Book excerpt

Fire Season

Frank Coffin Mysteries

Jon Loomis

St. Martin's Press

Chapter 1
July 5
Gray dawn, damp and still, unseasonably cold. The police detective moved slowly, fog roiling around him. He took a photograph of one of the dead seals. Its back was dark gray, its belly mottled, lighter. Two more lay near it, their blood smeared across the broad concrete patio. Twenty feet away but barely visible, the harbor lipped at the long, lion-colored sweep of the town beach—the dark water keeping its secrets. On Long Point, an automated foghorn hooted at twelve-second intervals.
The camera flashed, then flashed again. Dozens of gulls wheeled and shrieked overhead, while others landed and tore at the seals with hooked yellow beaks. The seals had only been dead a few hours, but already the gulls had pecked out their eyes and were hungrily peeling away their spaniel faces. A litter of spent shotgun shells lay among the savaged bodies, red plastic casings glowing weirdly in the muted light. The policeman stopped taking pictures, picked up one of the casings, sniffed it, rolled it in his hand. It was a standard Winchester 12-gauge; you could buy them at any gun shop on the planet. He put the casing in his pocket.
The police detective was named Frank Coffin. He was forty-seven, dressed in khakis, black cotton sweater, leather jacket. Just under 6' 2", Coffin slouched a bit, as if apologizing for his height. He wore a mustache, once black but now closer to steel gray, not as neatly trimmed as it might have been. His partner, a young uniformed police sergeant named Lola Winters, stood a few feet away, hands on her hips.
“This pisses me off,” she said, frowning.
“It’s not good,” Coffin said. “I like seals.”
Lola scowled. “What is fucking wrong with people?” She stopped, gathered herself, then went on in a low, controlled voice. “Who would do this, Frank? What kind of nutcase would just walk in and shoot them?”
Coffin shook his head. “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
Lola wiped a hand over her face. “Sorry,” she said. “I just don’t get cruelty to animals. It doesn’t compute, you know?”
“I know,” Coffin said. “You’re right. It’s fucked-up.”
A green and yellow banner flapped glumly above their heads, a line of text between two grinning cartoon seals. YAYA’S: HOME OF THE HAPPY SEALS, it read.
Yaya’s was one of the three-dozen or so tourist restaurants crammed into Provincetown’s two-mile stretch of waterfront. The owner, a big Greek named Stecopoulos, gazed down into the seals’ blue pool. A couple of them floated there, hectored by gulls, dark eyeholes staring, ragged streamers of blood drifting around their bodies. The other three were scattered among the plastic café tables and chairs where, during the summer season, Yaya’s customers ate ten-dollar gyros or falafels. If those customers were lucky enough to arrive at feeding time, they could have watched as one of Stecopoulos’s summer workers dropped live mackerel down the gullets of the sleek, sharp-toothed seals.
One of those employees was sitting at a table, staring blankly out at the harbor. His name, Stecopoulos had said, was Maurice. He was below average height, maybe 5' 8", thick through the arms and shoulders.
“What’s your last name, Maurice?” Coffin said.
“It’s Duval,” Stecopoulos said. “It’s French Canadian. He lives in Orleans, drives in every day.”
Maurice nodded. “Yep,” he said.
Coffin poked at one of the seals with the toe of his boot. “Any idea who might have done this, Maurice?”
Maurice shook his head slowly. His hair was dark, close-cropped. “Nope.”
“You don’t talk much, do you, Maurice?”
Maurice scratched at something on his arm. He wore jeans and a white T-shirt, no jacket. He did not appear to be cold. “I guess not,” he said.
Stecopoulos’s eyes were red. Coffin wondered if he’d been crying. Or drinking. “Maurice found them. He comes in early to feed them, scoop the seal crap out of their pool—you know. He’s my seal guy.”
Was, Coffin thought. “How long have you been taking care of the seals, Maurice?”
“Couple years.”
“You work here year-round?”
“Off-season he just takes care of the seals,” Stecopoulos said. Even though it was early in the morning, he chewed the charred, wet stub of a green cigar. “They stay right out here on the patio all winter—no problem. Summer he puts in extra hours doing this and that—handyman stuff, odd jobs.”
