........

.......The Port of Missing Men
A Jim Wolf Mystery

by Tim Wohlforth

.......


.....The hilltop was just as I remembered it. I looked out over rolling New England hills. A spattering of yellow and red broke through the green canopy as the maple trees prepared to unveil their fall colors. Here and there I saw a rooftop. Intruders. The air was clean and crisp. I kicked up dry brown fallen leaves as I walked. A hawk circled high in the cloudless sky, searching for prey.

.....The place looked as it must have at the time of the Revolutionary War. The Redcoats moved through these hills, only to suffer defeat in nearby Ridgeboro. The ragged insurgent army had been led by Benedict Arnold, his last victory for our side. That's the way my dad told the story when I walked this very dirt road with him.

.....He would travel this road no more. Alzheimer's had taken its toll. I came back from California to try and jog his memory. So far only mine has been stimulated. Still, I hoped. Perhaps if I explored these hills I would come across something I could take back to him. Something that might spark his mind, restore his wonderful wit. If only for a day. If only for a moment.

.....I was a private eye. I was good at finding people But could I find my own father, lost in a diseased mind?

.....I made my way over to the ruins. So overgrown that, except for a towering granite chimney, you had to know what to look for. A portion of intact stonewall, rotting beams charred black, slivers of transparent and colored glass, rusted roofing tin. Wild grape vines covered much of the remains. Tall grass, small conifers and maples the rest. In the center a reddish bush. Poison sumac. The forbidding crimson leaves of poison ivy posed another threat.

.....I'd wanted to explore these ruins as a child, but my father would never let me. And the sumac and ivy weren't even there back then; some other, unspoken danger was.

..... One day my father told me about the unlikely structure that had stood here, sporting one of the best views in Connecticut, but miles from any other human habitation, situated at the end of an unmarked road.

....."That's what left of The Port of Missing Men," he said.

....."But it's not a port, Dad. There's no water for miles."

....."The place earned its name," he answered.

.....That was all. His silence only piqued my curiosity. I made up a story in my head of some great gale sweeping across Long Island, creating a tidal wave out of the Sound, then flooding nine miles of hilly land and placing a pirate ship on the very top of this hill. I wanted to test my theory, to find the portholes I knew were there, perhaps the bow of the ship.

.....As I got older, my dad told me more.

....."Got that name during Prohibition," he said. "Only place in the area you could buy good Canadian whiskey. Men only. Some entered and seemed never to come out. So the wives got to calling it The Port of Missing Men."

.....He smiled. Had he been one of those men? He couldn't have been. He wasn't that old. And I didn't remember my father as a drinking man. Perhaps before I was adopted? There had to be some reason why Mother never accompanied us on the walks up this hill.

....."What happened to the place?" I asked him.

....."Fire."

.....A frown formed on his thin face.

....."Back in Prohibition days?"

....."No. Pinchbeck bought the property after the war. Kept the old name and put it on a sign over the door. Ran it as a tavern, open to the public. Then one day in 1955 the building just burned down."

....."Anybody get hurt?"

.....I don't know why I asked that question. Perhaps it was the atmosphere. Haunting. All alone on that hill. Vines and weeds entangled with stone and rotted timbers. And my father's reaction. Fear. That pile of old timbers and stone frightened him.

....."Better be getting back," he said. "Mother will be worrying."

.....Now, looking back, I remembered the last time my father and I visited The Port of Missing Men. I had been on Spring Break during my sophomore year in college. It had been a turbulent first year and a half. Mixed grades. I'd find a subject that interested me and hole up with a book for days. In the meantime I ignored what was actually assigned. But they didn't give out good grades for just being smart. You were expected to perform as instructed. Answer their questions, not yours. I was not the kind that took to instructions back then. Still wasn't.

.....I had sensed my father wanted to take me on the hike as an opportunity to bawl me out.

....."You've got to start to take life more seriously, Jim," he began. His trim mustache and receding black hair gave him a military air. The effect was softened by a nose broken when playing hockey. Slightly crooked, as it hadn't healed correctly. He wore a tattered tan sweater that had begun to unravel along the bottom. There was a hole in one elbow.

