Bridget took a sip of her gin and tonic, just as George walked into her parlor. She smiled warmly at him, handing him a mint julep in a gold-trimmed lead-crystal highball glass.
“Great minds think alike,” George said with a chuckle, taking the drink and then holding it up to the light and savoring the sight of it, as its chilled contents hazed the crystal with a fine mist of condensation. He took a sip, enjoying the contrasting tastes of aromatic fresh mint and the sweet fire of Southern Comfort. “We’ve got reason to celebrate again. Gonzalez is up in Cocoa Beach running the manhunt, and he’s fit to be tied. Dirk and the lawyer got away clean so far; there’s been a few possible sightings, but nothing hard and it’s been days. They were damn clever about the getaway; they put the GPS trackers on a pizza delivery car to bird-dog the surveillance units, and they’d switched the plate so Ainsworth’s car didn’t have the plate we were looking for. It took the locals hours to notice the swap, and by that time, they were long gone. Now for the really good news: the prosecutor is going ahead with the indictment, including for Arnold’s murder – they want to be able to go on the news and talk about a serial killer, because every bit of publicity aids the manhunt. It’s being filed Wednesday, and it’s a done deal.”
Bridget turned to face Arnold’s portrait, and after contemplating it for a few moments, turned to face George as she said, “At long last, I shall be free of that bastard. Thank you, George. However, my dear, I have news of my own; we may have even more to celebrate today than we previously believed. Sanchez has e-mailed me, and it appears we may hear good news soon. The Cartel has contacts in the Seychelles, and though they only specialize in smuggling, they have their own connections amongst the Somali pirates, who also partake in that trade. The gist of Sanchez’s e-mail is that he gave his contact Atlantis’s AIS code and anticipated route, and she was seen leaving the Seychelles. Fate was kind and there was a Somali boat near her course, which is going to attempt an interception any time now, far out at sea. According to Sanchez, ensuring that Trevor does not survive will not be an issue for them, and the bounty he offered should merely make it certain.”
George gave Bridget a kiss and settled in beside her on her loveseat. “That’s great. We’ve basically got a lock on an indictment of Dirk, and now this. The only thing is... remember the fiasco in the canal? How will we know for sure that they got him?”
“Sanchez said they will take a picture of their AIS display as they intercept, and some other shots as well. In addition, they will take something with Atlantis’s name on it; that is what they will exchange with Sanchez’s contact for the bounty,” Bridget replied.
“Any idea when we’ll get the confirmation?” George asked.
“Sanchez did not say, but my guess is within a few hours of the intercept for photos, and whenever they make port for the hard evidence.”
George nodded, deep in thought. “This’ll leave just Lisa and Joel to take care of, and that’s assuming Joel follows through on the Ares search. What do you want to do if he doesn’t?”
Bridget took a prim sip of her gin and tonic. “Assuming he forgets the idea of finding Ares, then I see no harm in letting him and Lisa be; they would be no threat to us, and there is also the inherent risk of complications if we frame them with the cocaine.”
“I agree. As my father was fond of saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.” George took a drink of his mint julep before asking, “What’s your guess on the odds?”
Bridget shrugged. “It is hard to predict what a person will do, but I would venture a guess that Joel is more likely than not to keep his word, especially as it appears that he and Trevor are brothers.”
“I’ve been thinking about that. Brothers, or maybe half brothers, sharing just one parent. We know Dirk and Trevor were fighting when Trevor left, so I wonder... Could Trevor have found out that Dirk had a thing with Joel’s mother, and that’s part of what caused the fight? Or maybe... Wait a second, if Dirk is gay, then here’s what fits: he’s not Trevor’s real father, Charles Stiles is. That would explain everything,” George said, narrowing his eyes.
Bridget shook her head. “Except for one glaring issue; we know for a fact that Trevor was fearful of his father finding out that Trevor is gay. That certainly makes little sense if Dirk himself is gay.”
