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The Price of a Debt
October 7, 2013
Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t the worst place for lunch, thought Billy as he made his way slowly up East Squantum Street. Dunkin’ had supplied Billy with his 4:30 AM breakfast every spring, summer, and fall for the past 33 years - he supposed he could trust it in the daylight hours too.
But he’d be damned if he got that tuna sandwich - no telling how long that shit’s been frozen solid.
As Billy ambled up the right side of the street, his back to the last neighborhood between North America and the North Atlantic, his iPhone buzzed. Probably a text from Marcus, he thought. He’d wanted to watch the playoff game tonight.
It buzzed again. Then continued buzzing.
Billy rummaged through his jeans and pulled it out, expecting to see on the screen the nickname of one of the forty or so buzzards (his word) circling what remained of Jerome McMannigan’s earthly possessions. Maybe it would be Shit Ass Joe, from the Rockland Trust. Or maybe Squeaky Pete, who worked in “customer relations” (Billy supposed harrassment and stalking were forms of “relations”) at Tuttle, Jones, and Dougherty - his dad’s divorce lawyers. Or Hell, if his name was up next, it could just be Hired Gun Number 1 thru 15 who worked for any of the illegal outfits to which his dad’s estate still owed some coin.
He checked the phone.
“Pat’s” read the display.
Billy’s face brightened considerably. He slid the phone’s lock screen to answer.
“Nancy! How the fuck did you know I needed a beer?”
“You’re a fisherman, Bill, if you didn’t need one I’d be concerned.”
Deadpan. Unusual for Nancy Turner, proprietor of Pat’s Nautical Bar in Hull, Massachusetts.
“Good point,” Billy replied. “What’s up? You givin’ out free shots tonight?”
“No, Bill,” she said in a low voice. “Listen.”
Billy stopped walking, low, marshy ground stretching out on either side of the road as he listened. Early fall had been unusually mild, and Billy hadn’t even bothered to wear a jacket. As he stood in his shirtsleeves, alone on a ribbon of pavement connecting Squantum and Quincy Shore Drive, he listened to Nancy, and his pulse began to quicken with a mixture of fear, excitement, and something like redemption.
“Fuck, Nance. Are you positive?”
“As an AIDS patient.” Nancy’s response to fear was bad jokes.
“Jesus Christ. I don’t do shit like this.” Billy said, suddenly very aware of his surroundings and simultaneously thankful for the isolation, but wary of looking suspicious. He began to walk slowly towards the Dunkin’ Donuts a quarter mile away.
“Billy, listen. This is your chance. Haven’t you always told me how deep in the hole your father left you?”
She pronounced it “ya fathah,” and Billy had an old memory of a childhood church service sitting next to his cousin from Hyde Park - “Ahwah fathah. Whoaht’n heaven,” and so on.
“This is it, Bilbo. Who gives a shit if you’re never done it? Duck has. And these guys are lazy - they literally planned the whole thing out with me 15 feet away.”
Billy’s insides clenched, and he stopped again. Maybe this was it. God knew he needed a lot of money from somewhere, and the lottery wasn’t cooperating. He really hadn’t had a plan to this point, besides to avoid everyone long enough to pull in one more haul. He supposed then he’d have to pick up and start a new life in some backwoods place like Santa Fe or Portland.
But if this was true, he could get it all back “with one swing of the bat,” as the Red Sox radio announcers always said. And though it wasn’t tangible, the other benefit if he pulled this off might offset, in some small way, the knot of pain that he carried around each day like a tumor deep in his memory.
“Nancy, I owe you a beer or two,” Billy said, resuming his walk to Dunkin’ with a pronounced increase in speed.
“More than that, to be sure,” she replied. “Good luck, kid.”
An hour before Billy McMannigan received that telephone call, a small, bald, pockmarked man sat in an overstuffed armchair in a basement. This man’s name was Kevin Haley, but everyone called him Hales. In this case, the “everyone” in question mainly consisted of truckers, deliverymen, ships’ captains, and high-level distributors.
Hales was a drug dealer.
