Read an Excerpt
He didn't mind the cold. He was wearing his heavy Carhartt jacket and leather gloves and wool hat, the hat he had once seen in that movie about corruption among longshoremen, the one with Marlon Brando, the one from the fifties. What was that movie called? He couldn't remember. But he had liked the look of those hats, the look of the men who wore them. Tough, self-reliant, beat-but-still-standing. He liked that, wanted those who looked at him to see that, see a man still standing. As he drove his van through the dark he remembered that he had also liked the woman in the movie, the blonde in the white slip, the one with the sad eyes. He liked the way she looked, he liked her voice. There was something about it, something about her. He had been born in Brooklyn, lived in sight of those very docks, surrounded, he was certain, by women who talked like she had talked. He hadn't ever known his father, didn't know what the man had done for a living back then, if the man had in fact been one of those men who worked the waterfront or had done something else to earn his money. But what that something could have been he didn't know.
His father had left before he was born, and his mother had found a house farther out on the island, in the town of Riverhead. This was when he was four. He could barely remember that day, his first in the new house. Men came and went. He remembered that. His mother never spoke of his old man, but there wasn't a day when he didn't think about his father, about the things this unknown man might have done to survive, the places he might have lived in and the women he might have been with and maybe even loved in the years that followed his leaving them. He thought about that, gnawed on that, a hundred times a dayat work, at home, at night, down in his basement, and then later on in bed. He was thinking of all that now, as he steered his van through this cold night, looking calmly for a place to deposit the body.
He had lifted weights before he left his house, the rusted bench press set up in the basement, beside the large furnace. The furnace worked continuously against the cold, against a wintry wind that pressed like a shoulder again and again against the windows, bending and rattling the panes. He could see through the small glass window in the hatch of the furnace the fire that raged inside. It was the only source of light, and he stared at it as he briefly rested between sets. He had made a point of doing slow, forced repetitions with heavy weight, filling his thick muscles with blood and raising his heart rate to one-twenty. This had warmed his core up plenty, and the engorged muscles in his torso, quivering beneath his jacket now, were like an added layer of living insulation packed around him. Even after the half hour it took him to reach Hampton Bays, the van's engine had yet to heat the radiator fluid enough to affect the heater coil. It was that cold outside, that raw. Arctic. The air rushing through the vents under the dashboard was still cold, but he didn't mind that. He liked the feel of it on his face. It was something for him to stand against, something to prove his resilience. And anyway, his heart and lungs and gut, the deepest parts of himself, only seemed warmer by contrast to what was touching his large, unshaven face like a dead hand.
No, this cold was fine with him.
He was a big mansix-five, two-ninety. He wasn't yet thirty. Beneath the heavy jacket he wore dirty coveralls, rarely wore anything else, even on his days off. This cold snap dropping into the double-digits-below when the sun went down, was only two days old. Before that the weather had been milda long Indian summer in October followed by a mild November. The first day of winter was just a week away, but until two days ago, it hadn't seemed really possible to him. Despite this sudden cold, he wasn't worried that the bay would be frozen over. Even the lakes around town had yet to freeze. Only the small ponds on the back roads of Bridgehampton had a thin sheet over them. No, there was nothing for him to worry about, nothing to stand in his way. This was easy money. Easy money.
He entered Hampton Bays from the north and headed his van east along Main Street. He drove slowly, the way he had driven in from Riverhead, through the desolation of the pine barrens. No need to attract the cops, though he was ready for what he'd have to do if one dared to stop him. A few blocks east, in the heart of town, he turned the van south and headed through a working-class neighborhood called Ponquogue. It wasn't late, not much past nine o'clock now. He didn't feel that he needed the protection that a later hour would afford him. He'd done this before, was getting good at it, better and better each time. Besides, there was elegance in this, in what he was doing. There was elegance in his being daring, being efficient and confident. Elegance was a sad-eyed blonde in a slip, elegance was Brando in his checkered jacket, standing up, his face bloodied. This mattered to him, elegance. As he rode past the houses he knew that those hidden inside were watching television, just killing time till sleep called. Without straining he could see through the front windows, see from the corner of his eye the flickering blue light cast against the walls, the ever-moving shadows, action without motion. The people occupying these houses were getting fatter, he knew this, growing weaker by the day, wasting away as they waited on soft couches for their precious hours of unconsciousness. What was the point in living, he thought, if living was only this?
As he steered down the dark street he found himself looking at the upstairs windows, splitting his attention between them and the familiar road ahead. Some windows were dark, others lit. He watched them all as closely as he could, concentrating. One night not too long ago he had seen a woman crossing a well-lit bedroom, saw her turn and face the window just as he rode past. She was undressed. Lean and strong, from what he could see in the second or two that he had. She had aroused him, not only sexually but deep in his heart. He imagined her lonely, like he was. He imagined her seeking perfection in everything she did, defining herself with every gesture she made, the way he was trying to define himself by what he did. He thought of her working out every day, unashamed of her body, tending to it. Neat and clean. He thought of her with him, naked in his basement, on his bench, the heat from the furnace touching them, the orange glow from its flames reflecting off the sweat that covered their skin . . .
