About the Author:
John D. MacDonald was an American novelist and short-story writer. His works include the Travis McGee series and the novel The Executioners, which was adapted into the film Cape Fear. In 1962 MacDonald was named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America; in 1980, he won a National Book Award. In print he delighted in smashing the bad guys, deflating the pompous, and exposing the venal. In life, he was a truly empathetic man; his friends, family, and colleagues found him to be loyal, generous, and practical. In business, he was fastidiously ethical. About being a writer, he once expressed with gleeful astonishment, “They pay me to do this! They don’t realize, I would pay them.” He spent the later part of his life in Florida with his wife and son. He died in 1986.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Sam Bowden lay on his back under a high Saturday sun, eyes closed, right hand clasping the fading chill of half a can of beer. He was aware of the nearness of Carol. Digestion of the picnic lunch was proceeding comfortably. Jamie and Bucky were thrashing around in the brush on the small hill behind the little beach, and Sam knew it would soon be time for eleven-year-old Jamie to send six-year-old Bucky down to them to ask if it wasn’t time to go back into the water. Other years Nancy would have been racing and whooping with the younger kids.
But this year Nancy was fourteen, and this year she had brought a guest along--a fifteen-year-old boy named Pike Foster. Nancy and Pike lay baking in the sun on the foredeck of the Sweet Sioux III, with a portable radio turned to the odd offerings of a progressive disk jockey. The Sweet Sioux was moored a hundred feet down the curve of beach, her bow ten feet off the sand, and the music was barely audible.
Sam Bowden lay with the sun coming red through his eyelids and tried, almost with desperation, to tell himself that all was right with his particular world. Everything was fine. This was the first expedition of the year to the island. The Bowdens would make three or four trips to it this year, the same as every year since 1950, when they had found it, the year before Bucky was born. It was a ridiculously small island twelve miles out into the lake, northwest of New Essex. It was too small to have a name. It merited a single dot on the charts and a warning of shoal waters. It had a hill and a beach and reasonably deep water just off the beach.
Everything was under control. The marriage was of the very best variety. Everybody was healthy. He had been a partner in the law firm ever since 1948. Their house, just outside the village of Harper, thirteen miles from New Essex, was more house than he should have purchased, but he could console himself with the constantly increasing value of the ten acres of land. They had no savings to speak of, a very few shares of pale blue-chip stocks. But his hefty insurance program gave him a feeling of security.
He raised his head and, without opening his eyes, finished off the can of beer. He told himself that there was absolutely no need to fret. No point in getting hysterical. Think of it as just another problem that could be taken care of neatly, quietly, with dispatch and efficiency.
“Hey!” Carol said.
“Wake up and look at me, you inert mass.”
He rolled up onto one sharp elbow and squinted at her. “You look just fine,” he said. And she did, indeed. The pale-blue swimsuit set off her dark coloring. Her hair was black and coarse and shiny, a heritage from the remote fraction of Indian blood that had provided the inevitable name for the three boats they had owned. Her eyes were fine and dark and large. Her nose, which she despised, was high-bridged, faintly hooked. He had always liked it. Her thirty-seven years showed in the weather wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, and possibly in the veins on the backs of her hands, but not at all in the long, lithe figure, nor in the round and agile legs.
“I was not fishing,” she said firmly. “This is a serious matter. Pay attention.”
“It started on Thursday when you came back from the office. You were physically present but spiritually among the missing. And yesterday the same. And today, more of it. Fifteen years of marriage, my remote friend, give a girl extrasensory equipment.”
“That sounds provocative. The equipment looks good on you.”
“Hush! No smart talk, Samuel. No covering up. No fencing, please, sir. I want to know. Just now you were scowling more than the sun requires. I know when something is nibbling at you.”
“In all of New Essex I am known as Subtle Sam. Nobody knows what I’m thinking. They cannot probe my Gioconda smile. I can draw and fill an inside straight without a tremor. But you have an uncanny--”
“Please,” she said in an entirely different voice, and he knew that he would have to tell her. He opened the ice chest and took out another can of beer. He opened it and offered it to her, but she shook her head. He took the can down by a third. “All right. But understand that I’m a natural-born worrier. Everything is so good that I’m superstitious. I want to keep this very precious apple cart of ours standing on its wheels.”
