“Damn!” he looked behind his boat at the small barge it was hauling. If he put the body on the barge and brought it in, certain people — especially the ones who are also interested in the anonymous person who keeps setting off fireworks shows — might start doing basic math in their heads. Not a good idea.
On the other hand, he could take his barge back to the blind he built out of reeds — it was only a half mile around the bend — and come back and drag the body to Fortescue. But why? Someone dumped him out here for a reason, and they may not particularly want the body found.
Or he could just leave it here.
Leaving it here was the least problematical for the time being at least. Kevin took a reading on his GPS. It wouldn’t guarantee the body would be here later, but it probably would be close. He reached for the guy’s back pants pocket that held his wallet. Leather, no id, but there was $543 in cash. Odd, Kevin thought. Who’d steal the ID but not the cash? And, why was this John Doe worth killing? He stuck the wallet in his pocket.
Kevin moved on and left the barge in his blind. If anyone found the body, they wouldn’t find his cache. “Ah yes,” he nodded to the crimson and yellow Army Ordinance Insignia on the short wall inside; watching over his supplies for making fireworks.
He wondered where he could get some local gossip — hopefully about swamp-man. Bridgeton, Millville, and even Vineland were a bit away and not really focused on the marsh. But Fortescue was. Half an hour later, he tied his boat up to the dock there and went ashore. As he looked around, he thought about how sometimes memories were so much better than reality. In his memory, there were old trailer homes hoisted up on stilts like rusting tree houses where his grandmother’s people spent their summers, decades ago, fishing, drinking beer, and telling tall tales about their fishing. Those tree-trailers and relatives were gone. The people who replaced them apparently had more money — but less sense. Hurricane Sandy had made quick work of many of the ground level homes.
Kevin wanted to pick up on the local gossip and find out if marsh-man was being missed. Thank God it was Saturday. The only Bed & Breakfast in town was open, but only on weekends. Fortescue held the distinction of being possibly the least homey community in New Jersey. There was no bar, since it was a dry town, no coffee shop — even Dunkin Donuts, no gas station, no grocery store, no church. Kevin decided his best hope was to talk with the local fishermen as they came in for the night.
Coming up to those boat captains and asking questions was a sure-fire way to be shut out. So Kevin helped them tie-up and unload their gear. For a few minutes they talked about the weather, the catch, and the idiot day-fishermen whose lot in life appeared to be irritating real fishermen, and finally, Owen, captain of the Siren Song, got chatty.
“That boat has a shallow draft, and a big cabin. It makes a racket going out every Saturday morning and comes back on Sunday. By then it’s weaving around like angry eels are steering it. Everyone near its dock moves their boats so they won’t be hit. By the scratches and gouges, the cat, it has hit more than its share of stuff. No respect for their boat,” he spat. “Eric is the owner, a two-bit gangster who’s always waving his wad around. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him since last weekend; he’s late for tonight.”
Kevin looked at Eric’s Folly again. “Am I missing something? Where is all the fishing equipment? Why else would it dock here?”
Owen looked at Kevin as if he were demented. “Let’s look at the facts. This is a remote community with lots of waterside parking. No effective policing and easy access to private, remote areas. A boat leaving here for a day or a weekend could hold say, environmentalists, fishermen, or heck, even gamblers. No one keeps track, and frankly, no one really cares. I’d bet money on it carrying gamblers, but the two steroid zombies guarding the boat on weekends might hear and disapprove. From what I hear, best to keep’em happy.”
“And… ” Kevin said and then hesitated. He’d read recently that it made people feel like they were expected to say something, something they normally wouldn’t have added. He was surprised. It worked. Owen spoke up to fill the gap.
“And talk about weird, the way the owner’s wife comes to town when the boat’s out and just sits on the beach and looks into Bay. I’ve never seen her on it, but I’ve been told that she went out once recently, crying when she left, and crying when she returned.”
“Any idea why?”
“Okay, what about the steroid guys didn’t you get? No one in their right mind has anything to do with that whole situation.” Owen hesitated for a second. “Except Pat, their ‘caterer’.” He rolled his eyes. “From what I’ve seen, Pat mostly brings in booze, sandwiches and chips.”
Kevin scratched the back of his neck. “Where would I find this Pat?”
“There’s a deli in Bridgeton on Broad Street. When you ask for Pat, just don’t mention the catering. I’m not sure the owner is in on the catering thing if you know what I mean.”
“Got it, thanks,” Kevin headed back to his Jeep.
Driving to Bridgeton, Kevin thought about the situation. As far as he knew, only he and the murderer knew that swamp man was dead. And now he had a possible ID — Eric the gangster — who had apparently operated an “off-shore” gambling business — an obvious opportunity to make enemies who lost money and want revenge. And he had a wife — a mystery woman who sailed once, and not happily.
