Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Genre: Mystery

By Daniel Skye

All small towns carry that same stink of desperation. We all feel that burning desire to go out and achieve beyond our wildest expectations. To escape from the rut and leave your past behind.
But it’s easier said than done.
And every small town has a resident blabbermouth. In most cases, it’s more than one gossiper that lives to share the intimate little details of your existence.
And more disconcerting is the fact that these allegations, these rumors, don’t even require validation. Just give the tattletales a taste and the gossip spreads like wildfire consuming a field of dry brush.
It’s quite alarming how a simple fabrication of the truth can snowball into something far crueler. As the rumors spread from mouth to mouth, the stories become more disjointed and inaccurate as the lies continue to escalate.
And this cycle repeats itself again and again until the original version of the truth has been exaggerated to such a degree that nobody even remembers the truth at all. They just remember the lies. And the more the lie grows, the uglier it gets and the further it strays from the truth.
Such a situation presented itself in the sleepy hamlet of Montauk back in April of 2004. It was a Thursday when Frank Graff joined Wayne, Gina, and I down at the docks. We had just brought the boat in.
The 4-Play was a 28 footer that belonged to Wayne. The name of the boat was his misguided attempt at being clever. Wayne was a womanizer who once bragged to me about impregnating a fifteen year old, then gipping her out of the abortion money.
Graff helped us tie off to the dock and gave Gina a hand climbing out of the boat.
It had been a slow day and we had only two striped bass to claim between the three of us. Wayne filleted the bass on the dock and divided it up for the three of us. He offered Graff a piece to take home, knowing he’d decline.
Anyone who knew Frank Graff knew he hated fish. He was even averse to shrimp and lobster. Even when it was free, you couldn’t force Frank to cram a piece of fish in his mouth. Pan fried, deep fried, blackened, salted, sautéed. No matter how you prepared it, even if you cooked it to absolute perfection, Frank wouldn’t lay a finger upon it.
“You guys hear the news?” Frank had asked. His cornflower blue eyes were augmented by the thick frames of his glasses that acted like magnifiers.
“What news?” Gina asked. I had known Gina for half my life, and if I learned anything about Gina, it was that she loved to hear some juicy gossip. Especially when it concerned Brooke Bryce.
Gina Gordon was a retro girl, still swept up in the fads of the late eighties, early nineties. She wore legwarmers with flip flops and had her black hair all puffed up like she was Elaine from Seinfeld.
“Brooke Bryce is pregnant,” Graff shared as if he knew it for a fact.
“Is this an April Fool’s Day joke?” Gina asked. “Because I hate those.”
“Says who?” I asked.
“Says her best friend, Lily Thompson,” Graff said. “Lily claims she was there when Brooke took the pregnancy test.”
“Some friend,” Wayne muttered and laughed at the same time.
“Who’s the father?” Gina asked. Poor Frank had no idea what a can of worms he had opened up. Gina and Brooke were sworn enemies. Their feud had been very well documented by just about everyone who attended Montauk High School.
They grew up best friends, but turned bitter enemies due to Gina’s disgust at Brooke’s swelling greed and obsession with material possessions. Brooke insisted that Gina was just being jealous because her family was white trash and they couldn’t afford the luxuries the Bryce family could.
And it was true. Brooke’s family owned Montauk Grill, the top restaurant in town, and Gina’s family did not. Brooke’s family had four cars in the driveway and a house with three-stories, and Gina’s family did not. Brooke’s family had an in-ground pool, and Gina’s dad couldn’t even afford a Slip ‘N Slide when she was a child.
“Lily said Brooke wouldn’t tell her,” Graff told an attentive Gina. “But she doesn’t have a boyfriend. And last time she fucked anyone that I’m aware of was Henry Bower at his house party. And that was five months ago so the timeline doesn’t match up. But if you think about it, the answer is pretty obvious.”
“What are you insinuating?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Gina interjected. “If you know something else, spill it. Don’t keep us in the dark over here.”
“I can’t say for sure,” Graff said, covering his own ass. “But I think it’s her brother.”
“Darren Bryce?” Wayne said.
“It’s just a theory,” Graff said. “But there parents were away for a whole weekend three weeks ago. Their dad had some kind of restaurant convention to attend in Manhattan. So God knows what they did alone up there in that palace of theirs. I mean, come on, I’m not the only one who’s noticed how close they are with each other, right? A little too close if you ask me.”
“They are always hugging and kissing each other,” Gina pointed out. “Like constantly, even in public. He can’t seem to keep his hands off of her most of the time.”
