Friday, March 8, 2013

The Case of the Bottled Killer by Tom Sheehan

After an old man is violently beaten to death, Silas Tully dives into the world of bottle collecting to try and catch the killer; by Tom Sheehan.

Long before Silas Tully, the Saugus policeman with an eye and mind for details, had put Loman L'Supprenant away for what was left of his life for the fifty-year-old murder of Frances Cochran, and long before he had solved the Guidon Labs murder via the Square One Mall, he had struggled for a whole year trying to solve the murders of two collectors of antique bottles. The bodies of the collectors, both male, were found on the same morning, but were six miles apart, one in Saugus and one in Wakefield. Both towns are a short ways north of Boston, on Route 1 or near it.

Peter Stocker, the Saugus victim, was an old Yankee residue, the last of his family to live locally, and had spent all of his later years building up his bottle collection, one not sparse to begin with. When he was found by a young landscaper, at the rear of his rather large and spacious home in the Breakheart section of town, he was face up in the grass with half his face bashed in. Not three feet from his bloody head was an empty Pump Cola bottle, which has a rather solid base. Its distinctive label, an old kitchen pump attached to the back of an obvious super space buggy, had been scraped off the surface of the bottle. Very few pieces of his varied and manifold collection had been touched, but it was certain, from apparent spaces on his shelves and in his show cases, some items had been taken.

Robbery had summarily moved into mayhem, and old Peter Stocker, an active but weaker seventy-five year older, could not survive the beating. Time of death was estimated at 2:00am.

Six miles away, in Wakefield, just across the picturesque mid-town expanse of Lake Quonnapowitt, oftentimes in summer puffed with white sails or in winter sliced by iceboat canvas, a veritable jewel in that community, a neighbor, from her bedroom window, saw Eamon D'Addarrio, another aged bottle collector, though not as affluent or as propertied as Peter Stocker, draped across the back of a porch couch. Authorities found him with his face smashed, his left arm broken at the wrist, and clad only in pajama bottoms. It was determined that the elderly man, he too in his seventies, had been struck repeatedly in his kitchen and somehow, dying for sure, made his way onto the porch where he fell across the couch. Not a sound had been heard by neighbors, including the woman who spotted him from her bedroom window. Some of his collection was also missing. His time of death was estimated to be about 11:00pm. The killer, if he was the same person, had gone east in his crimes.

Both these neighboring towns recoiled at the horror that had befallen two of their elderly and lone citizens, for both were widowers. And the terror, a small groundswell at first, became a rather steady undersurge within the senior circuit. One could hear deadbolts being slammed home with extra thrust. And more often. For weeks on end, after the discoveries of the bodies, the police departments in both communities received a stream of calls from older people about suspicious activities near their homes. Nothing ever developed from these calls.

Chief Noel Rebenkern, of the Saugus Police Department, assigned Silas Tully to plain clothes for the duration of the case. Silas, after viewing the scene at the Stocker home, drove to Wakefield in his big, red, three-quarter ton pick-up truck, at last fifteen years old and looking to be on its last legs, to talk to Lieutenant Johnny Ellis about the D'Addarrio case. They had worked on a few cases over the years. The first impression of Silas still stuck with the Wakefield policeman; senior in rank but admittedly yet junior at detecting.

It was the truck, of course! The truck had grabbed the young policeman a good fifteen years earlier. Silas' truck was a big, bright red three-quarter ton International with a 347 engine. It had rugged and oversized bumpers, twin pipes, and the name Kumbanchero in Japanese-style script across the back of the cab and on both bumpers. Johnny Ellis thought Silas Tully looked a bit like his own father, a policeman too, who had died in the cab of his truck... off-duty and chasing a known felon. The two older men would have been a lot alike - heavy on engines with good deep sounds and power almost visible under the seat, America for starters, the US Marine Corps for finishers, and each with an eye for the smallest detail. Cops with unbounded energy.

