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From Duncan Hill

A novel by

John Ratti


From Duncan Hill

Copyright © 2012 John Ratti

All Rights Reserved

First Edition 

Published 2012

Published by Machiavelli Media.  All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored

in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of Machiavelli Media.

Chapter One

AMERICA’S FIRST CIRCUMFERENTIAL highway (i.e. road to nowhere), Massachusetts Route 128, ends north after the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge (where a suicide fence protects the Annisquam River from despairing roamers and motivated locals), then straight through two rotaries (impossible, minus New England genes, to successfully negotiate on first try), and finally comes, unceremonially, to a blunt terminus after a second set of traffic lights (the only ones on Cape Ann, but they don’t count since they sit on a state road). 

You’ve arrived in Gloucester.  My home.  America’s Oldest Commercial Seaport, it calls itself.  To the geonisti it’s a hunk of terra firma thrashed out eons ago when some south moving glacier stalled and melted in a vast slimy crevice, leaving the resultant grunge of its wanderings to create a peninsula of luscious sterility and vinegary beauty past reach of a rising Atlantic.

But to me it’s the place I moved to a long time ago for a new start away from the miserable failure my sorry life choices made of me.  Now don’t think this is but some woe tale from one of insignificant talent (it’s far less than that), or one of those uplifting finding yourself yarns (not sure finding myself would be a good thing), and least of all is it the kind of narrative the intelligentsia prefer ... you know, a book written by one tusk-towered in tweed ... for there is nothing here the critics can utilize, either pro or con, for masturbatory self-congratulation.  No, it’s not a work of that, or any other recognizable ilk, to them or likely to you, for I admit to not gleaning anything from experience.  I’m one unable to ever "get it, it seems, my conclusion being there’s no it to get but for whatever such subjective paradigm we drape over life’s happenings.  However, don’t take my word for it—I’ve already told you I never get it."  Got that? 

This is how it’s going to go.  You’ve been warned.

Spring is a blurry time here on Cape Ann; the crumb of it we have regularly slow to get going, buried astir until reliably persuaded it is sprout time, then quickly of gushing bloom: flimsy moss tacks the wilds, downy ferns begin to lean over wooded paths, evergreen leaves canopy the sun, flourishing lady slipper pokes out of hiding and the pitcher plant, pretty pink, opens its carnivorous snare around the time vernal ponds come alive with salamanders and land turtles.  Autumn is a long fade-out; the trills of robins gradually diminish as long-legged waterfowl disappear from the marshes, replaced by Arctic ducks avoidant of the icy numb while our stunted-pines, oaks and maples wind down pulse and the prickly bog grass that races toward the beach sand takes a shucked brown cast as the chloro-full days cease.  Summer hides the truth of our environs; vacationers and day-trippers cram the seashore, doubling our population under the stout rind of efflorescence spreading its incense of warm earth and flowerets that merge with the salt mist.  Winter is genuine Gloucester; varying inelastic values of gray course over the granite and bare trees, divulging the land’s embittered, muscular defiance of northeast wind and frozen mud under white cover, finally confessing the austere secrets of our grid cloaked by bract in the deceiving seasons, perpetually giving year-rounders bursts of surprise at discovering we live in a place not as well known as thought.

Gloucester roves, torques, struts and drifts over a lymphatic system of water, water everywhere for twenty-six square miles.  Virtually every speck of topography has a name, some more than one: Annisquam, Joppa, Watch House Point, Lanesville, Bay View, Riverdale (not to be confused with Riverview), Magnolia, Stage Fort (don’t mix it up with The Fort), Eastern Point, Dolliver’s Neck, Freshwater Cove, Rocky Neck, Wolf Hill, Mt. Ann, Thomson’s Mountain, Wingaersheek, Good Harbor, Plum Cove, Pavilion Beach, the Boulevard, Rowley Shore, Lookout Hill, Harbor Cove, Bass Rocks, Lobster Cove, Banner Hill, Lane’s Cove, Half Moon Beach, Brier Neck, Twopenny Loaf, Mussel Point, Loblolly Cove, Lily Pond—on and on go the appellations for islands, lakes, rivers, ponds, reservoirs, swamps, puddles, boulders, woods, fields, parks, thickets and bare nothings, hopeless to absorb in entirety, but necessary, I suppose, to title in such a sprawling place, or else how would we ever find anything?

This is but a reckless sketch of the place I came to after some three decades of urban existence up-the-line as Gloucesterites perplexingly call going south over the bridge.  I moved here to put behind me an era of defeats in the creative arts caused by lack of fortune, and most of all, a dazzling inadequacy; obstinately pursuing a grasp beyond my reach in one endeavor with more consuming and costly defeats in another, all chasing dreams of seizing the cultural stage from those whose work I saw as shockingly impoverished and strange.  I left behind some ruined friendships (be careful about engaging in artistic pursuits with those you have a pre-existing social relationship with), a shattered long-term romance, some sanity from another romantic entanglement—one of those movie set flings that always spell disaster even in shoestring ventures, financial bankruptcy (plays, and especially films, are expensive undertakings), and a toppled spirit from drugs foolishly used to kill the distress.  Suffice to say my teenaged twenties ended with the big crash and burn, leaving me destitute, weirded-out, afflicted, and with no place to go except to move back in with family.  Still, mind and spirit weren’t dead, only materially pitiable, and at that time I finally obtained enough druthers to realize my dream of reaching an audience was unlikely to be achieved through pricey endeavors.  Writing was a better way to get onto that proscenium.  I was over thirty.  Maybe now I had something to say.  I started writing while doing jobs I abhor divulging (only because we are too often judged by what we do for money and tend to forget that all work is ennobling).  Let’s simply say  I’ve never a traditional work career, only employment that paid the bills and never asked much out of me; there’s no other way in the arts—trying to make it in that realm is a full-time job, and it seldom pays, the alternative being to get some appropriate degree and teach in a field near your pursuit, a road sure to suck the soul out of you.  Besides, I had to go out on my own at seventeen, leaving me opportunity to obtain learning only thru adult ed workshops and classes at here today/gone tomorrow schools.  Still, I wouldn’t have had it any other way; when you leave yourself nothing to fall back on, making it has an urgency few live.  I chose an all-or-nothing life.  It’s the only way to play the game of life.  All-or-Nothing.

