|No one on sanctity key was a saint but someone was a murderer. He killed Pete Gunwall, put his body into a barrel, threw it into the sea.|
Sanctity Key is a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida and it ought to be investigated by some scientific committee. The soil or the atmosphere of the place exerts a weird kind of magnetic attraction. I don’t claim to understand it, but it is a time-proved fact that if you unscrew a screwball anywhere in these United States, revolve him twice, and let him go, he will wind up on Sanctity Key.
We have a voting population of 105. We have persons whose deaths would cause greater tremors along Wall Street than along Sanctity Key, and we have persons who, deprived of fish and cabbage palms, would starve to death. Then we have the winter flux, the tourist, and of these, by some mystic process, we get only those fitted to the Key: I remember the night two well-to-do ladies flipped a coin in the local juke joint to decide which of them would divorce her husband and marry the bartender – and one married him, too.
So it goes on Sanctity Key. Everybody knows everybody else, and hates most of them. Feuds bloom like flowers. It is a lovely place.
And then one night the rum came.
It was a coolish March night and I was undressing for bed when there was a sudden banging on the door and somebody screaming, “Johnny! Hey Johnny! For the luvva Mike hurry!”
I had my pants only half on, staggered to the door and opened it. Charlie Pocket fell in on me. Charlie was a scrawny little fellow with lots of teeth missing. He fished and did odd carpentry jobs, and stayed drunk whenever he had the money or the friends with which to obtain alcohol. Right now, his breath would have burned with a pure blue flame. He blew a pint of it in my face and yelled, “It’s a miracle, Johnny! It’s the greatest miracle since the Lord changed water into wine! Let’s go!”
He started out the door, spun into the frame, and backed off. “A miracle!” he yelled. “Tampa Bay has turned to rum! One hundred and ten proof, Johnny! Let’s go!”
We went. I had no clear picture of what had happened, naturally, but the odor of Charlie’s breath convinced me the matter needed investigation. And, as we ran, Charlie kept shouting about, “Barrels! Thousands and thousands of barrels! You can’t swim for being crushed between them!”
It’s not far from my house to the bay. We raced across the beach and down to the water’s edge and I didn’t see a single barrel. I didn’t see anything except the bay and off to the right the fishing pier jutting out over the water with a single electric light burning about halfway out on it. There was a three-quarter moon that night, cloud-covered most of the time. The wind was off the Gulf and the bay itself was fairly calm.
I asked Charlie Pocket where were all these barrels. “Out there,” he said, waving at the wide open spaces. “But let’em come to us. To hell with ’em. I’ll show you.” He started running again, not into the water but back across the beach into the sea oats. There he stumbled around, cursing, beating at the tall grass. “Here it is!” he whooped.
It was a barrel, a big barrel. It sat on one end and a hole had been knocked in the top. Charlie was down on hands and knees feeling around in the sand and he came up with two empty cola bottles. He handed one to me. “Dip in and fill her up,” he said.
I dipped in and filled her up. It was rum all right – a heavy, rich, Cuban rum. Charlie had been guessing when he said 110 proof, but it had been a conservative guess. This rum was cool in the throat and warm in the belly. It lay in you like a small electric heater, shooting out warm, golden rays. I gave the heater a little more current.
I heard the gurgle of Charlie’s bottle and when it had stopped he coughed for a while, then said, “It’s all mine. I found it and it’s all mine. But I’ll give you a barrel, Johnny. I’ll give you a dozen barrels. You’re my friend.”
I said I was indeed a friend of Charlie Pocket’s and proud to be one, but where were those other barrels? “People hauling them in like mullet,” Charlie said. “And I left to get you, Johnny. Because you are my friend. You’ve given me drinks when I didn’t have any. And now I am going to pay you back.”
I said what a pleasure it was to have a drink with my old friend Charlie. I said that to show him how I felt about our friendship I would refill my cola bottle from his rum barrel.
“I was down with my cast net for mullet,” Charlie said. “And this barrel come by. I didn’t know what was in it, but I got it and was trying to get it up on the beach when Tom Wade and old Pete Gunwall came.”
“Together?” They were hardly a pair you’d expect to be wandering together on a spring night.
“They helped me roll it up on the beach and I got that hole in it and we had a few drinks and -”
“Pete Gunwall?” I said. “Did he drink?”
“Told him it was orange juice. And you know how he is; thinks he’s smarter than the final edition of the encyclopedia, and that he’s right and everybody else is wrong. He had to take a couple of drinks to prove I was lying.”
“But all these other barrels you were talking about?”
“Somebody out on the dock got one. I don’t know who it was but I could see them by that light out there, hauling it in. And making so much noise that lights went on in Brightside’s house and I reckon he’s out getting barrels of my rum right now. Probably everybody in Sanctity Key will be out getting them soon. See?”
The lights of a car were moving along the road toward the dock, fast. We heard the brakes screech, voices. Somebody ran out the dock. “After my rum!” Charlie said. His voice had a catch in it, and he took a long drink. “My rum – and the whole damn island is after it.”
“Where did it come from?”
He turned his head to stare at me. “What difference does that make?”
I admitted the question was purely academic. “The thing is, if there’s more rum floating around in the bay, why are we sitting here?”
“Drinking,” Charlie said.
“Bring your bottle.”
“Let me refill it first.”
We both refilled our bottles against the safari and set out up the beach. We saw something dark floating around about 50 feet out, shed our trousers and went for it. It was an empty orange crate. The next thing we found was the remnants of a cardboard box.
