This installment of Preludes of the Return, of the Crimes of Heaven and Hell, by Carl R. Moore, is intended for mature audiences only. Reader discretion is advised.
Nate watched as the woman leaned over and spoke in low tones with the tavern’s proprietor. She was smiling in advance of her words and his. That and the way she brushed back her hair told him their connection was about more than paper deeds, as incredulous as it seemed. The old patchy skinned man should have been shaking with nervous luck. Instead he was meeting her with a glassy, trance-eyed look, an infatuation that made Nate conjure the word worship.
As the two of them whispered, Harpswell emerged from the kitchen, pushing a wheeled mop bucket. He managed to steer clear of his boss, but bumped into Van Garing, unleashing a heavy splash of brown water.
“My skirt,” she cried.
“So sorry, Miss. Didn’t mean it, swear I didn’t. Must say Miss, you’re looking quite beautiful today, Miss.”
“Mistake number two,” said Jeb. “Damnit Harpswell, am I gonna have to chain yuh to the basement door?”
“Sorry Mr. Craw, just doin’ my job.”
“Opinions ain’t part a’ your job. Oughta chain yuh by your cheek.”
“Oh please, leave him be,” said Van Garing. “He said I was beautiful. Something wrong with that? Besides, we have other things to talk about.”
Van Garing walked around behind the bar, put her arm around Jeb, and vanished with him into the kitchen. Nate shook the vision off, drank down his whisky, and turned back to the other patrons. Even now, with the fiddle and the television running in a jumble of sound, he saw Ray’s lips moving, talking to himself, describing the dead boys’ wounds, the looks on their mother’s and father’s faces. Crazy Ray had been taking his babblings into odder and odder places, and if Jeb came back, he would likely throw him out.
But Ray didn’t wait, showing himself to the door before the song was over. Nate took the opportunity to settle his tab with Harpswell. He waved to the dancers on his way out and let his tip say all there needed to be said to Jeb Craw.
Outside the fog had grown thick over the streets. Nate followed Ray’s slanted silhouette as he rounded up the hill away from the harbor. He took a side street that dead-ended at three one-story houses wrapped in weathered siding, then moved off onto a path that led into the pines. Nate sipped from his flask as the gaunt man paused, rocking on his lanky legs, muttering gibberish. When he turned down a second path that led to the cemetery, Nate turned back toward town. His actions as a good Samaritan with regard to the disappearances were one thing, trespassing another. He took his last sip of Friday whisky and headed for the efficiency.
* * * * *
The next morning Nate woke to fog so thick it was like seeing a ghost from the inside out. He cursed that he’d run out of coffee as well as cash and would have to walk to the ATM again. He dressed with slow respect for his headache, then headed down to the cobblestones, hoping he was going in the right direction. Once he found the vestibule, he took his cash and hiked another half mile to the gas station with the minimart. He sipped his coffee at the counter, then went outside and lit his pipe.
The fog still hung thick, though at least he could now see enough to cross the street where the road had some shoulder. There the Nazarath Baptist Church traced a faint white outline amid the gray mists, with its pale patrons filing out after the morning service. It being a weekday, they were mostly the elderly along with a few moms and out of work fishermen.
One old man, thick in the middle with wiry limbs, stopped and followed Nate with his eyes. Bald, wispy haired, and glaring, he took heaving breaths like his watching made him winded. “This is private property, ya bum! Get out! Get on outta here.”
Nate puffed on his pipe and kept walking.
“What’d you get dropped off by the bus? I said get outta here! We don’t need your kind! We don’t need no help around here!”
Nate felt a shiver as he noticed the man fall in behind him, wheezing and picking up speed. He was about to turn and confront the geezer, when Reverend Selman, a former captain Nate knew from his business, caught the old man by the arm and stopped him.
“Mr. Aikens, please, come with me. Take it easy. I think there’s a misunderstanding.”
He coaxed the man back to the church parking lot, then waved at Nate. “Sorry about that, Mr. Morgan.”
“Not a problem,” Nate called with a wave.
“Get the hell outta here, ya bastard!” called the old man as he was lifted into the church van.
* * * * *
Detective Randall made it to Little Neck Harbor by noon, parked his car, and walked down the pier to the stone beach. He checked he was on the right side, as specified in the voicemail, then saw Morgan was already there, smoking a pipe beside a block of gray basalt.
“Detective Garrett Randall,” he said as they shook hands.
“Nate Morgan,” said the man in the black pea coat.
“I was hoping we could have a word, if you have time.”
“Wouldn’t have met you if I didn’t. How can I help?”
Randall followed the man as he walked along a line of sopping seaweed. He looked a little hungover as he smoked and sipped his coffee.
“You used to work for customs in Boston?”
“I did,” said Morgan.
“And you’ve retired since, and lived in this town the last ten years?”
“You must know it pretty well.”
“Well enough, when it’s not too foggy.”
“Right, well, listen, although I can’t fill you in on all the details, I wanted to let you know that I’m in need of a deputy. I’m investigating the possibility of, well, let’s call it foul play with regard to the disappearances, and my superiors can’t spare me backup right now.”
“I’ll do it,” said Morgan. “You don’t have to explain. Just one condition.”
“No fool’s errands. We find our facts first. We find out who it is, we get our information in order. If we act, we act on that.”
“Fair enough,” said Randall. “So long as you agree that I’m in charge, unequivocally.”
Morgan nodded. “That’s a given.”
“Then we’re in business,” said Randall. “Now, raise your right hand.”
He swore-in Morgan there on the stone beach as salt water rolled in shallow swirls around their feet. After, they made their way back to the pier, where Morgan turned off toward the tavern, and Randall to his car, having agreed to meet the next morning.