Excerpt for Curbstone Justice by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Curbstone Justice


Barry Rachin


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Published by:

Barry Rachin on Smashwords

Copyright © 2019 by Barry Rachin

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This short story represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

* * * * *

Curbstone Justice

Seventy-eight year-old Melba Fischer rested her body weight on the arms of an aluminum walker as she stared out the living room window. The lilac bushes, which bordered the rock garden, were in full bloom, filling the air with a dense, cloying sweetness. Pivoting gingerly on the yellow, Addidas tennis balls that her son, Dwayne, had wedged onto the front feet, the frail woman shuffled back to the kitchen and reached for the phone.

“Brandenberg Police Department… Is this an emergency?”

Melba squinted dully at the phone while holding the receiver at arm’s length for a solid ten seconds before returning it to her mouth. “Melba Fischer here. I live in the slate blue house on the corner of Hathaway and Elmgrove Ave. I’d like to report a strange occurrence.”

“Is this an emergency?”

“In a matter of speaking.” Melba sighed, causing her lumpy shoulders to heave and sagged. “I’d like to report a semi-naked man in my front yard.”


“Mostly.” Melba eased down in a rattan chair and made a mental note to put on her pressure stockings as soon as she hung up the phone. The edema always worsened as mornings progressed, making it next to impossible to accomplish the task if she procrastinated much beyond ten o’clock. “There’s some funny stuff that looks like feathers and a geriatric diaper but, other than that he’s buck naked.”

There was a prolonged silence.

“The corner of Hathaway and Elmgrove… we’ll get a patrol car over there right away.”

Through the window over the kitchen sink Melba had a clear view of the bird feeder where a bevy of raucous cardinals were laying waste to the last of the corn and thistle seeds. The thistle was intended for the smaller birds – goldfinches and chickadees, preferably – but the aggressive cardinals effectively scared all the other species away. “Lady,” the officer on the far end of the line rudely dragged her back to the present predicament.


“You might want to lock the front door.”

* * * * *

Dana Calhoun… in my office!” Chief Polanski only raised his voice with that degree of shrill urgency when the mayor was threatening to cut the police department’s annual budget. A slim brunette drifted into the cluttered office and shut the door behind her. “You heard about the two-bit punk they found on Melba Fischer’s front lawn?”

“Town bully, Wally Whitcomb, finally got his comeuppance,” she replied with a poker face, as thought reading the garish headline smeared across the following day’s front page of the Brandenberg Gazette. The detective’s body exuded an androgynous, tomboyish quality, as though her adolescent years had wound down prematurely. A plain Jane with pizzazz – that’s how Dana Calhoun’s boyfriend, Curtis, described her. The breasts were compact, the hips angular and narrow. It certainly wasn’t a figure that caused heads to turn for a second, admiring glance. But what she lacked in sexual charms she recouped in other ways; close cropped, chestnut-colored hair, a pert chin and slender neck complimented her economical features.

“The perps beat Wally half to death,” Chief Polanski noted with a sober expression. “Of course, they only discovered the bruising after the emergency room staff cleaned away the tar and feathers.” Debridement, that was the technical term the doctor used to describe the process, as they alternately bathed, lubricated and plucked away the noxious debris.

“Maybe the attack was gang-related… a vendetta? God knows, the jerk’s got more enemies than -”

Chief Polanski waved a thick hand dismissively. “They beat him meticulously with a blunt object… rubber hose, blackjack or rawhide belt. The attackers took great care to inflict as much pain as possible without breaking a single bone.”

“The lowlifes this joker breaks bread with wouldn’t go to half the trouble,” Dana quipped with a demonic grin

Shifting in his seat, the chief lowered his voice to a whisper. “We want to keep the investigation hush-hush. What with the way the situation unfolded…”

What with the way the situation unfolded…

When the police arrived at Melba Fischer’s home, they found Wally Whitcomb hogtied with a hundred feet of cotton clothesline, a burlap sack draped over his head. The three-hundred pound, high school dropout was alert, subdued and covered from head to foot with black tar and chicken feathers. A handwritten note was pinned to the outside of the sack.

