Authors: John Philpin
I pulled the old Volvo to the side of the road at the bottom of the hill.
So, he has time to play with the girls.
I climbed from the car into ankle-deep mud. Rain smacked into my face.
And the girls have time to play.
I left the car with the driver’s-side door ajar, engine running, interior light glowing, and hiked up the hill through the muck. As I approached the house, I left the road and moved among the trees.
Music and laughter drifted from the house.
Did you ever have dreams that sang to you? Mine are blue.
“The girl that keeps touching his arm dies,” I whispered, staring through the window and wondering if I could get off a decent shot.
Everyone dies sometime.
I pushed myself up from the muck, wiped the rain from my eyes, and struggled through the scrub growth. I found the road, and hiked the hundred yards downhill to the car.
If you would like to draw a picture, I have finished with the blue.
I will be using the red now.
Books by John Philpin
(with Patricia Sierra)
(with Patricia Sierra)
REAMS IN THE
(with John Donnelly)
For Elizabeth Frost Knappman
the vacant wide October sky
was my only friend in the end
when I sleepwalked from the stage
and spoke my final line:
my dreams are in the key of blue
I STARED AT THE WALL, THE SOURCE OF AN INSISTENT
scraping and scratching.
“Mice,” the cop said.
I resisted the impulse to smash through the ancient plaster that remained in place only through the grace of generations of wallpaper and artlessly applied paint.
The metallic stink of blood stung my throat and fused with the acrid scent of decay, and the fragrance of citrus fruit.
When cops work a crime scene, they dust with black fingerprint powder, spray magical mists, shine high-tech blue and black lights into sinks and shower stalls in search of blood traces, hairs, skin cells, semen.
They do not spray orange-scented air freshener.
Someone patiently peeled and ate an orange.
I looked from the wall to the floor, where a dark stain stretched like a four-foot, crimson-black Rorschach blot waiting for a subject’s response.
A single word nailed itself behind my eyes: slaughter.
My hands were cold, but I sweated in the overheated space. I grew dizzy with the smells and mind-clouds, and the grating racket concealed behind plaster and lath.
Citrus consumed, seeds placed neatly on rind, traces of blood.
The crime scene photographs I was looking through showed a once-attractive brunette, nude, splayed in the middle of the glistening stain. Her throat was sliced—three deep, yawning wounds. Her torso was riddled with punctures.
Then there was the coup de grâce.
“Looks like he tried to cut off her head,” the cop said.
I clenched my teeth and swallowed hard.
“This one’s name was—”
“I know who she is,” I interrupted.
I tossed the glossy eight-by-tens onto the coffee table, crouched, and touched the carmine blemish with my fingertips.
When life ends, some of us pack ourselves in burnished copper cases for a short descent into the earth, others choose to go quickly to ashes, and some are denied choice—abandoned as waste for cleaning crews to eradicate.
“I knew her,” I said.
I DROVE INTO RAGGED HARBOR, MAINE, AND FELT AN
immediate sense of déjâ vu.
The freedom that seemed so illusory to me as a street kid in Boston’s Roxbury section, I discovered south of the city on Nantasket Beach in my teens. I prowled the bay side of my seven-mile peninsula, explored each inlet and cove, examined skate eggs, horseshoe crabs, and sandshark cadavers. Then I shifted my attention to the ocean’s infinite rhythms, and probed seaweed and driftwood, new treasures that arrived with each tide change. I met the resident scavengers and predators; I knew the wildly shifting ocean currents, the indifference of an immense and surging sea.
I drove Ragged Harbor’s mile-long causeway between mudflats and seawalls, and into the village. The inner harbor on my right was a bay, a haven for water craft. Beyond a cove and a breakwater on the left, the dark Atlantic—my familiar friend—throbbed.
The smell of dead fish billowed from stacks of crab pots. Great black-backed gulls bombed the rocks along the breakwater with mussels and clams, then dropped from
the sky to pick at the shattered shells with their orange beaks. A dory rested upside down on a stony beach.
Gulls screamed; sandpipers minced ahead of low tide’s bantam waves; terns dove at the cracked shells left behind by the gulls; a cormorant’s head and long neck slipped through the harbor’s placid surface.