“I can help you worry.”
“Or maybe laugh me out of it. I hope so. A weird thing happened when I came out of the office on Thursday. But that isn’t the starting place. It starts on a certain trip overseas you might just possibly remember.”
He knew she could remember. There had been only the one trip back in 1943 when First Lieutenant Samuel B. Bowden of the Judge Advocate General’s Department took a lengthy cruise on the old Comte de Biancamano, which was being operated by the U.S. Navy. He had embarked wearing his Pentagon pallor and had eventually ended up in New Delhi in Theater Headquarters of the C.B.I.
“I’m not fixing to forget it, lover. You were gone a good chunk of time. A good chunk out of my life. A bad chunk, I should say.”
“You haven’t heard me go through the Bowden symposium of side-splitting war stories for some time, but do you happen to remember my anecdote about Melbourne? It wasn’t very funny.”
“Sort of. Let me see. You got off there and you got mixed up in something and the ship went on without you because you had to be a witness, and you never caught up with that footlocker we packed with such loving care.”
“I was a key witness at a court-martial. A rape case.”
“Yes, I remember that. But I don’t remember how you came to be a witness.”
“Several of us got a hotel room and I was taken drunk on Australian ale. They make it of distilled sledgehammers. It was a June night, and cold. I decided I needed the walk back to the ship. It was two in the morning. As I was getting myself thoroughly lost, I heard a whimpering in an alley. I thought it was a puppy or a kitten. But it was a girl. She was fourteen.”
He knew that the special half-drunken flavor of that night would never leave his memory. The great stone city with its wide, deserted streets, just a few lights burning. The sound of his heels echoing coin sounds from the empty walls. He was humming “Roll Out the Barrel.” It became nicely resonant when he was opposite the mouths of the alleys.
He decided a puppy or a kitten could be smuggled onto the ship. And then he had stopped and stared without comprehension at the pale tumbled legs, the brute rhythm of the attacker, and heard the animal whining, heard the meaty crack of his fist against her face. With comprehension had come a high-wild anger. He had wrested the soldier away from her and, as the man had scrambled up, had struck wildly and with all his strength and had hit the hard shelf of jaw. The man had grappled with him weakly, then slid down, rolled onto his back and, to Sam’s astonishment, had begun to snore. He ran out and a few moments later hailed a Shore Patrol jeep.
They had held him over for the court-martial. The girl was fourteen, big for her age and very plain-looking. Her father had been sick in the night, and she had been on her way to her aunt’s house to get help when the drunken soldier, Max Cady, had caught her and pulled her into the alley.
“Didn’t they hang him?”
“No. But it was close. He was a twenty-five-year-old staff sergeant with seven years of service and over two hundred days of combat in the islands. He’d been pulled out with a bad case of jungle rot and jungle nerves and sent to a rest camp near Melbourne. It was his first trip into the city. He was drunk. She looked older, and she was out on the street at two in the morning.”
“But even so.”
“They gave him life at hard labor.”
He remembered how the sergeant had looked in court. Like an animal. Sullen, vicious and dangerous. And physically powerful. Sam looked at him and knew how lucky the punch had been. Cady had looked across the court at Sam as though he would dearly enjoy killing him with his hands. Dark hair grew low on his forehead. Heavy mouth and jaw. Small brown eyes set in deep and simian sockets. Sam could tell what Cady was thinking. A nice clean non-combat lieutenant. A meddler in a pretty uniform who’d never heard a shot fired in anger. So the pretty lieutenant should have backed right out of the alley and gone on his way and left a real soldier alone.
“Sam, darling, are you trying to say that . . .” She had a frightened look on her face.
“Now please don’t get jumpy. Don’t get nervous, baby.”
“Did you see that man on Thursday? Did they let him out?”
He sighed. “I never get a chance to finish anything. Yes. They let him out.”
He had not expected Cady to come bobbing up out of ancient history. He had merely forgotten the whole affair. Too many other impressions during those overseas years had blurred the memories of Cady. He had come home in 1945 with the rank of captain. He had got along well with his colonel, a man named Bill Stetch, and after the war he had come to New Essex at Bill’s invitation and had joined the law firm.
