Authors: Jon Loomis
Coffin was drawn to Commercial Street's west end. He often found himself driving past his great-grandfather's house with its cupola and mansard roof and the ornate front door framed by two enormous stone lions the old sea captain had brought back from China in the 1880s. Ephraim Coffin built the house near the end of the whaling era; not long after, when the sperm whales had grown scarce and the demand for whale oil was dwindling, he sank his considerable fortune into the China tradeâlosing everything when all three of his tall-masted merchant ships sank in a Hong Kong typhoon the next year. Ruined, believing he was jinxed, he
hanged himself in the house's central cupola, with its perfect view of the harbor.
The Coffin jinx. It started in 1820 when Owen Coffin, whose young wife was pregnant with Ephraim's father, signed onto the Nantucket whaler
as harpooner. Eight months later, in the South Pacific, the
was rammed and sunk by a rogue sperm whaleâan incident so freakish and so notorious that it became the factual model for
. Most of the crew survived the wreck. They sailed away in small boats, steering for South America, though they were only a few hundred miles from the Sandwich Islandsâ
there be cannibals.
Days later, starving on the open sea, they drew straws; for fear of cannibals, they would become cannibals themselves. Owen lost. He was the first to be eaten.
The jinx had struck every generation of Coffins since. Big Bill, Coffin's grandfather, had been killed running a boatload of Prohibition scotch into Herring Cove in 1929. Coffin's father had simply vanished into the sea; the Coast Guard found his boat the
drifting empty in 1978, near Great Island. And his brother Ed, who joined the navy and served on a Swift boat in Vietnam, had disappeared into the jungle two weeks shy of shipping back to the States. Coffin had become a policeman, like his uncle Rudy. Any job, he'd said, that didn't involve boats.
Behind the Dodge, a giant Cadillac SUV blew its horn, and Coffin sped up, climbing a short, steep hill with the blue harbor visible between the houses on his left. He passed the Red Inn, then a cluster of older summer cottages, then his friend Kotowski's ramshackle house beside the stone breakwater that ran all the way out to Wood End. At the end of Commercial, he swung right onto Route 6A, past the still-skeletal condo development called the Moors. All he could get on the radio was WOMR. Two women were discussing the possible cancer risks associated with jelly sex toys. He switched the radio off, twisting the knobless metal post;
the Dodge clattered and chugged and threatened to stall. Thin columns of mist still rose from the tidal salt marsh that marked the extreme east end of Herring Cove beach. A few hundred yards to the northwest, the salt marsh devolved into scrubby woods.
When he reached a cluster of police and emergency vehicles parked on the sandy shoulder, Coffin pulled the Dodge in behind them, turned off the engine, and got out. There was a path between the trees. The woods quickly dwindled into high dunes, spiked with silver-gray beach grass. The sandy trail between the dunes was much marked by foot traffic. With the tide almost entirely out, Coffin still had no choice but to splash through occasional tidal pools.
During the summer months, Herring Cove beach was oddly segregated: There was a section, farthest from town, where families seemed to settle; the lesbian beach lay a bit to the south of them. This end, farthest south and closest to Commercial Street, was the gay men's beach. Usually packed from late morning until sunset, it was deserted at 6:30
The path rose to the top of a last row of dunes, and Coffin could see that in the middle distance, to his right, the beach was busy with official-looking people, vehicles, and screaming, swooping gulls. A uniformed state police officer stopped him thirty paces from the crime scene perimeter, maybe a hundred square yards of sand cordoned by a skewed rectangle of yellow police tape. The tape lay on the ground, held in place with rocks at each corner. The unweighted sections fibrillated in the bay breeze.
“Whoa there, bud,” the trooper said, putting his hand on Coffin's chest. He wore puttees and tall black boots. The short black brim of his peaked hat was pulled down, almost covering his eyes. “Where do you think
Coffin dug in his pocket for his shield and held it up in front of the trooper's face.
“Oh, sorry, De
ive,” the trooper smirked. “Try to keep out of the way, all right?”