Coffin nodded. “Got it,” he said.
Maurice coughed, cleared his throat. He looked a bit like a seal himself, Coffin thought. His head was round, his hair dark and sleek. “Look, I know what you’re thinking,” Maurice said.
“Okay,” Coffin said. “What am I thinking?”
“You’re thinking I had something to do with this, ’cause I found them. That’s how it works, right? The person who reports the body is the murderer, like, most of the time?”
“A lot of the time, yeah.”
“But I didn’t do it. I thought about setting them free sometimes, but I’d never kill them.”
“Maurice is a good kid,” Stecopoulos said. “I vouch for him a hundred percent. His mother used to work for me back in the day, waiting tables. We’re old friends, his mom and me. I’ve known Maurice all his life—right, kid?”
Maurice nodded. “Yep.”
“And he’s not bullshitting you—he loved those seals. He told me more than once he’d come and take care of them for nothing if I couldn’t afford to pay him anymore.”
“Okay.” Coffin nodded. “Great. You’re no longer the prime suspect, Maurice.”
“Cool,” Maurice said.
Stecopoulos coughed, cleared his throat, spat through the fence toward the beach. “Tell me something, Officer…”
“Detective Coffin.”
“Coffin? Really? Hell of a name for a cop.”
“You should meet my cousin Tom,” Coffin said.
Stecopoulos stared at him for a moment. “Why, what is he—an undertaker?”
“Bingo. In Sandwich.”
Stecopoulos nodded, chewed his cigar. “Those guys fucking print money. Doesn’t matter if the economy’s good or bad—people still croak.”
“He does all right,” Coffin said, taking another picture.
Stecopoulos said nothing for a long minute. He looked at the dead seals, then out toward the fog-shrouded harbor. “I’m stuck the same place as the lady officer here,” he said finally, nodding toward Lola. “What kind of sick fuck would do this? What kind of sick fuck would shoot poor, harmless seals?”
Coffin imagined the seals trying to escape, heaving frantically, slowly across the cracked concrete slab surrounding the pool, away from whomever was shooting at them. He had quit smoking again, hadn’t so much as touched a cigarette in more than a month, but the sight of the dead seals made him desperate to light up. “You said the neighbors complained about them?”
“Neighbors!” Stecopoulos snorted, dismissing the looming bulk of the Crown and Anchor Hotel with a wave of his cigar butt. “Yeah, they bitched me out about the barking. Seals bark, you know. Kind of like dogs. They stay up all night—”
“The seals?”
“No, no—the fucking drag queens. They stay up all night doing whatever the hell they do, then they sleep all day. The seals wake up a little before dawn. Except when they see other seals out in the harbor, that’s when they do most of their barking.” Stecopoulos’s eyes misted over. “Like they’re happy to be alive.”
Coffin walked slowly around the concrete patio. “So the drag queens complained. They do anything else?”
“They threatened to sue me,” Stecopoulos said. “They called the health department, the humane society, the fish and game commission, the Coast Guard, God knows what else. They called the police a few times. You guys must have a file.”
Coffin nodded. He doubted there was any such file.
“There’s no law against owning harbor seals, you know,” Stecopoulos said, as if he’d been accused of something. “As long as you get a permit from fish and game, which I’ve had since the sixties. They’re not endangered or anything, and these were zoo stock, not taken from the wild. There’s no law against seals barking, either, except maybe disturbing the peace. But you know what goes on over there.” He waved his cigar butt again, this time a gesture of tired dismissal. “They didn’t have a leg to stand on and they knew it. They were pretty pissed.”
Coffin thought for a while, still yearning for a cigarette. “Do you think they did it?” he asked finally. “The drag queens?”
Stecopoulos stared at him again. “You tell me,” he said, after a moment. “A guy who spends his nights lip-synching ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ in spike heels and a feather boa? He’s gonna climb my fence with a shotgun and do this? You’re the cop. You tell me.”
*   *   *
