March 21st, 2012
THE ICY BLACKNESS closed in on her as she sank into the nearly frozen water. Panic, pain, fear, disbelief, all obliterated by the killing cold. Her last sight, the silhouette of that man standing above her on the side of the road. Her last emotion, unbearable grief, because now, she could not keep the promise made to her lover. Her last awareness, the ring on her finger, the ring she had failed to deliver.
The man shivered in the sharp wind, as he struggled to catch his breath. She had been stronger than expected, and now as she sank out of sight, he began to plot his next move.
“Damn bitch! Who did she think she was? Trying to fight me! Nearly pulling me in! Goddamned bitch! F… !”
He cut his words short. It was a point of pride that he didn’t ever lose his temper, so as quickly as his temper flared, he regained control and a calm came over him. Softly, he swore to himself, “This isn’t over; I will get that ring.”
He shivered and turned, then walked back to his car. As he climbed in, he glanced back one last time and swore softly.
Chapter One: The Gallery
“FABULOUS. MMMH … these hors d’oeuvres are fabulous,” gushed Lillian. “Have you tried the mushroom and pickled cactus canapés yet?”
Meredith shook her head and rolled her eyes slightly as she continued to chew on the grilled southwestern teriyaki rattlesnake skewer that was in her hand. She had never quite developed the knack for chewing and conversing at the same time so she just nodded with a slight smile.
“I’ll be right back,” said Lillian, and she was gone, off stalking the waiter who had just emerged carrying a new tray of trendy hors d’oeuvres.
She watched Lillian move across the room and thought to herself, “I wish I could do that. No fear, completely at home in the present.”
Lillian moved out of sight so Meredith turned her attention back to the sculpture she was standing in front of and continued chewing, her thoughts elsewhere.
It was fifteen years ago today that Lillian had come into Meredith’s life. Before then she had thought her life complete. She and twenty or so other free spirits lived on the commune. It wasn’t easy, but it had its rewards. She remembered that morning. The sunrise had been particularly beautiful. She remembered how the deep blues and grays of night were overcome by the brilliant pastels of the rising sun. She remembered how her early morning tea had burned her tongue. The day was hot like most days in the high desert at that time of year, and it was her turn to go into town to pick up the few things that they could not provide for themselves on the commune.
By the time she reached town, her t-shirt was damp with sweat, and beginning to stick to her back and cling to her breasts. Parking the truck in front of Sadie’s Emporium, she sat for a moment looking at the deserted street. As she got out of the truck, she pulled the shirt away from her body—holding it out and letting the hot, dry breeze blow over her skin. For a moment she felt the coolness from the evaporating sweat. The brightness of the sun and the swirling dust made her squint. It wasn’t until she was in the shade of the porch roof that she saw she was not alone. Sitting on one of the chairs Mabel kept on the porch, a backpack next to her, was a woman. She had the look of a lost dog who knew exactly where she was. Meredith blushed, realizing how silly she must have looked flapping her t-shirt in the breeze, and stammered, “Oh, hi.” The stranger appeared to be about her age and returned the hello. Then before either could say anything else, Mabel stuck her head out the door and said, “Oh good, you’ve met.” That was where it all began. That was the moment when Meredith’s life truly became whole.
Lillian returned to the commune that day with Meredith. The two women were as different as night and day, yet there was a deep connection. Soon they became inseparable, first as friends, then as lovers and soulmates.
So Meredith stood quietly, chewing and studying the work before her. She wasn’t sure what it was exactly, and its title gave no clue. Ever practical, she just did not understand things that seemed deliberately obscure. Her thoughts wandered again. Crowds of people made her uneasy. She preferred the familiarity and comfort of the farm. It was all she needed, but for Lillian, it was different. This trip to Taos was Meredith’s anniversary present to Lillian, and in spite of her unease, the past two days had been truly special. The women explored the city, experienced new restaurants, browsed through stores filled with more things than Meredith could imagine ever needing or using. For Lillian, it was a chance to get out of well-worn boots, dungarees, and work shirts; put on real clothes; and absorb the kinetic energy of the city. It wasn’t New York or San Francisco, but it was enough.
Her feet aching from two days in shoes more fashionable than she was used to, Meredith sat on a bench in front of a large, brightly colored abstract painting. She glanced in the catalogue she carried and saw that it was called Desert Light. “Lillian’s really happy here,” thought Meredith. It was at times like this she sometimes felt doubt about her relationship with Lillian: Why does she love me so? She needs this. This is where she belongs, here, in a city, surrounded by crowds and activity.
“A penny for your thoughts?” asked Lillian as she sat down next to Meredith, facing the other way.
Meredith looked over. “Lil, you startled me.”
“You were looking so pitiful, sitting here all alone. I was beginning to feel guilty for abandoning you.”
“Don’t. I’m fine. My feet are just a little sore.”
“I’ll rub them for you later.”
“That would be nice. Now go, enjoy the show. I’m fine, and besides this weekend is my gift to you.”
Lillian leaned over and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. “I’ll be right back. Maybe later, after I rub your feet, you could do my shoulders.”
Meredith smiled. “I’d like that.” And then she was gone, leaving Meredith sitting on the bench, lost in her thoughts, staring at Desert Light.
An hour passed, and Lillian was beginning to feel guilty for abandoning Meredith and was getting tired. She scanned the crowd in the main room and didn’t see Meredith sitting on the bench where she had left her. As Lillian went from room to room, her anxiety increased. Finally as she entered the last room, she saw Meredith standing in front of a large canvas chatting with a man. Lillian paused, watching. They were talking, pointing at the picture and laughing. As her anxiety dissipated, it was replaced by embarrassment. It was not like her to panic like that, and she needed a moment to compose herself. It was as if their roles had suddenly reversed; she was now the fish out of water and Meredith seemed right at home. Taking a deep breath, Lillian chided herself for being so silly. “Meredith!” she called out as she walked toward them.
Meredith turned toward her voice, a smile on her face. “Lillian, there you are.”
Before she could answer, the man turned toward her as well. His glance lasted but a second before he turned his attention back to Meredith. As brief as that glance was, it was enough. There was something familiar about him. What it was didn’t come to Lillian immediately, but she saw in his eyes that same recognition and it was unsettling. “I know him,” she thought to herself as she walked toward them. It was obvious that he was saying something to Meredith even though Lillian couldn’t hear them over the other voices in the room. As Lillian came within earshot, he took Meredith’s hand, gave it a slight shake, and she heard him say, “Thank you again for your company.” As he turned to leave, he nearly bumped into Lillian. For a second time their eyes met, and this time there was no doubt, he knew her and she him. Then, without a word he strode off.
The two women looked at each other, silently, surprised by the abruptness of his departure. Lillian turned and watched him disappear around the corner, leaving her with that nagging feeling of familiarity. Turning back to Meredith, trying to not show her discomfort, she said with a teasing tone in her voice, “So what gives? I leave you alone for a few minutes and you start picking up guys?”
Meredith was defensive; then as she began to respond, she realized Lillian was teasing her. “Nooo. I was doing no such thing. I was just being polite, and besides, he seemed quite nice.”
Lillian looked away again in the direction of his departure.
“Lillian, are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine,” she said, her voice drifting away.
“You’re not. What’s bothering you?”
“Bullshit. I know you too well. Something is bothering you. What is it? Was it him?”
“No, it wasn’t him … well maybe it was. I feel like I know him from somewhere only I can’t remember where. Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
“Good idea.” Meredith took Lillian’s hand.
Meredith’s touch was reassuring and the dark feeling Lillian had began to lift. “It’s been a long day, and I promised you a foot massage.” Still holding hands, they turned and walked toward the exit.
As they entered the main gallery and the door was in sight, Lillian stopped short. Jerking her hand out of Meredith’s, Lillian looked down at the ring that was on her finger. Meredith, surprised by this, turned and looked at Lillian. With concerned eyes, Meredith asked, “Lil, are you all right?”
“No … yes … no,” Lillian’s voice tailed off.
“What is it?”
“It just came to me why he seemed familiar.”
“That man. The one who you were talking to. I remember him.” Lillian looked down at the ring again. Meredith saw that and suddenly things didn’t feel right, and she hadn’t felt that in many years. There were parts of her past she had never shared with Lillian—it had never seemed necessary—but now those old feelings were surfacing, and she reacted. They were still standing in the middle of the room and suddenly Meredith felt very conspicuous. “Come on, let’s go over there and you can tell me what this is all about.” She took Lillian’s arm and guided her over to a corner where there was a tall floor plant. It wouldn’t hide them, but it felt more private there.
Neither spoke. They just stood there facing each other. Lillian didn’t move. Meredith stepped in, wrapped her arms around Lillian, and whispered, “Lillian, love, what’s wrong? Tell me.”
Lillian sniffled. Meredith felt Lillian shudder and gave her a reassuring squeeze. To anyone watching it was an innocent hug. Lillian pulled back, reached into her pocket for a tissue, wiped her eyes, then blew her nose. “I’m sorry. I’m being stupid. Let’s just get out of here.”
“No.” Meredith was firm in her response. “Something is wrong, and you need to tell me what. What about that man?”
“Remember the story I told you about this ring?” Lillian held her hand out for Meredith to see.
Meredith took Lillian’s hand and held it with both hands, “Yes. It was your grandmother’s, wasn’t it?” Meredith asked.
“That’s right. Do you remember when my mother died and I went home for the funeral? I told you how a man approached me during the calling hours and wanted to buy it from me.”
“Yes … ,” Meredith said hesitantly as she tried to remember the story.
“Well, I didn’t tell you everything. He had seemed so nice at first. He told me he was an old family friend, and I had no reason to doubt him. He then told me that he was a collector of estate jewelry and that when he saw my ring, he had to know more about it. He began asking me questions about it, most of which I couldn’t answer. Finally, he asked me if I would be interested in selling him the ring. I said no and thought that was the end of it.”
“I remember that much of the story. You never told me there was more.”
“It was after the service. Everyone was leaving and he came to me again. He first repeated his condolences, then he asked me again about the ring. I told him that it was not for sale, and then I remember this dark cloud came over his face. His eyes went black, and his voice was like ice. He told me that he wanted the ring and that he intended to have it. Again he offered me money for it, a lot more, and when I said no, he grabbed my arm. His grip was like a trap and it hurt. He spun me around so our faces were inches apart. I managed to pull away from him and run off. He didn’t follow. I ended up with bruises on my arm where he had grabbed me. I didn’t see him again, and I came home as quickly as I could. I was terrified, and I just needed to be home, here, with you, safe.”
“Oh Lillian, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know. By the time I got back here, the bruises on my arm were gone, and I guess I didn’t want to worry you.”
“And you think it’s him?”
“Yes, I’m sure it is.”
“Come on, we have to go.” Meredith took Lillian’s hand and began to pull her away like a mother would a child who was in danger. There was an urgency in Meredith’s plea that Lillian had heard only once before, many years ago. They had been hiking in the desert and Lillian didn’t see the snake that was about to strike. She was saved by Meredith’s warning. That moment flashed through Lillian’s head and scared her.
“No! Meredith, what’s wrong?” Lillian resisted, pulling out of Meredith’s grasp.
Meredith grabbed Lillian’s hand again, pulled, and said, “Nothing, we just have to leave right now.”
“Merry, you’re scaring me.”