He had not intended to become one, not exactly, but he wasn’t complaining. He didn’t live an expensive lifestyle, and if he hadn’t had a taste for hookers and authentic Chinese food, he would have hardly felt the need to leave his house on K street, less than half a mile away.
Hales didn’t live in the house above this basement, but it sometimes felt that way. As it happens, the basement was also a bar. It was called Pat’s, and it had been opened in 1952 by a man (named Jack) and his wife (named Pat). Situated feet from the vicious chop of Hull Gut, where Boston Harbor and Hingham Bay met and funneled through a 100 yard-wide channel between the mainland and Paddock’s Island, Pat’s sat at the end of the long, twisting main road that serves as the backbone of the peninsula town of Hull. It was of the few original Boston-area fishing bars yet to be corrupted by yuppies.
Hales felt safe here. There were many reasons for this feeling, chief among them familiarity. He had grown up in the town of Hull once, very long ago, when the rest of the world beyond that bleak, windswept little spear of land seemed close enough to touch. He had played HORSE on the basketball court near the police station, and had watched his hometown beach swell with fat city slobs during the baking summers.
He had snuck into the Red Parrot and the C-Note, bars down on The Strip across the street from the beach, in high school, drunk on bravado and cheap whiskey, and too flush with victory to notice the bouncers weren’t fooled.
And of course, he had lived half his life at Paragon Park, Hull’s answer to the Jersey Shore and the Santa Monica Pier. After more than three decades spent traveling the country and the world, he could still remember the smell of Paragon on an August night. The warm, sweet fried dough mixing with the cool, salty air, and tinged with a hint of everything else you’d expect at a carnival: motor oil, sweat, alcohol, and youth, in its many forms.
It was cool inside Pat’s as Hales reminisced. He wondered how a town half a mile wide, one that protruded so impudently into Boston Harbor as to be connected to the mainland by only two bridges and a forty-foot strip of roadway, could hold so many memories and create so many distinct personalities.
Because the man entering Pat’s now, though he had caught two of Kevin Haley’s no-hitters for the Hull High Pirates baseball team in the 1970s, had turned out very, very differently from Hales.
But, Hales thought as Stephen (Steeps) McIntyre sat down in the facing armchair, we still have one thing in common.
McIntyre was a businessman. At this point in his life, he had achieved everything he could reasonably have expected. In his mid-fifties, Steeps had a four-bedroom house in the tony Boston suburb of Hingham and a rental home in the ski resort town of Killington, Vermont. He drove a black Range Rover Evoque, owned a 40-foot powder blue sloop called Angela (after his first daughter), and belonged to the extremely exclusive Boston Golf Club.
As McIntyre called for a Sam Adams, Hales looked over his old batterymate. The hair gone to grey in his mid-thirties, a result of his dizzying climb up the corporate ladder. The face, always a bit round, now could be described as jowly, with purple half-moons beneath the eyes. The body, barrel-chested in his playing days at Hull and Endicott College, now slumping slowly into late middle age.
Hales knew Steeps still found time to work out every day, and had run a few marathons recently. Hales wondered if anyone in McIntyre’s family was getting suspicious of his weight gain. Going sleepless for three or four nights a week can do that to a person.
When Billy McMannigan was young, he liked to close his eyes and walk down the stairs. The main staircase in his old, rambling house was itself old and rambling, and both contained switchbacks and abrupt endpoints - sudden changes in direction and slope that left many visitors confused and nursing turned ankles.
A million memories swirled like drying laundry around Billy’s grizzled head as he contemplated the old place. It was a sprawling, decayed thing, an old seacaptain’s mansion seated on a rolling green hill above the bluffs and the crashing North Atlantic.
Aside from a general feeling of melancholy and longing, Billy remembered those stairs. He would race his brothers down them for the first Christmas present, and as he grew older, he would creep up the risers, keeping to the inside where the bare wood met the wall and mitigated the squeaks, long past midnight while his parents lay dead to the world.