It was that first sight of Tully which stayed fervent and hard over the years with Ellis, nothing having come along to diminish it. The first sight kept coming back to him. They had gathered to honor and bury one of their own who had been killed in the line of duty, and, in one of the assembly areas in which were gathering over three thousand New England police officers, Johnny Ellis heard the pipes of the red truck as it entered the parking lot where buses were strung out like whole decks of cards dealt on the asphalt table. The dull but powerful rumble he heard first, like a hive of ornery bees loose but clustered, and the fiery truck came from behind a bus and parked right beside his little Pinto, his little grey Pinto, his pony of a car. As he stretched his way out of the seat, unlimbering his long frame beside the big International, Ellis felt like a Norwegian sardine escaping the tin works.

And the contrasts came at Ellis right and left. An older cop in a kid's truck. A young cop in a car the older man belonged in. The neck on the other cop belonging on a younger man. Hands resting on the steering wheel were the hands of a gravedigger or an old time blacksmith, the span of them speaking of power. They were dark, neat, powerful, and seemed effortless in their quiet ease touching the wheel. The eyes looking down at him from the higher front seat of the truck were his father's eyes bearing down on him. He felt like a kid again, being chastised for doing something wrong or not quick enough or not with enough gusto. Gusto had been his father's watchword, his way of life: If you are going to spend any of your time doing something, do it right, do it like you mean it, and give it a good kick in the ass to get it going, then there'll be no regrets afterwards. As he looked up at the older cop, whom he had heard about in the watchroom, whom he had heard about at shift changes or on patrol, whose escapades and deeds had become the talk of area police, the booming voice of his father came back at him as if that voice had been diverted through this cop-becoming-a-legend: Keep at it! Crow a little when you're in luck, own up, pay up, and shut up when you lose.

Years later he could benchmark that first meeting as one of the most important in his life. It was not that Silas Tully had, in the meantime, become that legend, but it had given him cause for thought. Realization came that he had never taken enough time to really love and know his father, at least to the degree he should have. Oh, he would have given his life for him in a minute, and he did love him immeasurably, but he had never taken the time to really know him, not the down-deep knowledge he could have found. That took a deeper concentration. The opportunity had escaped him. It would never come back and it was a weight carried on his person for a long time. In his headlong rush to grow up, to become good at what he had undertaken, his father had gone before full realization of all things had taken place. Life, all too quickly, had become lonely.

The transfer, in part at least, from father to Silas Tully, had begun.

It was only age that took some of the stars out of Johnny Ellis' eyes, age and some hard growing. Then there was the macabre edge that comes with being a cop if you let your guard down for the least moment. He'd seen murder and mayhem and malice, and all the pit stops in between. During aggrandizing of all those experiences, the two older men had become, seemingly, one force in his life, one entity. It did not make him uncomfortable.

Now here they were, fifteen or so years later, on the same case together again. Warmth and luck seemed to rub off on him.

"You got anything at all on your end, Johnny?" Silas had flung that big mitt of his at him and his eyes were clear and sharp. Yet there was indeed an element of age on Silas; his neck really was thicker in the ex-athlete look, his beltline tighter, a wave of creases not unlike a fan sat at the corners of his mouth and his eyes. But the power was still evident. It was, thought Johnny, as if Silas Tully drew off all the things that surrounded him, took from them some of their infinite energies. The truck was still a monster, even though age and use had got their hands on it and squeezed it somewhat. But it still wore some of Silas, or Silas wore some of it. Sometimes Johnny was not sure. He noted the Kumbanchero logo on the back of the cab and on the back bumper. Never had he asked what it meant.

"We haven't got squat, Silas" he answered. "No prints, hands or foot, no weapon, no witnesses or any old ladies who couldn't sleep in the night and saw shadows, no Baskervilles out upon the night. Nothing. 'Cept a few bottles off his shelves. And we're not sure of what they are. Nobody's been in that house but him for almost five years."

Silas looked at him, eyes as if at measurement or framing a thought.

"No tire tracks, Silas; no trailings; nothing dragged through the grass or over the walk or driveway that we can detect. No forced entry. But bloody frigging awful murder the way the poor old timer was clubbed about. I mean, he was really smashed, not like the guy was trying to keep him quiet or just kill him off, but like he was pissed at something and was exacting revenge. It's kind of unreal. Oh," he added, "I'm not saying devil crap or monster stuff, but inhuman. Well? That sounds about the same, doesn't it?" Momentarily he was lost in thought. His eyes showed inattention. He was in that time change for brief seconds. Both policemen seemed to be aware of the change and both ignored it. Silas Tully knew where he stood in the life cycle of the young policeman from Wakefield.