By this time the word must have got around the island fairly well because other cars turned up at the dock. Along the beach, every quarter mile or so, you’d see a flash-beam probing out across the water. Wayne Brightside was out in front of his house in a rowboat and shouted to ask if we’d found any rum, and Charlie pointed back toward the old orange crate and told him the water was full of rum in that direction.
We went on and eventually we did find a keg, a small keg compared to Charlie’s. Charlie said there was no need to waste time with these small affairs, but I pointed out that this was closer to us than Charlie’s barrel, and our bottles were empty. So we rolled the keg up on the beach and got the bung out somehow and had a drink to make sure it contained rum. We then had a drink to make sure it was the same kind of rum Charlie had found. I told Charlie that this was my barrel and since I’d drunk out of his barrel, I wanted him to have some from mine, and he said a man would be a poor friend indeed to refuse such an offer. I drank to keep him company.
Well, with the excitement and warding off pneumonia and one thing and another it may be that I had drunk slightly more than my usual temperate allowance. What followed is just a little blurred.
The clouds must have been breaking up, for the moonlight seemed to come and go. And when the moon was shining we saw this barrel, a big barrel, as big as Charlie’s, about 50 yards offshore. We braced ourselves against the shock of the cold water and went after it. We pushed and pulled and got the barrel ashore. We rolled it across the beach into the sea oats and stood it on end. That was when Charlie said, “There’s something wrong with this barrel. There’s no end in it.”
“There’s got to be an end. It’s not empty.”
“Well I don’t feel any end.”
“Let me see.” At this moment there was no moon. I put my hand where the end of the barrel ought to have been and touched nothing. I reached inside, and then farther inside, and I touched something. “Seaweed,” I said. “At least – I -” in some strange way my stomach had got turned upside down in my throat. “Charlie,” I said, “there’s a man in this barrel.”
What the hell’s he doing in there?” Charlie asked. “It’s our barrel.”
“It’s your barrel, Charlie. They are all your barrels.”
“That’s no way to drink rum, getting in the barrel. Who -?”
The moon came from behind the clouds.
This may not have been the most brilliant moonlight ever seen, but it was bright enough. Charlie was holding the barrel, tilting it slightly, and the moon light was shining directly inside like a spotlight. It showed old Pete Gunwall squatting inside the barrel, his head tilted back to look up at us. His eyes were open. His mouth was open. The moonlight even made a little glimmer on the water standing in his mouth. And because of the way his head flopped back we could see the big hole at the base of his throat.
Charlie let go of the barrel. It rocked back and forth in the sand a couple of times and stopped. The moon went under the clouds again. Neither Charlie nor I moved, that I remember. We were standing close together and about 50 feet away from the barrel.
“He’s – dead!” Charlie said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Where’s the rum? The little keg. It’s over that way, is it?”
“I’m looking for it.”
I found it and our cola bottles were beside it. We filled them, wasting a good bit, and braced ourselves.
“How’d he get in there?”
“Somebody must have put him in.”
“The person that killed him.”
Charlie gagged on his drink and was forced to take another. “What did they kill him for?”
“How do I know?”
Charlie’s last drink must have helped for his voice was more cheerful. “That’s right,” he said. “They’ll never know why old Pete Gunwall was killed. Too many good reasons to choose from. Just put it down as: ‘Cause unknown, but homicide justifiable.'”
Charlie had another sip. “Claiming he has insomnia; if Pete couldn’t sleep it was because he was worrying that something would be going on that he didn’t know about. Always sticking his nose in everybody else’s business.”
“You never liked him, did you?”
“But you had a fight with him at the juke not long ago.”
“I was just getting a few beers on credit. And old Pete starts telling Mac that I wouldn’t ever pay. It was none of his business how much I owed Mac.”
“You threatened to kill him.”
“Everybody on Sanctity Key has threatened to kill him.”
“And now somebody has.”
|The man fired through the window. I saw Ruby jolt down. Then one of the glasses in my hand vanished.|
I heard Charlie take a long breath. “He was with Tom Wade earlier tonight when I came to get you. I left them together.”
“Tom wouldn’t kill him,” I said. And stopped. “At least, I hope not.”
Tom Wade was a young fellow who had come to Sanctity Key soon after the end of the war. He had come out of the Army with a little money saved up, and he’d opened a small restaurant that should have made good. But he’d put in an electric stove, and on Sanctity Key the electricity goes out every time the wind blows, and the wind blows most of the time. He’d put in kerosene and there’d been an accident. Somehow the stove got knocked over and burned the place up. He’d had no insurance.
He did have perseverance, however. Shortly before this time old Pete Gunwall’s niece had come to the island and Tom had fallen in love with her. He wanted to stay on the island. He got a job as chauffeur and general caretaker for Miss Susie Smith. He worked hard and Betty Gunwall would have married him if it hadn’t been for her uncle.
Now, Charlie Pocket sipped at his bottle and said, “We might as well look at the cheerful side of this. Betty will inherit Pete’s money. And the old devil was rich as a wagon load of manure; smelled the same way, of course. And she can marry Tom”
“Not if Tom is convicted of murder.”
“Then let’s roll him back in the water,” Charlie said. “If nobody ever found him, nobody’d ever worry.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “I’m a deputy. At least, a sort of deputy. It’s a non-paying job, but I’m supposed to notify the sheriff, and things like that. Besides, Tom might not be the one who killed him.
