what's got you in such a piss-poor mood?" Dave Cullen asked.
"I thought the meeting went pretty well." He had his elbows
propped on the Rusted Keel's scarred and pitted bar, one hand wrapped
around an ice-cold beer. He took a long pull, swallowed, and
added, "After all, the good guys came out on top today."
Seated next to him, Sean acknowledged
his friend's comment with a tired shrug. He supposed Dave was right. But
that did little to dislodge the sinking feeling in the pit of his
stomach that with Lily Banyon on the scene, things would go to hell in a
handbasket awful quick. Too tired to explain the hows and whys,
Sean concentrated on his whiskey, savoring its smoky peat-flavored bite.
Unperturbed by Sean's silence, Dave
nursed his beer, the fingers of his free hand drumming an accompaniment
to one of the bar's perennial favorites, Otis Redding's "Dock of
the Bay." which someone had selected from the jukebox's list. The
Rusted Keel was Sean and Dave's preferred after-hours hangout, one of
the few remaining places in Coral Beach the tourists hadn't taken over,
most likely because from the outside the bar looked like a run-down bait
and tackle shop. Stepping inside, one's second impression wasn't much
Though there were a few tables covered
in ancient red-and-white checked plastic, no one in town came to the
Keel for its spiffy decor. Most of the regulars avoided the tables,
preferring to congregate around the pool table in the back, or to while
away the hours throwing darts at the dartboard with unerring, unnerving
accuracy. For those more vegetatively inclined, the battered TV above
the bar where Sean and Dave were sitting was tuned to ESPN
twenty-four-seven. And, of course, there was the jukebox, which hadn't
been updated since Don McLean's "American Pie." Five songs for
But the finest thing about the Rusted
Keel was its clientele. Not a single person in the place besides Sean
and Dave had a political bone in his body. After a hard day fighting the
good fight, there was nothing so relaxing as the sweet scent of beer,
salted peanuts, and political indifference. Sean had never once been
approached by someone wanting to know how to obtain a building permit
for a two-car garage, nor been badgered about why he'd voted for or
against such and such a proposal. And while every now and again a
disgruntled fisherman or boat captain shot Dave a hostile look, the
tacit rule at the Rusted Keel was that while bitching about the Marlins'
or the Dolphins' miserable season was acceptable behavior, griping to
locally elected officials who only wanted to throw back a couple of
beers in peace was not.
But Sean's drink of choice this evening
was whiskey rather than Rolling Rock, and he was staring moodily at the
dust motes, which told Dave he hadn't yet shaken off his mayoral
"Come on, Sean, quit
worrying," he said. "You knew after the panel voted to
continue the study that Ferrucci would be in attack mode. Ever since you
beat him in the mayoral election he's wanted to kick your butt. He's not
going to let an opportunity pass him by, especially not on this
issue." He pushed a red plastic bowl toward his friend. "Here,
have a peanut, it'll make you feel better."
Always nice to see words of wisdom
penetrate, Dave thought, as Sean reached an scooped out a handful of
the salted nuts. "So, what'd you think of the bodacious Dr. Banyon?"
he asked while Sean munched. "Liked her photographer, too. Very
"Forget it," Sean replied.
The peanuts had apparently revived him. "Banyon's trouble with a
capital T. Her assistants probably are too," Sean added
between mouthfuls. "Should've told me you were planning on
contacting the Marine Center. I'd have warned you to avoid Lily at all
"Sorry, bud." Dave shrugged
his shoulders. "I only learned yesterday that there had been a
change of plans, that we'd be getting Banyon in place of Hunt. I
couldn't exactly call back and say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Not that I
would have anyway." He paused for a swallow of beer. "From
that nifty recitation you gave earlier, you obviously don't need me to
tell you she's one of the best. You read her latest book?"
"I've glanced at it," Sean
muttered into his glass.
Dave looked at him out of the corner of
his eyes. "Pretty thorough glancing," he said mildly. "Banyon's
got a great track record. Not afraid to tackle tough issues or tough
opponents. With someone like her on the panel, we'll be sitting in
"Don't be fooled by Lily. As
you'll discover, the experience is much closer to lying in a field of
Dave grinned. Dr. Lily Banyon did
indeed look like the kind of woman who'd leave her mark on a man. He
glanced at Sean, wondering. McDermott was behaving a bit peculiarly.
Moody, tense, and edgy. Not Sean's usual m.o., that was for sure.
"Come on, Sean," he said. "Banyon can't be as bad as you
imagine. After all, she jumped in and saved her photographer when
Ferrucci was going for the jugular. Pretty damned courageous, if you ask
Sean scowled but remained silent.
