Tag Archives: Red Road

Lost and Found

By Ed Staskus

   When the Chevy Silverado pick-up truck in front of him swerved suddenly to the left, JT Markunas put his foot on the brake of his police car, slowing down. The pick-up stopped on the shoulder on the left side of the road just as JT saw what it was that had made the driver swerve. It was a woman in a house dress slowly crossing the road, looking steadily ahead but not for approaching traffic. He pulled off and turned on his flashers.

   The pick-up driver was leading the woman by the elbow off the road.

   “She almost walked right into my truck,” he said.

   “Do you know who she is?” 

   “No, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m making a delivery to French River, coming up from Stratford. I thought I would go along the coast. Christ, I almost hit a dog down by Oyster Bed and now this. Next time I’m taking the highway.”

   JT put the woman in the front seat of his car and called in that he was going to try to find out where she lived and get her back there.

   “How are you feeling?” he asked.

   “Good, but I’m cold,” the woman said.

   He turned the car’s heating on, directing the vents at her.

   “Where do you live? Here in South Rustico?” 

   She pointed up Route 243 in the direction of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. He swung his police car around turning in a tight circle and drove slowly up the road. 

   “Along here?” he asked.   

   “No,” she said. “Up that way.”

   When they got to the church he stopped and asked again.

   “I don’t know,” she said. “Somewhere that way,” pointing to their left.

   “What color is your house?”

   The woman looked at the church. “Everybody went to church back then. Especially here in a small community like this. My goodness, we all went. I just walked up the road from home to the church and the school. It was the same way we walked to the beach and went swimming. My teachers were Mother Saint Alphonse, Mother Saint Theodore, and Mother Saint Cyril, who was sort of icky. Kids came to our school from all over, from Hope River and Oyster Bed Bridge.”

   “You have a good memory,” JT said.

   “Oh, yes,” she said. “My school was run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Most of them came from the islands.” The Magdalen Islands are an archipelago not far away in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “There were four classrooms and eleven grades. The nuns were one hundred percent French. My French is fluid to this day.”

   South Rustico is on the north-central shore of PEI, where Route 6 and Church Road cross. There is a beach on Luke’s Creek, which is a bay on the far shoreline, near the National Park. The Rustico lands are home to one of the oldest communities established in La Nouvelle Acadie after the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

   “I once went to mass at St. Augustine’s twice in twelve hours,” said a man from the grave. Archie was the woman’s dead husband. “We were dating, I was on the island, and her mother insisted we go to church Saturday night before stepping out. So, OK, that’s it, we go. Sunday morning, they wake me up and say it’s time to go to church again. I say, what, did I die? Then I thought, I must be desperate for a girlfriend.”

   “You must have really liked me,” said Ida.

   Built in 1838, the oldest Catholic Church on PEI, St. Augustine’s in South Rustico was already an old church when Ida Arsenault and Archie Thomson got married there in 1941. “Her foster mother hosted our dinner at the Charlottetown Hotel and the party afterwards was at their house,” said Archie. “The barn was behind the house, and they brewed homemade beer. Ida and I didn’t have five cents to rub together, but we were young and ready to go.”

   Ida Arsenault was born at home in 1917. She grew up in what became the Barachois Inn on the Church Road. A barachois is like a bayou, a coastal lagoon separated from the ocean by a sandbar. But the home she grew up in wasn’t where she was born, nor were her parents the parents she was born to.

   “When my twin sister and I were born, our mother died the next day,” she said.

   Her father, Jovite Arsenault, a farmer with nine children, owned a house behind the church and croplands between Anglo Rustico and the red sand shore. “Where the new school was built,” said Ida, “that was once part of his fields.” Suddenly a widower, he was unable to care for the newborns.

   Ida and her sister, Elsy, were placed with foster families. Her sister went to Mt. Carmel, on the southwest end of the island, while she became a ward of the Boucher’s, a husband and wife in their 50s, who lived down the street, on the front side of the church. “It was just a few minutes away,” said Ida. “I saw my brothers and sisters, and my father, all the time, and my new parents made sure I saw my twin sister now and then.”

   The Boucher’s were islanders who had long worked in Boston as domestics, saved their money, and returned to Prince Edward Island, buying a house and farm. They kept cows and some horses. They were childless. “I was spoiled since I was their only child,” said Ida. “They were older and well-to-do. We had a car, a black Ford. I didn’t do too much, although I might have milked a cow once-in-a-while.”

   Before mid-century most of the roads on Prince Edward Island were dirt or clay, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry. The first paved road, two miles of it, was University Avenue in Charlottetown in 1930. “They eventually paved the road up to the church,” said Ida. “We used to say, ‘Meet me at the pave,’ which was where the pavement ended.”

   Her aunt lived a few miles away outside Cymbria on Route 242. She washed clothes by hand in a washtub and dried them on the line. There were thirteen children in the family. They didn’t have running water or electricity. “When I went out to the well and pulled the bucket up, there was meat and butter in the bucket. That was their refrigeration.”

   “When did they get power and plumbing?” JT asked.

   “In the 1950s when they moved across the street into an old schoolhouse,” Ida said.

   “Where were you going when you were on the road?”

   “I don’t know,” Ida said. “Maybe I was going to visit my auntie, but I’m not sure.”

   Archie was born in Thorold, Ontario a year after Ida. “My father worked on the boats all the time, Montreal to Thorold, where the locks are, and that’s where we moved,” he said. From Montreal the passage is down the St. Lawrence River and across the length of Lake Ontario to Niagara. The Welland Canal at Thorold, sitting on top of the Niagara Escarpment, is ‘Where the Ships Climb the Mountain.’ Standing on viewing platforms, anybody can watch cargo ships pass slowly by at eye-level a whisker away.

   He enlisted with the Royal Canadian Navy on his twenty-first birthday. It was 1939. During the Second World War Canada commanded the fifth largest navy in the world. Archie met Ida when she was in nursing school in Halifax, where he was stationed with the fleet. “I was working a little job at the Charlottetown Hospital,” said Ida. “A friend of mine told me about the nursing course in Halifax. Right away I got the bug.” It was 1939. She and her friend enrolled, and her friend’s father drove them to Nova Scotia.

   After graduating, as part of her scholarship agreement, she worked at the Christie Street Veterans Hospital in Toronto. It was a Collegiate Gothic building originally built as the National Cash Register Company factory in 1913. “They gave us $45.00 a month to live on.” She and Archie dated long-distance by mail and phone. They got together when they could. When they did, they jumped into each other’s arms.

   “Whenever I got leave, I would pick her up in Toronto and take her to visit my parents in Thorold. That’s how I introduced her to my family.” At the same time, Ida was introducing Archie to Prince Edward Island.

   “I took the ferry S. S. Charlottetown across the straight when we were dating,” said Archie. “You had to sleep in your car if you missed the last one. We would be lined up single file down the road. There would be a hundred cars full of frozen men inching along in the morning trying to get on the first boat.”

   In the dead gray of winter, crossing the Northumberland Straight from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, to Port Borden, Archie stood bundled up against the cold wind hands stuck in mittens leaning over the bow watching as the heavy boat broke through foot-thick ice.

   “It would crunch gigantic pieces of ice and turn them over like ice cubes as it went across,” he said.

