Chapter 27: Pearl
Nassau Bahamas - 1943
“What do you mean he’s dead?”
Ulysses was in trouble. And it was the sort of trouble that Pearl never imagined even Uly could get into. The phone on the bedside table had rung at 7:00 a.m. Pearl reached beyond her book and lifted the receiver with trepidation. No one ever phoned before 9:00 a.m.
“It’s… it isn’t good, Pearl. He was murdered in the night. I was here all night. I didn’t hear a thing.”
Pearl didn’t have many kind thoughts about the man who now lay dead in his mansion out west. Despite being Uly’s ‘good friend’, George Cedar was not a nice man. George was a gold miner from Canada who had brash manners, poor taste, and ugly desires. But he had money, heaps of it. And where there was money, there was always Uly close by. George had arrived in Nassau, persuaded by Uly, two years ago. Uly stuck to him like glue. George’s fortune dimmed the shine of all Uly’s other clients combined. Uly often stayed with George after a night of hosting The Bahamas’ most important luminaries and drinking expensive brandy. Uly insisted it was all business, but Pearl was no longer the naïve bride of three years ago. She heard the rumors and smelled the perfume. George had a wide-ranging taste in entertainment.
“He… you heard nothing, Uly? How?”
“Don’t start with me, Pearl. I heard nothing. I was asleep all night. I’m getting the same hostile questions from the police. I don’t need them from you. You’ll need to make some phone calls for me. I need a lawyer.”
“Of course. I’ll phone Mr. Symonette right away. Are you coming home? Will the police come here? I don’t want Harold to…”
“Shit, Pearl. Is that boy all you ever think about? Forget Harold and focus on your husband, will you? You’ll need to phone your parents.”
“My parents? I… Why?”
“We’re going to need money to pay Symonette.”
“Money? But we have money. The business is…”
“Will you stop being so obtuse, Pearl? Stop asking questions and do as I say. I command you to call your parents. I’ve let them get away with this disowning business for too long. It’s time they stepped up to their responsibilities.”
“But…” It was no good. Uly had hung up the phone.
Pearl replaced the receiver and considered what came next. What did one do when their husband called them from a murder scene? What Uly didn’t know is that Pearl knew he had a motive. He thought her obtuse. He felt her head was as empty as the current business bank accounts. But she had eyes. Pearl had ears. She also had a key to his desk at home, and Uly spent enough time away that she had plenty of opportunity to invest the time and attention needed to keep up to date with his business dealings. She had good reason to do so because what Uly didn’t know was that she’d been communicating with her mother in letters for two years. Pearl had known if she reached out to her mother quietly, with no anger or recriminations, that her mother wouldn’t be able to resist writing back.
Pearl hadn’t told the truth in her letters. She’d told her mother that The Bahamas was wonderful. That Uly was wonderful. She’d told her what a caring and attentive father and husband he was, how she was thankful every moment that she’d married him. She lied because she imagined if she could thaw her mother first, then perhaps her mother could thaw her father, and she could get them to come to The Bahamas and take her and Harold home. If they brought her home to Palm Beach, she’d be a disgrace to the family. Women didn’t leave their husbands. Women didn’t raise young boys alone without a father figure. But she thought her father could bear up under the disgrace if she could make him understand how miserable she was, what a colossal mistake she had made.
Ulysses didn’t love her. He didn’t love Harold. The sweet toddler barely even saw his father. When Uly was home, Harold tried so hard to get his attention that it made Pearl’s heartache for the boy. Uly couldn’t care less. In Uly’s mind, Harold was a trap. Uly believed the birth of Harold was a trap that Pearl had set to keep them together after it became clear that Pearl’s parents would not give in and she wasn’t to be a Palm Beach heiress. In the conservative Christian community of Nassau, Uly could never cast out a wife and a son. So…they were both trapped. Pearl yearned for home. For a way out. So she kept up with his business dealings, in case she discovered something that might help her leave him. She had discovered plenty. The most important fact being that Uly was planning a way out of his own increasing troubles in The Bahamas, which included dragging his wife and son along toward further misery.
Pearl hurried to dress and get downstairs. She would call Mr. Symonette from his office and use her key to confirm what she already knew.
Shelley was waiting for her in the hallway outside Ulysses’ office. Shelley was her rock, her savior, and her only real friend. Oh, she’d tried to make other friends. She’d volunteered at the Yacht Club and joined the American Bahamian Women’s League. She’d hosted lavish parties at the ever-expanding Highwater after she’d spent her entire pregnancy renovating the property, turning it into a house fit for a wealthy and respectable businessman. The women fawned over her. It seemed every woman in Nassau wanted to be Pearl Hanna’s best friend. But Pearl soon learned that ulterior motives were the key motives for friendship in the social circles in which they ran. She had little opportunity to meet regular Bahamians. When she did, perhaps in a store or on the street, they either avoided her or treated her with distant respect and admiration they didn’t know she deserved. So it was Shelley she turned to. The local woman she had thought brusque and uncaring on her arrival had become the no-nonsense mother figure she needed. She confided everything in Shelley.
