When Nate turned, he saw a slim, dark haired figure standing on the porch. Diana Fields yawned and stepped down the rickety steps in a pair of flip flops and jeans. Her hair was damp from the shower, and she’d tied her t-shirt in a twist exposing her midriff, as if to make up for the absence of the retched upon negligee.
“That was kinda hot,” she said.
She smirked with her glossy lips and gave Nate a languorous once over with her wide brown eyes. “You’re not in bad shape for your age,” she said.
“Probably old enough to be your father.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty,” she said, leaning against the post, slippage of her jeans making the point she wore nothing underneath.
“You know, your mom talks a lot about how she’d like to see you off at a good college.”
“Does she? How quaint. I’m staying here.”
“Not a lot for a young person to do around here.”
“There are ways to get money.”
“Apparently. Wanna tell me where you met this yachtsman?”
“You mean Grove? He met me. Got an ad online.”
“Right,” said Nate, looking down at a lake of a puddle that held both their reflections in a swirl of gunpowder and blood.
“If I was awake, I’d a’ gone with them,” she said.
“You really oughta think twice about that.”
“Nah, it’s okay. Thanks, though. Puttin’ a little fear in them doesn’t hurt. It’ll keep things polite when I meet Grove at his party.”
At that moment a whimper sounded from the trailer, then a baby’s full on bawl. “Well, there she goes,” she said.
“Di, the baby!” came Maggie’s voice from inside.
“What, you couldn’t tell? Guess the stretch marks aren’t so bad when you have ’em young,” she said. She gave her hips one more swagger as she headed inside.
* * * * *
Nate thought it over on the drive back to town. If the Earl Groves was moored off Littleneck Harbor, he’d make a good target for whoever had been taking down the ships. The yacht wasn’t much bigger than the doctor’s sailboat, and the thing had no trouble making a ruin of that. He wondered if they were targeting a certain kind of craft on purpose, or if it was all just plunder.
He parked the car and crossed over to Jeb’s Tavern. The door was locked and the windows were dark. Odd for Jeb to be closed again. He was crossing back over to head to the batter house when he saw Ray Gillings’ lanky figure stumbling down the hillside, carrying a trash bag.
“Hey Ray, can you come here a minute?”
Ray shook his head, changed his stumble to a run. Nate sprinted ahead of him and took him by the elbow outside the library.
“What’s in the bag, Ray?”
“I was gonna show you I swear, just not yet, not ’til I was sure.”
“Open the bag, Ray.”
A gust of cold wind whipped across the wrinkled plastic, as if to reinforce the haggard man’s reluctance. Nate took hold of the twist, and when he released it, the arm hung out to the elbow.
* * * * *
“I’m not going to arrest you,” said Nate when they were back at his apartment. “But you’re going to tell me everything, and you’re going to stay here while I go out and talk to a few people. Cooperate, and when morning comes, we’ll reassess.”
Gillings was nodding nervously, looking out the window at the harbor, then back at the front door which Nate kept bolted.
“See, it was Harpswell,” he said. “Jeb’s kitchen guy. I used to fall asleep sometimes, up at the cemetery, you know, they got those awnings on some a’ the crypts, keep you dry, you know? I used to fall asleep up there and I began seein’ Harpswell comin’ around a few months ago. Woke me up once, sayin’ he was doin’ a favor for Jeb, and I better skee-daddle if I every wanted back in the tavern. But he kept comin’ and goin’ with these bags. So the other night, know what I did? I snatched one while he was fillin’ a grave.”
“Filling a grave?”
“Well, refilling,” he said, looking at the door again. “You know, like after he dug up the body.”
Nate nodded. He’d kept the arm in the trash bag and put it in the freezer. According to Gillings, it had come from the grave of a man who’d died the spring before in a construction accident. Harpswell had more in his mother’s trailer up the hill.
“Is that where he lives?” Nate asked.
“Far’s I know,” said Ray.
“Indeed, well, listen now, you’re not technically under arrest, but you can’t leave, got it?”
Ray nodded his shaggy head.
“All right,” said Ray. “There’s beer in the fridge. I gotta knock off for an hour before I head out later.”
His gaunt prisoner nodded, popped himself a beer, and went back to looking out the window.
Nate went in his bedroom, left his door cracked open lest her heard Gillings getting up to something he shouldn’t.
But the deepness of his sleep took him by surprise. A heady nap dominated at first by a velvety void. He couldn’t resist letting it envelop him, when all at once he found himself standing at the base of a high hill. The air smelled like fresh rain, and bars of sunlight pierce amber clouds like golden lances.
“Come on now, youngster,” said the old man he’d seen outside the Nazareth Baptist Church. “You’re not still upset I called you a bum, now, are yuh?”
Beside him an old woman lifted an oxygen mask from her face—“Heh, heh, a fuckin’ bum, ya called him a fuckin’ bum,” she cackled.
“Now give him a chance, Mrs. Aikens, we’re here to give him anothah chance.”
“Well he bettah get in step,” said the crone, hitching her skirt, grabbing her oxygen tank, and heading up the hill.
Nate looked at the top where he saw a cross standing amid a heap of skulls—except they weren’t skulls, they were heads, he recognized Maggie’s, and Tiny’s, and another, another he didn’t want to look at—they were all heaped at the foot of a dark figure nailed to the cross.
“Reverend Selman,” said Nate, his heart thumping, drumming harder and harder in his chest. “Is Reverend Selman here?”
