There is nothing quite so dark and empty as the soul of an alcoholic at four in the morning. More than 10 years had passed since his last drink, but the shapeless waves of guilt and inadequacy that surged through him felt as real and exigent as those from the old days when he would awaken with the sheets beneath him damp and soiled with night sweats. He felt like crawling out of his own skin.
A cool breeze blew in through the cracked window next to the bed, but it provided no relief as the air was super-heated the moment it entered the room by a broken steam radiator located under the window. It answered exclusively to an ancient, insensitive thermostat located in some distant room and could not be turned off. The Congregational Church across the street added to his discomfort. Some years before the church elders had installed a new set of bells and unilaterally decided it was imperative that all residents within a six-block radius be made aware of the time on an hourly basis. This annoyed Ryan more than usual. Knowing the precise time when it turned 2, 3, and finally 4:00 a.m. only served to underscore his inability to sleep.
‘Fuckers all probably live on the other side of town,’ he thought to himself.
Ryan turned his head toward his numb arm for perhaps the fifth time in as many minutes, dead and useless and swore softly. In his college days they made jokes about “pulling a coyote” in situations like the one he found himself in. When coyotes are caught in a snare, they sometimes chew off their own leg to escape. Despite his pain, Ryan knew moving his arm would risk waking the woman who slept so peacefully atop it, and he toyed with the idea for several seconds.
Ryan was in love with the idea of love. He did loving things, said loving things and made love a lot, but during his 37 years on the planet he had seldom used the ‘L’ word as in “I love you.” except for a few times in high school. It never sounded right coming out of his mouth so he stopped and planned on saving it for the love. When he found her and used it, he wanted it to mean something. The concept was sacred to him, and he didn't want to cheapen the word through premature or excessive use.
The woman asleep on his arm was perfectly pleasant to be with, but like a hundred before her, she fell short. The problem was his ideal changed from week to week, sometimes day to day and the character traits he sought were often in direct conflict with one another. Terrified of ending up alone, he kept searching because to not do so would be an admission to a lonely and pointless future. Right now, he wanted out and away from the responsibility of explaining himself and after pondering various options, decided a slow withdrawal of his arm in combination with a feigned rollover as his best one. He held his breath and began the delicate maneuver.
She awoke instantly as if some invisible tether between them had tensed. "Ryan, are you OK?" she moaned sleepily.
"Yes." he answered after a brief pause. "I have to go, but I didn't want to wake you."
"You have to go? Why, what time is it?"
He searched his mind for a plausible excuse that wouldn't hurt or offend yet allow immediate exit. "It's about 4:30 and I have to go because ..." he couldn't think of one. "If I stay here one second longer, I think I might puke."
Fully awake, Michelle reached over to touch his forehead and check for a fever.
"You don't feel well do you?"
He recoiled from her extended hand like a petulant child, tempted to mimic her query. "I need my own bed."
She switched on the bedside table light and turned back to him with that look in her eyes as he pulled on his shirt and pants. She knew, had felt him pulling away for days and anything he said would make the whole thing worse.
"Maybe we should talk."
"No, I have to go."
She looked at him sadly but also knowingly. "Can't we ...?"
"Not now, maybe later." He wanted to get out before her hurt boiled to the surface and the tears started. He became almost frantic as he buttoned his jeans.
She surprised him. "Your loss Ryan," and turned the light out as he rushed from the room. She waited for the stretching sound of the spring on the screen door before allowing herself any tears.
He skipped the steps and leapt off the side of the porch as the door slapped shut behind him and landed in the dewy grass with his shoes in hand. Cold, small beads of moisture sprinkled the tops of his still hot bare feet as he cut across her lawn, reminding him that the first hard frost of fall would arrive any day. “What is wrong with me?” he asked himself. But even as he walked the short distance back to the boatyard he wondered if ending things with Michele had been the right thing to do.
Sippican Village is a quintessential New England town on Cape Cod. It continued to slumber as he walked the two short blocks through the village center. He was glad for his bare feet. The noise of shod feet would have woken at least one dog, which in turn would have woken them all. Sippican had not changed a bit in his 37 years, but he had; enough to finally leave the small town from which he had drawn his sense of self for too long. One day he’d simply woken up and realized that the dreams and values he had pursued and attempted to emulate for half a lifetime were those of his parents and grandparents. There was nothing wrong with them, they simply weren't his.
He passed by the tidy, little Captain's cottages left behind from the whaling days, the general store, post office and the band-concert shell on the village green. Sippican's seduction was easy to understand; carefree and protected, clambakes, fireworks, small-town parades, huge family reunions, tennis, sailing, fishing, yacht club and tennis club dances, not to mention a plethora of attractive, educated and willing young women. What wasn't to like?
He walked into the dark boatyard. It was starting to fill up with all the boats that would be stored ashore for winter. They were scattered about in varying states of readiness for the coming snow and freezing temperatures. Some were still rigged with their masts in. Others had been stripped of their rigging and now had crude frames of fir strapping material built onto their decks. These appeared almost skeletal in the predawn light. Once the frames were complete, giant sheets of shrink-wrap would be applied to keep out the winter snow and ice. He kept thinking about Michelle but felt as though the relationship was depleted ground that he'd plowed over far too many times. What was the point? He would be gone soon. It was early October and he planned to be out of the boatyard headed South on his sailboat Parthenia in four to six weeks' time. By then the hurricane season would have passed, but it would still be early enough to avoid most of the cold, unpredictable weather of late fall on the first leg of his trip to Bermuda.