“Lillian, please, we have to go. Trust me.” Again Meredith tugged on Lillian’s hand. “Come on. We have to go. Now.”
Holding hands, they made their way through the gallery crowd, all the while Meredith kept looking for the man with whom she had been talking. She didn’t see him but she knew he was still around.
Before exiting the gallery, Lillian tugged on Meredith’s hand, pulling her to a stop. “What’s going on?” Lillian asked, facing Meredith. “Why are you acting like this?”
Meredith glanced around quickly then pulled Lillian into the ladies room. Thankfully the room was empty.
Meredith faced Lillian, looked deep into her eyes, and said, “Lillian, there are things about my past that you don’t know. There isn’t time now, I need you to trust me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You couldn’t. Listen, that man I was talking to, if he is who you think he is, then we have to get away from here. He’s not here for his health. He wants something, and I’m guessing that it’s that ring.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“Lillian, trust me. I have a feeling that I haven’t had for many years, and we have to leave.”
“Okay, but you have to tell me everything on the way home.”
“Fine. Now let’s get going.”
“Okay, I promise.”
Chapter Two: Desert Highway
MEREDITH DROVE AS usual, and their departure from the city was uneventful. There were no further sightings of him. The sunset was spectacular, and as they drove silently toward home, they began to relax.
“Tell me again how you ended up talking to that man.”
“It just happened. I was standing there looking at that canvas, and suddenly he was there standing next to me. He didn’t say anything at first, then he asked me what I thought of the painting. I said it was nice but too large for our house. He seemed quite pleasant.”
“Did you tell him where we live?”
“No, I didn’t. We really didn’t say much else. That’s when you arrived and things got a little weird.”
“Yeah, it did, didn’t it?”
“I saw how you looked at him and his reaction to you.”
They rode in silence for many miles, each lost in her own thoughts before Lillian broke the silence.
“What is it, Lil?”
“Promise me that if anything ever happens to me, you’ll get the ring to Max.”
Meredith said nothing for a few moments as she tried to make sense of the request. Lillian’s niece, Max, lived in New Hampshire and was her last remaining relative.
“What are you talking about?”
“Just promise me.”
“Of course. I promise.”
Meredith wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard Lillian say thank you, and it was obvious there was nothing more to be said, so they drove on in silence.
It was late and the night very dark as they drove through the desert. The stars and the new moon were the only witnesses to the moving cocoon of light created by their car’s headlights when Meredith noticed another set of headlights far behind them. “Lil, are you awake?”
“There’s a car behind us.”
“Well, we’re not the only people who live out here.”
Meredith looked in the mirror again. The lights were closer. “They’re coming up really fast.”
“You know how fast people drive out here in the desert. You are the only person I know who drives anywhere near the speed limit.”
“You’re right, but …” Meredith said, glancing in the mirror again. By now her face was back lit by the reflection from the lights behind like a scene from an old movie.
The car was now close behind, too close, and there it stayed, its headlights blinding her eyes. Lillian turned and looked back, all she could see were the two bright lights boring into their car. “Merry, what’re they doing? Why won’t they just pass us?”
“I don’t know.” Meredith tried to sound unconcerned. She tapped the brakes. No change. She sped up. No change. She slowed down. No change. The car stayed close behind as if on a tether.
It was at that moment that there was a loud crash as their car was hit from behind and lurched forward. Meredith fought to maintain control. Lillian screamed.
“What the fu—” Meredith said, her words lost as they were hit from behind again. She managed to retain control of the car even as the terror threatened to paralyze her.
Crash. They were hit a third time. Glancing to her right, she could see tears of fear and panic beginning to cloud Lillian’s eyes. When Meredith looked back, those bright, burning lights were no longer in her mirror. For a split second, confusion hit her, then she realized that the car had now pulled up alongside matching their speed.
Both women looked left, and time froze as they saw the face of the man from the gallery staring over at them with cold, dark eyes. Before either woman could react, he yanked his steering wheel toward them and the cars came together one last time. Meredith screamed as she fought for control of the car as the tires caught in the soft shoulder. Then they were rolling, tumbling, and it was over. Silence.
The car came to rest upside down, far enough off the road that it would be hard to see unless one were looking for it. Still holding the wheel, Meredith opened her eyes. It was dark. Her head throbbed, her stomach and shoulder hurt, and she could feel something warm and sticky running up her face. It took a moment for her to realize that she was hanging upside down, suspended by her seat belt. “Lil?” she heard herself say, but there was only silence. “Lillian?” she repeated, her voice loud in her mind, but again there was only silence. “Lillian!” she tried to scream but nothing came out, and the silence was overwhelming. As her eyes began to adjust to the darkness, she could just make out the lifeless form of her mate. Lillian was still next to her, but she looked like a crumpled ball of paper.
Hanging upside down, staring at Lillian, Meredith saw flashes of what had just happened. The man at the gallery, Lillian’s fear when she saw him, their escape from the gallery, and the relief felt as they began the long ride home, each mile bringing them closer to their sanctuary.
Meredith remembered when the headlights first appeared behind them and she didn’t give them another thought. It was only when those lights seemed to gain on them faster than reasonable that doubt began to creep in. Doubt turned to fear as the distance closed. The fear turned to dread as they were hit from behind. Then the final moment of terror when they saw him next to them. Time froze as he looked at them with a sick grimace on his face with eyes like burning embers. That’s when she saw him wrench his steering wheel in their direction. It only took a second before his car crashed into theirs, but it felt like an eternity. And now, as she hung suspended upside down, those eyes filled her memory. Fighting for consciousness, she saw those eyes again through the shattered windshield. She wanted to cry out, but she couldn’t.
She blinked and wiped at the tears that were filling her eyes and running down her forehead. Then blackness swept over her. She didn’t know whether it was minutes or hours when she woke to see two white lights coming toward them. “Thank God. Someone’s coming to help.” Lillian didn’t reply. Meredith looked at Lillian again and, seeing her lifeless body, she knew that Lillian would not answer her ever again. That’s when something caught her attention in the faint glow created by those lights. As if reaching for Meredith, Lillian’s arm was extended. Her hand had fallen open and in the palm was the ring. Lillian’s last act was to try to hand it to her lover and life mate.
The lights came closer, and Meredith could hear the sound of tires crunching slowly over gravel. Finally the sound stopped and the lights went out. “They’re here. We’ll be all right,” she thought to herself. Then the other car’s door opened, the interior light came on, and she saw him. Help was not on the way. Fear gripped her. His shoes began to crunch on the gravel as he walked toward their overturned car. She could see the light from a flashlight as he swept it back and forth as he approached. The pain in her shoulder was beyond any that she had ever felt, but she endured it as she reached for Lillian’s outstretched hand. She touched the ring; it still radiated Lillian’s warmth. Meredith grabbed it and put it in her mouth, tucking it between her cheek and gum as his footsteps became louder. It was at that moment the pain, the fear, and the shock of what had happened overcame her. She didn’t hear any more steps.
The black silence of the desert night was broken only by the thin beam of his flashlight as he approached the overturned car. Then, without even realizing it, he started whistling. It was a simple tune, one that he used to whistle as a child to chase away the demons of the night. He could see the car. It was upside down, all the windows were either cracked or broken. The light from his flashlight reflected off the bits of glass that were scattered in the sand like so many diamonds. The car’s body was a mass of crumpled, crushed metal. Walking slowly around it, he swept the beam over the wreck as he inspected the results of his handiwork.
There was no movement and no sound save for his whistling. The passenger door was ajar. He leaned over and shone his light inside the car. He could see two shapes that he knew were the two women. The one nearest the passenger door was twisted into a grotesque shape, her neck obviously broken. The other one was hanging upside down, suspended by her seat belt. She didn’t interest him. He knelt down next to the passenger door and leaned into the car. “Okay, bitch. Come to Papa,” he mumbled under his breath. Then, putting his flashlight in his mouth, he grabbed one of her arms and began to pull her out of the car. Not being able to hold the beam steady as he pulled, the shadows created by the light seemed to bring the corpse to life and were made all the more eerie by the lifeless movement of her head, her neck broken.
As soon as she was mostly out of the car, he dropped her arm, took the flashlight out of his mouth and washed it over her looking for the ring. It wasn’t on either hand. He searched her clothes with the same result. “Son of a bitch. Where is it?” He pulled her farther away from the car, then lying on his belly, he snaked his way into the car where she had been. His flashlight created and dispelled shadows around the interior. His hands ran through the broken glass and debris, and found nothing.
The other woman—the one upside down behind the wheel— appeared to be dead as well. He checked her hands and pockets and noticed she was warmer than the first one. He felt for a pulse. It was faint. She was still alive. Wriggling back out of the car, that feeling of not being in control began to overwhelm him; he kicked at the ground in frustration, sending gravel flying into the night. That kick returned him to sanity, and he began to consider his options as he walked around the car. “I should kill her,” he thought. Then as he reached the door on her side of the car, he stopped and reconsidered. It was one thing to cause a death by creating an accident and quite another to do it deliberately with one’s own hands. “No, I’m not a murderer.” His decision made, he squatted by the door and pointed his light on her lifeless upside-down form. “If you live, I’ll find you, and I will have that ring,” he said softly. Then he stood, turned, and walked back to his car. The inky darkness of the desert night was beginning to give way to the predawn light as he drove off.
Chapter Three: Dark Dawn
SHE WAS SPINNING around, first upside down, then sideways. The great beast was tossing her around like a rag doll. Everything hurt, she cried out in pain. The sound of her voice startled her. The violent shaking stopped. Suddenly she was in a tree suspended upside down. She couldn’t see what had hold of her, then she felt something in her mouth followed by a buzzing sound. It was hot. Her mouth was dry, and that something stuck to the inside of her cheek. It hurt to move. Meredith tried to open her eyes. A bright light blinded her, forcing her eyes to squeeze shut. In the sanctuary of darkness, she found herself driving down a highway, then a face appeared, staring at her. She gasped.
Despite the brightness, she began opening her eyes for a second time, hoping the light would make the face go away. The bright light bore into her brain like a drill, and the image faded. The intense pain forced her to scrunch her eyes closed again and after a long moment she began to open them for a third time. The bright light was only the sun, but it was in the wrong place. She thought to herself. “That’s weird. Where am I?” She stared at the sun and began to remember. The crash, his face, then nothing.
Her head was pounding as she turned to where Lillian had been sitting. The pounding became almost unbearable, and bright lights flashed behind her eyes. She had to close them tightly and take a deep breath before opening them again slowly. Lillian wasn’t there. That’s when she saw a shape outside the car in the sand. Meredith called out, “Lillian.” She heard it in her head, only no sound came from her lips. Her mouth was dry as a bone, and there was something stuck to the inside of her cheek. She moved her tongue around in circles, searching for the slightest bit of saliva where there was none. Her tongue hit the object that was stuck to her cheek, and suddenly all the events of the past hours came flooding back to her. Her tongue dislodged the ring, and she spit it out, then managed to croak a feeble “Lillian!” That squeak of a sound sounded like a freight train in her head, and she had to close her eyes again and breathe deeply. There was no reply. All she heard was the buzzing of flies as she tried frantically to lick her lips, to swallow, to find some trace of moisture. “Lillian,” she cried again, this time with more force, her increasing panic overcoming the pain in her head. There was no movement, save for a small lizard that skittered across the sand and over Lillian’s leg.
