The Seagull and the Skull
by William Dylan Powell
Art by Mark Evan Walker
Corpus Christi, Texas, 1981
Monkeys aren’t as cute as you think. Ringo had seen me turn off the TV so many times when visitors pulled up to the boat that he now thought it was his full-time job. Problem is that sometimes a man doesn’t want to answer his door. I heard the car outside. Knew who it was, and knew what he wanted. Or at least I thought I did.
“I was watching that,” I said. Ringo ignored my complaint, scampering up the stairs above deck—his tail raised like a fuzzy little remote-control antenna.
I threw on a University of Texas T-shirt and went above deck into the afternoon heat. Lit a cigarette and looked out across the bay. A pelican flew off when he saw me, retreating to the pier connecting my strip of beach to David’s Fifth Margarita, and a swarm of seagulls gathered around, eyeballing me for food and then, seeing empty hands, dispersing like a crowd after a riot.
I pulled a cold Lone Star from the deck fridge and watched Flynn Fordham step out of the oldest, ugliest Mercedes in the history of mankind. I didn’t need a P.I. license to know it was him when he pulled up. He’s the only guy I know who has a Ph.D. but no muffler.
Flynn Fordham was a man of amazing talents. He could lose money, his or someone else’s, if you stapled it twice to his polyester slacks. He was a stockbroker by trade, even though he got his license through the mail from someplace in San Antonio and nobody I knew had ever done a blue-chip trade with him.
Mostly, Flynn dealt in what he called “big ideas.” Inventions. New business ventures. Finding new uses for existing products. His stream of harebrained get-rich-quick schemes cost him more friends than a prison trustee, and ranged from importing semiprecious gems from Colombia to making hula hoops from bamboo and starting a Turkish calculator company. He wasn’t crooked. It’s just that his schemes never quite panned out.
Ringo ran down the gangplank to meet Flynn, who carried a wooden crate carefully with both hands. Round as a watermelon and sporting glasses thick as Dr Pepper bottles, Flynn was dressed in a mismatched blazer and trousers with a spotless summer straw hat worn far back on his head.
“Ahoy, Billy!” he said. “Mind if I come on board?”
“C’mon up, Flynn. Looks like you got your hands full.” I took a draw on my cigarette and walked down to meet him.
Once on board, Flynn set his crate down on the deck. It was covered with a small cloth. Something moved inside. Ringo ran over to investigate, poking his head up under the cloth and then jumping back with a hiss. I walked to the deck fridge and pulled out another Lone Star. Put it in Flynn’s hand.
“You doin’ all right?” he asked.
“Finer than frog hair,” I said. “How are those emus working out?”
“Well . . .” Flynn adjusted his glasses, a nervous habit of his, and went on to explain why his last big venture, which couldn’t be more than three weeks old, died on the vine. Something about laws regarding the import of farm animals to Honduras, but I wasn’t really listening. What I was doing was thinking of an excuse as to why I couldn’t invest in whatever it was he was about to pitch me. Whatever it was in that damn crate.
Still, no need to be a jerk about it.
“Sit down and make yourself at home,” I said. I drug a couple of chaise lounges around his crate and pointed them out toward the bay. Went down to the galley and found some not-yet-stale cashews and a bottle of suntan lotion, my wooden leg knocking on the boat deck as I went.
I poured the cashews into a small wooden bowl I’d bought in Indonesia. It had an elaborate hand-carved fish and a checkered pattern. For a moment we both just passed the bowl back and forth, sipping cold beer and watching seagulls swarm a shrimp boat out in the jade-green waters of Redfish Bay. A family of dolphins trailed the shrimp boat like a bridal gown.
The sweet foam of the beer and the salty cashews in the bright sun brought comfort to what I was sure would be an arduous sales pitch. I took my Ray-Ban sunglasses out of my pocket and slipped them on. Lit up a fresh cigarette, offering one to Flynn. He waved me off. Looked distracted.
Flynn just sat there, squinting out into the bay, his salt-and-pepper eyebrows furrowed—mouth making a small o, drawn to one side. He’d given up on the cashews. Thought I’d speed things along. Maybe catch the rest of The Greatest American Hero if I got through this more quickly. “Flynn, what’s going on today? Got something on your mind?”
I braced for it. Waited for him to pick up the crate and start his pitch. But still, Flynn said nothing for almost a full minute. Then, nodding his head like he’d come to a decision, he adjusted his glasses and said: “My neighbor.”
“My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Rosenfelt. It’s just . . . listen . . . I’ve heard about what you do for a living. You know, helping people figure things out and all.”
I just nodded, always interested in what other people thought I did.
“Well, I’ve got a bit of a mystery on my hands at the moment.”
