Read Vineyard Blues Online

Authors: Philip R. Craig

Tags: #Fiction

Vineyard Blues (14 page)

BOOK: Vineyard Blues
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—  24  —

Diana the Huntress, having had a busy morning of her own, nodded sleepily on Zee's lap.

“Before I met you,” Zee began, “I dated other men.”

I held up a hand. “I know that. You don't have to tell me anything about it. Your life before we met is your business, not mine. It has nothing to do with us.”

She nodded. “I know we both agreed to that, and that's the way I want it to be, too. But sometimes—now, for instance—the past creeps into the present. I don't want it sneaking between us, so I need to tell you some things.”

I opened my mouth, then shut it, then opened it long enough to say, “All right.”

She bounced Diana gently on her knee, watching her daughter's eyelids grow heavy. I felt a sense of sanctity as I looked at the two of them. Madonna and child.

“When Paul divorced me,” said Zee, “I was a total wreck. I felt worthless. I came down here and lived with my aunt Amelia while I tried to put myself back together. You know about that, and you know that she helped me a lot, and that after a while, I began dating. What you don't know is that I wasn't very stable, and I did some foolish things with men.” She raised her great, dark eyes to mine. “Ben Krane and his brother were two of them. I must have been just the sort of fragile woman they look for. I was with Ben first, then he handed me on to Peter. They treated me like chattel, and that seems now to have been how I saw myself at that time: like a worthless thing that could be owned or thrown away by anybody.”

A small red glow appeared deep in my psyche. I knew it of old; it was the beast that lives within us all, beneath the thin veneer of civilization. I feared it and used my will against it. But it wouldn't go away.

Zee ran a hand through her long, blue-black hair, pushing it back from her forehead as though to give more freedom to her voice and thoughts.

“Ben is very conventional about what he wants from women. Mostly, it's just dominance. Once he establishes that, and exercises it for a while, he gets bored with the woman and wants another one. Peter is very happy to take over.

“Peter has a conventional marriage in New York, but he comes to the Vineyard so he can have women do things his wife doesn't do. What he wants is very humiliating for the women, but some of them want that. Others find out they don't. I was that kind. I did what Peter wanted for a while, but then, somehow, I realized one day that I was being a fool, and I left.”

Diana was a rag doll, snoozing in her mother's arms. I wondered if somewhere deep in her subconscious she was recording the words being spoken.

“I was embarrassed and ashamed and angry,” said Zee. “I blamed Ben and Peter at first, but most of all I was angry at myself. That all happened a long time before I met you, and I thought I'd put it all behind me, but then you took this job.”

I was caught between her voice and the crimson fury pulsating on the margins of my consciousness.

A crooked smile appeared on Zee's face. “And then I was angry with you for taking this job. And when you wouldn't give it up, I was angry with everything. It was terrible.”

“You should have told me then.” The words sounded to me as though they came from someone living in a cave.

“No. Because in the past two days I've finally realized that I had no business being mad at you or Ben or Peter or myself; I was angry about something that happened between other people long ago, people who aren't here now.”

My barbed-wire voice said, “The Krane boys are still here.”

She shook her head. “But the person I was then isn't around anymore. She was sick, but she got better and now she's long gone. What happened then has nothing to do with now. I'm not that girl anymore and I haven't been for a long time. I think Ben and Peter Krane were wretched men then, and that they probably still are, but they have nothing to do with me. I'm free of both of them and that girl, too.” She looked at me. “And I want you to be free of her and them.”

I said nothing.

“I mean it,” she said. “I told you about this so you'd understand. I'm a different person, and my life is different now. And I'm living it with you. It's you I love, and I don't care if you work with Ben Krane or not. He means nothing at all to me.” She rocked Diana in her arms. “The world is full of men like the Kranes, and it always will be. They're a dime a dozen, and not worth a heavy sweat or a second thought.”

I sat and said nothing.

“I'll put the babe in her bed and be right back,” said Zee.

While she was gone I thought of her courage in telling me what she had told, and doubted if I'd ever tell her of some of my own early activities. I set my will against the red glow and drove the beast away, or at least out of sight. If I couldn't rid the world of its evils, I could at least try to rid myself of some of those in me. When Zee got back, it was my turn to talk.

