He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had forgotten something, and not long after walking through his door he narrowed it down to whether or not he had turned off the quartz heater he used to keep warm as he worked. It would have been easy, as beat as he was after a long day of gutting the restaurant’s bathrooms to get at a plumbing problem, for such a thing to have slipped his mind. Grueling work, tearing out perfectly good dry wall to get at pipe, more so because he had to do it alone, couldn’t afford to hire help. Plus he knew very little about plumbing, was clearly in over his head, but a restaurant—a successful restaurant—could be a gold mine, would set him up for life, if he was lucky, and certainly that was worth doing whatever needed to be done.
Of course, he probably had turned the heater off, had done so without thinking—so much of what he did these days was habit by now, and he could see himself, if he thought about it, just walking right past the still-running unit in his hurry to get out of there and get home, get himself clean and warm and dry and then have nothing at all to do except rest up for tomorrow’s long day. But he couldn’t chance that he hadn’t turned it off, knew that much at least; the last thing he needed was a fire and the investigation that would follow. It would be likely, should his place suddenly burn to the ground, that the authorities would suspect arson—he was so far over his head financially, and Memorial Day was approaching fast, how could they not? But even if he had shut the damn heater off, even if he could to talk himself into believing that, into seeing himself doing that before he left, there would still be a doubt somewhere in his mind, and that would mean a night of troubled sleep. The last thing he really needed was that.
No, there wasn’t any choice in the matter. He had to drive back and check.
He had parked his pickup truck in the lot behind his apartment building, hurried to it now through the rain—rainiest March on record, the weatherman had said this morning— and climbed in behind the wheel, cranking the ignition. The engine was running rough, but he expected that; there was a problem in the wiring he had been unable as of yet to fix. Everything he owned was a fixer-upper, but if the restaurant was a hit, if the summer was everything he hoped it would be, and if he made it through that first winter, when nine out of ten restaurants on the East End failed, then everything would change, everything he needed he could simply have, easily have, and he would no longer need to scramble around for money. And wasn’t that what all this was about?
He shifted into gear, steered out of the back lot and made his way through the village to Hill Street. A little more than a mile later, where the two-lane road opened up and became Montauk Highway, the speed limit jumping from thirty up to fifty-five, he eased down on the accelerator and followed the shimmering road west, moving at an even sixty miles per hour toward violence.
The restaurant was on the other side of the Shinnecock Hills, on the eastern edge of the canal. He made the ride there in silence, didn’t want to risk hearing anything more on the radio about the record-breaking rain; he’d live and die by the weather soon enough, when the restaurant opened. Just after he passed the hills and reached the bridge that spanned the canal—one of three, all within sight of his restaurant’s deck—he veered right onto North Road. Tide Runner’s, a single-story building on the water’s edge, was the first left after that. He rolled into the lot, over the packed dirt and broken seashells and through the long puddles, parked and killed the lights. Grabbing his keys from the console between his front seats, he climbed out and headed for the set of plank stairs that led down to the restaurant’s door.
Inside, the place was dark and cool, like a cave. He didn’t bother to turn on any lights; the entire west side of the building was a series of large glass windows that let in the light from the canal, which was as brightly lit as a border crossing. Plenty of light, then, for him to see by. He made his way past the long bar and through the dining room to the kitchen. Pushing the swinging door open, he felt a current of dry, hot air against his face and knew that he had, in fact, left the heater running. The sound of the rain pounding on the roof had probably caused him not to hear the hum of the unit and therefore forget all about it in his rush to get home. He switched the heater off, then gave its power cord a tug, pulling its plug from the wall socket. Simply flipping a power switch seemed too little of a thing to have brought him all the way back here like this. He was on his way through the dining room, in a second rush to get out of there and get home, when he heard something that made him stop short.
He wasn’t sure what it was, only that he had definitely heard something. Something strange. It came from outside, he knew that much, beyond the glass and wood that surrounded him. The restaurant, like most places by the water, was solidly built, but not so much as to keep outside noises from finding their way in. The more he thought about it, the more he thought what he had heard was a scream. A man’s scream. Very little could be mistaken for that. Still, he immediately doubted himself—it could have been the cry of a gull or maybe even the squeal of a tire, from some car suddenly braking on the Montauk Highway bridge. Who, after all, would be out there on a night like this? The Montauk Highway bridge was visible from where he stood, and looking toward it he saw nothing, no cars stopped or about to crash, just the steel bridge standing solemnly in the rain. He looked then at the deck just beyond the large window. Empty now, in the summer it would be, he hoped, full of people eagerly and freely spending money. He looked for a gull but saw no sign of one, not sitting on a railing or riding the steady current of air moving through the canal. Finally, he looked toward the train bridge, which of the three bridges— Montauk Highway to the south, Sunrise Highway to the north, the train bridge in the center—was nearest to the restaurant, no more than a hundred feet or so away. It was a narrow span of riveted steel that crossed the water, no more than thirty feet above it. Something there caught his eye, some kind of motion on the far side of it. Several long seconds of him staring at the bridge was what was needed for his brain to make sense of what his eyes were detecting.
