the more fantastic this world seems. It is not that they do strange things. They think strangely. They react differently. Their motivations, their thoughts, their dreams are simply different.
I am a stranger in a strange land. Yet I love it. Need it, somehow. Is it possible to be a stranger yet feel at home? For I do. Gauguin abandoned his family and his investment stock broker career to experience a primitive life in Tahiti. His wife and children were left destitute. But he was a great artist. I am a lawyer. But, then, I am not abandoning my responsibilities, either, still have my job and my task to chase down this miscreant. And you and your mother have plenty of money. More than I do, certainly. And she did have the chance to come and wouldn’t join me with you, Johnny. And if you are reading this, she was dead right. Or I am dead wrong. Literally.
Benson looked up from the letter and shook his head. His father wrote like a man’s adventure magazine. How old was he when he wrote this? Thirty five? Forty? No date but no younger than thirty five and more probably closer to fifty. Too old for this Tarzan of the Mexican Jungle nonsense. He leafed through the remaining five pages or so and tossed them on the navigation table. Then he picked up Beth’s shorter and mostly scrawled note. It was dated that very day.
I think you will get this, but if not, that’s all right. If you are not following me, you should not get this and if the little boy throws it away, it’s only right. Only if there is enough of your father left in you after all those years of you alone with your mother that you are here to read it should you read this letter. I will know if your father is alive in you if you did follow and are now sitting in Monterey. I hope so. I bet you are surprised to be in Monterey if you are. I bet you think you were trying to stop me.
Your mother is a wonderful woman. I have always admired her. But she is one dimensional. I think the worst thing your father ever did was not abandon her or abandon me…for he did both…but abandon you so that she could mould you, without interference, in her image. It is not a bad image, perhaps. But it is not enough. And you know it, somewhere, inside. If you are reading this.
I have seen you in court now, and while at first I thought I only saw her, I now think I saw more. I think I saw a little of your father still alive in there. My heart soared.
But I will know more if you get this letter and by what you will do when you read your father’s letter. Your mother would snort in contempt upon reading it, shake her head, sigh, and then go back home to more dinners, more sophisticated society gatherings, more plays and symphonies and, in your case, more cases watching people with real agony while you sit protected by your high bench. Are you happy there? I don’t think so.
I have something to show you. Someone, really. Someone you must meet if you are truly following me. Your father’s long serial letter, written over some months may interest you or not. But this person will interest you a great deal. You will find out what this mystery is about if you follow. Will you come? Will you try to stop me, instead? Can you help yourself? Either way?
Your father said one thing to me just before he died you should know. It was when he gave me that long serial letter you have seen a little of. I was angry and berating him for leaving you with his ex wife. He had a good response. It was this: Johnny will try to be like Eleanor since she will train him to be like her. But I cannot train him to be like me anyway. He will find he has no choice. He will be my son. Or not. That’s good and bad.”
Will you come, John? If so, more to follow.
Benson gave a sarcastic grunt and tossed her note on top of his father’s letter. A perfect pair. He could picture them with goo goo eyes staring at each other in a Mexican town, mouthing romantic platitudes while half a mile away a desperately poor farmer was trying to figure out how to buy enough to eat when his taxes were stolen by the local boss that his father probably considered a friend.
He felt his anger and contempt growing. They were two spoiled children, two dreamers living in a violent and poor land, prancing about talking of adventure and love and spirit…at other’s expense. While his mother handled the finances. While Beth’s family footed the bill. And they felt superior to the drudges.
And effectively she called him a drudge. A drudge who may rise to their level of romantic nonsense if he can only abandon all his responsibilities. He felt he had to stand up and pace. He had to check his boat into the Harbor Masters in any event. He grabbed his wallet locked the boat up, jumped from the boat to the swaying dock, walked down the dock past the various small sail boats, larger fishing boats and occasional commercial fishing boat, up the ramp to the Harbor Master’s concrete office about a quarter of a mile away.
At the top of the ramp he could feel the wind again. Visibility in the hazy air was still less than five miles but he found himself looking southwest, looking for Glory. Of course she was not in sight.
At the Harbor Master’s modern and soulless office he had to wait in line while a pot bellied fisherman argued with the young man at the counter about his lost slip rental check and why late fees should be waived. While they argued over the counter, Benson walked to the small weather station they had set up on the far wall. Wind from the North West, fifteen to eighteen knots, predicted to rise to near gale by tomorrow afternoon, barometer falling. No precipitation predicted. He shook his head, listening to the increasingly impassioned argument from the fisherman, the young man behind the counter staring at the fisherman with a carefully blank face.
At last the fisherman threw up his hands, glared around the room, and stomped out the door. The young man looked after him with a slight smile and then looked at Benson, studying him. “You get the letter?”
“How do you know about the letter?”
“She asked me to give it to you. I told her to use Benny. The boy.”
“Nope, my kid brother. You got the letter?”
“I did. Was she alone?”
“Yeah, you want to know all about the boat, about her crew, about her plans. She told me you’d ask.”
“Did she? I’m a judge and she may have violated my court order. She may be in contempt of court. Please answer the question.” Benson noted that he had a plastic name badge on his sweater. Arnold Porter.
Porter saw him looking at the name tag. “I’m studying prelaw in college. You don’t have a warrant, you don’t even have jurisdiction here. I answer if I feel like it, seems to me. We aren’t in your court room, judge.”
Benson locked eyes on Porter. Porter looked down. Benson grabbed the advantage. “Son, I will be blunt. She is seventy years old. She may be mentally unstable. She is on a sixty five foot racing sloop that is over sixty years old. This is serious and you need to understand that.”
Porter looked up at that. He thought for a moment, face now flushed. “We don’t know if she is alone, now, do we?”
“Damn it, was she?”
“Don’t know. Didn’t see any boat. She just came in here. Gave me the envelope. Talked about you a little, wanted to get you the envelope. Said you’d be…you’d be upset and ordering people around and pompous and all the rest. Seems she isn’t so crazy after all.” Porter couldn’t help himself from grinning.
Benson glared at him a moment. Then, despite himself, had to grin back. “Hell, it’s been a long night. Sailed all night after her. I’m worried about the old biddy. She…she’s living in a dream world, Arnold. She’s trying to go back thirty five years and find an old love.”
Porter nodded. “Yeah, I could tell she was…was a little high, I guess. Kinda loopy. Said your family would like to see you and you should follow her and find out your real family, that sort of thing.”
“My family? She used those words?”
“Something like that. You got roots in Mexico?”
“None that I know of. Who knows what she meant? So, you don’t know anything about her boat? About her plans?”
“Her plan was to get you the envelope and to hope you’d join her in Mexico and that you will be dithering. She said that as she left, kinda laughing.”
Benson stared out the window, thinking of the coming gale. “Can I get hold of the Coast Guard from here?”
“You going to stop her voyage, then?”
“If I can. She doesn’t even own the boat.”
“Has a complaint from the owner been made? We have lists of stolen boats faxed to us.”
“Happened yesterday. No list will show it yet.”
“Then you will have real problems with the Coasties. You don’t even know who the captain is. No one has complained. And your order…well, it’s a state court you know. They aren’t going to be very helpful.
“I’m a judge, damn it, I know the law. I’ll risk it. Where are they?”
“Two blocks in that direction, then a block east. Big white building. They’ll be skeleton staff today, being Sunday. You want the fat guy. He’s duty officer. Pierce.”
“How much for my boat in C-43 for a week?”
“Two fifty. Includes electric and water.”
“Didn’t bring my shore power plug.”
“Twenty bucks to rent one. You’ll need to top your batteries I suppose.”
“OK, throw it in.” Benson dropped his credit card on the counter and watched as Porter slowly wrote up the slip. His eyes kept going out the window to the south west. Stupid old lady. Old hippie. He took the Marina Gate key and shore power cable and left.
He hurried back to his boat, plugged in the cable to top the batteries. Since the engine had been running as much as it had, the batteries didn’t need much charge, but might as well keep them topped up. He hurried back down the dock to the Coast Guard office.
An hour later he stomped back on board his boat, threw the Marina Key on the navigation table, glanced at the radar which still showed fifty blips within twenty four miles and turned on the VHF weather channel. He half listened while they predicted high winds, the coming storm system, a brief storm to be followed by clearing by Tuesday evening. Not that big a deal. Certainly no big deal for a sixty five foot yacht.
That, among other things, was what the Coast Guard lieutenant had said. The other things being that they had no right or obligation to stop a well found vessel transiting the coast when the Judge could not even indicate it was undermanned, in danger of sinking or even taken in violation of a court order.
Benson had done what he could to stop her. Indeed, probably more than he should have. And he had been “paid” by receiving part of a serial letter from his Dad. And learning that Dad apparently had another family left behind in Mexico. A half brother or sister of his? Must be in his forties or thirties, if so. Well, they had made it all this time without being in contact, why start now?
He pulled out a chart of the coast down to San Diego. He studied it for a bit. She’d put into Moro Bay near San Luis Obispo, north of Conception, if she thought he was following. To drop off the next installment of the letter. Then maybe Santa Barbra after Point Conception. Might stop at Oxnard or Los Angeles after that, then maybe the Channel Islands and San Diego and into Mexico. She could just go straight to Mexico, presumably. But not if she wanted to leave him installments to keep him coming.
All he had to do was make sure the police were there at the dock in one of those places. But easier said than done. What were they to do, keep a watch over the dock for the twenty four hours that she might appear? They’d never do that, didn’t have the man power…especially with there being no great crime being committed, theft of a old sailing yacht the worst that can be claimed. If she was already in dock, they might come along and arrest her. But no stake out was likely no matter how loud a San Francisco judge demanded it.
And once she realized he wasn’t following, she’d just go thirty or fifty miles off shore and head straight to Mexico and the cops down there sure as hell wouldn’t care what a San Francisco judge ordered.
The nephews might be upset that the boat was gone. But probably not so upset that they would spend the fifteen or twenty thousand dollars such a stake out would require if private detectives were needed. He remembered their meaty faces. No, they wouldn’t spring for the money themselves.
Which meant that she was not going to be stopped by cops or relatives or much of anything. She was going to get to Mexico, for whatever that was worth. He picked up his father’s letter again and this time finished it.
So, Johnny, why is your dad here? Why is your dad sitting in an adobe house that smells like kerosene and writing you this letter rather than being there? On one level it’s because I am here representing a friend and client and was trying to protect him from a crook. And failing. And now trying to get that crook before he gets me. Been doing that for years now. But that’s too facile I know.
I want to be here. I don’t want to be a successful big city attorney in California making a lot of money, jockeying for position in a firm, kissing the hem of the top partner, winning cases in those vicious courts, taking your mother to expensive dinners and dancing, knowing the right people and doing the right things. I want to be more than a name on the door on the thirty third floor in the air.
Yeah, Dad, you say. You want to be a nut sitting at a table in a dark city in northern Mexico sparring with a third rate cheap crook. Oh, that’s much better, Dad, you say.
It is. Lord, it is. Why? I’m not sure I can tell you. There is another thing I love which is equally nuts. I love to sail. Love to be on deep ocean in a well built yacht. Challenging the elements, immersed in nature. Now let me tell you a boat is stupid. Expensive, slow, wet, uncomfortable, you spend thousands of dollars for each voyage. But I crave those voyages, I am never happier than when at sea. Where is the logic in that? Sailing is stupid. Being in Mexico hunting a crook is stupid. I love both and for the same reason. Can you understand this, my son of unknown age?
If Eleanor has made you so that all I write makes no sense, then you should ignore this letter and be happy in the City and in the comforts her life allows. But if you love risk…and edge…then you will get what I mean. Do you?
He slowly put the letter down on the navigation table. He stared at the radar screen.
Then he heard a sound from the cockpit. He turned. Ellen Wright stepped into the cockpit. Dressed in tight white shorts and a tank top, sandals and a sailing bag over her shoulder. He glared at her.
“I don’t recall hearing you ask permission to come aboard, Ms. Wright.”
She hesitated at the top of the companion way stairs. “ No one was in the cockpit. I thought you might be below. Sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry.
He stood at the navigation table, blocking her entry into the boat. “You and your aunt have a lot in common. You both seem to lack a respect for other people’s lives and property.”
She flushed. “I said I was sorry.” She dropped the heavy sailing bag in the cockpit.
He sat at the navigation seat, looking up at her in the cockpit. “Your aunt call you and tell you to come on by and see me?”
“She did call me. She said…”
“She said you’d need some help in making some decisions.”
“So you put on your sexy tank top and came rushing down to Monterey to see the old fart and help him decide to race down the coast after your aunt?”
Without responding she picked up the sailing bag that she had dropped onto the cockpit seat. She stood in the middle of the cockpit looking down at Benson at the navigation table. “I thought you would be capable of not being a judge when on your boat. I see I was wrong. You just sit and judge and bark wherever you are. My aunt was wrong.”
“Where do you two get off thinking you can tell me how to live, what to think, what to do and how to feel? Because your aunt was laid by my father four decades ago you are both out to save me from myself so I can rush off and do a repeat escapade down to sunny Mexico where the happy natives will be so damned glad to dance with the gringos? You have any idea how arrogant both you and she are?”
Without another word she turned on her heel and jumped off the boat. He felt the boat rock a little as she jumped onto the dock and heard her angry steps down the dock.
He glowered at the letters from his father and Beth. Then he stuffed them back in the envelope and moved up the companion way and sat at the helm seat in the cockpit. It was late Sunday afternoon. The Coast Guard refused to do anything, his boat was ninety miles away from his home berth, the boat he had ordered to remain in the San Francisco Bay was probably approaching Point Sur at this very moment, and he had just discovered he had a step family in Mexico he knew nothing about.
And the Presiding Judge was going to be furious with him when he found out that Benson had continued a trial date set. Would mess up his overall master schedule. Benson would have to brown nose him for weeks. And Gail was probably pissed that he had cancelled his date. And his mother was dying. And now he had to rent a car to get back home and he’d better see to it now.
Instead he sat and stared at his compass on the binnacle and held the wheel of the boat. He felt himself start to calm down. His boat was the one place that could calm him like this. The gentle rocking. The sound of gulls. Faint sound of outboard motors, fainter sound of children laughing on the walk near the marina. Faint smell of candy from the shops on the tourist pier. He could just make out the sound of sea lions arguing.
“Probably sound a lot like me,” he muttered with a slight smile. He had treated Ellen so badly since he had been attracted to her. He knew that. And knew that their supposition…that he could be swayed by her good looks and sexy outfit so angered him precisely because it had a germ of truth in it. Well, he had stopped that possibility. He tried to examine his other feelings.
He remembered the shiver up his spine when he realized he had a letter from his father. His first and only letter. And how accurate his father had been in describing his mother. And how she had not changed in forty years. Had Beth? He doubted it. Mutton head. And his father’s love of sailing. He hadn’t realized they had shared that passion. And his dad was right-it was stupid. And addictive. And made him happy.
He looked up at Ellen’s voice. She was standing by the boat, a sailing jacket over her tank top now, her sailing bag at her feet. She was blinking rapidly. He said nothing. She hesistated, then plunged on. “I do want to sail with you after my aunt. I want us to catch up with her and then I want you to put me on board her boat.”
“You want to join her? Ask her. Or rent a power boat. They will be a lot quicker than my boat.”
“She refuses to have me along. Because of what she intends to do. She’d stop for your boat coming alongside. Not any other. Only you would be allowed to raft up.”
“Oh? What does she intend to do?”
“Kill herself. I am sure of it.”
Benson leaned back. He studied the girl. Her eyes were shiny. She must have some gumption to have approached the old bastard again. “Why do you think that?”
“I know. The way she talks about it. Tying up loose ends. Coming full circle. Making sure you get the letters and all. And I know she’s not well. Hasn’t been for some time.”
“Well enough to come racing out to sea.”
“She can do that in her sleep.”
“Who’s with her?”
“She won’t tell me. Won’t tell me if she even is with someone.”
“That’s a sixty five foot boat. You saying that little old lady can sail it herself?”
Ellen shrugged. “She’s really good. But I think she must have someone. I mean, why not? Wouldn’t be hard to get crew on that boat…going to Mexico.”
“But not you.”
“Not me.” And standing there, she began to cry.
Another old trick. Which always worked. He looked down at his hands. After a few moments of listening to her muffled sobs, he shrugged. “Come back into the cockpit.”
She sniffed and climbed on board leaving her sailing bag on the dock. He wasn’t sure what to do. Act the host. “Want some coffee or tea?”
She shook her head, wiping her eyes. She sat in the cockpit across from him.
He waited until she calmed down a little. “Look, I can see you love your aunt. I respect that. And maybe she sees this as her last great adventure. Wouldn’t surprise me. But I’m the guy that ordered her to keep her boat in San Francisco Bay. She is violating that order. And I’m a judge…I have a trial waiting. And I can’t go tracing about the sea and avoiding my responsibilities. I’m not my dad. “
She looked up at that. “Aunt says he’s inside of you.”
“If so, very far inside and I am not sure I want him out.”
“You attacked and insulted me because you were attracted to me. I could tell. She told me you might do that. It’s how your dad treated her. I shouldn’t have worn the tank top, maybe, but you should know why you reacted like you did.”
Ouch. Not so dumb. Either of them. “I’m not my dad. Stop that. And any man…especially an older man…is going to be attracted to you. I resent that is being used to try to get me to chase your aunt.”
“I didn’t wear that top for that reason.”
“Crap. Women always know how that affects men. And they’re always right.”
She smiled faintly at that. “Maybe. Maybe I knew it wouldn’t hurt. Wouldn’t hurt either of us to get through that cold shell you put on. You don’t have to keep attacking people all the time.”
“No? Maybe not. But I don’t like being manipulated.”
“ Manipulation? Because I’m pretty and know it? That’s pretty paranoid. And I just didn’t know how to get you going down the coast. Your dad isn’t that much of a pull on you, I guess.”
“Well, Aunt says you have to meet someone down there. That it will change your life.”
“Who? How? Let’s cut the crap and get to the facts.”
“She won’t tell me. She’s like that.”
“Drives me nuts.”
“Me, too,” she said seriously, then smiling. “She was always like that. Always.”
“Yet you love her.”
“I do. You don’t know what a difference she made in my life. “
“How old are you?”
She flared. “Over eighteen if that’s what you’re hinting at. But I won’t sleep with you to get to sea.”
Now he flared. “And that wasn’t my intent or my inference. You’re the one pushing that topic. I just asked how old you are.”
“Then act it. Figure out where her next port of call will be and show up on her dock. Tackle it right there. Don’t waste time on this boat trying to catch up.”
“But you will catch up. You will find her.”
“Will I? Fat chance. She’s already twenty miles ahead.”
“She will make sure you catch up. She told me.”
That stopped Benson cold. She saw that and was sensible enough to remain quiet while he worked it out.
But what he was working out was not Beth’s motivations or the detail of her plot. It was the fact that she would intentionally slow her pace and if that was the case, she would be off Point Conception precisely when the storm would hit. Which, with that boat, meant little if it was properly manned and she was not alone. She watched him closely, eyes narrowing a bit as he did some calculations in his head.
“Call me Ellen, please.”
“Ms. Wright, will your aunt respond to you on a VHF call? I tried to call her earlier and she did not.”
“I don’t know. Call me Ellen.”
“I won’t bite you. You can look at me and I won’t go nuts. Nor sleep with you. I’m post woman’s lib generation. Stop worrying about offending me or me seducing you.”
“You seducing me? I’m the older man and a judge.”
“Then relax, grand dad. My name is Ellen.”
“You aunt is going to be wallowing out there at Point Conception and there is a storm coming in. You need to call her and tell her I’m not coming and to move beyond that point.”
“She doesn’t normally keep the VHF on. Says she doesn’t like the static. I know that.”
“No? What do you mean no? For all you know she’s alone on that big relic and waiting out there for a storm. Do you want her to die?”
“She’s already dying. She’d like to die there. And if you want to stop her, let’s go now and we will tell her together.”
He stood up behind the wheel. “I can’t believe you are saying this. I can’t believe you will risk her life to get on that boat.”
“You don’t know me. You don’t know my aunt. You clearly can’t understand either of us or your own father.”
His voice trembled. “Don’t tell me what I understand and don’t understand. I followed you’re damned aunt down here, didn’t I? Do you think most men would have?”
Her face softened. “No, no, I don’t. That’s why…why I am here. You are not most men. Most men would not even have been out in a boat alone sailing along. But your dad would have. In a minute. Like you.”
“That doesn’t flatter me much.”
“I’m just trying to point out to you what is obvious to me. You just hide in those robes of yours. Even when you aren’t wearing robes. Don’t you want to find out about your family down there? Your father? Don’t you feel any curiosity at all?”
“Curious, yes. But this is a lot of angst to just find out some history about a selfish juvenile attorney who ran off to Mexico when I was five years old. Why not just send me the letters?”
“She isn’t doing this for you, Judge.”
“Call me John. I don’t feel much like a judge right now.”
“John, then. She’s not doing it for you. Not really. She’s doing it for him. He didn’t want you to get the letters without earning them, I think. Ask her.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know how to put it. Not earning them. Showing you were enough of his son…to want them. To want to read them, I guess. Not to…not to laugh at him. I think he was worried about that. Your mother would have laughed at him.”
“He broke my mother’s heart, Ellen. You don’t know her and what she went through. This is not Sir Galahad. This is a selfish s.o.b. who played at cops and robbers in Mexico…apparently fathered a new family…had my mother handle his finances…and wrote me a goddamned letter to read if I earned it…”
“That was me talking, not him. I just didn’t put it right. Please calm down.”
“That was accurate, I think. You just find that action somehow admirable. I find it self- indulgent and selfish. Would you abandon your five year old son to raise a new family in Mexico because it was sexy?”
“If I was married to your mother, I’d be out the door in a minute.” She saw his expression and quickly looked down, blushing. There was a moment of silence.
“You say she intends to allow me to catch up…or at least stay in relatively close proximity. She made that clear to you?”
Ellen nodded, still not looking up. Benson did some mental calculations. Then, “What will you do when you get on board her vessel? Encourage her to keep going?”
Ellen raised her head. “I won’t tell her to come back, if she is committed to go. But I will help her sail it and look out for her. She may be a good sailor but I have no idea who her crew is, how good they are…”
“So, I’m going there to put more crew on board, to your thinking?”
“You’re going there to warn her to stop, to go back. But if she doesn’t go back, you are putting competent crew on board, yes.”
He thought for a few minutes. “How much experience do you have?”
“Sailed to Hawaii twice. To Mexico four times. In the TransPac race once. Crewed on the…”
“OK, that’s sufficient. I get it.”
He looked at his compass. “I will make you a deal. You try to call her on the VHF to warn her of the storm and that I am not going. I am here to listen in. If you reach her, then I’m done. Go hire a power boat to find her. If you don’t reach her, we go out and find her before she gets to Conception, we either raft up or call her on the VHF and make sure she sees it’s you calling and we give her the warning. If she lets me raft up, fine, you go on board. If not, we return here. I’m not going down to Mexico to follow this hippie grandma. That fair to you?”
Ellen looked at him steadily, eyes very bright. “More than fair, Judge. Thank you. Thank you.”
“Go get food.”
She stared at him. He shrugged. “I wasn’t planning this little jaunt. I don’t go into the ocean without food and water sufficient for two weeks. Ever. I want you to buy food, coffee, tea, and be back here in two hours. No more. You have a car obviously.”
“Yes, but we can probably catch her in a day…”
“Again, I don’t go out into the ocean without spare food and water. And bring back some readymade sandwiches. We leave the minute you return. Try calling her now. Then go to the store when she doesn’t answer…which she won’t. Do it now.”
She opened her mouth to argue…saw his expression, looked frustrated, then with a slight grin, “Yes, sir, Judge, sir…”
“And cut the sarcasm. You are crew. I am captain. You can bad mouth me when you’re on her boat. We will hit a storm more than likely, you should know that.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time, Judge…John.”
“And don’t dress like you did when you came on board. We have enough problems without that.”
“You didn’t seem to mind.”
“I didn’t mind. I mind now. You’re crew and that’s it. Call her.”
She went below carrying her sailing bag. She threw the bag on the port rear berth, looked at the navigation station, spotted the VHF, and picked up the microphone. “Sailing vessel Ariel calling sailing vessel Glory. Sailing vessel Ariel calling sailing vessel Glory. Sailing vessel Ariel calling sailing vessel Glory. This is Ellen, Auntie, Please come in.”
Benson noted she knew what she was doing. He also knew that Glory was probably too far away to receive VHF and even if closer, was round Lover’s Point and the signal would be blocked. Had to try anyway. Ellen looked up, eye brows raised. He shrugged. “Try a few more times. I hate turkey. No turkey OK? You have enough money to buy the supplies?”
She grinned, nodded, and repeated her effort twice more while he moved forward to check his rigging and to make sure all deck fittings and equipment were tied down. This was not going to be a fun trip. And to brood whether he was going to sea with this young woman with mixed motives. Old goat.
It was nearly dark by the time they motored out of the Marina. By then he had tied everything down on deck, had pulled out a sleeping bag for Ellen to use in the rear berth, had plotted a course on the GPS and on the paper charts, had checked the various safety system, including making sure he had pulled out an inflatable life vest with strobe light and tether for both Ellen and himself, and had stowed the food in the refrigerator and in various lockers. He placed immediate snacks and thermoses of coffee in the hammock netting that hung in the galley.
To himself only he admitted he loved this part of a voyage. Water and fuel topped. Food stowed. All gear checked. The boat ready and going out in the ocean where it belonged. He was proud of his vessel’s sea keeping qualities and every item on board was in its proper place, labeled, and secured. In a pitch black night with his eyes close he could locate any safety equipment, navigation equipment, any tool, indeed, most anything he might need on the boat.
He set six hour watches for Ellen and himself, taking the first watch so she could familiarize herself with the various systems and location of items below while it was still light. As he worked the wheel, raised the sails and set the course, he surreptitiously watched her familiarizing herself with gear, rigging and the boat. Once in a while in a business like voice she asked for location of particular gear or how certain rigging worked, but she figured out almost everything on her own.
Finally, he said, “Get some sleep. You’ll be on watch in only four more hours and I am going to conk out the minute I hit the bunk. Got no sleep last night.”
She nodded. She was munching on one of the sandwiches, sitting in the cockpit, in full foul weather gear including the life vest with harness and tether. She had a mug of coffee sitting next to her. He noted approvingly that she had clipped her tether onto the jack lines he had rigged. She knew her stuff. It was going to be much easier to do this leg of the trip.
He felt a wave of tiredness sweep over him. He wanted to sleep badly. But he also wanted to get beyond the crowded area near the Marina before giving Ariel to new crew to pilot. To his relief, she was not a chatterer once underway, stowed her own gear correctly in the rear berth, and had slipped into that calm competence that he often saw in truly experienced crew. If Beth needed crew, Ellen would be good crew.
He had used the phone booth at the dock to leave another message on the voicemail for his clerk indicating he would be out of the court room until Thursday and to let the lawyers and presiding judge know. Family emergency, he said. He knew he would get grief for all this…but figured he had little choice and that this matter should wrap up one way or another in another day.
She finished her sandwich. “You want me to set up the log book, captain?” She said it with calm seriousness and he merely nodded. Without another word she took her coffee mug and went down the companionway, opened the navigation table, pulled out the log book and began writing out the specifics of their trip.
Too old for his son, Bill, Benson thought. A shame. He liked her. Bill’s ladies seemed the country club type. But he might outgrow that. Benson grimly smiled. He hadn’t until his own disastrous marriage. Why should Bill? Bill would love to be on this quest, he realized. His mother? Well, that’s another story. As for himself…he wasn’t sure what he felt.
He saw Ellen close the log book, pull off her jacket, then enter the rear port rear cabin, and he heard her grunting as she crawled into her sleeping bag lying on the berth. He saw her bare arm reaching over from the bunk and closing the cabin door behind her. Nice arm.
He was in full foul weather gear himself, inflatable life vest with harness over foul weather jacket, high rubber boots over a waterproof bib, knife in a sheath on his life vest, two steel rings in the life vest for the thick tether with shackle that he used to attach to the jack lines that ran down the cabin top to the bow on both sides of the boat. Headlamp with red light filter in his pocket, mixed in with various sailing tools. Sailing gloves on his hands, with fingers cut out so he could handle the lines. Watch cap not yet on since it was not cold, but stuffed in yet another pocket in his jacket. Strobe light on his life vest for visibility if he went over at night…but more for show than anything else. Go over at night on the ocean and you are likely dead from cold in about an hour. Thus, the tethers.
He experienced that peaceful feeling he loved when crew were asleep below and he was on solo watch with a coming clear night. As the sun approached the horizon he turned on the running lights, turned down the back lights on the various electronics, set the boat for a beam reach in the ten knot airs, kept the engine running until past the last of the returning day sailors coming home on a Sunday evening, then turned off the engine, set the autohelm, and leaned back on the helm seat after tethering himself into the nearest jack line. It felt good.
The haze that had hung in the sky all day now made the sunset a glorious red. The water was relatively calm, the wind gentle and the air cooling down to the mid sixties. With the engine off the only sound was the boat cutting through the water, the soft sound of wind in the rigging, the purr of the autohelm. On the radar screen below he saw a few blips that were fishing boats out in the far reaches of the Bay, some larger blips that were the ships ten miles out transiting the coast and the blob that was Lover’s Point three miles ahead to the south west. He set course to give it a wide berth, planning to go five miles from shore before turning due south again.
He did nothing for a time but feel the wind and listen to the water. After a while the wind was getting a bit cold. He put on his watch cap and sat at his spot under the dodger where he could sit and see the instruments and radar at the navigation table below. He found himself nodding off in his comfortable place. He yawned broadly, noted he still had another three hours on watch and wondered the best way to stay awake.
