It’s a wet and blustery Friday, reason enough to duck into the Bitter End, the tavern known up and down the coast for its musky perfume and warped cedar floors–and, most nights, for a mascot hound named Shaft searching for a leg to hump. Anthony drains his third beer and is signalling for another when the jukebox is disconnected and curious heads swivel to Delmar Schmirler crooning “Danny Boy.” The summer’s gone, and all the roses dying … The barstool he’s hoisted himself upon wobbles precariously.
Reviews are scathing; catcalls urge a serious thrashing. The loudest objection flies from the dentally deficient mouth of the dart-tossing Duke Shantz, who’d been confined to a wheelchair since being pancaked by a carelessly loaded pallet. “Don’t make someone shut that gob for ya, Del!”
The dart tournaments are a nightly event, and fiercely competitive. The winner’s drinks are on the house, sufficient encouragement usually, but especially on this inclement occasion, as Alma Forest Products, the town’s largest employer, has decided to mothball the mill. A glut in the market and a high debt load, say people who know such things.
Anthony is editor of the Port Lopez Leader, a post he expects will be the final act of a thirty-year run in community newspapering. Though a few years short of the government pension, he’s been hoping to some day visit Italy’s Amalfi Coast since seeing a travelogue on PBS. Centuries-old villages engineered into vertiginous cliffs. Those medieval ruins, the stories they must tell.
The mill closing fills the Leader’s front page. Local reaction collected by himself and his reporter, Jenna, spills onto an inside spread. Most everyone echoes a printable variation of what a line cook at the Full Stomach so colourfully expresses–“Drink up, pack your bags. We’re all screwed.” And the man is right, of course. From his office window, Anthony watches the caravan of emigrating vehicles crawl along Monroe Avenue and onto the highway. The tear-stained faces of children waving goodbye to playmates they’ll never see again.
It rains about two hundred and fifty days a year in Port Lopez, and that morning his oxidizing Datsun ran aground was one of them. There might be a glimpse of blue sky between lunch and dinner, but sheets of the stuff after dessert. And then there’s the wind. It begins as a harmless zephyr off in the Pacific before picking up speed and hurtling along the steep-sided inlet. On reaching landfall—the hopelessly helpless puerto—trees tremble, fences topple, umbrellas soar. An elderly gent out for a stretch was knocked onto his keister, securing for himself a footnote in local folklore.
A grinding wind was responsible for his first learning of the disappearances. It had kicked up quickly, sweeping the streets as he was exploring the town. A sheet of paper scudding along the sidewalk—a poster displayed on lampposts and in shop windows—coiled like a grip around his ankle. It was from the RCMP, seeking information about several missing women and two deceased. The poster’s generic graphic profiled the shoulders and whiskered chin of a hooded man, the presumptive predator.
He learned more after he’d started the job. The first victim was chanced upon in a shallow grave by a logger working a clearcut at the foot of Black Fly Mountain. Beachcombers found remains of the second, a native teen tangled in seaweed and dumped on a remote sandbar. Both bodies showed signs of blunt-force wounds, but decomposition was too far advanced to determine if there’d been sexual assault. Most folks he talked to decided there most certainly was.
Three seasonal workers also thought missing are eventually tracked down, but the whereabouts of four others remains a mystery. Though there hasn’t been a disappearance reported for some time, an anxiety surfaces whenever a female is tardy. Said Jenna, “Cryptic messages—taunts—had been slipped through the mail slot at the police station. They were composed with letters cut from a newspaper.”
“Do we know which paper?” Anthony had asked.
“Take a guess.”