Devious Doings in Dallas
Frenchy Plourde had a reputation as a wicked dink, so it was no real surprise that he had a nasty, pissed-off expression on what was left of his face that January morning when I found him frozen to the floor of his cabin. Most of his 300 or so neighbors in Dallas Plantation, Maine, weren't too upset when they heard about his passing, as they'd all of them borne the brunt of his lewd, crude and rude behavior for years. The majority of those I talked to later, though, thought it was just damn sad the way Frenchy's mangy, three-legged dog was found curled up next to his master's body. Before he too froze to death, poor starving Sumbitch had gnawed off his master's right ear.
In a weak moment a while back I sort of volunteered to be the Plantation's constable, which explains how I got involved in this whole mess to begin with. You see I retired about ten years ago from the Coast Guard and settled into an old hunting camp on the side of Saddleback Mountain that I inherited from an old shipmate who died of cirrhosis. What I did in the Coasties was mostly maritime law enforcement-think SWAT on a speedboat. I retired as a Chief Gunner's Mate on a fast cutter. We did a whole bunch of drug enforcement and I personally sank a couple of cigarette boats. It's really awesome what a Ma Deuce with armor piercing ammo can do to a boat's engine block! Anyway, when I let some of that slip one day to the checkout clerk at the IGA in Rangeley, the next town over, she told her boss, who told the Dallas Plantation clerk's husband. He told her and it turned out our Board of Assessors needed someone to post legal notices, serve tax lien papers and just generally be "the guy in town who does stuff." No badge, no gun, and "for God's sake, no arresting people" was the job description they gave me. It doesn't pay much, but I don't have to do much either and the extra income helps covers my tab at Sally's. It did take me a little while, though, to figure out that the reason that I, the flatlander, was asked to take the job, which had been vacant for years, was that nobody else in town wanted it.
Anyway, that's why Shorty Devereaux came banging on my door on one of the coldest mornings since "eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death." Shorty's job is to plow and sand the twenty-three-and-a-half miles of public roads that make up the plantation. The good citizens assembled on the Budget Committee have repeatedly declined to put a radio in his truck and he's given up trying to figure out how a cell phone works, so when he noticed that Frenchy hadn't dug out his outhouse for a week, which is lazy, even for Frenchy, he drove over to my place.
"You're the constable. You should go check on him," Shorty said.
"Why don't you call the sheriff, or the staties?" I said, looking past him at the thermometer on the old maple tree in my yard. It was below zero, but the lower end of the scale was obscured by an icicle, so I couldn't see it.
"They won't think it's important enough. Besides, they won't come up here anymore since Frenchie shot at them two years ago. They're all scared of him!" Shorty actually whined. "I'm not going in there, either. The last time I hit his mail box with the plow he told me he'd shove a grenade up my butt the next time I came near his property."
"He'll probably do the same to me. Why should I go?" I said, feeling a little sick to my stomach and whiny myself.
"Because that's what we pay you for." Shorty snorted.
I knew he was going to say that.
The deputy sheriff they sent up looked to be just about as old as my daughter. Even so she didn't flinch when the wind banged the door shut behind us as we stepped into Frenchy's cabin. I'd held the door and politely let her go in first. She'd been nice enough to me so far, considering I was technically a civilian with no real police standing, despite the title.
Most of Frenchy was still sitting upright on the floor in front of the open wood stove. His head was cranked around sharply to the left as if he was looking at the front door. He had a filthy rag wrapped around his left hand and an unlit Lucifer match in his right. The stove itself held a full charge of kindling and birch wood blocks, probably from Fletcher's wood turning mill over to New Vineyard. The cold half-light from the two filthy windows did a real poor job of illuminating the powerless cabin, so we both pointed our flashlight beams into all the corners. She was probably looking for clues. I was watching out for porcupines.
The place was almost empty, just a few open shelves with some canned goods scattered around, a dumped-over tin of loose tobacco and couple of old plastic five-gallon water buckets also frozen to the floor in the near corner. A half full bag of blocks sat by the door and a few bundles of dry "vegetation" were draped off the rafters. There was also a faintly familiar smell that I imagined would be a lot stronger once the place warmed up.
