By Dave Reddall
Raymond DiStasi’s home in Harwich was a huge angular affair commanding a breathtaking view of Pleasant Bay. The modest home on the lot directly behind had once enjoyed the same view until DiStasi built what might resemble a Venusian castle. The view from the little house now consisted of the castle, a fifty-foot motor home, a kidney-shaped swimming pool, and a couple of red dump trucks.
DiStasi looked to be in his mid-forties, a big man but badly out of shape. He was wearing blue pants decorated with magenta anchors, and an orange and purple Hawaiian shirt that barely contained his bloated belly. The buttons were straining and stress lines distorted the orange orchids.
“Good of you to take this on, Stubblefield. Word is you can handle yourself and you’re honest.”
“Suppose you fill me in,” I said.
“Sure, sure. You want a drink?” I said no. He threw ice in a glass and poured some scotch. “Here’s the deal. I got a few big projects going, equipment in several places. Someone’s been screwing with me.” He slugged down some scotch. “I’m not the most popular guy on Cape Cod, as you probably know.”
I knew. DiStasi had been in trouble several times for wetlands violations, building structures that were radically different from what had been approved, and once for going after a building inspector with a two-by-four.
“At first, it was just nickel and dime crap, you know, somebody’d come by and pull up all the survey stakes so we’d have to do that all over again. Then the equipment gets damaged – broken glass, glue in the locks – I figured it was kids. I hired night watchmen and everything was quiet for a few weeks. I figured that was that.” He walked to a window overlooking the bay.
“A week after I discharge the watchmen the bastards come back. I’m working down in North Falmouth, big condo project. The foreman calls first thing yesterday. One of the dozers is in the pond. That’s bad, but when they fire up the other dozer to haul that one out, it turns out the hairbags poured sand in the crankcase and now I’ve got a real mess and a sizable insurance claim, if vandalism is covered. You know how those bastards operate.”
“Was it a pond the dozer landed in, or a wetland?” There may have been a touch of malice in my voice.
“Hey, if I sit around while those goo-goos and greenfreaks get every other puddle on the Cape declared a wetland because some damn newt lives there, I might as well be shingling houses for the minimum wage.”
“Have any of those goo-goos been flogging you in the press? Any nasty phone calls?”
“Nah, nothing like that.” He threw back the rest of his drink and slammed the glass down. “I think maybe this isn’t kids. I think there’s a couple of ecology nutcases running around out there that got a program.”
“You talk to the cops?”
“Yeah. I know the chief. Built his house for him, matter of fact. But what the hell, the cops can only do so much and I’m spread out all over.”
He walked to the desk and found an envelope. “Here’s a list of current projects, the names of the foremen, and a thousand bucks. That enough to get things rolling?”
I said it was.
“I don’t care what it costs, I don’t care how you do it. Find them, beat the crap out of them, throw them so far back in jail they’ll have to pump air back to them. Just get rid of the creeps.”
* * *
I left a message for Glen Zinser at the Orleans Spectator, then drove to the dojo. It was almost noon at which time I’d have the place to myself for an hour before the aerobics class arrived to do battle with cellulite and clogged arteries.
Two women were practicing a kata as I entered and removed my shoes. Behind them, immobile, black, and Buddha-like sat Edward, the judo sensei. He’d earned his black belt in Japan and at sixty-three was still rock-hard and powerful, fully capable of handling men a third his age. He sat cross-legged, only his eyes moving as he observed the kata.
I went back and changed up. When I returned the women were leaving. Edward was where I’d left him. On the wall above him hung a sign: “Civilize the mind, make savage the body.”
“You plan on joining the aerobics class?” I asked.
He looked at me without expression.
“You can’t twist their arms off unless you can catch them.”
“When you going to study judo, Charles, so I can teach you the gentle art?”
I paused in my stretching. “Gentle? I saw you dislocate a guy’s shoulder last month. I’ve heard people hit the mat like a cube of bricks. Gentle?”
“Compared to what you do. You ever use that stuff on people?”
“Not unless I have to.” Which was true. There are any number of reasons to study karate. Hoping for a chance to try it out in your neighborhood bar isn’t one of them.
* * *
There was a call on my answering machine from Glen Zinser. He’s one of two reporters at the Spectator. It’s a small weekly, but it reports aggressively on environmental issues, which means it has its hands full these days. I phoned him up.
“Didn’t have to dig too hard on this, Charles. The only case where an arrest was made was a year and a half ago in Dennisport. Local kid named Tyler got caught in a construction site one night by a cop who spotted Tyler’s flashlight beam. The kid wasn’t exactly a Green Beret.”
“What was he doing, getting ready to torch the place?”
