“The Afternoon Client,” by Tim Weed, is the First Place winning story in the crime category for the Ninth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with W.R. Parrish and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Tim’s winning entry.
The Afternoon Client
by Tim Weed
Point of pride: I always clean the boat between clients. Before anything else. Before gassing up or using the john or going to get a Coke and a sandwich and my daily dose of heartbreak from the college girls who work in the marina. So as soon as my morning client drives off in his Jeep – ninety percent of my clients drive Jeep Wranglers rented from the same island agency – I lower a bucket on a halyard for seawater. I splash it over the deck and sluice the blood out through the scupper holes. I rinse the rods with the freshwater hose from the dock, inspect the leaders for tooth frays, and stow the tackle box in the stainless steel cabinet beneath the windscreen.
A man drives up in a shiny black Land Rover. He rolls down the window and a few notes of Hotel California spill out before he turns off the stereo and calls out across the dock: “You Zimmerman?”
I nod. “What can I do for you?”
He parks the Rover and gets out. He’s wearing expensive shoes and a yellow polo shirt. His black hair is slicked back with product and he has a lantern-jawed face some might consider handsome. “I’m Jay Clawson, your afternoon client.”
“You’re more than an hour early,” I observe. “I have to get lunch and put gas in the boat.”
He looks at his watch, a stainless steel TAG Heuer on a sleek hairy wrist. “I called the marina. They told me you were in, and I was hoping we could go early. I’m supposed to tee off at four.”
I stare at him. His voice is smooth but edgy, like someone used to giving orders over the phone. Mechanical trouble with the boat, I could say. Unlikely to catch fish anyway, sunny weather like this.
“Totally appreciate it,” he says, opening the hatch of the Rover and taking out a red gym bag. He steps onto the dock and stands beside the boat.
“All right,” I say gloomily, reaching up to take the gym bag. He comes aboard. I start the engine, untie the bowline, and motor around the dock to the gas tank.
“What are we after today?” he calls out over the noise of the engine. He’s donned a pair of aviator glasses and stands next to me, too close, behind the windscreen.
“This time of year we’re looking at bluefish, mostly. Maybe a rogue striper or two if we get lucky.”
He raises his eyebrows behind the glasses. Perhaps he was thinking bonito, or marlin, or, who knows, a great white shark? I can tell it’s going to be a long afternoon. My stomach is empty, and I feel a bit lightheaded.
The blues are running. I can smell them in the air and long wavering slicks of fish oil reflect the sun on the water beyond the red and green buoys marking the entrance to the harbor. This morning we anchored over a slick and caught two dozen of the big carnivores, razor teeth snapping as I held them down on the blood-spattered deck with my bare feet and whacked them with a truncheon to extinguish their primitive little lights. Not that he deserves it, but this guy is probably in for a superb afternoon of fishing.
It takes about twenty minutes to get to the spot I have in mind, a submerged bar that boils up a small, productive rip. I cut the engine and lower the anchor slowly to avoid frightening away any stripers. I hand the client a blunt rod with a chartreuse bomber attached. It’s the same lure my morning client used, to excellent effect, a four-inch plastic teardrop scored by the teeth of countless marauding blues. I prefer fly-fishing myself, and stripers to blues, but a man’s got to make a living.
Clawson holds up the rod and squints doubtfully at the bomber. “It’s pretty scratched up. Can’t you give me a new one?”
“Those tooth marks are from this morning,” I explain. “It means the fish find this particular lure desirable.”
He hands back the rod. “I’d prefer a new one. Call me superstitious.”
I hold my tongue, unclipping a rod with an unused lure and passing it to him. “If the fish are here, we’re sitting right on top of them. You shouldn’t have to cast far.”
“From the platform?”
“From anywhere you like.”
The client climbs up to the platform. He doesn’t have sea legs; his re-balancings are jerky and awkward. He looks to be in decent physical shape but it’s artificial, a city-bred fitness gained from the weight room and the treadmill. I feel sorry for him, because it’s pretty clear that he’ll never truly appreciate the ocean the way one should, in all its fierce changeable beauty, its awesome biding power. On the other hand, I can tell he’s fished before. He knows the basics of casting a spinning rod, though he puts more muscle into it than he needs to.
