The Gray and Guilty Sea
by Jack Nolte
THE WOMAN WASHED UP ON THE BEACH at sunset—a girl, really, eighteen or nineteen by the looks of her, dressed in black lace panties and a white tank-top. No doubt she was dead. Gage had seen enough dead bodies to know.
A fierce wind blew back his hair. His bare hand, gripping his cane, was numb from the cold. The approaching storm stretched along the horizon like an old metal coil, the hint of orange like rust in the dark, tightly-wound clouds. Above the clouds, the sky was flat and sterile like dull silver; beneath the clouds, only the white-capped swells broke up the gray monotony of the ocean. It would be dark in twenty minutes. Gage, groggy from an early bourbon, had almost skipped his evening walk. How different his life would have been if he had.
The girl had the look of an exhausted swimmer, body half out of the surf, half on the sand, head resting on one outstretched arm. But one ankle was tangled in sea kelp, sand and mud streaked her milky skin like paint splatters on white porcelain, and both eyes were wide and unblinking. Even from twenty paces, he could see her eyes—two slashes of white in all that gray.
The beach was deserted. Far to his right, two miles away, Gage could make out the twinkling lights of the Golden Eagle Casino. To his left were the beginnings of the many cliffs that gave the city of Barnacle Bluffs its name. Gage hesitated, watching the girl, hoping for some sign of movement even when he knew there would be none, then ambled toward her.
His right knee throbbed. It was always worse in the winter, when the damp air seeped into all those cracks in his surgically repaired knee. It never got that cold on the Oregon coast, which was one of the reasons he’d moved there after Janet died, but it got cold enough. It didn’t take much for Gage to feel cold. Not anymore.
When he reached the girl, his heart was pounding, and he knew it had nothing to do with physical exertion. He’d thought he was past all this.
It was only up close that he saw the lacerations on her wrists and ankles, the bruise-marks on her thighs, the sunken eye sockets that made her face look like a skull. Her dark blond hair tangled around her face and neck like seaweed. Her mouth was open in a silent scream. She was maybe five-two, ninety pounds at most. He doubted she’d been dead more than twenty-four hours. She didn’t smell like death yet. She just smelled like salt water.
“Where did you come from?” he said.
There was no answer.
* * * * *
It was raining by the time the police arrived. Gage didn’t own a cell phone, or any phone for that matter, but there was a pay phone at the gas station across the street, just on the other side of Highway 101. Gage could have made the call from Mattie’s house, up the hill behind the station, but that was another ten minutes of painful walking and he’d wanted to be back at the beach by the time the police arrived. He didn’t know why. It wasn’t like he wanted to be involved. It was more that he felt obligated by finding her.
That had been his second mistake.
There was still enough light to see, though barely. Two police cars arrived, sirens blaring, the threads of rain visible in the beams lancing over the beach. The parking lot was up ten feet on the bluff, behind the metal barricade. Seconds later two officers charged down the grassy dune. Both ran with their right hands over their holsters. One of the officers was much heavier than the other.
Gage’s leather jacket had no hood, and the rain quickly soaked his hair. Cold water dribbled down his forehead. The thin cop, a kid with a Brad Pitt face, continued to the body while the larger one charged up to Gage. He had a doughy face, a thick brown mustache, and no hair but a fine brown ring around his scalp. The brass badge on his navy blue coat shimmered in the rain.
“What time did you find her?” he asked.
“What time did I call it in?” Gage said.
“Are you trying to be a smart alec?”
“No, I just don’t wear a watch.”
More sirens, more headlights appearing up on the bluff. The young cop dropped to his knees and felt for a pulse on her wrist. He looked at them.
“She’s dead,” he said.
“Well of course,” Gage said. “Isn’t that what I told you on the phone?”
The heavier one blinked a few times at this, then looked back at Gage. There were more cops barreling down the dune, and two paramedics carrying a stretcher. The heavy cop in front of Gage flipped open a little black notebook. Water speckled the white paper.
“Your name, sir?” he said.
Gage shivered; the water dribbling down his back was ice cold. There was commotion all around them now—the paramedics trying to revive her, the cops conferring. Up on the bluff, a few looky-loos had come of the houses lining the beach and peered down at the spectacle from their decks. The heavy cop slipped the little pen from the side of the notebook. When he noticed Gage hadn’t answered, he glanced up with a questioning look.
“Problem?” he said.
