Beyond the Western
Chief Lloyd Mariner of the Saugus Police Department pulled down the yellow crime scene tape and inserted the key in the door of Apartment 5D of Longview Apartments, the lone assisted living facility in town. He could hear other tenants’ doors creak open along the hallway, and practically mark the frightened faces peeking through the thin slots… Old men, old ladies don’t need any of this, he was thinking, but he was sure somebody in the facility was a murderer. That’d make anybody nervous, old or not.
Stepping aside, he watched Silas Tully, more than a year off the force, enter the room where Si’s old cruiser partner, Tracker Sims, had been beaten to death earlier. The chief strained to see what Si might note. The old detective eyed each wall top to bottom, scanned the floor while looking like a bear coming out of a winter cave. He heard Si’s knees creek with age and dryness; he’d never know how many miles Si had walked before he became a detective late in the game.
He believed Si had seen something neither he nor Sgt. Walters had seen in two hours. The old South Pacific Marine was a miracle man, with his nose keen at detection, and deep eyes giving away so little, taking in so much. Often, Si knew the words between lines, senses between rhythms. The chief smell stale coffee and old blood, a strange mixture. After all, he was the paper pusher, Si the detective.
The long day had begun earlier, for old pals bonded as former Marines, as evening descended, the chief at Hamilton Street headquarters, Si at home, Morpheus working him over.
Meanwhile, Silas Tully sat back in a favorite deep chair, eyes closed, hands clasped. Gray hair, nearing white, demanded a monthly cut from Mike the Barber, or Jimmy D. if he came in to visit with his scissors in his pocket. It always made Si laugh, yet he knew his need for interaction with peers, parlance, petty feuding, rumoring, alive for the time being. Bags under Si’s eyes were late-day puffy; too many newspapers, a crime book of smaller type than he needed, letting go still tough for him.
Si was half asleep then, some old crime working out of marrow and bone from a long burial. A mere detail might blossom under this study. The image was not out of his past, not the faded thought of young Frances Cochran lying on the side of a Salem road, garroted, or of Napoleon deMars staring at the broken skeleton in his First Iron Works ditch, the remains of a Navy captain who had escorted the body of John Paul Jones inside a cask of wine back to America from a small Parisian graveyard This clutch at him was more elusive, as if the thing had not happened, but was hanging about on a limited horizon. Something eerie was rubbing Silas the wrong way. On top of all that, a cramp worked upward in his calf.
The detail man never let go any signals. A bird flitted across one window. A limb from a maple tree he had stolen from the Iron Works swamp many years ago touched again at the clapboards, like a kiss for warmth, or a whisper. From the Turnpike’s tunnel of sound, a trucker’s engine growled toward the supper meal. A horn blew across the pond, the pitch so clear and vibrant, bouncing off the water. He saw other shadows falling darkly against neighbors’ houses, heard a breath of wind working in a downspout, and the alarm on a car sounding as if it were coming clear up the river from the lobster fleet landing. A dozen signals were out and about in his small universe. He near put a hand on them.
The phone brought him out of doubts and the painful cramp. The phone’s ringing careened like a lance loosed or a utility knife. He heard Phyllis grabbing the phone in the kitchen, saying, “Good afternoon to you, Lloyd, but the retired man of the house is having his afternoon nap in his favorite chair. And I hope you and the whole department will have as comfortable an evening as my husband has in promise.”
It was almost a warning, Silas thought.
“He doesn’t sleep well these nights, not at all, Lloyd,” she continued. “I’ve told you that before.” There was her ESP working its point-blank candor.
Something’s happened, Si thought, as Phyllis’s words came with clear intent.
Silas Tully, ex-Marine, retired cop and detective extraordinary, had the old feeling again as he listened to her. Age, he realized, had caught up to him, slowness, certain infirmities coming with clarion calls, like the damn cramp working its way in one leg with its obscene announcement or the bulbous growth on one finger where arthritis carved its name. If this phone call was for help from his old comrade, he’d have to give that help from his mind, from what he could grasp of a situation.