....."Oh, I'm very serious," I said.

....."Your grades don't show it."

....."It's just that what I'm serious about and what the professors are serious about don't always match."

....."You can't make your own rules," he said. "Life is not a game and you're not the one who keeps score."

.....I knew he was right. But I had no intention of changing. I was what I was. Somehow, I'd find a way to limp along in life by my rules. And I have. I may not make a lot of money as a P.I. but I'm my own boss. I like investigating. And I'd much rather examine other people's lives than mine.

.....Just when I figured he would raise his voice and give me the tongue-lashing I deserved -- he was, after all, paying my college bills -- my father fell silent. He stood right where I now stood and stared at the ruins of the Port of Missing Men.

....."I've made my own mistakes, son," he said. "The problem is that when you make mistakes you can hurt others, not just yourself."

.....He wasn't talking to me or about me. He had traveled back in time.

....."What was it like?" I asked.

.....He jerked, becoming conscious again of my presence.

....."What?"

....."The Port of Missing Men."

....."Oh... seductive, comfortable, safe, protected. A space where you were understood, not judged." He shook his head. "It seemed that way, anyway. But it was all an illusion. Smoke and mirrors. Dangerous."

....."Dangerous?"

....."Let's go back," he said. "It's getting nippy up here. And Jim, I expect better grades this semester."

....."I'll try," I muttered.

....."Not good enough. You come from an area where some folks still think Benedict Arnold's a hero. Think about that."

....."What do you mean?" I asked.

....."Some, like Benedict Arnold, do good and then betray. Others make mistakes, and then reform. The latter's better. Progress rather than degeneration. That's going to be you."

.....Was he talking about me or both of us?

.....We said nothing to each other as we walked down the hill toward our parked car.

* * * *

.....There was no one to stop me now. I would finally get my opportunity to explore the wreckage of The Port Of Missing Men. I made my way carefully through the tangle of grape vines, rock, beer bottles, blackberry brambles. I was searching, for what I didn't know. I forged ahead toward the slight mound in the center, topped by sumac. It was at least an objective to reach. And it would give me an overview of the rubble. I tripped on a root and tumbled into the blackberry patch. I got up, hands bleeding from thorn scratches, and ploughed on. I had some crazy notion that I would find my father's mind buried here with the old bottles and timber.

.....I made it to the top of the mound, careful not to touch the sumac. I looked around in all directions. I saw nothing that held any meaning for me. Then, near the far end of what must have been the building, I spotted a color than didn't belong. Dull orange with black markings. A license plate? I fought my way over to the object. Yes, a heavily rusted New York plate had been nailed into a beam that was partially covered by dirt, broken cinder block, and charred wood.

.....I knelt down in the rubble and began to dig out around the plate. I found the date -- 1954. A year before the fire. Luckily the timber that held the plate was quite close to the surface. In a short time I had most of the beam exposed. A series of license plates had been nailed into it, some Connecticut, others New York State. Right in the middle was a Connecticut plate I recognized. 77-333. Damn. I knew that plate. My father's. Amazing how that license plate number had stuck in my head over so many years. But he had kept those numbers on succeeding plates for years. So easy to remember. It also had a 1954 date on it.

.....Must have been a ritual. Regular patrons would bring in their old plates as some kind of symbol of belonging. To what? What had The Port Of Missing Men really been? Why had it haunted my father lso ong after the fire.

.....I tugged on my father's plate. Damn it, I'd take it with me. Maybe it would jar his memory. Worth a try. The beam was so rotted that the plate easily came loose. Then I looked back over the row of plates. I was struck by the gaping hole where my father's plate had been. It was like I had separated my father from old friends. I wondered if the placement of the plates had some meaning. Were the two plates surrounding my father's his closest friends?

.....What if these plates could talk? Tell me about their owners, what happened in 1955 in that bar, why it burned down? If Connecticut DMV kept records that went back that far, I could find names and addresses to match the plates. Perhaps some of these men were still alive. Hopefully more coherent than my father. If I talked to them, I might hit on another way to reach my father.

