row2k Features
Body of Water - Chapter Ten: Town and Gown
June 10, 2020
Dan Boyne

"YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN THIS ONE," LINDA MATTHEWS SAID, stopping Delaney as he walked past her dispatch station. "A female Harvard student just called in, claiming some creep on the shore exposed himself while she was out rowing."

"Ooh, a flasher!" said Anthony Favio. He was leaning up against the dispatch station, checking his cell phone. He didn't bother to look up, even as Marsh McDonald wandered through the front entryway and joined them, eager for news.

"Did someone say Flash Dance?" he asked. "That was my favorite movie!" Favio laughed.

"Where?" Delaney said, shaking his head dismissively at Favio and Marsh.

"Just above the Eliot Bridge, on the Cambridge side," said Mathews, reading from her note pad.

"It was probably in the gay forest," Favio offered.

"Come again?" Linda Matthews said.

"It's a little clump of woods where gentlemen hook up," Marsh explained.

"What did you call it?" Matthews persisted, with a reproachful tone in her voice.

"Sorry, Matthews, but that's what we used to call it growing up as kids. Don't get all PC on me!" Favio said.

Matthews was still frowning.

"Weren't you there for the gender discrimination workshop last week?" she asked. Favio looked over at Marsh, and they both shrugged.

"Yeah I took it."

"Linda, can't the Harvard police field that call?" Delaney said, cutting short the office squabble. "Or someone else on patrol?" He briefly looked at Marsh, and over at Favio, who were both working their phones like slot machines.

"Can't you see we're busy?" Favio responded. "Research."

Matthews and Delaney exchanged a look of disdain.

"Okay, fine. I'm heading over to Cambridge anyway, to track down a lead on those oars that were reported missing last weekend."

"Do you think they might have something to do with the case?" Matthews said.

Delaney shrugged. "Who knows? A lot of weird things seem to be happening on the Charles River at the same time."

"Maybe it's just a coincidence."

"Or maybe not," Favio added.

"Hey Anthony, don't go blind looking at that thing, okay?" Delaney said.

"What?"

"Never mind."

Delaney and Mathews exchanged a parting smile.

*

He met the Harvard graduate student just outside the JFK School of Government between classes. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, smartly dressed, with a leather book bag slung over her shoulder.

"Can you give me a description of the guy?" he asked.

"Uh, I don't know," she said. "I didn't get a close look at his face."

"Okay, well, middle-aged? Young? Light-skinned? Dark?"

"White and middle-aged," she said, looking Delaney up and down as if using him as a basis for comparison. "I think he was wearing gray sweatpants and a hoodie," she offered.

"Okay. Is that all you can remember?"

She nodded, smiling politely.

"Okay. If we happen to catch the guy, would you like to file a formal complaint?"

She shrugged. "I'm not sure about that. All I know is that it happened twice, so I figured I ought to report it. It's kind of creepy."

"Definitely. You did the right thing," Delaney said. "Here's my card if you remember anything else. Otherwise, I hope the rest of your day goes well."

"Thanks," the graduate student said. She gave him a guarded smile, and then just stood there, gawking at him, as if she'd never seen a state trooper up close before.

Ah, college students, he thought, walking back to his cruiser. Most of them had a casual way of going about their day that he almost envied. Strolling from one campus building to the next, they reminded him of tourists at Disneyland, insulated from the real world. Yet outside that gated community was a scary world of shady people who most of them only encountered on television or in bad dreams. And it was Delaney's job to keep it that way.

*

His Ford Explorer was parked in front of Charlie's Kitchen, one of the few original eateries still left in Harvard Square. The smell of grilled hamburgers and steak fries wafted out of the open doorway, reminding Delaney of his teenage days. Harvard University hadn't changed much, but everything else around it had. Aside from the Hong Kong House, Leavitt and Peirce Tobacco Shop, and Charlie's Kitchen, most of the old commercial buildings were gone now—replaced by banks, fast food chains, and hotels. It was depressing.

He drove down Mount Auburn, then turned left onto Ash Street, heading back toward the river. At Memorial Drive he took a right, put on his flashers, and slowly cruised upstream, scanning the riverbanks for any pedestrians who fit the vague description of the man who had exposed himself to the Harvard student. When he got to Gerry's Landing Road, he passed by the Cambridge Boat Club and the Buckingham, Browne, and Nichols School, and did a quick U-turn in order to pull into the parking lot of the American Legion Marsh Post.

