Mason Ward’s cell phone buzzed to life on the built-in shelf next to his bed. Instantly awake, Mason grabbed it before it could wake the young man sleeping next to him. “Ward,” he grumbled. He didn’t have to be polite; according to his phone’s display it was 4:30 in the morning.
Silence greeted him.
Mason disconnected and dropped back onto his pillow. The air drifting in through the open ports over the bed was thick with the scent of Pacific and the relative chill of December. He inhaled deeply, resigned to the fact that he was now awake. Damn crank calls. He knew if he scrolled through his incoming calls, he’d find a local number that would eventually turn out to be a payphone. He hadn’t kept track of the first few calls, had barely even registered the hang-ups, but the last half dozen had come from different locations. Someone sure went to a lot of trouble to annoy him.
He eased out from under the sheet and swung his long legs over the edge of the bed. His lover didn’t stir; the redhead had only just joined Mason in bed an hour ago.
In the near dark of pre-dawn—the sun wouldn’t rise for another two hours—Mason pulled on his workout shorts and left the stateroom. He headed to the galley, dropped his cursed cell phone on the counter, got himself some a glass of milk, and went about his usual morning routine.
He hadn’t been an Army Ranger in five years, but he still exercised like one. Pushups. Situps. Chinups. Then the run. He walked down the long pier that separated his 58-foot Alaskan-style trawler from dry land, hung a right out of the marina’s gate and headed south on Route 2, past Nimitz Beach Park. It was too early and too dark still for anyone else to be on the road, even the roving bands of wild pig that usually foraged in the underbrush to either side of the road were still sleeping.
But the exercise didn’t have its usual calming effect on Mason. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to these crank calls than the wish to annoy him. Since he was on call 24/7, he didn’t even have the luxury to ignore his phone. He returned to the marina no closer to figuring out his problem and drenched in sweat.
His trawler had a bathroom, of course, but Mason preferred to shower in the marina’s men’s locker room. It had taken him, his friend Ben and the cabinetmaker two years to gut, restore and reconfigure The Sea Sprite to Mason’s needs, but there was only so much room on a boat and he hadn’t allocated much to his bathroom. As much as he loved living on his boat—a lifestyle he’d chosen with some purpose—it was far more practical for him to use the facilities the marina offered. And so he kept toiletries and a set of work clothes in his assigned locker.
By the time he stepped out of the shower, he had a short mental list of people who hated his guts enough to get up at 4:30 in the morning and call him. He slung a towel around his hips and dragged another through his hair. He pulled on a black pair of briefs and dragged black cargo pants up over his hips, then opened the locker room door to let the steam and hot air escape into the early morning. He turned back and went to grab his black polo shirt from his locker, when a feminine voice intruded on his privacy.
“I bet even your sheets are black.”
Mason turned to find a young woman standing in the door. She was a foot shorter than his six-four, with square, bony shoulders and sharp-edged clavicles that were in stark contrast to the full roundness of her ample breasts. Her sun-bleached hair hung in a loose ponytail down her back. Her yellow tank top and jean shorts left more exposed than they covered. She leaned back against the open door that clearly said Men’s on it and smiled.
“Is there something I can help you with?”
Mason’s brusque manner didn’t faze her, if anything her smile widened. She pulled her ponytail over her shoulder. “Hi. I’m kinda new here and I have no idea where anything is. Where do I go for a good cup of coffee around here?”
Mason thought of the man sleeping in his bed. Soren would know down to the yard where the nearest coffee shop was. Soren would also get a kick out of this girl coming on to Mason.
“There’s a gas station with a convenience store up the road.”
“Not what I had in mind, but it’ll do.” She gave him a pretty pout. “I’m Halley. Like the comet. I’m on The Pacific Sun.” She jerked her chin in the directions of the piers.
Mason knew the boat. The 32-foot Pearson Vanguard was a classic little sailboat, but sadly unused these days. He wasn’t sure but he thought he’d heard that she was for sale.
“Mrs. Maria said I could stay on it, her, for a few days. You know, until after the holidays, and I can get into the dorms.”