“Then who did?”
“I don’t know.”
|“Johnny!” Miss Susie said, lowering the gun.|
It must have struck both of us at the same time: that even though the victim was just old Pete Gunwall, the action was murder. It meant there was a murderer, an unknown murderer, loose on Sanctity Key. It was an idea that goose pimpled my spine.
Charlie said, “You don’t reckon he was just – just practicing on Pete? He wouldn’t kill anybody else?”
“I better notify the sheriff right away. You stay here with the body.”
“Somebody’s got to stay. And I’m the deputy so I should notify the sheriff.”
“Look here,” Charlie said. “If anybody wants to steal old Pete Gunwall’s body, it is all right with me. They are welcome to it. I wouldn’t be any use staying, so I’ll just go along with you.”
I said I’d best take the keg of rum along; there was never any telling what emergency might arise. So I got it on my shoulder and we started down the beach. There were quite a few lights now along the water’s edge but nobody had come this far toward the point. Everybody was interested in rum and nothing else – we hoped – but both Charlie and I kept pretty close to the sea oats; particularly in those moments when the moon was shining.
The rifle went off about 30 feet in front of us and at the edge of the sea oats. The flash of it wasn’t as bright as the Hiroshima bomb, and it made slightly less noise than Gabriel’s trumpet, but it was enough. I heard the bullet hit water and ricochet, but that was when I was already in the air, diving for the sea oats and trying to hold onto the keg at the same time. Then I was in the grass, fighting Charlie to keep him from burrowing under me, instead of me under him.
The rifle kept firing. Charlie was digging like a gopher, saying, “It’s an invasion! They are killing everybody on the island!” He was still saying it after the rifle had stopped.
It was very quiet. I could hear the water on the beach and the dry rattle of the sea oats, and then a sort of tom-tom sound that proved to be my heart beating. And then I heard a man weeping, the most broken-hearted sound I ever heard.
I peeped cautiously out and saw a man sitting at the edge of the sea oats. He was sobbing like an overworked water-pump. The moon came out then and I saw it was Mac Poole, the owner of the local juke joint – the same guy the women tourists had matched for several years before.
He appeared harmless enough now, his rifle on the sand beside him. He didn’t even look up as Charlie and I approached. There was a rum barrel in the grass behind him, and beside him a half-filled tomato can. Charlie leaned and put an arm around his shoulder.
“Go away!” Mac Poole said. “I don’t have a friend in the world. Not a true friend.”
Charlie assured him that we were all like brothers. He gave Mac a drink from his own tomato can of rum and Mac took it but went right back to crying. I asked him what he had been shooting at.
“Damn barrel!” he said, waving his arm at the bay. “Shoot ever damn one of them!” The sobs came pouring out of him. “Everybody on the Key with his own barrel of rum, who’s going to come to my place and buy it? I’ll go broke!”
I made quick motions at getting my keg in a less conspicuous position, but Mac shook his head. “It’s too late,” he sobbed, “I give up. Can’t shoot ’em all.”
I took a long breath, put one foot on the rifle, and said, “Mac, did you stuff old Pete Gunwall in a barrel.?
He looked up at me. The tears in his eyes shone in the moonlight. “A barrel?” he said. “I wouldn’t waste a teacup on that ….” He burst into a fresh torrent of sobs.
Charlie Pocket gazed sadly down at him. “The way some people abuse alcohol it’s enough to cause the return of prohibition.” He drank the rest of the rum in Mac’s tomato can.
There wasn’t anything else I could get out of Mac, so Charlie and I started off again. We were almost at my house when Charlie said, “We ought to talk to Tom Wade first. We ought to give him a chance.”
“You think he did it?”
“You know how he was about Betty Gunwall,” Charlie said. “And you know how old Pete treated her. Tom’s got a temper and he and Pete were arguing when I saw them tonight. But you ought to give Tom a chance before you tell the sheriff he did it.”
I knew there was something wrong with that statement, but maybe I wasn’t as sharp as I might have been. So Charlie and I retrieved our trousers, got my car, and started out to see Tom Wade.
Tom lived in a room above Susie Smith’s garage, and although this was Miss Susie’s first winter on the island she was a typical Sanctity Key character. She was sixty-ish, and looked like a female Victor McLaglen. She had a dog that looked like a moth-eaten muff and she never went out of the house without the creature tucked under one arm. She had a huge automobile, but once the rather bold-looking young lady who drove her to Sanctity Key had departed, the car never left the garage until she hired Tom Wade as chauffeur and caretaker.
At first, she didn’t have a telephone in her house and wouldn’t have one put in because she said it cost too much, but when her dog got sick she had a $118 phone bill at the juke joint: she’d bring the dog there and hold him up to the phone to cough for the benefit of a Christian Scientist Veterinarian in Boston. She said her dog not only didn’t trust Florida veterinarians, but the very thought of one upset him terribly. When she did have a telephone installed, it was because she couldn’t get the results of the Miami racetracks over the radio.
Old Pete Gunwall had once said that he believed Miss Susie had operated a house of ill repute. Miss Susie, overhearing him and carefully shifting her dog from her right arm to her left, had knocked him down with her umbrella. She then said that every sporting house she had ever run had been of the highest caliber and she would not have scum like Pete Gunwall casting aspersions on them.
There was a gate across the drive to Miss Susie’s house, so Charlie and I left the car and walked. We went past the house and around to the garage in the back. There was a light on in Tom Wade’s room, but the door leading up to it was locked and there was no answer to our knocking. Charlie found a ladder and started struggling with it. “Put it up and look in the window,” he said. “Tom must be asleep.”