He was more than what he seemed, much more, and the woman he would love would know that. He would know that about her, too. He would have her when he wanted, she would undress for him, without him having to ask. She would walk before him freely, never doubt him. She would have him, too, whenever she wanted, and he would walk before her for her to see.
A few miles later he was pulling over to the side of the road. There weren't any houses here, just a wooded lot to the right and the shimmering edge of the bay on his left. He was focused now. Sharp. He killed the lights but left the motor running. He wouldn't be long. He got out and stepped around to the back, opening the rear doors and leaning in. The body wrapped up in the sheet of clear plastic had begun to stiffen. It was heavy now, in that way dead things are heavy. But he curled more than that weight every other day, so his muscles didn't strain a bit as he pulled the body out and carried it to the water's edge.
He knelt, letting the body down onto the bank. With both hands he held the jagged edge of the plastic so the body unrolled down the bank and into the water. At this time of night Shinnecock Canal was closed, so the current would be a lazy one. Still, the body, facedown, immediately started to drift away from the bank. Fully dressed, per his orders. An air pocket was probably caught inside the nylon jacket, enough to give it buoyancy, or close to it. He had thought he might have to give the body a shove, and there was a broom handle in the back of the van for that reason. But he could see he wouldn't need to do that. The body was twenty feet from shore and still moving by the time he was back at the van. He tossed the clear plastic through the rear doors, then looked at the bay for a moment longer. He watched till he couldn't distinguish the body from the surface chop that was stirred up by a steady wind that all but cut his exposed skin.
He closed the doors, walked around to the front, and got in. Heat was coming finally from the vents, but he didn't want it, nor did he need it. He felt good just as he was and switched the heater off. It was to him a sign of his greatness, his strength. Then he pulled the column shifter down, made a U-turn, and drove back as slowly as he had come.
He watched the houses as he went past them again, watching windows for a glimpse of a woman who might think as he thought, know what he knew. Maybe a blonde, maybe with a quaver in her voice and sad eyes and the willingness to do what needed to be done. He thought then of driving past the house where he had seen the naked woman nights ago. But that was in a town farther east from here, on Peconic Bay, and anyway, there was a phone call to make and money to collect.
He left Hampton Bays and started north through the darkness of the pine barrens, heading back to Riverhead. For the longest time his van was the only vehicle on the road.
In Southampton, thirst woke Tommy Miller. He got out of bed, the floorboards cold beneath his bare feet, and walked lightly toward his bathroom. The windows were frosted, the small room lit tonight with a ghostly blue wash. He found that he was out of the little paper cups he used when he brushed his teeth, so he drank from the tap, filling the palm of his hand and bringing it to his mouth. Then he dried his hand on a towel and went back to his bed and to the woman he barely knew lying still and quiet beneath his blankets.
It occurred to him, though, as he eased in beside her, that she was awake, that maybe she had been even before he got up for some water. Her breathing wasn't low and regular, and he knew enough about a sleeping woman to know that what he was hearing wasn't the sound of someone comfortably at rest. By the clock on the nearby table he saw that it was just past midnight. They had fallen into bed together around ten, after too many drinks at Barrister's and a quick ride to his house on Moses Lane, and made love as best they could, then lay side by side in awkward silence for a while. He must have dozed off soon after because the next thing he knew he was awake and in desperate need of some water.
He moved carefully as he settled back into his bed, saying nothing to her. If he was wrong about the meaning of her breathing pattern and she was in fact asleep, he didn't want to disturb her. He was awake now, thoughthe beer he'd drunk had worn off in his nap. He was awake and thinking, not a good thing in this dark hour. He wondered if she had enjoyed herself, if he had acted properly. He wasn't very experienced with this kind of encounter. He hadn't been with a woman in a while, well over a year. He'd needed time, needed to put distance between himself and a relationship that had ended quite badly. Before that, before the previous relationship, his only experience with women had been violent encounters. It was this, his past, when finally it was revealed, that had ended that relationship a year ago. As he lay beside this woman, he wondered how he would tell her, if it ever came to that, if this wasn't just a one-night thing. What words, if any, would keep her from hating him, from leaving him, too. He was inclined now, with these thoughts in his head, these concerns and questions, to remain silent beside her even if she was awake. He'd spent a year in such silence, was safe there. Her presence beside him wasn't enough yet to veer him from this habit.
His house was old and drafty, his bedroom cold. He had lived there with his mother and father before they died, lived there for all of his twenty-two years. The only source of heat in the whole place was a large square grate in the floor of the living room downstairs, the only access to the rooms above the narrow stairwell at the far end of the hallway. Miller had left his bedroom door half-open, but very little warmth had found its way up to them. Outside was a solemn winter night. He could sense the killing cold beyond his windows even from his bed. He and Abby had talked about the cold as they drank at Barrister's. It was all anyone talked about. They had raced through it to his car when they left, laughing, just a bit tipsy. She had teased him about his cold feet when they first got into his bed. Her hands had felt almost like those of a dead person's in his. But their bodies had warmed up fast enough, for the most part anyway, and had remained warm for as long as they both stayed under the protection of his heavy blankets.