Ryan rounded the corner of the shed where Parthenia stood on poppet stands and was startled as a huge, black shape rose out of the dirt, snorted several times, and bound out at him from the dark shed.
"Clifton! You scared the shit out of me!" Ryan squatted down to return the shameless display of affection being offered. Clifton was a four-year-old black Labrador of unusually large stature and minimal grace who was completely devoted to him. The dog was not a brain trust, but his short memory and immeasurable enthusiasm were always welcome and frequently comical. Time meant absolutely nothing to him and whether Ryan left for a week or only 10 minutes, each reunion warranted an effusive, rough, wet welcome.
Ryan turned on the overhead florescent lights and took a moment to stare lovingly at Parthenia. He had acquired the boat almost six years ago, but it was only in the last three months that he'd mustered the courage to sell his house and move onto the boat full time. His decision was based in part on a threatened IRS lien for taxes owed. In the end, he had chosen the boat over the house. He could always buy another house, but they weren't building wooden boats like Parthenia anymore. Built 65 years earlier, she was a wooden, 42-foot, full keel, mahogany sloop designed by Sparkman and Stevens and built in Norway of 1-inch edge glued mahogany planking, fastened over bronze strapped oak frames. She was ideally suited to the ocean travel he loved so much; fast, strong, and stable in the worst weather conditions.
He gave Clifton another quick rubdown before climbing the ladder up onto the deck, then went below to make his first pot of coffee and a work list for the day. He sat at the chart table and critically examined the main cabin while waiting for his coffee to drip through. Messy with tools and sawdust, the cabin had an unmistakable patina that reflected the many sea miles she'd traveled. Every nick, dent and repair in the solid mahogany interior told a story of a race, a crossing, or a difficult trip. Parthenia was like a worn saddle or a favorite pair of jeans and was finally back together again after being torn apart to accommodate the removal and subsequent replacement of her old diesel engine. She'd always been a bit under-powered. With the new engine he expected she would be able to cruise comfortably at 8 knots under power.
It was 6 a.m. by the time he'd changed into work clothes, had his coffee and finished his work list. He hoped to get in several hours of work before the boatyard workers came in and the distractions of the day began. Still dark under the boat where he would be working, he set up several aluminum clip-on lights around the perimeter of the hull and got out the various tools he needed. The hull planks covering Parthenia’s frames had all been edge glued with a first-generation epoxy when she was originally built and some of the glue joints were starting to fail, allowing the planks to shrink apart. His solution was to rout out the old epoxy along the joints and to insert splines with modern epoxy. The splines he planned on putting in were of varying lengths, the longest almost 20 feet long. Each was 1/8- to 1/4-inch wide and he would set them into routed channels 3/4-inch deep that ran fore and aft and into the glue joint between all the planks. The skill in replacing them was to cut a new, straight channel that would both remove the old glue line and exactly follow the contour of each of the shaped planks that ran the length of the hull. He adjusted the batten he was using as a guide, placed the high-speed tool up against the hull, plunged the router and started his first cut of the morning. The router spun at 25,000 rpm and the sharp bit cut easily into the wood. Quickly he was covered in fine, aromatic, African mahogany dust as he ran the tool down the hull. Each of the old planks had been cut from first-cut trees over 300 years old. The smell and texture of the newly exposed wood was rich and exotic like the jungles from which it had been harvested. The first cut went well, and he moved around the hull for the next several hours oblivious to the rest of the world until he felt his knee nudged aggressively from behind.
He knew who it was without looking and turned off the router before looking down into Clifton's big brown eyes. The dog stood stolid and square, tail slowly wagging, looking anxiously back and forth between Ryan's face and a space at his feet where he had dropped a piece of scrap wood. He sensed an opening for play and nudged him again and wagged his tail in a wider arc.
"You really need to get a life."
Clifton's 5-pound tail wagged in a wider arc in response to Ryan's attention and it began to look as though the tail was wagging him.
Ryan laughed out loud. "All right, I get it!" He looked at his watch, surprised to see that almost five hours had passed since he’d started working. He turned off the router, rested it on the staging behind him and blew himself off with the air hose at his feet. Then he smiled down at Clifton, walked over to the workbench, got a tennis ball off the shelf and walked out of the shed towards the beach. Once there he threw the ball for almost 10 minutes up and down the beach until Clifton ran out of gas and lay down at his feet breathing hard. The ball, encrusted with thick saliva and sand, sat safely between his paws. Ryan gave him a moment to rest then continued walking down the beach to the short pier that ran out into the harbor. Clifton followed him with his eyes for a minute and then carefully picked up the ball, dropped it into the water at the ocean's edge, and rinsed it off before picking it back up and following him out onto the pier.
Ryan sat down on a bench at the end, and absently gazed out over the quiet anchorage. Normally full of sailboats in the summer, only a dozen or so remained in the water. The colorful summer mooring balls were being replaced with uniform winter-sticks that made it more difficult for winter ice to carry away the ground tackle laying on the bottom. He watched for several minutes as a solitary boatyard employee on a small work barge changed out another one several hundred yards off the shore. The sun on his face felt good.