Arriving fifteen minutes after the first patrol car, Dana Calhoun delicately removed the note, finessing it in a plastic evidence bag. Wally, who by now was totally hysterical, was carted off to the hospital, red light and siren. Only when she arrived back at the station did Dana examine the note.

Take Notice!

Smelly, flea-bitten varmints beware.

The Hopalong Cassidy Gang

don’t stomach no rascally behaviors.

Perpetrators of unruly mischief

will receive the requisite

punishment and curbstone justice.

P.S. Anymore shenanigans

and you’ll spend the rest

of your natural-born days

singing falsetto in the eunuch’s choir.

Hopalong Cassidy

Max Brand

Zany Sageman

Amorous Louie

Tyrell Sackett

Thorny Nate

* * * * *

The rap sheet on Wally Whitcomb dated back to elementary school, when he set the wildlife sanctuary in back of the Baptist Church on fire. In middle school the remorseless thug methodically shook down half of the incoming class each year for lunch money. Chump change. One pimply-faced adolescent, who refused to cooperate, ended up with his head wedged up to his earlobes in a toilet – an unflushed toilet!

To rescue the child from her tormenter, a distraught mother even enrolled her daughter in parochial school. The fist fights, pulverized mailboxes (an unofficial count registered two dozen), the razor-sharp shards of broken flagstone dumped in Mrs. Horowitz’ in-ground swimming pool and on and on and on and on gave testament to Wally’s pigheaded willfulness.

The list of outrages, personal insults and abominations were all dutifully cataloged in his juvenile court record. Wally Whitcomb had terrorized the townsfolk with impunity for years, and now, on Mabel Fischer’s front lawn, he finally got his just dessert.

Armed with a list of local residents brutalized by the unofficial town bully, Dana headed over to Elmgrove Avenue, where Rufus Dracut lived in the tidy cape that abutted Melba Fischer’s property. She found the heavy-set, big-boned man out back painting his shed.

“Wally Whitcomb ended up in the hospital earlier this morning.” She tried to sound breezy, nonchalant, but Rufus wasn’t buying any of it.

“Tough luck!” He scratched his scraggily brown beard and pointed at the plywood door. “See that?” Dana peered at a gash in the wood where the original, metal latch had been ripped away. A sturdy replacement had been installed directly below the old one. “Wally did that last October… also stole a thirty-foot aluminum extension ladder, cordless weed whacker, gas grille, self-propel lawnmower and heirloom whirligig.”

“Did you see him actually break the lock and take the stuff?”

Rufus scowled and spit on the ground no more than six inches from Dana’s shoe. “Wally’s nocturnal… no one ever sees him when he’s up to mischief.”

Without warning, Rufus’ anger dissolved in a mirthful snigger. “Of course, what they done to him with the geriatric diaper… that was pretty damn funny!” He wagged a paintbrush loaded with pea-green latex paint in Dana’s general direction. “Sure wish I’d thought of it.”

“Any idea who did?”

His expression instantly soured. “Wouldn’t tell you if I did.” Craning his neck, he reached up and ran a bead of paint under the soffit. “I used to be a big fan of Charles Bronson.”

“The movie actor?”

Rufus wagged his head up and down. “Ever see any of those films he made in the late seventies?”

Death Wish,” Dana ventured, “was my favorite.”

Over the years, Dana retained a morbid fascination with the protagonist, a successful New York architect who, after his wife is murdered and daughter raped, becomes a crime-fighting vigilante. She viewed the original when it premiered in 1975, then Death wish II and III in 1982 and 1985, respectively. “There wasn’t much humor in those Bronson movies, as I recall… no tar and feathers.”

“Or geriatric diapers,” Rufus added gleefully.

“No, none of that slapstick foolishness, for sure,” Dana noted. What they did to Wally Whitcomb bordered on the macabre. And the post script about Wally singing in the eunuch’s choir – Dana wondered if the perpetrators bothered to share that bit of incidental trivia with the victim. Regardless, the message was crystal clear: town bullies only got only one warning from the Hopalong Cassidy Gang!