The dunes were cluttered with vehicles and webbed with boot and tire tracks. A couple of Park Service rangersâa man and a womanâwaited greenly next to their pickup truck, trying, Coffin guessed, not to look at the dead guy. Park Service rangers spent most of their time handing out citations for beer-drinking, skinny-dipping, and the endless variety of sandy couplings performed out in the dunesânot investigating murders. A man with a golden retriever stood beside them, pale and shrunken in his expensive blue sweater.
Coffin watched as a shiny black Suburban drove slowly through the sand, almost bogging down in a slough before stopping just outside the cordoned area. Four troopers piled out and started unloading dogs from their plastic crates. Lola Winters and Coffin's cousin Tony hovered near the PPD's only 4x4 vehicle, an aging Jeep.
The dead guy lay in a slough between two dunes, surrounded by a low midden of sand. The coroner was already there, snapping Polaroids. He was a funeral director from Chatham, a thin, sleepyeyed man named Sherman; Provincetown was too small to have a coroner of its own. His assistant leaned on his shovel, smoking a cigarette. A tall, bulky state police detective in a brown suit shot videotape, pointing his camcorder at the dead man, the gulls, the crisscross of tire tracks in the sand, even his own footprints. Vincent Mancini, the Cape and Islands district attorney, stood with his back to the body, watching the small waves slop one after the other onto the sand. The water was silvery, almost dead calm; it seemed as dense as mercury.
“Merkin,” Coffin said. He felt dizzy; his legs seemed unnaturally longâa sensation he remembered from Baltimore, near the end, when things were starting to go bad. The late reverend wore a pink and yellow floral muumuu and one size-twelve dove gray pump with a sensible heel. His other foot was bare, the toenails painted crimson.
His face was swollen and discolored, almost black. His tongue stuck out. A long raspberry-colored taffeta scarf was knotted around his neck so tightly it dug into the flesh. The wind ruffled his wig, which looked like a glum woodchuck in the morning light.
“You know this guy?” said Mancini, turning around. He was close to Coffin's age but slimmer. His hair was glossy and dark, gelled into an artful rumple. He wore pressed jeans and a suede bomber jacket. His designer sunglasses had oval frames and blue mirrored lenses.
The state police detective pointed his camera at Coffin.
“His name's Ron Merkin,” Coffin said. “His wife reported him missing yesterday.”
Mancini took a silver pen out of his pocket, clicked it, and wrote the name down in a small notebook. “Well, the good news is, he's not missing anymore,” Mancini said.
“The bad news,” said the coroner's assistant, exhaling a stream of smoke, “is that scarf definitely doesn't go with those shoes.”
The coroner grinned and snapped a picture. “Maybe what you got here is a crime of fashion,” he said. His camera whirred, and a blue square of paper squirted out of its plastic slot.
Ron Merkin?” the detective in the brown suit asked, zooming in on Merkin's face. “The one on TV? My sister sends him money.” A green crab clambered out of Merkin's open mouth and stilted off in the direction of the water.
“Jesus.” Coffin's head swam; his palms felt tingly and moist. “Did you see that?”
The four men looked at him. Merkin's muumuu ruffled in the salt breeze. “See what?” said the coroner.
“Provincetown,” the state policeman said, pointing the camcorder at Coffin again. “What a freak show.”
Lola stood with her hands on her hips, watching the K-9 crew work outward from Merkin's corpse, dividing the surrounding dunes into quadrants, little regions of smell. Officer Lolaâthat's what the year-rounders called herâhad been Coffin's first and only hire during his brief, uncomfortable tenure as acting chief. Smart, fearless, and well-trained, she was a former army MP, a crack shot, a black belt in this and that. Coffin felt old and out of shape whenever he saw her.
“Why the K-9 unit?” she said.
Coffin squinted into the wind. “Because it's there.”
“You all right, Frank?” Lola said. “You're a little pale.”
“I'll be okay,” Coffin said. He pointed his chin at the man with the golden retriever. “Who's the gent with the dog?”
“He found the body,” Lola said. “Or the dog did, I guess.”
The man with the golden retriever sidled up to Lola.