Moments later he watched as a large powerboat rounded the entrance buoy at the head of the harbor. It stood out because it was huge, over 120-feet long, the kind of yacht one would normally see in Palm Beach or on the Riviera and seldom in small, sleepy villages like Sippican. Ryan figured the owner had paid at least $20 million or $30 million for it and he was curious what such a person would be doing in their small town at this time of year. The small, high-speed Cigarette launch cradled on its upper, aft-deck cost as much as his boat, and he stood watching for a few more minutes as the ship anchored in the deeper water at the harbor entrance. The captain of the vessel steered from the wings of the bridge and was communicating with two of his crew on the bow by radio. When the ship finally came head to wind and stopped, one of the crew tripped the brake on the windlass and a large Danforth anchor dropped from the bow cavity on the port side. Thick, half-inch chain followed the anchor towards the bottom and made a loud, distinctive chunka, chunka, chunka sound as the individual links ran over and through the bow chalk. The sound was clearly audible from half mile away.
Ryan thought about the cost of operating such a vessel. The rule of thumb was that operating costs for any vessel are approximately 15 percent of the original purchase price, every year. He did some quick math in his head and figured annual maintenance and crew expenses for the yacht to be over $3,000,000/year; a staggering sum in his simple world. He shook his head and then looked at his watch and decided to take an early lunch.
His small inflatable Zodiac was tied at the float below he got up off the bench and started walking down the gangway. Clifton knew right away what going down to the lower float meant and raced ahead and bounded into their small outboard. Ryan started the engine and after untying the bow line they idled away from the dock and started motoring in the general direction of The Black Watch restaurant across the harbor. Clifton stood, legs apart in the bow, taking up half the length of the small inflatable and savored the breeze through his jowls. Ryan angled his course a few degrees to get a closer look at the powerboat. As they got closer, he watched as the crew of the yacht launched the Cigarette and prepared to get the smaller boat underway. Once it was in the water one of the crew climbed down into it and started the powerful racing engines. They idled with a distinctive, angry, staccato sound that he could easily hear over the sound of his small outboard. Two other passengers got on board, they dropped their lines and the operator slammed the throttles forward, emitting an obnoxious blatting sound as the propellers sought purchase. They came up on a plane and did a tight circle around the mother ship before straightening out and heading towards the town landing. They clearly had no intention of observing the no wake, 5 mph speed zone and quickly accelerated to 30 or 40 knots.
Ryan realized they were going to cross his bow quite closely and changed his course to give them more berth. He expected them to slow as they neared, out of courtesy, but that didn't happen. Instead of slowing down and veering away they turned directly towards him and only at the last possible second, before hitting him, turned away; throwing wake and spray directly into his tiny Zodiac. He saw what was going to happen and cut his throttle and hung onto both sides of his boat with his weight low in the bottom. Clifton lacked his insight into fluid dynamics, however, and when the wake hit them, was thrown into the water.
"You fucking asshole!" Ryan screamed at their stern. The operator didn't stop and instead laughed and pounded the dashboard in amusement as he looked backward over his shoulder. He was deeply tanned and had a ponytail.
Ryan struggled to pull Clifton's slippery, wet body back into the boat and promised himself a confrontation with the driver if an opportunity presented itself. The man had no business operating a boat, and he imprinted the faces of the operator and his two associates into his mind. Clifton of course didn't care that he got wet, but Ryan did. The seawater temperature was in the low fifties already and in the process of pulling Clifton back aboard, his pants and sweater had gotten soaked. Ryan was furious. He pulled the drain plug in the stern of the Zodiac to let the seawater out and after getting back underway, set a course close enough to the yacht to see its name and registry. ‘White Lady’ was written across her stern in big gold letters, under that, ‘Grand Cayman.’ The vessel was definitely white, but he wondered if the name didn't have another meaning? It was also of Cayman Registry which was one of the biggest offshore tax havens for illegal money. Once he reached the other side of the harbor, Ryan tied off his dinghy and walked into The Black Watch. He was still fuming as he sat down at the bar.
Tory McCane was just 1,000 feet away from The Black Watch restaurant. She had pulled over to the side of the road to enter an address in her GPS. Her two children were hungry and running out of patience. They’d been driving since seven that morning. Tory's 12-year-old daughter Jan sat in the front seat next to her. Her 5-year-old son Willy sat in the back.
"Mum, that’s the third time you've put that same address in the GPS. Obviously, it's not in the data base. We're going to have to ask someone for directions," Jan said.
"Not in the data-base? What does that even mean? It's a real street for God’s sake. Rick and Stephanie have lived there for 6 years!"
"But obviously Google doesn't know that. Garbage in, garbage out. You know, when you do the same thing over and over expecting different results it's called insanity."
"Where did I get you kids?"
"You had us through a normal birth process."
"Well you sound like aliens sometimes. Okay, next person or place I see I'll ask directions."
Willy gave Jan's hair a tug from the back seat.
"Hey shrimp, cut that out or I'll come back there and give you an Indian burn or a wedgie you'll never forget."
"Kids, come on. We're almost there."
Tory was annoyed, but not with her kids. It was mainly because she couldn't find her friend's house. Between the treatment center and the halfway house afterward, Tory had been separated from her children for almost a year and it was all she could do not to pull over every five seconds and simply hug them both. They were good kids. It was a miracle that she hadn't totally messed them up with her years of substance abuse and frequent absences. She was certain it was all behind her now and was determined to build a solid new life for the three of them. Her husband Will had bailed on them right after Willy's birth and the divorce papers arrived several weeks later. She'd agreed to a quick divorce in exchange for a one-time cash payment, but as part of that deal had forfeited ongoing child support. That had been a mistake. Her drug and alcohol use had gotten completely out of control as she'd struggled to take care of the two of them as a single parent. Once she was fully into the drugs and alcohol, she quickly burned through the rest of her divorce settlement and they'd lived hand-to-mouth much of the time. Her relationship with Will was the last relationship she'd been in.