Gloucester was the essence of the plan for my new start—not only is it a great place to hone one’s expressive nature, it was the one place that always made me smile; from my first visits during high school when I’d pile into a coughing coupe with pals to head for the beach until today, I’ve always loved Gloucester (if not its people).  Loved it in all seasons, visited it with all friends, lovers and many times alone. By car, boat, train, even thumb ... to jump into the surf, stare at the waves, explore its remote places, attend its festivals, or simply to get an ice cream.  If there was a place to make a home, Gloucester was it.

I finally made it here, renting a small house and getting busy.  I wrote screenplays, novels, plays, novellas, short stories and a television event series over five years: twisty thrillers, accounts of desperate quests, tales of Pyrric victories, tomes on how we esteem others and musings on the price paid for the undiscovered self.  I designed screwball comedies, subdued love stories and mysteries.  I wrote hundreds of queries—to agents, production companies, development executives, publishers, theatrical producers and publications.  I entered contests.  I networked, studied ever-changing submission formats, created summaries and outlines, pitched over the phone and through e mail and heeded dozens of story analysts urging re-writes only to later still refuse my work.  I amassed a staggering number of rejection notices that I fixed to a wall—for ages they were the only things that proved I was a writer. 

Finally catching the eye of an agent put me on a more intense carousel ride.  When a representative begins offering a writer’s properties, the most frequent response they hear is: What else does he have?  An agent with little to peddle from a writer will not keep him for a client long.  I alternated writing novels and screenplays, and never could do it fast enough.  As one manuscript went out, I was expected to have another soon on the way.  The last thing I wrote was always slightly off what the business wanted at the moment, or—not up someone’s alley, or—too comparable to something already unsuccessfully done, or— too commercial, or—not commercial enough, or—lacking bite, or—awfully out there, or—overly derivative, or—way ahead/behind the times.  Or and on it went, with my agent always hinting something had to sell soon or I couldn’t be kept on roster.  During all this, life had to be confronted: I had to support myself, close relatives battled illnesses, friends lost their lives, and my father passed away.

Ten years after I started writing, something finally sold ... kind of anyway.  A start-up Hollywood production company took an option on a script.  Options don’t mean a lot in the business, they’re just a cash flyer to tie up the property for a period while someone decides if they want to commit further.  At least now I could call myself a professional, even if the money wasn’t enough to keep from existing on cup-a-soups, packaged noodles and boxes of macaroni and cheese for very long.  Around that time, I remember the news reporting results of a survey—most Americans living below the poverty line had cable TV, owned a car, and cooked with a microwave. 

I had none of those things.

Later that same day, I was listening to a radio talk show about personal finances where listeners obtain advice about money matters.  One caller, the same age as I was, listed his assets: owned his home outright, had over half million in one account, about a quarter million in another, a hundred grand someplace else, a company pension and a fifty G annuity due on top of all that.  His question to the host: How does it look for my retirement?  The host paused, "Well ... I think it’s going to be tight."

Not good news for someone that never had so much as a passbook savings account.

But I did have Gloucester—my ally, solace and muse.  I roamed internally and externally our island cape, into the mysterious regions few ever visit, wonderful frontiers to explore and cultivate one’s intuitive thinking.  Still, the mission had a downside; many remaining friends drifted away, everyone being in their Empire Building years, that time when really making it takes precedent, leaving periods between meaningful contact to ominously expand until too many became scarcely acquaintances.  I likely drove others away who wanted to help ease my toil: an abiding precept in my life has been to see those around me rendered harmless from choices I make. 

I lived in Gloucester over ten years before really knowing anyone.  Sandy was the first.  A local newspaper reporter with a gentle air and sweetmeat face, a woman who always surprised ... I can’t say more ... not now, can’t risk losing the composed moment ... thinking of her scalds my plexus, just drills me open, spilling psychic viscera until I can sense the wavering hiss of death-rattle in my daimon.  Suffice to say that if you spend enough time in Gloucester you’ll learn it isn’t inhabited by a warm and welcoming bunch (even less so since I’ve been here).  There’s a sneer here, behind the physical grandeur, that the casual visitor only gets hint of as they pass the downtown bars and catch a glimpse of what’s hanging out front, or first hand witness the way some local businesses treat the public, or when their passage to public lands is hindered by those with imagined authority because the route goes by where the rich live.  Oh, on I could go ... just know it’s a flinty place, always has been, either attracting or fashioning a sizable percentage of us here into pinched, sullen cretins, of which I am one.  Believe it or not, I love that about Gloucester.  It’s a place with a harrowing history that bones-down your psyche and makes your nature severe, a place emblematic of D. H. Lawrence’s estimation of the American psyche: hard ... isolate ... a killer  (Gloucester being the marine version).

My preferred indoor sanctuary is the Cape Ann Technical & Literary Association—a dozy place situated a half-block from downtown in a Federalist mansion long ago owned by a businessman engaged in Gloucester’s Surinam trade.  Mainly a depository of historical items, books and documents of local interest, the little museum, as it’s usually called, also has a modest-sized gallery displaying bequeathed art, the best known work being Fitz Hugh Lane’s masterpiece, From Duncan Hill.

Fitz Hugh Lane!  Born and died in Gloucester.  A Luminist painter.  The Luminist Painter!  An artist of majestic stature, the one who sees Gloucester, the place and its radiance, like no other: its chilly, rimy eastern glow and shadows that configure as hard and dark as the night, bumping into, but never merging with the light under an immense heaven gripping the sea’s vista so breathtakingly that Zeus himself must be tempted to come forth and admire the mortal’s breathtaking pinpoint accuracy and covert, seamless strokes—a definitude amazingly contrasted by the graceful hush that soul his scenes.

Lane lost use of his legs before age two.  With few words of his own left behind, I imagine Fitz Hugh taking up drawing as a way to cope with a constricted life, especially supposing the lot of one living with a handicap in his time (1804-1865).  As an adolescent, he unsuccessfully made a try of it as a shoemaker.  I speculate the cobbler’s craft too rigidly literal for his eloquent stirrings, yet he must have known the need depend on hands to make a life.  Was it a desperate revelation,  or fate pushing him toward a seeded proclivity?  Maybe simple practical compensation—developing his functional appendages the way losing one sense necessitates sharpening of another?

