.......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
..... 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
....."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.
.....A frown formed on his thin
....."Back in Prohibition
....."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,"
....."Your grades don't
....."It's just that what
I'm serious about and what the professors are serious about don't
....."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
.....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?"
.....He jerked, becoming conscious
again of my presence.
....."The Port of Missing
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."
....."Let's go back,"
he said. "It's getting nippy up here. And Jim, I expect
better grades this semester."
....."I'll try," I
....."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?"
....."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
.....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?"
.....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
....."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,
.....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.
....."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
.....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 . . ."
....."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.
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.
.....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
.....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
.....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
....."Everybody hung out
....."Everybody who was
anybody in this town," I added.
....."I guess you could
....."Why did the major
power brokers in Ridgeboro hang out in that place?"
....."Maybe they liked to
....."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
....."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
....."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
....."Millions were made,"
....."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
.....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
....."Not everybody benefited."
....."Who are you talking
....."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
....."Where did you get
.....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 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?"
....."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? Who killed
him?" I asked, dreading the answer.
....."Your best friend."
....."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?"
.....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
.....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."
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?"
....."Wise choice. This
whiskey's probably killing me. But I'm pretty much dead anyway."
....."You will remember,"
.....Finally a witness to what
had happened. But would he tell me, considering his own guilt?
....."The Port of Missing
....."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
....."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
....."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
....."And you had to stop
....."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.
I said. "You killed your father."
....."I . . . didn't mean
....."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.
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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