"Mum, there's a restaurant up ahead. Let's ask directions there."
Phil snickered as Ryan sat down at the bar. "Did you and Clifton run into an unexpected storm?"
"Funny Phil, did you see those assholes in the Cigarette?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I did. Seemed like a couple of rich jerks. You want the regular?"
Ryan nodded. Phil was the owner, bartender and cook at The Black Watch. He squirted soda water over ice and then added a splash of Rose’s lime juice to the glass and set it in front of Ryan. Then he reached into a jar on the bar-top for a piece of pickled sausage and flipped it to Clifton who was politely standing at attention under the waitress station waiting for the treat and wolfed it down.
"Jesus Phil, I wish you wouldn't give him those damn things. They make him fart something terrible."
"I know, but he likes it and I can’t refuse the big Cliff anything. Look at the mug on this dog, he's got to be the biggest stud in town." He flipped up the station top and knelt to pat Clifton's big wet head as the lab chewed up the savory treat.
"You know Ryan, I shouldn't let him in here. The Board of Health would take my license if they saw him in here."
"Phil, I seriously doubt the health inspector has even been in this dive. If he had you'd already be shut down. If he ever does come in here, just tell him I'm socially handicapped and that he's a service dog and helps me get into meaningful contact with other human beings."
"Yeah, right! This ‘canine specimen’ is nothing but a chowhound and you are nothing but a pussy-hound." He gave Clifton a last pat on the head and stood up.
"So, are you going to have some lunch today or is this just a beverage stop? The special is fried calamari in garlic, onions and those sweet/hot Portuguese peppers you like."
"Sounds good to me." Ryan sat back to sip his soda water while Phil went off to the kitchen to prepare the meal. The only other people in the bar were a quiet threesome playing pool in the other room and Smitty, a retired auto body man. Between a lifetime of paint and solvent fumes and the quart of vodka he drank each day, Smitty wasn't quite ‘there’ anymore. He was taking a nap on the other side of the bar. Ryan was reflective for a moment. He'd been a lot like Smitty back in the day and almost died of all the alcohol he'd consumed until a cousin introduced him to AA. He'd talked to Smitty several times about maybe hitting a meeting with him and trying to get off the sauce, but he was in the late stages of alcoholism and Ryan doubted he had a recovery in him. Lost in his thoughts for the moment he didn't hear the door open and was startled when he heard a female voice address him from behind.
"Hey, is this dog vicious?"
Ryan turned at the sound of the voice and stared at the speaker without replying right away. She met his stare and cocked her head to one side.
"Hello? Anybody home?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare. No, he's not vicious at all unless you're allergic to dog saliva."
The woman was extraordinarily attractive and had a refreshing directness about her. Standing behind and close to her side were two children. Clifton loved children and hearing them come in had rushed over to greet them. Their reaction to his size and quick movement in their direction was predictable and quite prudent.
"Thanks, I wanted to be sure. The kids are a little frightened of big dogs and this fellow is, well, … large!"
Clifton started to rub his head against the little girl's leg. She appeared to be about twelve; her brother five or six. She was tentatively petting his head, and everyone seemed to relax. Ryan couldn't stop staring at the woman. She looked to be in her late 20s, petite with blue eyes, about 5-foot-3, slender and had long curly blond hair. She projected a powerful, confident life force. The two children were also very attractive and similar in appearance.
"Do you work here?"
"No, I'm a customer, in for a bite of lunch and some friendly conversation."
She looked around the bar wondering who there was to converse with. "With him?" she nodded towards Smitty who had his head on his arms and was snoring loudly across the bar.
Ryan laughed. "No, Smitty over there is busy looking for holes on the inside of his eyelids. I talk to Phil when he's not in the kitchen cooking and sometimes myself. My name's Ryan, Ryan Cunningham."
"Hi Ryan, I’m Tory McCane and these are my two kids Willy and Jan."
"Nice to meet you all. You here for lunch?"
"No, we're looking for Mary Celeste Road. We have friends who live there, but my GPS doesn't seem to think it exists."
"Well that’s easy, Mary Celeste Road is on the other side of the harbor. When you leave the parking lot turn right, follow Water Street around the shoreline to the other side. Turn right onto South Street and Mary Celeste Road will be your first left off that. I'd offer to show you myself, but I came by outboard boat and my lunch should be out any minute."
Both children were now giggling and wrestling with Clifton in the middle of the floor. He was lying on his back flopping his ungainly body from side to side hoping one of them would rub his stomach. Tory and Ryan watched for a moment without saying anything, enjoying the sight.
"He seems like a love."
"He is," Ryan agreed.
Willy stood up from the floor noticing Ryan looking at them.
"Hey mister, want to see me stand on one foot for a full 10 seconds?"
Ryan smiled. "Yes, indeed I would. I don't think I've seen anyone stand on one foot in years. That would of course be unassisted and not touching anything with your hands.”
Willy spread his arms out to the side, poked his tongue between his lips, and closed his eyes for several seconds before lifting one leg off the floor and holding it there.
"Mum, time me."
He lasted five seconds before wobbling and dropping his raised leg to keep from falling over.
