Authors: Jon Loomis
“What the fuck are you doing down there?” Rudy had said. “Come on home. I'll set you up. Easy job, no stress.” Big, jocular Rudy. Rudy the loose cannon, the bad cop who knew about every drug deal, crooked poker game, and boy prostitute in town, and who made sure he took a cut from each of them.
When Coffin finished the cigarette, he got out of the car and climbed the sloping sidewalk back to Valley View's front door. Standing just outside, he had a clear view of the nurse's desk. He waited two or three minutes until the plump nurse, Natalie, picked up the phone, spoke into it briefly, then gathered up her clipboard and walked away, disappearing down one of the nursing home's four main corridors. Coffin went inâthe automatic doors swooshing openâand ambled past the desk and down his mother's corridor, all the way to the end. He went back to the desk; no one was there. He went down another corridor. He peeked into the day room. Everywhere, old people sat parked in their wheelchairsâmost of them strapped in like fighter pilots. They stared at him. He left, feeling their eyes on his back as he walked away.
Coffin lived in a two-story cottage, cedar shakes weathered silver-gray. It had a postage-stamp yard, where a tangle of rose devoured a cockeyed trellis. The rooms were cramped and low-ceilinged, crowded with dark Victorian furniture: glass-fronted cabinets brimming with blue-and-white china; ornate tables; strict chairs skullcapped with lace doilies. The doorways were narrow, the stairs steep and tight. Worn Persian rugs covered the floors. A red overstuffed chair dominated the living room. Coffin's father had sat there, winter eveningsâsmoking and drinking scotch, talking back to the television set. A taxidermied goat's head glared from above the fireplace, dust in its long beard. It was his mother's house; sometimes Coffin felt her presence there, as if she were hiding in a closet or under the bed, eyes bright and malicious.
Jamie arrived twenty minutes late, parking her old blue Volvo wagon across the street. She was a yoga instructor, slim-hipped and sinewy, dressed in a long batik skirt, blue tank top and hand-beaded necklace. Her full name was Jameson Lynnelle Culpepper; she was the daughter and granddaughter of army colonels from South Carolina and a descendant of Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the Confederate general who fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. Seventeen years ago, while her ancestors twirled in their graves, she'd refused to apply to Duke or Virginia, insisting instead on going to Sarah Lawrence. She'd been living up north ever since. She opened the Volvo's hatchback and took out a bag of groceries. Coffin kissed her at the door.
“The perfect woman,” he said. “Smart, good-looking, brings food.”
“Hello, handsome,” she said.
Coffin smiled. “Smart, blind, good-looking, brings food,” he said. “It doesn't get any better.”
In the kitchen, Jamie unloaded the groceries. “What we have here is two
tuna steaks,” she said, producing them with a flourish. “Two bottles of pinot grigio, very nice, on sale. Fresh asparagus. And, for an appetizer, mussels gathered by
, mere moments ago, along the breakwater.”
There were lemons and a jar of capers, too, and a tube of wasabi paste so strong that when Coffin tasted it his sinuses seemed to explode, which was oddly exhilarating, and his nose began to run, which wasn't. He and Jamie cooked together: She steamed the mussels in white wine and garlic; he seared the tuna steaks in a very hot pan with just a faint slick of olive oil and served them rare with capers, sliced scallions, and the fiery wasabi. Jamie put together a saladâartichoke hearts, romaine, spinach, her own invented miso dressing. Coffin sautÃ©ed the asparagus in sesame oil.
They had been together almost a year. They saw each other three or four times a week, went to a movie, made dinner, took a walk. Conversation was easy, and the physical part was terrificâbetter than in Coffin's past relationships. Sex was just sex, unfreighted by commitment angst or a long menu of old resentments. It was the perfect relationship: just enough intimacy, just enough space. Coffin thought it was probably too good to last.
