“How they talk down there. I did a year in Mississippi.”
Teddy bummed another cigarette off Chuck and lit it.
Chuck said, “You call the field office?”
Teddy shook his head. “Cawley said the switchboard’s down.” He raised his hand. “The storm, you know.”
Chuck spit tobacco off his tongue. “Storm? Where?”
Teddy said, “But you can feel it coming.” He looked at the dark sky. “Though, not to where it’s taking out their central com’.” “Central corn’,” Chuck said. “You leave the army yet or you still waiting for your D papers?”
“Switchboard,” Teddy said, waving his cigarette at it. “Whatever we’re calling it. And their radio too.”
“Their fucking radio?” Chuck’s eyes bloomed wide. “The radio, boss?”
Teddy nodded. “Pretty bleak, yeah. They got us locked down on an island looking for a woman who escaped from a locked room...” “Past four manned checkpoints.”
“And a room full of attendants playing poker.”
“Scaled a ten-foot brick wall.”
“With electric wire up top.”
“Swam eleven miles—“
“—against an irate current—“
“—to shore. Irate. I like that. Cold too. What’s it, maybe fifty-five degrees in that water?”
“Sixty, tops. Night, though?”
“Back to fifty-five.” Chuck nodded. “Teddy, this whole thing, you know?”
Teddy said, “And the missing Dr. Sheehan.”
Chuck said, “Struck you as odd too, huh? I wasn’t sure. Didn’t seem you tore Cawley’s asshole quite wide enough, boss.”
Teddy laughed, heard the sound of it carry off on the sweep of
night air and dissolve in the distant surf, as if it had never been, as if
the island and the sea and the salt took what you thought you had
and . . •
“... if we’re the cover story?” Chuck was saying.
“What if we’re the cover story?” Chuck said. “What if we were brought here to help them cross ts and dot is?”
Another smile. “All right, boss, try and keep up.”
“I will, I will.”
“Let’s say a certain doctor has an infatuation with a certain patient.”
“You saw the picture.”
“She is attractive.”
“Attractive. Teddy, she’s a pinup in a GI’s locker. So she works our boy, Sheehan... You seeing it now?”
Teddy flicked his cigarette into the wind, watching the coals splatter and ignite in the breeze, then streak back past him and Chuck. “And Sheehan gets hooked, decides he can’t live without her.” “The operating word being live. As a free couple in the real world.”
“So they amscray. Off the island.”
“Could be at a Fats Domino show as we speak.”
Teddy stopped at the far end of the staff dormitories, faced the orange wall. “But why not call in the dogs?”
“Well,’ they did,” Chuck said. “Protocol. They had to bring in someone, and in the case of an escape from a place like this, they call in us. But if they’re covering up staff involvement, then we’re just here to substantiate their story—that they did everything by the book.” “Okay,” Teddy said. “But why cover for Sheehan?”
Chuck propped the sole of his shoe against the wall, flexing his knee as he lit a cigarette. “I don’t know. Haven’t thought that through yet.”
“If Sheehan did take her out of here, he greased some palms.”
“A lot of them.”
“A few attendants, anyway. A guard or two.”
“Someone on the ferry. Maybe more than one.”
“Unless he didn’t leave on the ferry. Could have had his own boat.”
Teddy gave it some thought. “Comes from money. Park Avenue, according to Cawley.”
“So, there you go—his own boat.”
Teddy looked up the wall to the thin wire at the top, the air around them protruding like a bubble pressed against glass.
“Brings up as many questions as it answers,” Teddy said after a bit.
“Why those codes in Rachel Solando’s room?”
“Well, she is crazy.”
“Why show it to us, though? I mean, if this is a cover-up, why not make it easier for us to sign off on the reports and go home? ‘The attendant fell asleep.’ Or ‘The lock on the window rusted out and we didn’t notice.’ “ Chuck pressed his hand to the wall. “Maybe they were lonely. All of them. Needed some company from the outside world.” “Sure. Made up a story so they could bring us here? Have something new to chat about? I’ll buy that.”
Chuck turned and looked back at Ashecliffe. “Joking aside...”
Teddy turned too, and they stood facing it. “Sure...”
“Starting to get nervous here, Teddy.”
”THEY CALLED IT a Great Room,” Cawley said as he led them
through his parquet foyer to two oak doors with brass knobs the size of pineapples. “I’m serious. My wife found some unsent letters in the attic from the original owner, Colonel Spivey. Going on and on about the Great Room he was building.”
Cawley yanked back on one of the pineapples and wrenched the door open.
Chuck let loose a low whistle. Teddy and Dolores had had an apartment on Buttonwood that was the envy of friends because of its size, a central hallway that seemed to go on the length of a football field, and yet that apartment could have folded into this room twice. The floor was marble, covered here and there by dark Oriental rugs. The fireplace was taller than most men. The drapes alone—three yards of dark purple velvet per window and there were nine windows—had to cost more than Teddy made in a year. Maybe two. A billiards table took up one corner under oil paintings of a man in Union army formal blue, another of a woman in a frilly white dress, a third painting of the man and woman together, a dog at their feet, that same gargantuan fireplace behind them.
“The colonel?” Teddy said.
Cawley followed his gaze, nodded. “Relieved of his command shortly after those paintings were finished. We found them in the basement along with a billiards table, the rugs, most of the chairs. You should see the basement, Marshal. We could fit the Polo Grounds down there.”