A blond young man in a suit and carrying a briefcase stood at Cutter’s door awaiting a response to his knock. Impatient, the man leaned forward, peering through the screen-door. It was too dark to see into the room beyond but he thought he discerned a low growl from within. Thinking Cutter might be ill and unable to answer, he tried the door. It was unlocked. He pulled it ajar and called out, “Captain Cutter?” Not getting a reply, he stepped inside.
A dog flew at him out of the darkness, snarling and snapping.
The young man flung himself back against the door. “What the shit? No…no!” he cried.
“Stay!” a stern voice commanded and the dog backed off with a final defiant growl.
With the scratch of a match, a lamp glowed up on a nearby table. A man moved toward him from around the table. A big man, rangy rather than heavy, clad in a ratty tee-shirt, patched and tattered chinos, both spattered with paint. The man moved fluidly, light on his feet like a boxer. His short hair and beard were bristly and neither appeared to have had the attention of comb or barber for some time.
The man raised a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that hung on a throng around his neck and put them on. He studied the intruder intently, his eyes curious, not menacing.
The other blinked, swallowed. “Captain Cutter?” he inquired again, hoping the quaver he imagined wasn’t apparent in his voice.
“Surname’s right, but I have no claim to the rank,” Cutter said in a deep, friendly tone. “Have you come for a painting?”
The young man shook his head, eyes moving from Cutter to the dog which stood at his side, hackles raised, teeth still bared. Cutter hovered over him and momentarily he could not find his voice.
“What? Who are you?”
Swallowing again, he managed, “Flood. T. J. Flood.”
“I was in the back. Thought I heard a car pull up.”
“I’m with Edgecomb-Smythe Insurance. I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Flood looked around him. They were in a sort of ante-room jammed wall-to-wall with antique furniture, clocks, china and glass, and a variety of maritime curios.
“Still might be disturbing me if you’re here to sell me a policy.”
“I’m an investigator, not a salesman.”
Cutter’s brow wrinkled. “Investigator? I don’t recall that I have a policy with your firm.”
“It’s not you I’m investigating,” Flood began. Then he glanced warily at the hound which now sniffed at his shoe.
“Don’t worry. She’s just checking you out. Curious. Like me.”
“Yes. Hum—you were one of the witnesses to the grounding of the Sandra Haviland, weren’t you?”
“Just getting around to that? Why, it must be—what—over a year?”
Flood nodded. “Nearly. The firm’s slow in paying off claims when a wreck is so—unusual.”
“That’s putting it politely,” Cutter said with a snort. “It was right up there with the Mary Celeste and Carroll Deering. No apparent reason for having abandoned ship. No sign of collision or violence. Yet the captain, the owner and two seamen gone without a trace.”
Flood nodded again. “A real puzzler. The Coast Guard searched for weeks; not a sign of any of them. The radio was working, yet no distress calls were made. Is this the dog?” he asked, glancing at her.
“The only survivor,” Cutter told him, stooping to pet the dog, which appeared to be some uncertain breed mixed with German shepherd. The dog, relaxed now, wagged her tail. “If only she could talk.”
“I was hoping you might tell me what you saw. I realize it’s late. I had a hard time finding your place. If another time…”
Cutter shrugged his shoulders. “I talked to the Coast Guard and police at the time. I suppose there are reports.”
“I have copies of those. I was hoping there might be something more, something that might not have seemed important at the time.”
“It was a long time ago. I’m not even certain what all I said then.”
“We could go over the reports to refresh your memory,” Flood said. He paused to check his watch. “It is getting late. If you’d rather wait until another time…”
“Time’s not a problem. I’m a night owl. But I don’t know how much I could add.”
“Besides the dog, did you remove anything else from the boat?”
Cutter scowled at him. “I may be poor, but I’m not a thief.”
“I didn’t mean…”
Raising a hand, Cutter gave him a thin smile. “I know. Just doing your job.” He shrugged. “Dog kind of adopted me. Couldn’t leave her behind. We took off the log, charts and instruments. I was afraid the spray coming over the side would damage the papers.”
“We meaning the men who boarded her with you?”
“Right. We took the wallet from the cabin, too. Turned everything over to the sheriff’s men—except for the dog. I assume they removed everything else. Say, would you like a cup of coffee? I have some brewing in back,” he said, gesturing toward a doorway behind him. “As long as we’re talking we might as well be comfortable.”
