"The Way Life Should Be" – The First Chapter

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on September 4, 2007 0 Comments

From THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE by Terry Shaw. Copyright © 2007 by Terry Shaw. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

 

Prologue

It was three a.m. and anything was possible—all he needed was a little luck. At least that’s what Paul Stanwood tried to tell himself as he turned his Range Rover onto the wet, sandy road and its headlights bounced through the shadows and fir. He knew he shouldn’t be there. He just couldn’t help himself.

When the Rover began to stall on the ruts, Stanwood downshifted to let the tires grab hold, which seemed to do the trick. He was nervous but kept going until a sign on a steel gate read: “Sullivan Park Closed at Dusk. Violators Will be Prosecuted to the Fullest Extent Allowed by Law.”

Whatever that meant.

He wasn’t sure but was willing to take a chance, so he cut the ignition, got out and began walking the footpath through the gently swaying spruce before reconsidering. He stopped and took a deep breath. The rot drifted up from the clam flats below and a full moon burned like a bare bulb off the dark water of Penobscot Bay.

The park was at the end of a long peninsula, a tangle of rock, surf and pine that had once been a saltwater farm. Now it was just a road through the woods, a small, unpaved parking lot and an oddly out-of-place pay phone. Past the clearing where he stood, a few scattered picnic tables and a cinderblock bathhouse completed the scene—not much, really, given the recent sensation. Of course, there was the boat launch.

“The only place in town to get off at low tide,” according to John Quinn, who’d come home to run his family’s newspaper. He said the park was an embarrassment and that grown men—no matter their sexual preference—should have a sense of decency.

Quinn had no idea what was at stake. After being gone a decade, he was clueless about the changes taking place in their hometown. Paul planned to tell him as much, once he was sure of everything himself, though he’d been warned against it. He shook his head at the thought, when something cracked behind him.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

Nobody answered.

For a moment he listened to the waves lap the granite shore, the whole time wondering if those had been his own steps echoing in the darkness. He stopped and spun around. Damn. He couldn’t believe how paranoid he’d become. He took another deep breath and tried to relax. Easy now, he told himself. The sun would be up in a few hours and everything would be safe and fresh with the new day.

Keeping that in mind, Paul walked toward the bathhouse and stepped inside. The place was a mess. He could make out overturned benches and a cracked toilet. The urinals reeked and it was hard to believe the spot had become the object of such fierce debate. Men were being arrested. The cops were under fire. Neither side would listen to reason and somehow Paul was caught in the middle. What was he supposed to do?

As he shuffled his sandals along the gritty concrete and lit a Camel, the flame shined briefly on a wall covered with crudely drawn slogans and promises that made him laugh out loud. The whole thing seemed suddenly absurd, and by the time he was halfway through the cigarette and beginning to relax, the gravelly sound of tires came from the road.

A car door slammed and someone began walking his way.

“Helllloo!” Stanwood’s voice echoed off the low, flat ceiling.

“You alone?” came back.

“I was.”

The other voice hesitated. “I thought I saw someone else poking around.”

“That was just me, admiring the scenery.”

“Glad to hear it.” A figure appeared in the doorway. “I was hoping you’d be here.”

“I’m flattered,” Stanwood said, once he recognized the voice. “But you’re the last person I’d expect to turn up in a place like this.”

“I wish I could say the same about you.”

Stanwood ignored the shot and asked what he had in mind.

“A little surprise.” The man reached into his nylon windbreaker.

“So what’s that?”

“This?” The man flicked on a steel Maglite the size of a nightstick and stepped toward him. “Why, it’s the surprise.”

Stanwood held up his hands to shield his eyes from the glare. “Look—I’m not here for what you think.”

“Then what are you here for?”

He wasn’t sure. “To tell you the truth, this whole deal has become a little too complicated.”

“Maybe I can simplify things.” The man swung the Mag in a small, fast arc, catching Stanwood on the collarbone and sending him to the floor.

That knocked the wind out of him.

Stanwood forced himself to his hands and knees but the man swung again, connecting with the side of his skull and causing everything to blur. Stanwood rolled onto his back and tried to cover himself. The man swung a third time and shattered a forearm. Stanwood curled into the fetal position and tried to smother the pain. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered before another crack sent him under.

“That’s right,” the man said, his breath heavy from the effort. “It’s time to go home to Jesus.”

He swung again and the light went out.

1.

Quinn snatched the phone on the first ring.

“John, it’s Ginny Sewell.”

