Prompts: Bug, castle/turret, book, cell phone, flower, padlock, house/1-room-school, sad face, globe
Bones of the Past
Riordan shifted his weight in the creaky wicker chair on the porch. The fall afternoon was just starting to cool as a breeze blew the first of the season’s brilliant leaves across the yard. It felt good against his skin, warm from spending the afternoon weeding the flower bed. He still needed to put his tools away, but right now it was nice just to sit and watch. It wouldn’t be too many more weeks before dark came too early to enjoy afternoons like this, until sunny days and trees tipped with flames of color gave way to bare, black branches and dark nights. It was one of the blessings of this small New England town, perfectly positioned so the rotating earth gave them the seasons, each different than the last, each special for its own reasons. Some of his contemporaries talked of Florida each winter, wanting the warm weather instead of ice and snow. Many stayed, out of tradition or because they couldn’t afford a winter home. But each year, a few more chose to leave and mornings at the diner dwindled to a handful during those months.
He frowned momentarily, then thought of all the things he enjoyed about those late fall days that led into winter, the warmth giving way to cold, crisp air and the smell of smoke in the air from chimneys and burning brush. Instead of lazy evenings on the porch telling stories to friends and neighbors who stopped by, he’d be settled in at Corcorans’ pub a few blocks away, a glass of ale in his hand and a fire in the fireplace. They’d still stop by, ask him to spin a tale or two. Old friends, relatives both close and so distant it would takes ages to trace the connection — even the occasional college student who didn’t mind listening to an old man ramble.
There would be a few new faces to add to the familiar, people who hadn’t heard all the stories Riordan had told time after time. One was walking down the street now. Ellie waved as she approached, her dress slacks and button-down shirt a sure sign she had just come from the office. The girl worked too hard, slaving away on a Saturday. If the rumblings he’d heard were right, she had reason to put in extra time, but anybody else would have softened their dress a bit, worn something more comfortable. She was an odd one, so different from dear Becca that is was impossible to believe they were related. Not that they were, of course, not by blood. But by heart, they were more mother and daughter than aunt and niece. As different as could be in so many ways, but with the same heart.
He called across the yard, “Eleanor, dear, come keep an old man company for a few minutes.”
She smiled, her wide mouth transforming her face into something full of joy. “Can I get another story if I ask nicely?” Her lips twisted in an impish smirk, and Riordan was reminded of her mother as a child. Meredith often had just that expression when she was about to cause trouble. Especially when she had roped Stevie, as he was called back then, into helping her. Still he couldn’t tell her that, though he had hundreds of stories she would want then to know.
“Have you ever known me to not have a story ready to tell?” He motioned her to one of the other chairs, and she took it, unclipping her cellphone and setting it on the table. Her briefcase leaned against the chair, and she settled back.
“You’re like an unending storybook.” She grinned. “Chris insists you’ll run out of stories one of these days, but Dan and Becca always tell him you never have.”
Riordan chuckled. “I don’t know if I’d go that far — I tell the same tales many a time. But nobody seems to mind.”
“Oh!” She sat up. “Maybe you know this.” She shook her head, hair brushing her shoulders. “Mrs. Boylan stopped by today to drop off some papers she’d found in her father’s attic and thought the historical society might want. She mentioned something about dead bodies in the marsh, but didn’t explain.” Ellie flushed. “I was busy, and you know how she goes on and on, so I didn’t want to ask. But it keeps skittering around in my head, like a bug you can’t quite catch.”
Riordan nodded. “It’s been about 20 years now, I think. I want to say it was the year your mother was sick, because Becca wasn’t around for most of it. She had taken a sabbatical from the university to stay down the Cape with both of you since your father was away.”
Ellie nodded. “Mom had just been diagnosed when his unit was shipped out. We thought they would be home soon, but it was almost a year before they returned. Aunt Becca handled everything.” She pressed her lips into a semblance of a smile. “Even dealing with a teenager who was almost out of control.”
“That’s not the way she tells it,” he said. “When we spoke, she always thought you were too calm, too controlled.”
Ellie sighed. “She said that last year, too.” She shook her head. “But enough about the dismal past. How did bodies get into the marsh?”
“Oh, you want to trade dismal for gory, do you?” Riordan thought for a second. “Way back when I was a boy, you never went to play in the marsh. I always wanted to, and my mother forbid it. The one time I did sneak down there, Officer Reilly, Dan’s great-great-uncle, caught me and dragged me home.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“The marsh?” Riordan shook his head. “Oh, I don’t doubt there are places where you could get sucked into muck and need help getting out, or that a small child could drown there. But the same is true of the quarries on the west end, and we roamed all through them as children. No, the danger in the marsh came from other sources.” He steepled his fingers, resting his chin on them.
