Tuesday, July 26, 2011

more murder on the block



Richard and Cecelia had been out since 6. They’d walked down to the rocky beach and back—pausing for a wasted 10 minutes in the pathways through the high brush until Richard realized Cecelia wasn’t going back to the wetsuits and he couldn’t find them without her.

He picked up a couple of empty rum bottles he found in the field to carry back to the house. As he crossed the parking lot, Cecelia yelped to see Dante smoking on the deck and ran to him, her tail working overtime. As usual, Dante ignored her and called to Richard, “Drinking already, Padre? And on the Lord’s day at that.”

Richard said, “good morning to you too, Lieutenant” while he was putting the bottles in the recycling box on the side of the house. He was trying to remember what days the recycling and trash center was open. People on an island have to send their garbage to the mainland, to some huge hole in the ground outside of Providence. Richard was amazed at how much refuse even one person, living alone, could create on a weekly basis. During the summer the station loading garbage was open every day. When autumn came, most of the business went away. When his children were small they loved to go to the recycling center. Anything recycled was carried off the island for free—garbage you have to pay for, pennies a pound, actually, but it must add up during the season. He was about to mention to Dante one of his pet theories about how day care providers and trash haulers should be two of the highest paid professions, when he looked up and Dante was beside him.

“Did you find them, preacher?” he asked, smiling wickedly.

Richard flushed. Though he knew Dante meant the wetsuits, he still said, “find what?”

Dante chuckled. “This detecting business gets under your skin, doesn’t it? Nothing like a little evidence to get the blood moving and the gray cells working, I always say.”

“What do you think the wetsuits mean?”

“We have a couple of ‘secret swimmers’ among us.” Dante thought for a moment. “It means something, I think, but I don’t know what yet.”

“Are you going to stake it out?”

“Lay in the bayberry, drinking coffee and wait?” He smiled at Richard. “I don’t think so, unless you’re interested in trying that tonight. I figure our swimmers might just come to us, if we’re lucky.”

They wandered inside to find Mara and Miriam making pancakes. Richard smiled, realizing his daughter was re-creating the Sunday breakfasts of her childhood. When he woke, before leaving for the early mass, Richard would make the batter and leave it in the refrigerator. Susan would add blueberries or chocolate chips or bananas and make the children pancakes. The boys ate them with maple syrup and Miriam with honey, preferably the kind with the cone still in it.

“Guess what’s for breakfast, Daddy?” she said, dropping sausage links in a frying pan.

Mara was trying to pour batter onto a griddle in perfect ovals, but they ran into shapes that looked like countries of Europe.

“It’s not quite hot enough,” Richard said.

She looked up at him. There was flour on her cheek. He stepped over, adjusted the gas slightly, licked his thumb and wiped the flour away. Miriam and Dante exchanged a glance.

After they ate, Dante cleaned up, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “I always work for my daily bread,” he commented, pulling out the dishwasher’s top rack.

“Not too far,” Richard warned, then looked astonished as Dante pulled it all the way out without the rack tipping forward. Dante grinned. “I fixed it, Father. Couldn’t sleep on that couch so I fixed your dishwasher about 1:30 in the a.m. Like I always say, ‘earn your keep’, Dante, ‘earn your keep, young man’….”

Richard went to change into khaki’s and a black clergy shirt from his running shorts and sweat shirt. When he came back, Dante whistled. “My Lord, you are a priest after all!”

“Cleans up nicely,” Miriam added.

Two cars pulled into the church parking lot, crunching gravel.

“The faithful are arriving,” Dante said, heading for a bedroom. “I’ll stay out of sight since some of these folks have met me and I am, after all, not here.”

“Almost ‘show time’, Daddy,” Miriam said. Mara realized it must be a family joke. “Are you coming to see him in action?” Miriam asked her.

“Dressed like this?” Mara said. She had on white jeans and a black turtle neck sweater.

“With your looks,” Miriam replied, looking the detective up and down, “no body will pay attention to what you’re wearing and most of the men will be wondering how you’d look wearing nothing at all.” She noticed that Mara blushed and glanced around to see Richard turning his head away. Oops, she thought, too close to the truth.

“I forgot to take my detective suit to the B and B,” Mara said to cover her discomfort. “I think I’ll change anyway.”

Richard went through the door from the kitchen to the sanctuary to greet the early comers, get his vestments from the closet and try to forget how accurate his daughter’s words had been. I’m must be having an anima attack, he told himself. He took comfort in pushing his thoughts about the detective off on his unconsciousness. Then he was submerged in the greetings and condolences about ‘his awful week’ from the altar guild ladies and the retired music teacher who played the little organ during the winter. They were waters he could swim in without much effort. He didn’t think of himself as especially outgoing, but he was well schooled in the social vocabulary of the church.

Just before 9, he took his seat near the altar. The prelude was near it’s end—something by Bach that sounded under-served by the little organ—and he suddenly realized that by sitting quietly, the people filling the little church probably imagined he was praying. It struck him as ironic that prayer was assumed in him, even when it wasn’t there.

Richard’s inability to pray, except as a leader of worship, had changed—perhaps improved—his preaching. Oddly enough, the humility he felt from God’s silence and his own unwillingness to ask for the Almighty’s ear had given him new insight into human vulnerability. Where once he would have pleaded with the congregation to put their faith in God, to lean into the Love of the Lord, he now knew the profound loneliness of those without that comfort. Always admired for his optimism and clear hopefulness, Life Without Susan had taken him—for the first time in his life—into the Dark Night of the Soul he had described so glibly before actually knowing it. He understood God much less than before but he comprehended the depths of human suffering in a real and powerful way.

A friend of his had told him years ago: “I can’t trust anyone who hasn’t had their face on the pavement”. Richard had understood that intellectually at the time; now it was something palpable, something he knew at his core. Living without God had made him less impatient with those who knew that experience inside out. He had always been caring and sympathetic to those “lost souls” all around him—now he had real compassion for them...he had joined their ranks. He had always said, “I feel your pain” as he sat by the deathbed or in the recovery room or outside a lawyer’s office with a parishioner. At last, it was true. His sermons had ceased to give “advice” about how to deal with life’s vicissitudes. When he preached during LWS, it was much more from his heart than his mind. He was a fellow traveler for the pained and confused and angry. He urged them to cling together against the Darkness.

