“Is that what I think it is?”
Jimmy leaned over, fingers splayed wide on his thighs, for a closer look.
“Yep. That’s definitely an eye.”
Gray squatted down and searched around for a stick to poke the eyeball with. The beach was clean. A few cigarette butts, cracked abalone shells. A sandpiper regarded him with suspicion. Gray didn’t like the look of the bird.
Jimmy popped his gum and shook his head.
“A goddamn eye.”
Gray stood up and nudged the eyeball with the side of his shoe. It rolled a few inches, collecting wet sand. He frowned and pulled a pack of Crowns out of his front shirt pocket.
“It’s glass. Somebody’s walking around this morning with a hole in their head.”
He clenched the cigarette between his lips and cupped his palms around the flame. He turned his back to the wind, caught the end and flared the cherry. Inhaled. Gray turned back to Jimmy with the cigarette still between his teeth and squinted through the smoke.
“We need to go to Nelly’s.”
Jimmy stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels.
“Come on, man. It could of just drifted up. I read somewhere that something like five thousand rubber ducks hit the coast of California once. Yellow rubber bath-time ducks. Fell off a cargo ship in the Pacific and washed up. Not just California, either. All over the world. Some even gotten frozen up in the Artic. This eye could of come off any boat in the sea.”
Gray looked down the length of the beach. The sky was overcast, oppressive, the quick shower over, but the smell of rain was still heavy in the air. Most of the early families had packed it in when the lightning showed, but a few old broads, leathery in neon bikinis, had stuck it out. Gray frowned around his smoke.
“You see five thousand glass eyes laying around here?”
Jimmy shrugged and spit his gum out. Gray looked at the sandy pink wad with disgust. He started to walk back up the beach, following his own line of shoeprints.
“We’re going to Nelly’s. I need a goddamn drink.”
Gray pulled the yellow umbrella off the lip of his glass and pitched it over the edge of the bar.
“You got to put one of those in my drink every single time?”
The woman behind the bar, breasts sagging against her belly, front eye tooth missing, stood square in front of him and crossed her arms.
“You got to order one of those every single time you come in? You never hear of a beer?”
Gray chewed on the straw floating in his Bahama Mama and eyed the woman’s flat ass as she walked away. Jimmy rattled the ice in his Diet Coke.
“Any reason we’re sitting in this place again?”
“You know of any other bar stinks this bad of rotting fish?”
“You think the smell of rotting fish is going to help us find out what happened to Nix? We’ve already been here two nights in a row and not one of these rum rats knows anything about it.”
The bartender walked past them again and Gray raised his glass in the air. She stopped and cocked her hip.
“You want another? You going to finish that one first?”
“I want to know if you’ve seen anybody around here missing an eye.”
Jimmy leaned forward on his elbows.
“Or maybe’s got a glass eye?”
The woman pursed her lips and chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment.
“Why do you want to know?”
Gray slurped his drink and pushed the empty glass toward her on the bar.
“Not your business. Do you know someone?”
Her eyes were flat. Gray stood up and pulled out his wallet. He folded a twenty and tucked it under the empty glass. The woman snatched it up.
“Old guy owns the bait and tackle two streets over. Skinny dude with a horseshoe mustache.”
Gray nodded and cut his eyes at Jimmy.
Jimmy stood, sighed and hiked his pants up. He went to smile at the bartender, but she was already gone.
Gray stood a few feet away on the steaming sidewalk and watched Jimmy slam the old man against the wall. Jimmy gripped the collar of his undershirt in one hand, twisted and pressed his fist into the man’s flat, bony chest. Gray stepped forward and removed the man’s sunglasses. He tossed them to the pavement.
“Where’s your eye?”
The old man squirmed but Jimmy held him firmly in place.
“What’d you mean?”
“I said, where’s your eye?”
The old man rolled his head around to look down the alley. There was no one.
“I lost it twenty years ago. Working on an oil rig out in the Gulf. Pipe burst in the engine room.”
Gray took another step forward and could smell menthol and fried fish on the old man’s breath. He reached out and flicked the side of the man’s face, next to the puckered cavity.
“You’re not listening to me. Where. Is. Your. Eye?”
“You mean my fake eye?”
“No. I mean your imaginary eye.”
The old man looked back and forth between Jimmy and Gray. He sucked on his teeth. Gray’s shoulders sagged and he pulled a lighter out of his shirt pocket.
“Jimmy, get the blowtorch. I’ll hold him.”
Jimmy raised his eyebrows at Gray, questioning. The old man wriggled against the wall.
“All right, all right, all right.”
Gray crossed his arms and waited. The man panted.
“I lost my eye the other night. On the beach. Popped out on the sand and I couldn’t find it.”
“You on the beach with a guy named Nix?”
The old man’s one eye narrowed.
“A guy named Nix? No, I was with a girl.”
The old man paused. Gray waited.
