The cry of gulls circling over the bay broke the reverie of the man looking toward the horizon from the small seaside town. Portchester Police Chief Paul Mansbridge gazed out at the ocean and reflected on the big changes in his life during the previous two years.
He'd never dreamed, after fifteen years with the police force of Terre Haute, Indiana, that his next career move would be to a two-man department in a rustic Massachusetts village. Of course, he never dreamed that his wife, who'd instigated the move to be closer to her family, would leave him less than a year later for an old high school boyfriend. If he'd seen that coming, he'd have stayed in Indiana.
Closing his eyes briefly, the chief took a deep breath of salt-tinged air and decided to get on with his Friday night. The rest of his life could wait for a few hours.
His ten-year-old daughter, Julie, was at her mother's for the weekend, and the only other officer on the Portchester P.D. had things covered at the station. That left the chief to his own devices for the evening. Dressed in jeans and an old polo shirt, Mansbridge had decided to walk downtown from his small two-bedroom cottage to get some dinner. After that, maybe catching up on some reading; Tom Clancy was a few novels ahead and widening his lead.
The Oceanside Café sounded more scenic than it was. It was situated in a low brick storefront at the end of a row of commercial buildings on South Main Street. And while the large plate glass windows gave people outside a great view of its interior, the café, because it faced away from the ocean, gave diners a view of the inventory of A-1 Used Cars parked in a small lot across the street.
The aroma of frying fish hit the chief's nose
as soon as he opened the door. The restaurant's owner, Eddie Apida, stood
at the counter, looking over the shoulder of Nancy, his waitress, and
frowning at the register.
"You bet," Mansbridge responded. "The reputation of Portchester's finest has no doubt scared off the criminal element."
Eddie laughed. "Have a seat, chief. Nancy will be over in a minute." He returned his attention to his waitress and the register.
Chief Mansbridge discovered soon after arriving in Portchester that Eddie Apida held a fascination for police work. More than once the restaurateur had pigeonholed the chief for hours, asking about old cases while running the place with only half his attention. Mansbridge didn't mind; Eddie was a font of information about local history, customs, and personalities, all of which helped the chief adapt to his surroundings. There were a couple of other eateries in town with better décor and arguably better food, but they appealed more to the tourists that filled the town every summer. The locals ate at Eddie's place.
Mansbridge eased into a chair at one of three tables against the back wall of the dining area, seating himself with his back to the front door, where Eddie and Nancy still puzzled over the register. Picking up the dog-eared menu, the chief looked over the offerings and tried to decide whether to order a bacon cheeseburger, or to be adventurous and finally try the cod or swordfish. His Midwestern taste buds still preferred meat that ended life with legs, maximum of four.
"Hello, chief." The voice came from behind him, vaguely familiar. He turned, but its source was already moving around the table. The faded red Formica wobbled a bit as his uninvited guest lowered himself into the chair directly across.
The man was of medium height and build, with brown hair clipped close on the sides, buzz cut on top, and long enough in the back to reach his shoulders. A weak attempt at a mustache sprawled limply across his thin upper lip, offering poor shelter to the crooked, nicotine-stained teeth below. His close-set eyes were brown and malevolent.
"Hello," the chief answered. "Can I help you?"
The stranger smirked. "You'll help me."
Mansbridge raised an eyebrow. Outwardly he was still, but his nervous system was on high alert, evaluating the stranger, looking for signs of a weapon, calculating angles, and cursing for leaving home without his service revolver. Who'd think you'd need to carry a gun in a town with one traffic light-and one that only changed from red to green during the summer tourist season, at that?
The stranger's smirk slowly faded and fell. Mansbridge waited. Finally, the stranger asked, "You remember me?"
That wasn't the answer the stranger wanted. His brows lowered, and so did his voice. "You're the bastard put me away ten years ago."
His breath smelled of strong liquor-whiskey, Mansbridge thought. The chief wondered if there were other chemicals in the mix. The stranger suddenly coughed twice, sharp staccato barks, and the sound triggered the chief's memory.
"George Reese." Auto theft, Mansbridge remembered. A small-timer, except he used his stolen rides to prowl for women. The Terre Haute P.D. thought he was responsible for three rapes they couldn't take to a grand jury, either because of thin evidence or victims unwilling to endure a trial. And then one night George grabbed a petite Indiana State student with more fight in her than he expected.
"Still walking funny, George?"
"Laugh, go ahead."
"I'm not laughing."
"You laughed then."
Ten years ago, Mansbridge had laughed long and hard at the sight of George Reese, hunched and shuffling like Tim Conway's "Pops Mumbo" character from the old "Carol Burnett Show", desperately trying to pull up his pants and hobble to safety. The woman he attacked had calmly waited for an opportune moment, and with a vice-like grip borne of cold fury she'd left George's testicles in tatters. It was his scream that had drawn Officer Paul Mansbridge to the scene.
