Back

Contact Jim LaVigne at jim@jimlavigne.com

All content on this website copyright 2005 Jim LaVigne

Five Little Monkeys

by Jim Lavigne

Prologue

The sun beats down like it's angry at the world, throwing glaring shards of light from the brilliant aqua sea. Other than a small clearing and developed beach, the four-mile wide dot of land is largely overrun with palms, mangroves, swamp, and vines. On the beach sit two deck chairs and a low table. A twenty foot wooden dock pokes out into the almost unnaturally blue water but no boat can be seen. Picturesque, to be sure, but remote; the mainland lies some twenty miles off and the nearest other island five. Gentle breezes fan the palms and wash over the clearing, swirling the pencil stream of wood smoke from an economical cook fire.

The clearing, some hundred yards wide and newly hacked from the surrounding foliage, holds a few pieces of camp furniture, a sturdy tent, and two people, the island's owners. One is a man, fifty-something, with short gray hair and a bushy beard. He's neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin. His face is bland, unremarkable. The other is a woman, also in her fifties (perhaps carrying it a bit better), with a similar lack of physical noteworthiness. The two sit on wood benches with their backs to a plank table, exuding the contentment and mutual familiarity of a happy married couple. The man pours a glass of champagne from a split of Moet-Chandon and the two clink glasses.

"To the future," the man toasts and they drink.

"Do you think we've finally seen the last of Pearson?" asks the woman. "And the Company?"

"Yes, dear heart," the man answers. "That part of our lives is behind us. Now and forever. No more Company, no more missions, no more Pearson. We're too old for all of that now."

"I would have said we were too old ten years ago," the woman observes.

"Touché."

They sit in silence, watching the waves break on the beach. Their beach. The man slides over and puts his arm around the woman and they sigh, but the man senses uneasiness in her.

"We did the right thing, Mary," says the man. "We're out of it now. They know nothing of the equation and never will. Not after this weekend."

"But John," the woman says. "The will. Was that the right thing as well? I can't bear the thought of Jim getting hurt over this."

"Yes. It has to be used at some point. There's no avoiding it. This way, it should be some years from now and the world should be ready for it. Jim and his friends will see to that, I'm sure. And I also trust that they will use it correctly."

The woman nods reluctantly. The two sit for a while again and then the man stirs and hugs his wife.

"Well," he says, "Might as well get to it." He turns to the table and picks up three pages of paper. These he twists into a rolled cylinder. Next he picks up a steel tube, fifteen inches long, two inches in circumference, with a screw-off top. Into the tube go the papers and the lid is tightly secured.

"Be back in a few hours, darling."

Hefting a shovel and pick, he trudges off down a crude path into the overgrown trees.

ONE

Jim had to almost scream for Gina to hear him. "Where now?"

Shrugging, Gina held her thumb and forefinger together and brought them to her lips in the universal Joint gesture. Jim grinned and looked over at their friend Molly, who sat smoking, gracelessly slumped in a chair, looking out the front window of the club. Around them the Maelstrom Club throbbed with the beat from the techno and the higher sounds of shouted conversations and laughter. Waitresses threaded their way through the crowd, bearing atop extended arms either food for the restaurant side or, more likely, drinks for the bar. The three of them, plus friends Art and Greg, had just had dinner and several cocktails, a pretty average Friday night. Jim, however, was restless. It had been a very boring week at work, and when editing copy gets boring, it really gets boring. And besides, he always thought up What To Do Now.

Rising, Jim whacked Art on the back to get the large man's attention and gestured with his head towards the door. After first holding up an index finger, Art returned to the bouncy, pretty young woman whose phone number he'd been trying to get. Jim meanwhile poked his friend Greg in the ribs and jerked a thumb at the exit while raising both eyebrows. Shall we?

"Hey Moll!" Jim yelled into the woman's ear. "Can we hit your place?"

Molly Orreski nodded wearily and stood, donning a battered army jacket in contrast to her friends' leather and camelhair. Art, holding a slip of paper and wearing a dopey smile, walked up and shooed them toward the door.

Outside it was cold, say ten below, with the wind howling down a Lake Street made half-width by the five-foot snow banks on either side. It hit the so-recently toasty five with the effect of a bucket of cold water.

"Shit!" they more or less all said at once, pulling up collars and jamming hands into pockets. With the peculiar step one uses on ice, they ran down the street to where a lit cab sat at the curb. Five people in a cab is always a tight squeeze, but these five had done this many times, and even managed to ignore the cabby's exasperated look over the shoulder.

"Downtown, my man," said Jim, "8th and Hennepin." Gina, sitting on his lap, shivered violently and Jim tightened his grip around her waist.

"S'Okay, Gina," said Art, noticing Gina's shudders. "Molly's place is always too warm anyway."

"Hey, man," shot back Molly "I know it's a dump, but it's downtown and I can work there, and it's cheap."

Art looked at the frozen opaque car window. "Not what I meant," he mumbled.

Greg Millman, squashed against the door, jerked suddenly and thrashed at his leg.

"Damn it Moll, your cig!" After a few swipes he found the cherry stuck to the hem of his coat, burning away merrily. Jerkily, Greg extinguished himself and then held up the coat's edge.

"Ruined." He glared at Molly.

"Look, Greg, I'm really really sorry. I can pay for it to get fixed if you want." Molly laid her hand on Greg's shoulder. "Really, man..."

Greg's brows eased back into place and he let the coat fall. "Naw, it's okay. It's not like it's new or anything." He trailed off.

"Jesus H Christ!" exclaimed Jim. "What's up with everybody tonight? You guys are picking each other to pieces. Lots of fun, really. I mean, come on guys, lighten up."

Muffled by the huge scarf wrapped around her head, Gina's voice sounded like a stereo set to all midrange. "It's the damn weather. When was the last time we swam or sunbathed or went outside without a coat or were warm? Four months ago, that's when! It's making us nuts. We need spring!"

It had been a long, snowy, cold winter in Minneapolis. Despite their youth and vigor and such, the five had eventually succumbed to the malaise that grabs all who live in such God-forsaken places. They went to work, came home, went to work, came home, made listless forays to smoky clubs and restaurants, sat through movies. None of them skied or played hockey, and so it was only reasonable that they might be fed up with the weather.

With an almost-alarming skid into a light pole, the cab came to a stop in front of Molly's building.

"Whoops!" said Art as he tossed a ten to the cabby.

They piled out, and, as Molly, Greg, and Gina rushed through the cold to the building's doors, Jim, Art, and the driver checked out the front end of the cab. The bumper was bent nearly double.

"Dag!" said Art, "That's a bitch, man."

"Come on," said Jim, already hurrying off.

Molly's building was home to several businesses, not the least of which was the adult bookstore that occupied the first two floors. The top two were rented out as lofts. It was indeed too warm inside Molly's place, but after the street it felt wonderful.

One giant room on the top floor of the building, the loft was maybe forty yards square with an enclosed and topped-over area in one corner that was the bathroom. A set of battered appliances sat over against one wall, with a long wooden table and mismatched chairs serving as dining room. In another corner were three beat-up futons and a few odd end tables. Molly went around and pulled the chains of three shaded overhead bulbs, casting long shadows on the rest of the place and illuminating the huge canvases she was currently working on. There were four and each was six feet high by twelve feet long. Three were blank, drying on their frames, but the other was most definitely not. A dark, sinister landscape formed the backdrop for a trio of extremely nasty-looking characters: a sort of centaur with tentacles, a demon-thing with four heads, and a hermaphroditic nightmare. Goya on acid.

"Wow, Moll, this is really...something." Art was standing before the painting, cocking his head from one side to the other. "What do you call it?"

"Father, Son, and Holy Whore. It's not done yet." Molly's answer came from the fridge as she rooted around and pulled out five beers of three different varieties.

Jim and Gina plopped onto one of the futons. Gina turned on Molly's crappy stereo while Jim groped under the futon, found a shallow lacquered tray and propped it on his knees. He dumped a small pile of dope on the tray and began sorting through it for offending beans. Gina started a Chemical Brothers CD and, paging through an art magazine, sat down next to Jim.

They were a good-looking couple. Gina had that rare and envied combination of black hair and fair skin and was beautiful in all things bodily, if a tad on the thin side. Although not exactly GQ, Jim was nevertheless quite handsome as well, with a lantern jaw, thick dark hair, and a smile known to open doors. Both were impeccably dressed, at least for this part of the world, in dark designer wear.

While Jim cleaned dope, Greg went over to the scarred wooden table and accepted a beer from Molly. Looking bemused from his art appreciation, Art joined them.

Arthur Craine was a big fellow. Six foot six and anywhere from 250 to 275 pounds, Art had struggled his whole life to deal with his size. It intimidated people. That, and the fact that he was black, often led to the Funny Vibe with most average folks. As a result, or perhaps as a defense, Art had developed an enthusiastic, gregarious personality and a penchant for bright (some might say loud) clothing. Everywhere Art went, he made friends; the attendant at the Rest Stop, the old lady in line ahead of him, the guitar player from Marilyn Manson, whatever.

These outgoing traits could not be ascribed to Greg Millman. An honest-to-God genius, Greg at times had trouble in social situations, especially when people spoke vehemently about things they knew nothing about. Tallish but slight, Greg was blond and fair and indifferent to his attire, but dressed well for his job de-bugging mainframes. With these, his friends, however, he was at ease and occasionally just wasted one or another of them with some joke or birthday present or magazine subscription, some genuinely thoughtful, selfless gesture.

Molly Orreski, slight and green-eyed, always looked as if she had never seen a mirror. To be sure, she was pretty, but she veiled it in baggy drab clothes and wild, dread-locked, black-and-pink hair. A pessimistic streak ran straight through her, but Molly was devoted to these others despite the fact that they knew little about what made her who she was.

There were others in their circle, of course, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, relatives, but these five were the core, the people around whom they felt most at ease, most at home. And if there was a core to the core, it was Jim. All four of the others had that in common; they were friends because of their relations with Jim.

Their mutual friend had finished de-beaning and now adroitly rolled up the dope in a paper, waved it to dry, and lit it up. After a good pull, he passed the J to Gina who, refraining as usual, passed it to Art, who cranked on it mightily. As they chatted about this and that, the dope made the rounds and they passed another day as the forbidding Minnesota winter lowered outside.

 

TWO

It was ten to four when Gina and Jim made it home by cab to Jim's third-floor apartment in the Loring Park neighborhood. Gina noticed that Jim's mail slot was stuffed, so she absently grabbed the wad of circulars and bills and Have You Seen Me cards and carried them up to the kitchen table where they joined a small pile of like material. Jim's place was well furnished and nice enough, but it was small and typically cluttered with papers, books, computer gadgets, and stereo equipment. Less so, at the moment, as the apartment had been burglarized two months ago and most of Jim's nicer electronics had been swiped.

Gina washed up and went right to bed, exhausted, but Jim took a bottle of JD into the living room and put Bladerunner into the VCR. Deckert had just killed Daryl Hannah when Jim finally passed out on the couch, his slack hand dropping a shot glass with a clunk to the floor.