"Just you been in here?" she asked.
"Think so," I said. "The path to the road was just one boot wide, but there was a dusting of snow over it. Didn't see any tracks."
"Snowed up here last night, right?"
"Just enough to justify a couple of hours overtime for Shorty Devereaux," I said.
"Did you touch or move anything?" she asked, pulling a pen out of the breast pocket of her tan parka and a thin spiral notebook out of her hip pocket. Her nametag read "Wilma Brackett" and she was a "slick arm," having no service hash marks sewed to her left sleeve.
"No, I didn't have to," I told her. "It was pretty obvious after a second or two that there wasn't anything I was going to be able to do for him."
She nodded, peering at the body. "So this is the famous Frenchy Plourde. Did you know him?"
"Frenchy?" I said. "Everybody knew him. Didn't you?"
"Never had the pleasure," she said with the hint of a smile. "I was at the Police Academy when he took a shot at my boss. They probably should have shot him but my dad tackled him instead."
She's actually kinda pretty.
"He got out of the Correctional Center in Windham about six months ago," she went on as I collected myself mentally. "He did a year for Reckless Conduct for shooting at the sheriff and he is, uh, was on probation. I called his probation officer on the way up. Sounds like he didn't have many friends."
"Looks like his only real friend went with him," I said, nodding at Sumbitch's body.
"Poor thing." She sighed. Looking back at me she asked, "OK, what's the first thing you saw when you walked in?"
"Just his face at first," I said. "He looked like he was mad enough to spit at me until I realized he was dead."
"Saw the dog, obviously. And that . . ." I pointed at a pile of stuff by the back wall that was probably the bed.
"Could've done with a housekeeper," she said. "He's got something of a reputation as a poacher. Do you know what else he does, uh, did?" She actually blushed and grinned.
Mister man, a boy could get used to that fairly quick.
"Drink and fight, mostly. Probably some of that, too," I said, pointing to the hanging gardens. "I think he gets SSDI for drugs, but that's just a rumor."
"From Marti Wallace, I expect." She smiled again. Our rural mail carrier, you see, is a wicked gossip.
The door banged back against the wall, I jumped, and a woolly mammoth carrying a briefcase stumbled sideways into the cabin.
"I do wish you people would take the time to shovel instead of just stomping down a path," it grumbled from somewhere deep inside. "Hey, Willie. What you got this time?"
"Pretty much what you see, Doc. Meet the late, unlamented Frenchy Plourde."
The fur-lined hood flipped back from the mammoth's head and revealed longish white hair and a corresponding beard crowning a body that was easily a head taller and fifty pounds heavier than me. He reached over Frenchy and shook my hand. He had some grip!
"Eimon Jeffreys, boy Medical Examiner," he rumbled. "Legally dead, I'd say from preliminary examination. At least he still looks relatively fresh. Got pictures yet?"
"I'll go get the camera out of the cruiser," Willie said. "Looks pretty straightforward though. I don't think we'll have to call in the troops."
"Probably not." The doctor wheezed and coughed into his elbow. "But I'll have a look anyway. Need to earn that massive fee." He smiled and bent down over the body as Willie went out the door.
"Whoa!" he said with a surprised grunt. "This is something you don't see a lot of in Franklin County. Rictus Sardonicus. I think maybe old Frenchy here finally pissed off the wrong person."
"Huh?" I said.
"That look on his face is called a poison grin. Usually strychnine if I remember right." He shook his very large head. "I'm beginning to think that maybe we should call 'the troops' after all."
"They had to light the fire and warm the place up enough to scrape him and the dog off the floor," I told Nadine, the half owner of Sally's Motel and Bar and Live Bait and Convenience Store, about two hours later over my first Shipyard. "They took them both down to Augusta for autopsies."
"So they think somebody did it in for him?" Nadine looked mildly grossed out but interested, as did the two guys in nice, clean, brand-new snowmobile suits sitting at a table by the front window. Together they rose and slid in on either side of me at the bar.
