It’s come to this. The boarding door is open and Charles, the crewman, is maneuvering a gangway into the shifting space between the Islander Express and the dock immediately outside. Mrs. Shorter’s body is here, heaped and twisted around the beach towel. Above you on the open-air deck are Bob and Esme. Gavin is outside on the ladder that leads between the bow and the open-air deck. Everyone else is in here. Joan, the captain, is in front of you. You are staring at her, frozen. You do not know what to say.

‘Okay then,’ she says. ‘Bob.’

You make a desperate lunge and grab the shoulder bag that hangs loosely from Joan’s hand and wrench it away from her and clutch it to your chest and you look at her and run out onto the open bow. ‘No no no no no,’ you are saying to yourself.

The door from the passenger cabin has no chance to close behind you. Joan is running out after you, Ernesto behind her. On her face is a mixture of anger and irritation.

You stand at the inverted V of the prow in your ridiculous California costume, the teeshirt, the Rite Aid flip-flops, and you flip open the side flap of the bag and peer inside. Joan grabs for the bag and you turn your back to her and hunch your shoulders to keep her away from it.

Inside the flap is an assortment of pens and pencils and tightly-balled gum wrappers. Joan is reaching around your sides for the bag and she gets one hand on the shoulder strap and tugs and you whip around and in one motion unzip the large central compartment and flip the bag over. A whirl of loose leaf papers pour out and spread on the cemented deck of the bow and a few catch a corner of the salted Pacific breeze that edges over the body of the boat and they fly around and into the air. There is still something heavy in the bag, caught on the lip of the zipper. Joan has stopped struggling.

Inside the passenger cabin, through the dark tinted glass, you can see high schoolers gathering by the windows, watching you, ignoring the gangway and Long Beach. A few passengers have exited the passenger cabin and are standing on the pier and watching you over the bulwark railing and it is a strange sensation to see them freed of the boat’s gentle slow-motion bobbing on the waves.

‘What,’ Joan says quietly. Her grip on the bag slackens.

You reach inside the central compartment and pull out a heavy hardcover book. You look at it. On the cover is a color photograph of a striated desert—Utah, maybe—and big red letters at the top that say Earth Science; above that, in smaller yellow, it says Teacher’s Edition.

‘What is this,’ Joan says.

You look around. Gavin is no longer on the port ladder. He’s nowhere to be found. Some more passengers are clearing off the boat onto the pier and you see Charles heading up the starboard ladder, presumably to the bridge, to call the police. You rush to the bulwark by the pier and look shoreward and see a figure that could be Rick Chavez stepping onto land. On one shoulder he is carrying a bag identical to the one in your hand.

‘Joan,’ you say. Her face is buried in her hands. ‘What was in the bag.’

She looks up at you. ‘That gangly fucker,’ she says. ‘Where did he go?’

‘Royce?’ you say.

She shakes her head. ‘It was on the bridge. He must have gotten it then. I didn’t even look.’

‘Gavin?’ you say. ‘What was it?’

‘Does it matter?’ she says. ‘Money.’

You don’t understand. You see Esme coming down the starboard ladder toward you. Bob is behind her, large and looming, the sun lighting up his hair like white fire. ‘What about Mrs. Shorter,’ you say.

‘Bob,’ Joan says, ‘wasn’t it? That’s what you said.’ Her voice sounds small and childlike, desperate. She looks up and sees him approaching.

‘What did I do,’ Bob says. He looks at you and his eyebrows furrow. ‘This shit again,’ he says. ‘What happened to Royce.’

Esme stands a little ways behind Bob and she looks toward the dark tinted windows of the passenger cabin. You shake your head.

‘It wasn’t Bob, it wasn’t Royce,’ you say. Rick Chavez’s shoulder bag is still in your one hand and the textbook is in the other. You think about what Joan said about money. You think about Gavin on the steps. You look at Esme. ‘It was a distraction,’ you say, slowly. ‘Like everything.’

In your mind you climb the ladder back up to the open-air deck, the murder scene. You imagine Gavin’s long arms and Marjorie Shorter. You see the broken-open Boat Crew Only door, Gavin in the bridge. You see Rick Chavez sitting placidly down below in the passenger cabin, helpful as can be.

‘Joan,’ you say, ‘Rick Chavez. The Earth Sciences teacher.’

‘No,’ she says. ‘He takes this boat every year.’

You now actually do walk up to the open-air deck and you stand and look out at Long Beach spread before you. Catalina Island is about an hour away. You watch through the movement and activity on the shore for anything coming this way, or for the lanky wild shape of Gavin headed away, but you see neither. He is already gone, though, you are sure of it. Any minute now the police will show up. There will be questions. You don’t have any answers, not really.

A seagull spreads its long languid wings on the antenna array at the top of the Islander Express and leans forward and leaps into the air and makes a wide circle around you and above you and you lose it in the sky with the dozens or hundreds of others here. If you stare straight ahead, now, and do not pay attention, the gulls form a sort of living static, a useless cacophony of white motion against the blue field of the universe. You cannot tell one from the other. The boat moves gently under you and you look out at the invisible horizon.
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