Chapter One from Ron's new novel
I, THE SANIBEL SUNSET DETECTIVE
Rex Baxter, Tree Callister’s oldest and best friend, said he had something important to tell him. News he did not want to reveal inside the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center where Tree had had the office of the Sanibel Sunset Detective Agency for nearly ten years.
Instead, he wanted to meet at the Bimini Bait Shack, just before the causeway leading to Sanibel and Captiva, the islands off the west coast of Florida where Tree had managed to wreak various kinds of havoc and, thus, Rex joked—half joked—had single-handedly destroyed the islands’ tourism industry.
Rex was seated at the fish-tank bar—perhaps keeping in mind W.C. Fields’s admonition that one should not drink water because fish swim in it, the Bait Shack’s clientele spread out along the bar with their pĩna coladas, rum runners, frozen daiquiris set atop brightly colored fish as exotic as the drinks. Fields would have been pleased.
Rex sat as far away as he could from the air boat suspended from the ceiling. Given his bad luck with Tree around, Rex was certain the air boat would crash down on him if he were beneath it.
“What’s so important that we couldn’t talk at the chamber this morning?” Tree asked when he joined Rex.
Rex said, “I’m retiring.”
“Retiring? From what?”
“From the chamber,” Rex said. “What else is there to retire from?”
Tree was trying to get his head around this. “Why?”
“It might have something to do with the fact that I’m ninety-one-years old.”
Tree looked even more astonished than before. “You’re ninety-years-old?”
“No, you’re not listening.” Rex sounded irritated, a not unusual reaction when he was speaking to Tree. “I didn’t say I was ninety. I said I was ninety-one.”
“I don’t believe it,” Tree said.
“What? When I told you those stories about sleeping with Joan Crawford, drinking with Hemingway and Sinatra in Rome, you thought I was making all that up?”
“No, of course not,” Tree said.
“You’re rising from the ashes, right?”
“I, the Sanibel Sunset Detective, renewed,” Tree said.
“While you’re renewing, I’m retiring.”
“I don’t believe it,” Tree repeated.
“I wish you’d stop saying ‘I don’t believe it.’ Believe it. I’m out of the chamber as of this week.”
“Why so soon?”
“Because that’s what the board wants,” Rex answered.
“The board wants you to retire?”
“They’re not saying it in so many words, but, as ridiculous as it sounds, they think I’m too old.”
“Totally ridiculous,” Tree agreed. “I’ve known you since the earth cooled, and I had no idea how old you are.”
“I know, but you’re oblivious to everything,” Rex said.
“Or—and this is more likely—I’ve always considered you ageless.”
“I’m philosophical about it,” Rex said. “Times change. Everything comes to an end. I’ve been a bad actor in Hollywood, a clueless weatherman in Chicago, and now, in my dotage, a revered godlike figure on Sanibel and Captiva. I’ve somehow managed to survive it all. My only regret is that, despite my best efforts, I have been unable to keep you out of trouble.”
“You’ve tried your best,” Tree said.
“The bad news for you is that with me gone from the chamber, you’re going to have to find a new office.”
“I knew there was a downside to you leaving.”
“You might actually have to pay rent,” Rex said.
“I’m sorry to hear this, Rex,” Tree said soberly.
“You mean the rent?”
“No, I’m being serious. It’s the end of an era. It really is.”
Around them, the Bait Shack was beginning to fill up with patrons arriving for cocktail hour. The garage-type doors had been opened to give customers access to the terrace and a view of San Carlos Bay. Another day of spectacular sun in Southwest Florida was coming to an end, the sort of sun made for vacations, that gave the impression nothing could possibly be wrong with the world.
It was, Tree had learned all too often, a false sun.
A voice behind him said, “Tree? Tree Callister?”
Tree turned to see a small man with hooded eyes, hair cut close to the skull, a knowing half- smile on his lips. As soon as he saw who it was, Tree groaned inwardly. “Erle Player,” he said.
“The one and only, my friend, the one and only,” Erle said, the half-smile becoming a sharply edged knife blade as he gripped Tree’s hand.
“How are you?” Tree asked, managing to extract his hand, trying not to show that Erle had just about broken it.
“Never better, my friend. Never better.”