Meredith’s senses were returning. She was hanging upside down, suspended by her seat belt. She tried to open the buckle. The pressure on it made that nearly impossible. She tried moving her legs. She didn’t feel anything. She began to panic. “Lillian. Help me.” Her cry was met with silence, then to herself she said, “Okay … Stop it … Think … You’re alive … Lillian needs you.” The sound of her voice was somehow comforting. She tried the buckle again, only this time, she tried to push herself up to take some of the pressure off of it. It took several tries before the buckle released and she landed on her head and shoulder. Her legs were still on top of the steering wheel, and she now could feel them. Catching her breath, she slowly wriggled her legs free of the wheel and fell in a heap onto the roof of the car. Because her door was jammed shut, she began dragging herself toward the missing door and Lillian. Small shards of broken glass cut at her arms as she pulled herself out. As soon as she was free of the car, she rolled onto her back, exhausted, and rested for a moment. She could feel the heat of the sand, and she had to press her arm over her eyes to block the blinding sun. It felt so good, so comforting.
She was on a beach. The one she and Lillian had visited in Mexico, years ago. They were lying next to each other in the sand, feeling the warmth of mother earth on their backs and the sun baking their faces. The cry of a bird brought her back to the present. Lillian! Meredith turned her head and saw Lillian, face down, just a few feet away lying there, no sign of life. “Lillian,” she said, softly at first as she struggled to sit up. “Lillian.” This time louder, more forceful. There was no reaction. Meredith’s heart began to pound, and she scrambled to her knees and crawled over to the limp body. As soon as she was near and saw the way Lillian’s head lolled to one side, she knew. From her experiences living on the commune and having killed many a chicken, she knew that Lillian’s neck was broken.
Overwhelming despair washed over Meredith as she cried out and fell on top of her friend and lover, sobbing uncontrollably. “Why?” she kept crying out over and over. She ran her fingers through Lillian’s hair, caressed her lifeless face. For those few moments, it was as if Meredith were dreaming. She did not see or feel the dirt and dust from the violence they had just endured. Instead she saw her lover as if still asleep on the next pillow, her hair smooth and silky. A large bloody tangle in Lillian’s hair brought Meredith back to the present, and the horror of the night flooded back. It was as if some primeval instinct of survival suddenly surfaced.
She sat up. The ring. Where was it? She remembered taking it from Lillian’s lifeless hand. She remembered spitting something out as she hung upside down in the car. Crawling back to the car, she peered through the broken window. Bits of shattered glass and debris covered the inside of the roof of the overturned car. The ring has to be here, she thought. Question turned to doubt, then to panic when she didn’t see it. Wriggling through the window, she frantically felt around for the ring. Dust mixed with sweat. In a hoarse whisper she hissed, “Come on. Where are you?” Then her fingers touched something smooth and round. Gingerly she picked up the object. Sweat dripped into her eyes as she looked at the ring. She stopped, and a calmness flooded over her. Slowly she slid back out of the car and returned to Lillian’s lifeless body.
Her voice, shaky, yet firm, broke the silence of the desert morning as she spoke to her dead companion. “Lillian, I have the ring. He didn’t get it. It’s here with me.”
Almost expecting an answer back, she sat next to Lillian. Studying the ring, Meredith remembered her promise made those few hours ago. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since that moment in the dark of the car as they drove through the desert night. Now all she could remember was Lillian’s voice, asking for a promise that if anything were ever to happen to her, the ring must be given to her niece Max.
The cry of a bird brought Meredith back to the present. She stood, and as she did, the world went black for a moment. She covered her eyes and, before opening them again, took several deep breaths. The head rush had passed. She dragged Lillian’s body back to the car and covered her in a blanket. It just seemed the right thing to do. Kneeling down, she kissed Lillian one last time, then she spoke the last words she would ever say to her life’s soulmate: “Forgive me, my love, but I can’t stay here; it’s not safe. I’ve got to go now. I’m taking the ring to Max.” With the ring in her pocket, Meredith stood and began the hike toward home.
Memories of a long forgotten past surged through her as she walked. Her every move was reactive. There could be no police, not yet. The car was well off the road, and chances were good that it would not be found right away. Only after she was safely away would she call and report the accident. But not until she was safe. She walked on, oblivious to the heat as well as the aches and pains that coursed through her body. She was in survival mode. She had a promise to fulfill. She would find Max and deliver the ring. Then they would grieve together.
The fear she felt those many years ago, before Lillian, before the farm, was back and it kept her going. Its cause was different today, but the fear was the same. As the past mixed with the present, a confused picture formed inside her head. She knew what she had to do, and instinctively she knew how to do it.
As soon as the farm was in sight, she stopped and allowed herself to rest for a moment, gazing over the tranquil scene. It looked so peaceful and welcoming. In that moment, she imagined Lillian stepping out onto the porch with a glass of ice cold lemonade in her hand welcoming her home. “No. Lillian’s gone. There will be time to rest later,” Meredith thought as she shook the image out of her head, willing her exhausted and bruised body to continue. Her pace quickened as she neared their home, their place of sanctuary and comfort for all those years where she could … a place where she could what?
Reality returned as she stepped onto the porch. Something was wrong, very wrong, and suddenly her legs felt like lead as if some unseen evil force was smothering her, sucking the life out of her. The door was ajar, and where the knob and lock should have been, there was just a hole. Her heart pounded as she approached the door. All at once that numbing weariness that was consuming her was transformed into anger and rage.
Her companion had been taken from her, that was enough. She was not going to allow their home and the memory of their life together to be desecrated. She picked up a shovel that leaned against the house as she approached the door. She paused, listening for any sound, looking for any sign that would indicate the presence of an intruder. Her focus was so intense that she didn’t feel the soft breeze caressing her hot skin nor did she hear the cry of the eagle soaring above. She only felt her heartbeat pounding in her chest and echoing in her ears as she pushed the door open.
The scene that greeted her was one of total chaos. Shelves had been swept clear, their contents all over the floor. Furniture had been torn and shredded. Drawers were pulled out, their contents on the floor. It was as if a tornado had gone through the house. She was numb. She began to walk gingerly through the physical remains of her life with Lillian. In a trance, she would stop now and then to pick up some object, a memory of her life with Lillian. Meredith began talking to herself. “That miserable son of a bitch. Why? Why did he do this?”
She reached in her pocket, felt the ring, and the answer came to her.
“He wanted the ring. That’s why.”
“What was so special about this ring?” she wondered. She couldn’t remember if Lillian had ever told her.
“Who are you?” Meredith asked to the silent room.
As she made her way through the destroyed house, the numbness began to wear off and was replaced by her determination to survive.
She thought of the irony. “I wasn’t the only one who had secrets. Lillian never told me the whole story of the ring. And now she’s dead because of it.”
Meredith knew what she had to do. She would get her things, those special things she kept for such an emergency, and she would leave. She had to before the body was found and the police showed up.
When she was safely away, she would make the call, disappear, and go find Max. Then, she would go find the bastard who did this and …
Her thoughts ended there.
A quick shower, some aspirin, and a change of clothes made her feel more human, and after some food and a cup of coffee, she was ready. She went to the spot in her bedroom where hidden under a floorboard was her secret stash that even Lillian hadn’t known about.
Chapter Four: Friends and Lovers
THE EARLY MORNING breakfast crowd that had filled Paula’s General store had already begun to thin out by the time Jack arrived and took a seat at the counter.
“What’s with the face?” she asked as she poured his coffee. But as soon as she asked the question, she knew the answer. Before Jack could respond, she said, “He’s back, isn’t he?”
“Yes. Is it that obvious?”
“Sorry, it is.”
Jack picked up his cup and took a sip of the steaming liquid. He said nothing as he put the cup down and looked away.
Andy had returned, and Max had gone back to him as she always did. No one particularly liked Andy, especially Jack. Andy was probably closer to Jack’s age than Max’s, but that didn’t matter. Andy had a slight accent that was impossible to identify. His clothes were always nondescript, yet stylish. He was one of those people who just always seemed at home no matter where that was. Upon meeting him, he seemed like an old friend, and then when he was gone, the question of who he was remained. But more than the mystery of who Andy was, it was the effect he had on Max that Jack despised.
Whenever Andy showed up, any lingering animosity that Max held for him after his last departure would wane quickly and she would fall into him again. Then suddenly, without any warning, he would disappear again, leaving Max crushed and Jack to pick up the pieces.
Andy’s absences were sometimes short, only weeks, and the longest had been almost a year. His departures never came with explanations or goodbyes and now he was back.
Beverly wanted to say more. Jack didn’t deserve this, but she knew Jack wouldn’t listen. So she just turned away, walked toward the other end of the counter to greet a new customer, leaving Jack sitting there with his thoughts and coffee.
Jack Beale had come to Rye, New Hampshire nearly twenty years ago at the insistence of his friend Tom, who was now the town detective. They had met back in their twenties while Jack was bartending in one of Miami’s hottest clubs. Jack had moved to Miami right after college to escape some bad memories and start over. His college sweetheart had dumped him on graduation day and after the obligatory pity party he decided that he needed a fresh start as far from home as possible. He packed up his car and drove, finally coming to a stop in Miami, and that’s where he stayed.
Back then, Tom was on the vice squad in Miami and often visited the club Jack worked in. Tom befriended Jack as a potential source of information. Eventually they became good friends, and Jack became a part of Tom’s family. Tom’s wife took it as a personal challenge to find Jack a woman. Her efforts resulted in Jack having a very active social life, many friends who happened to be girls, but no girlfriend.
“Hey Jack.” Tom’s voice startled Jack as much as the clap on the back, as Tom took the seat next to Jack.
“Hi Tom,” came the unenthusiastic reply.
Tom looked at him with concern.
“You okay?” he asked as Beverly filled his cup. Looking up at her, he caught the look on her face. “Oh,” he said and glanced over at Jack again.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” mumbled Jack.
Tom knew from Beverly’s look that Jack wasn’t and there was only one reason for this kind of malaise in Jack. It was Max. More specifically, another man and Max, and it had to be Andy.
“Sorry man,” Tom said. “Max?”
Even though Max and Jack were friends, they really were more without being so. Jack was in love with her, but he couldn’t go there.
Whenever he approached that place where you are totally exposed, where you have nothing to hide, where you are at one with another, he would see Marie and retreat. Even after all these years, he had never recovered from her death.
For Max, Jack was a safety net. He was always there for her. He would help her pick up the pieces whenever an affair went wrong. They were best friends, they hung out, they shared secrets, they were lovers in every way save the final one. Jack always backed away, and Max needed more. So she lived her own life simultaneously with Jack and without Jack.
As crazy as it would make Jack whenever Max would go out with other guys, there was only one who could put him into such a funk: Andy. “You want to talk about it?” asked Tom.
“Not really.” Jack took another sip of his coffee and continued to stare straight ahead. Tom got the hint and backed off, joining Jack in silence.
Memories flooded Tom’s head. He remembered how he and Jack had met in Miami all those years ago.
