Tree Callister and his old friend Rex Baxter were having lunch on the screened-in terrace at the Lighthouse Restaurant, just off Sanibel Island, when Rex said, “I’m getting married in the morning.”
“No,” Rex said. “I’m getting married in the morning.”
“I would argue My Fair Lady is the best musical of all time,” Tree said. “The blend of story and song in exactly the right measure, the ability of Lerner and Lowe to conjure a Shavian sensibility that echoes the original play without being slavish to it. The inspired, witty score, each song a singular achievement in that once you hear it, you can’t stop humming the tune.”
Rex looked irritated. “Have you gone completely nuts? Don’t answer that. This has nothing to do with Lerner and Loewe. I, Rex Baxter, plan to marry tomorrow morning.”
Tree looked at him in amazement. “You’re getting married?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Rex repeated.
“Who are you marrying?”
“Who do you think?”
“You see?” Rex said. “People underestimate you. Given the opportunity, exercising a little patience, you can figure these things out for yourself.”
“You’re marrying Kelly. Kelly Fleming.”
“You seem to be having trouble with the concept,” Rex said.
“You have talked to Kelly about this?”
“I may have passed the idea by her, yes.”
“I see,” Tree said.
“I’d like you to be my best man,” Rex said.
Most of the luncheon diners on the terrace had departed. The marina beyond the restaurant sweltered in the afternoon sun, the lines of yachts, glistening white, unmoving, hardly a stir in the air.
Finally, Tree cleared his throat and eased himself forward, leaning his elbows on the table. “I’m going to be the best man for my best friend who is marrying my ex-wife.”
“Do you have a problem with that?” Rex asked.
Tree thought about it for a moment. “No,” he said. “I don’t suppose I do.”
Rex and Tree had been friends, as Rex liked to say, “Ever since the earth cooled,” or at least going back to Chicago when Tree was a newspaperman and Rex, a former actor in mostly B pictures, hosted an afternoon movie show on WBBM-TV. This was before Rex became the station’s weatherman, beloved of all the Chicagoans who ever wanted to know when the next snowstorm would batter the city. By the time Tree, and his wife, Freddie, moved to Sanibel-Captiva, Rex was already embedded in the community, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, once again beloved, and therefore in his element.
It was Rex who had found an office for Tree at the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center so that Tree could set up The Sanibel Sunset Detective Agency, a move Rex had lived to regret, Tree’s misadventures as a private eye on Sanibel Island having caused him untold amounts of grief, and had, according to Rex, interfered with the thriving tourist trade.
Now Tree supposedly had retired, tired, he said, of the constant jeopardy he found himself in on an island where nothing ever happened—except to him. Rex, meantime, had met and fallen in love with a former Chicago newscaster, Kelly Fleming, who, as it happened, was once married to Tree—the second of Tree’s four wives.
In fact, Rex had originally introduced Kelly and Tree.
Life certainly could be complicated, Tree mused. Well, he was open-minded about these things, wasn’t he? As long as his friend was happy, that’s all that counted. Wasn’t it?
“This is all happening pretty fast,” was all Tree could think to say.
“Not that fast,” Rex countered. “I’ve actually known Kelly longer than you.”
“That’s true,” Tree had to admit.
“Besides, I wanted to get her before she changes her mind.”
Rex was kidding, Tree thought. Wasn’t he?
A heavyset woman appeared at their table. She focused on Rex. This was not unusual. Rex had been a star television weatherman throughout Heartland America. Sanibel attracted tourists of a certain age from that Heartland, all of whom seemed to recognize their old TV pal.
The woman said in a gentle, breathy voice that Tree immediately recognized, “Rex? Rex Baxter. Is that you?”
Rex gaped in surprise before he said, “Judy? Judy Blair?”
“It’s me, Rex,” she said with a big smile.
He lumbered to his feet in time for Judy to embrace him. “I thought it was you,” she said. “I can’t believe it. What are you doing here?”