The Sunday after he and Cecelia had found the Lexus and it’s passengers of death, the gospel reading from the Episcopal lectionary was from Mark: the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Always before, in the dozen times this passage had come up since Richard was ordained, he had seen it as a testimony to the blind man’s faith. Bartimaeus sat by the side of the road and called out to Jesus as he was passing. “Jesus, Son of David,” he cried, “have mercy on me!”

“What an example of optimism and faith,” Richard had preached in times gone by. “We need to find the Bartimaeus inside ourselves. No matter how dark the blindness of our lives may be, Jesus is near. We only need to call out for his healing love….”

Richard remembered those sermons as he read the lesson late Friday night. Easy enough for me to say, he thought, then.

This time it was not Bartimaeus’ faith that struck him, but the blind man’s desperation and fear. The crowds around him told him to be quiet, not to bother the Teacher. But Bartimaeus was so alone, so lost, so locked in his darkness that he continued to call. When Jesus heard him, it was the crowd around the blind man that brought him the news—the self-same crowd that had discouraged him now told him to “take heart”. It was the people around him in the darkness that must have guided him to his healing.

“Bartimaeus could have never made it to Jesus without the help of those around him,” Richard said that Sunday morning at St. Anne’s. “He was blind—how could he have found his healing without those around him guiding him as he ran? And he did run. Mark tells us so. Imagine the depths of longing, the depths of pain that would cause a blind man to try to run….”

Miriam and Mara sat in the back, snuggled into a corner of the tiny church. The tragedy of the week had brought a larger crowd than usual to the Eucharist. Stevenson was standing by the front door along with two other men because all the 40 seats were taken. The summer crowd was always like this—filled with visitors to the island. But October usually brought less than a minion of true islanders to church. When Richard first saw the parking lot full and entered the church from the rectory’s living room in his vestments, he had thought curiosity had brought them there—the wondering of how he would ‘bear up’ after having discovered the murdered couple. But as the liturgy began, he softened, wondering himself if they had come out of concern for him rather than morbid curiosity. And perhaps, he thought as he listened to Stevenson read the first two lessons and lead the Psalm, perhaps they had come longing against hope themselves.

The first verse of the Psalm of the day—Psalm 13—struck him deeply, causing him to see those gathered there not as the crowd that discourages, but as the crowd that would support those running blind.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?

How long will you hide your face from me?”

“We must be the crowd who supports, who guides, who holds onto those running blind,” he said, nearing his conclusion. “None of us can find healing without the love of friends and the kindness of strangers.”

Miriam almost laughed when he said those words. And even wrapped up in what he was trying to say, Richard realized she would chide him for unconscious literary allusions. Since Susan’s death, Richard had never written out sermons—first not having the energy and then because he had learned to like speaking without notes. And, sure enough, English major that he was, lines from plays and poems would find their way into what he was saying.

“It may be,” he continued, avoiding Miriam’s smiling gaze, “that we all need help from others because we are running blind. It may be that we wanderers on the earth can only find our way if we cling together.”

He paused, about the end. Then a synapse in his brain reminded him of something that seemed to fit.

“A few weeks ago,” he said, “I discovered two men sleeping off what must have been quite a drunk here in the church. My first thought was the wake them and ask them to leave. My first thought—like the thought of the crowd about Bartimaeus—was to chide them….But then, watching them sleep, I realized the church is where we should come when we are confused.

“So, I fixed them breakfast and woke them up. We ate together, breaking bread. They were embarrassed but quite hungry.”

He noticed Miriam stifling another laugh and saw that Mara had suddenly sat upright and was staring at him with her ocean gray eyes.

“Sometimes we—the church, the people of God, Christ’s Body in this world—are the hands and feet and voice of God to each other. When God has seemingly forgotten us, we must reach out to comfort and embrace each other. Only then…just perhaps…may we run through the darkness toward the light….”

Richard felt suddenly exposed. Maybe he should write his sermons down. He would have never used his own ‘good deed’ as an illustration had he been using a text. He always cringed with preachers pointed to themselves as examples of how to live. That was probably why Mara seemed so shocked. It was a prideful thing to do.

Half-way through the Nicene Creed Mara squeezed out of the row and, nodding to Stevenson by the door, left. Richard’s mind was racing. He wondered, as he often did, if the people in the congregation imagined he was totally focused on what he was during in the service. The few times he’d ever mentioned to anyone that it is possible to say Mass while thinking of something else they had seemed horrified. He wondered where Mara had gone, picturing her in the mind in the suit she was wearing—the same one she’d had on the first time he saw her. He thought about the lunch he’d have with Miriam before the plane to Boston. Fried fish or lobster roll, he tried to decide during the prayers of the people.

After the peace, when Richard realized how few names he knew among the people there, Stevenson made some announcements. A planned potluck, the repair of a window in the rectory and a reminder to pray for the Diocesan Convention next weekend in Providence was followed by Stevenson asking Richard to join him in front of the altar.

Stevenson threw an arm around Richard in a show of uncharacteristic affection. Then he began speaking in his most impressive and stentorian voice—a voice that Richard had often thought of as “the Board Room” voice, a voice so full of confidence and seriousness that it could not be ignored. Though Richard was not terribly short, Stevenson wrapped himself around him like a little league coach encouraging a struggling pitcher.

“We all know the travail that Fr. Lucas has endured,” Stevenson began. Richard didn’t remember ever hearing “travail” used in a real conversation. “And his strength and courage during this week of trials has been exemplary.” (Richard had, of course, heard “exemplary” spoken, but never about him—much less his strength and courage.)

“Richard has suffered much in the past year,” Stevenson’s words were bringing a blush to Richard’s cheeks, “and I know you will join me in supporting him in the times ahead….”

Before people could applaud, Stevenson stopped them with a perfectly timed, though subtle movement of his large, well manicured right hand.

