The Devil at 4 O’clock
“He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.” — Benjamin Franklin
It was Saturday night at Charley’s Crab and Roy had failed to make a reservation. He and Alan were lucky to get a table—in the back by the kitchen. Alan wasn’t pleased. He’d arrived in a sour mood. His flight from LaGuardia had been delayed for hours by mechanical problems and a smaller plane—with a cramped first class cabin—had to be substituted for the original aircraft. Most of the amenities Alan expected were missing. And upon arrival he had to wait in line to rent a car for the two-hour trek to Buxton. Roy had been unwilling to make the lengthy round trip to pick him up.
Although Alan’s first drink had managed to mellow him some, he still ordered a second. Roy, surprisingly, was content to nurse his first. Three weeks had passed since Roy’s celebration with Claire had turned unpleasant, but he was still careful not to overdo it. Roy had been inviting Alan to visit for two years. Suddenly, he chose to make the trip just as fissures were forming in Roy’s private little ocean paradise. Hell of a coincidence, Roy thought.
Alan had been avoiding Buxton like the plague. Why the sudden change of heart? Certainly visiting the desolate beauty of the Outer Banks held no appeal for him. Alan had spent most of his life indoors. He preferred it that way. Staying in touch with Roy by phone and email had been fine with him. But now there was a message to deliver. Best to do it in person.
Carolyn stopped by their table to meet Alan—she knew him only by reputation—and to tell the waiter Roy and Alan were friends of hers. Roy never ate or drank at Charley’s, but Ken had insisted his associate be treated to a good meal. As for being seated at the worst table in the restaurant, there wasn’t anything Carolyn could do. She’d tried to help, but it was Saturday night and Roy wasn’t a regular. The maître d’ couldn’t have cared less.
“She doesn’t much look like Ken’s sister,” Alan remarked, as Carolyn left to attend to her tables.
“Right. I forgot. Not my type anyhow, but clearly yours.”
“You got a problem with that?”
“No, but Ken might. If you need company at night, you’re less likely to get in trouble with Claire than Carolyn—even if Claire’s married.”
“‘Company at night,’ Alan? How quaint. Is that the party line? Ken didn’t send you here to tell me that. Or did he?”
“Ken didn’t ‘send’ me here. He suggested the trip might be good for both of us.”
Before Roy could respond, the waiter placed a two-pound lobster in front of Alan.
“And the salad’s for you, sir?”
“Right. Just set it down.” Roy said, unnecessarily curt. His conversation with Alan was already making him tense.
Putting on his lobster bib, Alan dug in. This was the happiest he’d been since leaving his apartment in New York.
“If that’s what you want me to believe,” Roy said, not bothering to hide his skepticism.
“Maybe I need to spell it out for you, Roy.”
“Maybe you do.”
“Listen, I know you suspect that Ken knows about you and Carolyn.”
“More than suspect, Alan. What now? Is he going to disown me?”
“You want to be serious or you want to fuck around?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Okay then, how pissed is he?”
“Well, I think more than anything he’s pissed that Carolyn kept it a secret. Don’t get me wrong; he’d like it over. He’s always been overly protective of her, and while he may like you Roy—and, surprisingly, he does—he doesn’t trust you, especially with Carolyn. He doesn’t want to see her hurt and he knows your history.”
“You didn’t fly all the way to Buxton to tell me that. There’s more, right?”
Alan took a break from devouring his lobster to look around the room. The place was packed. Although casually attired, Charley’s guests were universally well tanned, well groomed, and well coiffed. Waiters scurried in every direction carrying mounds of crabs, lobsters, and shrimp to hungry diners at tables set with immaculate white linen. Expensive bottles of wine sat cooling in nearby ice buckets. Not your run-of-the-mill crab shack. Alan, for his part, now seemed happy to be sitting off to the side, away from the crowd. The decibel level was considerably lower and their location far more suited for a private conversation.
“Tommy’s rattling Ken’s cage.”
“You don’t sound surprised.”
“I’m not. What does he want?”
“He wants Ken to either sell him The Bungalows or to buy the adjacent property. He prefers the first scenario.”
Roy sat up, concerned.
“All of a sudden? But he still has no idea I own them, right?”
“You mean that your name’s on the deed?”
“Whatever, Alan. Yes, that my name’s on the deed.”
“Not really sure. And remember, your name isn’t really on the deed. An LLC is listed as the owner. Tommy would have to do some research—or someone would have to tell him—to discover the identity of the actual owner.”
“And has someone?”
“Is that why Claire got a call from him out of the blue three weeks ago?
“Okay. Skip the build-up. Why’s this coming up now?”
“Right,” Alan said, taking his bib off and wiping his mouth. He wasn’t quite finished, but he needed another break.
“Ken’s made a few missteps. We all do from time to time. But his were costly. Don’t start feeling bad for him, though. He isn’t exactly poor. It’s just that his financial position relative to Tommy’s has changed and he finds himself in need of Tommy’s financial backing for several construction loans. A few unwise investments on Ken’s part and he’s now beholden to the guy you like least on this earth.”
