The Ghost of Christmas Past
Nantucket, November 1997
It had all started with the Winthrop deal. They had a chance to buy the building next door on Main Street, expand the business, and become a serious force in the town’s economy. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—property values would never be this low again. The island’s marathon of development was just beginning.
If they didn’t buy the building, someone else would. Blum liked to say that Main Street real estate was gold, but in fact, it was more valuable than gold. The world had vast supplies of that shiny mineral; piles of it filled the vaults in the Federal Reserve building and Fort Knox. But store-frontage on Nantucket’s Main Street? That was a limited resource, like the eighty-thousand-dollar bottle of 1858 pre-phylloxera cognac in his liquor cabinet.
Coddington didn’t get it. “Nantucket is finished,” he liked to say. “They’ve ruined this place. They’ve killed the Golden Goose.” It was never exactly clear who “they” were—immigrants from various countries, tourists, developers, millionaires and billionaires, or all of them together.
● ● ● ● ●
Jackson Blum stared down at his partner’s corpse, clutching the murder weapon in his hand, chanting silently, “I am not a killer, I am not a killer, I am not a killer.”
He gaped stupidly at the gun—he didn’t even remember picking it up—and then dropped it like…like—he remembered, years ago, carrying his old French bulldog outside to do his business and the ancient creature releasing a turd directly into his palm. This gave his stomach the same queasy twirl of disgust and horror. He staggered back a few steps. Throwing the gun down was pointless. He had to pick it up. He couldn’t leave it here. And he had to bury the body. The bullet lodged in that skull would match his pistol if it was ever dug out, if the corpse was ever found.
He should dig it out himself. He shuddered. That was grotesque, unthinkable. To puncture Ted Coddington’s skull with his penknife? Was that even possible? And then burrow into the brain, gouging and pulling the interior as if he was scooping out a pumpkin? No, no, no, absolutely not. He could barely stand to look at the body; he dreaded moving that surly inert weight—dead weight, that was the term—shoving it into a shallow grave.
The rasping engine of a motorcycle snapped him alert. He was far out of sight of the Madaket Road but a dirt track ran through this wedge of moorlands. If someone were to drive by…
He stood frozen in place as the Harley growl faded away toward town. He was safe for the moment. But the urgency remained. He was lucky in one way: along with the yearly series of off-road driving permits that decorated the rear bumper of his Ford Excursion, like a line of commemorative stamps in a binder, testifying to his seniority on the beaches of Wauwinet and Coatue, he stowed the legally required boards, towrope, and, most importantly, the shovel. So he had the tool he needed to bury the body.
But it would take time. And he had no alibi for his presence here—he had rushed out of the store fearing the worst, after Coddington bailed on their meeting with the Winthrop people. Coddington had sounded crazed and shaky on the phone and Anna had no idea where he’d gone. She was off-island—she had answered her cell in Pain D’Avignon. And she wasn’t worried, not yet anyway. Coddington liked his long walks on the beach and his solitary bike rides in the moors.
Blum clenched his fists and his jaw in a motionless seizure of self-disgust. He should never have called Anna. His neutral inquiry would look suspicious in retrospect. If she’d picked up on his worry and guessed he was cruising the island searching for her husband, that would be worse than no alibi—it was the anti-alibi! A virtual confession of guilt. I found your husband on the afternoon of the day he was planning to wreck all our plans for the business….
And he happened to be dead!
And he happened to have my gun in his hand!
With one of my bullets in his brain!
Anna had overheard some of their arguments. The loudest and most combative one had broken out at 21 Federal on a busy Saturday night with the bar packed three-deep and every table taken. Chick Walsh himself had escorted the two of them out the door. Slim, elegant Chick Walsh—the least likely bouncer on the whole Eastern Seaboard. But they had submitted to the controlled rage on Chick’s face and stumbled out like chastened schoolboys being marched off to the principal’s office.
So there would be plenty of witnesses to testify at the murder trial.
“You were dining at the restaurant 21 Federal on the night in question, September twenty-first, 1997?”
“And you heard the defendant arguing with Mr. Coddington?”
“Just answer the questions, please.”
“Sorry. Yes. Yes, I did.”
