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.”
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.”