Frank Coffin’s office was windowless and cramped, hidden away in the darkest corner of the Town Hall basement, next to the boiler room. A fat sewage pipe ran the width of the ceiling; now and then a drop or two of ominous fluid plunked onto whatever paperwork lay strewn across Coffin’s desktop: condensation, he hoped.
In the old days, when his uncle Rudy was chief of police, Coffin’s office had been on the third floor. Small but sunlit, the upstairs office had high ceilings and two tall windows that looked out on the harbor. Then Rudy was forced to resign amid allegations of bribery and extortion, and when the new chief, Preston Boyle, arrived in May, his first official act had been to move Coffin into the basement. Nothing personal, Boyle had said. Coffin had been a cop for a long time: fourteen years in the Baltimore City Police Department—including nine in the homicide division—and eight years as Provincetown’s first and only police detective. He knew what was personal. Losing the upstairs office amounted to a demotion.
Coffin’s intercom buzzed. It was Jeff Skillings, the day’s desk officer. “Lady to see you, Frank. Says her husband’s missing.”
Melinda Merkin was a small woman with an unusually large head. She wore a lime green pantsuit. A diamond of at least two carats sparked on her left hand. Her hair was brown with frosted highlights and wispy bangs—a style, Coffin thought, directly out of the early eighties. She wore black sunglasses, which she took off as soon as she sat down. Her eyes were dark and tired and bulged like a terrier’s. Her eyebrows appeared to have been painted on. Skillings handed Coffin a manila folder as he showed her in.
“Good gravy, what a mess,” she said, when Skillings was gone. She dabbed at her eyes and nose with a shredded Kleenex. “If this gets in the papers, it’ll just be the end of us.”
“What do you mean, the end of us?” Coffin said. He wrote the word Merkin on the manila folder, then circled it. He looked inside. It contained a photograph of a man dressed in a blue suit, a small gold cross pinned to one lapel. A banner hung against a wall in the background. It read 1999 bible baptist conv——. The rest of the word was out of the frame.
“My husband is Ron Merkin,” the woman said. “The Reverend Ron Merkin. We’re on TV in thirty-seven states. If this gets out, the show’s over, Rover.”
Coffin leaned back in his chair. He’d seen Reverend Ron on TV once or twice while channel-surfing; he remembered a sweaty, angry man with white froth in the corners of his mouth. Merkin had built a large national following by showing up at gay bars, pride rallies, even the funerals of AIDS victims, followers in tow, chanting antigay slogans and brandishing crudely lettered signs that read like fourth-grade hate mail. Coffin suddenly felt angry and a little claustrophobic, trapped in his office with this odd woman and her accompanying cloud of perfume: lily of the valley, maybe; something floral and heavy.
“Reverend Ron,” he said, tapping his pencil on the desk. “He’s the God Hates Fags guy, right?”
“Lord, no—Ronnie’s thing is God Hates Homos. God Hates Fags belongs to someone else—it’s trademarked. We’d be drowning in deep doo-doo if we tried to use that.”
Coffin opened the folder, took out the photo, and placed it on his desk.
“So, if you don’t mind my asking,” Coffin said, “what’s your business in Provincetown? Performing a little missionary work among the heathen?”
“Look, Detective—” She stopped, hesitated for a moment. “I collect ceramic figurines.”
Coffin tried to interrupt, but she held up a shushing finger.
“Dog figurines, Detective. Mostly porcelain and china. Every shape and size, every breed, from every country and period you can think of. I’ve been collecting them for thirty years. Everywhere you look in my house, you’re looking at dog figurines. I mean, I’ve got thousands, literally. I couldn’t stop collecting now if I tried, and even if I could stop collecting them, I wouldn’t want to, you know what I mean?” She held up the finger again. “My husband, bless his heart, does not understand my thing for dog figurines. I’m sure there are moments when he wishes every surface in his house did not have a half-dozen china pooches sitting on it. I’m sure, Detective, that there are times when that poor man is sick to death of the whole shooting match. But does he criticize? Does he complain? Not very blessed much, I’m here to tell you. We all have our stuff, Detective. I’ve got mine, he’s got his; dollars to doughnuts you’ve got yours.”