Jack was bartending, and Tom was working vice. Vice had a lot of interest in many of the patrons of that club, one in particular: Markus Ravenowicz. Often Jack or one of the other bartenders would be asked to work at private parties by the patrons of the club. These parties were a welcome change of pace and could be very lucrative. The prize was when Ravenowicz would host a party on his sailing yacht, Raven. His parties were legendary. Sometimes they were dockside, and very formal with seemingly hundreds of guests coming and going throughout the night and often ending at dawn. Other times, his parties were more intimate and relaxed as guests would spend a day out on the water under sail. These parties were Jack’s favorites because he had the opportunity to help the crew in sailing the Raven. For Tom, the parties were an opportunity, and he took advantage of Jack’s friendship to get information about Ravenowicz. Occasionally, these sailing parties would last several days while the Raven sailed to the Bahamas or the Keys. After the first time Jack had gone on one of the extended parties, he confided in Tom that his goal in life was now to own his own boat and to spend his life sailing around the Caribbean and maybe even the world.
“Why does she do it?” Jack’s voice broke the silence of cups clanking, eggs cooking, and the general din of a busy breakfast place.
It took Tom a second to come back to the present. “Do what?”
“Why does Max keep going back to him?”
“I don’t know.”
“He treats her like shit. He shows up out of the blue. She gets angry at him, for what, all of thirty seconds, then she just melts, and off they go back to his place and she’s gone for days. He hangs around for a few weeks, she’s all googly-eyed and in another world, and then one day, he just takes off without so much as a goodbye. She then comes to me crying, and I have to help her deal with it.”
“I know, man. That sucks.”
Chapter Five: Miami Vice
JACK HAD BECOME Ravenowicz’s favored bartender, and one day Jack’s dream took a large step toward becoming a reality. Ravenowicz came into the club and asked if Jack would like to join his crew for an extended cruise around the Caribbean. The offer floored Jack. He probably would have done it for free, but when Ravenowicz offered to pay him, Jack couldn’t say yes fast enough. They were to sail in two weeks.
Jack couldn’t wait to tell Tom. That night, they went out for drinks and Jack was so excited he couldn’t shut up. He kept talking about what a great opportunity it was. Tom listened in polite silence, but finally the look on his face caused Jack to stop and ask what was wrong.
It took a minute before Tom was able to answer. He didn’t want to be a wet blanket so he asked Jack what he knew about Ravenowicz.
Jack sat there, staring as if Tom had three eyes, then said, “Not much other than the fact that he is ridiculously rich, he throws great parties, and he wants to pay me a lot of money to go sailing.”
Tom didn’t want to crush Jack’s dream, but wanted to make sure that he understood. There is a difference between knowing something to be true but not being willing to admit it, and having someone actually say the words, giving them substance.
Before Tom could say anything else, Jack said with a touch of sarcasm, “Okay, you’re the cop and now you are going to tell me that Markus Ravenowicz is some kind of a drug lord and that it would be a bad idea for me to do this.”
Tom’s silence answered his question.
They argued well into the night about what was or wasn’t true about Markus Ravenowicz. In the end, Tom couldn’t change Jack’s mind. All Jack saw was blue skies, bluer water, fair winds, beautiful women, and exotic ports of call. Before they parted, Tom gave Jack a special number he could call anytime day or night.
Weeks passed with only one quick call from Jack. He was in Martinique and had called to say hello and how wrong Tom had been about everything. Shortly after that call things began to change for Jack.
After Martinique they sailed west to Belize. Their first stop was Placencia Village where they bought some lobsters and bread from a local fisherman and his daughter. Another boat joined them and after a couple of days of partying, the other boat sailed off leaving one person behind on the Raven. They sailed to Belize City immediately.
Anchoring near the city, south of Swallow Caye, Ravenowicz, several members of his crew, and the man who had joined them in Placencia left the yacht. It would be several days before they were to return. In their absence, life on the yacht was pretty relaxed. While there was work to be done in preparation for the next leg of their journey, the crew also found time to get off the yacht and explore. Provisioning the bar and wine cellar was fairly easy, so Jack got a little more time off than some other crew members. A day was spent exploring some of the cayes out by the reef, St. George’s, Caye Caulker, and Ambergris. It was paradise, and he vowed to return someday.
The next day, his employer returned to the yacht with several new guests. The relaxed atmosphere vaporized, replaced by a palpable tension. Whenever Ravenowicz was not present, his guests’ conversations were whispered and punctuated with furtive glances. In his presence, their smiles seemed forced and their pleasant banter strained. Jack and the crew could feel and see this change, so they just went about their jobs preparing for the next day’s departure and tried to remain as invisible as possible.
That night it was hot and the air still. Jack went up on deck for some air. At first he didn’t see anyone else, but he could hear muffled voices. The moon had not yet risen. He knew he shouldn’t be there, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. Hidden in the shadows, his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see that the man who had joined them in Placencia was seated in a chair and Ravenowicz was standing in front of him. Their voices rose and fell, but the words remained unclear. Jack could see their silhouettes against the city lights. It was obvious this was not a social conversation. Suddenly there was a bright flash followed by a sharp pop. Blinded by the flash, Jack didn’t have to see to know what had just happened. The sound of something being dragged across the deck followed by a splash was confirmation enough for Jack. He remained hidden in the shadows, not daring to breathe until he was sure he was alone on deck. It was only then, with his heart pounding, that he slowly, carefully, and silently made his way back to his quarters. He lay in his bunk, awake, for the rest of the night, hoping and praying that no one had seen him.
The next day the guests, minus one, left the yacht amid feigned smiles and cold handshakes. No one knew that Jack had witnessed the murder, so he just had to stay cool and get back to Miami alive. When they finally returned to Miami, he reported to Tom what he had witnessed and quit bartending.
Chapter Six: Paradise Found and Lost
BEVERLY CAME BY with some more coffee. “You guys want something to eat? You look like you’re at a funeral, and you’re bumming me out. How about some of our special stuffed french toast? That’ll make you feel better.”
Jack looked up. “Sure, that would be good. Thanks.”
She looked at Tom, and he nodded yes as well.
“What should I do?” Jack asked without looking at Tom.
“I’m not sure what you should do, but I do know what you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t keep beating yourself up like this. You know you two belong together.”
“I know.” Stalemate. Their heads turned back forward and silence followed. Tom’s thoughts drifted.
It had been shortly after leaving the Raven that Jack’s grandmother died, leaving him a modest estate. It was enough, combined with what he had been paid by Markus Ravenowicz, to allow him to buy his dream boat, and if he didn’t live an extravagant lifestyle, he wouldn’t have to work either. He found an old fiberglass sloop. He named her Irrepressible. Thirty-eight feet of sweat and toil became his new home as he began to live his dream. Jack and Tom still maintained contact, even though it was sporadic.
Tom glanced over at Jack who was still staring straight ahead, holding his cup of coffee. So much had happened since those days. He smiled as he pictured Jack, the swashbuckling young lad, sailing across the deep blue Caribbean all those years ago. While Jack lived out his dreams, Tom’s life changed also. His job had become increasingly dangerous, and his wife convinced him to leave Miami. The end result was a move to a much quieter Rye, New Hampshire. Unable to reach Jack to tell him about his departure from Miami, Tom didn’t know if he would ever see his friend again. As the two friends sat in silence sipping their coffees on this cold winter’s day, Tom remembered that day when he answered the phone and it was Jack.
One day a call came through from the islands. After the initial greetings and small talk, Jack blurted out the real reason for his call. He had met the girl of his dreams and he had to tell someone. He had been anchored off Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands near a little beach bar. There were dozens of other boats in the anchorage, and all crew members must have had the same idea: go ashore, have some dinner and a few drinks. As it turned out, it was beach barbecue night. The rum was flowing freely, music was playing, and before long, there was a full blown party in progress. That’s when he met her.
She was dancing with a group of other revelers to some Bob Marley song. Her dark, tanned skin glistened in the soft light of the tiki torches. Her movements were slow and sensuous as she closed her eyes and felt the beat of the music. He couldn’t stop staring at her.
He had never seen anyone so beautiful, so desirable, and so free. The song ended, and she opened her eyes, looked in his direction, and caught him staring at her. She smiled and walked straight toward him. He froze. Blame it on the rum, blame it on the moon, blame it on whatever you want, but he couldn’t move.
Her name was Marie, and her French accent was even sexier than her dancing. They danced, they drank, and they went back to his boat and made love until sunrise, then slept in each other’s arms. He woke first and laid there watching Marie sleep. He hadn’t been dreaming. She was perfect. Her skin was soft and smooth, the color of coffee, unblemished by tan lines or any other evidence of civilization. Her face was so peaceful and relaxed. It was innocent, like that of a young child not yet schooled in the realities of life. When she woke, they made love again.
Marie moved onto Irrepressible and they lived each day as if it were the last. They spent their days sailing, swimming, and snorkeling as they explored the islands that made up the British Virgin Islands.
Nights were reserved for each other. Jack reveled in the exuberance with which Marie gave of herself, nothing was hidden, no secrets, no fears. With her, his heart was full and he was content.
Because of two past events, he had built a wall against ever becoming close to another woman. The first was when his college love had abandoned him on graduation day, and despite the many attempts of Tom’s wife to find him another girlfriend, Jack’s defenses remained impenetrable. The second was the cold-blooded execution he witnessed on the Raven. He had lost his capacity to see goodness in people. Marie changed all that.
Jack had discovered things about himself that he had never known, and felt no shame or embarrassment in sharing them with her. He had never felt such comfort and trust with anyone in his whole life. Jack never asked anything of her nor she of him; each seemed to know exactly what the other needed and all was freely given. It was as if their souls had been searching for each other and now they were complete. They were about to sail easterly to St. Martin, then begin the slow turn southward visiting St. Kitts, Nevis, over to Antigua, Guadeloupe, Dominica and Martinique. He just wanted Tom to know.
“More coffee?” Beverly’s question brought Tom back to the present.
As she filled his cup she looked toward Jack who was still sitting there silently staring straight ahead, lost in his thoughts. “Him?”
“Might as well,” responded Tom and she topped off Jack’s cup.
Jack didn’t move. He just sat there. Tom took a sip of his coffee and remembered the next call.
The next call from Jack, or rather about Jack, was from the police in Martinique. It was a confusing story about a shooting. Marie had been killed, and Jack needed his help. Tom left immediately, and it seemed to take forever, but finally he arrived in Martinique. Jack had not left his hotel room since the shooting, and he was a mess. It took a while before Tom was able to piece together what had happened since all Jack kept repeating was, “She’s gone. Marie’s gone.”
Jack and Marie had been sitting in an outdoor cafe, enjoying a perfect tropical night when down the street, there were some loud shouts followed by a loud popping sound. The same popping sound Jack had heard only once before. Nearly forgotten memories flashed through Jack’s head and his heart raced. He looked at Marie; she looked back at him with a strange surprised look on her face and said, “Je t’aime toujours.” As she slumped forward, he saw a red stain coming through her white blouse. He screamed, and as he jumped up, he knocked over the table and caught her limp body as it crumpled to the street. They fell together, he holding her, screaming for help, which would do no good. He didn’t remember much else. The police filled in other details. A stray shot from a violent argument up the street had taken her.
The next several weeks were a blur as Tom convinced Jack to return to New Hampshire with him. Jack wouldn’t even consider leaving his boat behind, so they sailed north. It would be a long, slow healing process, and the sail north would be a good place to start.
“Breakfast,” Beverly announced as she placed two platters of special stuffed french toast in front of the two men and refilled their coffees.
“You know Jack, it doesn’t have to be this way,” said Tom.
“You want me to take care of Andy for you?” Tom asked with a slight grin and a touch of sarcasm.