“And today, Richard’s daughter, Miriam, who’ve we’ve had the pleasure of watching grow up summer after summer here on the Block is with us as well.” Richard watched Miriam blanch, though only he could have noticed her already pale skin grow even paler. Stevenson was motioning to Miriam in the back of the church. “Come on up, dear,” he was saying.

Miriam rolled her eyes, but ever the dutiful priest’s kid, she moved to the center aisle and started toward the front where Stevenson had already started clapping his hands as a signal that all could applaud.

Stevenson in the middle, Richard and Miriam shrunk in his presence as the congregation acknowledged them.

“I’ll get you for this, Stevenson,” Miriam whispered just beneath the noise. Several people were wiping tears away and Richard was mortified to see Mara and Dante standing in the very back, near the door, smirking at him. They would not soon let him forget this moment he knew.

But Stevenson was not through. “Today I’d like to ask Fr. Lucas to use the antique porcelain communion set that is normally only brought out on Christmas and Easter.” He looked at Richard as if he had just offered him the Pulitzer Prize. “Richard…?” he asked. Of course Richard nodded assent and Stevenson asked Irma Norman, a member of the altar guild to bring up the silver case, about the size of an overnight case. Stevenson unlocked it with a flourish with the tiny key that seemed to materialize in his hand. As Irma unpacked the chalice and paten (Chinese, Richard imagined, from the pastoral scenes of high mountains, torrential rivers and serene Buddhist monks painted on them—surely worth a priest’s annual salary) Stevenson beamed and the congregation applauded again.

Finally, the offertory sentences had to be said and the service had to continue. Dante and Mara disappeared onto the porch. Richard could see them through the open door—Dante smoking franticly and Mara’s head bent near his, her mouth moving, her head turning back toward the church and nodding. Intrigue on top of humiliation—Richard did finally lose himself in the ancient and oh-so-familiar formulary of the canon of the Mass. He took the bread and broke it, blessed the cup and elevated it and invited all to come to the feast of the Lord’s Table. People reached to touch his hand as he offered him the host. More than a few whispered good wishes and blessings as the told them the little tasteless piece of wafer was, indeed, the Body of Christ. By the time all had received—even Miriam, though Richard doubted she much believed his pronouncements about the bread and wine (she probably just wanted to see the porcelains up close)—there was little wine left in the invaluable cup. Richard wished there had been several slugs of the inferior port to fortify him for what would come next.

The coffee and cookies on the deck in the warm October sun was as horrendous as Richard had feared. Stevenson had whipped the people into a frenzy of support and comfort and many of them quoted parts of his sermon.

“I know you’ve been ‘running blind’,” one tall, well dressed woman with a Beacon Hill accent told him, “but Randolph and I are here for you.” Randolph had on an impeccably tied bow tie and terribly expensive herringbone jacket. The creases in his khaki’s would have caused paper cuts and his wing-tips were polished within an inch of their life. Randolph pursed his lips and nodded solemnly. Liver spots on his aging face were mostly obscured by the kind of flawless tan only the rich seemed to get on Block Island. Richard mumbled his thanks, wondering who in the hell Randolph and his wife were.

It went on like that until Mara, wearing sunglasses and stunning, sidled up to him. “Block Island’s Bartimaeus,” she whispered hoarsely. Before he could reply she added, conspiratorially, “Dante and I need to talk to you now.”

“I’m taking Miriam to the airport,” Richard replied, unconsciously mocking her whisper. “After that maybe.”

Mara took off her sunglasses so he could see her roll her eyes. “Oh, Jesus,” she said through clinched teeth, “this is about murder most foul.”

Richard smiled and shook his head in confusion.

“You remembered,” she said, leaning toward him.

“Remembered what?”

“What you knew but didn’t know you knew,” she said, “or however that Italian asshole, Dante, put it.”

“I have no idea….” Richard began.

“I know you don’t,” she said, gripping his forearm tightly. A sudden jolt of feelings consumed him at her touch, “but I DO!”

Richard was driving his Volvo toward Old Town. Dante was smoking in the passenger seat, though Richard asked him not to. Miriam and Mara, like two 1950’s wives, sat in the back, leaning up against the front seats, listening intently.

“So who were they?” Dante said, turning his head to blow his smoke toward the open window.

“Who were who?” Richard responded, disoriented and confused.

“The two drunks in the church—that’s the key to the whole case—who were they?”

“The drunks are the key? How do you know?”

“He’s a fucking detective, Daddy,” Miriam chirped in from the back. “This is what he does—gut feelings, instinct, detecting…all that shit.”

Richard turned toward her for a moment, just as he was negotiating the turn up hill toward town.

“What kind of mouth is that?” he said, sternly.

“The one you fuckin’ gave me,” she replied, equally stern. “Don’t play ‘good preacher man’ here. Tell Dante who they were.”

“Let me guess,” Mara said, “they were Jamaicans.”

Richard nodded.

“Yea for the girl detectives!” Miriam cheered, “Nancy Drew lives!”

“Not really,” Mara said. “Dante was so interested in the off-island workers and the fisherman theory from the beginning….” Dante glared at her and she winked.

Mara plowed on: “did you ever see them—besides that time, of course?”

Richard was nodding his head. “Before and after, both.”

“Tell me about the ‘before’ times, if you can…” Mara’s eyes grew wide and she pointed ahead. “But you don’t have to look at me, keep your eyes on the road.”

“Let’s see,” Richard began, “before that day I’d seen them around town—they were always together. Did some work around the dock from time to time, rented Mopeds for the guy who rents them, handyman stuff.”

“So they were familiar to you when you saw them asleep in the church?” Dante asked.

“Sometimes I wished them good luck when they went fishing at night,” Mara whooped and Richard paused, “they’d pass through the church parking lot and I’m be on a late walk with Cecelia….”

“And after the day in your sermon, Richard,” Mara asked, leaning up so her arms were on his seat and her face next to his, “did you see them after then?”

“Oh, more often,” he replied. “A couple of times when I got up late, I’d meet one of them coming out of the church when I started my morning walk.”

“How’d they explain themselves? Why were they there?”

“They’d been praying,” he said, “just passing by and stopping into pray. They are Anglicans, after all.”

“Could you identify them?” Dante asked.