Tree had no choice but to turn to Rex and say, “This is Erle Player. Erle is a movie producer. Erle, this is Rex Baxter. He heads the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce.”
“Retiring,” Rex added, enduring Erle’s vicelike grip.
“Pleasure to meet any friend of Tree’s, Rex.”
“How do you know Tree?” Rex asked.
“How do I know Tree?” Beneath those hooded lids, Erle’s eyes rolled. “How do I not know Tree? Back when we were both younger than we are now, Tree came to Rome to write a script for me.”
“Is that so?” said Rex. He looked at Tree. “I don’t think you ever told me this.”
“No?” Tree said with false innocence. “I can’t imagine why.”
“I’ll tell you why,” Erle interjected cheerfully. “That script was the worst piece of shit I’ve ever read.”
“There you go,” Tree said in a dull voice.
Erle slapped Tree on the shoulder. “Only kidding. It wasn’t that bad. Needed work, that’s all.”
“Don’t they all,” Rex said.
“You got that right,” Erle said. He shook his head. “Writers. Jeez Louise. It would be a great business if you didn’t have to deal with writers. Or actors.”
“Those damned actors,” Rex said dryly.
“You talk as if you speak from experience, friend,” Erle said.
“I used to be an actor,” Rex said.
Erle’s eyebrows shot up. “There you go,” he said noncommittally
Rex’s eyes narrowed, abruptly realizing who he was talking to. “Erle Player,” he said. “Aren’t you partners with your brother?”
“That’s right,” Erle said. Some of the glint had gone out of those hooded eyes.
“Sonny Player? Isn’t he your brother?”
“That’s him, all right,” Erle said.
“The Player brothers,” Rex said. “Bigtime Hollywood producers. Fallen on hard times.”
The knife-blade smile was back but a little more forced this time. “Not so big. Not so hard. Down a bit but not out.” He pointed a finger at Tree. “That’s why I came looking for you.”
“You’re looking for me?” Tree couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.
“I dropped around to the chamber, they said you might be here.”
“Why would you be looking for me?”
“Why else? I want to hire you.” Now that he wasn’t having to answer questions about his brother, Erle’s voice had regained its cheerfulness.
“Hire me? Hire me to do what?”
“To rewrite that script, of course.”
“Erle, you just said it was the worst piece of shit you ever read.”
“That wasn’t me,” Erle said, gleefully. “That was Sonny.”
“Okay, I stand corrected. You said it was the second-worst.”
“My way of saying it needed work, that’s all. You’re the man for this, Tree, I know you are. I’ve rented a place in Gulf Harbour just off the island for the next couple of months. We can work together, get it into shape.”
“Movies are finished,” Rex announced.
Erle gave him a baleful look. “That’s where you’re wrong, friend. Some of the people who make movies are finished, but the rest of us go on.”
“Go on all you want, but nobody cares anymore,” Rex continued. “Kids go to the movies to watch nothing about nothing.”
“This one won’t be nothing,” Erle said. “This one is going to be a landmark film, mark my words.”
“Is Sonny involved in the landmark?” Tree asked.
“Sonny?” Erle managed to sound as though he had never before heard the name.
“You know, your brother.”
“Yeah, I know who Sonny is. Everyone knows Sonny these days, unfortunately. Let’s put it this way, Sonny’s got his own problems to handle—problems that have adversely impacted me, I’ve gotta say. But there you go. Sonny won’t be involved in this.”
“Where’s Sonny now?” Rex asked.
“I have no idea,” Erle said, a statement that sounded as though it had been repeated many times and now was issued by rote.
“The thing is, Erle, I’m long since out of that business,” Tree said.
“Yeah, I hear that,” Erle replied. “What? You’re some sort of detective here on the island?”
“He’s the Sanibel Sunset Detective,” Rex interjected.
Erle made a face. “What do you do? Run around finding lost dogs for a couple of bucks here and there? I’m talking real money, Tree. A chance to get back in the game.”
“I don’t want back into the game, Erle,” Tree said.
“Sure, you do.” Erle’s knowing, knife-blade smile was back. “Everyone wants in. Everyone wants to write a screenplay, friend.”
Tree was saved from having to respond by the curious sounds coming from Rex’s phone.
“Everything all right?” Tree asked.
Rex looked up from his phone. “It’s an alert,” he said. “A storm is coming.”