Well, this seemed to make sense at the moment so I was helping him with the ladder when the flashlight was turned on us. A voice said, “Just keep holding that ladder unless you want to be blown in half.”
I couldn’t see who was holding the light, but I could see Miss Susie. She was wearing a bathing suit and over this a beach robe which flopped open. That bathing suit had been designed for a more youthful figure and the sight of Miss Susie in it would have made Don Juan swear off sex forever. But what held my attention was the pistol in her right hand. It was without doubt the biggest pistol ever made. It had the barrel of a five-inch naval gun on a revolver handle. And she had it pointed right straight at the base of my throat – right at the spot where Pete Gunwall had been shot.
She had the dog under her left arm. It began to yip now, and Miss Susie said, : “Be quiet, Sweetsum. I’ll feed these guys to you if they make a move.”
Then another voice, a man’s voice, said, “Why that’s Johnny. And Charlie Pocket.”
“Who?” Miss Susie said. She wasn’t wearing the thick glasses she usually wore, but she seemed perfectly capable of seeing where she was aiming her cannon.
“You know Johnny,” the man said. He came into the edge of the light now and I saw that it was Wayne Brightside. “What are you fellows doing here?”
“We’re looking for Tom Wade,” I said. “You know Tom. Good old Tom Wade. Lives up there.”
Miss Susie said, “Johnny!” and lowered her pistol; and I took a breath that made a vacuum for three feet around me. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“Yes’m,” I said. “I’m glad you do now.”
“Tom must be out looking for rum. The beach is navel deep in rum tonight. Come on in and have a drink.”
Charlie Pocket spoke for the first time. He said, “Thank you, Miss Susie. Where is it?”
We went inside and Miss Susie introduced Charlie and me to the person who had been holding the flashlight. This was a Miss Ruby O’Malley. She also wore a beach robe and bathing suit, and on her, it looked good. Her hair was very yellow and her mouth and fingernails very red. She was a bit on the flamboyant side, but pretty. Miss Susie said that Ruby was visiting her while on a short vacation.
Miss Susie explained the bathing suits by saying she and Ruby had been out looking for rum. They’d got a small keg, and then Wayne Brightside had brought some down to them also. Wayne said, “I found a keg right after I saw you fellows. I don’t drink much, and I hadn’t known that Miss Susie found any, or even knew about it. So I filled a couple of bottles and brought them down.”
Ruby said she thought that was very nice of Wayne. Charlie Pocket said where was the rum? Miss Susie got out a bottle and glasses and we all had a drink.
We had another drink, Miss Susie saying that although she had almost blown a hole in my chest she really thought I was very nice. Ruby put one arm through mine and one through Wayne Brightside’s and said she thought everybody on Sanctity Key was nice. “It must be fun to live on the beach where the rum just washes up in barrels in front of your house.”
“A special occasion,” Brightside said. “We had it just for you.”
This Wayne Brightside was a tourist, but because he came every year we looked on him almost as a native. He was a small, slender man with arthritis that hunched one shoulder a little. He knew everybody, the natives and the tourists, and everybody like him. He was one of those people who rarely said anything bad about anybody, but despite that he could carry on an interesting conversation.
Now Ruby was asking him where did the rum come from which had washed up on the beach.
He grinned at her. “Manna from heaven.”
“That’s what Miss Susie’s girls say,” she told him, shaking his arm with hers, none to coyly. “All man are from heaven.”
Miss Susie said, “Have another drink, dearie. You’re on vacation.” So Ruby had another. Miss Susie had mixers, but Ruby ignored them.
Wayne said, “The rum must have come from a ship. Gone aground in the bay, probably.”
“The weather hasn’t been rough enough for that,” I said. “Unless it was being smuggled in from Cuba and the Coast Guard got after them.”
Charlie Pocket put down his glass with a thump. “That’s it! Old Pete Gunwall was always nosing into other people’s business. I’ll bet he found out about this smuggling. And it was the person running it that killed him!”
Everybody stared at him, including me. What with the rum and looking first at Miss Susie’s gun and then at Ruby’s gam, I had forgotten Pete Gunwall. “I better hurry and call the sheriff,” I said.
Wayne said, “What’s this? What about somebody killing Pete Gunwall?”
Ruby glanced at Miss Susie, just a quick glance out of the corners of her bright blue eyes. And Miss Susie moved her head a fraction from right to left, but she kept looking at me.
I said, “Somebody killed Pete all right. Charlie and I found him, stuffed in a barrel.”
“That isn’t where I would have stuffed him,” Miss Susie said, “But it will do.”
“Two miracles in one night,” Charlie Pocket said. “Free rum and freedom from Gunwall. That calls for a toast, Miss Susie.”
Well, I had to drink with them, naturally. Then I asked to use the telephone. I should have called the sheriff a long time before.
The phone was in a big closet underneath the stairway. It was really an unsealed room more than a closet. There was a big sofa where Miss Susie used to stretch out in comfort and take down the results of the horse races, and over this was a good light. The only other light was a very dim one at the ceiling. The overhead light was the only one burning when I went into the closet.
I picked up the telephone and dialed the Bradenton operator. Probably she answered, but I never heard her, because just at the moment I saw the hat on the sofa. In that light it wasn’t easy to see. But even so I had a pretty good idea I had seen it before.