“Of course he’s not here,” cried the old man. “Yuh bum, yuh goddamn bum, of course he’s not here, ’bout time yuh woke up, yuh bum!”
Nate leapt out of his twisted blankets, gasping for air. He heard Gillings pop another beer, then stumbled out into the other room, groping for his coat.
“You okay?” asked Gillings.
Nate checked the clock—he’d only been out forty-five minutes. Not great, but good enough, if he could shake off the dream. “Yeah, yeah I’m fine. Just remember our deal, I’m headed out, you’re staying here.”
“Yeah, okay man, I’ll be here,” said Ray. “And um, Nate, could you just make sure you lock that door?”
* * * * *
When Nate arrived at the tavern, he found that Jeb had finally reopened for the evening. The regulars hadn’t shown up yet, so he took a seat at the far end of the bar. He pulled a copy of Homer’s Odyssey from his jacket and removed the folded pages of notes from where they marked Book IX. The book was his, and the notes were copied from something he’d found on the evening’s investigation. He’d only been reading a few minutes when Tiny showed up. The burly ex-fisherman was drunker than usual, having trickled some kind of loan out of Maggie and her girl under the pretext that he’d helped the constable protect them.
“Yeah, must say we make a pretty good team,” said Tiny.
Nate grinned, raised his scotch. “To teamwork,” he said.
“Gonna pay your tab there, Deputy?” asked Jeb.
“Pay it when I’m good ’n’ ready,” said Tiny.
“I can get his beers,” said Nate.
“No,” said Tiny, standing up and shoving back his stool. “Get my own damn beers. You and I’s on a par now, Constable. ’Tween the two of us, we’ll have this town back together in a jiffy.” He tried to snap his beer soaked fingers, but only made a sloppy, flatulent sound.
Harpswell chuckled, snatched the empty glass then swabbed the bar with the edge of his grease-stained Darth Vader t-shirt. “You’re a deputy like I’m Jabba the Hut,” he snickered as he walked back to the kitchen, belly jiggling.
“What, you think it’s funny?” said Tiny. “You guys think you’re so tough? You think you rule this town and all the souls in it?”
At this Jeb turned away from the cash register and glared at the old fisherman. “Rule them? Rule them did you say? Why would I rule what I’d rather get rid of?”
* * * * *
Once Tiny had stumbled out, Jeb reached for the bottle to pour Nate another scotch. “No, no more tonight,” he said. “Just a coffee.”
“Why not take one on the house,” said Jeb, pouring him a glass and pushing it toward him.
Nate blinked: had he ever seen Jeb pour anything on the house? “No, really, I have some work to do.”
“What work?” said the dark eyed old man. “What are you doin’ all this work for? You used to edit your pages and drink up, nice and quiet and regular. What you want with all this work for?”
“I’m the constable now.”
“Nevermind that horse manure, I’m tellin’ you to drink up and worry ’bout that nonsense tomorrow.”
Nate had never seen Jeb so involved and insistent. It was unsettling.
“Well, I suppose I’ll be going then,” he said, placing a twenty on the bar. “And count out the change, if you wouldn’t mind.”
* * * * *
After Jeb counted his change, Nate stepped back into the street. But instead of heading toward his apartment he slipped around the tavern and down an old graying pier. Ropes tied decades before cut into the collapsed pilings. Held together a repair at a time, the rickety contraption made a makeshift stairway of rotted planks that curved around to where the muddy cove met Jeb’s back door.
High tide was coming at two o’clock that night, and it was just after twelve. Nate waited there about an hour before he picked out voices. Dim lights cast from the buildings streetside made nests of shadows along the deepening water. The voices were coming from there, where the kitchen’s back balcony hung over the basement door. Nate stepped off the pier onto a small beach of broken rocks, glass shards, and seaweed.
Tucking himself against the tavern’s damp concrete foundation, Nate listened to the figures talking in the shadows:
“Of course he doesn’t appreciate you,” said the woman’s voice. “But we appreciate you.”
“Exactly how much?” was the Tiny’s answer, followed by a hiccup.
“Come inside with us and find out.”
It was Ariel Van Garing’s voice.
Beside her, a silhouette Nate took to be Harpswell, was nodding.
“That a fact?” said Tiny.
“No, this is,” said Van Garing. She pulled the fisherman toward her and kissed him. Her thin dress was so dampened by fog and drizzle, she was de facto naked.
Everyone knew Tiny was a fool for all of his addictions, but so far he’d at least understood the price. The old salt stumbled inside, kissing and groping as he stepped. Nate had to wonder if he knew this time whether the bait was worth the hook.
Checking the magazine of his .44, Nate noticed Harpswell was carrying a sizable pistol of his own. He dangled it beside his leg as Tiny fumbled with his prize, too drunk to notice. As they stepped inside the basement, Van Garing picked up a hatchet from where it was stuck in a beam. Nate considered a move, but they were on Jeb’s property, and hadn’t done anything yet.
Following them inside, Nate inhaled an overpowering sweet, fishy odor. They were stepping through a kind of workshop lined with peg board and rusty tools. The hallway felt artificial, like the new concrete wall to the right had been put up hastily to cover something up.
By the time they rounded the corner to the second stairway it was too late. Harpswell kicked Tiny’s legs out from under him. Van Garing slipped out of his embrace and bludgeoned his head with the back of the hatchet, knocking him down the stairs.