He heard her sniffle now, once, and then again, and knew for certain that she was awake. He waited awhile, but the silence, broken only by their shallow breathing, rang. Eventually he said the only thing that he could think to say, a rehearsal for the day he, or someone else, would tell her his secret. Southampton was a small town, and notorious pasts weren't quickly forgotten.
"Sorry," he said.
"What for?" She spoke in a whisper.
"I woke you."
"No." Her voice, soft, deep for someone so young, was anything but groggy. He wondered how long it was he had slept beside her as she stared up at his ceiling. An hour? More? Their lovemaking had hardly been epic. They were little more than strangers to each other, and with so much at stake, he had been nervous.
She answered with a quick nod. Then, after a moment of more silence, "Is there a TV or something on downstairs? I hear something."
He tuned into it then. On a bureau he kept in the hallway, just outside his half-open door, was a police scanner. It had belonged to his father. Miller kept it turned on with the volume set close to zero. The voices, unless you really listened, were little more than murmurs. He had adapted the ability to tune out the low voices and the occasional squawking, only listening closely when something important came through. Somehow he knew the difference; it was something in the tone of the dispatcher's voice that told him when to listen. It was a skill he had spent a lifetime developing, one that had also belonged to his father. But while this noise was little more to Miller than the sound of street traffic to a city person, to Abby it was something she could not easily ignore.
Miller told her what it was and that he'd turn it off.
"You'll only bring more cold back to bed if you get out again," she said. "It's okay for now."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. Maybe you can talk to me for a while."
"I don't know. You can tell me why you have a police scanner. Why do you leave it on?"
"You run a magazine store," she said. It was how they met. His small shop, magazines and prepackaged bags of gourmet coffee, was next door to the gourmet deli where she worked. They had been on friendly terms since she started working there three months before, but in that time hadn't exchanged anything more than small talk and pleasantries. She had mentioned in passing that she was about to turn twenty-one, and somehow he got the nerve to suggest that they go for drinks some night after work to celebrate. It all happened so quickly, really. He had always assumed, up till the point tonight when she told him otherwise, that she had a boyfriend. Attractive women were rarely single. He didn't ask her why she happened to be unattached, and she didn't offer. He was careful not to ask questions about a person's past. They often led to questions about his own.
But she wasn't asking about his past now, just his present. Why did he listen to a scanner? The question was unsafe territory for a number of reasons, the chief among them being that, whether she knew it or not, it was connected to his past, and could lead them places he didn't yet want to go.
"Sometimes I do some work for a guy," he answered. She was looking at him now. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling above.
"It's nothing major."
"I'm not supposed to talk about it."
She smiled, glad that they were at least talking. She wasn't used to men staying around after sex. Being there in that strange bed, awake while he had slept, she had started to give in to feelings of loneliness. But now that was gone. "You brought it up," she said, teasing him.
"I'm just not supposed to talk about it. It's nothing to worry about."
"I wasn't worried."
"I'm not a criminal or anything."
"I didn't think you were." She wanted to keep the conversation going. "So you live here all alone?"
"You own it?"
"My parents left it to me."
"Oh. Lots of space for just you."
He nodded. His attention had drifted. She sensed it.
"What?" she said.
"Wait a second."
At first she thought maybe he had heard something, a noise downstairs. She could tell that he was straining to listen to something.
"What is it?" Her voice was a whisper still, but there was an edge of urgency in it now.
"Did you hear that?"
"On the scanner."
They both listened now. Neither moved or even breathed. His head was lifted off the pillow, and he was looking in the direction of the door.
Then came a soft squawk, followed by a burst of murmured words. She could barely make them out.
"What?" she asked.
"He said something about a body."
They listened together. After a moment there was another soft squawk, followed by more chatter she couldn't understand.
"It's a patrol car calling in," he told her.
"What's he saying?"
"They found another body."
Miller nodded. He was sitting up now. She was leaning on one elbow. They were both naked under his blankets.
"You mean another one of those boys?" she said.
One morning eight weeks ago a fisherman had found a body adrift in Mecox Bay. A month after that another body was found in Peconic Bay, this time by an old man as he took his early morning swim. Both victims were young men, the older of the two only twenty. The coroner had, in both cases, listed drowning as the cause of death, and the police had first considered these deaths suicides, finally ruling them as accidents. Miller, among others, wasn't so convinced of that.