"What do you know about bottles, Johnny? Old bottles, antique bottles, rare bottles, collector's bottles? Calabashes? Decanters? Flagons? Flasks? Ollas? Phials? Vials?"

"I don't suppose I know anything about them except maybe you've just been into Roget's Thesaurus or a collector's book." Johnny did not smirk at his answer, which he knew would have been washed on Silas. His face was a handsome face, clean in all features.

"Well you're half right, and what do you say we both find out what kind of ground we have to travel on." Silas continued, "We have to assume it was a bottle collector that did it, or someone who was aware of the value of whatever he took. That could be an antique dealer or a runner or a scrounger who works for a big collector or dealer. From some of our local people we can dredge up a list of people in or associated somehow with the business. We can do that in both towns and neighboring towns. You take what's west and north of you and I'll take east and south."

"That can be hundred, Si." Johnny's accompanying look was matter of fact and carried no reserve in it. Not was there any measured pessimism.

"It can be thousands if we do our job all the way, Johnny. But I don't think it'll come to that. Every town and city, if we set Route 495 and Mass. Pike as boundaries, might have a hard core dozen or so dealers and collectors and fringe people. There's people with store fronts, the dealers, you know, and they won't be hard to find, but there's a lot without store fronts... people who operate out of garages or cellars or back rooms in a hundred different places. They'll be tougher. I'll keep you posted, and you likewise."

"Are you so quickly convinced, Silas, that it's a bottle collector?"

Once more Johnny Ellis was aware of some power or energy beating around the older man. Again, as he had before, his father came into his thoughts. His father and Silas Tully shared a kind of mutual declaration.

"Whoever it was, he hit my guy with a Pump Cola bottle, which is about as valuable as the drink that came in it. He could have hit him with a dozen other bottles but he hit him with the newest and the cheapest bottle of them all."

"And you know that for a fact?"

"I spent all last night with a friend who has one of the first, if not first, wooden tube and inner glass vials used to mail out prescription medicines in the US."

"Where did he get that?"

Silas smiled. "I got it for him from another friend in Gilsum, New Hampshire, Frangcon Jones, whose people settled in Gilsum over a hundred years ago, built bridges and houses, and are still there.

Johnny smiled back. "Are either one of your friends going on our list?"

"No," replied Silas quickly. "I already checked them out. Frangcon was at a dowser's convention up in Brattleboro, and Charlie Nations was visiting Indian friends in Maine and got in late last night."

"How much is that mailing tube and vial worth?"

"It's priceless," replied Silas.

They both laughed heartily. Johnny asked, "Who's Charlie Nations?"

"Charlie's an Oglala Sioux who was in my outfit in the Corps. We met on the sand at Kwajalein. We got drunk together six different times or so between the time Old Mac signed the treaty on the Missouri and we separated at a Thousand Palms. Showed up on my doorstep from Idaho one morning about twenty years ago and has been here ever since. I got him a job in the cemetery department from old buddy Porky Harris who is a bottle collector of sorts, who is already on our list, and whom we can wipe off in a matter of days, when his wife and sister come back from Florida and shape up his alibi."

Later, Silas went back to the laboratory and talked to Edsel Streeter. "Are you really sure there's nothing else there, Edsel?"

Silas was looking at the Pump Cola bottle with the heavy base.

He shook his head.

Edsel asked, "What's that for, Si?"

Silas half smiled an answer back before he said, "You never know, do you? Here's this fly by night outfit with a wacky brand name and a wild logo and they make a drink nobody knows what's in it, and it takes off like a new Coke. Kid's in theater lines saying, 'Pump me' or 'Pump it' or 'Give me a Pump', and it goes right out of sight. You catch the kids up in it and you've got it made. Guy stands to make a bundle, a real bundle and I bet there's nothing much in the drink but a taste additive."