Something was hanging from the bridge. Swaying, not rhythmically, as it would if its motion were caused by the wind, but frantically, violently even. Finally his mind was able to make sense of what he was seeing, put together what exactly it meant.
Someone was hanging from the bridge—not from its edge but well below it. A man, his head bent forward at a sharp angle and his feet kicking wildly.
There was no mistaking it then, as much as he wished this were a mistake, that this wasn’t at all what was happening.
Someone was being hanged.
This wasn’t the only motion, though. Directly above this dangling man was what appeared to be a scuffle among three men—two standing, one prostrate, each of the two standing figures bent at the waist. One of these figures dropped to his knees, raised his hand over his head and brought it down, then raised it again and brought it down a second time. A hacking motion more than a punch. Each time the man’s hand came down, another quick scream broke and echoed, muffled by the rain, down the length of the canal.
The scuffle ended after that, and seconds later the figure of another man suddenly appeared below the bridge. This man didn’t fall but was instead lowered slowly—first his legs came into view, kicking, and then his body till he came to a stop at the rope’s end. The man hanging beside him, just a few feet away, was no longer moving now, simply hanging limp, his arms at his sides, his body twisting stiffly in the wind.
It was then, his breath beginning to fog the glass before him, that he witnessed two men running from the bridge, heading toward the other side of the canal, the Hampton Bays side. They were nothing more to him than two dark figures in motion, one right behind the other. Clearing the bridge quickly, they disappeared from his sight, following the train tracks west, leaving the two bodies hanging dead, or close enough to it, above the dark, rushing water.
Back in his truck—he had been overcome by the reflex to run, to just get out of there, and so he had bolted from his place as if it were on fire—he fumbled for the cell phone in the pocket of his jeans, dug it out and dialed 911 with trembling fingers.
A half mile east of the canal, in a dark cottage, Jake Bechet awoke to the sound of rain. He lay still for a while, adrift, then finally sat up, careful not to disturb the woman still asleep beside him. The darkness to which he had awakened was total, so he wouldn’t have been able to see the woman even if he looked for her, not that he needed to; he knew by the sound of her breathing that she was still sound asleep. Her name was Gabrielle Marie Olivo. Five foot ten, more beautiful, he thought, than he deserved, easily more so than he was used to. Black hair worn short because long hair was a bother, slender but not without strength, naked now, the way she always slept, even in the dead of winter, curled upon herself between satin sheets, the only carryover from her former life as a daughter of privilege. The cottage was her place, a year-round rental, the bed her bed. Bechet felt this way even though he had slept beside her, without a single day’s exception, for a little more than a year. A long time for him—and for her, too, from what he gathered. They didn’t often talk about their pasts. What was there, really, to say? He paused now, listening for Gabrielle’s breathing, separating it from the sound of the rain, heard no change in it at all. It took a lot to wake her; she was, in this way, fortunate.
Finally Bechet moved to the foot of the bed, sat there on the edge of the sagging mattress and looked toward the window nearest to him. Normally, even with the curtain drawn, this window was a source of some semblance of light—starlight, moonlight, the lights of the town of Riverhead reflected off clouds, something by which he could see at least the shape of the room and the furniture around him. Familiar contours in a faint wash of blue. Tonight, though, there was nothing to see but utter blackness. He sat still within it, felt a little as if he had been swallowed up by it, as ready now to begin the arduous process of rising as he was going to get.
He, too, was naked, the air around him chilly, but the cold would do him good, help him more quickly shake off the effects of his too-long slumber. When it came to that, to waking and getting to his feet, he needed all the help he could get. He and Gabrielle had made love in the morning, during the quiet time between when she returned from work around four and they turned in at six, as the sun was only just threatening to rise. In the solemn predawn it always felt to them as if they were the only two souls left in the world, a sense that had the effect of somehow deepening their intimacy. No one to hear them, no one but them. Gabrielle was her most uninhibited at this time, almost raw. Fearless, intense. Bechet was powerful but restrained. Between them, the elements of a complex storm. There was nothing better than that hour they had together, the act of pleasure that both bonded them and finally, completely exhausted them, put an end at last to the workday. This morning, Gabrielle had fallen quickly into her usual deep sleep, had done so with her heart still fluttering, her dark hair matted with sweat. Unable to move, she had whispered, smiling, then gone, asleep. Bechet had remained awake for a time, took longer to relax afterward, but eventually found his way into blissful unconsciousness.
Excerpted from The Water’s Edge by Daniel Judson.
Copyright 2008 by Daniel Judson.
Published in July 2008 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.