"Wait, wait, that didn't count. I was just warming up. Mum, do the time again!"
Tory smiled at Ryan and then pointedly looked down at her wrist again.
Willy raised his leg again and Ryan and Tory both watched. He made it on the second try.
"Okay, … time!" Tory shouted.
Ryan politely clapped. "Pretty amazing Willy. I don't think I could do that."
Willy smiled from ear to ear as he looked up at Ryan. He held out his hand.
"What?" Ryan asked.
"You owe me a buck."
"Say what! You never told me that part of the trick."
Ryan turned to Tory. "Your kid's a goddamn con-artist!"
"Goddamn. That’s another 50 cents." Willy added.
"What're you talking about?"
"I get paid for swear words too. ‘Goddamn’ is a 50-cent word."
Tory looked down at Willy. "Maybe this time you can let the nice man slide on the fees and penalties. After all, we just met him. We don't want to scare him off."
"No, that's okay." Ryan pulled out his wallet and took out a dollar bill and handed it to him.
"Next time I'll be more careful around you. You're quite an entrepreneur."
"Ryan, you don't have to give him anything. He's always pulling stunts like that." Tory offered.
"It's okay, I like his spirit." Ryan passed the bill down to Willy who snatched it out of his hand. Willy turned to his sister with a big smile on his face and did a little victory fist pump like he'd just sunk a 20-foot putt.
"Well, come on kids, we've got to get going." She turned to Ryan and smiled pleasantly. "Thanks, you've been helpful. Sorry you got taken by my kid."
"Well, you're welcome. It's a small town, maybe I'll run into you again," he said hopefully. "I live right down in the area you're headed, on my sailboat, at the boatyard."
"What's her name?"
"Parthenia. She's a 42-foot wooden sloop in shed number 2."
"Maybe." Tory smiled looking him in the eye, then turned to her two children. "Come on you two, let's go."
Ryan and Clifton sat staring after them as they left, both with their mouths open and equally disappointed that they hadn't stayed longer. A few moments later Phil returned from the kitchen with Ryan's calamari. He gazed around the room as he set down the plate.
"Did I miss something? I could have sworn I heard someone come in."
"Oh, not much, unless you're into goddesses," Ryan relayed.
"You're kidding, right?"
Ryan took on a wistful expression. "I'm not sure."
"Christ, you're always falling in love. What did she want?"
"She was looking for Mary Celeste Road and I graciously took time out of my busy day to assist her."
"What, you're really going to do something this afternoon? Won't that interfere with your nap?"
Ryan tucked into the fried calamari. It was delicious. Hot, sweet, and buttery it was coated with a perfect crispy breading. After a quick cup of coffee, he paid Phil for the lunch and headed back to the boatyard to finish the spline gluing. As he idled the Zodiac by the town landing, he noted that the Cigarette was still tied up there and again pondered what interest they could have in their little town.
He finished for the day at 5:30 p.m. and after showering and changing in the marina showers, walked back to the boat and fed Clifton. While he ate, Ryan walked around the perimeter of Parthenia, admiring his work, poking and feeling for the dryness of the epoxy and thought about where he would eat dinner. He decided on a small country inn called Laura’s that he occasionally frequented about 15 minutes out of town. Before leaving, he knelt and gently scratched Clifton behind the ears as he finished the few remaining scraps in his bowl. The dog predictably started wagging his tail and turned to rub his head (and food encrusted jowls) on Ryan's clean white shirt.
"Oh no you don't you slob," Ryan laughed and ran the short distance to his truck with Clifton loping behind. Ryan got there first and opened the tailgate so Clifton could jump in and the two left for the brief ride to the restaurant. When they pulled into the parking lot at Laura’s Ryan noted a black limousine with tinted windows parked out front. The nearest limo rental company he knew of was at least 20 miles away and he was curious who would rent a limousine to come this distance to an out-of-the-way restaurant like Laura’s. He entered the small country inn and was greeted by the owner.
"Ryan, how're you? You haven't been by in ages!"
"I'm fine Laura, I felt like giving myself a little treat tonight and I couldn't think of a better place."
Ryan shrugged. "I guess Michelle is well…. wherever Michelle is."
Laura rolled her eyes. "What, did you two have a fight again?"
"No, I think it went beyond that this time. Got any cute girlfriends?"
Ryan and Laura had been friends since childhood and had even been lovers for a brief period about 12 years before. She'd known him at his worst and was as independent as him. Although their fling hadn't lasted long, they'd remained good friends.
"Well, I won't probe. I can probably guess what happened between you two."
Ryan changed the subject. "Will you join me for dinner?"
"I can't, I'm down a hostess tonight and have to greet people as they come in. If you don't mind me getting up all the time, I'll have a drink and an appetizer with you."
"I'd like that."
They sat in the small outer dining room next to the wood stove. “How's that adorable hound of yours?"
"He's fine, waiting patiently in the truck." As he sipped his drink Ryan ran his eyes around the main dining room looking for familiar faces and did a double take. "Ponytail," his two associates and a fourth man whom Ryan didn't recognize were seated on the far side of the room having dinner.
"Do you know those guys?" He motioned with his head to their table.
Laura followed his gaze. "No, I don't think so. They showed up in that limousine parked out front about an hour ago. Why, should I?"