“Yeah, well. It started with this latest venture of mine. Here, let me show you.”
Here comes the pitch, I thought.
He leapt up and stood by the crate. Ringo had his head poked under the cloth and was looking down through the top. I shooed him off, and he sulked down the gangplank to catch blue crabs on the bank.
Flynn pulled the cloth off with an elaborate flourish, like a waiter at the Petroleum Club whisking the silver lid from a service of steak tartar. I got up and stood over the crate.
A seagull stared back at me, all ruffled feathers and webbed feet. It looked fine but sort of pathetic locked up like that. It let out a little squawk, tilted its head, and squinted into the sun.
“Hey, Flynn?” I asked.
“Why did you lock that poor seagull in a box?”
“Oh, that’s not just any seagull,” he said, pushing his glasses up his nose. “That’s part of a top-secret pilot project I’ve got going on right now that I hope to leverage into a lucrative military-contractor budget. That there is a homing gull.”
I looked at the seagull-in-a-box. It blinked at me. I blinked back.
“A homing gull. Think about it. You got homing pigeons, which have played an integral part of long-distance communications. Carrying mission-critical messages in times of peace and war. And weddings.”
“Weddings? I think you’re thinking of—”
“Anyway, if you used seagulls instead of pigeons, you could train flocks of them to communicate from ship to ship with messages and still maintain . . .” He turned his head left and right, then leaned in and whispered. “Total radio silence!”
I nodded my head. Pursed my lips. “How would the seagulls know where the boats were if they were always moving around?” I asked. “And why not just use pigeons? Plus, can seagulls even do that?”
“Look,” he said, removing his white straw hat and rubbing the back of his neck, “we’re getting off topic here.” Flynn shoved his hands in his pockets and plopped back down into the chaise lounge. He took a deep breath. The seagull fluffed itself out and lay down.
“Yesterday, I was engaging in one of my prototype homing-gull programming sessions when Subject Delta,” Flynn pointed to the box, “refused to come home, instead flying over to Mrs. Rosenfelt’s property next door. I think it’s probably because she has a swimming pool, but that data is still under analysis.”
“Okay,” I said. At this rate, I’d be lucky to catch the end of Dr. Who at five.
“Anyway, I poked my head over the fence and there’s Mrs. Rosenfelt, hunched over in her usual tie-dye sundress. Only she’s not planting herbs or pruning her crepe myrtles, she was burying . . . a human skull!”
“Right,” I said.
“I mean, the skull was just sitting there on the ground like a sand dollar. It looked like it had been bleached in the sun, and I watched as she planted it in the ground like an avocado tree!” Flynn shook like he had the chills. Took a swig of beer. “She even whistled while she did it. Whistled!”
I whipped off my cowboy hat and ran my hand through my hair. “Your neighbor buried a skull in the backyard?”
“Yeah, that about sums it up.”
“Did you ask her about it?”
“What, like, ‘Say, Mrs. Rosenfelt, I was spying on you like some weirdo and couldn’t help but notice you gardening with human body parts’? That kind of asking her?”
“Fair point,” I said.
Ringo had climbed back on deck and stood on Flynn’s bird-in-a-box, shaking it and poking his little monkey fingers into the cage top. I walked back to the deck fridge and got a couple of fresh Lone Stars. Brought them back to the chairs and thought for a second. The Texas sun baked down on us, and Flynn had big saddlebags of sweat under his cheap suit jacket. His homing gull looked asleep.
“Did you call the cops?” I asked. “I could give Jaime Hernandez a call. Ask him to look into it.”
Flynn turned away like I’d slapped him. “Call the cops on my neighbor? Billy, she’s seventy if she’s a day. She’d stop giving me those fig preserves come Christmastime. Plus, she’s the chairman of the neighborhood homeowners’ association; she’d definitely say something about all the seagulls. What if there’s some logical explanation?”
“Logical explanation?” I said. “For burying a human skull in the backyard?”
“Well, it’s possible. They use them in biology classes and stuff, right?”
“Is she a biology teacher?” I said.
“No. Retired. Someone down at Benny’s Bait Shop said they’d won the lottery back in New Hampshire in the nineteen sixties, and that her husband ran off with a coed. She got sick of the winters, and moved down here. Doesn’t do much, really, but paint and garden and golf.”
“And bury human skulls,” I said.
“And bury human skulls.” Flynn took his glasses off and wiped them on his blazer.
I had to admit that it wasn’t super-obvious why a little old lady would bury skulls in the backyard. I’d seen Arsenic and Old Lace. But while old ladies murdering people in the movies seemed quaint and cute, somehow the prospect of it in real life made my stomach clench up.
Finally, I said: “I’m not sure what you’re asking me, Flynn.”
