Page 21 of The Firm

The same Chevette with the same driver had been parked in front of the gift shop next to the bank, and now, moments later, it was parked four blocks away. A native on a bicycle stopped next to him and took a cigarette. The man in the car pointed at the library. The native left his bicycle and walked quickly across the street.

Mitch folded the newspaper and stuck it in his coat. He walked past the rows of shelves, found a National Geographic and sat down at a table. He studied the magazine and listened carefully as the native climbed the stairs, noticed him, walked behind him, seemed to pause as if to catch a glimpse of what he was reading, then disappeared down the stairs. Mitch waited for a moment, then returned to the window. The native was taking another cigarette and talking to the man in the Chevette. He lit the cigarette and rode away.

Mitch spread the newspaper on the table and scanned the headline story of the two American lawyers and their dive guide who had been killed in a mysterious accident the day before. He made mental notes and returned the paper.

The Chevette was still watching. He walked in front of it, made the block and headed in the direction of the bank. The shopping district was squeezed tightly between the bank buildings and Hogsty Bay. The streets were narrow and crowded with tourists on foot, tourists on scooters, tourists in rented compacts. He removed his coat and ducked into a T-shirt shop with a pub upstairs. He climbed the stairs, ordered a Coke, and sat on the balcony.

Within minutes the native with the bicycle was at the bar, drinking a Red Stripe and watching from behind a handprinted menu.

Mitch sipped on the Coke and scanned the congestion below. No sign of the Chevette, but he knew it was close by. He saw another man stare at him from the street, then disappear. Then a woman. Was he paranoid? Then the Chevette turned the corner two blocks away and moved slowly beneath him.

He went to the T-shirt store and bought a pair of sunglasses. He walked for a block, then darted into an alley. He ran through the dark shade to the next street, then into a gift shop. He left through the back door, into an alley. He saw a large clothing store for tourists and entered through a side door. He watched the street closely and saw nothing. The racks were full of shorts and shirts of all colors - clothes the natives would not buy but the Americans loved. He stayed conservative - white shorts with a red knit pullover. He found a pair of straw sandals that sort of matched the hat he liked. The clerk giggled and showed him to a dressing room. He checked the street again. Nothing. The clothes fit, and he asked her if he could leave his suit and shoes in the back for a couple of hours. "No problem, mon," she said. He paid in cash, slipped her a ten and asked her to call a cab. She said he was very handsome.

He watched the street nervously until the cab arrived. He darted across the sidewalk, into the back seat. "Abanks Dive Lodge," he said.

"That's a long way, mon."

Mitch threw a twenty over the seat. "Get moving. Watch your mirror. If someone is following, let me know."

He grabbed the money. "Okay, mon."

Mitch sat low under his new hat in the back seat as his driver worked his way down Shedden Road, out of the shopping district, around Hogsty Bay, and headed east, past Red Bay, out of the city of Georgetown and onto the road to Bodden Town.

"Who are you running from, mon?"

Mitch smiled and rolled down his window. "The Internal Revenue Service." He thought that was cute, but the driver seemed confused. There were no taxes and no tax collectors in the islands, he remembered. The driver continued in silence.

According to the paper, the dive guide was Philip Abanks, son of Barry Abanks, the owner of the dive lodge. He was nineteen when he was killed. The three had drowned when an explosion of some sort hit their boat. A very mysterious explosion. The bodies had been found in eighty feet of water in full scuba gear. There were no witnesses to the explosion and no explanations as to why it occurred two miles offshore in an area not known for diving. The article said there were many unanswered questions.

Bodden Town was a small village twenty minutes from Georgetown. The dive lodge was south of town on an isolated stretch of beach.

"Did anyone follow us?" Mitch asked.

The driver shook his head.

"Good job. Here's forty bucks." Mitch looked at his watch. "It's almost one. Can you be here at exactly two-thirty?"

"No problem, mon."

The road ended at the edge of the beach and became a white-rock parking area shaded by dozens of royal palms. The front building of the lodge was a large, two-story home with a tin roof and an outer stairway leading to the center of the second floor. The Grand House, it was called. It was painted a light blue with neat white trim, and it was partially hidden by bay vines and spider lilies. The hand-wrought fretwork was painted pink. The solid wooden shutters were olive. It was the office and eating room of Abanks Dive Lodge. To its right the palm trees thinned and a small driveway curved around the Grand House and sloped downward to a large open area of white rock. On each side was a group of a dozen or so thatched-roof huts where divers roomed. A maze of wooden sidewalks ran from the huts to the central point of the lodge, the open-air bar next to the water.

Mitch headed for the bar to the familiar sounds of reggae and laughter. It was similar to Rumheads, but without the crowd. After a few minutes, the bartender, Henry, delivered a Red Stripe to Mitch.

"Where's Barry Abanks?" Mitch asked.

He nodded to the ocean and returned to the bar. Half a mile out, a boat cut slowly through the still water and made its way toward the lodge. Mitch ate a cheeseburger and watched the dominoes.

The boat docked at a pier between the bar and a larger hut with the words Dive Shop hand-painted over a window. The divers jumped from the boat with their equipment bags and, without exception, headed for the bar. A short, wiry man stood next to the boat and barked orders at the deckhands, who were unloading empty scuba tanks onto the pier. He wore a white baseball cap and not much else. A tiny black pouch covered his crotch and most of his rear end. From the looks of his brown leathery skin he hadn't worn much in the past fifty years. He checked in at the dive shop, yelled at the dive captains and deckhands and made his way to the bar. He ignored the crowd and went to the freezer, where he picked up a Heineken, removed the top and took a long drink.

