فصل 03

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فصل 03

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Chapter three

Jones Beach

Saturday morning was cold but bright. I was feeling fit and active. I started the day by following my Saturday routine. Buying the Daily News and wandering down Main Street, Queens, to Slim Pete’s Diner. Breakfast there was always reliable - unhealthy but very tasty. Maybe that explained ‘Slim’ Pete’s weight problem.

“Morning, Nat,” said Slim Pete. “Why so cheerful?”

“Pete, I now realize that a healthy lifestyle is no solution to a mid-life crisis - which means I’ll have one of your breakfast specials and plenty of coffee.”

As I worked my way through breakfast, I looked through the Daily News. There was a story about a murder victim. A guy by the name of Alexei Romanov. Where had I heard the name ‘Romanov’ before? That was it, the old Russian royal family. The body had been found late Friday afternoon, floating in Coney Island Creek. The victim had been shot in the head and had been dead for over twenty-four hours. There were some more details. Romanov owned some kind of business on Brighton Beach. He was involved in a society that helped immigrants from Russia to settle and adapt to life in the U.S.A. His tearful widow told reporters that she had no idea who could have done such a thing. He seemed to have been a well-liked and respected man who was active in the community. I hoped and prayed there was no connection with Jose.

Another story caught my eye. The headline read: ‘Wreck on Jones Beach’. Part of a lifeboat had been washed up on the shore. Two bodies had been found nearby. No further details. I’d been brought up on Staten Island. As a kid, just taking the ferry across to Manhattan seemed like a big adventure. A day out on Coney Island was a real trip, but Jones Beach, on Long Island, felt like going abroad. Maybe there’s something of that kid still left inside me. I still get a thrill when I get way out of the city and stand on the beach looking out at the Atlantic, watching the waves crashing. Why not escape from the city for the day? The ocean air would do me good.

I was folding up the newspaper when Slim Pete came over to chat.

“So what’s New York’s smartest private eye doing? Putting more gangsters behind bars?” he asked.

“Funny you should say that,” I answered. “New York’s criminal community can relax. I’ve just decided I’m going to spend a day at the beach.”

“Huh! A life of leisure. It’s all right for some people.”

I took the bus from Main Street, to Jamaica Station. You can connect there with the Long Island Rail Road to Freeport. From there, I took a cab to Jones Beach, a long narrow strip of land about two miles from the mainland. There was a real chill in the wind coming in off the ocean. Enough to keep any crowds away so early in the year. In the height of the season, thousands of New Yorkers crowd into the area to claim their little piece of beach. But today I could walk without tripping over beach towels or bumping into umbrellas.

I strolled along the shore for about an hour, then returned. Unusually energetic for me, but I felt better afterwards. The air was clean and fresh. Then I stood for a while on the Atlantic side, watching the waves crash onto the beach. I knew why I had really come here. It was the reports of the bodies washed up on the beach. It was my day off, but I was still playing the investigator. That was why my marriage had broken up. My wife never saw much of me when I was with the NYPD. When I started out on my own as a private investigator she saw even less of me. Then one day she walked out on me. She left a note which said that I just didn’t give her enough attention and she couldn’t carry on like that. The sad truth was she was right. If there’s ever a second Mrs. Marley, she’ll have to be one very tolerant lady to put up with me.

I wandered over to a group of bars and restaurants which would be packed with visitors in a few weeks. One or two were already open, while in others work was going on in preparation for the coming season. Outside a bar an old guy up on a ladder was painting. He looked down at me from his work.

“You’re out of luck if you want a drink, mister. We don’t open till the first of April,” he said.

“Just wanted to talk if it’s not holding you up,” I replied.

“Go ahead and talk, mister. I’m just doing this as a favor for my son-in-law. He doesn’t care how slowly I work.”

“I see Jones Beach has been in the news. Some story about a lifeboat found wrecked along the shore and two bodies,” I said.

The old man came down from the ladder. A good sign. I had got his interest. He pointed west along the shore with a dripping paintbrush.

“The wrecked lifeboat was found about a mile west along the beach. There’s an old lady - when I say old, she’s a good ten years older than me. Well, she goes beachcombing regularly. You know, looking for shells and stuff. She found the wreck and the bodies.”

“Really! Must have been quite a shock for her,” I said.

“I don’t know about that, mister. It made her day. Never seen her so excited.”

It was time to make my move. I showed him my investigator’s license.