He thought about reading his father’s letter once again. Or Beth’s. In his tired state, neither interested him. Instead, he moved down the companionway stairs to the navigation table, sat, and worked out his best chance to catch up with Beth, glancing at the radar every few minutes to make sure there was no traffic about.
Assuming the wind continued to freshen, as predicted, and that she would slow her pace, waiting until she spotted a vessel on her radar clearly following her, then the odds were good that she would sail to Point Sur, twenty or thirty miles further down the coast, and sail in circles there until she spotted him on radar. Then she would probably wait until he was ten or less miles behind her and begin on her southerly course yet again. She was probably almost at Point Sur even now, waiting to see if he would come onto her screen at maximum range, twenty four miles.
If he was within ten miles she should hear him on the VHF. Assuming she listened to it. Once awake, Ellen could try to talk her into heaving to and waiting until he rafted up. Two big ifs. Would she be listening and would she so agree. If not, then he was twenty five miles further south on the coast, with no nearby port unless he went back to Monterey or down all the way to Moro Bay, another thirty miles further south. With the north west gale coming, that would probably mean he would have to face beating directly into the north west wind trying to claw back to Monterey, or simply going down wind further until Moro Bay and end up there, well over a hundred and thirty miles south of his home port.
Even if she heaved to so he could approach, if the storm had already arrived it would be almost impossible for the boats to tie together without damage. Ellen couldn’t go on board even if Beth and Ellen wanted it. He threw down his pencil on the navigation table. He must have been too tired to figure this out before. This whole plan could not work absent mild weather and if it was mild weather forecast, he wouldn’t be trying to get to her in the first place. He was getting as mutton headed as Beth. The combination of the all night sail and the pretty crying girl must have muddled his thinking. This was a fool’s errand.
The whole thing was a fool’s errand. He felt a wave of resentment at the pressure these people were putting on him. Fools. He didn’t think his father was buried deep in his soul, hidden by an all powerful mother. He thought his father was an self indulgent loser who couldn’t take the stress of a typical attorneys’ job. He remembered some poet stating that true bravery was handling day to day challenges in day to day life, not charging the enemy trench.
He thought he had done all right in his life. Yeah, it was boring from time to time. Yeah his marriage crashed and burned. Yeah he and Bill could be closer. Yeah he seemed stuck in his current judgeship and doubted if he could go up the judicial ladder much more. But he was a good judge, a fair judge and a relatively young judge. He loved his boat. He put his son through college. He had a nice condo and took good vacations. Even some good cruises.
But as he listed his accomplishments he realized how limited and, indeed, boring they seemed. How incredibly boring. He was a good bureaucrat who had topped out with a grown son growing further away from him, a dying mother, a presiding judge who disliked him, some money in the bank a good pension coming his way, and two or three weeks a year to chase a sense of freedom. So what? What did all that accomplish?
No one loved him. No great passion. He didn’t think he was very lovable in any event. He wondered why so many seemed to love his loser father. Then he wondered if he was jealous of what Beth and his father had. No one had ever written a love letter to him as she was still writing about his father forty years after their affair started.
His life was more successful than his father’s. He was a judge. A good judge. He hadn’t abandoned his son. But, no “Great Adventure.” No risking it all in Mexico to protect a client. Or for the hell of it. Was that better than his mundane life?
Even while he brooded he was checking the boat’s various systems, checking and emptying the bilge via the manual override electric pump since water always entered a boat underway, keeping the log book up with current course and conditions every half hour, increasing then decreasing the range on the radar to make sure no objects had been missed at the greater ranges, checking charge in the batteries, etc. etc. The usual watch keeping chores to be performed religiously. He hardly noticed he was doing them.
So, what to do when he spotted Beth on the radar screen? Ellen would call. She would ignore that call. Wind would be rising. Waves would be rising. Beth would immediately head faster down the coast to get to Moro Bay and leave another note for Benson and be gone before he could possibly arrive. That was the next day’s inevitable activity.
How could he cut it short, how could he, in a slower boat, change the game? He was no longer sleepy and was staring at the chart, looking for shortcuts, pondering tactics that might allow him to come in closer.
He hit upon it just before it was time to wake Ellen. Beth would be looking for him coming from the North. He could loop around behind her, come from the south west and she would ignore that until he was close enough to cut her off from the south, wait out the storm, then raft up. It would be a half day to a day of extra sailing…he’d go out perhaps fifteen miles and then back angling slightly to her south…but she would probably assume the blip was a returning fisherman and ignore him and the first she would realize Benson was there was when he was within two miles or less, south of her, cutting off her escape. Perfect.
He immediately punched in a new course on the autohelm repeater at the navigation table, moving the boat’s course further to the West, plotting when it would be time to head south east, then north west to loop back to her. He moved back to the cockpit to adjust the sails noted the heel increased as he came closer to the wind, but so did the speed. Over seven knots now. He want below to the chart.
She might conclude, after some time, that he was not coming. How long would she wait before turning south? At least another day, he figured. She knew he would have to stock up on food, water, fuel. Knew he would have to argue with Ellen who she had sent down to convince him. Knew he would be “dithering” as she put it. And she was in no hurry. At least a day and by then, he would have looped below her.
“Why are you smiling,” Ellen’s groggy voice was behind him, but she was looking at the chart on the table, noting his proposed course. She was in sweat pants and that tank top. He tried to ignore her smooth skin. She studied the chart for a moment and he let her. He wondered if she would get his plan.
A few moments of silence. Then she looked at him with those blue eyes. “You don’t think she’d stop for me, then?”
Smart, he thought. “I am sure she will not. She’ll just have both of us following her. We have to change the game plan.”
She looked down at the chart, teeth on her lower lips she concentrated. “Her radar goes to thirty two miles, you know, not twenty four like yours.”
He felt oddly insulted. My radar is bigger than yours. “She won’t notice us until we are well out to sea and we will look like any other fishing boat heading to Morro Bay, right? We can’t hide from her, only fool her as to who we are.”
She nodded, then studied him. “You’re enjoying this, John. Really enjoying this. You should see your face.”
“I like a challenge.”
“No shock there” She grunted a little laugh. “All of us trying to convince you to find out about your father. What we should have done is dare you to catch Beth with a slower boat. Bet you can’t. You couldn’t have resisted.”
“Not that much slower…”
She smiled and touched his arm. “No, John, not that much slower. And very comfortable. Sweet boat.” She saw his expression and removed his hand. She looked amused. “Are you hungry, captain?”
“Just tired. I’ve put on the GPS the coordinates where we turn south. Please wake me in four hours or when we turn back north west whichever first occurs. Do you need any briefing on our various systems?”
“If I can’t figure something out I’ll wake you. You’ve set it up nicely.”
“Thanks. Tether all times on deck, please.”
He nodded at her and walked to the forward cabin that was his sleeping cabin, pulling off his gloves and foul weather jacket as he went. Twenty minutes later he was out, still dressed in the foul weather pants, but boots and coat hanging on hooks on the inside of his cabin door, ready for immediate need. His cabin door was closed, the sound of a boat working its way to sea loud in the forward berth. But it was a sound he loved and he had no trouble falling into a deep dreamless sleep.
Sometime later, though deep in sleep, he felt the change of course, the feel of the sea now on the beam as the boat made its southing. He slept on. Ellen woke him just before the boat was to turn northwest. He felt her hands shaking his shoulder encased in his thick sweater and was instantly awake.
“Boat OK?” he grumbled eyes still shut.
“Fine. We’re sixteen miles south. Ready to turn to the east northeast. You said to wake you.”
He forced his eyes open. She was a dark blob in the dark cabin, the red lights from the main cabin behind her. “Right. Thanks. Will be right on deck.”
“Coffee in thermos in the netting in the galley.”
She left the cabin, leaving the door open, moving silently to the navigation table to enter the log information. He watched her for a moment, then pushed himself out of the bunk. The seas felt larger now, the boat no longer on smooth long swells but shorter, choppier waves. He looked at the instrument repeater on the starboard wall of his cabin. Wind seventeen knots from the North West. They’d be beating back to Glory. But they should be within a few miles of her by the middle of his watch.
He nodded to himself, used the head, then pulled on his boots and foul weather jacket. Then his life jacket and harness and tether. 0430 hours. Out the porthole he could see it was still pitch black outside. Clumsy in his gear, he moved to the navigation table. Ellen was back in the cockpit, waiting to assist on the course change.
He read the log book then leaned over to carefully scan the radar. Two large blips twelve miles to the West. Ships undoubtedly on the way to Los Angeles. Fifteen miles to the East the coast line, irregular blobs from the top of the screen to the bottom, inlets but no bays or safe anchorages. He knew Morro Bay was about thirty miles further south and would not be on the radar at this range. And north east perhaps nine miles ahead was what might be a small boat. The blip for a small boat from ten miles away can disappear and return on the radar screen. High waves or even a bird can be mistaken for a sweep or three of the radar. He adjusted the gain and moved the distance up and down a few times. Probably something there but not for sure.
And further south, perhaps five miles further down the coast, but three miles closer than that first blip were two blips close together, probably commercial fishing boats, slowly moving east, eight miles away. He stared at the screen a few more moments. Glory might be the blip that kept disappearing. By his reckoning, it should be. But only one way to find out.
He went to the galley, pulled out one of the somewhat damp sandwiches from the hammock, the thermos, and with those cradled under one arm, his tether in the other hand, made his way up the companionway stairs. To an absolutely glorious sky.
This part of the coast had no cities whose lights could dim the sky and fifteen miles off the coast the sky was as deep and filled with stars as at the top of a wilderness mountain. Among the thousands of stars filling the sky, the white band of the Milky Way was clear and mysterious. He stood in the cockpit, swaying with the boat, staring up at the magnificent sky.
“Tether on, captain. The stars will wait for that.” But her voice was amused, not critical. He nodded though she couldn’t see him in the dark, placed the thermos and sandwich in the wooden holders on the cabin top he had custom built, clipped his tether to the jack line, and moved to one of the jib winches. “Prepare to come about,” he told her. He could gybe to get on the right course but in these swells that could hurt the rig. Better to tack through the wind then fall off the wind to the correct course.
“Aye, aye,” she said, turning off the autohelm and taking the wheel in both hands. She watched the growing swells, wanting to time the tack for the space between the swells. He kneeled near the winch, watching her dark form as she studied the waves. “Helm Alee” she grunted and he pulled out the jib sheet from the vice in the self tailing winch, held the line for a moment while the bow of the boat went through the wind, then let the line go, quickly moved to the starboard jib winch, wrapped that jib sheet around it, and concentrated on grinding in the jib sheet until the sail was set for a beat to windward for its course back up the coast towards Glory. He then moved to the cabin top near the companionway where the main sheet winch was located and ground the main sheet in as tight as it would go.
With both sails in tight, the wind was on the port bow, and the boat heeled far over. The waves pushed her over even more as they rushed by. He checked the inclinometer on the bulkhead under the door to the companionway
The boat heeled over twenty five degrees with the wind, and over thirty five degrees when the swells came by. But her speed moved up to eight knots, not bad for a beat in this kind of sea. The spray hit the dodger regularly as the boat pounded into the swells.
“Good job,” he told her.
“You did all the work grinding.”
“It’s the only exercise I get on board.”
“You work out. I can see that.”
“Have to at my age. One goes downhill fast if you let up a minute.” He sat down on the cockpit seat.
“That’s pretty much how you feel about life overall, isn’t it?”
He laughed shortly. “You got me there. Guess I do. Survival of the fittest and you better keep fit. So it goes.” He pulled out his watch cap and pulled it down over his ears. “I have the watch. Go below and get some shut eye. I’ll wake you when we are within five miles of Glory.”
“Roger. Good night.”
He watched her unclip her tether, stretch, go below, again take off her coat and boots at the bottom of the stairs, enter the log information, then squeeze into the port rear berth. He moved to the helm seat and leaned far, far back so he could take in the sky. He was awake now, refreshed. He felt good. Nothing was better than this. A well found boat, beating up the coast, good crew, good boat, perfect clear sky, only the sound of wind and waves. Nothing was better.
After a few minutes he wedged himself under the dodger in his usual place, radar screen visible from below, hands in his pockets, looking at the wake glowing in the dark. After a few more minutes, he moved down to the navigation table, pulled out his father’s letter, and read it while glancing at the radar screen every few minutes.
He woke Ellen only when he confirmed that the blip, now six miles to the north east, was real. Of course he could not tell what kind of boat it was and the sun was still below the horizon, but it clearly was a vessel not moving very quickly and it was within a mile or two of where he thought Glory should be.
The wind was well above thirty knotsand Ariel heeled far over and was lively now, the bow pitching up in the increasing swells, then falling down into the nine foot troughs. This tight on the wind, his autohelm easily kept her on course, but the cockpit was constantly hit with spray from the waves smashing against the bow and down below the boat alternated between twenty and thirty degrees of heel while the boat pitched up and down the crests at angles of twenty or thirty degrees. A pretty wild ride. Everything that was not tied down tight bumped against everything else or had long since fallen on the cabin floor. The wind was now loud enough to drown out the sound of the water.
He knocked on Ellen’s door, not invading her privacy by opening her cabin door to shake her. Not because she was young and pretty, he realized. Because she was crew. One didn’t harass one’s crew. She came out of the cabin, pulling a sweater over the tank top to his relief, blinking and yawning, bracing herself against one wall, then another, as the boat rocked and pitched. She absently pulled a thermos from the hammock netting and braced herself and carefully poured out a cup of now luke warm coffee as she studied the radar. “Time to call my auntie?”
“Let’s wait until we are within two or three miles. It will be light by then. Almost light now.”
She nodded. “I want breakfast. You going to sleep or want some eggs?”
“Eggs sound great. Can you do it in these seas?”
She grinned at Benson. “You call these seas?” She knelt down at the refrigerator door and opened it carefully, grabbing some of the milk cartons that immediately fell out in the constant movement of the boat. Benson sat and wedged himself in at the navigation seat and watched her expertly pull food out, bracing all of it in ways that it would not spill or fall off the counter, and light the propane stove. She glanced in his direction. “You ogling me in this outfit, dirty old man?”
He grinned back. “Nothing sexier than crew dressed like the Michelin Man.”
“You only want me for my eggs.” She cracked six eggs in the pan. The gimbaled stove, made to adjust to the heel, was swinging fore and back but she had no trouble getting the eggs in the pan, covering them with a top, and beginning to make more coffee. He stood up and pulled out his sailing knife and then grabbed some of the oranges, careful with the bare blade as the boat shook and swayed. They each automatically braced themselves as the boat pitched and heeled, neither saying anything, just doing their jobs.
“Eat at the navigation station?” she asked.
“And off the stove. It’s the only level place on the boat.” She nodded. He glanced at the radar screen. The blip was still there, now within four miles. Through the port hole the sky was still clear, now changing color as the sun rose. This would be a wind gale, not a rain gale. He loved this kind of weather, even pounding to windward. He watched as Ellen put his eggs in one of the bowls from the galley…bowls, not plates, to hold the food in when there is this much movement…put some slices of bread on top, a fork on top of that, and handed him breakfast. He sat at the navigations station, balancing the bowl, the orange and the bread on the table as the boat moved, watching her do the same, a bit more easily, on the gimbaled stove.
“What should we say to her as we sneak up on her from the south,” she said, her mouth full.
“She’s your aunt. Can’t get on board in this weather. Simply ask her to stay close and then you go on board tomorrow when this wind dies a bit.”
“And if she starts moving to the south? She’ll outrun you.”
“In this weather, she can’t carry a lot of sail. I think we can keep up…or at least stay within a mile or so. She’ll figure that out. No in and out of Morro Bay for her. We’d catch her at the dock anyway. And all we want to do is get you on board. She likes you, right? She only kept you off to lure me on.”
“And you should notice it worked,” she said, grinning now.
“Well, I’m here. Guess your feminine wiles worked.”
She looked down at the orange in her hand. “It wasn’t really like that, you know. I mean, I wasn’t trying to seduce you.”
“No, only influence me since you were so pretty. Don’t have to seduce old men. Just get them interested and feeling fatherly.”
She looked up quickly at that. “It wasn’t like that. And you aren’t that old.”
“Old enough to be your father.”
“But young enough to want me. I can tell. You can tell.” She said this looking directly at him.
He shifted in his seat and looked at the radar screen. “Whether I want you or not, it doesn’t matter. You are crew.” He looked at her. “I don’t mess with crew. And once you aren’t crew, you are with your aunt. And…”
“And it would be taking advantage of you. You need me to help you with your aunt. I get that. I’m not going to use that to get you in bed.” Seeing her eyes flash, he quickly added, “I’m not saying you would have agreed. I meant I wasn’t going to even try. Period.”
She nodded and looked at the sink with orange peels rolling around in the movement of the boat. “I appreciate that. I’m just beginning to like you. You have a sense of…of what is right. I like that.”
“Don’t know about the sense of right…but I like the idea of being a friend. And crew. I like the way you handle yourself on a boat.”
She grinned. “You only want me for my crewing abilities.”
“The ultimate exploitation.” They laughed comfortably. He glanced at the screen. Three miles Time to wake auntie up.
He reached behind him where the microphone to the VHF was on its hook, pulled it out and handed it to Ellen. “Give her a call. I’ll be up on deck.”
He pulled the stabilized binoculars from their rack near the radar and carefully made his way up the companionway stairs to the cockpit. Behind him he could hear Ellen calling Glory on Channel Sixteen, using standard protocol.
The wind was strong in the cockpit, spray heavy whenever the boat hit an oncoming swell. He hunkered below the dodger while he adjusted his binoculars, turned on the stabilizer, clipped on his tether, then moved to the wheel and bracing himself on the seat, his leg against the cockpit wall, looked ahead to where Glory should be a little under three miles away to the northeast. The sun was coming up over the mountains of Point Sur, eight miles to the West, the redwood covered mountains dark against the yellowing’ sky. The air felt fresh, a new world in a new morning. No structures in sight on land, just rolling yellow mountains with forests of redwoods in the valleys, sharp rock cliffs down to the pounding sea. Sky brilliant blue without a cloud.
And three miles away a small commercial fishing boat pulling in its lines. No other boat in sight. He swept the horizon. Nothing. “Damn, damn, damn, “ he muttered. He turned to the south, adjusting the binoculars. He thought he saw a speck of white on the horizon but with all the white caps in this wind he could not be sure. Then he heard Beth’s voice on the VHF.
“Ellen, honey, is that you?”
“Ariel to Glory. Yes, auntie. Where are you? We are off Point Sur. Do you see us? Over.”
“Of course not, darling. We are close to Morro Bay now. Are you on Johnny’s boat?”
“You should use ‘over’ when you are done transmitting, Auntie. Yes. We are looking for you. Over.”
“Of course you are. But I’m down here now and you will find more of the letter with the harbor master in Morro Bay. Are you all right? It’s quite windy, you know.”
“Please say ‘over’ when you are done transmitting, Auntie. We’re fine. But we thought you’d be up here waiting for us. Over.”
“Then you shouldn’t have gone so far out to sea, should you? Wasting all of our time. We have to get down the coast and need to do it quickly. You know that. Please let Johnny know this next installment is very important to read carefully.”
Benson tumbled down the companionway to get to the VHF but the tether jerked him back. He turned around half way down the steps, leaned into the cockpit and unshackled the tether and slid the rest of the way down the stairs. Ellen looked at him, a bemused expression on her face.
He pulled the microphone from her hand. “Ms. Wright, this is Judge Benson, Are you taking that vessel south in violation of my order? Over.”
“Oh, Judge, how can you ask that with the sky and water so brilliant now? Go on your deck and drink it in. Over and out.” The connection was broken.
He looked at Ellen who tried to hide her grin but gave up and squeezed his arm again. “She’s just like that, John. Notice she knew the VHF protocol when she needs to? Can be maddening can’t she?”
“Damned right. How did she know to look to the north east to see us looping around?”
She kept her hand on his arm. “Don’t underestimate Aunt Beth, John. Don’t ever do that. Speaking as a woman, I can tell you that she knows when to appear silly and when not to. She’s not a silly person. She’s strong as steel. And smart. She probably knew your plan before you did.”
“You didn’t help her figure it out?”
She removed her hand, eyes hardening. “No, judge, I didn’t. I am not a sneak. With all due respect, it wasn’t that amazing a plan. Not that remarkable. Once she saw a boat leaving the Marina on her scope, she probably tracked you, saw you going far to the west, and figured it out. It’s not rocket science.”
The boat chose that moment to rear up high on a particularly steep wave and then plunged into the following trough, tilting forward at least forty degrees. They both hung on, glaring at each other.
His voice was tight. “So, I’m here, you’re here, you accomplished your goal, she is still fifteen miles away from us, and I guess you think I’m just going to follow her all the way to Mexico?”
She sighed. “I don’t know what you are going to do, John. I’m…I’m disappointed you are taking this so badly. She out smarted you this once. You are acting petulant.”
He glowered at the radar screen. She remained silent. Clearly Beth was in no danger. She had stuck around long enough to see where he was, then moved south but not so far south that she was near Point Conception in this gale. With crew? Alone? Was that really possible?
He looked at Ellen who was still staring at him, face carefully blank. “I don’t like losing, Ellen.”
“Especially to an old lady?”
“Especially to a young pretty lady who made a fool of an older man. Did you?”
“Is that it? You feel snookered? I bedeviled you with my astounding good looks and sexy clothes?”
He had to grin at that. “It’s either that or I was snookered by an elderly lady who is so perfectly counter culture that she was cast for Woodstock.”
Ellen smiled back. “Thank God you’re back. I hate it when you become judgy.”
She squeezed his arm again. “Well, judge, what next? Are you going to pound back to Monterey, drop me off, and get back to work? Or…”
“Are you going to do what you really want to do? See if you can catch that old fox up and get the letter from your Dad as well. All this while sailing with a femme fatal.“ She smiled and tilted her head.
“She’s in a faster boat. She must have good crew. She’s fully aware of the strategy I was trying. I don’t think I can catch her, Ellen. You’d do better to rent a car and just hang out at the obvious ports of call. Maybe hire an investigator to cover the other ports. Or rent a power boat and follow her until she lets you on board.”
“Maybe. But I’d rather go down the coast with you, John. I like this. I like you. And I think you can catch her up.”
“I do. And so do you. You are a good sailor. You must admit I’m good crew. Let’s catch her at sea.”
“Not for me. I want to know who’s with her and to make sure she’s safe. I love her and I know that she may not be silly but she can be foolish. And…”
“I’d rather do it with you. I am enjoying this. Enjoying you. Now that the sex thing is off the table, we’re having a good time, aren’t we? Why stop?”
Again the boat reared up. He suddenly realized he had a fishing boat that must be getting quite close. She realized it at the same time and they both raced up into the cockpit. The boat was still a good half mile away, its crew ignoring the sailboat as they worked their fishing lines. Without speaking Benson tethered on and moved to the wheel. Ellen went below and quickly donned her coat, life vest and harness, and came up, snapping her tether on. She looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Course, captain?”
He adjusted the wheel so the fishing boat was not ahead but did not yet chose the course. If he kept beating, he could be back in Monterey by dark. Indeed, by late afternoon. If he fell off the wind and headed south, he would get to Morro Bay by early afternoon. By then Glory would be heading towards Point Conception. The gale would have blown itself out.
He still had a trial in two days. An angry Presiding Judge. A mother he should visit soon. And how the hell could he catch Glory in any event?. He did think Ellen should be on that boat. Beth needed Ellen’s common sense and abilities. He could even possibly convince the local police to stop the voyage if he caught her in port.
All that was crap. Racing down the coast, trying to outsmart the faster boat with a very pretty and very competent young woman he liked in a boat he loved…it was hard to give that up. He didn’t want to stop. He was acting like a teenager. A joy ride with a pretty girl, a chance to show off, an adventure at sea.
“I don’t trust my motives in all this, Ellen. I’m not sure why I’m doing this.”
She snorted a laugh. “You think you have one motive? I normally have half a dozen and they usually conflict.”
“But I’m responsible for the safety of this boat and its crew. Not to mention my court. I…I am worried I am slipping into a lark. Sailing around with a pretty girl having a good time. That would be wrong.”
“I came here to bring her boat back and keep her safe. I’m failing in both efforts and now perhaps risking you as well.”
“I can handle myself and I chose to be here.”
He thought for a long moment, eyes on the chart open on the navigation table below. “You leave at Moro Bay once we get there.”
She flushed, eyes hardening. “Why?”
“Because we need to cover at least two ports. In a rental car you can cover several and Ariel and I will go to the most likely place. You find Beth, then get on board. At least we know she has good crew. If I find her, I either stop the voyage or make sure she hangs around long enough to get you on board.”
She studied his face for a long moment. “And if we miss her in the LA area entirely?”
Then we get her in San Diego. Using the same method. A sixty five foot sloop will not go unnoticed there.”
“There’s only one problem.”
“I happen to want to sail down the coast with you and Ariel. Not drive a rented car among the stucco boxes. You’re putting me on shore because…”
“Because you don’t want to. Standard judge thing. If you want something, it must be bad and rejected. Right?”
“This plan of mine would work. And, yes, I would like to sail around with you. But we don’t have to do it chasing Beth around. We can do it some other time.”
He raised his eyebrows. She continued. “Back in San Francisco you will be Mr. Judge. You wouldn’t be caught dead in my company. Everyone would talk. Would wonder. You couldn’t stand that.”
He flushed now. “You have a pretty low opinion of me.”
She closed her eyes for a moment. “You are a judge. You’re elected. You have a position to uphold. I’m young enough to be your daughter. That’s what you think. No one would really care but you would think they do…”
“So, I’d give right in, right?”
She studied his face. “Would you?”
“No one picks my friends for me, Ellen. We sail again if you want to. San Francisco be damned. Hell, we aren’t doing anything wrong. And wouldn’t.”
She kept studying his face. “I give you my word, Ellen. And that means something to me.”
She tilted her head while looking at him. “Yes. Yes, I can see it does.” She paused, looking at the sun as it finally rose above the mountains of Big Sur. The long shadows of the redwoods covered the smooth yellow meadows. She saw a hawk swoop over one of the meadows. She looked at Benson. “So, off to Moro Bay?”
He nodded. “Falling off the wind to starboard.”
He turned the wheel and she adjusted the jib sheet, then the main sheet to a beam reach. The boat immediately stopped taking water over the bow, the movement became regular rolling in the swells. Without smashing into wind and wave, it was dryer and the relative wind much weaker. It almost felt warm. “Much nicer,” she said.
They watched the knot meter raise to eight and a half knots in the still strong wind. They looked at each other in mutual congratulation. “I love this, Ellen.”
“I know you do, John. More coffee?”
“Sounds good. My watch for another two hours. Get me some coffee and get some more sleep.”
“That an order, captain?”
“Sleep in the cockpit. It will be warm enough.”
She smiled, nodded, and went below to make coffee.
”No fool like an old fool,” Benson muttered to himself.
They were still ten miles from Moro rock, early afternoon, seeing the huge craggy cone shaped rock that marked the entrance far in the distance, when Ellen rushed up on deck to tell him the boat was sinking. She was in sweats and her sweater and her pants up to her calves were dark with water. Water up to her calves on the cabin floor.
Benson was at the wheel, fiddling with the jib sheet, trying to get a few more tenths of a knot. The wind had died down to only ten knots but the swells generated by the gale were still large, perhaps eight feet coming in aft of the beam. The boat rolled thirty degrees from side to side.
His eyes immediately went to the panel near the helm seat with the two alarm lights that should have gone off, the bilge pump light and the high water alarm. Ideally, the bilge pump light goes on when the pump starts and if that does not act to empty the boat, the high water alarm, higher up in the bilge, would then light up and also activate a siren. Neither had gone off.
His mind went blank. Utterly blank. He froze, staring at Ellen whose white face betrayed shock and fear. A wave of fear rushed over him, just seeing her face. And he sat there, dumb, useless. He saw her expression turn to surprise then the beginnings of contempt and that finally got him to act.
He turned on the autohelm turning the boat downwind to lessen the pressure of the water on the bow should that be where the leak was coming from. He opened his mouth to speak, was shocked that his mouth was dry, quickly licked his lips and began again. “Take the EPIRB, the hand held VHF, the ditch bag from the starboard cabin, get them near the life raft.”
“Life raft?” Her voice was shaking.
“We aren’t launching it. Just getting ready. It’s forward of the mast.”
“I know,” she snapped, beginning to go below to get the gear.
“Hold it. Slow and steady. Once you have that gear near the raft, tie the raft onto the lifelines and unsnap it from its shackles…but do not launch it until you hear from me. Got it?”
“Got it.” He was thinking they should have drilled abandon ship before this. His failure. “OK, I’ll be below looking for the leak and getting the bilge pump on. When you are done, find me there.”
“Shall we put out an SOS?”
“Too soon. We have water on the cabin floor. That’s all we really know. Let’s see if we are really sinking. We’re close to shore. We don’t have much to worry about.” No, they’d simply drown close to shore, he thought. He swallowed hard.
She said nothing, but rushed below. He sat there taking deep breaths. He knew the right drill. Slow it down. Think then act. His mind seemed mushy, somehow, vague. He shook his head, then started below, remembering to unhitch his tether, pushing past Ellen coming up the companionway with the ditch bag, a prepacked yellow duffle with food, water, portable GPS, spare clothing, and other survival gear to put in the life raft.
He stepped off the bottom companionway stepped into water up to his ankles. Bad. The boat had a shallow bilge forward but a four foot deep bilge under the cabin floor at the foot of the companionway stairs. For water to be ankle deep meant that the entire bilge was already filled. Four feet deep. He felt a wave of nausea. He stood there a minute, trying to calm himself down.