I put down the receiver and walked over and picked up the hat. It was old, brown felt, large brimmed. I turned it over, but I had to switch on the light above the sofa before I could see the initials “P.G.” on the sweat band.
Behind me Miss Susie said, “All right, so the old b…… was here tonight.” She had come into the closet without my hearing her. The cannon made a mighty sag in the pocket of her beach robe. She said, “What of it, Johnny?”
|“We’re looking for Wade. You know Tom.”|
I said, “Why nothing, Miss Susie.” I laughed to show how funny it was. “Nobody would think you killed him.”
Just then Charlie Pocket showed up in the open doorway behind Miss Susie Smith. I don’t know whether or not she heard him. But she said, “I ought to have killed him. Do you know what he came here for? He came here to phone the revenue office and tell them that barrels of rum were washing up on the beach and they ought to come down and get them. So probably the officers are on their way, or here, by now.”
Charlie made an awful, strangling noise. “And my barrel on the beach! My barrel!” He went out of there faster than I had ever seen him move before. He didn’t even wait to take another drink.
Miss Susie made no further remarks while I phoned the sheriff. The sheriff said he would be right out and for me to meet him at Pete Gunwall’s house. So I had another drink of rum and another look at Miss Ruby O’Malley, and took my departure. Wayne Brightside said if I didn’t mind, he would ride up toward his place with me; he hadn’t brought his car.
We went out to get in my car, but it wasn’t there. “I’ll bet Charlie Pocket took it,” I said. “He wanted some way to haul off that barrel of rum before the revenue officers found it.”
We started walking. I realized then I was a little groggy because no matter how many times I got in the middle of the road and no matter how straight I walked, the ditch would edge over beside me. Wayne said, “Do you think that was why Pete Gunwall was killed? By smugglers, I mean.”
“There’s been a lot of smuggling. When taxes run the price of liquor beyond the reach of the man in the street and while there are human liberties in a democracy, there will always be smuggling.” This was one of my favorite subjects, though I seemed to be getting a bit confused. “It’s even been in the papers,” I said. “Lots of smuggling going on.”
“But who on Sanctity Key would have anything to do with a band of smugglers?”
“I don’t know. Unless …” It was an idea that had just struck me.
“Mac Poole sells liquor at his juke. And he owns a couple of fishing boats.”
“Mac? I can’t believe he’d be tied up with anything like that.”
“Just because a man goes on a crying drunk is no reason he can’t sell liquor.”
“Maybe not,” Wayne said. He helped me out of the ditch again. “What do you think of Miss Susie’s visitor?”
“She drinks like a man. Like two men. She looks good, too.”
“A lot of women look almost exactly like her, don’t they? She’s a type, don’t you think?”
“Possibly. But at your age you ought not to be going to those places.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Wayne said, sounding actually embarrassed. “Just that you would have trouble recognizing her from others of the type.” The ditch was edging over toward me again and I moved away from it. “Except,” Wayne said, “she does have a distinctive look – like a woman capable of almost anything.”
“Yes, but she’s on vacation,” I said.
“I was thinking of murder,” Wayne said. “I turn off here. Good night.”
By the time I reached Pete Gunwall’s house the walking had sobered me a little. There were no lights at Pete’s house. I was thinking that his niece had probably been in bed, asleep for hours (it was almost three o’clock) and I was wondering how she would take the news of her uncle’s death. If she should give three rousing cheers I wouldn’t blame her, but I didn’t expect that from Betty Gunwall. She was a nice kid, the kind of girl men want to marry. She had come to live with Pete about six months ago, soon after both her parents had been killed in an automobile accident.
I went up the steps and was about to knock on the door when I heard movement, the squeak of a swing at one end of the dark porch. Somebody said, “Hello, Johnny.”
It was Tom Wade and Betty. They must have been sitting rather close together because even after a discreet reshuffling of their positions they weren’t completely out of it. Betty said, “Uncle Pete isn’t here.”
“I know,” I said. “He’s down on the beach.”
“Still looking for rum?”
“No.” I started to say, “He’s in a barrel,” but that seemed a little abrupt. So I said, “He’s dead. Somebody shot him.”
They took it about as you would expect. There were exclamations of surprise, but no tears. There were questions as to who and why, which I couldn’t answer. I said to Tom, “I thought you might be able to help. Charlie Pocket said you were about the last person to see him.”
Tom stared at me. “What’s that?”
“Charlie said he left you and Pete together on the beach, after you helped him with the barrel.”
“Charlie was too drunk to know who he left where,” Tom said. “Mr. Gunwall had said he was leaving. He said he had a phone call to make. But he’d had a few drinks of rum, and he was unaccustomed to drinking. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry. When I left he was still there with Charlie.”
“Did Pete say where he was going to make the phone call?”
“No. But he doesn’t have a phone here. And I came back here to be with Betty.”
Maybe I looked as if I didn’t believe him. Betty said, “Tom’s been with me ever since. We were waiting to tell Uncle Pete that we are going to get married.”
“I’ve got an offer of a job in Bradenton,” Tom said. “A pretty good one. That’s what I was telling Mr. Gunwall when we met Charlie down on the beach.”
“And how did Pete take the news?”
Tom Wade looked at me a long time. He seemed to be trying to make up his mind. At least he said, “Mr. Gunwall said I’d never marry Betty so long as he could keep me from it.”
Betty said, “Tom couldn’t have had anything to do with Uncle Pete’s death. It must be something about the thing that had been worrying him the last week or two.”