"Not like it was when Coke was a nickel for both of us, Si, and it really was a great stop in the day whenever we had one." Both of them assessed each other and marked their times, their ages, their allegiances. There had been for each of them a pre-war and a war and a post-war, and a new-pre war and a war and a post-war, and another pre-war and another war half way across the earth again, and then the slide into age and peace. They stayed caught up for a moment in silence, the act of measuring their own spans one of the most acute acts they had mastered in their lifetimes. Many faces and many places surged through their memory cores. Water through the sluice gates, sparkling water.

Edsel came out of his mini-trance first. "Nothing but what I've said, Si. Lots of the old guy's blood and hair. Nothing else. No glove or wipe cloth particles, not a shred. Could have been wearing surgical gloves, the thing's so clean. Small amount of residue crap inside." He held the bottle up to the light as Silas walked away, his head down, as if he were still weighted with old thoughts, old faces.

Silas met weekly with his Wakefield counterpart to compare notes. Nothing much came to light.

Johnny Ellis offered the comparison first. "It's like nothing versus nothing is nothing, Si, or nothing times nothing is nothing. Blank walls all around. I feel about as helpless as a kid."

Si came back quickly. "So let's change our tack. We've got to find out, either from relatives or other collectors, friends or acquaintances, whoever, what's really missing from their collections. And why! There's got to be a reason why some things were taken and not others. Was the load a factor? Could the guy only carry so much at one time? Was packaging that critical and that necessary, to keep the bulk load at a minimum and still maintain protection? Appears as if whoever did it knows his onions about this stuff."

Almost under his feet, Silas struck paydirt earliest. A neighbor remembered a small green van which had stopped at Peter Stocker's on more than one occasion for a few hours at a time. The van had been seen at two different gas stations, and one attendant knew the driver, an antique dealer from Lynn by the name of Spiro Damony. Spiro answered the knock at his front door and opened it to see Silas Tully on his front porch.

After introducing himself, Silas asked Damony if he knew Peter Stocker from Saugus.

"Of course I do," answered Damony. "I read about him. Damn shame it was. I've been over his place half a dozen times. We had a few trades in the works, had done a few before."

"Are bottles your specialty?" asked Silas.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that, because that would throw everything else out of kilter. I like any kind of glass... plate, containers, figurines, you name it. Anything manufactured or produced by hand. And of course, the older the better."

"Do you have a good idea of what Stocker had in his collection?"

Silas's eyes were on Damony, watching for tics, flinches, muscle twitches, any giveaway he might toss off. There were none.

"I'd damn well better. At least the real good stuff. I know that pretty good. He had some more recent favorites that I didn't get too interested in, but they haven't been earmarked for much value yet. I think it was more of being time pieces for him, close relics of his own time, if you know what I mean. At least for now." His smile said the dollar reigns supreme in any collection if you wait long enough.

"Can you spare some time to go by his place with me? I'd like to get a list of what you think might have been taken."

"I can go right now. He reached for his jacket. Silas said to himself, "He's clean."

It took Spiro Damony only an hour and a half to come up with his best list. Silas watched him walk through three of Stocker's rooms, pause, nod, make an entry on a pad of paper. He took his time, going back over some sections two or three times. He never erased an entry. Never made any additional notations. Silas thought he was like a good mechanic who goes right at things, makes sure of his assessment, had the whole problem laid out in the back of his skull as if it were on the drawing board. Once in a while Damony shook his head in disgust. Silas was not sure whether it meant sorrow of a nature, or another good one had got away. At the end of his inspection he handed Silas the list.

"That's everything that I can remember, and it's pretty close at that. It's all good stuff. It's all booked in the catalogues. Who did it knew what he wanted, or knew what he should take. I probably would have done just about the same. I've marked a price down, too. Best I can come up with off the top of my head, but we can check the books later. Maybe I tend to inflate values, that's possible, but I love some of this stuff. You know what they say: 'They don't make them the same anymore.'"