“And did Mr. Blum threaten Mr. Coddington with bodily harm at that time?”
“Yes, he did. He said, ‘It would be easier just to kill you.’”
“So Mr. Coddington was in fear of his life?”
“Objection! Calls for a conclusion.”
“I’ll rephrase that, Your Honor. Did Mr. Coddington do or say anything on that occasion that made you feel he might have feared for his life?”
“Yes. He lurched back in his chair, knocked it into my wife’s chair, in fact. She was sitting with her back to their table. And he shouted, ‘Get away from me!’ I thought Mr.—the defendant—I thought he was going to attack Coddington right then and there.”
Oh, yeah, that would go over well. That was a first-class ticket to Cedar Junction. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go, do not inherit your business from your dead partner. Blum squirted out a high-pitched laugh, clamped it to silence. He sounded crazy, even to himself.
He had to take charge. This was a manageable situation. That was what he did best. That was how he had made his fortune—managing situations, finding solutions and implementing them. Problems seemed hopeless because you took them up all at once, in a single unwieldy slab. They had to be deconstructed, broken down into bits, and the bits taken care of, one at a time.
The first bit: bury the body.
This was Land Bank property—“forever wild,” as they liked to say. No one would ever find the grave and Coddington’s disappearance would remain a mystery—was he a middle-aged runaway? Had a secret crime from his past come back to haunt him? Had he eloped with an old lover, disappeared into the Witness Protection program, slipped away to join a monastery? All that stuff happened. People did those things and more. People went crazy. People snapped. Anything was possible.
As long as they never found the body.
That was the conundrum—it buzzed around his head like angry yellow jackets: if he dug a grave and the grave was found… Blum wasn’t faking anything, he wasn’t trying to cover up a murder, but that was how it would look.
Bodies don’t bury themselves.
Still, leaving the body where it was, in full view of any stray hiker or birder was foolhardy, idiotic—with a bullet from his gun lodged in Coddington’s brain? Absolutely not.
He crashed back to his car, lifted the tailgate, grabbed the shovel, and trudged back. With the first stab of metal blade into soil he realized the chore he’d set for himself. The ground was a tangle of roots and vines, pitted with rocks of all sizes. He stamped down hard on the back of the shovel with his boot, felt metal cutting the webbed gristle under the surface. He lifted the weight of dirt, flung it aside. He had thrown out his back the year before, after the big blizzard, perversely determined to shovel out his own driveway—refusing to pay off some money-grubbing teenage hustler.
This would be much worse.
“The whole plan is crazy!” Coddington had shouted at him that night in the restaurant. “It’s financial suicide. You’re digging your own grave! And mine, too.”
The words came back at him now. Was he doing that? Burying both of them in the moors? It certainly felt that way. How had it all happened? He was a business prodigy! Forbes magazine said so! The Wall Street Journal called him a visionary in their profile last year! He’d spent hours watching the sycophantic little geek from the paper scribble down every word he said. Days.
And what if that fawning punk could see him now? Visionaries were supposed to anticipate the future, grasp events taking shape before everyone else.
He kicked the nose of the shovel into the ground again. He hadn’t seen this one coming.
Or was it that he’d seen it perfectly well and just didn’t want to look? Denial, that most despised human weakness, the puny foible he ridiculed in others—demanding that his wife have that lump checked (it turned out to be benign), that Coddington investigate that ominous whistle from his car’s engine (yes, some belt or other had to be replaced and it was a good thing they did it before that old Volvo broke down on the highway!).
Well, he hadn’t been in denial about Coddington’s suicidal tendencies. No one could have predicted this act. The people who talked about it rarely did the deed; and the actual depressives kept things buttoned up so much that even their closest friends were surprised when they found the body, baffled when the read the note.
It was probably sitting on Coddington’s desk at home right now. It was only a matter of time before Anna walked in and saw it: one of those pale blue envelopes he used for personal correspondence, with her name scrawled across the front.
Coddington would never confess the real reason—but somehow he’d still make it sound like everything was Blum’s fault, evil Jackson Blum who had turned poor Coddington’s life into a nightmare. She’d buy it, too—people committed suicide for a million different cockamamy reasons, and Anna had always hated Jackson anyway.
