Portsmouth, N.H., Monday, May 1, 1943
Through the gloom and driving rain, Inspector Sam Miller glimpsed the dead man sprawled beside the railroad tracks, illuminated by the dancing glow from flashlights held by two other Portsmouth police officers. Sam had his own RayoVac out, lighting up the gravel path alongside the B&M tracks. The metal flashlight was chilly in his hand, and a previously broken finger was throbbing. It was raw and cold and he was hungry, having been called out just as he sat down to supper, but dead bodies demanded the presence of a police inspector, and Sam was the only inspector the department had.
Minutes earlier he had parked his Packard next to a Portsmouth police cruiser, back at the nearest spot open to the tracks, the dirt parking lot of the Fish Shanty restaurant. In his short walk to the scene, he had gotten soaked from the rain, and his shoes were sloppy with mud. His umbrella was safe and dry back home. The two police officers waited, flashlights angled, black slickers shiny with rain.
The path was getting rougher, and he had to watch his step past the wooden ties. When he was young, he’d found railroads exciting, romantic and adventurous. In the bedroom he shared with his brother, late at night, the steam whistle would make him think of all the places out there he’d visit. But that was a long time ago. Now trains still did their work, but the passenger trains were crowded, tramps often overwhelmed freight cars, and there were other, secretive trains out there that spooked him and so many others.
Near the two cops standing in the middle of the tracks was another figure, hunched over in the rain. Beyond the tracks, grass and brush stretched out about twenty feet to the rear of some warehouses and storage buildings. To the right, another expanse of grass melted into marshland and North Mill Pond, a tributary from the Portsmouth harbor. Farther down the tracks, Sam saw the flickering lights of a hobo encampment, like the campfires from some defeated army, always in retreat.
Thirty minutes earlier he had been dozing on the couch--half-listening to the radio, half-listening, too, to Sarah talking to Toby, warm and comfortable, feet stretched out on an old ottoman, and he had been . . . well, if not dreaming, then just remembering. He wasn’t sure why--and maybe it was the onset of his finger aching as the temperature dropped--but he was remembering that muddy day on the football field of Portsmouth High School in the finals of the state championship in November, he the first-string quarterback . . . an overcast autumn day ten years ago, wind like a knife edge with the salt tang from the harbor . . . the wooden bleachers crowded with his neighbors and schoolmates . . . slogging through the muddy field, aching, face bruised, and the first finger of his right hand taped after an earlier tackle, no doubt broken, but he wasn’t going to be pulled out, no sir . . . down by three points against Dover, their longtime rival . . . knowing that a pretty cheerleader named Sarah Young was watching him from the sidelines, and Mom, Dad, and his older brother, Tony, were there, too, in the nearest row of the stands, the first time Tony and Dad had ever come to one of his games.
Slog, slog, slog . . . minutes racing away . . . only seconds left . . . and then an opening, a burst of light, he got the ball tight under his arm, raced to the left, his finger throbbing something awful . . . dodging, dodging, focusing on the goalposts . . . a hard tackle from behind . . . a faceful of cold mud . . . his taped finger screaming at him . . . and then quiet, just for an instant, before the whistles blew and the cheers erupted.
He scrambled up, breathing hard, ball still in his hands, seeing the scoreboard change, seeing the hand of the clock sweep by, and then a gunshot . . . game over. Portsmouth had won . . . Portsmouth had won the state championship.
Chaos . . . shouts . . . cheers . . . slaps on the back . . . being jostled around . . . looking at the people, his high school, his playing field . . . pushing . . . taking off the snug leather helmet, his hair sweaty . . . and there, Mom clapping, her face alight, and Dad had his arm around Tony’s shoulders, Tony standing there, grinning . . . Mom saying something, but he was staring at Dad, waiting, desperate for him to say something, anything, as so many hands patted his back . . . hands trying to get the game ball away from him . . . his broken finger throbbing.
Then Dad spoke, and Sam could smell the Irish whiskey on his breath. “Great news, boy, great news! Tony got into the apprenticeship program at the shipyard. Like father, like son . . . ain’t that great?”