The Happy Belly Deli was just where Owen had said he’d find it. He found a parking spot down the block and walked back to it. It smelled of preserved meat and pickles, reminding him of the old Third Ward Sub Shop that used to be on Vine Street. There were two people working inside, a man and a woman. He walked up to the man, “Pat?” he asked.
The man looked up, wiped his hands on his apron, and pointed to the woman. She looked over curiously and Kevin went over to the work area where she was dishing potato salad out of a big plastic tub into a big bowl to set in the cooler window. “Just a minute,” she said. “I have to add our signature, homemade touch.” Her knife flashed over a small bunch of parsley, she sprinkled over the salad, and smiled up at him.
“What can I do for you?”
Realizing it might look funny to the guy working there if he only talked with her, he ordered a bowl of gumbo and a cup of coffee. He took a seat as far away from the owner as possible and when she brought his order, he said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“No, that’s not the question, but it sure is a good answer. I couldn’t help but notice the big catamaran when I was in Fortescue earlier and I hear you’ve been on it. I was wondering what kind of fishing they do?”
She stood up straight. “What are you, a cop?”
“No, but I guess that means they’re not much for fishing.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” She turned and left.
After he finished his food, Kevin took the tray back up to the cash register. With a half-smile, he said. I guess I blew it. I’m just looking for Eric, you know, the owner.”
She nodded sadly at him. “If you know Eric, then you know you don’t call him. He calls you. And just for the record, that even includes me. Makes it hard to collect when he owes me money.”
“Thanks,” and he headed back to his car. If this dead guy was Eric, it wasn’t going to be easy to find out — even from someone he owed money to.
Once back in Fortescue, Kevin sat on a bench on the dock holding a book he wasn’t reading. There were men, flashy men, who looked like they were from central casting for a mob movie going onto Eric’s Folly. One of the men Owen had described as Zombies was checking them in.
“Where’s Eric?” One of the men asked loudly as he approached the Zombie.
“None of your problem. He’s not here yet.”
“Asshole. If you shout a little louder everyone in ten miles can hear you. Mr. Eric says to be discrete. So shut up. Don’t make me say it again.”
After Eric’s Folly left, Kevin headed over toward the Charlesworth Hotel. He tried to remember when was the last time he’d been there, and couldn’t. But Betty was at the greeting station just inside the door and she remembered him.
“Kevin! Good gracious, it’s been forever!”
“You still make the best chowder in South Jersey?”
“You have to ask? Come on and let me find you a table.”
He looked around. “It’s not as crowded as I remember.”
“Most of the charters are still out, but we’ll get busier when they get back. What have you been up to?”
Kevin considered bragging to her that he was the one who kept putting on impromptu fireworks shows in the marsh. She’d be delighted to know, but he also knew she was a world-class gossip, and his secret hobby wouldn’t be secret any more.
“Just this and that,” he said. He pointed out to the area where Eric’s Folly had been. “When did that big boat that just left come here? Was it just tied up over night?”
A teenage waitress brought over a cup of coffee and a carafe for seconds. Betty motioned for her to bring another cup, and sat down.
“You know I’m the soul of discretion,” Betty said quietly, “but there is something seriously weird going on there. That boat attracts an odd bunch of guys. They come, they go out to the Bay, and they come back in. Not a fishing pole among them. And none of them has ever eaten here or asked for a room.”
“Really! And you know what else? There’s this woman who comes sometimes and sits in the front window and watches as the boat leaves. I think she’s one of the Gentile cousins, but she never seemed to want to talk. She was pregnant for a while, but I don’t know what happened, because then she wasn’t. Never seemed too happy. If I was to describe her, it would be melancholy — that’s a word I learned from reading my romance novels. Melancholy. That’s her.”
“That sounds sad.”
“Yes, sir. And Owen saw her get on the boat once, just recently. She didn’t look pregnant anymore and she was crying. They were only gone for about an hour, and when they got back she was still crying. Haven’t seen her since.”
Betty shook her head sadly. Then she brightened up, “You still like your chowder with a pat of butter melting on top?”
“Let me go to the kitchen and put in your order.” She stood and looked out the window to the empty space at the dock. “Some very weird stuff going on there, but you know me, I don’t pry.”
After eating, Kevin went to pay his tab, “Any idea where I can find her?”
At the register, Betty tilted her head, “You going to try to find her?
“Nah, she she’s a traditional girl. She goes by Mrs. Eric Garrison. They’ve got a big house on Commerce in Bridgeton.”
“Shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“Here,” she opened a drawer under the cash register. She took out a holy medal and handed it to him. “It was found under the table last time she came. See the picture? It’s a Saint Gerard Medal. He’s the patron saint of pregnant women you know. Give it back to her when you see her. Just watch out for Eric, I hear he’s stone mean.”