Abby knew of the dead young menboys, really. Both deaths had made the local papers, and for days after each body was discovered, no one in town seemed to want to talk about anything else. Everyone who came into the deli had a theory, to believe that something other than what the cops were saying was actually going on. One of her regular customers, an old German professor who claimed to have known Einstein as a youth and smelled always of garlic, was convinced that this was the work of, as he put it, "dark forces." Such talk made her uneasy. Though she had a roommate, she was often alone at night, and the idea of something sinister roaming the quiet streets of her town disturbed her deeply, kept her from sleeping, and made her wish for someone, anyone, to be in bed beside her.
Miller was sitting on the edge of the mattress now. He was a big guy, had once played football, had once been bound for the University of Michigan on an athletic scholarship. But his knee went, or, rather, was taken from him, and that all changed. Abby sat up, the blanket falling away, exposing her breasts to the cold air. She could barely see Miller in the outside light filtered deep blue by the frosted windows. But she could sense that he was listening now even more intently than before. She waited for whatever was coming next.
A moment more, and then a final squawk and murmur of words. She heard some of them this time. Shinnecock Bay. Reservation. The instant the transmission ended, Miller was standing, searching for his clothes.
"Where are you going?" she said.
"I have to check something out."
He found his jeans, then his shirt, and finally his boots. He dressed beside the bed, quickly. She felt threatened by his abruptness but fought hard not to let this trigger her old insecurities.
"How long will you be?"
"I don't know. I'm sorry. You can wait here, though. I mean, I'll be back eventually."
"Do you want me to wait here?"
"Yeah. I'll have my cell phone. You can call me if there's a problem."
"Where are you going?"
"I just need to check this out."
"I won't be long. I promise. An hour, tops. If I'm going to be any longer than that, I'll call."
She nodded despite her uncertainty about this. Her car was back in town, parked in the lot behind the deli, a mile or so away. Walking distance in the summer but not in this weather, not with her uneasiness about things that lurked, both imagined and real.
"You can watch TV if you want. And I have food downstairs. I'm sorry about this." The words echoed in his head. He would be saying this again soon, if things got that far.
"It's okay," she said. "Just hurry back."
He was dressed now, tucking in his shirt, tightening his belt. His army field jacket and down vest he wore beneath were downstairs, by her coat. They had begun in his kitchen, kissing as they had walked through the door. It seemed at the time that throwing themselves at each other before they sobered up was the thing to do. It had seemed she needed that as much as he had. For both of them it was nothing short of a leap into darkness.
He left her in his bed, in the cold room, and, as best as his bad knee would allow him, hurried down the stairs. He grabbed his vest and coat and gloves. He was zippering up the field jacket as he hurried out the back door, his muscles flexing against the harsh, cold air. He paused to make sure the door was locked, then rushed to his pickup.
He sat behind the wheel a moment, allowing the engine a few seconds to warm up, then shifted into gear and pulled out of his driveway. At the end of Moses Lane he turned right, heading west on Hill Street. He wondered as he drove down the empty two-lane road if he had been maybe a little too eager to get out of there. Had he jumped at the chance to get away? He needed to do this, to find out what he could. But he was also feeling grateful for the diversion from conversation. The more things they talked about, the more small talk they used up, the sooner there would be nothing left for him to say but to tell her the things he had once done.
His breath was a white mist that burst from his nostrils and mouth. Steady, long bursts. He could smell her on him, taste her still. He thought about her, the warmth of her beside him. In the distance were police sirens. He was moving toward them.
Miller's hope was to arrive before the cops were able to get organized. Moses Lane wasn't more than a few minutes' drive from the reservation, even at the posted speed limit, so there was a good chance of making it before the scene could be secured. Miller made the sharp left-hand turn from Hill Street onto Little Beach Road not much more than a minute after leaving his house, but once he did, he was forced to ease back on the accelerator. The roads that ran through the reservation were narrow and unlit, not at all well tended or even marked. His pickup, though one of the smaller trucks of its line, wasn't designed for high speeds, certainly not high speeds through this kind of environment. So he forced himself to drive more cautiously despite the excitement building in his gut, mounting like a storm inside him. He needed to keep his emotions in check, to govern himself better; he'd been told that several times before by the man from whom he wanted to get more work. Miller wanted to show that he could learn, that he could change, that in fact he had changed. The last thing he needed was to roll his truck over on a turn and not even reach the scene. That would hardly be impressive, he thought, hardly serve to help make his case for being worthy of full-time employment by the only PI in town.
Miller made a second left turn onto Church Street and was approaching Cemetery Road when he caught sight of something up ahead. Bright lights flickering in the darkness. He continued on toward the end of Church Street even though he knew by these lights that he was already too late. It was only a few seconds later that the first patrol car came into view. Then another, and then a third. They were parked together in a cluster, their red and blue bubble lights blinking, each one out of sync with the other and illuminating with a kind of unrelenting chaos the tops of the bare trees that lined this back road.
Two of the cars were parked nose to nose across Cemetery Road, blocking it to traffic. The third car was directly beyond these two, facing toward the bay, its headlights lighting the way down the empty road. A uniformed cop with a flashlight standing at the corner of Cemetery and Church waved Miller off, making it clear that he wanted Miller to turn left onto Cemetery and not right as Miller had indicated with his turn signal. But Miller didn't make the left, just stopped at the end of Church and sat there, waiting. The cop quickly approached Miller's truck, showing his impatience in the way he moved.
