CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE BY COMMITTEE (20)

The light salty air breezes across your arms and under your arms and feels good and cool in the baking sun. You are on an immobile boat partway between Long Beach, California and Santa Catalina Island, which is only an hour or so offshore, assuming that you don’t stop in the middle. But if, say, an old woman is murdered, and the captain on the boat seems set on procuring a confession from you—the trip may take a great deal longer.

You are on the port side of the boat, near to the bow, right at the bottom of the ladder that leads down from the open-air deck. One of the boat’s three crewmembers—including the captain—stands in front of you. He is watching a seagull float languidly above the waves, its position shimmering slightly in the wind. You do not know this man’s name.

The Islander Express is rotating slowly in the ocean’s current, drifting southward, slowly, you think, and from your vantage point here you can see the smear of Long Beach across the near horizon. The prow is pointed toward Mexico, or nowhere.

‘I’m sorry,’ you say, ‘I don’t know who Ernesto is.’

The crewman is standing a couple of steps up on the ladder. ‘Ernesto,’ he says. ‘Ernesto. My coworker. Works for the captain. Short guy, looks like this.’ He makes a face. ‘You don’t know anything, do you, Inspector? How long have you been on this boat, snooping around? You don’t know anything.’

‘Ernesto,’ you say. ‘Okay.’

You turn around. There’s no one behind you although the front edifice of the enclosed passenger cabin comes to a sharp corner a few paces away and you wonder if someone might be right around the corner. Are you becoming paranoid? There is a weird buzzing in the backs of your ears. You turn back to the crewman on the ladder.

‘Can I ask you,’ you say to him, ‘what do you think happened to Mrs. Shorter? The old woman?’

He shrugs. ‘You’re the one playing Chinatown,’ he says. ‘Maybe she just fell out. I dunno. Her neck’s broken, I can tell you that. You know yesterday if you’d asked me if I knew what a broken neck felt like I wouldn’t have known. And now I do. So….’ He shudders a bit. ‘Thanks for that, I guess.’

‘She was up on the open-air deck,’ you say. ‘I came down the ladder on the other side—starboard—when everyone was down looking at the porpoises. When I left her she was alone up there. No one went up past me.’

‘Wait,’ he says. He narrows his eyes. ‘Aren’t you the murderer?’

‘There’s this ladder over here, and there’s the Captain’s Lounge. Which is one-way, right? I mean,’ you say, ‘the only way in there is from that deck, right?’

‘Look,’ he says. You still don’t know his name. ‘Captain’s on the outs with you. I don’t think she’d exactly like me giving you a tour of the bridge. Can I say “Interview over”?’

‘Okay,’ you say. ‘Can I get your name, though?’ You realize, suddenly, that you no longer have your notepad and pen. Your hands are empty. You must have left them with Drew up on the open-air deck.

‘When you write the book you can call me Charles,’ the crewman says.

‘Is that your name?’

He rolls his eyes and turns and climbs back up the ladder to the deck above. You stand alone.

You walk out toward the bow and immediately encounter Gavin, who is tucked around the corner of the outside of the passenger cabin. He is standing with both hands pressed against the dark glass of the fore windows. His lips are pursed as if he’s a freezeframe image of someone mid-sentence.

‘Oh hey,’ Gavin says to you. ‘Small boat.’

‘Uh huh,’ you say. ‘What are you doing?’ Behind him you see Mrs. Shorter’s daughter, who has climbed up to sit on the railing along the starboard bulwark. Her back is to you and her feet are dangling over the water. Her boyfriend is absently rubbing one hand in long slow circles between her shoulder blades. The woman with the boy in the plaid shorts is holding her son with his head on her shoulder and rocking him gently in time with the motion of the boat on the lapping waves.

‘I’m just looking for you,’ Gavin says. ‘Tired of getting peered at.’ He laces his fingers together and cracks all the knuckles in one outward motion. The sound is like firecrackers in an alley.

‘Who’s peering at you, Gavin?’ you say.

‘Clipboard jockey.’ He stretches his head toward the passenger cabin in a particular way that simultaneously acts as a gesture and as a method for cracking two joints in his neck.

‘Maybe you shouldn’t have tried to steal their boat?’

He chuckles. ‘Just trying to keep things interesting. Speaking of interesting, how’s your defense going?’

You look at his thick-rimmed glasses, his blue polo shirt. ‘I’m working on it,’ you say.

The sun winks behind a small tendril of cloud and then out the other side. The sky yawns above you. A seagull dives down to the surface of the ocean and out of your sight along the hull of the Islander Express and reappears a moment later, ahead of you, exactly as it was before.

‘Have you seen an unattended purse?’ you ask Gavin. ‘I think Mrs. Shorter’s purse is missing.’

He shakes his head once, from one side to the other. ‘It’s not on her,’ he says. ‘I’ve been watching her like a hawk. She hasn’t gotten up once, either.’ A wide grin.

You look in through the tinted glass. The passenger cabin is still, its inhabitants motionless and morose-looking. The crewman with the clipboard—Ernesto, apparently—glances up at you from where he’s standing and takes his clipboard out from under his arm and flips the top sheet over and scowls at something on the next page and then scowls at you again. Beyond him, turned a sooty grey by the coloring of the glass, Pauline gives you a quick open-handed wave from the aisle between the rows of upholstered seats. You return the wave and look at Gavin. The distant sound of laughter trickles down the ladder from the open-air deck.

WHAT DO YOU DO:
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