   One afternoon, making his way from Halifax to South Rustico, coming off the ferry in December and driving up Route 13 from Crapaud, he was stopped by a snowdrift in the road. “The road went down a valley and there was five feet of snow piled up,” Archie said. He reversed his 1935 Chrysler Airflow back to where the rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road. “I hit the gas as hard as I could, went as fast as I could, hit the snow, everything disappeared, and I came out the other side. By the time I did the car was barely moving. I shut it off and caught my breath.”

   Archie gave Ida a ring. She gave him a stack of books for his next sea voyage. They hardly saw each other after that as her man sailed back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. In June the S. S. Charlottetown sank on her way to a dry dock in Saint John for an overhaul. The boat was four miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. The crew rowed to safety in their lifeboats. Two wrecking tugs tried to get to the vessel but turned around in the heavy fog. When she was finally refloated the flow of water into her couldn’t be stemmed.

   “We were in Lisbon when I got a message from Ida that she and my mother had decided on December 8th for our marriage,” said Archie. The executive order from PEI said to be ready. “I went to the radio communications on board and sent a telegraph confirming my agreement.” They were married the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.

   “Stay in the car, Ida,” JT said. “I’m going to the church for a minute.” He was hoping to run into somebody who would know where she lived. But there was nobody to ask. All the doors were locked, and he didn’t see any parked cars anywhere. He went back to his police car.

   “That’s where I live,” Ida said pointing through the windshield at the Barachois Inn up the street from the church.

   “That’s a hotel,” JT said.

   “That’s where I live,” Ida repeated.

   When JT knocked on the door with Ida standing behind him, a woman answered.

   “Can I help you? she asked until she saw Ida. “Where did you find her?”

   “Trying to cross Route 6,” he said.

   “Oh dear.”

   “She said she lives here.”

   “She did when she was a child.”

   “Do you know where lives now.”

   “Yes,” the woman said, and gave him directions, describing the house. “She has a neighbor by the name of Bernie Doiron. He tries to keep an eye on her, but he’s a farmhand and works most days.”

   “Thanks for your help. If you don’t mind my asking, how old is this house?”

   “It was 102 years old when we bought it in 1982,” the woman said. “It was built by a merchant back then, a man by the name of Joseph Gallant, so we call it the Gallant House. My husband and I had planned on living here, restoring it, which we still do, but we converted it into a bed and breakfast two years later.”

   In the car Ida said she was hungry.

   “We ate fish, mussels, potatoes, carrots, and turnips when I was a girl. That was about it. Whenever we went to Charlottetown we ate at a Chinese restaurant, but that was as much as I ever knew. Before I got married, I never had Italian food. After I got married, my cousin and a friend of hers said, we’re coming over to make dinner. We’re going to make spaghetti. I thought, yippee, what’s that?”

   JT found her house easily enough, escorted Ida inside, and boiled water for tea. He waited until she was resting easy in her easy chair before leaving. He flipped her a two-finger salute off the brim of his cap.

   “Thank you, Mr. Policeman,” she said. “Can you come back soon and take me for another walk?”

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Theatre PEI

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Bird On the Wing

By Ed Staskus

Some men are good at farming. Other men are good at fishing. Storekeepers keep them in gear and goods. A few men are good for nothing. William Murphy wasn’t a man practiced at doing nothing. He didn’t know fishing or farming but was experienced at raising horses. He was going to have a horse farm and make his way that way.

   He stayed on the cove where he had landed, building a rude shelter. He cut limbed sawed trees by hand and split blocks with an axe. The wood would be ready for a stove and fireplace next year. In the meantime, he bought a load of coal from a passing schooner. He found dampness nearby and looked for an underground spring. When he found it, he dug it out, saving himself the work and expense of digging a well. Whenever he could he cleared land. Sometimes it seemed like it was all he did.

   “The islander making a new farm cut down the trees as fast as possible until a few square yards of the blue sky could be seen above. Roots and branches lying on the ground were set on fire and sometimes the forest caught fire and hundreds of acres of timber were burned,” is how Walter Johnson, a Scotsman who came to Prince Edward Island to start Sunday schools, described it.

   Bill Murphy put enough salted cod away to feed a family of Acadians. When the weather changed for the worse, he smoked read ate slept through the season, living in his union suit. The dead of winter arrived near the end of January and kept at it through February. The daytime high temperatures were below zero, and the overnight low temperatures were negative double digits. After spring arrived and the Prince Consort proved true to his word and his land grant was signed sealed and delivered, he continued clearing land and building a house.

   He wasn’t a farm hand, but he had to eat. His first task was putting in a root garden of beets turnips carrots and potatoes. They would store well the next winter. He made sure there were onions. They added flavor to food and were a remedy to fight off colds. Whenever he started coughing or sneezing, he stripped and rubbed himself all over with goose grease and stuffed a handful of onions into his underwear. He always felt better afterwards. Corn peas beans could be dried and stored for soup. A bachelor might even live on it. 

   Rhubarb was a perennial and one of the earliest to come up in the spring. After a long winter it was the first fresh produce. He planted plenty of rhubarb. The island had a short although rapid growing season. He woke up before sunrise and worked until dusk. He kept at it every day. The Sabbath meant nothing to him.

   The Prince of Wales visited Prince Edward Island that summer during his tour of British North America, arriving in a squadron consisting of the Nile, Flying Fish, and three more men-of-war. The Nile grounded trying to enter Charlottetown’s harbor. Once the tide lifted it, the unhappy boat sailed away towards Quebec. Spectators cheered Bertie’s progress to Government House on streets decorated with spruce arches. 

   “The town is a long straggling place, built almost entirely of wood, and presents few objects of interest.”

   It was a cloudy afternoon, but when it cleared, he went horseback riding. That evening there was a dress dinner and ball at the Province Buildings. The Prince of Wales took a moment to step out onto a balcony.

   “Some Micmac Indians grouped themselves on the lawn, dressed in their gay attire, the headgear of the women recalling the tall caps of Normandy.”

   When the squadron embarked towards the mainland it was in a heavy rain. No one who didn’t need to be on deck wasn’t on deck. There were no spectators in the harbor waving hats and kerchiefs. Even the Indians stayed away.

   “Our visit it is to be hoped has done much good in drawing forth decided evidence of the loyalty of the colonists to the Queen.”

   Their loyalty and the Queen’s confidence were soon to be tested.

   Bill Murphy didn’t bother making the long trip into town, having already gotten what he wanted from the royal family. The Prince of Wales was a playboy. There wasn’t anything he could do for him. When he was able to at last inhabit the house against the elements, he started on a horse barn. It would be large, large enough for stabling animals, milking cattle, and storing tools. The haymow would hold more than forty tons to feed his animals during the winter.

   At the same time, he started looking for a wife. He needed help indoors so he could work the outdoors. He needed help planting crops to feed himself and a family. He needed help clothing the body. Life without a woman on Prince Edward Island was a hard life. He found her the same time his work bee was finishing the barn.

He met her in the cash provision store in Cavendish. Siobhan Regan was 19 years-old, a few years older than half his age. She wasn’t pretty or well off but looked sturdy and round bottomed. He was sure she could bear children without killing herself or the child. She could read, although she seldom did, except for the Good Book. She was ruddy cheeked with big teeth and was a quiet woman, suiting him, who used the spoken word only for what it was worth.

