On the morning of January 6, two hours before dawn, a man named Robert Clinch rolled out of bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He put on three pairs of socks, a blue flannel shirt, olive dungarees, a Timex waterproof watch, and a burgundy cap with a patch stitched to the crown. The patch said: "Mann's Jelly Worms."
Clinch padded to the kitchen and fixed himself a pot of coffee, four eggs scrambled (with ketchup), a quarter-pound of Jimmy Dean sausage, and two slices of whole-wheat toast with grape jam. As he ate, he listened to the radio for a weather report. The temperature outside was forty-one degrees, humidity thirty-five percent, wind blowing from the northeast at seven miles per hour. According to the weatherman, thick fog lay on the highway between Harney and Lake Jesup. Robert Clinch loved to drive in the fog because it gave him a chance to use the amber fog lights on his new Blazer truck. The fog lights had been a $455 option, and his wife, Clarisse, now asleep in the bedroom, was always bitching about what a waste of money they were. Clinch decided that later, when he got home from the lake, he would tell Clarisse how the fog lights had saved his life on Route 222; how a wall-eyed truck driver with a rig full of Valencia oranges had crossed the center line and swerved back just in time because he'd seen the Blazer's fancy fog lights. Robert Clinch was not sure if Clarisse would bite on the story; in fact, he wasn't sure if she'd be all too thrilled that the truck hadn't plowed into him, vanquishing in one fiery millisecond the expensive Blazer, the sleek bass boat, and Robert Clinch himself. Clarisse did not think much of her husband's hobby.
Robert Clinch put on a pair of soft-soled Gore-Tex boots and slipped into a vivid red ski vest that was covered with emblems from various fishing tournaments. He went out to the garage where the boat was kept and gazed at it proudly, running his hand along the shiny gunwale. It was a Ranger 390V, nineteen and one-half feet long. Dual livewells, custom upholstery and carpeting (royal blue), and twin tanks that held enough fuel to run all the way to Okeechobee and back. The engine on the boat was a two-hundred-horsepower Mercury, one of the most powerful outboards ever manufactured. A friend had once clocked Bobby Clinch's boat at sixty-two miles per hour. There was no earthly reason to go so fast, except that it was fun as hell to show off.
Robert Clinch loved his boat more than anything else in the world. Loved it more than his wife. More than his kids. More than his girlfriend. More than his double-mortgaged home. Even more than the very largemouth bass he was pursuing. Riding on the lake at dawn, Robert Clinch often felt that he loved his boat more than he loved life itself.
On this special morning he decided, for appearance' sake, to bring along a fishing rod. From a rack on the wall he picked a cheap spinning outfit-why risk the good stuff? As he tried to thread the eight-pound monofilament through the guides of the rod, Clinch noticed that his hands were quivering. He wondered if it was the coffee, his nerves, or both. Finally he got the rod rigged and tied a plastic minnow lure to the end of the line. He found his portable Q-Beam spotlight, tested it, and stored it under a bow hatch inside the boat. Then he hitched the trailer to the back of the Blazer.
Clinch started the truck and let it warm. The air in the cab was frosty and he could see his breath. He turned up the heater full blast. He thought about one more cup of coffee but decided against it; he didn't want to spend all morning with a bursting bladder, and it was too damn cold to unzip and hang his pecker over the side of the boat.
He also thought about bringing a gun, but that seemed silly. Nobody took a gun to the lake.
Robert Clinch was about to pull out of the driveway when he got an idea, something that might make his homecoming more bearable. He slipped back into the house and wrote a note to Clarisse. He put it on the dinette, next to the toaster: "Honey, I'll be home by noon. Maybe we can go to Sears and look for that shower curtain you wanted. Love, Bobby."
Robert Clinch never returned.
By midafternoon his wife was so angry that she drove to Sears and purchased not only a shower curtain but some electric hair curlers and a pink throw rug, too. By suppertime she was livid, and tossed her husband's portion of Kentucky fried chicken over the fence to the Labrador retriever next door. At midnight she phoned her mother in Valdosta to announce that she was packing up the kids and leaving the bum for good.
The next morning, as Clarisse rifled her husband's bureau for clues and loose cash, the county sheriff phoned. He had some lousy news.