“I just want to know if Mrs. Rosenfelt is, you know, doing anything funny.”
I adjusted my cowboy hat. Took a drag on my cigarette. “Don’t suppose this would be a paying job,” I said. Not that I needed the money, or that Flynn could pay anyway, but I was a professional. Well, not licensed. Still, there was a principle at stake.
“I can’t pay cash,” he said. “But I could give you a small, and I’m talking downright modest, stake in the homing-gull venture. Gull Coast Corporation. Maybe, five percent?”
I nodded and stood up. Looked down into the crate.
“That thing have a tag on its foot?” I asked.
“Sure,” Flynn said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Reads: ‘Subject Delta.’”
“Cool,” I said, flipping the lid off of the cage and kicking it gently with my wooden leg. The seagull snapped its eyes open, tilted its head, and flapped off the deck and into a tangle of gulls headed east towards Aransas Pass. Flynn lived the other direction.
“What did you do that for?” he asked.
Flynn Fordham’s home by the university was small, which I’d expected. But when he opened the door I was met not with a book-piled bachelor pad but rich, polished hardwood floors and the faint scent of air freshener. I’d taken a pack of Marlboros from my shirt pocket and was about to light one up, but shoved them back once we stepped inside. Fresh-cut roses adorned gleaming Texas Republic-era antiques and each room sported original oil paintings and thick Persian rugs with intricate weavings in deep, earthy colors.
“Dang, Flynn,” I said. “Your house is nice.”
“Thanks. I’m a big believer that your environment has an impact on your work. I keep it nice so I can, you know, focus on strategic businessy type stuff.”
“Right,” I said, and ran a finger across a short end table. “Did you just dust this morning?” Living on a yacht at the end of a patch of sand is glamorous, but after three days you find sand in places only your mama knows about. I was envious.
“No, no. Like I said. I’ve got to focus on my work.”
“Homing gulls,” I said.
“Right. Well, for now, but there’s always something. The homeowners’ association worked it out to where we cost-share a maid service from our home-owners’ dues.”
“Nice,” I said, trying to be careful that my wooden leg came down easy on the polished floors. It has a square rubber grip at the end, but better safe than sorry.
Ringo, who’d been riding on my shoulder, hopped down. I hooked his leash onto his collar and wrapped it around my waist. Didn’t like the way he was eyeing a crystal chandelier in the entryway so I hurried him along through the house.
“Every gentleman should have hired help if it’s in his means,” said Flynn. “It’s a different cleaning girl every week because they’re all from the college, but on the upside they’re . . . uh . . . all from the college.”
He blushed a little as he led me past an armoire filled with Waterford crystal, under a wide canvas painting of what looked like either Lisbon or Madrid, and past a broad-shouldered bookshelf packed with the works of Zig Ziglar and Dale Carnegie. He slid open a well-oiled glass door, and we stepped into his backyard.
“I’ll show you where I saw her do it,” he said as we walked to his side fence. The backyard was a brutal contrast to the house. Lawn dead and stiff; patches of crab grass and spurweed exploding like mortar rounds hitting the beachhead at Normandy. In the center of the yard, a huge yellow tarp with a black dot dominated the space. He never mentioned it, but I had to assume that either Floyd was purchasing a helicopter or it was used in his experiment with homing gulls. In the corner stood an emu, chewing a wad of newspaper and looming over a pair of dog bowls.
“I thought you were done with emus?”
“Yeah, well, that’s Pinkie. I grew attached to him. Over here,” Floyd said, pointing at the fence. I took out my pack of Marlboros and lit one. Breathed deep. Ringo started to venture toward the emu, but I reigned him in.
Floyd drug a wobbly wooden crate to the fence and beckoned me up. On top, we had a good view of Mrs. Rosenfelt’s backyard. Ringo climbed up onto the crate, up my leg, and onto my shoulder, for a better view. He was chewing on something he’d found in the yard. I hoped it was nothing toxic.
“Right there,” said Flynn, pointing. “Under that big oak to the right and directly under that pink birdhouse. See where that patch of dirt is raised just a little?” He was sweating and squinting to see through his glasses.
“Yeah, I see it.” I didn’t share with Flynn that I saw five or six similar patches in the yard. He probably didn’t notice, what with his eyesight and all.
I took off my cowboy hat and dabbed my forehead with a bandana I’d brought from the boat. It was that time of year in Texas and sweat soaked my Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts through and through even though I’d only been outside a few minutes.
I took a long look around Mrs. Rosenfelt’s yard. A shovel, a bag of potting soil, and some other yard tools sat in a wheelbarrow next to an immaculately kept swimming pool. The back half of the yard was shaded by a huge oak tree that prevented grass or much of anything else from growing underneath.