   They were married and snug in their new house, home from the wedding in a buggy retrofitted with sleigh runners, the night before the last big snowfall in April. She got pregnant on Easter Sunday and stayed more-or-less pregnant for the next ten years, bearing six children, all of whom survived. Her husband refused the services of the village’s midwives, refused the services of the doctor, and delivered the children himself. He threw quacksalvers out the door with a curse and a kick. They peddled tonics saturated with moonshine and opium. He had had enough of a taste of both to know they were no good for the sick or healthy, more likely to kill than not. He never drank port, punch, or whiskey, rather drinking his own homemade beer. He liked to wrap up the day with a pint.

   He knew cholera and typhus had something to do with uncleanliness, although he didn’t know what. He had seen enough of it on ships, where straw mattresses weren’t even destroyed after somebody died from dysentery while laying on them. He ran a tight ship, keeping his house and grounds in working order. He didn’t let his livestock near the spring at the house, instead taking them downstream. He had seen the toll in towns where garbage was thrown into the street and left there for years. He and his wife had both been inoculated against smallpox, and as the children got on their feet, so were they.

   The Irishman wasn’t going to throw the dice with the lives of his children. Six out of his ten brothers and sisters died before they reached adulthood in the Land of Saints and Scholars. Their overlords had something to do with it, famine had something to do with it, and their rude lives the rest of it, putting them in early graves. One of them died on the kitchen table where a barber was bleeding him. He bled to death.

   Siobhan Murphy took a breather towards the end of the decade. Her husband and she went to Charlottetown twice that summer to see shows at St. Andrew’s Hall. They saw “Box and Cox” and “Fortune’s Frolic,” both directed by the lively and eccentric Mrs. Wentworth Stevenson, an actress and music teacher trained in London who had formed the Charlottetown Amateur Dramatic Club. 

   They stayed at Mrs. Rankin’s Hotel, having breakfast and dinner there, walking about the city, stopping for tea when the occasion arose, and spent their otherwise not engaged hours making a new baby. When they were done, they went home. The children weren’t surprised that another one of them was on the way.   

   Every farm on Prince Edward had a stable of horses for work and transport. Most farmers used draft horses for hard labor, the nearly one-ton animals two in hand plowing fields, bringing in hay, and hauling manure. It was his good fortune to know horses inside and out, big and small. The carrying capacity of his land was well more than a hundred horses. He wasn’t planning on that many, but a hundred would suit him well if it came to that. He was going to grow most of his own food and sell horses for the rest of life’s essentials and pleasures.   

   By 1867 when Prince Edward Island rejected the idea of Confederation, even though it hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864 where it was first proposed, he was well on his way to making his horse farm a going concern. Confederation didn’t concern him, one way of the other. Many islanders wanted to stay part of Great Britain. Others wanted to be annexed by the United States. Some thought becoming a distinct dominion on their own was best. He kept his eye on the prize, his family and farm.

   John Macdonald, the country’s first Prime Minister, always worried about American expansionism, tried to coax the island into the union with incentives, but it wasn’t until they were faced with a major financial crisis that its leaders reconsidered Macdonald’s various offers. It was when they put themselves into a hole that his efforts paid off.

   A coastline-to-coastline railway-building plan gone bad put Prince Edward Island into debt. It spawned a banking crisis. Parliament Hill agreed to take over the debt and prop up the financing needed to resume railway construction. There was a demand for year-round steamer service between the island and mainland. Parliament Hill agreed to the demand. The province wanted money to buy back land owned by absentee landlords, and Parliament Hill agreed to that, too.

   The horse trader was better off than many people on the island. He had a small amount of hard cash while most islanders had no amount of cash to speak of and bartered almost everything. When the chance arose to make a killing during the horse disease of 1872, he took it. The pandemic started in a pasture near Toronto. Inside the year it spread across Canada. Mules, donkeys, and horses got too sick to work. They coughed, ran a fever, and keeled over exhausted getting out of their barns and stables. Delivering lumber from sawmills or beer to saloons killed them outright.

   “There are not fifty horses in the city free from the disease,” a newspaper editor in Ottawa wrote. Another editor in Montreal wrote, “We have very few horses unaffected.” The only place the pandemic didn’t reach was Prince Edward Island.

   “When the disease was raging in the other provinces, our navigation was closed, and our island entirely cut off, in the way of export or import from the mainland, which in fact must have been the reason it did not cross to our shores,” wrote the editor of The Patriot newspaper.

   Bill Murphy drove sixty horses to Summerside where they were loaded on two ships for crossing the Northumberland Straight. Once on shore they were walked to the railhead in New Brunswick and shipped by railcar to Montreal, whose money for the horses was better than all others. When he was paid, he secreted the money inside his shirt with his jacket buttoned up to the collar until he got back home.

   In 1873 the island’s voters were given the option of accepting Confederation or going it alone and having their taxes raised substantially. Most voters chose Confederation, voting their pocketbooks, the same as he did. Prince Edward Island officially joined Canada on July 1, 1873. 

   The weather that day was foul and then a storm rolled in. Thunderbolts lit up the low clouds followed a split second later by sonic booms. The fox in the fields lay low in their foxholes. It wasn’t fit for man or beast.

   It was the same evening, as lightning slashed the sky, that the prize horse on Murphy land spooked and kicked him in the head, breaking his jaw, knocking an eye out, and fracturing his skull. Everything he knew about the animals, as well as the money from the sale of them the year before, which he had squirreled away behind the barn, flew out the window with his soul. The gates of the Underworld and Heaven both opened wide to admit him to eternity. He tossed the Devil’s invitation away.

   Canadian flags flew everywhere on the island that summer. Siobhan Murphy folded hers and buried it with her husband in the village’s cemetery. Alone after the burial, her children gathered around her, she gazed out on the sparkling Atlantic Ocean from the top of Church Hill Road. Her husband had crossed the briny deep at peril to himself to make his fortune, no matter what it might be. He was gone now but the land was still theirs. She would never give it up. It would always be theirs.

   Siobhan had no intention of going anywhere, no matter whether it was Canada or the United States or anywhere else on Prince Edward Island. She couldn’t raise the dead but could raise her children on the farm her husband made. She was determined none of them would ever forget their father. Murphy’s Cove would stay what it was, Murphy’s Cove.

   She started the slow walk with her sick at heart brood back down the red road to the cove and their farm. The smallest of them, a girl her pigtails flapping, pulled at her mother’s dress.

   “Mommy, I have a secret to tell you.”

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road.”

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Theatre PEI

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Nowhere to Hide

By Ed Staskus

   Corporal JT Markunas was stationed in Charlottetown with the Queens RCMP detachment. He was a grade above constable, but still pulled service in a police pursuit vehicle. He didn’t mind the car he had drawn today, although he could have done without the blue velour interior.

   He lived in a small rented two-bedroom farmhouse in Milton, where he had planted a root garden. His parents were pleased when they saw the photograph of beets, turnips, and carrots that he mailed them. JT was from Sudbury, Ontario and Prince Edward Island was his third assignment since joining the force. His first assignment had been at Fort Resolution in the Northwest Territories. He missed Sudbury, but he didn’t miss Fort Resolution.

   When he was a child, the Canadian Pacific hauled ore on tracks behind their house. When the train wailed, he wailed right back. When he was a boy American astronauts practiced out in the city’s hinterland, where the landscape resembled the moon. When he grew up, he trained for the RCMP at a boot camp in Regina. He was surprised to see women at the camp, the first ones allowed into the force. They kissed the Bible and signed their names, like all the recruits, and wore the traditional red serge when on parade, but they also wore skirts and high heels and carried a hand clutch. 