“All right,” I said, “I won't think about what happened back then, but I have to think about what's happening now. Ben and Peter are still up to their old tricks, and those tricks may have a lot to do with these fires.”

“If you find evidence that will nail Ben and Peter to the wall, it'll be just fine with me, because I think they're scum. I just don't want you to do it because of what happened to me.”

“I won't,” I said, hoping it wasn't a lie.

We looked at each other and I saw that she was smiling. She suddenly no longer seemed sacred and pure, but divinely profane and totally feminine; no longer Mary, but Eve. It was a cleansing, familiar, carnal feeling I often got when seeing her.

“I like being married to you,” she said.

My pulse beat in my veins. “Ditto, Brother Smut.”

“Where did that phrase come from, anyway?”

“I don't know. My dad used to say it.”

“I love having a couple of little Jacksons.”

“What this world needs is more Jacksons; no doubt about it.”

“As to that, I think it has just the right number.”

I licked my lips. “Shucks. I was just giving thought to being fruitful and multiplying.”

She grinned. “As Chanticleer would point out, we're shaped the way we are for delyte, too. Will you settle for that?”

I stripped off my T-shirt in reply.

“Gosh,” said Zee, unbuttoning her shirt. “Right here in the yard?”

I kicked off my sandals and slid out of my shorts.

“What about low-flying planes?”

“The pilots will be so distracted they'll all crash. Not one will live to tell the tale. Here, allow me to help you slip into nothing more comfortable.”

She allowed me.

Afterward we lay on the grass and looked up at the sky.

“You seem to have worked up a sweat,” said Zee, running her hand over my belly.

“And you have some grass stains in certain places.”

“The shower is big enough for two.”

“Did you notice that Oliver Underfoot and Velcro were interested in what they were seeing?”

“They're very smart cats. But how do you know what they were doing? You were supposed to be looking only at me.” She stretched like a black panther, arching her back, and flexing her shoulders.

“I'm looking at you now,” I said and pulled her to me.

Later, in the outdoor shower that we use nine months of the year, I washed her long black hair and scrubbed her back and knew that life was good. I was hanging my towel on the solar dryer when I heard the phone ringing. I got to it just in time.

“How many times do I have to tell you that you should get an answering machine?” said Quinn. “I can hear you puffing all the way up here in Boston. You're getting too old for these frantic dashes.”

“Nonsense,” I puffed. “I haven't lost a step.”

“I've got some information about your friend Corrie Appleyard.”

My ears went up. “Tell me.”

The information was that Corrie had married long ago, but, being a rolling stone sort of musician, hadn't spent much time at the Mississippi home place where his wife still lived. He was there from time to time and sent money back when he had some. His visits had resulted in three children, two boys and a girl. One boy died in the Korea police action, the other was a musician in New Orleans, and the girl was a Philadelphia physician.

Hearing that, I interrupted. “Did she marry a guy named Carlyle?”

“You know about that? Yeah. They have a daughter. Kid's in college.”

Not anymore. “What else do you have?”

He had a synopsis of Corrie's professional life, which included a good deal of time in Philadelphia a generation ago.

When he was through, I asked him for any family addresses he might have. He didn't have any, but he had the names of Corrie's wife and children. I wrote them down and asked him to mail the rest of his information to me.

“Hell, I'll just fax it. Oh, no, I won't. You, naturally, don't have a fax machine. Get with it, J.W.! This is the twentieth century you're living in, for God's sake. Get yourself into the electronic age! Stop sending messages by smoke signals!”

“You can fax it, if that'll make you happy.” I gave him the number of a place in Edgartown where fax people can practice their odd communication habits.

“Don't spend all of your time on this business,” he said. “Get to work on that addition. Brady and I are serious about fishing in the derby this year, and we'll need that room your kids are using now!”

“I may have Brady down, but I'm not sure about you,” I said.

He hung up and I dialed directory assistance. Hattie Appleyard lived on a farm just outside of Port Gibson, Mississippi. The operator gave me her number. I dialed again and got the number for Dr. Emily Carlyle in Philadelphia. I called the Edgartown police station and left both numbers and the names that went with them for the chief to pass on to the Dingses.