.....I pulled a notebook out of my back pocket and drew a picture of the beam, noting the license numbers in order. Then I yanked plate after plate out of the timber. Blood from the bramble scratches began to drip down my arms. Sweat filled my eyes, blinding me to the point where I had to stop and rest. I sat among the weeds and vines, wiped my eyes with my shirtsleeve, and found myself having a staring contest with a human skull.

.* * * *

.....Yellow crime scene tape billowed in the breeze, cordoning off the wreck that was The Port Of Missing Men. Three men from the Connecticut State Police in white jumpsuits worked their way through the brambles. One man bent over the skull I had found. Using a trowel and a small brush, he dug out and cleaned off the skull as if it were a precious archeological find.

....."Tell me again how you found the skull," Lieutenant Roy Bowers of the State Police asked me. A thin man with a long creased face and bald head, he was not the smiling kind.

....."I know it sounds lame, but I was poking around in the wreckage when I spotted this beam. I started to dig it out. Figured it would make good firewood."

....."You planned to carry it all the way down the hill to your car?"

....."More like drag it."

.....I wasn't telling him about the license plates. Didn't want to involve my father, even after all this time. Kind of a defense mechanism.

.....I didn't really think he had had anything to do with the fire. Certainly not with the dead man. Not my father. But he had been involved somehow. I intended to find out how before I told anything more to the police.

....."But why were you up here in the first place? You like playing around with brambles, sumac, and poison ivy?"

....."Memories."

....."Memories?"

.....I told him about my walks with my father in the old days, about his present mental state, my search for anything that might help.

....."Still don't get that beam business."

....."It's the kind of thing my father would do. Pick up sticks and logs on a walk. Bring them home and pile them by the side of the house for winter burning. I guess I was caught up in memories. Not thinking straight."

.....Bowers nodded thoughtfully. He was in his fifties, about my age. Maybe he had a father like mine. A scavenger, a fixer-upper. My father would find a discarded broken lawn chair, patch it up, repaint it, and add it to the raggle-taggle set of furniture that filled our patio. Not like he couldn't afford new furniture. He just liked to salvage, to putter.

.....A crime scene tech walked toward us, holding the skull in his hand, looking as if he was trying out for the role of Hamlet in a high school play.

....."We'll be digging up the rest of the bones shortly," he said," but I thought you would want to see this." He held the skull in his hand in front of Bowers' face. Then turned it over. There was a hole in the back of the head.

....."Bullet?" Bowers asked.

....."Looks like it, but we will know more when we get back to the lab. I thought this was a fire scene."

....."So did I," Bowers said. He turned to me. "I looked up the file on the fire before we came out here. They suspected arson at the time. Pinchbeck was in debt. Business down. But no mention of a murder, or anyone missing." His eyes narrowed. "You don't seem particularly surprised."

.....And he was right. My father had spoken of death. I had assumed he was referring to someone caught in the fire. But murder? And maybe a fire to cover it up. I couldn't tell Bowers of my suspicions, of my father's fear.

....."I'm as surprised as you. It's just . . ."

....."Just what?"

....."The atmosphere of the place. I felt it ,as a kid. Used to scare me."

....."Interesting. You and me will need to talk some more. But I've got to supervise the investigation here. We never give up on murder cases, even cold ones like this."

.....He turned from me. Reluctantly, I trudged down the road toward my car. I had a lot to think about. And to do.

* * * *

.....I entered the pre-revolutionary saltbox that used to be my home thirty years ago. Low ceiling, hand-blown glass in the windows, a hooked rug covering extraordinarily wide floorboards. I didn't see him. I glanced in the kitchen. He sat upright in a cane kitchen chair, a bib around his neck, glazed look in his eyes. Dorothy, his live-in caregiver, spoon-fed some kind of gruel into his mouth. A can of Ensure stood beside the bowl. Not the father I remembered. Not the father I had been searching for among the wreckage of The Port Of Missing Men. He didn't recognize me when I entered the kitchen. I kissed him on his forehead anyway, then went upstairs to my room.