They ate slowly, piling the empty mussel shells into a white bowl. Ella Fitzgerald sang blues from the old-fashioned record player. After dinner, Coffin opened the second bottle of wine and sat next to Jamie on the sofa. Jamie lit a cigarette, and they listened to the small yearning of crickets outside. She leaned into him, her warm weight on his chest. Coffin felt a surge of something like contentment, mixed with desire. He kissed Jamie on the top of her head and she made a soft purring noise in her throat. She had a great voice, low and a little scratchy. He kissed her again and she arched her back, a kind of invitation to touch, which he did, gently cupping her breasts through her top. Her breasts were small
and still firm; Jamie had never had children, and perhaps that made a difference.
In the bedroom, Jamie lit one of the small votive candles on the nightstand and took off her clothes. She looked good in the candlelight, Coffin thought; all that yoga kept her lean and flexible. He felt lucky and grateful for that luck, and a little self-conscious about his own body, which was no longer anything to write home about. He took off his clothes anyway and lay down, and Jamie put her hand on his chest. It seemed to Coffin like a long time since they'd made love, even though it had only been a few days. Coffin turned toward her, slid his thigh between hers. He kissed her on the mouth. Jamie tasted of cigarettes and garlic and white wine. She pulled away, then raised herself on an elbow, lifting a breast to Coffin's mouth. The nipple was hard, the size of a fingertip.
“Not bad, for an old woman in her thirties,” she said.
Coffin smiled. “Not bad at all,” he said.
Later, they lay in the wavering candlelight. It was warm. A stuffed seagull stared from the top of the hulking mahogany dresser, glass eyes glinting.
Jamie sat up and lit a cigarette. “So I've been thinking, Frank,” she said, exhaling a blue stream. She smoked an all-natural, organic brand that wasn't supposed to kill you as fast.
“Thinking is good,” Coffin said, nuzzling the ridge of her pelvis. Her skin tasted like bread.
“We've been getting along pretty well lately, don't you think?”
“Just fine,” Coffin said, a slight sinking feeling in his gut.
“We're fond of each other, and all that.”
“So what's stopping us from having a baby?”
“Ortho Tri-Cyclen,” Coffin said.
Jamie thumped his chest with her fist.
“Don't be a dope. Did you know that a woman is only half as fertile at thirty-five as she is at twenty?”
“So .Â .Â .”
“So it's now or never, buddy. Put up or shut up. Shit or get off the potâ”
Coffin held up a hand. “I get it,” he said.
“Smart boy,” Jamie said. “I knew you would.”
“So you're thinkingâ”
“Now. Well, not
now.” She nudged his wilted penis with her big toe. “But pretty damn soon. I'm officially off the pill in three days.”
“Wow,” Coffin said, sitting up.
Jamie narrowed her eyes. “That's a very noncommittal wow.”
“Well, what if I'm not ready to have a baby?”
“Oh come on, Frank. You're forty-four years oldâ”
“Whatever. You're not getting any younger. How many more chances are you going to get, realistically speaking? Besides, it's not like I want to marry you.”
“Nope.” Jamie put her cigarette out and kissed Coffin on the top of his head. “I figured you'd need a day or two to think it over,” she said. “Did you know you're getting a little bald spot back here? It's very cute.”
Coffin touched the spot she'd kissed. “Bald spot? You're kidding.”
Jamie looked into his eyes. “I wouldn't kid you, buddy boy.”
altimore: the streets clotted with gray slush. A dull sleet falls, icing the windshield except for a football-sized hole the defroster has made.
He's with his partner, Rashid, responding to a call on Herndon Street, in a district of liquor stores, check-cashing shops, and rundown row houses. The front of one of the buildings is cordoned with yellow tape; a pair of street cops are out on the stoop, smoking cigarettes. The top floor apartment, Coffin knows, contains five bodies: a woman, three children, and an unidentified adult male.
They park across the street and slog through the rutted slush. Coffin's feet are cold. Some of the frigid glop has slopped into the collar of his left boot, melted into his sock. The building's front steps are crumbling, half demolished as if a truck had crashed into them. Rashid stops to bum a cigarette from one of the cops.
“Fucking Parliaments,” Rashid says, lighting up. “What's the point?”
Inside, in the vestibule, the floor is crazed with muddy footprints. There's a mingled smell of Pine-Sol and old steam radiators and fried onions. The brass doors of the mailboxes have all been pried open. The
stairs seem unnaturally steep. After they've climbed two flights, Coffin starts to feel light-headed. He stops to catch his breath. Things are happening to his visionâthe dim stairway wrinkles and swims.