George thought for a few moments before replying, “That makes no sense, but here’s what could be useful to us: If Dirk is straight, and Rachel was screwing around with Charles Stiles, Dirk had tons of motive to kill her. Let’s leave this alone for now – it’s currently a slam-dunk case so no reason to mess with it – but... it never hurts to know that there’s more dirt to dig up if needed.” George took Bridget’s hand tenderly in his own. “I thought you might be clutching at straws when you gave Joel and Lisa use of your guesthouse, but I gotta admit, the info we’ve been getting from those two via the taps and bugs have been pure gold.” George raised his glass to Bridget’s, and offered a toast, “Here’s to you, my dear; as brilliant as you are beautiful.”
“Why thank you, my dear. And here is to you, the man I love, brave, cunning, and resourceful beyond measure,” Bridget replied, tapping her glass to his, and the soft ting of fine crystal sounded amidst the opulent Edwardian parlor.
The weather was perfect, exactly as Joel had envisioned. The sun was shining brightly in a sky painted with a few wispy clouds, the birds were chattering their ancient melody in the trees, and a faint sea breeze rustled the palm fronds, offering some meager respite from the sultry heat.
Joel checked his watch for the thousandth time, his palms clammy and cold as he paced the hot pool deck.
“Hey, you’ll wear a hole in the concrete,” Steve said, giving Joel a pat on the back.
“I guess I’m nervous,” Joel said, continuing to pace.
“Now there’s a news bulletin,” Steve replied, chuckling. “Let’s go get suited up. Try to relax; everything will be fine, man.”
Joel took a deep breath, and turned to look at the pool. “I hope so,” he said, and then turned to walk into the locker room with Steve.
For several minutes, Joel struggled to remember his locker’s combination, one he’d used almost every day since his freshman year. Two of his teammates had lockers near Joel, but resisted the urge to tease him. Finally, Joel remembered the sequence, and popped open the lock before beginning to strip.
Joel tugged on his speedos and, goggles in hand, padded out to the pool, where he resumed pacing back and forth near the water’s edge.
When Steve came out of the locker room, he walked up to Joel and said, “Relax, man. If there’s anyone with no reason to worry, it’s you.”
Joel fled from that subject, moving on to another. “They’re already late. What if they don’t show, or won’t go for it?” Joel asked.
Steve shrugged. “Then we’ll wing it, and the meet will be... races to determine rankings on the team?”
Joel glanced at the starting blocks. “That’s kinda thin... Maybe we should have told ‘em?”
Steve shook his head. “Not smart. It could have leaked. You know how people like to talk.” Steve had more of a point than he knew; he’d mentioned the attempt to kill Trevor to two mutual friends, and the news had spread, slowly at first, but then exponentially, resulting in the majority of the campus knowing about it by the end of the week. “Tell me again why we didn’t go with water polo, seeing as it’s water polo season?” Steve asked, with a grin.
Joel shrugged. “I just figured a swim meet would be better, and we’re out of season for both, so I told Lisa it was a special regional exhibition event.”
Steve angled his head and chuckled. “That’s sort of true, if you think about it.”
Joel was about to reply when four guys walked into the pool area. One of them looked at Steve and nodded his head upwards once in recognition. The four runners – all members of the track team – walked up to Steve, and one of them asked, “Okay, we’re here. Now will you tell us what’s up? Or did you just need spectators for the meet? And since when are there swim meets in October?”
Steve grinned and filled the track guys in on the plan, finishing by saying, “You four will play members of the visiting team. Lisa knows everyone on the swim team really well, and she’s seen us at a lot of meets, so she’d probably recognize any of us, but I don’t think she’ll recognize you guys from a distance if you’re wearing caps and goggles.”
One of the runners glanced down at Steve’s swimsuit. “We’ve got to wear speedos?” he asked dejectedly, before sharing an angst-ridden look with his fellow runners.
Steve rolled his eyes and shrugged. “Yeah, what’s the big deal? You guys wear running shorts, which ain’t a lot bigger. Come on, don’t let Joel down.”
The four runners exchanged glances, and with some reluctance, nodded their agreement.
Joel grinned. “Thanks guys; you’ll find suits, caps, and goggles on the benches in the locker room.”
As the runners walked away, Steve let out the laugh he’d been holding. “They look like they’re going to their own funerals. Good thing we didn’t tell ‘em in advance; they’d have probably chickened out.”