"Maybe," I said, warming up to the audience. "The State Police detective team came in behind us and kicked me and Deputy Willie out as soon as they got there. She looked a little pissed to be put on traffic detail."
"That'd be Willie Brackett, Jim Brackett's daughter from down in Phillips," Nadine said, shaking her head with a smile. "She's a little corker, that one. About a month ago she cleaned this place out single-handed when the Martinos got into it with the Regan brothers. Handcuffed Dutch Regan so fast he didn't realize it until he was out the door. Then she came back and used some kind of judo move on Finn Martino that had him crying like a baby."
The snowmobilers edged closer and the older one who smelled like a cigar offered to buy me another beer, which I happily accepted.
I guess I was walking a little close to the middle of the road on my way home some time later, because Marti Wallace had to pull into the left lane and blow her horn to get my attention when she found me. Luckily there was no oncoming traffic. There seldom is. She shoved me into the back seat of her canary yellow Jeep amongst all the mail and her turnout gear and drove me the last hundred yards or so home.
"Ya got yourself hammered again, din't ya?" she said, shaking her head as she climbed out what should rightly be the passenger side front door. Did I mention she's a "BMW," a "Big Maine Woman," and she had no trouble extracting me and walking me into my kitchen? Of course I had to tell her the whole story all over again, which pleased her no end but made her late finishing her mail route because she had so much fresh news to distribute.
I swear it happens every damn time. Just when Helen Hunt is about to finally slip out of that tiny little tank top something wakes me up. Pam's probably laughing her ass off somewhere, wherever she is.
"Sorry, Hon," I said to her picture on my nightstand.
My Fire Department pager was screaming like a banshee in heat. Lummox, my cat, headed for the hills. From the length of the sequence of different tones I could tell that this wasn't going to be a little chimney fire. I started pulling on my long woolies.
Dallas Plantation doesn't really have its own Fire Department and, like everything else in my life, I'm not really a firefighter. About fifteen years or so ago, back before I moved here, the insurance company that covers the ski slope up on Saddleback Mountain realized that the nearest fire truck was about ten miles away in Rangeley and that the entity hereinafter to be known as "The Mountain" was accumulating a lot of really expensive and flammable equipment, not to mention all those combustible skiers who were paying to sleep (or party hearty) in their fancy trailside condos, each of which has its own rustic, fully stocked fireplace. "The Mountain," which is actually in Sandy River Plantation next door, went to our Board of Assessors because we've got a population center-sort of-that's closer than their own on the far backside of Saddleback Mountain itself. Through their professionally attired and outfitted legal representatives they reasonably proposed that we needed a fire truck in the worst way. As the Assessors were themselves all tax payers, they balked up tight until "The Mountain" offered to pick up most of the tab. As a result we now have the permanent loan of old Engine Five from Rangeley, along with enough money each year to insure her, keep her in diesel and oil, and heat the Town Garage enough to keep her water tank from freezing up. Fifteen or twenty good citizens who always wanted to be firemen as kids usually show up for monthly meetings at Sally's and about half of those actually show up for the infrequent fire or traffic accident. All us taxpayers have to do is pay the insurance premiums and minimum wage to the ones who do report.
The screaming subsided and all over Franklin County men and women lifted their pagers to their ears to see which of them could go back to bed.
"Attention, Dallas Fire. Attention, Rangeley Fire. Attention, Phillips Fire. Attention, Northstar Ambulance Rangeley base. Report of a structure fire, fully involved, at 3700 Hog Road in Dallas Plantation. Dallas Chief is on the scene. Phillips, respond one mutual aid tanker and stand by at the station. Time out zero four forty-five."
Since I live across the street from the town garage, I usually drive the truck and run the pump. I had more than enough firefighting experience and training in the Coast Guard to know I'm no longer interested in charging into burning buildings. There are enough young kids around who get a charge out of that, so I'm content to pass on the actual grunt firefighter stuff. Besides, I like running the old American LaFrance; she's a real gamer for her age.
"Frenchy Plourde's place." Snort Benson shouted, piling into the passenger seat as I hit the starter. "Weren't you just over there, Bobby?"