“Uh-uh. He had a pair of wire cutters. The cop almost shot him thinking it was a gun. Turns out he had been cutting some of the electrical wires where they passed through the studs. Devious, and hard to spot. The contractor’s next step was to insulate and install sheetrock. When they found out about the electricity the whole place would have to be torn up.”
“What happened to him?”
“A year suspended and a fine. He was in college at the time. I sort of sympathized with him, truth be told. They were going to build condos where there used to be beautiful woods.”
“Where is he now?”
“Beats me. Probably still in school. Colson University. And no, his first name is not Toby, it’s Derek.”
* * *
I started out the next day. Tyler wasn’t much of a lead, but he was all I had. Colson was located in the northwestern corner of the state in the town of Elba. I found the administration building and ten minutes later I knew that Tyler was now a graduate assistant in the Philosophy department. I went looking for Windsor Hall.
Colson is a fringe-Ivy League school of some repute, a nucleus of attractive nineteenth-century buildings arranged around a quadrangle overhung with magnificent old plane trees. Judging from the cars at the dorms, Colson was the kind of place where wealthy parents sent their kids to learn how to be wealthy adults.
Windsor Hall was a brick and ivy building that smelled like every classroom I’d ever been in. The first office I came to was occupied by a short wiry man barely visible over a desk piled high with books and papers. A plate on the door said George Blackmon.
“I’m looking for Derek Tyler.”
Blackmon frowned, put down his book. “Perhaps I can help. I’m department chairman. If it is about your son or daughter…”
“I’m a private investigator. I just want to ask Derek a couple of questions.”
Blackmon glanced at his watch. “He should be here any moment. Class just ended. 101: Introduction to Philosophy. Essence and Existence.” He pushed his glasses back on his nose and smiled. “A surprising number of students decide not to pursue Philosophy after taking the introductory course.” He looked past me into the hall.
“Here he is now.” He introduced me to a tall athletic young man who looked nothing like a typical academic. He led me next door to his office, another windowless cubicle painted jailhouse green. So much for the ivory tower.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Stubblefield?”
Through the partition separating the offices I could hear papers being shuffled.
“Is there someplace we can get a cup of coffee?”
* * *
“It was a spur of the moment thing. I’d played in those woods as a kid and I really hated to see them destroyed. So I reacted, childishly, I admit. I got caught, paid a fine, end of story.”
“Where did you get the idea to cut the wires?”
Tyler fidgeted with his coffee. “I don’t remember. A book, an article I read. I don’t know.”
A girl wearing camouflage pants walked by. Her tee-shirt said “We put one man on the moon, why not all of them?”
“Do you know anyone on the Cape who might be inclined to commit ecotage?”
“No, I don’t. As I said, it was an impulsive thing. I’m sorry I ever did it.” He checked his watch. “I’ve got a class. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.”
* * *
When I arrived home the next day it was getting dark. My body was cramped from too many hours in the car. I threw my gear in the back seat and headed to the dojo. Edward was leaving as I pulled up.
“Where’s the sign?” I called. The circular Yin and Yang sign that advertises the martial arts center was missing.
“Wind blew it down last night. It’s in the shop for repair,” he replied, waving goodbye.
My evening class is for green and brown belts. There aren’t but five at that level right now. When white belt classes form up there is a flurry of interest. Three or four months later when no one has turned into Bruce Lee, class size shrinks, not unlike Blackmon’s Philosophy classes. The hot dogs who want to learn flying turn around kicks and nunchaku technique check out and look for someone willing to teach them.
After class I showered, shut off the lights, locked up, and walked around the building to my car.
There were three of them waiting for me. Two closed in from the sides to pinion my arms while the third advanced holding an ax handle. As the one to the left reached for me I gripped his outstretched arm, twisted it, and whipped my forearm against the back of his elbow, painfully ruining the joint. I leaned into the strike, simultaneously driving a side kick to the second man’s groin. Both fell to the ground, crying out in pain. By now the big man with the ax handle was on me, swinging it at my neck. I ducked it and slammed a foreknuckle blow to his throat. He staggered back, gasping for breath and I dropped him to the moonlit gravel with a roundhouse kick to the head. A noise to my left. Broken arm was up. Holding his useless limb against his side he loped through the parking lot and out of sight. It was over in less than ten seconds.
Ax handle was unconscious. I found his wallet and driver’s license: Earl Martin of Wellsville, Massachusetts. I got my car and drove out of there, wondering why their attack had been so poorly planned and sloppily executed. Of course: the sign was missing, they hadn’t known it was a dojo. Hence their negligence. They had assumed they could handle an average-sized middle-aged man, and in so doing violated two of Stubblefield’s axioms: assume nothing; never underestimate the enemy.