Miller didn't know the man. Half of the force now was made up of recruits who had been hired after Miller's father had been killed five years earlier. Those who remained on the force, who had once been blindly loyal to Miller's father, were too worried about their jobs these days to ever be of much help to Miller those few times when he could have used it. The police chief the town had brought in to replace Miller's father was as against corruption as a man could get, easily as against it as Miller's father had been for it, a part of it, at the head of it for most of his career.
This cop was wearing a fur-lined leather jacket and a cap with earflaps. It wasn't anywhere close to being enough against this cold. But nothing short of a parka and full-face mask would have been enough tonight. As the cop approached, Miller rolled down his window and felt a blast of cold air rush into his truck. It all but shoved into him with the force of a crowd.
"Road's closed," the cop said. He spoke quickly. It wasn't a conversation opener. It was the conversation, as far as he was concerned.
But not as Miller was concerned. "What's going on?" he said.
"Do you live down this road?"
"Then I'm going to need you to turn around."
"You're going to need to turn around and leave."
"Was there an accident or something?"
"Please turn your vehicle around. This is a crime scene, closed to the public."
The cop backed away, giving Miller room to turn. He kept his eyes focused on Miller. Miller nodded and rolled the window up, then made a U-turn, heading east along Cemetery. The next street over was Old Point Road. He turned onto it and pulled over again. Through the woods that separated these two streets, Miller couldn't see the cop cars, just their light show in the trees a block over. Of course this meant they couldn't see him, either. He shut off his motor and killed his headlights and stepped out into the cold.
It grabbed at him right away, hard. The wind was coming from the south. He looked into it, his eyes quickly drying. He tilted his head down, tucking his chin against his chest, and walked into the wind, cutting through the small woods that stood between him and the bay. He always carried a small penlight in the pocket of his jacket. He used it now to find his way. The larger flashlight he kept under the front seat of his truck would have certainly made the going easier, but it also would have attracted attention, which of course he didn't want. After a minute of trudging through the woods, he lifted his head and could see the bay. He wasn't far from it now, just a few yards. The dark water shimmered under the black sky. There was nothing else to see. To his right he could hear cops, their voices but not what was being said. By the way they spoke he could tell that they were talking into their radios, reporting in. He heard the same squawking sounds he had heard back in the warmth of his bedroom, the same cross-chatter.
The woods gave way and he was in the open finally, standing on the edge of the bay. The beach was narrow, only a few feet wide. The sand was filled with rocks and bits of broken shells that crunched beneath his boots. He looked to his right and saw two cops, or the shape of two cops, anyway, standing together. They were looking out over the water, shining their flashlights into it. Miller tried to follow their line of vision but couldn't make out anything but chop. The water was black, except for where it was touched by the flashlights, and then it looked like tarnished silver. So far the cops hadn't seen Miller. He was a good hundred feet from them. But he needed to know what they knew. He needed to know something, anything. He needed specific information to report. And he wasn't going to get it standing where he was. He turned off his penlight and started toward the cops. He didn't want to have come out in the cold for nothing.
Miller closed about half the distance between where he had exited the woods and where the cops stood. But he still couldn't see what they were looking at. Another cop joined them, and then another still. After about a dozen steps along the sand, Miller stopped. The last cop to arrive had what looked to be a handheld floodlight. He shook it several times, then whacked it with the heel of his palm, once, then again. The other cops gathered around him, and it was then that the light finally came on, casting a clear circle of bright white at their feet. The other cops stepped back, opening a clear run to the water, and then the light swung very quickly down the beach, the wide beam cast finally out over the bay.
Miller could see it then, see what it was they were all looking at. A body was floating facedown. It was about fifty feet from the shore, maybe less. The tide was low, and the body wasn't moving. Miller figured that its feet must have dragged along the bottom as it drifted into shallow water. He imagined the toes acting as anchors. The body probably wouldn't be coming closer, or going out any farther, for that matter, not till the tide shifted and the water got higher.
Of course who it was floating in the freezing-cold bay Miller didn't know. Nor did he know if it was a male or a female, and that mattered, that much he would need to report. He wanted to show himself to be helpful, someone not to overlook, and the news that someone had been found floating in the bay wasn't going to do that. Anyone with a scanner would know that much. Anything more than that the police would sit on for as long as they could, but not out of courtesy to the victim's loved ones. There was a bigger agenda in play here.
Miller waited, watching. He was shivering, his teeth starting to chatter, but he wasn't going to leave now. He was close enough finally to hear not only voices but words. He heard one cop wonder if they should call the fire department to help retrieve the body. Another asked if the town had a diver on call, someone with a dry suit who could just wade out. Then a third cop pointed out that half the kids enrolled at the college were marine biology majors. They'd have wet suits, and the college was less than a mile away. Another cop, the one who had brought the floodlight, said that Roffman, the chief of police, was on his way, and that policy was to contact the coast guard, which had already been done. There was a station just across the bay. Someone would be there in fifteen minutes.