He leaned over looking at the panel at the bottom of the steps which had the on and off and automatic switch for the bilge pumps. He had two electric bilge pumps on the boat, one backing the other up. And both switches were turned to off. He straighten up, shocked. Normally they would be on automatic, made to go on when water reached a certain level. Off, they would do nothing.
He felt a wave of anger and frustration replacing his abject fear. Who the hell had turned them off? And what happened to the high water alarm, anyway? He switched both bilge pump buttons to on and saw the pilot lights of both come on. They were now pumping. But even with both going, the water coming in was probably faster than the bilge pumps would get it out...they were good pumps but only a few hundred gallons a minute could be pumped out. A medium sized breach of the hull would have a thousand gallons a minute coming in. A large breach could sink the boat in five minutes with both pumps going. He’d worry about the alarm later. He had to find the breach.
He opened the engine compartment which had a bag above the engine filled with wooden plugs and a mallet. Once one found the hole, one pounded the plugs in…or anything else to stuff up the hole.
The inside of his boat was actually a teak shell of paneling, quite lovely to look at but blocking access to the fiberglass side hull itself. The floor boards were holly and teak and made to lift up to get access to the bottom of the hull. Behind the companionway steps he kept a combination crow bar and ax for the purpose of smashing through the wood to get to the side hull from the inside if the hole was not at the bottom of the boat but on the side. A sailboat is designed to be low in the water to minimize the force of the wind on her side. Normally, the water line was perhaps waist high to someone down below. Water could be coming from the floor of the boat or from the sides below the waterline.
He started forward, sloshing through the water. Halfway down the cabin he stopped, closing his eyes in frustration. Where the hell was he going? The most likely leak was from the through hulls…the various holes made in the boat to bring water in to cool the engine, to empty the sinks, to allow the knot meter and depth sensors wires to connect to the units outside the hull. In a cruising boat such as his, there could be twenty or more through hulls…two needed for the water maker, three sinks to empty, three for the head, etc. Absent the sound of impact which would result in something putting a hole in the hull, the most likely leak was the hose coming off one of the through hulls or the though hull valve itself corroding to pieces. The hoses to the through hulls were held on with hose clamps. Those could corrode off.
Arial had seventeen through hulls and he kept plasticized charts with a drawing of the boat with the holes superimposed and numbered. He rushed back to the navigation station and opened the top drawer. He pulled out two of the sheets, dropped one on the navigation table, looked over the other sheet in his trembling hand, and headed forward to check the four through hulls in the forward head and the two in the forward cabin. By the time he knelt down to pull up the floor board in the forward cabin, the water was a quarter of the way up to his crotch when he fell to his knees. When he pulled up the floorboard, the water in the cabin poured into the two foot deep space under the floorboard where the water maker was placed, its two through hulls now under the pouring water.
He reached into the water swirling in the roll of the boat, felt for the hose and the through hull, ran his finger along the hose until he found the through hull, felt the lever handle which would close the through hull and pulled on it hard. He’d close the lever to be safe. The lever did not move. He pulled harder, eyes closing in effort. He had sixteen more to go and had to move quickly. The lever finally began to budge when he realized what an idiot he was.
The water had poured into the space under the floorboards from the cabin floor when he lifted the floor boards. That meant there was almost no water under the floor board until he lifted it. If the water had been coming in from a failed through hull forward, then the forward part of the bilge would be already full of water since the rear part of the bilge was already filled. He groaned at his own stupidity.
“What’s wrong?” he heard Ellen’s voice as she sloshed forward from the rear of the boat.
“I’m an idiot. Pull up the floor boards in the middle of the boat. Tell me if they are full.”
She stared at him, blankly. “As panicked as me,” he thought, and rose and made his way through the water to the mid cabin, knelt down again and pulled up the floor board. The water in the cabin poured into the bilge. He slammed the floor board back, pushed her further towards the rear of the boat, then opened up the floor board near the engine compartment, just forward of it. The bilge here was full and peering into the rolling water, he could just make out the intake hose for the cooling system for the engine lying loose under the water. The rusted broken hose clamp gleamed dully under the water near the fitting. He had found it.
He reached down to turn find the through hull to pull the lever close to shut off that valve. He felt the water gushing into the boat through the open valve, stronger than a full blast garden hose. He pulled on the lever. It was stuck. He pulled hard, felt a muscle a twinge in his shoulder. It still did not move. When was the last time he had lubricated and checked the through hull levers?
“We can pull it together,” she panted.
“No. It’s stuck. Ten of us can’t do it.”
“Put the hose back on, then…”
“Calm down. It’s split. Go to the windlass at the anchor. You will find a steel pipe there. Bring it back.”
She looked at him blinking rapidly. He kept his voice calm.”Get the pipe, Ellen. We’re doing fine.”
She nodded and hopped through the water to the companionway and up. At that moment, first softly then in an increasingly high loud and pitch, the high water alarm began to wail. Kneeling in the water, he felt disgust with himself rising. That meant the wire for the high water alarm was corroded and it took minutes for the current to get through the corroded wires. When was the last time he checked the wiring for the high water alarm?
The noise was becoming so loud he couldn’t think. He rose and moved to the navigation table circuit boat, found the high water alarm power switch, and switched it off. Then he checked the batteries. They were draining quickly with both bilge pumps on. From the head he heard another pump go on. The sump pump in the shower stall was now on, the well underneath the shower stall grating now filling up, the water lapping over the shower pan wall. Well, that made three pumps going. Ellen came down the companionway steps, panting from the run, the steel windlass handle in her hand.
“Warm up the engine and start it,” he ordered.
Her voice shook. “We can’t motor with that leak coming in. that will make the water come in faster.”
He looked at her hard. “Obey orders, Ellen. We need to keep the batteries charged. The engine will do that. Don’t put it in gear. And don’t question my orders, We have no time for that.” He meant to say it calmly but it came out nearly shouting and vibrant with anger. She blinked and turned to the engine panel in the companionway, turning the switch that warmed up the glow plug. “Don’t try to start it until you have the glow plug on for a good thirty seconds.”
Her voice was tight. “Got it.”
He took the handle and knelt on the floor in front of the engine compartment again. A roll of the boat caught him off balance and he slipped onto his side so that his shoulder fell into the shifting water now over two feet deep in the cabin. Another few feet and the boat would wallow, the cockpit fill up and the boat would plummet to the bottom.
Swearing, he pushed himself up, felt under the two feet of water, down another foot into the bilge and found the lever for the water intake. He carefully placed the hollow pipe over the handle. Using that as a lever, he began pulling the handle closed. If the handle on the through hull broke, his last chance was to pound one of the wood plugs directly into the valve. He held his breath as he pulled, praying that the handle would not break. Behind him, he heard the engine splutter a bit as she turned the ignition. Was the water high enough to short out the batteries?
He closed his eyes and pulled harder. The lever began to move, slow at first, then closing so rapidly that he fell back against the engine compartment wall. At that moment, the engine came to life, coughed once, then began to chug steadily. He knelt there looking into the bilge. He put his hand in the water feeling around the through hull. It was closed. The water was no longer coming in. Exhausted, he sat down in the water, feeling the cold water pour in the top of his foul weather pants, soaking him. He didn’t care. He felt dizzy, his face covered with sweat. He looked up at Ellen standing on the companionway stairs.
“It’s closed. We’re fine.”
She looked at him. “You didn’t have to shout at me.”
He closed his eyes. Then he began to laugh. She flushed and went up to the cockpit, shoulders stiff. He opened his eyes, watching the water roll back and forth in the cabin. Over two feet of water on the cabin floor. Four feet more in the bilge.. Anything under the floor boards not in a water tight case would be ruined. The water maker was going to be history. He didn’t care. He was alive. He sat there and let the water slosh over him, feeling it begin to drop as the bilge pumps gained on the water level.
Five minutes later he made his water logged way back into the cockpit. The air was cold with his wet clothes on. No point in going below to change until the water was lower. The motor was still on, Ellen motor sailing towards Moro rock which was now only about eight miles away. She wouldn’t look at him.
He sat in the cockpit, the water sloshing inside of his pants and boots. He pulled off his right boot and poured the water out onto the cockpit floor, watching the water pour through the cockpit drains.
“Tether on,” she said, voice flat.
He nodded and clipped on his tether to the life line. Then he pulled off his soaked sock, squeezed it out and dropped it on the cockpit seat. He pulled off the other boot. Neither of them looked at each other as he worked.
Her voice was artificially calm. “I’m sorry to not have followed your orders without question.”
He didn’t answer, squeezing out the last sock. He put his socks next to his boots. He looked up at her. “You need to change out of your wet clothes. I’ll take the wheel when the water is low enough. Your sailing bag on top of the berth, I suppose?”
“Yes,” she said in the flat voice.”I was asleep when I saw the water. That’s how it got so high.”
“It got so high because both bilge pumps were off and my high water alarm shorted out.” He looked hard at her, voice as flat as hers.
She blinked rapidly. “I’m sorry. I think I turned them off when I was working in the galley. I kept falling against them, probably shoved them both off. You shouldn’t have the switches near the galley.”
He looked at her coldly and said nothing. She flushed and studied the compass. He stood up and in his bare feet moved behind the helm seat. “You get your boots and socks off. Then go below and change. Water will be below the floor boards in another few minutes.”
She nodded without looking at him, moved to under the dodger, sat and began working her boots off. Still wet, the wind was quite chilly to Benson and he hunched down behind the wheel, moving his toes up and down. This Monday there were no recreational sail boats near the entrance to the harbor, only small fishing boats. Certainly no sign of Glory.
Ellen’s voice was low. “I’m sorry I panicked. Cause I did. That was pretty disgusting. My fault. I..I just lost it.”
He looked at her. She held her boots in her lap, shoulders slumped. He shook his head. “You did what had to be done. This was my fault and my fault entirely. Bad maintenance. You’re right. The bilge pump switches shouldn’t have been near the galley. And I let the high water alarm wires corrode. Worse, I let the hose clamp corrode off. And didn’t grease the levers on the though holes. Pretty poor stuff.”
She looked up at him, blinking. “Boats always have things going wrong.”
“My job is to minimize them and I didn’t. And when things did go wrong I froze up. And acted the fool. Was wallowing around in the forward cabin when a moment’s thought should have indicated the leak was further back. I am disgusted with myself, Ellen. You did fine. I did not.”
He wouldn’t look at her, staring at the approaching harbor entrance instead. Suddenly he felt her hand on his wet hand. “You are so hard on yourself, John. Always. It must be hard to live like that.”
“When I blow things like I did…”
“You just saved the boat. You handled it. You didn’t panic. You hesistated, thought about what to do, corrected mistakes and did it. I could tell you stories about captains I’ve sailed with that would really shock you. You’re just fine. You’re a good captain.”
Suddenly he had a lump in his throat. He couldn’t talk. She looked at him, smiled, and taking her boots went below. He sat there controlling himself, wondering at his overreaction. He wasn’t going to blubber.
He was flat on his stomach on the cabin floor, arms deep in the bilge, rewiring the high water alarm, when he heard Ellen’s quick step and felt the boat tilt a little as she climbed on board. He heard her come down the steps, move around his prone body, and sit at the salon table. He finished his solder connection, then used the soldering iron and melted the waterproof plastic cover to seal the wire. He pushed himself up to look at her.
She had changed into a loose fitting sweater and jeans, her light hair crushed into a watch cap. Her eyes were still a little red. He was in sweat pants and a T shirt, tennis shoes. He knelt on the still damp floor, reached over to test the high water alarm switch. Once it was on, he reached into the bilge, tipped up the float switch, and heard the satisfying siren. He flipped it off. He smiled and dropped the floor board in place.
She smiled at him. “I like your look when you do something right. You look like a five year old boy who just spelled a word correctly.”
“I am five years old. At least on boats. Have to be that immature to love them so much.”
She grinned. “I like you five years old. And here’s your next installment.” She nodded at the manila envelope she had placed on the salon table. He grunted but did not open up the envelope. “When did the Harbor Master say she left?”
“He wasn’t sure. Didn’t keep his eyes on her. She just came in, dropped off the envelope with instructions, and hurried out.”
“Anyone with her?”
“He didn’t see anyone. But he wasn’t looking. If you ask me, he looks at the bottom of bottles more than anything else.”
He sighed. “The mystery lady. We just can’t get a handle as to who is with her. Oddest thing.”
“”She’d love to hear you say that. And I brought back some crab for us.”
He nodded and moved stiffly to the salon table, sitting next to her. All the hatches were open to air and dry out the cabin including the main salon overhead skylight, the one with beveled and stained glass. The sun cast colored light down below. They sat back on the salon couch, each looking out the hatch to the blue sky. The wind was warm, the breeze flowing through the boat. The boat rocked in its berth peacefully. Together, they opened the greasy package of crab and began to munch, using the plastic utensils she had brought back.
“Aren’t you going to open the envelope?”
“Plenty of time. I’ll have two days to get past Conception and to Marina Del Ray.”
“You think that’s her next stop?”
“No, I think she’ll stop in Santa Barbra or even Catalina Island. That’s more her style. I want to get south of her in a central location and Marina Del Ray will do it. I can also rent power boats there easily to chase her down. And I know some local cops in LA. They will help me seize the boat, perhaps.”
Ellen frowned but concentrated on the crab, saying nothing. He touched her arm. “Look, I know you don’t want me to bring in the cops. Or stop the voyage…”
“I thought our plan was to get me on board. That’s all.”
“If we can, we will. If she keeps evading us, we still have to stop her before she leaves US waters. I am going to suggest you go straight by car to Santa Barbra and see if she’s there. If she is, jump on board and leave word at my clerk’s office. I’ll call in to get the message. If she isn’t in Santa Barbra within a day of your arrival, get down to LA and hop a ferry to Santa Catalina. Check to see if she’s there. If not, I’ll pick you up in Catalina and off we go to San Diego for our last try. If, instead, she gets to Marina Del Ray, I stop her and use the cops. I also have friends in Oxnard and Three Island Marina. I’ll call them to tell me if she’s there.
“And if you are called by one of your friends?”
He leaned back and looked at her.”I’ll call you and we arrive together. You get on board and if she tries to leave, the cops will be called to stop her.”
“But she’ll be leaving. By the time they get there, she’s gone.”
“My friends have boats. They will moor across her bow. At least long enough to seize the boat by the cops…or get you on board. Her choice.”
She nodded. “And if she comes into Marina Del Ray?”
“I stop her with the cops.”
“No, call me to join you.”
“She won’t wait and I won’t have friends to block the exit. She sees me, she’ll drop her lines. If you see her, get on board. If I see her, I stop the voyage. Sorry, Ellen, but that’s the way it has to be.”
She nodded but didn’t look happy. He went on. “Look, she can’t be allowed to go down the entire Baja Coast when we don’t know her crew and in violation of a court order. With you on board…well, I at least know she has competent crew. Without you, I’ve got to try to stop her.”
“She may have great crew on board.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Can’t take that chance. Do you really want to?”
She shook her head. “No. Auntie would take chances she shouldn’t.”
“Like this whole crazy voyage.”
She looked at him. Those big eyes again. “I’m glad she did, John. Glad to know you. And to have seen you in action.”
He looked at the crab remains on the table. “I did poorly out there, Ellen. You may not think so, but I do. And I thought I was maintaining the boat correctly. Crap. I let it deteriorate. Lazy.”
“That’s not how I see it.”
“It’s how I see it.”
“You are far too tough on yourself. You are a good man and a good sailor. I’ve seen that.”
“I’m glad you think that.”
“I do. But you do hog the crab.” She grinned and began to clean up the mess. “What now?”
“You get a car to rent. I check every through hole in this boat to make sure the hose clamps are tight and in good shape. Then I see if I can save the water maker, clean out the ruined stuff in the bilge, read the bloody letter, while I chase off after your dear aunt.”
“And you’ll be in Marina Del Ray?”
“I forgot. I have a cell phone. Rent one so you can call me. Best way to stay in touch.”
“I have one. At home.”
“Get another one here or in LA.”
She nodded again. “In a way…” She stopped.
“I hope we have to chase her to San Diego. I’d like a few days with you out there.”
“We don’t have to be chasing your aunt to sail together.”
“Don’t we? I think the last I hear from you is when you get back to San Francisco Bay.”
“Oh? Because I’m flooded with women more beautiful than you who sail better?”
She looked directly at him. “Because you will deny yourself me because you want me, of course. A big danger for someone like you.” She stood up. “I’m renting the car now and will come by before driving off. Can I leave the sail bag on board?”
He knew that was a test. “Of course. I’ll deliver it to you in LA.”
She smiled, reached down to squeeze his hand, then hurried up the companionway steps.
He stared after her a few moments, sighed, then stood up, took his bag of spare hose clamps, and began working from the forward through holes back, double clamping each and every through hull. Something he thought he should have done months before.
From that Monday afternoon in Morro Bay to the wreck on the coast of Baja was less than a week and in that week Benson became a man no one would have recognized; his body smashed, his boat destroyed. And people died. Six days.
I had known him as a lawyer and a judge since long before I represented Beth Wright in that hearing. Indeed, when he had been exiled by an angry Presiding Judge to Law and Motion, a few years before, I had represented an old man who tried to use model boats on a pond in Golden Gate Park to make his leaving this earth a matter of cosmic significance. And failed, perhaps.
Was Beth after the same goal? When I saw Benson in that small hospital room in Santa Maria, a small Mexican town in Baja, he was convinced of it. Indeed, he mentioned that other old man, a man named McIsserson, in our random conversations during the long hot afternoons. He told me I specialized in representing suicidal elderly. I told him he was the one who had chased her over a thousand miles not me.
But he had a vision of Beth that made her either more or less than what she actually was. As he sat in that bed, thick white wrapping around his ribs, his forehead covered with a bandage, face discolored with deep bruises, nose broken, speaking about that chase down the coast, I finally blurted out, “She isn’t Moby Dick and you aren’t Captain Ahab, judge.”
That stopped him cold. He started to give me that icy look he had perfected on the bench but the humor of the situation, that once would have led to an ironic smile, now resulted in a gruff belly laugh.
That was the new Benson. “No, Beth was not the Great White Whale, Phelps. I grant you that. But she sure as hell tried to make my dad the white whale and lead me on that chase to glory.” He laughed again. “And Dad was no white whale, either. More of a pigeon, I would guess. As for Ellen. We’ll never know what she was, will we?” His face sobered and he stared at the ceiling for a time.
And it was that new Benson that told me in detail about the voyage past Point Conception. How he was woken from his exhausted sleep off the Point by the impact with an unknown object, alone on the boat with Ellen ashore driving to Santa Barbra as part of their plan to catch Beth and Glory.
He told me how he sat at the navigation table that windy night, his bow sprit fitting, the bob stay, bent and ready to break and how once he decided he had to repair the bob stay there and then, he had to decide how to get himself down to the fitting at its base at the waterline, run a new rigging rope through the undamaged part of the fitting, then somehow get back on the deck of the wallowing and pitching boat. He was a fifty year old man, in good shape but no Adonis and tired from days chasing Beth down the coast already. The odds of him pulling himself up on a line around his waist in ten foot chop would be small. I’ve tried it in calm weather. The adventure books try to make it look easy. In cold water in a pitching boat in the middle of the night, it’s damned near impossible.
But if he didn’t rig at least some thick rope replacement rigging for the bow sprit, he not only was going to lose Beth on this chase but was possibly going to lose his own boat. He wasn’t about to call for help. Even the old Benson wouldn’t have done that, I’m convinced. And with his Dad as his example of the fiery adventurer, and sweet pretty Ellen expecting her hero to come through, how could he meekly let the coast guard tow him in while Beth made it to Mexico? You’d have to be a sane adult to want to do that.
As I told him in that late afternoon in the rather dingy hospital room in Santa Maria. We were alone in the room, light fading in the late afternoon. Indeed, the room was so small there was only space for his bed, a somewhat clean sink, and my old rickety chair near the window. Outside the window we could see the dry landscape, a few succulents on the rocky hills of Baja. The faint sound of traffic from the streets that were invisible from this side of the building. Crickets. We could hear two voices speaking rapidly in Spanish down the hall in the next room. His surviving crew, Elliot, was in his own hospital room was down the hall and he was presumably asleep. “Can’t believe you risked all jumping into the water, Judge. That’s not the judge I remember in law and motion.”
He nodded, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling. His voice was raspy from all the salt water he had swallowed in the wreck that came later. “As they say, seemed like a good idea at the time.” He chuckled. “And it worked. Sort of.”
He had been clever. He had a Bosun’s chair on board as does every well found cruising boat, a three foot board encased in canvas with straps to enclose the sitter and canvas pockets on the various straps that held tools. You use a Bosun’s chair to pull yourself to the top of the mast when work needs to be done up there. He had rigged a five to one pulley on the chair so that by pulling one of four lines attached to the chair he could pull himself up to the top of the mast to make repairs and let himself down using a jam cleat that allowed him to slowly let the line run out.
Assuming he was off the boat in the water in that same chair, theoretically, he should be able to use that same five to one pulley to lift himself from the water and back up to the boat. After all, the mast was over sixty feet tall…he would only have to pull himself about ten feet to get back on board the boat. Good theory. And, as with many theories involving boats, it almost worked flawlessly.
Benson was a smart sailor and knew that you take the time to plan it right or you can die. He wanted to rush out with a line and jump in the water and fix the rigging. Instead, he sat at the navigation table as the boat wallowed and made a list of the steps and equipment he would need.
He listed the bosun’s chair, the heavy line for the rigging, rigging knife, pliers, wrench, shackle key, splicing tool, his wet suit that he kept on board for underwater repairs, hesitated then decided he would not wear the actual scuba tank and regulator to breathe…too heavy to bring back on board once he was done. He pondered whether goggles or a diving mask made sense given the fact that he would be under water whenever the boat buried the bow. He decided the visibility would be too restricted with the mask on and opted to simply close his eyes when under water and work when the boat was above the waves.
He then stared at his list for a while. He added spare line that he would attach to the tip of the bowsprit. He figured the wash of the water would shove him back from the bow even if the boat was not underway. He would attach a line to the tip of the bowsprit to his wrist so that he could pull himself forward to the bent fitting. The bosun’s chair would be attached to the main halyard far above the deck since when he was hauling himself back on board he had to haul himself over the three foot tall lifelines…which meant he needed the block for the chair to be at least ten feet above the deck.
He’d need a head lamp since he would be working in the dark. He added a spare headlamp since both he and it would be buried in the water and he had to expect the batteries to eventually go out if dunked repeatedly. As they and he would be.
Anything else? He would not use diving gloves. Too clumsy. He would use sailing gloves which would give his hands some protection but keep his fingers bare for handling the line. A water proof watch since he had to time himself. Even with a wet suit, he knew that after an hour in that water being pummeled against the boat, hypothermia would begin to get to him. He would become stupid, clumsy and, most importantly, too weak to get himself back on board.
What else? He decided to carry his spare EPIRB with him. If somehow he was separated from the boat the emergency locating beacon would be the one chance he would have of being picked up by rescue vessels or helicopters. He would put it in a dive bag he would tie to his leg. And last, he wrote out a short note to leave on the navigation table. If he was separated from the vessel the vessel would eventually run aground on the shore ten miles to the west. He wanted his family and colleagues to know what happened to him. He scribbled a note describing what he was intending to do and what must have happened if they were reading the note.
He stopped and read the note and realized how foolish what he was doing sounded. He was risking his life to do a repair at sea, alone on the vessel, all so that he could catch up or at least not lose Glory which was racing down the coast for unknown reasons and which had little to do with himself. Was he proving something? To Beth? To Ellen? To himself? To his dead father? Even as he asked himself these questions he knew he had to do it, could not live with himself if he simply gave up without trying. He had to do it. He wasn’t sure why.
He then sat there and pondered whether to carry the VHF radio. If he was stuck there in the water, unable to get on board, he could try to reach another ship for help. At the water line, where he would be, the range would be less than five miles. He glanced at the radar. No ship within ten miles. But in the water, that might be his only chance. The handheld was waterproof. He dropped it into diver’s bag along with the EPIRB and the spare headlamp, feeling somehow that he was cheating. He couldn’t say why.
He carefully laid out his tools, carefully coiling the numerous thick strands of the bosun’s’ chair lines in loops so that they would not tangle once he hit the water, placing specified tools in certain pockets of the bosun’s chair, picking a thick green rope thirty feet long for the line to go round the bowsprit tip to his wrist, green to differentiate it from the white lines that would be the repair for the rigging. All this he did balancing himself as the boat wallowed in the heavy swell, bracing himself during the deep rolls and forcing himself to slow down and think through each step. He tried to ignore the throbbing knee that made him hobble about.
Finally, perhaps two hours after the impact, he was ready to go. His heart was thudding and he realized he was frightened. He was no kid. He knew he was mortal. He knew this was perhaps stupid. He also knew he was going to do it.
He pulled on his wetsuit. That took ten minutes alone since pulling it up over his sore swollen knee was extremely painful. With the booties and the hood on, he began to sweat. He pulled on the sailing gloves. They felt odd with the wetsuit. He put the head lamp over his hooded head, turned it on with the red cover down to protect his night vision.
He hobbled up the companionway stairs, carrying the bosun’s chair under one arm and the diving bag under the other and once in the cockpit realized he had left the life vest with tether below. As he dithered whether to go out on deck without it, the boat pitched and he fell hard in the cockpit onto his injured knee. He quite literally saw stars and gasped in agony, rolled into a ball on his side in the cockpit, the coils of the bosun’s chair covering him, the dive bag sliding back and forth in the cockpit. The rain fell on him as he gasped in agony. After a few minutes, his knee throbbed less. He pushed himself up and half fell down the companionway steps. He sat on the salon couch, head down for a moment, then pulled on the life vest and harness with tether.
He stood, arms out to balance, and again limped up the companionway steps. At the top, he attached the tether to the jack line, grabbed the bosun’s chair under one arm and the dive bag under the other, and timing it for when the boat was between rolls, hobbled quickly out to the deck and forward. He made it to the foredeck just as the boat rolled to starboard, burying him and the chair and bag in white foam as the wave rolled by. He held on to both tightly, seeing the white rigging rope still tied forward to the belaying pins. At least the wetsuit kept him warm in the spray, he thought. He was still sweating.
He sat on the foredeck for a good minute, catching his breath, ignoring the waves that came over the bow. He was about to go back to get the main halyard to attach it to the bosun’s’ chair when he looked down and saw that the carefully coiled lines on the chair were now a tangled mass. When he had dropped them in the cockpit it had mixed the lines and the waves going past had completely tangled them. It would be death to go into the water without the lines carefully run since if they were tangled the block and tackle would jam and the bosun’s chair not work. He began to swear steadily under his breath.
He half heartedly began to untangle the lines but he had hardly begun before another wave came over the bow, buried them in foam and tangled them again. He sat there, feeling despair come over his mind. He was sweating so much in the wetsuit his eyes stung. His knee was throbbing as badly as ever and he was sitting on the foredeck with a pile of spaghetti entirely tangled, buried in white water every minute or so.
He began to laugh. He pictured what he must look like, the Honorable John Benson, of the Superior Court of California, sitting in the water with his tangled lines in his rubber suit and began to laugh harder. A wave came by and splashed his face. He roared with laughter.
Still chuckling, he tied onto the life line all of his equipment, the extra line, dive bag, tools, taking time to check each knot. He then dragged his tangled mat of line and bosun’s chair back to the cockpit and down below, squatting every thirty seconds as he slowly made his way back, to let the water wash over him as another wave crested the side of the boat. Once in the cockpit he threw the line and chair down the companionway and followed it, half slipping on the wet stairs.
He glanced at the radar. He couldn’t see Beth’s blip but in this sea, false singles from the increasing waves were constant. Glory could be any of them. And land was now only eight miles to the east. He had to get this boat under control.
He moved to the middle of the salon, pulled out his electric repair tool bag from under the salon seat, zipped it open and pulled out electric tape. He carefully zipped the bag closed and replaced it in its appointed place. With the tape in one hand, he staggered to the pile of line and began the slow but steady task of disentangling the two hundred feet of line. He forced himself to stay slow and steady and when he finished one long loop of the four strands that ran through the large blocks, he carefully taped the loop in two places with the electric tape and pushed it to the side. He hummed to himself as he worked, steady, unhurried. He could always turn the engine on and simply try to motor away from the shore if he ran out of time. He might lose the rig if a truly horrendous wave hit the bowsprit. Better than a ship wreck ashore. He decided that if he turned the motor on he would move the life raft back to the cockpit in its canister so that if the rig collapsed it would be less likely to be crushed by the falling mast.
An hour later he had his bosun’s chair untangled, four long loops taped and apart, ready to go again. The radar showed a little over seven miles to the nearest shore. He took several deep breaths, pushed himself up to his legs, felt the shock of the pain in his knee, ignored it and with the bosun’s chair cradled in his arms moved up the companion way stairs and into the cockpit. He reached down and clipped his tether to the jack line. Then he saw he had run his tether through one of the loops of line from the bosun’s chair. Grunting, he unclipped it and reclipped it outside the loop.
It was raining now, a light steady rain. Good. Would get some of the salt out of his hair from the waves. He grinned at that as he squatted down and shuffled to the foredeck again. He was pleased to see everything was still tied down. Had the sea swells lessened a bit? He doubted it. He was just used to them, now. As if to prove his case, one of the larger swells swept over him on the foredeck as he squatted, carefully holding the chair loops apart. The water covered his chest, then quickly ran off as the wave passed by.