“No. I don’t want you to take care of him. I’ll deal with it,” replied Jack.
“Mmmm, this is good,” said Tom as he swallowed his first bite. “Oh by the way, when’s Courtney leaving on her vacation?” he asked, changing the subject.
“I’m taking her to the airport in a couple of weeks.”
“Where’s she off to this time?”
“Not sure. Somewhere warm, the Caribbean I think. You know how she is. Winter comes and she needs warmth, so she takes off in search of sun, rum, and men.”
“We should all be so lucky.”
Chapter Seven: Ben’s
OTHER THAN TOM, Courtney was about the only other person in town who really knew the details of Jack’s past. She was his landlord and the owner of Ben’s Place, a local restaurant and bar on the harbor. It had been there for as long as anyone could remember and was one of several local watering holes. Its founder, Ben Crouse, had died shortly before Tom’s arrival in town, and his nieces Courtney and Kara inherited the place. They were fresh out of college but had worked at Ben’s since before high school so they knew the business. They moved into Ben’s house across the street, an old, two-story cottage with a wraparound front porch and rocking chairs. Out back there was an old barn.
The cottage’s first floor was one large, open room with a kitchen area in one corner. Upstairs, there were two small bedrooms and a bath. Ben had never married nor had he ever thrown anything out, so before the girls were able to move in, mountains of old stuff had to be cleaned out. There were yard sales, work parties, and many trips to the dump. Eventually bare walls and clear floors emerged, and the house’s potential could be seen. After refinishing the floors, and painting the walls and trim, the transformation from decrepit old house to an airy, quaint, seaside cottage was complete.
The girls always had their own ideas about what the restaurant should be. They quickly changed Ben’s from the small, summer restaurant into a much larger destination showplace. An outdoor deck was added, and in the summer, it was the place to be. Winters, the old woodstove kept the bar cozy and warm. Kara eventually married and moved to a farm in Vermont, and Courtney continued to run Ben’s.
Even though Tom was new to town, he made friends quickly. Courtney was one of the first, and as soon as he received that call from Jack, he went to her and told her what he knew of the happenings in Martinique. Then he asked for her help. After listening, she couldn’t say no. With that conversation, Jack’s future was planned. She wanted to build an apartment in the barn behind her cottage. Jack needed a place to stay, he was handy with tools, he could keep his boat in the harbor, and as a bonus, he knew how to bartend.
Tom and Courtney became Jack’s closest friends as he settled into town. He fit right in, and as outgoing as he seemed to be, there was a private side that few were allowed to see. He didn’t discuss his past, and people around town didn’t ask. Only Tom and Courtney knew the truth; whenever the subject came up, their reply was always, “I know what you know. If you’re that curious, why don’t you ask him yourself?” This always led to speculation that his two friends knew more than they let on, but no one ever asked Jack.
While he never had a formal job, he always was busy, if not working for Courtney, then helping someone else with something. Word around town was that he was well off, as evidenced by his boat and his lifestyle that was modest but comfortable. He never had a girlfriend although he had many friends who were girls, Max being the primary one. The fact that he ran nearly every day added to the mystery. Most locals couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do that. Sometimes he ran alone, sometimes with his running club. The weather didn’t matter—hot, cold, windy, rainy, day or night, he ran. For that, locals thought him crazy, although there were some women in town who would discreetly admit he did have great legs and a nice tush, as a result of all that running.
Chapter Eight: Max
A DEEP FREEZE had descended on the seacoast in the weeks since Tom and Jack had shared breakfast. The temperature had barely risen above zero for several days despite the sun’s best efforts. The salt marshes around Rye Harbor were capped with ice. The creek feeding the marshes was at a standstill, and the harbor was nearly solid. The landscape looked like a picture of the Arctic in National Geographic. The boats in the harbor were blocked in, and the fishermen hadn’t been able to go out for a week. If you did brave the outdoors, your lungs hurt the minute you inhaled. The hairs in your nose would freeze with your first breath, and the intense cold would penetrate your forehead and your eyes would ache with the same kind of ache you would get when eating ice cream too fast.
The usual crowd was at Paula’s General Store for coffee and the day’s local gossip. You could go there for some basic groceries or supplies, a quick breakfast, a sandwich to go, or just a cup of coffee and good conversation. Fred and John, two of the local fishermen, were there. Beverly was behind the counter. “Hey Fred. Harbor still frozen? Coffee?” she asked, waving a pot in his direction.
“Hi Beverly. Nearly so. Yes, black” was his cryptic reply.
“John, how about you?” she asked, as she filled Fred’s mug.
“Please.” She poured.
Both men had been down at the harbor early checking their boats. There was no way to actually go out to the boats since the harbor was frozen and their dinghies were locked in the ice at the wharf. All they had been able to do was stand there in the cold and look out at their boats, an activity which didn’t last too long. Now, holding their cups as hand warmers, the two men sipped the steaming brew.
“Good coffee Beverly,” said Fred, but she was already off taking care of someone else and didn’t hear him.
At the end of the counter, the new guy was sitting, reading his Boston Globe. Beverly stopped to refresh his cup. “Anything good in the paper?” she asked, as she refilled his cup.
He looked up at her and in a quiet voice said, “No. Not really.”
“Usually isn’t,” was her reply, and she moved on.
He never had much to say, but you could tell he was taking it all in. He had been seen at Ben’s Place every day this past week around four o’clock by everyone who made the rounds. His name was Franz, but everyone called him Scotch and Soda Man because that’s what he drank.
Coffee and breakfast at Paula’s, split up and go about your daily business, then meet at Ben’s to recap the day before drifting home or to another bar for a nightcap. This was the circadian rhythm of Rye Harbor. There were probably another dozen or so people at Paula’s that morning when Jack walked in. He made the rounds, said hi to John and Fred, chatted about the cold snap, kissed Beverly good morning on the cheek, nodded to Scotch and Soda Man, and took a seat at the counter as Beverly poured his coffee.
Jack had just returned from taking Courtney to the airport for her midwinter vacation. It was an early morning flight, and now he was looking forward to breakfast. Beverly was pouring him a cup of coffee as he was taking off his coat when the door slammed shut, followed by a wave of cold air. Everyone turned to see who had just come in.
It was Max. Andy was finally gone again. Jack was back to being the “good” friend, and although she was almost back to normal, he wasn’t. He looked at her for a moment while she stamped the snow off her feet and began removing her mittens. He could feel his heartbeat quicken. She looked great. Her red hair cascaded out from under the large fur hat she was wearing. Her nose and cheeks were pink from the cold, and her eyes were aglow. She was visibly excited. She pretty much knew everyone and everything that goes on around town, and as she began looking around, Jack turned back to his coffee, trying not to give away his excitement at seeing her.
At five-feet-four-inches with an athletic figure, a head of red hair, and an independent spirit, there was something about her that made her irresistible to men. Max, the head bartender at Ben’s Place, came to Rye about five years after Jack. When she arrived, all the men around the harbor acted like fools trying to be the first to get to know her. That initial frenzy didn’t last too long, and Jack won the competition for her friendship. Others would win her heart from time to time, but Jack became the trusted friend. He was safe. A part of him had never fully recovered from Marie’s death and that kept him from being able to open up to Max in the way that his heart wanted. So he remained on the sidelines, ready to help her pick up the pieces when things didn’t work out, and it killed him.
Most of the time Jack was able to deal with her affairs, since that’s all they were, but Andy was different. He and Max had dated off and on for years in a relationship of extremes, alternating between passion and loathing. Throughout, Jack stood by and watched as Andy played her, over and over. She deserved better, but where Andy was concerned, she wore blinders.
As soon as she saw Jack, she rushed over to him, and asked “Did you hear?”
“Good morning Max,” Jack said, ignoring her question.
With a slight huff, she started again, “Good morning Jack. Did you hear?”
Conversations lulled as everyone paused to overhear what Max had to say.
“About the abandoned car that was found up the road early this morning.”
“What car? I drove Courtney to the airport early this morning, and I didn’t see any car.”
“Neither did I,” chimed in Fred.
Max shot him a look. He looked back and shrugged, “I was just saying: I drove down to the harbor before sunrise and I didn’t see anything either. What’s the big deal?”
“Fred, give her a chance. I’m sure that this must be big,” Jack said, with a bit of teasing sarcasm in his voice and the beginnings of a smile. “Go on Max.”
By now the conversational lull had turned into silence save for the occasional clinking of a spoon or fork against glass. Everyone’s attention was focused on Max.
“Okay, you remember how last week I got a ticket from one of those new officers in the PD when I was on the way to work? It was totally bogus, and he was just being a jerk about it. Well anyway, I stopped by the station this morning to see if Tom could help me out with that ticket. He didn’t have much time to talk because he said he was busy. There was a car found abandoned on the boulevard early in the morning. Of course, I couldn’t let him off that easy. You know how it is, and he’s such a nice guy—too bad he’s married,” she said teasingly as she looked at Jack. He motioned for her to continue with the story.
“Anyways, he told me about how this car was found abandoned on the side of the road right near where the boulevard crosses that creek, just before the turn into Ben’s. All that was in the car was a pocket-book in the front seat. Nothing else. No luggage, nothing. There wasn’t much in it, just a wallet with some cash and a driver’s license.”
Jack interrupted asking the obvious question. “So if there was a license wouldn’t that make it easy to find out who belongs to the car?”
“That’s what I thought,” said Max. “But Tom told me the license turned out to be a fake.”
“What about the car’s plates?”
“They were from New Mexico, and he was waiting to hear back on them.”
“Where’s the car now?”
“It’s at the station,” Max said.
“When did you say they found the car?” asked Jack.
“He said it was really early in the morning, before sunrise. I guess one of the cruisers was, well, cruising around, and he saw this car on the side of the road. Remember how cold it was? No one was out and there wasn’t much of a moon so it was really dark. Anyway, he saw this car sitting by the road. It was unlocked, the stuff was on the front seat, and there was no one around. It seemed strange, so he called it in and then had it towed,” answered Max.
Jack thought about this for a few seconds, then asked, “No luggage? Nothing?”
“You said the car was from New Mexico?”
“Yeah. Strange, huh? You’ll have to ask Tom if you want to know more. I’m just trying to tell you what I found out.”
“You’re right Max. It is pretty strange.”
This story set the tone for the morning’s gossip and conversation at Paula’s. It was too cold out to rush off anywhere so the crowd stayed and replayed the story over and over. Theories abounded, and Jack could see this would keep the rumor mills fueled for at least a week.
Chapter Nine: Unhappy Hour
DESPITE THE FRIGID temperature, Jack had decided to go for a short run. It was about noon when he finally laced on his running shoes and headed out the door. The sun was at its peak and the temperature was maybe ten degrees, but the wind chill made it feel well below zero. He didn’t plan to run very far, only three miles or so, just enough to break a sweat and feel refreshed. As he ran, Jack, like everyone else, kept thinking about the story Max told everyone that morning. Who was the driver? Where did she go? Why was the car abandoned? Was there more than one occupant? Was there some innocent explanation, or was it something else? The one thing Jack was sure of was that this mystery would keep everyone going for quite a while. After all, New Hampshire winters are long and slow, and diversions are needed.