“Is anybody going to take my statement, Officer?” he said. “The rangers said I'd have to give a statement to the police, but I'm not feeling very well, and my partner's going to wonder what happened to me.” The golden retriever settled onto its haunches, eyes fixed on the dogs from the K-9 unit.
The man was slender, around fifty years old, and deeply tanned; his hair was dyed blond. His blue sweater shimmered in the gray morning light.
Lola took out her notebook. “We can do that,” she said. “I'm Officer Winters, and this is Detective Coffin.”
“Coffin?” said the man. “How weird is that?”
“Pretty weird,” said Coffin. “And your name is?”
“Pfeffer. Paul Pfefferâwith a silent
And this is Molly.” He patted the retriever on the head. She leaned against his leg, tongue lolling, long and pink.
“Hi, Molly,” Lola said.
“So you were out walking with Molly,” Coffin said, “and she found the body?”
Pfeffer nodded. “It was awful. She ran ahead of me, and I lost sight of her for a few minutes. I came over the crest of a dune, and she was pulling at something in the sand.”
“Not nice,” said Coffin.
“Not nice at
,” said Pfeffer. “At first I thought it was a dead gull or a seal or something. Then I saw she was pulling on a piece of fabricâyou know, this bright print
and I thought, you know,
. But then I realized a second later it was a skirt or a dressâand then of course his foot popped out of the sand, and I said,
Oh my God
it's a person
. .Â .Â .”
He stopped and put a hand over his mouth for a long moment. Then he shook his head rapidly back and forth a couple of times, as though he were trying to erase the memory of the dead man's foot and its polished nails.
Coffin scratched Molly behind the ear, and she looked up at him with a panting, doggy smile.
Pfeffer took a deep breath. “I had the dickens of a time getting Molly away from there, and then of course we went lickety-split right straight to the ranger station, and I've been out here ever since.”
Lola's pen paused above the notebook. “Any idea what time it was when you found the body, Mr. Pfeffer?”
“About five thirty,” Pfeffer said. He pushed back his sleeve and showed them his watch. It was a big watch, with a chunky gold bracelet.
“Kind of early to be out for a walk,” Coffin said.
“I don't sleep very well,” Pfeffer said. He shuddered visibly. “After this, I won't be surprised if I never sleep again.”
“Hey, Frank,” Coffin's cousin Tony said, a slick of olive oil on his chin. “What the fuck, right?” Tony was possibly the worst cop on the planet. He was leaning against the Jeep's front fender, eating a sandwich. At forty-one, Tony was the longest-serving year-round member of the force. He had only been promoted once, by Coffin, then promptly demoted again two weeks later, also by Coffin, for roughing up a tourist from Wisconsin.
“Is that linguiÃ§a?” Coffin asked. “At 7:00
?” The smell of the fatty orange sausage made him feel suddenly nauseated.
“Doris packed my lunch,” Tony said, taking a bite of the sandwich. Tony's wife was a small, frowning woman who walked without moving her hips. “I got wicked hungry, all this walking around in the dunes.”
“You drove,” said Coffin.
“There was walking,” Tony said, sounding hurt. “I walked all over the freaking place out here.” He poured coffee from his thermos into its little plastic cup. “So what's the deal on this guy? Crazy, right?”
“Right,” said Coffin. “Crazy.”
“So what's he doing out here in the dunes?” Tony said, through another bite of sandwich.
“I guess that's the $64,000 question. Tony?”
“Not a word about this to anybody, right? Especially the newspeopleâthey're going to be all over us.”
“I mean it, Tony.”
“I'm not as dumb as you think I am, cousin,” Tony said, wiping his hands on his uniform shirt. His brow furrowed. “Know what I think?”
“Whoever did this? That âGod hates fags' deal really pissed 'em off.”
By noon, the crime scene investigation had run out of gas. The dogs were loaded by their handlers back into their plastic crates, which were lifted into the back of the black Suburban. The coroner's men zipped the body into a rubber bag and heaved it into a Park Service Jeep, which drove slowly over the dunes to the parking lot, where the bag was transferred to an ambulance. The coroner and his helper jumped into their van and took off; then the ambulance drove away, no siren, no lights flashing, no hurryâRon Merkin was as dead as a human being could get.