Show time, he thought to himself. He dropped the chair and its loops of line, rushed back to the main sail, pulled himself up the mast steps five feet in the wallowing boat to reach the halyard shackle attached to the top of the main sail, unsnapped it and pulled the halyard to the foredeck. Again, he squatted down as a wave came over, one foot on the chair to keep it from sliding away. He reached down to the top of the chair, snapped the shackle onto the ring in the canvas at the top of the chair, moved quickly back to the winch on the mast, ran the halyard round the winch and hoisted the chair up about six feet from the deck. It swung wildly in the wind and with the movement of the boat. He cleated the halyard, shuffled back to the chair, and quickly tied one of the loops to a ring bolt on the deck. The chair hung up there, its loops of line hanging down, held steady and ready for him to enter it.
He felt out of breath again. He knew it was fear. He pulled the wetsuit hood on. Again he put on the headlamp with the red cover on. He filled the pockets of the chair with the various tools, carefully shoving the tools deep into the pockets. He pulled the dive bag over and tied its lanyard to his own ankle so that it would float within five feet. He pulled out the green line. Moving forward he tied it to the bow sprit of the boat, directly over the fitting in the water he would have to work on, nine feet below. He led the line back to the hanging chair. He tied the green line to his left wrist so that he could not be floating more than fifteen feet from the fitting.
He stood there as another wave washed by. The boat now seemed a haven, the safest place on earth. He didn’t want to leave the deck. He just wanted to sit down, close his eyes and somehow let this entire problem solve itself. He was very, very frightened. It did not occur to him not to try it.
He unsnapped his tether, and pulled the life vest off, tying it to a handrail on the cabin top. He then jumped up into the chair and attached the chair’s safety strap across the stomach to hold him in the chair. As an additional safeguard, he pulled another line from one of the belaying pins and tied himself tight into the chair. He then looped the coils of rope for lifting and dropping the chair around his right arm and suddenly realized that he could have cut off two thirds of the line since he was only going to need to pull himself up and down perhaps twenty feet total. He had enough rope for sixty feet up the mast. He didn’t need all this tangle. He was an idiot.
He hung there swinging in the chair about five feet above the deck, all the equipment tied to him, the line that would drop him into the water when he pulled it out of the jam cleat in one hand, the other holding the life line to minimize his movement. Should he unship all this and cut most of the bosun chair line off? It would be less likely to tangle in the water.
It would take another half hour to cut it off, rerun the line, and set up again. He must be within seven miles of the shore. It would be six and a half miles out by then. He didn’t know how long it would take or how many attempts to rig the boat. He had to get into the water.
And he wasn’t sure he could keep his courage up for another half hour of preparation. He untied the loop of line tied to the ring bolt in the deck. He took a breath, faced his back to the water, pushed himself up on the lifeline top rail, hanging in the chair, pushed himself back over the rail, legs extended to push him from the boat and over the water, feet on the top life line rail, and hung there outside the boat for a moment. He waited until a wave had just gone by, sweeping the foredeck, and as the water began to recede, pulled hard on the line through the jam cleat on the front of the chair and felt himself start to slide down the outside of the hull and into the water, the water itself dropping away below.
With the line breaking his fall and the water only six or seven feet below him, he entered the water slowly and the buoyancy of the wet suit made his immersion only partial. He ended up floating high, his chest above the water, the suit filing up with cold water which he knew would soon be warmed up in the wet suit. The next wave lifted him almost to the life lines and slammed him against the rail, pinning him there. Holding his head above the wave, he pulled more line out of the jam cleat so that when the wave subsided he slipped much further down the side of the boat, below the waterline with its red paint. Immediately pulling on the green line attached to the bow while in the trough, he began to pull the chair and himself towards the bow and the fitting ten feet away towards the front of the boat. He was almost there when the next swell began to lift him, this time pushing him hard against the bobstay itself, the thick cable hitting him in the stomach as he hung there, the boat rearing up in on the wave, his head above the water with his legs pinned under the angled cable.
The boat paused for a moment in the air, then plunged down as the wave swept past, the bowsprit with him smashing into the water. He had expected this and held his breath, feeling the cable push hard against his stomach as the plunge downward expended its force and paused under water. Under water, he held onto the bobstay cable and pushed himself further down it to the bent fitting at its base. The boat reared up and he gasped for air, now holding onto the fitting with his left hand, feeling dizzy from the wild movement and he was still grasping on when the boat buried itself into the water on its next downward plunge, Benson and the bobstay pushed a good four feet under the surface.
He was finally at the fitting and he was absolutely exhausted and out of breath. It seemed to take every ounce of energy just to hold on. While he was out of the water a good half of the time, the movement of the boat was so sudden and powerful that he could barely hold on when above the water, rearing into the air. It was taking every ounce of his strength. He decided he had to tie himself on at the fitting so he could let go and have both hands to work the line through the metal ring. He grabbed the green line still tied to his wrist and with shaking hands tied a knot close to the bottom of the bobstay. He waited until the next wave passed then gingerly let go.
The force of the next wave swung his body in the chair back from the bow, all the pressure centered on his still tied wrist which felt as if it would break. He screamed with pain under water, water immediately filling his mouth. He began to choke and then the boat tilted up and he fell away, still tied with his wrist to the bob stay. He hung below the boat from his wrist as it reared up. Pulling out his rigging knife, he sawed at the green line, moaning in agony, seeing his wrist turn deep purple.
The next wave lifted him as he sawed, relieved some of the pressure from the wrist just as he cut through the line. Immediately he and the chair fell back down the side of the boat to where he had first entered the water, the fitting now ten feet away again at the bow. Gasping, he carefully closed his rigging knife and put it back in his pocket. He couldn’t afford to drop it. He worked his wrist, trying to get feeling back into it, rolling side to side in the water as the boat surged up and down.
He had to get back to the fitting. The cut green line was almost invisible in the water. He had to find it to pull himself forward. He felt the stirrings of panic. He was right back where he began. He thrashed around in the water looking for what seemed a long time but was probably less than a minute. He finally found the cut end of the green line, grabbed it as it swept past in the next wave. This time he pulled it in, and tied it to the chair itself around the straps at his waist. With it tied, he pulled on the line steadily, ignoring the waves washing him up and down the side of the boat as he moved towards the fitting.
Getting to the fitting, panting, he wrapped the now loose green line around the bobstay and knotted it so the chair was tied to the bobstay just above the fitting. A wave washed by, burying him and the tied chair under the water until the boat pushed up and both he and the chair rose a few feet above the water before crashing down below it. He ignored the wild movement, trying to time his breathing for when the boat reared up. He mumbled, “Keep going, keep going,” to himself, pushing down the desperate panic. He would do this.
He pulled one of the thick white rigging lines from its pocket in the bosun’s chair. The pocket was filled with water and the line was wedged in tight. He kept working it, praying it would not tangle, feeling for the loop at one end. He found it by touch while he was buried under the water and pulled out the loop with his still numb left hand. He held the loop in his left hand and used his right hand to reach in and find the other end of the line. He would insert that end though the ring fitting that was still undamaged, pull the line through the ring then through the loop in the white line, and then carry the line back on board. The result would be the ring and rope loop would be the new emergency “fitting” for the line to attach to in order to hold the bowsprit in place.
The white rigging line seemed endless. He kept pulling it out of the pocket looking for the end, both the chair and Benson being slammed against the bow and the bobstay by the passing waves. At least he was getting feeling back in his left hand. He found the line’s end, but in its wet state he had trouble getting it though the small space in the undamaged metal ring. He kept pushing it, cramming it though and once he had enough line through, pulled it from the far end through the metal ring at the bottom of the bobstay, then pulled the line through the rope loop and kept pulling the line through until the rope loop was tight against the bow of the boat, tight against the fitting. He leaned his forehead against the bow of the boat in exhaustion. Through the rubber hood he felt the boat vibrating with the power of the seas.
Looking up, he carefully tied the loose end of the white line to the bottom of his bosun’s chair so when he pulled himself up on deck the line would follow. He was almost done. All he had to do was get back on board. Which he had always known would be the hardest part. He had just finished the easy part. He didn’t feel like laughing now.
He untied the green line knotted to the bobstay and the chair and he quickly drifted ten feet back to midships below the main halyard which was still attached to the bosun’s chair. Another wave lifted him half way up the hull, then dropped him down, knocking him hard against the hull. Carefully, he reached up to pull the electric tape from the looped lines running through the blocks above the bosun’s chair. They fell apart quickly and before they could tangle he immediately pulled on the line near his stomach, pulled it in to haul himself out of the water.
Knowing this would be difficult, his adrenaline was pumping and the first several pulls on the line seemed easy as he rose from the water, hanging above it perhaps five feet, bouncing hard against the boat as he pulled. Then the line jammed. He pulled harder but there was no movement at all. He moaned and cursed in frustration and just as he looked up to see what the problem was the largest wave of all smashed him and the chair against the hull with remarkable force. His face hit the hull, he felt the headlamp break against the hard hull, felt his nose crush against the hull and concentrated on holding his breath. He couldn’t tell if he was bleeding. He knew he was hurt.
The wave passed and he was hanging and bleeding on the side of the boat, perhaps four feet below the deck. Blood poured down his face and onto his wet suit, almost invisible on the dark wet rubber, very visible on the blue canvas of the seat. Gasping, he unzipped and reached into his dive bag tied to his leg, and pulled out the spare head lamp. He flipped the switch and was immediately blinded by the white light. He had not put down the red cover. He held the light in his hand like a flash light and pointed it to the jammed block. The lines did not look tangled. He felt more than heard the next wave coming and ducked his head and held onto the lamp tight as he was again buried as the wave passed, again hitting the hull hard as he swung above the water, but using his shoulders to cushion his head from the hull.
The moment the wave was passed and the water was subsiding, he turned the light on the block again. He squinted, feeling blood run from his nose into his mouth. Then he saw it. A piece of electric tape had stayed stuck to the line and had been jammed into the block. The more he pulled, the tighter it was jammed into a hard sticky plastic ball inside of the bock. The next wave came and left him still hung there, unsure what to do. Even if he pulled the jam cleat and let it lose, the line was jammed into the block and would not let him down. He reached up to grab the life line. It was about a foot above his hand and in his weakened state he didn’t think he could pull himself up in any event. A wave of desperate fury washed over him and he hung there, suspended between deck and water, helpless. He put back his head and screamed in frustration.
He choked on the blood running into his mouth as he put his head back to scream and he somehow found that hilariously funny. He began to laugh as he choked and a part of him wondered if he was going insane. Then the next wave hit him, shoving him hard against the hull and raising him up, and in desperation he reached up, and now the wave pushed him high enough to reach the life line. He grasped it and held it tight with his right hand and with his still numb left hand desperately reached down while still under the wave, grabbed the white rigging line hanging under the chair, and looped it over the life line.
The wave surged past and the chair and Benson fell down again, but this time with the bottom looped around the life line and the top still jammed on the main halyard, he was suspended sideways, looking straight down into the water. He held the white line tightly, realizing if he let go he would quite possibly die. He waited for the next wave which again lifted him and the chair. Since they were already half way up to the lifeline rails, the wave easily pushed him against the life line itself. He grabbed the lifeline with both hands and, still under water, yanked himself and the chair over the lifelines and onto the deck. When the wave receded he was on deck, tangled in the white line, the bosun’s chair, and the life lines, lying on his side, blood everywhere, screaming in laughter in relief.
He held the white line tight, and wiggled and shoved himself out and away from the bosun’s chair now lying on the sopping deck. He crawled to the foredeck and tied the white line tight to the life line there and lay there on his stomach, holding the white line still, feeling the waves wash over him as the boat surged up and down, his face lying in the growing pool of blood which was continuously washed away by the surge.
He lay there, semi conscious now, ready to sleep. How far was he from shore? How long had he been in the water? He still had to rig the line tied to the bow, to raise the sails, to get the boat underway. He pushed himself up to his knees. He knelt in the bow. He had no life vest or tether on. He should go back to the mast where he left them and put them on. Instead, he took the white line, untied it, and crawled out on the bowsprit, holding on with both hands when it buried itself in a wave, then crawling further to the very tip.
Here, the fulcrum effect was tremendous. While the boat hardly moved at its center, the pitching of the boat was maximum at the bow and stern so when at the end of the bowsprit he would swing twenty feet up and twenty feet down for every two or three feet of movement at the center of the boat, the fulcrum of the movement. His problem was not so much falling off the bowsprit when under water since the water held him tight to it. It was holding on when the bowsprit sprang high in the air, then suddenly dropped out underneath him as the boat pitched down. Gravity would move him down much slower than the boat pulled the bowsprit from underneath him. The result was he was often a foot or two above the bowsprit as it raced down. He had to hold on to keep up with its descent. Again and again he pulled himself down and when the boat hit the water, the bowsprit smashed into his body and, worse, his injured knee. He again felt dizzy.
“Everything is so damned hard,” he muttered to himself, but without much feeling. He wondered if he was losing consciousness. He took the white line in his right hand, holding onto the bowsprit with his weakened left, and between surges wrapped the white line tight around the metal fitting that surrounded the end of the bowsprit, then through a block at the end of the bowsprit normally used for the spinnaker and worked the line through and moved with it back to the deck. He took the white line and wrapped it around the windlass winch, the electric windlass that pulled the anchor up. It’s on and off switch was close to the windlass and he pushed it, seeing the line tighten around the drum as he pulled it, assisted with the windlass motor. Once the line was drum tight, he cleated it to the large cleat on top of the windlass.
He felt the line. It was rigid. He leaned over the bow, regretting having no tether on but not having time to worry about it much. He leaned far over, holding onto the life line. The white line paralleled the bobstay, going from the tip of the bowsprit to the ring underneath the damaged fitting. If that fitting gave way, the rope should immediately take up the load.
He had done it.
He left all the gear and the bosun’s chair scattered around the foredeck and stumbled quickly back to the cockpit, then down below, grabbing his life vest and tether on his way. He fell as much as stepped down the companionway stairs. At the bottom he pulled off his wet suit hood. He leaned over the navigation table to check the radar. Blood poured from his crushed nose onto the chart. He felt no pain. The radar showed the land still over six miles away.
He stood there, grasping onto the navigation table, wondering if the radar was broken. Had he only been in the water less than half an hour? It seemed hours…many hours. He shook his head to clear it and blood flew everywhere. He reached behind him into the galley, pulled out paper towels from the roll there, unavoidably wetting them with his soaked gloves, and crushed the paper over his nose. He began to feel some pain as he held the padding there. And he couldn’t just stand around, he had to get those sails up.
He stood there, tilting his head back, wadding more and more paper towels across his nose, watching them become bright red with his blood, then throwing them on the cabin floor and pulling more out of the roll. With one eye he kept glancing at the radar, watching the land slowly come closer. He had to brace himself since the movement of the boat was as wild as ever, rolling thirty degrees to each side. But he had to stop this bleeding.
Or did he? He finally muttered, “The hell with it,” threw the last dripping bloody paper towel on the cabin sole and pulled on his life vest and the tether over the wetsuit. He ignored the blood still pouring down his front, staining the yellow life vest and tether, and moved towards the companionway stairs. Half way up, at the engine panel, he paused. He turned the engine key, first after turning on the glow plug, then moved into the cockpit, put the engine in gear, and turned it directly towards the waves, using the autohelm to keep it there.
This increased the pitching but stopped most of the rolling. He could see the tools and lines he left on the foredeck being washed into the gunnels and back towards him by the water gushing down the sides of the cabin top. “That’s why you clean up after each job” he thought bitterly. Soon all the tools were in a soggy pile near the cockpit, jammed into the gunnels. Except for the bosun’s chair, still attached to the main halyard which still swung wildly in the wind amidships. He needed the halyard to get the main up. He closed his eyes. Then he forced them open and literally gritted his teeth, tasting blood in his mouth.
He clipped on his tether to the jack line and still in his wetsuit, staggered to amidships to retrieve the gyrating bosun’s chair and main halyard. Without the rolling it was easier to move along the deck however much she pitched and the wind was pushing the hanging chair and halyard back towards him nearly to the cockpit. He reached up, quickly grabbed it, pulled it down to his chest, unsnapped the shackle, threw the chair back towards the cockpit, heard it land with a loud clang due to the few tools it still had in its pockets.
He then moved to the mast to attach the halyard to the main sail. All this while the boat jerked up and down like a bucking bronco, often forcing him to squat to his knees to keep his balance. Sheets of spray poured back from the bow smashing into the oncoming waves. He could not hear the motor in the din of the water and wind.
He grasped the mast with his right hand, halyard in his left hand, and pulled himself up the three feet necessary to reach the top of the main sail which was sitting on the boom. His hands were sticky with blood which had soaked through the gloves. Holding tight to the mast with his right arm, he used his left to push the shackle into the head of the main, snapped it shut, then dropped to the deck. He landed hard, lost his balance, and fell on his back, into the gunnels and was brought up short by the tether. For a moment he stared at the rain coming down on him.
He pulled himself up and moved to the mast again. Using the winch on the mast, he began to grind the main sail up, keeping it double reefed so most of it was not raised. The boom shook and rattled as the wind tugged at the partly raised main.
Moving back to the cockpit, he fell into the seat behind the wheel, pushed the autohelm to fall off the wind and watched the mainsail fill and begin to propel the boat. He moved forward in the cockpit to the mainsail sheet winch and ground the sail in for a beam reach. As he was looking at the winch he realized blood was no longer pouring down his face.
He moved back to the helm seat, reached to his right and slowly unfurled the jib, letting out about a third of the fore jib sail, winching it in for a beam reach. The boat was sailing now, heeled over perhaps twenty degrees from the west wind, quickly accelerating to six then seven knots. He sat there, staring at the mast. From here he could not see if the fitting was straining or if the new rope line he had installed was taking the load. But he could see the mast held.
He sat there in the rain, just staring at the mast for what seemed minutes. The boat was far steadier now under way. He forced himself to the companionway, reached down and turned the ignition key, turning the engine off.
He looked at the radar. He was moving parallel to the coast now, perhaps angled a few degrees away from it. Moving to the autohelm he brought the vessel closer to the wind to build up more distance from shore. He adjusted the sails for the course tighter on the wind. The heel and speed increased a little. He leaned over the cockpit combing and pulled in the tools and gear he had left in the gunnels which had washed down to the cockpit. He paused for a few minutes to catch his breath, then he picked up the bosun’s chair and its long coils of rope from the floor of the cockpit and tossed them down the companionway. He then shoved himself into his usual place under the dodger where he was out of the spray and rain and could still see the radar.
His knee throbbed. His whole face felt numb. His wrist throbbed. And on the radar screen he could see no blip that he could identify as Glory any longer. There were faint occasional blips perhaps fifteen miles ahead. Could be anyone or no one. He had had to spend hours on this repair and she probably sailed right off his screen. With this temporary rig he could not carry more sail. Glory would inevitably increase the distance. And there was nothing he could do about it. He was lucky to be back on course moving along at over seven knots.
He sat there, mind blank, doing nothing. Then, after perhaps ten minutes, he muttered, “Did it. God damn it, did it. Did it.” And underneath the blood caking his face, a grim smile appeared.
His job now was to get to Marina Del Ray, wait to hear from Ellen as to whether she had found Beth in Santa Barbra or, if not there, Catalina, and be ready to move when he did hear from her. If Ellen did not find her in either place, he was prepared to give up the chase and sail the boat back up, presumably with Ellen as crew. He found, to his surprise, that he found that possibility not unpleasant. She was far too young, he told himself. But he did want to sail with her and he had to admit it.
Marina Del Ray was a day’s sail away from Point Conception, further south than Santa Barbra and he pondered whether he should just pull into Santa Barbra. But Ellen would have already left if Beth was not there and he had told her he would be in the more central location of Marina Del Ray. He kept to his course. The VHF weather station warned of storms coming in the next few days, but they would be south of San Diego. Up here, the weather should be fine.
Sitting there, sore and exhausted, he pondered whether to try to get some sleep or just keep going. He decided to keep going…he wasn’t sure he could sleep with the pain of his various injuries in any event and should be in by mid afternoon if nothing more happened. Besides, traffic became increasingly heavy as he sailed into the channel between the Channel Islands and the southern Californian mainland. He’d better stay awake. .
By ten in the morning he had already called to set up repairs when he arrived. When Pete Elliot had been a lieutenant in the San Francisco Police he and Benson had been on the same yacht racing team and had built up the type of friendship that two men each going through a tough divorce could establish, not drinking in bars so much as watching college football games on long Saturday afternoons, barking together at missed plays and muttering darkly about divorce lawyers and alimony. Elliot had left the Bay Area…he could no longer afford to live there, he told Benson, bleakly…and he joined the LA Police and quickly worked his way up into their investigative division. He and Benson somehow stayed friends even when Elliot remarried and Benson became a judge and it was Elliot that Benson called on ship to shore when he was still fifty miles out of Marina Del Ray.
Without much preamble, Benson told him he would be arriving in half a day and read off the list of repairs he would need, told him the yacht club at which he would guest berth and told him he had to be ready to sail within twelve hours of arrival. Benson smiled to himself as Elliot, without a single question, read back the list to him and told him to phone back in half an hour and he would let him know progress. He was just about to sign off when Elliot asked him if he was injured.
“Not really. Why do you ask?”
“All this is storm damage. People break in storms, too, right? And your voice sounds odd.”
“Bruised and bloody. Maybe broken nose. But not disabled. Neither is the boat. Just get the materials and the experts and I’ll do the rest. And I owe you big time”
“Roger that. Got to clear a few things from the calendar as well. Call me back in an hour.”
Benson shook his head, alone at the navigation table. He might respect Elliot for not asking wasted questions. But he had always disliked the paramilitary terminology his cop friends seemed to drop into most conversations. But it was Elliot he called on in need, he ruefully noted. Roger that.
It was mid afternoon when he approached the huge marina of Marina Del Ray, a marina so large it held a dozen yacht clubs and had traffic lanes for incoming and outgoing vessels. He had tried to raise Ellen on VHF as well as cell phone hourly since dawn with no success. He left her a voice mail explaining he would be making some repairs and where in Marina Del Ray to locate him. She left no return message on his cell voice mail nor had she phoned his clerk back at court. He figured she would have moved on from Santa Barbra by now and be on the way to LA, then Santa Catalina, an island twenty five miles to the west of LA.
Assuming she caught a ferry that afternoon or early tomorrow morning, he would hear from her from Catalina by tomorrow afternoon. He had to be ready to go by then. For all he knew, she might be waiting at the St. Marino Yacht Club guest dock, the club with reciprocal rights which he had chosen as his temporary berth. They would let him berth there for five days with access to their facilities. He could have chosen any of the larger more prestigious yacht clubs. He wanted the smaller one, towards the east end of the giant marina.
And from the guarded tone of his own law clerk, he realized he also needed to call the Presiding Judge to discuss what was going to be at least a week long unplanned absence now. That was not going to be a pleasant call. Well, at least he could honestly tell him he had suffered a injury while sailing.
With the marina on the edge of his radar, he decided it was time to clean himself up. He had avoided looking at his face as he cleaned up the boat earlier, putting all the gear away, taped ice to his swollen knee and used an ace bandage on his wrist. It took him over an hour to clean the blood from the boat’s interior, glancing at the radar constantly while he worked. From the amount of blood everywhere, he wondered he had any left in his body. His face seemed less numb and more sore each hour. He decided he would have to know what he looked like before greeting Elliot and reluctantly moved to the head which had a mirror.
It was a shock. Despite the rain and the spray, blood was still caked on most of his face and stubble covered his face where the dried blood was not too thick. His nose was oddly flattened and most of it was so deeply bruised as to be almost black. He carefully put a wetted towel to it and the pain was over whelming. He leaned forward and retched. Each retch hurt his nose more. He closed his eyes for a few minutes then straightened up. He decided cleaning himself up would have to wait. He moved to midboat and sat in the salon, holding his head in his hands, leaning over, feeling the throbbing. In the movies the hero gets clobbered in the face and bounces right back, he thought. Here, a single blow to the nose and he was ready to pass out. Taking a wet cloth, he moved back to the cockpit.
It was warm in the light wind, the boat sliding along at five knots, autohelm purring smoothly. He pulled off his dank shirt, felt the sun on his skin and carefully and slowly dabbed at the caked blood. As the hours passed, he sat in the cockpit, maneuvering through the large number of pleasure boats that were out even on this Tuesday afternoon. He made some coffee, cooked some eggs, eating in the cockpit. He found he could chew but each bite hurt. He finally decided to drink a beer and forget the rest of the food. He leaned back in the cockpit the sun feeling wonderful.
Different world than the cold hard winds of northern California. Easy warm wind, relatively small swell, more power boats than sail boats. He felt the beginning of that superiority that the cold weather sailor usually feels for those who enjoy pleasant conditions. Grimacing, he then braced himself and dabbed closer and closer to his discolored nose. Somehow, the warm sun seemed to make it less painful.
Late afternoon, as he maneuvered into the marina, using the GPS to locate the yacht club berth, he saw Elliot waiting at the dock with two other men. Even from this distance the huge Elliot was easy to spot. He was one of those men who exercised constantly, was strong as a bull, but somehow always had a potbelly in addition to massive muscles. Hair thinning, deep tan. He was dressed in tight fitting dark jeans and a T shirt which emphasized both his powerful muscles and his large stomach and Benson painfully grinned as he threw him the stern line, tossing the bow line to a much smaller fellow who was already staring at the rigging repair of the bowsprit. Clearly the rigger. The third man, younger and thin, stood back and watched, a canvas bag on the dock next to him.
Elliot stared at his face a moment, then quickly cleated him off, helped tie the boat forward, then leaped on board, holding out his hand. “You look like hell,” he said, smiling.
“My Adonis like looks are gone forever.”
“You were ugly before and you’re really ugly now.” He gestured at the thin man to come on board. “This here is Edgar and he’s a paramedic I work with. Figure you can use him. Chris, who is staring at your bowsprit, is my rigger and good. He brought his equipment in his truck up there and he’s going to go to work right now, right, Chris?”
Chris was still on the dock, forward and out of sight. He straightened and grinned. “That must have been hell to rig underway.” Before Benson could answer, he ducked down again and was again hidden by the bow of the boat, studying the fitting. Edgar threw a canvas bag on board, pulled himself on board into the cockpit and held out his hand. “You have a broken septum, Judge. I bet it hurts like hell.”
“Yeah, it does. My knee and wrist are also pretty beat up.”
“You have a good chance to get a discount on a nose job if you want…insurance will pay, “
Elliot grinned. “At last. Bet he planned to do this all along. You cheap bastard.”
Edgar opened his bag, all business. “Sit there and let me play with your nose a while. It will hurt.”
‘Benson sighed and sat in the cockpit, looking at Elliot who was moving around the boat, examining the various blocks and lines. “You kill a cow up here or something? Blood everywhere.”
“You’d think the spray would get it off.”
“If you had my job you’d realize blood is like glue. Takes a lot to get it off. All yours?”
“The investigation begins?”
“You want to tell me what’s going on?”
Elliot sat down next to Benson and watched Edgar begin to probe with a cotton swab dipped in something, the cotton dabbing in and around the smashed nose. “Edgar, you think maybe you can give him something for the pain before you get in there?”
Edgar muttered as he probed. “Already did. It’s on the swab. Let me work, detective.”
Benson wanted to ask him about Elliot’s contacts with Mexican police but his head was pushed back by Edgar and he had to concentrate on ignoring pain. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Chris moving to his truck on the dock for parts and Elliot going below. “The bastard is going to check my log book, “ he thought. He grinned despite himself. Always a cop.
From below, after a few moments, he heard Elliot. “Who’s the woman and where is she, John?”
“Got off at Morro Bay, detective. Hoped she’d be here by now. Probably on the way to Santa Catalina. You have to hear it all, right?”
Elliot came up and sat across the cockpit from him. “Damned right if I’m going to take a week off to get you back home.”
“You are doing no such thing.”
Edgar shoved his head back. “Judge, you keep moving it’s going to hurt a lot more.”
That stopped the conversation for a half hour. He saw Elliot moving around on deck, putting things back in order, checking for chafe and stowing whatever equipment was still scattered in odd places on the foredeck. “How much blood you got in you, Judge? Jesus, you bleed!”
Edgar answered for him so Benson would not move. “Head injury, detective. That’s what happens. Head’s full of blood.”
“His head is full of rocks, as far as I’m concerned,” Elliot grunted. Then, to Benson, “Going to get my sea bag now, John. I don’t want arguments. Where you go, I go . You look like you need some help.”
Edgar did something that made Benson jump back in pain. Edgar frowned, then held the back of Benson’s his head to keep it still and kept doing it, muttering, “Just a few more pushes and you can hold off going to a hospital for a week or so…but you need to get to a MD before this all sets or they’ll have to break it again. This is just so no infection, get it?”
Benson couldn’t answer with the paramedic’s wrist against his mouth and his eyes were tearing. It seemed to take forever before Edgar leaned back, looked critically at his nose, then leaned forward a bit and began to fiddle with Benson’s knee. Benson’s whole head was throbbing now. He saw Elliot coming back, a huge sea bag slung over his broad back, a letter in his hand.
He heard banging at the bow of the boat. He couldn’t see Chris but assumed he was working there. Then his knee felt as if someone had put a knife through it and he jerked back. Again, Edgar seemed unconcerned. No bedside manner, Benson concluded.
“Easy on my knee, dammit.”
“You’re lucky. Nothing broken, but you may end up with water or, more accurately, moisture accumulating and a very painful joint. You need to ice it regularly over the next several days and brace it. I can leave you some reusable ice packs.”
“Have them in my first aid case.”
“Then use them. Let me look at your wrist.” He grabbed it and began removing the ace bandage.
Elliot sat down besides Benson, his bag already below in the rear berth. He dropped a letter on Benson’s lap. “Pretty girl left them at the front desk three hours ago, according to the manager. Pretty blonde thing. That your lady?”