The building was a simple red brick structure that looked like it had seen better days, but it sat on a piece of prime river real estate. Just above it was the Belmont Hill and Winsor School Boat House, nestled in the small wooded area that Favio and Marsh had talked about this morning. The only car in the parking lot was a white step van that looked old and abandoned. Delaney gave it a quick look, and then followed the bike path under the Eliot Bridge, where homeless people sometimes found shelter. The tunnel smelled of urine, but it was unoccupied.

On the other side of the bridge, he walked up to the Cambridge Boat Club boathouse and rang the front bell. A man came out, holding a cell phone to his ear, and indicated that he was Mitch Jones, the Director of the Head of the Charles Regatta. They'd already spoken about the missing oars. He let Delaney inside, where the smell of old varnished wood permeated the air. Still talking on his phone, Jones led him through the building and out onto an elegant wraparound porch which had a panoramic view of the river.

"That's where the oars were stolen," he said, pointing to a grassy, gated area on the side of the boathouse. "Sorry, I've got to take this call," he apologized.

Delaney nodded and walked down the dock, making his way toward the water and then over to the grassy hummock. A lone sculler went by, making slow progress against the wind. Oars and boats lay around, neatly racked.

"Is this outdoor gate always kept locked?" he called back at Jones, who was still on the boathouse porch, talking on his phone.

The man gave him a thumb's up, but didn't interrupt his call. After a few minutes looking around on the grassy yard, Delaney had seen enough.

"Thanks for your help," he said to Jones. "I'll let myself out."

The man gave a brief wave and kept on talking.

Delaney exited the building, shook his head, and made his way back to his cruiser. Someone who didn't have time for him wasn't going to get his full attention either.

Back on the other side of the bridge, he took a short walk through the little forest, noting a few homeless encampments that were currently unoccupied. Otherwise, the woods seemed utterly devoid of life. Delaney stood for a second and then looked out at the river, which was not yet cold enough to freeze. Still, the water had a feeling of heaviness to it, and he picked up a stick and threw it out into the middle of the Charles.

Oars, bodies, and indecent exposure, he thought. What was the connection? He briefly wondered how long it would take a floating body to travel downstream, but the stick went nowhere, held by the equal and opposing forces of the current and the wind.

"Nothing," he said to himself, and walked on.

The whole morning was beginning to seem like a total waste of time. But as he emerged from the woods, he suddenly spotted a man sitting on a picnic bench in front of the American Legion post. He had a hang-dog, unkempt look. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips.

"Well, well," Delaney said. "If it isn't Ricky Miller."

"Been awhile," Ricky said, extending his knuckles toward Delaney.

"Fancy meeting you here," Delaney laughed. "Down by the banks of the River Charles."

"Love that dirty water," Ricky said. "What are you now, a big shot detective or what?" he added.

"That's right. Show some respect."

Ricky Miller guffawed and then looked at Delaney with a mocking leer. Delaney had known Ricky back at Matignon High, when he was just getting started as a petty thief, and he hadn't changed much over the years. He was still as skeezy-looking as ever, with a disorderly shock of black hair and crazy, silver-blue eyes. His entire body emanated cigarette and pot smoke.

"Jesus, Ricky, I think I'm getting a contact high just standing here next to you. Ever think of switching over to edibles?"

"What's that?"

Delaney laughed, and then the two sat in silence for a while as Miller casually lit up his cigarette.

"So are you staying out of trouble, or still lifting bikes?" Delaney said.

Miller looked at him and tilted his head, like a horse that had just been shown the bit.

"What the hell?" he asked, laughing. "I thought we were having a friendly chat here."

"Just relax. I don't care if you are or you aren't, I'm just asking the question."

"Yeah. And who wants to know?"

"So I guess the answer to that is 'yes.'"

Ricky shrugged. "Whatever you say, Private Dick."

"Last weekend, the Head of the Charles," Delaney said, trying to get Ricky to focus. "You know, that rowing race with all the boats on the river..."

"You mean the one with all those little pukes pulling on oars?"

"Yeah. That's the one."