Silas smiled back at him and looked at the list. There were ten entries:

Wild Turkey crystal anniversary 1955 $2300
Ski Country Horned Owl, gallon, 1974 $1600
Ski Country Majestic Eagle, gallon, $2300
Zeiber & Co. ink bottle, deep green, 12 sided $1600
Horse and Rider ink bottle, round, deep, 1 3/8 in. $2200
Harrison ink bottle, Tippecanoe, Cabin $3500
J. Angeli & Co., San Francisco, flask, 1860, amber, green tint $1600
McK G-1025, Washington, Bridgetown flask, quart, deep wine $2600
McK G-II-056, Eagle and Grapes Flask, 1/2 pint, amber $2700
Harrison ink bottle, Columbian, sapphire blue, 10 1/2 X 6 1/8 $9500

The Saugus sleuth, who had no expertise in bottles of any kind, after a few minutes' study, and a very deliberate look at the last item on the list, emitted a slow whistle. His brow furrowed in deep thought. His eyes went to a new shade of blue. His mouth was still pursed as he said, "That's about thirty grand worth of glass there, Mr. Damony. Kind of blows the mind a little. I'll have to look about the house to see if I have any old ink wells kicking around."

"It's a possibility?" said Damony, ever the collector on the move. He seemed to pose for the answer.

"No, not really," said Silas, "but it sure makes you think back over the attic and the cellar and whatever you've got hidden away for one reason or another. And all the old schoolhouses all over New England, which I suppose have long been scraped clean."

Damony nodded. "Something else, too," he added, his interesting face now pointed and drawn, as if her were really mulling things over.

"Yes," said Silas, all ears. Damony, to him, had become likeable, and believable, and the moment was typical of the crunch moments for him. On the heels of one thing, one fact, rode other facts. Other readings. A farmer tilling his field, the plow biting deep, throwing things up for sight. He liked to loose his plow blade into the quagmire of facts. Damony looked back at him. There was innocence and interest on his face. Silas thought his input was going to be very serviceable and valuable.

"Whoever did this is a lot like me in his likes and dislikes. Old Peter has some great Coke and Pepsi pieces, some modern perfume things worth a bundle too, lots of bucks in them, but this guy didn't touch them. By the dust mark, light as it is, he didn't even pick one of them up... so he's a classicist for sure. He's got to be a classicist, if I can use the word. Every piece he took was a gem, and another thing, they didn't go in one load. He had to make more than one trip for this stuff. So he was deliberate. Some of those pieces had to be pretty well packaged... eagle's wings and such can't take too much contact. Had to be wrapped and boxed or protected somehow. I can't help but think he had to be in here in a couple of hours."

He nodded his head again. "Damn deliberate he was."

The Saugonian nodded, biting at one lip. "Did you know Eamon D'Addarrio over in Wakefield?"

Damony nodded. "Not well. Never been to his place, but he didn't have stuff like Stocker did. More pop and cola stuff from what I can remember of him at shows and sales. I've seen him around for a number of years but never thought him to be big time by any measure. He was a guy who liked glass blown objects. Who liked drinking vessels and bottles above all the other items. Liked porcelain too from what I can remember. But definitely not in the same class with Peter Stocker."

"Are you telling me you don't think the same guy did both jobs? They happened on the same night and only six or seven miles apart. The time is okay, even if you think he had to be in here almost two hours, doing his Christmas wrapping."

"It's not that I think two guys did the deeds, but I can't picture one guy coming in to both of these collections when they are so different. It's rags and riches for my money, even though old Eamon D'Addarrio had some nice pieces." Damony stared back at Silas Tully, his face full of enlightenment.

"Do you think he'll try to move this stuff for the bucks, or keep it? A real collector," he added disdainfully. A picture of a huge flea market appeared in the back of his head with bottles everywhere. Milk bottles popped up all over the huge spread of collectibles. He couldn't remember how many times he and Phyllis had stopped at roadside stands and flea markets all over New England trying to find a Nicholson Dairy milk bottle, a long gone Saugus dairy where Silas had worked as a boy. The round, red smiling face of Mr. Nicholson came out of shadows for a brief moment. The man's arms and hands had been huge. He smelled the hay and the cow dung drying in the field off Vine Street and felt the spectre of the old barn as if it were still a living thing. It had had a moistness that clung in the air and touched all things wood and leather, and spider webs that caught at the light way up in the eaves, like little silver railroad tracks. He clearly remembered a burr of barb wire opening up his thigh late one night when they were at their game of hide and seek.

Damony was looking intently at him. "Was that a nice trip somewhere, officer?" The smile on his face was understanding.