A different museum in town possesses the world’s greatest collection of Lane’s work.  It’s a good place to be introduced to the artist’s inspiring mastery of marine light and shadow and experience his intimate knowledge of every curve and angle of the Cape Ann shoreline.  A visit there well prepares you for the lustrionic, transcendent magnificence of the incomparable From Duncan Hill.  Finished in 1864, the oil canvas hauntingly evokes both pinnacle and summation of Fitz Hugh’s genius.  Completed from a perch flawless for detail and scope and measuring 42 x 48 inches, Gloucester’s vigor has never been so consummately depicted.  Lane captures a teeming port under the sweeping background of Five and Ten Pound Islands, Stage Fort and the far off Norman’s Woe.  With crystalline exactitude and careful highlights of contours in the then new hot cadmium pigments, yellows and oranges (but seldom reds), compelling the eye to move nearer fore and absorb the bustling activity meshed along docks between mucky, eroded boulders: two and three masteds, mooring posts, brigs, dories, rowers, barrels, anchors, nets, bins, drying stages, blocked ice, and ramps extending into clipper holds—all framed along the resting point of a soft bending shore.  The scene looks down to the close ground filled with hardware and supply shops, ballast haulers, brokers, and horse-drawn wagons (Lane put more people in this painting than in all the rest of his work combined!) set along crinkled alleys, then rising zigzag uphill to children playing tug-of-war with a line, a rag man pulling a cart, warped rows of gambrel-roofed flophouses and white clapboard residences with laundry hanging out windows—everything holding a unique self-contained dynamic—from tranquil to raging, glum to joyous, totally alive with its own light and moods from realistic to romantic, rendered with sparkling richness and a seemingly infinite scale of tonalities.

Standing close to From Duncan Hill, I ponder—Fitz Hugh, you never married ... was it your physical condition?  Did you pine for a family?  Were you ever in love?  Was passion only for the dye and stain?  Did others pity you?  Maybe ignore you?  How dare they forget you after death, your bones sitting under scant marker for nearly a century.  How could that happen to the one who knew this place as no other does?  I’m tempted to reach out and so slightly touch what he tapped with brush.  But I hold back.  One doesn’t caress gods.  There would be a price to pay for that, and yes, I’m sure it would trigger alarms.  It may be a little museum, but they must have security befitting the treasure they hold.  They must. 

After adulating From Duncan Hill, I usually slice across Main and Rogers, the core

streets of downtown, and wander over to the Fitz Hugh Lane House, which rises above the vestiges of Duncan Hill over a half-circle now known as Harbor Loop.  Lane designed the seven-gabled, two-storied schismatic narrow configuration of granite in 1849, after returning to Gloucester from years as a printmaker in Boston.  This introspective bulwark above the sea inspired the vista of his masterpiece, although its Ivy Court address no longer exists, nor does that end of Duncan Street (Drunken Street as that part of it was known), everything but the home Fitz Hugh spent the last sixteen years of life in razed during the era of urban renewal.  His high-ceilinged attic studio had each window underneath uniquely kinked and groined along a non-continuous apex. 

Walking up the hill, I can envision scraps of the setting a near millennium back: decades before Fitz Hugh’s house was built beacons were lighted there to celebrate news of the Declaration of Independence—affixed to a tree with a stem measuring over twenty feet in diameter!

Reaching the top, I make out a harbor inlet enduringly familiar from Lane’s images, but now bounded by a new land order: the massive butt of a storage facility, a corrugated pre-fab aluminum facade of a seafood auction house, an in-the-rough restaurant, harbormaster’s office, Coast Guard station, herring processing plant and building supply store now denote the location, with only a constricted marine railways gasping to hold on from an earlier era.  Today, Fitz Hugh’s residence serves as a seldom tended-to public toilet filled with rank stench, graffiti, combative houseflies and used toilet paper scattered on the floor.  Upstairs there are the cramped offices of some unfriendly non-profits where all inside can hear the streaming urine and get a whiff of the drifting fetor of whatever it was that crawled into someone’s bowels and died.

Choosing to forego the shudder of disgust compelled by a peek inside the building, I instead move to the statue of Lane sitting outside on the south side of the hill.  The life-sized bronze depicts Lane stooped on the ground, leaning forward with legs tucked under torso, crutches by his side.  Bounteous hands hold a sketchpad, a rumpled hat shields an incorrupt visage underlined by taut lips and firm jaw, his spirit manifest through eyes tenaciously fixed on the far deep. 

I crouch in front of him, raising eyes up at his studio.  I see ... the world outside, under each incongruent gable, delivers an inimitable picture ... views so close together inspire scenes so unlike ... possibly even a design to fragment the grand ‘scape, carve it up for intimate attention.  And how did you climb to that loft, Fitz Hugh?  Did you lean against the wall and lift each leg up the stairs?  Or sit and boost your frame over steps one by one?

With scant known about Lane, I must hunt for illumination via speculative inquiry, crude inference, and Dreamtime.  However, one truth needs no gleaning through gut impulse or capricious supposition— with every recess and fissure reminiscent of such dazzling genius, Gloucester is a magnificently cursed place to be a failure.

The option on my screenplay In Defense of the Penny eventually lapsed.  A rather whimsical, for-all-ages story based on a news report about the U.S. government considering elimination of the one-cent piece, I crafted into a tale of a young girl who sets out to save the penny, enlisting help from family, friends and community.  She ends up testifying before Congress and winning them over moments before a vote on the issue.  It was a stand-up-for-what-you-believe, one-person-can-make-a-difference saga aimed at inspiring youth. 

My next screenplay nowhere.  Same for the play that came after, and the ensuing novel, plus another screenplay.  By then I ... all right—I need now reveal to those still hanging in with this bloated summary—by then I had an old van and one of my jobs was filling it up with bread from a bakery up-the-line in early mornings and delivering it to local stores and restaurants.  Gloucester was end of the route, and as one disposed toward creeping about during odd hours, a certain affection developed for the way that time of day flatters the city.  The commercial district, long ago pauperized by the malls but still having some spunk, held a starry glow, even a touch of bygone splendor only the familiar strangers I noticed in the pre-dawn would know.