“I don't know,” Coffin says. He puts his hand on the greasy banister, takes it off, wipes it on his pants leg.
“What don't you know?”
“I don't think I want to go up there.”
“Me either,” Rashid says. “Fuck it. Let's go get some breakfast.”
“I'm serious. I'm not going up there.”
Rashid looks at him, then looks at him again. “Okay,” he says slowly. “You don't have to. You don't look so good. Go out and get some air.”
Coffin takes a deep breath. The stairway is hot, and suddenly he's sweating
his T-shirt is soaked. It happens all the time, he knows: Cops wake up one day and just can't do it anymore, can't deal with the meanness, the pointless violence, the squalid truth about death. In Baltimore, the cops call it hitting the wall, and sometimes you get over it and go back to work, but mostly you don't; you end up as a security guard at a mall or running an all-night convenience store. He has a wife and a mortgage; his mother is ill.
I have to,
I have to go in there.
“I'm okay,” he says. He shivers. “Sorry. Let's go.”
The apartment door is open. A few neighbors are gathered outside. There's a uniformed cop there, too, guarding the crime scene, arms folded across his chest. Another uniform's waiting inside. “Two in the bedroom,” he says, pointing. “Two in the kitchen. One in the bathroom. Fucking hillbillies.”
Coffin groped for the shrill noise of the phone in the dark, found the handset, dropped it, knocked over the plastic bottle of spring water beside the bed. The digital clock glowed 6:03.
Jamie rolled over and said, “What's going on?”
“Go back to sleep,” Coffin said, patting the swell of her hip through the covers. He picked up the phone and pushed the
“Hello?” he said, swinging his legs out from under the sheets.
Still half asleep, Jamie said “ 'Lo?” and grabbed him by the firming handle of his penis, gently pulling him back into the warm bedâwhich was where he suddenly, desperately wanted to stay.
“Frank?” It was Lola Winters, one of Provincetown's full-time police officers. “Sorry to bother you, Frankâbut something's happened. A guy found a body out at Herring Cove.”
“A body?” Coffin said, gently detaching himself from Jamie's warm hand; embarrassing, somehow, talking on the phone when someone was holding your penis. “You mean dead? What's it doing out there?”
“Don't know, but it's a definite homicide. The guy was strangled with a scarf. The Park Service is there now; the state police and the coroner are on their way.”
“Okay,” Coffin said, suddenly breathless. “Okay, I'll be right there.” The phone bleeped softly when he pushed its glowing
He felt light-headed; the space in the room seemed weirdly flat. There had been a total of two murders in Provincetown in the last eight years. He had hoped to retire before investigating another one.
Jamie rolled over, mumbled something, then began to snore softly. Coffin dressed as quietly as he could in the near dark: chinos, hiking boots, blue flannel shirt, and a jacketâit would be windy and cold out at Herring Cove this early in the day.
Still groggy, Coffin shut the front door and trudged down the short concrete walk to his car. The sidewalk was laced with the small, shiny trails left by last night's slow migration of slugs.
In the eight months after his uncle Rudy had been forced to resign, when Coffin had been acting chief, he'd driven one of the department's two gleaming, unmarked Crown Victorias. Now, with Boyle running the department, he was stuck with the Dodge. He wrenched open the door and squeezed his tall, stooped frame behind the wheel. When he turned the key, the Dodge coughed once, weakly, and died.
“Christ,” he said, hating the car more than ever. He turned the key again and the Dodge sputtered to life, its perforated muffler rumbling. He tried to turn the radio on, but the knob came off in his fingers.
He didn't notice the blue Chevy pickup parked across the street, or the man inside, slumped down in the driver's seat, smoking a cigarette.
It was early, and there was no traffic on Commercial Street except for delivery vehicles: beer trucks unloading kegs, Sysco refrigerated food trucks delivering everything from steaks to frozen broccoli to the tourist restaurants. The Dodge chugged past the town center and the Coast Guard station, with its volleyball net and long pier fingering into the bay.