   JT was sitting in his blue and white Mustang Interceptor. Even though Ford had built more than 10,000 of them since 1982, the RCMP had only gotten 32 of the cars. He had one of the two on the island. There were lights on the roof, front grille, and rear parcel shelf. He was in Cavendish, across the street from the Rainbow Valley amusement park. He was watching for speeders, of whom he hadn’t seen any that morning. He was thinking of stopping somebody for whatever reason to justify the pursuit car. He was also thinking about his second cup of coffee but waiting until he started yawning. He thought it was going to happen soon. When it did, he would 10-99 the control room and take a break from doing nothing.

   Cavendish was Anne’s Land. It was where “Anne of Green Gables” was set. He hadn’t read the book, but doubted it had anything to do with what he could see in all directions. The amusement park was named after Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 book “Rainbow Valley.” It was waterslides, swan boats, a sea monster, monorail, roller coasters, animatronics, castles and suspension bridges, and a flying saucer gift shop. The paratrooper might have been everyone’s favorite ride.

   Earl Davison was looking for a roller coaster when he found it.  He was in Pennsylvania hunting for a bargain at a park turning its lights off.  The coaster seemed to fit the bill at first sight.

   “It’s a terrific ride, but you’ll need to have a good maintenance team to keep ’er running,” the Pennsylvania man said.

   When Earl hemmed and hawed, the man suggested his paratrooper ride instead. “It’s the best piece of equipment I have. I will sell you that paratrooper ride for $25,000 and we’ll load it for you.” By the end of the next day Earl had written a check and the ride was loaded ready to go for the long drive back to PEI.

   Earl Davison thought up Rainbow Valley in 1965, buying and clearing an abandoned apple orchard and filling in a swamp, turning it into ponds. “We borrowed $7,500.00,” he said. “It seemed like an awful lot of money at the time.” When they opened in 1969 admission was 50 cents. Children under 5 got in free. Ten years later, he bought his partners out and expanded the park. Most of the attractions were designed and fabricated by him and his crew.

   “We add something new every year,” said Earl. “That’s a rule.” The other rule-of-thumb was moms and dads with smiles plastered all over the faces of their children. “Some of the memories you hear twenty years later are from people whose parents aren’t with them anymore. But they remember their visits to Rainbow Valley and those experiences last a lifetime.”

   When his two-way radio came to life, instructing him to go to Murphy’s Cove to check on a report of a suspicious death, JT hesitated, thinking he should get a coffee first, but quickly decided against it. Suspicious deaths were far and few between. Homicides happened on Prince Edward Island about once every ten years. This might be his only chance to work on one. When he drove off it was fast with flashing lights but no siren. He reported that the cove was less than ten minutes away. 

   Conor Murphy saw the patrol car pull off the road onto the shoulder and tramped down the slope to it. Some people called the RCMP Scarlet Guardians. Most people in Conor’s neck of the woods called them Gravel Road Cops, after the GRC on their car doors, the French acronym for Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Conor didn’t call them anything. He had been on the force once and didn’t mess with what they might or might not be.

  JT put his cap on and joining Conor walked up to where Bernie Doiron was waiting beside the tractor. When he saw the arm handcuffed to the briefcase, he told Conor and Bernie to not touch anything and walked back to his patrol car. He wasn’t sure what code to call in so called in a 10-64, requesting an ambulance, and asked for the commander on duty. He described what he had found and was told to sit tight.

   “Yes sir,” he said.

   It wouldn’t be long before an ambulance and many more cars showed up. They couldn’t miss his car, but he turned the lights on top of it back on just in case and backtracked to the tractor.

   “Who found this?” he asked, pointing at the arm. 

   “I did,” said Bernie.

   “Is it the same as you found it?” JT asked. “Did you or move or disturb anything?”

   “No, we left it alone,” Bernie said. 

   “And you are?” JT asked Conor.

   “I’m across the street in the green house,” Conor said. “These are my fields. Bernie came down and got me when he found this. A fox has been at the arm.”

   “I see that,” JT said, even though he didn’t know what had happened to the arm. He didn’t jump to conclusions. It was flayed and gruesome, whatever it was. He wasn’t repulsed by it. He was being objective. The final quality that made him a good policeman was that he was patient. He waited patiently with Conor and Bernie for the rest of the team to show up. None of the three men said a word.

   JT looked at the land all around him getting ready for the growing season. There was no growing season where he grew up. His father worked the nickel mines in Sudbury his working life, never missing a day. He had been an explosives man and made it through his last year last week last shift unscathed. He had always known there was no one to tap him on the shoulder if he made a mistake.

   His mother raised four children. She dealt with powder burns every day. They were among the few post-war Lithuanians still left in Sudbury. The rest of them had worked like dogs and scrimped and saved, leaving the first chance they got. His parents put their scrimping and saving into a house on the shores of Lake Ramsey and stayed to see Sudbury transition from open pits and wood fire roasting to business as usual less ruinous to the land they lived on.

   An ambulance from a funeral home in Kensington was the first to arrive, followed within minutes by two more RCMP cars. A pumper from the North Rustico Fire Department rolled to a stop, but there wasn’t anything for the volunteer firemen to do. They thought about helping direct traffic, but there was hardly any traffic to speak of. The summer season was still a month-and-a-half away. They waited, suspecting they were going to be the ones asked to unearth the remains. They brought shovels up from their truck.

   The coroner showed up, but bided his time, waiting for a commissioned officer to show up. When he did there were two of them, one an inspector and the other one a superintendent. They talked to JT briefly, and then the fire department. The firemen measured out a ten-foot by ten-foot perimeter with the arm in the center, pounded stakes into the ground, demarcated the space with yellow police tape, and slowly began to dig. 

   They had not gotten far when the arm fell over. It had been chopped off above the elbow. One of the firemen carried the arm and briefcase to a gray tarp and covered it with a sheet of thick translucent plastic.

   “Has anybody got a dog nearby?” the inspector asked.

   Most of the firemen farmed in one way or another. Most of them had dogs. One of them who lived less than two miles away on Route 6 had a Bassett Hound. When he came back with his dog, he led him to the grave. The Bassett sniffed the perimeter of the grave and jumped into it, digging at the dirt with his short legs, barking, and looking up at his master. The fireman clapped his hands and the dog jumped out of the grave.

   “There’s something there” he said. “Probably the rest of him.”

   They started digging again carefully and methodically. When they found the rest of him three feet deep and twenty minutes later it was a woman. She was wearing acid wash jeans and an oversized tangerine sweatshirt. She was covered in dirt and blood. One of her shoes had come off. What they could see of her face was ruined by burrowing insects. She was still decomposing inside her clothes.

   The coroner stepped up to the edge of the grave with the two men who had come in the ambulance.

   “Be careful, she’s going to want to fall apart as soon as you start shifting her weight,” he said. 

   The two men were joined by two of the firemen. When all four were in the shallow grave they slowly moved the corpse into a mortuary bag, zipped it up, and using the handles on the bag lifted it up to two RCMP constables and two more of the firemen. They carried the bag slowly down the hill, the dog following them, placing it on a gurney and inside the ambulance.

   The constables went back up the hill to join the rest of the RCMP team, who were getting ready to sift through the grave looking for evidence. They would scour the ground in all directions, to the tree line and the road. JT Markunas had gotten his Minolta out of the trunk and was taking photographs. When he was done, he joined them. They spread out and with heads bowed started looking for anything and everything.