On her drive from the police station to Rufus Dracut’s place, one question kept hammering away in the back of Dana’s brain: did anyone in Brandenberg really care if the crime was solved? What happened to Wally Whitcomb - could it even be properly defined as a crime or simply retribution, a reasonable and equitable reckoning of accounts?

The color beginning to separate from the latex paint, Rufus dropped down on his haunches and began stirring the syrupy mix. “How do you like the shade of green?”

“It’s nice… yeah, real snazzy!” Dana would have opted for a minty pastel or, perhaps, darker earth tone but didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

The detective wandered back out into the street. The split-level ranch with the decorative shutters diagonally across the street from Rufus’ place was owned by Sheldon Rothstein, a bone fide eccentric and card-carrying misanthrope who spoke to none of the other neighbors. He power walked up and down the main drag every evening around supper time, averting his eyes or crossing to the opposite side of the street when approached. The man was just too damn weird. Dana mentally crossed Sheldon off her list of plausible suspects.

Further down the road was Eunice Crabby’s tiny bungalow. Eunice, who worked as reference librarian at the public library, would still be on duty. In her late sixties, The older woman was something of a town celebrity, having been written up in the local press for her community service mentoring immigrants learning English as a second language. Possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of all things literary, she spent the last thirty years squirreled away behind the reference desk on the second floor. Like an idiot savant, there appeared to be no areas of learning that had escaped her rapacious intellect.

Driving back to town, Dana went directly to the public library. “Could you look at this list?” She slid the information copied from the original note across the reference desk.

Eunice adjusted her bifocals and surveyed the peculiar collection of names. “Not much of a challenge here.” “Tyrell Sackett,” the older woman tapped the second name from the bottom of the list with an arthritic index finger, “is a frontiersman, a colorful character in a series of Western novels written by the fourth person on your list, Louis L’Amour.”

Dana took out a pad and stubby pencil. “One character is real, the other pure fiction.”

Eunice nodded. “Zany Sageman quite obviously is Zane Gray, author of Riders of the Purple Sage.” She looked up from the slip of paper. “Quite a classic in its time… defined the fast-moving, shoot-em-up Western genre.”

“And this one?” Dana drew the woman’s attention gently back to the task at hand.

“Max Brandenberg… ” Eunice tapped her chin reflectively. “His real name was Frederick Faust. Max Brand was a just a penname; in the early nineteen hundreds, Jewish author’s simply didn’t write Westerns. Faust’s genuine passion was for classical poetry… sonnets in the tradition of Shakespeare, but the man proved a much better writer of commercial fiction. Between the full-length novels and cowboy tales converted into film scripts, Frederick Faust aka Max Brand earned a sizeable fortune!”

Adjusting her wire-rimmed glasses on the bridge of her slender nose, Eunice fixed Dana with an amused expression. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the lummox covered with chicken feathers that showed up on Melba Fischer’s front lawn the other day?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no,” she muttered noncommittally. Dana was beginning to wonder if there was anyone in Brandenberg who hadn’t heard about Wally’s ungainly fall from grace. “What can you tell me about Louis L’Amour?”

Eunice emerged from behind the desk, heading off in the direction of the fiction shelves. The woman had a pronounced hitch in her gait, as though one leg was decidedly shorter than the other. From the standpoint of speed, the aberration did not represent an impediment, as she covered the distance from her desk to the stacks leaving the much younger detective lagging far behind.

“Louis L’Amour, the most prolific Western writer on the planet, wrote eighty-nine, full-length novels, including a slew of works about the Sackett clan as well as the gunslinger Hopalong Cassidy.” “I don’t know what you’re up to,” Eunice continued, “but Louis L’Amour isn’t going to help you get to the bottom of what happened.”

“Why not?”

In response to the detective’s question Eunice grabbed a volume off the shelf, opened the front cover and held the date stamp under Dana’s nose. “How many times has this book been in circulation over the past few years?”

