16. The Dreadful Lemon Sky

When you’re a pretty young thing who spent some time around Ft. Lauderdale’s Bahia Mar marina in the 1960s or 1970s, and you’re in trouble, and it’s time to bring in the big artillery, whom do you call on? Guess.

McGee’s asleep on the Busted Flush and one of his intruder alerts goes “ding.” He starts awake, prepared for action, only to discover a dainty old squeeze of his huddled in front of his door. It’s Carrie Milligan, who made a poor choice of husband a few years earlier and is now on her own. She’s aged prematurely, showing lots of hard miles. Not drug or alcohol miles, mind you, but simple old tough times. And she’s come to McGee because he’s one of the few people she feels she can trust. What her exact problem is, she refuses to say. She only has one favor to ask of her old lover: Take this hundred grand in cash money, keep it safe, and if I should happen not to come back in the next few weeks, get it to my kid sister. McGee accepts the sizable wad for safekeeping, for a cut of ten grand. He politely declines a nostalgia bonk and offends the lady. But he shelters her for a night. Then she’s gone.

Of course, Carrie doesn’t return.

Meyer spots the report in the back pages of a newspaper: Young woman struck dead by truck on a country road near the coastal town of Bayside, after running out of gas. Carrie Milligan. (If you recall, JDM used a similar device back in Darker than Amber—a hooker smashed to pulp in a terrible auto “accident.”)

Naturally, an occurrence like this fails to fly with our man Trav. Coincidence? Almost certainly bullshit. Besides, the late Carrie paid him ten large and he aims to earn it. He and Meyer fix up the Flush for a “road trip,” and start putt-putting their way toward Bayside.

When the two men dock the Flush at the marina in Bayside, they walk into a festering stew of scandal and mystery and deadly violence.

Soon after their arrival the marina owner’s drunken, pugnacious husband blunders in and assumes that Trav is coming on to his wife. A quick, brief brawl ensues as Trav defends himself and sends drunken hubby to the hospital—where the guy surprisingly dies. (It’s murder, actually.) As Trav and Meyer start digging into Carrie’s situation in Bayside, the nasty circumstances come bubbling up. Her former place of employment is going belly up; one of its owners has apparently vanished with a bundle from the corporate treasury. The theory the survivors have is that Carrie was in on the scam with the owner.

As for the accident, things don’t add up. Meyer discovers that the gas tank of Carrie’s car had been tampered with, to drain out gasoline and strand the young woman out on the road. There are clues inconsistent with an accidental stumble out into the deadly traffic lane. A purse left in the car. (In the 1970s, at least, what woman would go ambling out in the middle of the night, seeking gasoline, without her purse?) There’s also evidence that someone was in the car with her—who may have administered a hearty shove somewhere between Carrie’s shoulder blades.

Carrie Milligan’s trail goes deeper and darker yet, when Trav discovers where her big wad of cash actually came from. Carrie, the disappeared boss, and a few others were pot smugglers. Not pros, but successful enough to make some nice walking-around money. Could an outside operator have come in and applied a Darwinian solution to the small-timers?

Not least, Trav and Meyer consider the “hidden body” theory of astronomy to the situation. Is there some unknown person or organization whose gravity distorts the orbits of everyone else? The best candidate is a local attorney who pops up at almost every turn, “Ready” Freddy Van Harn—an up-and-coming political figure and rapacious, kinky lady’s man.

When one of Carrie’s friends appears on the Flush one rainy evening, bearing a brown package that she’s just received, Trav has little reason to worry as she starts to open it. But then, KA-BOOM

And five days later, McGee wakes up in the hospital.

(Lately, I’ve been thinking about bumps on the head and the neurological fates of old football players—much in the news lately. And quite apart from his brief pro football career, poor Trav suffered concussion after concussion in the execution of his duties as a fictional hero. I wonder if JDM ever pondered the notion of a 60- or 70-year-old McGee toodling around a care center somewhere, forgetful and incontinent. In the real world, that might indeed have been the fate of knights in rusted armor.)

Once he’s recovered somewhat, rather than doing what any sensible person like you or I would do—call it a day and cruise home to Lauderdale—McGee begins anew with the poking of sticks into hornets’ nests. And he’s ultimately rewarded with the unmasking of not one, but two malefactors.

On both occasions, the rangy boat bum feels the cold chill of the grim reaper blow by him very closely indeed. One baddie dies grotesquely, horribly, and (ironically) quite inadvertently. The other, the bomber of the Busted Flush—having ambushed and murdered an admirable local cop right in front of McGee—has his ankles shot out by our hero. McGee almost pops a cap between the hobbled villain’s eyes. But he reconsiders, due to all the trouble and grief that such an action might bring to his discreet lifestyle.

In Lemon JDM has crafted one of the top middle-pack McGees. It has Byzantine dealings in a small, corrupt Florida town. It has drug money and power-structure money and political influence all sloshing around. It has a gorgeous widow woman falling into the sack with McGee. It has Meyer, with his wit and wisdom and super-hot chili recipe. It has drug-running. It has the Busted Flush in a semi-starring role—severely damaged in the bombing, then rising heroically from the ashes, so to speak. It has dark, dark violence and hidden emotion. It has a nifty, convoluted plot. And, of course, above all, it has McGee.

Lemon simply has everything you’d want from a first-class crime/suspense novel.

When I’m reading these books, I often turn to my wife and read a passage out loud. Then I usually observe, re. JDM, “Man, that son of a bitch could write.” Here are a few more examples of his mastery, from The Dreadful Lemon Sky.

“Guilt is the most merciless disease of men. It stains all the other areas of living. It darkens all skies.”

“The world looked strange. There were little halos around the edges of every tree and building. I did very deep breathing. It is strange to sleep for five days and five nights and have the world go rolling along without you. Just like it will keep on after you’re dead. The wide busy world of tire balancing, diaper changing, window washing, barn dancing, bike racing, nose picking, and bug swatting will go merrily merrily along. If they were never aware of your presence, they won’t be overwhelmed by your absence.”

“The bed was by big windows. The draperies were open. The storm moved closer. The lightning flashes were vivid. Each one made a still picture of her in black and white. Black eyes and lips and hair and nipples and groin. White, white, white all the rest of her. The lightning arrested movement. It caught her in a fluid turning, mouth agape with harsh breath and effort. It froze a leg lifting. It stopped her, astride, arms braced, halting the elliptical swing of hips, turning her into a pen and ink drawing of greatest clarity.”

“A mockingbird flew over, singing on the wing, a melody so painfully sweet it pinched the heart. I do not want to leave the world of mockingbirds, boats, beaches, ladies, love and peanut butter from Deaf Smith County.”