Authors: Jon Loomis
The ambulance would drive the body fifty-odd miles down Route 6 to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, where the attending physician would write up a death certificate. Then Merkin's remains would go to the county medical examiner's office in Pocasset, where they would be stored in a cold drawer until an autopsy could be performed. The ME, or his assistant, a pale young woman named Shelley Block, would weigh the body and take its core temperature by inserting a large thermometer into its colon. They would photograph any wounds and anything else on the body that might seem noteworthy: scrapes, bruises, scars, or tattoos. The degree of rigor would be noted, and the extent to which the corpse had been visited by insects and scavengers. Because Ron Merkin was a cross-dresser, he would be checked for possible sexual assaultâhis sexual organs examined, a long swab inserted into his rectum, then smeared onto a petrie dish. The coarse hair on his pubis and around his anus would be combed out into a baggie, then examined under a microscopeâthe ME looking for any hairs that didn't match. Then Ron Merkin would be scalpeled across the upper chest from shoulder to shoulder, and all the way down the torso from sternum to pubis. His ribs would be split (
like a lobster,
Coffin couldn't help thinking, as he drove to the Tip Top Diner), his heart
and lungs and liver and everything else pulled out, examined, and weighed, the contents of his stomach cataloged. The residue under his nails would be scraped, and the scrapings checked for fibers or skin. The ME would make an incision from ear to ear across the top of the head, then flop Merkin's scalp forward over his face, remove the fore-crown of his skull with a special trepanning saw, lift out the brain, and place it on a metal tray for examination and weighing. Ron Merkin's blood would be tested for alcohol, toxins, and drugs. His clothingâthe muumuuâwould be FedExed to the gorgeous new state police forensics lab in Sudbury. What remained of Ron Merkin would then be picked up by an employee of a Boston funeral home, at the widow's request, and driven directly to a crematorium where it would be incinerated, the ashes and chunks of bone pulverized together into dark gray powder, which Ron Merkin's wife would take home in an elaborate bronze urn, to be placed on the mantelpiece among a large number of frolicsome porcelain dogs.
offin and Lola sat in a booth at the Tip Top Diner, eating breakfast. The Tip Top's booths were upholstered in orange vinyl. Fishing nets and plastic lobsters hung from the walls. It was Provincetown's last good greasy spoonâa fragile, unpretentious island in a sea of trendy cafÃ©s that charged ten dollars for a cheese omelet. Coffin's scrambled eggs contained no Boursin; his bacon was pig meat, not turkey or soy. His toast was just toast, white breadâneither sourdough nor cracked wheatâwhich he smeared with butter from a small foil packet.
“No way the wife did it,” Lola said. She set her coffee cup down and made a sour face, as though she'd swallowed a bug. “This coffee tastes like mop water.”
Coffin bit his toast. “Real coffee's
to taste like mop water,” he said, through a mouthful of crumbs. “Why no way?”
“Not strong enough. Merkin was a big guy. Linebacker sized. He'd put up a hell of a fight.”
Coffin grunted, shrugged. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe she cracked him over the head with a ball bat first. Or drugged him. Or hired
someone to kill him.” He took a bite of scrambled egg. “I mean, his cross-dressing thing put them in a pretty vulnerable position. If it ever got out, good-bye television ministry. They'd end up on some reality TV show or making John Waters movies.”
The waitress appeared at Coffin's elbow, holding a chrome coffeepot. She was a neighbor of Coffin's, a stout, pink-faced woman named Dot. “I saw John Waters the other day,” she said, refilling their cups. “Coming out of the A&P. He had bags and bags of celery. Don't ask, I says to myself.” Dot shook her head and padded off.
“If Melinda Merkin wanted to avoid scandal,” Lola said, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Dot was gone, “would she kill her husband in a gay resort town and dump him on a public beach in drag? And you can stop playing devil's advocate now. I'm not an idiot.”
Coffin smirked, pushed a slice of bacon into his mouth. “Sorry,” he said. “Anyway, it's all academic. It's not our case.”