"Never heard of it," Ricky said, exhaling a blue plume of smoke.

"Very funny. So you didn't happen to be hanging around here, scoping out some bikes. Or oars?"

"What? Me? Listen, I don't do that shit any more. No way. I mean look at me, boss. Do I look like that?"

Delaney just lifted his eyebrows. Ricky's clothes looked like they'd come from the Salvation Army. Instead of a proper winter coat, he had a ratty old windbreaker with a cotton sweatshirt underneath. He wore a pair of baggy jeans with black steel-toed boots.

"Seriously, check out my van over there," Ricky said. "I sell tools now. I'm totally legit."

He pointed toward the white step van, which had a 'Snap-On tools' logo on the side. It looked like it had been built in the 1980s.

"Wow, that van looks vintage, Ricky. I didn't even know that company was still around," Delaney goaded him.

"Oh yeah, it's still around."

"So, if I was to look in the back door, I'd find tools, not bikes or oars?"

Ricky threw the cigarette down on the ground, then stomped it with the heel of his boot.

"Hell yeah!

Delaney laughed. They both knew that he used the van to transport stolen bikes and sell pot to high school kids. He also had a gift for talking his way into and out of anything.

"So?"

"So what?" Ricky laughed.

"So were you around here last weekend, during the Head of the Charles?"

"Yeah, like, I might have been there, checking out the rowing shit and the college girls," Ricky said, blowing out another billow of smoke.

"Okay. And did you see anything weird?"

Ricky looked at him and laughed hysterically.

"Like what? I mean, you look weird; I look weird. The whole fucking world looks weird."

Delaney nodded. He had a valid point. After awhile, nothing surprised you, no matter which side of the law you were on.

"Okay, relax. I may have seen some fucking kids, horsing around under the bridge at night."

"That bridge?" Delaney pointed at Eliot.

Ricky looked at him, annoyed.

"Okay. What were they doing?"

Miller shrugged. "Just messing around. Two of them were in an outboard, trying to paint graffiti under the arch."

"And were there oars in the boat?"

Ricky shrugged. "I don't know."

Delaney thought this over.

"Okay, thanks." Delaney said.

"So am I your Confidential Informer now, or what?" Ricky asked, as Delaney started to walk away. He jumped off his perch and followed him toward the parking lot.

"Definitely not," Delaney said.

Miller laughed.

"Hey, I bet those rich kids ain't missing those oars too much," he said. "I mean, not that I steal oars or anything. I'm just saying—"

"Yeah, sure," Delaney said. Now Miller was baiting him.

At the end of the day, however, he knew that Ricky was right. Mitch Jones over at the Cambridge Boat Club would simply file an insurance claim and get a brand new set of oars in no time at all. The bigger question was, where was a thief going to sell them? Or were they just going to hang them up on their wall for fun, like the ones on display at the Harvard Coop.

"Hey Ricky, one last thing. Any chance you know a local guy who likes to drop his pants in public?"

Miller laughed, then nodded. "Raymond St. James. Remember him?"

"You mean that weird kid in our neighborhood who never made it past eighth grade?"

"That's the one."

Delaney shook his head. St. James had the IQ of an eggplant.

"Incredible," he said. At least he'd solved one mystery.

"Hey, Delaney. Shouldn't you be investigating bigger things, like those bodies in the river I read about?" Ricky Miller shouted, as they both stood next to their vehicles.

"Maybe I am," Delaney said.

Ricky nodded.

"Love that dirty water," he said, laughing. Then he climbed into his van, and started the beat-up old engine after a few tries.

Delaney laughed to himself as he hopped into his Ford Explorer. Ricky Miller as a Confidential Informer? It was a crazy idea, but not an entirely bad one. He briefly checked his phone, half expecting a message from Sue Chasen, but there was nothing.

He dialed the State Police marine division, but no one picked up, so he got Linda Matthews on the line.

"Do me a favor, Linda. Call the marine division guys down at the locks and tell them to get a boat up under the Eliot Bridge."

"What are they looking for?" Matthews asked.

"Anything strange. Have them take photos of any fresh graffiti they find."

"Will do. By the way, we just got the go-ahead from Sheldon Sparks to search his son's room."

"Text me the address," Delaney said, suddenly energized. "I'm on my way."

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