“I hate to agree,” Wayne said, “But I’ve noticed it too. I mean, I’ve hugged my sister before, but I never hugged her by the waist.”
“What do you think, Dallas?” Gina asked me.
“I’m not contributing to the rumor mill,” I said, refusing to add fuel to the fire. But that didn’t stop Gina Gordon from running her mouth to everyone with an ear for gossip. By dark, the whole town had learned of Brooke’s pregnancy, compounded by rumors that the father of the child was her own brother.
When we left the docks in Wayne’s silver pickup and dropped Gina off at home, we swung by Tommy Ford’s shop to see if he had time to do an inspection. Wayne’s truck had a slow oil leak and the passenger side door was busted. Every time I would get in, I had to climb over the driver’s seat.
It would never legally pass inspection. That’s why Wayne was hoping Tommy would pass it and give him a sticker without performing the proper inspection for a few extra bucks on the side.
Tommy Ford was known for things like this throughout Montauk. That’s why we depended on him and his garage anytime we needed a tune-up or an inspection sticker or cheap parts and labor.
Tommy was a miserable looking guy who lived in that car garage, surrounded by junked vehicles and oil canisters and sparkplugs. He was always covered from head to toes in oil and grease, looking like the creature from the black lagoon. His hands were so black and dirty you couldn’t even make out the skin of his palms.
Beads of sweat had accumulated on his wide forehead, and when he saw us pull up and get out of the pickup, he wiped the sweat with an already dampened cloth.
“Hey, Tommy,” Wayne said, trying to play it cool. “Got time for an inspection?”
“Can’t do it,” Tommy said, lighting a cigarette. “The shop’s been busting my ass about that.”
“Oh, come on,” Wayne said, practically begging. “For old times’ sake.”
“I can’t,” he shook his head, accepting the cash from Wayne’s hand and slipping him a new inspection sticker. “And if anyone asks, that’s the story I’m sticking to.”
“I hear you loud and clear,” Wayne nodded. “Hey, did you hear the news about Brook Bryce? She’s pregnant.”
“We don’t know that for a fact,” I pointed out.
“Oh, knock it off, Dallas,” Wayne told me. “Lily Thompson wouldn’t have said that unless it was true.”
“We don’t even know if Lily said it,” I pointed out again. “We just know what Frank Graff claims.”
“Lily Thompson?” Tommy repeated. He was older than us, but he still knew the town. He had grown up in Montauk and knew the place like the back of his hand. “Yeah, I know her. I know Frank Graff, too. Lazy bum. But that Lily is a good kid. Used to work with her in the summertime at Joe’s Crab Shack. She’s an honest girl. If Lily said it was true, I’d find it hard to doubt her word.”
“But you’d doubt Frank Graff’s word?” I asked.
“I doubt the people I can’t trust,” Tommy said. “But Frank has nothing to gain from lying about this. His family is pretty well off. They don’t have any grudge against the Bryce family.”
“Well, Graff seems to think the father of her baby is Darren,” Wayne added.
“Darren Bryce? Now that I can believe,” Tommy said, chuckling.
“Why do you say that?” I couldn’t help but ask. “What are you inferring?”
“There has always been something strange about that family,” Tommy said. “Ever since the Bryce’s moved to Montauk, they’ve kept to themselves and managed to avoid speculation and ridicule. But there’s always been quiet rumors that have existed about that family. I won’t go into detail, because I don’t know if half of the stories are true.”
It was the next day that they found Brooke Bryce’s body. She had left a note, but what she had written was never revealed to the public. And this only led to more hearsay and speculation that circulated through the rumor mill.
The cops never questioned Gina Gordon. They never came around to question me or Wayne or Frank. And the Bryce’s sold the Montauk Grill and moved out of town the following year.


          Tuesday, April 1st, 2014.
          “Dallas?” Gina’s voice echoed on speakerphone. Of all the people who could’ve called me that day, the last person I expected to hear from was her.
          “Hello, Gina,” I spoke in a loud, clear voice so she could decipher my words over the speakerphone. “It’s been a long time.”
          “It has,” she agreed. “You know what today is, don’t you?”
          “I’ve spent ten years trying unsuccessfully to forget.”
          “Frank Graff is dead,” she blurted out unexpectedly. “They found his body two nights ago in Spring Harbor. Tell me everything you know about fugu?”
          “Fugu?” I asked, raising one quizzical eyebrow that she clearly couldn’t see over the speakerphone. But the tone of my voice undoubtedly gave away my bemusement.
          “It’s the Japanese word for puffer fish,” Gina explained. “It’s loaded with tetrodotoxin, a fatal poison. It’s what Graff supposedly ingested before he died.”
