Summer had come, the season of awakenings.
This state, this northern place, was not like its southern kin. Here, spring was an illusion, a promise made yet always unkept, a pretence of new life bound by blackened snow and slow-melting ice. Nature had learned to bide its time by the beaches and the bogs, in the Great North Woods of the county and the salt marshes of Scarborough. Let winter hold sway in February and March, beating its slow retreat to the 49th Parallel, refusing to concede even an inch of ground without a fight. As April approached, the willows and poplars, the hazel and the elms had budded amid birdsong. They had been waiting since the fall, their flowers shrouded yet ready, and soon the bogs were carpeted in the purple-brown of alders, and chipmunks and beavers were on the move. The skies bloomed with woodcock, and geese, and grackle, scattering themselves like seeds upon fields of blue.
Now May had brought summer at last, and all things were awake.
SUNLIGHT SPLASHED ITSELF UPON the window, warming my back with its heat, and fresh coffee was poured into my cup.
“A bad business,” said Kyle Quinn. Kyle, a neat, compact man in pristine whites, was the owner of the Palace Diner in Biddeford. He was also the chef, and he happened to be the cleanest diner chef I’d ever seen in my life. I’d eaten in diners where the eventual sight of the chef had made me consider undertaking a course of antibiotics, but Kyle was so nicely turned out, and his kitchen so spotless, that there were ICUs with poorer hygiene than the Palace, and surgeons with dirtier hands than Kyle’s.
The Palace was the oldest diner car in Maine, custom-built by the Pollard Company of Lowell, Massachusetts, its red and white paintwork still fresh and spruce, and the gold lettering on the window that confirmed ladies were, indeed, invited glowed brightly as though written in fire. The diner had opened for business in 1927, and since then five people had owned it, of whom Kyle was the latest. It served only breakfast, and closed before midday, and was one of those small treasures that made daily life a little more bearable.
“Yeah,” I said. “Bad in the worst way.”
The Portland Press-Herald was spread before me over the counter of the diner. At the bottom of the front page, beneath the fold, the headline read:
NO LEADS IN SLAYING OF STATE TROOPER
The trooper in question, Foster Jandreau, had been found shot to death in his truck behind the former Blue Moon bar just inside the Saco town line. He hadn’t been on duty at the time, and was dressed in civilian clothes when his body was discovered. What he was doing at the Blue Moon, nobody knew, especially since the autopsy revealed that he’d been killed sometime after midnight but before 2 a.m., when nobody had any business hanging around the burnt-out shell of an unloved bar. Jandreau’s remains were found
by a road crew that had pulled into the Moon’s parking lot for some coffee and an early morning smoke before commencing the day’s work. He had been shot twice at close range with a .22, once in the heart and once in the head. It bore all the hallmarks of an execution.
“That place was always a magnet for trouble,” said Kyle. “They should have just razed what was left of it after it burned.”
“Yeah, but what would they have put there instead?”
“A tombstone,” said Kyle. “A tombstone with Sally Cleaver’s name on it.”
He walked away to pour coffee for the rest of the stragglers, most of whom were reading or talking quietly among themselves, seated in a line like characters in a Norman Rockwell painting. There were no booths at the Palace, and no tables, just fifteen stools. I occupied the last stool, the one farthest from the door. It was after 11:30 a.m., and technically the diner was now closed, but Kyle wouldn’t be moving folks along anytime soon. It was that kind of place.
Sally Cleaver: her name had been mentioned in the reporting of Jandreau’s murder, a little piece of local history that most people might have preferred to forget, and the final nail in the Blue Moon’s coffin, as it were. After her death, the bar was boarded up, and a couple of months later it was torched. The owner was questioned about possible arson and insurance fraud, but it was just a matter of routine. The birds in the trees knew that the Cleaver family had put the match to the Blue Moon bar, and nobody uttered a word of blame for it.