Sam’s eyes teared up. “We won,” he said, despising himself for the humiliation in each word. “We won.”
Dad squeezed Tony’s shoulder. “But that’s just a game. Our Tony, he’s got a future now . . . a real future.”
And that winning, confident grin of Tony the school dropout, Tony the hell-raiser and hunter, Tony whom Dad cared about . . . not the other son, the winning football hero, the Eagle Scout, the one who--
A series of bells rang somewhere. Something nudged his foot. Sam opened his eyes.
“That was the station,” Sarah said. “Someone’s found a body.”
The taller cop said, “Sorry to get you wet, Sam. You okay with that?” His companion laughed. The tall cop was Frank Reardon, and his shorter and younger partner was Leo Gray. The third man stood behind them, silent, arms folded, shivering.
“I’ll be just fine,” Sam answered. The body beside the tracks was splayed out like a starfish, mouth open to the falling rain, eyes closed. The man had on black shoes and dark slacks and a white shirt and a dark suit coat. No necktie. No overcoat. Sam stepped closer, stopped at the gravel edge of the tracks. The man lay on a stretch of ground that was a smooth outcropping of mud, with just a few tufts of faded grass.
“How long have you been here?” Sam asked Frank.
“ ’Bout ten minutes. Just long enough to make sure there was something here.”
“That our witness?”
“Yeah.” Frank grabbed the third man by the elbow and tugged him forward. “Lou Purdue, age fifty. Claims he found the body about an hour ago.”
“An hour?” Sam asked. “That’s a long time. Why did it take you so long to call us?”
Purdue was bearded and smiled with embarrassment, revealing bad teeth. He wore a tattered wool watch cap and a long army overcoat missing buttons and held together with safety pins. “I tried, I really tried.” His voice was surprisingly deep. “But the Shanty place, I went there and asked them to call, and they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t even give me a nickel for the pay phone. So I went out in the street and waited till I saw a cop car come by. I waved them down, that’s what I did.”
Sam asked Frank Reardon, “That true?”
“Yeah, Sam. Almost ran over the poor bastard. Said there was a dead guy by the tracks, we had to come up to see it. We came up, saw what was what, then I sent Leo back to make the call. And here you are. Pulled you away from dinner, I bet.”
“That’s right,” Sam said, playing the beam from the flashlight over the body. The man’s clothes were soaked through, and he felt a flicker of disquiet, seeing the falling rain splatter over the frozen features, the skin wet and ghostly white.
The younger cop piped up. “Who was there? The mayor?”
Sam tightened his grip on his flashlight, then turned and played the beam over Leo Gray’s face. The young cop was smiling but closed his eyes against the glare. “No, Leo. The mayor wasn’t there. Your wife was there. And we were having a nice little chat about how she peddles her ass to pipefitters from the shipyard ’cause you waste so much money on the ponies at Rockingham. Then I told her I’d arrest her if I ever saw her on Daniel Street at night again.”
Frank laughed softly, and Leo opened his eyes and lowered his head. Sam, feeling a flash of anger at losing his temper to the young punk because of his father-in-law, turned back to the witness. “How’d you find the body?”
Purdue wiped at his runny nose. “I was walking the tracks. Sometimes you can find lumps of coal, you know? They fall off the coal cars as they pass through, and I bring ’em back. That’s when I saw him over there. I figured he was drunk or something, and I kept trying to wake him up by callin’ to him, and he didn’t move.”
“Did you touch the body?”
Purdue shook his head violently. “Nope. Not going to happen. Saw lots of dead men back in the Great War, in the mud and the trenches. I know what they look like. Don’t need to see anyone up close. No sir.”
The wind gusted some and Purdue rubbed his arms, shivering again, despite the tattered army overcoat. Sam looked back at the Fish Shanty, saw a flashlight bobbing toward them from the parking lot. “What’s your address?” he asked Purdue.
“None, really. I’m staying with some friends . . . you know.” He gestured to the other end of the tracks, where the hobo encampment was clustered near a maple grove. “Originally from Troy. New York.”