A short while went by and nothing much else happened. The cops waited, stomping their feet against the cold, their hands in the pockets of their coats, their shoulders held up as far as was possible. No one said much of anything, and all the radios were now silent. Miller wondered if the cops had been able to determine from where they were standing if the dead body was that of a man or a woman. Young or old? Maybe the clothes, maybe the hair would give it away, something. After a moment Miller decided that it was probable that at least one of those cops knew him, had in the past worked for his father. Certainly if Miller walked up to them and was recognized, he would be taken away, but not without first learning more, if he was lucky. He decided that it was worth the shot, easily a better thing to do than just standing around in the freezing cold, too far away to see anything but the floating body and five bored cops.
Miller started walking toward them. They were facing the water, standing in a cluster, but it didn't take long for one of them to turn his head. Maybe he had heard Miller, or caught sight of him from the corner of his eye, or maybe just sensed him out there in the dark, sensed his motion. For whatever reason, the cop turned suddenly.
"Hold it," he said. There was anger in his voice. Not authority but anger. Miller knew then, coming out of the dark as he was, that he had startled the cop, caught him off guard. The man's anger was a reaction to the fear that had cut through him like a shot. Miller had seen that a hundred times in his life, seen cops covering up their emotions in that exact way.
The other cops turned too. Several flashlights cut into Miller's eyes at once. Miller just stood there with his hands held out from his side. He didn't take another step.
"Anything wrong?" he said. He made sure the tone of his voice was even and calm. He wanted to appear as innocent as possible. It was necessary despite the fact that he was innocent, more or less. Just a man out for a stroll, nothing to worry about. What's all the fuss? No, I love this cold, are you kidding?
But the cops weren't swayed by his act. Miller had snuck up on them, had strayed into a crime scene, and not just any crime scene. They acted quickly, three of them moving toward Miller. Without hesitating they led him away from the water's edge. There wasn't any woods here to climb through, just an open parking lot, empty except for patrol cars. Miller turned his head to look over his shoulder as they escorted him away, trying to see what he could, but there was no light on the body now. He could barely see the shape of it in the water. Once they reached the parking lot, the cops led him to the nearest patrol car. None of these men was someone Miller knew all that well, certainly not well enough to expect anything close to favorable treatment. None of these men had worked for his father, had come to the Miller home for meals, had been there to congratulate Miller when he won his scholarship to Michigan.
At the patrol car Miller was questioned. He understood that the cops' first reaction would be to assume that Miller had something to do with the body floating in the bay. Maybe he was returning to the scene of the crime, feigning innocence, just to mock the police. Their need for a break in this case would lead them to such a wild hope. The cop who asked the most questions was in his thirties, not that much older than Miller himself. His name was Spadaro, and he had been hired three or four years ago. It was hard for Miller to keep track, though he tried to, tried to keep all the players and their stats straight in his head. It seemed important to him, worth the effort required.
Spadaro pressed Miller to explain what he was doing out here, at this time of the night, in this weather. Did Miller live around here? Miller calmly replied that he took this walk every night. He didn't live far, and he liked this beach, liked that it was secluded. The Shinnecock didn't seem to mind that Miller came here. As for the cold, he didn't much mind it, and anyway there wasn't much he could do about it, was there? He needed his walks, they cleared his head. He thought about mentioning something about doctor's orders but stopped himself. Keep it simple, don't say too much.
Of course everything Miller said was a lie. He never took walks on this beach, or any beach, for that matter. Walking on sand was particularly hard on his bad knee. And he hated the cold, despised winter. He spent his evenings thinking of summer nights, the ones past and the ones to comeopen windows and swelling curtains, crickets chirping, the sound of cars on Hill Street. He craved all that. But Miller wasn't really worried about being found out. He wasn't worried that any of the early suspicions the cops had about him would lead to anything serious. He had spent all day working at his tiny shop on Main Street. Regulars had come and gone at the rate of five or six each hour, had seen him, spoken to him, handed him their money. After work he had gone for drinks at Barrister's, and plenty of people had seen him there, seen him leave with Abby. Then of course there was Abby to back up what he had done with his time after that, and the cop watching the perimeter who had seen Miller drive up just moments before. No, he wasn't worried about this going too far. He was covered. And, besides all that, he was the son of a cop, had grown up in the presence of cops. He could read one of them better than he could read anyone. He had already seen in Spadaro's body language the exact instant when hope of a lucky break fled from the man.