The bar had now been closed for nearly a decade, a cause of grief for precisely no one, not even the rummies who used to frequent it. Locals always referred to it as the Blue Mood, as nobody ever came out of it feeling better than they had when they went in, even if they hadn’t eaten the food or drunk anything that they hadn’t seen unsealed in front of them. It was a grim place, a brick fortress topped with a painted sign illuminated by four bulbs,
no more than three of which were ever working at any one time. Inside, the lights were kept dim to hide the filth, and all the stools at the bar were screwed to the floor to provide some stability for the drunks. It had a menu right out of the chronic obesity school of cooking, but most of its clientele preferred to fill themselves up on the free beer nuts, salted to within an inch of a stroke in order to encourage the consumption of alcohol. At the end of the evening, the uneaten but heavily pawed nuts that remained were poured back into the big sack that Earle Hanley, the bartender, kept beside the sink. Earle was the only bartender. If he was sick, or had something else more important to do than pickle drunks, the Blue Moon didn’t open. Sometimes, if you watched the clientele arriving for their daily fill, it was hard to tell if they were relieved or unhappy to find the door occasionally bolted.
And then Sally Cleaver died, and the Moon died with her.
There was no mystery about her death. She was twenty-three, and living with a deadbeat named Clifton Andreas, “Cliffie” to his buddies. It seemed that Sally had been putting a little money aside each week from her job as a waitress, perhaps in the hope of saving enough to have Cliffie Andreas killed, or to convince Earle Hanley to spike his beer nuts with rat poison. I was familiar with Cliffie Andreas as a face around town, one that it was sensible to avoid. Cliffie never met a puppy that he didn’t want to drown, or a bug that he didn’t want to crush. Any work that he picked up was seasonal, but Cliffie was never likely to qualify for Employee of the Month. Work was something that he did when there was no money left, and he viewed it entirely as a last resort if borrowing, theft, or simply leeching off someone weaker and needier than himself weren’t available options. He had a superficial bad boy charm for the kind of woman who assumed a public pose of regarding good men as weak, even as she secretly dreamed of a regular Joe who wasn’t mired in the mud at the bottom of the pond and determined to drag someone else down there with him.
I didn’t know Sally Cleaver. Apparently she had low self-esteem,
and lower expectations, but somehow Cliffie Andreas succeeded in reducing the former still further, and failed to live up even to the latter. Anyway, one evening Cliffie found Sally’s small, hard-earned stash, and decided to treat himself and his buddies to a free night at the Moon. Sally came home from work, found her money gone, and went looking for Cliffie at his favorite haunt. She found him holding court at the bar, drinking on her dime the Moon’s only bottle of cognac, and she decided to stand up for herself for the first, and last, time in her life. She screamed at him, scratched him, tore at his hair, until at last Earle Hanley told Cliffie to take his woman, and his domestic problems, outside, and not to come back until he had both under control.
So Cliffie Andreas had grabbed Sally Cleaver by the collar and pulled her through the back door, and the men at the bar had listened while he pounded her into the ground. When he came back inside, his knuckles were raw, his hands were stained red, and his face was flecked with freckles of blood. Earle Hanley poured him another drink and slipped outside to check on Sally Cleaver. By then, she was already choking on her own blood, and she died on the back lot before the ambulance could get to her.
And that was it for the Blue Moon, and for Cliffie Andreas. He pulled ten to fifteen in Thomaston, served eight, then was killed less than two months after his release by an “unknown assailant” who stole Cliffie’s watch, left his wallet untouched, and then discarded the watch in a nearby ditch. It was whispered that the Cleavers had long memories.
Now Foster Jandreau had died barely yards from the spot on which Sally Cleaver had choked to death, and the ashes of the Moon’s history were being raked through once again. Meanwhile, the state police didn’t like losing troopers, hadn’t liked it since right back in 1924 when Emery Gooch was killed in a motorcycle accident in Mattawamkeag; nor since 1964, when Charlie Black became the first trooper killed by gunfire while responding to a bank raid in South Berwick. But there were shadows around Jandreau’s killing.
The paper might have claimed that there were no leads, but the rumors said otherwise. Crack vials had been found on the ground by Jandreau’s car, and fragments of the same glass were discovered on the floor by his feet. He had no drugs in his system, but there were now concerns on the force that Foster Jandreau might have been dealing on the side, and that would be bad for everyone.