After a shower and short nap, Jack was sufficiently rejuvenated and headed over to Ben’s Place for some late afternoon post-run rehydration. When he arrived just after 5:30, it was almost dark and Max was behind the bar serving all the usual suspects. Although this was not the same cast from the breakfast crowd at Paula’s, the characters were much the same. The only person who had been in Paula’s when Max broke the news was Scotch and Soda Man, and he was in his usual seat at the end of the bar.
Jack nodded a silent hello to Scotch and Soda Man, who nodded back. Besides Scotch and Soda Man, Leo, Ralph, and Paulie were at the bar, as they were every day. The routine was the same: three or four light beers, a lively but not always coherent debate, and gone by seven. Tonight Max was retelling what she had heard in the morning while Leo and Company chimed in with penetrating comments and observations. The power of beer to make one smarter, faster, and more perceptive and to make everyone a friend is remarkable. Jack sat at the end of the bar near where the waitstaff picked up their drinks and just enjoyed the show while sipping the cold draft Max had put in front of him.
By 6:30, the dinner crowd had begun to fill in, and the waiters and waitresses were taking turns picking up their drinks at the bar from Max, who was now getting into the rhythm of the night.
When he heard his name, he turned toward the voice.
“Hey Patti. Busy tonight?”
“Not bad. On my way in, I saw you out running.”
“Yeah. I went out for a short one.”
“Jack, you’re crazy. It must have been freezing.”
“It wasn’t bad.”
“Hey, what do you think about that car that was found on the boulevard last night. Strange, huh?”
Before he could answer, Patti’s drinks were ready; she loaded her tray and said, “Hold that thought. I’ll be back.”
Jack watched her leave, and he must have been too obvious because Max said to him, “Jack Beale, what are you looking at?”
He blushed slightly as he turned back toward Max. “Nothin’.”
“Nothin’ my ass. You were checking out Patti. She’s too young for you.”
Max put another beer in front of him.
Patti had worked at Ben’s for a couple years as a waitress. She was younger than Max with a head of curly blond hair, mischievous eyes, and a band of freckles across her nose. Her natural exuberance and ever-present smile affected everyone she met. She also was a terrific photographer. Some of her photos were on display on the walls in Ben’s. They were mostly pictures of life at Rye Harbor, boats at anchor, sunsets, tuna landings, and winter storms. She and Max got along really well and had become close friends and through that friendship, Patti became one of Jack’s good friends. Like Max, Patti could trigger the “male pig gene” and sometimes Jack would have to catch himself before he did something stupid.
The evening got busier, and he and Patti never got a chance to finish their conversation. Max also was too busy to talk, although she did get him a third beer that he took to the table in the corner by the woodstove. Leo, Ralph, and Paulie paid their check and left to continue the circuit. A young well-dressed couple took two of their recently vacated seats. From his table in the corner, Jack sat and watched the choreography of a night in the busy restaurant and bar: the ebb and flow of patrons in and out of the bar; the way the staff would go from moments of total frantic activity that verged on panic and then just as quickly have nothing to do. Jack marveled at how Max kept it all together, drinks for the dining room staff, conversation with those at the bar, running the register, and serving meals. Just remarkable.
His thoughts returned to the car that was abandoned on the side of the road. There was something about that car that just didn’t feel right to him. What would cause someone to abandon a car on a deserted stretch of road on one of the coldest nights of the year? A car with New Mexico plates no less. It had been brutally cold, barely above zero, for five days now. The latest weather report said the pattern would break tomorrow and warm up considerably over the weekend. “So much for global warming,” he thought.
Jack was about to leave when he looked up and saw Andy walk in. “Son of a bitch. What’s he doing here? I thought he was gone,” Jack thought.
It had been only a month or so since Andy’s last disappearance, and Jack knew Max was not yet fully recovered from that last departure. “This can’t be good,” Jack said under his breath as he sat back to see what would happen. He watched as Andy took the last seat at the bar, next to the couple who had just come in. Max was at the register with her back turned to the bar. She hadn’t seen him come in. Jack saw Scotch and Soda Man take a quick look at Andy as he sat down. Andy was focused on Max, so he didn’t notice Scotch and Soda Man looking at him. Seconds later, Max turned around and saw Andy. Jack held his breath and watched. The shock of suddenly seeing him sitting there stopped her dead in her tracks. It took a moment for the stunned look on Max’s face to harden. She finally said, “Hello Andy.”
“Is there something I can get you?” asked Max icily.
“Sure, a beer would be fine. How’s things?” asked Andy. Max paused, fire still in her eyes. “Fine.” Then she turned away from him to get his beer from the cooler.
As smooth as silk he replied, “I missed you.”
Max turned back with his beer and silently placed it on the bar in front of him.
Jack couldn’t hear their words from his seat across the room, but he knew what was being said. It was obvious that Andy had no idea how pissed she was at him; he never did. From the tension in her face and the set of her shoulders, Jack could tell she was livid. At the same time, he also could see a twinge of relief that Andy was okay, but that was well hidden behind her anger and rage.
As she looked up from placing the beer on the bar in front of him, Jack caught her eye and signaled for another; and she nodded in his direction, picked up a glass and went out to get his draft.
“She doesn’t deserve this,” he thought. Before he could finish his thought, she returned with his beer in hand. Andy sat there, staring straight ahead, and finished his beer as Max walked past him. He didn’t move. She left the safety of the bar and brought the beer to Jack. As she put it down on the table, he looked up at her and his thoughts must have been written all over his face. She looked into his eyes and said, “I know. Don’t say anything. I’ll be fine.” And with that, she turned and walked back to the bar. Jack finished his thought, “Why can’t she just tell him to fuck off?” Unfortunately, he knew the answer.
Jack watched as she replaced the empty bottle in front of Andy with a full one. Patti came in to pick up more drinks, and when she saw Andy sitting there, she dropped the glass she had been holding and it shattered on the floor. The entire bar turned and looked in her direction. As she bent down to pick up the broken glass, Andy said, “Hi Patti. Long time.”
Obviously flustered, Patti stammered, “Hi Andy. When did you get back?”
Before he could say anything else, Jack came up to her and said, “It’s okay Patti, you’re busy. I’ll clean this up for you.”
“Thanks Jack,” and with that she grabbed the rest of her drinks and left.
“Well, if it isn’t our hero. Hello Jack.”
“Andy,” was his terse reply.
Max came over and said to Jack, “You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s okay Max. You’re busy too.” Jack turned and went in search of a broom and dustpan. Max returned to the bar and glared at Andy. “You get more beautiful every time I see you,” was his response. The excitement over, everyone went back to whatever they had been doing before Patti dropped the glass. Jack returned and swept up the broken glass while Andy watched silently from his barstool.
As Jack returned to his seat in the corner, Andy turned toward the couple next to him and said to no one in particular, “You know, Max and I go way back.”
There was no response, so he turned back to his beer and took a sip. Then he turned in the other direction until he was looking at Jack. With a grin, Andy touched the neck of the bottle he was holding to his forehead as if offering a salute. Jack made no move to acknowledge the gesture so Andy turned back around to face Max and signaled for another beer.
Jack noticed that Scotch and Soda Man would occasionally look over in Andy’s direction. At first Jack didn’t think anything of it. After all, you always check out any new arrivals. But after catching Scotch and Soda Man looking over several more times, Jack realized it wasn’t quite the look of idle curiosity. There seemed to be some kind of recognition going on.
“Hey Max, how about another?” Andy’s voice rose above the background noise of the busy bar. Max placed it in front of him without saying anything and quickly turned away. He turned again toward the couple to his right.
They tried to ignore him, but his voice continued getting louder. “You know, she’s a very special lady. She definitely has something for me. I can leave, and be gone for … oh … two, three months at a time, and whenever I return, she’s right here, waiting for me.”
Andy’s voice was now loud enough for everyone in the bar to hear. With this last pronouncement, Max spun around in front of Andy, faced him, and with a look that would wither a rose, in a quiet measured voice, said, “Andy, I think it’s time for you to leave.”
Conversations in the bar paused as eyes turned in his direction. Jack shifted in his seat ready to get up. Scotch and Soda Man put his drink down and turned toward Andy. The couple he had been talking at glanced over nervously. Andy was silent as he glowered back at Max. “I’ll have another beer,” he said.
“No. You won’t. You’ve had enough, and it’s time for you to leave,” Max said in a calm matter-of-fact voice.
Andy looked at her, not quite believing what she had just said. Before Andy could react, Scotch and Soda Man got up, went over to Andy, and in a muffled voice said something to him. Andy turned and stared at him. Jack watched the look on Andy’s face as it went from anger toward Max, to defiance, to … to what? It was subtle and only lasted a split second before Andy slowly slid off his barstool, shot Max one last look and left. All eyes turned toward Scotch and Soda Man. Jack still was trying to sort out what had just happened when Scotch and Soda Man threw some money on the bar; said to Max, “I’m sorry for the disturbance”; and then left as abruptly.
The tension that had built eased immediately as customers in the bar went back to their conversations. Jack could tell Max did not feel this same sense of relief, even though she continued working as if nothing had happened.
Jack stayed for the rest of the evening. After the last customer had gone, he got up, walked over to the bar, and said softly to Max, “Are you all right?”
She said yes, just like he knew she would. Jack knew she wouldn’t want to talk about it for a few days, but he’d be there when she was ready.
Patti had finished for the night and came in to cash out. “What was with Andy tonight? I thought he was gone.”
“So did I,” answered Max.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Perfect timing,” thought Jack. This was a girl moment when all men would be considered scum, so he said good night and went home, leaving the girls to vent.
Chapter Ten: An Evening Out
THE NEXT DAY remained cold, but the temperature was now in the twenties. The sun was brilliant in the cloudless sky, and Jack spent most of the day puttering around in his shop. There are several unwritten rules for working in one’s shop. First there must be at least a half-dozen unfinished projects. A dozen would be better, but a half will do. Second, a stream of new projects must be continually added to the list even as works-in-progress are being finished. Third, no matter what your original intent when you started working on any particular day, you should not expect that to be what you are working on when you end the day. Working in the shop is a process of discovery and rediscovery.
Today Jack intended to finish building a small bookshelf he had promised Max several months ago. As he started, he found that one of his chisels needed sharpening. While doing this, he found that several chisels needed new handles, which he made. Before he knew it, his afternoon in the shop was over, and he had spent a very busy and fulfilling afternoon there. The bookshelf remained a work-in-progress, but his chisels were ready to go.
Jack had just closed up the shop and was climbing the stairs to his apartment when he heard the phone ringing. He could have let his machine answer the phone. He could have calmly entered his apartment. He could have given Cat a hello head scratch first, listened to the message on the machine, and returned the call. He could have done any of those things, but he didn’t. Jack was one of those people who just couldn’t let a phone ring without answering it if doing so was at all possible. So he took the remaining stairs two at a time, nearly falling as he cleared the top step, flung the door open, scared Cat as he narrowly missed kicking her across the room, and grabbed for the phone. “Hello,” he croaked as he caught his breath.
It was Max.
“Hey Max. What’s up?”
“Were you out running? You sound out of breath.”
A little embarrassed, Jack said, “No, I was just coming up from the shop and I wanted to catch the phone. What’s up?”
“Listen, I never got a chance to thank you for what you did last night.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Yes you did. You were there, and well, it was easier dealing with Andy just knowing you were there. I’m off tonight. Would you like to catch a movie or something?”
Jack was caught a little by surprise. “Why sure, that sounds great.”