* * *
I caught Glen Zinser the next morning with his feet up on his desk.
“Ah, Charles.” He handed me some papers. “The last one just got faxed in. You really should join the twenty-first century; get at least a little tech savvy.”
“ ‘Down with all kings but King Ludd’, ” I quoted.
“That’s interesting. You’ll find old Ned Ludd mentioned in there. Somebody known as the Fox, too.”
“No, wise guy. He was big in the Midwest a few years back. Ran around plugging up industrial smokestacks and effluent pipes. He’s a hero to a certain segment of the environmental movement.”
“Which segment is that?”
“The ones who trash bulldozers.”
* * *
I reviewed the information Glenn had provided, then headed for Elba again.
There had been dozens of instances of ecotage in the past two years. A Boston furrier found two racks of fur coats sprayed with fluorescent orange paint. Housing projects had been torched. A snowmobile dealer reported a rash of damaged machines when someone strewed monofilament line across the surfaces of popular trails. Plumbers working on a large condo project discovered that cement had been poured down all the waste pipes, blocking drainage in every unit.
The most recent item concerned a motorcycle accident. A local kid had died when he lost control of his dirt bike while riding on a restricted trail. He had run over caltrops that were planted there to puncture tires, and hit a tree. The trail was located in Hamilton, just twenty miles from Elba.
There was one other item: an article on a proposed low-level nuclear dump site that the state was considering. The site was in Wellsville. There was a photo accompanying the article showing a group of dairy farmers from the area protesting the dump. And looking out at me from the page was Earl Martin.
Tyler’s office was locked. So was Blackmon’s. I drove to town for a beer while I planned my next move.
* * *
The bartender at The Frontier was a thick balding man with a voice that sounded like he gargled with drain cleaner. He brought me a Sam Adams and drifted back to his soap opera. The only other customers were a grizzled old number asleep at his table and a young guy in green work clothes. When I sat down he gulped his drink and headed out into the rain.
The television droned on. A fly settled on the mouth of my beer bottle, then lifted off. Some more time passed. The door opened, closed. I swallowed a little more beer. Someone sat down a couple of stools away. I looked over. It was Earl. He was holding a long-barreled revolver and he was smiling.
“I was you, I’d just sit there nice and quiet,” he said in a husky whisper. His throat was bruised purple where I’d hit him.
“Touch of the old laryngitis, Earl?”
“Closed for renovations,” he cackled, snapping the deadbolt and drawing the shade.
“Check him out,” said Earl.
Lonnie patted me down, nodded to Earl.
“Had it my way, I’d pound you into dog food right now, they’d find you in a dumpster down to Springfield. Lucky for you, the Professor wants to see you first.” He motioned to a side door. “There’s a car waiting. Just get in the front and don’t do anything funny or I’ll open you up.”
The driver was the guy in green work clothes.
“This here’s Billy,” said Earl. “You almost ruined his married life last night.”
Billy glared at me, then started driving.
* * *
Ten minutes later we turned in at a long gravel drive and stopped in front of a modern ranch-style house. There were four people in the kitchen. One of them was Blackmon.
“This is very inconvenient, Stubblefield.” He turned to Earl. “Thank you, Earl. We’ll take it from here.” Earl looked like the cat that missed the canary as he left.
“Sit,” said Blackmon. I did, and checked out the others in the room: a thin unshaven man wearing jeans and a windbreaker, an attractive girl nervously smoking, and, of course, Derek Tyler.
I said, “Tell me again, Derek, how it was just an impulsive, one-shot thing.”
He turned away to the window.
“Let me handle this, Blackmon,” said the thin man.
“I believe we’ve had enough violence, Stipe. Let’s explain things to Stubblefield. I think we can get him to see the justice of our position.”
“Let me guess. You run around the countryside smashing all the knitting machines.”
“Don’t be flip.” He made a steeple of his fingers and looked at me intently. “What is it, do you suppose, that leads one person to view a meadow, or a forest, with joy, while another sees it only as a location for a strip mall? It’s really the only question because by extension the latter impulse is destroying the planet. Surely you see that.”
“I do,” I replied.
“Yet you work for that swine, DiStasi,” said the girl.
“That’s true. Some vandals monkeyed around with his bulldozers. That’s against the law.”
“Stipe and I did that,” said Tyler.
“He’ll just repair them, or replace them.”
“Then we’ll burn them, and maybe the condo when it’s built.”
“I understand your anger, and in many ways I share it. But this is not an appropriate response.”