At about ten thirty, a large orange cat named Slinker jumped up onto Jim's lap and began batting at his face. After ten minutes or so of this, Jim stirred, jerked, and dumped the cat to the floor. Instantly a lance of pain shot through his head, bounced around in his chest, paid a brief but unpleasant visit to his stomach, and then zoomed back to take up semi-permanent residence in his skull. Groaning, he rose and shuffled over to the kitchen sink. After a few glasses of water and some Ibuprofen, he put on coffee and shuffled back to the couch. From the bathroom he could hear the shower going and then Gina whistling through her morning's ablutions. The sound made him wince, at least inwardly. With shaky hands he packed a pinch hit from a film canister on the coffee table and torqued it down.

"Ah, yes, " he exhaled, "Kills Hangovers Dead." He could see that outside it was another nasty day for weather; snow swirled past the frosted windows. The apartment was, as usual, too warm, a fact of living in this building that Jim had never really figured out. Why, when it was twenty below outside, was it eighty-five in his apartment? Old radiators? Rotten central thermostat? One of those great mysteries, apparently.

"Morning!" sang the gorgeous Gina, bouncing out of the bathroom. One of Jim's dress shirts was loosely draped from her spare frame.

"Uh," said Jim.

Gina went to the kitchenette and drew a mug of coffee, then sat at the kitchen table and opened yesterday's newspaper, shoving aside the small mountain of Jim's mail. Even without makeup, she was startlingly pretty and Jim couldn't help staring.

"When are you going to open all this crap?" Gina gestured at the mail-pile.

"Uh. Um...Yeah." Was about all Jim could manage as he joined her at the table. Groggily, he began ripping open the envelope mail and tossing the junk mail into a nearby trashcan.

"What're we doing today?" Gina asked. "Sleeping?"

"Maybe... Naw, what do you want to do?"

"Let's go see a movie."

Jim could see that she had the paper open to the theater listings.

"Hmmm, okay. Say, sweetie, what's a bequest?" Jim was looking over something he'd removed from an official-looking, cream-colored envelope.

"It's like an inheritance, I think. Why?"

"Because I think I just got one. Says here my Uncle John and Aunt Mary have died and that I've received a bequest."

Gina's eyes lit up. "Really? I never knew you had an aunt and uncle."

"Yeah, my dad's sister and her husband. They were like, sort of black sheep or something. They never came to holidays or anything, and I remember Dad never like Uncle John, which is saying something since he was, you know, his brother and all. That and my pop liked almost everybody. I haven't seen them for, oh man, like fifteen years..."

"But what is this shit? They died at the same time? And why bequest me anything?" Jim scratched his head and kept reading. Gina got up and stood behind him, reading over his shoulder.

"I don't want to sound crass," said Gina, "but were they...you know...rich?"

"I don't know, yeah, I guess. I don't know what they did for a living, but I know they had a place in Florida somewhere." Jim traced a few lines of the letter with an index finger. "Queries regarding your bequest can be made at the offices of Milo, Gerwitz, and Flynn, Marathon Key, Florida. And there's an address."

Jim looked up at Gina. "Damn, baby, this could really be something! I mean, what if they had like a beach house or zillions in stocks, or gold, or whatever?" He stood and began pacing, the big orange cat trotting along with him and twining around his ankles. Gina took the lawyer's letter and read it over.

"Hey, there's a number here you can call," Gina said. "Oh, wait. Monday through Friday. Sorry, honey, looks like you're going to have to wait till Monday morning."

"What?" Jim sounded like a petulant twelve year old but he noticed it and fixed the tone of his voice. "I mean, oh, really? Gee that's too bad. I'll just have to wait till...Monday. Yeah, that's it..."

Absently, he took the letter back from Gina and plopped onto the couch, reading and re-reading the lines. Bequest. John and Mary Diehl. Florida. Bequest.

Gina went to get dressed. When she returned fifteen minutes later, beautiful, dressed, and coiffed, Jim was still sitting there. Florida. Bequest. Uncle John and Aunt Mary. Bequest.

"Come, on you," she said. "Snap out of it. You can't do anything till Monday anyway. Why don't you call Art or the other guys, tell them about it?"

"Yeah," Jim mumbled. "Art. Bequest. Florida." Dazed, he went to shower and dress, racking his brain to remember everything he could about his recently deceased relatives. Jim was not in any sense close to his family, so he had to rack pretty hard.

Jim's dad, Duane Niemann, had died in 1980 in a car wreck and his mom, Elaine, ten years later. Mom hadn't had the luck of Dad and had drooled away her last five years in Alzheimersville, ranting about people no one remembered. Jim had two brothers and a sister who, along with their spouses, were all fundamentalist Christians of one sort or another, narrow people who simply could not fathom Jim's lifestyle and friends.

There was brother Gerry, an overweight, cloyingly nice, 50-something motivational speaker and his wife Debbie the opinionated ignoramus. There was brother Stan, the banker, and his wife Karen, the dutiful mousewife. And there was Sister Angela, a real sister, a nun, that is, in the Order of Saint Benedict. On the rare occasions when they saw each other, such as weddings or holidays, the siblings were aloof and disapproving when it came to their youngest brother. To be sure, they were cheerful and solicitous, especially towards "that nice Gina", but there was always an edge of reproof, a sort of indulgent humoring of the wayward son. Mercifully, the times when they saw each other were few and far between, dwindling in the last couple of years to, finally, never. With Mom dead, there just didn't seem to be much point. It would be fair to say that they were estranged.

As far as the extended family went, Jim had three nieces and two nephews (maybe more by now), a vague idea of one of his dad's brothers who must be long dead, and a few even more vague cousins. And, of course, Aunt Mary and Uncle John. Of them he remembered little; no kids, traveled a lot, Uncle John worked in some aerospace field, sent Jim five dollars every birthday till he turned fifteen. That was about it.

Shaving, his hand shivering, Jim wondered if any of his siblings had also received a bequest. After all, they were the responsible type ones and he was the Fool Kid. There was a dropping sensation in his stomach. Oh sure, he could see it. They had probably gotten all of the good stuff from whatever was being bequeathed. It would be typical. Jim gets a nice end table, or the stuffed cat, or some shit, while Gerry and Debbie get a cool million. Brows furrowed, he brushed and rinsed, thinking that Art would put the right twist on this thing.

Twenty minutes and a phone call later, Art Craine pounded on Jim's door, a large thin-crust pizza in one hand and a six-pack of Bud in the other. Gina let him in and then went back to Jim's computer in the living room where she was deep into a strategy game that Jim had bought and lost interest in months ago. Jim shambled out from the bedroom.

"Brought victuals, my brother," Art pealed upon entering, depositing his burdens on the table. "You need some chow for that hangover. Anyway, what's the hell up? Why all the rush?"

Jim popped a Bud and cracked open the pizza box. His favorite, a Pizza Shack pepperoni with extra cheese. Art helped himself to one of Jim's pinch hits and then lit a cigarette.

"Man, this is great, Art," said Jim between mouthfuls, "I was dying. But dude, listen up. I've inherited something."

Anticipating Art's questions, Jim explained what he knew from the letter, which was, admittedly, not much.

"Sounds like win/win to me, man," opined Art. "Even if they did bequeath you some tea cozy or whatever, you still get something for nothing. Just wait till Monday and then call ëem and see what's what. All you can do."

"Yeah," said Jim disconsolately, "You're right. But don't you think I'm right? Why bequeath a family fortune to me and not Gerry or, even better, Stan? I mean, those guys spend money like with an eyedropper, they'd invest it right and everything."

"Who knows, man? You don't like ëem, why should old Aunt Margaret and Uncle Josh have liked ëem any better? And how do you know there's a fortune? Maybe it's just a life insurance policy or something."

"Mary and John, dude. Aunt Mary and Uncle John."

"Whatever."

"But you're right." Jim polished of his third slice and the beer and sat back in his chair with one of Art's smokes. Nasty Mr. Hangover was good and gone. "Maybe it's nothing to get excited about..."

THREE

That night Jim got Molly and Greg over and the five of them had dinner (Gina cooked) and, over a couple of joints, discussed the phenomenon of Jim's inheritance. A Portishead CD throbbed softly in the background and Jim turned down the lights.

"Could be a boat," offered Greg. "Where in Florida did you say, Something Key? Could definitely be a boat."

"Or a beach bungalow," posited Art. "Nice little place on stilts, right on the water... Do some fishing, man."

"Well," said Molly, "you're getting something. Lawyers don't waste paper telling you someone died. They're legally bound to notify you since you were evidently mentioned in your uncle and aunt's will."

Several scenarios developed. First was the dreaded Jack Shit scenario, in which Jim received a worthless gewgaw of some sort. Next was the Decent Haul possibility, in which Jim received a sweet little pile of dough (or something that he could sell for said sweet pile) but not enough to retire on. Last was the don't-get-your-hopes-up Jackpot scenario, wherein Jim was showered with wealth and real estate, thus ensuring a very rosy future for them all.

"Seriously, guys," Jim assured them, "if I hit the Jackpot, you're all coming with. Promise. We'll live like Rock Stars. Smart, non-gloomy Rock Stars."

"I don't know man," said Art, "Rock Stars? More like Country Gentlemen. That'd be the coolest. Mr. Craine will receive you now. Would you care for another rum Collins by the pool, Mr. Craine? Like that."

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, their conversation wandered onto the subject of families. None of them had had idyllic childhoods, with the possible exception of Gina, but it was a tacit agreement that Molly didn't have to talk about her family. Whenever the subject had been raised in the past, she'd gone pale and had usually left the room, so that her friends quickly stopped bringing it up. Ever. Tonight, though, Molly seemed calm enough, and the conversation moved slowly enough so that they were still at least all sitting there.

"Family is just one of those uncontrollable aspects of one's self," Greg, ever the pragmatist, posited. "Like your height or hair color. Family describes who you are, but doesn't have to define who you are. I mean, my parents are strictly rubes from the sticks and my brother's a certifiable idiot."

"Yeah, I think people can rise above their upbringing. You did," said Jim to Greg. "Just because you had a bad childhood doesn't mean you can't have a happy life. And there are lots of people who are, you know, successful, who had shit for family."

Molly stood and went to kitchen and came back with a beer. The others inwardly sighed with relief that she hadn't just left already and waited for her to come back. Now she sat and tossed her dreads and spoke up.

"That is so much bullshit. Try overcoming your upbringing when your childhood was mine, dude. Try not throwing up whenever you smell Old Spice. Try being afraid every single night. Every Single Night. Afraid that he'll come in tonight. Or they'll come in tonight. Afraid to go to sleep and wake up with them standing over you. Try to have a happy life when there are a thousand little things, objects, smells, memories, which your brain, no matter how hard you try not to, associates with...them and what they did. It's shit, man. Bootstraps my ass. Fuck that. People are just balls of delusion that struggle their whole lives to outrun where they came from." Falling silent, Molly leaned back, smiled grimly, and took a swig from her beer. The other four sat, staring bleakly at nothing.

"Moll, that's some harsh shit, man," Art finally said, his eyes fixed in the middle distance and half-glazed. "I didn't have no Beaver Cleaver childhood either, but Dag!"

"You know, I remember my daddy getting up in the middle of the night too. Only he was killing rats, big fuckers who'd bite you in your sleep. Or there was the time Mom got up to get the door when they brought my brother Sam home. I was six, seven..."

Art trailed off. The five of them sat glumly looking into their drinks. They'd all known that Art came from a poor family from inner-city Baltimore and that it had been the true, crack-ridden American Nightmare for him growing up, but none of them had ever heard about this from Molly. It shocked them, but somehow didn't really surprise them. Gina went over, sat down, and put her arm around Molly's neck and Molly rested her head on Gina's shoulder as they talked.

