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Zee and the kids had gone to America to visit Zee's parents in Fall River, so I was having breakfast in the Dock Street Coffee Shop listening to Chad Martin trying to decide just which of Martha's Vineyard's public institutions was the most maddening. "You could make an argument for the Registry of Motor Vehicles," said Chad between bites of sausage and eggs, "but lately the Registry seems a bit more rational than it was in the old days. Remember when we used to say that in order to work there you had to take an IQ test and fail it?"
"Yep." I nodded and kept eating.
"Well, nowadays you can say the same thing about those saps at the PO and the Steamship Authority."
"Oh, I don't know," I said. "The people I deal with at the counters seem pretty nice."
"Sure," said Chad, "but the bigwigs you never see are either dumb as sticks or they've dedicated their lives to ineptitude."
I gave him an admiring look. "Ineptitude, eh? That's a pretty impressive word for you to be throwing around this early in the morning."
Chad waved his fork. "You take the PO, now. You can start with the parking lot. The parking places are laid out so crazy that you have to park every which way and, when you try to leave, the poor damned pedestrians never know where a car's coming from and have to look every direction at once to keep from being run over. It's a miracle nobody's been killed yet."
"I'm not sure the PO owns the parking lot," I said.
"And because of that rotten drainage system," Chad went on, "whenever we get a good rain, half the lot turns into a pond a foot deep."
Lake Po was the popular name for it. It eliminated half the parking spaces in a lot that was already too small.
"And it's worse inside the building," said Chad, wiping his plate with the last of his toast. "You get other people's mail, they get yours; you get your packages back, sometimes two or three times, because somebody thinks the 'from' addresses are the 'to' addresses; you get yellow slips and after you stand in line for a half hour you find out there's no packages; or there's packages and no yellow slips; you get letters months after they were mailed, and some poor bastards have to pay penalties on overdue bills because they never got their bills at all!"
He looked at his own breakfast bill, dug out his wallet, and put money on the counter. "The lines are so long that people cheer when they don't get a yellow slip in their boxes. The poor bastards in the line talk about bringing somebody in there to sell coffee and doughnuts in the morning and martinis in the afternoon, and how somebody could make good money being a substitute line stander. They say they're going to have a contest about how to improve the service at the Edgartown post office, and the winner will get a PO box in West Tisbury. You want me to go on, J.W.?
"I think that's enough for now."
"Next time we can talk about the Steamship Authority," said Chad. "Now there's a beast without a head. See ya later."
He walked out.
"The trouble is," said the waitress, as she took away his dishes and silverware, "that he's right."
"It's an imperfect world."
I glanced after the departing Chad and saw a woman sitting at the far end of the counter looking at me. She was eating a bagel and an egg. I didn't know her and was surprised to see her pick up her cup and plate and come and sit beside me on what had been Chad's stool. I guessed her to be about fifty, although it's hard for me to tell women's ages these days when mothers sometimes look younger than their daughters. She was wearing a skirt and a summer shirt, and was a good-looking woman.
"You're J.W. Jackson," she said. "I'm Carole Cohen. I'm a friend of Zee's."
She put out her hand and I took it.
"She has a lot of friends," I said.
She got right to the point. "I have to be in the office later this morning, so I went by your house early. Nobody was there, but then I remembered Zee saying you came here for breakfast now and then. The waitress pointed you out and I've been waiting for your friend to leave. I need some help."
I was surprised. "What kind of help?"
"Zee's told me that you were in Vietnam," she said, "so I assume you must have gotten some combat training. She also said you were a policeman before you came to the island. She said that you can be trusted and I asked around and other people agree. I'd like to hire you to go up to my brother's place and keep an eye on things when he's sleeping. He's had some troubles. He needs to sleep sometime, but when he does he can't keep a watch himself."
"Who's your brother?"
"Roland Nunes. Maybe you know him. They call him the Monk."
I didn't know him but I had heard of him. He'd gone off to war full of the stuff that makes heroes but had come back so changed that his friends hardly knew him. He lived somewhere up in West Tisbury, I'd been told, and had gotten religion, although nobody seemed to know just what kind.