“Then what is?” asked the girl. “The political process certainly isn’t responsive. They’re pro business, and the business lobby pays well. And the rich get richer and the trees continue to fall.” She gave a sad little smile. “If you have an hour or so, I’ll read you the list of threatened and endangered species.”
“Let’s put it another way,” said Blackmon. “Suppose a hoodlum with a club corners you and announces his attention of crushing your skull.”
This sounded familiar.
“Aren’t you justified in defending yourself?”
“Hear me out,” said Blackmon, lifting an index finger, a professor making a point to a dimwitted freshman. “Extend the analogy. These companies, big and small, poison the air and water, cover the earth with asphalt. They, too, are murderers. True, they kill you by degrees, but kill you they will along with the rest of the biosphere, given time. Why should we not defend ourselves against them?”
“You’ve got your work cut out for you,” I said. “Guys like DiStasi are in business because people want more houses, more stores. They want fast food and new cars and cheap electricity. What are you going to do, take off everyone who uses electricity or eats shoddy burgers? Put all the stockholders to the wall?”
“Maybe we’ll start small with someone like DiStasi, then work our way up,” said Stipe, sneering.
“Absolutely not!” said Blackmon. “We’ve been over that. It’s bad enough that you…”
“Shut up!” yelled Stipe. “Just shut up!”
Blackmon looked as if he’d been slapped. I stood up and walked over to Tyler.
“Good show, Stipe. You killed a kid on a dirt bike. A blow struck for the environment.” It was a guess, but it hit home.
“That’s it, Blackmon,” snarled Stipe. “No more talk. Me or Earl, but either way this guy’s history.”
The girl blanched. Tyler froze. I had it worked out now. Well-meaning but misguided professor recruits two idealistic students to monkey wrench people like DiStasi. Somewhere along the line he must have decided that he needed a heavy, so he brought in Stipe, and what Stipe’s real motives were, God only knew. He looked to me to be a few straws shy of a bale.
Blackmon approached Stipe. “What are you thinking? Everything we do is with the understanding that we do not harm people.”
Stipe barked out a laugh. “Wake up, Blackmon. Come down from the clouds. Our program is environmental defense. On my block, the only way to stop a bully was to lay a beating on him. They don’t understand anything else. They don’t read your philosophy books. If you want to change their ways, you have to get their attention first.”
“Didn’t work so well with Stubblefield,” said Tyler.
Stipe turned on him. “How did you find out about that?”
“I asked Earl about his throat. He told me.”
“What are you talking about?” said Blackmon in a strangled voice.
“Stipe sent Earl to scare off Stubblefield. It backfired.”
Stipe reached under his windbreaker and came out with an automatic.
“I intend to correct my mistake.”
“That’s enough,” said Tyler. “We’re not murderers.”
“Easy for you to say, sonny.” Stipe’s eyes were wide and dark. “I’m the one planted those caltrops on the trail. That’s a manslaughter rap. I go down for it, you’re all coming with me.” He raised the gun. “Get out of the way, kid.”
“No!” cried Blackmon, grabbing at the gun. “No more violence.”
They grappled and the gun went off. I charged Stipe while he was tangled up with Blackmon and hit him hard on the point of his chin. He crumpled and I secured the gun as he fell. Blackmon stood, bent over, holding his side with blood-soaked hands. “I said…no violence.” Then he slid to the floor.
We waited for the cops and the rescue squad in silence broken only by the girl’s quiet sobbing.
* * *
“Correct hitting is invisible,” said Edward. He hit the body bag with a blinding back fist. “You’re opponent should fall without seeing your hands move.” He took off the bag gloves and grabbed a towel. “So the Professor’s going to make it?”
“Yeah. Going to have a world of legal problems, though. Ditto Tyler and the girl.”
“He’s going away for awhile.”
“Earl hasn’t been implicated yet, and I don’t intend to do it. He was only peripherally involved. Blackmon helped him and the other farmers set up protests against the nuclear waste dump. In return, Earl ran errands for him. I feel sorry for Earl. His people have had a dairy farm there for over a hundred years. The dump site would have put him out of business.”
“He tried to make you ugly.”
“He didn’t succeed.”
“You already ugly.”
“Indelicate of you to say so.”
“So ugly your mama took you everywhere ’cause she couldn’t stand to kiss you goodbye.”
“You never told me that you studied karate.”Edward smiled. “Old saying: ‘Have more than you show, speak less than you know.’ Buy me a cup of coffee. I’ll tell you all about Japan.”
Dave Reddall’s stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mouth Full of Bullets, Thrilling Detective, and Thuglit. He was nominated for a Shamus award in the short story category. He lives in Wellfleet, MA.
His story "Past Imperfect" was
published in omdb! in May 2015.
Copyright © 2016 Dave Reddall. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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