Dana stared at a flap of paper peppered with purple markings. Eunice replaced the book in its rightful place alongside thirty other Louis L’Amour offerings. “Judging by the author’s popularity,” Eunice joked, “half the male population of Brandenberg ought to be added to your list as probable suspects.”

They headed back to the front desk where a high school student with braces needed help with a modern poetry assignment. “Stay away from the Berryman Dreamsongs,” Eunice indicated a slim volume the girl had rested on the counter. “Most literary scholars haven’t a clue what the poet’s talking about. And that wretched Ashbury you’re clutching like it’s God’s gift to the literary establishment isn’t much better. His metaphors are unintelligible and the free verse reads like gibberish… the ravings of a locked-ward lunatic.”

The young girl’s mouth fell open and her brow furrowed like a freshly sown cornfield. “Go back to the stacks and get some Gertrude Stein, Williams Carlos Williams, ee cummings, and Adrienne Rich. That should suffice.”

When the girl was gone, Dana said, “Tell me something I don’t know that might be helpful.”

The woman lowered her eyes for a moment. “Louis L’Amour believed that you should never back down from a bully, even if it meant putting one’s wellbeing on the line. Otherwise, life simply wasn’t worth living. In his fiction, the Sacketts and the Cassidys always stood their ground.” Another student was waiting with a question. Eunice abruptly ended the conversation, turning to assist the child.

Dana descended into the lobby, where a group of young mothers with preschoolers had gathered in the children’s section. Every Thursday at ten-thirty throughout the summer months, library staff read selected stories and did simple crafts. Dana wondered if Wally Whitcomb’s mother brought her son to such cultural enrichment classes. Fat chance!

At some point she would have to drive over to the hospital to interview the dull-witted oaf. The meeting would be nothing more than a formality. Nobody in Brandenberg wanted justice for the town bully. Little more than a procedural matter, Chief Polanski had assigned the case to Dana with a wink and a nod. Investigate and file a report with a determination of ‘no findings’ then close the case.

Later that night after fixing supper, Dana called the Oak Bluffs Inn on Martha’s Vineyard to reserved a single room for the weekend. “How many guests?” the reception clerk asked.

“Just myself.” She hung up the phone and put water on for tea just as the phone rang. It was her boyfriend, Curtis. “No, not tonight... it’s not a good time.” She watched the first few puffs of steam emerge from the spout. “I’m taking a long weekend so I won’t be around.”

“Where are you going?”

“The Vineyard. I booked a room a few miles up from where the ferry docks at Vineyard Haven.” Pouring the steamy liquid into a mug, she added a dollop of honey.

“Something weird happened the other day that freaked me out.” She blew on the surface then sipped tentatively at the warm tea. “Thursday around noon I was driving on the south side of town. Pulling up at an intersection, I waited while pedestrians crossed the street. One chicken-necked geezer wearing alligator-skin cowboy boots and a corduroy shirt reminded me of a pedophile with a penchant for little boys I arrested a few months back. The creep was a level-three sex offender… the worse kind!”

“Cripes,” Curtis groaned.

“But he wasn’t the same person. The resemblance had more to do with body language as he shilly-shallied across the road.”

“So why the bizarre, paranoid flashbacks?” Curtis pressed.

“I don’t know. Lately, I see every John Doe as a potential bad guy”

“You take your work too seriously,” Curtis observed. “I could drive down to Woods Hole on Saturday and join you.”

“Not a good idea,” she brought him up short. “I need to get away… an escape weekend.”

“Escape from me?”

“Not fair!” Dana made no effort to hide her irritation. She could hear his labored breathing on the other end of the line. She hadn’t meant to sound callous but the Whitcomb case put her out of sorts. Before she could add some bland pleasantries to blunt the hurt, the line went dead. Dana had the distinct impression that Curtis had begun crying. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time she had pushed his buttons.

* * * * *

What if? What if? What if?

It was a cerebral game that crime scene investigators played to unravel stubborn cases, ferret out the truth from all the false leads and miscellaneous gobbledygook. There was little likelihood that one person could have successfully pulled off the caper, and the notion that a battalion of brazen neighbors both planned and executed the attack on Wally Whitcomb was equally ludicrous. Dana talked to virtually every neighbor up and down the length of Elmgrove and, though there were plenty who openly wished they had been part of the chicanery, no one jumped out at her as a credible suspect.