“And the Cape and Islands DA. Standard procedure. We hand out the parking tickets, they investigate the homicides.”
Lola picked a speck of fuzz from her hat, which sat beside her in the booth. “Doesn't that piss you off, a little?”
“Are you kidding? You're kidding, right?”
“Of the last five murders on the outer Cape, how many have they actually solved?”
Coffin thought for a minute, pursing his lips and squinting a little. “One, maybe. The woman out in Truro. Hasn't gone to trial yet.”
“That's what I thought. Not exactly an inspiring track record.”
“Well, no. I guess not.”
Lola fiddled with the salt shaker, sliding it back and forth in a small pool of water. A bright rectangle of sunshine lay across the table, backlighting the fine hairs on her forearm. “Do you ever
miss it, Frank? Being a homicide cop in a big town like Baltimore? The excitement?”
Coffin shivered, suddenly cold. “Excitement's overrated.”
Lola raised her orange juice in a mock toast. “To the quiet life.”
“Besides,” Coffin said, “somebody's got to handle the drunks, speeders, and bicycle thieves.” He stuffed another strip of bacon into his mouth and took a slurp of coffee.
Lola squinted at Coffin's plate. “Should you be eating that? How's your cholesterol?”
“You sound like Jamie,” Coffin said.
For a while they didn't talk. Lola piled scrambled eggs onto a slice of toast and ate them. “So how
the yoga lady these days?” she said finally.
“She wants to have a baby.”
Lola leaned back in the booth, giving her plate a little backhand wave good-bye. “That's pretty serious, Frank. Marriage. Spawning.”
“She doesn't want to get married. She just wants to have a baby.”
“Very progressive.” Lola raised her eyebrows. “So?”
Coffin frowned into his coffee cup. “I don't know. I haven't decided yet.”
“She give you a deadline?”
Lola grinned. “The lady doesn't mess around. What if you say no?”
“We didn't talk about that.” Coffin wiped a hand across his eyes. He was tired. His head had begun to throb. He wanted to lie down in the booth and take a short nap. “God. Why do relationships have to be so complicated?”
“You're asking the wrong person. I haven't had a date in months.”
Coffin's brows went up.
Too bad she only likes girls,
he thought, and then felt instantly stupid for thinking it, as he always didâit sounded like something Tony would say. If Lola were straight, after all, she probably wouldn't be in Provincetown. If she were straight, she'd still be just as far out of his leagueâpractically a different species. “Really?” he said. “That's kind of hard to believe.”
“Mostly I get asked out by girls who miss their daddies,” Lola said. “Or who want to get revenge on their daddies. Or both. There's also the occasional cop groupie. A guy with your experience would know all about that.”
“Yeah,” Coffin said. He'd heard about cop groupies but had never met one. “Right.”
Outside, a steady stream of traffic was heading out to the beaches: BMWs, Porsches, big SUVs. Men on bicycles wavered past in twos and threes.
“What was Merkin doing at Herring Cove, do you think?” Lola said.
Coffin buttered his last wedge of toast. “What does anyone do at Herring Cove, besides go swimming?”
“Watch the sunset?”
Coffin raised an eyebrow. “Besides that,” he said.
Lola put a hand to her mouth, as if she were shocked. “But he was a
“Even a Baptist likes to get a blow job,” Coffin said.
“Some even like to give them. But the wife said he didn't fool around.”
“My shrink used to say that everybody's got three lives. A public life, which is how you present yourself to the world; a private life, which is what your family knows about you; and a secret lifeâthe stuff only
know about you.”
“So if you're a homophobic TV preacher in your public life,”
Lola said, “and wear support hose and a muumuu in your private life .Â .Â .”
“God only knows what goes on in your secret life.” Coffin stood and put a ten-dollar bill and two quarters on the table. “But like I saidâ”
“I know.” Lola straightened her hat. “It's not our case.”
Coffin pushed open the door. It was almost hot in the sunlight. One gleaming SUV after another whooshed past. A small squadron of gulls was hang-gliding serenely overhead.