Soon enough Spadaro ran out of questions. Or maybe it had become clear to him that Miller wasn't going to run out of answers. He left Miller at the car, under the watch of another cop, and went to confer with his colleagues standing near the water's edge. Miller waited, listening to the conversations around him, to the squawk of the radio. He listened for anything that would tell him more than what he had seen. But he heard nothing. His face was numb now, and he knew that the inside of the car by which he was standing would be warm, that relief from this brutal cold was so close. But he tried not to think too much about that. He imagined instead the nights he craved, those bouts of humidity that come and stay around for a few days in August, hanging heavy over the town, unaffected even by the ocean breezes. He wondered if Abby would be around next summer, if she would still be in his life, coming to see him after work and lying beside him, her skin silky and cool. He imagined beads of sweat collected on the bridge of her small nose, and how her hair, after a late night shower she had taken to cool off, would smell spread across his clean pillowcase.
Another car pulled into the lot then, its headlights swinging toward Miller. He turned his head so he could not be recognized. When the light passed, he looked and saw that this car was an unmarked sedan, the same make and year as the patrol cars. Roffman, the new chief of police, was arriving on the scene. Miller watched as the car came to a stop and Roffman climbed out from the passenger seat. A man of average build, Roffman was in his midforties. At first glance, there was nothing very distinctive about him, nothing threatening or, for that matter, inviting. Miller's father would have summed Roffman up in one word: administrator. But Miller knew better, knew the man to be more than he appeared to be. Roffman was a politician first, good and getting better every year, and a cop second. Compassionate human being was somewhere much farther down that list.
Another cop climbed out of the sedan. A woman, from behind the wheel. Miller knew her. Her name was Barton, and she had been the last cop hired by Miller's father, back when the man was under investigation by the FBI and trying to give his department at least the appearance of being something less than corrupt. But her appearance here now was too little, too late. Miller's chances of learning anything more had disappeared the moment Roffman arrived.
Spadaro hurried up from the beach to meet Roffman. He must have seen the headlights. At first it looked like Spadaro was going to be successful in leading the chief past Miller, which was clearly his intention. It wouldn't be goodfor anyonefor the chief to see Miller. But Roffman spotted him just as he reached the end of the parking lot. He stopped short, fifteen feet from Miller, regarding him the way he might regard a stray dog that had wandered into his yard with the intention of digging a hole.
"Christ. What is he doing here?" Roffman said.
Spadaro answered that Miller had walked into the crime scene from somewhere down the beachor at least Spadaro started to say that. Roffman cut him off mid-sentence.
"Get him out of here. If he shows his face again, arrest him."
"This isn't amateur night." This wasn't said to Spadaro but to Miller. Roffman waited a moment more, staring at Miller, then finally turned, sharply, and continued toward the shore. To say anything else would have been to give Miller more attention than he deserved, the exact kind of attention the kid desired. He was just a wannabe, a busybody, and Roffman wasn't worried about him. There were plenty of ways to handle him if he got out of hand. His past could revisit him. All it would take was an accusation, or the threat of one. The kid would crumble, run. But that fuck the kid worked for sometimes, he was a different story. He was a problem, something to worry about, especially now that a family had hired him. If it came to it, Roffman would send him a message by locking up his little scout, kill two birds with one stone. If it came to it, which it looked now like it had.
Roffman reached the beach and started down it. Barton was following behind, but Spadaro stopped her.
"Take Miller to his car and make sure he leaves the area," he said. "If he doesn't go or tries to come back, cuff him and take him in. Understand?"
Spadaro hurried after Roffman then. He didn't look back at Miller. Together, the two men headed down the beach. The cops waiting at the water's edge all turned to face them. The floodlight came on again, aimed at the sand, a circle of light as white as a summer moon.
Barton led Miller to the unmarked sedan. He didn't make her say anything to him. He'd pushed his luck as far as it would go. They reached the car and got in, Miller in the back seat, like a criminal. But he didn't care. The warmth. Barton sat behind the wheel. Miller told her where his truck was, and she started toward it, passing a few hundred feet later the cop's standing point on Cemetery Road. She made the turn onto Old Point Road and parked at the curb, bumper-to-bumper with Miller's pickup. She yanked the column shifter up and turned her head to look at Miller through the cage that separated the back seat from the front. She spoke over her shoulder to him.
"You working?" she said. "Or has this just become a habit of yours?"
"I was just out for a walk."
Barton smiled. She was twenty-seven, maybe twenty-eight, Miller wasn't sure. She certainly wasn't over thirty. She was tall, fair-skinned, slight even in her cold-weather jacket. Miller couldn't recall ever seeing her outside the company of Roffman. She was his driver whenever he left Village Hall on business, and at the end of the day, when it was time to go home. During the day, while in the office, she was his assistant, rarely pulling any other duty. There were rumors about the exact nature of their relationship, but Miller wrote most of those off as nothing more than the griping that usually occurs whenever a woman is brought into what has for too long been a boys' club. Still, Barton was attractive, had a natural beauty, didn't wear a lot of makeup, didn't try to call attention to herself, not that she needed to. Her hair was brown and straight, done up in a bun when she was in uniform but down the one time Miller had seen her in civilian clothes. If there was anything more to Barton's relationship with the chief, Miller knew he couldn't really blame the man, though maybe she had some explaining to do. Barton had a smile that was quick and warm, even when she was using it to let you know that she knew full well that you were lying, like now. Few men could resist a killer smile.