For the first time, I suffered from that dreaded state: Blocked—the admission coming one autumn day standing before From Duncan Hill.  Anxiously, I gazed at the painting, wondering what to do about the crisis.  Was there something fresh here to trigger a run of inspiration?  More than mere object of profound deliberation, From Duncan Hill was artistic life-breath.  I intensely examined every long memorized aspect of the composition.  Help me, Fitz Hugh.  There must be something here.  There must be.  All art is contemporary—find the new stratagem here for prodding the vision.  I’ve tried everything.  What’s left to go?  Go over the edge?  What does that mean?  How is it done?  Can one choose to go there?  Is it simply like a dive into a cold lake?  Would it be more cataclysmic, as if leaping from an event horizon into a black hole?  Can one consciously do that?  Or is one only taken there?

All I remember is continuing transfixed in front of the painting for a spell, until becoming highly aware of the musty old library scent inside the little museum.  Turning away from Fitz Hugh, I recall an apparent ever so slight change in the ether (awkward to describe, perhaps analogous to the way time and motion seems to distend during a motor vehicle accident).  Is something ... shifting?   My eyes went in a straight line to the wire tendrils creeping along the floor taped against the wall.  In one direction they led to rubber discs suctioned to the inside windows, vanishing to who knows where in the other.  Motions sensors, I gathered.  A new fear enveloped me: what if someone planned to steal From Duncan Hill?  I’d likely be Blocked, forever.  All that protected Fitz Hugh were the tentacles of some insentient electronic octopus.  And what did this cephalopod sentry actually do?—set off an alarm at the police department?—or, even worse, notify a private security company where the sole overseeing cretin vacates the console every hour to go down the hall and get a snack cake from the vending machine? 

I counted the seconds from gallery to exit (both on the first floor!) and nodded to the intern at the admission desk.  Outside, I took an oblique glance at the windows; ground level, covered by sheets of thick plastic, yet big enough for someone to climb inside, grab Fitz Hugh and be gone in under one minute!  Those apertures were susceptible to easy breach.  O perilous panes!  I wobbled away, disabled more than ever by an adrenalized horror that consumed me.

Panicked by the museum’s complacency, I took to orbiting the place in the deep night and doing some investigating; walking from the nearby police station took a bit over two minutes; running, about one minute thirty; and driving, forty seconds.  I diagrammed the zone—the museum stood mid-point on a right angle of a square made up of four side streets.  The Thief could easily have a vehicle waiting out of sight less then a minute away and facing one of two different directions—toward 128, or the opposite way, curling onto the Boulevard, then over the Cut Bridge, heading for highway access up-the-line, or else fleeing along the scenic route running through the southerly Gold Coast ‘burbs.

The torment of uselessly trying to bully creative imagination and fear over the possible theft of From Duncan Hill took a toll.  Sleep was erratic; I became haunted by the pejorative aspects of time: the growing bare region on my crown, crunchy new wrinkles on my face, and the saffron shade to my teeth.  And why did my dumpy legs seem even shorter?  Life, with the December that came, felt wintry.  It wasn’t right, the way these years had played out.  How did I do it wrong?  Why did most friends seldom come and visit anymore?  I had made only one other friend in Gloucester besides Sandy (whom by then I no longer saw).  Why is it so hard for me to connect with people?  I try.  I really do (I think I do anyway).  Never one to lug demons, they were building lairs now.  Was life best spent all this time pursuing bliss?  Is it best to do what you need to do, the thing that defines your essence, and never get anywhere, rather than to give up the fight and settle for what is comfortable and untroubling?  If I could do it all over, would I have taken this road?  Knowing what I know now, could I?

Fortunately, gyrating sentry duty every night around downtown perimeters of the little museum left little time for contemplation to become obsessive.  Needing to leave the scene to go to work in the pre-dawn was worrying; From Duncan Hill was to one day free my mired vision, inducing a magnum opus, and intuition, always infallible, understood that a Criminal Mistermind was out to seize Fitz Hugh.

During the day, I marched along the business district seeking to expose the Conniver: noting the faces of patrons heading into the museum, taking mental notes of shoppers, women pushing strollers, the sanitation engineers emptying barrels, even the local storekeepers—Freddy the barber: he was almost ninety, but quick with those scissors, nimble hands could make up time lost by slow feet—the accountant across the street: she surely knew the worth of things—what about the owner of the junk shop across the way: he has to be some sort of fence—and that homeless guy always walking around: was he really homeless? 

The museum remained oblivious to the grim situation, evidenced by a newspaper story announcing the kick-off of a fund-raising drive for renovations—a detailed layout of the interior was splashed on the front page!  I thought I was going to have an aneurysm!  The Ransacker now knew all the ins and outs.

I visited Fitz Hugh’s grave at Oak Grove Cemetery to inform him his legacy wouldn’t be lost without a fight.  There are scattered clusters of Lane’s family in Oak Grove (they have very old Gloucester roots), but Fitz Hugh’s memorial stands apart from them.  The first time I looked for it, I wandered among rolling knolls and soaring obelisks, only a ka-kawing raven perched on the distant nub of a headstone to disturb serenity.  I looped the grounds, unable to locate Fitz Hugh, until I approached the raucous bird.  It flew off—from what was the top of Lane’s marker

Standing over Fitz Hugh, head bowed, I pondered an enduring mystery about this solitary man: Christened Nathaniel Rogers, you changed your name as a young man.  Why?  To take distance from something?  Was it an early manifest soul calling, an already knowing of your separateness?  Could it have been to create yourself anew?—if so, very modern of you.  Maybe it was a different murky or blithe motive only for one who kept his own counsel to know?

In order to keep my vow to Fitz Hugh, I bought a hammer, a big thirty-pound knocker, to help to thwart the plotting Second-Story Man (minus One) once he was confronted.  Tossing it into the back of my van, I now needed to figure the Machinator’s strategy, and grasping the technicalities of the weak point of defense, those windows and their plastic sheathings, was the key.

I studied chemical engineering and learned the structural integrity of polymers are highly influenced by temperature variations.  Memory polymers, those that recover form after insult, are negatively influenced by cold temperatures; the frigid air causes molecular contraction, making the material brittle.  Now more than halfway through December, the weather was frosty enough for the Bandit to easily splinter the plastic, break the glass, and seize From Duncan Hill.