“Reel it faster,” I suggest.
“Pardon?” Clawson stops casting and stares down from his perch on the platform. It’s as if I’ve said something surprising.
“Just letting you know, you need to reel in a little faster for bluefish. They won’t notice the lure as much if it’s not splashing around on the surface.”
He casts again, and doesn’t adjust his retrieval speed. Suit yourself, I think, glancing at my watch.
After a few more casts Clawson comes down from the platform and hands me the rod. “I need to piss.”
“Aim it off the stern,” I suggest. “And hold onto the rail – it’s getting rougher out here, and I wouldn’t want you to fall in.”
He starts aft, ignoring my advice to hold the rail. The tide is at full ebb and the rip is a compact standing torrent of whitecaps tugging on the anchor. A gusty southwest wind has picked up, and the water around the rip is choppy, unsettled.
The client stumbles and catches himself on the rail. I can’t suppress a derisive snort. He hears it or senses it above the wind and the roar of the rip, and shoots me a look over his shoulder. I smile innocently and give him an encouraging nod. He stands at the stern without touching the rail. With his feet spread wide for balance, he makes an adjustment and starts pissing across the wind.
“How long you been doing this?” he asks on his way back to the platform.
“Pretty long while,” I reply.
“What’d you do before?”
“This and that. Wasting time, mostly.” He holds out his hand for the rod and I give it to him.
“I would have guessed you were new to it,” he says.
A surge of anger clamps my throat. “What makes you say so?”
“You don’t seem entirely comfortable. With people, I mean.”
I feel my ears redden and for a moment I can’t think of anything to say. I watch him climb the ladder to the platform. It’s an unsteady place to stand, especially without a life preserver. These are dangerous waters. A sudden tilt of the boat in the choppy swells; an abrupt shift in the wind, or if I were to rev the engine suddenly, causing the bow to jerk on the anchor chain. These currents are trickier than they look. If you’re not a strong swimmer, a rip like this one can suck you under before you know it.
There isn’t much conversation after that, which suits me. The client keeps casting, but he’s still reeling it in too slowly to attract any attention from the blues. After awhile, out of boredom, I cast the rod with the chewed-up bomber. Seconds after I start skipping the plug along the choppy surface, a big tail splash erupts behind it. I pull up to set the hook; the rod bends and the reel drag whines as the fish runs for deeper water. The client stops casting and watches glumly from the platform. From the way it’s fighting –intermittent and forceful, like a Rottweiler tugging on a stick – I can tell it’s not a bluefish, but a big striper instead. This is unexpected. Stripers don’t often follow lures on the surface, especially with so many blues in the water.
Striped bass are my favorite fish. They correspond to bluefish approximately as an eagle does to a buzzard. Their intelligence and selectivity make them difficult to catch at the best of times, but especially midsummer. They’re prized by restaurant chefs up and down the east coast for their firm buttery flesh, which is perfect for grilling, but I prefer to release them. An old girlfriend once accused me of loving stripers more than people. She was joking, but the funny thing is that as the years have gone by I’ve come to realize she wasn’t too far off the mark. Sometimes when I have no clients I drive to a certain sheltered beach I know of, and I wade out to a sandbar and cast a nine-weight fly rod. Each time I bring in one of these dignified predators I feel a visceral link to the wild essence of the sea. Their life force flows like an electrical current into my hands, and it fills me with an enduring sense of peace. It gives me solace to imagine them cruising beneath the troubled surface, patrolling their realm in groups of three or four, fast green shadows flying over the eel grass.
Once I’ve fought the fish into the boat I cradle it gently in the clear water of the holding tank. It’s a big one, probably forty-two or forty-three inches from nose to tail. It rests under the water with its gills flaring, luminous, tranquil, like a platinum missile with five black stripes running along its muscular fuselage.
“I hope you’re not thinking of letting that go,” the client says from the platform.
“Actually, I am.”