Mason arched his dark brows. He didn’t think the barely-dressed Halley and the retired Catholic School teacher Maria San Nicholas moved in the same circles. This girl wouldn’t be the first squatter the marina had seen.
His skepticism must have been apparent, because Halley quickly added, “Mrs. Maria is sponsoring me, you could say. We met through the National Student Exchange. I’m studying to become a Spanish teacher. Did you know she taught High School Spanish for twenty-five years?”
He’d had an idea. “You’re at the U of G?”
“Sophomore.” Halley beamed and reached for her ponytail again. “I guess I better get going. I really need that coffee. Nice meeting you, Mason.” She gave him a little wave and trotted off.
Mason caught her use of his first name and shook his head. He’d give her a couple of days or so to figure out he wasn’t in the market for a girlfriend. In the meantime, he’d give Mrs. San Nicholas a call to check out Halley’s story.
He returned to The Sea Sprite to find a cup of steaming brown rice tea and a note scrawled on the back of an envelope on the galley counter next to his phone. Call work ASAP. The tea made him smile. The note made him cringe.
He snatched up his phone and hit speed dial. He took the steps that led down from the galley to the narrow companionway that he followed to the bow of the Sprite. He gently pushed the door to the master stateroom open to see if his lover was still awake, but Soren was sleeping again, sprawled across green, pinstriped sheets.
When Lourdes Nakamura, Mason’s nightshift supervisor, answered her phone, Mason stepped back into the dark companionway. “You called?”
“Boss. We’ve got trouble.”
Mason groaned and dragged a hand through his short hair. It was barely even Monday and already his day didn’t look so good “What’s up?”
“Graffiti. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Graffiti didn’t sound like something Lourdes couldn’t handle. The ex-Marine had been a bouncer in some of Guam’s rowdiest nightclubs before Mason had offered her a job on his staff. She was as capable as they came. Mason frowned.
“It’s all over the mall. And when I say all over, I mean all over. Check your phone, I’ve sent pictures.”
Mason thumbed through his phone’s menu and called up incoming files. “Christ.”
“So not the first word that came to my mind,” Lourdes admitted, a wry tone to her voice.
Mason felt like the Sea Sprite was suddenly pitching and rolling under his feet. He reached out a hand to steady himself as he scrolled through the files in his phone with the other. His stomach sank with each consecutive picture. Lourdes hadn’t exaggerated when she’d said “all over.” What little undecorated surface of the Tumon Bay Mall there had been was now covered with the rainbow-colored words “Pickle Kisser” next to the very grotesque rendering of a penis.
“I got the call around 4:30. I sent the mobile guys to check it out. It’s not just the mall. It’s all over the library on O’Brian Drive, the Tamuning post office, John F. Kennedy High School, and up and down Skinner Plaza. It’s not a random prank, is it?”
“No.” Mason wished it was, but he didn’t believe in coincidences of that magnitude. He stared at his phone, absently noting that each act of vandalism must have been committed by a different person. The slur was the same in every picture, but the handwriting was different, some words printed, some cursive, letters slanted left or right, some capitalized, some not. The penis spray-painted next to the words looked similar in each picture, though, as if the artists had worked from a template.
Mason went over the last few weeks of his life, trying to remember anything he might have done to provoke the wrath/contempt of a man he hadn’t seen in five years. He’d heard his fair share of whispered “fag” or “faggot,” but he’d never heard anyone else call him “pickle kisser” before or after Captain Tom Krukowski, the man who’d ended his military career.
But what reason would Krukowski have to come after him all these years later? The way he saw it, Mason had all the right in the world to carry a grudge. Krukowski’s witch hunt had almost cost him an honorable discharge from the military. Only timing had saved what very little had remained of his good name.
“Boss? You’re awfully quiet over there.”
“Just thinking.” Mason’s short list of enemies hadn’t even included Krukowski. Thirty minutes ago the man hadn’t been more than a distant, bad memory. Now he was what he had never wanted to be: the focus of Mason’s attention.
“Can you think while you drive?”
“I’m on my way.”
“Bring air freshener. Your life just got flushed down the toilet. The cops are here.”