.....It was a small room, but my own, a cocoon where I could get away from the rest of the family, read my books, dream my dreams. I laid my small notebook on the small desk at which I once did homework. I started up my laptop and contacted Barry Brukoff, a private eye in Bridgeport I had worked with once. I told him what I wanted. I got an instant response. The guy must be hungry. He claimed to be able to supply the owner of any car registered in the state since 1930, and the current owner's address if living. For a fee. I didn't haggle.

.....He went to work and I lay down on the twin bed. I thought about The Port of Missing Men and the skull. My father had told me that Pinchbeck was the owner of the tavern . It had to be the same Pinchbeck who was the town's benefactor. He had come up with the money for the rink. He had given the land for the town beach at the lake. His name was on a middle school. Clearly, he had prospered after l955. I would have to learn more about him.

.....But right now, I had mail. Barry had come through. He connected each plate to a name. In half the cases, he provided an address. Several of the names sounded familiar to me, but I couldn't quite place them. It had been such a long time since I had lived in the town.

.....I did recognize one name though. Harry Reid. I had gone to school with a Harry Reid, Jr. , my best friend in the fifth and sixth grades. His father had owned the local newspaper, The Ridgeboro Press. I wrote down the names on my drawing of the beam and license plates. Harry Reid's plate was next to my father's. A Connelly occupied the place on the other side. Reid was alive but Connelly had passed away.

.....The offices of The Ridgeboro Press would be my next stop. Harry, Jr. was now the publisher. I wanted to talk to him about his father. And I wanted to look up the news stories from the time of the fire.

* * * *

.....The paper's editorial office and printing plant occupied a one-story brick building half a block down Walker Street, behind the town hall. A heavyset gray-haired lady in slacks greeted me. I asked for Harry and was told he was tied up in an editorial conference. I figured I'd hit the archives while I waited. She directed me to a storage room crammed with bound volumes.

....."Microfilming didn't start until 1970," she explained.

.....Fine with me. The actual paper gives a better feel of the times. The volume for 1955 was relatively thin. It was a weekly and the town was smaller then, fewer businesses and therefore fewer ads. Less news, I also figured. I found the coverage of the fire in the April 26th issue. A photo of the smoldering ruins of what had been The Port Of Missing Men dominated the front page.

.....An inside page featured a short history of the place and a historic photo from the 1930s. An impressive building, it was constructed out of native stone and oak beams. The huge granite chimney rose from the center. Curiously, considering its scenic setting, it had no large plate glass picture windows. Only round portholes, like a boat, filled with colored glass. It was not a place for nature lovers. Intended instead for those who sought to avoid prying eyes.

.....I found myself mesmerized by the old photo. Repulsed and drawn at the same time. I was adopted at the age of three and have always felt like an outsider. I am attracted to hiding places, like my room in my parents' house. Like The Port Of Missing Men. My childhood feelings about the place returned. I shivered.

.....Seductive. Dangerous.

.....I flipped back to the main article and then glanced over the rest of the paper, the ads, the school notices, the report of a recent town meeting. I looked at a couple of past issues. Then forward for a month. Name after name from the license plates hit me. Jack Connelly, the man responsible for the other license plate next to my father's, turned out to be the first selectman, what went in a New England town for a mayor. Richards, another selectman, O'Connors, the town clerk, Torcelli, a contractor, Allen, chief of police, and Al Hansen, the very state police officer who investigated the fire, were all represented by plates on that beam. It was a veritable who's who of the most powerful people in the town.

* * * *

....."I heard you were in the archives."

.....I turned to face Harry Reid, Jr., freckled face, sandy hair sprinkled now with gray, a paunch hanging over his belt. He, like me, was fifty-two. Warm smile and light blue eyes gave him a boyish look. Easily recognizable from childhood. Except for the weight, he had aged well.

....."Just checking the Press's coverage of The Port Of Missing Men fire."

....."I heard about the skull. What in the hell were you doing up there?"

....."My father and I used to hike to the top of that hill."

....."Memory lane. There are better places to reminisce."

.....There was an edge to his tone that belied the smile on his face. Who was I after all these years away, poking into things that were none of my business?

.....But they were my business. My father was my business.

.....I asked him, "What do you know about The Port Of Missing Men?"

....."Nothing, really. It burned down before our time."

.....But he did know something. Harry never could keep a secret.