Reddening, Silas nodded, then asked, "What do you think he'll do with the stuff?"

"I'm willing to bet that he moves it, that he knows his stuff but can't sit around admiring it, feeling at home with it."

"Is the stuff traceable at all?"

"Not really. Peter wouldn't mark anything. Nobody does. That'll throw its value off, scar it. If we came on the killer right now with some of it in his hands, he could say he dug it out of an old dump in Ross Corners, Maine or some other place just as far away. The physical pieces themselves, other than all ten items found in one place being too much of a coincidence, mean little to you in your investigation."

"So where do I start?"

"That's easy! The big fairs and antique shows. Deerfield. Enfield. Danville, Vermont when the dowsers are gathered there or at their annual convention every June in Lyndonville, Vermont. Brimfield has a huge antique show, and three times a year. May. July. September. Then there's Skinner's Auction in Bolton. That's a three-ringer. Top notch, just like Brimfield. Then there's a big show in Meredith, New Hampshire. That's quite a spot. Some gather at the yearly Rock Swap in Gilsum, just above Keene in June. Actually, there are hundreds of places." Dismally he shook his head at the preponderance of places where stolen articles might be moved.

Silas' eyes had taken on another shade of blue. "You mean the needle in the haystack, don't you?"

"Yes. I'm afraid I do."

"Were you fond of Peter Stocker, I mean in any measure? Enough to undertake an exercise to try to catch the killer?" Silas eyed Damony seriously.

"Yes, he wasn't a favorite, but he loved his bottles and he was good at what he did. He's worth doing something for, so you name it." Damony's face was open and thoroughly likeable, even more than it had been. His green eyes had a new light in them.

"Get word to all you can trust, all the collectors and dealers you come across, you deal with, and tell them what's been taken and what we're looking for. If anyone tries to move the same or similar stuff to get back to you and you get back to me. It's a shot in the dark. It's all I can come up with at this time. But we'll get that son of a bitch one way or another. There'll be one little thing he forgets or treats lightly and we'll have him."

Damony now liked what he saw in the Saugus police officer. He shook Silas' hand. "It'd be my pleasure, Silas Tully. I'll lock them in from southern Connecticut to the Canadian border. Everyone I feel sure of. There'll be no notes or reminders, just word of mouth to those I know we can count on, who'll keep their mouths shut. Yes, sir, it'll be my pleasure!"

He suddenly added another thought, his face again full of eagerness. "We could run an ad in the Maine Antique Digest. We could list the items and the whole world out there would see it and be on the lookout. They've gotten stolen items back through the Digest before. It's a widely read issue. It might be perfect for us."

A small spasm ran through Silas. He knew what that reaction was. "We can't do that, Mr. Damony. Not for a minute."

"Why is that?" asked Damony, his mouth open in almost mock surprise that his idea was not readily accepted. He had thought it keen and from the inside, from the privy and the knowledgeable. Shifting idly on his feet, his eyes took on another shade as if they were being written on in the inside.

Silas Tully's words rang hard and true. "They were looking for thieves, Mr. Damony. We're looking for a killer!"

Later, after spending some time on details with Spiro Damony, Silas told his chief, Noel Rebenkern, all the latest details, bringing him up to date. Johnny Ellis would also be advised.

"I'd like to move around a bit on this, Noel. Some of it I'll do on my own, me and Phyllis, because we both love to browse around the back roads and back yards of New England. We'll hit the big fairs and the shows and maybe the super auctions. I've got the whole schedule. This guy will do something so he'll stick out in a crowd. And we'll have him."

The chief nodded, half in thought. "We'll gas up Kumbanchero when you start out each time. Least we can do. But do me a favor and keep this under your hat. Don't get the Board or the Manager down on my butt."

"You're serious about them, aren't you?"

"Yes I am, Si. I know it's the part of the job that would burn your ass, so let me handle this end and you do your end."

"We've been through a lot of crap together, Noel. We've burned a few bridges. We'll probably burn a few more. But what the hell, nothing's much fun unless we're doing just that." They both laughed at parting, close, close as brothers.