I'd let the professionals ask Corrie's daughter and his aging wife for the name of his dentist or for other information that might help them identify the body found in the burned house. I wasn't up to that sad task, however much I'd be interested in what they learned. I had a job that was closer at hand. I wasn't sure that it would work out, but it was worth a try.

Zee, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her hair, came into view. Venus without the shell. My rarely well-behaved hormones began to stir once again. Had someone slipped Viagra into my beer?

“What's up?” she asked. “Oh, I see.”

“I was going to drive to Oak Bluffs,” I said. “But maybe I'll wait until later.” I took a step toward her.

Just then, however, Joshua came into the room, rubbing his eyes. He was used to seeing naked parents, but his appearance curtailed my plan. He had apparently overheard my reference to Oak Bluffs.

“Can I go with you, Pa?”

Zee laughed and went into the bedroom.

“Sure you can,” I said to Josh. “Just let me get into some clothes.” I followed Zee.

“What are your Oak Bluffs plans?” asked Zee, as we slid into shorts and shirts.

“I thought I'd go see Cousin Henry Bayles.”

Her eyes widened. “I'm not sure that's the best idea you ever had,” she said, frowning.

“I'm not sure, either,” I said, “but I'm going. I don't think Cousin Henry will loose his dogs of war on me as long as I don't get sassy.”

“Maybe you should leave Joshua at home.”

“I think he'll be okay.”

She started to say something logical, but settled for another frown. Mothers have a tough time in this world.

Five minutes later, Joshua and I were on our way.

—  25  —

The first time I ever saw Cousin Henry Bayles was about the same time I first met Corrie Appleyard, only I met Corrie in Somerville, and saw Cousin Henry on the Vineyard. I was a kid, and my father and I were walking down Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. My father, who from time to time tried to teach me useful lessons about life, pointed out the little brown man to illustrate the dangers of starting fights with people you didn't know. Cousin Henry was a scrawny, aging guy who looked like the wind could blow him away, but according to my father he was probably the most dangerous man I'd ever meet, being the prime suspect in the violent deaths of a lot of very big, very tough guys during the Philadelphia black gang wars before he had abandoned his life as crime boss there and retired quietly to Oak Bluffs. Later, when I worked on the Boston PD, old-timers on the force had told similar harrowing tales about Cousin Henry, whom they included in the almost mythical tradition of Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, and other killers held in high esteem by Americans who never had to deal with them in real life.

I had briefly met Cousin Henry and his wife after my own retirement to the Vineyard years later, but only because he was kin to the very proper and successful and wealthy Crandels, whose family had been coming to Oak Bluffs for a hundred years, and for whom I worked as caretaker of their big East Chop house during the off season. Cousin Henry had not encouraged me to maintain a relationship with him, and I could understand that, since he was not only picky about his friends, but he had damaged a lot of people in his earlier life, and had grown old only by being very careful about possibly vengeful acquaintances and visitors.

Now, though, I wanted to see him again.

He and the ageless little woman who was his wife lived in a modest house down by Brush Pond, on the banks of the Lagoon. The house was innocent-looking but well situated for defense. Cousin Henry had water on three sides of his property, so you could only reach him over land by approaching the front of his house, or by boat from the Lagoon, where he had a small floating dock reaching out from his beach. There was a porch overlooking the dock where a motorboat was tied all year long, just in case Henry felt the need to go to sea. All things considered, it would be very hard for any visitor to see Cousin Henry before he saw the visitor.

I wanted him to see me so he wouldn't be unduly nervous, so I drove slowly into his front yard, parked, got out with Joshua, and stood there for a while. After I thought I saw a white curtain move in a window, I walked with Joshua up to the door and knocked.

After a bit, the door opened halfway and Henry's wife stood there, looking up at me. She wore what women used to call, and maybe still do call, a housedress. The dress was a print of small flowers on a gray background, and its white collar was buttoned to her stringy neck. A stringy-looking hand held the collar of a very large, unfriendly-looking dog.

“Yes?”

I told her who I was and that I wanted to see her husband.