....."What did your father tell you?" I asked him. "He used to hang out there."

....."Where did you get that idea?"

.....I looked him in the eye. I had every intention of pressing him, getting the information from him I needed to unlock my father's mind. "Harry, I need your help in this. Start talking to me. Like we used to when we were kids. I'm losing my father to Alzheimer's. I've got to jar his mind. Your father was my father's drinking buddy."

.....Dad had never mentioned Harry Senior in connection with The Port, but Junior didn't know that.

....."Everybody hung out there."

....."Everybody who was anybody in this town," I added.

....."I guess you could say that."

....."Why?"

....."Why what?"

....."Why did the major power brokers in Ridgeboro hang out in that place?"

....."Maybe they liked to drink."

....."You damn well know there was more to it than that."

.....This guy was getting on my nerves. Still holding back on me. Some friend. Was he ever a friend?

....."So you know?"

....."I've guessed, but tell me anyway. It might help my father."

....."Look at this town now," he said. "We have a population of over 24,000, mostly well-to-do families. Shopping malls, good schools, a recreational center. When you and I were kids there were barely 4,000 people living here. Mostly poor Italians. But beautiful country and a lovely historical Main Street. Close enough to New York City, Stamford, Greenwich to commute. An opportunity waiting to be exploited."

....."And The Port Of Missing Men's regulars were the exploiters?"

....."Exploit's a bad choice of words. Let's say developers. That's where the plan for the future of Ridgeboro was hatched. First priority was buying the land before people knew its real worth. That was Pinchbeck's job. Then Connelly and the other selectmen furnished access roads, electricity, sewer, water lines, all at the public's expense. My father used this press to build support for the necessary projects and changes in code. And it worked. Look at Ridgeboro now."

....."Millions were made," I added.

....."It was for the good of the community. The skating rink, the beach by the lake. We didn't have those when we were kids."

....."What about the fire?"

....."My father wouldn't talk about that."

....."Nothing in his paper at the time suggested anything suspicious," I said. "What do you think?"

....."What did your father say about it?"

....."I knew it frightened him."

.....Harry looked at me as if he was about to say something. Then he shook his head.

..... "Why don't you just drop it?" he said. "It was after the fire that this town really took off. I live here. You don't. I admit I've benefited from that growth. But so have most of the other townspeople. They went to work for the contractors, became gardeners, their wives got jobs in the shopping malls, some sent their kids to college."

....."Not everybody benefited."

....."Who are you talking about?"

....."The guy who got a bullet in his head the night of the fire, for one."

.....I got up and walked out of the room.

* * * *

.....My father sat on our old brown overstuffed couch. It smelled of mildew and cat piss. He was wrapped in a blanket even though it was warm in the house. His eyes were unfocused, like he was stoned. He held a yearbook from his prep school days and occasionally flipped a page. I knew he recognized no one.

.....I pulled up a chair and faced him. He didn't look up. I held the license plates in my lap, his topmost. I held it up ­ 77-333.

....."Do you recognize this?" I asked. He continued to flip pages. "Look," I commanded. He stared at the plate. Fear broke through the twisted corridors of his mind. But I had to go on. I had to fight for even a moment of sanity.

....."Where did you get that?"

.....The first coherent sentence in the week I had been there.

....."I found it attached to a beam in the wreckage of The Port Of Missing Men."

....."Put it back," he commanded with that tone of voice he used with me as a child. "That place is evil."

.....He jerked his head from side to side, as if someone would overhear us, or hurt him. Was I doing the right thing? Bringing him back to a reality he had tried to forget even when he was well? Is it better to be alive with fear or peacefully brain dead? Which would I chose? Painful life. I plunged on.

....."Why is it evil?" I asked.

....."Death."

....."I know, Dad. I found a skull in the wreckage. Bullet hole."

....."Son, I told you never to go there."

.....He recognized me. Fantastic.

....."Whose skull is it?"

....."Pinchbeck."

....."Not possible. He lived into his eighties. Just passed away a year or two ago."

....."Good," he said.

....."Maybe, but that skull couldn't have been his."

....."His son."

....."His son? Who killed him?" I asked, dreading the answer.

