THE BEACH THAT SUMMER
That summer, Sand Hill was overrun by crazies. Try as you might, you couldn't get away from them -- not at the beach, not in the bars, not even in your own backyard.
I don't mean the summer people, the Applebaums and Lodges, the Bloomfields and Morgans. They came that summer, as always, but they stayed even more to themselves inside their Victorians and Capes. I don't know how many installed burglar alarms or hired guards or took up arms, but I guarantee you there were a lot.
No, they were a new breed, strangers to oldtime islanders like me. Out-of-towners, drawn by the big-city papers and the checkout-counter tabloids and that big story on network news the day before the Fourth of July. Just for fun, I stood on the bridge one morning and checked license plates. It's a two-lane job, and both those lanes were busy the hour I was there. Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, a few New Yorks, a couple of Ohios, even a California -- that's what I saw. I don't claim every one of them was drawn by what was going on, but I'd bet you a shore dinner most were.
We had gorgeous weather that summer, absolutely picture- postcard perfect the whole way through, and that didn't help, either. Come Labor Day, an islander -- a sailor whose business it is to know such things -- counted the rainy days and came up with a total of five. Even the thunderstorms stayed away that summer.
Of course, the crazies would've come anyway, fair weather or foul. I knew that. Most every islander knew that. The authorities knew it, too, and the frustration of it nearly drove them mad.
See, there was a crackle in the air that summer on Sand Hill. A tension you couldn't hide from. A tension that was strongest out on West Shore, where all of them were found.
Paula Hempson was first. I knew Paula -- about as well as anyone else, I guess, and that was none too well at all.
She was a loner -- a seamstress by trade but a drinker by profession, an overweight woman about my age, 47, who lived with a couple of strays in a trailer out by the landfill. Once in a blue moon you'd see her at Jake's Cafe, swilling beers alone at the end of the bar, clothes unkempt and hair dirty, looking for all the world like somebody who'd just poisoned her overbearing mother.
June 8, they found her body -- what was left of it -- on a tidal flat off West Shore.
West Shore is the island's scenic gem, three miles of beautiful white sand that belongs in Florida or South Carolina or Hawaii, not southern New England. Three miles of clean, virgin beach, not a hot dog stand or a windsurfing shop in sight. State land, the only reason it's stayed undeveloped for so long.
West Shore -- since I was old enough to walk, I must've been there a million times, swimming, fishing, clamming, falling in love with it again and again and again. I lost my virginity on West Shore. She was 36 and I was 17 and she took me there in the back seat of her car, a ’79 Mustang, after we shared wine and a blanket as we watched Fourth-of-July fireworks. She disappeared years ago -- there's still talk it was murder -- but I never forgot her, or that night.
I say they found Hempson's body, but it actually was a 10-year-old girl. She was the daughter of Jake Cabot, the selectman, and she was out there clamming when she stumbled onto it. As Jake later told it, first she screamed, then got sick, then finally ran like the devil himself was after her -- ran straight to the police station, a full mile away.
Sgt. Ross Miller was on duty that afternoon, and he knew Jake's little girl well enough to know she wasn't bull-crapping about what she'd seen off West Shore. After calling her dad, he got in his cruiser and headed down. On the way, he called Rescue One.
I was at home, camped out in front of the TV, when I heard the chatter over my Bearcat. In half a minute, the fire horn downtown was blaring. I heard a second siren -- somebody had decided to send an engine, too. I got in my Jeep and headed after it.
When I got to West Shore, half the department was already there (but not a single other soul), sloshing knee-deep through the incoming tide on their way out to the flat. I headed out with them, curious, but also strangely edgy and...
...excited isn't quite the word.
Nobody spoke, but everybody felt it, what I was feeling. There wasn't going to be any rescue today, we saw that right off, only a cleanup we'd be seeing in our dreams for months to come. I don't blame that girl for getting sick. I damn near did myself, and I've spent my adult life in fishing boats -- not the pleasantest of places to be, especially a week after a full catch.