The pool area looked very much as if a swim meet was about to begin. The only things lacking were an actual opposing team, and the usual assortment of attending parents from both teams. The bleachers held twenty spectators, seated scattered about to make them appear more numerous. They were mainly the girlfriends of the team members, plus a few of the team members’ male and female friends, and the boyfriends of the team’s two out members.
The swim team – except for Joel – was dressed in their matching blue and gold team speedos. Joel was wearing the red Speedo he’d purchased – at Lisa’s insistence – when he’d swam the glow plug wires out to Atlantis, prior to Trevor’s departure.
The team clustered around Joel, who took a deep breath to calm himself before saying, “Okay, like we planned.”
“Just don’t chicken out,” Steve said, grinning as he gave Joel a pat on the shoulder.
“I gave up my fishing day for this, so if he does he’ll regret it. And Joel... you damn well better have meant it when you said the wedding date would be after you’re both eighteen and out of high school,” the coach grumped, and then smiled to show he wasn’t really angry. “We’re all set. We’ll call the race right after she gets seated.”
Steve looked at the starting blocks, where the four track team members were waiting and fidgeting. He walked over and asked, “Uh, you guys do know how to use starting blocks, right?” Two of the four shook their heads, proving to Steve that they had a problem. “Okay, it’s super easy, watch me,” he said, as he climbed onto one of the angled platforms. “Just stand on it, with your toes near the poolside edge. Ignore the bars and handles below: those are for the backstroke. It’s just like diving off the edge of a pool. Dive in hands first and start swimming. Remember to stay in your lanes, too. It’s a one-length race, so the finish line is the far end, no need to learn a kick-turn.”
With a powerful thrust of his legs, Steve launched himself horizontally, cutting cleanly into the water and surging into a freestyle crawl to the far end of the pool, where he kick-turned and returned. Treading water, he called out, “Okay, give it a try.”
The four runners mounted the platforms, and dove roughly together, but their entries – throwing up huge splashes – made Steve cringe. Their attempts at a freestyle crawl were worse; none of them knew how to breathe sideways, so they pulled their heads up and looked straight ahead. Steve wasted no time; he surged out of the pool and ran to his coach and Joel. “We’ve got a problem. No way is Lisa going to buy those guys as swimmers. I guess we should have rehearsed them for a few days.”
Joel’s eyes opened wide as he saw his plan disintegrating, but the coach glanced at the lanes and shrugged. “Lisa isn’t a swimmer, so what she’d pick up on is differences, not technique itself. That makes this easy: the grandstand is on one side of the pool, so give those four runners the four far-side lanes, and three of you plus Joel take the adjoining nearer four lanes. That puts you guys closer to the stands, between Lisa and the runners. If you guys muff your entries a little and then splash a lot during the race, I doubt she’ll notice anything.”
“Thanks coach,” Joel replied, relaxing a little.
Steve eyed Joel and asked, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Joel stared blankly for a moment, before mumbling, “Oh shit!” and racing for the locker room. He returned at a jog a few moments later, clutching a tiny inlaid box, two inches on a side, which he’d purchased in Turkey.
One of the swimmers, Chris, was the designated lookout. “Target in sight! She’s parking!” he called down from the high dive platform, where he had a great view of the parking lot. As soon as he sounded the alert, he jumped feet-first into the pool, landing with a splash before Lisa was out of her truck.
Chris swam to the side and hauled himself out. He padded over, dripping, to the starting blocks, where Joel, Steve, and the rest of the swim team were waiting, along with their coach and the runners.
The coach took charge. “Okay, starting at the left side of the pool, runners in the first four lanes, swimmers in the next three, Joel to their right. Just like at a meet, a couple of minutes before the pistol. Runners, watch the swimmers and follow their lead for getting on the blocks. Okay runners: caps and goggles on now, and head for your blocks.”
The runners went to their places, and began fumbling with their caps. Steve watched for a second before realizing the problem and turning to his team. “Help ‘em, they don’t know how to put caps on,” he said, racing off with three of his teammates to help the runners into their caps and goggles.
“We should’ve rehearsed this,” Joel mumbled.