“When you read the books, or watch movies, everything’s about the Mafia. The Italians have a reputation as gangsters, not without reason. But in this state, the Irish mob has always been at least as powerful. ‘Tis a dark, twisted side of our heritage, one that comes from abuse at the hands of the English in the old country, sending many over here hoping for a new life. Crumbling towers and green fields gave way to cramped quarters on germ-laden ships. Those that survived, they found a Yankee establishment just as oppressive. The Puritanical Brahmins frowned upon our music and dancing, our storytelling and drinking. Businesses all over bore signs, ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ Only in the mills could they find work — dirty, dangerous, ill-paid work. Like the other ethnic groups, we came in waves, families and villages finding towns to settle in, neighborhoods we could call our own. Exeter was one of them.”
He looked across, to see if he had discouraged her, but Ellie was leaning forward, eager for more. So he obliged. “In the city, the Irish organized, trying to keep people out and keep other groups from ruling them. As with the English, it became a matter of survival. And soon Boston had an Irish mob to rival the Mafia. While the Italians expanded south to Providence, competing with and working with the families down there, the Irish mob headed west, to Worcester. In both cases, the gangs needed a place where they could meet on neutral turf, something halfway in between. Someplace that they could use for hiding, and for… other purposes.”
“Wait, the mob was here?” Ellie sat upright. “In Exeter, the world’s quietest town?”
He waved a finger at her. “Don’t go thinking that just because we’re not some big city like Washington that we’re some sleepy backwater. People are people, no matter the place.”
Ellie snorted. “Can’t argue with that — I’ve had more excitement in the past month here than I did all last year in the city.” She rested her elbows on her knees, settling her chin on her knuckles. “So the mob used the marsh as a burial ground?”
Riordan nodded. “We knew, or at least suspected. Stories get told, whispers from person to person. But the only ones who really knew for sure were the local ‘affiliate,’ and nobody ever dared ask.” He paused. “You’ve heard the stories out of Southie, and they get told more as Robin Hood than the Godfather, but that’s far from true. Certain people, you didn’t mess with.” He shuddered. “And you don’t get out. Not successfully.”
He picked his words carefully. “Old man Donaghue, he had a mean streak. Steve brought home a puppy one time, mutt of a dog. Scruffy, scrappy thing. Steve rescued it from a fight it was quickly losing, out in the alley behind O’Learys. He paraded it through downtown, stopped by to show my father. I was clerking for him that summer, earning money to pay for law school. Steve was so excited, he was about to bust. Said he’d always wanted a dog. He was on his way to his pa’s office to show him. Not 10 minutes later, my father sent me along with some paperwork for Old Man Donaghue to sign.” He sighed. “Always wondered if he knew what was going to happen, sent me along on purpose.”
“What happened?” Ellie chewed her lower lip.
“I got there, and didn’t see Steve or the dog. Got the papers signed.” He shook his head, remembering. “On the way back, I decided to cut through the alleys to save time. Steve was at the end of the alley, sitting against the wall of the building next door. The dog was lying next to him, dead.” He closed his eyes and remembered. “There was no blood, but no neck ever looked like that by Nature’s design. And there was a dark mark on the wall, just above the dog’s body.”
Ellie just shook her head. “No.”
“Yes.” Riordan nodded. “I stopped and asked him what happened. He shook his head, tears running down his cheeks. Just a little boy, hardly old enough for school. I knelt down, getting dust all over my slacks. He told me to go away, to run before his pa saw me. Said he should have known better.” Riordan swallowed. This was the part he always found toughest to remember, the part he wasn’t proud of. “I told him if he needed help, to go to my father, or come to me. And then I left him there.” He sighed. “After that, I always believed the whispers.”
“So Steve’s father…” Ellie’s voice trailed off. “How did Steve get away?”
Riordan ignored the question, not sure he wanted to give the answer he suspected was true. “About 20 years ago, Donaghue was fading fast. The mob was moving into drugs, but not around here. They knew they couldn’t get away with that here. The college wasn’t big enough back then to be a market, and they couldn’t risk the attention from the state.” He looked out into the distance. “It was about this time of day when I heard, but summer. I was sitting out here, writing a letter to your aunt, catching her up on all the news of the town. I wrote to her almost every day while she was gone.”
“She still has the letters.” Ellie’s voice was soft. “I found them one day, looking for something else.”
“That’s something, then,” Riordan said. “As long as she still has them, I can hope one of these times I ask her to marry me, she’ll say yes.” He shook off the thought. “I didn’t share much of this with her, didn’t want to risk putting anything to paper.” He remembered the afternoon. “Twas a hot day, one of those muggy August afternoons when it seems as thought fall will never come. I’d finished up early at the office, but wanted the yard work to wait until later, when it had begun to cool. I sat out here, writing Becca, when Evan went haring past, Dan chasing after him, calling for him to stop. Boys couldn’t have been more than 12, maybe 13. Evan’s family had just moved to town at the beginning of the summer, down the block from the Reillys.”
“Danny?” Riordan shoved back from the table and stood up. “Daniel.”
Dan looked at Evan, gaining distance from him by the minute, then slowed and jogged back. “Mr. Boyle?” He looked down the block, where Evan had started to slow, starting to move back toward his friend, then stopping. “I really have to go. Evan…” He swiped an arm across his dripping face, leaving a dark smudge.
Riordan looked him over, saw the mud smeared across his legs, caking his battered Chucks. “You’ve been in the marsh.”