The chief had laughed, but not because the situation was funny; he'd laughed at the completely unexpected scenario he found after hearing the scream, the same way people will laugh at a horror movie when the anticipated monster behind the door turns out the be the pet cat.
Mansbridge began to realize that the episode was a defining moment in George Reese's life, and it was beginning to look as though the last ten years had been leading to this confrontation. Wonderful.
The chief had wondered once, in an idle moment long ago, what it would be like to find himself the object of a vendetta. He hadn't wasted a lot of time on the thought. Until this moment, he hadn't considered himself much of a target.
"So, George, what do you want?"
The smirk returned. "You."
"Uh, huh. And what does that mean, exactly?"
"It means we're gonna take a drive in a couple minutes." Reese leaned closer. "And then I laugh."
Mansbridge chose not to ask. Instead, he said, "I'm hungry, George. Are you hungry?"
Reese just stared.
"What do you think, George? Burger or fish?"
"You ain't got time."
"Come on, George. I'll buy."
"We ain't stayin'."
"Where are we going, George?"
That smirk again. "You'll see."
A man in a navy blue polyester sport coat and gray polyester pants walked past their table and seated himself in the chair directly behind George. Reese's face clouded and he leaned close again. The chief felt something solid and heavy tap his left knee.
"That's a thirty-eight," Reese hissed. "Tell your boy to go."
"Your backup, sittin' behind me. He touches me, I blow your balls off."
Looking over Reese's shoulder, Mansbridge saw the thin man in the navy sport coat studying the menu intently. He was middle-aged, with a bald spot in the back of his head of short, neatly trimmed brown hair-and the chief realized with a shock that it was Eddie Apida, pretending to be a customer. He'd thrown on a sport coat and traded his bow tie for a standard necktie. He'd even found a pair of eyeglasses somewhere to complete his makeover.
The absurdity of the situation was too much for the chief. That Eddie, God love him, would jump to help him was no surprise, but in disguise? So quickly? Mansbridge realized that Eddie must have lay awake nights praying for a chance like this. And then to have a lowlife like George Reese make him right away for an undercover officer-Mansbridge couldn't help himself. The laughter rolled out of him like breakers cascading onto the beach behind the restaurant.
Eddie started to turn, then caught himself and stared with renewed intensity at his menu. Reese's face darkened. He was not amused.
"What's funny?" The gun tapped the chief's knee again, harder.
"This town can't even support a McDonald's," Mansbridge answered, winding down. "What makes you think we can afford undercover cops?" Shifting in his chair to speak around Reese, he said, "It's okay, Eddie. This gentleman is a guest."
Eddie froze for a moment, and then returned the menu to the wire rack against the wall with the salt, pepper, and packets of sugar and artificial sweetener. Removing his glasses, the owner stood and turned to face them.
"Just reviewing our menu, chief," he said. "Have to keep things fresh, you know."
"Uh, huh." Eddie hadn't changed the menu in years; there were at least three layers of white-out over all the prices.
"Can I get you anything?" Eddie asked.
"We're still deciding, Eddie," Mansbridge answered. Conscious of the gun at his knee, he added, "We may just get something to go. Maybe some cod-I love the fish here, George," he said to Reese. "Oh, and say hi to your boy, Mike, for me."
"You bet," Eddie answered cheerfully. "I'll have Nancy check on you in a few minutes," he added, as he headed off to attend to his other patrons.
Eddie didn't have any kids the chief knew about, but if he was confused by the chief's comment, he didn't show it. The only Mike they both knew, Mansbridge hoped, was Officer Mike Lonski on duty at the station. And Eddie knew the chief had never tasted his fish.
Mansbridge turned back to his uninvited dinner
guest. "See, George? No undercover man. Just the owner."
"Can't go yet, George," Mansbridge answered. "We haven't ordered. It would look funny. Eddie would know something's wrong. He might call the station and ask my deputy to check on me."
"Make something up."
"Give me a minute."
"Now!" Reese hissed.
Mansbridge stared out the window and tried to look thoughtful. His mind was working, but not on an excuse for leaving the diner without eating-he'd already given Eddie his story.
From the corner of his eye, he noticed Eddie-good man!-speaking quietly to an older couple at a nearby table. They silently folded their napkins and stood to leave, even though it appeared to the chief that their plates were still full. Eddie moved to another table, looking the model host as he leaned over to speak to another couple. Mansbridge thought furiously, desperate to give Eddie a few minutes to clear the dining area.
"Nice night for a drive, anyway," he said. "Where are we going?" The chief knew that he sounded lame, but he had to keep chattering to draw Reese's attention away from Eddie. As he glanced out the window, a beige Oldsmobile with tinted windows pulled up and parked across the street, in front of the A-1 lot.
Reese followed his eyes, then smirked again. "There's our ride," he said.
Mansbridge took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Friend of yours?" he asked.
"Yeah. Guess he found your wife and daughter quicker than I thought. He's only been gone fifteen minutes."
Mansbridge felt a chill in his gut. He did some quick math: Cold Harbor, where his ex-wife had set up house, was twenty minutes away. Did Reese know he was divorced? Were Angela and Julie really in that car?