   The ambulance was ready to go when Conor came down to the side of the park road, stopped beside it and tapped on the driver’s side window. When it rolled down, he pointed up the slope.

   “Don’t forget the arm,” he said.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road.”

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Theatre PEI

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Road Kill

By Ed Staskus

   Malcolm Ferguson walked into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital mortuary room like he was seeing it for the first time, even though he had been PEI’s pathologist for 11 years. He waited for the sharp stab in his left hip to relent. He felt woozy. He steadied himself with one arm on the doorjamb. He was steady after a moment, even though his left heel wouldn’t flatten down to the floor. He put his arms at his sides and breathed evenly.

   The hospital was practically new. It was in its infancy. He was getting older by the minute, which bothered him, even though the older he got the older he wanted to be. “Getting old is no problem,” is what Groucho Marx said. “You just have to live long enough.” But sometimes he didn’t feel like he was just getting old, he felt like he was getting dead.

   His hip hurt like hell. He knew exactly what the matter was. It had finally gotten to be bone on bone. The day had always been coming. Stretching and lengthening and walking and drinking had forestalled the inevitable. But he walked too much the past few days. When the weather had gotten better, he drove to Brackley Beach, and walked two miles back and forth three days in a row. That was a mistake. It wasn’t the same as his treadmill, which had arm rails he could steady and even support himself on. He had three months left before his resignation became official. When he was done, he was getting a hip replacement the next day, going back to Tracadie, and staying there. He would heal up and fish and carve up fillets rather than folks stiff as boards.

   He blinked in the bright light, wondering why there were two tables set up for him. When he remembered the arm, he remembered he was going to have to do two post-mortems, one on the arm and one on the young woman who the arm belonged to.

   Her death was being treated as the result of criminal activity. If it was some place bigger than Charlottetown the post-mortem would have been performed by a forensic pathologist. They investigate deaths where there are legal implications, like a suspected murder. But it wasn’t any other place. It was Charlottetown. It was the smallest capital city of the smallest province in Canada. It would have to do, and he would have to do it.

   When he was suited up, Malcom stood over the dead woman and blinked his fly-belly blue eyes. She was on her back on a stainless-steel cadaver table. It was essentially a slanted tray with raised edges to keep fluids from flowing onto the floor. There was running water to wash away the blood that is released during the procedure. 

   She hadn’t been shot or stabbed. Her face was a mess, though. It took him a minute to see what it was that had killed her. Her skull was fractured. Parts of the broken skull had pressed into the brain. It swelled and cut off access to blood by squeezing shut the arteries and blood vessels that supply it. As the brain swelled it grew larger than the skull that held it and begin to press outside of it into the nasal cavity, out of the ears, and through the fracture.

   After a minute her brain began to die. After five minutes, if she hadn’t died, she would have suffered irreversible brain damage. One way or the other it was the end of her.

   He got down to the rest of his work, making a long incision down the front of her body to remove the internal organs and examine them. A single incision across the back of the head allowed the top of her skull to be removed so the brain could be examined. He saw what he expected to see. He examined everything carefully with the naked eye. If dissection had been necessary to look for any abnormalities, such as blood clots or tumors, he would have done it, but what was the point?

   After his examination he returned the organs and brain to the body. He sewed her up. When he turned his attention to the arm, he saw clearly enough it had been chopped off with one clean blow. The axe, or whatever it was, must have been new or even newer. In any case, it was as sharp as could be. Her hand was clenched in a fist. He had to break her fingers to loosen it. When he did, he found a loonie in her palm. It was Canada’s one-dollar gold-colored coin introduced two years earlier to replace paper dollar bills, which had become too expensive to print. Everybody called them loonies after the solitary loon gracing the reverse side.

   Malcolm looked at the brand-new looking coin smeared with dried blood and dirt.

   “What the hell?” he muttered to himself.

   He put the coin in a plastic bag and labelled it. He recorded everything on a body diagram and verbally on a cassette tape. He put the loonie, diagram, and tape in a pouch and labelled it. When he was done, he washed up and decided to go eat. After that he would call it a day. The work had warmed him up and he wasn’t limping as much as he had earlier. He tested his hip, lifting his leg at the knee and rotating. He would drive to Chubby’s Roadhouse for lunch, he decided. They had the best burgers on the island.

   The phone rang. It was Pete Lambert, the Commanding Officer of the RCMP Queens detachment.

   “What have you found out, Malcolm.”

   “I’m on my way to lunch right now. Meet me at Chubby’s. As long as the force pays, I’ll tell you everything I know.”

   “I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.”

   Chubby’s was 15 minutes from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and 20 minutes from the RCMP station. 

   While he was driving Malcolm thanked God it was 1989 and metallic hip replacements were as good as they had ever been. The first hip replacements dated back a hundred years to when ivory implants were used to replace the femoral head. Elephant tusks were cheap at the time and were thought to possess good biomechanical properties.  

   Fifty years later an American surgeon performed the first metallic hip replacement. He designed a prosthesis with a large head made of something he called Vitallium. The implant was around 12 inches in length and attached with bolts to the end of the femoral shaft. It worked like a charm. That same prosthesis is what he would be getting, except it was better and the implant would be inserted within the canal of the femur, where bone growth would lead to more permanent attachment. As long as he could wake up and walk first thing in the morning, instead of staggering and grabbing for support, he would be a happy fisherman.

   Chubby’s Roadhouse and Bud’s Diner were next to each other in a pink and baby blue building on St. Peters Road in Dunstaffnage. They did a brisk business. It was a popular pit stop for bikers on poker runs. It was why Pete Lambert had lunch or dinner there two and three times a week, getting to know the riders.

   “We serve burgers and fries and shakes, and fish and chips and clams and all that stuff,” Clarence Foster said. “But I think as far as the burger goes, the best, the one that everybody seems to like is called the Bud Burger.”

   Dances were held in the back of the building with local bands like Haywire. Teenagers with ice cream cones gathered around the pinball machines at the front. Drinkers stayed at the bar, drinking. The bikers ate their Bud Burgers outside during the day and drank inside during the night.

   “We have wedding receptions and things like that,” Clarence said. He told the bikers about them in advance, so that nobody ended up stepping on anybody else’s toes.

   The Spoke Wheel Car Museum was next door. Clarence and his father, Ray, shared an appreciation for old cars. They both stopped smoking when cigarettes were less than four bits a pack. Instead of up in smoke their savings went toward buying heaps and restoring them. By 1969, they had 13 cars, including a 1930 Ford Model A Coach that Clarence drove. It was how the roadhouse and diner came into being. 

   “People were coming to the museum and looking for a place to eat,” he said. “Since my dad was a cook in the army, we decided to build a little canteen and it just kept on growing.” 

   It wasn’t the warmest day, although it was sunny.  Malcolm and Pete ate inside at a back table. They had Bud Burgers and pints.

   “How’s the hip?” Pete asked.

   “Hellzapoppin’,” Malcom said.

   “Is that the official word?”

   “It’s how I feel. I’ve got two months and 29 days from now circled on my calendar.”

   They ate and small talked.

   “Find anything out?” Pete asked, finishing his burger and hand-cut fries. The food was good because the beef and potatoes came from the island. It would be a trifecta once islanders started up their breweries.