She seemed to give that notion some thought, then shook her head. “He's not available.”

“Tell him it's a family matter.”

“He's still not available.” She began to shut the door.

I shot my last wad. “Tell him it's about Millicent Dowling.”

The door stopped shutting and her small, dark eyes flicked back up at mine. “Who?”

I thought I saw a glimmer of emotion in those ebony eyes. I calculated generations. “Millicent is a friend of Linda Carlyle. Linda's grandfather, Corrie Appleyard, is missing and I want to talk to Millicent about it.”

“You've come to the wrong place,” she said, and shut the door.

As she did, I said, “Your granddaughter may be in trouble.” It was a guess, but I had confidence in it because of the pattern of relationships I'd heard about.

The closed door looked me in the face.

Joshua, feeling my tension, took my hand.

I waited. Nothing happened.

So much for that plan. I was leading Joshua back toward the car when a voice came from behind me.

“You're Jackson,” it said.

I turned and faced Cousin Henry. He looked not greatly different from when I'd first seen him decades before.

“That's right. J. W. Jackson. This is my son, Joshua.”

“Bring the boy here.”

I did that, and when I got to Cousin Henry, I said, “This is Mr. Bayles, Joshua.”

Joshua put out his hand, and Cousin Henry took it. “How do you do?” said Joshua.

“Fine, just fine,” said Cousin Henry, “and how are you?”

“I'm fine, thank you,” said Joshua.

Cousin Henry released Joshua's hand and put his own toward me. I took it.

“You helped out Julie Crandel a while back,” he said.

“I look after Stanley and Betsy's place when they're gone.”

He waved at the porch overlooking the Lagoon. “We'll sit. My wife is bringing lemonade.” We stepped up onto the porch and sat in rocking chairs set below a window opened to the wind off the water. “Maybe the boy would like to go down and look at the boat,” said Cousin Henry.

Josh was a fool for boats. “Can I, Pa?”

“Sure. Just don't fall in the water.”

Joshua went down the path that led to the dock.

“Now,” said Cousin Henry, “what's this about Corrie and my granddaughter?”

“So she
is
your granddaughter. I thought so, but I wasn't sure.” I told him how Adam Washington had gotten his boxes mixed up with his bales.

“A container confusion.” Cousin Henry smiled. Then his smile went away. “What's your interest in Millicent and Corrie?”

I told him about my father and Corrie's friendship, and about the fires and my conversations with Peg Sharp, Adam Washington, and the Krane brothers, and about the job I'd taken with Ben Krane.

“They found a body in the last house that burned,” I said. “That could make it a homicide case, not just arson.”

Cousin Henry's wife appeared with a tray holding three glasses of iced lemonade, put the tray on a table between us, and disappeared.

“Do you know who died?” asked Cousin Henry.

“I don't know for sure, but I think it was Corrie. They found his satchel beside the body, and it had some new pennies in it. Corrie did some magic tricks with new pennies when he was at my place.”

“What's this got to do with Millicent?”

“I'm not sure, but I'd like to talk with her before the police and the arson investigators and insurance people do.”

“Why should any of you want to talk with her?” asked Cousin Henry, taking a sip of lemonade.

I tried my own glass. Delish. There's nothing like cold lemonade on a hot summer day. On the dock, Joshua was looking down at the motorboat tied alongside. It was a bigger and better-looking boat than my little Seagull-powered dinghy.

“Because she was missing the nights when the last two houses burned,” I said, “and the moped she'd borrowed from Adam Washington was found at the site of the second fire.”

“What is the significance of that?”

“She borrowed Adam Washington's moped and told him that she was going to visit you. The moped was hard to start. She'd had trouble with it before. She told Adam she was going to visit you, but it looks like she actually rode the moped to the two houses that burned, then, at the last house, she couldn't get it started when she wanted to leave. If I were a cop, I'd want to talk with her about what she was doing there.”

“But you're not a cop.”

“I'm a friend of Corrie's. I'd like to know what happened to him.”

Cousin Henry pursed his lips and looked at the dock, where Joshua was now giving thought to trying to get down into the boat.

“Do you mind if he goes aboard?” I asked.