The coach shook his head. “Damn straight, but too late for that now, Joel. You should have let me in on this earlier.”
Four minutes later, Lisa strode purposefully through the pool area gates, seeing to her surprise that the meet appeared to be well underway.
The coach intercepted her. “Hi Lisa, glad you could make it. Joel’s big event is up first, and he talked me into letting him wear red, for luck. He wouldn’t tell me why, but said you’d understand. Take a seat; we’re about a minute and a half from the starting gun.”
Lisa nodded, and as she headed for the bleachers, looked at the swimmers, instantly picking Joel out and waving.
Lisa settled into a seat on the bottom row, looking around. She glanced at the digital scoreboard, which was still blank of results.
At first glance, it looked like an average interschool swim meet; the swimmer’s bronzed bodies, strings of triangular blue and gold flags, and eager spectators in the bleachers, waiting to cheer their team on. Tinny music was playing over the speaker system, helping to set the atmosphere.
On the top row of bleachers, the team’s designated photographer tended his running video camera, and then turned his attention to his Nikon digital still camera, checking its tripod, and ensuring that it was pointing at the area between Lisa and the pool.
Lisa, for the moment oblivious to the incongruities around her, sat on the bleachers, enjoying the gorgeous day, feeling the warm sun on her face, making the shimmering pool waters look ever so inviting. The smell of chlorine hung lightly in the air, and Lisa smiled with pride, watching as Joel mounted his starting block.
“Swimmers, on your marks!” the coach called out, raising his starter’s pistol as Steve, who was not in the race, ran towards the far end of the pool, taking a position he often occupied to urge his team on to victory, though this time he was careful to keep a small box concealed in the palm of his hand.
A loud crack rang out, and the swimmers were off, muscles rippling as they arced through the air, their arms held just a little higher than usual, guaranteeing a larger splash on entry. The four runners performed better on this, their second time off the blocks, and together all eight guys broached the surface, pulling into freestyle crawls.
Lisa surged to her feet, her attention fully on Joel, yelling and cheering him on. She yelled even louder, jumping up and down as he pulled into an easy lead.
Joel touched first, the crowd cheering as he raised his fist in victory and glancing at the scoreboard for his time.
Pulling himself out of the pool, Joel waved to Lisa before exchanging high-fives with his teammates, and then, in an apparent show of exuberance, Joel pulled Chris into a brief backslapping hug, and then he hugged Steve. Joel’s hug with Steve had been rehearsed, and as Joel pulled away, with his body between Lisa and Steve, Steve slipped the box into Joel’s left hand.
Joel turned to face Lisa and, dripping wet, trotted towards her.
For a moment, Lisa thought Joel was intending to hug her while dripping wet, something he’d often done at meets, but she didn’t mind. Grinning and proud, Lisa took a step towards Joel, holding her arms wide, ready to embrace him.
Joel came to a halt an arm’s length from Lisa, and in a move he’d practiced countless times, he dropped gracefully to one knee. He looked up at Lisa, his wet hair swept back, the sun glistening on his wet body, his chest heaving though not from the race. Slowly, he raised his arms, joining them in front of him, cradling the ring box as he flipped its lid open.
On cue, the loudspeakers cut out and the crowd fell silent.
Lisa was used to Joel’s antics, and had thought he was playing when he dropped to one knee. Then she saw the box, and watched it open. Her calm, relaxed demeanor began to dissolve, the sudden silence leaving her distracted and confused her for a moment, but then she looked into Joel’s blue and pleading eyes, and understood.
“Lisa, will you marry me?” Joel asked, in a strained, almost breaking voice.
For what seemed like an eternity Joel waited, his eyes locked on Lisa’s.
Less then a second after Joel had asked the question, Lisa, her throat suddenly dry, replied, “Yes, of course I will...” She wanted to fly into his arms, but he glanced at the ring and back to her eyes as he stood up, with a beatific smile on his face.
Joel pulled the ring from its box, and then, his heart full of joy, he held it in his hand, feeling the heavy gold as the diamond glittered in the sun. Then, in a moment he’d dreamed of, he slipped it gently onto his fiancée’s finger, and their eyes met again. A few claps sounded as gathered people broke their silence, then more, clapping and cheering.