   “It will be in my report tomorrow, but since you’re interested, I’ll summarize it. She died of a fractured skull. There was tissue not hers on her face and in her hair. I want to say she was hit by a hard human fist that got scuffed up doing it. She had alfalfa on and in her clothes. More than a brush of silage, enough to make me think she was on a dairy farm long enough to roll around in it. The last cut was in late August, so she was put in the ground sometime between then and no later than the end of October.”

   Thousands of acres of potatoes on the island the last fall were left in the ground. Heavy rain and cold temperatures put a damper on the harvest. There was too much rain and cold weather, freezing and thawing, that led to a deep frost.

   “Her arm was probably cut off by an axe, sharp, clean as a whistle. Whoever did it, like the fist, is a strong man or woman. Why it was cut off, since I think she was already dead, is for you to find out. She had a loonie clenched in her missing hand. It was a 1988 issue. No prints other than hers on it.”

   “Are her prints in the report?”

   “Yes.”

   It was shop talk. Pete knew her prints and a batch of photographs would be part of the report.     

   “She wasn’t molested or abused. I don’t think she had eaten for several days. There wasn’t anything remarkable about her teeth, none missing, one filling. She was in her early twenties, five foot five, 118 pounds, green eyes, light brown hair, no moles, birthmarks, or tattoos. She was healthy as a horse.”

   “Anything else?”

   “One more thing. I think she might have poked somebody in the eye. There was retinal fluid and blood under the fingernails of the first two fingers on the cut-off arm. Her nails were 7 mm long and almond shaped, perfect for poking. It wasn’t her blood, either.”

   Blunt trauma to the eye can cause the retina to tear. It can lead to retinal detachment. It usually requires urgent surgery. The alternative is blindness.

   “If that happened, where would the eye be treated?” Pete asked.

   “At a hospital or a large eye clinic.”

   “What happens if it’s not treated?”

   “Kiss goodbye to that eye.”

   “I see,” the RCMP officer said, paying the bill when the waitress stopped at their table. What crowd there had been had cleared out. It was the middle of the afternoon. When the two men went out to their cars, they were the only two cars in the front lot. Pete Lambert was driving an unmarked police car, although it was clearly an official car. Malcom Ferguson was driving a 1985 Buick Electra station wagon. They shook hands and went their separate ways.

Five hours later a lone biker approached the roadhouse, swerving to avoid a battered fox. There was always more roadkill in the spring and fall. Skunks and raccoons were the most common, although foxes weren’t always as quick and slippery as their reputation. He pulled up, parked, and went inside. He left the key in the ignition. His red Kawasaki Ninja had an inline four cylinder, 16 valve, liquid cooled engine with a top speed above 240 KPH. He had already made that speed and more. He knew nobody was going to mess with his bike because everybody knew whose it was. At the bar he ordered a Bud Burger and a pint.

   “How’s the eye?” the bartender asked. “It looks good. No more pirate’s patch.”

   “Yeah, but I waited too long to get it fixed,” the biker said. “The doc says I’ll probably be mostly blind in that eye from here on. It doesn’t matter, I can still see enough out of the other one to take care of my business.”

   When he left, he paid cash with a new one-hundred-dollar bill.

   “Where do you keep finding these?” the bartender asked.

   “They fall down from heaven, my man,” the biker said, leaving him a tip of a half dozen loonies.

   Getting on his glam motorcycle in the darkness he thought, I’ve got to be more careful about that.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Red Road.”

Photograph by Clarence Foster.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Theatre PEI

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Queen and Country

By Ed Staskus

   William Murphy was a shrewd careful man who knew how to get things done. It was why Prince Albert sent him to Prince Edward Island on the American-built clipper ship Antelope of Boston to kill the man who had tried to kill his wife. It mattered little that he was an Irishman sent to dispatch an Englishman.

   “Either bring the little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal back to be hung or put him in the ground where you find him and spare us the trouble,” the consort to Queen Victoria said.

   He almost lost his chance when he stepped out of the long boat landing him on the north coast of the island too soon and nearly drowned. The water was deeper near the shore of the cove than anyone thought. He sank to the bottom not knowing how to swim and only made it back up on the back of one of the sailors who knew how to at least dog paddle.

   The man he was after was Thomas Spate, a disgruntled veteran of the Crimean War. When he was awarded the Crimea Medal, he threw it away. When he was one of the first soldiers to receive the Victoria Cross for bravery in action during the Battle of Balaclava, he thought about throwing it away, too, but kept it. He wore it every day pinned over his heart.

   During the war Queen Victoria knitted woolens for the troops and inspected military hospitals, wearing a custom-made red army jacket. When the war ended, she threw a series of balls in her new ballroom. Tom Spate watched from outside, driving himself crazy. He was alone and down on his luck. He blamed everybody except himself for the bad things that happened to him. He walked incessantly, from one end of London to the other. He goose-stepped up and down Hyde Park. Queen Victoria saw him often enough to become familiar with him, although she never approached or spoke to him.

   During one of his walks around London he spied a crowd outside Cambridge House, which Queen Victoria and her three children were just leaving. As the carriage left, it came to a stop outside the gate. Tom Spate had taken to carrying two old-fashioned loaded flintlock coat pocket pistols. He walked up to the carriage and pulled both pistols out of his coat. He straightened one arm and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He brought the other pistol to bear and pulled the trigger. It misfired. He had just enough time to strike the monarch on the head with the butt of one of his pistols, the three children screaming for all they were worth, when men from the crowd tore him away from the carriage and beat him almost to death.

   Queen Victoria stood up in her carriage and proclaimed in a firm voice, “I am not hurt,” even though she was gushing blood from a deep gash on her forehead. It was violent red on her white fitted bodice.

   Thomas Spate was imprisoned tried convicted and sentenced to transportation and twenty years hard labor in the penal colony on Tasmania.

   “I would have had the blackguard drawn and quartered,” Prince Albert grumbled.

   When he escaped his jailers and disappeared, Prince Albert summoned William Murphy, a mercenary who it was said always got his man. He told his monarch’s right-hand man as much. It took more than a year, but in the spring of 1859, he was making his way soaking wet up the hill from the cove to North Rustico. He knew where Tom Spate was and knew he could take his time. He needed to get out of his clothes. He needed beer and dinner. He needed a good night’s sleep in a feather bed on dry land that didn’t heave-ho all night long. He found the only boarding house in North Rustico and took a room.

   Bill Murphy’s man was living on the far side of the Stanley River, nine miles northwest up the coast. The Irishman grew up calling miles chains. His man was 720 chains away. It would take him less than three hours to walk there on the coastal footpath. He had no intention of dragging him back to England in chains. He had every intention of collecting his bounty.

   Tom Spate lived alone in a winter log hut he threw together, living in it in all seasons. He had no land to farm and no craft to make his way. He operated a ferry service from one side of the Stanley River to the other. In the winter he closed it down when the water froze, and folks either walked or ice skated across. In January the ice got thick enough that horses and wagons could cross. He bought ice skates, carved sticks with a curve at the bottom, and made homemade pucks. He rented them to youngsters with eggs, butter, salt cod, and potatoes to trade for playing shinny on the ice. It was a game of skating fast and trying to hit the puck between two sticks of wood marking the goal.

   Most of North Rustico was Acadian French, and Catholic like Bill Murphy. The north coast was the religious center for the church. St. Augustine’s had been built twenty years earlier. It boasted an 80-foot-high front tower. The harbor was filled with boats and the fishing was good. There were cattle and horses grazing and fields of turnip and cabbage as far as the eye could see.