          “Bullshit,” I scoffed. “Graff wouldn’t even eat fried calamari. What’s he doing eating puffer fish?”
          “My thoughts exactly,” Gina said. “Not to mention the fact that the Japanese puffer fish is not technically a species you’d find dwelling in the Atlantic. And Graff wasn’t an angler. He sure as hell didn’t catch it himself.”
          “What are you trying to suggest here, Gina?” I felt compelled to ask.
          “You don’t find this the least bit suspicious?” she responded to my question with another question.
          “It is perplexing,” I concurred. “But you don’t think that somebody…”
          “Yes, Dallas,” she said, her voice still echoing over the speakerphone in my office. “I do think somebody might’ve staged his death to look like an accident.”
          “This is the Hamptons,” I told Gina. “Things like that don’t happen around here. Not in a community where everyone knows everybody else. You’d never get away with murder in a place like this.”
          “What if the person who did this doesn’t want to get away with murder? What if they just want to tie up all the ends that came loose ten years ago? Have you spoken to Wayne recently?”
          “Not in years,” I said. “Not since I took over as head chef for the Montauk Grill.”
          “You should give him a call,” Gina suggested. “Just to make sure he’s doing ok. I’m on my way out as we speak, driving on the LIE. I should be there in two hours, give or take a few minutes.” She hung up before the conversation could progress further.
          I skimmed through the rolodex at the edge of my desk and went straight to the F’s. Wayne Furlong’s number was the last one listed in that particular column.
          I dug the card out from the rolodex and dialed Wayne’s number. It had been so long since I’d last seen Wayne that I couldn’t even recall his number off the top of my head.
          It rang three times, then went to voicemail. I waited a few minutes, tried again. Same result.
          I tried a few other people who might have heard from Wayne recently, but before I could get any straight answers, Rachel knocked on the door to my office.
          She was a sweet girl. Young. Bright. Not too sure what happened to her. She quit on me after the scandal. Moved to the city. I never heard from her again.
          “Mr. Caine,” she said, opening the door just an inch.
          “Yes, Rachel,” I said. “Please come in. And call me Dallas.”
          The door swung open and standing beside Rachel was a man who towered over her. He was a very tall individual who even towered over me.
          “Dallas,” Rachel said, wearing a look of concern over her pretty face. “This man says he’s with the police. Says he has a few questions he needs to ask you.”
          “Let him in,” I shrugged, knowing I had nothing to hide. I assumed he came to inquire about Frank Graff. It’s not every day a local kicks the bucket under such bizarre circumstances.
          I dismissed Rachel and invited the tall man who introduced himself to me as Detective Corelli to take a seat, though the gentleman preferred to stand.
          I’ll admit I found his presence a tad unnerving. Nevertheless, I let him ask what he came to ask.
          “Is this about Frank Graff?” I asked. Big mistake.
          “Not unless you know something about Frank’s death we should know about. I’m here to ask you about Wayne Furlong.”
          “Did something happen to Wayne?”
          “He’s dead,” the detective informed me frankly. “Murdered to be precise. It was a gaff that killed him.”
          “A gaff?”
          “It’s a sharp hook attached to a long pole. Fishermen use them to hook sharks and tuna and other fish too big to reel in. Don’t pretend you don’t know what it is. Your time at sea is well documented in this community. We’ve got dozens of witnesses who can place you on Wayne’s boat on a number of occasions in the past.”
          “I’m not denying that, or my knowledge of gaffs or rods and reels. I’m just, I don’t know, confused by all of this news. First Frank, now Wayne.”
          “Speaking of Frank, you seem to know more about his death than anyone else around here. Spill it.”
          “It’s just…Frank hated fish. Everyone that knew Frank knew that. So I just don’t see how he could have died from seafood poisoning.”
          “People change,” the detective shrugged.
          “You obviously didn’t know Frank too well,” I said. “That guy never changed.”
          “What else should we know about Frank?”
          “He liked to gossip. Liked to run his mouth a lot.”
          “And in doing so, would you say Frank made a lot enemies in this community?”
          “I’d say that’s a safe assumption.”
          “Would you happen to be one of those enemies?”
          “Not at all. Frank was a friend of mine. We grew up together. Went to school together. I have no cause to harm Frank or Wayne or anyone that I know.”
          “And what about Gina Gordon?” the detective inquired.
          “What about Gina Gordon?” I asked. I was impressed. This guy had done his homework on me and everyone I associated with.