"I wasn't in 'Nam very long," I said. "I got hit on my first patrol and never went back."
"My brother was there a lot longer," she said. "Here's my problem: Somebody is coming around his place causing trouble and I'd like to know who it is. Whoever it is is sharp enough to stay out of sight until Roland's asleep. I want Roland to have some extra eyes and I'd like you to provide them. I can pay you a little money and I don't think the job should take too long. Just long enough for me to learn who the guy is. Once I know that I can handle things alone."
"What kind of trouble?" I asked.
"Somebody threw a dead skunk into Roland's water barrel, then sneaked into his garden and pulled up a lot of his vegetables. Then he set fire to Roland's shed. My brother smelled the smoke and put it out, but that was just luck. Whoever's doing all this seems to be getting more serious each time."
"You should call the cops."
"I don't want to involve the police. I don't want to hurt anybody, either. I just want Roland to be left alone."
I felt much the same way about not wanting to hurt anybody, but as for being alone I had had enough of that. I liked living with Zee, Joshua, and Diana and would be glad when they were home again.
"Like you said, I was a cop myself, once," I said. "Most of the cops I know are all right."
She nodded. "Zee told me you were on the Boston PD a few years back, but that you quit and came down here to live. She said it was because you were tired of saving the world. I can understand that. It's why I'd like to have you take this job. I don't want to hire somebody who takes pleasure in roughing people up. I just want a pair of eyes."
Carole Cohen's timing was good. I had a few days to myself and my house seemed too empty to live in, in spite of the two cats, Oliver Underfoot and Velcro, who also missed having Zee and the kids around.
"You have any idea who the guy is or why he's doing what he's doing?" I asked.
"It could be any one of several people," she said. "You know much about the so-called ancient ways here on the island?"
"Not much. I know they're old roads and paths that people used a long time back to get from here to there. And I know a lot of them have been closed off by new people who've bought land and don't want anybody crossing their expensive property."
She nodded. "When I was growing up here as a kid you could get to almost any beach to fish and you could hunt lots of places, but now more and more of the gates are locked. Did you know that there are 251 posted and no trespassing signs on that five-mile stretch of North Road between North Tisbury and Menemsha?"
"I know there are a lot, but I never counted them."
"I did, one day when I was going up to Menemsha. Some places there are two on the same tree. The point is that those signs and the locked gates and the closed ancient ways are all part of the same big change on the Vineyard: people with money wanting to close off spaces that used to be open." She finished her bagel, and added, with a touch of irony, "I should know. I'm in real estate."
It's an island joke that there are fifteen thousand year-round residents of Martha's Vineyard and fourteen thousand of them are in real estate.
Zee and I don't like no trespassing signs and have none on our property, and my least favorite land preservation group, the Marshall Lea Foundation, is known to me as the No Foundation because it puts signs up on many of its properties announcing no picnicking, no hunting, no fishing, no hiking or biking or trespassing of any kind. A pox upon the No Foundation.
I thought those signs on that stretch of North Road were about the ugliest sights on Martha's Vineyard, but on the other hand, I don't like it when people tell me how to live my life, so I had to accept the right of the North Road property owners and the No Foundation to post as many signs as they saw fit. Of course it wasn't the signs themselves that most offended me; it was the people who put them up. I imagined I felt the way old-time free-range cattle and sheep men felt when people began to put up fences.
"You think the guy who's bothering your brother is one of those people who put up the signs and fences?" I asked.
"Maybe." She watched while the waitress refilled our coffee cups, then said, "My brother has an ancient way running through his property and on into the state forest. He didn't know it was there when he built his house, but he likes the idea of it and he plans to keep it open. Sometimes people come by, following it, and they're usually surprised to find him living there.
"The thing is, we've got a cousin, Sally Oliver. You may have read about her. She's the family athlete."
"A triathloner. You know: bikes, swims, then runs a marathon, or something like that. Anyway, her mother, who was my aunt, and my brother were very close, and she had opposed the Vietnam War from the beginning. She bought that land when he finally came home from the war and created a trust with a covenant that he could live there as long as he wanted.