He groaned, fell back onto his bed and waited for her to continue. He was used to calls at odd hours, but this was a little early, even for Ginny. “Well, what is it?” he asked when nothing else followed.

“It’s Sarah,” she finally managed.

“Is she all right?”

“No,” Ginny said. “She’s not.”

Sarah was the police reporter at the Stone Harbor Pilot and Ginny was her mother. Since she was sobbing at the other end of the line, Quinn thought the worst—that her daughter had been in a horrible accident rushing to a crime scene or fire.

 “Tell me what happened,” he said, slowly but firmly.

 “She—she—she’s been arrested.”

Quinn relaxed. “That’s it?”

“What do you mean, that’s it?” Ginny couldn’t believe his attitude.

“You made it sound like she was dead.”

“Don’t yell at me!” Ginny shouted.

“I’m not yelling at you!” he said, though suddenly he may have been. He had a temper and his heart was still racing from being jarred awake so early on a Sunday morning. The glowing numbers on his alarm clock read 6:00 a.m.

He took a deep breath as Ginny blew her nose into the receiver and tried to compose herself. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know who else to call.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Quinn said. “You just scared me. That’s all.”

“Well, I’m scared, too.”

“I bet.” During the next awkward moment, Quinn looked around the bedroom. His wife, Maria, was on the other side of the sheets, lying perfectly still in the early morning light, which could only mean one thing: She was pissed.

“John, you still there?” Ginny asked.

“Yeah. I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Nothing important” was probably the wrong thing to say. By then it didn’t matter. Anything he said could—and would—be used against him. He knew by the way his wife’s whole body was stiffening beside him. “So what did Sarah do?” he asked Ginny.

“They charged her with disturbin’ a crime scene,” she said. “At Sullivan Park. It happened an hour ago.”

“Jesus.” Quinn could just imagine the call they’d answered. The park was the biggest pickup spot on the Maine Coast and had been making headlines all summer. In the past month alone, twenty-three men had been charged with public lewdness as part of a police crackdown. Despite the arrests, they kept coming, up and down Route 1, from Belfast to Bath. Tourists, locals, it didn’t matter.

“Don’t you have anythin’ else to say?” Ginny asked.

“I hope she was wearing rubber gloves.”

“That isn’t funny.”

“I know.” The full effect was beginning to hit him. “And I’m not laughing.”

Neither was Ginny. “The police chief says she’ll have a criminal record!”

“Oh, he’s just trying to scare her. Trust me.”

“He’s serious!” she sobbed.

“Calm down. I’ll be right there.” Quinn hung up and shook his head.

“Where are you going?” his wife asked.

“The police station.” He smiled and ran his hand along her soft, bare shoulder and down her arm. “But don’t worry—this won’t take long.”

Maria turned on her side, away from him. “It’s them again, isn’t it?”

He didn’t answer as he got up and pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. He couldn’t just leave one of his reporters in jail, especially when she was only doing her job. It wasn’t her fault she usually beat the cops on calls and they were tired of being embarrassed. Given her crap salary and the hours she worked, driving down to the station was the least Quinn could do. He was probably going to stop by the office later that morning anyway, which would make his wife just as mad. With the way things had been going, he really didn’t have a choice.

Besides, no matter how much of a pain Sarah could be, he admired her. She was twenty-two and had worked her way up from part-time librarian to news clerk to reporter. She had real passion. She was always in a rush, always carrying a hand-held scanner and always running down fires and accidents and random police calls. The only drawback was she didn’t have a license and her mother had to drive her everywhere.

The whole arrangement may have sounded strange to the uninitiated, but Ginny had a lot of time on her hands and didn’t mind waiting around in her ancient Lincoln Continental, scoping out men, reading the racing form or working on a romance novel that had occupied her free time, on and off, for the past five years. That’s how long she’d been on disability after ruining her wrists stitching moccasins at a local factory.

Driving in, Quinn went right past the place. Now converted into an outlet store, the building’s brick exterior had been painted, polished and given newfound charm. As he descended into the lower part of town, the streets were quiet and empty, save the occasional shriek of a gull, with block after block of wooden frame homes, brick sidewalks and cluttered storefronts stacked on a waterfront dating to the seventeenth century.

Boats of every size filled the harbor, from Boston whalers and dories to the hulls of Navy destroyers and the three historic schooners that tied up each summer at the maritime museum. It was a picturesque setting, one that made him feel like he was driving through a postcard, until he got to the police station and noticed television crews were set up for a long siege on the front walk. Quinn cringed at the image viewers were getting at home, since one of the talking heads was already going at it.