Thinking about it as he jabbed the rusty shield of the old gardening spade into the hard ground, sweating through his shirt even after he’d pulled his jacket and his sweater off, he realized that Coddington’s suicide note was his insurance policy of last resort. Better they should never find the body, never know what happened; but if they ever did, the dead man’s last message to the world would go a long way toward clearing Jackson of a murder charge.
He made the list in his head: finish the grave, clean up, get the suicide note, take the gun home and stash it back in its box. He couldn’t just ditch it, unfortunately. It had significant value—a Ruger Standard, one of the first ones ever made. The certificate it came with and the serial number on the barrel made it worth thousands of dollars to the right collector. But that had nothing to do with the weapon’s real worth. The gun meant too much for him to just dispose of it like a hunk of trash.
Blum’s father had brought the pistol back from Germany after the Berlin Airlift—the gun nestled in its red box with the black griffin logo. That gun—it looked a little like a Luger—lying in the dirt at his feet. An ordinary, semi-obsolete handgun, but priceless. His father hadn’t left him much. In fact, beyond the Ruger and a pile of unpaid debts, there was next to nothing. Some letters, some handmade furniture, his great grandmother’s wedding ring that Marjorie still wore. The gun was his legacy and to Blum’s father it symbolized the war—the bombing runs and then the food runs during what he always called Operation Vittles. Dad’s whole growing up, in fact. Blum’s father became a man during those years and this gun was the totem of that passage. He couldn’t just throw it away. And he wouldn’t have to. He had never mentioned the Ruger to anyone except Coddington and Marjorie—who, as his wife, couldn’t testify against him, even if she wanted to. The Ruger fired standard rounds, and the .22 was the most common bullet in the world. If they ever found the body, they’d just assume the gun had been stolen by scavengers. People wandered the moors with those metal-detector wands all the time, looking for just this kind of loot.
He slagged another load of soil to the side of the pit, felt some- thing shift in his back. He was going to be crippled tomorrow.
His head was spinning, but his plan made sense. Coddington would disappear. People would wonder why, they’d make crackpot guesses about where he went. Everyone loved a mystery. Unanswered questions fueled the Nantucket gossip mill like big dry hardwood logs on a fire. The enigma would keep them warm for years, like that town where everyone disappeared one morning, what was it? The Roanoke Colony, right. Coddington’s vanishing act would be like that. No muss, no fuss, lots questions, no answers. That’s how Coddington would have wanted it. He just wasn’t thinking straight. Well, that had always been Blum’s job anyway.
One more spadeful and he was done. It didn’t need to be a deep grave. Good thing, because Blum was wrecked. He stood panting, leaning on the handle, letting his heart rate normalize. How had he gotten into such lousy shape? He used to be an athlete.
When he caught his breath, he rolled Coddington into the narrow trench and starting filling it in. The question would remain: how had Coddington gotten buried? But some eccentric Good Samaritan might have taken on the job. That was possible, wasn’t it? Nantucket people did Quixotic things all the time—like opening the ponds to the sea—Steve Scannell had done that with Sesacacha Pond a few years before—one guy and shovel, clawing a channel out of the barrier beach! Burying some random corpse was nothing, by comparison. You couldn’t just leave the body out in the open, but you didn’t want problems with the cops, either. That made sense.
But if the cops somehow connected Blum to the burial… No, no, they wouldn’t, they couldn’t. How could they? He was going to give himself a panic attack. He paused, took a couple of deep breaths.
Then he went back to work, filling in the trench. He cut his wrists while ripping the coarse shrubbery to cover the mound of fresh soil. His hands were filthy, so were his clothes. He looked like he’d been rolling around in the dirt, like some burrowing animal, like—
Like a rat. Jesus Christ. Rats!
He was maybe a mile and half from the dump here. Nantucket had more rats than people, and ninety percent of them lived in that trash paradise. They’d smell the decomposing body. They’d come for the fresh meat. That was what they did. That was their job. This grave wouldn’t last a month unless he could keep them away.
The endlessly multiplying complications overwhelmed him. He thought he might scream, or break down crying, or vomit. Or all three. And the complications assaulting him now were just the ones he had happened to notice. What about all the other ones he hadn’t thought of? This was impossible.
