An Absence of Light
The First Day
He walked barefoot in the dark across the clipped, dampish lawn, the muggy breeze from the Gulf of Mexico fifty yards away gently tugging at the legs of his silk pajamas which he had rolled to mid calf. He was shirtless and though his torso carried its weight a little differently now than it had a couple of decades earlier, at fifty-eight his muscles were still firm. He was a handsome man and he knew it, and every day he lifted weights to maintain a thick chest and spent half an hour in the coastal sun to keep a nut brown patina to his olive complexion. Because his hair was beginning to thin a little, he now wore it slightly longer than he used to, his gray sideburns brushed back rakishly to blend with the gray hair at his temples.
Carrying a tall, thin glass of ice and rum in one hand, he walked toward the pier that jutted out into the murky Gulf where a seaplane was whipping the night waters as it taxied toward the docking slip, its red and white lights winking, the dying whine of its props dropping to lower and lower registers as it approached the two men on the pier who were waiting to secure the craft to the pilings.
Panos Kalatis could not see any of this very clearly, the men, the plane, the pier were all gray upon darker gray upon black, for the night was moonless and clear and the scattered lights on the long sweep of the shoreline cast their illumination straight to the stars where it was swallowed in the vast, empty, universal darkness. He scratched the salt-and-pepper hair on his chest and waited, listening to the peculiar hollow sound that things made when echoing off the surface of water, the doors of the plane clicking open, the metal pontoons thumping softly against the pilings, water lapping against shore and pier, the shuffle of men’s feet on the wooden dock, and the furtive sound of their voices.
Kalatis ate a piece of ice from his glass and waited. He loved the Gulf, its breath-warm nights Riled with the salty odors of other worlds brought along on the swift, strong currents of the Gulf Stream. It reminded him of other salty waters, other gulfs, other shores, and intrigues.
At the moment, however, his overriding emotion was restlessness. He stepped a few feet away nearer the point where the pier joined the breakwater below. In the almost total darkness he could see the cusp of sand below the pier and make out the vague movements of the men on the dock. From among the scuffling sounds of feet on the dock he could make out a single set with a rhythm all its own. He concentrated on those as they separated from the others and grew louder as they approached along the pier. When they reached the stairs they turned short and choppy as the man mounted the series of steps that brought him up to the edge of the lawn.
“Over here.” He spoke from the dark, not too loud, knowing his thick voice carried like a foghorn.
“Nice craft,” the man said, a little out of breath, coming toward Kalatis across the lawn.
Before he got to him, Kalatis walked a few paces back toward the house so that Colin Faeber had to keep walking to overtake him. When Kalatis stopped he turned to face Faeber and ate another piece of ice. They looked at each other, each face barely discernible in the low light Kalatis said nothing, and after a moment he turned and looked back toward the house which was on higher ground, palm trees scattered around it, a low-slung structure with deep verandas that made one think of British Colonial settings. Kalatis could see Jael on the veranda, moving back and forth, her long-limbed silhouette drifting in the dusky half light coming from the tall windows behind her. Even from this distance he clearly could see that she was naked. When he turned around he just caught the movement of Faeber’s head looking away down the beach, as though there were something that way he wanted to see, out there in the dark.
Faeber was wearing a suit with a pocket handkerchief. He must have been somewhere, a party maybe, some kind of event. Kalatis could just make out the expression on his face in the wan light from the windows of the house, a light that died all the way across the broad sloping lawn to the beach until it was hardly anything at all by the time it got to them standing just a few yards above the water.
Faeber was feeling awkward because of Kalatis’s silence. He looked down the beach the other way, and then he looked around to the plane on the water. There was nowhere else to direct his eyes except at Kalatis, or at Jael on the veranda where he already had looked and was afraid to look again.
Kalatis watched him and waited a moment more so that Faeber would be absolutely grateful to hear him speak. He drank some rum looking out toward the dark ghost of the plane on the water.
“I received a telephone call about an hour ago,” he said. “It was not good news.”
He could see Faeber stiffen, and he thought that if he were a dog he would have been able to smell the fear riding on the gusts coming off the water from behind him.
“What’s the matter?” Faeber asked.
“Arthur Tisler has killed himself.” He pronounced the name Tee-sler.
Pause. “God…!” The ejaculation from Faeber was an aspirant, a hiss.
Kalatis thought he saw Faeber’s left leg move, maybe to steady himself on the slope of the lawn.
“Wh… when was this? Christ… that’s incredible. Jesus Christ. When was this?”
“A few hours ago.”
“Goddamn… Arthur Tisler.”
“Was he alone? I mean, someone found him I guess. Who found him?”
Faeber was silent Kalatis did not interrupt him. Years of experience had taught him that good people-and Faeber was a good man-responded to very little stimulus. If they were intelligent enough, venal enough, and if he had brought them along with enough skill and just the right tincture of anxiety, they would make the right decisions. They would be dependable-for his purposes, at least-even when they were caught off balance.
Faeber had turned to look down the beach, at the curving line of lights, as though he could do his best thinking if he were not looking directly in Kalatis’s face. Kalatis studied his profile. He was a typical American businessman, a kind of perennial, overgrown boy who always would be impressed by-and who always would try to impress others with-his odd sense of masculinity, a concept that was comprised in large part of financial competitiveness. Kalatis had never met an American businessman who didn’t eventually try to puzzle out your approximate financial worth by circuitous conversation during which they tried to elicit your occupation, where you lived, what you drove, what clubs you belonged to, whom you knew, where you went on vacation, and what kind of toys you employed for your leisure-boat, car, skis, guns, et cetera. It was a kind of penis comparison, a sophomoric measuring of oneself against the next man, using dollars instead of genitals.
Faeber turned to Kalatis. “You said you got a call. Is this going to be on the news?”
“No. I understand this can be handled very quietly. They’ve had some luck on that.”
Faeber didn’t pursue the question further or ask Kalatis to elaborate. He didn’t need to. He loosened his tie.
“Then I guess the Seldon operation is dead in its tracks,” he said. He paused and shook his head. “Suicide. Goddamn, can you believe that? What a butt stupid thing to do. Unbelievable. Okay, uh, there’ll be a flurry of departmental investigations. Homicide and IAD. Graver will conduct an inquiry of his own to make sure nothing was compromised. If it’s suicide…” He stopped and focused on Kalatis. “They’re sure it’s suicide…”
Kalatis nodded. “They are saying suicide.”
“Then since it’s suicide there’s no problem with Homicide or IAD, only Graver’s inquiry. But we should be covered there. Our people are good, very careful. I’ll keep an eye on it, make sure nothing’s unraveling.”