Helen Chappell - January 2008
Everyone Looks Better Under Arrest:
A Scene from a Novel in Progress
According to John Waters, everyone looks better under arrest. No one, however, looks good under cheap florescent light, Jane reflected unhappily as she squirmed on what had to be the world’s most uncomfortable orange plastic chair. The Castle Island Police Station did not believe in ergonomic seating. A glance at her own reflection in the flyspecked window behind the duty desk convinced her that she looked guilty of something at one a.m. on a very dark night of the soul.
She watched unhappily as people hustled back and forth, carefully ignoring her. People she’d known for years were pretending she wasn’t there, as if they thought trouble was contagious. Which maybe it was. A murder was a big deal in a place like Castle Island, where the usual crimes were speeding and possession of controlled substances, two crimes that cut across all social lines. She was reminded that in spite of all the years she’d lived here, all the local friends she’d made, that she was still an outsider. Someone not born here.
Jane glanced at the closed door of Chief Pat Russo’s office, where he and Gabriel Hardy had been closeted for what seemed like hours. She wondered what was taking them so long.
Telling the same story twenty times, no doubt. She’d told her story twenty times, to Pat and the coroner and everyone else in a uniform. And she’d have to tell it a hundred times more before it was all over, she just knew. By the time the island grapevine got this one, everyone in town would be after her for all the details. Unfortunately, Jane literally didn’t have a clue.
And she was too tired to think of one. The gin in those martinis was catching up with her, now that the adrenalin rush was wearing off. She just wanted to go home. Home to sleep. Maybe when she woke up tomorrow morning, this would all just be a bad taste nightmare. She could tell Rosie and Rosie would laugh.
Rosie! She dreaded making that phone call. Maybe Gabe had done it, meaning killing that crazy woman, not calling Rosie.
Jane closed her eyes, squirmed on the chair and tried to clear her mind. But the dead woman’s image wouldn’t fade gently away. That corpse sprawled across the bed floated behind her eyelids like a bad metaphor.
“Professor Plum did it in the conservatory with a candlestick.“ She opened one eye and looked at Pat Russo.
“If you arrest me now, at least I can get some sleep.”
“I need some fresh air,” he said. “Come outside with me, Jane.”
“Where’s Gabe?” she asked. “Did you arrest him?”
“Not yet. He’s on the phone with his agent. I’ll assume he’s being told to lawyer up.”
“Did he do it?”
The night air was cool. Jane shivered slightly as Pat motioned her to sit down on the bench where people grabbed a cigarette. The streetlight fell across the red brick building behind them, casting Pat’s face into half shadow as he pulled a pack of Marlboros from his shirt pocket and fired up. Pat never smoked unless he was really stressed, and Jane was willing to bet the farm he was really stressed now.
“Ever heard of Midnight Bunting?” he asked, exhaling smoke through his nostrils.
“Is that a kind of bird, like an indigo bunting?”
Pat shook his head, staring off into the darkened storefront of Dean and Delucca across Port Street. “Nah. It’s a woman. The woman who was killed. That’s a Midnight Bunting.”
“Who calls themselves Midnight? Did you know her?”
“Knew who she was. Never had any problem with her.
As long as she was discreet, and wasn’t doing business on the island, at least that we knew of, didn’t have any reason to know her.”
“What did she do?”
“She is, was, one of the biggest madams in the city. Had a summer place out on the Point. A very high-class clientele from what I’ve heard. Millionaires, businessmen, politicians. A real A-list group.”
“And you know this because?” Jane asked lightly.
“Because I make it my business to know. That’s my job.” He flashed a grin. “And because the cops in the city let me know, so I could keep an eye on her. Any time you’ve a situation like hers, you’ve got potential trouble. You know, angry wife with a weapon, guy has a heart attack on top of a $500-an-hour hooker, some kind of kinky sex game goes wrong. Drugs, whatever. Any of that wouldn’t have surprised me. But finding her dead and far from home, now that does surprise me.”
“Imagine how poor Gabe must feel,” Jane murmured.
“Well, yeah, there is that actor guy. He swears up and down he never met her before, but – well, he’s an actor, you know what I mean?”
“And he’s British,” Jane couldn’t help but add.
“Well, there’s that too. But he swears he was with you all night, and you’re backing up his story, right?”
“I’ve already told you twenty times. I was with him all night, in front of about fifty witnesses, including every horny young thing on the island. They all wanted his autograph.”
“Look. Jane, if you know anything about this, you’d better tell me now, because if I find out later, you and I are gonna have a come to Jesus, understand?”
“I understand. I just wish you did. I only met the guy a couple of days ago. Rosie dumped him up at the big house. He seems okay, but whether or not he could kill somebody, and why he’d choose to kill her, I have no idea.”
“I don’t suppose you’d have any reason to want her dead?”
“I never even knew she existed until tonight. No, wait, until I saw her staggering down the road after she wrecked that Jag. I told you all about that twenty times too.”
“Yeah, with her being rescued by the men in black. You think she was killed by UFO aliens, maybe?”
“I’d look for the black Lincoln Navigator.”
“It’s probably discorporated and gone back to Mars by now.”