“Well, for one thing,” Rex said, “I’m having lunch with someone you might remember.”
She turned and for the first time took a good look at Tree. Her eyes widened. “Tree!”
Now it was Tree’s turn to rise awkwardly. Only Judy didn’t embrace him. Various emotions played on her smooth, round face—a face Tree barely recognized after all this time. Rex said to Judy, “You don’t recognize the guy you married? The father of your children?”
“Yes, of course,” Judy said, the warmth in her voice cooling. She mustered a smile. “It’s been a long time, Tree.”
“Yes,” Tree said.
A man appeared behind Judy. Tree had a quick impression of a large, extremely solid fellow with a bull neck, a dramatically-lined face topped by bristling hair he immediately identified as dyed—the male of the species, no matter how prosperous, seemingly incapable of hair coloring that looked at all natural.
Judy turned nervously and said, “Alexei, there you are.”
“Yes, I am right here,” her companion said. “Would you like to introduce me?”
“My husband, Alexei Markov,” Judy said. “Alexei, these are friends from Chicago. Rex Baxter and Tree Callister.”
“Good to meet you,” Rex said, sticking out his hand.
An attempt had been made to hide the bulk of Alexei Markov beneath a radiant Tommy Bahamas shirt, not tucked in at the waist. The attempt had failed. When he smiled, the dramatic lines of his face softened somewhat and you were given the impression that behind that rock-hard countenance there lurked the charm that would have attracted Judy. He took Rex’s hand in his.
“A pleasure,” he said. Then he turned to Tree, and the soft smile was wiped away. “I think you are less a friend, more the ex-husband, am I correct about that?”
“I’m afraid so,” Tree said. He was holding out his hand.
Alexei Markov looked at the proffered hand but did not take it. “I have heard so much about you,” he said. “None of it very good.”
“Alexei, that’s enough,” Judy said in a stricken voice.
Tree took his hand away and looked at Judy. “It’s good to see you, Judy.”
Judy gave another nervous smile. “Yes, certainly a surprise.”
“How long are you here for?” Rex asked.
“We have bought a house here,” Alexei Markov said. “We plan to spend much time in this beautiful place.”
“I’m the president of the Chamber of Commerce on Sanibel and Captiva,” Rex said. “If there’s anything I can do to help you settle in, please let me know.”
Rex handed Judy one of the business cards he seemed able to produce with a magician’s sleight of hand. She took the card and gave a fleeting smile. “That’s very kind of you, Rex. You always were so kind.”
Tree noticed he was not included in Judy’s kindness category.
Markov, demonstrating an equal ability at sleight of hand, plucked the card out of his wife’s fingers. “Yes,” he agreed. “That is kind of you, Mr. Baxter. We are most appreciative.” He looked at his wife. “Judy, I believe he had better have some lunch.”
“Good to see you,” Judy said to no one in particular.
Markov shot Tree one final, speculative look before taking his wife by the arm and leading her away. Rex watched them disappear into the dining room. “This confirms my suspicion that if you live long enough on this island, you will eventually meet everyone you ever knew from your past life.”
“Hard to disagree with you,” Tree said.
“Judy didn’t seem very happy to see you,” Rex said.
“I can’t blame her,” Tree said. “I wasn’t much of a husband.”
“You’ve improved,” Rex said. “What’s more, it only took you three marriages to do it.”
“I’m a slow learner,” Tree said.
“That’s certainly true,” Rex said, getting to his feet. “Just make sure you’re at the Island Inn tomorrow morning at eleven.”
“You’re getting married at the Island Inn?”
“I’ll be the guy on the beach with a big smile on his face,” Rex said.
“I’m happy for you, Rex,” Tree said. “You know that, don’t you?”
Rex gave his old friend a skeptical look.
And then he winked.
The Four Wives of the Sanibel Sunset Detective will be published in November by West-End Books.