Benson couldn’t open the envelop with one hand and didn’t want to open it anyway under Elliot’s careful scrutiny. “Sounds like her. She was supposed to call me on the cell. This feels like ten pages or more.”
Elliot watched him carefully. “It does. Maybe Dear John.”
“It isn’t like that. We’re chasing her crazy aunt down the coast. She absconded with a boat…in violation of my own court order, I might add.”
Elliot leaned back, grinning again. “I see. Now it makes perfect sense. So you decided to enforce your order in person by chasing her five hundred miles down the coast with a pretty young thing as your crew. Of course…”
“Look, I just happened to see her sailing out the Gate…”
“So you jumped in her wake for five hundred miles and had your blonde air dropped to you on the way.”
“Drop dead, you bastard.”
Elliot laughed. “Can’t believe they made you a judge.”
“Can’t believe they made you a detective.”
Benson watched as Edgar expertly rebandaged his wrist. Edgar spoke as he worked. “This is only a sprain. Aspirin. It will hurt for a good two weeks but no big deal. Your knee will hurt more. Your nose will hurt like hell. Nothing to stop you if it’s important.” He stood up, glanced at Elliot, who nodded, and he began to pack his bag.
“What do I owe you, Edgar?”
“Beer when you’re next in town. Have to get back to work now. Good luck, skipper.” He winked at Elliot, nodded at Benson, hopped off the boat and hurried down the dock.
Elliot leaned back in the cockpit. “I’m going to check your food and water but first have to know how far we’re going. Do we loop to Catalina before heading back to the Bay? Maybe you should look at your letter while I turn my back so I don’t see you blush.”
“”I’m telling you there’s no romance involved. She’s fifteen years younger.”
“Well, that will stop you, I’m sure.”
“Go below and check the food stocks. Let me read.”
With the sound of pounding from up forward, Benson opened the letter that would destroy his vessel, put him in the hospital and have me sitting with him in a Mexican hospital five days later. And that was only a part of the harm it caused. And, just maybe, some good.
John, I’m on board Glory with Aunt Beth. She had crew. Not good crew, but crew. But I’m good crew and I’m here now.
By the time you get this we should be twenty miles to sea and on the way to Santa Maria. That’s about half way down Baja, but you probably know that. Your dad lives there. Yes, lives there. He is not dead. He is blind, now. I think he has been blind a long time but you can read about it in the attached letter. He is also dying. I think he asked Aunt Beth to come to him and be here in the end and that’s why she’s taking the boat they loved. She hasn’t quite said that…we’ve talked a lot but mostly about you, I’m afraid. She’s told me to be careful of the Benson men. Told me they’re easy to love. And she had some wonderful stories about your father.
She was bringing you to him, I think. He doesn’t know. And I’m not sure why she just didn’t just tell you. Maybe some commitment to your mom? But I’m telling you. I want you to meet us there. There is a little bay and it’s pretty protected from north winds and if you come you will learn all about your family, I guess. And then you and I can sail back? Maybe you have to go back to court quickly but could arrange a time for us to sail it back? I know you’re a Benson man but I’m willing to risk that, I think.
I don’t have time to write more. I’m sorry I didn’t answer your calls. I was afraid you’d be angry or try to stop us. And I don’t want that. Come. Love.
“Not the face of a man not emotionally involved,” Elliot said, the top half of his body out of the companionway.
“She’s on board with Beth on the way to Santa Maria. To see my dying father who I thought was dead years ago. A big family reunion.” He threw the letter down on the cockpit floor.
“Can I read it?” Elliot asked reaching for it. Benson hesistated, not wanting to share the letter for some reason, then shrugged. Elliot read it twice, looked at its blank back, glanced at the thick wad of paper that was Beth’s letter, and dropped the letter in Benson’s lap. “No love, huh? You laying her?”
“I told you…”
“Yeah, you told me. I was hoping you were laying her cause the way you’re looking and she’s writing, this is worse. You in love with this girl?”
“I told you…”
“Crap. She’s in love with you. Or half way there. And so are you, you dumb sob.”
Benson picked up Beth’s packet. About twenty pages, closely written. He threw it down, not wanting to read any more about his dad. “It’s more complicated than that. The aunt and my father were lovers. Thirty years ago. Closer to forty years ago. He left us when I was a kid. Maybe five or six. Thought he was dead. Now find he’s alive. Complicated.”
“And you make it more complicated with this Ellen girl, right?”
“Lovable as I am, I have some suspicions here. We sailed for less than twenty four hours. I’m almost old enough to be her dad. No sex. No passes, even. They both want me down there and want me down there badly. Not sure why. This could be just another ploy…”
Elliot laughed. “You call me cynical? Jesus, you see some international plot here?”
“I’m just saying no fool like an old fool. This isn’t a grade B movie. Life isn’t.”
“Which is another way of saying you want to go and want to go bad. Otherwise you’d laugh and toss the letter overboard and we’d be planning to go back up the coast. I know you.”
Benson’s face hurt. He wanted some pain killers. He looked at Chris coming down the dock with more gear. “How goes the repair?”
“Need a fitting custom made. They’ll deliver it noon tomorrow. Should have you ready by two tomorrow. You look like you could use a break.” Without waiting for an answer he went to the front of the boat and more pounding was soon heard.
Elliot handed Benson a beer and sat in the cockpit across from him. “I’d like to see Santa Maria. Sailed by it half a dozen times, never looked in. Nice bay there. She’s right.”
“I don’t need help.”
“You damned well do. Your log says you had emergencies all the way down here. Rigging collapsing, boat damn near sinking.” He laughed enjoying Benson’s expression. “And they’re talking of a series of storms coming in from the west. Next two weeks is going to be iffy. Besides, I want to see this sweet little thing that is playing you for a fool.” He stood up and stretched. “ You know Helen is fifteen years younger than me. And our marriage is damned good.”
“Won’t be if you drop everything to sail down on this nonsense.”
“Our marriage works precisely because she won’t bitch when I do something dumb like this. That’s the secret.” He took a long pull. “And, Your Honor, I think you are smitten and simply scared as hell of what that means given your last marriage. Not that you asked.”
“Not that I asked.”
“But consider this: if you are in love and it’s real, you should go. I’ll pat you on the back and tell you to stop worrying. But if this is a weird kind of trap, well, hell, I’m a detective and you’re bringing me along. Can’t lose, can you?” He guffawed and drank down the rest of the beer.
“It hurts to grin.”
“Then keep frowning. Meanwhile, let’s plan our supplies.”
While Elliot bought more food and drink, Benson went up to the small yacht club and used their phone to call the court.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
A bit more than a day later, thirty five miles north of San Diego, they received their first official warning of the first of the storms. It wasn’t much of a storm predicted , only 35 knots top predicted, steady winds of 28, and it wasn’t supposed to hit northern Baja that hard. But it was enough of a warning to have Benson and Elliot going through the storm checklist as they prepared the boat for heavy weather. Benson kept it in a plasticized card in the navigation station and they divided up the chores while the autohelm kept them on course in the ten knot warm breeze.
For people used to Bay sailing, this predicted wind was only slightly stronger than the average summer afternoon, though the seas would be larger in the open ocean. Neither considered for a moment calling off the voyage. Neither said it but both had gone through a near hurricane on one of their races and after it was over each considered it a high point of their lives, a great story for yacht club bars. During it they had rather been anywhere. After, it was something to be cherished. Now, in the warm wind, it was hard to imagine the force of the coming storm. But with their joint experience of past storms, both were a little nervous, nervous enough not to want to show it to the other and suggest turning tail.
Instead, they treated it as simply another sailing task to be accomplished and triple tied all gear on deck, tied on the two anchors on the bowsprit, secured items below, precooked various foods to be on hand for the storm sailing, checked and rechecked the condition of lines and the steel stays and shrouds that held up the rigging and charged up the various handheld electronic gear that could be needed. It was deeply satisfying in the warm sunshine to take time to prepare for violent weather.
As Benson laid out spare clothing on his berth so that he could change quickly if necessary, he realized he had only raced with Elliot, a type of sailing that was tense and competitive. This sharing of the cruising duties and chatting about old stories was a relaxed delight. He also appreciated that Elliot did not question the purpose of the voyage again, nor bring up Beth or Ellen. Nor the large packet that held Beth’s letter which Benson had thrown onto his berth unread. Ellen’s letter he kept in his pocket.
With that topic off the table, they agreed upon six hour watches each, easily done with the boat set up for single handing, and left Marina Del Ray late afternoon that Wednesday, rigging repaired, fully stocked, Benson below cooking up an early dinner while Elliot, on first watch, maneuvered through the crowded marina and sang in an off key baritone.
The Presiding Judge had merely listened without comment as Benson explained that a sailing injury required him to remain out of the court room for a full week. They had immediately discussed how to cover for the various hearings he would have to miss. Polite but brief. The Presiding Judge did not wish him a quick recovery.
Elliot seemed to have no problem carving out a week of his time and Benson felt an unreasonable resentment as to the ease of his scheduling time off. “Know the precinct captain. We sail together. And once I told him I was helping out an injured judge, he told me no problem.”
“Envy you. My presiding judge hates my guts.”
“Anyone ever tell you not to hassle your superiors, John?”
“Yeah. My mother. He’s an ass.”
“He’s your boss. Grow up. What’s that smell?”
“Your dinner and it smells damned good.”
“You cook it, I eat it. I’ve eaten stuff on races that would kill a shark.” And they reminiscence about races, night watches, storms and shipmates for the next two hours.
It was Benson who brought up Beth and Ellen as Elliot relieved him from his night watch at midnight. They were perhaps ten miles off shore, the lights of Los Angeles blotting out the eastern sky, almost as bright as early sunrise. Santa Catalina was fifteen miles north west of them, commercial traffic heavy but easily spotted on the radar even in the increasingly hazy air. Wind still warm from the West, fifteen knots, perfect for Ariel. It felt odd to Benson to be night sailing in a T shirt. He liked it.
Both Benson and Elliot knew the rules of watch keeping at night. You make coffee for your replacement watch and keep it in the thermos for the watch to have upon coming on deck. You wake your replacement watch twenty minutes before they are due to give them time to suit up and prepare. You fill in the full log book so they can read it and be fully briefed when taking the watch. If you made food for yourself, you clean up after yourself and leave some for the next watch. You stay on watch for an extra five minutes to make sure all questions are answered and the replacement watch comfortable.
And relieving watch should be awake by the time the watch comes down to wake them and should be prompt and alert. If bad weather, you come on watch ten minutes early to help with sail changes or repairs as necessary.
Both knew the drill but after Benson was done briefing Elliot and Elliot was ensconced under the dodger where he could see the radar, drinking coffee from the mug Benson had handed him, Benson hesistated, then sat down in the cockpit. They both looked at the dim stars and listened to the soft sound of the boat cutting through the water, the slight sound of wind in the rigging. Neither spoke for over five minutes, enjoying the silence.
Then Benson broke the silence. “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know if I’m chasing after my father, trying to discover the past or trying to get Beth back since she flouted my order or chasing Ellen to get her in bed. I don’t trust any of my motivations now. This is not me.”
Elliot was silent for a long moment. Then, “You and I have different ideas of motivation, John. I don’t think most anyone knows why they do most anything most of the time. Or lie to themselves about it. Or have a dozen motivations all mixed up. I see it all the time in my work.”
“Yeah. Even the obvious stuff. Man kills his wife for cheating. But it ain’t for violating his love for her, it’s usually for embarrassing him and making him feel low. See that all the time. Doesn’t love the wife, doesn’t like the wife, would give her away if anyone asked, but kills her when she cheats. It’s ego, not hurt feelings or love. But when you talk to him, he’s heartbroken. Says he loved her and she broke his heart. Would swear to it. Would believe it. But he’d be wrong.”
“That’s a murderer.”
“It’s all of us. All the time. I divorced Barbra because she got fat. Took me a dozen years to admit it. Had all sorts of excuses as to why and how, how she didn’t understand me, and all the rest. All really politically proper. I could tell everyone we didn’t mesh.
“But when all was done, I remembered when I fell out of love…was in a store, following her as she picked out stuff in Hawaii and she was in shorts and I suddenly realized I was married to a fat woman getting old.” He laughed without humor. “Not my fantasy at all. She was the type now that I would laugh at when I was in my twenties. The dumpy blonde. And now she was my wife.”
“You decided to divorce her then and there?”
“Naw, wasn’t honest like that. We just began to argue a lot. So I could build up why I could divorce her for reasons beyond that. But now I know. I want a fantasy wife or something close to it and she didn’t fit it. We’re all permanently twenty years old when we’re men, John. We all live in our minds the sexy romantic fantasy. That moment of reality knocked me flat and killed the marriage. Just wouldn’t admit it to myself.”
“You sorry you did it?”
“No. By the time I was done picking fights, we really didn’t like each other. We really weren’t compatible by then. But I brought it on. Know it now. So, you want to know your motivations? Good luck on that.”
“I was just sitting there in court and then get hit with this crap about my father and Beth…with my mother acting oddly about it, giving me misleading information about losing contact with my father…then me finding letters from my Dad in my mother’s possession. Then Beth and Ellen both racing down the coast to see him and suddenly he’s alive…and I’m supposed to care despite him not being in my life ever. And them saying he and I are alike. And it looks like he was trying to see me and my mother stopped him somehow. I can’t get a handle on what happened, not sure I much care, but here I am.”
“Well, at least you’re on a boat. Wonder if you’d be so anxious to chase the crazy old coot if you were having to drive a Honda Civic down a street in San Jose to find her.” He chuckled and in the dark Benson smiled. It hurt his face. Elliot continued. “Look, you probably got a half dozen motivations. And don’t underestimate sheer boredom. Just grabbing an adventure. You could have gone to the symphony with that lady you told me about or chased a sixty five footer out the Gate. You chose adventure. And found a pretty girl. And now get to sail with an old buddy. Hell, seems to be that you did just fine. Who cares why you’re here?”
“Maybe I do. Too old to do this kind of thing.”
“Crap. Too old not to. But as a top rate detective, I’ll tell you one thing. You ain’t doing it to find out about your dad and Beth much.”
“You haven’t read that letter from Beth and it’s been here for twenty four hours. You’ve read Ellen’s a half dozen times.”
“Maybe I don’t care about Beth and Dad. Maybe I’m afraid to find out. I don’t know.”
They were both silent again, Benson leaning far back in the cockpit, cradling his head in his arms, careful to avoid putting weight on his wrist. His knee still throbbed. “Ellen said Beth was on a death trip. Going down there to die. And it sounds as if my Dad is dying now as well. Like two Vikings, they’re planning to die on that boat where romance was begun. That kind of bullshit. And I’m supposed to show up and forgive old Dad, I guess. Then he and Beth sail out into the sunset with the Trust’s boat that she spent hundreds of thousands fixing up.”
“You don’t sound very sympathetic. Hell, they’re dying.”
“Then die on your own dime. It’s not her boat.”
Elliot said nothing, just went down below and entered some information in the log book for the hour. Benson sat and stared at the wake, phosphorescent in the dark night and after a few more minutes went to his berth.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
They were passing the Coronado Islands at the Mexican border when the winds reached their thirty five knot peak, the lights of San Diego dim on the north western horizon, then the wind veering to the south and making their progress increasingly difficult as they beat into the growing seas. This was no longer a race but a rendezvous at a known destination, so Elliot and Benson agreed to go easy on the boat, reduce sail to reduce the pounding, and fall off the wind a bit and head south west so that the seas and wind were not quite a beam reach.
“We’ll go out maybe a hundred miles, then tack back,” Benson called up from the navigation table, braced as the boat slid down a wave, Elliot wedged under the dodger to avoid the spray and rain. “Will delay us a day, maybe, but we get there in a lot better shape.”
“Sounds good to me,” Elliot bellowed back over the sound of the wind and waves. “Though this ain’t much of a storm. More like a near gale, to me.”
“Weather says this passes in a day but another bigger storm coming in a day or two after that. Right about the time we approach the anchorage.”
“Great. Love to approach land in a storm. Makes it more interesting.” He laughed, clearly enjoying the movement of the boat, the wild sound of the wind and water.
Below, Benson smiled. This was the kind of crew to have, a shipmate he not only trusted but who was enjoying the challenge as much as Benson did. He absently rubbed his sore knee as he sat, plotting their course. The sound of the wind and water, the creak of the boat as it crested the ten foot swells, the soft patter of rain on the deck top three feet above his head, the sound of a well found boat working in the ocean…all this gave him a deep satisfaction that he realized he never felt in court. Why would sailing cause him greater joy than the intellectual challenge of running a trial? Why would he like this at all?
A friend once told him that the same percentage of women enjoy sailing as percentage of men who enjoy dancing. He argued that both are deeply ingrained loves of the respective sexes, probably based on evolutionary needs of a million years ago. And both are very real. When he mentioned that concept to one of his dates who was an anthropologist during a dinner dance at the yacht club, she postulated that men seek to explore looking for food and territory for the tribe while women, who are critical to the social connections within a tribe, communicate within the tribe and dancing is communication. As good a theory as any, he supposed.
Benson absently touched the bandage the paramedic had given him for his nose for times he slept. The padding was supposed to avoid undue pain if he rolled onto his face when asleep. It didn’t work. He smiled grimly. The Presiding Judge wouldn’t be able to argue about the injury, that was for sure. Again, he felt that resentment at having to report to a boss as to his working hours. He was, when all was said and done, a civil servant in a black bathrobe. The judge he beat out for the seat told him that over drinks in a bar but Benson had thought it was sour grapes. Now he wasn’t so sure.
He increased and decreased the radar range, checking for potential traffic problems, idly wondering if any of the blips could be Glory. He imagined Beth and Ellen chatting in the cockpit of that lovely boat much as Elliot and he did. She was close to more than fifteen years younger than he was. He knew nothing about her, really. Could he bring her to a yacht club function without everyone in the room looking at the rich judge with the pretty blonde and thinking he had robbed the cradle? Did he care? He thought a moment and decided he did not. He wanted to know her more. Wanted to spend a week cruising the coast with her and see if he felt as close to her as he did to Elliot. Closer. To his slight surprise, he realized he wanted that very much.
Because she was pretty? Because she was young? Maybe. But more than that, he was somehow sure. He liked her trying to protect her aunt. He liked her calm support. Maybe he just liked her, period. He smiled.
Elliot was right. Beth was secondary now. His father? He simply didn’t know. He carefully walked in the rolling boat to his forward berth, reached into the locker at its starboard side and brought out the folded wad of paper that was Beth’s latest letter to him. Moving with it to the salon, he slid into the seat next to the table, wedged himself in against the roll, and unfolded the letter. At random, he flipped through the twenty pages of closely written paper and mid way through the stack began to read.
I’ve thought about it quite a lot. It may sound silly and perhaps it is, but I think your father was embarrassed by the way he was knocked out of the case. He expected to be in some type of gun fight, I suppose, with visions of shooting back and forth like in some detective novel. Instead, he was disfigured and blinded by a young boy with a jar of acid on his way out of a bar. Not glorious to his way of thinking and his life destroyed not ended in a thrilling battle against evil. He didn’t understand that the people he was fighting were not interested in battles but in eliminating a business threat and doing so cheaply and quickly.
And…and this is me guessing, I admit…I think the fact that he was blind so he could not see how badly disfigured he was made a big difference. He didn’t know if he was horrible to look at. He was afraid that people would not be able to look at him without looking away. He was embarrassed. Blind and disfigured in a foreign land. Suddenly useless to take on the enemy. He had been ousted from the fight, made ugly. He was always vain…with good reason, for he was as handsome as you, John. And now he was a freak, he feared. So, he didn’t contact me and tell me what had happened. Or your mother. I had to go to him to find out.
Benson put the letter down, staring across the cabin at the books behind the beveled glass doors to the shelves of his salon and seeing nothing. That’s how the blindness came. He remembered the letter his father wrote, sitting at that table with a gun nearby, the gunslinger taking on the bad guys. The hero isn’t supposed to lose. And get ugly. No wonder he dropped out of sight. He had given up all for the big fight. And lost. And did not go down with flags flying and trumpets blowing. Acid on his face, lying in a dusty street screaming in Mexico. Benson felt slightly ill. And somehow ashamed. He shook his head at his own reaction. He picked up the letter.
So our initial meeting was so odd. He wouldn’t let me turn the light on in his dark room in his small apartment in Saltillo, kept looking away, mumbling that light hurt his eyes, poor dear, he had no eyes to hurt by then. A day or two went by like that, stilted talk, evasion, until I burst into tears and kissed his mouth, his ruined eyes, his hands, he feeling my tears on his face and told him, shouting at him, I think, that I loved him and he was more handsome than ever, he had given so much and his beauty was deeper than ever. He began to cry and we sat there in his dark room, holding each other.
And during that long night was when we began to do what later became so important to us. Talking and remembering our first times together, those glorious days and nights on Glory two years before, our golden time. We just talked and talked. He had been mostly alone in that dark room for months, desperate to talk I think. Alone, lonely, thinking about suicide, thinking about you. But after days of talking, days of remembering, I got him out of that dark room, then out on the porch where he could feel the wind on his burned face.
He wasn’t so badly scarred, really. Half his face was scarred, all of his forehead, but I have seen worse from burns. But, as I said, he was vain. He wanted no one to see him. He would never go home to the United States, that was made very clear to me.
And your mother was a saint, John. She had reasons to hate me and reasons to hate your father, as you know. But when she received my letter, she began the allowance to him that allowed him to stay in comfort, to have people take care of him when I could not be there and with my own responsibilities, that was half the time. She asked for nothing. Asked almost no questions. She simply began sending the checks. And never stopped. I realized she loved him very much. I did harm there, I know. She is a good woman.
Anything to keep her ex away from her darling boy, Benson thought. But perhaps that was too easy to conclude. He remembered how his mother had defended his father during one of the nights in her room. Elliot had it right. Motivations are multiple, often contradictory.
And his father had eventually wanted to come up and she did threaten to pull his allowance. Beth didn’t know about that, clearly, But his father, at least one time, did want to see Benson. He wondered how he, as a teen ager, would have reacted to the acid scarred blind father coming in the door.
But his mother had shut that down. But kept the letters. He played with the letter on the salon table, lifting it up and dropping it down. His mother had loved his father. Why else keep the letters? Why else send him money? Why else lie to your son about the allowance going to him? Protecting her men from themselves to the end. He realized he had not thought to call her during this latest escapade. Had called the Presiding Judge he hated but not his mother. He closed his eyes in self disgust. He knew so little about his own mother. His own father.
He read the final pages.
I once read that Albert Speer, sentenced to twenty years for his crimes while armaments minister to Hitler, would walk in a garden in Spandau Prison, imagining a walking trip around the world, reading about the area and picturing it as he walked. He walked the world in twenty years.
Eventually, that is what your father and I did, John. We sailed the world in thirty years. I cannot tell you the joy we felt as we traveled in my stories, sometimes your father adding some details, but almost always the stories coming from me. We would sit in his garden in our home in Santa Maria, not far from the ocean, hearing the waves, and drink sweet tea. The wind would be so warm and hours would pass with him rapt as I built up our imaginary life together. We lived a wonderful life. Asia, the south pacific, even the Antarctic. We went all those places. We had plenty of time. Sometimes we would sit the whole night through, those warm nights, my voice becoming hoarse as we sailed the rivers of South America or the English Channel.
I could only be there perhaps half of the time. Those times were magic to me, became so central to my life. I now know that he had another woman when I was not there. I don’t care. What we had was so wonderful, so special. So deep. And I can’t blame him, really. Imagine alone and blind in a foreign land. Of course he needed comfort. And he always made sure she was gone when I arrived. And I always told him when I would be there when he needed me.
Only when he discovered his days were soon over did we discuss this voyage. It is no coincidence we are both dying, John. Our lives have been entwined for decades. They will end together, of course. And I know you think I am silly and selfish. But Glory is our life, first in reality and then in imagination and soon in reality again. He always asked about the boat. I fixed it up for him, you know. For us.
Can you understand? I think a part of you can. I am so glad you are coming. You are my last gift to him, I think. You must see him. He must “see” you. You are so much alike but do not really know that. You must see him before the end.
Benson threw the pages down in exasperation. Why did that woman have to gush? Why did she annoy him so? He leaned back on the salon seat and shouted, “I hate this mutton headed old hippie with her love beads and her lovey dovey crap.”
Elliot stuck his head down the companionway hatch. Water dripped from his hat. “Get in touch with your inner child, you son of a bitch,” he bellowed, laughed and went back to keeping watch.
Benson folded the letter up again, sitting there, strangely angry. Who was she to arrange their lives, to decide he should see his father, to take money she didn’t own, fix up the boat, and steal it in violation of his order so she could have her sail to Nirvana? He remembered that Dinesen had been a story teller as well, telling endless stories to her big game hunter lover in the home her family bought for her in Africa.
Then he realized why he was so angry. They both believed their own stories. They made the whole world conform to their own vision of their own fabricated lives. The fantasy she created for his father was created for herself. That’s fine. But then she rammed it down the throats of all the others. If she wanted to sail to paradise, she should have gotten a job, bought the boat, and not exploited others to do it.
He knew he was overacting. He didn’t know why. He was on watch in four more hours. Time to get some sleep.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
The gale blew itself out as they passed the course change point they had plotted about one hundred miles from land and two hundred and thirty miles from Santa Maria. A south easterly course should bring them to the Bay entrance in a little over two days, perhaps half a day after the next storm was to hit. Elliot and Benson sat in the cockpit in the returning warmth of the sun, eating one of Elliot’s omelets from the pan placed on the cockpit floor, a loaf of now stale French bread and two glasses of orange juice next to the pan. Elliot had thrown into the omelet just about anything he found loose in the refrigerator and, as usual, the end result was surprisingly good.
“They’re not talking about the storm of the century,” Elliot muttered as he put his finger on the chart lying next to him in the cockpit. “We’ve come into port in a lot worse winds than this. What are they predicting? Forty knots? Twelve foot swells. We came into Monterey six years ago with a lot worse.”
“With a lot more crew.”
“Considering some of the crew we’ve had, we’re probably better off with just you and I.”
They both chuckled and kept studying the chart. Benson looked up. “It’ll be an on shore wind and we have to get in around that southern hook of rock to get out of the swell.” The bay was relatively large, two miles deep, three miles wide, open to the west with little protection but its southern end had a spur of rock jutting north from the headland perhaps a mile long and a mile off the beach. It was behind this natural breakwater that most boats anchored, coming to within a half mile of the shore, then turning south to get behind the rocks which jutted out from the southern headland.
“Kinda like Half Moon Bay, you know,” Elliot muttered. “You come into the bay and hook in behind the rocks. And it’s sand and mud…good holding.”
“If there’s a storm this will be a crowded anchorage. All the local fishing boats will be hiding behind those rocks, waiting out the storm. And whatever cruisers happen to be dropping in.”
“Not a big cruising destination. Never been there, myself, on the way down or up.”
“Same here. No yard. No big pier. Town of maybe ten thousand, mostly local fishermen. Barren hills behind. Semi desert like the rest of Baja. Small airport. Not a bad road. I think a couple of local resorts. Maybe more now.”
“Why your dad pick that dump? Thought he was big time lawyer.”
“I’ll show you her letter. He played with some pretty tough thugs, they threw acid in his face, blinded him. In Saltillo in northern Mexico. He ended up here cause it’s cheap, I imagine. And near the ocean.”
“Shit. They get the guys?”
“We’re talking twenty or thirty years ago. I have no idea. Probably not. This is Mexico. The thugs probably own the town.”
“And you just learned all this?”
Elliot leaned back and studied Benson’s face. “Hell, you thought your dad was dead a week ago, now you find out he’s alive, blind and waiting for you. With your new girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“I read her letter. She’s going to be. And this crazy old hoot of a woman. You’re going to have a busy week. You also have a nose that is crooked and black and can hardly walk.”
“And my father’s blind and scarred with acid. Ugly faces are a family tradition.”
Elliot grinned but reached over and held Benson’s shoulder. “You sure you want to do this, John? This is pretty heavy shit.”
Benson picked up the orange juice. “Well. We’re down here. Came over a thousand miles. Think I ought to see it to the end.”
“And what’s that? How we get Glory back?”
“Local cops will hold it, I’m hoping. Once they find out I’m a judge and you’re a detective. Let the nephews figure out how to get a delivery captain. It’s their boat. Then maybe you, Ellen and I can bring Ariel back, at least to San Diego. I’ll have to fly from there and make up with the Presiding Judge, come back later to bring her the rest of the way.”
“Ellen, huh? Guess I’ll be spending a lot of time on watch.”
”It’s not like that.”
“Right. Now what about your Dad? Beth?”
“What about them? She doesn’t own the boat. The trust does. I’ll call Phelps, her lawyer, and get him to take her back. She’s his problem, now. She’s in contempt of court.”
“You’re really pissed at her, aren’t you?”
“You just can’t break the law like this, Elliot. You, of all people, have to know that.”
Elliot kept studying Benson’s face. “You are going to have trouble with her niece if you come on like this. The old lady is dying. Maybe you should cut her some slack.”
Benson leaned back in the cockpit and looked out over the sparkling sea. The wind was still good, perhaps fifteen knots from the west, the boat moving nicely. The movement was comforting. “I don’t know why she pisses me off so much.”
“She broke up your parents’ marriage, you idiot. Of course you’re pissed. What do you expect? Even a judge has parents, I’m told.”
“Maybe. Hard to think of my mother married to anyone. It’s just something about Beth, how she acts caring and loving but somehow others have to take care of her. Other people pay the price.”
Benson looked at Elliot. “Like Ellen. Like the trust she looted to create her boat for her voyage to heaven. For the last three decades she’d drop by at her convenience and see my dad and pretend they were sailing. Told him nice stories. Meanwhile, my mother paid the bills.”