Slowly, the diner began to empty, but I stayed where I was until I was the only one remaining at the counter. Kyle left me to myself, making sure that my cup was full before he started cleaning up. The last of the regulars, mostly older men for whom the week wasn’t the same without a couple of visits to the Palace, paid their checks and left.
I’ve never had an office. I never had any use for one, and if I had, I probably couldn’t have justified the expense of it to myself, even given a favorable rent in Portland or Scarborough. Only a handful of clients had ever commented upon it, and on those occasions when a particular need for privacy and discretion had arisen, I’d been in a position to call in favors, and a suitable room had been provided. Occasionally, I used the offices of my attorney up in Freeport, but there were people who disliked the idea of going into a lawyer’s office almost as much as they disliked the idea of lawyers in general, and I’d found that most of those who came to me for help preferred a more informal approach. Usually, I went to them, and spoke with them in their own homes, but sometimes a diner like the Palace, empty and discreet, was as good as anywhere. In this case, the venue for the meeting had been decided by the prospective client, not by me, and I was fine with it.
Shortly after midday, the Palace’s door opened, and a man in his mid-sixties entered. He looked like a model for the stereotypical old Yankee: feed cap on his head, an L.L. Bean jacket over a plaid shirt, neat blue denims, and work boots on his feet. He was wiry as a tension cable, his face weathered and lined, light brown eyes glittering behind surprisingly fashionable steel-framed spectacles. He greeted Kyle by name, then removed his hat and gave a courtly
little bow to Tara, Kyle’s daughter, who was cleaning up behind the counter and who smiled and greeted him in turn.
“Good to see you, Mr. Patchett,” she said. “It’s been a while.” There was a tenderness to her voice, and a brightness to her eyes, that said all that needed to be said about the new arrival’s recent suffering.
Kyle leaned through the serving hatch between the kitchen and the counter area. “Come to check out a real diner, Bennett?” he said. “You look like you could do with some feeding up.”
Bennett Patchett chuckled and swatted at the air with his right hand, as though Kyle’s words were insects buzzing at his head, then took a seat beside me. Patchett had owned the Downs Diner, close by the Scarborough Downs racetrack on Route 1, for more than forty years. His father had run it before him, opening it shortly after he returned from service in Europe. There were still pictures of Patchett Senior on the walls of the diner, some of them from his military days, surrounded by younger men who looked up to him as their sergeant. He’d died when he was still in his forties, and his son had eventually taken over running the business. Bennett had now lived longer than his own father, just as it seemed that I was destined to live longer than mine.
He accepted the offer of a cup of coffee from Tara as he shrugged off his coat and hung it close to the old gas fire. Tara discreetly went to help her father in the kitchen, so that Bennett and I were left alone.
“Charlie,” he said, shaking my hand.
“How you doing, Mr. Patchett?” I asked. It felt odd to be calling him by his last name. It made me feel about ten years old, but when it came to such men, you waited until they gave you permission to be a little more familiar in your mode of address. I knew that all his staff called him “Mr. Patchett.” He might have been like a father figure to some of them, but he was their boss, and they treated him with the respect that he deserved.
“You can call me Bennett, son. The less formal this is, the better. I don’t think I’ve
ever spoken with a private detective before, except you, and that was only when you were eating in my place. Only ever saw them on TV, and in the movies. And, truth to tell, your reputation makes me a little nervous.”
He peered at me, and I saw his eye linger briefly on the scar on my neck. A bullet had grazed me there the previous year, deep enough to leave a permanent mark. In recent times, I seemed to have accumulated a lot of similar nicks and scratches. When I died, they could put me in a display case as an example to others who might be tempted to follow a similar path of beatings, gunshot wounds, and electrocution. Then again, I might just have been unlucky. Or lucky. It depended upon how you looked at the glass.
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” I said.
“I don’t, and you still concern me.”
I shrugged. He had a sly smile on his face.
“But no point in hemmin’ and hawin’,” he continued. “I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with me. I know that you’re probably a busy man.”