If Roy was rattled—and he was—he wasn’t about to let Alan see it. It wasn’t hard, though, for Roy to skip ahead and see where this was headed. Still, he needed Alan to be specific.
“So where does this go from here?”
“That’s partly up to you, Roy.”
“Oh, really? When did I become a player?”
“You haven’t, and being a wise guy doesn’t help your cause.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
A lull in the conversation allowed the waiter to clear the table. Roy paid the check, and he and Ken adjourned to the relative seclusion of the bar in the next room. Alan ordered a couple of brandies.
“How’s the writing going?” Alan asked. “I see you finally got a story published.”
“I wasn’t aware it was out already.”
“It is. I read it. I liked it.” Alan said sincerely.
“Thanks,” Roy said—and meant it. But for once he wasn’t interested in talking about his writing. “Let’s stick with Ken. What are his intentions?”
“Not Ken’s intentions, Roy; Tommy’s. If he wants to screw with you, he will. Ken can’t afford to stop him. He needs Tommy a lot more than Tommy needs him—and certainly a lot more than he needs you. Big mistake this Carolyn business. Ken doesn’t really like Tommy and you’ve done the job at The Bungalows for him, but at heart he’s a businessman. Still, he might have gone to bat for you. Now, it’s a whole different story. If he needs to, Roy, you’re going under the bus. You sealed your fate when you started sleeping with Carolyn.”
“That was almost three years ago.”
“News travels slowly sometimes. As you say, the Outer Banks are fairly remote.”
“And how exactly did this news find its way to New York? Claire? Carolyn?”
“Claire loves your goddamn ass, Roy, and you know it. She’s not going to rat you out even if she hates Carolyn. Guess again?”
“Alan, just tell me.”
Roy exhaled hard.
“Fuck. I knew insulting Peggy was a big mistake.”
“Who’s Peggy? Shit, Roy, Danny’s been feeding Ken information since your friend Rita, the exotic dancer, got busted.”
“I guess Danny wasn’t as unsophisticated as you thought. Besides, Ken pays his workers well.”
“You ought to know.”
“Most unkind, Roy. Especially since I’m down here trying to help.”
“Really? And what can you do for me now? Seems like my future in Buxton may be up for grabs.”
“Perhaps,” Alan said, just grateful that Roy had managed to remain calm despite the unpleasantness of the news he had just delivered. He motioned to the bartender for two more brandies.
“But you need to call Ken, although honestly I don’t think there’s much he can do. It’s Tommy’s move.”
“And when did all this come about?”
“Well, I think Danny only told Ken about you and Carolyn a few weeks back. Tommy didn’t actually start pestering him about The Bungalows until last week.”
“What provoked him?”
“Don’t know or won’t say?”
“Well, I don’t really believe you, but what the hell. Maybe I should just call Gretchen and have her plead my case.”
Alan paused. “That would be a little tricky.”
“Why? Don’t you think she’ll remember me?” Roy asked brusquely.
“I’m sure she would if she were still alive.”
Roy froze. “What?”
“Sorry. I hadn’t meant to spring it on you. She had a stroke. Doctors aren’t sure what brought it on.”
“How long ago?”
“Little over a year.”
“Christ, the last time I saw her was more than three years ago in my office. She was looking for a friend. Tommy was a bigger problem than ever. I didn’t really have time for her and I wasn’t particularly sympathetic. My attitude was you made your bed, unmake it.”
“Surprising for an old softy like you.”
“I know,” Roy sighed. “Kind of brings you up short, doesn’t it?”
“Death has a way of doing that.”
Over breakfast the next morning Roy and Alan joked around, preferring humor to a rehash of the previous evening’s conversation. Ken’s message had been delivered. Enough said. It was time for a few laughs at Tommy and Ken’s expense. Better that than face the unpleasant realities the future seemed to hold. Gretchen, however, was strictly off limits. Roy was surprised how deeply he’d been affected by the news of her death. They’d been mismatched, of course, but he had almost married her. In the three years since she had recounted Tommy’s abuse, Roy had never betrayed her confidence. Maybe he should have.
Alan had originally planned to stay a few days, but the news of a rapidly developing tropical storm caused him to change plans. He would catch the next flight to New York. Despite Roy’s sullen attitude at Charley’s, he had appreciated Alan’s honesty. In turn, Alan was grateful Roy seemed to have taken the news in stride. He hadn’t been sure he would. A master at keeping his emotions private, Roy had kept the extent of his concern to himself.
As Alan headed to Norfolk—miffed that he had to drive himself to the airport—Roy went to find Danny. As long as the storm’s path remained uncertain, Roy needed to be prepared. The Bungalows were, after all, still his responsibility, and his only source of income. Now, though, he had money in the bank—a novelty for Roy.
“Danny,” Roy shouted, as he spied him arguing with his mother at the door of their bungalow. “We need to get cracking.”