"Ok, so maybe you're both right," Gina almost whispered. "Who knows? I mean, I had what was probably an idyllic childhood. I only remember being happy and safe and excited about the next day. Lots of money, best schools, nice friends, the whole nine. But I'm still fucked up. I obsess about my weight and looks, I'm always trying to fuck with Jim's head, I'm a neat freak. What I mean is, we all have problems. It's how you deal with what you're given that counts. I know that sounds corny, all Twelve Steppy, but I think it's true, anyway."

"Oh yeah," said Art firmly. "That's truth. But there's lots of truths, I guess. I figure you guys are my family. We do stuff the way you'd expect families would do ëem. We, like, care about each other, watch each others' backs."

Greg abruptly snorted and began laughing quietly. "Like the time we were shooting those bottlerockets?" This brought groans from Molly and Gina and dopey grins from Art and Jim.

"We? More like you and Molly. Oh man, that was some crazy shit." Chuckling, Art lolled back on the couch. "When that cop showed up and Jim went into the Righteous Man routine... Do the Righteous Man, dude." He turned to Jim. "Come on, right now."

"Wha?" Jim bluffed. Slowly he stood and assumed the caricature stance and mien of a snooty jerk of some sort. "I, sir, have nothing, at the moment, to be righteous about. But, rest assured, if I did have something to be righteous about, I would certainly impart that to you, my worthy fellow. Let me tell you, there are certain people whose sole purpose in life is to ascertain the sufficient amount of righteousness to be applied in any given situation, and I am, thankfully, one of them. Now, if there is some problem with the amount of righteousness, I can..."

"Enough!" cried at least three of the others. They were all laughing now, even Molly with her silly giggle. Jim bowed slightly and sat down to a few claps and whistles.

"Hey," said Greg, "who wants to watch The Thing?"

"Too gory," Gina asserted.

"Matrix?" Greg tried again. Twenty minutes later, with a giant bowl of popcorn and a bag of miniature Snickers bars, five best friends watched a movie, making cracks at weak spots and cheering in the exciting parts.

They broke up at about two, Greg chauffeuring Molly and Art. Gina and Jim made love among the popcorn hulls and candy-bar wrappers, then cleaned up and went to bed.

"You awake?" Jim asked softly.

"Mmm-Hmm..." came Gina's purr.

"What do you think about what Molly said tonight? Think it's true?"

"Yes, I do. I always knew that Molly'd had some seriously messed-up things happen to her when she was little. She has a hard time opening up to others or making deep connections with people. She smokes and drinks and does drugs. She's a lesbian. She's knockout beautiful and hides it real carefully. I don't know, I guess I just always assumed it... Why? What do you think?"

Jim rolled over and looked at Gina. Her hair was even blacker in the shadows. "I'm not sure. I mean, she's always doing and saying things just to shock people. Look at her hair and clothes and everything. I've known her since high school, and she's always been...like...that. Ok, duh. That's what you were just saying, right?"

"That's right, Einstein," Gina laughed at him. "She throws up a front to hide behind. You and I can't even begin to really understand what she's been through. Oh, I know your family was pretty bad, and Art's childhood... But Molly? No."

"You know, I met her dad once," Jim was staring at the ceiling. "Come to think of it, none of Moll's friends ever went over to her house. We always figured her parents were drunks or something. That wasn't all that uncommon. But I met Mr. Orreski once when I went to pick up Molly. Fat, red-faced guy. He was in his bathrobe at five, Saturday evening, drinking a beer on the porch. Keep in mind, this is Suburbia, USA. Most guys his age and tax-bracket were jogging or at Little League or mowing the lawn or whatever. He looked at me all fishy and asked where I was taking his "little girl." I said to a movie, and he said "Oh, sure, a movie. Well, have fun, boy." And then sort of gurgled, which I took to be laughter. I thought he was just a lush. I asked Moll, and she said, yeah, he drank a lot on weekends, but he was under a lot of stress at work, blah blah blah. Huh. I guess that was pretty stupid of me not to notice."

"Not really," Gina returned. "You were young and didn't want to think the worst about him. And he was your friend's dad. Plus people like that are masters of deception and dissimulation. It's their, like, Stock In Trade."

"Maggots. So what do we do? Can we help her somehow?"

"No, baby," Gina caressed Jim's forehead. "She's seeing a good therapist. All you need to do is be a good friend. We're her lifeline, I think. We're what keeps her going sometimes. All we need to do is be there when she needs us and give her space when she needs it."

"Huh," said Jim. "Well, that's easy enough. Goodnight, Gina. I love you."

"Nighty night. I love you, too."

Gina, as always, fell right to sleep, even more beautiful at rest. Jim lay awake for hours, thinking about family.

FOUR

Saturday dawned cold but clear, with a blue sky and wispy white clouds. Each of the friends had things to do. Molly worked on her painting. Greg caught up on sixteen tech journals he needed to stay current in his job. Art took an overtime beer delivery run to St Cloud. Gina went to visit her grandmother and then her parents. Jim was something of an exception. He spent the day sleeping and playing video games. Always there in his mind, however, were the words Regarding Your Bequest. An urge to call his brother came upon him at one point, but imagining the sound of the man's condescending voice dissuaded him. Even thus diverted, it was a very long day.

That night they spent apart, in various abodes: Molly on her futon, fully dressed and covered with splashes of oil paint, Gina at her parents' house, in the bed she'd had since she was sixteen, Greg in his antiseptic apartment uptown, Jim with Slinker the cat, the TV fizzing in the background, and Art in a crummy motel in St Cloud, sleeping a few hours before his return run Sunday morning.

It was something of a tradition with the friends to have dinner on Sunday night whenever they could, and on this particular Sunday they were able to meet. It being Molly's turn to pick the restaurant (or to cook herself), the five ended up at an eclectic little bistro in the warehouse district. Dim blue lighting gleamed dully from the pebbled, black leather seats and tables. A mixed group of would-be hipsters, yuppies, and college students sat around sneering and smoking. Everyone but Art and Molly felt a bit out of place. The food, however, was very good, and the group heartily attacked plates of baguette, cheeses, fruits, bruschetta, and several bottles of red wine. Art found the fare sorely lacking, but said nothing, knowing he'd likely stop on the way home at Burger King or something.

There was more discussion of Jim's inheritance, but they had pretty well exhausted the scenario options and eventually moved on to other topics. Later, at a fairly early hour for them, the friends broke up and headed home, Jim promising to call the others after he'd spoken to the lawyers.

Jim made a detour to Fat Darrel, his dealer's, place, where he found the rotund man in good spirits; this latest shit was the bomb. Scoring an OZ, Jim drove home along the icy streets and through swirling clouds of wind-blown snow. Once at his apartment, Jim turned in (to be joined apace by Slinker) but tossed in bed for hours, finally resorting to a massive pot infusion to bomb himself to sleep.

At five thirty, Jim's alarm clock brought him around, and by seven he was at work, sipping coffee at his desk and sorting an ugly pile of manuscripts that had arrived over the weekend. Finally, at eight, he realized that Florida would be an hour's difference in time zones and grabbed for the phone. Suddenly he was nervous. This was it. After waiting all weekend, now he'd know. He wiped his palms on his pants and dialed. It rang four times and then a woman's voice came on.

"Milo, Gerwitz, and Flynn."

"Uh, yeah," Jim began, "My name's James Niemann, and I need to talk to someone about a bequest."

"One moment, sir."

Jim waited. He barely noticed when the guy who worked next to him walked by and said good morning. Then a cultured man's voice came on the line.

"Good, morning Mr. Niemann, this is Vernon Milo. I am so glad we were able to find you." The man fell silent.

"Well, uh, Hi, Mr. Milo. I guess I'll cut to the chase. What, exactly, do I, you know, get?"

There was a sort of laugh on the other end, like the rustle of fallen leaves.

"Oh, my, Mr. Niemann, I cannot disclose that over the phone. After all, I do not even know that you are really James Niemann, do I? No, I am afraid that you will need to present yourself with a birth certificate or passport at our offices. I can inform you that the will of your late aunt and uncle has been read, as per their wishes, and that you are the sole recipient of the Diehl estate. Anything more can not be related due to issues of confidentiality."

"Oh, right," said Jim, his heart beginning to race a bit. "So I should just show up there. When?"

"Whenever is convenient to you, sir," replied the dry voice. "Our office hours are eight am to five pm, Monday through Friday. You have our address?"

"Sure, sure, it's on the letter. So, Mr. Milo, can you at least tell me... Is the estate...substantial?"

"That, also, is confidential, sir. I am sure you understand."

After exchanged pleasantries, Jim hung up and sat, his mind whirling. Sole Recipient? Yeah! Whatever he'd inherited, he'd got it all.

Before ten minutes had passed, Jim had spoken with all of his four friends, ending up with Art. Each had been happy for him, but Art was the most excited.

"Shit, dude, let's go to Florida!" Art crowed. "Whatever you're getting, it'll cover the cost of a round trip, right?"

"Yeah, but I still don't know what I've inherited. I think Aunt Mary and Uncle John were pretty well off, but who knows? Maybe they spent it all being old and sick and retired..."

"Still doesn't matter, brother," returned Art. "It's got to be at least a house or boat or something. I can take a few days off. Let's go!"

After a few more phone calls, it was plain that Art was the only one of the five who had the time to go to Florida with Jim. Gina and Greg were both hip-deep in work for at least the next day and Molly begged off when she heard the word "lawyers." It felt natural to Jim anyway, somehow, mainly because he and Art were known for their spontaneous road trips. Within hours they were booked on a Northwest flight to Miami with a rental car waiting to take them on down the chain of the Keys to Marathon. The soonest Jim could get was eight am tomorrow, and the cost made his teeth ache; $650 apiece for the two open-ended round trip tickets, even with the Bereavement Discount. He'd better be getting something fairly big...

That evening the friends again gathered at Jim's place. They didn't know it at the time, but this was to be the best time of their young lives. In the years they'd known each other, the five of them had done more than a few things that they would have considered to be more fun, had anyone asked them, but there was something in the cozy, simple things that they did tonight that made it so perfect. They weren't in an exotic place, or at a memorable performance, or being overindulgent, they were simply together, doing dumb, everyday stuff that they all enjoyed. Laughter reigned. Each was atypically uninhibited. Molly smiled (and giggled) too much. Greg drank too much and acted silly. Gina smoked pot. Art and Jim played Snowboarder Four on Jim's Sega too much. Tasty food (satays and peanut sauce) was cooked and enjoyed by all. Soapsuds flew when they cleaned up. And of course, they talked a lot about Jim's inheritance and it's significance.

"I think it's going to be something big," said Greg, slightly slurring. "Why else would the lawyer be so close to the vest? I think your aunt and uncle were loaded."

"Maybe," said Molly "it's ëcause Jim's getting diddly and they have to get him to sign for it. The diddly, that is."

"Well, for good or bad," said Jim, "we'll all know by this time tomorrow. Meanwhile, Cheers!" He lifted his wine glass and they all clinked glasses.

The group broke up about eleven, with Art and Gina staying the night at Jim's, Art sleeping on the couch so that he and Jim could be up early for their flight. Molly assisted Greg to a cab and home (though he didn't really need the help) and then made her way home as well. In bed that night, Jim and Gina made love passionately (but quietly, with Art in the next room) and then lay in each other's arms.