“All right, a hooker. We were down on the beach a few nights ago and she was, you know, and it popped out when I, you know. I got this new eye six months ago and this is the third time it’s happened. She said it hit her on the top of her head and rolled down her back. I tried to find it in the sand, but it was too dark and I was too drunk. Now I can’t remember what part of the beach I was on when it happened. Did you guys find it?”
Gray shook his head and frowned.
“You got to give us more than that. You think I give a shit about an old man getting sucked off in the sand?”
Jimmy twisted the shirt tighter and the man danced around against the wall.
“All right, all right. I did hear these two guys down the beach a little ways, arguing about something.”
“You heard them?”
“Well, I wasn’t really looking around at the time, you know. Then my eye popped and I was scrambling around trying to find it. The guys were gone by the time I started walking back up the beach. You should talk to the girl.”
“Yeah. She might be able to tell you more than I can. Ask for her up at the Sea Horse. Somebody should be able to find her for you.”
The old man leaned his back against the wall.
“So, are we cool, guys?”
Jimmy looked to Gray and Gray nodded. They started to walk away, but the old man called after them.
“Hey. My eye. Did you find my eye?”
Gray stopped walking but didn’t turn around.
“In the sand between 4th and 5th street. Should still be there.”
“You boys got about ten minutes. There’s only two of us on between the lunch crowd and happy hour and I am not letting that fat cow take all the tips.”
The girl untied her sequined red halter and threw it in the dressing room sink. She held up a silver bikini top and looked at Jimmy and Gray in the mirror.
“So you better tell me what you want.”
Jimmy flipped a pair of panties off a chair in the corner and sat down, but Gray remained standing. He didn’t look away as the girl dropped the bikini top and searched through a pile of wadded up clothes.
“You see two guys on the beach the other night while you were blowing some old man?”
The girl whipped around and put her hands on her hips.
“What did that asshole tell you? Did he say I was a hooker? Hello, look at this place. I’m a dancer.”
Gray didn’t blink.
“An eyeball popped out and hit you on the head? That jog your memory?”
She turned back around and snapped herself into a see-through bra. The girl frowned.
“What, are you guys cops or something?”
Gray pulled out a cigarette and offered it to her. She shook her head.
“I don’t smoke.”
Gray put the cigarette back in the pack.
“You want a piece of gum? Jimmy, give her a piece of gum.”
Jimmy stood up and reached in his pants’ pocket, but she shook her head again.
“I don’t want a piece of gun. I want you to tell me why you’re so interested in the guy with the eyeball.”
Jimmy sat down and studied his nails. The girl was looking at Gray.
“We’re not interested in the guy with the eyeball. We’re interested in the two guys arguing on the beach.”
The girl sat down in front of the mirror and started yanking a brush through her hair.
“Yeah, I saw these two guys fighting on the beach. Didn’t really pay it attention. It was dark, but it looked like one of them had a briefcase. He kept sort of swinging it around. The other guy was taller, bigger all over. They weren’t, like, beating on one another or anything.”
“The old man said he could hear them arguing. Could you hear what they were fighting about?”
The girl raised her arm and rolled on some deodorant.
“Not really. One was saying something about horses. And races maybe. I heard something about a guy named Owen. Or maybe it was owing? Like I said, I wasn’t really paying attention. There’s always some fight spilling out from the bars.”
“But you didn’t see one of them go down.”
The girl blotted her mouth and popped her lips.
“They were still arguing when I got off the beach. I wasn’t sticking around to help that asshole find his stupid eye. Creepy. But like I said, they weren’t throwing punches or anything wild. Just yelling.”
Gray looked over at Jimmy and Jimmy shrugged. The girl stood up and faced Gray. She held out her hand, palm up.
“So, what do I get out of this?”
Gray reached around and pinched her on the ass.
“Nothing, sweetheart. But at least we aren’t cops.”
He winked at her and turned on his heel. Jimmy was right behind him.
Jimmy kicked at a plastic vodka bottle and it bounced against the alley wall. He groaned.
“A whole day of running up and down this strip. Two days now in this shitty little beach town. And we’re not any closer to finding Nix. What do you say we just drop it?”
Gray squinted up at the sky and then started down the alley. The sun had come out and the shadows were long.
“And what are we going to tell the boss man? That Nix disappeared on us like a ghost? That the briefcase is gone? You think he’s going to appreciate that?”
Jimmy shrugged and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“I don’t know.”
They walked the block in silence. A gull screamed overhead and the window units rattled and dripped as they walked by. The air smelled like dying fish and wet bar mats. Gray stopped near the end of the alley and pointed.
Jimmy grabbed the arm sticking out from behind the dumpster by the wrist and pulled. When it came sliding out, Jimmy sprung back against the wall. The blood was dry, but he still didn’t want to get any flakes on his pants.
Gray eyed the body and whistled.
“Well, now we know what happened to Nix.”