Paula was face down, three-quarters submerged, bobbing gently as the waves licked over her. With his billy stick as a prod, Sarge Miller turned her over.
That's when we saw -- total evisceration. I think we all gasped. I think we all said a silent prayer. We stood, not wanting to look, unable to turn away, wishing that the sea would swallow the body up again so we could go home and forget we'd ever seen it. Ten seconds, half a minute, a minute -- who was counting? The time went by and we were still there, lost in our thoughts, the sea lapping against our boots, a few gulls skimming low over the water, the sun pinkening as it started down toward evening.
Finally, Sarge Miller said in an unsteady voice, ``OK, boys, we got work to do. Tide's gonna beat us, we don't get a move on.''
Sarge's order was like a rock through glass. In no time, we had the body on the sand, safe from high tide.
Buzz Aldrich went across the sand to his four-wheel-drive to have the station call the ME's office. The rest of us moved off some and lit up cigarettes.
Sarge Miller was the first to use the word ``shark.''
It was, as events would later prove, a most unfortunate choice of word. It was a word that would come back to sorely haunt him, and the island, and the state -- a word that would be misinterpreted and misquoted and misused so badly that for part of that summer, at least, it would seem like our lives were being scripted in Hollywood, and we were actors in a real-life Jaws. It was wrong, as we would find out -- about as wrong as you can get -- but then, the beginning of that summer, that's what we believed.
Now, it would be one thing if Sarge made his assessment over beers at Jake's, but he didn't. He made it in to a reporter.
His name was Storin, and he worked for one of the Boston papers. Storin was on the island that day getting notes on Sand Hill's summer set when the siren blew and we tore-assed down to West Shore, him not far behind. I remember thinking that Sarge was going to tell him to take a flying leap when he strolled up, dressed in tan slacks and a button-down shirt, Mr. City Slicker himself. Only he didn't. He didn't say boo when Storin pushed straight past us, barely a word of hello, to get a better look.
``Mauled,'' Storin said simply when he strolled back. Mauled -- it was the word we'd been wracking our brains for.
``You got it, my friend,'' Sarge said.
``Homicide?'' Storin asked casually as he pulled his notebook out of his back pocket.
I saw that notebook and cringed, and I figured by that point alarm bells should have been going off inside Sarge's head. They weren't. Maybe he was shocked. Maybe he didn't understand the press. Maybe he'd been cozying up to Jack Daniel again.
Whatever the maybe, he was just as cordial as can be.
``No person could have done that,'' he said, as Storin scribbled crazily. ``Had to be something from out there,'' he finished, sweeping the expanse of the sea with his right arm.
``You mean shark,'' Storin said, and that's when he pulled the tape recorder out of his pocket.
You knew, listening, that the guy had Jaws dancing in his head. You knew he couldn't wait to get back to Boston to write it. You knew, if you knew anything at all, that his story would draw the media to Sand Hill like gulls to a homebound trawler.
Even then, Sarge didn't come to his senses. ``That's right,'' he said, spitting into the sand. ``I mean shark.''
The Herald splashed Storin's story across the front page. It mentioned Jaws, quoted Sarge Miller extensively, and included a list of documented shark attacks around the world the last 50 years.
Beyond that -- well, what more could it have said?
The ME wasn't talking and there were no grieving relatives to be quoted. I understand the police phone rang off the hook the next day, and I understand that Sarge Miller got reamed but good by Chief, but until Marjorie Peters, that Herald story was it.
Mark Peters was second.
It was after him that the lid blew off Sand Hill. It was after him that the crazies took over the beach.
I wasn't on the island the day he washed up, June 30, but Chief gave me a description over Rolling Rocks at Jake's Cafe. Thank God, no kid found him. That kind of thing could have scarred another kid for life -- just ask Jake. No, this time, a guy from state Environmental Affairs had the honors. Spotted him through binoculars on a law-enforcement patrol of West Shore, about a half mile north of where we fished Hempson out of the surf.
