I was coming out of the Dock Street Coffee Shop at the foot of Main Street when I saw Sergeant Tony D'Agostine of the Edgartown PD step out of his cruiser and head in my direction. He apparently needed a caffeine hit to keep him going for the rest of his shift.
"What's up on the mean streets?" I asked.
"Well," he said, "Mickey Gomes escaped from jail last night and hasn't come back."
The county jail in Edgartown looks more like a nice big white house than a jail, and Mickey wasn't the first person to break out of it. None of the escapees ever stay escaped very long, though, because Martha's Vineyard is an island so there's only so far you can run and the police know most of the places you can hide.
"What do you mean he hasn't come back?" I asked.
"I mean that he's escaped several times in the last year, usually after supper. But he's always come back in time for breakfast. This time, though, a jailer noticed he was missing and our best guess is that when Mickey saw a bunch of cops wandering around the jail, he was afraid to come back so he went and hid."
"What's he in for?"
"Statutory rape. He got it on with a fifteen-year-old girl a couple of years ago. This escape isn't anything to worry about. He's not dangerous and we know where he is."
"Up in the woods by the girl's house. When he breaks out he spends the night with her. According to her parents, she's seven months pregnant with his child."
I did some fast calculating. "Sired on one of his jailbreaks, I take it."
"You take it right. She's seventeen now and he's twenty and they want to get hitched, but the honeymoon will have to wait until he does the extra time for breaking jail. He had bad luck getting nailed now because he only had a couple more weeks to serve. Mickey's not too bright, but then again he had no reason to think he'd get caught this time because he never got caught before."
"How come nobody noticed him escaping until now?"
"I hear two stories. First, that the prisoners complained about not having any privacy, so the jail keepers stopped checking up on them too closely; second, that the sheriff's wife ordered the surveillance cameras turned off so no one would catch her making whoopee with her favorite inmate. Anyway, just before they locked the cells for the night Mickey would put a fake head -- I saw it and it's a pretty cheesy one if you ask me -- on his pillow and then go down the hall to the john. Only instead of turning right and going into the toilet, he'd turn left and go out the window of a storage room. Somebody'd slipped him a screwdriver and he'd just take the screen off the window and leave. The next morning he'd come back and put the screen back on. All the prisoners knew about it, but none of the jail keepers did. He only got found out this time because a jailer happened to wander down the hall last night and find the storage room screen gone."
"And now all has been revealed."
"Some of it, anyway. Once the jail keepers found out he had escaped, the prisoners told them how he's been doing it for months. They thought it was pretty funny. I can see that you do, too."
"You'd better get yourself that coffee," I said. "You need to be wide-awake if you're going to bring in a hard case like Mickey Gomes."
"No problem," said Tony. "He'll be getting hungry about now, since he's missed breakfast. I don't think he'll hide very long."
"Keep me informed of the latest developments."
"Sure." Tony went into the coffee shop and I climbed into my old Land Cruiser and drove home. I'd forgotten to ask Tony how the Silencer case was going, but I figured that if they'd solved it he'd have told me.
Actually I thought there was a good chance that they'd never catch the Silencer because, in spite of his victims' outrage, looking for him probably got less police attention than any other case on the island. This was because the cops, like most of the other people on the Vineyard, including me, were much more sympathic toward the criminal than his victims. The cops couldn't admit this, of course, but their efforts to apprehend him were pretty feeble at best.
For the Silencer had become a folk hero by doing one incredibly popular if totally illegal thing: he destroyed the sound systems in those cars that came boom-boom-booming down the island's roads and streets, always with the windows rolled down, always heard approaching a mile away, always throbbing with ground-shaking bass notes, always offending everyone but the driver and people just like him.
Why such drivers always have their windows down and the volume turned as high as it will go is a mystery to all who don't engage in such sound production, and what to do about it is a constant, infuriating frustration to everyone but the drivers. Or it had been until the coming of the Silencer, who that spring had begun destroying the sound systems of some of the loudest cars on the island. He hadn't gotten them all, but he had gotten several and he was still getting them.
The car owners were, of course, furious, not to say out of hundreds of dollars per car, and were quick to accuse the island cops of incompetence for failing to capture the person who had soon and for the most part affectionately become known as the Silencer.
Or perhaps it was now plural Silencers, for speculation had it that copycat criminals were beginning to operate, since not only automobile sound systems were being destroyed but also those in the island's most infamously noisy houses. People whose parties were so loud and frequent that their neighbors rarely had a tranquil night were having their speakers and other music-making paraphernalia turned to toast; and great was their groaning and anger.
The fury of the Silencer's victims was almost, in fact, equal to the joy of everyone who no longer had to suffer the mind-blinding din of the onetime noisemakers.
Moralists wrote letters to the editors, arguing both sides of the issue. The police promised thorough investigations and went through the motions of making them. The victims raged and promised vengeance, and the Silencer worked on, striking where least expected, clothed in darkness, a wraith never seen or heard, and a hero to his people.
Of whom I was one. I loathe bass-booming cars and all other earsplitting modern music. My aversion to such art, in fact, had led some who know me to suspect that I, myself, was the Silencer. It was an honor I could not accept, however much it would have pleased me to do so, for I hadn't the slightest idea how the Silencer did his work.
That Vineyard summer was one of the quietest in memory, for by late June the decibel level of automobile radios and of weekend parties had been lowered considerably all over the island as drivers and hosts sought to avoid the keen-eared Silencer's attention.
At home I gave dark-eyed Zee a husbandly kiss and told her of my conversation with Tony D'Agostine. She laughed. "No wonder the Chief is losing his hair. First the Silencer and now this. The island is becoming a sitcom."