“Oh, no,” Gage said. It was a lie. He hadn’t planned on giving his name, and now he saw how stupid it had been to wait around. An anonymous call would have been fine. But what could he do now? “Gage. Garrison Gage. I live just on the other side of the highway.”
“And you’ve never seen this girl before in your life?”
“Why do you think she was here?”
“How the hell should I know?”
The cop grimaced. “What’s your phone number?”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“You don’t have a phone?”
The cop sighed. “What about an address, Gary? Do you have one of those?”
“Don’t call me Gary.”
“Okay. What should I call you?”
“Don’t call me anything.”
The cop narrowed his already narrow eyes. Gage felt his frustration rise, creeping into him like the coldness in his knee. He’d forgotten what most cops were like. One of the other cops was taking digital pictures of the girl, the flash strobing the body. The paramedics were readying their stretcher for her.
“Are you trying to be a problem?” the cop said.
“No. I’m not trying to be anything at all.”
Then he gave the cop his address. He answered the rest of their questions. And when they said he could, he went home.
A LITTLE AFTER NINE THE NEXT MORNING, someone knocked on his door. Gage was nearly finished with the crossword in the latest Oregonian. The first knocks were tentative, three gentle raps that he could barely hear over the whistling wind. But when Gage ignored these, the next knocks were more forceful.
He put down his pen. Looking beyond his dining room table, piled with enough books and magazines that someone might have mistaken it for a library rummage sale, he saw the wide expanse of the ocean through his bay window, above the rooftops of the houses on the slope below. The clouds had cleared overnight, the sky a bright cobalt blue. It might as well have been summer. But it was a deceiving sky, because he knew from when he’d stepped out to get the paper how cold it had been, how brittle and strong the breeze.
When he’d moved to the coast, he’d disabled the doorbell and put up both No Solicitation and Beware of Dog signs. That had mostly done the trick. But there were always a few people who knocked anyway. Illiterate fools.
He limped to the foyer, the peeling linoleum like ice against his bare feet. The smell of burnt toast hung in the air; he could never get that damn toaster working right. He tied his bathrobe and flung open the door.
“What is it, then?” he said.
He expected a vacuum salesman or a kid hocking magazine subscriptions, a frivolous interruption. Instead a sober-faced man in a gray trench coat stood on his concrete stoop; he wore a narrow blue tie, a white shirt. He had thinning gray hair and bushy black eyebrows, his face long and gaunt. He made Gage think of a slightly heavier version of Mister Rogers. Still, there was no denying he was a cop. Gage had seen thousands of cops over the years and they all had the same look about them—a wary earnestness.
The arbor vitae at the back of Gage’s property swayed in the breeze. The cool air penetrated his thin cotton robe, making him shiver.
“More questions?” Gage said.
The man smiled kindly. He had yellow teeth, and one of his incisors was capped with gold. “Garrison Gage?” he said.
“I’m Percy Quinn. Chief of Police in Barnacle Bluffs.”
It was a small town, and deaths like the girl on the beach were rare, but he was still surprised that the Chief himself was paying a visit. “Well, thank heavens,” he said. “You’re a few months late, but the kids playing the loud music live just down at the end of the drive.”
Quinn chuckled. He had that look about him of a patient grandfather. “Can I have a few minutes of your time?”
The man’s smile stayed the same, but his eyes changed; it was like watching water freeze. “Humor me,” he said.
Gage shrugged and stepped back so Quinn could enter. Standing close, Gage caught the whiff of cigarette smoke, and he could just make out the outline of the revolver holster beneath Quinn’s coat.
Without a word, Gage limped to his table and settled into his chair. He took a drink from his coffee, which had grown cold; it was black, except for just a splash of Irish cream, just the way he liked it. A log in the stove crackled. Quinn stood behind one of the other chairs, hands gripping the walnut frame. He glanced at the coffee cup as if waiting for Gage to offer. Gage didn’t.
“I don’t want to take much of your time—” Quinn began.
“Well, that’s good,” Gage said.
The man looked a bit pained. It really was like insulting Mister Rogers. “I’m hoping we can be friends.”
“Hope can be a dangerous thing.”
“Man, you’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”
“Make what easy?”
Quinn pulled out the chair. He turned it around backwards and straddled it. “You see the news this morning?”
“I don’t have a television,” Gage said.
“No television. No phone. You’re quite the character.”
“Thank you. I mean that sincerely.”
“Look,” Quinn said, “this is really just a courtesy call, that’s all. I want you to know that we didn’t give your name to the media. We just told them a homeless man stumbled upon the girl.”
“Well, that’s an upgrade for me,” Gage said.