"No, I suppose not. They arrived this afternoon in a mega-yacht and almost drowned Clifton and me as we crossed the harbor. They were on their way into the town landing in one of those high-speed Cigarettes and thought it would be amusing to see how close they could come to us at 30 or 40 knots. Clifton got thrown out of the boat and they damn near swamped me with their wake. I'd like to teach the asshole with the ponytail some manners."
Laura stared at him for a moment before replying. She knew Ryan to have a long fuse and had only seen him lose it once before, but she could tell he was close by the intensity of his expression.
"Ryan, do me a favor and wait until they leave. I don't want a scene here in the restaurant."
Her concern brought him back to reality.
"I'm sorry Laura, of course."
His comment about teaching them some manners was misleading as it suggested a casual familiarity with violence, a trait that Ryan did not, in fact possess. He wasn't particularly fearful of bodily injury and had spent several years studying martial arts, but he cherished his sobriety of 10 years and knew that those few times in his past when he'd lost control and committed violent acts against others left him with a deep sense of sadness and shame which only brought him closer to a drink. It simply wasn't a part of his sober nature and he suddenly felt like an ass for his tough comment and tried to return his attention to Laura and the promised meal. He ordered a grilled radicchio salad with hot goat cheese and crab cakes with pistachio butter. It was good to catch up with her and after a few minutes he was able to relax and enjoy his food. Whenever she got up to seat other diners, he found his thoughts returning to the woman that he'd given directions to earlier in the day. She really was beautiful and the combination of energy and independence that he'd sensed in her had made an impression. He hoped he would run into her again.
The people from the yacht got louder and more boisterous as their meal progressed and it became increasingly difficult to ignore them. Ryan and Laura had both noticed that the man Ryan had nicknamed "Ponytail" was giving the waitress a hard time. Each time she passed near him he would try to fondle her ass. Not in the crass way of a simple drunk, but as if he owned her, and they knew each other well. Jean, the waitress, handled his unwanted attentions without making a fuss, but Ryan could tell she was becoming flustered. She'd spent a lot of time serving the table and was not anxious to lose her tip, so simply avoided his side of the table after a while. During the meal Ryan noticed the man with the ponytail made several trips to the men’s room and each time he returned, he was more outgoing and ebullient. Ryan guessed he was doing coke. Eventually, the man made the connection that Jean was purposefully avoiding his side of the table and, biding his time, waited until she passed near enough to clear his plate. He reached out and pinched her, hard, on the back of the leg. Jean dropped her tray and cried out in genuine pain. He looked up at her like she was a piece of meat.
"I don't appreciate being ignored."
Ryan and Laura both jumped up from their table and headed into the dining room to confront him. He didn't see them coming as his back was to the smaller room, but his associates did and were immediately on either side of him, facing Ryan down.
Jean was crying, more from the humiliation of the situation than anything else. Ryan's demeanor was cold and purposeful as he approached their table.
The fourth person at the table stood and said to Ponytail, "Edward, I don't want any trouble here. Do you hear me?"
Ryan pulled up short of the associates who'd assumed the stance of bodyguards, positioning themselves between him and Edward.
"Edward, so that's your name. You’re an asshole Eddie. You’re also a bully. Why don't you tell your boys here to have a seat and the two of us will go outside and I'll give you a few etiquette lessons,” Ryan said.
The fourth man interrupted again. "Edward, if you attract any more attention our business will be done. We've spoken about this before. The people I work for frown on public displays like this. Am I being clear?"
Edward had not yet spoken, but it was clear from his tense and coiled body language that he would like nothing better than to beat the piss out of Ryan. But he was also paying attention to the fourth man, and after a tense pause where it could have gone either way he spoke. "Of course, Mr. Slade, no problem."
The man called Slade then turned to Laura.
"I apologize for my friend's behavior, it was inexcusable. We've finished our meal and I think it best that we leave." He pulled out his wallet and placed several-hundred-dollar bills on the table. "The food was delicious. Again, please accept my apologies and give what remains to the waitress who was offended."
Ryan still wanted to have a go at Edward, but that was not going to be possible with the two goons between him and their boss as everyone put on their coats and started to leave. Ryan and Laura followed the four of them to the door.
Edward turned back to Ryan. "I thought I recognized you. You’re the guy in the dinghy with the big black dog I saw earlier today. Perhaps we will run into one another again. By the way, you really should learn to drive better or get a bigger boat."
"You fucking asshole." Ryan boiled over and started for him. Laura jumped between them and held Ryan back by pushing on his chest.
"Ryan, let it go."
“Yes Ryan, let it go,” Edward suggested, gave a final laugh and disappeared out the door.
"What an idiot! Why'd you stop me?" Ryan started to go around Laura to follow them out to the parking lot.
"For Christ's sake, don't be stupid! There are four of them!"
Ryan was shaking he was so angry. He knew she was right and that things would almost certainly turn out poorly for him if he acted on his anger. He kicked a chair in frustration. "I'm sorry Laura. I don't know what I was thinking."
"Believe me, I understand your anger at the guy, but I don't want you to get hurt or turn my lovely restaurant into a fight club!"
"I know. Listen, I've got to get out of here and cool off. How much do I owe you?"
"Don’t worry about it, just take me out to dinner some night before you leave on your trip and we'll call it square."
"I’d like that."
Laura wasn't quite convinced that he had given up the idea of going after the men. "Ryan, are you sure you're all right? I can leave early, and we can go back to my place or something."