That evening, while watching the little museum as a whirlpool of soft snow danced around in the wind, I had a appalling realization: the day after next would be December 19—Fitz Hugh Lane’s birthday!  The Looter’s plan was discovered; he would taunt us all by lifting the painting sometime after the clock passed that midnight!  Entirely apt, from the profile I fashioned of the Miscreant—sneering as he tore the heart from our community and then chuckling over the cruel irony.

The next day, I made a final pre-incident visit inside, spying around for some clue as to the identity of the Villain.  Ending up standing in the quiet gallery before From Duncan Hill, I heard a throat clear behind me.  I barely turned my head and detected a man eyeing the painting; I’d seen this somewhat older, taller and thinner than myself fellow with a gray drooping moustache before—he was one of the familiar strangers I’d notice while out and about.  Keeping one pupil laterally fastened on him, a petite young woman sauntered into the exhibition area—another familiar stranger—easy to remember from her preferred out-of-time look and the notebook she always carried under an arm.  I’d never seen these two familiar strangers together.  How odd.  Why now?  And here?

Facing Fitz Hugh, something in their dawdling behind me triggered a sudden malignant epiphany as the stale aroma inside the little museum warped into a sensation of rubber burning in my snout.  They’re the culprits—I slapped a palm against my forehead—how could I not have known!  Of course, there is more than one involved—it makes the rip-off so much easier.  Slobberchops and the Elf—casing the place one last time, a Pernicious Pair operating in plain view: always the best camouflage.  Father-Daughter pretending not to know each other, a Felonious Family, their non-resemblance part of the ruse—set to purloin From Duncan Hill on order for some drug cartel chairman questing refinement never found in a South American shanty upbringing; or maybe for an international arms dealer with access to diplomatic seal; even more likely—for a rascally captain of industry looking to feature the work in his specially built Casablanca basement room, displaying it for choice friends after dinner over cigars and brandy, all oohing and aahing at how chic-ly debauched they all are as Slobberchops and the Elf chortle away with their ill-gotten green to Monte Carlo and the Riviera, dropping wads at the gambling tables, eating whole hog, spilling rare wine and trawling  for new clientele.

I twirled in front of the Two, firmly planted my feet and prepared to let them know I was on to them, but their stares gave me pause—allowing time to comprehend that mere fiery words would never be enough to halt such dangerous criminals.

The Elf moved to a far side of me, closer to Fitz Hugh.  Then Slobberchops began slinking away, extending a slight nod on the way out.  A few seconds later, I sprinted outside hoping to spot him.  Darting between Christmas shoppers filling the streets proved useless: he was too good at his game—and going back to track the Elf would certainly have been equally as futile.

Zooming home, my heart raced with the ticking time.  Fitz Hugh’s birthday would begin in a mere few hours.  Pacing the carpet, I figured how the Tricky Twits would pull it off—Slopperchops wielding the mallet and the Elf at the getaway wheel. 

Darkness came.  A frigid night it was, the Degenerate Duet likely rubbing hands in glee.  I put on a thick pair of gloves, tossed the thumper in the front of the van and headed out.  The illuminated statue of the Blessed Virgin above Our Lady of Good Voyage emerged closing in on downtown, gentle Mary looking below and blessing my moment as savior.  Far ahead, an interior glow graced the dome at the Universalist Church, vivid red, a final warning the Double-Dealing Duo was sure to ignore.

Turning the engine off across the street from the little museum, I lingered until the midnight hour.  Once it arrived, I began a routine of watching for ten minutes, then spending five circling the flanking streets to locate the escape vehicle.

Anxiety whirled near out of control by 4 A.M.  It was about time to abandon guard to travel up-the-line and get the bread for delivery.  Then it dawned— they were on to me!  They had to be.  All the surveillance time would indeed be perceived by such Nasty Rising Stars ... yes—they have been watching the museum and watching me watch the museum.  They knew the routine.  That darkest hour before dawn, when everything was at quietest and I had left the vicinity, that was when they were going to snatch From Duncan Hill.

So they thought.

Clutching the striker, I burst out of the van, marched across the street to the window adjacent the gallery, raised the hammer far over my head, and walloped the plastic pane.  On first try, a jagged fissure broke open and shattered the glass behind it.  Thank you, Mother-of-Jesus!  I pulled the frosted sheet apart, vaulted onto the ledge and dropped inside.

From Duncan Hill twinkled in the meandering strands of veiled moonlight, seeming to wiggle like a tail on a happy pup as I advanced and delicately set hands on top of and below the frame.  I beamed, knowing the foiled Riff-Raff must already be scurrying from their nearby rodent’s burrow, mumbling curses and arguing with each other (for there can be no honor among thieves).  Only after gently resting the canvas under the broken window did an alarm go off.  I soared over the sill and once outside reached in for the painting, wrapping it in a blanket inside the van.  Then I drove


I felt relaxed.  No, relieved.  I had grasped, and taken hold of one of life’s now-or-

never moments.  Proceeding toward the Boulevard, the rear-view showed little following traffic, only a car that pulled into the lot of an all-night convenience store.  The blaring museum alarm bounced around the city, becoming more distant every second: it sounded to like a vehicle siren, perhaps why so few seemed to take heed.  I passed the absurd quasi -parallelogram of an intersection around the grand metal effigy of Joan of Arc; on horse with her head raised and sword lifted—Jehanne Darc from Domremy, what a pair we—albeit your banishing of the Brits short on scale to my trouncing of the Rubbishy Low-Brows!

After gliding over the Boulevard, I jumped on the highway in West Gloucester—keeping to work routine was now crucial, or else maybe rouse a mistaken impression that the wrong person was a bandit.  At the bakery warehouse I better layered From Duncan Hill under cover among bags, boxes and scrap in the back, then threw the big hammer in a dumpster.  Returning to Gloucester, I knew by then the Perturbed Pair had to be slouched in pucker-stopped dunderment at some doughnut shop counter.

Closing in on the bridge, something dashed out of the woods and onto the road ahead.  I barely had time to hit the brakes as the big living thing clipped the front bumper along the edge, its hiney sliding up and cracking the windshield before it sprinted away.  The van spun around and stopped only inches from the guardrail.  Regaining composure, I made out an antlered buck on the other side of the highway madly thrashing around the way wounded animals do.