“What was that?”
She shook her head. “He never told me. But I could tell he was worried. And once I heard him muttering to himself about something being no more than any young man might have done.”
The sheriff arrived and I told him what had happened. He asked if there was any of the rum handy as he would like to sample it in the interest of strict law enforcement. There was none at Pete’s, however, and so the sheriff said for me to take him down and show him the barrel with Pete in it. “After that you can go home and to bed,” he said. “I recommend it.”
But the night was not to end without one more shock. We went along the beach, the sheriff and a deputy, a regular, salary-drawing deputy, following after me. The moon was down now and it was very dark, but the sheriff had a flashlight. Apparently everybody had given up the rum hunt since we saw no one and no lights.
The barrel was where Charlie and I had left it, at the edge of the sea oats. It wasn’t hard to find with the sheriff’s flashlight. “There it is,” I said. “Pete’s inside.”
The sheriff went over and flashed his light in the barrel. “Take a look,” he said to me.
“I’ve seen him. And I never did like to look at him even when he was alive.”
I went over, and swallowed, and looked in the barrel. I started to swallow again, but it got stuck in my throat.
Pete Gunwall was gone.
A light came out of the tall grass beyond the barrel and spotted us. It was like being hit in the face with a rock. It was like being shot. Then a voice said, “Hello, sheriff. I didn’t recognize you. Thought maybe it was the murderer come back.”
|The rifle went off about 30 feet in front of us and kept firing. We dived and hid in the sea oats.|
I sat down in the sand to rest.
From the conversation that followed I gathered the newcomers were internal revenue officers who had come down to search for the rum. “Mr. Poole was helping us look,” one of them said, “and he found the barrel here with the body in it.”
“When was that?” the sheriff asked.
“About half an hour ago,” I recognized that voice. It was Mac Poole. He seemed to have recovered from his crying jag. Or at least he had quit crying.
The sheriff said, “Johnny had found it before then, floating around in the bay.”
“What time was that?”
I tried to figure it out. “About 1 or 1:30.”
“That’s strange,” one of the revenue men said. “Mr. Gunwall was wearing a watch and it stopped at just 1:30. It wasn’t a waterproof watch and it must have stopped within a few minutes after the body was thrown in the bay.”
I asked Mac Poole what time Charlie and I had seen him, but he said he didn’t remember. I remembered that I had started to bed around 11 or 11:30. After Charlie Pocket’s arrival, things were a bit uncertain. The best I could figure, it must have been very close to 1 or 1:30 when we found the body. But I didn’t like the way the revenue men looked at me when I said that.
The sheriff asked if they thought there was any direct connection between Pete Gunwall’s murder and the barrels of rum. “I think not,” one of the revenue men told him. “We had this gang pretty well spotted. We knew all the members, and we even know this cargo was to come in. But when the Coast Guard cutter started chasing them, they got away for a little while by dodging out of the channel. They went aground, though, and were throwing over the cargo, trying to lighten the vessel, when the cutter caught up with them. I think we’ve got everybody connected with the smuggling.”
“Then that makes it strictly a Sanctity Key affair,” the sheriff said. “Which means, Johnny, that one of your pals is a murderer.”
“Unless he is the killer himself,” one of the revenue men said. “After all, he admits being with the body about the same time as the victim’s watch shows as the time of the murder.”
I said I wasn’t feeling at all well; I said I thought I would go home and to bed.
Charlie Pocket showed up at my place about 10 the next morning. He had brought my car back, and it was obvious that he had saved his barrel from the revenue men, because nothing short of a barrel could have got Charlie in his current shape. He said he was celebrating Pete Gunwall’s permanent departure from Sanctity Key, and he wanted to know who the killer was so as to take him, or her, a drink.
“The revenue men think maybe you killed him,” I said. “You were with the body just about the time they believe it went into the water.”
“What?” He looked at me, blinking, and not quite as drunk as he had been a minute before. “What did you say?”
I told him about the watch and Charlie swore that that was just like Pete Gunwall. “He always was a liar. Even his watch wouldn’t keep the right time.”
“Tom Wade says you didn’t leave him on the beach with Pete. Tom says he left you and Pete together.”
“He’s crazy. At least,” Charlie said, “I think he is. I was just having a drink, or maybe two. And then I thought about coming up to get you. But it seems to me Tom was still there.
Charlie suggested some hair of the dog for my hangover, but I thought beer would suit me better. We drove down to the juke and found Mac Poole doing a thriving business. A good part of the island was holding a rather informal wake around the bar and pinball machines, with many freely-expressed views on both the rum and the murder.
Every now and then the sheriff would show up, and with almost no urging, somebody would present him with a new brass-bound theory. I heard everybody convicted of the murder, from me to Miss Susie Smith, with motives varied and wonderful.
It is amazing what you can learn about people, including yourself, when a bunch of Sanctity Keyers really get rolling. I learned that I had once been vice president of a nudist colony and had won to this position through influence with the band of professional criminals who ran the place; I heard that Wayne Brightside was extremely fond of coon meat and trapped the animals near the island garbage dump at the same time he raided the dump for scrap paper which he sold; I heard that Charlie Pocket had bootlegged during the day of prohibition, and that once he had advertised for a wife in the Tampa paper, and when a prospect showed up, Charlie got one look at her and hid for two days in big ‘gator swamp; I heard the things the tourist lady, who had matched for and won Mac Poole, had said about Mac when, soon thereafter, she divorced him – and these included everything from arson to xylophone playing, including chronic gambling on pinball machines. The things I heard about Miss Susie were also extremely interesting, but modesty prevent me putting them down here.