"Thanks, I'll be fine, I just had a little temporary insanity and I think it's passed. But I'll take you up on your offer another time." He reached out and touched her arm and then added a lecherous smile to reassure her.
Laura smiled back and then hit him on the arm. "That's not what I meant!"
As Ryan walked across the parking lot, he figuratively kicked himself for letting such a dirtball get under his skin. He knew from experience that whenever he let his ego make decisions he was headed for trouble and that the best medicine would be an AA meeting. He looked at his watch and realized that he still had time to get to one at a small Methodist church several minutes away. He hadn't been to a meeting in several weeks but his behavior at Laura’s underscored that he couldn't get away from them altogether without risking his sobriety.
The meeting had already started when he got there, and he took a seat near the back of the room so as not to disturb the speaker. He started to cool down right away. Surrounded by his kind of people, most of the day's anxiety slid away and was replaced by the gathered strength, hope and peace of those in the room. People from all walks of life and economic backgrounds all working to stay away from alcohol. Ryan got caught up in the similarities between himself and the speaker. Toward the end of their respective drinking careers both had been round-the-clock drinkers whose entire lives revolved around the bottle. All waking energy was devoted to getting the drink, drinking the drink, sleeping off a drunk or trying to get out of the trouble that alcohol brought them. Each had also settled for second best in every aspect of their lives including work, relationships and family. Everything had taken a backseat to drinking. In Ryan's case, cocaine had also played a part in his eventual downfall, but AA made little distinction between drugs as it was their opinion that they were all bad if you had an addictive personality and once you were ready to give up, they all had to go.
As the first speaker concluded and went back to his seat, Ryan looked around the room. He was both surprised and pleased to see Tory. She hadn't noticed him yet, so he studied her face. He'd dated many women, lived with several and briefly tried marriage over the years. He often wondered what, if any, similarities they all shared. The only commonality he'd been able to put his finger on was an awareness and appreciation that each of them had for life. Generally, this extended to everything they did. Passion and intensity were other words that came to mind. All the women he'd ever been attracted to loved food, sex, laughter and challenges. They played active roles in their lives, eschewing passive voyeurism like Instagram and Facebook, preferring instead to do things. He sensed such a force in Tory, and he wanted to learn more about her. She was also damned cute.
After a while she felt his gaze and turned towards him and smiled back somewhat shyly in recognition. At the cigarette/raffle break he went over and reintroduced himself.
"It's nice to see you again Tory, and here of all places. I'm pretty good at spotting AA people and when we met earlier today, I wouldn't have guessed."
"Same here, considering I met you sitting on a bar stool. Generally, the only alcoholics I meet in bars are still drinking, although on second thought you do seem to have a telling look of desperation about you."
Ryan thought she was serious for a second and found himself at a loss for words. She sensed his discomfort, "Hey, I'm only kidding! Don't worry, you look fine." She reached out and touched his shoulder reassuringly.
"Actually, I was just being nice. When I first saw you, I said to myself, well here comes another skid row, welfare mom if I've ever seen one. They come into The Black Watch all the time." Before even half the words out of his mouth, Tory's expression changed as something inside her shut down.
‘Oh shit,’ Ryan thought. ‘Here I am trying to be funny and make an impression and I’ve totally screwed things up.’
Tory was still polite and mumbled a few more pleasantries before sitting again, but he guessed that what he'd said in jest had somehow been very hurtful. Another speaker stepped up to the podium, and he knew he could do nothing to repair things that evening and decided he would try to look her up the following day to apologize. He left after the next speaker and headed back to Parthenia.
Even though it was late October the ocean still retained some of its summer heat and as he drew closer to the water the visibility dropped. A thick layer of ground fog hung over the waterfront as the warmer water interacted with the chilly autumn air. After parking in front of their shed Ryan untied Clifton from the back of the truck and the two of them walked down to the end of the pier to sit. Between his breakup with Michelle, the incidents with the yacht owner and putting his foot in his mouth with Tory at the AA meeting, he felt like he needed a few minutes at the water's edge. Reaching the end of the pier Ryan took his normal seat on the bench and sat there in the night mist absorbing the sounds and smells that surrounded him. The flush of a school of minnows as they broke the surface of the water under the pier; the little cracking sounds that the barnacles on the pilings made as the tide went out; and the gentle lapping sounds that the dinghies on the float below made as they kissed the small waves moving beneath them. The air, although cool, was heavy and musty with the smell of salt and the wet, fallen leaves that had started to rot on the ground. Slowly, the day's tensions left him.
“Soon enough,” he thought to himself. "I'll be back out on the ocean and away from people and all the problems that come with them."
In the distance the White Lady appeared as a surreal glow through the fog and as he walked back up to the shed he could hear the muffled sound of her diesel generators. He thought for a moment he might have heard a yell or muffled scream above the murmur of the engines but wasn't certain. “It's none of my business,” he thought, "I have enough problems of my own and don't need to add to the list."
White Lady weighed anchor a half-hour later and started steaming south. Below, Edward stood in front of one of the full-length mirrors in his brightly lit stateroom and admired his oiled image.
"You are looking good Edward," he said out loud and ran his hands over his slick body, stopping to fondle and pull at his large cock, still wet and distended after the evening's activities. "Yes, you are quite something."
He continued to preen and strut in front of the mirror for a few more moments before deciding that it was time for another generous line of nose candy. He walked back to the bed in a narcotic fog and looked down at the woman that was laying still, leaking, onto his sheets. “What a stupid, stupid cunt,” he thought.