The bartender said something to Abanks and nodded toward Mitch. He opened another Heineken and walked to Mitch's table.

He did not smile. "Are you looking for me?" It was almost a sneer.

"Are you Mr. Abanks?"

"That's me. What do you want?"

"I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes."

He gulped his beer and gazed at the ocean. "I'm too busy. I have a dive boat leaving in forty minutes."

"My name is Mitch McDeere. I'm a lawyer from Memphis."

Abanks glared at him with tiny brown eyes. Mitch had his attention. "So?"

"So, the two men who died with your son were friends of mine. It won't take but a few minutes."

Abanks sat on a stool and rested on his elbows. "That's not one of my favorite subjects."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"The police instructed me not to talk to anyone."

"It's confidential. I swear."

Abanks squinted and stared at the brilliant blue water. His face and arms bore the scars of a life at sea, a life spent sixty feet down guiding novices through and around coral reefs and wrecked ships.

"What do you want to know?" he asked softly.

"Can we talk somewhere else?"

"Sure. Let's take a walk." He yelled at Henry and spoke to a table of divers as he left. They walked on the beach.

"I'd like to talk about the accident," Mitch said.

"You can ask. I may not answer."

"What caused the explosion?"

"I don't know. Perhaps an air compressor. Perhaps some fuel. We are not certain. The boat was badly damaged and most of the clues went up in flames."

"Was it your boat?"

"Yes. One of my small ones. A thirty-footer. Your friends had chartered it for the morning."

"Where were the bodies found?"

"In eighty feet of water. There was nothing suspicious about the bodies, except that there were no burns or other injuries that would indicate they had been in the explosion. So I guess that makes the bodies very suspicious."

"The autopsies said they drowned."

"Yes, they drowned. But your friends were in full scuba gear, which was later examined by one of my divemasters. It worked perfectly. They were good divers."

"What about your son?"

"He was not in full gear. But he could swim like a fish."

"Where was the explosion?"

"They had been scheduled to dive along a series of reef formations at Roger's Wreck Point. Are you familiar with the island?"

"No."

"It's around the East Bay on Northeastern Point. Your friends had never dived there, and my son suggested they try it. We knew your friends well. They were experienced divers and took it seriously. They always wanted a boat by themselves and didn't mind paying for it. And they always wanted Philip as their dive captain. We don't know if they made any dives on the Point. The boat was found burning two miles at sea, far from any of our dive sites."

"Could the boat have drifted?"

"Impossible. If there had been engine trouble, Philip would have used the radio. We have modern equipment, and our divemasters are always in touch with the dive shop. There's no way the explosion could have occurred at the Point. No one saw it or heard it, and there's always someone around. Secondly, a disabled boat could not drift two miles in that water. And, most importantly, the bodies were not on the boat, remember. Suppose the boat did drift, how do you explain the drifting of the bodies eighty feet below. They were found within twenty meters of the boat."

"Who found them?"

"My men. We caught the bulletin over the radio, and I sent a crew. We knew it was our boat, and my men started diving. They found the bodies within minutes."

"I know this is difficult to talk about."

Abanks finished his beer and threw the bottle in a wooden garbage box. "Yes, it is. But time takes away the pain. Why are you so interested?"

"The families have a lot of questions."

"I am sorry for them. I met their wives last year. They spent a week with us. Such nice people."

"Is it possible they were simply exploring new territory when it happened?"

"Possible, yes. But not likely. Our boats report their movements from one dive site to the next. That's standard procedure. No exceptions. I have fired a dive captain for not clearing a site before going to the next. My son was the best captain on the island. He grew up in these waters. He would never fail to report his movements at sea. It's that simple. The police believe that is what happened, but they have to believe something. It's the only explanation they have."

"But how do they explain the condition of the bodies?"

"They can't. It's simply another diving accident as far as they're concerned."

"Was it an accident?"

"I think not."

The sandals had rubbed blisters by now, and Mitch removed them. They turned and started back to the lodge.

"If it wasn't an accident, what was it?"

Abanks walked and watched the ocean crawl along the beach. He smiled for the first time. "What are the other possibilities?"

"There's a rumor in Memphis that drugs could have been involved."

"Tell me about this rumor."

"We've heard that your son was active in a drug ring, that possibly he was using the boat that day to meet a supplier at sea, that there was a dispute and my friends got in the way."

Abanks smiled again and shook his head. "Not Philip. To my knowledge he never used drugs, and I know he didn't trade in them. He wasn't interested in money. Just women and diving."

"Not a chance?"

"No, not a chance. I've never heard this rumor, and I doubt if they know more in Memphis. This is a small island, and I would have heard it by now. It's completely false."

The conversation was over and they stopped near the bar. "I'll ask you a favor," Abanks said. "Do not mention any of this to the families. I cannot prove what I know to be true, so it's best if no one knows. Especially the families."

"I won't tell anyone. And I will ask you not to mention our conversation. Someone might follow me here and ask questions about my visit. Just say we talked about diving."

"As you wish."

"My wife and I will be here next spring for our vacation. I'll be sure to look you up."

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