Phyllis Tully had not learned to drive the big red truck, but for the next few months, at any excuse, she and Silas took off for the antique shows and fairs and flea markets and back roads and back yards of New England. They got to know towns and turns they'd never taken before, and Phyllis started her own bottle collection; small, but her own. She was attracted to miniatures and figurines and tried to limit any single cost to ten dollars or less. Occasionally she slipped when a piece took her completely, like a Ski Country Leadville Lady With a Blue Dress (1973) for $20 and a Ski Country Snow Leopard (1980) for $50. On her bureau they became her and Silas, the lady and her tiger even though the tiger was a leopard. She dreamed little pieces into existence, drank her black coffee as the red truck curved through New England, as Silas eyed expensive pieces and developed another sense for, and devotion to, the craftsmanship in McK and Pitkin and Chestnut Ribbed flasks and certain of the Stoddard and Teakettle ink wells. He began to love the very mass of glass in some pieces, and how a craftsman must have worked with love to shape them.

September came and Phyllis' collection grew a few more delicate pieces, many roads ran under their wheels and little else happened. Then, late one evening, Silas answered the door to find Spiro Damony breathless on his front porch.

"Silas," he exclaimed, his face reddened, his eyes lit with excitement, "Ben Connaughton called me from Brattleboro. There's a guy up there, his name is Fern Delibeau, and he's trying to move a couple of those Stocker pieces. Ben says he's a big mean guy, but drives a hard bargain and won't budge off his mark. They'll be there until Sunday evening, so you have all day tomorrow."

"If he hangs around."

"Ben thinks he will because he kind of bit at one of the pieces but said he had to check out his wife on available funds because she was out buying too. Said she won't be back until tomorrow.

Silas yelled over his shoulder, "Get the thermos ready, Phyllis. We're going back to Brattleboro."

Driving north on Route 3 and west on NH 101, Silas could feel the tingle begin in the back of his neck. It was an old and reliable sign and he felt the long haul was coming down to the end of the road. Delibeau had been checked out on the computer and nothing was listed on him. It would be a cold turkey start. They didn't even have a fingerprint on him. No record. Clean as a new born.

They spent the night with Frangcon Jones in Gilsum, New Hampshire, just a short run from Brattleboro, talking about antiques and bottles, and when they mentioned ink wells, Frangcon rolled out six pieces that Silas fell in love with, then he tickled Phyllis no end with some miniatures that knocked her eyes out.

In Brattleboro early in the morning they were still excited about Frangcon's collection, which was bigger than they had expected.

Ben Connaughton pointed out Fern Delibeau to Silas. Big and mean looking he was and wore a habitual scowl on his face, which, coupled with a long and livid scar, gave him a fierce look of message; Don't meet me in a dark alley, don't meet me alone anyplace. Delibeau moved with a slow and cumbersome energy, like a blacksmith of yore, thought Silas. He watched him at his small booth moving a few pieces, talking with and cajoling potential customers halfheartedly, but unyielding in his prices.

Silas recognized the Horse and Rider ink bottle and the Harrison Tippecanoe Cabin ink bottle, but did not see the Harrison Sapphire Blue Columbian ink bottle out in the open. Other prices he did not recognize right away, but soon found himself aware of his increased exposure to collectibles, and certain items began to reveal themselves. All his time had not been spent in vain. Some definite things he had learned. They gave him an added shot of euphoria.

He was so disposed when Spiro Damony cozied up to him. "What are you going to do, Silas? Are you going to grab him and the stuff or what?"

"It won't be enough. We have to get something on him, something else, something rockbound." His eyes stared at Damony. "Where do they go at night, the dealers and whatever else they are? Do they have special hangouts? Do they cluster? Do they sit around and protect their goods? What do they do?"

"I'll check Ben on that."

Spiro was back in minutes. "Ben says Delibeau goes over to Maggie Henry's Bar and Grille, just down the road, and talks shop all night. Bunch of them get together."

Silas lit up. "That's perfect. I'll be there."

"Can I go too?"

"Only if you stay on the sidelines. This guy, if it's him, is a damn mean customer. I don't want one of my chief resources getting banged up." His arm wrapped around a warm Spiro Damony.

After eight o'clock that evening, Silas Tully sat at the bar and watched Fern Delibeau with a few other people congested in a corner booth. They were noisy in an old-gang-of-mine kind of way, lots of stories and gestures and much hearty laughter bouncing out of the corner.