Spotted him and then threw his lunch, just like Jake's girl.
Like Hempson, Peters was a shadow figure, a ghost. He wasn't poor like Hempson -- he had a nice waterfront cottage, what was rumored to be a nice fat nest egg in a First State trust. The other particulars were identical: Mark Peters was lonely and alone.
``Looked like Hemspon,'' Chief said, ``exactly like Hempson,'' and he knew he didn't need to say any more. I killed my Rolling Rock and ordered a double Cutty. Chief followed suit. We sat together on our stools, silent as the mahogany under our elbows.
Silent, that is, until another double Cutty was history. That's when Chief whispered: ``It ain't no shark.''
I didn't catch his drift, not immediately.
``Somebody wanted it to look that way,'' he continued, ``faked it like a shark. Mark Peters was murdered.''
``I wish I was. Lord, how I wish I was.''
``How can you be sure?''
``We got a note. Hand-written. Arrived at the station an hour after we fished him out. Certain details in that note are consistent with certain preliminary findings from the ME. And there was a drawing. Very precise. Very gory. Made me sick.''
``There's more,'' Chief said on our third Cutty. ``Hempson wasn't any shark, either.''
``You can't be serious.''
``I am. ME's report came back.''
``--and it seems we got a nut on the loose.''
The papers and blogs and TMZ and all those other sites went ape over Mark Peters. TV joined right in. By Friday night, the island was crawling with reporters and photographers and bloggers -- I mean crawling, the way an army of ants'll crawl over something sweet that's dripped down your kitchen counter.
Who cared if Chief was urging restraint, was insisting nothing was definitive, that no sharks had ever been sighted within miles of Sand Hill? Who cared if the ME took pains to explain that the natural action of seawater and bacteria have a certain disgusting but distinctly deteriorative effect on human flesh?
This was the rarest of opportunities, probably it would never come again, a summertime Jaws in real life and all there within a couple hours driving time of the big East Coast cities.
If you wanted to put a date on when we first felt the crackle in the air that summer, first really felt it, it's fair to say it was at 6:39 p.m. on Sunday, July 3.
I knew it was coming, and I guess most other islanders did, too. Hadn't we seen the big-shot film crew sticking cameras in shoppers' faces on their way out of Franny's Market? Hadn't we seen three shiny new Lincolns parked outside Clipper Inn? Hadn't they rented Bill Weather's 44-foot Chris Craft, mooring it for an entire afternoon off West Shore? Hadn't there been a helicopter?
We knew the report was coming, but still the force of it was overwhelming -- introduced, as it was, by NBC’s Brian Williams.
I remember that report like it just ended. It opened with an aerial shot of the island, the water shimmering like diamonds in a jewelry-store display case, and then it cut directly to West Shore, where a pretty-boy type was standing alone with a microphone, the wind tousling his hair, this terribly somber look on his face.
``Fear has struck this quintessential New England resort,'' he said, or something very close to that, ``fear that man's greatest natural enemy is prowling these beautiful waters. Fear that a great white shark which has apparently claimed two victims will go for more before the long hot summer is through...''
The day after that broadcast. That's when it got crazy to walk the beach.
Crazy, because for a spell, it didn't seem the off-islanders were ever going to leave. Crazy, because everyone knew why everyone else was there -- to wait, to watch, to hope in the sickest fashion that they would be the ones there when... when it happened again.
And nobody doubted it would.
All day, they were there, and well into the evening. They parked their Broncos and Winnebagoes and played Frisbee and set up Volleyball nets and lit charcoal fires on Hibachi grilles and the younger and more foolish ones, the gold-chained men with their painted-toenail women, dared each other to wade in. From the dunes, you could see them -- shadowy characters in a bad dream.
Few islanders walked deep down the beach from then on that summer, but I did.
