‘Joan,’ you say, trying to affect an unemotional, inquisitive tone to mirror her own, ‘Captain, I believe you said that we’re going back.’

‘You’re a sharp kid,’ she says.

You are still seated on the blue vinyl cushioning of the restaurant-style booth. You spread your hands. ‘Well,’ you say, ‘let’s go.’

Joan puts her hands behind her on the countertop and she leans backward. ‘Does that mean you’ve got your story straight?’ she says. ‘Which one is it? Out of curiosity. The confession? Or your conspiracy theory about a retired naval officer and a boat captain he’s never met?’

 ‘I don’t understand you,’ you say. You glance over at Charles who is still leaning against the door, an expression on his face like he is attempting to come to grips with the idea that this day will never end. ‘Why do you think I did anything? What makes you think Mrs. Shorter’s death wasn’t an accident, or a suicide?’

‘Did you examine the body?’ Joan says. She sounds almost disinterested. Her head tilts slightly and you look at her eyes.

‘No,’ you say.

‘Of course not,’ she says. ‘Now you know I’m not a doctor. I’d love to but I’m afraid I don’t have the time. Are you a doctor?’

‘No,’ you say.

‘Well then maybe you don’t know this. I did examine the body. Do you know what a broken neck looks like? The human neck—’ she stretches her own head forward and twists her jaw up as if to illustrate—‘the human neck is a fragile thing. When the spinal cord is broken there is a lot of bruising. A lot. This is around the back of the neck.’ She turns her head and gestures with one hand. ‘Now your Mrs. Shorter, whose body you did not examine, exhibited bruising at the back of the neck as well as at the base of the jaw here and along here.’ Joan indicates two spots on her own jawline near her throat. ‘A handprint. Thumb, fingers. Now tell me: you say that you’re looking into this? You’re innocent, you’re looking for the real killer? If there is one, you say? What kind of looking into this involves not looking at the evidence, of simply creating elaborate theories and speculations and conspiracies? Tell me.’

‘You said you thought it was an accident,’ you say. Your voice sounds very small.

‘Did I?’ she says. ‘When was that?’

‘The first time I spoke to you.’

‘Had I examined the evidence at that point?’ she says. ‘I had not. But then, later, I did. Did you?’

You remain silent. Out the window behind Joan the sky is uninhabited and empty save for some chunky puffs of cloud and at this moment it looks barren and useless as a desert. To your right, Charles, the crewman, brings his hands out from being clasped behind his back and folds his arms low across his torso and avoids your eyes.

‘We’re going back to Long Beach,’ Joan says, more quietly now. ‘I will thank you now, in advance, to not concoct ridiculous fantasies when I bring you to the Coast Guard.’

‘I didn’t do anything,’ you say.

‘Then who did?’ she snaps. She opens her mouth again but doesn’t say anything.

‘Can I ask,’ you say, ‘why didn’t you go to the Coast Guard in the first place?’

‘I have a boat to run,’ she says. ‘I have a fucking job.’ As if this is an answer to your question.

You look at the door that Charles is leaning against. The processed air here in the Captain’s Lounge is beginning to feel alarmingly dry. Your eyeballs itch and you notice that you are blinking a lot. You look at the fore door where it is leaning, hingeless, against its own frame. You cannot see beyond it. ‘Is that all,’ you say flatly.

Joan looks at you. The dark grey reflection of her in the small tube television screen above her looms largely over the small and far-away reflection of yourself.

‘Am I free to go,’ you say. ‘Is that all?’

‘I’m not running a prison here,’ Joan says. She glances at Charles and he bounces his weight forward and off of the interior flush door and out of your way.

You pull yourself up and turn the knob and push through into the small alcove area and stride quickly through and out onto the open-air deck. Bob is still there against the bulwark and is smoking some kind of stubby greyish cigarette that was perhaps hand-rolled by someone with unclean hands. He gazes over at you from across the span of the deck. The sun is blazingly bright out here but the salt air rolling over the boat feels refreshing after the dark staid inertia of the Captain’s Lounge.

‘You look like shit,’ Bob says.

His big rectangular hand holds the cigarette daintily between thumb and middle finger. You look at the ring on his finger and remember its feel in your pocket. It seems like ages ago. You don’t both to respond to Bob and you look around the open-air deck. There is no one else up here. ‘What happened to Drew and Pauline?’ you say.

Bob looks at you blankly.

‘The two high school kids who were up here earlier.’

He sucks smoke into his lungs and rolls his eyes. ‘Big fucking fight,’ he says. ‘You know how it is.’

‘What about?’ you ask.

He waves the cigarette in a motion reminiscent of sketching something with a pencil. The thin white smoke is almost invisible in the sunlight. ‘I try not to get involved,’ he says.

You stand there in the sun and the wind for a minute and wonder when you will feel the engines kick on. The sound of thousands of gallons of Pacific salt water churning and spreading in the wake, the hulk of Long Beach growing nearer on the horizon. Catalina receding behind you. Your friends, Eric and Lavinia, with no explanation for your absence. You imagine a coterie of dark-blue policemen lurking on the pier as you draw nearer, their eyes scanning the boat’s bulwarks for a sign of you.

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