“… and in a bizarre side note to this sensational story, a reporter has been arrested for…” he paused, as though he couldn’t quite remember. His cameraman mouthed the rest of the sentence and TV Boy delivered the line “disturbing a crime scene,” as though the hitch had been deliberate.

Quinn couldn’t wait for this to be over. The last thing Sarah needed was for her arrest to be blown even further out of proportion. He got out of his car and slammed the door.

Ginny was waiting in a bulging red dress, pacing and smoking frantically. She was a short, busty woman in her early forties and her face was flush with make-up and concern. “John, thank God you’re here!” she said breathlessly as she clicked up the stairs in her high heels beside him. “We’ll see what they have to say now.”

He stopped halfway. “Maybe you better wait here.”

“I’ve been waitin’ more than an hour and don’t think I should have to wait any longer.”

“You’re probably right,” he said. “But let me handle this.”

She crossed her arms and sighed.

He put a hand on her fleshy shoulder. “So tell me everything that happened,” he said. “From the beginning.”

“I guess it all started with Anthony Perkins.”

“The actor?”

“Of course,” she said, as if that were the numbest question she’d ever heard. “Just as he was stabbin’ his first victim on the Late, Late Show, a call came across the scanner about Sullivan Park. Since it’s only a half-mile from the trailer—if you go the back way—we took off. We were the first ones there and Sarah went right in.”

“You let her go in alone?”

“I left the headlights on,” Ginny insisted. “And the next thing I knew there was sirens and policemen and Sarah was under arrest.”

He waited for Ginny to continue but she didn’t.

“Then what happened?” he asked.

“I went home and changed outta my bathrobe,” she said slyly, as if to tease him.

“Well, that explains it.” Quinn wasn’t fazed. He knew the Sewells had their own way of operating and let it go at that. He told her to wish him luck, then went inside.

The station was packed. A couple of powdered and puffed TV reporters milled about in suit jackets, ties and shorts, trying to act casual yet keeping a respectful distance from the department’s two detectives, who along with a handful of patrolmen worked the phones. Every one of them was yakking, until they saw Quinn. He knew something serious had happened at the park when they all looked away rather than making eye contact.

That wasn’t a problem with the chief. When Quinn stepped into his office and pulled up a chair, Al Sears sat staring behind his desk, 220 hard pounds on a square-shouldered, six-foot frame. He was tan and wore faded jeans and a tight red polo shirt. Despite the casual attire, he still had his blond flattop, a chip on his shoulder and a Glock 9 mm clipped to his belt.

Sears tried to look right through Quinn, something that usually worked with teenage delinquents but came across as silly to a grown man who was just as big, especially when that grown man had known him since the third grade. “Alvah,” Quinn said in greeting.

The chief nodded and waited for Quinn to get to the point.

“Any particular reason you locked up Sarah?” he asked.

Sears looked down at a report on his desk, then back at Quinn in his Bob Marley T-shirt, as though he couldn’t decide which deserved more attention.

“Well?” Quinn pressed.

“She mucked up a crime scene,” Sears finally answered.

“Can you be a little more specific?”

“It’s a felony.”

“It sounds like a stretch.”

“I don’t care what it sounds like,” Sears said. “I put her tight little ass in jail and that’s the end of it.”

Quinn figured that was unlikely, given Sears’ reputation with women. “Does her tight little ass have anything to do with this?” he asked.

“I doubt it.”

“Well, that’s all you ever seem to think about.” Quinn rolled the chair back from the desk to make himself more comfortable. “So does that mean I have to pay to get a lawyer out of bed on a Sunday morning?”

“Could be.”

“Alvah, be reasonable.”

“I have been.” Sears hated to be called Alvah, a name only Quinn still used, now that the chief’s mother was dead and buried.

For his part, Quinn couldn’t believe what was happening.

“You think this whole thing’s funny, don’t you?” Sears asked.

“It’s unusual, to say the least.” Quinn stood up and leaned on the desk. “My God, you spent the whole summer bullying those poor bastards and now you have to bully Sarah.”

“I’m not bullyin’ anyone,” Sears said. “She brought this on herself.”

Quinn raised an eyebrow but didn’t respond.

“And I s’pose you’re an expert on this sorta thing,” Sears said.

“I didn’t say that,” Quinn insisted, though he’d spent three years as a cop reporter at the Miami Herald and knew a thing or two about crime.