I jumped out and opened up the rear doors.  Everything was packed tight; there was no shifting of the load—Fitz Hugh was safe.  Then the hot beams hit my back.  Turning around, a patrol car came to a stop; the lone officer got out and made the big walk-up while I stood there looking holy.  State police.  He gave me that quick formidable stare an experienced lawman uses to size-up things—this time sensing a lucid driver with no whiff of impairment.  His eyes moved past me and looked into the back, then some noise sent his attention across the highway where he watched the deer collapse.

Are you all right?

Yeah, just checking things out.

We both moved to the front.  Tufts of chestnut hair clung to the hanging bumper; blood and other organic stuff streaked across the hood.  The officer shook his head, Second one down tonight on this end of 128.  I’ll call you a tow.

Let me see if it’s drivable, I urged.  I don’t have far to go.  I closed the back doors, got inside, and played with the wheel.  I think I can make it."

Sure you want to try?

I had a feeling he wanted to get going.  Let me give it a shot.

He went back to his car.  I limped onto the road, the officer staying behind me until reaching the bridge.  Then he sped past, turning right toward downtown at the first rotary.

Following the same way, blinking blue auras of light danced off buildings around the city.  It was quiet—no more alarm; but by my first delivery fervent police activity

swirled around me.

Ahead on Main Street, a barricade went up.  I rolled down the window and spoke to the policewoman: I have deliveries to make.

She spoke to a detective who pulled up the rear, then waved me through, the black sedan trailing along and passing after I stopped at a storefront.  Early risers and those heading to work lingered by the barriers, watching police cars whiz by.  Rumors already sieved through town:

A gang cleaned out the little museum.  Took everything.

I heard they filled a truck and dumped it for another vehicle.

Too much wild energy; calm down everybody ... calm down.  Fitz Hugh was safe; they’d all just have to wait until I knew the Filchers were in custody or had tiptoed away.

As the sun rose, I was close enough to peek over at the little museum—the site was jammed with cop cars of all kinds, crime scene vehicles, lawyerly-looking suits, photographers, reporters, and an arriving television news crew. 

Suddenly, a canine squad appeared rushing toward me; two dogs ahead of their trotting colleagues.  My heart leapt—Yes!—they were on the trail Pernicious Privateers.

For some reason, the dogs circled my van, jumping up on it with their front paws and barking.  I soon had a crowd around me.  One demanding uniform snarled, Is this yours?

Before answering, the highway patrol officer I met stepped out of the swarm, "I saw him coming into town.  He hit a deer on the highway.  Had to be before the break-in."

A dog-handler gave the hood of the van an intent look, Pretty filthy.  The scent is confusing the dogs.

I was determined to put all suspicion to rest.  I flung open the back doors of the van, See for yourself.

Only one officer cared to peer in.

We want you out of here, someone higher-up ordered as the rest of the horde scurried away.  I was all done with deliveries anyway.  They opened the saw-horses and let me through.  Driving away, I scouted the onlookers, expecting to catch a glimpse of Slobberchops and the Elf milling around surveying the scene like pyromaniacs attending a fire they had set.

I headed home, bumper hanging and steering wheel listing, through the now awake city coming to watch the after effects of a great misdeed prevented.  Don’t worry everybody.  Fitz Hugh is fine.  Getting out of the van in the driveway, I noticed all adjoining neighbors gone for the day.  I opened the back, cleared away some stuff and brought From Duncan Hill into the house.

Chapter Two

SHALL I SPREAD THEM again for you? Shalaigne asked me. 

Inside, I grimaced.  The silence, she saw as a reply.  After a vortex of fallen leaves kicked up in front of us, Shalaigne smiled and declared, You think I’m wacky.

No.  Honestly, it’s not that ...

And it wasn’t.  It’s just that, well, I had met Shalaigne about six months before as she sat at a table in a coffee shop, her Tarot deck out, an image that seemed a bid for attention.  She didn’t realize there was no need for her to try so hard.  Not with me.

I think maybe, Shalaigne drew two fingers close together in front of us; we’re both a tiny bit strange.

Only a tiny bit? I inquired, ending that beat of banter.  We were side-by-side, plopped on the frigid ground against a glacial erratic known as Whale’s Jaw in a place called Dogtown.

A chipmunk dashed by in front of us trailed by a groaning gust.  Shalaigne finally broke the ensuing hush, What do you think happened to the painting?

The museum will get it back.  In time.

I can’t believe it’s such a big story.  It leads the news. Shalaigne turned to me with a look of worry, They said professionals may have swiped it.

That’s over–the-bridge talk.  Everything will turn out fine.

I know Lane is an inspiration to you.  I hope they find it.

Chancing upon Shalaigne was a highlight of my Gloucester years—a hiking partner eager to explore the miles of wilds on Cape Ann in any season, in all weather—and the fact she was a lot younger than I was, well, that just iced the cake.

What are you doing for the holidays? I asked her.

My sister’s coming up.

There was something in her tone: You don’t sound thrilled.

It’ll be good to see her, Shalaigne, using that same pitch, nodded.

Hoping she’ll decide it’s time to sell your aunt’s house?

Would be nice.  Not sure I like being alone there.  She shrugged, Or anywhere.

That was one of the many ways we were different.  Some conflict there? I gently prodded. 

Oh no, Shalaigne insisted, I love her.  We just seem to have less and less in common whenever we see each other.  Time just does that.

Yes, it does, I agreed, bumping closer to her as the sun broke out and startled the December morning.  The faint dancing curls of her rolling raven mane filled the chasm between our winter coats.  Was there a hint of surprise in that crooked smile she gave me after I put an arm around her?  We eavesdropped on the rustling underbrush and I remember thinking how pleasant it was to have a friend that appreciated some of the same things I did.  Dogtown is an extensive, unattended and truly wild, boulder-strewn backwoods that sprawls through Cape Ann.  It’s like an artichoke: peel the cape open and that long, spread-out layer is Dogtown.  No one can definitively say how it got its name, and there are no official entry or exit points, but we do know it’s the place early settlers made the mistake of homesteading in after the first bunch that settled closer to the brine vacated.  Dogtown is everywhere on Cape Ann, and nowhere: the woods alongside the road, the pasture behind industrial parks, the dead spot rear of residential yards, the area past the barriers of dead-ends, the watershed encircling reservoirs, the ground winding under power lines, the vague footpath behind the ball field, the plane intersected by railroad tracks ... if the land along the shore is exoteric Gloucester, then Dogtown is its esoteric ley.