"Did you see how big Karen Masur's
eyes grew when Ferrucci was tearing into her, all for the greater good
of Coral Beach? I thought she was going to faint. Ferrucci did, too.
Swear to God, his teeth must've grown four inches. Noticed it when he
flashed his signature smile." Dave gave a mock shudder. "His
smile disappeared damned fast, once Banyon leaped into the fray; so you
see, that proves Banyon's got the right instincts."
"What that really proves is that
Ferrucci's got a big mouth." Sean gave a small grin, suddenly
looking more like his usual self. "Maybe I should write Pete a
thank you note for being such an ass."
Dave laughed. "Be bighearted, send
him a fruit basket while you're at it. So, how far back do you and the
doctor go?" he asked casually.
Sean swirled the amber liquid at the
bottom of his glass. "Pre-diaper. Lily's hated me from the womb.
And probably will--right up to the grave."
Dave whistled softly. "Is this
possible?" he asked in an awed tone of voice. '"You mean to
say there's a woman alive who won't canvass the entire district for you
on election eve?"
"Stuff it, Dave," Sean
replied without heat. "When we were kids, Lily had a notebook where
she listed all the reasons why I was the scum of the universe. Didn't
take her long to run out of pages and move on to volume two. One of her
favorite pastimes was to quote passages to me. I still remember a few of
them." He drained his whiskey and signaled to Charlie for another
Dave shifted in his stool and studied
Sean's closed expression. "That's it." His grin spread slowly.
"You got a thing for the beautiful scientist."
"Yeah." Sean's shrug
downplayed Dave's discovery. "But like I said, Lily's detested me
forever. I doubt her attitude has changed much." And after the way
he'd behaved toward her earlier, at the reef meeting, it was practically
guaranteed Lily wouldn't be entertaining any warm, fuzzy feelings about
him. Probably thought he was a bigger jerk than ever.
"So how long have you been
suffering the effects of unrequited, uh, you know . . ."
Sean tilted his head, his look
measuring. "Would you believe eighth grade?" He smiled and
Sean solemnly shook his head. "I
kid you not."
"Eighth grade," Dave mused
aloud. "What'd she do?"
"Took off her sweater in Ms.
Geller's English class," Sean replied with a sorry laugh.
"She took off her sweater?"
Dave echoed, his expression mystified. Understanding dawned as he
recalled what he'd been like at age thirteen, a hormone-crazed
adolescent. "Oh yea, right." He nodded sagely as he brought
his beer to his lips.
"I was a goner from that day
on," Sean said. "Didn't matter where I was. One look at Lily,
and my mind and body went haywire. The worst of it was, I never quite
figured out how to shake the Lily Effect. the next four years in high
school were absolute torture."
"Oh, man," Dave said with an
appalled laugh as he clapped a hand to Sean's shoulder in a show of
fraternal commiseration. "I'm sorry. That's a hell of a tough
They leaned back in their stools while
Charlie set new drinks before them.
"Thanks, Charlie," Sean said,
going for his wallet.
Dave stopped him with a wave of his
hand. "No, let me. When I have a story this sad, you buy the
"Thanks." Sean managed a
rueful smile. His hand reached back to knead the kinks in his neck.
"Yeah, it's a mess," he conceded. "On top of being Lily's
public enemy number one, I've got Ferrucci trying to shove these
development people down my throat--when he isn't attacking me on
"Don't waste your time worrying
about Ferrucci's machinations, Sean. It's Lily Banyon you should be
devoting your, uh, energies to. You're not a lust-struck teenager
anymore. Why don't you spend some time with her, let her get to know the
real you?" Dave ignored Sean's decidedly unenthusiastic grunt.
"Hey! I've got it! You can tag along on the research boat as an
"A monumentally bad idea,"
Sean said flatly.
"Why not? It's perfect. You ran on
an environmental platform; this shows how committed you are to
monitoring the reef's health. You don't need to go often--otherwise our
friend Ferrucci will cry foul--just enough to dazzle her with that
McDermott charm. So, how about it?"
Sean shook his head. "No dice, not
in a million years. I don't want to be anywhere near her."
Dave wasn't cruel enough to tell Sean
he was lying like a rug.
A brief silence ensued as they nursed
their drinks, absorbed in thought. At the corner of the bar, a
conversation rose in decibel, becoming animated.
"Yo, Frank, take a look at what
just walked in! Is it Christmas already? 'Cause that sure is a pretty
"You got that right. . . .
Wouldn't mind unwrapping her bows."
Instinctively, Sean cast a glance over
his shoulder and groaned in despair. The scene from Casablanca
played in his mind. . .Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all
the world, she had to walk into mine.
