The streets along the docks were still wet from the morning’s heavy rains. Bill Hawkins walked alone in the cooling night air, admiring the array of tethered boats bobbing up and down on the slightly disturbed sea.
He had wanted a boat as far back as he could remember. He had saved for years, but the money always went to pay for other things that came up – like his recent divorce from Jen. Now, out of work, living in a studio apartment, and barely making ends meet on unemployment, he knew his seafaring dreams were history.
The houseboat moored at Dock 6 caught his eye. It was old, and he was attracted to its classic styling. The craft was very well kept. The diminishing sunlight glistened on its windows like tiny diamonds. He was so intent in his admiration of it that he failed to notice the old man sitting in the folding chair a few steps further on.
“A beauty, ain’t she?” he said in a gravelly voice.
“I’m sorry,” Hawkins replied, coming back suddenly to reality. “I didn’t see you.”
The man looked to be in his late 70s. His hair, what remained of it, was white and wispy. His bushy brows formed canopies over a pair of eyes the color of the sea. A black pipe clenched between his teeth emitted a plume of sweet-smelling smoke. He was wearing a red-checked flannel shirt, and he had thrown a threadbare afghan on his lap against the encroaching night chill. Beside him was a wobbly TV table that held several items, including, Bill noticed, a Whitman’s Sampler. A second chair sat unoccupied on the other side of the table.
“No apologies needed,” the elderly man answered. “Do you like the Eleanor?”
“Very much,” Hawkins validated. “My name is Bill Hawkins, by the way.”
“Ed Gorham,” the old man continued, remaining seated but proffering his right hand, which Bill shook heartily. “How about you take a load off – have a seat – and visit a spell?”
“I don’t want to take up your time.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gorham replied. “Not many people come to visit anymore. I’d appreciate the company.”
Bill noticed Ed’s face brighten as he accepted the offered chair. He inched his jacket’s zipper a bit north and sat. “Chilly tonight,” he began.
“Yes,” Gorham countered. “Winter is definitely on its way.” He took a couple of puffs on his pipe and let the smoke circle about his head. “So,” he asked Hawkins, “do you own a boat?”
“Unfortunately not,” Bill replied. “Money’s kind of tight now. I’ve been out of work for a couple of months.”
“That’s too bad.” Ed gestured at his boat. “Do you like the Eleanor?” he asked again.
“Is that her name?”
“Yep,” Gorham replied. “After my dear wife. That boat’s been in the family for more than thirty years.”
“She’s a beautiful ship,” Hawkins added. “Eleanor must be proud of her.”
“She was,” the old man answered, welling up. “She passed about four months ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
The old man collected himself enough to go on. “Many a night we sat out here under the stars watching the world walk by. That was her seat you’re in. Yep, we must have sailed at least four of the seven seas on the Eleanor, I’d wager.” His old, tear-filled eyes took on a far-away look. Hawkins knew that look well. He had seen it many times in his mirror. It was the look of someone remembering better days. “We lived on that boat for years, right here at the docks,” Gorham continued, running the back of his right hand over his eyes in an attempt to dry them. “I’ve tried to keep her in good repair.”
Ed cracked a tobacco-stained smile. “It’s getting tougher. The arthritis in my hands is so bad some mornings that I can barely hold my coffee cup. I’ve been thinking it might be time to find a new home for the old girl.”
“I hope you get a good price.”
“I don’t need money,” Gorham explained. “I’d like the Eleanor to go to a nice home.” His eyes brightened and the corners of his mouth turned up. “Maybe you could take her, Bill?”
Bill chuckled and answered, “I’d love to, but. . . uhm. . . right now I couldn’t even afford the dock fee.”
“Don’t worry about that. It’s paid up through next year.”
“You’d really give me this boat?” Bill asked in eager astonishment.
Gorham smirked. “Could be,” he answered wryly. Ed rose unsteadily from his chair. “I’ll tell you what: Let’s go to the galley and talk about it. I have some brandy down there that’s older than I am.”
“Sounds good,” Hawkins answered.
“Just do me one favor.”
“Bring along that candy box,” Gorham said, pointing at the Sampler on the table.
The galley, as Hawkins knew it would be, was spotless. With a grunt, Ed sat behind a circular wooden table and indicated that Bill should sit across from him. Hawkins did so, placing the Sampler on top of a folder that was already there. As Bill settled in, Ed grasped the box and pulled it to him in what seemed to Hawkins like a hug.
“Bill,” Ed said, pointing at a box on the floor, “the brandy and glasses are in there.” The younger man reached down and pulled the box onto the table. He removed the half-full bottle and two snifters. As he tossed the empty box to the floor, Ed filled their glasses with the aging beverage.
After Gorham had suitably appreciated the brandy’s aroma and warmed it with the heat from his hands, he proposed a toast: “To Eleanor!” Hawkins concurred, and the men drank deeply. The cognac packed quite a punch! Bill felt its warmth making slow progress down his throat and into his gut. Gorham clutched the Whitman’s Sampler box and slowly, reverently began to remove its cover. “Do you like chocolates?” he asked his companion.
“Now and again,” Hawkins replied.
Ed removed the cover to reveal the dozen remaining pieces. “My Eleanor had quite a sweet tooth,” Gorham remembered fondly. “One of these Samplers was a huge deal to her. Much better than jewelry or flowers.”
“You don’t have many pieces left,” Hawkins observed.
“No – only a dozen. I’ve been having one piece a night, but I haven’t found the right one yet.”
“The right one?” Bill inquired.
“The poisoned one.”
“Yes,” Gorham went on calmly, as though he had just mentioned the score of last night’s ball game. “Are you married?”
“D. . . Divorced,” Hawkins stammered.