She opened her bag, extracted a second photograph, and placed it on the desk in front of Coffin. It showed the same beefy man, standing in what looked like a motel room. He wore beige pumps—big ones—and a calf-length navy blue dress with a white Peter Pan collar.
Coffin couldn’t suppress a sharp bark of laughter. He looked up at Mrs. Merkin. “Sorry,” he said.
“That was taken last winter,” she said. “Key West.”
Coffin looked at the picture again. The big man seemed to be trying to straighten his wig, which was greenish-blond and looked as rumpled and forlorn as road kill.
Drag queens he could understand, sort of; there was something tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing, all that glitter and flash, a kind of burlesque-on/homage-to the whole idea of glamour in all its blowzy, tittering goofiness. The straight cross-dressers were harder to figure out—the just plain transvestites everyone in town called tall ships. The tall ships tended to be large men who strode up and down Commercial Street in plus-sized tweed skirts, support hose, and pumpkin-colored lipstick; craggy-faced and lonely-looking men with dispirited wigs and five o’clock shadows poking through pancake makeup. Sometimes they had their wives, even their kids in tow. They reminded Coffin of his Aunt Connie after she’d been through several rounds of chemotherapy.
“So, can you tell me what happened last night?” Coffin asked.
She nodded. “He got all fixed up and said he was going out to walk around, don’t wait up. That was around ten o’clock. I woke up a few times in the night, expecting him to be there, but he wasn’t.”
“He got dressed up and went out to walk around by himself?”
“As far as I know, yes.”
“Was that unusual?”
Melinda Merkin smiled a little with the left side of her mouth. “Well, not for Ronnie. He likes to be seen, without people knowing who he is. He likes that a lot.”
“Does your husband drink?” Coffin asked.
“He gave it up years ago. God told him to.”
“Any drug use that you know of?”
“No. He’s never messed with any of that stuff.”
Coffin hesitated. “Does your husband have affairs? One-night stands?”
Melinda Merkin furrowed her painted brows; deciding how much of the truth to tell, Coffin guessed.
“I guess a lot of men struggle with the lust thing at some point in their lives,” she said, “but Ronnie’s mellowed out in the last few years. He wasn’t exactly Casanova to begin with.”
Coffin placed the two photos side by side and looked at them closely. “Does your husband sleep with men, Mrs. Merkin?”
“No! Good Lord. Just because a man likes to wear a dress every now and then doesn’t make him queer.”
Coffin raised his eyebrows. “Did you two have an argument or anything last night, before he . . . ?”
She dabbed at her eyes again; the Kleenex was smeared with mascara. “I am too daggone tired out by all this business to fight about much of anything anymore, Detective. I’m not exactly jumping for joy, but I’m doing my best to deal with it, because I love my husband.”
Coffin slid the photos into the manila folder, along with his notes. “Mrs. Merkin,” he said, “odds are your husband will turn up in the next few days. We get one or two cases like this every year—it’s easy for out-of-towners to get swept up in things around here—but we haven’t permanently lost a husband yet.”
Mrs. Merkin looked him straight in the eye. “He’s a good man, you know. He takes good care of me and our children. He’s not some pervert—he’s a good, steady, God-fearing man, except for this one thing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Coffin said. “No one’s suggesting otherwise.” He waited a beat. “We’ll ask around as discreetly as we can. He’ll turn up.”
“Can I have my picture back? The one in the dress?”
“Maybe we’d better hold on to it for now, if this is how he’s likely to appear. We’ll keep it safe.”
Mrs. Merkin sighed. “It’s his sisters’ fault,” she said. “They used to dress him up like Tinker Bell when he was little.”
Later, briefing the night shift in the cramped squad room, Coffin handed out color Xeroxes of both photos of Ron Merkin. Jeff Skillings, Lola Winters, and Coffin’s cousin Tony were full-time, year-round officers; four part-time summer cops were also present. Everyone chuckled at the picture of the big man in the blue dress.
“What’s that on his head?” Tony said.
“I think it’s a marmot,” said one of the summer cops.
