Marshall Ouellette stomped on the brakes of his Lexus SUV before he ran up the tail of a ragged Chevy pickup, piled with steel mesh lobster traps and parked in his space. The truck’s wheel wells were cancered out with rust and the original blue had faded to turquoise.
Holmes was only supposed to use the space at night, to load his bait off the pier, when no one from the law firm was using the lot.
He inched the Lexus up to the truck’s rear bumper. The first time it happened, Marshall thought he might have to fight the old man, but his hands looked like Marshall’s father’s, sea-swollen and hard. Marshall knew how hands like that could dish it out.
He couldn’t call the cops again, though his boss Oscar DeMent had insisted on it the first time. The firm had bought exclusive rights to the parking area, which blocked a prime section of the pier from access by the lobster boats. Marshall thought his boss would have had some sympathy for the fishermen: he lived on Peaks Island and commuted to work by boat.
Instead of pressing charges, Marshall had worked out a deal.
He got out and slammed the door in anger, in case DeMent was watching.
Another fisherman in another salt-chewed pickup wanted to pass.
“Your pretty little car is blocking my way.”
True enough, though this guy wasn’t supposed to be back here either.
He backed and filled the Lexus to let the man by. The truck slipped into an open slot designated for DeMent.
He thought about letting the whole thing go. He had an eight-thirty meeting with his boss and he couldn’t be late. Unless you were a partner, you were as disposable as toilet paper.
The fisherman he’d let through walked toward Marshall, a coil of blue polypropylene rope over his shoulder, a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. His work shirt bore the name Cap’n Frank and what must have been the name of his boat: Lobstah Mobstah.
“Surprised Holmesy’s still here,” Frank said. “Usually only hangs around long enough to load his bait barrels.”
“He’s been warned.”
“Don’t I know. Cost him a hundred and seventy-eight dollars.”
What? Marshall was supposed to feel guilty?
Frank strolled up to the driver’s side window of the Chevy. His mouth dropped open, the cigarette falling to the pavement.
“Good reason why he didn’t move. Come look at this.”
“What? He fall asleep?”
“You might say that.”
Holmes’s face was barely recognizable, blood and fluids leaking down over his oilskins. At least, he thought, the pants were waterproof.
* * *
Detective Danny Coughlin sat down across the conference room table. DeMent hadn’t liked the idea of the police conducting interviews on the premises, but Marshall convinced him it was preferable to losing half a morning’s billable hours by going to the police station.
“You knew Mr. Holmes.”
He doubted Coughlin would have called the man Mister if he were talking to him directly. Or to any of the other fishermen. The remaining few who fished out of the wharf downtown had a reputation as an obstreperous bunch.
“Didn’t know him. He parked in my space a couple of times.”
“Your parking space? He was carrying your card in his wallet.”
“Your key card. For the parking lot.”
“That must be what happened to it. I lost it a couple months ago.”
His first lie.
“You two had a fist fight. Over your parking space.”
“That first time. Yes.”
“And you have a reputation for having a temper.”
He wondered where Coughlin had heard that. He couldn’t help thinking about his father, whose body was sunk in Jericho Bay, off Stonington.
“I had my moments. When I was younger. And drinking.”
“Friend of Bill’s?”
“If you know anything about that, you know I can’t say.”
The detective tacked away.
“I get it, you know. The city’s changing. More tourists, more service business. Not a lot of room left for the old-timers. Did you argue with Mr. Holmes today?”
Coughlin slipped the question in like a blade.
“I did not. And the one time we tussled, he came at me first.”
Coughlin rolled a coin over his knuckles, silver and gold like a Canadian loonie.
“Not the way the report tells it.”
“I’d asked him to move.”
Maybe not as politely as he could have, since Holmes’s response had been to sling a handful of gurry at him. But Marshall had put up with enough of that crap from fishermen growing up not to let Holmes get away with it. He had admired the man’s feistiness.
“He has a temper, too,” Marshall said.
“Had. Look. I know how it can go. Somebody says the wrong thing, you lose your rag.”
“I didn’t lose my rag. I never saw him again.” Second lie.
“Where do you suppose he came by your key card?”
“Found it on the ground, most likely. Can I get back to work?”
Walking the cop to the front desk, they passed Oscar DeMent, standing in his office doorway pushing up on the jamb like he was bench-pressing the building.
“Ouellette,” he barked. “This is a criminal defense firm. I don’t ever want to see a cop in here again.”
“Asshole,” Marshall muttered, a dozen feet down the hall.
“I know,” Coughlin said. “Bosses, right?”
At the street door, he stuck out his hand.
“Don’t sweat it. It’s probably some kind of clash between fishermen. These guys get hot.”