“I thought you’d appreciate it. You see, I . . . I know who you are, Gage. I know all that business you were involved with before. All that work you did with the FBI. I . . . know what happened back in New York. I am sorry about your wife. About what they did to you. Everything.”
Gage said nothing. He looked at his crossword. Ironically, the theme was the ocean. The clue was broken boat. Eleven letters, and it ended with a “d.”
“Shipwrecked,” Gage said.
Gage wrote it in.
“Oh, right,” Quinn said. “My wife’s into those too. Though she’s more into that other thing—what’s it called? The thing with numbers.”
“Sudoku,” Gage said.
“Right. Look, here’s the deal. You kind of slipped into Barnacle Bluffs under the radar. That’s fine. I can see why you’re here. Lots of folks come here for the same reason. To get away. To forget. Whatever.”
“I just like the view,” Gage said.
“But here’s the thing,” Quinn went on, “we’re a small town. We might seem big because of all the tourists, especially in the summer, but when you get down to it this place is just a village. This thing with the girl, it’s already all over the news. A Portland crew showed up here this morning. It’ll be front page in tomorrow’s Oregonian. That’s more than enough attention. We don’t need your name getting mixed up in this. It’ll turn this place into a circus.”
“Who doesn’t like the circus?” Gage said.
“Can’t you be serious? Even stupid reporters can type your name into Google. Then they’ll be swarming this place, getting the wrong idea, wondering how you’re all mixed up in the girl’s death when we both know you got nothing to do with it. I’m just asking you to lie low, that’s all. I don’t mind you living here—”
“That’s very generous of you.”
“—but if you could just, well, stay retired, I’d appreciate it. And we’ll keep you out of it.”
Finally, Gage looked up. “Do you know who she is?”
“The girl. Who is she?”
Quinn’s brow furrowed, his enormous eyebrows like mirrored checkmarks. “Why?”
“Well, we don’t know yet. No ID on her, obviously. And nothing came up in the databases on her fingerprints. They’re doing an autopsy on her now, so maybe we can find out more.”
“They know the cause of death?” Gage said. “Was it drowning, or did she die beforehand?”
Quinn hesitated. “I’m getting a bit uncomfortable with these questions, Mister.”
“I’m a bit uncomfortable when a girl washes up on a beach below my house—especially one like that with marks on her wrists and ankles.”
Quinn offered up a tight-lipped smile. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were opening up an investigation.”
“Well, it’s good that you know better.”
“Gage, I wish you wouldn’t make this hard. We got this thing covered, all right? Right now she’s a Jane Doe. Maybe she was a runaway. Maybe she was abducted. Maybe she’s even a local, but nobody’s come forward. It’ll come out in time, trust me. We have a deal?”
Gage looked at his crossword. He’d stopped trusting cops a long time ago. He’d stopped trusting pretty much everyone—not that he ever really did. There was a faint flicker of curiosity in the back of his mind, but he wasn’t going to let it turn into anything. Not now. Not after so much time. How long had it been? Five years? He wouldn’t even know where to begin.
“I don’t see any reason to get involved,” he said. “I’m not a private investigator any more. I’m just a guy who does crosswords. That’s my whole purpose in life—doing crosswords. I’ve probably done thousands of them. I’ll probably do thousands more.”
Quinn laughed. Gage, not smiling, looked at him.
“I wasn’t joking,” he said.
THAT NIGHT, GAGE DREAMED he was lost at sea. It was a wild and churning sea, a bubbling gray broth with no land in sight. It was not cold at all, but hot—scalding, as if he’d been dumped into a boiling cauldron. Clouds as wild as the sea streaked the sky like the hurried brushstrokes of a mad painter. Thunder rumbled, and hot rain pelted his face. He struggled to keep his head above the surface, thrashing about, taking in great mouthfuls of warm, salty water. Something was wrong with his arms—they weren’t working the way they should.
When he got them up in front of his face, he saw that he had no hands. There were only stumps.
Then something floated into view—a buoy of some kind, two adjoining logs jutting out of the waves. Kelp tangled around the logs, fastening them together. He paddled toward them and wrapped his stump-arms around them. The logs were cold, but strangely soft. It was only then that he realized what it was.
It was the girl from the beach.
She was upside down, her bare, lacerated legs sticking out of the water—and that’s what he was holding.
Gage finally woke, heart pounding, face drenched in sweat, the sheets tangled around his legs like the sea kelp tangled around that girl.
“Christ,” he said to the darkness.