“Well, this isn’t Miami,” Sears said, as if reading his mind.

“I’ll say.” Quinn smiled and walked over to scan a wall lined with yellowed newspaper clippings of Sears as the school D.A.R.E. officer, as coach of a championship Little League team, as the most recent inductee into the Stone Harbor High School Football Hall of Fame. In addition, every stripe and medal he’d ever earned was framed and mounted, including a front page Pilot story announcing his promotion to chief. But the spot of honor was reserved for the game ball from a 17-16 homecoming win over Westbrook.

“Now if you’re through gawkin’,” Sears said, “I have work to do.”

Quinn picked the football off the tee, tossed it in the air and caught it with a smack. “Well, it must be pretty important if it got you in here on a Sunday morning,” Quinn said. “Especially when there’s a favorable marine forecast.”

Sears stopped what he was doing and turned to angrily face Quinn. “It just so happens a prominent member of this community was found beaten to death.” Sears stepped forward and got a hand on his precious ball, which only caused Quinn to tighten his grip. “And I’m not gonna put up with any crap, no matter what cocksuckah got popped.”

Quinn let go and watched Sears stumble backward a few steps. “Who’s dead?”

Sears quickly regained his footing and stood back up to his full height. “The name isn’t being released till the family’s been notified,” he said as he carefully set the football back in place.

“Come on!”

Sears hesitated. “Sure you can handle it?”

“Yes, I can handle it.”

“Okay then. Paul Stanwood was beaten to a bloody pulp in the Sullivan Park bathhouse. We found what was left a him this mornin’.”

Quinn couldn’t handle it. He felt like a granite block had fallen on his chest and the only thing he could do was slump in the chair and stare at the ceiling as tears came and he struggled to make sense of it all. Paul was his best friend. How could he be dead? They’d just spoken the day before.

 And what was he doing in Sullivan Park? He was married, had two children and was straight as an arrow. For God’s sake, he’d been a jock and an Eagle Scout and legend had it he’d lost his virginity to their French teacher, Miss Racette, in ninth grade.

But Sullivan Park?

“So why was he there?” Quinn finally asked.

“That’s not a question I’m prepared to answer on behalf of the deceased.”

“Well, you better say something.”

“I don’t know,” Sears said as the very beginning of a smile began to form on his face. “Seems like I already said too much.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“I know it has to be tough.” Sears reached for a pack of cigarettes on his desk and offered one to Quinn.

“I don’t smoke.”

“Relax.”

“Don’t tell me to relax!”

“I won’t tell you again,” Sears warned.

“You’re twisting this all around.” Quinn stood back up. “Paul was on the board of selectmen. I’m sure he was just checking out the situation.”

“At three o’clock in the mornin’?”

Christ. The smalltown speculation had already begun. “It’s a homicide,” Quinn said, “not an inquisition.”

“It’s a fact a life,” Sears said. “So get used to it.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m afraid I do.” Then Sears laughed like Christmas morning. “And for the sake of his wife and children, we’re lucky we didn’t find a dick up his ass.”

“You know that isn’t true!”

“Do I?” Sears asked. “I’m just looking for answers and don’t want to make any assumptions.”

Quinn stepped towards him and squared his shoulders. “I’m warning you, you sick son of a bitch. One more crack about Paul and I’ll put you through that wall.” Instead, Quinn kicked his chair across the tiled floor into the steel desk, where it crashed and tumbled over.

“That’s enough.” Actually, it was more than enough. Sears walked over and cracked the door. “Sergeant!” he called into the hall.

A woman in uniform stepped inside. “Yes, Chief?”

“Did you hear what this man just said?”

“Sure—everyone did.”

“That’s what I thought,” Sears said. “Arrest him for threatenin’ a police officah.”

“Right, Chief.”

Sears went back to the file cabinet, took out a folder and sat back down at his desk as though Quinn were already gone.

“I want a lawyer,” Quinn said.

“Sure,” Sears said absently before adding as an afterthought, “If you want, I’ll even call a good psychiatrist.”

That’s when Quinn was led out of the office under the glare of the TV cameras.

 

Want to learn more about First Chapters Winner Terry Shaw and his new book The Way Life Should Be? Visit waylifeshouldbe.gather.com. To join the group, click here.

 

About the Author ()

My novel was the winner of Gather's original First Chapters Contest. Thanks to everyone's support, "The Way Life Should Be" was published in September by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. I'm currently at work on a second novel.

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