"I'm going to miss you, you know," Gina breathed. "I'll come over to feed Slinker, of course. How long will you be there?"

"I don't know yet. Could be a day or a few, I guess. Depends on what needs to be done. I'll call when I get there and again after the will-reading thingy. You'll know almost as soon as I do." Jim paused. "I really hope this is big, Gina. I can taste it. Never Work Again. The American Dream. Deluxe Accommodations. Oh man..."

"Sweetie," said Gina gently, "I hope it is big. Really. But don't get your hopes too high. I don't want to see you too disappointed."

"Yeah, I know. In a way, I'm a little scared if it is big. Wealth brings like, responsibility, doesn't it?"

FIVE

At nine-thirty the next day, Tuesday, Art and Jim were at 20,000 feet, somewhere over Indiana. They were both excited and chattered constantly about the possibilities ahead, running fool's paradise scenarios and dreaming of the seemingly limitless opportunities presented by a lot of wealth. Finally, the plane began to dip and they merely sat, drumming fingers and bouncing knees, looking out the plane windows.

"Looks warm," said Art longingly as they landed at Miami International.

"Duh. It's Florida," said Jim.

Art only grinned. Today he had picked out a violently bright yellow day-glo shirt, bright blue cargo pants, gold sunglasses and shining white Adidas hightops. Pretty basic for Art, Jim would have to say.

They hadn't brought any luggage other than carry-ons, and made their way quickly to the car rental desks, where they picked up the keys to a new Acura sedan. Out on the car lot, they found that their rental was a fine machine, one of those big silver throwback jobs with leather, AC, CD, cell phone, and space enough for about sixteen people. Art immediately slid the passenger seat all the way back and produced some CDs from his duffle, getting comfortable.

"Now this," Art said, looking around the interior, "is a superior automobile. Mmm Mmm." He got out the local map he'd picked up at the rental desk and, in no time, they were headed south on Highway One. Art pointed out the turns and exits and shuffled CDs on the stereo. Rancid, Harry Belafonte, the Clash, Bob Marley, Snoop Dog, Limp Bizkit, Art's musical tastes were as varied as his preferences in friends and clothing. Jim played with the car's various mysterious controls and sang along with the music when he knew the words, drumming on the wheel when he didn't.

It was a gorgeous late-winter day in Miami, with a baking sun heating up the canals and pools, edging up the humidity, but to nowhere near the suffocating level it could reach in summer. They stopped once, at a McDonald's in Homestead, and then sped on. The scenery grew more and more breathtaking as they left the mainland behind and headed down the long chain of keys. Brilliant blue, sun-spangled ocean flashed by on either side, punctuated by the intense greenery of the keys themselves, some mere hummocks that the bridges and overpasses stood on, others good-sized islands with thriving towns and cities. Roadside restaurants, tourist traps, and billboards lined their way. Art and Jim first motored along with the windows down, then, when the sun crossed it's midpoint and the heat outside began in earnest, with the windows (and the AC) cranked up all the way.

After an hour or so of driving since their stop for lunch, it was clear that this was a going to be a longer drive than they'd expected. After they passed Plantation Key, the highway narrowed to one lane in either direction with passing lanes every ten miles or so and their speed dropped to fifty, sometimes forty-five.

"Shit, man," said Jim, wrestling with the map and driving at the same time. "How many of these fucking keys are there? We should have flown down here."

"Relax," advised Art. "It's a beautiful day. You're too tense, man. Here."

He offered Jim a marble pipe and a lighter.

"No way. Uh uh. Nope. Not ëtill I figure out what's what with this inheritance shit. No way in hell I'm going in there even slightly buzzed. Lawyers freak me out." He paused. "But you are right about the day being beautiful and me being tense. Sorry."

"S'Cool."

There was a pause in the music as the big man swapped CDs. Jim piped up: "Art? What do you think about what Molly said the other night? About her parents?"

"What do you mean, what do I think?" Art looked over at his friend and lowered his gold shades, bristling.

"Well, I don't know. Gina and I were talking about it and stuff. I thought at first that maybe she was pulling our collective leg, but now I'm pretty sure she wasn't. That she was...abused."

"No shit, asshole." Art's brow was furrowed. He stopped and unclenched himself. "Aw fuck, man, I'm sorry. I just lose it sometimes when people don't understand... You know. What it's like. But hey, you went to high school with her. I only met her three years ago. You should know her better than me."

"Oh, I suppose I do," mused Jim. "It's just her whole performance artist, shock-value thing, know what I mean? She'd lop her arm off if it'd bring a write-up in one of those art mags of hers."

"Oh, that..." said Art, relaxing back into his seat. "Well, you got me there, but this other thing... No. She wouldn't bullshit us abut that. Nuh uh."

They rode on for a while. The road whined softly under the big car. When a passing lane came along, Jim floored it and blew past three semis, appreciating the sedan's pickup. When more music came on, Art turned it down low.

"Know who I think had a fucked-up childhood? Greg. Gina, too, but hers was differently weird. No, Greg's family is the weirdest. Fucking survivalists or some shit, out there in the woods, thumpin' that Bible. How that boy came outta that family, I'll never know."

"Oh, yeah," Jim said. "Remember the first week of school? He was like, super-nerd. If we hadn't lived in that same nasty dorm, he'd have been jock meat. Had those flared, floodwater jeans and plaid shirts? Did you know I was there once? His parent's place?"

"No shit," Art blew a hit out the car window, then rolled it back up and stashed the pipe in his duffle bag. "What was that like?"

"Yow," Jim shook his head. "We were on our way to Montana, one of those cheap road trips we used to take, and Greg tells me he'd like to stop out in Buttfuck to see his family. Sure, why not? So we exit the freeway, then exit the highway, then exit the road... Out in the serious woods, like miles from anything. They had a, like, half-wide trailer or something. Just this puny fucking thing. Couple of cars rusting in the road. Big-ass radio antenna of some kind, probably to pull in the Idaho Militia. Greg's dad looked like the Unabomber. Swear to God. His mom looked like some kind of caricature of a hillbilly, and little brother like a combination of the other two. You could see Greg was embarrassed, but he hugged ëem and chatted a little and gave ëem an envelope, like a letter. Later I asked what was in the letter. He just said "a thank you". I finally got it out of him that it was money. He wouldn't say how much."

"Dude, don't you remember?" Art was mesmerized by the story. "He worked that God-awful stinkin' cafeteria for three years. And he never had any spending cash. He sent it all home?"

"Wow, I guess so," Jim said. "That's him though. Remember when Gina wanted tickets to that Chagall exhibit and couldn't find ëem for shit? Who pops up with two?"

"Or the time," ticked Art on his fingers, "when Moll forgot to put up those stupid fliers for her band and he drove all over town in the rain to do it? Dag."

"Greg's a good man," avowed Jim. "'Specially since that's where he came from. Same with you, Art."

Art smiled and, bobbing in his leather seat, turned up the Psychedelic Furs on the stereo.

"Yeah, we are pretty wonderful, aren't we"?

"Fuck..." said Jim and then broke out laughing. "That's right. You're Mr. Wonderful, the dope-smoking eyesore."

"Eyesore? You down on my clothes, man?" laughed Art. "This from the man who, just this morning, almost wore black socks and shoes with tan shorts?"

SIX

Because of an accident, (a jack-knifed semi full of beer) Jim and Art were too late to go to the law offices when they finally arrived in Marathon Key. Subsequently, they took a room at a nearby Holiday Inn and went out for a stroll and some dinner, ultimately ending up at a bar and grill named Smokies. Here they dove into their menus; Jim had fresh crab and shrimp, but Art, ever predictable, ordered the biggest steak on the menu with three sides of potatoes. They washed it all down with cold Tecate beer, tried not to belch too much, then sat back and smoked a cigarette and drank vodka tonics. The food had been very good and their waitress (a tall middle-aged lady in a blue uniform) had been top-notch, but, looking around, they saw that the place was a bit of a dive.

The restaurant half of the establishment was mostly empty by now, but the dimly lit bar side was packed with loud, greasy-looking men in T-shirts and caps. Many had longer hair and thick beards and looked vaguely sinister. It was one of those moments when a bar patron suddenly realizes that he's in a Local Bar, a joint for neighborhood types only, an Outsiders Unwelcome style bar. Mentally, Jim took a look at his own table. A skinny slouched white guy dressed in black and a huge smiling black guy wearing some seriously loud attire. Hmm. Neither he nor Art could fight in any effective way, and they both had a knack for pushing the wrong buttons on people, verbally...

"Art," said Jim from the corner of his mouth, "This is a Townie Bar. These guys'll fuck with us if we hang around."

"What?" Art asked, looking around. "Hmm, nice group of citizens we have here. Looks like most of ëem know their sisters a little too well. Yeah, let's hit the trail."

In their motel room Jim finally remembered to call Gina. She was a little upset at first that he hadn't called yet, but he explained the length of the drive and things and she softened. After promising to call again right after the meeting, Jim hung up and went to lie on his lumpy queen-sized bed.

"She's too good for you, man," stated Art, passing Jim the marble pipe.

"I know."

Next morning found the two parked in front of the lawyer's office, near a bustling row of piers and docks. Ships of all sorts were coming in, going out, being unloaded. Flocks of gulls swept overhead. Art was fascinated by all the goings-on on the docks but at the wheel of the Acura, Jim watched the dashboard clock. At last it was eight and they piled out of the car and walked up the crushed-shell walk to the low white brick building. Jim flicked a cigarette butt into the bushes. A sign outside proclaimed this the Mid-Keys Law Center and a board in the lobby pointed the pair down the hall to the relevant office.

"Milo, Gerwitz, and Flynn," read Art, resplendent in an orange and yellow suit and trousers ensemble. "Dude, you want me to wait out here, or..."

"Hell, no! Come on," Jim said as he walked through the door into a nicely appointed reception area. A smartly dressed young man sat here behind a broad desk with an impressive-looking computer and phone system.

"May I help you?" asked the man solicitously. Jim stepped up to the desk.

"Yes. My name is James Niemann, this is my associate, Mr. Craine, and we are here to speak with one of your attorneys about an inheritance."

The man clicked his mouse a couple of times.

"Niemann, James. Let's see... Yes, sir, you can make yourselves comfortable while I inform Mr. Milo that you're here." With this the man stood and withdrew to some offices beyond. Jim and Art settled onto the edge of one of the couches and waited. After a few minutes, the Reception Man came back and resumed his post.

"It'll just be few minutes, I'm sure. Can I get you some coffee or mineral water?"

The pair both mumbled a "No, thanks" and sat back a little. Twenty minutes later they were still there, Art paging through Architectural Digest, Jim chewing his cuticles. Just when Jim was about to rise and consult Reception Man, the door to the other offices opened and a tall, gray-haired man in a fine suit emerged.

"Mr. Niemann?" he asked, extending a thin hand. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. I am Vernon Milo. Please come this way."

Jim shook with him. Milo's grip was like holding a bunch of dead dry twigs. Jim noticed that the older man wore a small Masonic pin or badge on one lapel.

"Mr. Milo, I'd like to introduce my associate, Arthur Craine." Jim motioned Art forward and the big man daintily, nodding his head slightly, shook with Mr. Milo. Jim didn't hear any snapping noises, and Mr. Milo seemed OK, so the three proceeded to a much nicer office with a much bigger desk and much nicer furniture. Here Milo motioned to the overstuffed chairs that faced the desk and went around to sit in a high-backed leather office throne.

