by Mary Sexton
Investigator Hammond sat in his office with his head in his hands, staring at his desk. Actually, he was staring at the pages on his desk. He was willing the pages not to say what they had to say, wishing the words off the paper. But they would not change, and so he picked them up and started to read.
"At 7:09 p.m. Saturday, August 19: Man named William Parker Harris, deaf and blind, found dead on Corey Cove beach. Shot by cannon. Locals heard blast, reported at 7:13. Police arrived 7:17. No suspects or leads. Five witnesses. Two separate accounts of ship flying skull and crossbones in Cove; may have fired cannon. Please investigate at once."
There was more, the precise location of the beach and the names and addresses of the witnesses and whatnot, but this--the contents of the summary specially prepared for him by his secretary--was all Hammond really needed to know. He folded the papers in half, stuck them in his coat pocket, and sighed. Why did this sort of thing always seem to happen to him on Friday afternoon? If it wasn't enough that the case would probably take him the entire weekend, he had been planning to go to a baseball game that night, and now that was off for sure. It took two hours just to GET to Corey Cove, and it was already 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
Hammond got up slowly from his desk, and walked to the front of the tiny police outpost. His footsteps threatened to carry him down the oft-trodden path to the automatic espresso machine, but he instead turned out of the revolving door and into the bitter cold of the winter night.
He headed toward the only car in the barren concrete expanse of parking lot in front of their police station, the only police car their outfit afforded.
He opened the door, slid in, and turned the key in the ignition. The car didn't start. He tried again. And again. The car still wouldn't start. Making a face, he got out of the car and straightened up. His weekend was ruined for sure now.
He checked the engine to see if everything seemed in order. It did. He checked the spark plugs to see if they had been stolen. They hadn't. After a moment's consideration, he leaned down to check the gas tank. What he saw came as no small surprise. It had been punctured and drained of gasoline, some of which had spewed all over the ground, tires, and nearby machinery.
Hammond stood up, leaned against the side of the car, and groaned. He just wasn't meant for this job. All he wanted was to retire at sixty, get a nice little house on the Maine beachfront, live out his days in peace, and go to the occasional baseball game. Was that too much to ask of the world? he thought. What with layoffs, civil servants' wages, and no chance of promotion, it seemed that it was.
He reached for his old, battered cell phone and dialed the number of the towing company. He had to get to a mechanic.
At Karl's One-Stop Car Shop...
"Sorry, mister...this is gonna take a week to fix at least, what with all the business I'm gettin' all of a sudden," the mechanic's muffled voice said from under the car. The mechanic slid out from under the car and stood up, his face and upper body stained with grease, oil, and gasoline.
"What was that you said about business?" said Hammond, feeling an unreasoning shiver go down his spine.
"Yeah, that... all this week the trucks and cars have been pourin' in like nobody's business. Ain't been nothin' like it in all the twenty years of workin' this place has seen. We're booked clean through Thursday, and that's without all the last-minute appointments... here, let me check when you'll fit in..." Karl's voice trailed off as he walked into his office and shut the door.
Hammond waited for about twenty minutes before his patience failed him. He shouted to the mechanic, "Now look here, this is taking too long. I'll borrow another car and get back to you. I haven't got any more time to waste." When the mechanic didn't respond, Hammond threw up his hands in frustration and walked out the door.
It wasn't until he was in a car he'd borrowed from the police chief and on his way to Corey Cove that he realized how strange his meeting with the mechanic had been. All that about the overload of customers he'd been getting, and then that business with his car... Hammond couldn't help but feel that it all added up to something suspicious. He shrugged off the feeling of apprehension and concentrated on the road, because winter driving was hazardous and the salt trucks hadn't been by yet.
Hammond was happier than he'd been in a while. He was sitting in the warm central office of the Corey police station sipping a cup of hot coffee. Life didn't often get better than this.
The Corey police chief walked in with a woman. She had long, straight, dark hair, dark eyes, and skin so pale it looked like she'd never been outdoors. Hammond recognized her immediately. Kara Fitch Corvine. KFC. She was a computer hacker, one of the best. Also a smuggler. She'd just finished with a twenty-year minimal sentence in federal prison for hacking the White House computers. Hammond had been her arresting officer.
He remembered two things in particular about her, that she hadn't seemed to have done anything except look around the system (though many simple changes would have done her a great deal of good), and her parting words to him, "We all meet our deaths, in the end. I shall make yours sooner."
"Ah, yes. Gregory Hammond. Long time no see, eh?" said Corvine, baring her teeth in a vicious smile.
"Yes," replied Hammond tentatively. You never knew with criminals.
"You know what I mean, Gregory."
"And you know why I have come, Gregory. You remember. I see it in your eyes. I know what you fear."
"Please, Hammond, Corvine. Let us get down to business," interrupted the police chief, sensing that the conversation was getting out of hand.
The three sat down around the table. The police chief cleared his throat, and began the briefing. "Corvine, you are here because of some recent--er--disturbances along the coastline. Cannons have been firing every evening, around seven o'clock. Yesterday, one of our oldest and most respected citizens was killed.
"These disturbances began the day after you were released from prison. They were first heard down by Truman Bay, near Inspector Hammond's office, and have come north until they reached Corey Cove, here. We have reasons to believe that you are involved."
"But why? I have done nothing suspicious, have I?" said Corvine, evidently puzzled.
"No, that is just it. Your behavior has been far too good to be typical. That is why we suspect you," replied the police chief, vaguely triumphantly.