“Funny, Pat. You’re hilarious.”
“Gallows humor is always the best. What do you know about that actor guy? Where did Rosie find him?”
“Well, I know he’s pretty much what he says he is, at least professionally. I Googled him.” Jane had the grace to blush. “I’m so out of it when it comes to show biz. He’s been in People and the New York Times and everywhere. He’s won a lot of serious acting awards. But no scandals, nothing interesting in his personal life. Divorced, no kids. Dates actresses, of course. If he goes around murdering madams, no one has mentioned it.”
“That’s inconvenient. After a while, one celebrity pretty much looks like another out here. And they all look the same getting shot, printed and screaming for their lawyers.” He shook his head. Makes me glad to have to deal Tucky Shipe when he’s stealing crab pots out of Hilton Packer’s side yard. At least I know Tucky’s gonna go along peacefully, more or less. Now, you take these off-islanders, with all their money and their sense of entitle- - -”
“Chief Russo! Hey, Pat, what are you doing out here while my client is in there, being held against his will?”
Jane and Pat both looked up, surprised. A short man in a day-glow Hawiian print shirt and ripped shorts appeared out of the shadows, a briefcase clutched in his hand. His long gray hair was tied back in a long ponytail.
“Dink?” Pat asked, surprised.
The little man pulled a card from the pocket of his shirt. With a flourish, he handed it to Jane. “Don’t believe we’ve met. Dink Sheldrake, Esquire, at your service.” As Jane took his card, she was almost bowled over by the powerful aura of killer weed.
“Dink, what the hell?” Russo demanded.
The little lawyer revealed a large set of dentures when he smiled. “My client, Gabriel Hardy, is in your police station. I understand you’re questioning him about the suspicious death of Ms. Midnight Bunting?”
“Jesus, Dink, you know I can’t- - - -“
“You can, and you will, Pat. I’ve been engaged to represent Mr. Hardy. So, if you aren’t pressing charges against him, I’d like you to release him into my custody, please. Are you pressing charges?”
“Well, not at this moment, but - - -“
“Okay.” Dink hiccupped softly. “Then you won’t mind if I just duck inside and talk to my client, will you?”
“How the hell did you find out about this? Who sent you? That guy doesn’t know you, and if he did, he wouldn’t want you for a lawyer on a dare, Dink.”
The attorney’s eyes, large and dark, blinked slowly. Jane had the feeling he was more than halfway into Maui Wowee paradise. He didn’t look like any lawyer she’d ever seen. He looked more like someone who’d gotten stuck in the ‘60s and hadn’t been able to find his way out. But he did have that briefcase, so that must count for something.
“I’ve been engaged to represent Mr., uh, Harding? Who asked me to do so is privileged information. I’d like to see my client now.”
“Knock yourself out,” Pat said. “But no funny stuff, Dink. I know you.”
“Indeed you do, Pat. Indeed you do. And now, if you’ll excuse me.” He staggered into the station.
Pat closed his eyes, leaned back and sighed deeply. “I need this like I need a heart attack. Who the hell called that idiot?”
“Who is he?”
“He’s that close to being disbarred, that’s who he is. Dink is the last of what used to be a pretty powerful family on the island. Back in the day when fishermen could actually catch some fish, the Sheldrakes owned all the canneries around here. Then the fishing gave out, the canneries closed and the Sheldrake family petered down to Dink, the last of the line. His family put him through law school, but he’s spent most of his life buying dope with what’s left of his trust fund. Hell, I wouldn’t ask him to make up a will, let alone represent someone in a criminal case,”
“So what happened? Why is he here?”
“Oh, he probably heard the whole thing on the scanner and ducked on down, seeing his chance to get a couple of bucks. He just lives down the block, over the dry cleaner’s, but he spends most of his time hanging around Big Moose’s Bar with all the other locals. Between the booze and the weed, I doubt he’s drawn a sober breath in thirty years.”
Jane contemplated this for a few minutes while Pat lit another cigarette.
“If you don’t intend to charge my client, I strongly suggest you let him out of here,” Dink thrust his head out the door. “He’s tired, he’s confused, and he’s clearly innocent. Besides, he’s not much of a flight risk. How can he get off the island unnoticed when everyone and their mother will know who he is by the time Darlene opens the Java Cup for breakfast this morning? Cap’n Joe’s not likely to let him on the ferry without your okay, Pat.”
“You’re jerking my chain, Dink.”
“My client is innocent, Pat. I’ve spoken to him and I’m convinced that he knows nothing about Ms. Bunting. Hell, you and I could think of at least twenty people who knew her and would have been happy to do her in.“
Pat sighed, pushing his hands through his hair. “Just get him out of here. And get yourself out of here, too. I don’t want to see either one of you right now. I’ve got enough problems with the state boys coming over from the mainland tomorrow morning.”
Dink smiled. “My client will make himself available. He has nothing to hide.” He ducked back into the station.
“I know that English guy had something to do with this,” Pat grumbled. “If I let him go, at least there’s no way he can get off the island. Dink’s right. This place is as good as a jail.”
“Or an open air insane asylum,” Jane suggested dryly.