Chapter 2: The Last Resort
The tortured screaming from the tiny plane’s engine had started to make his teeth ache and he wondered what the chances were that some mechanical failure would cause the flimsy craft to fall out of the sky. The absolute reliance which aero engineers placed on their pre flight maintenance checks felt too much like wishful thinking to him. How could they be sure that some vital rod or piston or whatever was not about to shatter? It was not as if they could view the internal parts which were the ones most likely to fail. And you never seemed to hear about accidents involving small planes. Was that because there weren’t any or because in backwaters like this they happened too frequently to be newsworthy?
Alex grinned. He liked to torment himself with these thoughts, as if he ought to be afraid of flying and because he wasn’t, had to invent some plausible reason to be nervous. He glanced out of the window and saw that they were making the approach to the Beef Island strip – still, despite all the talk, only suitable for dinky toy planes like this one. To one side of the airport – a grand title for a modest facility – lay the Last Resort and he could make out the yachts anchored in Trellis Bay. He wondered if the old boy who ran the restaurant was still there doing his after dinner turn on his electronic piano. How long had it been since he was here last? Four years at least. A lot of things would have changed. Possibly. This was the British Virgin islands and the pace of change was slow. Even on a fast day.
The island hopping plane rolled to a stop not far from the Immigration and Customs shed and Alex stepped out into a bright heat which plucked at his trousered legs and the back of his neck, reminding him that he was overdressed, until a breeze from nowhere cooled him and it felt as if he had come home. He squinted towards the shed and wondered if they had remembered to send a taxi for him. If not, there would be plenty of boys plying for custom. Inside the shed, he contained his impatience with the sulky immigration clerk, who was so obviously resentful of all visitors to the Islands- a rare bum note in the symphony the Islands played for him, collected his cases and made his way painlessly through Customs. Outside again in the bright sunshine, he slipped on sunglasses and looked around for a sign bearing his name, ignoring for the moment the shouted invitations from the boys waiting to pick up a fare. There was no sign but a tall islander in green shorts and white tee shirt, his eyes hidden behind a huge pair of design challenged sunglasses, came up, and said:
‘Mr Green?’ It came out a “Missah Gree” but it was close enough for Alex and he nodded. Immediately, another boy picked up his cases and all three men sauntered out to the tall boy’s green and white minivan. A few minutes later Alex could see Trellis Bay at ground level as the vehicle swayed and rattled over the bridge which separated Beef Island from Tortola, and then as they climbed up the hilly coast road the unreal blue of the Sir Francis Drake Channel unravelled before him, dotted with sails and flecked with white horses. Alex sighed with satisfaction, wishing that Moira were with him. He still didn’t understand why her job was more important than coming out with him, if only to see for herself. She had been asperity itself.
‘I told you, I can’t. I don’t have holiday booked until August. We were going to go to Greece, if you remember.’
‘This is better though, isn’t it?’ he pleaded.
‘If I could go, it might be, I don’t know. But I can’t. I start my new job in a week’s time. You do the math.’
She was unshakeable. It didn’t help that he didn’t know how long he would be here. ‘It’s a reconnaissance trip. For me to meet the existing team and see which ones I want to keep when we complete. And to find somewhere for …somewhere to live. But I want to use the time to understand the operation a bit and that could take a while.’
In the end, he was glad she had been adamant. Since the evening with Davey and Kristin, he thought she had changed. She was withdrawn but ready to snap at the slightest provocation, as if she was living on a knife-edge of some sort. They had not had sex since that evening, not even last night after he had finished packing.
‘Sorry, Alex. I’m tired. Don’t feel like it tonight. How about tomorrow? Oh sorry, I forgot.’
Nasty, he thought. Not like her at all. Almost as if she were trying to provoke him into telling her it was over. Which it was, of course, if he moved out to the BVI to work and she stayed in England nursing her precious job. He hoped that by the time he came back she would have had time to work out how great it would be. He hadn’t told her, but he was sure there would be a role for her helping him in the marina. Not in the office, that would be too risky, but with the customers perhaps or supervising on the marina. That was one of the reasons, although not the most important, that he was out here – to understand the job he had taken on. Running a marina was quite unlike anything he had ever done before and although his computer skills and accounting know how would come in handy, he was painfully aware that his lack of local knowledge, especially when it came to dealing with the staff, might be a problem. He refused to think about the long list of other things he didn’t know enough about – boats, charterers, BVI law, BVI accountancy practice, weather, the Islands themselves, the list was endless. He grinned in a way that he knew Moira hated. It was full of satisfaction and confidence, a feral grimace.
