CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE BY COMMITTEE (23)

You look at the woman sitting on the bulwark railing in front of you and at the man standing next to her with his back to you. You feel the silence ticking out between you and feel that you should say something. The man turns to regard you quietly out of the corner of one eye.

‘Bob is your father?’ you say. ‘Here? On this boat?’

She shrugs with her elbows, her arms spread downward to steady herself on the railing. ‘Well, I mean, there’ve never been tests, but yeah.’ Her boyfriend snorts a laugh.

‘I’m sorry,’ you say again. ‘He told me he hadn’t seen your mother in thirty years.’

‘And here I am,’ she says.

The boyfriend turns around. ‘You’re a detective?’ he says to you.

‘No,’ you say. ‘I’m just trying to figure this out.’ Despite everything, this seems to be going better than you’d expected. Considering. ‘Can I ask,’ you say, ‘where were you two when—your mother—’ Your tongue feels thick in your mouth.

The boyfriend’s face turns a shade of red. ‘Where were we,’ he echoes.

You nod.

‘We were on the goddam boat,’ he says.

‘We were together,’ the daughter says. She glances briefly at her boyfriend. A look passes over her face. ‘We were together, inside, down here. Sitting down inside. We were reading.’

‘I was reading,’ he corrects her. ‘You were doodling.’

‘Yes, I was doodling, and you were reading. Something very important I’m sure. Not like me, doodling.’

You raise your hands again in a defensive posture. You are thinking about timelines and the layout of the boat. You are trying to piece everything that you know into an easy straight line. Marjorie and Joan, Marjorie, and Bob, Marjorie and her daughter. You want to eliminate everyone else from the boat and sift its passengers down to the people who matter, who played a part in whatever happened to Mrs. Shorter. Motive, opportunity, means. You don’t know anything about any of those three. You think of John Huston shadows, of low-bend fedoras and gnaw-ended toothpicks. How does this work? How is this supposed to work. ‘Can I ask you your names?’ you say.

‘Heckle and Jeckle,’ the boyfriend says. He still has his back to you but his head stays turned to one side.

‘Esme,’ says Mrs. Shorter’s daughter. ‘I don’t know if you’ve read the story. This is Royce.’

‘Jeckle,’ Royce says.

‘Esme,’ you say. You ignore Royce for now. ‘I found your father’s ring on the open-air deck up above. Do you know anything about it?’

‘He has a ring?’ she says. She hops down from the railing and turns around to parallel her boyfriend and she says something low under her breath to him and then turns back around to face you. ‘I don’t know anything about him,’ she says. ‘I’ve never met him. What a tragedy.’

‘He isn’t going snorkeling?’ you say.

‘The fuck should I know?’ she says. ‘Not with us.’

‘Okay,’ you say. ‘And your mother didn’t say anything? About the ring, or Bob?’

Royce turns around now and faces you and crosses his arms over his chest. He is somewhat pale. ‘She said, “Oh my god there he is,” and later on she said that he’d talked to her. They used to have a whole thing. She didn’t say anything about his fucking ring.’

You wish that you had something to write this down on. How much was happening on this boat before you started paying attention? How much is still happening? ‘Do you know anyone named Gavin?’ you say. ‘Either of you?’

Royce shakes his head immediately. Esme looks as if she is considering something and then shakes her head as well. ‘No,’ she says.

‘Who else is with you on this birthday trip?’ you say. ‘Anyone?’

‘No, officer,’ Royce says.

Esme looks at him. He matches her gaze.

‘What?’ he says.

‘Okay,’ you say. ‘I’m sorry. One more thing. Who would want to hurt your mother? Can you think of anyone who would hold anything against her or… want to hurt her?’

‘You mean besides Mister High-School-Football-Dropout-Military-Has-Been?’ Royce says.

‘Bob?’

Esme sighs and wipes at her eyes although they appear to be pretty dry by now. ‘He’s an idiot,’ she says. You aren’t certain if she’s talking about Bob or Royce and you do not want to ask her to specify.

‘Why would Bob want to hurt your mother?’ you say to her instead.

‘I don’t know!’ she snaps suddenly. ‘It’s my fucking birthday! I came out here on this fucking boat with my mom and my boyfriend to look at some fucking goddam fish and now she’s dead and my father is here and it’s weird as anything and will you please, please leave us alone now.’

Royce uncrosses and recrosses his arms.

WHAT DO YOU DO:
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