"Yeah, Snot. I was." I hit the lights and siren as the old girl warmed up and pushed the shifter toward first gear. "Sounds like Marti called it in on her paper route. The woman never sleeps!"
Snort's nickname's been pronounced Snot since grammar school. He hates it. Marti is also our fire chief. She's good at it.
"Dallas Five to Franklin. Enroute with two, uh, make that three," Snot said into the mike as Bear MacGillicuddy landed next to him and slammed the door shut. Cozy.
"Ten-four, Dallas Five." Franklin County Dispatch replied.
Snot grunted as the right turn out of the garage pushed Bear over onto him. Bear's big. Snot isn't. Real cozy.
We made it to the late Frenchy's ex-cabin without further incident and set up to pump three main lines at Marti's direction. Nobody and nothing of consequence was in imminent danger so we adopted the ancient, accepted and safe fire-fighting strategy of "surround and drown." With help from Rangeley's pumper and the tankers from Rangeley and Phillips we efficiently reduced the cabin to a few standing charred timbers in about half an hour. With precise hose handling from the nozzle men, we actually managed to stop the flames from reaching the outhouse, a feat which, everyone knew, would later be loudly and proudly celebrated at the incident debriefing at Sally's. Curiously the cabin's stove pipe remained standing. Backed by the rising sun it was twisted into the shape of a question mark, as if the old place's last comment was, "WTF?"
"Might's well wrap it up," Marti shouted to me as I throttled down the engine to disconnect the power takeoff to the pump. "The fire marshal will be up later to look for a cause and the sheriff's sending a deputy to stand by."
"Hope they find something to go on," I said as the old engine settled back to her gently purring idle.
God, I love this machine!
"I think they will. I met a big, black, one-ton pickup with two snow machines on a tilt body booking it out of here just before I came on the fire," Marti said. "No front plate I could see but I think they were Massholes 'cause one of them gave me the finger."
"Gotta be Massholes," I agreed, grinning. "Nobody from around here would dare!"
About then I stepped down wrong and slipped on the ice that had accumulated under the pump's output connector. Gracefully I landed on the left side of my face, splitting my lip. My first thought was that the OSHA and Workman's Comp paperwork was going to take a week. My second thought was "What the hell is that?"
Lodged in the ice under the truck was what looked very much like a cigar butt.
A couple of days later I was sitting in my front room working on my flies when a sheriff's cruiser pulled into my dooryard. Buck Champagne taught me how to tie fishing flies my third year in the plantation. It's a real good way to stay sane and at least semi-sober from November through April on the mountainside. Later on I took an Adult Ed course about the Internet at Rangeley High School and the kids there taught me how to set up and run a simple website. Believe it or not, I now sell my Wytopitlock Wooley Booger flies all over the US and Canada.
I watched as Willie got out of the car and walked up to my front door. I rapped on the window between us and waved her on in.
"Mister Wing," she said with a nice smile. "How've you been? How's your lip?"
My day was improving by the minute.
"Healing. I've had worse. And it's Bobby. Mister Wing was my Dad."
She hung her parka on the hook on the kitchen wall and I waved her into a chair and poured her a cup of coffee.
"I wanted to thank you for preserving that cigar butt and remembering those two snowmobilers at Sally's," she said. "I managed to get a tentative ID on one of them from Nadine's room registration records and the parking lot surveillance camera. They gave Nadine false names and a bogus plate number but the camera gave us a good one. The truck was a rental from Worcester, Massachusetts. It's still missing and the Mass State Police have just listed it as stolen in NCIC. The guy who rented it had to show ID. They told the rental agent they were going to Maine to pick up some snow machines for a guy in Vermont. We think they actually stole the machines down near Portland. If they are who we think they are they're players on the Boston docks involved in all kinds of stuff like fencing stolen property, smuggling, dope, you name it. Anyway, the DA says thanks to you we've got a good chain of custody on the cigar butt and the lab's doing DNA as we speak. With luck we'll be able to place the cigar guy at the scene in a week or two."
"I'm sure Frenchy would have been pleased," I said.