"Now then," began the attorney, shuffling a few papers. "First let me offer my condolences at the passing of your uncle and aunt. They were clients of mine for many years, and good friends as well, and I can certainly understand your feelings at a time like this." The whole speech sounded rote, as if Milo had recited it a thousand times.

"Uh, yeah, thank you," said Jim somewhat nervously, "but to be honest, Mr. Milo, I wasn't all that close to them. As a matter of fact, I'm a little surprised that they mentioned me in their will at all..."

"Well, Mr. Niemann, it seems that they had, shall we say, judged you to be of a character not unlike their own. To be quite frank, they did not have many relations or close friends, at least that I knew of. Their rationale in choosing you, however, will necessarily remain something of a mystery, as they merely deposited the will with me for safekeeping and eventual execution. The cover letter to the will may help explain some things, but I feel that you should really read it yourself. Your aunt and uncle drew it up themselves, you see, and it was legally sealed until such time as their demise."

"Their demise," Jim said. "I wanted to ask you about that. What, uh, exactly happened to them? To die at the same time and all, it just seems..." He trailed off.

"You were not informed?" Milo's eyebrows raised a few millimeters. "I'm so sorry. Well, it was an accident, you see. A car crash on Highway One near Cudjoe Key. The authorities tell me that a drunk driver or reckless teamster most likely ran them off the road, but that is still in a pending investigation. I am sure that the state police would have more information. At any rate, it was a terrible loss and I certainly hope they apprehend the person or persons responsible."

"Oh, absolutely," said Jim, thinking. "Are the police treating it as a murder, then? Like someone ran them off the road on purpose?"

"As I said, Mr. Niemann, the state police would be better informed, but no, I believe that it is being treated as an accident. I am afraid that this sort of thing is all too common on Highway One. The amount of traffic in the Keys area has increased dramatically in recent years and, because it is the only one, I suppose, the highway always seems congested. With this comes, of course, an increase in accidents. And fatalities. Lamentable, but that is progress, I fear."

The thin man sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers and eyeing Jim and then Art with what could be called a patrician expression

"I see," Jim said and sat back and crossed his legs. "Well, sir, I suppose we can get down to business, then. I brought my passport."

The attorney accepted the little vinyl folder and looked it over, also comparing it to something on his computer screen, then returned it across the desk to Jim.

"This is all in order, Mr. Niemann," said Milo, producing a set of papers from a desk drawer, "And we may now proceed with the particulars. First let me tell you that your aunt and uncle's bequest is entire. All of their worldly assets and possessions are now yours. Here is a copy of the will, which you can read yourself as per your aunt and uncle's instructions. Here is a key to their safe deposit box at the local bank. Here are the deeds to two properties. The first is their home, at 112 William Street, Key West. The second is their island, Parnassus."

"Island?" Jim wheezed, accepting the various items with suddenly shaky hands. "Did... Did you say island?"

"Yes. Your aunt and uncle purchased the island, and named it themselves, by the way, some five years ago, planning to develop it as their dream retirement home. Now, alas..."

Jim goggled a little and then sat up. "Are there keys to the house? Where is this island, whadaya call it? Manassas? Where do I sign?"

Art looked over at Jim and, saw that he was overexcited, the way he got sometimes when he got into too much Playstation.

"Jim. Take it easy. It's cool."

Jim looked over at Art slowly, moving just his neck.

"Yeah," said Jim shakily. "Yeah, all right. Calm down. OK."

Mr. Milo just laughed that dead leaves laugh Jim had heard on the phone and shook his head slightly.

"It is not at all uncommon for people in your position to be excited, Mr. Niemann, but I fear that you may be overestimating your aunt and uncle's estate. As executor of their will, I can tell you that their net worth was, as of this morning..."

He clicked the silver mouse next to the computer a few times, regarding the machine over half-glasses as if it was somehow beneath him.

"$585,345." Milo finally said, lowering his glasses. "Hardly a fortune, but still considerable. I mention this because you seem to be jumping to some, shall we say, conclusions"

Jim slumped somewhat in the plush chair.

"Hmm," he said after a few moments. "Well, that's good to know, Mr. Milo, an exact figure like that. I assume that includes the island and house and everything?"

"Yes, sir," Milo sat back in his throne.

"Well, that's a lot of money," Jim said. "Would I have to sell the house and island myself, if I wanted it sold, that is? Or could you arrange that?"

"Well... We, the firm, could, of course, take power of attorney in the estate if you wish, but I highly recommend you first read the will, open their deposit box, and examine the properties before doing so. Forgive me if I am being forward, sir, but we are speaking about Mr. and Mrs. Diehl's entire lives. Every bit of worldly goods that two people would amass. Have you no interest in family heirlooms or photos or mementos?"

"Well, no, Mr. Milo, not really," Jim felt himself blush slightly. "As I said, I wasn't very close to them. I mean, I hadn't seen either of them in over ten years!"

"Yes, I see," Milo was obviously a bit taken aback. "Well, their estate is yours to do with what you will, but, as I said, I was their friend as well. They were good people, Mr. Niemann. Active, friendly, hospitable people, and I'm going to miss them."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Milo," Jim said. "But it's just..." He lamely stopped and fluttered his hands a little.

"What Mr. Niemann means," put in Art, "Is that he's kind of shocked right now, and needs some time to think things through?"

Jim nodded vigorously and pointed at Art. Mr. Milo sniffed lightly and looked somewhat pained.

"Yes, well..." said Milo. "There are, of course, various documents for you to sign, Mr. Niemann. My secretary, Mr. Hammond, has these ready for you at his desk and will duly witness and notarize them. With that, I bid you good day, gentlemen. Don't hesitate to phone me or pay me a visit if you should find the need."

They all stood and shook hands again. Jim didn't notice, but there was a definite wince on Milo's face when he shook with Art, who couldn't get over the spindly little things that passed for hands on this guy...

SEVEN

Many, many signatures and initialings later, Jim and Art sat outside in the Acura and called Gina, Greg, and Molly, smoking a rather fat celebratory joint in the process. All the friends were excited and happy for Jim, and all offered to come down to Florida if he needed any help. Jim promised Gina to call again after they'd made it to the house in Key West so that he could give her some estimate of how long he and Art would stay and if she, Gina, was needed. After the calls, Jim hung up and sat back, his head three feet wide from Fat Darrel's bombweed and looked over at Art.

"Wow," said Jim. "I'm rich. Not Rock Star rich, but I think this safely falls into the zone of the Decent Haul scenario, don't you?"

"Shit, man," Art tossed the miniscule roach out the window. "Half a million is pretty fucking rich. You're a Half a Millionaire! Let's get something to eat and then go open that deposit box, whadaya say?"

"Yeah, but," Jim pondered, watching the gulls swoop. "I think I want to read the will. I want to know why I'm a Half a Millionaire."

Jim withdrew the document from the fat folder of documents he'd collected in the lawyer's office and rifled through the one marked Last Will and Testament. Most of it looked like legal documents, but there was also what looked like a letter.

"This won't take me very long." Jim decided. "Let me sit down here on the docks. You go get some chow and we'll eat down here and then go to the bank. Look, there's a picnic table over there."

He indicated a small public park between the street and the ocean.

"Good plan, my brother," Art agreed. "Get readin', and I'll be back with some conch fritters or something in no time."

They both got out of the car and Art took the driver's seat of the Acura while Jim ambled over and sat down at the picnic table. Lighting a cigarette, he folded back the cover page and began to read. As he did, Art came back with six greasy baskets of fish and chips and a six-pack of Coors. Taking a seat at the wooden picnic table, he nudged a basket and beer towards Jim, but, seeing how intent Jim was on the will, didn't interrupt. Instead he quietly wolfed down five of the six meals and four beers and then strolled down to the docks to chat with the locals.

Oblivious, Jim read and then re-read the will:

Dearest James,

By now you're probably pretty surprised or confused by our choice of you as the sole heir to our estate. We have written this will in the form of a letter in hope of it explaining things to you.

First, let us say how proud we are of you. We have followed your life, from a distance, for a long time and we agree that you are a fine man, just the sort of son or daughter we would have wished for if we'd had children. Your college record and career are things to be proud of, for sure, but so is your joie de vivre and choice of friends.

Please don't be shocked that we have observed your progress without your knowing. We could never have children of our own, so we transferred, in a manner of speaking, our parental urges towards you. To be honest, you were always the best of the lot in your family. Your intellect and humor set you apart, and we always felt that you were somehow out of place with them and their fundamentalism. Don't get us wrong; your family is a group of good people. They do their best. Please try to believe us when we say that we would have loved to see you in person, to share your triumphs and sorrows, but that we simply could not because it might have put you in danger.

This brings us to the second point of this record, in that we have led lives that were quite different from their outward appearances. Together, we have done things that we now find morally questionable, even reprehensible. But this is the difficult part because we cannot tell you the specifics. Suffice to say that our estate, all that we're giving you, was based in these questionable deeds, and leave it at that. But don't worry, all that we now own is completely legal and will cause you no trouble. We simply wish you to enjoy this gift as you see fit. How we came about it will, by the time you read this, cease to have any importance.

Well, that's about it, James. We love you and wish that you could have known that fact sooner and under better circumstances, but that's life. Now to the legalese.

This is our last testament and will, and as such is a legally binding document regarding the disposition of our estate in the event of our deaths. We, the undersigned, do hereby bequeath the entirety of our worldly possessions to James Steven Niemann, our nephew. At such time as the demise of both of the undersigned, our attorney, Vernon Milo, is instructed to immediately contact James Niemann and execute this will as follows. Impart first to James Niemann these items: The deeds to our two properties, the key to our safe deposit box at Marathon National Bank, and this document. Any and all legal documents necessary to this end should be freely handled by said Vernon Milo.

Jim looked up from his reading and distractedly ate some of the fish and chips. Down on a nearby dock, he could see Art getting along famously with a trio of grungy-looking fisherman, passing a pin joint and laughing. Mind racing, he stared out to sea for a few minutes and then looked back at the bottom of the will. The document was signed with a flourish by Mary Helen Diehl and John Martin Diehl and notarized and dated. Jim looked twice and then a third time at the date. January twelve, 2001. That was a month ago.

EIGHT

"Doesn't it seem weird, man?" Jim asked Art intently. "They make out this will and then get run off the road a month later? You read the letter/will thing. They were some kind of crooks, dude! Drug smugglers, or thieves, baby-sellers, some shit... Point is, whatever they were into must have gotten ëem killed! Whoever they fucked over with their "reprehensible things" must've come back on ëem! And now I own everything they owned! What if the bad guys want theirs back?"

They were back in the car, wandering around Marathon in search of the National Bank. Art drove as Jim bounced around in his seat.

"Calm down, man," advised Art. "You don't know any of that for sure. Could be a coincidence about the time between when they made their will and when they died. Ol' Mr. Milo back there said it was bein' investigated like an accident. And who knows what they were into. "Morally questionable" and "reprehensible" can mean a lot of different things. Could have been they were, shit, I don't know, dealin' black market Beanie Babies for all you know. Sellin' their urine to junkies for piss tests. Doesn't mean they were fucking Public Enemy Numbers One and Two for God's sakes."