"Life's a jest," I agreed, "but not everyone's amused. The CHOA people are still in a rage about Ron Pierson's castle going up on North Neck."
Zee knew why: "CHOA people want Chappy to be a gated community where nobody can build a new house, especially one bigger than theirs."
Chappaquiddick, the peninsula on the southeast corner of Martha's Vineyard, is home to a few hundred people and some of the finest beaches and fishing spots on the East Coast. CHOA was the Chappaquiddick Home Owners Association, a well-heeled group intent on keeping their bucolic sometimes-island from being invaded by people like Ron Pierson. Or anyone else, for that matter. CHOA also opposed building bike paths for tourists, favored closing East Beach to fishermen and bathers, and, in general, would have preferred it if no one but they, themselves, ever took the little three-car On Time ferry that ran between Chappy Point and the Edgartown Memorial Wharf or drove to Norton's Point Beach, the two modes of getting to Chappy from the rest of Martha's Vineyard.
CHOA's most persistent voice belonged to Maud Mayhew, a lean and lank white-haired aristocrat who had outlasted three husbands and who loathed all changes that had taken place on the Vineyard since the early twentieth century. She belonged to the DAR and to most of the island's conservation organizations, the Garden Club, the Marshal Lea Foundation, CHOA, and probably several other groups of which I was unaware. She wrote almost weekly letters to the local papers protesting development on the Vineyard in general and Chappy in particular, and had something to say at every meeting of every civic or governmental group that might influence change. She had a face like a horse.
"You must admit that Pierson's Palace is going to change the skyline of the bluffs out on North Neck," I said.
Zee nodded. "That's for sure. I don't know how big that house is going to be when he finishes it, but it looks like more space than anybody'd ever need. What is it with these huge houses, anyway?"
"It's been going on forever," I said. "The richest Neanderthal probably had the biggest cave, and Minos had Knossos."
Neither one of us had ever seen Knossos, but we'd read about it and seen pictures. Someday we were going to have to leave Martha's Vineyard and go visit Europe. We were probably the only people on the island who'd never done that.
"Ron Pierson's place may end up bigger than Knossos," said Zee. "By the way, the word is that Ron Pierson has hired Ollie Mattes as a security man. Working nights to keep the lowlife away from the palace. I guess he didn't like having his windows smashed and he fears the anger of CHOA."
"I think CHOA people are the kind who will kill you in court or with looks at a cocktail party, not ambush you in a dark alley."
"Well, somebody trashed the palace's windows the other night, so now Ollie Mattes is on guard to prevent more of such stuff."
"I never thought of Ollie as the security man type," I said. I knew him as a whiner whose wife was long-suffering and whose landscaping business was down the tube because his clients complained that Ollie promised more than he delivered. Ollie was the kind of guy who never saw good in anything or anybody. Everything was tainted, stained, imperfect, worthy of criticism. He seemed permanently unhappy, snide, and suspicious. He was sure that life was a mean experience and that cynicism was the only realistic attitude to take toward it. He made me tired and I avoided him. But I felt sorry for him, too, when I thought of him at all. Like Grendel, he had the curse of Cain upon him and was doomed to journey forever joyless through the swamps of his world.
"Maybe Ron Pierson sees something in him that you don't," said Zee. "Maybe Ollie, being the kind of guy who always expects the worst, is just who you want for a watchman."
That hadn't occurred to me. Maybe there's a place for everyone, even the Ollie Matteses.
"To change to a happier subject," I said, "what say we to go for an evening sail tonight? After supper, for a couple of hours? The Shirley J hasn't been exercised in a while."
"Sounds good," said Zee, smiling, "and I'm sure the kids won't mind a bit."
The Shirley J was our eighteen-foot Herreshoff catboat. We kept it on a stake halfway between the Yacht Club and the Reading Room, two organizations that we had never been invited to join. We kept our dinghy on Collins Beach, chained to a piling of the Reading Room bulkhead so it couldn't be stolen by gentlemen sailors who needed a way to get back to their yachts late at night. I didn't mind their using the dinghy but I did object to them setting it adrift after they were through with it. After the third time local fishermen had found it heading to sea off the Edgartown lighthouse, I'd begun chaining it to the bulkhead.
That evening I rowed Zee and our kids out to the catboat. It had been a soft summer day, and the wind was warm and gentle from the southwest. There was barely a ripple on the waters of the harbor, but just enough wind for us to ghost out into Nantucket Sound and then watch the sun set as we reached Oak Bluffs.
Our son, Joshua, now in the second grade when not at sea, and Diana, his smaller sister, trailed fishing lines over the stern just in case a bluefish was there, and we had a lovely sail. Life on Martha's Vineyard seemed just fine.
As the night came down, we headed home, first on a long reach that took us almost to the Cape Pogue Gut before I began tacking back into Edgartown Harbor.
Thus it was that as we passed offshore of Pierson's Palace atop the North Neck cliffs of Chappaquiddick, Diana, the keen-eyed huntress, pointed through the thickening darkness and said, "What's that, Pa?"
The rest of us looked, but I saw nothing. "What did you see, Diana?"
"Something falling," said my daughter. "I can't see it now."
I stared at the cliffs and at the rocky beach below but still saw nothing. Just then a small gust of wind caught our sail and the Shirley J heeled and took my attention away from the shoreline.
We sailed on home under a fingernail moon and the night's first stars, and it wasn't until the following afternoon that I learned that Ollie Mattes had tumbled down the cliff below Pierson's Palace and broken his head on one of the rocks below.
A less important story was that the Silencer had struck again in Oak Bluffs, infuriating the houseful of college kids whose sound system had been melted, but delighting their neighbors.
Copyright © 2004 by Philip R. Craig