“Please keep an eye out for this gentleman,” Coffin said. “His name is Ron Merkin. He didn’t come home last night, and his wife would like him back.”
Skillings was grinning. “Ron Merkin?” he said. “Not the Reverend Ron Merkin?”
“That’s right,” Coffin said. “Do not discuss Mr. Merkin’s appearance in this photo with anyone outside the department, especially the news media. No matter how tempting it might be.”
Then Chief Boyle took over the meeting. He was small and red-faced and wore his hair combed over a speckled bald spot. Four months ago, Boyle had been deputy police chief in Ashtabula, Ohio. He was, according to the Ashtabula PD, an excellent administrator, scrupulously honest, a man who believed in doing things under budget and by the book. In a press release, Provincetown’s Board of Selectmen had described him as “the perfect candidate.” He was the exact opposite of Coffin’s uncle Rudy.
“For the past several years,” he began, eyebrows bristling, “the PPD has turned a blind eye to drug use and public indecency among the gay community.”
This was essentially true, Coffin knew. Police did not patrol the gay clubs hoping to bust ecstasy dealers, nor did they harass the men who frequented the darker shadows of the town beach at night. Coffin’s uncle Rudy had believed that there was no percentage in pissing off the gay community, a stand with which the selectpersons, most of whom were merchants or bar owners or guest-house proprietors or owners of significant real estate or otherwise invested in the town’s economic health, wholeheartedly agreed.
“Starting tonight,” Boyle continued, “that’s going to change. Tonight, at 0230 hours, we will conduct a raid on Havemeyer’s Wharf.”
Coffin groaned. His cousin Tony turned to one of the summer cops. “The dick dock,” he whispered loudly.
Boyle held up a warning forefinger. “Residents have complained. The situation has gotten out of control. I was hired to keep the peace and ensure public safety, and that’s what I intend to do.”
The dick dock poked into the harbor like a crooked finger, warted along its length with rickety cottages. It was one of Provincetown’s busiest late-night trysting places; during the peak summer months, on warm nights, dozens of gay men gathered on the beach beneath the spindly pier, where many indulged in anonymous sex, paired off or in groups. Even a year or two ago, Coffin could not have imagined the residents of those cottages objecting; in the “old” days, people had rented there precisely because they wanted to be part of the scene. Now that the Havemeyer cottages had all been condoized and were selling for ten times Coffin’s annual salary, the new, wealthy residents were apparently not amused by the dick dock’s nocturnal mating ritual.
Boyle waved a handful of plastic handcuffs. “Everyone make sure you’ve got plenty of twisties. Make sure you wear gloves. Watch out for needles, in the sand and in pockets. And be aware that drug possession counts on this one: If they’re holding, they’re busted.”
Coffin raised his hand.
“What is it, Coffin?”
“Tomorrow’s women-only hot tub night at the Spinnaker Inn,” he said. “Are we planning to raid them, too?”
Boyle’s brows bristled and twitched. “We’re talking about public indecency, Coffin,” he said. “Lewd conduct. You can’t just go down to the beach and do the funky monkey anytime you want. No particular group of people in this town is above the law. No matter what your uncle the shakedown artist thought.”
“Good for us, sir,” said Jeff Skillings, face completely deadpan. Skillings had been on the force for fifteen years and had lived openly with his partner, Mark, a manager at Fishermen’s Bank, for five.
“What’s that, Skillings?” Boyle said.
“Stamping out indecency and all, sir—it’s about time.”
One of the summer cops squirmed in his seat. “Uh, Chief?” he said, raising his hand.
“What is it, Pinsky?”
“What’s the policy on using force—like, if somebody resists arrest? Just nightsticks? Or can we take the tasers along, just in case?”
“Too bad we don’t have bullwhips,” Skillings said, still straight-faced.
The summer cops nodded. Coffin laughed.
“You got something else to say, Coffin?”
“Just laughing, Chief,” Coffin said.
“Well, stop it.”
Coffin’s shift was over; when he got home, he would make a couple of calls. News of the impending raid would travel fast.
Copyright © 2007 by Jon Loomis. All rights reserved.