"But when my aunt died Sally became the trustee, and now Sally wants to sell the land but Roland doesn't want to move. When he dies, she'll get the land, but she doesn't want to wait. I've offered to buy her out, but she's gotten better offers from other people who want to build another McMansion right where he lives."
"People who'll close off the ancient way."
"That's what usually happens."
"And you think this prowler is an agent for one of those buyers?"
"A couple of people interested in the land are abutters, but there are others."
"Maybe your cousin Sally is behind the vandalizers."
"Whoever it is is getting nervier. Roland has to be away from the house during working hours, and lately I half expect to hear that his house has been burned down while he's been gone."
"Maybe your brother should go the charitable route and sell to the Land Bank with the stipulation that he has life residency rights and that the ancient way stays open."
"He can't sell the land because he doesn't own it. The trust does. Besides, other people have a lot more money than the Land Bank and Sally isn't going to sell to the Land Bank when she can make a lot more money elsewhere."
I finished my coffee, looked at my bill, and put some money on the counter. "I think you should definitely get the police in on this," I said. "If nothing else, they can ask your brother's neighbors and your cousin some questions and let them know that they're interested in what's going on. That could be enough to scare off this vandal, because nobody likes to have the cops keeping an eye on him."
Carole Cohen put money beside mine, finished her coffee, and said, "Let's step outside."
We went out onto Dock Street and crossed to the parking lot. The lot was already beginning to fill even though it was early morning, because parking spaces in Edgartown are hard to find in the summer. In the channel beyond the yacht club, on the south end of the lot, sailboats were riding a following wind out into Nantucket Sound. On the Reading Room side of the lot, boats were being loaded with people and gear in preparation for trips to the fishing grounds. Beyond them, on her stake, bobbed our own catboat, the Shirley J.
We stopped where nobody was near.
"You're right about people not liking cops keeping an eye on them," said the woman, "and that includes my brother."
"Nobody likes it," I said. "Not even innocent people like it."
"My brother isn't exactly innocent," said Carole Cohen in a quiet voice. "He went AWOL in Vietnam almost forty years ago and he never went back. As far as the army is concerned, he's still missing in action and legally dead, but what he really is is a deserter. I don't think anybody's looking for him and I don't want them to. That's why I don't want the police involved."
She had surprised me for a second time in half an hour, because the gossip about the Monk was that he'd been a Green Beret, a warrior who'd done tour after tour, a sniper with a trunk full of medals who had returned home a hero.
"Do you tell this to a lot of people?" I asked.
"Not many. The only other person who knows about it is Jed Mullins. He was with Roland in Vietnam and now he lives in Vineyard Haven. They were pals over there. I think Roland saved his life once. He won't be telling anybody anything that would hurt Roland."
"Don't you think you're taking a chance telling me? You don't even know me."
"I know Zee and I've talked with people. And now I've seen you and I think I can trust you." She gave me a thin smile. "Besides, if you go to work for me, we need to be honest with one another."
"If the army can't account for him, how come they haven't come here looking for him?"
"Because he apparently disappeared in combat and then he stayed away for almost ten years before he came home. By the time he got here the army had decided he was probably dead and had other things to do than look for him. If anybody asked him, Roland told people he'd never been missing at all; that there'd been one of those paperwork mix-ups and that he'd been honorably discharged. The people he told believed him and the people they told believed them. After a while, it was common knowledge." She smiled again. "Like George Washington and the cherry tree."
"You'd better not enlighten your cousin Sally or those other people who want his land," I said. "I doubt if his secret will be safe with them."
"I agree. Sally doesn't know anything about it. The thing is that both Ford and Carter offered clemency to deserters in the mid-seventies and since then, until lately, the army just filed its old cases. But now they've got this new war and soldiers are heading for Canada every day, so some of the old cases are being activated to discourage more desertions. I'd like to settle this matter before anybody starts digging around in Roland's past, looking for leverage to make him sell. Well, what do you say? Can I hire you? I figure it shouldn't take more than a few days to catch this guy in the act and ID him. After that you'll be out of a job again."
Zee and the children would be gone for another week, and I was bored. Very bored.
"All right," I said, making yet another of the many mistakes in my life.
Copyright © 2007 by Philip R. Craig