Investigating a Report of Murder
Last night was my first dinner with the Coffins since the OK Corral, High Noon, last-scene-from-Butch-Cassidy-and-the-Sundance-Kid noshfest that followed the Great Insulting Column Debacle awhile back. This was to be a low-key affair, unlike the previous torches-and-pitchforks episode, and it was slated to include Henry and Cory “Larboardmaster” Coffin, a few random strands of the Coffin Family Thicket, and of course Meg. I arrived in jeans and one of my nicer polo shirts — OK, it’s my only polo shirt, but it wasn’t stained too badly — and knocked on the door.
Cory opened it, just like before, and glared up at me as though I weren’t actually invited. She was dressed more casually this time: jeans, thick sweater, rubber boots, tall glass of whisky without ice. Beneath her salt-and-pepper hair, she smiled that same brittle, glittering, dangerous smile — the kind that cobras use in high-pressure situations — but then she welcomed me sincerely.
“Come on in, asshole. You think you need a special invitation?”
I’d think it was the traditional Coffin family salutation, except that only Cory says it.
I carried my little saucepan of warm baked beans into the kitchen and traded it for the cold beer that Henry offered me. Any stiffness left over from my Colossal Faux Pas was gone; I twisted open the beer and thanked Henry and Cory for inviting me.
We spent the pre-dinner phase in the living room, sitting in elaborately upholstered armchairs and sofas, drinking and swapping stories. I sat on the couch, near one end, and Meg sat down next to me. No one else seemed to notice.
We talked for a while about Larry the Canadian. Meg had already told everyone about her encounter with him, but the story didn’t suffer any in the retelling. Henry laughed so hard he sloshed booze out of his glass.
Henry really is a fascinating guy, for a 250-year-old New England crustacean. He is wiry and scrappy and unafraid of people’s opinions of him, and he seems to have honed this toughness during a lifetime of war with the Minots.
The Minots are the other clan that dominate Grand Seal Island. They number about as many as the Coffins, and they generally hold their own in the House-That-Roared political battles against the Coffins, but for the moment Henry and his brood have the upper hand because he holds the mayor’s seat.
Henry took some time before dinner to tell me about the family feud that passes for democracy in this town:
“My older cousin, Chester Coffin, was mayor of Grand Seal Island for seventeen years,” he told me as he swigged whiskey and settled back into the armchair that was clearly his habitual roost. “Chester was a damn fine mayor.”
“A tough leader,” Cory chimed in.
“An excellent leader,” Henry said, peering right at me over his half-glasses.
“A visionary,” Cory said, perching her stout frame on the arm of Henry’s chair.
I guessed that the Henry-and-Cory show often followed this pattern. Eventually, Cory took her own seat and let Henry tell his story.
“Chester was a lobsterman, the toughest sea bastard you’d ever want to meet. He could lose one foot to frostbite and the other to a squid — and he’d still haul the traps like the lobsters were shedding weight every minute they stayed in the water. Shellfish would just turn themselves in when they saw Chester’s boat coming along overhead. Seemed undignified to put up a fight when they knew they were doomed from the start.
“He served as mayor for seventeen years, and damn prosperous years they were, too. GSI flourished under his leadership and guidance, and we managed to correct a whole bunch of the problems that had festered and spread when George Minot was mayor. Damn his soul straight to the bottom of the sea sludge! George screwed this town royally, and it took my uncle years to get it all worked out.
“So Chester was taking George’s horseshit legacy and spinning it into a rational plan that benefited every citizen of this fair town. But the Minots — may their keels rot beneath them in hell — the Minots were plotting their return to power. It seems that Chester’s success stuck in their craw like dried cod. They knew that if they let him remain as GSI’s democratically elected mayor for too long, all their damnable little secret deals would wash up on the beach like dead herring. It’s those oily little deals that let George stay in the mayor’s seat for so long. Now the Minots saw that those deals were drying up like shallow tide pools. All the people of this town were joining Chester’s fleet. This town was clean again. And it was prosperous. And it was damnably right.