An hour later, Coffin and Lola were sitting in the Crown and Anchor’s backstage dressing room, surrounded by chattering drag queens. Mostly the drag queens wore shabby bathrobes or sweatpants; a couple clutched lacy dressing gowns over their skinny chests. All of them smoked; some had cups of coffee. They sprawled on ratty couches, slouched in worn-out chairs. None had their wigs on, though a few still wore makeup from the night before, lipstick hastily reapplied, beard stubble poking through thick foundation. It was like sitting in a room full of plucked chickens, Coffin thought.
“It would really help if we could just focus for a few more minutes,” Coffin said. The room quieted, slightly.
One drag queen, a slender blond, raised his hand. “Question,” he said.
Coffin shifted in his chair. It was straight-backed, wooden, and squeaked whenever he moved. “Ask away,” he said.
The blond took a long, slow drag from his cigarette, held between the tips of his slender middle and index fingers. He let the smoke out slowly.
Coffin waited.
“So are we suspects?” the drag queen said at last. “Are we, like, not supposed to leave town?”
“No, you’re not suspects,” Coffin said. “Yes, you can leave town. Now, if we could just make sure we understand a couple of things, we’ll let you-all get back to bed.”
The drag queens nodded in languid agreement.
“Fine,” Coffin said. “Just so we know we have it straight—none of you saw or heard anything unusual last night. Specifically gunshots, suspicious persons, unusual vehicle traffic—nothing like that?”
The drag queens shook their heads.
The blond raised his hand again. “I’ll bet it happened during the fireworks,” he said. “All that banging and flashing, you could set off a bomb in the middle of Commercial Street and no one would notice.”
“I thought the display was kind of weak this year,” a brunet said. “Must be the budget cuts. They just didn’t have much oomph.”
Coffin cleared his throat. “All of you were in the show as usual—nobody left early or called in sick, correct?”
The drag queens nodded.
“Now this one’s important,” Coffin said. “We’ve Xeroxed your IDs in the office, we have all of your information. Does anyone in this room own or have in their possession a twelve-gauge shotgun?”
A few of the drag queens tittered. The rest shook their heads.
“Okay, last question: Is there a twelve-gauge shotgun on the property here, that you know of?”
“No shotgun,” the blond drag queen said. “Not that I’ve ever seen. But Rocky keeps a loaded pistol behind the bar, and Kirby carries a pistol when he makes the night deposit. A big one.”
“Oh my God,” one of the other drag queens said, holding his hands about a foot apart. “It’s huge.
Coffin shrugged. “Okay. That’s it for me. Lola?”
“One thing,” Lola said. “Very quick.”
The drag queens sighed.
“How did you-all feel about the seals?” Lola said. “They were noisy, right?”
The drag queens nodded. “Noisy,” said the blond drag queen. “A pain in the ass. Even with the windows closed they’d wake you up at freaking five thirty in the morning.”
“You sleep here?” Lola said.
The drag queens nodded. “Sometimes, after a show,” the blond said. “After the after-party.”
“And the after-after-party,” the brunet said.
“We might be too tipsy to drive home,” the blond said. “So we just crash here. There are a couple of guest rooms reserved for the performers.”
Coffin smoothed his mustache. “So the seals were a pain in the ass?”
“But they were also really cute,” a redheaded drag queen said. A murmur of assent went up around the room.
So cute,” another drag queen said. “Those soulful eyes. Like Dorothy.”
Just like Dorothy,” another of the drag queens said, nodding fervently. “In the scene where she sings ‘Over the Rainbow.’”
“So did they ever make any of you mad enough you’d want to shoot them?”
“Oh my God, no,” the blond said. He made a sweeping gesture, tilting his head a bit to one side. “I mean, look at us—none of us would hurt a fly.”
Coffin looked at Lola, who shrugged. “Okay,” said Coffin. “We’re done. You have our cards—if you think of anything you forgot to tell us, anything that might be important, give us a call.”

Copyright © 2012 by Jon Loomis
JON LOOMIS, a college professor, is the author of two Frank Coffin mysteries and two collections of poetry. The recipient of a number of fellowships and awards including the FIELD poetry prize, he lives in Wisconsin with his family.