Marshall remembered Holmes’s battered face.
“Lot of anger there.”
Coughlin paused, the door open.
“When you lost your card. Was that before or after your tussle with Holmes?”
“Before. Long time before.” Third lie. The charm?
Holmes was only supposed to use the card late at night, when the firm was closed. In return for the access, he’d drop off a bag of short lobsters every so often, leaving them in the back of Marshall’s Lexus. It made Marshall feel more connected to his past, where he came from Down East, to help Holmes out.
DeMent was waiting as Marshall walked back to his office.
“I assume you didn’t do it,” he said.
Marshall stopped short.
“Kill the man.” DeMent’s eyes narrowed under his untrimmed eyebrows. “I know about your little arrangement with him. Not a good look for an aspiring lawyer.”
Marshall thought about pointing out that he was already a lawyer, having passed the bar exam. It wasn’t worth it. He’d forgotten how small an island could be, how little stayed secret.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” As he continued to his office, he wondered why he’d ever thought this job was a good idea.
He left for the day around eight, long after DeMent. It cost him twenty bucks to get his car out of the garage a half dozen blocks from the office. He knew the firm wouldn’t reimburse him.
As he stopped at the bottom of the ramp, a man in Xtratuf rubber boots, greasy jeans, and a flannel shirt with the arms cut off stood in his way. As the wooden arm rose, the man pitched his cigarette into the gutter, grabbed the Lexus’s door handle, and pulled himself in.
“Don’t mind dropping me down by the wharf, do you?”
Marshall didn’t think he had a choice, or that the man only wanted a ride.
“Paulie,” he said. “Paulie Macklin. I won’t shake your hand, since you’re doing the driving.”
Marshall turned right onto Commercial Street and crawled through the evening traffic, the tourists jaywalking.
“Ouellette,” Marshall said.
“I know. And I know what Holmesy was doing for you.”
“And what was that?”
“There are much worse things going on on the island than taking out shorts.”
“I liked him,” Marshall said. “Crusty, but he treated me all right. Eventually.”
Macklin laughed, took out another smoke, but didn’t light it.
“He never gave anybody anything he could sell for money. But he was all right.”
“So we agree. What do you want?”
“You’re a lawyer. Some of us aren’t too happy with what happened.”
“And other stuff going on. He was attracting attention and a couple guys didn’t like it.”
“No details,” Macklin said. “But we’re going to do something about it. And you’re a lawyer.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Cops won’t listen to any of us. They think we’re the problem, even though we were here first. One guy lost a twenty trap haul to a tourist sailboat last week. That’s a couple of grand worth of gear.”
Marshall shook his head. Fighting in the lobster wars wouldn’t do him any good, with the firm or with DeMent.
“I can’t help you.”
“You know, I’ve got an observer on my boat these days. DMR guy, a biologist. He’s real focused on people who abuse the fishery.”
Marshall knew the penalties for holding shorts, from fishing with his father. Five hundred dollars plus a hundred per bug. He didn’t want to have to do the math.
“Give me a name, I’ll pass it on. That’s all.”
Macklin lipped the cigarette and brought out a plastic lighter.
“That’ll do. Think we can get moving here? I promised my daughter I’d be home to help her with arithmetic.”
* * *
A week went by and nothing much happened, except DeMent got more and more abusive, as if he wanted Marshall to quit. More than once, Marshall had to remove himself physically from his boss’s office before he lost his temper.
Monday, when he left the office for lunch, he found a yellow Post-It note stuck on his windshield, tucked under the wiper, the name Frank Teixeira in black block letters.
Coughlin was less grateful than Marshall thought he would be.
“This came from where? The neighborhood watch?”
“I don’t know the name of the guy who passed it on. But he thought I had a better chance of getting heard than he would.”
Coughlin looked like he’d bitten a worm.
“So. A fisherman.”
“All he said was Holmes was getting in someone’s way. Is there something bad going on out there?”
“Fucking islands,” Coughlin said. “Peaks might as well be its own republic. We have had an eye on Teixeira.”
He glanced at Marshall.
“Now get out of here and stop complicating my life.”
* * *
Back in the office, DeMent waited, a frown on his face.
“You were at the cops.”
“Not part of my job. So. None of your business.”
DeMent breasted up to him, his cologne an insult.
“It’s part of your job if I say it is. What did you tell them?”
“They asked me questions about the other day. When that guy was killed.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Ones I already answered. Like they were trying to pin my story down. Maybe they still think I killed him.”
“Anything about the island?”
“You should be OK. Assuming you didn’t actually kill him.”
Marshall felt a sharp jab of anger.
“Nope. Always trying to stay on the right side of the law.”
DeMent frowned and turned back into his office. Marshall watched, certain something else was going on.