Silas thought he was being very discreet in his surveillance until the bartender, a big smiling black man, stood over him and asked, "Are you buying a round or hanging around?" And then added, in a partial whisper, "You have a powerful lot of interest in that corner booth, my man."

Silas looked up at the huge grin spreading over the barkeeper like the dawn flash and slid his glass forward. "Mind your own business or I'll give you a white eye!" The smile on Silas' face tempered his remark and the big man smiled back at him.

"You working right now?"

"Yes, I am," Silas said. His badge showed up between his hands and disappeared as quickly.

"The big guy?"

"A friend of yours?"

"No way. Just gets mean a little later on. Did last night anyway. What's he done?"

"Bashed in a seventy year old man's face if he's the one."

"You don't know for sure?" the bartender asked.

"If he's my man, I'll get him, tonight or some time later. Took me almost a year to get this close."

"How do you know you'll get him?"

"Something always falls through the cracks and I'll be there to catch it."

And when he had just said those few words, his gaze fell on Delibeau's right hand. The thumbnail of that hand was scraping down the label of the bottle he was drinking from. An idea hit him. At the far end of a tunnel a lamp was lit. The hair on the back of his neck had a new touch of energy in the very roots.

"Want in on some of the action?" Silas asked.

"Was the guy really seventy years old? Yeh, sure. What can I do?"

"When that table is cleaned I want that bottle that he's just scraped the label off. Don't get your prints on it if you can help it. I need his prints. I've got to have them." Their eyes locked in an unspoken harmony.

The big black man slowly nodded his head. "Consider it done, my man. And give him everything he deserves if he's the one. You won't make a mistake, will you? I mean, you won't nab him if he's not the right guy?"

"Bet on it, my friend."

And Silas Tully got the fingerprints of Fern Deliveau off a bottle of beer whose label had been thumbnailed off. The next show was in Brimfield and he had heard Delibeau say he was going to set up there.

With the beer bottle in a container, Silas and Phyllis headed back to Saugus. In the early hours of the morning he was in the lab with the forensic people.

"Dig out that Pump Cola bottle from the Stocker case," he told Edsel Streeter, the lab chief.

The bottle, the deadly weapon, was placed on the counter.

Silas pointed down inside. "That piece of paper that's clustered down inside. If there's a print on it, can you get a make on it?"

"What the hell do you think it is, Si?" Edsel Streeter said.

"I think it's the label off the bottle. I think it was peeled by a thumb nail. I think it was balled up and dropped inside the bottle while the murderer was sitting around waiting for Stocker to come home. If you get a print, try to match it with whatever shows up on this bottle." From the box in his hands, he withdrew the empty beer bottle. Its label too had been scraped off. There was visible, to the naked eye through the brown glass, a small ball of paper in the bottom of the bottle.

An hour later, Silas was sitting in the chief's office, when Edsel Streeter walked in, a wide grin on his face. "You've got your man, Silas. Clean as a whistle. I'll swear to it in court. And not just one time. Got his print off the other label also, the beer label. Dead on."

A copy of matched thumb prints was set down in front of Silas. First he thought of the old man, then for a fraction of a second he thought of the Harrison Sapphire Blue Colombian ink bottle and how old Peter Stocker might have held it up to the purity of sunlight and watched narrow and delicate beams fall crazily through its prismed bottom. The corner of justice was turning around.

Then he made calls to Phyllis and Spiro Damony. Both of them smiled on the other end of the line.

And a smile crossed Silas's face as he thought of the big bartender in Brattleboro. He was sure he'd get there again. In fact, he'd make a point of it.

3 comments:

  1. this is excellent. love the idea of the bottles and the painstaking and detailed pursuit of the villain, all the characters beautifully drawn. you seem to have a lot of knowledge of this. anyway, first class.

    michael mccarthy

    ReplyDelete

  2. Engaging from start to finish.

    Background of bottles provided an interesting, offbeat context for the crime.

    Stick with your style.

    Arthur Davis

    ReplyDelete
  3. Awesome characters. Good story!
    A.D.Nohr

    ReplyDelete