Jim sat back and tried to breath normally. Outside the air-conditioned sedan, the streets of Marathon rolled by, strips malls and gas stations mostly, but not a few older, more permanent-looking buildings as well. But the town wasn't that big and soon Art had turned to head back across the island, peering up and down each street, looking for any bank-like building.

"'Sides," continued Art after a pause, "They said they loved you in the letter. Why would they stick you with something dangerous?"

"Hell, I don't know..." Jim started helping Art look for the bank instead of glancing wildly around the car's interior. "That's another weirdness. What were they, my Fairy fucking Godparents? What's up with that? Doesn't make a lick of sense."

"It's not unheard of man," Art asserted driving, peering, and gesticulating. "Dag, where I come from, folks are always adopting kids with no official papers involved. Take in people who they don't know from Adam. Or like, if there's an old lady on your block, you'll have her over for dinner all the time ëcause you know she's poor and won't eat otherwise. I really think your aunt and uncle did like they said in their letter. They couldn't have kids and they liked you, so... You kind of became their kid. And they couldn't have any contact with you because of their... Questionable Things." Art trailed off somewhat lamely.

"Yeah, great," Jim said glumly. "I tell you it's weird. And it's creepy to think about ëem being there, spying on me. When do you think they were, like, watching? College graduation, shit like that? Maybe they came to see the band when we played at the bars. Creepy, I say. I need to run this past some people. Smarter people than us. No offense, Art."

"None taken, my brother, but if it's creepy, it's Half a Million creepy," Art jerked the wheel. "There's the bank. Think they could've put up a smaller sign?"

Within the one story brick building, the duo found a sleepy small town bank like any other. After showing some papers from Jim's folder to the manager, they found themselves in the deposit box vault, where a small table and two chairs passed for furniture among the banks of pullouts. Jim scanned the numbers on the banks and matched the key to one on the lower left side. Not overly heavy, the box slid out and Jim brought it over to the table and opened it, revealing the contents. A leather-bound book, chased in dust, with no title visible on the cover.

"Crap," said Jim. "A book. Great."

"Wait a minute, man," cautioned Art, picking the thing out of the box and blowing off the light coat of dust. "Could be important."

Art opened the creaky book, paged along to the first page, and read aloud.

"Diary of John and Mary Diehl. See? Told you it was something. This could tell you all about ëem."

Jim looked at Art and raised an eyebrow.

"No, man seriously," Art went on. "It could tell you, like, why they spied on you, what they're Questionable Things were, shit like that... Sort of de-creepify the situation."

Jim shrugged and took the volume from Art. It was fairly dense, maybe 300 thick pages, and made of high-quality stuff. Jim paged through the book for a few seconds and then stopped, quietly shut it, and handed it back to his friend.

"It's all yours, brother," Jim said, going for the door with a shake of his head. "I don't read gibberish."

Art looked at the deposit box, lying empty now, and quickly snagged the key from its front. Then he followed Jim out to the car and jumped into the passenger side. Curious, he snuck a peek at the book. Jim was right. This book wasn't in any language at all. It was all numbers and looked more like some sort of code. As a matter of fact, it looked like this: 2910487713849816402284819. Only multiplied by about a million, with no breaks, about eighty lines per page, for 300 pages.

The pair headed out of Marathon and got back on Highway One southbound, Jim once again behind the wheel. Art tried a few times to start conversations, but Jim was obviously in a fairly foul mood and so Art finally gave up. In lieu of the usual chatter, Art put a CD on the car stereo and rolled a J. As he smoked it, almost subconsciously passing it back and forth with Jim, he watched the azure seas and little islands roll past.

After a while he picked the book up again and leafed through it slowly. It was all just numbers, run together and seemingly random. For a while Art tried to make out a pattern in the endless strings of numerals, but, finally frustrated, he slung the thing into the back seat and went back to enjoying the scenery. It was when they'd passed a marker reading Key West six miles that Jim turned the stereo down and picked up the car's phone. Art looked over at him mildly and then back out to sea.

"Greg," Jim said into the phone, "it's me. Listen, I've got something right up your alley down here. Well can you... But it's... OK, call me then."

Jim snapped the phone back into place and then wound out the Acura to pass a semi and a behemoth RV.

"We're going to need him for that book," Jim said, safely back in the right lane. "If there's one guy who's going to make any sense out of the goddamn thing, it's Greg."

"Amen to that," agreed Art, nodding. "The thing's got me. All I know is what it's not. It's not a language ëcause it's all numbers. And if it's a code, it's not the fucking Crypto-Quip. There's no breaks. Just line after line of random numerals. Like 500 pages of it, all hand written. In ink."

"Who knows?" Jim shrugged. "Maybe the Diehl's were just loony. Compulsive, like. Anyway, looniness is looming large in my head as far as this whole damn thing is concerned."

"Aw, come on, man," said Art. "Where's your watchamacallit? Sense of adventure? This thing's got all the classic elements. Mysterious strangers from your past, dying mysteriously. A mysterious inheritance. And, latest and best, a mysterious coded diary! That doesn't grab you?"

"Oh, it grabs me, Art," Jim squinted into the lowering sun as they wheeled past the outskirts of greater Key West. "Like a pair of tight shorts."

NINE

Both of them had heard that Key West was something of a party town, but it seemed pretty sedate as they drove down the dusty streets. It was just before sunset when they pulled up, courtesy of Art's gas station map, in front of 112 William Avenue. Jim looked at the house number on the deed, then looked up at the house, and then repeated this process a few times. Art got out of the Acura and, scratching his head, walked over to a rickety picket fence overgrown with vines.

"This is it?" Jim asked incredulously. "What a fucking dump!"

Dump is an ugly word for a house, but here Jim was not far off. The place was a bit hard to make out entirely, as the small yard was choked with trees, bushes, and vines, all meshed together and draped over the back half of the place. The visible (front) half of the house was dismal. The paint was peeling in scabrous patches, the porch looked like it couldn't support the weight of tomorrow's newspaper, and the windows were covered over with broken-slatted storm shutters. Weeds, thistles, and vines poked through the crooked fence around the property and grew over the front walk. All this was made worse by the stark contrast between the house and the surrounding properties, which were, for the most part, showpieces of some sort of Rococo Victorian style situated on perfectly kept lawns.

Jim slowly eased out of the car and, stiff-legged, walked over to stand next to Art.

"Gee," Art breathed, "it's uh, sort of a fixer-upper, isn't it?"

"Shit," Jim said. "More of a burner-downer."

"Now, now," Art patted Jim on the back. "Let's look around inside and out back. Could be it just needs some maintenance and repairs?"

"I'll repair it," Jim scowled. "Gallon of gas and a goddamn match should do the job. Looks pretty dry."

"Jim, slow down, man. Let's have a look-see. Oh, and, uh, better bring the phone."

Art reached over and pulled the picket fence gate open. It wobbled precariously. Picking their way up the walk, Jim scratched himself on some thorn bushes and Art tripped over some vines, but they made it to the porch otherwise unharmed.

"After you," Jim waved dramatically up the porch steps.

"No way, dude," Art shook his head. "You're way lighter than me. ëSides, it's your house."

With a grunt, Jim tentatively stepped up the stairs and onto the porch. The boards creaked, but held firm.

"Huh," Jim experimentally bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. "Not as bad as it looks, I guess."

With a tearing crash, Jim fell through the boards and up to his waist in the porch. Chunks of rotted pine boards blasted around. Jim let out a frightened yelp and clawed at the remaining boards. Instantly, Art was up the stairs and at his friend's side, tugging on Jim's arms while trying to avoid the more rotten-looking parts of what was left of the flooring.

"I got you, man," Art assured.

Jim had always known that Art was strong, but the way the big man lifted him out of the hole in the porch was pretty damned impressive. Just Whoop! And there Jim was, standing on the stairs, panting and clutching Art like a baby monkey.

"Fucking hell! Holy shit!" Jim clutched his chest and gradually released the death-grip his other hand had on Art's shoulder. His legs felt rubbery and he staggered a little.

"You OK?" Art led Jim down to the walk, checking him out for any bleeding or injury. "You look all right... Anything bad?"

"No," Jim panted. "No, I think I'm OK." He walked around a little on the overgrown walk, shaking his head. A bad scrape on the shin and torn jeans seemed his only injury.

"Well, that's that," Jim said, rubbing his leg and glaring at the house. "We burn the fucker."

Art, meanwhile, had been poking around the base of the porch and as far under it as he could see. The light was fading fast as the sun went down in the speedy way it has in tropical areas. From somewhere off in the direction of the sunset came a sort of muted roar, like a stadium full of people cheering as heard from half a mile away. Both Art and Jim looked that way, but the noise was not repeated and they both shrugged and looked back to the house.

"Hey, man," called Art from half under the porch. "There's a shitload of building materials under here. Boards, nails, tarpaper, all kinds of crap. They must've meant to work on the place but didn't get around to it."

"Yeah?" Jim perked up a little. "Hmm. I would like to see if there's anything worthwhile inside... We could lay a kind of bridge across the hole if we had boards."

Art selected some thick planks from the stacks under the porch and pulled them up to the stairs, where he and Jim canted them into place across the broken flooring. Warily, Jim made his way across the planks and up to the door. The key from Mr. Milo fit right into the lock and, with surprising ease, the thick weathered door swung wide.

Jim was expecting the worst, but, astonishingly, a delicate, pleasant scent of flowers wafted from within. In the near dark he could just make out a cheery hallway leading off to the home's interior. Instinctively, his right hand groped for a light switch. It was rewarded and Jim clicked on the overhead light to reveal a charming cottage of polished wood flooring, subdued wall coverings, and tasteful decoration.

"Whoa..." Jim gaped. "Now this is more like it!"

Art joined him as Jim walked haltingly into the house. From the entryway the two could see three doors, two to the right and one to the left, and an archway at the end of the hall leading into a larger room beyond. Trying doors, Art found first a cozy den, jammed with shelves full of books and comfortable chairs and a glass case or two. Next was a bedroom, done in that spare style that bespoke Guest Room. Finally Art found a small, marble-tiled half bath. While Art was poking around, Jim walked to the end of the hall and into the larger area.

"Art, check this out!" Jim called. This was obviously the living room, a capacious chamber with a vaulted ceiling, various comfy-looking furniture, assorted lamps, knick-knacks, bookshelves, electronic gear, and, over in one corner, a massive black iron spiral staircase. The two simply stood and looked around at the place. There were all kinds of fun things to look at. There was a stuffed alligator, an impressive-looking computer setup with many peripherals, a fearsome Polynesian mask, a giant screen TV, a set of framed oil paintings on one wall... Jim felt like he was in one of those Ripley's Believe It Or Not museums; everywhere he looked there was something interesting that was either overtly or subtly exotic.

"Man, this is cool," Art said distractedly, moving around the place to look closer at some of the stranger decorations. "Sort of a funky museum or like, Hemingway's crib gone wild or something."

Jim noticed a paneled swing door and pushed it open to reveal a fully modern kitchen and small dining area. There was also a laundry area in one corner, with a washer, drier, and washtub sink. He let the door swing back and resumed gawking at the living room for a while. Next he climbed up the spiral stairs and found another wonder in the form of a huge, luxurious bedroom and attached bathroom. These rooms took up the entire space on the second floor and, while not as extravagantly decorated as the rooms below, were nonetheless elegantly furnished and very comfortable. In the bathroom, Jim found a toilet, a bidet, a vanity sink and mirror, a stand-up shower with multiple heads, a claw-foot tub, and a four-person jacuzzi.