          “Just because the police never questioned her when Brooke Bryce committed suicide, doesn’t mean we didn’t hear the rumors. It’s a small town. And like you said, people gossip. It’s what they do in small towns. Rumor has it that Gina went around telling everyone that Brooke was pregnant with her own brother’s child. This was, if I’m not mistaken, the day before Brooke Bryce killed herself. We looked into it. Turns out Brooke was indeed pregnant when she took her own life. You know who the father really was?”
          “Nope,” I shrugged, trying to play it cool. “Who?”
          “We don’t know either. But it wasn’t Darren Bryce. A paternity test proved that ages ago.”
          “What does all this have to do with me or Gina or Wayne or anyone that I’m friends with?”
          “You know what today is, right? You know what tomorrow is?”
          “I’m well aware. You don’t forget a thing like that.”
          “We think someone with a connection to Brooke Bryce is tying up old loose ends if you catch my drift.”
          “Again, what does this have to do with me?”
          “You don’t think your name wasn’t dragged through the rumor mill along with Wayne’s and Gina’s and Frank’s when that girl killed herself? You were with all of them that day. Multiple witnesses saw you four together at the docks. If our theory proves to be right, this would make you a target.”
          “No comment,” I said, drawing a blank. I was too wrapped up in the detective’s implications to throw together a valid comeback.
          “Fair enough,” the detective said and walked to the door to excuse himself. He had a smirk on his face when he told me, “Have a great evening. And be sure to lock your doors and windows.”
* * *
          When Gina Gordon rolled into town, news had already circulated about Wayne Furlong’s mysterious death. She knew before I even had a chance to tell her.
          She let me know where she was staying and gave me a number to reach her if her cell didn’t have reception. She said she’d stick around for the funerals, but then she had to be back to work.
          Her hair was still black and puffy. But she had grown out of the legwarmers and bracelet charms. She was dressed like a businesswoman when I saw her that evening. And regrettably, that was the last evening I saw Gina Gordon alive.
          “Poor Wayne,” she had muttered over a brief drink we shared. “This doesn’t feel real to me. Not one bit.”
          “I know,” I said. “It feels like an April Fool’s Day prank. I’m expecting Wayne to pop up at any minute and scream ‘surprise bitches’ and then I could breathe a sigh of relief.”
          “What about Frank?” she had asked.
          “I never really cared much for that motor mouth,” I confessed. “But I’m sorry to see him go.”
          “To think how different things would be if he had never said anything that day,” Gina said. To think how different things would’ve been if Gina had kept her mouth shut. But I didn’t say that to her face. I kept that part to myself.
          I mentioned Detective Corelli and urged her to be careful. Poor naïve Gina. She didn’t heed the warning. She probably never knew what was coming.
* * *
          The next day, I didn’t hear from Gina Gordon. But I did receive my second visit from Corelli.
          “A little birdie told me you were one of the last people to speak with Gina Gordon last night when she got into town.”
          “Did something happen to Gina? Don’t tap dance around the issue. Just tell me if she’s ok.”
          “She’s dead,” he said. Then added an insincere, “Sorry.”
          “How did it happen?”
          “We don’t know yet. Still waiting on the forensics report. I do know her tongue was severed. It wasn’t a pretty sight.”
          “Gina was the one who spread the news of Brooke’s pregnancy. She practically told the whole town.”
          “Who else did you speak with that day? You specifically, not Gina.”
          “Besides Gina, Wayne, and Frank? We stopped at Tommy Ford’s shop to get an inspection done on Wayne’s truck. But I don’t see what he would have to do with this.”
          “Maybe Tommy has nothing to do with it,” the detective said. “Maybe he has everything to do with this. We’ll be in touch, Mr. Caine.”
* * *
          I took a ride down to Tommy Ford’s shop that day. He was still living in that same garage. Still wearing that hideous green jumpsuit that was caked in layers of grease.
          He was impressed with my new ride, the 2012 Chevy Cruise. It had been so long since I visited the shop that Tommy still remembered the ’87 Oldsmobile I used to cart around in. I used to have to hit the starter with a hammer just to keep it running before Tommy put in a rebuilt starter for me.
          Once I took the head chef position at Montauk Grill, I was able to get my car fixed at a regular shop. No more paying extra for inspection stickers or buying refurbished car parts from Tommy. And once I purchased the Montauk Grill from the previous owner and took over the daily operations, I really had no use for Tommy. He became a distant memory in my life.
          But that day, it was imperative that I spoke with him. He still remembered me and when I inquired about him, I learned that Tommy still remembered Wayne Furlong.
          “Do you remember Frank Graff?” I asked, putting his memory to the test.