Dana even explored the possibility of a family feud. Wally lived with his adoring mother in a squalid bungalow that looked like it hadn’t seen a drop of paint since the Kennedy assassination. Perhaps a vindictive sibling, half-wit uncle once-removed, inbred niece or nephew held a grudge. Highly unlikely! Most family members were dead, in prison, mental asylums or had relocated out of state for reasons of expediency rather than enlightened self-interest.

* * * * *

In the morning, Dana stopped by the hospital. Since Wally was being discharged home later that afternoon, the detective much preferred meeting him on neutral turf. “Wally Whitcomb?” she inquired at the nursing station.

“Room 203,” the nurse replied, “but I spotted him in the solarium with an older woman just five minutes ago.”

“Older woman?”

“His mother,” the nurse clarified.

“Okay.” Dana groaned inwardly.

At the far end of the hallway was a glass enclosed vestibule. Wally was sitting dressed in street clothes, his mother, a squat, morbidly obese woman with a nose that resembled a stalk of cauliflower, stood by his side. “How come you didn’t finish your breakfast, Wally?” the woman asked in a doting tone.

“Cream of wheat with skim milk, a fruit cup and low-fat yoghurt… you call that a meal?” “I wouldn’t feed this garbage to a mangy dog.”

Sarah Whitcomb commenced massaging his back with a puffy hand. “Well that’s only because hospitals don’t know how to cook right… for a real meat-and-potatoes man.”

“Food stinks!” he reiterated. “Goddamn, good-for-nothin crap!”

When Dana stepped closer, Mrs. Whitcomb looked up suspiciously and her dishwater-blue eyes clouded over. She didn’t recognize the detective, at least not initially.

Dana was on duty in the lower level of the police station several years earlier on a brisk October afternoon, when they brought Sarah Whitcomb in on a shoplifting charge. The woman pilfered cosmetics – a tube of lipstick, hand cream and a stick of deodorant from a Walgreens. Dana took the mug shot and fingerprints. Throughout the process, Mrs. Whitcomb seemed relatively unperturbed. When the arresting officer informed her that she would be contacted by the district court regarding further criminal proceedings, she muttered, “Yeah, whatever…”

Dana held up her badge. “Dana Calhoun… with the local police.”

“Ain’t talking to no one.” Wally kept his eyes averted, studying the linoleum tile. “I’m getting a lawyer.”

The news caught the detective off guard. “For what purpose?”

“Law-abiding, taxpaying citizen gets brutalized… I figure the cops know perfectly well who did it but ain’t got no intentions of spilling the beans.”

Law-abiding, taxpaying citizen… Dana doubted Wally ever paid his fair share of taxes – past, present or future. “What’s a lawyer going to do?”

“Look out for my financial interests,” he groused.

“Who do you think attacked you?” Dana asked, deflecting the conversation.

“Solving crimes… that’s your job not mine.” His squinty, pea-shaped eyes blinked violently. “I ain’t got no enemies.”

“Some of the residents claim that you been terrorizing the neighborhood for decades. They call you the town bully.”

“A pack of lies!” He pounded the arm of his chair so hard that the lamp on a nearby table almost tipped over. “I’m the victim here. Those dirty bastards sucker punched me… knocked me unconscious.” Wally rubbed a spot on the back of his head where the hair had been shaved away, and a jagged row of stitches zigzagged across the side of the skull. “I’m the victim,” he repeated.

I’m the victim… Wally Whitcomb was the quintessential poster child for victimization. Leave it to the lummox to flip reality upside-down.

Wally began to snuffle and wiped his nose with the hairy back of a hand.

Sensing his distress, Mrs. Whitcomb resumed rubbing her son’s backside, a repetitive, soothing gesture. “My boy… sometimes he gets cantankerous.” “No, no, no,” she retrieved the words and started over. “Rambunctious… that’s a better way of putting it. Wally gets exuberant… high spirited, all fired up and does pesky things, but that don’t necessarily make him a bad person.”