I did because I'd always done it, always been in love with the smells and sounds and sunsets you get there, only there, on West Shore. I did because I'd been going there since I was a kid. I did because stress and tension magically dissipated there, carried away on the warm summer breeze. If I'd been a poet, I think I would have camped out forever on West Shore. The poems I would have written would have been soft and billowy, like clouds, not angry and irrational and unforgiving, like the world around us.
Once a day, I walked West Shore, end to end, three miles in all. Once a day, invariably in early evening, when the sun was dropping down to kiss the sea and the breeze was stiff enough to keep the black flies grounded.
I carried a .38 that summer, and sometimes, the razor-sharp stiletto I picked up in New York years ago. I carried them -- and carrying them gave me security. Few islanders walked West Shore that summer, but when they did, they carried weapons, too.
After Billie Robards, it would have been crazy not to.
Billie put an end to all the shark talk. There were two good reasons for that. One was where they found her: in the West Shore dunes, 100 yards, easy, from mean high tide.
The other was the letter that was mailed to the editorial offices of The Providence Journal.
It arrived July 14, hours before they found her, decapitated and limbless, so there was no question it was authentic. They never published the full text of that letter, which had a Providence postmark, but word got around the island pretty quickly about what was in it: Billie's name, a drawing, a plea to ``stop me, I can't control myself,'' all of it in black felt pen.
``He's sick, really sick,'' Chief said to me, and I could see the desperation and frustration and the something I hesitated to call fear in his tired blue eyes.
I knew Billie.
Knew her personally, and well. She was married to Will Robards, the skipper and owner of the Liza D., a Sand Hill trawler I'd crewed on for years. Will's boat had kept me in dough times when times were rotten, and for that, I was eternally grateful. His wife was a peach, a 40-year-old brown-eyed peach with a wonderful laugh. I used to run into her in the market, at the gas station, wherever, and we always exchanged pleasantries. For years, she'd made it a point to stop by the house Christmas Eve to drop off her home-baked goodies. ``Bachelor's Special,'' she'd say, and we always laughed heartily as we toasted our mutual good health.
After Billie's autopsy, they quietly exhumed Paula Hempson and Mark Peters, allowing the pathologists to conclude that one person almost certainly was responsible for all three deaths. It answered the question the papers and blogs and TV had forgotten to ask: Just what had Hempson and Peters been doing swimming off West Shore, anyway?
If they loved Shark, they went berserk for Maniac on the Loose.
They'd smelled blood, real honest-to-God fresh-flowing blood, blood that seemed certain to flow again if everybody only waited a spell, and now there was no stopping them. Somebody joked that every fourth person on Narragansett Avenue was a reporter from there on out, but I didn't laugh. One knocked on my door, and I live half a mile from the main drag. Forget downtown, Jake's Cafe, the docks. Things were at a fever pitch, nobody seemed sane anymore, everybody had a theory and a suspect and...
...and that crackle was in the air.
I don't know how else to describe it. I think back to that summer and I can hear it inside my head, a loud, painful crackle, this terrible thing that prickles the hairs on my neck.
``All that publicity can only be encouraging him. Sons of Satan, every one of these reporters.''
If Chief said it once that summer, he said it a hundred times, and he was right, he was right. That was the bitch of it; everyone knew what the publicity was doing, but we were powerless to stop it. A great country, America, isn't it? You could see this sick puppy, living alone, catching the evening news and getting all worked up about his latest victim -- a steam-filled pressure cooker set to blow again, and no one there to turn the burners off.
Off-islanders still walked West Shore -- for the most part, only in the bold light of day now. And they did it in tighter and larger clusters than before -- the foolish illusion of strength in numbers, I imagine. But mostly, after Billie Robards, they stuck to the docks and the restaurants and Jake's, endlessly, morbidly fascinated with the Shore Stalker, as they came to call him.
I kept walking West Shore, my hand a little tighter on my .38, my eyes straining a little harder, every passerby a suspect. I kept walking because I was determined the Stalker couldn't keep me from the place I loved so. I kept walking because I always had.
Victims four and five were found Aug. 14, three days after a letter arrived on Chief's desk. The State Police sent it off to the lab for analysis, but it didn't take a criminologist to see that the same hand had penned both letters.