Elliot finished the omelet. “I’m telling you, you want Ellen to be sweet to you, you’d better ease up on Auntie. How about your dad?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what to do about him. Maybe nothing. Maybe….hell, I don’t know.”
“And…look, it’s not my business…”
“What do you expect someone to do when they get the final death sentence? Seems to me what she’s doing ain’t so bad. Coming home to the guy she loved so they can sail into the sunset. I’d kinda like my wife to do that for me if I was checking out.”
Benson smiled. “Can’t believe a detective is a romantic.”
Elliot actually blushed, shook his head angrily, picked up the pan and went below.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
They began preparations for arrival at the bay at Santa Maria twelve hours before they would get there. They had the usual storm preparation to accomplish and more due to the need to anchor. Ariel had two anchors permanently placed on the bowsprit, each connected to its own chain and rope which led through two separate holes in the foredeck to the anchor locker below. There was not much room in the anchor locker and the chain for the two anchors was piled in two pyramids under the respective holes, often piled up to the hole itself. In any real seaway, the pyramids of piled chain had a habit of falling over, trapping much of the chain under the fallen pile, making it impossible to pull the chain out of the locker. And the chain weighed many hundreds of pounds.
It was going to be vital to anchor perfectly and quickly and they had just been through a gale which had toppled both pyramids of chain. So they took turns pulling the chain out on deck, carefully flaking it, and, of course, much of it was already buried and caught under the pyramid of heavy chain so someone in the forepeak below had to keep pulling the chain out from the pile while the man on deck pulled the chain he could through the small hole to the deck. It was exhausting dirty work, both were covered with mud that encased the chain from dozens of past anchorings, and it was hot below decks pulling on the heavy chain. It took hours before they were each satisfied that the chain to both anchors was flaked just right and ready to run free at a moment’s notice.
Then came the problem of keeping it like that since the dark clouds gathering to the west made it quite clear that the coming storm would be just as likely to topple their new pyramids of chain over. The solution was to coil the first hundred feet of chain on deck, tie it down so it could not shift, and not depend on the chain in the locker at all. Again, exhausting work and Benson’s knee and wrist were both throbbing as if newly injured by the time he was done as the sun set behind them into the wall of dark clouds now covering half of the western sky.
As Benson finished tying the chain on deck, Elliot was already below making up the ready meals that they would eat during the storm. They had already triple tied all fittings on deck as usual before the storm. Benson spent some time putting new sealant in the hatch for the companionway which had begun to drip in the last gale.
After some thought, Benson went below to change the two fuel filters. With diesel, various sediments gathered at the bottom of the large fuel tanks, even algae would grow in there. In the movement in high seas, the sediment was mixed up into the fuel and can quickly clog the filter and the engine dies. They could not afford that approaching this anchorage. Might as well change the oil filters while he was at it.
Thus the two men worked in quiet harmony, preparing their boat for the hour of challenge that the anchoring would require. They said little, both noting the rise in the sound of wind and water as the storm came near. They finished all the preparations they could think of around midnight, snacked on some of the food Elliot had prepared, then Benson went on deck to start his watch while Elliot swayed to his berth, needing all the handholds below to stay balanced. He wanted some sleep before the anchoring. Night arrived just as he fell asleep.
They had decided to come into the bay at dawn. Anchoring in a storm on a lee shore was bad enough. Anchoring at night in a storm was looking for trouble. They would sail back and forth ten miles out from the Bay entrance until light, then try their luck. Sunrise was at six thirty.
They were only thirty miles out when the full storm hit but going downwind, the wind, peaking at forty three knots, it did not seem so bad, especially with the swells coming from behind. The rain was warm and only occasional, little spray with the boat moving in the same direction as the chop. They surfed down the waves, the boat topping twelve knots in speed often, triple reefed main and a small staysail out to keep her in control. This was not a particularly bad storm and if it was not for the difficulty of anchoring neither Elliot nor Benson would have given it much thought. Ariel was made for heavy seas, they had both been through much worse weather and they both enjoyed working together.
Benson kept a close radar watch, knowing that visibility in the seas would be difficult, that fishing boats without radar would be coming into the bay and it was up to him to keep out of their way. In this dark night they would not easily see his running lights and if his past experience was any indication, most of the small fishing boats, ancient wooded home built craft, would have no running lights at all.
Without being asked, at three am Elliot was on deck an hour before his watch, fully suited, bringing up hot coffee. He saw Benson tethered in the cockpit in his full foul weather gear, hood up, shining in the dim light from the compass. Elliot handed him the mug, clicked on his tether, stood besides Benson and gave the horizon a good all round look. “
“Surf’s up, dude.” He chortled.
“About time to come beam to the wind and hold out here waiting for light,” Benson called over the wind.
“Ready when you are. Should be a lot of rocking and rolling.” They smiled at each other, then Elliot went to the staysail winch to prepare to crank it in a bit as Benson turned beam to the seas and wind. They would patrol a few miles in each direction across the bay entrance until first light, then make their dash to get behind the rock breakwater.
Beam to seas and wind, the boat rolled thirty degrees a side and the boat made a steady eight knots, beam reaches being her best point of sail. She fairly flew along, almost leaping over the waves despite her heavy displacement. It was similar to the seas Benson had fought when he had to go over the side to make his repair. His knee throbbed as he remembered.
Benson looked at Elliot. “Want to play at the wheel?”
“You bet. Let me have it for a while.”
He was still there hours later as the sun came up, the rain now past, but the wind still howling. Benson leaned next to him so he could hear him over the wind. “I’m going to drop the main when we get into the bay. We should only need the staysail and we can furl it from the cockpit. Once we turn the corner, you go up to the foredeck and get the anchors ready. I’ll turn the engine on but we go in under staysail.”
“Radar showed three small boats passing us into the bay last night. None now. Don’t know what they were. Couldn’t see anything.”
“They see us?”
“Doubt it. Had the radar detector on. No one scanned us. These guys can’t afford radar.”
“Neither can I. Only you rich judges.” He laughed, enjoying himself and the adrenalin beginning to build.
With the heavy cloud cover, there was no rising sun before them, only a gradual lightening of the gray skies. On the horizon, they could make out the stark hills of Baja, scrub and cactus dotting the yellow and tan ridges. Even from seven miles out they could make out the white water of the breakers hitting the high cliffs as they approached. No other vessels were in sight, Santa Maria appeared some hundreds of white buildings clustered on the shore and half way up two of the ridges.
They were within five miles before seeing the breakers hitting the rocks that made up the southern spur, white water and spray going high in the air. They set course to pass a half mile to the north of the spur and Elliot went to the mast to drop the main while Benson turned the engine on, keeping it in neutral. His hand shook a little. He knew it was adrenalin. Not only was he not afraid, he was loving this. In about an hour would come their test.
Any boats anchored behind the spur would be invisible with the rocks and spray hiding them and Benson concentrated on surfing down the waves and staying on course and did not see the wreck that was Glory until Elliot shouted at him, pointing to the spur. She was about three quarters of a mile away.
He recognized her instantly, her long sleek hull clearly visible as she rode up and down on the breakers. She was on the ocean side of the spur, beam to the seas, rising on the swells and crashing down on the rocks hard as each wave passed. She had already lost her mast, half of it bent over the side, shredded sails flapping in the high wind. Even from this distance it was clear her back was broken, the forepart of the boat at a slight angle down. Behind her was tied an inflatable boat with a large outboard, the wind pushing it back and forth wildly, its outboard smashing down on the rocks. In that boat was a lone figure in foul weather gear, leaning over the outboard, clearly trying to start the motor. No one else was to be seen.
A particularly large wave passed Glory, lifted her higher than before, and dropped her hard enough to crack her hull open. The forward portion of the hull bent down, the stern angled up, a jagged line appearing on the white hull midships. He thought he could hear the outboard motor even from here, but he could not be sure. Then the figure in the inflatable stood up, looking back to Glory. Glory’s stump of a mast still standing began to sag forward and he could see her shrouds and stays snapping as the remaining mast came down. The figure in the inflatable sat down in the boat, not working at the outboard any longer. Benson realized the outboard was not starting. Another wave washed over the inflatable, soaking the person and the outboard. It would never start now.
Elliot was shouting at him. He looked away from the wreck. Elliot was standing at the mast, pulling out some of the heavy line from the belaying pins at the mast. He looked back at Benson, head tilted. Benson nodded, put the boat in gear, and angled towards the wreck. Elliot staggered back to the cockpit with the line, cleated it to the largest cleat for the jib winch, looped the hundred feet of line over his big arm, and carefully coiled it in the cockpit. Neither man spoke. They each knew the drill.
Elliot would toss the line to the inflatable. The person on it should tie it on and Ariel would haul the inflatable off the rocks. Before doing so, they would tell the person, whoever it was, to get the rest of the crew into the inflatable.
To make that work Benson would have to come, beam to the seas, within fifty or sixty feet of the spur. The waves and wind would be pushing Ariel to the spur so he would have to angle slightly away, motor at full force, to keep close enough to toss the line but far enough away not to be the next wreck there.
It would be a near run thing. If anything went wrong, Ariel could be destroyed. If all went right, they would tow the inflatable away from the wreck, quickly motor around and behind the spur and anchor. Glory was gone.
The rain began again, heavy. Elliot pulled off his foul weather coat to give his arm free movement, pulling on the life jacket and tether again, carrying the throwing line over his arm as he moved to mid ships, the place from which he would throw the line. Ariel rode up and down the swells coming from the west, each over ten feet, the boat rolling thirty degrees from one side to the other. The force of the swells was moving Ariel closer and closer to the rocks and Benson began to angle away, hoping to let the swells counter that course so that the stern was close enough to the inflatable. He would, effectively, make a rough circle towards the wreck and away, not stopping as he made the circuit. The staysail, the only sail up, was far too small to beat against these seas and there was no time to raise the other sails. The engine would have to do it.
In the wind he could barely hear the engine though it was at full throttle. Elliot was holding his arm up with the throwing line at the person in the inflatable, trying to tell him or her what the plan was by that gesture. Benson felt it was Ellen. She sat there and did not move. Benson saw that within a minute they would be at the closest part of the circle and would begin to move away…they could not stop the boat there, he had to keep underway and loop in and out or he would end up on top of Glory.
Elliot bellowed in his loudest voice at the inflatable. At last she seemed to understand and stood up, one hand holding onto the outboard as the inflatable twisted and turned at the end of its tether to the boat. She stood there looking at them. Benson was now absolutely sure it was Ellen, though he could not see her face. The rain let up a little.
Benson screamed at Elliot, “She has to get the others from the boat into the inflatable and cut free the minute the line is attached. I can’t stop here.”
“Roger,” Elliot screamed back. Then to her, “Where is the other crew? Get them on board your inflatable!”
She just stood here, not answering. “”Damn it, get the crew on board the inflatable!” Elliot screamed again. She stood there and then, unbelievably, sat down. Could she hear them? Benson and Elliot looked at each other. She might be in shock. She might be too frightened to do anything. She might be injured. The others might be dead. Benson knew that people in survival situations often froze and could stay frozen for hours. He had seen it. He was seeing it.
“Tell her to tie your line on and cut the tether to Glory,” he shouted at Elliot. .
Elliot nodded his head. He knew the symptoms and looked doubtful. “Tie on and cut the tether to Glory” he screamed as they came within the throwing distance. She stood up again. The swell lifted Glory high and at the high point Elliot tossed the throw line.
The wind took it and unraveled the coil quickly, the line falling across the inflatable. “Great throw!” he shouted to Elliot, watching to see what she would do, the line now across the width of the inflatable. He figured she had thirty seconds before his circuit would pull the line away from the inflatable and back in the water. In that time she had to tie on, cut the tether and hold on for the shock of the tow line coming taut.
She stood there. She did not reach for the rope for a good five seconds. She just stood there and looked at it. Then she began to move towards the line a few feet from her. The next swell, larger than the others, lifted Ariel again and five seconds the later that same wave smashed into the inflatable, flooding it, burying it under white foam. When the wave subsided the inflatable was empty. She had been washed away.
Benson stared at the water but could see no sign of her. Ariel was now too close to the rocks herself, within fifty feet, close enough to Glory to see every detail of her shattered hull. He desperately turned Ariel away from the spur, felt an even larger wave lift Ariel up, held his breath fearful of hearing the shock of the rocks hitting Ariel as she went into the trough, and breathed again when the wave passed, dropping Ariel down. Ariel had not hit anything. Full throttle he motored directly away from the spur.
Then the engine stopped. Stopped dead. He looked up at Elliot who was still midships, staring at him. He instantly knew what had happened. The tow line in the water, trailing behind the boat, had been sucked into the prop and wrapped around the shaft. That instantly jammed the movement of the prop shaft and killed the engine. Benson had done that once or twice over the years and the only solution was to dive down into the water and cut the line free. No big deal, he had scuba gear aboard. If one had an hour or so the problem was solved.
Sixty or so feet from the spur, the swells pushing Ariel to the rocks, he had perhaps a half minute before she would hit. He leaped to the ignition key at the companionway in the faint hopeless hope that it just might start. He saw Elliot stagger to the life raft canister, unsnap its shackles and lift it high in the air, moving to the side of the boat away from the rocks, towards the wind and waves. “Other side!” Benson screamed but Elliot didn’t seem to hear him.
Benson turned the key, heard the ignition start the engine and the engine immediately die, shaft jammed. He looked towards the rocks. She would hit in the next few seconds. He moved towards Elliot who was tying the inflating line for the life raft to the lifelines before throwing it overboard to automatically inflate with its CO cartridge packed inside the canister. He tossed it.
The sound of the first strike was a deep muffled thud and the boat immediately bounced up again, then wallowed as the next wave pushed her further up on the spur, perhaps a two hundred feet north of the broken Glory. The wave quickly passed and Ariel dropped down hard on the rocks, a cracking sound from the hull, a sound of tearing, then she tilted far over to her left, a forty then fifty degree angle as she settled onto the now bare foam covered rocks. Benson moved along the tilted deck towards Elliot who had braced himself against the angle of the deck and was watching the next roller heading to the boat.
Elliot had now realized his mistake in throwing the raft over the windward side. The raft, immediately inflating automatically, pushed open its canister but the wind seized it instantly and pressed it tight against the hull of the boat. Rocks on one side, wind on the other, Ariel smashed between, he should have launched the raft from the stern of the boat, not its beam. For a few moments, the raft pressed against Ariel, bouncing against the boat’s hull in the flailing water.
“Idiot! I’m an idiot,” screamed Elliot, looking at Benson. “Follow me, quick.” He unsnapped his tether. Then he jumped over the nearly horizontal lifelines and onto the top of the fully inflated raft four feet below in the water. Hitting the top, he twisted and fell into the opening in the yellow colored rubber roof. He wasn’t leaving Benson behind…he and Benson both realized that only weight in the raft would stop it from flying out of the water and against the boat in the high winds. Rafts were designed so that the weight of the people inside acted as ballast. In this wind and with large waves crashing against the hull, the only chance to keep the raft from flying into Ariel’s rigging and ripping apart was to put weight inside. Weight meant Elliot and Benson. Even then, she might well smash herself against the hull as the waves washed her against the doomed and stranded boat.
Benson had to move and move fast. He hobbled to midships near the raft, crawled over the life line now almost horizontal to the water, unclipped his tether, slid down the side of the boat, and leaped onto the life raft’s roof. In his haste, he timed it badly, a wave coming just as he landed on the slick rubber roof and quickly washing him off the raft into the water between the raft and Ariel. The rubber of the raft pushed his body hard against Ariel, pushing his breath out of him. The water seemed warm. His life vest automatically inflated, giving him some padding. He felt his face pressed against the hull. With the boat on its side, the anti fouling red paint was all he could see, his head under the swirling water. The wave passed, the raft moved away a little and he felt himself dropping down, the rock suddenly touching his feet. The life raft, still tethered to Ariel, was swinging around. Through the opening in the raft he saw Elliot staring at him, then an arm reaching down to grab him.
Too late. Another wave came and lifted both Benson and the raft high, then the wind caught the raft and flipped it over on its side, spilling Elliot out into the water near Benson. Relieved of all its weight, the raft seemed to fly out of the water in the wind, flew across the tilted hull and over the life lines to the end of its tether still tied to the lifelines. The raft was pinned against the mast, vertical, spilling out its survival packages of food and water. Then the wave surged past and Benson and Elliot fell down on the foam covered rock, barnacles tearing their skin, Ariel high above them, rocking back and forth on her side. All they could see was the red painted bottom of the hull, as they lay in the pools on the rocks, the boat towering above them. Elliot’s life vest had also inflated.
“Got to get out from under,” screamed Elliot. He grabbed Benson by the collar of his foul weather gear and they leaped away from the rocks into the surging water. The life vests cushioned some of the hits against the rocks but the next wave immediately brought them back under Ariel which rose up, then crashed down within feet of them, a terrible splintering sound as the far side of the hull split open against the rocks.
Benson saw Elliot staring at him. Benson realized he was crying. This time Benson grabbed Elliot and pulled both of them into the water. “Kick, kick,” he screamed at Elliot. They had to get away from the boat before it rolled onto them or lost its mast which could come down and smash them or get them tangled in the rigging.
Useless. The waves were so powerful that their pitiful kicks meant nothing and the next swell pushed them high and back on the rocks. They hit hard against the black, sharp, barnacle covered rocks, blood now pouring from torn hands and arms. “Don’t fight it,” Elliot gasped, “surf over the damned rocks.” Benson nodded and, perversely, now the back flow from the wave pulled them back off the rocks towards the ocean.
Benson and Elliot looked at each other, both with blood dripping from cuts on their foreheads. Then Elliot grinned. “Surfs up, Dude. Swim with the waves.” They both began to kick and paddle before the next wave hit, trying to get north of the smashed Ariel so that they wouldn’t surf into the boat.
The wave lifted both and Benson felt himself surging over the rock towards Ariel. He paddled as hard as he could to the north, felt Elliot bump into him trying to do the same thing and both hit the bottom of Ariel’s hull instead. They were pushed hard against it. As the wave receded, Benson pulled Elliot’s head towards him so he could hear. “Crawl along the hull to the rear of the boat. We have to get around it before the next wave.”
Elliot nodded and they both used the hands and bodies tight against the hull to inch back to the stern of the boat. Benson saw a shattered wood and beveled glass door to his salon float past. He had installed those a decade before. He kept pulling himself along until the receding water pulled him away from the boat and then he paddled as hard as he could to the north. Behind him, he heard Elliot gasping.
The next wave hit and again they tried to surf ahead of it, to ride it over the breakwater. This time they were clear of the boat and made it half way over the spur before the water began to recede, both of them hitting hard against the higher rocks at the highest point of the spur. They both desperately held onto the rocks as the water receded, trying not to lose their progress, knowing that if they were pulled back they would simply pound into the same rocks over and over until they were dead. They were literally holding on for their lives.
The water receded and both were on their knees in pools of water. Behind him Benson heard the sound of the next wave surging forward. He stood up and leaped as high as he could onto the rock in front of him, seeing Elliot doing the same out of the corner of his eyes. He grabbed onto it and braced himself.
The wave hit and he was smashed against the rock, felt sudden sharp pain in his ribs and he was torn free as if he had not held on at all. He felt himself swirling in the water and felt the water begin to pull him back. Behind him he heard another splintering sound and the snapping sounds of shrouds parting. The mast must be coming down. He held his breath, ducked under the water as much as his life vest would allow, and desperately grasped at any handhold he could find in the rocks, trying to stop his loss of all forward progress. His felt a sharp pain in his side. Broken ribs, he was sure.
The receding water found him on his stomach, fifty feet further back towards the ocean than Elliot who had managed to hold onto the rock. Elliot looked back at him. “Move your lazy ass, judge,” he screamed.
Benson grinned despite himself and shoved himself up, gritting his teeth against the pain, slogging among the rocks in the ankle deep water, feeling as if he was moving in tar. As he heard the next wave roar behind him he jumped up and caught the surge, again hitting the same rock as before, the pain in his ribs intense. This time he shoved himself up as the water surged around him, found the top of the rock underwater and with a desperate push shoved himself over the top. When the water receded the rock was at his back. He had stayed on the east side, at the top of the spur.
Elliot was about a hundred feet further towards shore, near the relatively calm bay water on the far side of the spur. He was waving his hands above his head at the six or seven small fishing boats anchored behind the protection of the breakwater, the chop here less than three feet. White water still came over the highest part of the breakwater, but they were now being shoved towards the bay instead of pulled back into the ocean. Benson staggered through the white water towards the edge of the spur, felt the water recede, landed on his injured knee, screamed at the pain, tried to stand, slipped on the rock and fell forward. He desperately moved his face to the side, trying to avoid striking his broken nose and instead smashed the side of his head on the rock.
For a moment he lost consciousness entirely, darkness seeming to well up at the side of his vision. He kept crawling over the rocks, determined to get to the edge next to the bay. Suddenly he saw a bloody hand in front of his eyes. He was on his back, propped against a rock, Elliot waving his hands in front of his eyes.
“I’m fine. Ok.”
“Right. Hold on here. Use both hand.”
He couldn’t move his hands, somehow, He blacked out again. He dimly heard an engine, opened his eyes and saw a fishing boat motoring towards them, then drifted off again.
He regained consciousness in the small hospital bed that evening. I arrived the two days later.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
Though it was her nephews that called me to tell me of the shipwreck, I still was attorney for Beth in her role as Trustee and in that capacity had to deal with the various Mexican officials, coast guard, policia. My smattering of Spanish was not up to the challenge and a Mexican attorney I had worked with twice before came from Mexico City and met me at the small airport when I arrived late afternoon. Pedro Cadros was in his late thirties, well dressed and well groomed, in an open necked shirt and a sports coat. His face was grim. His English was near perfect, even his slang.
He had a rental car in the small parking lot. We each carried one of my suitcases. “At least three dead, maybe four. Only one body found, apparently your client but it’s still hard to know.
“I don’t get it. The wreck was in the bay, I thought.”
“Just outside the bay. Outside a rocky ledge that acts as a break water. The boat..the boats…broke into small pieces during the night. Most of the boats and their contents ended up scattered out to sea. Odds and ends on the beach. And one body.”
“And Judge Benson’s boat?”
“Equally destroyed but he and his crew are injured but alive in the local hospital. Broken bones, things like that. We have their life raft, torn up but it made it to the beach. And a..blow up…how do you say it…a boat you blow up?”
“Inflatable boat from Glory ended up on a beach nearby with a ruined outboard attached. It was half afloat, not worth much I am sure. From the boats, some small broken personal effects, much wood and fiberglass wreckage. Some spoiled food. We think two and maybe three more persons missing.”
It was stifling in the car and we rolled down the windows. He drove with some recklessness through the parking lot. I remembered how he drove in Mexico City and looked around for a seat belt. There was none. He glanced over, saw what I was doing, and smiled. “Hardly any traffic here, Mr. Phelps. Small town. Dead town. Don’t worry.”
I held the handrail as we swerved around corners though the white dirty buildings. He had made a reservation for me at one of the small resorts near the beach. I liked the palms and the warm air. “Who’s missing besides the niece?”
Pedro glanced at me before responding. “Benson’s father, apparently. A blind man well known around here. A local hero of some kind. And a young crew they picked up in California may or may not be on board. We aren’t sure. But no one survived that wreck. Someone has to pay for the spilled diesel fuel on the beach, you know. The trust have that kind of money?”
“Depends on the cost. Are we talking about bribes or clean up?”
He barked a laugh. “What do you think? You’ve done business in this country. You know.”
I immediately liked the resort. Next to the beach, small white washed cottages, stunted palms and pines, sound of the surf strong, the storm still not fully blown out. There was no one at the front desk and Pedro reached across, took a key, winked at me, and taking one of my two suitcases led to a cottage next to his. Tropical plants before the thick weathered oak door, red tiled floor, beat up but heavy wooden furniture, through the windows on the far end the ocean and the bay, whitecaps still visible, three or four colorful wood fishing boats rocking on the water. Only sound wind and water.
He watched me looking around the room. “You Americans are odd. To me this is a beat up place. Nothing good. You like it.”
“I do. No plastic, no chrome.”
“But for me, more plastic and chrome would be good. And the food here is not good. You like fish?”
He laughed. ”Then you will starve. We will see the policia and coast guard tomorrow morning. Many, many, many forms. You will wish to see the judge and the police man?”
“His crew. A detective in the Los Angeles police. Big man. Strong man.”
“He brought a cop along?”
“It would appear so.”
“I knew he would be annoyed at her violation of a court order. That seems a bit extreme.”
‘He paid a big price. You will see. Dinner at seven? We can see him tomorrow afternoon.”
“Perfect,” I said moving to unpack. “Beth’s body is at the hospital?”
“The local morgue. But you will find that the town will want some type of a ceremony before any burial is completed or you can ship the body home.”
“The town? I don’t understand.”
“Your client and her…her lover, I suppose…anyway, both of them are local celebrities, local heroes, I suppose you call them. They are loved by the town. They performed some mysterious service for the town some decades ago and are held in high regard. The local police captain explained it to me but in very evasive terms. That is why Judge Benson is being given offerings, as well as the officer.”
I sat down on the bed. The mattress was too soft. “Offerings? What do you mean?”
He shrugged and sat down on a varnished chair near a scarred round table near the window. “They are a poor town. These resorts have not…taken off, I believe you say. They fish. Some other towns are far ahead of them. Look at this place. But they are bringing to the judge small gifts to put in his room. To thank him for trying to save your client and his father. Who, by the way, they call Tiburon.”
“Tiburon? That’s shark.”
“Yes. He and Beth were beloved. Tiburon had lived here since after he was blinded. Was good for the economy since money came from the United States. He was generous. But they loved him and Beth also because of something else and I am not quite sure what. Many years ago.”
I was getting increasingly confused. “Something else?”
Very dramatic. Some legion. I will get it all soon enough. And after all these years, probably only half true. If that. You will hear about it, I am sure. Meanwhile, your Judge has a room full of trinkets. Flowers. Things like that. And from your point of view, the problem is they must have a celebration..no, that is not the right word. Wake?”
“They must find the bodies if they can. Consult with the priest. The mayor. So many more. At least a week. Then you can bury her or bring her body home. They will still want to make a memorial here.”
This wasn’t making any sense. Beth may have been a little ditzy but she was no hero. I wondered what had really happened. Whatever it was, it would be hard to know now.
Then I sighed. My job was to wrap up the trust business as best I could, arrange to have the boat pieces taken off the breakwater, to bring Beth’s body back to San Francisco to her family. Ellen’s as well. And Benson’s mother had called me and asked me to make sure he was recovering and to handle the details he could not. I figured a few days. I had a hearing coming up back home, had to get back to the office in three or four days.
He saw my expression, shrugged and smiled.
“I may be relying on your to wrap up much of this. I have to get back to San Francisco before this weekend if I can.”
“I don’t blame you. I would miss it there if I was forced to stay here.”
“I have a hearing in court. Are they searching for the bodies?”
“Of course. But the coast guard will only stay here another day at most. It costs much to motor around in these waters and, frankly, no one could survive in the waters for more than a day and if they were on land, we would know. So, if they do not come up on the beach soon, it is likely that no further action will be taken.”
“I understand. And the boats are both utterly destroyed?”
“Bits and pieces are all that is left. No, my friend, they are all dead for certain. But there is a restaurant in town that does serve more than fish. We can try that.”
A little shocked at his change of topic, I nodded and saw him to the door.
Then I unpacked and walked out to the small porch and watched the still lively sea. I could imagine Benson receiving trinkets on behalf of Beth and his father. Insult added to injury, I concluded. I remembered his face in court when Ellen had blurted out about Beth and his father. I grinned. Pretty tough stuff to hear in open court when you’re a pompous judge.
Next afternoon I visited him in that small dismal room and learned that the Judge Benson I had seen that morning in court was as much ancient history as the legion of his father and Beth.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
Next afternoon, leaving Pedro in the bar across the street from the hospital, I made my way to his tiny room, down a stuffy, hot hall, then stepping over a wealth of small pottery, fruits and flowers scattered in the hallway near his room. Inside, among piles of fruits, flowers, cards and more pottery vases, Benson sat up in bed. A copy of Stegner’s Angle of Repose was not being read on his lap and he was playing with a small flower in his hand when I walked in.
It was hard to read his expression. First, his nose was broken, flattened and discolored. Second, the top of his head was bandaged due to a concussion. Third, he was apparently drugged on pain killers for his broken ribs. I concluded it was the drugs that made him seem far more mellow than the intimidating judge I had seen in court over the years. He was not the elegant and handsome judge who dominated the court room. I liked this man much better.
I always wear a suit when on duty. It’s the uniform of a lawyer and makes roles crystal clear. At first he blinked in confusion as I carefully stepped into the room, avoiding the offerings that surrounded him. Clearly, having a San Francisco attorney walk into your decrepit hospital room in Santa Maria must be confusing.
We had had enough cases together for him to recognize me readily enough, and when I explained that I not only was representing Beth and the Trust, but had been asked by his mother to help him out as needed, he nodded with some friendliness and gestured to the chair squashed next to the bed.
I moved some jars with flowers off the seat and sat down. “Judge, I’m told your father is some sort of celebrity, here, loved by all, mourned by all. I had no idea.”
“Neither did I. Indeed, Phelps, I thought he was dead up to a week ago. Look out for that little vase near your feet, please. That’s one I hope to bring home.”
I lifted it up and moved it to the already crowded window sill. “You up to talking some business?” He leaned back on his pillow and nodded “You are aware that they have only found Beth’s body…and they are not sure it is hers. She was banged up on the rocks during the storm but they think they will figure it out soon enough. And, technically, your father and Ellen Wright are not yet legally dead.” I saw his expression change and cursed myself. “I’m sorry, judge. That was badly put. He is your father and I don’t mean to be heartless. Please accept my condolences.”