He stood still, letting the icy north wind buffet him.
Rats. He caught some stray scrap of memory about rats. A family of them had taken up residence in his father’s vintage Buick Roadmaster while it was in storage at a local garage. They chewed through the wiring, shredded hoses and belts, nested in the engine block. What had Dad done about it? Peppermint oil? Blum remembered something about peppermint oil. But that hadn’t worked. How was Blum supposed to remember this stuff? He’d been…what? Maybe nine years old at the time? That was thirty years ago. They were still living in Schenectady, in the old house on Union Street. The place probably didn’t even exist anymore. Still, his dad had figured something out. Some Old World folk remedy.
Blum felt like a green recruit in an old war movie, holding onto an enemy grenade, paralyzed, waiting for it to go off in his hand.
Throw it, get rid of it, think!
“Even rats know this crap is poison!” That’s what his dad had said. Poison, poison—what could be such a terrible poison? What crap was he talking about? Blum could feel his brain bulging with thought, pressing against the smooth walls of his skull like water freezing in a full bottle. Something was going to crack.
Then he gave up, sagged, opened his eyes—relaxation that was somehow a final exertion of the will. And the answer snapped open like a jammed window.
That was it. And not just any tobacco—chewing tobacco. The smell kept the rats out of the engine block. It would keep them away from the grave. So Blum needed chewing tobacco, cans and cans of chewing tobacco. Ten cans? Twenty? As many as he could find and as fast as he could find them.
One more item on the to-do list.
First, the suicide note. Then the snuff. What an appropriate term! Then back here—mix the shredded leaves in with the loose dirt, get back into town and start making up a good explanation for how he’d spent his afternoon.
Details, details. The Devil was in the details, that was what everyone said. He was never sure what that meant, but now he knew. The Devil was hiding in the details, physically hiding, camouflaging himself like a ferret in a leaf pile, fangs bared, ready to strike.
Blum strode to his car, javelined the shovel into the back. Thinking of the tobacco gave him hope. He had a good eye for detail. Nothing got past him. That was how he had nailed Coddington in the first place.
● ● ● ● ●
It hadn’t been just a matter of analyzing the business ledgers—some routine act of forensic accounting that any bean counter could have managed. Blum had also noticed the tiny details of behavior—the irregularities in conversation and hand gestures and eye contact. But everything was connected—the odd uncomfortable pause, squeezing the thumbnail with the fist, eyes flicking sideways…they were far more revealing than some small discrepancy between absorption costing and cash flow.
Blum had gotten the feeling that there was more to Coddington’s resistance to the Winthrop deal. Coddington seemed nervous, not cautious—jittery and scared, when he should have been calm and prudent.
Gradually it had dawned on Blum: Winthrop wanted to audit the business before the closing, and Coddington didn’t want them examining the books.
What was it? Tax-dodging, embezzlement, fraud? What was he hiding? Drugs, hookers, gambling debts? And how was he doing it? Claiming withdrawals as advertising expenses, over-stating net income? Or was there a whole other set of books to conceal the profits he was skimming? The possibilities were endless and Coddington had the necessary skills for fraud—he had studied to be a CPA, though he never passed the exam.
Blum was no accountant but he knew where his money was going and where it was coming from. He knew their vendors and their customers, their creditors, and their charge account customers. He knew who paid late—mostly the richest of them. One noted orchestra conductor who had inherited a giant house on Cliff Road and married a copper heiress, still hadn’t paid for a set of Callaway Big Bertha irons he’d signed for at the beginning of last summer.
The point was the ledgers would be full of familiar names. They were as close as Coddington would ever come to an autobiography, measured in accrued interest and invoices paid. Best of all, Blum could poke around all he wanted and no one had to know. Whatever he discovered could stay private.
He had gone into the store early that Sunday morning, and pulled the ledgers. The store used a computer spreadsheet program, but Blum insisted on keeping hard copy double-entry books. He no longer trusted computers, after losing a year’s worth of data with one crash.
