An Ear to the Ground

by James Hadley Chase

I heard this story from Al Barney, a beer-sodden beachcomber who haunts the waterfront of Paradise City, always on the lookout for a sucker to buy him a beer. At one time, so I was told, Al Barney was the best skin diver on the coast. He had picked up a lot of money teaching diving, spearing sharks and laying the wives of the rich tourists who infest this coast in the season. But the beer rained him.

Al was an enormous man, weighing around three hundred and fifty pounds with a beer belly on him that rested like a balloon on his knees when he sat down. He was around sixty-three years of age, burned mahogany brown by years in the sun, balding, with an egg-shaped head, steely, small green eyes, a mouth that reminded me of a Red Snapper and a flat nose that spread half over his face from a punch he had had — so he told me — from an unreasonable husband who had caught him in the hay with his wife.

I had written a novel that had clicked lucky, and I had now enough spending money to escape the cold in New York, so I had come down to Paradise City which is on the Florida coast, knowing I could well afford to spend a month there before I got back to more work. I checked in at the Spanish Bay Hotel: probably the best and most deluxe of all the hotels in Florida. It only catered for fifty guests and offered a service that fully justified the cost of the final tab.

Jean Dulac, the manager of the hotel, a tall handsome man with impeccable manners and the polished charm that is unique to the French, had read my book. It had made a hit with him, and one evening as I was sitting on the floodlit terrace after one of those magnificent meals the Spanish Bay Hotel always provided, Dulac joined me.

He told me about Al Barney.
Smiling, he said, ‘He’s our very special local character. He knows everyone, knows everything about this City. It might amuse you to talk to him. If you are looking for material, you’ll certainly get something from him.’

After a week of swimming, eating too much, lazing in the sun and fooling around with a number of girls with beautiful bodies but no minds, I remembered what Dulac had told me about Al Barney. Sooner or later, I would have to get down to another book. I had no ideas, so I drove over to the Neptune Tavern on the oily waterfront where the sponge fishing boats docked and found Barney.

He was sitting outside the Neptune Tavern on a bollard, a can of beer in his hand, staring moodily at the boats as they came and went.

I introduced myself, telling him that Dulac had mentioned his name.

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