“You heard?” Pearl said.
Shelley nodded. “My cousin is one of the security guards there. Mr. Ulysses sent them both away last night. Said they didn’t need them. He got back this morning and found Mr. Ulysses talking to the police.”
“What do I do?”
Shelley put her hand out for the key, and Pearl passed it over. She opened the door to the office and rushed to the locked desk drawer. “First things first, we get these papers outta here ’til we figure out what’s going on. Last thing we need is Mr. Ulysses in prison. You think he’d keep you in Highwater living his life while he’s rotting in Fox Hill prison? No, honey, he won’t.” Shelley pulled a folder from the drawer and placed it squarely in the middle of the desk. “Where we gonna hide it?”
“But maybe this is it, Shelley? Maybe now’s the time to call my father. He has to bring me and Harold home. He won’t want me to suffer this kind of horror. A husband in prison for murder? If we give the police the folder, maybe I’m free.”
“Oh, honey, you ain’t gonna be free… ever. You think your daddy won’t say you got just what you deserved? You married a man he told you not to marry and look where it got you?”
“But he has a grandson, Shelley.” Pearl was crying now. How had this happened? She’d gone from a pampered Palm Beach princess in finishing school to an ignored and frightened wife on a lonely, backward island.
There was a kitchen towel tucked in Shelley’s waistband, and she pulled it free and started patting Pearl’s tears.
“Okay. It’s time to listen to your Shelley, and you listen good. Mr. Ulysses ain’t never gonna let you take that baby away from The Bahamas. I didn’t tell you before because… well, because you didn’t need to know yet, and I didn’t want to see you cry like this. There’s been too much crying in this house for my liking. Mr. Ulysses has more rights to that boy than you do under the law. You’re not Bahamian. And you sure ain’t a man. Mr. Ulysses says Baby Harold can’t go? Then baby Harold can’t go. You understand?”
Pearl’s stomach gave a sharp spasm, and she looked frantically for the wastebasket. She pushed Shelley out of the way and retched above the elaborate brass bucket. Nothing came out. As it had been so often during her terrible pregnancy, Shelley's hand was there, rubbing her back in gentle strokes. It reminded Pearl of her mother’s hairbrush. She swallowed a sob.
“Don’t you worry, Ms. Pearl.” Shelley had dropped her voice low now. “I got plans. Those papers couldn’t help you before. But they’ll help you now. You’ll talk to Mr. Uly first, and then you can call your daddy.”
Ulysses was on his way home to Highwater, and Pearl’s tears and nausea were in check, thanks to Shelley’s secret family recipe for a distasteful, bitter hot drink. Pearl wasn’t sure what was in it and didn’t want to ask. The police had arrested Ulysses on suspicion of the murder of George Cedar. They hadn’t held him long. Uly had friends in high places. Very high places. The news of the murder of one of the wealthiest men in the world was everywhere, and Pearl’s phone hadn’t stopped ringing.
“Dear, dear Uly. Is he alright? Oh, how devastating it must have been for him to have woken to such a sight. Did you hear they had burned him in his bed?” Mrs. Armstrong, the wife of the St. Andrew’s church pastor, had been the last to call.
Pearl hadn’t heard that he’d been burned in his bed, but now she felt nauseous again.
Mrs. Armstrong carried right on. She didn’t need Pearl’s reply to have a conversation. “Well, how many rumors have circulated about that terrible man? I’m not surprised he’s been murdered, really. Did you know he had a shipment of gold from his mine and buried it on an island somewhere? Does he think he’s a pirate or something?”
Pearl had heard that “rumor,” but in this case, she was relatively confident that it wasn’t a rumor at all.
“Mmm…” Pearl said.
“And they arrested poor Ulysses? Who would ever imagine such a nice, jovial, and Christian man would do such a thing?”
Pearl could. Shelley had told her to wait in their bedroom. The bedroom was her domain; the office was his. They had shuffled baby Harold off to another of Shelley’s cousins. It seemed Shelley was related to the entire island. Pearl had put on her best dress. The planned confrontation was not something she could ever do alone. But she had Shelley. And Shelley had promised her she would stand by and not allow anything to happen, and if it got out of hand, John was waiting in the wings with a few other cousins on call.
There was a crunching of tires in the driveway, and panic rose into Pearl’s chest. She couldn’t do this. She was afraid of Ulysses. She’d never actually admitted that to anyone but herself. He had never struck her or even so much as pushed her, but he was the epitome of a powerful man, and he had a temper like a flare. Shelley will be here, she reminded herself. I will be okay. And I’ll be home soon—home in Palm Beach.
