I am alone now, and I am shivering, mangled beyond all recognition in the rear pew of St. Ann’s Catholic Church. It is late now, well past 4 am, and all that’s left along the strand is a pale and wanton cast of zombies, spilling out into the night as Holly Beach marquees go dark. This is what Scottish warlocks refer to as the Devil’s Pocket – a vacuum-black void of submission that exists between pitch black and dawn. The Devil’s Pocket is no time to go wandering dead-end streets alone, that is unless you happen to be carrying a gun, or a badge, or both, and you have absolutely no qualms about brandishing either one.
Down by the east end of Cresse, local authorities are just now beginning to investigate the sudden disappearance of a Canadian transvestite named Rene. Rene was last seen wandering toward the beach with an unidentified male right around this hour of the night. Less than a week prior to Rene’s disappearance, a recent high school grad by the name of Steven Freeman was arrested and charged with the fatal stabbing of a classmate outside a North Wildwood hotel along the corner of 11th and Surf Avenue.
Two summers before that on Memorial Day weekend, the half-naked body of a 20-year old named Susan Negersmith was found beaten and bloody behind a dumpster outside Schellenger’s Restaurant. Negersmith’s body was discovered by two busboys, her T-shirt and bra pushed up around her neck, her jeans and underwear bunched up around one foot. There were 26 areas of trauma on her body, including vaginal bruising and the presence of semen.
At the time, the Cape May County Coroner’s Office tried to pass off Susan’s death as nothing more than routine alcohol poisoning. That is until the state police, the FBI, and a forensic pathologist by the name of Michael Baden simultaneously descended on the scene, declaring the entire investigation (or general lack thereof) an obscene miscarriage of justice. Those sources concluded, much like any other sane, uncompromising human being might, that Susan Negersmith had been raped, then strangled, then left to die upon a filthy piece of cardboard.
“It would seem to me you could not rule it any other way,” State Police Superintendent Justin Dintino was later quoted as saying.
How’s that for a sweeping indictment of local law enforcement?
But wait! There’s more.
In the blazing shitstorm that ensued, Mary Ann Clayton, a state medical examiner who assisted the initial autopsy, admitted a “grievous error” had been made, and offered to amend the official cause of death.
Do you know what happened next?
Clayton was overruled by her superiors, many of whom insisted upon sticking to their story. This despite the fact there was still an unrepentant rapist/murderer left wandering the streets.
Justice and bureaucracy make for strange bedfellows, I’m afraid.
Very strange bedfellows, indeed.
Alas, I’m bringing this up because I really hold no interest in having myself done dirty that way. It has been my experience that small-town law enforcement tends to look dispassionately upon its pre-dawn drunks, and I am most certainly no exception to this rule. All of which might explain why I’ve decided to duck into the bowels of a catholic church at this ungodly hour of night. Call it superstition, or waiting out the storm, perhaps cashing in on the ancient rite of sanctuary, if you like. But the bottom line is, If the deal is – in fact – about to go down somewhere on the island, at least I won’t yield any risk of getting caught up in the fray.
Regardless, I still have no idea how it is I came to be here, shivering and alone, in the ass crack of god’s shadow at five o’clock in the morning. I mean, I know where I was. And I know where I am. I simply cannot stitch together how I got from one point to another.
And that, as they say, is the all-consuming rub of it, my friends.
I am staring at the world through kaleidoscope eyes now, an array of dancing prisms set adrift in my periphery. The votive candles are fucking with my vision something wicked, as is the stained-glass glow of traffic signals near the altar. I can hear the rhythmic purr of dual exhaust and static pounding … ghetto dragsters battling hard toward the Crest along Atlantic. The screeching tires set me reeling, reeling forward past the altar, past the candles and the stained glass, past the streetlights and the shivering, past it all until I reappear inside the bare-bones attic of some beach house, smoking pot out of a bong that may or may not be nicknamed Sue.
I hold that bong down at an angle, much like a mortar or an alpine horn. The skunk weed sets me spinning, the hashish sets my mind afloat … afloat and confused, like some cosmic whirling dervish. I am lost now, doggy-paddling, set adrift a thousand miles at sea. I will myself toward the shore, battling currents and black ripples, battling eddies and fierce winds, battling my way beneath the surface … battling deep, deep down into the nether until I find myself right back again, inside the vast and empty confines of a church past 4 am.
I slip out of there through a side door, wander down along East Maple. I take a seat upon the front steps of a house where I once lived. An unmarked cruiser stops in front of me, a plain-clothes officer asks, “What the hell do you think that you’re doing?”
“I’m just on my way home,” I somehow manage to tell him.
“Home where?” the officer asks.
“Home here,” I say, without hesitation. “I live up on the second floor.”
The officer glances upward, considers whether to call me on my bullshit.
“In that case, get upstairs,” he says. “You don’t want to be out here by yourself this time of night.”
I stand up, and then nod. I climb upstairs toward the door. I disappear into the shadows, pulling curtains close behind me. I stand there, still and silent, in the hallway of that beach house. I hold my breath and shut my eyes. I pray to god no tenant sees me.
I creep toward the window, making sure the coast is clear. Then I dart back down the steps and high-tail it to the beach. It is light now, nearly dawn, and the sun will soon be breaking coast. It’s time for me to get some sleep. It’s time for me to get back home.