“Okay, I’ll pick you up around seven. See you then. Bye.”
As Jack said, “Sure,” she hung up.
As he hung up the phone, Cat began rubbing his leg and begging for dinner. He was grinning as he picked Cat up and said, “Well, Cat, I’m going out tonight. Let’s get you some supper.” Cat thought this was a good idea, and while she ate, Jack headed for the shower.
He stood under the rush of hot water—eyes closed, head bowed—and felt its warm soothing spray cascade over his head and down his back. The effect was almost hypnotic. His mind drifted as if he were being transported to another time and place. Random thoughts and memories flashed and mingled in his head. He was with Marie, they were holding onto each other tightly. He remembered her touch, her smell, and the softness of her skin. She pulled back from him and looked up into his eyes, he could hear her voice, “It’s okay. I’ll always be a part of you. It’s okay.” Silently he looked down at her, then realized that she now had red hair. He opened his eyes with a start and shook his head. The water was still hot and the room was now filled with steam. “Woah, that was weird,” he said to no one.
Then the voice in his head began to lecture him. “Last night when Andy came into the bar you were angry. It makes you crazy every time he hurts Max. You are the one she goes to. Admit it, you’re in love with her.” The water was beginning to get cold, and that was probably a good thing. He climbed out of the shower, shaved, and dressed.
He was just putting on his coat when he heard the toot of a car horn. Max was right on time. “See you later Cat,” he said as he closed the door. As he climbed into the passenger seat, before the interior light went out, he glanced at Max. She was bundled up in a fur-collared coat with a brightly colored scarf around her neck. The cold had put a fresh glow on her cheeks, her eyes sparkled and she looked great. In the seconds it took him to get in and close the car door, he took all of this in. As soon as he closed the door, he got a whiff of her perfume and the male-pig gene woke up. “Hi Max, you look great.”
“Thanks, you too. I’m hungry, how about we skip the movie, go downtown, and get a bite to eat?”
“Sure,” was Jack’s reply. He needed a second to get his feelings in check. He rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth as he thought to himself, “Slow down. Don’t get all worked up. Girls naturally like to dress up and smell great. Stop reading more into this than is there. You’ve been out with her before. You know the drill.” The pig gene went back into the sty, but the gate didn’t completely close. “Boy is it cold. Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. Let’s decide when we get there.”
Parking was almost nonexistent downtown. They drove around, and after several circuits, they finally found a spot near the park. That meant a bit of walking, but hell, it was in the teens now and almost felt warm. Maybe the weathermen would be right and the real warm-up would happen tomorrow. As they walked, Max asked, “Jack, what do you suppose really happened with that car they found?”
“I don’t know,” he answered.
“Do you think it has a simple explanation?”
“I have no idea. Maybe she was lost, stopped to look at a map, and was abducted by aliens.”
“Stop, be serious.”
“All right, I’ll be serious.”
Max pressed on. “The car wasn’t broken down; it was abandoned. Why would someone just leave everything behind on such a bitterly cold night?”
“Max, I really have no idea …”
Max continued, “Wait, I know. There was someone else in the car—a kidnapper who wanted something from her … No, no, she was fleeing from someone, and was run off the road and kidnapped.”
“No, no, just listen, she was murdered.”
“Max, you watch too many soaps.”
Defensively she replied, “I do not.”
“I’m starting to get cold, and I’m definitely hungry,” Jack said as they arrived at the door of The Rusty Hammer.
“How about we eat here?” Max suggested, as she looked through the frosted windows on the door.
“Fine by me.”
They were given a table by one of the front windows. They sat and, with drinks in hand, watched the few people out on the street hurrying along, like so many puffing steam trains. The warmth of the room and the effect of her drink put a glow on Max’s face that Jack found irresistible.
“What are you looking at?” her voice snapping him out of a place where he wasn’t sure he should be going.
“Oh, nothing.” He tried to be nonchalant, but he could feel his cheeks warming.
“Jack. Don’t tell me that. You were thinking something, and now you are blushing. Come on, tell me.” Her teasing tone was making him uncomfortable.
“I can’t. It was nothing. Really. How about we order?”
“You’re avoiding my question,” Max pressed on, with an exaggerated pout.
“Yes I am.”
The waitress appeared at that moment, saving Jack from making a complete fool of himself. They ordered and proceeded to enjoy the meal, which was accompanied by several more rounds of drinks. As the evening went on, Jack and Max relived stories from the past, laughing, joking, and teasing as only two very good friends could.
The mood continued as they bundled up for the walk back to the car. Even though it was considerably colder than it was when they arrived, it wasn’t readily apparent, probably due to the effects of the food and alcohol. About halfway to the car, the cold was beginning to penetrate and Jack put his arm around Max. She pressed closer, and their steps quickened. His heart was pounding. As they walked along arm in arm, a jumble of thoughts went through his head: “Jack, what are you doing? Don’t get all worked up. You’ve been drinking. It’s cold. You’re just friends. Chill out.”
Max was just as silent, and he wondered what she was thinking but didn’t dare ask. When they reached her car, Jack thought he sensed a slight hesitation before they separated. Before he could react, she handed him the keys. “Here, you drive,” she said and climbed in on the passenger side. He smiled as he walked around the car and got in.
Cold car seats had a way of shocking the system. They were the perfect antidote to that moment that may not have been a moment. He wasn’t sure.
“How long before we have heat?” asked Max as she sat on her hands for warmth.
He was gripping the wheel tightly, trying to control his shivering as he answered her. “Soon. I’m sure it will be toasty warm by the time we get home.”
“We get home?” Jack began to panic when he realized what he had just said. He peeked over toward her to see if she had any reaction. He couldn’t tell and took that as a no. “Good,” he thought.
The heat had began to overtake the cold as they neared Rye Harbor.
“Before we get to your place, could we go by the place where that car was found?”
“I don’t know. I just can’t get it out of my head. Why would a car just get left on the side of the road like that? What happened to the woman?”
“Max, you’re starting again. You’re making assumptions about things you don’t know.”
“Sorry. I can’t help it.”
Jack made a detour off the boulevard and drove south past the spot so he would be coming back up the boulevard in the same direction that the car had been traveling. As they neared the spot, he slowed and then stopped. There weren’t any other cars on the road. It was dark, save for a ribbon of moonlight over the frozen landscape that magically appeared and disappeared as clouds raced across the sky.
“Here we are.”
Max didn’t say anything. She just stared out her window, looking out over the ice-covered marsh while Jack watched her.
The wind gently rocked the car as they sat in silence, their thoughts kept private in the small confined space of her car, kept barely warm by its tiny heater. The intimacy of the moment created by the combined effect of the late hour as well as an evening of too much food and too much drink was beginning to affect Jack. He could smell her perfume, he could hear her breathing as his heartbeat echoed in his ears. Jack wondered if Max felt it too. “You deserve better than Andy,” he thought. He wanted to tell her how he felt, but he couldn’t.
“Okay, let’s go.” Her words broke the silence.
“Yeah. I’m all set.”
He shifted into gear and drove away. It took less than five minutes to reach his place. When he stopped the car, a moment of awkward silence filled the car. He wanted to ask her in. That would have been nothing new. They were friends, and she had been to his place many times but never after a night like tonight. He was filled with emotions he wasn’t sure he could control if given the opportunity. Before he acted, she said, “Thanks Jack. Dinner was great, I needed tonight. You are the best friend a girl could have.”
Then she opened her door and got out. The blast of cold air and the “friend” moniker brought him out of his fantasy world and back into the present. He too opened his door and got out. Each walked toward the front of the car, and with the harsh light of the headlights washing over them, stopped. She stood in front of him, looked up into his eyes, then leaned up and gave him a gentle kiss on the lips. He could feel her warmth and smell her perfume as he accepted the kiss. As brief as it was, to Jack it was more than a simple goodnight peck. It lingered just enough to tell Jack that there was something there. They separated, she got in, they said good night, he closed the door behind her, and she backed down the drive. As he walked toward his apartment, he could still feel the touch of her lips.
Chapter Eleven: Harbor Ice
SUNRISE THE NEXT morning was spectacular. Without even going out Jack could tell the cold had broken and this day would be special. He could see the harbor from his window, the tide was high, the ice cover was cracking, and the outgoing tide would probably take away much of the arctic ice fields that everyone had been looking at all week. He was still smiling about last evening with Max. Even though it was mid-January, with the rise in temperature and bright sun, it looked like spring. It’s amazing what a few degrees of temperature rise will do to one’s disposition. Jack got in his truck and headed out to Paula’s.
Coffee, a muffin, and the Sunday paper were his immediate priorities. Then, maybe he would putter around the shop or climb under the cover on the boat to see how it fared during the freeze of the past week. Even midwinter, on a sunny day, there are a couple of hours midday when you could sit on the boat in comfort and imagine you were somewhere much warmer. Today would be one such day. He really wanted to see Max, but he didn’t want to seem too eager, so he would wait until later in the day.
Beverly was working the counter. “Hi Jack,” she said when she saw him come in. He returned the greeting, took a paper from the rack, and said hello to the others who were already enjoying their coffees and breakfasts. As Beverly poured his coffee, she asked with a mischievous grin if he had seen Max over the weekend. Jack completely missed the innuendo and matter-of-factly told her about their night out. “Have you heard anything new about that car that was found?” she asked.
“Nah and I haven’t seen Tom to ask.”
It was at this moment that the door opened and Scotch and Soda Man came in. “Mornin’ Franz,” said Jack as he walked past.
Franz nodded a silent hello, and took a seat at the end of the counter. Beverly headed over to get him his coffee. As Jack began shuffling through his paper while trying to decide what to read first, he overheard Beverly asking Scotch and Soda Man how he got the scratch on his cheek. The answer was lost to the clinking of spoons in coffee and the background murmur of overlapping conversations. Curious, Jack glanced over in Scotch and Soda Man’s direction. Jack didn’t remember seeing a scratch when Franz walked in and didn’t see anything. “Must be on the other cheek,” he thought to himself and went back to his paper. He was in no hurry this morning.
A blueberry muffin and several cups of coffee later, Jack finally closed the paper. The place was nearly empty, even Franz had left. Jack had been so engrossed in the paper that he hadn’t noticed how much time had passed. He paid his tab, said bye to Beverly, and walked out the door. It was warm, the sun felt good on his face, and there was already a steady stream of traffic on the road.
On the New England coast, there are some things that are totally predictable. One is that when a stretch of severe weather, in this case the cold, changes suddenly, the whole world has to drive to the shore to look at the ocean. It took a few minutes before Jack was able to pull out and become part of the endless stream of traffic. Progress was steady but slow. No one was in a hurry. Everyone was enjoying the day, even Jack.
As the line of cars reached the long, straight stretch by the marsh just before the harbor, Jack understood why everyone was driving so slowly. The temperature had risen enough that the ice was breaking up, and the outgoing tide was taking the ice floes out of the marsh and into the harbor. It was spectacular. Many cars were turning off and heading toward Ben’s. “Max is going to be busy today,” he thought as he made that same turn. Crossing the bridge over the creek that fed into the harbor, he too slowed, mesmerized by the moving ice that was like a cold, white lava flow. Mini bergs were already drifting out among the boats.