There’d be no running around this time out of the barn; a perambulation, but no
running, not even a trot.
He thought of Sherlock, from a distance, solving crimes from clues provided purposely by an associate and unconsciously by a criminal. An easy chair crime is what he wished for. With intrigue he remembered a story he’d read as a youngster; A locked room, a woman stabbed many times, the weapon apparently wiped on her petticoat, but no visible weapon. In the end, it was a piece of glass, wiped on her petticoat and dropped into a pitcher of water… lost for the time being. Before the end of the story, he had determined where the weapon was hidden. It had been a piece of cake that time. Now, he wanted it again.
As he listened to his wife, Silas nodded; she had a way of wrapping things up in a hurry. Then he heard her say, “Must you, Lloyd?” It was as open as a new wound, or a stance taken, the way she said it… all would follow in short order.
Silas Tully, retired from the Saugus Police department for more than a full year, eased himself up out of his favorite chair. It had been a gift from department personnel; and it had been an anchor, of one sort or another. Now and then Phyllis thought it to be curse or crank, not sure of which, but she kept watch on attitude changes, both physiologically and psychologically; the family watchdog she was, no matter what the man of the house might say about it. In a year’s time she had seen his hair go snow white, his girth reach for other boundaries, his heart ache for the chase, as he used to put it, for a man was born to do his job well. Her husband was a classicist, an exponent of the most trivial account of an act, a mindset, a character flaw. She had loved him unabashedly for longer than he knew, and found the irony residing there.
Their old friend, Lloyd Mariner, was the new Saugus Chief of Police. Whip smart, a fifteen-year veteran of the streets, the Turnpike, the slew of paperwork demanded by the times, he was not entirely lost on the job, but Silas knew he was as lonely as hell. Chiefs are always lonely. And new ones would need a lot of softening up on the job to get fully comfortable, slow curves coming into reality, and on a rare occasion seeking old-hand help to keep his scalp on straight.
In the past Lloyd had been a lobsterman, daily moving his boat out under the Belden Bly Bridge between Saugus and Lynn, seeking the clawed escapees from the great cold-water splurges of the North Atlantic. When the catch showed its final colors, often days without a single catch worthy of the effort, he took the hint. Lloyd Mariner got himself appointed to the police department, left the sometimes savage and relentless sea and became a landlubber. He discarded the iron-hard fists the salt water had formed, the essence of diesel fuel snagging in his throat every sense of dawn, the storms at sea that sat just over the 11-mile horizon now quiet as a ghost. If hard work could make a good cop, he was prepared for the long run. He brought the trait with him.
“I hate to bother you, Si, but we have a situation here, over at Longview Place, the assisted living place on old Donkey Field. Somebody did in one of the seniors last night. Damn bloody mess we can’t find our way around. Can you do me a favor?” He reassessed his words. “Can you do us a favor and take a look? It’s a mess and yet it’s clean as a whistle of clues from the minute you step in the door. I can’t find a thing. We sure could use a long look from an old pro.”
There was something that Lloyd was not saying. Silas had known him for more than 30 years and recalled a characteristic hesitancy making its way. A vision came to him of Lloyd hanging his head, the stark blue eyes smoked over with fear or anger or, agreeably more so, doubt. Often it had been difficult to tell. Thirty years a cop still doesn’t make it any easier. Just about now Lloyd’s shoulders would be in a temporary slouch, waiting for a shot of energy.
“What aren’t you telling me, Lloyd? I know a few people over there at Longview.”
Lloyd Mariner coughed his usual cough, as though his throat was vibrating, and spit out the news, his voice rushed, hiding true feelings. “It’s your old co-pilot, Si, Tracker Sims. Some goddamn animal beat the hell out of him as he sat at his own kitchen table. There’s blood all the way across the room on the wall. It’s ugly as hell, I swear.” The punctuating sigh was long and deep, like a death wheeze.