I wasn’t, but it was nice of him to suggest that I might be. Since my license had been restored to me earlier in the year, following some misunderstandings with the Maine State Police, things had been kind of quiet. I’d done a little insurance work, all of it dull and most of it involving nothing more strenuous than sitting in a car and turning the pages of a book while I waited for some doofus with alleged workplace injuries to start lifting heavy stones in his yard. But insurance work was thin on the ground, what with the economy being the way it was. Most private detectives in the state were struggling, and I had been forced to accept any work that came along, including the kind that made me want to bathe in bleach when I was done. I’d followed a man named Harry Milner while he serviced three separate women in the course of one week in various motels and apartments, as well as holding down a regular job and taking his kids to baseball practice. His wife had suspected that he was having an affair but, unsurprisingly,
she was shocked to hear that her husband was engaged in the type of extensive sexual entanglements usually associated with French farces. His time-management skills were almost admirable, though, as were his energy levels. Milner was only a couple of years older than I was, and if I’d been trying to keep four women satisfied every week I’d have incurred a coronary, probably while I was soaking myself in a bath of ice to keep the swelling down. Nevertheless, that was still the best-paying job I’d had in a while, and I was back doing a couple of days a month tending bar at the Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue, as much to pass the time as anything else.
“I’m not as busy as you might think,” I replied.
“Then you’ll have time to hear me out, I guess.”
I nodded, then said: “Before we go any further, I’d just like to say that I was sorry to hear about Damien.”
I hadn’t known Damien Patchett any better than I knew his father, and I hadn’t made any effort to attend the funeral. The newspapers had been discreet about it, but everybody knew how Damien Patchett had died. It was the war, some whispered. He had taken his own life in name only. Iraq had killed him.
Bennett’s face creased with pain. “Thank you. In a way, as you might have figured, it’s why we’re here. I feel kind of funny approaching you about this. You know, you doing things that you do. Compared to them fellas who killed and got hunted down by you, what I’ve got to offer might seem pretty dull.”
I was tempted to tell him about waiting outside motel rooms while people inside engaged in illicit sexual congress, or sitting for hours in a car with a camera on the dashboard in the hope that someone might bend down suddenly.
“Sometimes, the dull stuff makes a pleasant change.”
“Ayuh,” said Patchett. “I can believe that.”
His eyes shifted to the newspaper before me, and he winced again. Sally Cleaver, I thought. Damn, I should have put the newspaper away before Bennett arrived.
Sally Cleaver had been working at the Downs Diner when she died.
He sipped his coffee, and didn’t speak again for at least three minutes. People like Bennett Patchett didn’t reach their senior years in pretty much perfect health by rushing things. They worked on Maine time, and the sooner that everyone who had to deal with them learned to adjust their clocks accordingly, the better.
“I got a girl waitressing for me,” he said at last. “She’s a good kid. I think you might remember her mother, woman name of Katie Emory?”
Katie Emory had been at Scarborough High School with me, although we’d moved in different circles. She was the kind of girl who liked jocks, and I wasn’t much for jocks, or the girls who hung with them. When I returned to Scarborough as a teenage boy after my father’s death, I wasn’t much in the mood for hanging with anyone, and I kept to myself. The local kids had all formed long-established cliques, and it was hard to break into them, even if you wanted to. I made some friends eventually, and for the most part I didn’t cross too many people. I remembered Katie, but I doubt if she would have remembered me, not in the normal course of events. But my name had made the papers over the years, and maybe she, and others like her, read it and remembered the boy who had arrived in Scarborough for the last two years of his schooling, trailing stories about a father who was a cop, a cop who had killed two kids before taking his own life.
“How’s she doing?”
“She lives up along the Airline somewhere.” The Airline was the local name for Route 9, which ran between Brewer and Calais. “Third marriage. Shacked up with a musician.”
“Really? I didn’t know her that well.”
“Good for you. Could have been you shacked up with her.”
“There’s a thought. She was a good-looking girl.”
“Still not such a bad-looking woman now, I suppose,” said Bennett. “A
little thicker around the trunk than you might recall, but you can see what she was. Can see it in the daughter too.”
“What’s the daughter’s name?”
“Karen. Karen Emory. Only child of her mother’s first marriage, and born after the father took to his heels, so she has her mother’s name. Only child of any of her marriages, come to think on it. She’s been working for me for over a year now. Like I said, a good kid. She’s got her troubles, but I think she’ll come through them all right, long as she’s given the help that she needs, and she’s got the sense to ask for it.”