Dan scuffed his toe, then stopped, crossing his arms. “So? Me and Evan, we went exploring.”
“You’re not running in this heat for the fun of it, are you?” Riordan sighed. “What did you find?”
Dan hesitated, looking down the block. Evan had stopped, and was walking back. Riordan hadn’t met the boy before, just seen him around town. He was tall, lanky, the kind of kid who would be all angles until he got older, started filling out some. He’d heard tell he was the same age as Dan, but Evan had half a head on him. Dan was sturdy, the kind of kid who would be a terror on the football team when he got older. Fearless too, always had been. Anything that could make him run, that had to be bad.
As Evan walked up, Riordan motioned to the porch. “Come on, sit down before you drop, both of you.” Dan headed up the walk, but Evan hesitated.
“I don’t know… I mean, I’ve seen you around town. You’re the lawyer, the one down by Town Hall. But…” The boy stammered to a stop, his face pale despite a deep tan.
“You can call your parents if you want.” Riordan smiled. “I’ll talk to them. But you can ask Danny — I’ve known him since he was born. His father, too.”
Evan nodded, eyes wary, but slipped past him, joining Dan on the steps. Riordan leaned against the railing. “What did you boys find down in the marsh?”
“We…” Dan paused. “We were just poking around, honest. And then we saw this little shack, and we went to explore, but it was locked.”
Evan nodded. “It looked really old, like it might fall apart in a storm, but there were three padlocks on the door, and they weren’t rusty at all. And the windows weren’t broken, neither.”
“Did you look inside?” Even as he asked, he knew the answer. What he didn’t know was what they had seen to spook them.
Dan shook his head. “The windows were high — I couldn’t see. But Evan looked.”
“There were a bunch of guns.” Evan’s words spilled out. “Machine guns and rifles and pistols, and a bunch of knives, and one of them…” He faltered. “It looked like it had blood on it.”
“I jumped back, and I ended up in the marsh.” Dan made a face. “It was sticky and muddy and there were a billion jillion mosquitos, so I tried to get out, but I kept sinking. My feet were all covered in mud, and they weighed a wicked lot. And then I stepped on something hard, and I climbed back up on the bank. Something caught my toe, though, and I pulled hard, and-“
“It was a skull.” Evan shuddered. “Dan landed on the ground and the skull rolled away and it had a hole in the back.”
“That’s when we took off,” Dan said.
Riordan nodded. “Smart thinking, lads.” He frowned. Calling the chief was out of the question — Old Mike Mullally turned a blind eye to the goings-on at the marsh. Now the staties, they were another matter. He thought they might pay some attention. But he didn’t want the boys involved, didn’t want them in danger. “You boys listen to me. Danny, I’m calling your father, letting him know what you found. Don’t either of you boys mention this to anybody. Evan, go over Danny’s house, stay there for now.”
The boys nodded. Dan looked up. “Am I going to get in trouble?”
Riordan shook his head. “I don’t think so, Danny-Boy. But I don’t want to hear of you two ever going into the marsh again.”
They both nodded. Riordan looked at them and frowned. One look at the mud smeared all over Dan and word would get out. “Hose is around the corner, in the side yard. Go clean up, get rid of that mud while I call.”
He headed inside, dialed the Reillys’ number. Eileen answered, but called Kevin to the phone without asking any questions.
“Your boy’s been down at the marsh, him and his new friend.”
“Hell. They get caught?”
“No, but they found a body, or what used to be one. Sounds like the owner of it was shot, and you know what that means, m’boy.”
Kevin didn’t answer, only muttered curses.
“Look, I’ll take care of this, call in the staties. I’ve got a few friends among the troopers, and they’ll make sure it doesn’t get brushed under the rug. But can you work it out to keep both boys at your place tonight, until things are underway.” At Kevin’s question, he replied, “Evan’s parents are new in town, don’t know the way things work. They hear about this, they’re going to call the chief, and then nothing will happen, same way it’s been before. By tomorrow, we can have the troopers out here — Mullally won’t have any control over it.”
As Riordan wound up the story, Ellie sat there, her face alternating between shock and horror.
“The police chief was in on it?”
Riordan nodded. “Nobody could ever prove it, but we all knew. He looked the other way too many times. You learned – it just wasn’t safe to rock the boat around here back then.”
“So what did they find?”
“Guns, enough to arm a street gang. Dozens of knives. And bodies. I think the final count was 29.” He shook his head. “Everybody knew who was responsible, but they never pinned it on anybody. After all these years, they won’t. Donaghue is gone, and Steve’s clean.”
He nodded. “He never liked that side of his pa, never had. Not since he saw what Donaghue would do to the puppy. He’d wanted out before, and I never was sure if he had been able to, or if he’d just kept it quiet. But if he wasn’t out before, he got out then. Cleaned up the business, and managed not to end up dead.”
“So the mob’s gone from Exeter now.” She smiled.
“As far as we know.” More than that, Riordan wouldn’t say. Ellie didn’t need to know his suspicions. Not yet, anyway.