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She worked in one of those Park Avenue buildings which tourists feel obligated to photograph. It’s a nice building to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there.
She worked on the twentieth floor, for one of those self-important little companies which design packages for things. I arrived at five, as arranged, and sent my name in, and she came out into the little reception area, wearing a smock to prove that she did her stint at the old drawing board.
Nina Gibson. She was a bouffante little girl. I had seen a picture of her at age twelve. At twice that, she had changed. Mike had carried her picture in his wallet. Now she had a pile of blue-black curls, Mike’s blue blue eyes, small defiant face, skin like cream. She had one of those hearty little figures typical of a certain type of small girl. The hand-span waist, and the rich solid swell of goodies above and below.
“You’ll have to wait a little while,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Then when you come out the next time you smile and say hello.”
“Should I? This isn’t my idea, Mr. McGee.”
“It’s called a social amenity, Nina.”
“There won’t be many of those,” she said, and went back into the mystic depths of her profession. I sat amid the cased displays of household words. Three cents worth of squeeze bottles, plus two cents worth of homogenized goo, plus prime-time television equals 28 million annual sales at 69¢ each. This is the heartbeat of industrial America. I sat and watched the receptionist. She was used to being watched, but she liked it. She was packaged too. One (1) receptionist, nubile, w/English accent, indefinitely tweedy, veddy country. The little company was up to date. They had one that looked as if she were sitting in a spring wind blowing off the moors, with her steed tethered in the hall.
Nina came out--gloved, pursed, be-hatted, wearing a fall suit a little too tailored for her structure--came out with a frail and indefinite-looking man and paused to argue with him, saying, “Freddie, if you show him three, he’ll bog, and you know it, dear. That little mind can make a choice of the best of two, if the choice is obvious. So make the presentation of just Tommy’s and Mary Jane’s. They’re the best and the worst so far, and he’ll pick Tommy’s and we’re in.”
Freddie shrugged and sighed and went back in. Nina nodded imperiously at me and we went out and rode down in the musical elevator and walked a block and a half to a lounge in a muted little hotel where the prism spots gleamed down on an expensive assortment of coiffing and barbering, furs and tailored shoulders, sparkling glassware, lovely people maneuvering each other into his or that unspeakable thing by means of quiet smiles and quiet talk and deadly martinis. We found a banquette against a quiet wall, and she ungloved herself, leaned to the offered light, ordered a dry sherry.
She stared at me, mocking and defensive. “The fabulous Travis McGee. Fabulous means something about fables. I don’t need any fables. Thank you so much.”
“From a very old picture, I didn’t think you’d be this pretty.”
“I’m a darling girl.”
I didn’t want to be within fifteen hundred miles of this darling girl. I didn’t want to be in this October city. I wanted to be back aboard my Busted Flush moored in Slip F‑18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale, my 52 feet of custom houseboat which I could fill with my favorite brand of darling girls, the brown untroubled ones, eager galley slaves, the hair-salty, rump-sandy, beer-opening, fish-catching, happy-making girls in sun-faded fabrics, sun-streaked hair. But Miss Nina looked at me out of her brother Mike’s true blue eyes, and he had never asked me for anything else.
“I’ll tell you a story,” I said.
“Oh please do, sir,” she said.
“There was a little matter of a thirty-six-hour pass, and our captain did not think he could spare us both. So Mike and I had some small games and wagers and I won, jeeped back, flew out, spent all those Japanese hours in a silk robe and in deep hot steaming water and on a pallet on a polished floor in a paper room with a darling girl whose name I couldn’t say, and I called her Missy. She scrubbed me and fed me and loved me. She was five feet tall and giggled into her hands. And what made all the pleasure the sweeter was thinking of poor Mike stuck back there. So I flew back and jeeped back and they said he was dead. Either he had died at the aid station, or at the station hospital, or en route to the general hospital. Nobody was sure. Then they said he was still alive, but would die. And now, of course, he is, like they say, the ward of a grateful republic, and he can’t see and he can’t walk, and it is a gala day when they wheel him into the sunshine for an hour, but through all those miracles of medical science, they kept Mike Gibson alive. The point of the story is guilt, Miss Nina. Guilt because I am glad it was Mike instead of remarkable, valuable old me. I don’t want to be glad, but I am. Then there’s another kind of guilt. I’ve visited him about once a year, on the average. Do I go to see him to prove to myself it happened to him instead of to me? Should I see him oftener, or not at all? I don’t know. I do know one thing. The nurse wrote me he wanted to see me. I went there. He told me about your visit. He said find out. So, with your help or without it, Miss Nina, I find out.”
“How terribly dear!” she said. “How ineffably buddy-buddy! I shouldn’t have gone running to him with my little heartache, Mr. McGee. It was selfish of me. It upset him, and it didn’t do me any particular good. How can he check up on anything anyway? Why don’t you just invent some soothing little story for him and go down and tell it to him and then go back to your beach-bum career, whatever it is?”
“Because he may be all chopped up, but he’s not stupid.”
“It’s too late now. Meddling won’t do any good.”
“Maybe there’s some questions you both want answered.”
For just a moment the vulnerability showed in her mouth and in her voice. “Answers? What good are answers? The boy is dead.”
“I can poke around a little.”
“You? Really now, Mr. McGee. You are spectacularly huge, and a tan that deep is almost vulgar, and you have a kind of leathery fading boyish charm, but this is not and never was a game for dilettantes, for jolly boys, for the favor-for-an-old-buddy routine. No gray-eyed wonder with a big white grin can solve anything or retrieve anything by blundering around in my life. Thanks for the gesture. But this isn’t television. I don’t need a big brother. So why don’t you just go on back to your fun and games?”
“I will, when I’m ready.”
“My fiance is dead. Howard Plummer is dead.” She glowered at me and banged the table with a small fist. “He’s in the ground, dead. And he wasn’t what I thought he was. And I’m trying to get over it, to get over losing him and to get over being a fool. So please don’t stir it all . . .”
“What did you do with the money?”
It stopped her. She stared at me. “What money?”
“The money you started to tell Mike about.”
“But I didn’t tell him. I stopped myself.”
“Nina, it was as good as telling him. He lies there and hears all the words you don’t quite say. That’s why I can’t go back to him with a soothing story. What about the money?”
“It’s nothing to do with you.”
“It has now.”
“Please don’t try to be earnest and domineering, Mr. McGee. I am not going to lean on you.”
“I’ve come blundering into your life, Nina, at Mike’s request. Plummer was killed in August. The police investigated it. I can come stumbling onto the scene and tell them that Plummer had a good piece of cash tucked away and his girlfriend has it now, and suggest that maybe there was some connection.”
“You wouldn’t do that!”
“There wasn’t any connection. That’s stupid. It would just get me into a lot of trouble. My God, my brother asked you to come here to help me, not get me into a mess. I don’t want any help.”
“Miss Nina,” I said, smiling my very best disarming smile, “let’s get straightened away. Being a beach bum takes money. If you want to do it with flair. If the money comes in regularly, then you’re working for it, and you lose your status. I have to come by it in chunks now and then, to protect my way of life. Now I don’t really think I would have had much creative interest in the life and times of Nina Gibson if you hadn’t given your brother the impression your boyfriend had been clipping a pretty good piece of money somehow. When I heard that, my ears lifted into little tufted points. Where there was some, there might be more. I like to ride to the rescue when I think that’s where the money is.”