And strangely enough, listening to all this chatter and the constant rehashing of the murder, I began to get an idea of my own. I didn’t think much of them at first, but as the day wore on and my alcoholic content increased, I began to regard myself a little short of a deductive genius. Shortly after dinner that night, I even decided to do something about it – which shows you that alcohol is not an unmixed blessing.
I was in the juke at the time and I said to Charlie Pocket, “What do you think of Miss Susie’s visitor?”
“Miss Ruby O’Malley, the blonde. We met her last night.”
“She’s on vacation,” Charlie said.
“I thought we might pay a purely social call.”
“Wayne Brightside called on her and Miss Susie last night, or it was this morning rather.”
“Wayne is younger than I am,” Charlie said.
So I went calling alone. The gate to the driveway was open this time. I drove in and parked beside the house. Miss O’Malley herself answered my knock. She was wearing slacks with a halter top, and I have lived on Florida beaches for a long time and seen many things, so I only made small gasping noises now. She smiled happily when she saw me. “I’m so glad you came, Johnny. I’ve been trying to call you.”
“I was out having a drink.”
“That’s a good idea.” She led me into the kitchen and made drinks. “Miss Susie’s gone into Bradenton. Tom drive her in to see that Shirley Temple picture. It’s an old picture they’re showing again, but Miss Susie just loved Shirley Temple – she always has. Tom’s a nice boy too.”
“Yes,” I said.
“But he’s in love.”
“So I’m here alone. It tried to call you, and then I thought I would go down to Mac Poole’s place.”
“You know Mac?” I asked.
“I think it’s always helpful to know bartenders, don’t you? They are such influential people.”
On this point we were in agreement. Ruby made more drinks and we took them into the living room. Ruby said the big light in the floor lamp hurt her eyes, so she turned it off, leaving the room pleasantly dim. We sat on the sofa. Ruby were wearing perfume and she had not been niggardly with it.
I said Sanctity Key must be a rather lonely place for a pretty young girl on her vacation; it wasn’t like Miami with night clubs and gambling. And Ruby said maybe she would take a whack at Miami before she went north again.
I said, “It’s strange you should have come here at all.”
“Miss Susie wanted me to visit her. And she’s been awfully good to me, so I wanted to come. She said it would be a nice place to rest.”
“But there wasn’t anybody here that you knew, except Miss Susie,” And I added, in a way that I hoped was casual, “Was there?”
“This is good rum,” Ruby said. “I like rum, don’t you? It doesn’t leave a taste like dirty underwear in your mouth the next morning.”
“How did you and Miss Susie learn about the rum last night?”
“That Mr. Gunwall came in there to call the revenuers. We heard him talking about it, so Miss Susie and I got into bathing suits and went looking. Ain’t Miss Susie a sight in her bathing suit? But I bet she had a cute figure when she was young. I’ve heard a lot of the old men say so.”
“Did Miss Susie ever know Pete Gunwall? When they were young people?” I took a long pull at my drink, trying not to make the question sound as though I had been thinking about it for the last hour.
“That cheapskate! What would she know him for?”
“I thought maybe they had lived in the same town.”
“Not that I know of.”
“Did he say where he was going when he left here last night?”
“The sheriff asked us that today, but there wasn’t anything we would tell him.” The look she gave me was somewhere between a frown and a pout, and she fluffed out her hair, which was very blonde even in the light. “Is that all you came to talk about?”
I laughed at any idea so silly. I put an arm along the back of the sofa and Miss O’Malley curled gently inside it. My mind began to wander but I made one last effort at conversation. It was slightly short of subtle, but it worked. I said, “You know, when I came to Sanctity Key the first person I saw was a man I used to know in New York. Almost everywhere I’ve ever been I’ve run into somebody I know. The world,” I said, “is a small place after all.”
“Ain’t that true. There’s a fellow here that I’m pretty sure I’ve seen before.”
“Who is that?”
“This fellow was trying to get some money out of a gentleman I knew. A married gentleman.” I patted her shoulder and she said, “Oh, he wasn’t my friend. It was one of my girlfriends that he went with. But I was with them once when he pointed out this fellow, the one here, that was after money.”
“Who’s the fellow here?”
“You know,” Ruby said, “I’ve never like to go round with married men much.” She polished off her drink. “You make them this time. And put in some rum.”
I went into the kitchen and made the drinks. I put in some rum, using big glasses so as to have room left for a lump of ice. In the living room, Ruby was saying loudly. “You know, I been thinking ever since I got here I must have seen this guy somewhere before, But it was just while we were talking that I remembered where.”
I started back for the living room, carrying the glasses. “Who was the man?”
“He’s a friend of yours,” Ruby said. “He …” I was just going through the door into the dimly lighted front room. I saw that Ruby had stretched out on the sofa and she looked very plush and comfortable. Near the foot of the sofa there was a window, and outside the moonlight was very bright.
The man fired through the window. I saw Ruby jolt down against the sofa, then come up to a sitting position. Her mouth was open and maybe she was talking but I couldn’t hear anything.
I was still standing there, just inside the door with the glasses in my hand. But maybe I was beginning to move! Maybe it was because he took time to fire twice at Ruby. Anyway, one of the glasses disappeared and the rum was running over my hand and the sound of the bullet breaking the glass and hitting the wall went all together. After that, I was really moving – no ordinary shooting would have had a chance.