“Look. I’ve been fishing all afternoon, and I haven’t had a nibble. Seems like it would be nice to bring something back to show for my trouble. Would you mind if I kept it?”
I let out my breath and stare down at the striper. “If you would reel in your line just a bit faster, like I told you, I can pretty much guarantee you’d bring in a bluefish.”
“Who’s paying for this trip, anyway, I forget. You or me?”
I look up. Some time in the last hour he’s put on a long-billed fishing cap, like the one Hemingway used to wear, and his eyes are hidden behind the aviators. But the corners of his mouth are compressed in a sour little smile that reminds me of my second grade teacher, Mrs. Bergeron.
“You’re paying,” I say calmly. “But I’m pretty sure you didn’t catch this fish.”
“No, that’s correct,” he conceded. “But you did. And your time is costing me a lot of money, isn’t it?”
The fish awaits its destiny, fins and tail fluttering patiently to and fro as I grip it lightly in the cold seawater. The customer’s always right. That’s the first thing you learn when you try to make a living in the service business.
I lift the noble creature out of its native medium and set it dripping on the deck. It senses the end and panics, flopping vigorously and throwing itself around until I manage to wrestle it under control and press my knee onto the cool scales of its side to keep it down. I pick up the truncheon, hesitate for a second, then bring it down hard on the golden skull. Its body quivers along its entire length. The broad, slightly forked tail comes up and slaps the deck three times. Clenching my teeth, I whack the beautiful fish twice more to be sure it’s dead. Then I pick it up and drop it in the holding tank. Blood fumes from its gills, staining the brine a shameful pink.
I wipe my hands with a rag and walk back to the pilot’s chair. I’ve killed hundreds of fish, maybe thousands, but habit doesn’t necessarily make it easier. And I don’t like to kill stripers. Especially when it’s against my better judgment, and for the purposes of impressing the golf buddies of a man like Jay Clawson.
Just then something strikes me hard on the forehead. Through a blinding red haze of pain it dawns on me that I’ve been hit by the client’s bomber. He’s on the platform with his back to me, calmly reeling in his line.
“Be more careful, dude,” I say, rubbing my forehead. There’s already a good-sized egg rising where the lead-core plug hit.
He doesn’t hear me, or pretends not to. When the bomber is a foot from the end of the rod he whips it back and flings it out. This time it sails true and lands just short of the rip. I try again, raising my voice over the roar and slap of the ocean so there can be no question about whether or not he hears me. “Hey, Clawson. You hit me with your plug on that last cast. Watch what the hell you’re doing, okay?”
He stops mid-reel. His shoulders rise and fall, a long sigh. Then he puts the rod down on the gently rolling platform and turns to face me.
“Pick up that rod and finish reeling it in,” I say. “Don’t leave it there unless you want to replace it when it falls off.”
He glances down at the rod and then back at me. “I’m docking half your fee.”
“On your website you claim to be an experienced guide. I haven’t caught a single fish, and you’ve made no effort to help me. It’s ridiculous. Now you’re resorting to verbal abuse. I’ll pay you half the stated fee, and if you have a problem with that you can call my lawyer.”
I let out my breath. Just then the line catches and my four hundred dollar spinning rig rolls off the platform and disappears into the sea with a gentle splash. The rest of the world recedes. It’s just the two of us on my rocking boat, with the island a low green haze in the distance across the bright shimmer of dancing water. I can hear the roar of the rip but it seems far away, nearly drowned out by the ringing in my ears.
Like me, the coasties and most of the sheriff’s deputies live out here year-round. They know very well that terrible and unexpected things can happen at sea. The ocean is a hungry and capricious mistress; there’s no use spending too much time or effort questioning her appetites. And of course, no one will ever suspect foul play. Because what motive could there possibly be?
I radio for a cutter and a helicopter, but none of us can find Clawson. We search until the tide slackens, and after that there’s really no point. If he ever does come to the surface it’s likely to be pretty far from where he went under. By the time I point the boat back to the marina, it’s nearly dusk. The rip has subsided to a gentle riffle, like a country trout stream in the middle of the green Atlantic.