Lisa looked at the sparkling diamond on her finger, its image blurring from the tears in her eyes. “Oh Joel, it’s beautiful,” she said, as she pulled him into her arms, hugging him tight.
Joel held Lisa in his arms, feeling her breathing and the tremble of her beating heart. He pulled her closer, angling his head, hesitating tenderly, and then their lips met for a deep and passionate kiss.
At last mindful again of the many people who had been part of his proposal, Joel broke the kiss, and together he and Lisa, with the swimmers gathering around, turned to face the bleachers, as the photographer kept his cameras running. Joel’s team, jumping and cheering, pummeled Joel’s back in congratulations.
Joel turned and swept Lisa off her feet, holding her in his arms, as he nuzzled his forehead to hers. “Thanks for taking the plunge,” Joel said softly, as he trotted easily towards the water’s edge, keeping her in his arms as he stepped off the edge and into the water.
Several members of the swim team took exuberant backflips into the pool, as Lisa surfaced, laughter in her eyes, reaching for Joel and pulling him into a kiss as they sank together beneath the waters.
They surfaced together, still entwined, and Lisa glanced around her brow furrowing slightly. “Shouldn’t we get out, so the next race can start?”
Joel chuckled, “There aren’t any. It’s the wrong season for a swim meet, and we almost never have them on Sundays.”
Slowly it dawned on Lisa what Joel had done. “You set all this up... so you could ask me in front of everyone?” she said, in an amazed tone. Then she grinned, giving Joel a playful splash before pulling him in for another kiss.
An impromptu pool party developed, and for a few joyous moments, Lisa and Joel were lost in each other, holding onto the pool edge and kissing, as the celebration roared on around them.
When they broke the kiss, Joel whispered, “I need to wait a bit before getting out.”
Lisa chuckled. “I can tell. Joel, this is the happiest day of my life. I love you.”
“I love you too,” Joel replied, brushing Lisa’s hair from her forehead, his eyes lost in hers.
Lisa’s expression grew troubled, her brow creasing. “Joel, my father won’t–”
Joel touched his finger to Lisa’s lips, smiling. “Don’t worry, he won’t need to. I was thinking we could get married on your birthday next June, yours and Trev’s... you’ll be eighteen then, and out of high school.”
“That would be perfect... he can’t say no. Now all we have to do is find the right time to tell him.”
Joel nodded. “I know, we’ll figure that out. We’ve got to tell my parents too. We’ll be together, that’s what’s important.”
One of the swimmers, who was also a member of the diving team, ascended the high-dive platform, where he executed a perfect one and a half forward dive, ripping the entry to a scattered round of applause.
Steve went next, and called out from the diving platform, “So, when’s the big day? And by that I mean when’s the stag party?”
Joel glanced skyward, squinting against the sun’s glare as he looked at Steve and grinned. “Sometime in early June... Trev said he’d plan the party.”
“Just don’t let him pick the strippers,” Steve shot back with a laugh, and then tucked into a forward pike.
“Why’d he say that? Does he....” Lisa asked, arching an eyebrow.
Joel chuckled. “Yeah, the team knows. They figured it out; I didn’t tell ‘em. And ah... speaking of Trev... I was thinking we could have the ceremony on Atlantis.”
“Atlantis was built in France,” Lisa said, wrinkling her nose in mock disgust. “But that was before my mom moved there, so I suppose I could overlook that, just this once.”
Joel chuckled, slowly spinning himself and Lisa around in the pool. “We’ll need a place for the reception... Bridget’s house would be perfect. Do you think she’d–”
“I know she would,” Lisa said, nodding with delight at the thought of having their reception in Bridget’s opulent house. “We’ll ask her, but I know she’ll say yes. I’d like to go to the guesthouse when we leave here... and I just realized I don’t have any dry clothes, but I don’t care.”
Joel smiled, his eyes twinkling, “I bought some for you; they’re in my locker and coach said he’d open the girl’s locker room for you.”
Lisa ran her fingers through Joel’s hair. “You really did think of everything...” Lisa pulled Joel in close, hugging him as they floated together. “I’ll remember this day always, Joel. It’s just perfect.”