"Sweet," Jim drew the word out to about six syllables. After another cursory look around the rooms, he wandered downstairs, where Art was mixing drinks at a well-stocked bar against one wall.

"Here, man," Art shoved a JD rocks into his friend's hand and clinked glasses. "You are the owner of one wild house, my brother. One wild house that you wanted to torch. Now aren't you glad you listened to me? Hey, let's drink to your aunt and uncle. If nothing else, they surely knew how to collect cool shit."

"Here, here," Jim tossed back half of the whiskey and grimaced. "But I mean, what's the deal? Why's the outside so nasty and the inside so plush? Who the fuck were these people Art?"

"I don't know," Art shrugged, "but I bet we can find out if we look around here enough. And if we can translate that diary..." He stopped with a vacant look on his face.

Out of the blue Art suddenly whooped and crouched with one hand slapped to his forehead. This startled Jim nastily and he spilled some whiskey on a patterned Native American rug. He was about to ask Art what the hell he thought he was doing when the big man cut him off, waving his hands as punctuation.

"Dude! We got to get the rest of the guys down here! It's a plain fact! Greg to check out the book, Molly to help sort through with all this weird stuff, and Gina to oversee and tote general bale. Don't you think?"

"Huh?" said the nonplussed Jim. "What? Why?"

"Fix it up, stupid! With five of us, we can fix the outside--shit we already have a bunch of materials--and in our off time we can figure out what made your aunt and uncle tick. Plus, the other guys get to spend time in Florida. With us. Gotta admit, this weather's the shit, and we haven't even explored this purported party town."

"Hmm, it is nice," Jim moved back towards the bar. "Sort of a working vacation, eh? I have to admit, I already miss Gina... And I could pay ëem if need be... Shit, let's call ëem and find out!"

While Jim called the friends, Art took the car in search of groceries and beer. The phone conversations with each of the three were indicative of each of them. Greg was only mildly interested until the subject of the book came up, whereupon he was full of questions and enthusiasm. Molly was hooked by the partial house inventory Jim gave her over the phone, and Gina was simply sold on the whole romantic, Let's-Put-On-a-Show concept. Jim was still talking to Gina when Art pushed his way into the kitchen with two armloads of paper bags and started putting things into the fridge and cupboards.

"OK, baby," Jim said into the phone. "You guys hash it out and call us tomorrow... No, I say bring him with. He'll dig the house. But buy him a seat, though. Don't let ëem put him in the baggage compartment. OK. I will. Love you too."

"Man!" said Art. "It's like crawling with people out there now! Remember how quiet it was before? Well now? Like three blocks over, there's like some major partying going on. Bars and more bars. Duvall Street, it's called."

"Yeah," Jim grabbed a bag of Fritos. "It's the sunset thingy. I guess people gather down at the end of the island, something-or-other Square it's called, watch the sunset, and then do the bar crawl up and down Duvall Street."

It was obvious to Art that his friend had been at the bottle of JD, and perhaps some dope, but also that Jim just needed some food. After all, they hadn't eaten since this morning. As Jim babbled, Art opened and closed cupboards until he found pots and pans and such and set in to prepare some canned stew and salad.

"Jim, I think this place is totally cool," Art pronounced when Jim paused. "Once the outside is as good as in here, it'll fuckin' rock."

"Still," Jim said slowly, "It's pretty odd, don't you think? Why hide the place under all the weeds and trees and vines and shit? Camouflage?"

"Maybe, but why?" Art chopped carrots and tossed them with some lettuce chunks and tomatoes.

"Don't know, man. Here," Jim passed him the marble pipe.

TEN

Art woke up the next day at about nine, momentarily disoriented. Where the hell? Then memory seeped back in and he rose from the guest room bed and stretched, thinking of checking out that fancy shower upstairs.

Last night the two of them had stayed up till about two, mostly checking out the living room and its bizarre contents and knocking back beer and whiskey. Finally they had looked at each other, recognized the exhaustion there, and stumbled off to bed, Jim taking the master bedroom upstairs. Art, who normally couldn't get comfortable in anything but a king-size bed, found the one in the guest room quite nice, even if his feet did hang over the end a little.

Now he padded out into the hallway in a pair of bright purple sweats and then stopped suddenly as he heard a noise, a sort of rustling just outside the door. On tiptoe he slunk over to the small barred window in the door and peered out. He saw the weed-choked yard, the street beyond, (where a woman and her dog jogged past) their car, and not much else. A flash of movement in the yard caught his eye but he was too slow to catch anything but the faint glimpse of a blue-clad leg vanishing quickly over the fence to the right of the house. Whoever it was moved pretty fast, Art decided.

He opened the door and walked out onto the planks they'd put down the night before and looked around. No one was there, but it was impossible to see beyond the yard for all the vegetation. With a grunt, Art went back inside, thinking that there was probably no need to tell Jim about this. As a matter of fact, he'd forgotten all about it by the time Jim got up and dragged himself down to breakfast an hour later. His friend looked a little rough; his eyes were red, he was pale, and his hands were quaking.

"Morning, sunshine," Art said merrily, dishing out eggs and toast. "Lookin' good."

A kind of guttural sigh came from Jim, who slumped at the kitchen table and availed himself of the marble pipe that sat there, half full from last night.

"Come on, man, have some eggs," Art chided. He himself sat down and, the local newspaper propped before him, methodically polished off ten scrambled eggs and half a loaf of toasted bread. He wasn't particularly hungry. Jim meanwhile shuffled over and groped around in the cabinets until he pulled out a coffee mug. He filled it at the Mister Coffee and joined Art at the table. Listlessly, he poked some eggs around his plate and took a few bites of toast. Art looked over the paper at his friend.

"You should watch yourself with the booze, man," Art said it softly but firmly.

"Ugh. You know, Art, I believe you're right," Jim massaged his temples and then gave Art an up-from-under glare. "But what about you? You matched me drink for drink, man."

"Jim, I'm almost twice your body mass," Art explained. "I just had a nice buzz on last night. I'd have had to pound like a gallon of JD to get as drunk as you did. See what I mean?"

"Do I ever. Anyway, I'm done with whiskey for a while."

"Uh huh."

From somewhere out in the living room came the trill of a cell phone and Jim started, jumped up, and ran out. Art cleaned up the dishes and swept the kitchen floor while Jim talked for ten-odd minutes with Gina and then finally returned.

"All set, man," Jim said as he walked in. "The guys are flying in tonight at eight. Didn't we pass the airport on our way into town?"

"Yeah, I saw it. Well, that means we got a whole day to set to work. What's first?"

"Shit, I have no idea..." Jim answered. "Right now, I'm checking out that hot tub."

"Lemme shower first!" Art ran and tried to cut Jim off at the base of the stairs. Jim rammed Art with one shoulder and tried, utterly ineffectually, to muscle his way in front. Laughing, they shoved each other a few times and then Jim bowed and waved Art up the stairs.

"After you, your immenseness."

While the big man bathed, Jim looked around the living room some more. The food and weed and coffee had done a fair number on his hangover. In the daylight the place looked quite different. The vaulted living room ceiling had huge skylights and these were covered in vines and creepers, many of which were in bloom. Blue and yellow blossoms could be seen peeking through the dense green matting. The tropical sunlight filtered through all this growth in a diffuse fashion while tiny laser points of brighter light beamed down into the room, shifting slightly as the wind moved the plants above. The effect was not unlike being underwater, Jim decided. He lit a cigarette and blew smoke around the room. The effect was stunning, as the beams from above burned down into the room through the haze of smoke, illuminating a model tank here, a Cossack shako there.

"Cool..." Jim said and sat down heavily.

ELEVEN

An hour later, the two of them were sitting on the front porch. Jim looked anemic in shorts and a T-shirt, his legs and arms pale from the long Minnesota winter, but Art was quite flashy in a bright blue, flower-print shirt and neon blue shorts. They had both noticed the strong tang of salt air and that unique rotten vegetation smell that islands have. Now they began to notice the humidity and heat. At eleven AM it was already eighty-five degrees and the air was dense with moisture. As they talked cars rolled past, people walked by, and life proceeded for the people of the neighborhood. Occasionally a passerby would look into the yard and do a double take when they saw someone actually sitting on the porch of 112 William Avenue.

"Kind of like summer at home, isn't it?" Jim opined. "Humid enough."

"Mmm hmm," said Art. "Toasty. Well, man, I think we should set up our base here, so to speak. Get provisions, supplies, get all the utilities working..."

"Yup. Sounds good. I should call the car rental people and check the car out for a couple weeks. You think? Maybe a month?"

"Month," Art asserted. "Month at least."

Down on the sidewalk, the two could see an older man stop at the rickety gate and stare up at the house, a distance of maybe thirty yards. Then he swung the gate open and tottered all the way up to the porch, carefully avoiding the creepers and thorn bushes. As this took the man about ten minutes, Art and Jim looked at each other quizzically, almost broke out laughing because of the man's similarity to the old Tim Conway routine, and then looked back to where the chap now stood at the base of the porch. The guy was dumpy, sixty to seventy years old, stood all of five foot nothing, had a bad comb-over, and was dressed in ugly mixed checks and plaid. His round, pasty face looked up at them, his eyes big behind thick glasses.

"Uh, good morning..." Jim said hesitantly. "Something I can do for you?"

"I should say there is, young man." The old fellow's voice was like a higher-pitched version of Jackie Mason. "You can tell me who you are and why you're sitting here on the Diehl's front step like a couple of gargoyles."

Jim and Art got up and went down the steps.

"I'm Jim Niemann, the new owner. The Diehls were my aunt and uncle. They left me the place in their will. This is my friend, Art Crane." Jim extended his hand. The little man looked disoriented for a minute and then shook his head and stuck out his hand.

"Oy, such a misfortune that was," he looked sad. "Poor people. And here I am acting like the cranky old man when I should be making with a welcome. Please, forgive an old fool. I'm the next-door neighbor. Morris Cohen, call me Morry. A pleasure to meet you."

"Well, yeah..." said Jim, slightly overwhelmed. "Nice to meet you. Morry. So you live over..." He looked right and left.

"There," Morry gestured his chin at the house to their left, a small, well-kept place done in aqua-toned paint. "My retirement castle. Only it wasn't so great after my Bernice passed away. That was when I got to know your aunt and uncle. They were my best friends for the last few years. Poor, poor people."

Jim got the impression that the man's pity was perhaps more for himself, at his loss of friends. Inwardly an alarm went off, warning Jim not to get too chummy with this old guy or they'd never get rid of him.

"Yeah, it's a bad scene," Art put in. "But the police are investigating, maybe they'll catch whoever did it."

"I hope to God they do," Morry said vehemently. "Such good people they were..."

"Say, Mr. Cohen," Art couldn't help but tower over the man. "Was the house always this... Overgrown? I mean, it kind of looks like no one's lived here for a long time with all the weeds and vines and all."

"Oh, that," answered Morry. "Well, it was mostly just the back of the house, they let the vines grow over the skylights... You've seen the way it looks in the living room I take it? And John was always getting ready to paint the house. You can see where he was scraping..." The little man sniffled and wiped one eye. "But most of this grew up in the last couple of months. They were away on their islandóyou know about that? And they didn't have time to mow the yard and all... Besides, with this heat, the plants grow like mad. Did you know they were on their way home when it... Happened? Anyway, no, it used to be very nice. Maybe a little wild, maybe a bit like a jungle in back even, but it was very nice. People walking by would always stop and stare..."