Si jumped in headfirst. “No witnesses? No 911 call? Nobody hiding in the closet?”
“Nothing. They knocked on his door at noontime ‘cause he hadn’t showed, some of his buddies. The maintenance guy opened the door and immediately threw up in the hallway when he came out. They said he walked right to the elevator and went down to the tool room. He’s still sitting there, I know, numb as they come.”
Si hung up, turned to Phyllis and hugged her close. “It’ll only be a while; hon. Keep it all warm for me. All of it.” She hugged him back, marked the time in his eyes, saw the ultimate reflections… Tracker coming back to him in a rush of events, like the time Tracker dove through the huge plate glass window of a gas station and dropped a thief with a revolver in his hand. It had been pointed at Si who had slipped in a back window… the kind of images that never leave a person, having a clarity and a time cycle all their own, the kind cops carry to the grave.
All the years rushed behind Si’s eyeballs as he sat in his fire red Ford F350, for all purposes the throne he had been born to. The package was complete, for it brought in quick succession all that he had been through since he had bought the red monster. Tracker Sims helped him put in the last rebuilt transmission, had touched up the paint job, had fallen asleep at the wheel on late watches. Si bet that he could find Tracker’s latent prints on the dash from one of their stakeouts, a boot scrape on the dashboard. Remnants now.
All that took Si further away for a few moments, locking him into a dark place. He had been there before. He had known the sweet smell of death a few times, as if a medication had been ingested, a perfume applied. It all began with Napoleon Connell, the little gypsy from Brooklyn who, for a good part of an hour on a Kwajalein beach, had lain in his arms, the life oozing out of him, staring into Si’s eyes all the time, his raspy voice saying again and again, “Don’t forget me, Sarge. Don’t forget me. You’re the only one in the world who’ll ever remember me.” Those final words would stay with him, as promised, forever, and the view of the beach, littered with dead Marines composed in their final stance.
Now Tracker was there, with the sweet smell of death hanging in the air.
He drove slowly to the Longview Apartments, feeding on the years he had spent in the department, the things he had seen or discovered. Tracker’s yell that night: “drop it sucker, or you’re dead.”
Now, as he entered the room, he brought Tracker back swifter than he could imagine the return.
Lloyd Mariner watched Silas Tully as he stood in the middle of the small kitchen. Light sat like a sheen on top of a blue table cloth and reflected the neon overhead so much like a moon cast upon lagoon water. Mariner, who had spent time in the Pacific, just like Si, wondered if Si saw the same image he saw. Silas spun slowly about locking every known detail in his mind. Lloyd could not imagine the entries that his old detective was marking for memory. He figured there was not much to note in the room: a stove top as clean as a blanket of snow. Did Tracker Sims eat out often? Was he a guest elsewhere in the facility? Did he have a “friend” who shared meals with him? Tracker’s wife had died of cancer more than a dozen years ago, and it was fairly apparent that he was pulling time by himself, but one never knew about appetites and energies. All these elements in the kitchen were as neutral as could be, he decided.
He saw Si mark the half empty coffee pot, one of those Joe DiMaggio ones, sitting in its dark cradle. He wondered, as he thought Si was also wondering, if the coffee was day old or a week old. Even the most casual observer would see that the kitchen had few marks of living about it. No dirty pans or dishes. No utensils left about, as if in fact, there might be very few of them. A dish towel, neat as ever, with pressed lines still evident, hung on an aluminum rack as pristine as on the department store counter. A box of crackers was pushed into one corner of the countertop, under a cabinet. Lloyd knew the logo but couldn’t bring off the name. Si, he knew, could tell him if the crackers were salted or not. Probably knew the fat or cholesterol content also. A peach-colored butter dish, seemingly misplaced or forgotten, sat on the small counter as though it had never been moved, and its small shadow seemed to whisper on the countertop about rancid conditions. The smell in the room was still hard to take.