"That's another thing. Doc Jeffreys called me this morning to tell me that the State Police have closed his death as a natural causes case."
"Natural causes? It sure as hell didn't look natural," I said.
"Agreed. But it turns out that one of the other causes of that facial expression is tetanus-lockjaw. He probably caught it off the ax he was using to split kindling. Doc says it's a really painful way to die, with violent muscle spasms and seizures. Frenchy'd probably been alone in that cabin, sick, for a week or more before he worked up enough strength to fill the stove and light it. Doc thinks he had a seizure just before he lit the match and suffocated. He was probably conscious and at least vaguely aware of what was happening until he passed out from lack of oxygen and died."
"I'll be damned," I said, actually beginning to feel a little sorry for Frenchy. "And the fire . . .?"
"Was definitely set, probably by our Massachusetts friends," she said. "We don't know exactly why yet, but there may be a connection between Frenchy and one of them through Frenchy's prison time. Again, if he is who we think he is, the older guy was in Windham at the same time Frenchy was. I think they were looking for something in the cabin and couldn't find it. They burned the place to cover their tracks. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents have also gotten involved because of the arson and the interstate connection."
"I'll be damned again, most likely," I said softly. "Who would have thought . . . way up here in Dallas Plantation, Maine . . . of all places." I shook my head, feeling suddenly, somehow, vulnerable again.
Willie laughed. "Come on, now, Mr. W . . . sorry." She paused, still smiling. "Bobby. I get the feeling there's more to your act than you let on. I heard you were in the service for almost as long as I've been alive. I bet you've seen things, done things . . ."
I'm not sure what I looked like just then, but whatever it was she picked up on it, along with my admittedly uncharacteristic silence.
"I better get going," she finally said with a soft little frown. "I've got a meeting this afternoon on this case with the DA and all the agencies involved. Maybe there'll be some new developments. I'll let you know."
"You don't have to. I'm just the local yokel."
"Who's been a big help to us all. See you later." She smiled again, a bit sadly I thought, and left.
You know, she looks just a little like Helen Hunt.
Turns out Willie was right. The cigar guy was positively ID'd through the DNA on his butt, putting him at the scene of the fire. Franklin County Court issued a warrant for Arson (of a Residence), Class A, for the two of them and the younger one caved as soon as the ATF agents walked into the Boston PD interrogation room and showed him their badges.
Along with a lot of other stuff, they'd been in the business of procuring dried bear gall bladders for Chinese men who think they're an aphrodisiac and then shipping them off the Boston docks in a clandestine manner. You can apparently make a mint doing that but it's illegal under federal law. Who knew?
The cigar guy was in prison with Frenchy and offered to buy any bladders he could get. Frenchy had called a couple of weeks before and said he had some ready, but they found him dead when they got there. They tossed the cabin and left the night before, before the snow. After they heard my story at Sally's, they went back for a second look, but still couldn't find anything. They dowsed the place with gasoline and tossed the cigar into the fumes to set it off.
Willie got a commendation from ATF and Federal Fish and Wildlife. She got her picture in the paper shaking hands with the sheriff.
She looked pretty good.
About March, the Board of Assessors got tired of fielding complaints from "The Mountain" about how bad the fire scene looked to their customers headed up to spend money lavishly on clean rustic Maine recreation, so they voted to take the property for taxes (Frenchy had never paid any) and "eliminate the eyesore," as they told me.
When things had melted off in May, I rented an excavator off M & H Logging in Rangeley and went over to the Hog Road to reestablish the harmonious beauty of nature. I was almost done when I tipped over the outhouse, and a canvas bag that had apparently been hanging under the seat fell onto the now-uncovered pile of now-stinking crap. I shut the machine off and sat in the warm spring sun and stared at that bag for a long while. I thought about money, and happiness, and Frenchy, and fear, and Chinese men, and dead bears and dogs, and Willie, and Helen Hunt, and Pam. Then I covered the hole all up, graded it off and planted some grass seed.
Follow the further adventures of Bobby
Wing and the citizens of Dallas Plantation in
Copyright by Sanford Emerson, 2015, all rights reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced or republished without the written permission of the author.