From the air a crop duster had spotted a purplish slick on a remote corner of Lake Jesup known as Coon Bog. On a second pass the crop duster had spotted the sparkled hull of a bass boat, upside down and half-submerged about fifty yards from shore. Something big and red was floating nearby.
Clarisse Clinch asked the sheriff if the big red thing in the water happened to have blond hair, and the sheriff said not anymore, since a flock of mallard ducks had been pecking at it all night. Clarisse asked if any identification had been found on the body, and the sheriff said no, Bobby's wallet must have shaken out in the accident and fallen into the water. Mrs. Clinch told the sheriff thank you, hung up, and immediately dialed the Visa Card headquarters in Miami to report the loss.
ÒWhat do you know about fishing?Ó
"A little," said R. J. Decker. The interview was still at the stage where Decker was supposed to look steady and taciturn, the stage where the prospective client was sizing him up. Decker knew he was pretty good in the sizing-up department. He had the physique of a linebacker: five-eleven, one hundred ninety pounds, chest like a drum, arms like cable. He had curly dark hair and sharp brown eyes that gave nothing away. He often looked amused but seldom smiled around strangers. At times he could be a very good listener, or pretend to be. Decker was neither diffident nor particularly patient; he was merely on constant alert for jerks. Time was too short to waste on them. Unless it was absolutely necessary, like now.
"Are you an outdoorsman?" Dennis Gault asked.
Decker shrugged. "You mean can I start a campfire? Sure. Can I kill a Cape buffalo barehanded? Probably not."
Gault poured himself a gin and tonic. "But you can handle yourself, I presume."
"You presume right."
"Size doesn't mean a damn thing," Gault said. "You could still be a wimp."
Decker sighed. Another macho jerk.
Gault asked, "So what kind of fishing do you know about?"
"Offshore stuff, nothing exotic. Grouper, snapper, dolphin."
"Pussy fish," Gault snorted. "For tourists."
"Oh," Decker said, "so you must be the new Zane Grey."
Gault looked up sharply from his gin. "I don't care for your attitude, mister."
Decker had heard this before. The mister was kind of a nice touch, though.
Dennis Gault said, "You look like you want to punch me."
"That's pretty funny."
"I don't know about you," Gault said, stirring his drink. "You look like you're itching to take a swing."
"What for?" Decker said. "Anytime I want to punch an asshole I can stroll down to Biscayne Boulevard and take my pick."
He guessed that it would take Gault five or six seconds to come up with some witty reply. Actually it took a little longer.
"I guarantee you never met an asshole like me," he said.
Decker glanced at his wristwatch and looked very bored-a mannerism he'd been practicing.
Gault made a face. He wore a tight powder-blue pullover and baggy linen trousers. He looked forty, maybe older. He studied Decker through amber aviator glasses. "You don't like me, do you?" he said.
"I don't know you, Mr. Gault."
"You know I'm rich, and you know I've got a problem. That's enough."
"I know you kept me suffocating in your neo-modern earth-tone lobby for two hours," Decker said. "I know your secretary's name is Ruth and I know she doesn't keep any Maalox tablets in her desk, because I asked. I know your daddy owns this skyscraper and your granddad owns a sugar mill, and I know your T-shirt looks like hell with those trousers. And that's all I know about you."
Which was sort of a lie. Decker also knew about the two family banks in Boca Raton, the shopping mall in Daytona Beach, and the seventy-five thousand acres of raw cane west of Lake Okeechobee.
Dennis Gault sat down behind a low Plexiglas desk. The desk looked like it belonged in a museum, maybe as a display case for Mayan pottery. Gault said, "So I'm a sugar daddy, you're right. Want to know what I know about you, Mr. Private Eye, Mr. Felony Past?"
Oh boy, thought R. J. Decker, this is your life. "Tell me your problem or I'm leaving."
"Tournament fishing," Gault said. "What do you know about tournament fishing?"
"Not a damn thing."
Gault stood up and pointed reverently to a fat blackish fish mounted on the wall. "Do you know what that is?"
"An oil drum," Decker replied, "with eyes." He knew what it was. You couldn't live in the South and not know what it was.
"A largemouth bass!" Gault exclaimed.