As Morry spoke, Jim and Art looked at each other. Jim bulged his eyes in mock exasperation.

"Wow, that's great Mr. Cohen," Jim sort of broke in. "Well, we're going to fix the place up. As a matter of fact, we have a lot of work to do, as you can see, so..."

"Oh, don't let me stop you. And it's Morry. I'll just be getting along. But if there's anything you need, just drop by. An old man like me had a lot of time on his hands. Like I said, your aunt and uncle were good friends to me and it's the least I can do to help their nephew if he needs anything. God forbid I shouldn't do that." He showed no sign of getting along. "For instance, if maybe you need a good plumber? I know the best one in the Keys. Or maybe you need a spot of new carpeting? I can get it wholesale. Good stuff, too, not this cheap nylon you see these days. Boy, oh boy, I was in a place just last week where the carpeting was... "

"OK Morry," Jim interrupted, walking backward up the porch steps. "Well, we really need to get going now, so have a nice day. We'll come see you if we need anything." He waved and ducked into the house.

Art frowned at his friend's rudeness and, with a kindly smile, again gently shook Cohen's hand.

"Don't mind him, Morry, he's OK once you get to know him. We'll see you soon, I'm sure. Take care, now."

"Yes, the same to you young man," Morry smiled up at Art and then began his trek out to the sidewalk. "Bye-bye now."

TWELVE

Art found Jim in the living room, cleaning some weed.

"Shit, man," Art said testily. "You didn't have to be so rude. He's just a lonely old guy is all."

Jim looked up.

"Yeah, it wasn't cool, but Art, man, I know his type. Sure he seems like a quaint old duffer, but if we give him any sign of overt kindness he's going to cling to us like grim death. Do you really want that geezer hanging around here all the time?"

"Well, no, course not," Art cooled. "But it wouldn't hurt to be friendly. Besides, he might know stuff about your aunt and uncle. He's obviously been in here, the way he mentioned it. Plus, he had your explanation about the like, disparity between the outside and inside of the house."

"Whatever. I'll be friendly, OK. But let's not overdo it. Not that it really matters, ëcause I'm probably just going to fix the house up and sell it anyway. We'll be gone before old Morry can really get his hooks in."

"What?" said Art, "You don't want to retire here and live next door to Morry Cohen and play shuffleboard on Tuesdays and get Meals on Wheels and compare gall bladder stories?"

Jim chuckled and shook his head. "Oh, man..."

The two spent the next several hours out driving around Key West, getting their bearings and a feel for the town, then hitting various establishments for food, cleaning supplies, painting supplies and such, then moving it all into the house.

Next Art fixed some lunch (six hamburgers and a bag of frozen fries) while Jim got on the cell phone to the local phone, gas, and electricity companies to reconnect or establish service to the house. When he finally hung up, Art had the food ready. They ate, (Art downing five of the burgers) cleaned up, and then put on some old clothes and went out into the heat.

"Where the fuck do we start?" Jim asked, staring around at the yard. "'Cause this is downright grim." The two stood, Art with a scythe and Jim with a hedge cutter, in the front yard and looked around hopelessly.

"Uh, I'll start on the weeds in the yard," Art swept the scythe at the waist-high growth of thistles and grass. "You start on those vines all over the porch."

"Sure, great."

The two got down to it and quickly amassed a huge pile of brush in the front yard. Art moved like a machine, mowing steadily along from left to right, chopping a deep swath into the undergrowth with each swipe. Jim traced vines down to their base, clipped them with the cutter and then yanked them down from the porch and side of the house. It was hard work for them both, and Art looked over at one point to find Jim quite pale and panting noticeably, but they kept at it.

When they took a break after an hour and a half, Art decided that Jim looked sort of flushed, but, on the whole, better than he had that morning. As the big man sat in the shade of the porch, Jim went in and got two cold Tecates from the fridge and brought them out. The two guzzled deeply and then sipped their beer. Jim lit a smoke.

"Dag!" Art fanned himself. "Hot as shit! Maybe we should do this at night or somethin', cause this heat is a bitch."

"Better yet, hire somebody to do it," Jim wheezed. "Bet old Morry knows the best bushwhacker in the Keys."

"Shit..." Art laughed. "Not a bad idea, though. You could at least get estimates or something. I mean, this is some seriously menial fucking labor."

"Well, whatever, I'm done for today. Ten more minutes and I'd have had a stroke or something."

Jim rubbed the cold beer bottle across his forehead. The day was actually cooling some after the mid-day furnace effect, and Art sighed as a cool breeze from the ocean swept past.

"What time you got?" Art asked.

"Six ten."

"And the guys are coming in when?"

"Eight."

Art heaved himself up.

"I'll take first shower. We can go out to eat tonight, why don't you find a good seafood place and make some reservations?"

"On it."

Jim headed for the cell phone in the living room and then checked the house phone on a whim. A dial tone! That was quick, Jim thought. Next he paged through the local Yellow Pages and found a whole mess of seafood restaurants. Ultimately he selected a place called Duffy's Steak and Lobster House by virtue of the fancy ad, called and reserved a table for five at ten, and noted the Truman Street address on a scrap of paper.

After they'd both cleaned up, Art and Jim relaxed in the living room and investigated the Diehl's CD and LP collection. This, of course, led to checking out the stereo system, which was, in and of itself, remarkable, a sleek set of wood-cased components, curiously lacking a brand name, and a set of four tiny but powerful Bose speakers. The music collection was nearly all classical, with multiple versions of many pieces. Jim also found some old swing records and some Doo Wop stuff from the fifties. He put on a Benny Goodman compilation CD and he and Art snapped their fingers along with the happy jive as they let themselves wander around the house, poking into a corner here and looking in a closet there. The house was interesting that way. It called from any corner to the inhabitant to come and look at the interesting thing over here. What's that over there? What do you suppose is in that? What the hell is that thing? The casual viewer soon found his eye arrested by some object or another and inexorably drawn in.

Jim looked at his watch.

"Got an hour to kill before we go pick up the guys. Want to wander around and look at stuff some more?"

"Definitely," Art nodded.

Art was interested in the mechanicals of the house. What kind of heat and/or cooling system? What about a water heater or gas supply? Knowing that most houses in Florida would not have a basement, Art checked all the closets in the kitchen and found nothing but mops, buckets, cleaning products, and kitchen stuff. Next he walked around the whole house and repeated the procedure, trying his hardest to focus on finding an air conditioner or water heater and not on, say, that cool old globe or that bigass African shield. Still he found nothing, and went upstairs, mystified.

Aha! He said to himself, surveying the elaborate setup in the ceiling that no one had so far noticed. All solar. Not bad, he thought, tracing piping and cables...

Jim eventually found himself in the den, where he sat behind the desk, a large leather-covered oak thing with various drawers. The desk chair was overstuffed and also leather with thick claw feet. Around him the room was dim for all of the vegetation blocking the fading light from without. Around three of the walls were floor-to-ceiling bookcases, stuffed with volumes of all sort, from heavy leather-bound tomes to stacks of mass-market paperbacks.

The other wall was taken up with a huge display of archaic arms of all sorts. There were swords, spears, maces, axes, and a few things he'd never seen before. Jim got up and went over there. In the middle of the display there was a tall glass case containing more modern weapons: a musket, two flare-muzzled blunderbusses, and a bolt-action rifle of some sort. Fronted in inlaid wooden doors, the lower half of the cabinet was, Jim found out, locked. Looking closer, Jim could see that the keyhole, in contrast to the older wooden door, was utterly modern. A Yale, in fact.

An idea occurred to Jim and he went back to the desk and opened the top drawer. Among the pens and pencils and paperclips, he found a set of two Yale keys, the first of which fit snugly into the cabinet lock. The door was decidedly heavy as Jim pulled it open, and he soon saw why; the interior of the cabinet was solid steel, about two inches thick. The door was likewise made of steel and fit into the cabinet like a vault door. But what really caught Jim's eye was what was in the cabinet. Before him were three very modern weapons indeed: a thick-looking pistol, something Jim took to be a fancy shotgun, and another rifle-looking weapon, dismantled into component parts. There were also several boxes of ammo for each. Jim gave a low whistle, his eyes bulging, and backed away from the cabinet.

"Art!" Yelled Jim, backing into the desk and nearly upsetting a lamp made of tusks of some sort. "Art! You should see this!"

From somewhere upstairs, Jim heard Art's heavy tread and then the big man came running into the room. He was clutching a golf club menacingly and looked wildly around as he skidded to a stop in front of Jim.

"What? What is it? A snake?"

"What?" Jim snorted with laughter, "A snake? No, man, it's not a snake. Look."

"Don't fuck with me, man," Art lowered the golf club. "Florida's crawling with snakes. Literally. You know I hate snakes... Sweet Jesus..."

Art was staring into the cabinet, the threat of snakes abruptly forgotten.

"This is some serious hardware, my brother." Art dropped the golf club with a thud, then reached in and picked up the pistol. It looked to Jim like the guns cops had. Art held it flat in his huge palm and read the make and model aloud.

"Smith and Wesson Model 4506."

Putting the gun delicately back in the cabinet, Art next took out the shotgun. This was a strange, futuristic thing, a little over two feet long, molded in black plastic with a fore-grip. Art tilted it to catch the light and read:

"Maverick Model 88 Bullpup Shotgun. Whoa. This thing is nasty. Maybe illegal too, for all I know. Saw a riot cop with one of these once."

Lastly Art pulled out the stock for the larger weapon and read:

"Ruger M77 Mark Two All Weather. Hunting rifle. Hunting or sniping, that is... See that scope? And you got your variety platter of ammo here, too. Man, your aunt and uncle had some serious fucking guns here. You think he was just collectin' these? Or that maybe he needed them? For like, protection?"

"How should I know?" Jim couldn't take his eyes off the things. "You don't go hunting with this stuff do you? Unless you're hunting fucking bears or something?"

"I guess that's right," Art said. "How old were your aunt and uncle when they died, anyway?"

"Uh," Jim calculated distractedly in his head. "Fifty-eight and uh... Sixty-four. Aunt Mary was fifty-eight." Gingerly, he picked up the pistol and turned it over in his hands. He'd never held an actual gun before.

"See?" Art held his palms out. "Why in the hell do two retirees need the firearms of a SWAT team? Shit, man, your average sixty-four year old dude used that damn Maverick, it'd kick him on his ass. And put that the fuck down. You know jack shit about guns and you'll probably shoot your damn dumb self."

Nodding, Jim dutifully put the pistol back in place and then shut and locked the cabinet. The keys he replaced in the desk.

"Maybe Uncle John was a collector," Jim mused, sprawled in the luxurious office chair. "What I mean is, maybe it's just another fucking weird thing. In this place, it almost seems normal. Look." He swept an arm at the wall of weapons. "All of this shit could be used to kill, right? The Big Guns in there are the, like, logical evolution of the weapon, the ultimate killing utensil, see what I mean? Like it completes the collection."

"Yeah, I guess," Art answered. "But with all that shit in their will about whatever... Questionable Things, I just thought..." He trailed off, rubbing his neck with one hand.

"Yeah, well," Jim said, "I think we're starting to understand that we know fuck-all about what we've gotten ourselves into here."

 

All content on this website copyright 2005 Jim LaVigne