....."Harry."

....."Your best friend."

.....He nodded.

....."Why?"

....."A father couldn't kill his own son. And I wouldn't do it."

.....He stared at me, his mouth opened. I was about to say something more, then stopped. He pulled back from me in fright.

....."Are you a policeman?" he asked.

.....Then he returned to flipping the pages in his book. I had lost him. Maybe for good.

* * * *

..... Harry Reid, Senior, lived in a white mansion that rested on top of a small hill that sloped down to the shore of Ripon Lake. I used to go fishing on that lake. Now it was entirely surrounded by a millionaire's subdivision. I remembered his modest brick house off Main Street. He had prospered over the years. And it wasn't from publishing a small town weekly.

.....I parked in the gravel driveway and walked around to the back. I found him sitting in an ornamental lawn chair, tall glass of whiskey in his hand. Fat, gray hair neatly combed and slicked down, tiny eyes. Open collar white shirt, spanners holding up grey wool slacks.

....."Good to see you, Jim. It's been too many years. I hear your dad's not doing so well."

....."Alzheimer's. Most of the time he doesn't recognize me."

....."Heart's my problem. Triple bypass. Doctors don't give me long. But while I'm here my mind's going great. Want a drink?"

....."No thanks."

....."Wise choice. This whiskey's probably killing me. But I'm pretty much dead anyway."

....."You will remember," I said.

.....Finally a witness to what had happened. But would he tell me, considering his own guilt?

....."Remember what?"

....."The Port of Missing Men."

....."I remember everything. Heard you were poking around up there. Found a skull."

....."My father says you're responsible," I said.

....."I thought Ted was demented."

....."He goes in and out."

....."Maybe he shot him," he said. "He should have."

.....Was he trying to blame my father? I grabbed his shirt and pulled him out of his chair. Old man or not, I was not about to have my father blamed for the crimes of this town.

....."Calm down," he said. "You don't scare me. Nothing scares me anymore."

....."So tell me the truth." I dropped him back into his chair.

....."I was about to. Your father's right. I've had to live with my actions up at The Port my whole life. Never a day has passed that I didn't think about it. It's been a hell of a way to live. I did it for this." He waved his hand in a wide swoop. "Not just the house. The whole subdivision. This is where it began. The Port is where it ended.

....."It was Pinchbeck's idea. He seduced all of us, your dad included, with his scheme to develop the land around the town, attract rich people to settle here, make a killing. He was losing money on that bar of his. But he was very ambitious. So, I guess, were we all. That drew us to him, to The Port."

....."The fire, the murder?"

....."The fire was pretty obvious. Pinchbeck needed the insurance money for his stake. We had decided on our first subdivision right here around Lake Ripon. We bought up all the land but one parcel. The Nichols farm. The barn stood right where you're standing now. The family had been here since before the revolution, but they had gone to seed. Old wreck of a place. Rusted cars, trucks, couple of cows, chickens running loose. Old man Nichols wouldn't sell, damn him, no matter how much we offered. Proud man. He had no money, but he had history. To a man like Nichols, that was all that mattered. But we had to have that land."

.....He looked out over the lake. My eyes followed his. A small sailboat floated by heading toward the country club at the end of the pond. A turkey vulture hovered over us.

....."So what did you do?"

....."Tom Allen, the town cop, went to see him. He found some corn liquor in the barn and a still. Told him he was going to run him in unless he sold the property. Nichols threw a fit, started cursing him. Tom shot him. Then he placed the old man's rifle in his hand. Allen brought in Al Hansen of the state police. One of us. And that was that. Or so we thought."

....."That doesn't explain the skull in the wreckage of The Port."

....."I'm getting to that. Edward, Pinchbeck's son, was a good friend of the Nichols boy. He was over there playing when it happened. Saw Allen plant the gun. A peculiar boy. Church going, he disapproved of his dad. Took after his mother. Edward told his father he was going to tell all. Then he went to Hansen and got no place. He figured out Hansen was with us. He planned to go higher up in the state police."

....."And you had to stop him."