The minivan turned into Soper’s Hole with a squeal of brakes and a few minutes later he was standing on the dusty apron at the rear of the office complex and squinting through a gap in the buildings out onto the water. He could see a single yacht making its way down the inlet – or was it an estuary? Whatever the correct name was, the channel narrowed and became too shallow for anything more than a dinghy or a runabout not many metres beyond the marina dock. In one direction anyway. In the other, the waterway widened at its mouth and led out into the Sir Francis Drake Channel. Turn left for the rest of Tortola and the islands that made up the British part of the Virgin Islands. Turn right and keep going for the American part, cruise ships and a sort of civilisation on St Thomas, a game reserve on St John and St Croix far to the South.
His cases had disappeared and he walked slowly towards the water, breathing in deeply the mingled smells of warmth and sea, tacos and burgers from the Pussers Bar at one end of the marina, diesel fuel from the dock and foliage from the undergrowth behind him. He glanced at his watch and saw it was nearly five o’clock – ten in the evening at home. He wasn’t tired yet but he would be before he could sleep. Better to get it over with whilst he could still think, this encounter with a man who could do a lot of damage if he were minded to. Alex expected to find bitterness and resentment rather than sweetness and light. He was not sure how he would feel if it were someone stealing his job in paradise, but he had to do whatever he could to minimise the damage done before completion of the sale the following month.
On the wooden dock, the ranks of moored yachts held his attention, as they always did, and he was lost in a reverie for a moment, contemplating the magic of neatly coiled ropes and intricate deck fittings, white sails hidden beneath their bright covers or wound tightly into the mast, wooden decks, GRP gloss, powerful chrome pulpits, unusual names. On board the boat nearest him, a forty-foot Bénéteau called Holy Smoke, a pretty girl in a turquoise sarong tidied up the cockpit, offering the occasional instruction to an unseen companion below decks. Music from the speakers shimmied over the water and he recognised the gravely tones of Hooty and the Blowfish. A slow smile spread over his face and he did not hear the footsteps behind him.
‘Great sight, isn’t it?’ The voice was low, easy, with a New Zealand twang.
Alex nodded slowly, still held in the moment. ‘It certainly is.’ Then he turned and held out his hand. ‘You must be Angus Fisher. I’m Alex Green.’
His hand was gripped in a dry brown paw, shaken firmly and released. ‘Hi, my friends call me Gus.’
‘Do I qualify?’ Alex risked asking as he inspected Angus’s open, slightly freckled face and saw that the pale blue eyes held no anger or malice.
Angus grinned. ‘We’ll see. Meantime, you must be hot in all that clobber. Come on into the office, it’s a bit cooler there and I’ll introduce you to the guys. Some of them are fretting a bit about their jobs. They may not greet you like a long lost uncle, mind.’
Alex followed Angus’s broad shoulders into the marina main office and stood by his side as he introduced Alex to his team. Alex had the feeling they had been instructed to assemble in readiness for his arrival that afternoon and he wished he had had a chance to settle in first. Apart from anything else, he knew he would not remember the names. If Angus wanted to put him at a disadvantage, this was a good way of doing it. It wouldn’t be surprising if he did.
A mixture of light and dark skins gazed at him impassively once Angus had completed the roll call, obviously expecting him to say something to them He had no idea what they were hoping for.
‘It’s very nice to meet you all,’ he said eventually. ‘Having a brain like a sieve, I hope you’ll forgive me if it takes me a day or so for all the names to sink in. In any case, I’d like to speak to each of you individually whilst I’m here, if that’s okay.’
He paused and glanced at Angus. ‘One thing I should emphasise. I’m here under sufferance until next month when the sale is completed. Angus is still the boss.’
Angus nodded and said, ‘Thanks, Alex. Right everyone, back to work, please.’ He gripped Alex’s elbow and steered him into a small room at the back of the main office. ‘Chart briefing room. Also my office, although I’m not in it much, thank god. Beer?’ He pulled two cans from a cool box in the corner, felt one with his cheek, nodded in satisfaction and handed it to Alex.
‘That went okay, I think. Good health.’
‘Cheers,’ responded Alex, tipping cold lager into his throat and wishing he could change into cooler clothes.
‘Couple of things I ought to mention, Alex.’
‘First, I thought you might like to bunk down on one of the boats. Have some privacy, take her out for a sail if you want, I can lend you a boy to do the running around if you’d like. Is that okay? If it’s not, you can have my room here,’ he inclined his head upwards, ‘ and I’ll shift out to the boat.’