“Well at least she makes a good table.” He leaned over her naked and blistered stomach and snorted a line of coke off her now quiet chest. The burn felt good as he jacked the line into the back of his nose, and he toyed with the idea of having sex with her again. “She'd always been a dead fuck anyway,” he thought to himself.
"How about it Charlene," he said as he poked her, "one for the road?" He laughed at his little joke then got up off the bed and wandered aimlessly around the room straightening books, lining things up on the bedside table and muttering to himself, "Must clean up this mess, everything, so untidy." He moved around the room not really cleaning up anything but rather obsessively rearranging things. After a few minutes Charlene's burnt and beaten body intruded back into his consciousness and he realized that she was the reason why his sense of order was disturbed. In a sudden rage he grabbed the sheet she was laying on and ripped it off the bed, her body tumbling onto the floor on the other side of the bed.
"Fucking bitch!" he yelled. He threw on a robe and wrenched open the door. "Manuel, get your sorry ass in here!"
Manuel had been awake since retiring an hour earlier, unable to sleep for the sounds that were coming from the adjoining cabin. He cringed at the sound of Edward's voice wondering what the sick bastard wanted. From the moment they'd left the restaurant he knew there would be trouble because of all the drugs and alcohol Edward had consumed. The scene with the waitress and Edward's subsequent dressing down by Mr. Slade on the way back to the boat had not helped matters. Manuel hurried out of bed and into a pair of jeans before sticking his head out of the door.
"Si, I'm coming!" If it weren't for his generous salary, he would have been gone months ago. To his way of thinking Edward was a vicious sadist and unstable as all hell. Also, his drug consumption of late had been off the rails. He had seen Charlene with bruises from their "lovemaking" before but it in no way prepared for what he saw lying on the floor next to the bed when he walked into Edward's cabin. He knew right away that she was likely dead from the volume of blood on the sheet that covered her and the silence that pervaded the room, but he turned her over anyway. She was bound with her hands behind her back and gagged. Her jaw was broken and several of her teeth were broken or missing. What really got to Manuel, however, were the horrible burns all over her body. In some areas the skin was entirely blackened and burned away, in others, fat red blisters evidenced the incredible violence that had been inflicted on the poor girl. Manuel saw the small propane torch that Edward used to light his crack pipe lying on the edge of the bed and knew that this must have been what he had used.
"What the fuck man, what'd you do to her? She was just a sweet, simple hooker. What could she have done to deserve this?" Manuel was no stranger to violence and had hurt people himself doing enforcement work, but this went beyond, into a world that even Manuel could not understand.
Edward was speechless for a moment and then went into a rage and started slapping the back of Manuel's head like an abusive parent might strike his child. It was not as much painful as humiliating, and Manuel thought of the waitress in the restaurant. "Don't you ever speak to me like that again you wet-back fuck! You're nothing without me and you'll speak respectfully to me. Do. You. Understand?" He slapped Manuel’s head three more times to emphasize each of his last three words.
Hating himself for taking the abuse, yet unwilling to challenge him further, he replied meekly, "Si, Senor Edward, I understand."
"Now, get rid of this piece of shit, she's messing up my rug!" Edward turned and walked into the adjoining toilet.
Manuel touched Charlene's face tenderly and shook his head thinking of some conversations they'd shared. No one deserved this. He continued to kneel at her side for a moment holding his emotions in check and then gently gathered her up in the sheet and carried her out onto the deck and then to the stern. He held her in his arms until they tired and then he let her slide into the waiting sea. She disappeared in the churning wake. ‘These are not the things that my father brought me up to do,’ he thought with self-disgust.
Paulo stepped out from the shadows as Manuel turned to head back to his stateroom. Manuel and he were not close. Paulo was sneaky and always seemed to be in the shadows scurrying from place to place like the rodent he resembled. He had a pockmarked face, was built like an anorexic, and had two front teeth that were askew and angled forward. He never bathed and Manuel was embarrassed when he had to go anywhere in public with him.
"What do you want Paulo?"
"I could not sleep for the noises that were coming from Senor Edward's cabin. She sounded very excited, no?"
Manuel couldn't believe what he was hearing. Paulo had obviously been turned on by the torture. For a moment he had this horrible dark vision of Paulo masturbating in his cabin to the sounds of Charlene being tortured.
"I am surprised that you did not have a little piece yourself before throwing her over,” Paulo added.
Manuel's impotence and loathing boiled to the surface and he grabbed Paulo by his skinny, acne covered neck. "You are the lowest form of life I can imagine.” He said as he continued to tighten his grasp around Paolo’s throat. "If I ever hear the word ‘Charlene’ come from your rancid little mouth again, I'll break your neck and then stomp on you until every bone in your worthless little body is broken."
He was so focused in his hatred for Paulo that he momentarily forgot the stiletto blade that was never more than a few inches from Paulo's hand. Paulo chose that moment to bring the knife up between them with just enough pressure that the tip of the blade pierced Manuel's shirt and barely punctured the skin about an inch below his sternum. It was not Paulo's intention to kill him, but the placement and pressure were adequate to convey his ability to do so if he chose. Manuel eased his grip in response.
"I hear you Manuel. Now is not the time, but I would be very careful to sleep with one eye open in the future. Comprende?"
Manuel held his position for a moment longer against the pressure of the blade. "Better than you know Paulo. I meant what I said about the girl, remember that." He turned and walked back to his cabin.