As he watched Danny direct some final hostile words to Olivia, Roy couldn’t help noticing the Army Corps of Engineers’ equipment several hundred yards out at sea. Roy didn’t care that the view was temporarily spoiled as long the beach erosion was significantly slowed. But that might soon be of little concern to him.
“Where have you been?” Roy asked, as Danny caught up with him.
“Arguing with my mother. What’s it to you?”
“Whoa. Not a good way to get started. Do me a favor and lose the attitude.”
Roy didn’t appreciate the huge chip on Danny’s shoulder. There was no need for it. He’d apologized weeks ago for insulting Peggy.
“Fuck you, Roy. Don’t like my attitude? Fire me.”
“Jesus, Danny. Back off. If you want, I’ll fire you later. Right now we have work to do.”
“You hate the fact that you might actually need me, don’t you?”
Roy had been planning to wait until after storm preparations were complete to bring up Danny’s private arrangement with Ken. He didn’t want to be stuck doing all the work himself. But Danny’s attitude got the better of him.
“Fuck you, Danny. I don’t need this. I know you’re Ken’s information pipeline, and have been for some time.” Roy paused briefly to monitor Danny’s reaction. “I’ll admit, though, I only learned of it recently. I didn’t think you were capable of that kind of subterfuge. Subterfuge, Danny, you know what that is?”
Danny didn’t respond. He appeared stunned. “Look it up later,” Roy continued. “Just please tell me Ken paid you well for your work.”
Danny’s bravado all but disappeared, replaced by a look of abject apprehension.
“Yeah, okay. So what? I never told him much. Nothing important. Just enough to make it seem worthwhile to pay me,” he said defensively.
“Don’t insult me, Danny, just be honest. Failing that, you and dear old mom are on your own once your lease is up.”
“I’m sorry, Roy. I really am,” Danny said, sounding as if he meant it. “I needed the money. My mom wouldn’t give me much and you pay me peanuts. I wanted to show Peggy a good time. Hell, I wanted to impress her. It was my first chance to get out from under my mother’s suffocating influence. Don’t begrudge me that.”
“Oh, I don’t. That part’s understandable. It’s your lack of loyalty that bothers me. I didn’t deserve to be undermined. I couldn’t have cared less about all the trivial information that you fed Ken along the way. But telling him about my relationship with Carolyn, and then the drunken street scene with you and Peggy last month. That was wrong, Danny. You shouldn’t have done that.”
“He was pushing me, Roy. He said he suspected something; he wanted corroboration. He told me that if I wasn’t honest with him and it came out later, I was off the payroll. I couldn’t risk that, so I did what I had to.”
“I get it, Danny. I do. I just don’t appreciate it. It’s made my life a whole lot more complicated. You should have thought about that. Try remembering who your friends are for a change.”
“Don’t lecture me, Roy. It doesn’t suit you.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t. Now let’s get the bungalows in shape.”
After briefly helping Danny, Roy returned to his place. Amidst a slew of marketing emails, two personal ones stood out. The first was from Max Pagent letting Roy know that one of the stories he’d passed along had been published—something Roy already knew. The second, shockingly, was from Alison. Emma had died.
Roy had been sending Emma money regularly since he’d arrived in Buxton and she’d obviously left instructions for him to be notified upon her death. Although it was decent of Alison to follow through, Roy wasn’t tempted to fantasize. The email’s perfunctory tone clearly suggested she wasn’t looking for a response. Without notification, however, Roy’s automatic payments would have continued. Alison could have reaped the benefit, but she’d passed on the opportunity. Roy tried to be grateful for small favors.
Emma Becker was still on Roy’s mind when Carolyn walked into his bungalow. She had expected Roy to get in touch that morning. He hadn’t. After a curt hello, she inquired about his conversation with Alan at Charley’s the night before. The evening obviously hadn’t ended well and she was anxious to know why. Roy offered her a drink, but Carolyn declined. She hadn’t stopped by to socialize.
Roy didn’t like being interrogated, especially by Carolyn. Relationships, he believed, often made people feel unjustly entitled to know all about you. And in Roy’s case, there was a lot about his life he hadn’t shared with Carolyn. Now he would need to explain Alan’s warning about Tommy without unduly alarming her. Was that even possible when Roy himself was alarmed? The last three years in Buxton had been among Roy’s best. Now Tommy Thompson appeared poised to spoil the party.
“Not really. Alan left this morning and I helped Danny get the bungalows ready in case the storm does head towards Buxton.”
“No time to give me a quick call?” Carolyn asked.
Roy, already on edge, snapped at her. “I’m not in the mood, Carolyn.”
“Neither am I.”
“Okay, so then why’d you stop by?”
“Don’t be difficult, Roy.” Carolyn said, raising her arms as if to ward off trouble. “You want me to go?”
“No, but a little understanding might be in order.”
“We’ve got big problems, Carolyn.”
“You might say that.”
…to be continued…