Death Lives In The Water – Snippet 04


Three years later, Jim sat in his office, pretending to go through papers and otherwise look busy. He was about to return his attention to Linda Collier, who had come outside and was watering the planter in front of the newspaper office, when he heard the moans, groans, and retching from the back room, signaling the return to consciousness of his smelly and unhappy guest.

“Ben,” he yelled, “Don’t you be puking on my floor now, you hear? You got a bucket in there for that.”

He heard the bucket scraping across the floor and settled back into his chair.

A car full of teenagers drove slowly past, daring him to come out and say something. Harper’s Landing School was over on Second Street. The grade school was next to the high school, and the students shared recreation areas and ball fields. Occasionally, Jim had to go over there and remind some of the older kids that the little ones weren’t their personal punching bags.

He peered closely at the car. It was that Miller kid and his cronies, always skipping school. He wondered if they had any inkling of what kind of life awaited them without a high school diploma. Sometimes he thought he should arrest them and put them into a cell with Ben. But he was too fond of Ben, loser that he was, to do that to him.

His thoughts turned to Ben Jenkins.

Loser isn’t exactly fair, he thought.

He remembered the night about a year ago when he had picked up Ben, crying and puking, out near the farm that still bore his name. The farmhouse was on fire, and though Jim called the volunteer FD immediately, there was nothing they could do to save it. Ben was shaking with fear and cold and would only say that he had run from the pump house to the farmhouse, where he accidentally knocked over an oil lantern he was using to save on electricity.

Jim sighed deeply and got up to make a pot of strong black coffee. Ben was going to need lots of it as well as some food.

Me too, he thought.

Food and coffee sounded pretty good right now.

Once he got the pot going, he left, not bothering to lock the front door, and went down to Main, turned left and headed for Morey’s Diner to get takeout.

Morey’s was usually empty this time of day. Today it was buzzing with townspeople, gossiping over pie and coffee as Jen hurried about trying to keep up with the unexpected flow of orders. Morey was sweating over the grill, out of sorts at having so many customers at an unfamiliar time. He waved a spatula at Jim as he entered, and Jen just muttered a quick greeting as she hurried by.

Jim chose an empty seat at the large communal table and ordered his usual breakfast: two breakfast burritos, mild hot sauce, two cinnamon rolls, and an extra side of bacon. To go. He leaned back in his chair, sipping gingerly at the strong, hot, bitter coffee, and listened to the gossip.

The gossip, it turned out, was about a man named Grossman, who had purchased the mill and its surrounding property and was preparing to restore it as an historical site. Harper’s Landing was already a summer tourist destination because of the great bass fishing on the Martin’s Way River. Additionally, Mary Harper’s national reputation as a master quilter brought many fellow quilters to her workshops and just to browse her shop. Having a working museum would bring even more visitors who would bring money with them.

“Jim,” said one of the regulars, “you gotta talk Ben into selling the rest of his land. They need a better road to the mill if this project’s going to be successful, and the only good place for a road runs right through his property.”

“I’m not about to talk Ben into anything. He just lost his brother last month; give him some time,” replied Jim.

Just then the bell over the diner door jingled and in stumbled the subject of everyone’s conversation.

“Jim,” yelled Ben, “You gotta come back to your office. Mary Harper is there, and it’s bad. Worse than you know, even worse than she thinks.”

Silence fell over the diner. It was obvious Ben was completely sober now, and terrified. Everyone was ready to rush to the sheriff’s office at once.

Jim rose.

“You all stay here. You’ll know soon enough what’s going on. Let’s don’t upset Mary, or Ben for that matter, any more. And for heaven’s sake stop gossiping. You’ll know soon enough what Ben will do about the property and if there’s going to be a mill again.”

He wrapped a long arm around Ben and gently steered him down the steps and back around toward his office. Jen, the waitress, ran after carrying a bag with their forgotten breakfast and pressed it into Jim’s hand.

“Don’t forget to eat. He needs it, even if you don’t.”

The door shut behind her, but she stood in the window watching their slow progress down the street, a worried frown creasing her brow. After a few moments, the conversation again picked up regarding Ben’s competence, this time tinged with concern about just what had got him so riled up.

Jim made sure Ben was settled into a chair at the side of the office, and carefully put his breakfast and a cup of strong black coffee on the table in front of him. Throughout this process Mary Harper sat on the straight chair by the door, clutching her purse and alternately glaring at him and wiping her eyes. Eventually, having settled in to his own desk and placed his breakfast before him, he turned his attention on her.

“Mary, you look pretty upset. Now take it easy and tell me what’s going on. Would you like a cup of coffee or some water?”

Mary shook her head.

“Go ahead and eat your breakfast, Jim. I can talk while you chew.”

Jim picked up a burrito and took a huge bite. The food hit him like a warm sauna on aching muscles. He hadn’t realized just how hungry he was. He tried to focus on the terrified woman before him.

Mary O’Connor Harper was about forty-two, married to Bull Harper, formerly the mill foreman and now the town carpenter and handyman. Mary, a tiny but determined woman, ran a quilt shop next to the barber shop over on Main and Fourth. She kept Quilt Heaven open even after Wally World moved in by providing classes and quality goods. Her classes for kids and adults were always full. During the summer, she would hold quilters’ retreats at the Rectory. She was a solid, no-nonsense woman who had raised her kid brother, Rory, after their parents were killed in a car accident out on Miller Road one winter. She was a talented artist, expressing her vision in fabric and thread rather than paint, and some of her quilts had won national awards.

Everyone in Harper’s Landing knew how strong the bond was between brother and sister. When Rory returned from Iraq, wounded in both body and spirit, Mary and Bull had taken him in and nursed him back to good health. But Rory never again worked. Even the slightest noise could send him trembling in a corner. The shrapnel in his leg bothered him whenever the weather changed. Mary and Bull built him an apartment over the garage. He made do with his VA pension and medical care from the new VA clinic and hospital over in Wilton. Sometimes he would go down to Mary’s shop and run the big longarm quilting machine. He had quite a talent for quilting the creations of her students, and he loved the quiet hum of the stitching and the soothing back and forth motion of the process.

Rory had bought himself an older car and would regularly go fishing for crappie and bass at Big Bass Pond where the Martins Way curved and formed a deep pool. Sometimes, in the early fall, he would find wild blackberries and bring home buckets of them for Mary to make into jams and pies. Occasionally he would attempt to borrow Bull’s rifle for deer hunting, but he would invariably start to tremble and shake and have to put the long gun back. He contented himself with the occasional rabbit trap and the foraging as his contributions to the family larder.

And now, according to Mary, he had simply disappeared.

“Harve Sanders called him up yesterday morning,” she said. “Asked if he would drive out to the old pump house on the Jenkins farm in Harve’s landscape truck to pick up some fertilizer bags. Haven’t heard from him since.”

She drew a shaky breath and made a feeble attempt to sit up taller.