‘No, that sounds fine. Thanks for thinking of it,’ said Alex warmly.
‘Needs must really, there’s not much spare space in the building. The second thing is that you may have noticed there was a face conspicuous by its absence at my little assembly just now?’
‘Mary Jane, my number two, is having a cob. Decided she had a half day coming to her and wouldn’t be here to greet you.’
‘It’s not important. I’ll see her tomorrow.’ Alex shrugged. If this Mary Jane had a problem with him, she could start her job-hunting sooner rather than later.
‘Fine. She’s kind of significant round here.’
Alex doubted that but said nothing.
‘Shall we go and find The Last Refuge then?’ Angus asked him, standing up and tossing his crushed beer can into a bin with a degree of casual accuracy that told Alex it was not the first time he had done it. His own followed it – more carefully.
Last Refuge? Of a scoundrel? Alex a smiled to himself. Angus did not look like a man familiar with the works of Dr Johnson.
The Last Refuge was moored on a pontoon some distance from the marina office, past Pussers and the shops to the right of the office, making Alex wonder if Angus had a reason for not offering him a room in the main building. To his surprise, the boat was a Scandinavian built Maxi, with teak decks and beautifully constructed hardwood fittings.
‘I was expecting to be on a Bénéteau or something,’ Alex said.
‘Beaut, isn’t she? The hull’s fibreglass, of course and some people say she’s a bit too sturdy for these friendly waters but she’ll be very comfortable. I’ve arranged for her to be fully provisioned, you’re connected to water and power and there’s even an Internet connection. Your cases are on board. I’ll leave you to have a look around but if you find you’re missing anything, give me a shout. I’ll be in the office for another hour or so.’
The New Zealander sketched a farewell and began to walk back towards the office, then walked back. ‘Sorry, I forgot to ask. Will you want anything tomorrow morning, do you think? If not, I was planning to take a boat up to the Bitter End.’
‘I’ve got a meeting in Road Town, so unless I need you to meet Mary Jane…’
Angus grinned. ‘I wouldn’t be enough protection, mate.’
Alex grinned back, wondering what sort of harridan Mary Jane would turn out to be. Obviously Angus wasn’t going to tell him any more about her and he pictured with some relish a feisty thirty year old with New York attitude, short auburn hair, long legs and a generous mouth housing an acid tongue. Nothing he couldn’t handle. He sighed. It was more likely that she would be a fifty five year old spinster with a rock solid bosom, huge arse, and a schoolmarm’s strict approach to transgression of the office rules she had laid down. Much more likely.
He stepped aboard The Last Refuge and stood for a moment surveying his new home before climbing down the steps to the cabin below. His cases had been stowed in the aft cabin, which was the larger of the two sleeping areas and boasted an en suite shower and toilet. The fridge was full of beers, wine, steaks, chicken, and fruit. They were obviously expecting him to cook on board. Some chance. He unpacked and stowed his clothes away, changing into shorts and tee shirt, at once feeling more comfortable. It was a pity he couldn’t dress as casually as this for the meeting tomorrow but lawyers were lawyers.
He went back up on deck and sat contemplating the end of day activity. On the water, the main trade was small laden dinghies, their noses in the air, as they ferried their owners towards the shore where Pussers was beginning to be busy. Happy Hour had been going for long enough to generate friendly noise from the regulars and Alex could smell the more subtle smells of the evening menu. He suddenly felt hungry and wished Moira were with him. He hated eating on his own at any time and it was worse when everyone around him was on holiday enjoying themselves. Damn the woman. Perhaps he could persuade Angus to join him. The New Zealander had been more friendly and easy going than Alex had dared hope and he had found himself charmed by the man’s relaxed good humour. And what better way to find out how the marina ran than from the man himself?
He looked up and saw that he had been caught napping again. A petite figure in cut-off jeans and polo shirt stood by the side of the boat, her hand shading her eyes from the sun and hiding her face from him. He had no idea who she was.
‘Hello there. That’s me.’
‘Can I come aboard?’
‘I was going to have something to eat.’ He indicated Pussers with a lazy hand. ‘I decided against the swill on the plane so I’m famished. Would you like to keep me company?’
‘Oh. Then why should I invite you aboard? Am I missing something?’ Alex was suddenly both irritated and nonplussed. He sat up and squinted at the young woman. ‘And who are you, anyway?’
‘Let me aboard and I’ll tell you everything.’