“Sure,” Richard said….He was slowing down for some people riding bikes in front of him. “I know their names…”

“You know their names, Father,” Dante said, tossing his cigarette butt out the window.

“Eli and Jonah…no, Jonas. I remember because I had to ask Jonas how he spelled his….”

“Last names,” Mara bit off, “or where they live.”

“Eli Holland and Jonas….” Richard tried to think.

“Not ‘Salk’, I hope,” Miriam said, giggling.

“No, it was pretty common,” Richard said as Dante was frantically punching numbers into his cell phone. “They are the ‘year-round’ Jamaicans who live just inland from the bluffs in a rented house. They do repairs during the winter, watch out for summer houses, help unload the ferry…things like that….”

“Wake up some judge, Brooks,” Dante was saying into his phone. “We need a search warrant for the domicile of one Eli Holland and Jonas…come on, Padre, what is it, what is the ‘common’ name?”

Richard laughed out loud. He was coming to the round about around the statue of Minerva.

“Christian,” he said, “Jonas Christian….

Mara flopped back and pushed on Richard’s seat with her knees. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she said, breaking into a deep, sultry laugh. “Christian, ain’t that a kick in the ass! No wonder you couldn’t remember!”

While Mara and Miriam collapsed on each other in the back seat, Dante was all business. He instructed Richard to circle the statue and take him and “the laughing detective bitch in the back seat” back to the church. “We’ll wait for Brooks there and you can tell us exactly where these perps live.”

“Oh, my God, Dante,” Mara howled at the lower pitches of the female voice spectrum, “you said perps again!”

Miriam and Richard were sitting in the Block Island airport’s tiny grill, having lunch, waiting for the next flight to Boston. Miriam was picking at her salad and talking non-stop. Richard was concentrating on his second hot dog.

“I hate to leave, Daddy,” she was saying as her father chewed, “everything is getting so exciting….You have mustard on your chin…no, higher…there, ok. I want to be in on the ‘bust’ or whatever. This is one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever been around. Milagros will simply die when I tell her about Mara and Dante and Flash and the poor dead people….Oh-oh, more mustard…there, on your shirt, lucky for you it’s black….Am I just blathering?”

Richard found time to nod while wiping off his shirt and taking another bite. Of course I shouldn’t eat hot dogs, he was thinking, but thank you for not mentioning it—well, except for the mustard.

Miriam grew suddenly still. Richard could feel her staring at him. Here comes the ‘hot dog’ lecture, he thought.

Instead, she said, “you really are alright, aren’t you? You really are coming back from the dead.”

Her eyes were almost pea-green in the light of the little restaurant. They enveloped him when he looked up.

“Yes, Princess,” he said and then took a sip of his diet Coke. Hot dogs and diet coke, he said to himself, a perfectly balanced meal.

“Have you slept with Mara yet?” his daughter said, forking a piece of cucumber and lifting it to her mouth.

It was one of those things that hadn’t happened to him since he was an adolescent—he gulped, snorted and felt the cola rising toward his nose. His choking and coughing and clearing out his nasal cavities by blowing his nose into a paper napkin, then another, gave him ample time to gather himself.

“That might be considered an inappropriate question in some circles,” he finally replied.

“Not my circle,” she said, giving him a knowing grin.

“Sgt. Coles and I have a ‘professional’ relationship,” he said, knowing he was lying to his daughter.

“Bullshit, Daddy,” she said, a bit too loud for Richard’s comfort—the little restaurant was packed with Islanders, one of the favorite Sunday eating places on the Block. “I’ve seen the glances—I’m a very sexual woman, if you haven’t noticed—and I know the clues. You two are smitten.”

Smitten,” Richard said, about to laugh. “That’s what you think—‘smitten’?”

His daughter pulled herself up to her full height in the booth they were sharing, which wasn’t very tall. “As ‘smitten’ as ‘smitten’ can be,” she said, almost singing it. Then she grew suddenly serious. “It’s not being ‘unfaithful’ to Mom,” she said, as solemn as a church bell. She’d be standing on the sidelines cheering for you, Daddy. Really.”

As they sat there like that, the flight to Boston was announced.

“Any mustard on my face or clothes?” Richard said.

Miriam shook her head and smiled. “Really, Daddy,” she said in the tone of voice most people talk with a cancer patient, “I couldn’t be happier than this: you being happy, whatever that means.”

Then she smiled at him and told him his children’s plan—that all of them, the whole family, would spend Christmas at Jeremy‘s house in St. Louis. That was the plan and he must accommodate himself to it.

Richard smiled back at her. He was about to ask what her brothers would think if he brought a woman to Christmas in St. Louis…but then he realized he had known Mara for less than a week, and ‘smitten’ as he was, he had no idea whatsoever what her thoughts about him were. This is all crazy, Princess, he thought. But he exercised restraint enough not to say it. He was thinking of Mara’s eyes, how painfully and profoundly gray they were, how stormy and dangerous.

“Sounds good for me,” he said.

“Great,” she said, then sobering, added, “I’ve asked Dante and Mara, but I don’t know if they’d tell me the truth…are you in danger because of all of this? Are you?”

“Maybe it’s time for a little ‘danger’,” is what he said, standing up, leaving money on the table for their meal, “and time for you to go back to Boston.”

Father and daughter embraced in the middle of that little eatery and again on the tarmac before Miriam climbed the steps to the commuter jet and waved back at him. He watched the plane taxi and leap into the air and kept watching even after it was less than a dot in the sky.


Richard drove around the island for almost an hour. That meant he covered every paved road at least once. He didn’t know why he was delaying his return to St. Anne’s, but he was. He ended up at the ancient burial grounds of Block Island, stopped his Volvo and walked among the graves for a while.

So many dead, he thought, even on this tiny boulder in the sea. He read names and dates and wondered about the lives of those slumbering beneath the shallow soil. He found the oldest grave on the island—Margaret Guthry who died in 1687, just 25 years or so after the 16 white people who settled on the island arrived. Her tombstone was remarkably undamaged, considering all the wind and weather that had taken place in the 316 years since her death.