Flood followed him back a hallway and into a large room bright with several Aladdin lamps and with a fire blazing on the hearth. Cutter gestured him to a wicker chair by the fireplace and disappeared through another doorway. The dog curled up in its bed near the fireplace, calm but still watching the stranger.
The room faced the sea and the surf vibrated the glass of two open windows whose curtains billowed in a slight breeze. Despite the ventilation, the air in the room was thick with the mingled odors of turpentine, linseed oil and paint. Flood dropped his briefcase and sank back in the chair, scanning his surroundings. The room was sparsely furnished save for bookcases running around the walls and paintings of varied sizes hung over and between them on every free space. An unfinished large painting of rocks and crashing surf stood on an easel by the window, a taboret table with a paint box and jars of brushes beside it. Flood was no connoisseur of art but he thought these paintings rather good.
The dog lifted its head once, a growl rumbling in her throat. But she didn’t move from her position and Flood relaxed, assuming the dog’s sensitive hearing had picked up something beyond human hearing.
Cutter returned with a tray which he placed on a table next to Flood’s chair. He handed him a mug. “There’s milk and sugar if you need it,” he said, pointing to the tray.
Cutter took his own mug and went to stand by the fireplace. “Now, where were we?”
The dog leapt up, grumbling, as they were interrupted by the banging of the screen door, followed by a clatter in the hallway. As they looked up, a girl barged through the doorway, shoving a large suitcase before her. The dog crossed the room to her, tail switching.
“When are you going to get electricity?” the girl demanded, letting the suitcase fall at her feet and kneeling to pet the dog. “I barked my shin coming down the hall.”
“When I can afford it,” Cutter said, moving toward her. “What are you doing here?”
“You don’t have a phone, you don’t write, you don’t come to see me. How am I supposed to know you’re all right?” She rose and stood, legs spread, feet flat, hands on her hips, glaring at Cutter.
“I just spoke to you…”
“A month ago.”
Cutter stopped in mid-stride, arms slack at his side, head hung, nibbling at his lip like a scolded school boy.
Flood looked from one to the other, confused. He turned his attention back to the girl. Despite her brusque behavior, he thought her very attractive. Tall and slim with her dark hair short in one of those boyish cuts, she wore a white polo top and blue bike shorts that accentuated her long bronzed legs. Her big blue eyes blazed in the light as she tapped one sneakered foot.
“Dee,” Cutter said, starting toward her again.
“I don’t know how you can live like this.”
Cutter stopped. “Accommodations like these were good enough for Winslow Homer. I suppose they’re good enough for me.”
“…like a hermit.”
“I’m not a hermit. I have real friends here.”
“Hmph. Smelly fishermen. That woman.”
Somewhat irritated but more perplexed by her behavior, Flood squirmed in the chair which squeaked under his weight.
“Hello,” she said, seeming to notice him for the first time. “He doesn’t look like the others I’ve found hanging around here,” she said to Cutter. “Is he a dealer?”
Setting aside his cup, Flood rose.
“I’m sorry,” Cutter said. “This is Mr. Flood. He’s an insurance agent.”
“Investigator,” Flood corrected.
“Whatever,” Cutter said, swiveling his head to face him. “This is my daughter, Delia, who only acts this way when she wants to agitate me.”
“Normally she’s a pretty decent sort.”
“Really, I am,” Delia said, coming closer. “I hope you’ll excuse…” Then she saw the unfinished painting and halted beside it. “Say, this is really good.”
“You like it?” Cutter asked, starting toward her again. “I think I’m starting to get the feel of the place, seeing the light as it really is.” His eyes sparkled with excitement as he spoke.
“And—are you selling anything?”
He shrugged. “A few things. This isn’t exactly a tourist Mecca, thank God.”
“You need to show, Daddy. You’ll never get anywhere otherwise.”
Flood moved toward them. “If I could…” he started.
“No!” they shouted in unison. Then, seeing his shocked expression, both laughed.
“I’m sorry,” Cutter said, coming over and laying a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “You seem to have got caught in the middle of our little brawl.”
“Please. Forgive my insanity,” Delia said, nodding.
Flashing her a smile, Flood told Cutter, “I was going to suggest I come back another time.”
“Suit yourself. I don’t know if there’s anything else I can tell you, though.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But there’s one more thing I need to tell you before I go.”
“Mrs. Myers wants the claim for the ship paid to you. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand.”
It was Cutter’s turn to look startled. “Dollars? What? Why me? I wasn’t the only one went aboard, and there was nothing we could do.”
“You were the one rescued the dog.”