The accounting tablets were a pleasure to read, and his cramped little office was warm and cozy on an autumn morning. The ledgers sat on a wooden filing cabinet tucked under shelves that rose to the ceiling piled with ski sweaters and shoe boxes. One desk held the desktop PC. Blum pulled a chair up to the other one, a scarred antique walnut keyhole printer’s desk he’d purchased years before at one of Rafael Osona’s auctions.
The store was quiet; the town was quiet. The only sound was the dull thunder of the old furnace and the occasional car rattling up the Main Street cobblestones.
He found what he was looking for in the first five minutes.
The company was called Spindrift LLC, and Coddington had been authorizing monthly payments of seventeen-hundred dollars into their account for the last eight months. The first entry dated from March tenth.
Blum rocked his old wooden chair on its back legs, pushing against the edge of the desk. What happened in March? Had Coddington purchased some small property? This could be a mortgage payment. Or installments on some debt. How did it work with book-makers? If you got in over your head, could you arrange some sort of installment plan, like with the IRS? Could this be back taxes? Or was there some windfall Coddington had been hiding, some giant cash haul he was laundering through this dummy corporation one month at a time? If so, he hid it well—no ostentatious purchases, not even a new car. Coddington was famously stingy—a voracious reader, he didn’t even buy books. He would happily tell anyone willing to listen that he was outraged by the price of hardcovers and happy to wait a month to borrow any title he wanted from the Atheneum.
No, no—Anna would have mentioned a cash real estate transaction or a trifecta win at Suff Downs. She would certainly have upgraded her wardrobe. So no sudden influx of cash. Anyway, real estate sales were listed in the newspaper, filed at town hall. And the gambling idea was far-fetched, too. Coddington had never shown any interest in the gambling sports. He thought horse-racing was cruel. And he hated casinos. After one business trip to Las Vegas, he had memorably called it “the vampire city”—sleeping in its own dirt by day, and rising at sundown to suck the blood of its victims. So no gambling wins to hide, no gambling losses to pay off.
Blum stood and stepped out of the office into the shadowy store, pacing between the shelves, straightening the displays. The merchandise made good company.
What other vices could Coddington have? Drugs? But he couldn’t imagine that dealers used payment plans, and anyway, didn’t the prices always go up? But maybe Coddington was using prescription drugs—Percocet or Vicodin. That would be a price-stable monthly purchase. How much of that crap would seventeen-hunded a month buy you? Way too much, that was Blum’s guess. Coddington didn’t act like he was doped up, but Blum’s father had never seemed drunk, either—despite the fifth of cheap Scotch he drank every day. He proudly referred to himself as a “functioning alcoholic” until the day the booze killed him. Maybe Coddington was the same way. But prescription meds required a doctor, and doctors needed a reason to write a script like that. Had Coddington hurt himself last March? Thrown out his back, taken a fall, suffered an accident of some kind? Nothing came to mind. In fact, Coddington had always been fit and agile, insisting pompously on the benefits of his dirt-road bicycle excursions, and gloating over his skills on the paddleball court. He had even started “juicing,” reducing various vaguely nauseating combinations of vegetables into muddy sludge and gulping it with a lip-smacking glee that Blum found implausible at best.
But he was nimble, you had to give him that. Just the other day, Blum had taken Coddington and Anna out to lunch at Boarding House with Anna’s sister, Irena, and the girl had tripped over an uneven spot on the sidewalk. She pitched forward and, before anyone else could even register the physical event, Coddington had caught her arm and saved her from a nasty fall. It was almost as if he’d been watching her, expecting an accident, waiting for it. Or maybe he was just studying her for more obvious reasons.
Irena was a stunner, far better looking than her older sister, as so often happened, at least in Blum’s experience. But she was clumsy and careless, which might explain Coddington’s wary eye. She had caused three fender-benders since arriving on the island last January, and she was always knocking into things, dropping things.
“I am having a war with the inanimate objects,” she had told him once, after slipping on an unpadded rug and tipping over a lamp. “I think the objects are winning.”
You couldn’t be annoyed when she flashed that lovely smile. Coddington had mentioned it more than once. “It lights up a room,” Blum had admitted. Ted went further: “I would say it lights up the world, dear boy. Sunrise over ’Sconset Beach.” But so what? Outlandishly beautiful things naturally provoked comment.