* * * * *
A couple days passed. It rained one of the days, a brief shower, but otherwise remained cool and bright. Except for checking on Mattie once, his ailing housekeeper who lived in a cottage down the hill that Gage owned, he spent the time reading or doing crosswords at his kitchen table. In the Oregonian, news about the girl’s death went from garish, front page headlines, to equally garish headlines on page 8, to not even warranting a mention at all.
It was the way of things. Gage had seen it lots of times. People lost interest quickly. They lost interest even faster when there was no story to keep them hooked. She was just a dead girl on the beach. She could have been anybody, and if she wasn’t anybody, then she was a nobody. It was hard to care about a nobody. It was like trying to hang a picture on an invisible wall.
Still, the more Gage tried to forget her, the more she crept into his thoughts. He was still thinking about her when he went for a walk Thursday night, exactly one week since he’d found the body.
He trudged north along Highway 101, the night air crisp, the moon full and resplendent. Cars and trucks roared past, headlights piercing the darkness; the big semis and their moving walls of wind forced him to stop and clutch his fedora with one hand and lean on his cane with the other.
Most of the lodging was farther north, near the outlet stores. Both sides of the highway were lined with little shops that specialized in various things—Christmas knick-knacks, homemade quilts, high-end chocolate, low-end jewelry. To his right in the hills above the shops were houses like his own, tucked among the Douglas firs, the hemlocks, and the occasional oak trees. Across the highway and below the shops were two blocks of other houses and then, below them, the beach.
While he walked, he kept going over in his mind what he knew about the girl. Only the local Barnacle Bluffs Bugle kept the story front and center. He was actually impressed. Up until six months earlier, the paper had carried nothing but snippets about the latest happenings at the senior center or badly written human interest stories that always seemed to feature someone who’d fought in World War II. But lately, there’d been real investigative journalism—embezzlement at the casino, backstabbing between local politicians, a major drug traffic exposé that actually scooped the cops.
It was impressive because it was all the product of a single person, Carmen Hornbridge, who’d become the sole proprietor/editor/writer six months earlier when the original octogenarian owners had finally decided they’d rather play shuffleboard on cruise ships than squabble with local advertisers. It was even more impressive when he looked at her photo; he didn’t expect a blond bombshell to write and publish such hard-hitting journalism.
But people often surprised Gage. It was one of the things that kept life tolerable.
From reading the articles, Gage learned that they still hadn’t identified the girl. For a few days, the police withheld information while they did an autopsy and then searches based on dental records and fingerprints, but when nothing had turned up, they’d become more forthcoming.
Her life had been reduced to a series of details. Shoulder-length blond hair. Brown eyes. Most likely nineteen or twenty years of age. Five feet four inches tall and weighing a hundred and nineteen pounds. Fair complexion. Double piercing in both ears, plus a stud on her tongue and her bellybutton. A ring of dolphin tattoos around her left ankle. Dressed in Intimissimi black lace panties and a white Hanes tank-top. They’d posted a sketch of her rather than the actual photo; he guessed they probably didn’t want the abundant senior population choking on their lime jello.
At first, they’d withheld the cause of death, but eventually they’d released that information too. The autopsy determined she’d died by drowning. Suicide could not be ruled out, but the bruising and cuts indicated some sort of struggle. The sea had washed away any chance of fingerprints, but there were signs of recent, violent sexual activity. According to blood tests, she’d also been a heavy user of methamphetamines.
None of it, according to Ms. Hornbridge, had led anywhere. The police had gotten lots of tips, but they’d all been dead ends. The theories ram the gamut:
She was a runway from a severe cult out of Utah.
She’d worked for a secret highbrow Oregon call girl company.
She was the girlfriend of an Italian mafia hit man who’d traded her for a younger model.
She’d been abducted by aliens, who performed sexual experiments on her, and then discarded her in the ocean.
Nonsense, all of it. The truth, Gage knew, was usually more mundane.
About a quarter mile from his house, one block east of the ocean, was a bar called Tsunami’s. It was hard to see from the highway. It had a neon Budweiser sign in the window and posters of local events plastered on the door. The windows were all black, but he could hear the pulsing music from across the street. The gravel parking lot was packed with dusty cars and motorcycles. People milled about in the parking lot smoking cigarettes.
He’d been inside exactly three times, all of them on his birthday, each time at his friend Alex’s insistence. All three times, it had been so loud that he couldn’t even hear himself speak, much less Alex.