Everything? What the hell was going on?
‘No thanks,’ he said, pleased with the echo.
‘You are…infuriating.’ Her voice was filled with a fury he did not understand.
‘Why? Because I won’t do what you ask?’ Suddenly he knew who she was. ‘Why don’t we call a truce, I’ll say I’m sorry. We can blame the jet lag, I’ll buy you a drink, and we can start again. I really am interested in what you want to say. And if I’d worked out who you were a bit earlier, I wouldn’t have been so contrary. There, how’s that?’
She looked at him, nonplussed herself now. ‘Who am I then?’
He sighed. ‘You’re Angus’s number two, Mary Jane. Let’s go and have a drink anyway.’ He stood up, debated whether to lock the cockpit and decided against it, checked his pocket for dollars and jumped over the rail before she could start to argue with him again. He was beginning to see what Angus had in mind but she followed him docilely enough as he strode off towards the bar without a backwards glance at her.
Pussers was the success story of the Virgin Islands. They owned and ran pubs, restaurants, resorts, shops, and hotels throughout the area and their food was consistent and excellent. They were also the force behind Pussers Rum -an essential ingredient of the Painkiller – the ubiquitous and highly intoxicating rum based and aptly named cocktail. Alex ordered himself one now, leaning carelessly against the circular bar, and raising his eyebrows to enquire of Mary Jane what if anything she wanted. He half expected her to offer him a sulky shake of her head but instead it seemed her mood had changed. She smiled brightly at him and he saw her face for the first time.
‘I’ll have a Painkiller too. God knows I need it.’
She was quite unlike either of the two stereotypes Alex had imagined. Seated now on the stool next to him, it was hard to be certain of her height but he would be surprised if she topped five foot one. Her hair was a rich corn colour and she wore it long and tousled. Her eyes were a translucent grey and now that she had calmed down, he was able to see that they fitted into her face very nicely. Her mouth was small, with full lips. Beauty is always a fine balance of planes and angles, complexion and colouring, muscle and underlying serenity and the most desirable face in the world can turn very ugly when it fills with tears or allows itself to be distorted by anger or jealousy.
Mary Jane was nice looking but she wasn’t beautiful. Perhaps it was just too obvious that beneath the pretty exterior the fires were raging. Alex guessed that her lack of height might have made her stand up for herself a little too hard when she was at school and things had gone from bad to fucking bad tempered from there.
‘Angus said you had the afternoon off,’ he ventured.
‘So, obviously I should have known better than to say anything unless I wanted my head bitten off. Look Mary Jane, it’s quite a long flight from England, I’m tired, jet lagged, hungry, and getting pissed off. You wanted to talk to me. I wanted to eat. Excuse me while I order something.’
He picked up a menu, his anger at her abruptness making it impossible for him to take in the words on the brightly coloured card. He knew that he should not have snapped at her, which only fuelled his anger – this time with himself. He eventually managed to concentrate on the words long enough to decide he would try a fiery sounding local dish as the painkillers arrived. He handed Mary Jane the menu with a grimace and a shrug and found that she was looking at him with a rueful smile.
‘I didn’t mean to light your fuse,’ she said, accepting the menu. ‘I have a knack.’
‘It was a bit short,’ he told her. ‘What will you have to eat?’
‘Nothing. That’s not me being a pain in the butt. I ate earlier.’ She picked up her Painkiller and sipped the rum concoction carefully and he followed her example, knowing that the sweet mixture was relaxing in small quantities and lethal in large. Neither of them said anything for a few minutes, letting the day turn suddenly to night, as it liked to do in the Caribbean, whilst around them the restaurant tables filled up with early-eating American families and in a corner of the bar a band set up its instruments. Alex breathed in the exotic smells of spicy food and the comforting scents released by the heat from all around; the water, the wooden decking; the breeze; also a hint of something less perfect. He listened to the unique sounds made by the rigging in the masts boats and the chatter of the happy holidaymakers at the bar. He was glad he was here and grateful he was not alone. He discovered that Mary Jane was inspecting him over the rim of her glass.
‘You’re not what I expected, ‘ she said. Coming from her that might be a compliment but it probably wasn’t.
He grinned. ‘Nor you. Angus hinted at horns, but I don’t see any.’
‘I’ll kill him.’ It was matter of fact. She resumed her concentrated attack on the rum drink.
‘Would you care to enlighten me now? On what you wanted to see me about?’ He half expected her to reply “No”.