He nodded. Then, “You are sure that both he and Ellen are dead, though, are you not?”
“That’s what I am told. He was on board with Beth. Ellen apparently sailed down here with Beth and met your father here. The three inexplicably sailed out into the storm. There might have been other crew on board.”
“Ellen sailed half way down with me. The rest of the way with Beth. And they had one other crew.” He was looking out the window, not at me, voice flat.
I stared at him, waiting for him to go on. He did not. I waited a moment and continued. “There’s a good chance no bodies will be found and the Mexican Coast Guard will stop searching today. The trust will hire boats to search should you desire it. The surviving nephews have pretty much left it to our discretion, now that Beth’s body has been found.”
He kept looking out the window but nodded. I noted his hands were torn up. Probably the rocks. “I have a Mexican attorney I work with here with me. He can help with all the paperwork. I presume you lost all your papers on board. And will need some money and clothes and all the rest and we are already working to get you a temporary pass port.” Again he nodded.
I licked my lips. It was hot in the room. “I can see you’re tired, Judge, and I’ll be back tomorrow and introduce you to my colleague. Your crew is down the hall and I’ll look in now. I am sure he’ll need the passport and cash and the rest, same as you.”
He turned his head to me. “Thanks. He’s a good man. Please help him. You know why they were leaving in the storm?”
“That’s being investigated. Though without much vigor, I must admit. They don’t seem to care much down here. Your dad and Beth had a reputation for doing things the locals considered odd and this was just one more.”
“Sailing into a storm, Phelps. You’re a sailor. So was Beth. Ellen was an excellent sailor. Gusts to fifty knots. In an old boat, not weatherly at all. On a lee shore.”
I shook my head. “It was remarkably foolish. I grant you that. And disastrous. And, of course, you lost your boat because of it. But…well, you should know Beth didn’t have long to live in any event. Still, a foolish thing to do.”
“They were running away, you see.”
I looked at him, eyebrows raised.
“From me. They were running from me. Because I told Ellen I would seize the boat and bring her aunt back. They knew I was coming. They dragged me down here, really. But they hadn’t realized I was planning to enforce my own order. Until I told Ellen. And when I told her I killed her.”
I leaned back in the rickety chair. It squeaked and I leaned forward. “That’s the drug speaking, Judge. You didn’t kill anyone. If they were running to avoid enforcement of an order, that’s their choice. You don’t blame the cop if a kid is killed in a high speed chase.”
He laughed without humor. “Low speed chase, Phelps.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“My father and Beth…that’s not my fault. I think they were planning to die anyway. That’s why they brought the boat down. Final sail to Valhalla. I was frosting on the cake, I think. Beth could bring sonny boy to his old dad. No, I don’t fault myself for them. They just miscalculated what I would do if I arrived. Sonny wasn’t just going to kiss dear old dad. That’s not my fault.”
“I blame myself for Ellen. She died to help her aunt and my dad get away. Simple as that. So they could do their damned sail to death.”
“You don’t know that.”
“That’s why they had the inflatable, don’t you see? I’ve thought about it. You don’t tow an inflatable in a storm like that. But they were taking it out, ready to launch. So she could get off once they were clear of land. With the crew, I guess. But they didn’t even make it half a mile.” He swallowed hard and looked at the flower in his hand. He had crushed it while speaking. He threw it on the floor.
We sat in silence. “I didn’t know Ellen that well, Judge. But she was a pretty strong woman and knew what she was about. She knew the risk she took. If she went on board, she knew what she was doing.”
He said nothing, just looked at his hands. Another silence. “We are trying to trace the kid who was crew. We don’t know much. Don’t suppose you have any information on him?”
He shook his head.
I didn’t want to leave him like this. I tried to think of something to say. “You know what they call your dad here?”
He looked up. “The shark, right?”
“They told you?”
“It’s on some of the cards. I can read that much Spanish.”
“Know what that’s about?”
He shook his head. He didn’t look like he cared that much.
“I’ll find out for you, Judge. Do you want us to hire a boat to look for your Dad and Ellen?”
He nodded. I think his eyes glistened but couldn’t be sure. Drugs. “Then I’ll do that right away at trust expense. And the front desk here knows how to reach me. I don’t have a phone in my room.” He nodded, then caught himself and held out his hand. I shook it gingerly. It was covered in bandages.
Down the still hot hall was Elliot’s room. He had a few jars with flowers inside, a small basket of fruit and was trying to get his broken arm, sling and all, into a shirt. He was a big man, muscled, a bit overweight, in his late forties, going bald and cut up even worse than Benson. And he looked like he was planning to leave the hospital.
“Mr. Elliot? My name is Phelps. I represent Beth Wright, Ellen Wright, their Trust and Judge Benson to the extent of facilitating his leaving the country. He asked if we could do the same for you. There will be no charge.”
He stopped trying to put on his shirt and gave me a hard look. “Why?”
I blinked at his tone. “Because we know you’re a secret millionaire and we plan to steal your money, of course. You found us out.”
He titled his head and I wondered what he would do. Then he put his head back and barked a laugh.”OK. I’m a jerk. Sorry.” He held out his bandaged hand. I shook it carefully. He grinned. “Don’t worry, doesn’t hurt much. You just see John?”
“He sent me down the hall. Can I have a seat?”
“Sure. Sorry.” He reached over with his good arm and pulled some foul weather clothes off the small chair. His room was identical to Benson’s. I sat on the chair while he sat on the bed.
“You’re an LA detective?”
“Yep. And an old friend of John. We raced together. You sail?”
“I do. Does it show?”
He leaned back on the bed, bringing his feet up on the blankets though his shoes were on. “You know, it does, somehow. You’ve seen the boats?”
“Nothing to see. Wreckage smaller than a bread box. Inflatable, life raft, both ruined. They think they found Beth’s body.”
“No one else?”
“No. Police talk to you, yet?”
“Naw. They’re a little slow around here. I know they went to see John, expected them to come down the hall. But nada.”
“I figure you need some ready cash, passport, clothes, that sort of thing?”
“It would help.”
“Give me a day. Meanwhile, here’s two hundred dollars in cash.” I handed it over. He put it in his pocket without counting it. “I have a Mexican lawyer here helping me out. You moving out?”
“Yeah, one of the families was willing to put me up. I think. My Spanish is average. No reason to stay in the hospital. Broken arm, some cuts, that’s all.”
“The Judge looks like he had a much worse time.”
“Yeah, he was already beat up when I came on board in LA. And losing Ellen got to him, I think.”
I sat up. “Ellen? Ellen Wright?”
He hesistated, thought a minute about it, then grinned. “Yeah, they were on the way to something, I think. At least he acted it. And so did she from the letter I read. You sure she’s dead?”
“Looks that way.”
“Damn. It’s the first time I’ve seen him like that since before his last divorce.” He shook his head. “You probably only see him in court. I see him on the water. I think it was going to be good for him. And then…well, shit happens.”
“He said he didn’t even know his dad was alive until recently.”
“This whole situation is weird if you ask me. How long until I can get over the border?”
“At least three days, I’m afraid. Maybe five. You might have to come back for an inquest as well. You called your family?”
“They want to come down but I stopped that. No point. I have some stuff to do here.”
I blinked at him. He saw that, hesistated, then, “Look, I’m a detective. I just need to do some detecting. I mean, I want to figure out what this is all about. Why they were leaving in a storm. What’s this shit about Tiburon? All that. Got nothing else to do, here.”
“Local police may not like that.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time I stepped on toes. I’m a big boy.”
“You might want to tie in with the Mexican lawyer I’m working with. He knows the games down here. That said, I think it might make Benson feel a bit better. I think…well, he blames himself.”
“Yeah, what else is new? He’s always responsible. Always was. For everything. Well, this whole thing doesn’t quite hang together. I’ll check into things.”
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
Next day. It was while Pedro and I were in a notary’s office filling in yet more forms for issuance of travel visas that the little girl walked into the room. It was hot, stuffy, with the bureaucrat sweating in a uniform that probably fit him when it was ten years newer and he was fifty pounds lighter. He sat behind a desk as ancient as his uniform and Pedro and I sat in two metal chairs. A dirty window looked out on a blank white wall and a fan in the corner moved hot air around the room.
We had been sitting for over an hour going through a wealth of documentation and forms and Pedro was arguing with him heatedly about bonds and sureties. I looked up to see an eight or nine year old girl standing at the door staring at us. She was in a bright red and yellow dress. She smiled. I smiled back. Pedro and the functionary ignored her. She signaled for me to follow her and walked out the open door. I looked at the men heatedly arguing, pulled Pedro towards me. “I’ll be outside.” He nodded without interrupting his heated flow of words.
It was just as hot outside but there was a slight breeze. The office was in a side street near the town center, white washed buildings of one to four stories, sidewalk on only one side, a few stunted pines and palms in the back yards. A dog or two wandered the streets and I could see children playing with a soccer ball half a block away.
The little girl was hurrying down the street to a waiting woman in her fifties dressed entirely in black. The girls bright clothes contrasted starkly with the black clothing as she went to the woman and leaned against her.
I approached them, sweating in my suit and thinking about taking off the jacket. The woman watched me, expressionless. Her winkled face had a long scar down her left cheek, from eyebrow to the bottom of her chin. It was white against her dark brown skin. We stood looking at each other.
“Es abogado de Tiburon?”
“Si. Perro esta muerte.”
“Ya lo se. Conmigo.”
She turned and walked stiffly down the street. Why did she need Benson’s dad’s lawyer? I looked back to the door of the notary. Pedro would be needed to translate this. Probably a way to ask for money, I thought. I sighed and decided to go a few blocks and see what the problem was.
Two blocks further away from the center of town she stopped at a taxi cab with a man in his twenties inside. The cab was brightly painted, fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror, the large words “TAXI” in green on both sides and the roof. It was ancient, the seats torn. She looked at the man who sighed and got out of the car.
“I did not think you would come, senor.” He had a broad accent but spoke English far better than I spoke Spanish.
“How can I help you?”
“Esmeralda thinks you should see the building and she’s my aunt. I guess I can take you there. It’s very important to her.”
He looked surprised. “Where Senor Wright killed Calderon, of course. That night. Everyone knows that.”
“I don’t. You’re saying my client killed someone?”
He stood and stared at me, astonished. “Of course. Many, many years ago. That is why we respect him. Look at her face. He avenged that. And more.”
She was watching both of us and when we turned to look at her face, pulled back her shawl to show off the scar in the bright light. The nephew and I stared for a moment. He went on. “He attacked her every week for years whenever he was here for his vacations. She was our beauty. Our town beauty. So he picked her of course. Paid her parents. But they did not want to sell her. So he made her less beautiful so they would not object. He did that.”
“Yes,” she said, with a heavy accent.
“Yes. The pig. Then he would have her come to him every other day or so. Even when she was still healing. Pig.”
She pulled up her shawl and exploded in Spanish too fast for me to follow. The little girl held her tight, trying to calm her down. Enrique nodded, not paying close attention. He looked at me. “She spoke English much better when she was a girl. She’s lost it over the years. Senora Wright taught her long ago.”
I considered that and wondered if there was any truth in any of this. “My name’s Phelps. What’s yours?”
“Enrique Ortega.” He held out his hand and gave me a rather limp shake.
“And Bill Benson killed him? To stop him doing that?”
Enrique laughed. “No, no, he would not do it to protect Esmeralda. If anything, he would have wanted her himself. But not with violence, you see. But he would want her. He was like that.” He laughed again. “No, he killed Calderon for blinding him. For scarring him. He rid us of that pig. The shark ate the pig.” He laughed again. “Hey, come to the building. It will make her happy. It is less than ten minutes away. For free.”
I hesitated. Pedro was back at the notary. “Come pick up my partner and I in an hour in front of the notary. And we will pay your fare.”
He shrugged, said some words to Esmeralda who became agitated again. I left them arguing on the street, the little girl still hugging her. I walked back to the notary office. Even from outside I could hear the notary and Pedro still arguing. I looked down the street, thinking I could find a cool place to grab a soda when I saw Elliot coming towards me. He towered over the smaller Mexicans on the street, dressed in jeans and a shirt of his that had washed up on shore. His bandaged arm, still in a sling, contrasted with his dark shirt.
He was looking for me and waved his good arm and increased his pace. The children playing soccer saw him coming and stopped their game. He laughed, made a grab for the ball, seized it and kicked it hard against one of the walls. The children screamed with delight and he kicked the ball around with them for a bit, awkward with one arm in the sling.
Then, laughing, he came over to where I stood on the hot sidewalk. “Some of those kids are pretty good. Maybe one or two can get out of this hell hole.”
“Don’t bet on it. How’s your arm?”
“Hurts more than it should. Don’t trust these Mexican doctors. You gonna get me out of here soon?”
I nodded to the sounds coming from the office. “That’s what they’re screaming about. It’s going slow but it’s going.
“Good, Good. And I solved the mystery.”
“Bill Benson killed someone, right?”
He stopped and gave me a cold look. “You been doing some of your own investigation?”
“When you dress right, they come to you, detective.” He grunted at might have been a laugh. I told him what Enrique had said to me.
“Ten minutes away, you say? Yeah, I’d like to look at that building. That’s all you know?”
“Wait until you hear the whole story. It wasn’t just Bill Benson. Beth helped him. They conspired. For months, maybe years. They call her the mother of the shark. But they weren’t mother and son, from what I hear. She may have been a looker.”
“Not in the pictures I saw. Interesting rather than pretty.”
“Well, to each their own. But what they set up is worth hearing about. Explains a lot. I want John to get the story, too, You should be there. You his lawyer and all.”
“Only to get him out of here.”
“Yeah, yeah, well you should hear this. Come to the hospital? I want to get him out to the court yard. Out of that room. There’s a cantina across the street from the hospital. Can see the ocean from there. I want him to hear the story there.”
I looked at him closely. It really mattered to him to have Benson in the right place. He saw my look. “You got to understand that he’s a different man on the water. I want him to hear this close to the water. Not in that damned hot room. Tonight.”
“Fine with me. I think the doctor will let him out for a short time.”
“They’d better or they deal with me. Tell your taxi guy to pick us up at the hospital tomorrow around ten.” With that he strode towards the hospital, maybe a twenty minute walk away.
I spent the rest of the afternoon with the judge, getting the history of his trip down the coast and he poured out far more than I would have expected from the taciturn judge I once knew. I think we became friends that hot afternoon.
Pedro was asleep at the resort, Elliot out investigating, I suppose, and Benson’s voice a mixture of sadness and self contempt. I told him I thought he had done damned well on a very difficult trip. He looked at me, eyes troubled. “Well? My crew down the hall injured. My other crew dead in the ocean. Beth and my dad and some unknown kid dead. Two boats wrecked. How do you see that as doing well?”
I leaned back in my chair. “Not only that, but the balance of payments deficit worsened, communism spread in Honduras and the number of accidents on the highways failed to decline. You really blew it.”
He glared at me for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed. “OK, you got me, Phelps. You got me.”
He had never told me that when in court presiding on the bench.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
That warm night we sat around a large round wooden table in the quiet cantina, Benson, Elliot, Pedro and I. The food had been remarkably good, even the fish, and we still were on the patio after a long dinner, the only patrons there, eight or nine other empty tables, a low broken brick wall around the patio and the beach and bay visible to the west, close enough to hear the small waves on the beach. The breakwater could just be seen in the distance. Some palm trees, some broken large pottery jars with succulents.
Dim candles were set in old bottles amongst the remains of the dinner and all of us had beer in the cooling breeze of the early evening. Elliot was still in jeans and the black shirt, Pedro and I in slacks and open necked shirt, Benson in new pants and a large Hawaiian shirt which was the only thing we could find that would fit over his taped body. Benson’s nose was deeply discolored, his bandages around his head white in the darkening night. Both Elliot and he were covered with scabs and bruises over arms and hands.
Benson still looked better out of his hot claustrophobic room. Elliot had been right. From the moment we entered the cantina his eyes had been drawn to the bay and the ocean beyond and he spent more time looking at them than at us. He seemed absent minded, distracted by the moving water. Was he waiting to see if a body floated up? His boat?
Our conversation about legal formalities still to be accomplished and the town memorial ceremony planned for the coming weekend had lasted most of the dinner, with Elliot telling us he’d tell us what he had learned after we finished eating. Pedro was his usual ebullient self, with great stories about the horrendous graft in the Mexican bureaucracy, Elliot was equally eloquent as to the mess at the LA police department, and Benson and I were relatively quiet, both looking out to sea, Benson seeming to drift off in thought much of the time. Once in a while he would meet my eyes, frown, then look back, out to sea.
Elliot saw that and brought him back with a thump. “Well, John, this wasn’t too tough to investigate. The whole town wants to talk about it. As I see it, Beth and your father committed premeditated murder approximately thirty four years ago at a location less than a mile away.” He waited to see how Benson would react.
Benson stared at him and said nothing. But his face hardened as I had seen it harden a dozen times in court. Elliot kept going. “They killed the bastard that blinded your dad. About three years after he had hired some kid to blind him. They lay in wait and your father killed him. With his bare hands. With Beth outside rooting him on.”
Benson leaned forward on the table. “Bare hands? He was blind. How could he do that?”
Elliot laughed. “Those two evened the odds, John. Smart. They lured the bastard into a closed building. They had boarded up all the windows, built a maze inside, got him inside at night, half drunk, looking for his girl to rape, which he apparently liked to do weekly, then slammed the door shut and locked it. Pitch black. And inside was your blind father. Waiting. “ He leaned forward towards Benson. “Waiting to kill him with his hands.”
Benson leaned back in the chair, staring. “The man…who was he?”
“A relatively small time crook named Calderon. So small time that this was the place he went for R and R. Poor slob. One of the illegal distributors for a Spanish crook.”
“Him I know…”
“Yeah, well he wasn’t in on it apparently. He tried professionals to knock off your dad, they blew it, and he had already left Mexico. Did some cost benefit thinking and simply left. But Calderon was left behind and pretty pissed and decided to show who was boss on his own. Hired some kid to throw acid at your dad. Knocked him out of the game. That was in Saltillo. Maybe a thousand miles to the East.”
“Yeah. I know something about that.”
Elliot tapped the table with his forefinger. “But your dad was not out of the game. He and Beth somehow figured out who did it. Figured out where he went for fun. Which was here, God knows why. They moved your dad here. Spent money in the town. Bought a house. Then they bought the building to trap him in. Laid the trap and got him.”
The only sound was wind and waves while Benson stared at Elliot. “Were they arrested for murder, then?”
“The town protected them. The town priest organized it. He’s dead now. Don’t know why. But they were big time heroes. Between you and me, I figure they brought in more money than that pig of a crook. And the town hated him. He beat up and knifed some of the locals when drunk. Town dumped him at sea. When he floated back in, they said a shark had attacked him. That’s why they call your father the shark. Local joke.”
“He didn’t have any bodyguards?”
“Not that night. He raped on his own. Next day, the whole town made it clear to the guards that they had better leave. Would have loved to see that. Hell, the priest organized that. Don’t know why. Your dad was pretty wiped out by the fight, it seems.”
“They fought to the death?”
“Then some…” Elliot hesitated, then continued. “They call your Dad the shark because he ripped out Calderon’s throat. With his teeth.”
Elliot looked down at the table while Benson stared at him. No one said anything for a long moment. Elliot looked up. “The guy deserved it, from what I hear. That must have been a fight to see.”
Fight to see. But in the dark no one could have seen it.
Two days later Pedro told me what Esmeralda told him about the killing during a long hot afternoon while he waiting for the visas. She was the girl that was the bait. She was there. Pedro was most impressed with her memory. He thought much of it was probably true. Not all, but much.
A warm night in late summer, 1968. Beth is sitting on a chair outside the locked door, the young girl, Esmeralda, sitting at her feet. They are both staring at the heavy wooden door. Hearing the screaming muffled from within. Grunts. The sound of bodies falling. Beth’s hands are shaking. So are the once pretty girl’s.
The building is one story, adobe, flat roof, no electricity. A bare building in a bare field. The wind is strong this far out of town, but warm with the ocean no longer adding coolness. Beth is dressed in a wildly colorful traditional Mexican dress, no shawl, sandals. Her long dirty blonde hair is visible in the dark night, as is the silver pistol she holds in her lap. Just in case. Esmeralda is dressed in a simple white dress, sandals, a shawl over her head. Since her face was scarred she always kept a shawl over her head to hide her cheek.
Bill and Beth had carefully considered the interior of the small building that had once been a bunk house for a long abandoned ranch. They had spent months planning inner partitions and walls to be built out of rough pine. They had studied books on mazes, put in dead ends, elaborate curved paths and, after some thought, two pits, six feet deep, to be dug so that only by crawling along the side of the maze could one avoid falling in.
Then, before building it, Bill Benson told her to mix up the plans at random, putting pits and walls in different order and not to tell him the final plan. She was to hire a builder to make it without Benson’s participation. She was amazed.
“I want to have an even match, here. I want to know no more about the maze than he does. I don’t want to take advantage of superior knowledge.”
So like him. She had ranted and raved, he had gotten that stubborn look that was still discernable on his horribly scarred face. At last she took both of his hands in hers. “This isn’t a game, darling. This is life and death.”
“I know. That’s why we do it this way. We are murdering a man, Beth. To make it more than murder, it has to be a combat, not an execution. I can’t live being a murderer. I can live knowing that in combat, I bested him.”
She rolled her eyes, which he couldn’t see, but she saw him smile. “You’re rolling your eyes, aren’t you, love? Admit it!”
She laughed and squeezed his hands. “I worry. I worry so much. He is a criminal.”
“And I am about to become a criminal. And I will kill him. But not by cheating. I am not a cheat. He is.”
Three men from the next town, Molino Viejo, were hired and not told why they were building the strange interior. They expected Americans to do strange things and simply followed her instructions, though with many shrugs among themselves. Esmeralda knew their plans but said nothing. She spent most of her days in her darkened room at home, touching her scarred cheek, crying. She very much wanted what Bill Benson and Beth were planning. She began to call Beth Auntie.
Beth would see Bill working out on weights, practicing some boxing moves he had learned in college, skin shiny with sweat as he grunted and gasped, ran in place, jumped rope, his body lean and hard, his ruined face always a shock that shook her heart.
Bill Benson insisted on prolonged and careful preparation. Even after Calderon arrived for his late summer stay with his two bodyguards, and began his program of intimidation of the locals and occasional rape of Esmeralda, he insisted on continuing the slow and careful preparation. This drove Beth nearly insane, for Esmeralda and she had become close, the young girl learning to speak and read a little English with Beth in their small garden during the hot afternoons, chattering about myths and Campbell’s theory of the Hero. She was a smart girl, cursed with beauty now lost, beginning to recover her shattered self esteem as she learned the mysteries of America.
And at least twice a week Calderon would send one of his men to her parents’ house and let them know that she was expected in his room at one of the resorts at midnight. The man would leave a few hundred pesos with the parents, glare at them to make them understand this was an offer not to be refused, and, crying and bitter, Esmeralda would give her young body to Calderon, he drunk most nights.
Calderon was not a big man but had hard hands and remarkable strength, lean muscles and hooded eyes. He had clearly lost his share of fights, a broken nose, scarred cheek. He smelled of garlic most nights, and Esmeralda found his occasional efforts at romance even worse than his brutal simple rape. He had his man begin to bring roses to her during the day and once wrote her a note. “We are both scarred by our lives,” it read, “and now we understand each other. Come to me tonight.”
The more gifts he sent her, the more she hated him. And she hated her parents for not protecting her, the town for ignoring her plight, her beauty for putting her in this situation. It was unfair, she felt, that after losing her beauty she still had to give herself to this monster. A monster who pathetically sought her good will after ruining her life.
She would surreptitiously watch Bill prepare his body and his skills for the combat, and in her mind the Hero of the myths of Campbell became intermixed with Bill Benson as he prepared to slay the Minotaur. Beth would see her staring at Bill. “You have no idea how handsome he once was,” she whispered. “Women would stop and stare.”
“Like me,” Esmeralda would say, looking down. “Men would stare at me. And look at both of us.”
Beth would lean over and hug her, not knowing what else to say.
The night of the murder was planned in detail weeks before it was scheduled to occur.. At Bill’s direction, Esmeralda told Calderon that she was ashamed of having to walk through town to the assignations, all the town seeing her and knowing what was happening. She had an uncle with an abandoned building only ten minutes away. No one would see them.
Calderon at first refused. He didn’t want to take the trouble, told her to tell him who was making her ashamed and he would teach them a lesson. Beth and Bill coached her and the next time she brought it up she cried and cried, saying she could not feel any emotion but shame in the resort room, that she wanted more, wanted to feel he was interested in making her feel good. He didn’t answer at first, but when she burst out, “You send roses as if you care then parade me before the whole town as your whore,” he winced and began asking about this rendezvous.
It was when she told him it had a huge old feather bed from when her uncle had used it as his own place of assignation that he became truly interested. He had his men scout it out from the outside that day. The windows were boarded up but they indicated the building looked in good shape, no other buildings close by. Only ten minutes from the resort by car. Calderon, feeling a bit bored and thinking it was about time to return to Saltillo in any event, told her to meet him there the following night. He had his men deliver an especially large bouquet with the message.
Her parents had seen the change in her, her purposefulness. Her mother was afraid she was planning to run off with Calderon, had talked to the priest who visited her that very day. He could see she was excited about something, no longer the deeply depressed girl who had told him she was considering suicide. He pressed her. He had known her since she was born. She finally told him that vengeance was coming to the monster. He told her of the sin of murder. “Not me,” she cried, “not me. The unbelievers will do that. They will not go to Hell. They should be in heaven for what they will do.”
The priest was an intelligent man and had no difficulty knowing who she meant. He felt in a quandary. He could not, under the rules of Confession, tell anyone. He confessed her then went to her home. He reassured her parents that she was not running off then sat in his small, messy office in the back of the church, wondering what he should do. He was no longer young and considered himself the leader of the town. Back then, less than five thousand people lived in the growing village, all poor, most fishermen. The resorts were not doing well. But they were a honest lot for the most part, they took care of each other. The visits annually of the criminal became a nightmare, despite the money he brought.
The priest hated Calderon. Hated what he did to the town during his two month visits annually. Suspected that he had done much worse in Saltillo. He felt ashamed because he could not think of a way to stop it. The nearest police were twenty miles away, an elderly man who would not take a trained criminal on. Calderon should be stopped. But murder?
He knew of Bill and Beth, the Americans from San Francisco. He had eaten at their home and knew them both for educated people. Indeed, they regularly contributed to the poor box though neither came to his services. He knew that someone had blinded Bill with acid and now concluded he knew who had done it. Was his silence a sin?
He decided he had to warn Calderon to leave town. He got as far as the bar where Calderon spent most afternoons before he hesistated in his stride, then stopped. He stood irresolute in the street outside the bar, for the first time in his life unsure of his faith, of his duty. Then Calderon came out, slightly drunk, in a good mood. He saw the priest and came over to him, reaching into his pocket and pulling out several hundred pesos.
“I know why you are here, waiting, Father. You don’t have to say a word. We all have to earn a living.” He thrust the money into the Priest’s pocket, patted him on the shoulder. His younger bodyguard, a thin boy in his late teens came up to the two men, his eyes scanning the street automatically.
“Mr. Calderon, you should leave this town. It is unsafe for you here.”
Calderon and the body guard were instantly alert, staring at the Priest. Calderon spoke first. “I did not expect a threat from you, of all people. A man of God.”
“Are you a man of God, Mr. Calderon? Do you obey the Commandments?”
Calderon regarded the Priest with narrowed eyes. “We all have our sins, Father. Your job is to forgive. It is the religion of forgiveness, is it not? And you try to run me out of town.”
“I do not try to run you out of town. I speak for your own good. For your soul.”
Calderon looked around. There were half a dozen people now listening. They immediately looked down and away when he glanced in their direction, but they heard every word. Soon the whole town would be able to repeat the conversation word for word. He flushed. “Look, Priest, I come to your town and I pay good money for what I get. You have nothing here. Fish. A few beaten down resorts. You people should kiss my hand for what I do. Instead, you warn me to leave. You resent me. Well, the hell with you. With all of you. I stay as long as I want. And don’t expect more money from me, Priest. Not now, not ever.” And he self consciously swaggered away, his bodyguard looking over the crowd carefully before he followed his boss.
The Priest stared after him. He had done his duty. He had warned him. He saw the people, now almost a dozen, all staring at him. He nodded at several and hurried back to his church.
The following night, Calderon arrived at the trap. The older bodyguard, the fat one, dropped him off near the front door after midnight. Hidden behind a nearby bush, Beth and Esmeralda heard him order his guard away and to return at eight thirty and to bring food. The car, an old Studebaker, rattled away as Calderon went to the door, wearing a blue sports coat, a bouquet of wrapped flowers under one arm, a wine bottle in his other arm.
The sound of crickets. In the hills, a small animal’s death cries. Sigh of light wind. Calderon knocked on the door with the bottle. He looked around while he waited, humming a song under his breath. When there was no answer after a minute he knocked again louder. Now he stood stiffly in front of the door, getting angry. “Woman,” he barked. “Open the door now.”
Beth realized that they should have left a note on the door saying come in, signed by Esmeralda. Now he was getting suspicious. Would he try to door? Suddenly Esmeralda stood up and strode towards the door.
“Sir, I am here. I was waiting in the moon light for you. You are earlier than I expected.”
“Hah!,” he said, opening his warms wide, flowers in one hand, bottle in the other. She went into his arms and kissed him hard.” Beth watched. This was not the young girl she was used to seeing.