Silas, meanwhile, with a ball point pen, swung open a cabinet door. Dishes sat in a pile on the first shelf; plates, saucers, a gravy boat, and five cups with almost embroidered pink edges hung on hooks. One hook was empty. He’d bet they had been Tracker’s wife’s set of dishes. The pink edges were as dainty as flowers, not the kind an old cop would have hanging about on purpose; not with the crowd that came in to kibitz. The set of dishes were marriage leftovers, for sure, now twelve years gone. Silas wondered if it was ever over. He closed the cabinet door and swung open the refrigerator. A carton of milk. Two bottles of Budweiser. A can of Coke. A jar of peanut butter and a bottle of ketchup, neither with stains, sat in a small recessed compartment on the door. A dish with a prepared meal sat on one shelf, covered with Saran wrap or one of its cousins. Two baked potatoes had started to fold in on themselves on another shelf, looking as old as Tracker had gotten. It was evident Tracker Sims was not a heavy eater, not a picker. There were no potato chips, no cake, nothing for a sweet tooth.
Later, in the front room, Si said to the chief, “What do we know about his activities here? What have others told you?”
“Tracker had coffee four or five days a week in his place. Sometimes three or four of the other tenants joined him, kibitzing and stuff. The old bullshitters. All former town employees. They had a lot in common, tried to keep it all going, the way memories keep some people alive it seems. Not a scrapbook in the crowd of them, but lots of memories. Their names are on the data sheet. Two of them, Ivan Johnson and Henry Siaglo live on this floor, Paul Smythe lives upstairs directly overhead, Paulie Stanton, the old firefighter, lives in the next building.”
“The hall security cameras all working?”
“Not on this hall,” the chief said. “Been messed up for a few days. The maintenance guy, the one who tossed everything, said it looked like the wire was broken. Maybe two wires.”
“When were they here last, the kibitzers?”
“Yesterday,” the chief said, but only three of them. Johnson says he did not come by yesterday, though it was a usual day. He’s spooky, if you ask me. Said he heard something last night but thought it was a skunk knocking at a neighborhood barrel. Volunteered that right up front, but didn’t check it out.”
“Why’s he spooky?”
Lloyd Mariner looked straight at Silas, with a transfer of information coming before he spoke. “Remember Joe Comeau, all those times we had him in about the petty theft crap, how his eyes practically gave him away on everything, but never would admit anything… just had the look that he couldn’t hide anything. Also, one of the ladies in the hallway said Tracker had an argument with this Johnson guy. Seems they were friendly with the same lady but one of them was going to lose out.” He raised one eyebrow and continued, “Says the other lady used to do some of the cooking for both of them and started to cut back on one, on Johnson.”
Silas, standing at the door, spun about and looked back over his shoulder, into the small kitchen, the neat counter, the clean table top, the clinical look of the whole room. He stared for a full minute and Lloyd Mariner could not pull a single lasting detail out of the prim setting of the kitchen. Nothing stayed with him, like everything was neutral, useless as far as clues were concerned, an inert tapestry. A completely live sense of awareness came over him. His old buddy, Silas Tully, just as on other occasions earlier in his career, had already knocked down some unseen clue, he was sure. Another sense of awe flashed through him as the old Marine walked out of the crime scene of Apartment 5D. The hallway was full of doors ajar, cops in commotion, silence behind apartment doors, but doors ajar. He wouldn’t want to be spending the night here.
They were gathered in the rec room of the facility. There was a lot of light from one wall practically all windows. Evening sun sat over Donkey Hill and was slowly dropping below the saddle of the hill. Because it was warm in the room, it looked warm outside. All the kibitzers were there, the kaffee-klatsch guys, looking, to a man, as ragged as hell. Si Tully had summoned them from their apartments. Johnson showed up first, as haggard looking as those that followed.