When I got the sheriff on the phone he said, “For God’s sake, Johnny, talk slower. I can’t understand you.”
“There’s been another murder. And I know who the killer is. There’s bound to be evidence if you catch him quick enough. The gun maybe. Or he had to empty the rum barrel he put Pete Gunwall in. That rum will be in his house in containers or maybe you can find where he poured it on the ground. But hurry!”
“All right. But who is it?”
“Wayne Brightside. You go to his house quick.”
“Is that where you are?”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “I’m hiding under the bar at the juke.” To prove it, I yelled for Mac to bring me another drink, quick.
The audience was appreciative. Mac Poole even gave me a drink on the house. “It was all very easy,” I told them. (This was the next day and I had quit jumping at small noises.) “Betty Gunwall practically told me that her uncle was being blackmailed. As it turned out, he had been tied up with some crooked building contracts when he was getting started in business. Wayne had found out and was putting the screws on him. You know how old Pete was about money; he’d rather lose his skin than a dime. So this night with a couple of shots of rum in him and unaccustomed to it, he decided to put an end to the blackmail. He went to Wayne’s house and there was an argument. Wayne says that Pete jumped him, tried to kill him, and he killed Pete in self-defense. That’s his story.”
“We have heard that,” Charlie Pocket said.
“All right. But then he had to get rid of the body. He’d already found a barrel of rum and rolled it up to his house. He found his before you did. He emptied part of the barrel into bottles and jugs, poured out the rest, and put in Pete. He put in some rocks, put the top on the barrel. His idea was to row it out and dump it where it would never be found. But just to have an alibi in case Pete was ever found, he set Pete’s watch ahead, then took some rum down to Miss Susie’s. He wanted to be there at the time the watch would show as the time Pete went into the water. But the end he put back on the barrel wasn’t secure. It fell off. The rocks fell out. And the barrel washed right back ashore.”
“The sheriff has already told us that,” Mac Poole said. “He just got through.”
“I am simply trying to show you the way the brain of a detective genius works,” I said. “I wondered why Wayne had gone calling so late at night. I also figured out that whoever had dumped the barrel with Pete into the bay must have done so from a boat. And I saw Wayne in a boat.”
“There were about a dozen other boats that night too,” Mac said.
“I didn’t see them. And anyway from what Betty said, I was pretty sure Pete was being blackmailed. Of course at first I wasn’t sure who was doing it.” I sipped my drink after this admission. “But I had some things to go on. The way Wayne had talked about Ruby O’Malley being a definite type, about it being hard to recognize her from other women of the – peroxide variety, I had an idea he thought he might have seen her before.”
Mac Poole said, “Now don’t tell me you deduced that about this friends of hers that you never saw or heard of before?”
“Not quite,” I said. I didn’t feel it necessary to explain that most of my suspicions had been directed toward Miss Susie as the blackmailer. That would only confuse the issue and sully Miss Susie’s reputation. “But in all the talk yesterday, I learned that Wayne spent a lot of time around the garbage dump, trapping coons and collecting scrap paper. Now if you go through the scrap paper, old letters, bills and such, that are thrown out of anybody’s house you are likely to learn a lot about them.”
They all nodded at this. Everybody knew of an island romance which had gone sour a few years before when the prospective bride had torn up some old photographs and dropped them in the trashcan. Some kids playing around the garbage dump had patched the pictures together. Some of them had sold for as high as four bits, even patched.
“Wayne obviously had money enough to live on,” I said. “He didn’t need to sell scrap paper. So what was he doing? Getting blackmail material. And you know how he almost never had anything bad to say about anybody. Those are the people who learn the most dirt. Some folks like to confess to them, feeling sure it won’t be repeated. Other folks tell them all the nasty stuff about their enemies, to convince the quiet, good-speaking guy that people are worse than he thinks they are. Then Wayne made it a point to know all the tourists who came here, especially the wealthy ones. He made it a point to be likable and get into their homes.”
“You mean he was in the blackmail business,” Mac Poole said.
“That’s right,” I said. “And he had been trying to remember where he saw Ruby O’Malley. With this unsolved murder he couldn’t afford to let anyone spot him as a blackmailer. So he was paying another visit, trying to remember if or where he had seen her, and he arrived to see us, Ruby and me -” I paused to have another sip – “sitting together on the sofa. The blackmailer in him got the best of his better nature and he sneaked up to listen. He heard her about to identify him as the man who had blackmailed the married gentleman friend of a lady friend of hers.”
“And after he shot her and missed you,” Charlie said, “you figured out who he was.”
“Why yes,” I said, modestly.
The sheriff had said nothing up until this time. Now he said, “You are going to have to testify in court anyway, Johnny. So you might as well tell the rest of it now.”
“All right,” I said. “So the moon was very bright and I did get a pretty good look at him through the window. That helped a little to identify him.”
The mystery story “The Bay of Rum” was written by the late Wyatt Blassingame, well-known author and Anna Maria resident, and first appeared in “PIC” magazine in April 1946. It appears here in its entirety, with permission of Peggy (Blassingame) Diamant, Wyatt’s daughter, who likewise resides in Anna Maria. Many believe the story was fictionalized from the wreck of the ship “Regina” off Bradenton Beach. The wreck of the “Regina,” a molasses barge, is under consideration for inclusion in the Florida Underwater Archeological Preserve system.