....."Pinchbeck told us about Edward. Said he was bowing out of the project. He just couldn't kill his own son. But, we knew what he wanted and he knew what we were capable of. The rest of us drew lots. Your father won. He refused and dropped out of the real estate deal. Never made a penny out of the town's growth. I respected him for that. But I had no choice. I had borrowed on the paper. I couldn't afford for the project to go under. I volunteered."

.....A slight breeze stirred irises down toward the lake. The smell of honeysuckle and freshly cut grass wafted through the air. A lone bumblebee circled Reid's now empty whiskey glass.

....."I lured him up to the bar the night of the fire," he continued. "Shot him and lit the place. He had been going to boarding school at the time, so nobody missed him. Later Pinchbeck claimed he had run away from school. No one cared. Nichols' wife sold the dump to us. From then on in it was one success after another. Pinchbeck never forgot what I did for him. Time and again he put up my share in a project. And now it all goes to my son."

....."And you are not going to repeat a damn word of it, Jim."

.....I turned to face Harry, Jr., holding a pistol.

....."Don't," the father said. "It's easy to shoot. It's hard to forget."

....."I won't let them put you away," Junior said.

....."I don't care. I've lived long enough."

....."But I care," Junior answered. "My reputation. Pinchbeck's, the town."

....."The town, the town," the father said. "That's always been our excuse. But it was never the town. It was us. It was greed. Do you think a skating rink, a town beach, anything justifies killing a man? I thought so once. I was wrong."

.....The father rose from his chair and walked toward his son. He opened his hand for the gun. But Junior pushed him aside. The muzzle of his pistol pointed right at my chest.

.....I was paralyzed. I knew I was a dead man, but I just couldn't move. Couldn't believe my old friend was about to kill me.

.....The father stepped between us just as the revolver went off.

.....I leapt at Junior. He tried to squeeze the trigger again, but I gave him no opportunity this time. I bashed the revolver to the side. The shot went wild. I grabbed his hand and twisted it until the gun fell to the ground. I picked it up and pressed the muzzle against his temple.

......"You bastard," I said. "You killed your father."

....."I . . . didn't mean to."

....."No, you meant to kill me."

....."Like when we were kids," Junior said. "Playing cops and robbers."

....."Kids? You and your shitty town make me sick."

.....How I wanted to pull that trigger. But another killing wouldn't change the past. Wouldn't end the greed that drives perfectly decent people to commit indecent acts. I yanked him up to his feet, and marched him into the house. I called 911.

* * * *

.....I entered the saltbox house for what I knew would be the last time. My father didn't look up as I walked into the sitting room. The TV droned on, images scrolled down the screen. His caregiver hadn't even bothered to adjust it. No matter. My father was gone. Time to move him to a nursing facility. Wait for the inevitable.

.....I don't know how he would have reacted to the news of the shooting of his old friend by his son. Saddened, of course. But would he have approved of my insistence on unearthing the truth about The Port of Missing Men? I remembered what he had tried to tell me long, long ago on that ridge by the ruins. About Benedict Arnold, about making mistakes, about doing good. When I got back to college that year, my grades barely improved. And I have since made more than my share of mistakes. But I have become a searcher after truth. He would have understood that I did what I had to do. And that is good.

.....The best thing I ever did was to leave that town. Those men who conspired to kill an idealistic young man felt that a single death was a small price to pay for progress. They were wrong. The stain remained to haunt the perpetrators. Now the town would have to come to grips with its real history.

.....But without my help. I looked forward to my return to Oakland. Where the greed was out in the open, murder an everyday street corner experience, life as hard as the pavement, and fewer trees to hide the evil that men do.

Copyright (c) 2004 by Tim Wohlforth.

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Tim Wohlforth has had several dozen short stories accepted for publication. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, e-zines and anthologies, including Detective Mystery Magazine, Crimestalker Casebook, Hand Held Crime, Plots With Guns, Fedora, Down These Dark Streets and Hardbroiled. He is also the co-author of the non-fiction book, On The Edge: Political Cults Right and Left. He is also the creator of the Tom "Crip" Bateman and Henrietta series of mysteries featuring a paraplegic PI and his green haired, tattooed assistant.

The first Jim Wolf novel, No Time To Mourn, has recently been published

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