“Tell me about it. What is he like? How in the world did he find you?”
“I don’t think it’s trouble. It can be handled. Anyway, when I headed for the lot on Thursday, a man I knew I’d never seen before fell in step with me. He kept grinning at me in a funny way. I thought he was crazy.”
“Can we go in now? Can we? Is it time?” Bucky yelled shrilly, racing toward them.
Sam looked at his watch. “You’ve been goofing off, my small, untidy friend. You could have been in five minutes ago.”
“Hey, Jamie! It’s time.”
“Bucky, wait a minute,” Carol said. “You don’t go out beyond that rock. You or Jamie. Understand?”
“Nancy goes ’way out.”
“And when you pass the life-saving tests she’s passed, you can go ’way out too,” Sam said. “Don’t gripe. And see if you can keep your head down.”
They watched the boys go into the water. Nancy and her friend stood up. She waved at her parents. She tucked her dark hair into her cap as she walked to the stern of the Sweet Sioux. Sam looked at her and felt sad and ancient as he saw how quickly her slim figure was maturing. And, as always, he thanked private gods that Nancy took after her mother. The boys took after him. Sandy-red hair, knobbly bone structure, pale-blue eyes, freckles, over-sized teeth. It was evident that at maturity both boys would be like their father, incurably lean, shambling, stringy, tall men of physical indolence and ropy toughness. It would have been tragic if he had willed his only daughter such a fate.
“It was that same sergeant, wasn’t it?” Carol said in a small voice.
“The same. I’d forgotten his name. Max Cady. His sentence was reviewed. He was released last September. He served thirteen years at hard labor. I wouldn’t have recognized him. He’s about five nine, wide and thick-set. He’s more than half bald and deeply tanned, and he looks as though you couldn’t hurt him with an ax. The eyes are the same and the jaw and mouth are the same, but that’s all.”
“Did he threaten you?”
“Not in any explicit way. He had control of the situation. And he was enjoying himself. He kept telling me I never had the word, I never saw the picture. And he kept grinning at me. I can’t remember ever seeing a more disconcerting grin. Or whiter, more artificial-looking teeth. He knew damn well he was making me uncomfortable. He followed me into the lot and I got in the wagon and started it up. Then he moved like a cat and snatched the key out and leaned on the sill, looking in at me. The car was like an oven. I sat in my own sweat. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I couldn’t try to take the key away from him. That’s nonsense.”
“Could you have gotten out and gone after a policeman?”
“I guess so. But that didn’t seem very . . . dignified. Like running to Teacher. So I listened. He was proud of the way he found me. When his defense officer was questioning me, it came out that I got my law degree from Penn. So Cady went to Philadelphia and got somebody to check the alumni records for him and got my home address and business address that way. He wanted to give me the word on what thirteen years of hard labor was like. He called me lieutenant. He used it in every sentence. He made it sound like a dirty word. He said that because it was June it made it sort of an anniversary for us. And he said he’d been thinking about me for fourteen years. And he said he was glad I was doing so well. He said he wouldn’t have wanted to find out I had a lot of problems.”
“What . . . does he want to do?”
“All he said was he wanted to make sure I had the word, the big picture. I sat there sweating, and finally when I demanded my car key, he handed it to me. And he tried to give me a cigar. He had a shirt pocket full of them. He said they were good cigars. Two bits each. As I backed out he said, still grinning, ‘Give my best to the wife and kids, Lieutenant.’ ”
Sam wondered whether he should tell her the rest of it. And then he knew he had to. She should know the rest of it so that she would not be careless--if it came to that.
He patted her hand. “Now brace yourself, Carol-bug. This may be only in my mind. I hope so. But this is what has been chewing on me. You remember that I was late on Thursday. Cady used up a half hour. I had a lot of chance to observe him. And the more I listened, the more a little warning bell rang, louder and louder. You don’t have to be a trained psychoanalyst. Somehow, when a person is different, you know it. I suppose we all run in a pack, in a sense. And there are always little clues to the rogue beast. I don’t think Cady is sane.”
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.