“Frank?” Lola said. Her eyes were very blue. “What about you? Do you have a secret life?”
“I wish,” Coffin said. “I'd be a lot more interesting if I did.”
offin sat in the small, rickety chair in Chief Boyle's office, watching Boyle sip coffee at his desk. The town manager, Louie SilvaâCoffin's second cousinâslumped in a leather armchair next to Coffin, short legs stretched out. Just behind him hovered Brandon Phipps, the newly hired destination marketing consultant.
Louie was plump, sleek, and fretful. He wore a big pinky ring and a gold chain around his neck. He looked like a nervous, affluent duck.
“A murder is one thing,” Louie said, passing a hand through his glossy black hair, “but a high profile deal like this? Could be very, very bad for business.”
“That's what would keep
up at night,” Coffin said.
Phipps raised his right eyebrow a quarter of an inch. “What Mr. Silva means to say is that we must consider the effects of an incident such as this on the town's media image, on both the regional and national levelsâand its impacting of long- and short-term visitorship trends. It's most urgent that this matter be resolved as expeditiously as possible. For all concerned.”
Phipps was handsome in the uncomplicated, dimple-chinned way that television actors are often handsome. He had subtle blond highlights in his hair, and the muscles under his tailored shirt were the kind you get from working out in a well-appointed gym, with a well-appointed personal trainer.
“Thanks for the clarification,” Coffin said.
“You're quite welcome,” Phipps said, his enunciation as crisp as the creases in his gabardine trousers.
Boyle was even more red-faced than usual. He shot Coffin a warning look. “We're all on the same team here, Coffin.”
Louie mopped his face with a handkerchief. “Brandon's right,” he said. “A killing like this could make people extremely nervous. It's bigger than just tourism.”
“Investors hate uncertainty, Detective,” Phipps said. “Certain investment-driven opportunity dynamics can only be optimized in a safe and predictable business environment.”
“Naturally,” Coffin said.
“So,” Boyle said, “we want you to conduct a parallel investigation. Quietly. Just in case the state police miss anything.”
Coffin frowned. “That would be a serious breach of protocol. Definitely an ethics violationâmaybe enough to bring me up on criminal charges, depending. You'd be putting me in an extremely vulnerable position.”
“Let's just say we don't have a lot of confidence in the state police,” Boyle said, propping his chin on his fist. “Their track record stinks.”
“What are you talking about?” Coffin said. “They just got the guy who murdered the heiress out in Truro.”
“It took four
” Louie said. “Four fucking years! They DNA tested the entire goddamn
. The guy was so fucking dumb, he voluntarily gave up his DNA and then waited around for a year for the results to come in! That's the only reason they got
him. This Merkin thing is like a suicide bombing at Disneyland. We can't wait four years for the state police to figure it out.”
Boyle scowled. He swiveled his chair around and looked out the window. “The whole setup irks my gonads. What can they do that we can't?”
“Basic crime scene investigation. Interrogation. Polygraphing. Forensics. They've got the big new crime lab down in Sudbury.”
“Ha!” Boyle said, over his shoulder. “They're underfunded, understaffed, and unfamiliar with the territory.” He swiveled around and pointed a stubby finger at Coffin's heart. “You know damn well the crime lab's budget has been slashed; they're backlogged like you wouldn't believe. That's why it took so long to get the Truro DNA results.”
“Sure, but they're still better trained and more experienced than we are.”
Louie gazed at Coffin, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Who the hell is
experienced in homicide investigation, Frank. You're a regular Dick fucking Tracy. Commendations from the governor of Maryland, no less.”
“That's over,” Coffin said. “I don't do homicide anymore. Dead people freak me out.”
“Dead people freak
body out, Coffin.” Boyle rolled his eyes back in his head and stuck his tongue out. “I mean, they're dead, right?”
Coffin said nothing.
“It would just be an informal investigation,” Louie said. “A couple of days at the most. No big deal. As a favor to me.”