Later I figured I got involved, and almost killed, for three reasons: the money, the case itself, and Zee's uncharacteristic detachment from the world we shared.
If you live on Martha's Vineyard you can always use more money, and the job interested me because it concerned works of art whose history caught my fancy. Most of all, though, I probably agreed to work for Mahsimba because, during an especially warm and lovely spring, Zee had become curiously spellbound and ethereal, like a teenaged girl.
Her dreaminess had continued on into June and had disconnected her from our normal family life. She was as efficient as ever at her work in the emergency room at the hospital, but she seemed lost in obscure thoughts when at home with the children and me, as though she were seeing the world with the eyes of one who had once been blind.
I had several thoughts about the cause of this, none having anything to do with the others. Perhaps she had relapsed into guilt over killing a Boston thug the year before, even though she'd done it to save herself and our daughter and had taken a gunshot in the process. Or maybe it was a sort of sustained spring fever. Or maybe she was experiencing some form of the seven-year itch. That wouldn't be too surprising, considering my own certainty of my limitations as a husband. But when I asked her the cause of her sea change, she only pressed her forefinger to my lips and wordlessly shook her head.
Whatever the cause of her enchantment, there seemed to be nothing I could do about it, so I determined to remain unchanged myself, to stay the man whose love had once given her joy, and to hope that it still did or would again, however dreamily removed from me she seemed to be for the nonce. When Mahsimba came into my life I was glad to accept a job that would oblige me to think of something else.
Before the phone rang, I was alone in the house. Zee was at work, the kids were in school, and the cats were off catting somewhere outside. I was finishing my morning coffee and reading the Vineyard Gazette's sixth-months-later story about the Headless Horseman.
That still-unidentified body had long since been placed in some mainland morgue or grave, but on the Vineyard its notoriety had lessened only slightly since the previous December, when an understandably shocked pony rider had discovered it beside a frosty bridle path up in West Tisbury. The equestrian connection explained half of the corpse's nickname, and its missing head accounted for the other half. It could have been called the Handless Horseman, for that matter, because the hands were missing, too, along with the corpse's clothes.
Naked, headless, and handless corpses are not common on Martha's Vineyard, especially in the dead of winter, so locally the discovery had caused quite a stir. Speculation swirled about who had died and why and who had done the deed, and there was much conjecture that someone with a horse was involved since that was clearly how the body had been transported along the trail. Unfortunately for the police, there are many horses and riders on the island and not one of them seemed the type to kill and behead people.
The how was easier; the man, white and in his forties, according to medical reports, had been shot right in the pump with what appeared to be a .38- or .40-caliber bullet. Before this happened, he had apparently been in good physical condition, but that was about all anyone had learned about him. He didn't fit any of the missing person reports that the police had received, and now, half a year later, he was as unknown as ever.
The Gazette report, consistent with that famous newspaper's policy of not emphasizing the island's darker side, was short and on a middle page, and contented itself with a brief review of the facts and of the questions that people still talked about: Who was the guy and who had killed him and why?
These questions continued to bother those of the island's citizens who didn't like the idea that they might be sharing their beloved Vineyard with a killer. I, however, was not one of the worriers, because it had been a long time since I'd thought that my island home actually was akin to Eden before the Fall. My Vineyard, for all its fabled loveliness, had its share of snakes living under the rocks.
But I had not moved to the island to get involved with such creatures. I had done enough of that during five years on the Boston PD. The bullet I still carried next to my spine as a consequence of wearing a shield had only been the last factor that led me to decide to let somebody else save the world. I had better things to do.
That very day, for example, I had veggie and flower gardens to tend, floors to vacuum, supper to prepare, a leak in my waders that I had to find and patch, another leak in the ceiling of the porch that I had to track down and fix, clothes to wash, shopping to do, and, most important, fishing to attend to. For the bluefish had been in for a couple of weeks, and I still had more of them to catch.
Ordinarily I could think of little that was more pleasurable than being on the beach doing battle with the blues, and this year fishing was doubly appealing because it also served to distract me from fretting about Zee.
I was just beginning to fret some more when Stanley Crandel phoned.
"J.W., that you?"
"Stanley, where are you? Up at the house?"
"No. London. Just got here from Africa. Went from Cape Town to Cairo. Terrific trip! That's what I'm calling about. Met this man in Harare. Interesting fellow. Seems he's going to the Vineyard. I wonder if you'll show him around, help him out."
"When's he coming?"
"He may be there already. I put him in touch with John Skye, and he'll be staying at John's place because Betsy and I won't get down to our place until later."
"What's he need me for?"
"It's a long story, and this call's costing me a fortune. He'll explain it when he sees you. Will you meet him?"
"You'll be doing me a favor."
I hate it when people say that. "All right," I said.
"I knew I could depend on you, J.W. I told him to call you from John's house when he gets in. His name's Mahsimba. Thanks. Gotta go."
The phone clicked and buzzed in my ear.