“How did you end up here?”
“Heard a story that the shipyard might be hiring. That they needed strong hands, guys who could take orders. I took orders plenty well in the army, and I figured it was best to come out here. Maybe they’d be a veteran’s preference. So far--well, no luck. But my name’s on the list. I go over every week, make sure my name’s still there. You know how it goes.”
Sam knew, and spared a glance at the lights staining the eastern horizon. The federal Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, set on an island in the middle of the Piscataqua River, an island claimed bitterly by both New Hampshire and Maine for tax purposes, and busily churning out submarines for the slowly expanding U.S. Navy. The world was at war again, decades after this filthy soul before him and Sam’s father had suffered to make the world safe for democracy. Some safety.
“Yeah,” Sam said. “I know. I might need to talk to you again. How can I do that?”
“The place--you know the place down there. Just ask for me. Lou from Troy. I can be found pretty easy, don’t you worry.”
“I won’t. Hold on.” Sam reached under his coat, took out his wallet, and slipped a dollar bill out of the billfold, along with his business card. He folded the dollar bill over the card and passed it to the soaked and trembling man. “Go get some soup or coffee to warm up, okay? Thanks for grabbing a cop, and thanks for not disturbing the body. And call me if you think of anything else.”
The dollar bill vanished into the man’s hand. He snickered and walked in the direction of the camp, calling back through the darkness, “Hell, a damn thing for that guy to end up dead. But hell. That’s a lucky walk, you’ve got to say, finding a body like that and making a buck . . . a hell of a lucky walk.”
Frank shuffled his feet, “So the bum gets to go someplace dry. You gonna look at the dead guy some, or you gonna keep us freezing out here?”
“Going to wait a bit longer,” Sam replied. “Don’t worry. The coffee and chowder will be waiting for you, no matter the time.”
“What are you waiting for, then?”
“To record history, Leo, before we disturb it. That’s what.”
Frank muttered, “Ah, screw history.”
“You got that wrong, Frank,” Sam said. “You can’t screw history, but history can always screw you.”
Another minute or two passed. From the distance, near where the fires of the hobo camp flickered, came a hollow boom, and then another.
“Sounds like a gunshot, don’t it,” Frank said, his voice uneasy.
The younger cop laughed. “Maybe somebody just shot that hobo for the dollar you gave him.”
Sam looked to the thin flames from the hobo camp. He and the other cops stayed clear of the camps, especially at night. Too many shadows, and too many angry men with knives or clubs or firearms lived in those shadows. He cleared his throat. “We got one dead man here. If another one appears later, we’ll take care of it. In the meantime, you guys looking for extra work?”
The other cops just hunched their shoulders up against the driving rain, stayed quiet. That was the way of their world, Sam thought. Just do your job and keep your mouth shut. Anything else was too dangerous.
From the rainy gloom, another man stumbled toward them, swearing loudly, carrying a leather case over his shoulder, like one of the hordes of unemployed men who went door-to-door during this second decade of the Great Depression, peddling hairbrushes, toothbrushes, shoelaces. But this man was Ralph Morancy, a photographer for the Portsmouth Herald and sometime photographer for the Portsmouth Police Department.
He dropped the case on the railroad ties and said, “Inspector Miller. Haven’t seen you since your promotion from sergeant to inspector, when I took that lovely page-one photo of you, your wife, the police marshal, and our mayor.”
Sam said, “That’s right. A lovely photo indeed. And I’m still waiting for the copy you promised me.”
Ralph spat as he removed his Speed Graphic camera from the case. “Lots of people ahead of you. Can’t do your photo and be accused of favoritism, now, can I?”
“I guess not. I remember how long it took you to get me another copy of a photograph, back when I was in high school.”
The older man rummaged through his case, clumsily sheltering it from the rain with his body. “Ah, yes, our star quarterback, back when Portsmouth won the championship. How long did it take for me back then?”
“Well, I promise to be quicker this time.”
Sam said, “Just take the damn photos, all right?”
Excerpted from Amerikan Eagle by Alan Glenn. Copyright © 2011 by Alan Glenn. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.