          “Yeah, I remember that shiftless slacker. No good bum.”
          “Yeah, that was Frankie,” I chuckled. “Glad to see you still remember the old crew. We lost both of them recently.”
          “Sorry for your loss,” Tommy said. “I don’t hear much about what goes on. Not after what that poor girl did to herself. I keep to myself nowadays.”
          “So you remember that day?”
          “You’re not likely to forget a thing like that. That poor girl’s family. Rumors aside, that girl didn’t deserve that.”
          “What were the rumors about the Bryce family?” I inquired. “What were you holding back when we came to visit you ten years ago?”
          “I can’t go into it,” Tommy sighed.
          “Please, for me,” I said. “For old Dallas Caine. It’s important. I need to know what was going on back then. I can’t explain how or why, but my life may depend on it.”
          “Alright…” Tommy said. “There were rumors about the Bryce family since they moved to Montauk. Rumors of incest. Mr. Bryce was allegedly a swinger, but he liked to keep it in the family. That’s why the rumors of Darren and Brooke didn’t seem so farfetched at the time.”
          “Thanks, Tommy,” I said. “You’ve been a big help.”
          In the back of my mind, I was thinking the culprit could be her father. That he had impregnated Brooke, and now he had returned to exact his revenge. Something Tommy said before I left made me think different.
          “Say hello to Gina Gordon if you see her,” Tommy said as I was leaving. “I remember she used to date that loser, Henry Bower, for a period of time. Thank God she got out of this town and made something of herself. Thank God she didn’t end up with him. And I remember Bower used to pal around with Frank Graff all the time. They were a match made in hell.”
* * *
          Brooke Bryce. Her father. The deaths of Gina, Frank, and Wayne. My run-ins with Detective Corelli. I had been so distracted that I failed to think of one of the most logical suspects.
          Henry Bower.
          He was the last person who was messing around with Brooke before she killed herself. Frank knew Henry fucked Brooke at that house party five months before her death, because Henry told him.
          But Henry neglected to inform Frank of how their relationship progressed after that night in his parents’ bedroom. They had been seeing each other almost every day leading up to the moment of her death.
          Henry was the father of her unborn child. Brooke just killed herself because she couldn’t come clean to her father and she couldn’t bear to live with the rumors.
          All I had to do was prove it to the police before Bower could find and kill me.
          Rachel was waiting for me in my office when I drove over to the restaurant. She was sitting behind my desk, which I found odd. That was until I stepped in and found who was hiding behind the door.
          Henry Bower had been waiting for me the whole time. Gun in hand, he ordered me to go over by Rachel behind the desk.
          “Bower, let the girl go,” I said. “She’s got nothing to do with this. It’s just you and me.”
          “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Bower told me. He was older since the last time I had seen him and looked haggard. Years of drinking and drug abuse had ravaged his once youthful looks. What stood before me now was a wrinkly bag of bones clutching at a semiautomatic weapon.
          “She’s seen my face,” Bower added. “I can’t let her blab. That’s all people are good for in this town anyway, blabbing. Your buddy, Gina, she was real good at that. But I fixed that problem. Snipped her lying tongue out. It wasn’t Darren Bryce. I was the father of Brooke’s child. And I would’ve made a damn good father if Gina hadn’t pushed Brooke over the edge.”
          “I’m sorry about all that,” I said. “I truly am. But this won’t change the past. It won’t bring Brooke back. It won’t even make her pride.”
          “No, but it’s a start,” Henry said, cocking back the hammer of the gun with his thumb.
          “Oh, Dallas,” a voice called from the other side of the door that Bower had slammed shut. It was the voice of Tommy Ford. “One thing I forgot to mention to you at the shop.”
          This surprise visit distracted Bower long enough for me to slide over the desk and snatch the gun from his hands. Tommy called the police while I held Henry at bay and tried to reassure a traumatized Rachel that everything would be ok.
* * *
          Henry Bower confessed to the murders of Frank Graff, Wayne Furlong, and Gina Gordon. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If this had been another state, he probably would’ve gotten the death penalty.
          I spoke with the local police. Turns out “Detective Corelli” was actually Jerry Corelli, a reporter with the LI Post. And he had enough dirt on me and my friends and knew enough about the murders to blow everything out of proportion and turn things into a full-blown scandal surrounding Brooke Bryce’s death.
          My name got dragged through the mud and I was forced to sell the Grill and move out of state. I ended up in a small town called Red Bank, New Jersey. Opened another restaurant.
          I don’t contribute to the rumor mill, but every once in a while, I catch an earful of juicy gossip. And I can’t help but think of home.

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