Bennett Patchett was an unusual man. He and his wife, Hazel, who had died a couple of years ago, had always viewed those who worked for them not simply as staff, but as part of a kind of extended family. They had a particular fondness for the women who passed through the Downs, some of whom stayed for many years, others for only a matter of months. Bennett and Hazel had a special sense for girls who were in trouble, or who needed a little stability in their lives. They didn’t pry, and they didn’t preach, but they listened when they were approached, and they helped when they could. The Patchetts owned a couple of buildings around Saco and Scarborough, and these they had converted into cheap lodgings for their own staff and for the staff of a select number of other, established businesses run by people of a similar outlook to themselves. The apartments weren’t mixed, so that women and men were required to stay with their own sex. Some occasional meetings of the twain did inevitably occur, but less often than one might have thought. For the most part, those who took up the Patchetts’ offer of a place to stay were happy with the space—not just physical, but psychological and emotional—that it offered them. The majority moved on eventually, some getting their lives back together and some not, but while they worked for the Patchetts they were looked out for, both by the couple themselves and by the older members of staff. Sally Cleaver’s death had been a grave blow, but, if anything, it had made them more solicitous toward
their charges. While Bennett had taken his wife’s death hard, the loss of her had not changed his attitude toward his staff one iota. Anyway, they were now all that he had left, and he saw Sally Cleaver in the face of every one of those women, and perhaps he had already begun to see Damien in the young men.
“Karen’s fallen in with a man, one I don’t much care for,” said Bennett. “She was living in one of the staff houses, just up on Gorham Road. She and Damien, they got on well together. I thought he might have had a crush on her, but she only had eyes for this friend of his, a buddy from Iraq by the name of Joel Tobias. Used to be Damien’s squad leader. After Damien died, or it could have happened even before he died, Karen and Tobias hooked up. I hear that Tobias is troubled by some of what he saw over in Iraq. He had friends die on him, and I mean literally. They bled to death in his arms. He wakes up in the night, screaming and sweating. She thinks that she can help him.”
“She told you this?”
“No. I heard it from one of the other waitresses. Karen wouldn’t tell me that kind of thing. I suppose she prefers to talk to other women about these matters, that’s all, and she knows that I didn’t approve of her moving in with Tobias so soon after they’d met. Maybe I’m old-fashioned that way, but I felt that she should wait. Told her so too. They hadn’t been together more than a couple of weeks at that point and, well, I asked her if she didn’t feel that she was rushing things a bit, but she’s a young girl, and she thinks she knows her own mind, and I wasn’t about to interfere. She wanted to keep working for me, and that was just fine. We’ve been hurting a bit lately, same as everywhere, but I don’t need to make more from the place than lets me pay my bills, and I can still do that, with money to spare. I don’t need more staff and, I guess, it might be said that I don’t need all the ones I’ve got, but they need the work, and it does an old man good to have young people around him.”
He finished his coffee and looked longingly at the pot on the other side of the counter. As if by telepathy, Kyle looked up from
where he was cleaning the prep station and said: “Go get that pot, if you want some. It’ll go to waste otherwise.”
Bennett walked around to the other side of the counter and poured us both a little more coffee. When he had done so, he remained standing, staring out the window at the old courthouse, thinking on what he would say next.
“Tobias is older than her: mid-thirties. Too old and too screwed up for a girl like her. Got himself wounded over in Iraq, lost some fingers and damaged his left leg. He drives a truck now. He’s an independent contractor, or that’s what he calls himself, but he seems to work pretty casually. He always had time to hang out with Damien, and he’s always around Karen, more than someone who’s supposed to be on the road earning a living should be, like money isn’t a worry for him.”
Bennett opened some creamer and added it to his coffee. There was another pause. I didn’t doubt that he’d spent a lot of time considering what he was going to say, but I could tell that he was still cautious about speaking all of it aloud.
“You know, I got nothing but respect for the military. Couldn’t help but have, man my father was. My eyesight hadn’t been so bad, I’d probably have gone to Vietnam, and it might be that we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. Maybe I wouldn’t be here, but buried under a white stone somewhere. Whatever, I’d be a different man, or even a better one.