Still, thinking back, something had struck Blum as odd that afternoon, walking away from the restaurant. Coddington had held on to Irena’s arm for a little too long, as if he was reluctant to let her go. It was probably just an extra measure of concern, but there was something else, something about the date. The timing of it all snagged him, like brambles on his sleeve.
Irena had come to Nantucket just after New Year’s, and three months later, the money flow began—the perfect incubation period for a romance, especially a forbidden one. Irena had come to Marjorie’s birthday party early in January, single and shy, barely able to speak English. Coddington had chivalrously set himself the task of stage-managing her entry into local society, finding her a job and an English tutor, a car and a place to live, coaching her on the written section of the driving test.
“Everyone else has the right of way!” she had laughed. “It sounds just like Lithuania.”
Blum had race-walked back into the office, reached the desk in two strides and yanked open the ledger. He wanted to see the entries again, in black and white. They were so obvious—the amounts and the schedule of the payments told the whole story.
Coddington was paying rent, and he was doing it in secret. He was leasing himself a little love-shack, meeting Irena there for “late lunch” afternoon delights. The upstanding Catholic family man was cheating on his wife, and he was doing it with her sister. Could it be? Was it even possible, from a practical point of view, in a town this small? Would Coddington take the risk? He preened himself as an upright “pillar of the community,” a church deacon no less, proudly intolerant of other peoples’ foibles, casually assigning slots in hell to an acquaintance caught drinking on a Sunday or taking a payment in cash to hide money from the IRS.
Could he really be committing adultery? It was almost incest, too—that made it so much worse. At least, it felt like incest, banging your sister-in-law. Incest-in-law? Something like that.
Blum shook his head, amazed and amused. He’d had to find out for sure.
The surveillance had taken one week. He followed Coddington for a couple of days before he located the house, tucked away at the end of a dirt road in Tom Nevers, an area far from the social hive of the island. Coddington was famously oblivious when he was driving, and routinely offended friends and colleagues who waved to him as their cars passed in the street, so Blum had no problem trailing him, up Milestone Road to the old naval base turnoff, but had to watch and drive past as the big Volvo station wagon hooked a right onto an unpaved side road. Even Coddington might notice another car chasing him down some dead-end dirt track.
Blum came back the next day and started scouting the houses. He found no obvious clues—he couldn’t identify a car by its tire tracks, for instance, and there was no telltale scraping of paint where Coddington might have brushed against a fence post. The houses themselves were blank and anonymous—gray shingles, weathered cedar trim, semi-attached garages. Some had curtains, others had shades, but there was nothing distinctive about the window treatments, at least from the outside.
Blum eliminated three of the ten houses—there were toys in their yards. He couldn’t imagine that Coddington had a whole other family going out here. That was too crazy. Another house featured at Ford F-350 pickup and a pair of sawhorses in the yard, straddled with three-by-five planks. So, some carpenter. Coddington was anything but.
That left six houses. One of them was being used as a barracks for construction workers—he counted seven cars in the dirt in front of the place and saw several young guys going in and out, different ones each time—sawdust-caked, paint-spattered, figure-piped with plaster. Maybe they worked for the contractor with the Ford pick-up.
There were five houses left, and short of actually stepping up and knocking on the doors, Blum was stumped.
That changed the following Sunday. He drove by in the late afternoon. At the last house on the road, he found a prayer card from St. Mary’s Church floating in a muddy puddle near the split-rail fence. It was easy to imagine how it got there: a windy day, a forty-mile-an-hour gale honking out of the northeast, the card on the dashboard, lifted out of an open window.
And Saint Mary’s was Coddington’s church.
He glanced at his watch—almost four o’clock on a blustery afternoon. The neighborhood looked deserted—no kids playing in the street, no one working in the yards. Coddington’s secret house was tilted toward the others, which meant you could park in the back without anyone seeing your car. Was someone parked there now? He couldn’t tell, but the narrow dirt road allowed no other hiding places. To investigate further without being seen, Blum would have to drive around, himself. Coddington spent Sundays with his family—there was no chance of running into him. What about the girl, though? Did she live here? It was a waste of a solid rent check if she didn’t. But the place felt deserted, almost abandoned, in the late afternoon sunlight.