Shalaigne dropped her head onto my shoulder and her dark eyes pondered my face until we locked gaze.  Her hair smelled like coconut oil as my heartbeat slowed to sync hers.  She was one of those tattooed, body-pierced holistic types so seemingly common these days, people I have absolutely no business associating with.  She moved to the area to care for an elderly aunt who passed away about a year before.  Shalaigne stayed around, working locally as a waitress.  I think she was waiting for the estate to be settled and hoping for money to go to India.  She studied dance and theatre in college (I don’t know if she graduated).  I know she spent time learning deep-tissue muscular therapy and often goes to retreats of some sort where they sit alone for days without seeing anyone (I can do that right here in Gloucester).  But her clique isn’t as pure as they seem: once at a party with her friends, they were drinking wine and eating chocolate, and they offered me pot.  Still, Shalaigne’s body awareness intrigued me; she had no hesitation simply grabbing and kneading a body part of mine, or recommending I go with her for colonic hydrotherapy, or even offering to wax the hair off my back when I complained about being too hairy.  You said you use the cards, she said, still looking up at me.

Sometimes.  To stimulate intuitive thinking.

That’s good for you, she smiled.

I was thinking she was good for me.  Hegel said all creativity exists out there in the firmament and an artist is simply an antennae for receiving it, I explained.  The cards help me tune into that.

Shalaigne aimed her head forward and gazed at a patch of bald rock warting up behind a patch of nude oak.  I sensed her mind spinning.  In time, I pointed at her head, What’s going on up there?

Oh, sorry, she pulled her focus onto me.  The striations, you really notice them in the sun from this angle.  I tilted my head and spied what she meant.  They track northeast to southwest, Shalaigne informed me, the way glacier moved over it.

Didn’t know you knew so much about geology.

I don’t, she shrugged.  Just what I see.

What else do you see? I asked in even more surprise. 

That rock, she eventually began, seeing itself as such royalty.  She sensed the question mark soaking the air between us.  You can tell it stands higher than it once did.  Raccoons, other animals, they must take cover there.  I’ll bet creatures built nests in its fissures.  Shalaigne turned to me and grinned, Just look at the stunted pine choosing to root there. 

Shalaigne faced me and smiled.  Don’t stop, I beamed back.

The life it nourishes feels grateful to the rock.  The rock senses that and is no longer just any mineral.  Vibrations have elevated its spirit, making it more adept at what it does, in time forming new cavities for shelter and the chain of life.  Its energy then extends to the astral region and a person is aware of something special about the rock.

Why are you putting your energy into the Tarot? I incredulously asked.  You ought to be ... I don’t know ... mapping the chakras of the earth or something.  Your passion and intuition, it’s exciting.

Shalaigne broke into a wide grin, Thanks.  Maybe someday, but I’m exploring something different right now.  A harder wind zagged around Whale’s Jaw and curved onto us.  Shalaigne huddled closer while I brushed wisps of hair away from her face.  She looked at me, angled her chin and closed her eyes ...  Does she want me to? ...  Instead, I stroked her chin until I saw her shiver.

You’re freezing.  Let’s go back to my place and you can do a reading for me.

She slung an arm around one of mine after we stood up.

ON MY COUCH, SHALAIGNE shuffled the cards.  I handed her a cup of green tea.  It was all I had in the kitchen; she was my only guest of lately and I think she liked that.  She was always extolled the anti-oxidant virtues of tea and urged me to get on it, but I don’t sip trimmings: if it’s not carbonated, I don’t drink it—even water—or else I risk a fallen stomach.

I sat next to her.  Why so much energy put into doing this?

Insight, she immediately answered.  Taking all that’s ever been put into reading these images and using it to discover something about the eye of the now.  Understand?

I pondered: Is it about the cards, or the one reading them?

It’s an investigation into method, Shalaigne explained.  Are you trying to be a psychologist?

Just curious about you.  She grinned and bumped closer to me with the cards on her lap. 

Do one card, I told her.  A summation of the here and now.

That’s all? she pouted.

Let’s see how it goes.

Shalaigne fanned the cards out in front of me.  I picked one.  She turned it over.  The Six of Wands—a man on a white horse, holding a staff with a laurel wreathe, surrounded by five other elevated batons.

You’ve gotten, or are about to get, what you want, she said after a deep breath.  Then she moved her head closer to mine.

My center knotted up.  Did she know?

Shalaigne put the deck aside, slid far into my classified space and aimed her head my way.  Something you want reveal? 

She knew!  I jumped up, All right ... all right!  I went down on one knee in front of her.  She appeared startled until I reached under the couch and slid out From Duncan Hill.  Shalaigne’s vision fixed on the painting, but something wasn’t registering.  She muttered to herself, Damn, I missed the message. 

No, you didn’t.

I didn’t? she nervously laughed, looking the painting over.  "What’s that anyway?  From Duncan Hill?  I nodded.  That’s what you think I meant?  Another nod.  I- Shalaigne abruptly stopped ... you ... she turned away, shook her head and chuckled.  Turning back red-faced she said, Oh, you are so kind, wanting me to be right."  Then kissed me.  Parting my lips, her tongue scoured away and I pulled her onto the rug-

Suspicious reader, I know you may be cringing in terror anticipating description of an erotic encounter usually so appallingly executed it ruins a story.  Though there’s nothing to wreck in this piece and seeing that I have little experience with on the spot sex (mainly from dearth of opportunity), suffice to say—we thrashed around (watch out for Fitz Hugh!), things got slithery in a reptilian way, digits ended up places they seldom go (at least mine), cavities stretched open, we progressed up the evolutionary ladder via some canine simulation, someone got knee burn, I found myself staring into the eyes of a dragon, and we concluded our Darwinian explorations by descending the biological scale to its seminal beginnings before the room fell quiet.  Lying on the floor, Shalaigne rolled over and touched my face. "Guess I really was right then?"