“I don’t know the rights and wrongs of that war in Iraq. Seems to me to be a long way to go for no good cause that I can see, with a lot of lives lost, but it could be that wiser minds than mine know something that I don’t. Worse than that, though, they didn’t look after those men and women who came back, not the way they should have. My father, he returned from World War Two wounded, but he just didn’t know it. He was damaged inside by some of the things that he’d seen and done, but the damage didn’t have the same medical name then, or people just didn’t understand how bad it could be. When Joel Tobias came into the Downs,
I could tell that he was damaged too, and not just in his hand and his leg. He was hurting inside as well, all torn up with anger. I could smell it on him, could see it in his eyes. Didn’t need anyone to tell me about it.
“Don’t misunderstand me: he has as much of a right to be happy as anyone, maybe even more so because of the sacrifices that he’s made. The hurt he’s going through, mental or physical, doesn’t deny him that right, and it could be that, in the normal run of events, someone like Karen might be good for him. She’s been hurt too. I don’t know how, but it’s there, and it makes her sensitive to others like herself. A good man could be healed by that, once he doesn’t exploit it. But I don’t think Joel Tobias is a good man. That’s what it comes down to. He’s wrong for her, and he’s just plain wrong with it.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“I can’t,” he said, and I could hear the frustration in his voice. “Not for sure. It’s a gut feeling, though, and something more than that. He drives his own rig, and it looks as new as a baby in the nurse’s arms. He’s got a big Silverado, and that’s new too. He lives in a pretty nice house in Portland, and he’s got money. He throws it around some, more than he should. I don’t like it.”
I waited. I had to be careful with what I said next. I didn’t want to sound like I was doubting Bennett, but at the same time I knew that he could be overprotective of the young people in his charge. He was still trying to make up for failing to protect Sally Cleaver, even though he could not have prevented what befell her, and it was not his fault.
“You know, all of that could be on credit,” I said. “Until recently, they’d let you pay a nickel down to see you drive a new truck off the lot. He may have received compensation for his injuries. You just—”
“She’s changed,” said Bennett. He said it so softly that I might almost have missed it, yet the intensity with which he spoke meant that it couldn’t be ignored. “He’s changed too. I can see it when
he comes for her. He looks sick, like he’s not sleeping right, even worse than he was before. Lately, I’ve started to see it in her too. She burned herself a couple of days back: tried to catch a coffeepot that was falling and ended up getting hot coffee on her hand. It was carelessness on her part, but the carelessness that comes from being tired. She’s lost some weight, and she was never carrying much to start off with. And I think he’s raised a hand to her. I saw bruising on her face. She told me that she’d walked into a door, like anyone believes that old story anymore.”
“You try speaking to her about it?”
“Tried, but she got real defensive. Like I said before, I don’t think she likes talking to men about personal matters. I didn’t want to pursue it further, not then, for fear that I’d drive her away entirely. But I’m worried for her.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You still know them Fulci fellas? Maybe you could get them to beat on Tobias some, tell him to find someone else to share his bed.”
He said it with a sad smile, but I could tell that there was a part of him that would really have liked to see the Fulcis, who were essentially weapons of war with appetites, unleashed on a man who could hit a woman.
“Doesn’t work,” I said. “Either the woman starts to feel sorry for the guy, or the guy figures the woman has been talking to someone, and it gets worse.”
“Well, it was a nice thought while it lasted,” he said. “If that’s not an option, I’d like you to look into Tobias, see what you can find out about him. I just need something that might convince Karen to put some distance between her and him.”
“I can do it, but there’s a chance that she won’t thank you for it.”
“I’ll take that chance.”
“Do you want to know my rates?”
“Are you going to screw me over?”
“Then I figure you’re worth what you ask for.” He put an envelope on the counter. “There’s two thousand dollars down. How much is that good for?”
“Long enough. If I need more, I’ll get back to you. If I spend less, I’ll refund you.”
“You’ll tell me what you find out?”
“I will. But what if I discover that he’s clean?”
“He’s not,” said Bennett firmly. “No man who hits a woman can call himself clean.”