"You're out here for that friend of yours, aren't you?" Barton said.
Miller didn't answer. Instead, he asked, "Is it a man or a woman out there floating in the bay?" It was what he had come out into the cold to learn.
"Tommy," she half-scolded. She had always treated Miller in a sisterly kind of way. She had stood beside him at his father's funeral five years ago. She'd only been on the force for a few months then but had already become like family. Two years after that she'd stood beside him again, when his mother was buried. In the years that followed there really hadn't been a day when Miller didn't think of her. And there hadn't been a week when she didn't call to check up on him.
"Just tell me, Kay."
"Why do you care?"
"It's a man, isn't it?"
"You should go home. I mean it."
"I just need to know."
"So you can impress your friend?"
"Then he isn't really your friend, is he?"
"You shouldn't believe everything you've heard about him. He's not what a lot of people think."
Barton waited a moment, watching him. "So what is it with you two anyway? I mean, the real story."
Miller ignored the question. "It's a young guy back there. Isn't it?"
She nodded. "Yeah, that's what they say."
"How do you know?"
"They called the chief on the phone and told him. They didn't want it going out over the radio."
"No, I meant how do they know. The body is a pretty good distance from the shore. Facedown, from what I can tell."
"There was a phone tip. An anonymous woman. She said there was the body of a young man floating in Shinnecock Bay. Units went looking and spotted it."
"That's weird. I mean, how did she know it was a young man if it's offshore?"
"That's what I was wondering, too."
"Were there phone tips before? For the other two?"
Barton shook her head, but he knew she was refusing his question, not answering it.
"That's all I can do for you, Tommy. Anyway, you're going to want to stay out of this. Roffman is under a lot of pressure. The mayor, too. There are people who don't want this to get out, who are afraid tourists will think twice about coming out here if they're worried about ending up facedown in a bay. Do yourself a favor, okay? Stay out of this."
Miller reached for the door handle. He needed to call this in, needed to do that now. "Thanks for the tip. And for the advice." He yanked at the handle but the door was locked. There was no way to unlock it from the back seat. He looked at Barton through the metal screen. She was still looking over her shoulder at him. He looked at the side of her face.
"I mean it, Tom. Stay clear of this. Tell your friend, too. This is serious business."
"We've always thought so. Let me out now, Kay."
"Don't like being locked up?"
She nodded and pressed a button in the console in her door. The back door unlocked.
"See you, Tommy."
"I'll see you, Kay."
Miller swung the door open and got out, hurrying to his truck. He climbed behind the wheel and started the engine for the heat. Barton made a U-turn, then stopped, the sedan standing alongside Miller's truck. Miller waved to her. She nodded, then drove off.
He dug his cell phone from the pocket of his field jacket and punched in a number, then waited. It was late, but there was nothing he could do about that. Three rings, and then a female voice, low and breathy, the accent French. It was hard for him to tell if he had awakened her; she always sounded a little dreamy, a little far away.
"It's Miller. Is he there?"
The female voice said, "One moment," then disappeared. A few seconds later Miller was listening to a male voice.
"They found another body," Miller said.
"It's the same as before, pretty much. Except this one didn't just wash up. They found it because some woman called in an anonymous tip."
There was a pause, then: "You're certain about this?"
"Yeah. What do you want me to do from here?"
"I can help."
"Don't need it."
"I know the family has hired you to find their kid. I'm trying to be a good citizen here. I didn't have to tell you any of this."
"Call Reggie tomorrow. He'll give you the usual hundred bucks."
"I don't want snitch money. I want to help you guys."
"If you want to help, do what you can to lose my number. Understand?"
The line went dead. Miller closed his cell phone and looked out his window. Through the bare trees he could see the bay, a dark void in the expanse of dark night. The Long Island horizon was low, just so much sky over so much water. Beyond the bay was a narrow strip of land. Dune Road. It separated the bay from the Atlantic. Fantastic homes were found there, and secluded beaches. Why not toss the body into the sea? Miller thought. At the right time, it would be carried far away, wash up somewhere else, if at all. The two bodies before this one were also found in bays. Why?
Miller stared at the string of greenish lights that ran the length of Dune Road. Streetlights, but from where he sat, a long bracelet of pale emeralds spread out unevenly against a soulless black. A thing of beauty, thin, frail, not much really against so much dark. The only sign of life, aside from the cops back at the shore's edge, and Miller's own breathing.
Now he thought of the girl waiting for him in his bed. Her warmth, her smells, her breath. There was nothing more he could do here, nothing more that could be done tonight. So he started back toward home, vents blowing heat against his legs, as he drove rehearsing in his head what he would say and what he would not say.
A late moon was rising in the northeast, in the sky over town, cresting the long line of trees. It added very little light to the night.
Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Judson