I felt as if I had rediscovered a private paradise, a place where I could continue my lifelong love affair with the sea.
“Why move to Michigan?” my daughter Lane asked when, years ago, I had announced my imminent departure from Boston. “That’s nearly midway between the two oceans. You said you couldn’t stand the thought of being landlocked.”
“Well, that guarantees that I’ll be back.”
Seven years after that conversation, I drove into Ragged Harbor’s village.
The town lived a divided life. A leaning white church behind an erect white picket fence, the general store, a hardware store with gas pump in front, the post office and police station housed in the municipal building—all indicated an old New England community. “Willy’s Twice-Daily Whale Cruises,” guaranteeing sightings, and “Ragged Ts,” each shirt sporting a jagged neck seam, lured summer tourists.
I consulted my map, turned left at the second of the two stoplights, and drove into the community’s third identity, the college town.
Harbor College was small, four hundred women on a hilltop with views of the Atlantic Ocean and the cove that served as safe harbor for dumpy lobster and crab boats, fishing trawlers, and sleek cruisers. The fieldstone and wood college buildings, originally a seminary, dated from the nineteenth century. With religious fervor fading in the 1940s, the seminary closed its doors. Progressive educators approached the board of directors and proposed the
creation of a small, student-centered liberal arts college. In 1955, the board ceded the campus to the college.
Stuart Gilman, my contact at the college, occupied an office in the administration building, but lacked a title. The short, paunchy, balding man was power-attired in reds and browns, and deceptively satin-tongued. Had it not been for his extensive repertoire of nervous gestures, he would have made a well-oiled public relations drone.
“I’ve heard that Dr. Lucas Frank is a recluse,” Gilman said, bobbing his head. “I was surprised that you agreed to come out here.”
“The timing of the invitation was right,” I said, feeling not the slightest need to tell him anything more.
During my years as a practicing psychiatrist, I ministered to the ills of the neurotic and psychotic, the personality disordered, and those who were just plain confused. I quickly tired of the “same stories, different faces” routine. Then, when the faces suddenly looked the same, I felt like I was drowning in a mad scientist’s genetic sink. It did not help when managed-care companies insisted that they would set my fees and grab quick peeks at my files whenever the spirit moved them.
My work was never interesting or challenging enough, so, on the side, I developed personality profiles of killers, rapists, and any other purveyors of mayhem who drifted my way. Charming, no?
Police detectives became my best customers, as they sought new insights into the crimes and criminals they were charged to investigate. Their municipalities did not pay well, but the work was far more satisfying. Unlike HMOs, cops did not demand monthly reports in triplicate, written in a jargon that sounded like glossolalia emanating from one hell of a Pentecostal bingo night.
But even that work was not enough. I felt compelled to chase the bastards down. Whenever I grew impatient
with law enforcement’s investigative or interrogative techniques, I developed my own. Most of the time I operated within the law. Sometimes I considered it necessary to… improvise. A serial killer doesn’t recite a Miranda warning before slitting your throat and disposing of you in six counties. Why should I bother with the law?
There was never any slowing down for me, not until I said goodbye to craziness and said hello to my retreat at Lake Albert in upstate Michigan. I quit the business, took up bass fishing, listened to music cranked loud enough to crack plaster. I confined my communication with the world to a fax machine that my daughter, Lane, a homicide detective in New York City, gave me and insisted I plug in.
In the past few months, I had begun to feel as if my half dozen years of retirement were years spent on the run. Before I agreed to teach a course on gender and serial violence in the women’s studies program at Harbor College, I was bogged down in a slough of depression. I had turned my back on the demons that haunted my professional life, and in retaliation they crept up on me, nipped at my backside, invaded my dreams. I was restless, not sleeping well, and suffering from a world-class case of anhedonia—a total loss of interest in the pursuits that I most enjoyed. Translation? I was bored to the brink of a vegetative state. The time had come to declare myself unretired.
“Are you on the faculty, Mr. Gilman?”
“It’s Stu. I’m the liaison between MI and the college. Harbor is the primary recipient of the educational grants that MI awards each year. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that this place would fold without our financial support. In addition to the cash we provide, we also own several buildings in town, including the house where you’ll be staying. MI is paying your stipend and expenses, of course.”