I touched the envelope with my fingertips. I felt the urge to hand it back to him. Instead, I pointed at the Jandreau story.
“Old ghosts,” I said.
“Old ghosts,” he agreed. “I go out there sometimes, you know? Couldn’t tell you why, unless it’s that I hope I’ll be pulled back in time so I can save her. Mostly, I just say a prayer for her as I pass by. They ought to scour that place from the earth.”
“Did you know Foster Jandreau?”
“He came in sometimes. They all do: state troopers, local cops. We look after them. Oh, they pay their check like anyone else, but we make sure that they don’t leave hungry. I knew Foster some, though. His cousin, Bobby Jandreau, served with Damien in Iraq. Bobby lost his legs. Hell of a thing.”
I waited before speaking again. There was something missing here. “You said that this meeting was about Damien’s death, in a way. The only connection is Karen Emory?”
Bennett looked troubled. Any mention of his son must have been painful for him, but there was more to it than that.
“Tobias came back troubled from that war, but my son didn’t. I mean, he’d seen bad things, and there were days when I could tell he was remembering some of them, but he was still the son I knew. He told me over and over that he’d had a good war, if such a thing is possible. He didn’t kill anyone who wasn’t trying to kill him, and he had no hatred for the Iraqi people. He just felt sorry for what they were going through, and he tried to do his best by them. He
lost some buddies over there, but he wasn’t haunted by what he’d been through, not at first. That all came later.”
“I don’t know much about post-traumatic stress,” I said, “but from what I’ve read, it can take some time to kick in.”
“There is that,” said Bennett. “I’ve read about it too. I was reading about it before Damien died, thinking that I might be able to help him if I understood better what he was going through. But, you see, Damien liked the army. I don’t think he wanted to leave. He served multiple tours, and would have gone back again. As it was, all he talked about when he got back was reenlisting.”
“Why didn’t he?”
“Because Joel Tobias wanted him here.”
“How do you know that?”
“From what Damien said. He took a couple of trips up to Canada with Tobias, and I got the sense that they had something going on, some deal that promised good money at the end of it. Damien began to talk about setting up his own business, maybe moving into security if he didn’t return to the army. That was when the trouble started. That was when Damien began to change.”
“He stopped eating. Couldn’t sleep, and when he did manage to fall asleep I’d hear him crying out, and shouting.”
“Could you hear what he was saying?”
“Sometimes. He’d be asking someone to leave him alone, to stop talking. No, to stop whispering. He became anxious, and aggressive. He’d snap at me for nothing. When he wasn’t doing stuff for Tobias, he was somewhere by himself, smoking, staring into space. I suggested that he ought to talk to someone about it, but I don’t know if he did. He was back for three months when this all started, and he was dead by his own hand two weeks later.” He patted my shoulder. “Look into that Tobias fella, and we’ll talk again.”
With that, he said his good-byes to Kyle and Tara, and left the diner. I watched him walk slowly to his car, a beat-up Subaru with a Sea Dogs sticker along the rear fender. As he opened the car
door, he caught me watching him. He nodded and raised a hand in farewell, and I did likewise.
Kyle came out from the kitchen.
“I’m going to lock up now,” he said. “You all done?”
“Thank you,” I said. I paid the check, and left a good tip, both for the food and for Kyle’s discretion. There weren’t many diners in which two men could meet and discuss what Bennett and I had discussed without fear of eavesdropping.
“He’s a good man,” said Kyle as Bennett’s car turned out of the lot.
“Yes, he is.”
ON THE WAY BACK to Scarborough, I took a detour to drive by the Blue Moon. Yellow police tape flapped in the breeze from a downspout, bright against the blackened shell of the bar. The windows remained boarded up, the steel door secured with a heavy bolt, but there was a hole in the roof where the flames had burst through all those years ago, and if you got close enough it smelled of damp and, even now, charred wood. Kyle and Bennett were right: it should have been demolished, but still it remained, a dark cancer cell against the red clover of the field that stretched behind it.
I pulled away, the ruin of the Blue Moon receding in my rearview mirror until at last I left it behind. Yet it seemed something of it remained on the mirror, like a smudge left by a blackened finger, a reminder from the dead of what the living still owe to them.