Kevin looked up the address on his cell phone and when he pulled up in front, he saw a three story Victorian with a wrap-around porch and green painted shutters. Beautiful from a historic perspective, but looking like it needed a lot of deferred maintenance. Knocking on the door, he could see through the window. The living room was furnished in early pool table and leather chairs. The dining room had a dark wood table and fancy candelabra. He was getting ready to knock again when he glanced through the lace window curtain and saw a petite woman coming toward him.
She opened the door a bit, but left the chain on. Kevin’s first thought was that the chain was beyond foolish. If someone wanted to break in, all they had to do was break the glass in the door. His second thought was that melancholy wasn’t a word he’d use to describe her. She was actually looking pretty vibrant.
“Yes?” she said.
“I have something for you that you left at the restaurant at Fortescue, Betty asked me to return it to you,” and he held up the Saint Gerard Medal.
She gasped, “Oh.” Unlocking the chain, she waved him in and over to the overstuffed leather chairs in the living room. As he walked in, he nearly tripped over a large suitcase near the door.
“Going on vacation?” he smiled and looked at the bag.
“Not exactly. Please, have a seat.”
He sat and placed the medal on the coffee table. “This looks like a very special medal. I understand he’s the patron saint of pregnant women.” Kevin looks up, straight into her eyes. He can see her tears threatening to flow.
“Who are you and why did you bring me this?”
“How about this?” he pulled a wallet with no ID out of his jacket pocket. She gasped.
“I guess you recognize it.”
“Who ARE you? And what do you want with me?”
“Just some answers, I’m a very curious man.”
“Are you a cop?”
“Nope, just retired military. I’m a man who was in my boat out on the marshes, minding my own business, when I came upon this, and a body that went with it. A body of a man about the same size as the guy next to you in the wedding picture over there on the wall.”
“You didn’t go to the cops; so what do you want from me?”
“Who said I wanted anything?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Okay, I’m a curious kind of guy. Tell me the story behind the medal… and the wallet.”
She closed her eyes for a
minute, sighed, and looked back at
him. “If I tell you everything, will you promise to keep it a secret
hours? That’s all the time I need.”
“You’re leaving,” he stated.
“Yes. You saw the medal, I was pregnant.”
“You have a girl or a boy?”
“Neither. I had a corpse.”
“It would have been a girl. I was going to call her Rose. It’s old fashioned but I love the name.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Linda looked up sadly. “Me, too.”
“Your husband must have been so
“Him? Not hardly. He said it was only a girl, nothing important. And he said the miscarriage was my fault for falling down when his business partner punched me in the stomach as a warning to Eric.” Stoically, she drew her hand out of her pocket and opened it to reveal a small metal tag. This is all I have left of her.
Kevin lifted the small tag. All it had on it was a reference number and the county. “What’s this?”
“It’s the tag from her cremains. Eric said she never lived so she didn’t need to be buried. While I was in the hospital he had her cremated. My one and only ride on his boat was when we took her ashes out to scatter them. I managed to slip this off the bag before he tossed it into the sea. I could never forgive him. All I wanted was to leave him and his friends in my rear-view mirror, but Eric told me that if I ever try to leave him, he’d kill me.”
“Because of his image. Having a woman leave him, would make him look weak. If he killed me for leaving… let’s just say he thought it wiped the slate clean.”
“But, he’s not going to be able to kill you now, is he?”
“No, he’s not going to be able to kill me,” there was a hint of a smile. “My friends, Heckler and Koch, took care of that, .40 calibers of true friendship. But some of Eric’s business associates might if they can’t find him and they can find me. Speaking of which, are they going to find his body?”
“Probably not. Besides, by next weekend, it will have sunk permanently anyhow.”
She let her breath out. “So… you came with Eric’s wallet. You’re welcome to what’s in it. I can give you more.”
“Nah, wouldn’t be right, taking from the dead. Old soldiers don’t do that.” He shrugged and put the wallet on the coffee table, “And I don’t take money for helping a lady in distress.”
Linda looked at him critically, “Everybody wants something.”
“Okay, I do want something, but
it’s nothing you can
actually give me, but I’d appreciate your saying you don’t have a
it. It’s kinda like a side benefit of bringing back your medal and
“Well, you know they say everyone has a novel in him. I always thought I did. Change a few details — to protect the guilty — as the saying goes,” he grinned, “and I could have a mystery story from what happened in Fortescue. Too bad the wife was overcome with grief and left town. I think one of the gamblers from the boat killed him. What do you think??”
She gave him a quizzical look then slowly nodded. “Yea, it could’ve gone like that.”
He stood and gave a little smile. “Miss, can I help you load your suitcase into the car?”
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