   Piles of mud dotted the fronts of fields. Stopping to rest, he asked a passing man what it was.

   “It is mussel mud,” the man, a farmer, said. “The land needs lime to breathe new life into it. We use the mud from bays and riverbeds. It’s filled with oyster shells.”

   Bill Murphy didn’t ask why they called it mussel mud. “Do you dig it up?” he asked.

   “We go out in canoes at high tide and dam up a small space so we can dig it from the bottom. When we are full, we go back and unload it at low tide.”

   “It sounds like a great deal of work.”

   “It is, but without the mud we would starve on the farms, both man and beast. I couldn’t keep one horse but for it. Your cow needs one ton of hay to survive the winter. We have been doubling our harvests with the mud. We will have more of it soon, too.”

   “How’s that?” 

   “We have got a man developing a mechanical digger to harvest the mud in the winter through holes in the ice and carry it across the Island by sleigh. There’s talk that we will be able to increase our crops of hay 5 and 10 times. And then there’s the ice. We cover it in sawdust and put it into an icehouse so it won’t melt, and we can preserve foods that would go bad in the summer’s heat.”

   Bill Murphy parted with the farmer, shaking his hand. He liked what he had heard about mussel mud. It was a sunny day and the uplands looked fine to him.

   When he got to the Stanley River, he rang a bell hanging from a post. Tom Spate’s face appeared at a window on the other side. He waved and in the next minute was guiding his flatboat across the water, using a rope anchored to oak trees. He pushed with a pole along the riverbed. Bill Murphy paid him his two pennies and put his back to a post as Tom Spate pushed off.

   Near the middle of the river Bill Murphy felt for the sidearm in his pocket. He carried the new Beaumont-Adams percussion revolver. The cylinder held five rounds, just in case, although he knew he wasn’t going to miss his man with his first shot. He intended to be standing face to face with him when he dispatched him to his maker. He walked up to Tom Spate.

   “Thomas Spate, I have a message for you from our majesty,” he said.

   Tom Spate’s face went white as death when the barrel of the gun pressed into his chest, pressing against his Victoria Cross.

   “For Queen and country,” Bill Murphy said and pressed the trigger. The bullet rocketed out of the barrel, propelling the medal into Tom Spate’s heart, tearing the spirit and strength out of it, and putting an end to the unhappy assassin’s life.

   Bill Murphy stood over him and decided in a moment of keenness he was going to stay on Prince Edward Island. There was nothing in Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom for him other than more killing and waiting for the day he would be the one killed. He had neither wife nor family. He would find a colleen here. He would have sons. He would raise horses fed with abundant hay grown in the good graces of mussel mud. He didn’t love his fellow man, but he loved horses. He bent a knee and using both hands widened the hole in Tom Spate’s chest. He stuck his fingers into the man, feeling for the bullet and the medal. He couldn’t find the bullet but found the Victoria Cross. He yanked the medal cast from the cascabels of two cannons captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopal out of him, wiping the blood on his hands off on the man’s pants. He rolled the body off the ferry and into the river. It bobbed and started floating out to the ocean.

   He poled the ferry back to the side he had come from and walked back to North Rustico. In his room he packaged the medal and a letter in a stout envelope. The letter didn’t have a word about the medal in it, only asking for land on the shoreline where he had landed, and the right to name the cove “Murphy’s Cove.”

   He posted the letter in Charlottetown, paying a penny to make it a “Registered Letter,” sailing on the Gazette to Liverpool the next week. He hoped to have a reply by the fall. In the meantime, he would start building a house on the western edge of the cove. The land might already be owned by somebody, but it was nearly all forest. Whoever it was, was still waiting for a tenant. When and if he showed up, Bill Murphy was sure he could set him straight.

   He sat in his room and lit his Meerschaum pipe. When he was young and poor, he smoked spone, coltsfoot mixed with wild rose petals. Now he smoked good tobacco. He watched the smoke curling up from his pipe of Irish clay.

   “All the old haunts and the dear friends, all the things I used to do, the hopes and dreams of boyhood days, they all pass me in review.” It was a song they sang in barracks. He had enlisted in the army while a lad after being plied with drink by a sergeant in a pub. He took the “Queen’s shilling” and there was no going back, especially when he deserted and went to work for himself. 

   The window of his room faced west. The setting sun slanted in, warming his face. When he was done with his pipe he would go downstairs for white fish, potatoes, and beer. Until then, he would slowly smoke and let his plans unwind themselves somewhere in the back of his mind.

Queen Victoria and Prince Consort, 1859. Painting by George Houseman Thomas.

Excerpted from the upcoming crime thriller “Red Road.”

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Theatre PEI

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Girl in the Ground

By Ed Staskus

   The week started by raining for two days, harder the second day than the first. The wind picked up, gusting hard by nightfall of the first day. Bernard Doiron had breakfast and lunch and took a nap. He did the same thing the next day. Wednesday morning it was in the low teens at sunrise. There were only scraps of cloud left in the new sky. He had ham and eggs and coffee and fired up Conor Murphy’s Ford 3000 tractor. It was blue and more than twenty years old. Conor took care of it personally, since his father bought it new and paid almost ten grand for it, and it ran like a baby buggy.

   A good two-horse team could plow two acres a day back in the day. Bernie plowed with a five bottom in the fall and a 490 disc in the spring and could do 60 acres from one end of the day to the other end of it. He was going to start across the street from the white house, Sandy’s Surfside Inn, and work his way to the right, Cavendish way. He would have his lunch at noon, since he was getting an early start.  

   The spring planting was running late because of rain and cold. Setting day for lobster fishermen was running late, too, because of the cold, rain, and high winds. They were anxious to get out on the ocean. Lobsters were on the move in the warming water. Farmers were anxious to get out on the land. Seeds were getting ready to sprout.

   He steered the tractor down the slope to the road on the edge of the ocean and back up at a steady 15 KPH. It was nearing eleven o’clock when he saw the red fox. It was forty or fifty meters ahead of him, sniffing and digging at something. He slowed the tractor and stopped where the fox was, who retreated, stretched, showed his teeth, and sprang into the nearby trees.

   Bernie had plowed the field in the fall, straight furrows that stayed straight through fall rainstorms and snow that swamped the island from mid-December to mid-April. It wasn’t usually that snowy, but it had been one of those winters. He stayed snug in his small house on the far side of Anglo Rustico, opposite the North Rustico Harbour. The house was more than a hundred years old, built with island cut lumber and island made shingles. Birch bark was the insulation between the outer wall and the shingles. It cut the wind on an island where it was always windy. He had an oil furnace and a fireplace in the living room and the house kept itself snug at room temperature without even trying.

   There was some ground mist. Crows he couldn’t see cawed from nearby trees. He could see a briefcase on the ground on the other side of his front wheels. It was open and was attached to something. He hopped off the tractor and walked around to it. The hard-sided briefcase was empty. The inside lining was torn. There was mud and dried red goo all over it.

   It was attached to a bony wrist by a pair of handcuffs. The wrist was wearing a watch and was attached to a bony arm that was buried in the ground. The bracelet was a gold-colored stainless steel.

   “Ce que ca?” Bernie whispered to himself.

   He knew the arm was attached to a dead man, or a woman. He looked at the watch dangling loosely on the wrist again. The face of it was cracked. It read three-ten. He suspected he was done plowing for the day. He started walking back the way he had come, to the green house, a stone’s throw from the white house. He stopped and walked back. He looked at the arm and the briefcase again. The fox had ripped into what flesh was left on the arm. He hadn’t imagined seeing it, not that he thought he had.