“Mrs. Armstrong, I’m sorry, but I have to go. I just heard Ulysses’s car.”
“Of course, dear, of course. You tell Ulysses that we are all on his…” But Pearl didn’t hear the end as she hung up the phone on Mrs. Armstrong’s rambling. That woman didn’t know her husband as well as she thought. None of them did.
Pearl picked up the brush from her dressing table and began long hair strokes. She pretended her mother held the brush to calm her racing pulse. She took deep breaths and counted the strokes.
“What is the meaning of this Pearl? Why were you not downstairs waiting for me? Shelley tells me I’m to come up here? You don’t order me around!”
Her husband was in the doorway, filling the frame. He was a broad man, a fact that, in the early days, had always comforted Pearl. She had imagined him as her protector. Ulysses Hanna was a force of nature. Not only was he solid and imposing, but he was charismatic and charming. The world seemed to bend toward his will.
“We need to talk, Ulysses.” Was her voice shaking? Pearl put down her brush and glanced at Shelley, who had come into the room behind Uly. Shelley nodded and smiled. Pearl could do this. She had to do this. She wanted to go home.
“Talk? Seriously, Pearl.” Ulysses stripped off his jacket and tossed it over an armchair. He loosened his tie and then collapsed onto the edge of the bed. It was his bed, too, but he was never in it. “I have just come back from being arrested. Can you imagine! Arresting Ulysses Hanna? Well, Symonette got that straightened out quickly enough, thank God.” Actually, it was thank Pearl. She was the one who had woken Mr. Symonette and told him to get to the station. But Uly would never thank her.
“I know, Ulysses. I have the folder.”
Ulysses stopped struggling with his tie and looked toward his wife for the first time since entering the room. There was no love in his eyes anymore. There never was. Pearl was a means to an end that never arrived.
“What are you talking about? Did you call your parents?” He asked.
“No. But I will. I need to talk to you first. I found the folder in your drawer. Project Mexico.”
Ulysses’ eyes darkened like the sea when a storm blew in during the afternoon. They changed quickly from a stunning blue to a cloudy grey, and Pearl could feel the anger behind them.
He looked toward Shelley, hovering in the doorway, and asked again. “What are you talking about?”
“I know you owed George Cedar money, Ulysses. You took the money for Lyford Cay development but didn’t use it for that. You stole it. You told me George was a partner, but you lied to me. Not that you thought I was even listening. You said you and George were investing in Lyford Cay together. I’ve read the letters between you, the Duke, and the Norwegian man.”
Ulysses rose from the bed now and gripped Pearl’s forearm. “You were in my office? You have the folder? Give it to me now! Who do you think you are? You’re useless. That’s what you are; you need to get out of my business. Give me that folder.”
“She doesn’t have it,” Shelley said. “I have it. And if anything happens to Ms. Pearl…” Shelley nodded toward Ulysses’s now painful grip, “…so much as a bruise. That folder will end up in the hands of the police.”
Ulysses paled and fell back to the edge of the bed. “What do you want?” He said to Shelley. “If it’s money, you’re out of luck. As you know, all my money is in Mexico.”
“It’s not what I want, Mr. Ulysses. It’s what Ms. Pearl wants.”
Pearl sat as tall as she could. She could do this. She was strong.
“I want to go home.” She said.
Ulysses laughed. “Fine. Go!” He said. “What kind of life will you have in Palm Beach? You’ll be the mother who left her husband and child in the time of their greatest need. Even your beauty won’t help you. You’ll die alone.”
“I won’t be childless. I’m taking Harold. And Shelley and John.”
Ulysses laughed again. “You can take that worn-out old couple as far away from here as you choose, but my son will not be leaving this island.”
Pearl felt the heat of anger gather in her chest. She felt explosive, as though one more word from him would send her into a blind rage that would scare her more than it would scare him.
“I am taking my son. And you will say nothing and do nothing.” Pearl Said.
“Or I’ll take the folder to the police,” Shelley said. “I’m sure the Duke’ll be damn thrilled when you expose his money laundering scam. He ain’t afraid of those germans he’s working with, right? I heard they’re real nice boys. Mexico’ll close those bank accounts real quick, too, I’m guessing. No chance you’ll get that money back here.”
“You were going to take me and my son away, Ulysses.” Pearl was yelling now, the anger too much to keep inside, “I can’t believe you would plan such a thing without telling me!”
“Look,” Ulysses said, raising his hands in supplication. “I was planning on telling you. It’s a brilliant move for us. There are opportunities in Mexico like those in The Bahamas twenty years ago. We would live a heavenly life in Mexico, Pearl.”
“I’m not going to Mexico,” Pearl said. “I will call my parents like you asked Ulysses. I’m sure they will do what they can to help with your legal troubles. But Harold and I are going home. And you can’t stop us.”
Pearl stood and walked from the room. Ulysses didn’t follow.
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