Richard sat by Margaret’s grave in the warmth of the October sun for a long time—half-an-hour at least. He was thinking, not of Margaret, of course, but of Susan, whose grave he was not able to sit by. He resisted talking to his dead wife, remembering Jimmy Steward in Shenandoah. Lord, he thought to himself, my whole life is movies and TV shows! I’m incapable of an original thought. However, his thoughts were ‘original’ for him. He was thinking about Susan and how many ways he had subtlety failed her, how his indiscretion about ‘time’—how to be a priest and be a husband and father—didn’t measure up. He also thought about Mara, this woman he barely knew, having dated Susan for three years before they were married. In less than five days, Mara had awakened him to his longings, his hopes, his life again. Surely it was just the excitement of being a character in a TV show—a priest/detective in a cable channel murder mystery, a supporting actor to something so much bigger than him. That was it…that was the explanation. Nothing formed so quickly could be lasting. Just a passing fancy, that’s all it was, an understandable and short-lived infatuation, soon to be dispelled and done with, a ‘fling’ that never really got ‘flung’.

He wandered among the tombstones, wishing Cecelia was there with him, running wild, and Miriam, so they could wonder together what life had been like for these long dead people. He found a plot where five children were buried, along with the parents that outlived them. It was stunning to him to consider that possibility. How can a parent outlive their child? What kind of courage and fortitude would that require? He knew this cemetery was only one of thousands holding such secrets, such painful realities. And he wandered among the grave stones, wondering for almost two hours.

He drove back to the rectory in as oblique a pattern as one can conceive of on a small island. When he got there, Cecelia was outside and greeting him with wetness and whines. Inside the house he found Dante and Mara in the little “office” in one of the three bedrooms, worrying over his computer.

“Padre,” Dante said, smoking like a furnace, “we’ve got photos of our perfectly legal entry into the abode of your two Jamaican friends. We wore those wondrous gloves, but, to tell you the truth, our presence would only have improved the general order and cleanliness of Eli and Jonas’ home.”

Mara was flipping through some photographs she’s taken with her digital camera. Dante was correct, the pictures showed a home in great need of a major cleaning. Pizza boxes and empty ‘tall boy’ cans competed with items of clothing and general disorder. But then she brought up a photo of a note. It wasn’t clear enough to read, but both the detectives knew what it said.

“There’s a drug drop tonight,” Dante told Richard, “and we think it is just off the rocks down below this house. We think this church has been used, in ways we don’t yet understand, to enable a major drug smuggling ring to do their business. I’m getting tingly feelings about it all. I think we’re about to break open something very, very big. I just don’t know how yet.”

Though Richard couldn’t read the note on the computer screen, he could recognize the hand writing.

“I’ve seen this handwriting somewhere,” Mara said, pointing to the screen. “I don’t know where or when. But it looks familiar to me. Dante, what about you?”

“Wishful thinking, my love,” he said, “but the cursive is quite correct. We’re looking at the writing of a very educated criminal.”

Richard excused himself, claiming he needed a bathroom break. But he flushed the toilet in the bathroom just outside that bedroom without need, just to cover himself as he crept down the hallway and into the kitchen. There was a note attached by a magnet the shape of Block Island on the front of the refrigerator. He took it off, glanced at the handwriting and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans. He didn’t dare throw it in the trash, knowing from his movie and TV experiences how often the police examined garbage. Once it was in his pocket, it almost burned his butt. Mara had been in and out of the kitchen numerous times and opened the refrigerator dozens of time in the last few days. No wonder the handwriting on the note left in the Jamaicans’ house looked vaguely familiar to her. She’d been glancing at it for days. But Richard would handle this part of the investigation, even though telling them now would make it so much simpler. ‘Loyalty’ was Richard’s byword, his credo, what made him who he was. And he wasn’t yet ready to give that significant part of himself away.

Knowing it would be a long night, Dante and Mara had seltzer with the dinner of cold roasted chicken and potato salad and fresh greens that Richard served them. It was the last of the bounty folks from the island had brought to Richard after he found the bodies on Wednesday. Just like any death, the support tended to wilt away before the week was out. They ate quietly, none of the playfulness that was usual for the two detectives. Richard thought they were getting their ‘game faces’ on.

When Mara went looking for chutney in the refrigerator, she opened the door, then closed it immediately and stared at the dozen or so things held on the surface with magnets. She didn’t mention it, but Richard watched her and realized she ‘didn’t know what she didn’t know’ and was confused by it all.

They all watched a little TV after dinner, Mara flipping restlessly through the 7 or 8 channels. Dante went to the second bed room for a quick nap and Mara closed her eyes, sitting on the couch. Richard made coffee that he didn’t drink and spooned out vanilla ice cream that ended up going to Cecelia. Finally he went into the “office” bed room and went on the internet, searching for a half-hour or so until he found, and printed out, what he had been looking for, though he wasn’t sure, when he was looking, what he was ‘looking for’.

Shortly after midnight, after sternly warning Richard to ‘stay inside’, no matter what, although they did let him make a quick trip to his car,Dante and Mara took some of the throw pillows scattered around the living room furniture and took up prone positions under the deck of the church and rectory. While they were there, Richard found the tape recorder he used to record sermons and the Bob Dylan cassette that Miriam had given him because he didn’t own a CD player. He put the tape in the machine and set it on the book shelf and went to his room, reading a mystery novel with Cecelia beside him, trying, though failing, to fall asleep.

Transcript of a phone call to the (DEA in Boston, logged in at 12:08 p.m., Sunday, October 2-, 2003.

DEA: Department of ATF, how may I help you?

Caller: Something big going down on Block Island tonight, after midnight.

DEA: How may I direct your call?

Caller: Get agents out there. It’s up Spring Street, on the beach below some church.

DEA: What kind of event are you describing.

Caller: Big drug deal. Get there. (connection from 401-466-7171 disconnected)

Transcript of a phone call to the Office of Homeland Security in NYC, logged in at 12:12 p.m., Sunday, October 2-, 2003.

HS: Homeland Security, how may I help you?

Caller: You have agents on Block Island. Inform them there’s a big drug deal going down tonight. This is not a crank call.

HS: You’re calling from Block Island? Where is that? What is your name?