Blum drove to the back. He saw spaces for three cars but the yard was empty.
He killed the motor and listened to the wind. It pushed at the car like an animal, a cat rubbing itself against a chair leg.
He sat still for a moment, hands on the wheel. He was no thief; he didn’t even like the idea of trespassing. But of course he was already doing that, with his car parked on the property. And the fact remained: the inside of this little bungalow could contain all the leverage he needed to get Coddington on board with the Winthrop deal.
Blackmail, in other words. But Blum refused to see it that way. Knowledge was a commodity and so were secrets. The truth remained pristine. If you possessed a fragment of it that others did not, you could build a fortune on it. Think about the Comstock Lode. It had started out as a gold mine. Prospectors found it difficult to wash out the fine gold because of this peculiar dense sludge that clogged the rockers. Very annoying! Until one man grasped the fact that the sludge was silver. Pure sulphuret of silver! And that’s where the vast wealth of that enterprise came from. Not the silver, but the ability to identify the silver. This was no different.
Whatever Coddington was doing out here, those actions constituted the truth. Blum hadn’t contrived or manipulated that truth, any more than Comstock had transmuted base metal into the seventy thousand tons of silver of the Ophir Bonanza. You didn’t create the truth. You discovered it. You recognized it.
And you exploited it.
Blum pulled himself out of the car on the surge of resolution. He found the house key under the welcome mat—that was a good way to make him feel welcome!—and let himself in. He knew what he was looking for, a short catalogue of incriminating items. It didn’t take long to find them.
The front door opened onto a big kitchen—no front hall, no mudroom. Fake wood cabinets, rusty electric stove, old GE fridge. No cooking smells, no dishes in the sink. The place presented as impeccably tidy, but the clean counters made it seem vacant—a stage set. He snooped the shelves, found cans of beans and boxes of instant rice, a tin of oatmeal, and a jar of Nescafe instant coffee—the first item that matched Blum’s inventory. Nescafe was Irena’s brand—how often had she claimed it tasted better than the real thing?
The kitchen widened into an open plan, under-furnished living room. An old couch and two worn leather armchairs pointed at a big Sony Trinitron TV; generic Nantucket art fair pictures on the walls—cobblestone street scenes, Sankaty Light, sailboats. A vase of dying irises on an end table.
Irises—Irena’s birth flower.
He checked the bathroom next—nothing there except the plush toilet paper favored by new money and the poor. Old money people bought the single-ply Scott tissue that demonstrated thrift and common sense, scorning ostentation and display. This small item was consistent, if not conclusive—Irena was an immigrant striver, drawn to any hint of luxury—from the fancy car (Range Rover was her ride of choice) to this tacky triple-ply “facial tissue.”
The shag carpet in the bedroom was another clue. He had heard Irena extol it as a luxury item! Blum supposed a lifetime of grimy bare floors had warped her judgment. Then there were the pillows on the bed—way too many pillows, branded pillows from Nantucket Looms and Erica Wilson, and a blue lace neckroll very much like the one he and Marjorie had given Irena for her birthday. She had complained about never being comfortable reading in bed.
That would have been enough, but Blum recognized the clothes in the closet, also. The short dresses that showed off Irena’s legs, the fur-collared coat she had brought with her from Lithuania.
Blum stepped back and sat down on the bed. He had been ninety-five percent sure of what was going on—hell, it was more like ninety-nine percent. But, oh, that last one percent! It meant more than the other ninety-nine put together.
It meant everything.
He stood up, thinking hard. He needed some token of his discovery. He opened the drawer of the nightstand and saw a litter of Avanti condoms—the newest thing—made by Durex, some English company. They weren’t even going to be commercially available for another year, but Coddington had connections with the importer. He had bragged about all of this over drinks at Boarding House one night. It was so typical of the man—he had to have the best and the newest of everything. And if it happened to be English, whatever it was, so much the better. Like the Taylors of Harrogate tea he had shipped from Great Britain every few months, which tasted no different from Lipton’s, as far as Blum could tell. Boasting about details that made you feel unique was a mistake—they set you apart, put the spotlight on you, made you vulnerable. This little condom was as incriminating as a fingerprint.
Blum took it, and one of the irises, and let himself out of the house.