He didn’t know what made him do it, but he decided to cross the street and go inside—hobbling fast during a break in traffic. Opening the heavy door, it was exactly what he expected: hot, crowded, and raging with dozens of obnoxious, alcohol-fueled gabfests, everybody shouting to be heard over a jukebox belting out songs at a volume that would have melted butter.
No wide-eyed tourists here. This place was for the locals, and it contained everyone from the Native American blackjack dealer fresh off her shift to the pudgy bikers in shiny new leather trying to forget that they worked as accountants during the day.
The joint stank of sweat, peanuts, and beer, and every table was packed. One of the funny things about Tsunami’s was that despite the name, there wasn’t the usual sea-themed kitsch so common to the coastal restaurants. There were scuffed wagon wheel tables, funky lava lamp lighting, and posters of Clark Cable, Marilyn Monroe, and Gandhi. He pushed his way to the bar, ordered a bourbon on the rocks from a mop-haired bartender, and lucked out when a black guy in a grease-stained mechanic’s uniform slugged down the rest of his beer and staggered away, leaving a wooden stool open.
Gage settled on the stool, placing his hat on a countertop that was layered with hundreds of scuffed bumper sticks. He was shoulder to shoulder with the guys on either side. When the bartender brought his drink, the guy to his right stared at Gage.
“Hey, I know you,” he said.
The voice was familiar. Gage looked at him. Sure enough, of all the strange coincidences that could have happened, he’d walked into a real whopper. It was a doughy fellow with a thick brown mustache—the very cop who’d taken his information on the beach. The guy was dressed in a ghastly orange sweater that may have once been used as carpet in some seventies lounge.
“No, you don’t,” Gage said.
The guy squinted, eyes disappearing in his round face. He pointed a pasty finger. “Yeah,” he said, “you’re the guy who found the girl. The smart alec. Gage, right?”
“I’d appreciate it if you point your finger somewhere else. I haven’t eaten any dinner.”
“Still the smart alec, huh?”
“Some habits die hard.”
“Christ.” The guy shook his head, then looked at the bartender. “Can you believe this guy, Mac? Thinks he’s better than the rest of us.”
“My name’s not Mac,” the bartender said, and left for the other end of the counter with two frothy mugs.
The cop looked at Gage again, and he dropped his voice—not much, but enough to make it seem like he was whispering when he was still practically shouting to be heard over the din. “They sent around a memo. Said you used to be a big time private dick in New York.”
“Must have been somebody else,” Gage said.
“I looked you up. That was some big time shit you were involved with back then. Had your name all in lights, huh? Serial killers. Russian mafia. Must have given you a pretty big head. But now look at you. You’re wife gets knocked off and now you’re nothing but a fucking cripple.”
Gage looked at him, conscious that a bubble of silence had spread from the two of them. At least a dozen people were watching. “Watch your mouth,” he said.
“Oh, what are you going to do, hit a cop?”
“You’re not a cop. Not right now, anyway. And probably not ever.”
“Fuck you, pal.”
Gage smiled. “If I was a homosexual, which I’m not, I’m pretty sure I could do better than you. Even if I am a cripple.”
It turned out to be more than a little pasty cop with a Napoleon complex could take. With a guttural roar, he launched himself at Gage. But his drunkenness, combined with his general ungainliness, meant this amounted to little more than a wobbly stumble in Gage’s direction. In his orange sweater, he made Gage think of a big orange traffic cone.
Without leaving his stool, Gage delivered a swift forearm to the cop’s neck. The guy dropped like a sack of beans on the peanut-strewn floor. He coughed and hacked, and finally glared at Gage, red-faced. He tried to speak but couldn’t manage it between the coughs.
The room fell silent. The jukebox was between songs. Gage left a five on the table, thanked the bartender, and hobbled for the door. His knee had stiffened, so his limp was more pronounced. All eyes followed him. The thumping of his cane on the hardwood floor was the loudest sound in the room.
Gage pushed through the crowd into the open air. The cop, struggling to his feet, cursed at him. He heard somebody yelling for the cop to settle down, then the door swung shut.
The air had thickened, golden halos ringing the street lamps. His heart was doing the wild mambo, so loud in his ears he couldn’t even hear the cars whizzing up behind him. He walked as fast as his worthless body would take him, and when he reached the gas station, he was breathing heavy. The sweat in his eyes blurred the numbers on the payphone as he dialed.
When the person on the other end said hello, the sound of a sizzling frying pan in the background, Gage said, “It’s me. Can you do me a favor? I’m investigating a case.”