Caller: Down on the beach near some Episcopal Church. Let your people know.

HS: Is this a matter of national security?

(call was disconnect from 401-466-7171)

It all ‘went down’, as they say in TV and Movies, like this, as near as anyone can tell.

The note that Dante and Mara found at the Jamaican’s house had, unlike all the others, been slipped under their door. It said:

Things have gotten hot. Monday night will be the last delivery for a while. After that pick up, go home for a while, see your families. Come back in December. There will be a Christmas bonus.

So the Rhode Island State Police and the FBI (from Dante’s mouth to Flash Gordon’s ear) knew about the drop of drugs in the ocean. And they knew Eli and Jonas would be coming back toward St. Anne’s, as always. Malcolm Alt, of Block Island’s finest, had seen the note as well. There had been two anonymous calls, later traced to the public phone near the beach of Old Town, made to Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Agency tipping both agencies off about the action. Another call from that phone to a certain Milo Miano in Providence, just three minutes later involved several agencies in search warrants and arrests in the following months. In fact, a check of the calls from that phone revealed it was the contact for the whole drug smuggling operation. From that phone, the whole debacle had gone down. In the end, the caller from that innocent phone was known. Case closed.

However, on that night, the five agencies of law enforcement involved had chosen different paths. Dante and Mara, of course, were waiting under the deck of St. Anne’s. Homeland Security had broken into the summer house where the seagull liked to sit and Cosby and Nash were armed and ready. The FBI, against Flash’s advice, infiltrated the small maze in the field behind St. Anne’s, near the ocean. The two agents came too early, failed to wait on Agent Gordon and discovered the wet suits Eli and Jonas would need, retreated over a stone wall and waited there where Flash found them. Three DEA agents set up their surveillance behind the stone wall directly across the field from the FBI’s stone wall. Malcolm Alt, not a bad policeman but limited in his field experience, waited with two other under trained officers in a Block Island police car parked near where the Lexus had been turned over on Spring Street.

The scene was set.

At 2:30 a.m., Eli, less drunk than Jonas on good rum, quietly entered the church through the ever open door. When he emerged he had what he thought was a waterproof package containing about $375,000 in unmarked bills. Actually, it was cut up pages from the Boston Globe. The 13 law enforcement agents involved in the stake out all wondered where Eli had found the money. The only civilian watching the proceedings—Fr. Richard David Lucas—knew for sure, but he wasn’t telling anyone yet.

Eli and Jonas located their wet suits in the small maze, stripped down and pulled them on. They were carrying flippers and snorkels and both were superb swimmers, having been conch divers back in Jamaica. Even a little tipsy, they could out swim most Olympic medal winners.

As they had done dozens of times, they swam out to a buoy about a hundred yards off the rocky beach, towing an identical buoy hooked to the cash they thought they had. Switching the lines from the two buoys was seamless, as always. They swam silently back to the shore with what they believed to be nearly half a million dollars worth of heroin. Little did they know, because of a phone call made from a public phone near a beach on Block Island, they were dragging carefully wrapped packets of flour and sugar. Wet as they were, they had been ‘hung out to dry’ by those above them. No ‘connections’ would be found, those overconfident bosses believed. Eli and Jonas would take what all Fr. Lucas’ television shows, movies and crime novels would refer to as the fall.

The two Jamaicans changed out of their wet suits, hid the buoy they’d pulled out of the chill north Atlantic and walked down the road toward Spring Street and St. Anne’s talking in whispers about their good luck and the time they would spend back where it was warm and the sea was mild. All that was left to do was to get home with both the drugs and the money and the next day take the Ferry to Port Judith and a cab to Providence airport. All would be well, all would be well, all manner of things would be well for them.

Here’s what went wrong: as the FBI crossed the stone wall to the south of Eli and Jonas with stealth born of training and Drug Feds crept over the wall to the north with an equal adroitness…and as the Homeland Security Agents abandoned their illegally entered house to track the two Jamaicans…and as Malcolm Alt opened the door of his cruiser, causing a light to come on that Eli and Jonas would have seen had they not been exhausted by swimming and a bit high on rum…and as Mara and Dante lay, face down, on the deck of St. Anne’s…at just that moment Cecelia started whining and fidgeting and dancing around as if she needed to pee and Richard David Lucas, a man who had five years of education beyond his BA in English, decided it would be alright to let the half Lab/half Retriever out the back door of the rectory to relieve herself.

Well, the rest is obvious. Cecelia ran around to the front and surprised Eli and Jonas in the church parking lot where she began to lick them like long-lost friends. Powerful flashlights that various federal agencies had brought with them came on, flooding the two Jamaicans and Cecelia as if it were mid-day.

Thirteen guns were drawn and five law enforcement groups began screaming—at the two “perps” and the dog. At just that moment, Richard rushed out the front door of the Rectory, worried about someone shooting his dog. His sudden appearance upped the anxiety of 12 fingers on 12 triggers. Only one gun carrying person reacted differently. Mara leaped to feet with the grace of a gazelle and brought her Glock down on Richard’s left temple with a calculated and remarkably effective blow.

He dropped like a stone. His mind became oatmeal with a little honey and two pats of butter.

“Sorry, Richard,” she whispered to him through the haze of his semi-consciousness, “sorry, love.”

It took another ten minutes to calm everyone down enough to lower their guns. It was Dante, obviously, who finally closed the deal. Eli and Jonas were face down in the gavel of the parking lot, half-drunk and scared nearly to death while a 70 pound dog licked their faces. Nearby was a small suitcase sized package of the raw material of sweet rolls.

Dante stood up and holstered his gun. He walked across the illuminated parking lot and pulled two sets of handcuffs from the pockets of his tailored suit that he’d bought in Venice a year before.

“I’m Lt. Dante Caggiano of the Rhode Island State Police,” he shouted to the dangerous people with guns all around him. “Block Island is, as loathe as I am to admit it, part of Rhode Island. I am now putting these two men under arrest. Officer Alt will help me transport them to a retaining facility—if there is one on this rock—and we will sort out the rest after that….Is that acceptable to the ladies and gentlemen here assembled?”