You were.

She sat up and gazed over at From Duncan Hill propped against the couch.  You’re so sweet, she said, glancing back and forth from it to me.  So, you stole the painting, huh? she laughed.

No, Shalaigne, no- I sat up beside her.  I didn’t steal it.  I took it for safekeeping—I had to, there was a plot—it was about to be stolen.

What, are you working on a crime caper or something?

There are some suspicious people around town.  I investigated what they were up to.  I couldn’t go to the police; I didn’t know who else might be in on it.  Time forced me to act.

So you broke in and grabbed it?

I feel pretty bad about the smashed window.  Again, she looked at the painting, then me ... then at the painting, and then at me.  Please don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, I pleaded.

Shalaigne grinned, leaned over and kissed my cheek, You wanted me to be right.  I shrugged and brought knees to my chin as while she crossed her legs.  We stared at From Duncan Hill and finally Shalaigne reached for it.  Involuntarily, I seized her wrist.  I wasn’t going to touch it, she frowned.  I let her go and she waved a palm over the canvas, careful not to get too close.  What an aura.  Lots of energy there.  She got up and went for her coat. You should have copies of his work all over your place.

I’m only interested in this one and seeing it kept of the hands of thugs, I said, following her to the door.

You do that, she laughed.  And remind me next time to ask about what you’re working on.  There was a goodbye kiss before she got into her car, a request to call her later, and then she was gone.  I was angry with myself, didn’t want to drag somebody else into my drama, but at the same time I was cheered by the fact Shalaigne understood.  And also, of course, that I had unexpectedly gotten some.

Museum Robbed

THAT WAS THE BROAD headline streaking across the entire front page of the newspaper I picked up after Shalaigne left.  It had been a long time since I read the Gloucester daily, and not just because it’s difficult to sustain an interesting everyday publication in a community of thirty thousand.  Observing Sandy’s name attached to the story, that was the other reason.  She wrote:

The city of Gloucester remains dumbfounded and riveted by the early morning theft of Fitz Hugh Lane’s From Duncan Hill at the Cape Ann Technical & Literary Association —

There was a large photo of the painting aligned along one margin, and a series of sidebar articles about Lane, the museum and other major art thefts running along the other edge.  Word from the town police chief was that even though they arrived on scene within two minutes, the thief or thieves were gone and no apparent witnesses had been located.  The chief explained that the FBI, which has jurisdiction over the theft of art from all public places, had arrived and along with state investigators were in the process of collecting evidence.  There was also an interview with an art appraiser; she called From Duncan Hill Lane’s pre-eminent work and estimated its value at five million dollars.  I was stunned!  Only five million?  Why, Winslow Homer, his top price was thirty million and he’s only about one-sixth the artist Fitz Hugh was, not the other way around!  Can you believe it, Fitz Hugh? I asked, pulling down the paper and gazing at the painting.

Once I got home that morning with the painting, I had to decide how to best protect it.  Figuring I couldn’t take it everywhere, initial attempts to booby-trap all apertures of my residence only exposed my ineptitude in the trade of joinery.  Thinking further, there was no question the un-Artful Dodgers were sniveling weak-willed lackeys, mere fartcatchers for the Niven-esque honcho of International Intrigue, Inc.  Wouldn’t such sneak thieves be in awe and fear after my daring in-their-mugs alpha male warrior maneuver?—they would never dare approach my territory sure of the unspeakable mayhem to be wreaked upon them.

That insight brought relief and supported an approach of abiding by usual routine while Fitz Hugh rested under the couch.  I went to my other job, grabbed the paper, watched numerous television reports about the matter, picked-up some take-out, and meditated in front of Fitz Hugh, certain that with such a virtuoso temporary roommate I was finally going to get prolific.  Then I got my first good shut-eye in weeks.

The next evening, I raced to the door when Julie’s car pulled into my driveway.  It

was an hour later than I thought it was, my track of time lost jotting story ideas in a notebook after hanging From Duncan Hill on the living room wall in front of me.  It was too late to hide it—she was already on the porch.

Julie headed for the sofa after we embraced.  She’s the friend who knows me best.  Sitting next to her, I wondered how to spare her involvement in the Fitz Hugh matter, I’ve missed you.  Haven’t seen you since summer.  What’s happening in your life?

"Just the us-ual."

We met more than two decades ago, at a performing arts school.  She surrendered those dreams long ago, but the bond we formed barely negotiating the safe side of that era’s innocent recklessness grew over the years.  I tried to keep her attention on me, How’s the business going?

Very good, she said, staring at me with her coat on.  I knew what that meant.

Doing better than you thought?


Julie spent years in a family business, but got out a few months ago to start a boutique selling hair, skin and make-up products in a chic section of the metropolis over the bridge.  Her store was about the size of a lunch counter. 

How about the guy you were see-

It’s over, she cut in.

I didn’t know what to say.  We had soothed each other during many forlorn times (which was most of our lives) and recently she made meeting someone a priority in life—it didn’t seem to be working out.

I’m hungry, she said.

She always was.  Never saw such a big eater in so trim a body.  Julie isn’t the out-and-out warmest person you’ll ever meet; but she is a woman of subdued kindness, which causes me some ache over the regions of her soul she won’t let me connect with.  Yet I don’t know  what I would do without her: she really understands my life.  No matter how fate torques, we always seem to spin until we drop back next to each other.

She snatched the paper off the table and glanced at it.  For the second straight day, a picture of From Duncan Hill blasted across the front page.

Are you upset about the painting being stolen?

They’ll get it back.

Thought it would really be bothering you, with that crush you have on Lane.  So, where do you want to go for dinner?

The phone rang.  I decided to answer it—Shalaigne.  This is what Julie heard:

... not right now, I’m busy ... maybe ... we’ll see ... I’ll get back to you ... don’t talk about it over the phone ... I will ... yes ... bye.

Who was that?

I didn’t know if Julie was smiling or frowning, A friend.

That girl you go walking with?

Busted!  Uh-huh.

What’s her name again Saline?—Big Pain?

It’s Shalaigne.

"Oohh ... Shalaigne just gave you a ‘let’s get it on’ call."

What are you talking about?

She wanted to hook up with you.

I told you, we’re not sleeping together.


Why does a guy