“What’s the difference?”

Wally blew his nose on a napkin, as Sarah Whitcomb pawed the air with a pudgy fist, searching inelegantly for the best description. “My Wally’s a gem, a diamond in the rough and ain’t nobody gonna tell me otherwise.”

“Did you go anywhere that night?” Once again, Dana parried the conversation elsewhere.

“No… stayed home and watched TV.”

“So you didn’t go out?”

“What’d I just say?”

What you just said is a bold-faced lie. Dana visited the East-side Tap, a hangout for bikers, prostitutes and assorted riffraff over by the railroad tracks. The night he was attacked, Wally stopped by for a beer. He came alone and left around eleven-thirty with a frumpy-looking blonde.

“Recognize the woman?” Dana asked the bartender.

“Never seen her before.” He rubbed the counter methodically with a damp rag. “Funny thing is, Wally stops by here two, three times a week cruising chicks, but that tub of lard don’t never get lucky.”

“He got lucky the other night, though,” Dana pressed. The bartender shrugged and wandered off to service another customer.

* * * * *

“Where’s Eunice?” the detective inquired.

The middle-aged man behind the reference desk at the Brandenberg Public Library gestured with a flick of his head toward a room near the water cooler. “Refurbishing damaged inventory.”

Dana stuck her head in the doorway, where Eunice Crabby, dressed in a gray tweed suit, was standing behind a work bench fitted with a metal vise. A thick volume was wedged in the jaws of the vice and the woman was running a ten-inch back saw at a sharp tilt over the spine of the book. “Buddenbrooks,” Eunice announced as Dana stepped closer. “Thomas Mann’s classic bildungsroman was literally coming apart at the seams, but we’ll give the German masterpiece a second life.”

Dana had no idea what the funny sounding, foreign word meant but let the observation pass without comment. Such outlandish pronouncements welled up, percolated to the surface of Eunice’s super-heated brain randomly like lava squeezing through fissures in an active volcano. Mystified, Dana watched as the woman carved four shallow kerfs in the spine, each angled toward the center of the book. She ran a length of linen binder’s thread through the opening to the bottom of the cut, weaving back and forth, in and out. “Now for the final touch.” She spread a gooey layer of white film over the entire length of the back of the book, brushing firmly into the cuts and folds.

“Glue?” Dana ventured.

“Polyvinyl acetate… better known as PVA or bookbinder’s glue,” Eunice clarified. “It’s acid neutralized and flexible enough so that the backing won’t crack or separate.” Laying the brush aside, she placed a cloth mull over the damp spine before spreading a second coating of the rubbery glue on top of the cloth reinforcement.

“So what can I do for you?” Having left the brush to soak in a jar of soapy water, Eunice was drying her hands.

“I’m going away on a short vacation this weekend and need some light reading. The cowboy books… which would you recommend?”

Eunice headed off in the direction of the stacks. “This one’s quite popular.” She grabbed a L’Amour western off the shelf.

“And something for more serious reading?”

The reference librarian pursed her lips. Shifting two rows over to the beginning of the alphabet, she wriggled a thick volume free from its mates: Willa Cather, Collected Short Stories. Eunice thumbed through the pages to the table of contents. “Read this one, The Neighbor Rossicky, first and when you finish, read it again. After you finish with the rest of the book, go back and read The Neighbor Rossicky a third, fourth and fifth time.”

Thrusting the book into Dana’s hands, the woman turned to leave.

“One last question.” Foraging about in her pants pocket, the detective removed a crumpled slip of paper. “When I showed you this list the other day, you missed the bottom entry.”

Eunice peered at the list through her bifocals. In a heavy pencil the words ‘Major Molineaux’ were scrawled across the page, sliding tipsily at an oblique angle. “Didn’t miss that one at all… just chose to leave it out.”

“And why’s that?”

“Doesn’t fit with the others.”

“Who exactly is the major?”