Si judged him to be in his mid-seventies, broad in the shoulder yet, knitted brow, perhaps from a life of worry. Dark, horn-rimmed glasses captured his Nordic face, his neck thick as a wrestler’s. He had been, for almost forty years, a laborer at Riverside Cemetery. Si thought he was still physically fit. He had Johnson draw a line picture of Tracker’s apartment, the last way he had seen it. Johnson had a pretty good hand. And a good memory, though he struggled in some conceptions. He showed the box of crackers on a level line that was the counter top. A crude coffee pot sat on the line. Otherwise, the countertop was bare. There was one chair at the table where Tracker had died. The image was clear.
Johnson’s eyes inside the dark rims were plain clueless circles when he said he had not been at Tracker’s apartment that morning. On the day before, he said, he had taken the last cup of coffee in a cup from Tracker’s cabinet, had taken it back to his apartment. Said he had done the same thing before, always bringing the cup back on his next visit. “I have the cup in my apartment now,” he added.
Si watched his body language with every word.
Then, minutes later, the others came in a trio; Siaglo, Smythe and Stanton. They even looked like triplets, and marched in abreast as if they were an escort of sorts, like flag bearers. All of them bearded, Si immediately recalled the Smith Brothers on an old package of cough drops. And their stories, as if rehearsed, sounded too identical not to have been aligned, or at least discussed to some length.
Silas Tully, having known all of them as town employees over the years, greeted each one by name, heard their singular alibi, and had each draw Tracker’s apartment as they had last seen it. Henry Siaglo and Paul Smythe, with decent hands of their own, were decent at line drawing, and left much the same that Johnson had, as if they had seen the place in the same picture time and again. The rote of it amazed him. Paul Stanton, on the other hand, had a very poor grasp of what the room looked like. He had trouble visualizing even the merest detail of the room, and Si let him off the hook after his inept attempts.
Off to one side, Lloyd Mariner thought the drawings to be nothing but a ruse or a tool of some intent for Silas Tully. His admiration was boundless for the old Marine.
The one question Si asked of each of the three kaffee klatschers was which one had been the recipient of cooked meals from one lady of the facility. Henry Siaglo, still surprisingly good looking, with all his blond hair yet in place and a face that could beam happiness at times even with the salt and pepper beard, said he was the one who got four or five meals a week from “one of the ladies upstairs.” “She began to make them for Tracker,” Henry said, “but that didn’t bother me. He was a real nice guy. We fished for a few years getting near retirement, up along the Pine River in New Hampshire and the Ipswich, of course, near the fairgrounds in Topsfield, at the Iron Bridge and the Thunder Bridge. Had some great days, but it fell apart when our wives got sick.”
Si could almost hear Tracker talking about some of the fishing trips, how he laughed like hell about the three drunks that were caught fishing at midnight in the locks of the state fish hatchery along Route 16 near Ossipee, their weekend over and nothing to bring home to show to their wives, one of them screaming as he was walked off by a game warden, “I got the big one for the little lady.”
For a little less than an hour, former Marine and ex-detective called to the fore, Silas Tully moved around the rec room. Chief mariner watched his every move, trying to see or hear what Si was looking for; it was obvious he already had gotten hold of something that neither he nor the sergeant had seen. All the while he noted, with small discomforts and pains of his own, how Si had physically slowed down, how he turned around with a fair amount of trepidation, slowly pivoting almost in place. The chief knew the signs of bad knees, had seen them for all his years at sea on the older fishermen coming to the end of their voyages, the lobster traps getting heavier, the sea a greater threat each time out, time making its inroads.
Thinking of Phyllis at home, holding his supper meal in place, Si motioned the chief to one corner. “I got this one figured out, Lloyd. It’s the guy from the other end of the hall, Ivan Johnson.”
“Jeezus, Si, you haven’t seen a thing I haven’t! How the hell can you say that? There’s no damn evidence. We haven’t got a damn print yet. We don’t even have a weapon.”