"Has it ever occurred to you that prisons were made to teach a lesson, and that I have learned it?" said Corvine, her expression closed and unreadable, her eyes cold and hard.
Hammond's mind was racing. The police chief was evidently seriously considering the possibility that Corvine had reformed, but not Hammond. He would put nothing past her, especially since their encounter just a few minutes ago. He had some questions to ask the chief of police in Corey. In private.
"Thank you, Ms. Corvine. That will be all for now," said Hammond, a commanding tone in his voice that was seldom heard there.
Kara Corvine got up and left quickly, but not before meeting Hammond's eyes for a moment, warning him to watch his back.
Moments after Kara Corvine left, a policeman flung the door open and rushed into the room. He tripped over the chair Corvine had recently vacated, banged his head on the table, and sprawled headlong into a heap at the feet of the police chief. The papers of the report he hadbeen carrying were crushed underneath him.
The policeman struggled to right himself, and began to gather what was left of his neatly typed report. Finally, he stood up, his attempt to look calm and composed ruined by his flushed cheeks and heavy breathing.
"Sir, we've found something out," he gasped, "about the case." Pause. More heavy breathing. "Every town that has been visited by our mystery pirate has a museum of some importance to the historical community. Each has been robbed of an extremely important artifact. Each one is big, expensive, and of great value not only in this country but in others as well."
"Is that all, Hawkins?", asked the police chief, his voice that of a parent whose patience has been worn thin by an annoying child.
"Yes, sir," replied the policeman, now looking thoroughly ashamed of himself.
"Well, off you go then. You have early patrol today."
Hawkins walked out of the room as quickly as was humanly possible with all the overturned furniture, appearing for all the world as a dog with its tail between its legs.
As though it had been agreed during the fiasco minutes ago, the chief of police and Hammond began to straighten the overturned furniture. When they were done, they left the central office and went to the chief's private office at the back of the building, Hammond still holding his empty cup of coffee.
The police chief and Hammond sat down in the comfortable chairs he'd had smuggled in at great expense. The commissioner didn't approve of such furniture in what he called "a house of service to the public (not, and I must repeat, NOT a private home)." He was an old nutcase, but an influential one.
Hammond didn't like to be rude or angry, but sometimes it was unavoidable. "Now look here, Robertson. I don't know why you brought Corvine to see me, but it seemed a total waste of time. What has she got to do with smuggling? Aren't there any other, more likely suspects? And why, why, did you say that you had an important lead on the case when so far I have discovered absolutely nothing of any interest whatsoever? I didn't come down here freely, you know. I was sent to find out what I could. I missed a baseball game. I drove through freezing weather in a car with a broken heater for two and a half hours. And you have the nerve to do this to me?"
"Hammond, calm down. I suppose I was exaggerating when I said we had an important lead on the case, but the commissioner was in the room. What could I do? Also, we talked to Corvine before we heard about the smuggling. Also, she requested that you attend her questioning. I don't know why."
Hammond marveled at the patience of the police chief. But then, with policemen like Hawkins, you couldn't do the job without it. And associates like me, he added with an inward smile.
Hammond began again, this time taking great care not to sound as annoyed as he was. "So, basically it falls down to me to have an immense stroke of genius sometime before the weekend is over."
"Yes, if you will insist on putting it that way, that is how it is. And you had better believe that, if you don't, we'll both be out of a job."
"Oh, I doubt they could find anyone else to have my job at that shack out on the highway."
"You'd be surprised."
"So would you. You've never even been there."
"From what I've heard, Corvine has reason to hate you after her incarceration there. She never even got a warm cup of coffee."
"Do you think I ever do?"
"More often than once every twenty years."
"You have a point. But coffee is not exactly grounds for murder, is it?"
"No pun intended, I suppose?"
"No, no pun intended. But I must be going now. Goodbye."
"I trust you can find your way out?"
"Please, Robertson. The powers of deduction may be lost on me, but my sense of direction isn't that bad. I'll be checking in." Hammond got up, nodded to the police chief, and walked out the door, but not without one last wistful glance at the chairs in chief's office.
Hammond was sitting in the car, waiting for it to warm up so he could leave, when he heard it.
He closed his eyes, willing reality to change for the second time that day. He was just about to go home, and now, this. But it couldn't be cannons. Not now. No. It was just some sort of fiasco in the gas station nearby. Or a car radio with the volume turned up. Or... or something! Not cannons. Never cannons. No.
Hammond almost had himself convinced when it came again:
There was no more denying it; it was the ship, back for another go at Corey. Hammond got out of the car and ran toward the direction he thought the beach was in. Then he stopped, remembering what that policeman, whatever his name was, had said. The museum. He had to get to the museum.
It seemed like the whole population of Corey was running down to what was now being called "Deadman's Cove" in memory of the late Mr. Harris. Hammond finally managed to get the attention of an elderly woman, who hurriedly pointed him in the direction of the museum before being swept along with the rest of the crowd. He set off at a sprint, hoping that he would manage to get there without a killer cramp of the sort he got only too often when he tried to exercise.
He reached the museum in a time that any high school coach would have been ashamed of, but it was of no importance. He walked in--it hadn't closed yet, thankfully--and tried to listen for any small noise; the creak of a floorboard, the hushed breaking of glass... anything to point him in the right direction.
He heard footsteps behind him, and, whirling around, he caught sight of the very last person he would have expected to see...
(To be continued)