Eunice smiles cryptically. “My Kinsman Major Molineaux is quite possible Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most famous short story.” The older woman cleared her throat. “In the days before the American Revolution, a young boy arrives by ferry in Boston looking for his relative. Major Molineaux, an official in the British colonial government, has promised him work, but no one in the town can tell him where the major is.”

“And what does that have to do with Wally Whitcomb?”

“Well, I was just getting to that.” Eunice let her glasses slip down over her sweater on a braided metal chain. “One person he meets threatens the youth with prison, and an angry innkeeper accuses him of being a runaway bond-servant. Finally he learns that his kinsman will soon be passing in the street. As he waits on the steps of a church, he hears the roar of a mob and there in the midst is Major Molineaux tarred, feather and being run out of town.”

Eunice Crabby shook her head disagreeably. “The Hawthorne story looses so much in the telling. I feel like I’ve committed literary sacrilege.”

“How’s that?”

“There’s a subtle interplay between the printed words on a page and what the reader brings to bear. Everyone should read the story in the original.”

Later that night as Dana lay in bed, her mind kept wandering back to the enigmatic reference librarian. Eunice possessed the delicate features of a porcelain figurine – tiny, pebbly teeth, the bifocal, granny glasses with beaded neck strap, the paper thin, wispy voice and upturned nose. Away from the library, Eunice Crabby was, by nature, a reclusive, tight-lipped soul, and the woman led what might best be described as a stolid, thoroughly uneventful existence.

On her honeymoon, Eunice’s husband, Morris, took his bride briefly to Niagara Falls. The following year they vacationed in Hershey Pennsylvania where they toured the famous chocolate factory and orphanage. In the past ten years since her husband’s death, the woman hadn’t ventured more than fifty miles from Brandenberg. And yet, despite her unfashionable, old-maidish appearance, Eunice Crabby could discuss the upheavals of the Indian wars of the Wild West during the early eighteen hundreds with the confident ease and panache of a bon vivant. Her casual pronouncements exuded an unassuming prescience, gravitas and deep conviction that belied her unadventurous lifestyle.

* * * * *

On the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, Dana climbed topside and stood by the rail as the boat scudded at a leisurely pace across calm waters. She tried texting Curtis from Woods Hole but he wouldn’t respond. They had been dating two years now. On the third date, after carpeting her neck with a flurry of sloppy kisses, Curtis asked her to marry him. Dana wriggled out of his arms and blotted the moistness away with the palm of her hand. “Isn’t this a bit premature?”

The guy wasn’t just infatuated; it was like the final scene in Bambi, where the springtime animals begin pairing up, rutting, losing all sense of moderation and self-control. “You’re a swell guy,” Dana kissed Curtis lightly on the cheek, “but it hasn’t been even a month yet. Let’s take slow.”

“Okay,” he agreed submissively. “Slow and steady.”

Three weeks later he announced, “My mother’s dying to meet you.”

“How’s that?” Curtis’ mother, who relocated to Boca Raton with her second husband five years earlier, seldom returned to New England.

“I told her all about you.”

By now, Dana was inured to Curtis’ emotional excesses. In her stodgy, taciturn way, Dana could picture domestic bliss with Curtis but his lack of romantic restraint was a bit unnerving. “Again, you’re rushing things.”

She stepped a few feet back but he immediately lurched forward closing the gap. “You see?” she raised her voice shrilly. “I ask you to respect my space, and you immediately take a giant step forward. What the hell is a person to think?”

“Sorry.” Curtis retreated several paces. “Alright… okay. Say no more. I get the message.” As thought to emphasize the point, he took an additional baby step backward. But then his bottom lip began to quiver.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Dana rolled her eyes. “It’s not like we’re breaking up. Get a grip!”

“I can’t help it.” The tears dribbling down his cheek, Curtis made no effort to wipe them away.

A young boy wearing a Red Sox baseball cap was tossing stale bread to a flock of seagulls, escorting the ship out of the bay. A brunette with two young daughters came and sat next to Dana. “Are you visiting for the week?” The lady had a chatty, unaffected manner.

“No, just through Sunday.”