“Don’t worry, Lloyd. We got him. Get rid of the others. Clear the room. Sit him down right here, right in this room near the crime scene before we even leave the place. He’ll tell us. It may take a bit of time, but Phyllis has supper waiting for me. I’d hate to disappoint her. I know she’s got chicken pot roast. It’s my favorite.”
Johnson, as bid, sat down, and Silas Tully said, “I know you did this to my old partner, Ivan. I have proof of it. I have caught you in a pack of lies and I’m not going to spend all night here while my wife lets my dinner, chicken pot roast, get cold on me. She deserves better than that. Any good woman does.”
“You got nothing on me.” Ivan Johnson was harsh in the face and in his tone, but Si could see something breaking away, a façade perhaps moving behind the dark glasses. “You got nothing,” Johnson continued. “I have not been to that apartment since yesterday, when I took a cup of coffee back to my place.”
“You were there this morning. I can prove it.”
“The camera’s broken, like they say. Anybody could have walked in the hallway. It wasn’t me.”
“Are you afraid of a little logic, Ivan? You don’t appear to be that stupid.”
“What kind of logic? I didn’t do anything.” Johnson’s voice was rising.
“You said you took the last cup of coffee yesterday, right?” Si was leaning over him, staring at one eye.
“So, a new pot was made this morning. Some of it was drunk this morning. It was shared with the murderer. I think that was you. You’re a lefty, right?”
The question sounded very odd to Si. Suddenly he remembered Phyllis, on a driving trip, with a map and a tour book in her lap, giving him directions. He remembered how they laughed like hell when she said, loudly, in a hurry, “Take a left, right here.” Si had been caught in the middle of the road. Now Johnson was looking at him curiously, trying to bring up a cavalier grin, but he had trouble finding it.
“My old cruiser partner, Tracker Sims, was a righty. Siaglo and Smythe and Stanton are all righties.” Si was tempted to say the Smith Brothers. “You’re the only lefty in the bunch.”
“Yuh, so what.” Johnson was moving in his seat. Body language was in effect, making a statement of one sort or another.
“You poured the last cup of coffee,” Si said. “You buttered the last piece of toast. Then you washed the one cup and Tracker’s saucer and your saucer, and put them away. But you left the butter dish on the counter, as some kind of gesture I’m not sure of. But a lefty handled them last, the coffee pot and the butter dish. I’m pretty sure we won’t find your fingerprints on them, but we won’t find Tracker’s either. But you, a lefty, were the last one to touch them. The last one to place the coffee pot back in the cradle and to use the butter dish. A lefty handled both of them the last time they were used… the way the coffee pot handle sticks over to the left, the way the butter was cut on the left side of the bar, the way a lefty does it. You’re that lefty!”
Lloyd Mariner almost cringed when Si slammed his fist down on the tabletop. Johnson did cringe, and then felt it all coming apart.
Ivan Johnson, a one-time criminal at the end of a tough day, put his head down and started to cry. He told the whole story, of his anger at being slighted and then left out by the widow upstairs, how she had fed him for a long while and then arbitrarily placed Henry Siaglo in front of him, and then Tracker, who was obviously her secret lover. It was the way his own wife used to do things, leaving him to his own ends, teaching him a lesson. He hadn’t forgotten a minute of it, not a single minute, and then it had blown up on him.
Chief Lloyd Mariner placed the handcuffs on Ivan Johnson himself, nodding his assent, hoping Si Tully would be around whenever he needed him, but knowing how time would progress all around them both. With an image too clear to be forgotten, he remembered an old fisherman who had fallen off the back end of his boat one day when the last lobster trap had been hauled aboard, the sea rough for the last time. He realized he’d always have trouble shaking that image.
Silas Tully, not too late in a rare working day, ate one of his favorite meals while he told Phyllis how the day had gone.
As always, she loved him all over again.