Cousin Henry shook his head. “No, I don't mind. Are you suggesting that Millicent had something to do with the death of the person found after that fire? If so, and if that is Corrie's body, you are quite wrong. She's known Corrie Appleyard all of her life. She'd never harm him.” He drank some more lemonade. “On the other hand, Ben Krane deservedly has many enemies, and any one of them may have set fire to his houses. That person would not have shared Millicent's affection for Corrie. Besides,” he added, “if it comes to that, my wife and I will testify that Millicent was here with us when both of those fires started.”

Joshua was squatting on the dock, wondering if he dared a leap down into the boat. I wondered, too, and got mentally ready for a fast run in case he misjudged and landed in the water instead.

“You're right about Krane having enemies and deserving them,” I said, “but Millicent hasn't been seen since the last fire, and it may not be too long before people with badges start looking for her. I'd like to talk with her first, so I came here.”

“I don't believe you can get the search warrant you'd need to look for her.”

“I don't plan to try, but somebody official might.”

Cousin Henry and I both watched Joshua jump down onto the deck of the boat and sprawl there. He was on his feet almost immediately, and looked back at the house. I waved. He waved back and then climbed down into the cockpit.

“As you know,” said Cousin Henry, “I belong to a closeknit family. We take care of our own and are unhappy when others interfere with our lives.”

“I do know that. I feel the same way about my family. But I am set on finding out what happened to Corrie Appleyard, and I think your granddaughter may know something about that.”

“You mentioned that you're working for Ben Krane. That would seem to put you and me on opposing sides in this matter.”

“Ben Krane wants me to find out who's torching his houses. If I find out, I may tell him and I may not, because if I'm right about his role in this whole matter, he probably deserves what's happened to him. But I don't feel that way about Corrie Appleyard. If he was murdered or died in that last fire, I want to know all about what happened and who else was involved. If that puts us on opposing sides, so be it.”

His face showed no expression at all. “I will tell you one last time that my granddaughter would never harm Corrie Appleyard.”

“I believe you. But I also believe Millicent was there when that last house burned, and I'd like to talk with her.”

“I'm afraid that's not possible, Mr. Jackson. I believe your boy is too small to climb back on the dock by himself. Perhaps you should give him a hand.”

I emptied my glass, got up, and walked down to where Joshua was discovering that he was, indeed, too short to get back up on the dock. He reached up with his hands.

“Help, Pa.”

I knelt and lifted him up beside me.

“Thanks, Pa.”

“Nice boat, eh?”

He nodded, obviously impressed. We walked back to the house. Cousin Henry stood up as we got to the porch. “If you happen to see your granddaughter, Mr. Bayles, tell her I came by to talk to her.”

“If I do, I will.”

“And tell her that the authorities may come looking for her. They probably won't be long in learning what people have already told me, and they'll want to talk with her.”

“You wouldn't be thinking of passing your information on to them yourself, would you?”

“No. At least not the part about Millicent.” I put out my hand. “Well, good-bye, Mr. Bayles.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Jackson.” Cousin Henry shook my big hand with his small, bony one, then put the hand down and took Joshua's. “Good-bye, young man.”

“Good-bye,” said Joshua. “You have a better motorboat than we do.”

“I'm sure yours is fine.”

“We have a sailboat, too.”

“I've never learned to sail, I'm afraid.”

“My pa could teach you.”

Cousin Henry's mouth twitched as a smile whipped across it and was gone. “I'm sure he could.”

The sound of a closing door came from the front of the house, and a pretty young woman came onto the porch. Her skin was a golden brown, and her hair was black and wavy.

“I'm Millicent Dowling,” she said. “I've been listening to you through the window.”

I glanced down at her grandfather. There was a wry expression on his face.

“You're just like me, Millicent,” he said. “You never do a thing you're told.”

“I know. But after hearing what you both said, I decided to ignore your advice and come out and join the conversation.” She gave Cousin Henry a kiss. She was inches taller than he, and it landed on his forehead.

Then she looked at me. “I'll talk to you, Mr. Jackson. Where should we start?”

“At the beginning, if you know where that is.”

“I know where it began for me.”

“Then start there.”

BOOK: Vineyard Blues
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