I shook my head at the thought of a phone call being too expensive for Stanley Crandel to bear. Stanley and his wife, Betsy, owned one of the biggest houses on East Chop, where Crandels had been summering for a hundred years. Stanley liked to think that he was a descendant of John Saunders, the onetime Virginia slave who, some said, was later the first Methodist preacher on the Vineyard. But it had been a long time since Stanley's line of Crandels had been slaves to anything but high finance.
This fact notwithstanding, it was typical of Stanley and Betsy simultaneously to be generous to friends, family, and charities, and yet to squeeze their pennies till they screamed. Maybe they had so many pennies precisely because they pinched them so hard. Maybe that was true of all wealthy people, including the other aristocratic and upper-middle-class African-American citizens of Oak Bluffs. I wouldn't know, being an outsider to such social circles.
I knew Stanley and Betsy because I opened their house in the spring, closed it again in the fall, and looked after it all year long. I'd gotten the job because Stanley and John Skye had gone to college together and John had given Stanley my name. I also opened and closed John's place and cared for it while he and his family were up in Weststock during the winter, where he professed things medieval at the college. I tended to other houses, too, because when you have no steady job, you have to be willing to do a lot of things.
And now, apparently, I was going to have yet another bit of work: showing Mr. Mahsimba around the Vineyard and helping him achieve whatever he had in mind.
I thought of John Skye and his family, and was glad I'd gotten the farm ready for their arrival. The twins were now in college, so they'd be getting out of school at the same time as their father did. Thus, all of the Skyes might be descending from America any day now. I presumed that John would arrive before Mr. Mahsimba did. I wondered what Mr. Mahsimba's long story would be, but there was no way to guess.
I went back to perusing the Gazette. Since I'd taken the phone call, the Headless Horseman was still unidentified, and the case was still open as unsolved murder cases always are. I thought about the Woman in the Dunes, over on Cape Cod. There were similarities between her case and that of the Horseman. The woman's handless body had been found years before in the sand dunes, her jeans folded neatly beside her. She was still unidentified after many years. A very cold case, but one that was still open.
The latest effort at identifying her involved opening the grave and attempting DNA tests, which hadn't been available when she'd first been found. I imagined that DNA evidence had also been taken from the Horseman, but that nothing had been done with it because of the absence of comparable samples.
I put the paper down, stopped thinking about crime, finished my coffee, and considered the many things that needed doing. An old guy once told me that the good part about being retired is that you still have lots of things to do but you don't have to do them. I wasn't quite retired, so I still had to do them, but I had some choices about when and in which order.
So I went fishing.
It was still early enough in the season for Norton Point Beach to be open, so I went that way, over the sand from Katama toward Chappy. Soon impassioned Department of Fish and Wildlife agents would close Norton Point to ORV traffic on the grounds that passing trucks disturbed nesting and fledging plovers. It was one of those governmental decisions that explains anarchism, since the real threats to plovers, as even the beach-closers knew, were gulls, skunks, and other wild predators. Maddening. When I'm king, I'm shipping all of the plovers and environmentalists to No Man's Land, where they can care for one another and not bother the rest of us. The world will thank me for it.
I stopped here and there and made casts into the light southwest wind. I caught nothing, but that was okay, because it was a lovely early June day, with bright sun and a clear light blue sky arching down and meeting the dark blue ocean on the southern horizon. If you sailed that way, the first land you'd come to would be Hispaniola, which was well beyond my longest cast.
I fished awhile at Metcalf's Hole and got one lone five-pound blue which apparently had no friends. I cut his throat, rinsed him off, and put him on the ice in the fish box, then went on to Wasque.
Wasque Point is the southeastern corner of Chappaquiddick, the peninsula hooked to the rest of the Vineyard by Norton Point Beach. When the water broke through the beach between the ocean and Katama Bay, Chappy became an island and remained one until Neptune in his wisdom closed the opening again. Wasque is one of the best places in the world to catch bluefish, because of the tides that form the Wasque rip, where bait is tossed about and the blues go after it. When conditions are right you can slaughter the blues at Wasque.
They weren't perfect that morning, but they were good enough, and the surf casters who were stretched in a line along the beach in front of their four-by-fours were busy and happy. I became one of them, and when I finally broke off and went home, the blues were still there, hitting almost anything you threw, filling the air with the scent of watermelon.
In town I sold all of my fish but one and took that one home. On the filleting table behind our shed I scaled and filleted the fish and then took the fillets into the house and put them in the fridge. We'd have stuffed bluefish for supper. Delish! My mouth was already watering.
It was a little past noon and I was having my first Sam Adams of the day when the phone rang again.
John Skye's voice was on the other end. "The groves of academe have shed the Skyes for another summer," said John. "We're here."
"If I'd known that a little earlier, I'd have brought you a bluefish."
"I can catch my own bluefish, thanks. Are you busy right now?"
"I'm drinking a beer, but it won't take long to finish it."
"Fine. Come on over. There's someone I want you to meet. His name is Mahsimba."
Copyright © 2002 by Philip R. Craig