But the front part of the yard by the pool blossomed in a colorful explosion of crepe myrtles, oleanders, hibiscus, and azalea. A pink pair of sunglasses rested at the bottom of the pool. Rain barrels had been set under the gutter to collect water for the long vegetable garden bordering the fence with Flynn’s house.
Ringo started to climb down toward the almost-ripe tomatoes, but I tugged gently on his leash. “C’mon, buddy,” I said, stepping down from the crate.
Flynn followed suit, brushing his hands and fanning himself with his straw hat.
“Well?” he asked.
“Well,” I said. “I think it’s time to hit the liquor store.”
“Some help you are,” he said.
An hour later, we were at Mrs. Rosenfelt’s doorstep holding a bottle of sherry and some chocolate-covered cherries. Not all mature women like chocolate. Or sherry. But between the two I figured I’d hedged pretty well.
The woman who answered the door sported a tie-dye shirt and denim skirt. A joint burned in one hand, the pungent smell of marijuana slapping me even from outside of the house. She wore sandals with seashells that jangled, and a visor reading River Hills Country Club.
“Hello, Mr. Fordham,” she said, smiling at Flynn.
“Hey there, Mrs. Rosenfelt. This is my friend, Billy Raskolnikov.”
“Hi,” she said, then stared first at my wooden leg and then at Ringo—tilting her head like a guard dog hearing a far-off noise. Carrying a monkey and using a retro wooden prosthetic tends to elicit that sort of reaction. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“We, uh . . .” Flynn froze, suddenly finding his scuffed Buster Browns awfully interesting.
“Would you mind if we came in?” I asked. “These are for you.”
She took the candies and the sherry. Her forehead wrinkled, but her face wore a crooked smile. “How could I refuse two men bearing chocolate and booze?” she said, setting her marijuana cigarette down in an ashtray by the door.
Mrs. Rosenfelt turned and walked into the cool interior of the house, which smelled of marijuana, lavender tea, and muscle ointment. Her skin was dark, with the consistency of Florentine leather, something that only comes from a lifelong commitment to the sun.
We followed her to a small breakfast area with a view of the pool. A parakeet tweeted and chirped from a yellow cage in the corner. Fresh pears and apricots, probably from her trees out front, sat in a bowl at the center of the table. Ringo jumped up onto the table and tore into an apricot.
“Ringo!” I hissed. But Mrs. Rosenfelt erupted into laughter, clapping her hands with joy. Or maybe just with the marijuana. Either way, monkeys are a good icebreaker.
Though he was the one who knew her, Flynn seemed like a lost cause—head down and fidgeting with his untucked shirttail. It was all me now.
“Thanks for seeing us, ma’am,” I said. As Ringo stuffed as much apricot into his mouth as possible, I slid a business card onto the table.
Mrs. Rosenfelt picked it up, perched a pair of nearby reading glasses on her nose, and inspected it. After what happened in Houston, I could never get a real P.I. license. So my card just has my name and number with the phrase, “Personal Advocate for Hire.”
She raised her eyebrows and set the card back on the table.
“Are you some kind of lawyer or cop?” she asked.
“Ex-cop,” I said. “Houston and Corpus Christi. I’m retired, though. Some days I just sit around and do nothing at all.” I smiled at her.
“Well, we share the same profession,” she said, smiling back. “Tell me, what are you doing here today?” Ringo was already down to the apricot pit, licking juice off it and making a terrible mess on the table. Mrs. Rosenfelt didn’t seem to mind.
“I’m just going to come out and say it,” I said. “Flynn here is a little worried about you.”
“Oh?” she said.
He wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“He thinks that he saw you . . .” I took a deep breath and watched her carefully. “Burying a human skull. In the backyard. Yesterday.”
“Really?” she said, smirking. “And does Mr. Flynn make a habit of watching me through the fence while I’m in the backyard?” she asked.
“No, I do not,” Flynn said, finally speaking up. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Rosenfelt, but it was an accident. I lost something over the fence and was trying to get it back.”
“What did you lose?”
“I . . . uh . . . I can’t say, it’s a matter of strategic business importance; maybe even national security!”
She looked at me. I shook my head and mouthed, “No, it’s not.”
Ringo stepped through the puddle of apricot juice on Mrs. Rosenfelt’s table and climbed up on my shoulder. The smell of sweaty monkey and fruit slapped me in the face.
“Well, it seems I’ve been found out,” she said, rising from the table and stepping into the kitchen. She pulled a bottle of Windex from under the sink and wiped the table where Ringo had been. Setting the bottle back on the table, she reached into the pocket of her denim skirt and lunged at Flynn with a shriek. . . .
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"The Seagull and the Skull" by William Dylan Powell, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.
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