Ed sniffed and, with effort, continued. “When my wife passed on, I quickly realized that I had no desire to live anymore. I tried to kill myself a few times, but I never had the guts. I even bought a gun! I had it loaded, cocked, and in my mouth. . . but I couldn’t pull the trigger.”
Bill found himself conflicted between running back to his studio and hearing Ed Gorham out. “So you decided to kill yourself with poison candy?” Hawkins continued, deciding it best to humor the old man across the table.
“Yeah,” Ed answered. “I purchased this Sampler for Eleanor, but she never got the chance to open it. It didn’t take much looking to find some dock dweller who was willing to help me. . . for a price. He poisoned one piece of candy, as I asked him. I forget what poison he used. He said it was nearly tasteless and that whatever taste it might have would be covered up by the chocolate or the cognac.”
“You’ve been eating one piece of candy a day in the hope of finding the poisoned one?” Hawkins asked with astonishment.
“Exactly,” Ed replied, gently shaking the sweets in the open box. “I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger, but I can do this to be with my wife.” Gorham paused and rubbed his moist eyes. “Tonight, though,” he went on, “tonight, I bring this tomfoolery to an end.”
Gorham poured some more cognac into Hawkins’ snifter. “Do you want this boat?”
“Of course,” Bill answered.
“Then share the Sampler with me,” Ed said hopefully.
Hawkins looked down at the sweets and chuckled. “You must be kidding,” he said.
“Not at all.”
“You’re out of your mind! I should risk my life for a. . . for a boat?”
“A truly rugged man would take the bet,” Gorham said, hitting every word for emphasis. “It takes a tough man to be out at sea.” He paused briefly. “There’s only a one-in-twelve chance that you’ll find the doctored piece. Those are pretty good odds for a free boat, wouldn’t you say?”
To his astonishment, Hawkins found himself contemplating the offer. He could live on the Eleanor and give up his studio apartment. Or he could sell the boat. He would never get a better chance to turn his fortunes around.
“What’s the bet?” Bill asked at last, leaning towards Gorham.
“The two of us sit here and eat the chocolates a piece at a time – my version of Russian roulette – and drink the brandy until one of us gets the piece. I asked the guy I hired to make the poison fast acting. There will be little pain.”
“So,” Hawkins prompted him for clarification, “if you eat that piece. . .”
“You win. The Eleanor will be yours.” Gorham continued, “It’s paid for. I have all the paperwork right here,” he said, tapping the folder in the center of the table. “I’ll sign everything over to you before we start. I’ve even included a note mentioning that I died by my own hand and that you are to be held completely blameless. It directs my attorney to give you free title to the Eleanor.” Ed opened the folder and pulled a pen from his shirt pocket. “You said your last name is Hawkins?” he asked.
“That’s. . . That’s right,” Bill answered.
Gorham arthritically wrote Bill’s name down on a blank line on the top sheet of paper. Then he closed the folder, rested the box of chocolates on top of it, and put the pen back in his pocket. “There,” he summed up proudly. “Now it’s all legal. I’ve informed my lawyer to expect a call about me from a stranger.”
“You seem pretty sure I’ll go along.”
“The odds are in your favor: Twelve to one.”
“What happens if you win?” Bill wondered.
“You mean if you find the chocolate?” Gorham’s brow furrowed. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “I want to be with my wife, so I hope that doesn’t happen.”
“Why do you need me?” Hawkins asked. “If you’re so anxious to find that special chocolate, you could eat all of them right now.”
“Yes,” Gorham explained, “but then I’d miss your company and the chance to see to it that this boat goes to a good home. Also,” he continued uneasily, “I’m not certain my wife would want me to do this – rush my death, that is. I figure that if I get that piece while we’re taking turns, it was meant to be. Eleanor wouldn’t let it happen otherwise.” He drained his snifter in one gulp, enjoying the liquor’s warmth, and asked, “Do we have a bet?”
Hawkins squinted at the dozen chocolates. Why had he left his glasses at home?
He was looking for a needle mark. He figured whatever goon the old man hired to do this must have injected the poison into the chocolate. Breaking a piece in half, inserting the poison, and trying to mold the chocolate back together would make the doctored candy stand out like a sore thumb.
With no fanfare, Gorham went first. He plucked a piece at random from the Sampler and popped it into his mouth, chewing it a few times with his tobacco-yellowed teeth and then draining his snifter to wash the sweet down. Nothing. The odds had now worsened.
Hawkins nervously reached for the box, as though it were a hot stove. He picked a square piece – caramel? – put it in his mouth, chewed it, and swallowed. He felt fine, but there were still chocolates to go.
The box was now only half as full as it had been when they began. As Gorham happily chewed another piece, Hawkins felt sweat begin rolling down his back. He nervously took a circular chocolate and put it into his mouth.
What was that? Poison? No: Just a nut. He drained his glass, swallowed, and, with a shaky hand, refilled his and his companion’s snifters from the almost-empty liquor bottle.
Four. That was all that remained. Bill didn’t like the odds any longer.
It was the old man’s turn to pick, which he did with gusto, washing down the chocolate with the cognac. Nothing!
As Hawkins reluctantly reached for the Sampler, he noticed a change in Gorham’s face. It had gone pallid. The old man gurgled a bit. He accidentally toppled his brandy snifter, which spilled its contents, rolled off the table, and shattered on the galley floor. He motioned Hawkins closer. “I win,” he whispered in the young man’s ear before his head fell, lifeless, to the table. Bill couldn’t help but notice that his dead companion was smiling.
Hawkins opened the folder. He called Ed’s attorney and the police. He sat and drank while he waited for them to arrive. His mind drifted. What, he wondered, will I name this boat now that it’s mine?
# # #
Mike Murphy has been writing audio plays. He’s had over 150 of them produced and is now also trying his hand at prose. Read more here: http://audioauthor.blogspot.com