He gazed at the stuffed fish as if it were a sacred icon. It was easy to see how the bass got its name; its maw could have engulfed a soccer ball.
"Fourteen pounds, four ounces," Gault announced. "Got her on a crankbait at Lake Toho. Do you have any idea what this fish was worth?"
Decker felt helpless. He felt like he was stuck in an elevator with a Jehovah's Witness.
"Seventy-five thousand dollars," Gault said.
"Now I got your attention, don't I?" Gault grinned. He patted the flank of the plastic bass as if it were the family dog.
"This fish," he went on, "won the Southeast Regional Bass Anglers Classic two years ago. First place was seventy-five large and a Ford Thunderbird. I gave the car to some migrants."
"All that for one fish?" Decker was amazed. Civilization was in serious trouble.
"In 1985," Gault went on, "I fished seventeen tournaments and made one hundred and seven thousand dollars, Mr. Decker. Don't look so astounded. The prize money comes from sponsors-boat makers, tackle manufacturers, bait companies, the outboard marine industry. Bass fishing is an immensely profitable business, the fastest-growing outdoor sport in America. Of course, the tournament circuit is in no way a sport; it's a cutthroat enterprise."
"But you don't need the money," Decker said.
"I need the competition."
The Ted Turner Syndrome, Decker thought.
"So what's the problem?"
"The problem is criminals," Gault said.
"Could you be more specific?"
"People who lie about the size of the fish they catch-"
Gault laughed acidly. "You can't lie about the size. Dead or alive, the fish are brought back to the dock to be weighed."
"Then how can anybody cheat?"
"Ha!" Gault said, and told his story.
There had been an incident at a big-money tournament in north Texas. The contest had been sponsored by a famous plastic-worm company that had put up a quarter-million-dollar purse. At the end of the final day Dennis Gault stood on the dock with twenty-seven pounds of largemouth bass, including a nine-pounder. Normally a catch like this would have won a tournament hands down, and Gault was posing proudly with his string of fish when the last boat roared up to the dock. A man named Dickie Lockhart hopped out holding a monster bass-eleven pounds, seven ounces-which of course won first place.
"That fish," Dennis Gault recalled angrily, "had been dead for two days."
"How do you know?"
"Because I know a stiff when I see one. That fish was cold, Mr. Decker, icebox-type cold. You follow?"
"A ringer?" It was all Decker could do not to laugh.
"I know what you're thinking: Who cares if some dumb shitkicker redneck cheats with a fish? But think about this: Of the last seven big-money tournaments held in the United States, Dickie Lockhart has won five and finished second twice. That's two hundred sixty thousand bucks, which makes him not such a dumb shitkicker after all. It makes him downright respectable. He's got his own rigging TV show, if you can believe that."
Decker said, "Did you confront him about the ringer?"
"Hell, no. That's a damn serious thing, and I had no solid proof."
"Nobody else was suspicious?"
"Shit, everybody else was suspicious, but no one had the balls to say boo. Over beers, sure, they said they knew it was a stiff. But not to Dickie's face."
"This Lockhart, he must be a real tough guy," Decker said, needling.
"Not tough, just powerful. Most bass pros don't want to piss him off. If you want to get asked to the invitationals, you'd better be pals with Dickie. If you want product endorsements, you better kiss Dickie's ass. Same goes if you want your new outboard wholesale. It adds up. Some guys don't like Dickie Lockhart worth a shit, but they sure like to be on TV."
Decker said, "He's the only one who cheats?"
"Then what's the big deal?" Decker asked.
"The big deal"-Gault sneered-"is that Lockhart cheats in the big ones. The big deal is that he cheats against me. It's the difference between a Kiwanis softball game and the fucking World Series, you understand?"
"Absolutely," Decker said. He had heard enough. "Mr. Gault, I really don't think I can help you."
"Look, this is not my strong suit. . . ."
"What is your strong suit? Divorces? Car repos? Workmen's comp? If you're doing so hot, maybe you wouldn't mind telling me why you're moonlighting at that shyster insurance agency where I tracked you down."
Decker headed for the door.
"The fee is fifty thousand dollars."
Decker wheeled and stared. Finally he said, "You don't need a P.I., you need a doctor."
"The money is yours if you can catch this cocksucker cheating, and prove it."