“My husband couldn’t get away because of business.”

“What’s he do for a living?”

“Jack… he’s in IT.” In response to Dana’s blank expression, she added, “Information technology. He integrates computer terminals for insurance companies and manages their anti-virus software.” The ferry hit a crest in a wave, sending a misty spray onto the upper decks “And what do you do for work?”

“I’m a brain surgeon.”

The woman’s eyes widened noticeably. “Which hospital?”

“Beth Israel.”

“I would never have imagined!” The brown haired woman was about to say something else, but one of her daughters tugged on her sleeve and announced in a pinched voice that she needed to go to the bathroom. Dana lowered her sunglasses and settled in for the half hour trip to the island.

A few years back, the police woman became weary of telling people that she was a cop and decided to assume a new identity, a totally different persona for each vacation. The previous year she was a botanist, specializing in high-yield legumes. Dana wasn’t quite sure what legumes were but neither did anyone else so what difference did it make? The year before that, she was a formula one race car driver on the European circuit, still recuperating from a fiery crash just south of Monte Carlo on the French Riviera.

It wasn’t an insidious mental disorder; the cockamamie storied were a means to an end. For the brief duration of her time away from home, she didn’t need to be a detective. Dana discontinued the outlandish stories as soon as she returned to Brandenberg and never gave the aberration a second thought.

“What you do requires tremendous skill.” The brunette had returned with her two daughters.

“No more so than what your husband with computers.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” the woman protested. “One slip of the scalpel and -”

“Cutting into people’s brains,” Dana interjected just as a thin slip of land sprouted into view on the eastern horizon, “is nothing more than a learned skill.” Before the woman could respond, Dana rose to her feet and wandered below decks.

The ferry docked at Vineyard Haven, and Dana meandered about the shops and boutiques for an hour before catching the trolley to Oak Bluffs. After checking into the hotel, she went for a stroll on the beach. Gazing out across the water where a cargo ship was steaming in a northerly direction, she threw herself down and dug her toes into the bleached sand alongside the coppery carcass of a horseshoe crab drying in the midday sun.

Chief Polanski didn’t want her to solve the case. To do so would turn the American justice system upside down, make a mockery of what most citizens of Brandenberg believed. While the assailant was still at large, Eunice Crabby proved infinitely helpful identifying the fictional characters. But what now? And more importantly, would anyone care, when a report was be filed with tons of negligible filler but no determination of findings?

Dana wandered over to the Oak Bluffs landing, where a ferry was loading trucks and passenger cars into the lower level for transport back to the mainland. Several large fish were slithering back and forth among the algae-stained pilings. Striped bass – Dana recognized the sport fish by the satchel-shaped lower jaws and thick torsos.

Brinnnnng! Brinnnnng! As she headed back to the hotel, the cell phone rang. “Chief Polanski here! Wally Whitcomb put his house on the market. Thought you’d want to know.” The chief chuckled gleefully. “Remax is the listing broker. They hung a spiffy ‘For Sale’ sign on the front lawn earlier today.”

“So it’s over.”

“Let’s just say,” the chief replied, “we ain’t waiting for the fat lady to sing.” The cell phone line went dead.

** * * *

“Which story,” Dana mused, “did Eunice Crabby recommend?”

She was back at the hotel, thumbing through the Willa Cather collection. Her index finger slid down the table of contents line by line. Yes, there it was: The Neighbor Rossicky. Such an odd title for a short work of fiction! Without bothering to pull back the sheets, she settled on the top of the bed.

An hour later the woman wipes her eyes and blew her nose. In the bathroom she threw cold water on her puffy face and blotted the blotchy skin dry with a hand towel. Then she picked up the phone and dialed the operator. “I need an outside line.”

“Hit nine and wait for the dial tone.”

“Hello, Curtis? Do you think you could leave work early and catch the late afternoon ferry?” Out in the harbor a fishing boat was chugging toward shore. “Yes, I know what I said, but it’s time we moved our relationship to the next level.” She paused to brush a strand of hair from her eyes. “And about your mother in Boca Raton…”

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