I got a photocopy of that letter from Sarge Miller. Photocopies were worth their weight in gold that summer. ``Stop me,'' the letter said. ``Please, I beg you, stop me.''
I forget their names -- they were off-islanders, a honeymooning couple in their 20s from Pennsylvania. Their car was found in the West Shore lot, and there was some dispute over whether they had known what was happening on the beach that summer or had wandered there unsuspectingly through impossibly bad luck.
Even after them, the curious came, but they came in much smaller numbers. By late afternoon, West Shore would be deserted, whatever off-islanders there had been having retreated to the safety of the motels and bars. After Aug. 14, the only people I met on my evening walks were cops and a couple of old salts who'll be out there surf casting the day they drop the Big One.
We islanders drew tightly together then -- for solace, more than protection. I bet there have never been more floodlights sold than that summer, more German Shepherds bought, more shotguns oiled, locked and loaded, mine included.
For all that, it was an uneasy camaraderie.
Media or no media, one fact could not be exaggerated: there was a cold-blooded killer out there, and who's to say he wasn't your Uncle Joe or your Cousin Henry? Who's to say he wasn't sitting right there with you in Jake's, or standing with you at the checkout counter, or behind the wheel of the car in front of you coming over the bridge? Who's to say it wasn't Jake, or Will Robards, or Chief, or Sgt. Ross? Stranger things have happened.
Truth was, we were an island scared to death.
Up in the capitol, there was a sense of urgency you usually see only after hurricanes or blizzards. The governor went on TV to announce creation of the Sand Hill Task Force, what he described as the state's largest, most ambitious crime hunt ever. State Police, Sand Hill Police, the National Guard -- they were all in on it. The FBI sent agents down from Boston. The president, vacationing out on Martha’s Vineyard, even lent his support in an impromptu press conference.
The Shore Stalker was going to be caught, yes he was.
Except he wasn't.
One week, two weeks, three weeks went by, Labor Day was just around the corner, and there hadn't been an arrest. Thank the Lord, the Stalker was quiet, but the authorities were no closer to finding him than they'd been all summer.
They tried everything -- roadblocks, unmarked cars, armed men in the dunes. They searched cars, boats, crunched names through national data bases, run up the biggest overtime bill in the history of Rhode Island law enforcement. Eventually, the American Civil Liberties Union began to squawk. It was that big.
``It's the goddamndest thing I ever saw,'' Chief told me on Sept. 3, two days before the Board Of Selectmen fired him. ``It's almost like this guy doesn't really exist.''
He wasn't the first to think that. I'd thought it myself.
Labor Day came and went, and the Stalker didn't strike, and then it was Columbus Day, and Christmas, and we were into the New Year. The media moved on to other places, other tragedies.
Still, he wasn't caught. There wasn't even an arrest.
So here it is, Friday of Fourth of July weekend, and the traffic into Sand Hill is noticeably heavier, and every islander is remembering last summer and feeling strangely skittish and...
...and that crackle in the air is back, louder than before.
I close my eyes and I can hear it, feel it, excruciatingly painful, like the first stab of a migraine at the back of your skull.
They won't admit it, of course, but the authorities are convinced that there's a better-than-even chance the Stalker will be tempted this weekend. Something about the pattern of last year's killings, they say, something about the renewed publicity, something the handwriting experts say they can see in his letters.
Another one, you see, was received by the new Chief today.
So they've closed off West Shore for the weekend, and they're turning back cars headed into the parking lot, and they're warning people not to go out alone, and there are rumors that National Guardsmen will be patrolling the beach around the clock.
But I fully expect that some fool will still walk the beach this weekend. Some poor drunk slob slipping past the guardsmen and wandering the dunes, those sprawling, magnificent dunes.
I expect that I might see that slob. I plan to be there, as usual, walking the beach as the sun is setting and the soft summer breeze is blowing gently in off the water.
Just like last summer.