“Don’t you want to see the bed, my man? The big bed?”
“I have flowers for you.”
“Throw them on the bed, love. Let us go in now.”
He laughed, squeezed her tight. She took the flowers from him and he shoved the door open. The heavy door squeaked on its hinges. His arm over her shoulder, he began to enter. Suddenly, she ducked down and shoved him hard towards the opening. The sound of the bottle falling and breaking. He twisted around and grabbed her arm, regaining his balance, pulling her towards him. They both grunted and gasped. She shoved harder. He hit her with his fist hard and she fell onto the ground. He kicked her in the stomach and she gasped in pain. He pulled back his foot again, then looked up to see Beth pointing the gun at him. He froze.
“Who the hell are you?” he blurted.
“A woman who wants to kill you, you bastard. Just give me half a chance.”
She said it in English but her voice made her meaning clear. She held the gun in both hands, out stiff in front of her. He studied her face. Esmeralda crawled away. “Kill him. Kill him now, she muttered.”
“Whore of the devil,’ he hissed at her.
“Turn around and go in,” Beth said, this time in Spanish.
“Fuck you” he said.
She smiled then and he saw her finger tighten on the trigger. He suddenly knew she was going to kill him. Wanted to kill him.
“OK. OK. I will go in. Be easy on that trigger, woman. You don’t want to do something you will regret.”
“Get in now or you die,” she shouted. Her voice was close to hysterical and he turned, pushed opened the door further and entered. Beth came behind him, put the gun to the middle of his back, then kicked him hard. He fell forward. She slammed the door and slid down the heavy latch that locked it. He was inside. Only then did she remember she was supposed to search him for weapons first.
Inside, on his hands and knees, he half rose, then he quickly squatted down, eyes trying to pierce the ink black darkness. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out the knife he always carried, a switch blade. The sound of its blade clicking into place was loud in the darkness. He stayed in that squat, eyes wide, seeing nothing, his knife held gently in his right hand, his left hand extended in front of him, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead. He held his breath, trying to see if he could hear anything. Breathing? The wind outside? He could not tell. He decided to move to the right of the door. It opened to the right and that would put him behind it when the next people came in. Then he could kill them.
Hand in front of him, on the balls of his feet, he moved towards the door. The floor was made of pine planks and despite his care the floor squeaked. He froze, listening. Nothing. He shook his head in the darkness. He was probably alone in here. They were undoubtedly going to bring in reinforcements. Who were they? Relatives of the girl? Probably. Avenging her. The bitch. To die because of a village whore. It was impossible.
His guard would not arrive until eight thirty next morning. They had heard him give those orders. He had to survive the night. They had at least one gun. He had a knife. But they were amateurs, children at this kind of thing. He knew what had to be done and had done it before. He knelt down next to the door, behind where it would open, on his knees to rest his legs, the knife held easy in his hand, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.
The next moment he felt the blow to the side of his head and lashed out with his knife automatically. He felt the knife hit something but knew he had erred. He has slashed, not stabbed, something his father had told him was a typical mistake of fools. The blow to his head was powerful and knocked him over onto his side, his ear ringing and he tried to roll but hit the wall which he could not see in the darkness. Someone kicked him hard in the back and his face smashed against the unseen wall. He grabbed behind him for the foot but missed, rolled away from the wall, thinking he would roll into the person that kicked him but after two or three rolls hit nothing and he pushed himself into a squat again, knife still in his hand.
He lunged forward blindly with the knife, hoping that by chance he would hit something. He did not. He stood, left arm out stretched, knife at his side ready to stab, and turned in a circle slowly. Silence. Blood tricked down from his ear and nose. He ignored it.
The next blow to the small of the back was not hard and he whirled with the knife but hit nothing. He lunged forward, hit nothing, then ran a few steps forward and again collided hard against a wall, falling back onto his back. A foot came down hard on his chest and a moment later on his face. He felt some teeth give way. He rolled away desperately, hit another wall that had no right to be there in any typical room, used the wall to shove himself to his feet and leaning with his back against the wall, held his knife out in front of him.
A whisper from his left, in accented Spanish. A gringo. “Do you know who I am?”
Calderon did not but quickly moved to his left, knife outstretched. Nothing. He stood there.
“I am the man you blinded. I am going to kill you. And you are blind, now. Like me. You are now going to die.”
Calderon stopped moving, squatted down, knife held out in front, thinking. It made perfect sense to him instantly. Part of him admired the plan. A dark room, so the fight was even. But he was facing a lawyer, he knew, a blind and soft lawyer. Even if determined on revenge. He could handle this. He just had to change his tactics. And be quiet. Be very quiet. That was a mistake on the lawyer’s part, telling him this. Now he knew how to fight this fight.
He squatted there, making no noise, listening, bleeding, his head aching from the blow. A scraping sound from his right. He put his knife in his mouth and scrambled forward quickly on all fours as quietly as he could, moving towards the sound. Attack, always attack.
His head hit a wall hard, the knife cutting into his own cheek, the sound of impact seeming loud in the darkness. Without stopping he scrambled several feet to his left, planning to attack the lawyer when he came towards the sound. Instead, he slammed another wall only four feet from the first, hitting his head even harder. Stunned, he fell to the floor. This was impossible…no room was this small. He twisted up, knife still in his teeth, both arms in front of him, and shuffled forward. He went twenty feet before touching another wooded wall. He turned and faced out, holding his knife extended again.
He was completely confused as to direction now. He doubted he could find the front door any longer. Then he heard an impact from a distance. The blind man running into a wall. He was as confused as Calderon was. He felt a little reassured.
They both stood where they were, silent now. Each trying to control his own breathing. In his mind Calderon tried to visualize how the room was configured. But it seemed impossible. This was once a ranch. Were these ramps for cattle? Storage bins? If so, he needed to get close to the main wall of the building and work his way around. But moving on the plank floor was inherently noisy. Let the blind man move around and then attack him when he could?
The key was not running headlong into a wall. His hands must be always extended in front. Move fast, knife in mouth, run forward until he could touch the lawyer, then use the knife to end this now…and prepare for the next attack from the relatives in the morning. If he could. He stood there, listening, waiting for a sound.
He had no watch and time seemed distorted. He heard nothing. He wanted to run forward, screaming, find the bastard. He willed himself to stay still. He had been in worse situations. His father had taught him that when in doubt, stop and think. Plan. Any fool can fight. The smart fighter is the slow fighter.
He heard a noise over to the right. He put the knife in his mouth, kept his arms rigid in front of him and moved quickly to the sound. He went about thirty feet before his hands felt rough pine. Another interior wall. He squatted down immediately so that any blow would be above his head.
Nothing. No sound. He turned around, back to the wall, knife extended. He was sweating profusely now. Could the lawyer smell him? He couldn’t smell the lawyer. Another sound, seeming back where he was before. A muffled swear word in English. Did they pass each other in the dark? He repressed the desire to run back immediately, carefully moved ten feet to his left and stopped, waiting, listening. A sound to the left? Not clear. He tried to control his breathing. It was difficult.
The next blow was a kick to his groin, hard and full tilt. He doubled over in agony but even as his eyes darkened with the pain, he thrust up with his knife and felt it go deep into flesh. The leg? He heard a cry of pain and the leg with his knife in it was pulled away out of his hand as he hit the floor and held his groin, in utter agony. He tried to stop groaning but for a good thirty seconds could not. Once he finally could, once his eyes cleared, he rolled away to his left several times until he came up against another pine wall. Only then did he realize he no longer had the knife. It was embedded in the lawyer. In his gut? His leg? If in his gut, he had won and the lawyer would die. If in the leg, it might kill him if an artery…but probably not.
His genitals were still on fire. He reached down to touch them and almost fainted with the pain. He had to just keep going…time to treat wounds when he knew the lawyer was dead. Without a knife he had to revert to his street fighting…go for the eyes. He almost grunted in laughter when he thought of that…there were no eyes to go for. The genitals and the throat then.
And the same method of movement. Wait for a sound, run towards it with arms rigid in front to cushion any blow with a wall. He pulled off his sports coat jacket and quietly laid it on the floor. His shirt was plastered to his back. He used the hem of the jacket to mope his sweating face.
Then he heard the sound of his knife hitting the plank floor maybe twenty feet away. Probably pulled out of the leg. A mistake, the lawyer should have left it in the leg. Over to his right. He held out his arms and before the lawyer could recover from what must have been the pain of removing the knife, hobbled quickly in that direction. He felt the pine wall and slipped on blood on the floor at the same time, perhaps thirty feet in front of him. But no lawyer. He turned around immediately, suddenly realizing that the lawyer had pulled the knife out to be able to stab him. He was now the unarmed one. Suddenly he had to vomit and could not stop himself.
He leaned over retching, expecting every moment that the knife would come at him. But that did not happen and the moment he was finished retching, he hobbled back, arms outstretched, to his prior place, twirled to face outward, then sidestepped along the plank wall another ten feet as silently as he could.
Could he pull out a plank from the wall as a club? No, would be too noisy and take too long. He thought about pulling off his belt but that would result in his pants hanging loose and slowing him down. No, his best weapon would be his hands and to use them effectively, he needed some time to recover, to let his groin stop throbbing. He squatted down and remained quiet. Slow it down. Let the lawyer bleed.
He didn’t know but felt at least twenty minutes passed with both of them remaining still, in utter darkness. Calderon realized that sooner or later he would have to attack. To wait was to wait until the rest of the family arrived. Or the woman with the gun. He did not have the luxury of time. He was going after a wounded man, he knew that. Leg or body, his knife had gone deep. He would be weak, getting weaker. And he was not a warrior like Calderon was. Calderon would have to risk a knife thrust to get near to him and get his hands around his throat.
How long to wait? What to do if the lawyer was not moving, was unconscious? Just wait until the rest of the family came with the gun? And he was standing there, unarmed, waiting to be killed? No, he had to get his knife and that meant he had to find the lawyer or his body with the knife nearby.
For a moment he was overwhelmed with self pity. This was because he had shown the whore some compassion, had gone to her romantic rendezvous. His father, killed by another criminal, would have slapped his face for that. Stupid. It was because he missed his dead wife, of course. She had died in child birth, so had the baby, and he wanted more than just sex. That was stupid. That’s why he was here. But he had learned his lesson. He would kill her when this was over. Kill her slowly.
But for now, he had to risk more to get to the lawyer and his knife. Simple as that. And he had to do it soon. He decided on a series of criss cross moves with hands outstretched. The building was small, sooner or later he would have to hit him. The important thing was to react quickly when he did. And move as quietly and quickly as he could. He stood there, gathering his courage.
His first run across the room was terrifying to him. In the pitch dark, not knowing if he was running into a knife or a wall or nothing, outstretched arms, hobbling due to the pain in his groin, feeling as if his sound of his feet on the floor was loud as thunder, finally hitting the wall, finding no one. The second time was almost as frightening but by the fourth time he ran his slanted course he was much calmer, ready for the inevitable combat. He decided the faster he ran the less chance of a killing blow from the knife. Between each run he would spin around, face outward, hands outstretched, pant for ten or fifteen seconds, then sprint out again.
He was resting after his fifth time when he heard a scrapping sound to his right. Instead of running forward, he immediately sprinted to his right, arms in front of him, ready to slam into what must be the lawyer. And ran into the pit.
At first, before he hit the bottom, he felt a sense of vertigo. Suddenly his feet were off the floor, he was airborne. Then he slammed hard into the dirt floor of the six foot deep pit, perhaps fifteen feet by ten feet, landing hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Worse, he slammed into his already injured groin with the full force of his body and he screamed in agony. Then he felt the lawyer leap down onto him, land onto his back with the full weight of his body. The lawyer had made the noise after discovering the pit, then had crawled behind the pit and waited for Calderon to come running.
Though Calderon did not know it, the leap down onto his back broke a vertebrae. But with the agony of his groin and the adrenalin of his fight for his life, he felt little. He twisted onto his back and grabbed at the lawyers face, reaching for his throat, both men screaming as the pain of their injuries became unbearable. Calderon felt the blood from the knife wound in the lawyer’s leg gushing onto his stomach as the two men rolled in the dirt and blood soaked floor of the pit, each pummeling the other, both trying for an advantage.
Calderon realized the lawyer did not have a knife and was simply hitting him over and over in the face. Fool. That realization gave Calderon hope and he pushed as hard as he could to get the lawyer off his chest and that’s when the pain in his back became apparent. He gasped and fell back and the lawyer leaned forward, his fingers grasping for Calderon’s eyes. Calderon twisted his head away and punched hard at what must be the throat of the lawyer and felt the lawyer arch his back and fall away. Both men lay on their backs, groaning in agony. How long they lay there Calderon did not know, but he knew that he had to keep moving or he would die. In the darkness he wasn’t even sure if his eyes were open.
He rolled over on his side, afraid of the pain on his back, reaching in front of him. He felt the lawyers foot, Instantly he pulled himself up the leg, scrambling to get his hands on his throat, to kill. The lawyer tried to twist away but failed. Calderon felt the blood gushing from the leg wound and smashed his fist down on it, hearing the lawyer scream in agony. Good.
He pulled himself up to the chest and his hands closed on the throat of the blind man. His left hand was numb for some reason, but strong enough to squeeze. The lawyer gasped and choked and suddenly shoved his thumb into Calderon’s left eye. Calderon twisted his head away but the blood covering both of them made his hands slip on the throat and the lawyer twisted free and shoved him back hard. That movement caused total agony to Calderon from his back and he fell desperately on his side to stop the pain, feeling the lawyer grasp his arm to pull himself up and towards Calderon.
Calderon tried to elbow the lawyer away but the lawyer ignored that and grabbed at his eyes again. In a desperate burst of energy, Calderon kneed the lawyer in his genitals and heard the gasp and felt the lawyer collapse onto him. Both men gasped and groaned. Again Calderon reached for the lawyer’s throat and suddenly the lawyer screamed lunged forward and sunk his teeth into Calderon’s throat. He closed his bite on Calderon’s jugular. But the skin was too flexible, he could not penetrate the skin, merely cut off Calderon’s breath.
Calderon smashed his forehead head into the lawyer’s head who reared back with the shock. Calderon hit him in the throat again and the lawyer fell back. Calderon twisted, groaning with his back in agony, pushing himself away from underneath Benson. His hand felt something on the floor of the pit. The knife. The lawyer just have dropped it when leaping down on his back. He grabbed it and struck at the lawyer, felt the blade hit a shoulder. He shoved in, felt the blade sink a few inches. With surprising strength, the lawyer grabbed at this wrist and shoved him back down on his back, the knife still grasped in Calderon’s hand pulling out of the shoulder.
He realized the lawyer was not suddenly stronger, Calderon’s back injury has sapped his strength. He could hardly move without severe pain. Even adrenalin could not overcome the increasing pain. They lay on the floor, both grunting, the lawyer’s chest against Calderon’s, both the lawyer’s hands holding Calderon’s wrist of the hand which held the knife, Calderon hitting the lawyer’s head with his free hand, but weakly.
Suddenly the lawyer arched up so he was straddling Calderon, still holding the knife with both hands. And with both his hands on the wrist, he pulled Calderon’s hand up and twisted it so that the knife was facing Calderon. Calderon’s eyes were watering with pain now, the weight on his chest aggravating the pain in his back. His left hand was completely numb. He realized he was going to die.
The lawyer plunged the knife down, Calderon still holding it, the blade sliding down Calderon’s chin and into this throat. The lawyer moved the knife around in the wound, screaming now, incoherent, screaming. Calderon was crying now, crying in frustration and helplessness, the pain in his back seeming to fade away as blackness seemed to come over his eyes. He had a moment to wonder how he could sense blackness in a pitch black place. Then he lost consciousness. His hands fell away. The lawyer stopped moving the knife around and began to sob. He fell forward, his head against Calderon’s bloody throat.
And that is how Beth and Esmeralda found them an hour later. Beth had promised to not enter until he called her or three hours had passed. After an two hours, she could wait no longer and with the gun outstretched in front of her and Esmeralda holding the flashlight next to her, the two women entered the dark room. It took the only a few minutes to find the two men at the bottom of the pit. Esmeralda stared down. Were they both dead? “He has torn his throat open. Like a wolf!: she exclaimed with exultation, voice trembling. “He died to save me.”
Beth’s voice was harsh. “He’s not dead. He’s bleeding. Get me the ladder from the back, Now. Then go get the doctor. Hurry.”
Bill Benson was unconscious and in the newly built small government clinic when the priest organized the town folk to surround the two body guards and escort them out of town, their guns thrown into the ocean. The priest then had Calderon’s body thrown into the sea by one of the fishing boats and, after conferring with the young doctor who was assigned to both Santa Maria and Molino Viejo, they agreed that bandits must have attacked the American who had been knifed, had lost much blood, but should live.
When Calderon’s body washed up on shore a day later, the town agreed that he must have been attacked by a shark when swimming. There was some discussion as to where to bury him. It was agreed that he could be buried just outside of the town’s cemetery. Only the priest and the grave digger attended the funeral.
Beth moved Bill home within a week and carried the gun in her purse, fearful of revenge. But no one from Saltillo seemed to care enough to travel to Santa Maria to seek justice. She and Bill were not in danger, she realized after several weeks and she hid the gun under a floor board in their small stucco home.
But he was no longer Bill Benson. Even three months later he would sit in the garden, staring blindly at the sky or the ground, and if not entirely unresponsive to people around him, seeming so far away that he was not of this world. The doctor told Beth this would pass, it was shock. But it stayed. Beth feared this would never leave. She had lost her Bill.
He would glance in her direction while she talked to him, then glance away without reaction. He would eat and drink what she put before him, but he never really responded, never initiated a conversation. He just sat and stared with his blind eyes into the distance.
She tried to talk to him of that night. Perhaps he needed to “talk it out.” He did not react, did not respond. When a small delegation of the town came to thank him, he sat and did not react. One of the old women, after studying him in his chair, came to Beth, patted her arm and said, “God has taken him for a saint. He is only here to remind us of his goodness. God has taken that night’s horror away from his mind. Thanks to God.”
Beth was a strong woman but terrified and uncertain. She spent thousands of dollars on long distance calls to various doctors in the United States, using the one long distance line in town in one of the small resorts, sitting at their reception desk, making notes as to treatments and methods. She knew that every word she uttered would be heard by the desk clerk who had studied English and reported to the entire town. She didn’t care. The town began to bring small gifts of food and flowers to her as she traveled back and forth from the resort, touching her shoulders as they gave her the gifts. But as the weeks then months passed with no change, she stopped making the calls and decided she would take him back to the United States. When she told him he did not react at all.
Esmeralda begged her to abandon the notion. She felt she was now connected to Benson forever, spent long hours at his side, often knitting or sewing, saying nothing, but making sure he had plenty of food and water, helping him to the outhouse when needed. Beth felt the beginnings of jealousy then realized that Esmeralda had found a man who would not notice her horrible scar, who had saved her. How old was she, nineteen? Beth knew that Esmeralda would stay with him forever. Beth could not, had her own responsibilities, a niece soon home from school that she had to take care of, her own family. Esmeralda could be here taking care of Bill when Beth could not.
So Beth sat and brooded and then, by pure chance, found the way to bring him back. She had taken to chatting with him in English about anything that came to mind, just to fill the silence. They would sit in the walled garden of their small house, warm in the sun, succulents and cactus, a small round fountain in the middle with a trickle of water pouring from the little tower in its center. He would be in a chair on one side of the fountain, she at a picnic table and chair on the other side of the fountain, weeks old newspaper spread on the table before her, reading the articles out loud to Benson, Esmeralda sitting on the ground near Benson, knitting and humming songs. Birds and slight wind.
She had finished reading about the baseball world series and was reading of a yacht disaster in New Zealand when she glanced up and noticed he was looking in her direction, some of his old expression on his face. Her voice faltered, but then with a slight quaver she continued reading the story, a yacht caught in a storm hitting a reef. All the crew died. When she stopped reading and moved onto the next story about the war in Vietnam, his face became a mask again and he stared into the distance.
She sat back in the bench. Their romance had begun on Glory, sailing first in the San Francisco Bay, then on two long cruises near Ensenada, and then the South Pacific, her husband and Eleanor not knowing of the first and Bill Benson divorced by the second. She remembered how he loved the sea, how he had become a different man out on the water. Leaning on the picnic table, she began.
“Bill, remember that storm outside of Cabo San Lucas? Remember when the traveler gave way and the sail ripped apart? We had that silly Paul as our crew at the helm. Didn’t reduce sail. And you and I…well, we were too busy below to pay attention.” She giggled despite herself. Benson looked in the direction of her voice but said nothing. “You leaped from the berth, bellowing. Oh yes, I remember that. And ran up on deck stark naked, bellowing at Paul to head to the wind. But by then the main was already beginning to rip.” He kept his face in her direction, a little bit of the old Bill in his expression, while she went on about that episode. When she stopped, he kept looking in her direction for a few minutes then began to drift away.
As the weeks passed she quickly ran out of stories of their two voyages which were so wonderful precisely because nothing very dramatic had happened…at least in her opinion. She switched to reading him sea stories, Conrad, Melville, any she could find. He would look in her direction as she read, clearly following, but only when she would talk of their own two voyages did his face brighten and his attention seem fixed.
And perhaps five months after the death struggle in the dark building he reached out to touch her as she was remembering putting their spinnaker up in the trade winds and said, softly, “No, you failed to attach the guy correctly. That’s why it jammed.” She took several breaths, tears starting in her eyes, seeing Esmeralda staring, mouth opened. She said as calmly as she could, “I always wanted you to set the spinnaker, my love. I was always nervous doing it.”
He blinked his sightless eyes. “Yes. Yes. I remember now. You had asked me to do it. I’m sorry. I wanted to see you do it.” And then was silent. She looked over at Esmeralda who was softly crying. They nodded at each other. Swallowing hard, Beth continued her story, speaking for over an hour, bringing them into a lagoon that they both had loved, the spinnaker hopelessly torn. She ended the story, then again said to him, “You loved that spinnaker. You loved the colors. I’m so sorry I tore it.”
He reached out and held her hand and squeezed it. She put her forehead down on his hand and her tears fell on their joined hands. For a moment he looked confused, then he smiled. “Sweet Beth.”
She began making up stories the following day. At first he seemed a little annoyed, but she made sure to keep the stories realistic and only spoke of places she had sailed herself, though not with Benson but with her estranged husband. She spoke of the sights and sounds, would sometimes invent interesting characters. He nodded, following the stories, and very occasionally would ask questions about the approach to a harbor or how Glory would weather certain conditions.
Esmeralda, whose English was not up to understanding all this, would watch them talking, eyes mostly on Benson, humming in the background.
Two weeks later, Benson interrupted a story she was making up about Tahiti with a correction. He had flown there once, knew the approach and told her she was mistaken. Trembling, she asked him to describe the bay. He did with precise accuracy…and then, together they began to weave the story, a wonderful story of villagers and smugglers, of bright sunsets and clear water.
They never spoke of Calderon. They never spoke of San Francisco. But he was back now and once in a while, after they spent hours spinning their stories of voyages that never were, he would ask about the town, about the priest, about her niece.
When it was time for her to return to San Francisco for three months during her niece’s summer vacation, he listened closely to the plans she had made for his care while he was gone. She noticed that Esmeralda could hardly wait for her to leave. “They will become lovers while I am gone,” she thought. After a few days, it bothered her very little. In a way, it was good.
But as she waited for the town’s sole taxi to take her to the airport he walked to where she sat in the living room, sat beside her, knowing where each piece of furniture was, and took both her hands in both of his. “I will have many more stories to share when you return, my Beth.”
“And I for you, my sweet love.”
He hesistated. “Glory. Where is she now?”
“In San Francisco. She is deteriorating, I am afraid. You would be sad to see her now. I should sell her…”
“No!” He surprised himself by the abruptness of his voice. He paused, then “I’m sorry. Of course you can do that if you need to. I hope you don’t.”
“If you say do not, I won’t.”
“I’d like..well, I’ll tell you a story when you return. You will see.”
And when she did return that Fall she saw that she had been right. Not that they slept together or touched after she returned…but a certain possessiveness that Esmeralda now had, a certain tender regard that had replaced her prior hero worship. Beth had some trouble, more trouble than she would have thought, adjusting. But then she thought of Eleanor and her ex husband and decided that she had no right to object. And she knew Benson did not love Esmeralda. Not as he loved Beth.
Even before their first dinner back he began his story and she sat entranced as he spoke for hours, a wonderful love story of two middle aged people, two people who overcame obstacles and struggles and when one they discovered he had cancer, decided to end their lives together. They took their beautiful sail boat on a long last voyage, a voyage into the warm Pacific and when his pain became overwhelming, they each took sufficient sleeping pills to end their lives, opened the sea cocks, and died together as they lived, the boat sinking at sunset.
It was midnight in the walled garden when that story ended. They were sitting together at the picnic table, Esmeralda asleep in her room at the back of the house. They were holding hands, both hands, just as they had when her tears had fallen on their joined hands. There was a long silence, the wind strong tonight, the clouds moving quickly overhead.
She touched his ruined cheek. “Yes, Bill. Yes. I understand. And we will do that. I promise.”
In the dark she could she could see his head nodding. Then, softly, “I love you, Beth.”
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
Benson hired me for his fight with the City as to his disability rights once he had returned and resigned. We had a pretty good result and by then he had bought a boat to replace Ariel and was fixing her up in preparation for a major voyage to the South Pacific. He renamed the boat Ellen and together we had many sea trials on the heavy displacement cruiser. He was rigging her for single handed sailing as he had Ariel. He quit his yacht club, sold his home in the City and moved on board.
He had not set his broken nose and even a year later his face was still slightly discolored by the deep lacerations. He no longer had classic good looks, no elegance. Indeed, he looked like a retired prize fighter. I think he liked that.
I noted that he was slowing his preparations for departure and my suspicion that he was waiting for his mother to die was confirmed as we sailed back from the Faralones one cold and overcast afternoon. By then she was in a coma, on very heavy drugs, but somehow not quite dying. I knew from my representation of him that he would be somewhat rich once she died. He’d not have to work ever again. I wondered if he would ever return to San Francisco.
He was at the wheel drinking some of the coffee I had made and I was under the dodger, out of the spray, watching the fog chase us back into the Bay. He always called me Phelps, I always called him Judge, despite our growing friendship. Neither of us could break the habit.
We were speaking of wind vanes to steer the boat instead of electronic autohelm when he suddenly changed the conversation.
“I don’t think I told you. Going through some of the papers in my father’s home in Santa Maria. I found the title deed to the…the building where they fought.”
“Really? Did you sell it?”
He laughed without humor. “No one wanted to buy the shrine. Still own it. Or will..”
He looked at me then. “It was owned by my mother. My mother.”
I blinked. “Well, that’s not too surprising. She helped him out with his finances, right?”
He nodded. “Before she slipped into this coma, I went to see her. To ask about the building. Did she want me to sell it. She was in and out of it by then. She just stared at me. I hadn’t told her what we know of Beth and dad down there…about Calderon. I just told her that she had her name on title for the building, should we try to sell it.”
“She said, ‘That building? You mean the maze? Of course not. Of course not.’” Then she slipped back into that sleep those medicines put her in.
“Ha! I wonder what she knew…”
“I…well, I had another…another odd conversation with her a few days after that. She was really out of it, coming in and out, I was sitting there. I never know what to say and she would babble things that made no sense when she was conscious. It was late afternoon. I wanted to get back to the boat and stood to leave and she came to. It was dark in the room but not that dark. And she grabbed my sleeve. Hard…I didn’t think she had that strength.”
He stopped and stared at a boat passing us on the way West, an ugly fishing boat plowing into the chop. He swallowed, hesistated, then continued. “She grabbed my sleeve, Phelps. And she said, ‘Bill? Bill? Stay a while. Stay.” Benson swallowed again, his voice breaking a little. “So I sat down and held her hand.” He tried to smile. “Maybe my beat up face looks like his did now.”
I didn’t laugh and I didn’t say anything, just waited. “Then, twenty minutes later when I rose to leave, she grabbed on hard, again, and said, ‘Get him, darling. Kill the bastard. Kill him, my love.’ And she drifted off again. She hasn’t woken up since as far as I know.” He laughed without humor again. “Those might be her last words. Not appropriate for a society lady of such glamour.” He blinked rapidly and adjusted the boat to aim for the middle of the channel into the Bay.
She died that week and I was hired by Benson to see to administering her Trust. He finished up the cruise preparations and left that winter, alone on Ellen, sailing into a mild storm. For a while we had to communicate relatively often since I was handling liquidation of various assets, and I would get telegrams or faxes from various islands in the South Pacific. But our communications petered out as the years passed and he went further and further West.
Three years after he left the Bay I received a fax from him instructing me to transfer most of his money to Australia. Tersely, he wrote me that he was engaged and was going to live in Sydney. Very occasionally for the next decade I would hear that he was still cruising in that area, his wife as crew, a “jolly sweet thing,” as described to me by a cruiser who had met him in New Guinea.
He died in some yacht race near New Zealand about ten years ago. His wife sent me a picture of him taken a few years before he died, at the helm of Ellen, heavy and white haired in the picture, face still battered, but he looked happy. She included a short note with the picture.
He often spoke of you. Told me that you and I were the only ones that knew all the secrets of his family’s past. That all the others thought he was a judge gone pirate. You knew he was a pirate who masqueraded as a judge for a while. He would always laugh when he said that, but I think he was serious. He told me to send you this picture if he ever died out on the ocean and to tell you to drop your pen and pencil, grab your foul weather gear and come join him for a glorious death. He said to make sure I said glorious death. I don’t know why he said that. But he said you’d understand. I know he died doing what he wanted to do. I miss him so much.