* * *
The next day, weather gorgeous, Marshall went out to eat lunch in his car. He’d never thought about the fact that being a lawyer meant you spent all your time indoors. And that no one thought that was strange.
He was sitting in the shade of his tailgate when the Portland Fire Boat docked at the end of the pier and Detective Coughlin led a man in handcuffs off. As they passed, Marshall saw it was the fisherman who’d asked him to move, the day they found Holmes.
He nodded as Coughlin passed, but had to wait till the next morning to read in the Press Herald that Frank Teixeira had been arrested for the murder of Holmes.
* * *
The day he resigned, he came in to work early, hoping to avoid a confrontation with DeMent. At five-thirty, all the light on the dock was artificial. As he pulled into his parking space, his headlights flashed over someone unloading a lobster boat at the far end of the pier.
Made no sense. At this hour, you’d be loading up: traps, bait, whatever. He shut down the Lexus and walked in the shadows of the research center until he was directly above the boat. Oscar DeMent was unloading what looked like bags of potting soil onto the dock.
As Marshall watched, one of the bags split on impact, spilling dark soil and a plastic-wrapped brick. He stepped back, deeper into the shadows, and headed for his car.
Later that morning, he stepped into DeMent’s office to drop off his resignation.
“Too much work for you?” DeMent sneered.
“Not enough money. I’m looking for something more lucrative. Short-term.”
“I saw you unloading a boat this morning. Any work there?”
DeMent rose from his chair.
“You saw nothing. Now get out of here.”
* * *
Marshall called Coughlin, who was unimpressed.
“Holmes was attracting too much attention to the island,” he said. “Teixeira was moving heroin in from offshore.”
“All by himself.”
“So he says. Listen. Your name came up as one of Holmes’s customers. That true?”
Marshall didn’t answer.
“Marine Resources might want to talk to you. Be prepared.”
“What about DeMent?”
“I’ll press Teixeira.” Coughlin hedged. “But without any evidence . .”
“OK. Thanks for the heads up.”
He dropped into Three-Dollar Dewey’s for a pint. It was a long time since he’d done any day drinking. He was considering getting loaded when DeMent sidled up to his stool.
“What do you want?”
“I couldn’t talk about it in the office. Friend of mine is short a stern man. You said you needed to earn some cash?”
“Been there, done that.” He wasn’t going back to lobstering, even for a minute. He hoped. And why was DeMent trying to do him a favor?
“Special season. Five grand, one night’s work. You can keep your mouth shut.”
Smelled like a setup.
“You the friend? Or someone else?”
“None of your concern. Be at the Marina. On Peaks. Nine PM.”
* * *
Marshall called Paulie Macklin around four.
“Ouellette.” Macklin coughed into the phone.
“Where are you?”
“Fish Pier. Why?”
“I could use a ride.”
“To the island? What for?”
“You found out Teixeira wasn’t a solo act.”
“I told you. I liked Holmes.”
“Pick you up in an hour.”
* * *
It was dark as midnight on the water. DeMent seemed jumpy, though they were on his boat. Marshall had glimpsed the handle of the revolver inside DeMent’s oilskins.
“This works out, there’s plenty more.” He snickered. “I could always tell your heart wasn’t in the law.”
He stepped up to the hauler.
“Ease me up to that buoy there.”
He’d let Marshall run the boat once he saw he could handle it, probably to keep his hands occupied.
Marshall dropped the engine into neutral. DeMent caught the rope with a boat hook and loped it over the snatch block, out at the end of the davit. The motor zipped the line up faster than a man could do it hand over hand. The trap broke water and Marshall saw the plastic brick inside.
“Holmes died over that?”
“Frank’s taking the fall,” DeMent said. “But I’ll take care of him.”
He set the trap on the gunwale, took out the dope, and packed an actual brick inside. His back to Marshall, he slipped his hand inside the oilskin pants.
Marshall took a long step forward, unlooped the line from the pulley and looped it around DeMent’s neck. He pushed the trap over the side and the weight of it straightened out the line. DeMent flailed. He had time for one aggrieved squawk before he disappeared into the night-dark sea.
An engine started up maybe twenty yards off, idled closer.
“You’re right,” Macklin said. “It only looks good if he was here by himself.”
Marshall swung onto Macklin’s boat.
“Fuckin’ A,” he said, and they motored away.
Richard Cass is the author of six crime novels in the Elder Darrow jazz mystery series. Books in the series have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction and the Nancy Pearl Librarians’ Prize for Genre Fiction. Kirkus Reviews called Book 4: Last Call at the Esposito “an immersive and satisfying addition to Boston crime fiction.” He lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Visit: @DickCass on Twitter.