One by one, as Dante and Malcolm secured the prisoners, the lights went off and adrenaline pumped law enforcers began to wonder and ask each other if there was anywhere to get a drink this late on Block Island. The only answer was the Rectory of St. Anne’s and so agents from three federal bureaucracies filed into Richard’s home away from home to drink up all the spirits people from the parish had brought him while Dante took the ‘perps’ to jail and Mara carried Richard—literally ‘carried him’—to his bed and found ice to apply to the wound she had inflicted on his head.

About 4 a.m. Mara called Dr. Weinstein who came to check Richard out to see if he needed Brooks to fly him to a hospital on the mainland. Brooks had arrived a few minutes before Mara called with a message from the Commandant of the Rhode Island State Police to “cooperate fully” with all federal agencies and, surreptitiously, to make this collar be Rhode Island’s alone. Dante is in the right bureaucracy, Mara thought, deciphering the message.

The doctor was there when Richard began to revive. “A mild concussion,” he said. “You must know how to hurt people appropriately.”

Mara didn’t smile. She knew she must go to interview the two Jamaicans with Dante. And she needed to move all the feds out of the rectory. She wished Miriam was still here to be with Richard. Cecelia was curled around his body, whimpering a bit, but he needed a “watcher”. At just that moment, Stevenson came into the room.

“I’ve heard about it somewhat,” he said to Mara, embracing her. “I’ll sit with him if you have to go.”

She was delighted and so relieved.

“Oh, Stevenson,” she said, near tears, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

She knelt by Richard’s bed and kissed his forehead.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

His eyes opened and he spoke, a little garbled, but understandable: “you had me at ‘I’m sorry, love’.” Then he seemed to fall asleep.

She kissed his forehead again. Looking at Stevenson and Dr. Weinstein she said, “I’ll leave him in your hands. Be gentle with him.”

The doctor nodded and Stevenson embraced her. “Worry not,” he said.

“He’s so lucky to have you,” Mara told him, just before she left.

All night through, Stevenson sat by Richard’s bed.

While the agents raided Richard’s alcohol, trading cop stories, and Mara worried about how badly she had hurt him, Dante and Malcolm finally separated the Jamaicans from the happy dog while Cecelia went in the house with all her new federal friends and discovered her master in bed, only a bit conscious. She lay against him, wet and muddy, unwilling to move from the spot.

Luckily Flash Gordon emerged from the herd of law enforcers to help Dante and Malcolm and the two middle aged, overweight part-time Block Island policemen Officer Alt had brought along on what he kept referring to as ‘the sting’. Dante was too wired up to point out that it had been more like an ambush than a sting, plus, he had his hands full with Eli. Jonas was drunk enough to be compliant and a much smaller man than his partner, so the three Block Island cops got him into the back seat of the cruiser with only a little trouble. Eli, on the other hand, was angry and frightened and kept yelling “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Dante thought he meant it for Jonas but couldn’t be certain. Flash outweighed the Jamaican and helped Dante force him into the seat beside of Jonas, who looked like he was about to throw up. Dante and Officer Alt leaped into the front seat and, making a broad U-turn in the parking lot at more speed than necessary and went bouncing down the dirt road to Spring Street.

“Jesus, Malcolm,” Dante hissed between clinched teeth, “you just drove through a fucking crime scene! Slow the fuck down!”

Since the FBI’s car was hidden down a separate dirt road, Flash looked in Richard’s Volvo, discovering, as he thought he would, that the good pastor left his keys in the ignition so he could always find them. Agent Gordon and the other two Block Island cops climbed in and followed Malcolm and Dante.

“Where does he think he’s going?” Flash asked out loud. “Where’s the fire?”

One of the cops in back said, “Malcolm’s a bit hyped up. He’s never been in on a ‘bust’ before….”

Flash shook his head. “A bust...” he whispered under his breath.

Back in the Police car, Malcolm moved his hands toward the controls for lights and siren.

“If you touch that,” Dante said tightly, “I’ll tear off your hand and feed it to you. Christ, man, its 3:30 in the morning on a nearly deserted island.”

From the back seat, they heard a moan and then retching.

“Jesus, mon,” Eli shouted, “the fool is vomiting on me….”

Dante smiled and took out a cigarette.

“You can’t…,” Malcolm began.

“I know I can’t smoke in the car,” Dante replied, flicking his expensive lighter and inhaling deeply. “But the smoke will cover the stench….”

Eli was thrashing around in the back, pushing Jonas away roughly with his knee. “Stupid, stupid, stupid….”

The Block Island Police Station had a single holding cell. Dante noticed there was a scatter rug on the floor, patterned bedspreads on two single beds and even a bedside table and lamp.

He told Malcolm to get the lamp and table out of the cell. “Is everything on this half-assed island a bed and breakfast?”

Malcolm and Flash waited until the Block Island police had uncuffed Jonas and poured him into bed. He groaned for a moment then started snoring. Jonas, Dante now saw, was a short, balding man built like a barrel. A rum barrel, he thought. Late 40’s, he imagined. Must be what passes for the brains of these two.

Since he and Flash were holding the still hand-cuffed Eli by his biceps, they could feel the hard sinews of muscle. And this one is the ‘muscle’, Dante continued to think.

“How did he swim that drunk?” Flash said to Dante.

“Fool never swim,” Eli answered, obviously furious.

Dante and Flash exchanged a glance.

“Want to tell us more?” Flash asked in a calm voice.

They watched Eli’s face melt from anger to thoughtfulness and then morph into fear.

“I need my ‘rights’ read, mon,” he said, covering his anxiety with bravura. “I need my phone call….I want to lawyer up….”

Dante laughed, getting a glare from Eli and a smile from Flash Gordon.

“Jesus,” he said, “lawyer up”! Too many cop shows on TV, Agent Gordon.”

“I agree, Lt. Caggiano,” Flash said, his smile growing broader.

After they had freed one of Eli’s hands and cuffed the other to a steel desk, which they were glad to see was bolted to the floor, Dante put a phone set in front of him. “Make your call….”