This could not be happening. This was
his turf, his town, his bar. She had no right to trespass.
Okay, so this wasn't Casablanca.
This wasn't Rick's Cafe. Sam's fingers weren't summoning the haunting
melody, "As Time Goes By," from the ivories of an old upright
piano. There weren't any ceiling fans with long propeller-like blades
slicing through thick clouds of cigarette smoke, nor were the voices
that could be heard an exotic melange of foreign languages and accents.
But those differences were superficial,
of no consequence. The only thing that really mattered was that Sean
understood exactly how Bogie felt when his eyes lit on Ingrid Bergman.
That terrible mix of bitterness, longing and fury eating away at him.
He groaned again.
At the sound, two men sitting at the
corner of the bar broke off their conversation, eyeing Sean curiously.
Just as quickly, they dismissed him and returned to their avid
"Must be lost or confused. Palm
Beach is twenty-five miles north."
"Let's be friendly and give her
direction. How 'bout that, Ray?"
"You frigging nuts? The only
directions I'm giving her are to the slip where my houseboat's
moored." He elbowed his companion. "Stop drooling, Frank.
She's coming this way."
Because of the Keel's gloomy interior,
Lily didn't notice that he and Dave were at the bar until she was almost
upon them. The second she did, her step faltered. She was doubtless
debating whether to spin 180 degrees and march right out again.
He should have known Lily would tough
it out. After that initial hesitation, she strolled--it was the
only word Sean could find that adequately described the confident sway
of her hips--to the bar.
Once there, her gaze flit over Sean and
Dave with total disinterest, the kind of look one reserved for
strangers--with whom one had no intention of ever becoming acquainted.
"Tequila and lime, please,"
she ordered quietly when Charlie approached.
"Coming right up," Charlie
said with a nod. He set a shot glass and a tequila bottle in front of
her. Disappearing through the swinging door that led to the kitchen, he
returned shortly with a white porcelain saucer, lime quarters neatly
arranged in a radiating pattern.
Sean's eyebrows rose. Lily was getting
the royal treatment; most of the Rusted Keel's patrons considered
themselves lucky if they got their limes tossed into a plastic red Solo
Charlie poured a shotful. The bar fell
eerily silent as Lily leaned forward. Holding the lime bracketed between
index finger and thumb, she bit into its flesh, her teeth flashing white
in the subdued lighting. She lifted the shot glass to her lips. With a
quick backward toss, she downed its contents. Her eyes closed.
Watching her, Sean imagined the fiery
yellow liquor racing down her throat, setting her aglow from within.
Involuntarily, his eyes traveled the sinuous contour of her profile and
down the length of her neck. And descended further still.
Gone was the short jacket she'd been
wearing earlier. The top two buttons of her blouse were undone. The
blouse, made of some kind of shimmery material, shifted bluish purple in
the half light.
Shadows and mysteries. The glimpse of
Lily's milky white skin exposed by the shirt's plunging vee filled him
with wanderlust, a need to explore until all her secrets were revealed.
he moved restlessly on his stool.
A solid thud of glass against wood
resounded in the near-silent bar. Then Lily was laying a ten-dollar bill
on the bar and heading toward the door. In the wake of her departure,
male speculation frothed in bloated bubbles.
Sean was already on his feet. He tossed
a large tip on the bar. "Thanks again, Charlie. See you later,
"See you," Dave echoed. With
a glimmer of a smile, he nodded in the direction of the parking lot.
"Catching a ride?"
"That's the idea."
"Thanks. I'll need it."
Sean had slipped his jacket off the
back of the stool and was shrugging into it when one of the men seated
at the corner spoke.
"Hey, McDermott, what's your
opinion? Silicone for sure, huh?"
Sean paused to glance their way. Ray
and Frank were partners in a small sport-fishing business. He knew them
vaguely. Now he wished he didn't. He shook his head in contempt.
"Think I'd tell you, Ray?"
Ray's eyes narrowed. "Like you
actually know, McDermott. You claiming you've handled the goods,
Mayor?" His tone matched the sneer on his face. "If so, the
lady sure don't seem to remember." He poked Frank with his elbow.
"Looked right through him, didn't she, Frank?"
"Like a pane of glass."
Sean ignored their snorts of laughter.
"Let me give you some friendly advice." he said mildly.
"I'd be real careful not to let the lady catch you staring at her
Ray pulled a comical face, pretending
to look scared, then laughed even harder.
Sean smiled in return. Yet when Ray
opened his mouth to speak, he cut him off. "But if I'm the one who
catches you gawking, if I hear you talking about her that way
again--" he paused, and his smile turned dangerous, "--your
sorry carcasses will be feeding the fish."
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