As he drove past Ben’s, he took note of the fact that the parking lot was already full. He’d return later. First there were some unfinished projects in his shop that he wanted to work on. Pulling into the driveway, he looked up at his boat—wrapped in its cocoon of white plastic—and decided that before he began anything, he would climb up under the cover and check on her.
It was warm under the cover, and when he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine being back in the islands, only this time with Max. It was tempting to spend the afternoon sitting there, but there were too many unfinished projects awaiting him in the shop. So after a quick look around and finding everything in order, he climbed off the boat and went into the shop.
Around four o’clock, Jack decided he had accomplished enough for one afternoon. As he headed for the door, he glanced about the shop, making some mental notes about projects started and others nearly finished. He left the shop, went upstairs, showered, and headed over to Ben’s. It was a short walk, and the air felt good. It was no longer that dry, bitterly cold air that you didn’t want to breathe. This was a warmer, more moist air, laden with those wonderful rich saltwater smells previously frozen and now re-emerging. It felt good to take a deep breath.
The closer to Ben’s he came, the broader the grin on his face. As he opened the door and stepped inside, he took a deep breath and thought to himself, “Will you quit acting like such a kid? It’s Max, and you’ve known her forever and you’re making more out of last night than you should. Grow up!”
The bar was not as busy as he had expected, judging from the number of cars in the parking lot. Max saw him come in.
In the split second before he answered, he tried to glean whether there was anything different in the way she looked at him and in the tone of her voice. He couldn’t be sure. “Hey Max. Where is everyone? I thought there’d be more people here.”
He turned and could see a wall of people lined up at the deck railing, looking out over the harbor.
“Oh. What’s the attraction?”
“The ice. Go out and take a look. Your beer will be waiting when you come back in.”
He joined the crowd at the rail, and what he saw was like nothing he had ever seen before. The tide was out and the entire flat in front of Ben’s was covered with huge slabs of ice that were stacked up like fallen dominoes. Some were at least a foot thick and the size of small cars. The sun was getting lower in the west, which was creating the most spectacular effect. The low angle light had boats lit like they were under spotlights, and the play of shadows and light on the ice chunks was mesmerizing. He stood there silently with everyone else.
Patti arrived for her shift just after Jack. As she came into the bar from the kitchen, she was adjusting her necktie and said to Max, who was looking out the window, “What’s going on?”
Patti went outside. Max watched her stop and stare for a moment, and then she turned and came running in. She ran right past Max and shouted as she went by, “Have someone cover for me. I’ll be right back. I have to get my camera.”
Max’s reply was lost in the hubbub. “Sure, no problem.”
Patti returned in moments, her face flushed from the sprint to her car, and she headed straight out onto the deck. She hadn’t even bothered to put on a coat. Immediately, she began snapping pictures. As the sun touched the horizon, the bright, even light of day was replaced with the ever-changing colors and textures of the sunset. This rapidly changing atmosphere created a dance of shadows that made the ice seem as if it were alive and moving. Not satisfied with only shots from the deck, she began climbing over the railing.
“Patti, be careful. You’re going to slip and hurt yourself,” Jack yelled at her.
“Nonsense, I’m fine, and I’ll be careful,” she replied as she dropped down onto the ice. With her tie flapping over her shoulder, she began climbing over the slabs of ice, snapping pictures as she moved. Before she had moved too far out on the ice, she turned and pointed her camera at the crowd along the railing. “Smile,” she shouted as she snapped several pictures, then she turned and headed farther out onto the ice.
The crowd began to return to the bar. The temperature was dropping, and Jack pulled his coat closed. “She must be freezing,” said a voice next to him. Turning toward the voice, Jack was surprised when he found himself facing Scotch and Soda Man. As often as they had seen each other in the bar, they had never really spoken before.
“Probably. But she’ll freeze to death before she quits if there is a picture to be taken,” Jack said as he turned his gaze back toward Patti.
Even from his distant vantage point, Jack could tell that she was breathing hard. Her breath was creating a halo of vapor around her head.
“You watch. She’s going to land on her ass before too long,” Jack said and then realized that he was speaking to no one. He was the sole remaining spectator to Patti’s mission.
That’s when it happened. She was focusing for one last picture when her foot slipped. She yelped and fell ass over tea kettle behind a particularly large piece of ice. Jack’s first reaction was to laugh. He heard her scream as she went down, her arm extended upward holding her camera high and out of harm’s way. “Are you all right?” he shouted.
“Yeah, but my ass is all wet,” she yelled back.
Chuckling, Jack turned, went to the bar door, stuck his head inside, and said, “Hey Max, Patti slipped and landed on her ass in a puddle. She says she’s okay. I’m going to go help her in.”
That was enough to get everyone’s attention again, and the more curious returned to the deck to watch. Just as Jack lifted his leg over the railing, Patti screamed. Louder, more primal, it was unlike any scream Jack had ever heard before. His reaction was immediate and instinctual. He dropped to the ice, and in a leaping, slipping, scrambling sprint he raced toward her.
The scream and Jack’s reaction to it was all it took. The bar immediately emptied as everyone rushed back out onto the deck. Even Max came out to see what was going on. Jack was so focused on his mission that he didn’t realize several people had followed him out onto the ice.
“Are you all right?” he wheezed. Patti just looked at him with a strange look on her face. She was cold, wet, and shaking. He took his coat off, put it over her shoulders, and looked deeply into her eyes. In a shivering voice just above a whisper, she said, as she pointed behind him, “Hand … body …” It took a moment for Jack to comprehend what she had said and another moment for what he saw to sink in. There was an arm hanging out from under the slab of ice.
A plaid flannel shirtsleeve covered the arm. It was torn, exposing the bluish white flesh beneath. From the size of the arm and the hand, the right hand, he knew it belonged to a woman. The hand was more delicate than that of a man, although he could see real strength in the fingers. The knuckles were cut and bruised, several fingernails were broken, and there was a gold ring on one finger. “Shit.” Then he stood, faced where he had come from, and yelled back, “Call 911.”
He heard the message being relayed back to Ben’s. That’s when the first person who had followed Jack out onto the ice arrived.
“She okay? What happened?”
Jack turned to him, “She’ll be okay. She’s just cold and wet, but there’s a body under that slab of ice in front of you.”
“What!?” he jumped back a step.
“A body. At least I assume it’s all there, only one arm is visible.”
“No shit. Really?” as he began to maneuver around for a look.
The message to call 911 electrified the crowd on the deck. It took only a moment for the crowd to react. While some rushed inside to make the call, the rest began climbing over the railing, rushing out onto the ice to see for themselves. The crowd oozed over and around the ice floes, forming and reforming as if it were some kind of a giant amoeba come to life. The jumble of ice made footing treacherous, and the way things were going, someone was destined to fall and get hurt— or at least very wet. Too much was happening too fast.
As the amoeba pressed in, Jack shouted out in frustration, “Hey! Back off. The police will be here soon.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he felt his face flush. “Where did that come from?” he wondered. Not only did he surprise himself, but the crowd began to quiet and most people moved back. As they moved, he heard a low voice ask with a touch of sarcasm, “Who put him in charge?”
Before he could respond, he felt a tug on his sleeve and a shivering voice said, “J-J-Jack. W-W-Will y-you m-move?” Patti tugged on Jack’s sleeve. She was shivering.
Jack turned back to Patti. “You have got to go in. You’re freezing.”
“N-No. I-I’m f-fine. I-I n-need-d t-to t-take s-some m-more p-p-pictures. M-Move o-o-over.” With that she raised her camera and began taking pictures of the arm hanging out from under the ice. The hand and ring received extra attention. “Jack, have you ever seen a ring like that?”
He bent over and took a closer look. “No.”
Sirens could be heard in the distance, and Jack stepped back while Patti’s camera kept clicking away as she recorded the entire scene.
He saw the flashing blue lights of one of the town’s cruisers as it crossed over the bridge and turned into Ben’s. It was followed moments later by the red lights of the ambulance. Because of the snowbanks around the parking lot, the lights were no longer visible, but the reflections betrayed their presence. Jack finally heard a familiar voice.
“Okay, could everyone please move back?” It was Tom.
“Tom, am I glad to see you.”
“Hey Jack. What’s this about a body?”
“Right here.” He pointed toward the arm. Tom worked his way around the ice, and when he saw the arm, he murmured to himself. “Son of a bitch.” Then he moved closer to get a better look and slipped, nearly landing in the same puddle Patti had fallen into. He caught himself, and only his hand went into the water. As he stood and shook off his hand, he heard a camera click followed by a slight chuckle. He looked around and saw Patti. She looked wet and cold, and had her camera pointed in his direction with a mischievous smile that said “Gotcha.”
“I’ll need that film,” said Tom as he turned his attention to directing the rescue team.
“Sure,” was her reply.
As the fire-rescue team went to work, the crowd was pushed farther back, and with axes and chainsaws, rescuers went to work freeing the body from the ice.
“C’mon Patti. Let’s go up and get you into some dry clothes. You’re freezing,” said Jack.
She shivered back, “N-no. I-I’m st-staying.”
“Fine, suit yourself.” He was beginning to shiver as well.
That’s when Max showed up. After all, everyone had to get a peek.
This kind of thing didn’t happen very often in small towns in New Hampshire. She was bundled up and had with her Patti’s coat along with a hat and gloves. “Here, Patti. You look ridiculous in Jack’s coat.”
“Thanks.” Patti gave Jack’s coat back to him and slipped into her own along with the hat. The gloves went into her pocket so she could use the camera.
Rescuers worked fast. The shouts, grunts, and groans of many men working very hard were punctuated by the sounds of axes thumping into the ice and the ear-splitting whine of a chainsaw. Steadily the mini berg that covered the body was reduced until all that remained was the part directly over the corpse. The work slowed, but the sense of urgency increased. The tide had turned, and the sun was rapidly disappearing. Through it all, Patti kept shooting while Jack and Max stood and watched.
The last piece of ice was finally removed, and for a moment everyone stood and stared silently at the dead woman. Except for the gentle lapping wavelets of the encroaching tide and the shushing of the light breeze, there was silence.
She looked to be in her late sixties and although plain, she was attractive, even after having been under the ice for who knows how long. She was wearing work boots, khaki slacks, and a plaid shirt. Sand as well as bits of marsh grass and seaweed could be seen between the frozen folds of her torn clothing. There were scratches and bruises on her arms, some recent and others, healed reminders of past events; her hands gave testament to the violence of her death.
Max leaned in to get a better look at the body while Jack held on to her hand, steadying her so she wouldn’t slip. Her gaze moved over the body, finally coming to rest on the face. She stared at it. There was something familiar. The eyes drew her in. They seemed to be looking straight at her with an intensity that made her shiver. It was as if they were pleading with her for something. Then, just as quickly, that anguished gaze seemed to soften, replaced by one of peace and serenity that seemed to say, “I’ve found you. You’re here.”
Max shook her head as if to clear it. “It’s just the changing light from the setting sun,” she thought as the click of Patti’s camera brought her the rest of the way back. Then Max looked at the face again.
“I know her. Why do I know her?” she thought. Then it came to her, and she stiffened, nearly pulling Jack off balance. “Oh my God,” she murmured.
“Max. Are you all right?”
Silence. She just stared.
“Max?” Jack squeezed her hand.
Slowly she moved her head, her eyes searching for something that would disprove what she just came to know. But that didn’t happen.
Instead she saw proof of what she had hoped was not so. She saw the ring. Memories flashed through her head.