They moved away, straining to hear nonetheless, as Eli dialed and then talked in rapid, but muted words. Dante noticed the man was over six feet tall, probably in his early 30’s and, as the weight lifting crowd at the RISP called it, ‘buff’. He was still in his rain slicker and jeans. They hadn’t carried figured out, the two Jamaicans weren’t planning to have to masquerade any more. Eli was darker than his friend—though friendship didn’t seem evident between them—with a chiseled face and nearly shaved head. He was a striking looking man, unlike Jonas, and Dante pondered again how mere skin color could make someone invisible sometimes. This was a man everyone should remember if they saw him only once.

He stayed on the phone longer than Dante had imagined he would. They’d find out later what the number was he had dialed—obviously one he had memorized for just such an eventuality. When he finally hung up, he turned toward the assembly of five officers. The two older guys were drinking coffee and eating what looked like home-made peanut butter cookies. Officer Alt, Dante credited him, was hyper-alert and stood with a hard look on his face and his right hand resting on his service revolver.

“My lawyer’ll be here on the first plane, mon,” Eli said, as dangerously as he could manage. The man on the other end of the phone had spoken in clipped, menacing sentences, threatening to ‘leave him in the lurch’ if he said ‘boo’ to the cops.” Eli wasn’t sure what a ‘lurch’ was or why he would say ‘boo’ to the police, but he got the point. “I ain’t talkin’, mon, ‘till he gets here.”

They put him in the cell with Jonas after warning him not to do bodily harm to his accomplice.

“You are in one shit-load of trouble, my man,” Flash said, shutting the cell and realizing Eli could probably break the lock with his hands, “so hurting him won’t be any deeper load of shit—but you’d be facing it all by yourself.”

“I’m thinking, Mr. ------,” Dante added, “that your friend there might be a little deeper than you. I’m just thinking that. So you’ll want him around when all this gets to a judge.”

Eli growled, “stupid, stupid, stupid….” Then he climbed onto the bed and turned his face away from the still snoring Jonas.

One of the other FBI agents had retrieved the car and drove Mara to the station after Stevenson and Dr. Weinstein had arrived at the rectory. When she arrived she found Flash, Dante and Malcolm in the one office of the police station, all wearing the ubiquitous rubber gloves of police work and all chuckling to themselves. Dante was so busy chuckling that he wasn’t smoking.

On the table they were sitting around were the two packages Eli and Jonas had been carrying up from the water when they were licked into submission by detective Cecelia. Malcolm had marked the bags as evidence and Dante had used his expensive pocket knife to carefully cut away the waterproof coverings and reveal the contents. When Mara walked in, Malcolm stood up and said, “Sgt. Coles….How’s Fr. Lucas?”

She shook her head. “He’ll be fine I think….Me, I’m not sure….”

“He really fell for you, Sergeant,” Dante said, still chuckling.

Mara glared at him, then rolled her head as if she had a stiff neck. “Dante, you’re chortling. I’ve never seen you chortle before. What’s the joke?”

“Nearest I can tell,” Flash jumped in, “the joke’s on our friends in the lock up….”

Between bouts of laughter, they explained to Mara that the Jamaicans were obviously going to make off with both the money and the drugs but one package was dollar bill sized cuttings of what must have taken the whole Sunday Globe and the other was zip lock bags full of what appeared to be flour mixed with sugar.

“Or Splenda,” Flash said, touching the white stuff with his finger and licking it.

“I’m sure it’s sugar, Agent Gordon,” Malcolm said seriously. “Sugar is much heavier than Splenda. From the weight of these plastic bags….”

The two other men, almost giddy from exhaustion, laughed. Mara gave them a withering look and picked up one of the bags. “I think you’re right, Officer Alt,” she said, hefting the white substance in her hand. Good detective work.”

Malcolm fairly beamed as the other two tried to regain their composure.

The four of them, realizing it would be mid-morning before Jonas was fully awake and Eli would wait for the mysterious lawyer, spent much of the rest of the darkness going over and over ‘what they knew’ and ‘what they still needed to find out’. Though everyone had guesses, no one was sure where the money had been hidden in the little church where it was switched each time there was a delivery with the still damp packet of drugs.

“One thing though,” Dante finally added, opening manila folder with the date and the three men’s signatures on it, “this was around Eli’s neck….” He removed an evidence bag with a sturdy, rather old fashioned silver key on it. A circle of rawhide was threaded through the head of the key and tied in a knot.

Mara shook her head. “The only thing that key might fit is the ciborium….” Seeing the confusion on Malcolm’s face, she added, “the little box attached to the wall beside the altar for the reserved sacraments….But that’s not big enough to packages the size of these in….”

“Oh my,” Dante said, recognition flooding his face. “The plot thickens….There is something in that church this key might open that is ‘just right’ for packages this size. You and I have seen it, lovely Mara. I’ve held it in my hands….”

Her lips parted into a little ‘o’, which is what she said. “Does that mean….”

“That’s what it would mean,” Dante interrupted, subtly nodding toward Officer Alt, who was still staring at the key and looking lost. “But I’m guessing our sleeping prisoners have no idea who their accomplice is, so how do we prove it….”

Malcolm was about to ask who they thought the accomplice might be when Eli started yelling in the other room that, “This stupid fool threw up again! Get in here and clean it up, Mon.” Malcolm left, clearly disgusted at the prospect.

“If we say it in front of him, my darling,” Dante said, finally deciding to smoke again, “it’ll be all over the island before dawn….”

“You don’t think Malcolm is discreet?” Mara asked, clearly it was a rhetorical question for neither of them bothered to respond.

Later, with dawn just beginning to break, the three of them stood outside the Police Station. One of the other FBI guys, Terrell, who was just as black and just as big as Eli, stayed behind to keep things calm. Mara would drive Richard’s Volvo back to the church while Flash and Dante went for breakfast at the airport, just to see if they could spot a lawyer getting off a plane. They all leaned against the FBI car, silent, watching the light come, staring out at the sea they could see in three directions.

“If you get a chance and it feels right,” Dante said as they listened to birds catching breakfast all around them, “you might try out our little theory on the good Padre. Gently, certainly.”

Mara smiled. “Gently, Dante? You’re getting soft.”

“Don’t you wish,” he replied, getting into the big, black, super-charged Ford.

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.