Reese's smirk grew into a gloating smile. "That's right. That pretty wife of yours. I saw her at the trial. Nice tits-can't wait to feel 'em for myself."
Mansbridge glared at the smaller man and felt his face grow hot.
"I'll bet she's a screamer. Is she a screamer, chief? 'Cause if she ain't, she will be."
"Enough," Mansbridge said through clenched teeth.
The gun rapped his knee again. George Reese leaned close, gloating. "And then we'll see how much your little girl takes after her mama."
Without thinking, Mansbridge lifted the table and lunged forward, flipping the table onto Reese and driving him backward. Table settings, flatware, and condiments arced through the air. A bang was followed by a point of searing heat in the chief's left leg midway between knee and hip. His mind recorded these facts but didn't connect them, filing them away instead for future analysis. His brain was bypassing normal routines and locked onto a single command, namely, pounding George Reese into paste.
Momentum, the weight of the table, and Reese's surprise at the sudden attack flipped the would-be kidnapper onto his back, still in his chair. Mansbridge was on top with the table between them, as if the two had suddenly changed their orientation to the restaurant by ninety degrees.
Mansbridge heard another bang and felt the heat of the discharge near his left leg. He looked and saw Reese's forearm pinned by the table. Able to aim with his wrist only, Reese had missed at point-blank range. Mansbridge was distantly aware that a lot of blood seemed to be flowing from a big hole in his jeans; he made a mental note to do something about it later.
Reese fired again, the blast tearing another hole in the tiles of the false ceiling. Twisting his lower body away from Reese's gun hand, Mansbridge aimed a punch at his face, connecting with his left cheek as Reese turned away from the blow.
The chief looked for a weapon. He couldn't get much behind a punch with his feet off the floor and his weight on the table, but he didn't want to move. If Reese got his arm free for a clean shot, he was dead. Mansbridge saw a terrified woman across the now-deserted restaurant, crouching under a table and clutching her purse to her breast.
"Ketchup!" he yelled, holding out his hand to her. "Ketchup!" The woman was frozen in place, unresponsive and uncomprehending. Mansbridge frantically searched the ground for something heavy. His leg was on fire and he was starting to feel queasy. Reese squeezed off another shot, a roar past his left ear followed by another shower of white tile chunks from the ceiling.
"Let me!" Eddie Apida swooped in from nowhere and brought a bottle of Heinz 57 down sharply onto George Reese's forehead. Amid a spray of blood, ketchup, and broken glass, Reese looked puzzled for a moment, and then his eyes rolled up into his head.
Mansbridge smiled weakly at his friend. "Check, please," he mumbled, and he passed out.
* * *
The smell is what he noticed first. Paul Mansbridge
had been in hospitals before, and they all had a neutral, antiseptic smell.
What jarred him awake was the out-of-place and very familiar smell of
sunshine and little girl. He opened his eyes to see his ten-year-old daughter,
Julie, staring back. "Hi, Bug," he said.
"How did this happen?" she asked.
The impatient tone in her voice made it clear to Mansbridge that she was irritated he'd interrupted her evening by getting himself shot. Obviously, she and Julie hadn't been in the Olds. He sighed. "I'm fine, thanks, and you?"
"Hey, chief, how do you feel?" The large frame of his blond-headed deputy, Mike Lonski, ambled into the room.
"Could be better. How's Reese?"
"A few stitches. A big bump. He'll live."
"So where were you during the fun?"
"Funny you should ask," Lonski said. "I'd just brought a guy in I caught trying to break into your house. One of your neighbors called it in. The tan Ciera was his."
A light bulb went on. Mansbridge said, "So..."
"So when Eddie called me, I took a chance that these two were working together. I thought I'd bring the car up instead of the prowler and maybe surprise him when you came out." Lonski smiled. "I came running when I heard the shots, but Eddie beat me to it."
"And " Mansbridge used his eyes to indicate Angela, who was alternately looking at her watch and out the door.
"Nowhere around," Lonski said. "Reese must have figured they'd be at your house. Musta surprised him when you walked downtown by yourself."
"Yeah." The chief relaxed. "He's cunning, but not too bright."
Lonski thought for a moment and decided to ask: "So why did he "
Mansbridge cut him off, nodding toward Julie. "Some other time."
"Dad?" Julie lifted her blonde head from his chest.
"Does it hurt a lot?"
"Not right now, sweetheart." The ache in his left leg throbbed an early warning that his next few days would be less than enjoyable. "But I might need your help taking out the garbage this week."
Mansbridge let his head drop back onto the pillow and closed his eyes. What a day-just one more unexpected turn in the road. How many more before the last exit?
He twirled a curl of his daughter's hair and
decided his thoughts were too dark for the way things turned out. He was
alive, his daughter was unhurt, and she was still at an age where, in
her eyes, he could do no wrong. He'd take the time to enjoy that while
it lasted. The rest of his life could wait.