“But Chester was a damn good man,” Henry said with emphasis.
“A great man,” Cory chimed in.
“An example for us all,” Henry continued. “He didn’t go around suspecting people. Thinking about their dark sides. Worrying about their real motives. No, he just pitched in to help whenever he could. When Archie Minot’s first mate called in sick with the flu, Chester just up and agreed to spend a day on Archie’s boat, helping him bring in a full load of lobsters.”
Henry paused, took another gulp of whiskey, and let his face go dark. I was aware, all of a sudden, that Meg was sitting right up against me, her hip against my thigh, her shoulder leaning against mine. It wasn’t exactly the answer to my wildest fantasies — fantasies that involve, by the way, Eliza, a deserted island, torn and ragged clothing, and a large vat of glistening suntan oil — but it didn’t seem like a good idea to push her away in the middle of Henry’s story. Wouldn’t want to be rude.
“Chester never came back,” Henry said.
I could feel Meg’s lean body jump at that declaration, as though she had never heard this story before. But I’m sure she’s heard it a hundred times. I think the twitch was for my benefit, as though she might need comforting to ward off a bad case of the vapors.
“We never saw him again,” Henry went on, his blue eyes blazing in fresh anger. “Archie steamed back into port and declared that a rogue wave had knocked Chester right off his deck. Said that he did all he could to circle back and fish Chester out of the water, but he couldn’t find him again. Said that he called out and listened and searched with his binoculars, but that Chester was nowhere to be found.
“He might as well have said that he had been born, full formed, from a cod’s bunghole. It was plain to me that Archie had lured Chester out on the boat, then pushed him overboard and let him die of hypothermia in the freezing sea. But that’s not what Archie said, the lying piece of eelshit. No proof, no body. Nothing. Just Archie’s word about what happened — as if anyone who wasn’t a Minot would believe anything that a Minot had to say.
“So that’s how Archie became mayor of GSI. When it came time to vote for a replacement for Chester, all the Minots voted for Archie, of course. All the Coffins voted for me. So that left the other families to break the deadlock — and enough of them had been bought by the Minots that Archie won by a tiny margin. He picked up right where George had left off, making bilgewater deals and destroying the town to the benefit of his family and friends.”
Henry took another deep drink of his whiskey, draining the glass and swishing the liquor around in his mouth before swallowing it. Meg leaned against me with gradually increasing pressure, almost like the turning of the earth. I sat still on the sofa and tried to figure things out. Did Archie really kill Chester, the sitting mayor of Grand Seal Island? Shove him off the deck of his lobster boat? Even after Chester was there to lend a helping hand? Did Archie commit murder just to get himself elected? Just to divert the town’s funds and power to his own family?
Nah. Can’t be. Henry is a world-class bullshitter, and this had to be one of his classic tales. Some families tell ghost stories. I think the Coffins tell Minot stories for fun, and I’ll bet the Minot folk tell Coffin stories for fun.
I decided not to fall for the trap.
“Interesting,” I said, taking the opportunity to wriggle away from Meg just a little bit. It’s not that she’s unattractive or anything, but she’s a little straight-laced and mundane for my tastes — although I must admit the joke on Larry was genius. “So, the Minots and the Coffins knock each other off for political benefit. Fascinating. What else do they do for entertainment?”
Henry slammed his glass down on the little table next to his chair. He fixed me with a cold and angry glare.
“Don’t you dare make fun of this,” he said, blood and whiskey and bile dripping from his voice. “Don’t you dare.”
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — Leonardo: I’m telling you. The only way to rid ourselves of the tyranny of capitalist hegemony is to take matters into our own hands.
Comment — MapleLeaf249: Is that what passes for democracy in the great United States? Makes me all the more glad I’m a Canadian.
Comment — PeaceNick: Violence NEVER solved anything!!! The only way 2 win is not 2 play.
Comment — BenchPress999: Damn, Nick, you’re a serious wuss.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.