“Gee! A real private eye!” exclaimed the old man. “I would’ve expected someone…”

“Someone younger and better-looking?” I interrupted. “We come in all shapes and sizes. Look, I’m investigating this wreck for a client,” I lied. “I’d like to talk to this lady. Who is she, and where can I find her?”

“Her name’s Edith Tilden. People call her ‘Edie’. She’s English, but she’s lived here for years. She looks kind of eccentric, but she’s OK once you get talking. See that place over there?”

The old man pointed toward a beat-up building with the sign ‘Ornella’s Italian Clam House’ above the entrance.

“She’ll probably be in there,” he continued. “She claims Ornella’s the only person on Jones Beach who can make a good cup of tea.”

Life’s full of surprises. Since when did Italians make good tea? I entered the restaurant. It didn’t look open for business. Most of the tables and chairs were piled up in a corner. Only a handful of tables were set. At one of the tables sat a little old lady dressed in bright yellow and purple. A plump, cheerful woman welcomed me.

“Morning, mister. No hot food until April. Just snacks and hot and cold drinks.” she said.

“I was looking for a sandwich and a cup of tea. I’ve been told that you make the best tea in Jones Beach,” I replied.

The old woman at the table looked up and said, “You’ve come to the right place for tea.”

“Then make that two teas - one for the lady here.”

I went over to her table. “Mind if I join you?” I asked. “Not at all,” she answered. “Take a seat.”

I noticed the way she spoke. Not the slightest American accent.

“Thanks. You English?” I asked.

“I’m probably as American as you are, now. I’ve been in the U.S.A. for fifty years but never lost the accent or the tea-drinking habit. The name’s Edie, Edie Tilden.”

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Nat Marley.”

The sandwich and teas were brought over to the table. After small talk about the weather, it was time to get some information. I showed Edie my private investigator’s license. Her eyes grew large and round and her mouth dropped open. This old lady was deeply impressed. I wish I had that effect on people more often.

“I hear you found the wrecked lifeboat and two bodies on the beach. I’m investigating the wreck for a client,” I lied again.

Edie waved her teaspoon at me excitedly. “Mr. Marley, I’ve been walking up and down this beach for years. I’ve found bits and pieces of boats, but never a body. Two real dead bodies! What do you say to that?” she asked.

“Must have been a terrible shock,” I said.

“People don’t look pretty after they’ve been in the sea.”

“Can you describe them?” I asked.

“Certainly. Two young men, could be anywhere in their twenties. Medium height. Thin. Both of them looked as if they needed a good meal. Short hair. They hadn’t shaved for days. Cheap-looking clothes. One of them had a gold cross on a chain around his neck. I’ve never seen one like it before. Let me show you.”

She paused, took a clean paper napkin from the table, found a pencil in her pocket, and drew a picture of a cross with two horizontal bars, the top one a little shorter. Then at the base of the cross, a short bar at a forty-five degree angle. I didn’t recognize it.

“Thanks. Mind if I keep this?” I asked. “Now what can you remember about the boat?”

“What I found was the rear half. Probably from a boat big enough to fit a dozen people in. It had seen better days, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“The wood was rotten with age. Some of it was so soft I could break off pieces with my bare hands. It looked like someone had been trying to repair it, but hadn’t made a good job of it. The boat must have split in two.”

“Were there any identifying marks? Like names or numbers?” I asked.

“Some letters at the back, maybe the boat’s name,” Edie answered. “I couldn’t make out a complete word, but it looked like a foreign language. And that’s about all I can tell you. The Coast Guard took it away so there’s nothing to see now.

“Thanks. You’ve been very helpful. Here’s my card. Where can I contact you if I need to speak to you again?”

She wrote a Freeport address and phone number on the paper. I left Edie and did some more beach walking. I felt relaxed and content when I finally got back to Queens that evening. But there was still the problem of Jose. Unless I turned up some new evidence soon, he could be facing a long prison sentence.

The next day I woke up early but was feeling active. It must have been the effect of all that exercise the day before. There are various ways to spend your Sunday. Unfortunately, I had to go into the office to sort out some accounts. On the subway, I glanced through the Sunday edition of the Daily News. It didn’t have anything to add to yesterday’s stories. At the office on East 43rd Street, I was trying to make sense of the previous year’s accounts when the phone rang. Who on earth wanted to speak to me at this time on a Sunday? I grabbed the phone. It was Oldenberg.

“Marley, trust you to be in the office on a Sunday. Just wanted to bring you up to date on your client.”

I immediately felt tense. “Go on,” I said.

“I’m on my way back from Metropolitan Hospital,” said Oldenberg. “De La Cruz has been charged with murder.”

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