Instead, she looked at him again, quizzically now and said simply, ’I came to warn you about something, but I’m not sure any more.’
‘Not sure you want to warn me or not sure I need to be warned?’
‘Just not sure.’
He nodded, as if he understood and once more wished Moira were here. After she had mutilated him for picking up this girl, she would have been much better than him at worming her secrets out of her.
‘It might be better if I showed you, ‘ she offered eventually, the straw sucking air. She pushed the glass away with the air of a repentant sinner instructing the devil to stand to one side.
‘Showed me what?’ he asked.
‘if I told you, it wouldn’t be showing, would it?’ she answered reasonably.
‘I suppose not.’
‘Well? Are you coming?’
It wasn’t often that he met anyone with this many screws loose and he found himself equally intrigued and infuriated. All the same, he was supposed to be working, not disappearing with a mad young woman on a mystery jaunt.
‘How long will it take? Where are we going?’ he asked, trying to recover the initiative.
Her scorn was withering. ‘Are you always this up tight?’ she asked, her frown splitting her forehead in two.
He hadn’t stammered since he was at school. ‘No, I—‘
‘Shut up about it, anyway,’ she told him cheerfully, the glare replaced with a sweet smile. ‘Look who’s here.’
‘Hullo Mary Jane. I didn’t expect to see you here,’ said a deep voice behind Alex.
‘Hi, Gus. Look who I bumped into, all on his lonesome.’
‘I can see. Just flesh wounds so far, Alex or should I call a medic?’ Angus grinned at his own wit, white teeth gleaming in the darkness he had silently emerged from.
‘Have a drink, Angus. The Painkillers are anaesthetising the pain – just like it says on the label. Talking of which, Mary Jane, you seem to have finished yours.’
‘I’ll hand you over to Gus’s tender mercies, I think. Here, have my seat. I’ll be back in a moment.’ She disappeared in the direction of the ladies rest rooms and Angus slid onto her vacant stool.
He nodded at the girl behind the bar, ’beer please, my usual. And a painkiller.’
‘No no, I’ll have a beer too. My jet lag is catching up.’
A minute later Mary Jane was back. ’Nice to have met you, Alex.’ She held out her hand in farewell and he grasped it, feeing a tickle in his palm as she withdrew, then turned to Angus and kissed him on the cheek, one hand resting casually on his thigh as she did so. Alex felt a twinge of lust and a dash of envy and wondered what the relationship was between the marina manager and his assistant. Then she was gone, striding purposefully along the marina dock, greeting the occasional acquaintance with a smile or a remark. The two men watched her go, then turned back towards the bar.
‘Quite a girl. As you said.’ Alex reached into his shorts pocket for money to pay the bar bill.
‘Oh, yes. Drink up.’
An hour later, full of Creole food and Budweiser, Alex waved a wobbly farewell to Angus and staggered along the pontoon towards his boat. It was only 9.30 but for Alex it felt like 2.30 in the morning and he could barely put one foot in front of the other, he was so tired. The Last Refuge lay exactly as he had left her, his beer can resting on the cockpit table, the hatch to the cabin below open and unlocked. Shadows from somewhere fell onto the hull and Alex felt a shiver of anxiety as he steeped over the rail. It would not have been difficult for someone to have crept aboard unseen to await his return and pounce on him now. This might be paradise but there were a lot of people who would not regard him as a welcome visitor to it. He had been careless but at least now, he was wide-awake again.
He stood on the cockpit deck and listened. Pussers was revving at full speed and the band was playing its heart out but it was still quiet on the mooring, a trick of wind and water he imagined. The boat creaked and a fender squealed as the boat moved slightly against its spring line. There was no human sound and he let out the breath he had not been aware he was holding. He must buy himself a torch tomorrow or borrow one from Gus.
Gus. Not Angus. The New Zealander had looked at him the third or fourth time he had used his full name and said, amused, ‘for fuck’s sake, Alex, I was only joking. Everyone calls me Gus, okay?’
He shook his head in disgust at his anxiety. There was no one waiting for him below. Even so, it would do no harm to rig a primitive alarm to warn him of anyone coming on board. Just in case. He would need some string and a frying pan but it could wait until the morning. He pulled back the hatch and stepped onto the companionway steps, pausing for a paranoid moment to be certain the boat was empty. All he could hear was the sloosh of water against the hull and he was so tired that he kicked off his deck shoes and shorts onto the floor by the side of the bunk and fell onto it without even bothering to find the light.
In the right hand pocket of his shorts, Mary Jane’s unread note lay forgotten.