   Sandy had a phone, but could be deaf mornings, not answering the door no matter what. Conor didn’t have a phone yet, but he always answered the door when he was at home, and he had a fast car to get to a phone fast. It was a 1987 Buick GNX, two years old. It wasn’t sleek or refined, but next to the twin-turbo Chevy Corvette it was the fastest car in North America. 

   Looking for sophistication? Don’t get the GNX. After max boost? Buy the GNX, was the way Conor looked at it. Looking for a pool table ride? Go with the Corvette. Doesn’t matter whether your car bounces on rough roads like nuts and bolts in a blender? Buy the Buick GNX. There were two of them on the lot at the first Chevy Buick dealership he saw in Burlington, Vermont the day he went shopping for a new car. One of them was silver and one of them was black.

   “Do you have any other colors, like red?” he asked the salesman.

   “You can have any color you want as long as it’s silver or black,” the salesman said.

   Conor drove to Shearer Chevy Buick down the street. and found out they had the same colors on the lot, which were silver and black. 

   “How about red?” he asked.

   “Sorry, sir, it doesn’t come in red. GM has only built 500 of them. When they’re gone, they’re gone for good. If you can’t decide, I can tell you the only one we have on the lot is silver and black both.” 

   “How long have you been in business?”

   “Since 1929, sir.”

   He bought it, trading in his 1977 Chevy Impala, which was wheezing on its last legs. When he reached an empty stretch of I-87 south of Champlain, he took the car up to 175 KPH. The GNX was fitted with a turbocharged intercooled V6 engine with 276 horsepower on top of a boatload of torque. It was an automatic but could do 0 to 95 KPH in less than five seconds. When he saw a car a kilometer-or-so ahead he backed off his solitary drag race.

   Bernie Doiron was wearing almost new insulated rubber boots. By the time he crossed the Gulf Shore Parkway they didn’t look almost new anymore, even though they still were. Standing on the shoulder of the road he stamped most of the mud off. The road didn’t look new anymore, either, but Bernie doubted the National Park was going to be doing anything about it anytime soon. When summer came tourists would be parking on the shoulders, leaving their cars behind to gape at the cliffs and walk along the undulating coastline. In the meantime, the natives would be slowing down, keeping an eye out for loose kids and happy-go-lucky dogs.

   They never should have laid it down with shoulders in the first place, he thought.

   The National Park on Prince Edward Island went back more than fifty years, an in the flesh watercolor landscape of green over soft sandstone and shale. There were sand dunes and sandy beaches. There were salt marshes and barrier islands farther east. There were white spruce along exposed coastal spots. There were beech and yellow birch on the uplands. The Gulf Shore Parkway supplanted an older red dirt road along the coastline and cut through Murphy land, but the Murphy’s hadn’t sold any of the rest of their nearly four hundred acres to the National Park. The Ottawa men could appropriate land for the road, but they couldn’t take the rest of it with the wave of a pen. They were going to have to wait the Murphy’s out and buy it from a generation-or-two of them down the road. 

   That was their plan, at least.

   Bill was living in a trailer parked beside the barn that was behind the green house. He was planning on building three cottages that summer up the slope from Murphy’s Cove and living in the first cottage, which would be winterized. The other two cottages were going to be seasonal. If all went well, he would build two or three more in the next couple of years.

   Conor’s oldest brother Danny owned and operated a seafood café at the far end of Harbourview Drive. He was the cook and dishwasher. His older brother Sean lived nearby in South Rustico. His lobster boat was one of nearly forty in the North Rustico Harbour. His sister Fiona left the family home the day she turned eighteen and moved to Charlottetown, got married, and bought a small bakery in the capital city, where she was keeping her nose to the grindstone trying to turn it into a thriving concern.  

   Bernie banged on the back door of the house and waited.

   “What’s up?” Conor asked. “Did you run out of gas?”

   “No, nothing like that. Put some boots on and I’ll show you.”

   He was the only one living in what had been the Murphy family home. His parents were newly deceased, their mother dead by heart attack the day before Christmas soon followed by their father. After burying their mother, they watched their father giving up day after day until he finally gave up the ghost.

  Conor had been living in Montreal, but after the funerals moved back to Prince Edward Island. He moved into the green house, even though it was too big for him and needed work. He was the youngest of the five Murphy’s and didn’t know he had missed his birthplace until he returned to it. 

   Bernie and Conor walked across the road and up the slope. When they got to the tractor the red fox was back. The animal backed away. They stepped up to the briefcase and arm. It was nearly noon and warmer, breaking into the 20’s. What clouds there were had scattered, and the sky was a robin egg blue.

   “Jesus Christ,” Conor said. “How did this happen? I haven’t been up here since I came back. Would you have known if it was in the field then, when you did the fall plowing?”

   “I think so, but it’s hard to tell,” Bernie said.

   “It’s not anybody from around here, is it?”

   “We would know if it was.”

   “You stay here, watch nothing gets at it, and I’ll go phone the RCMP.”  

   “Should we dig it out?”

   “No, just stay here, and keep that fox away. I’ll drive over to Lorne’s.”

   He took his time driving to Rollings Pond, up then down Church Hill Road, past the graveyard and Stella Maris Catholic Church, to Lorne’s Snack Shop. He reckoned there was no need to hurry. He parked the GNX as far away from the nearest car as he could.

   “Whatta ya at?” one of the chunky Newfoundlanders behind the counter asked when he stepped inside Lorne’s. They ruled the roost spring summer and fall when they went home to Gros Morne. Lorne worked the shop winters. They made breakfasts and lunches in the small kitchen behind the counter, stocked and sold the candy bars and cigarettes, rented out the VCR movies in the back room, and cleaned whenever there was a need for cleaning. 

   “We’re finally getting some springtime.”

   “I know, I been rotten with the weather.”

   “I’ve got to use your phone”

   “You know where it is.”

   Conor dialed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were federal police, but the provincial police, too, since 1932. They policed all the communities on the island except Summerside, Kensington, and Charlottetown. They patrolled most of the island’s land mass and served most of the population.

   “I’ve got a dead man on my property,” he told 911.

   “Do you need an ambulance?”

   “No, not unless he comes back to life, which isn’t likely.”

   “Are you there?”

   “I will be in five minutes.”

   “Where is there?”

   He told the dispatcher and hung up. The younger of the two red-cheeked Newfoundlanders threw him an inquiring look.

   “I was some stunned when I overheard what ya said on the phone.”

   “Yeah,” Conor said. “I’ll be back, tell you all about it then.”

   Back at the house he parked the Buick in the barn, walked across the street and up the slope, joining Bernie. A flock of cormorants passed by overhead.

   “Do you have a smoke?” Conor asked.

   “I thought you gave it up.”

   “I did.”

   Bernie shook two smokes out of his pack of Player’s, lit his, and passed the matches to Conor.

   “You’re better off not smoking,” he said. “These things are getting crazy expensive. Ten years ago a 25-pack cost a Loonie. Now they cost six dollars. And I took another look at that watch, on the wrist, and I think it might be woman down there in the dirt.”

   “It’s not good, whoever it is,” Conor said.   They stood leaning against the tractor, smoking in silence, waiting for the gravel road cops.

Excerpted from the upcoming crime thriller “Red Road.”

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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