Of all the hundreds and thousands of trips up and down those switchback stairs that Billy took in his life - whether to a cold breakfast and the bleak New England day or a drafty room and the long New England night - his favorite trips were when he descended with his eyes closed.
He loved the feeling that everyone else dreads: that of missing a stair, of expecting one to be there when in fact you’ve got one more to go, your arms starting to pinwheel uselessly into empty space as your mind conjures up the mere suggestion of an endless fall into the abyss, because before the thought can be formed you land, a bit crouched, on a foot that’s supporting more weight than it had bargained on.
Billy didn’t know what drugs were at the age of 5, but when he walked down the stairs with his eyes closed (“and no railings!”) on a dare from his older brother Tom, the rushes he felt when his foot missed a step were some of the earliest and purest highs he ever experienced.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Billy was drawn to the rocking, ever-shifting motion of a boat on the sea.
Now, Billy stood with his back to the pounding surf, less than a mile south of the New Hampshire - Massachusetts border. He regarded his childhood home through deepset grey eyes, dark slivers of shale nearly closed from years of salt and wind.
The bank had finally made the sale, which was good. No more moneygrubbers waiting to catch him at the docks in Gloucester or New Bedford - the lawyer had said the land went for just north of $3 million. Of course, with his father dying almost five million in the red to seemingly every bookie, cardsharp, captain, and pool hustler in the Northeast, not to mention a number of banks and lawyers of varying repute, the land sale was a drop in the bucket.
Billy turned, but did not offer to help. Let the suit rough up his hands for once, he thought as he watched his lawyer Jesse Drake free the “FOR SALE - BANK OWNED” sign from the ground just inside the low, whitewashed fence surrounding the property. He owed the fucker God knows how much - probably another season’s haul. Let him pull the damn sign up.
Billy started for his car, intending to head for the bar and, as Lehane put it, a drink before the war.
Billy stopped. He supposed that was a bit melodramatic. It wasn’t war.
But it certainly wasn’t peace.
Pat’s was empty, as it usually was on a weekday afternoon. Dust motes swam in the golden shafts of light falling through the ground-level windows. The multicolored liquor bottles sat in tiered rows like schoolchildren in some long-forgotten class photo.
The bar ran along the right side of the room, starting just inside the doorway and extending nearly the whole length of the basement, until it terminated in time to leave room for a darts setup and a doorway out and up to the back patio. Behind the left side of the bar, down near the dartboard, was the kitchen, such that it was. Pat’s didn’t serve food, but kept all the things that one might need in a bar’s kitchen: citrus, cherries, olives, celery, and lots and lots of ice.
The ice was kept in the walk-in freezer, which wasn’t usually more than half full, a leftover from when the bar did a brisk breakfast business. Today, however, the freezer contained much more than usual.
The bags of ice had been shunted to the side of the freezer, along with some ancient ingredients for a clam chowder. Spread out in the middle of the freezer’s floor, stacked in 12-inch by 8-inch bricks, sat 200 pounds of ultra-pure white heroin.
There are tunnels under Boston Harbor.
Yes, many know the famous Ted Williams Tunnel, opened in 2003 to connect Boston’s Logan Airport to the rest of the city via that great transcontinental highway, Interstate 90. A little further northwest, you can find the parallel tunnels of Callahan and Sumner, serving essentially the same purpose by shuttling travelers to Logan’s out-of-the-way location.
However, those are not the only tunnels under Boston Harbor. Not by a long shot.
Atlantic Ocean, roughly 5 miles NE of Hull, MA
“CLEAN IT UP F’Fucks’sake!” Billy roared in a not entirely disagreeable tone. He took a measure of comfort knowing that he was the only man on deck able to stand the roiling seas without retching. The bounces and shocks that turned his crew’s stomach gave him a strange feeling of excitement, but it was still his boat, and someone else’s vomit.
The crew of the Morning Knife was a hardy one, not generally prone to bouts of sickness. But this was a killer squall, and it had come out of almost nowhere, whipping itself into a frenzy and blotting out the swiftly sinking sun. The boat bucked and rolled, all 35 sleek feet of it rising and falling with the swell, which in Billy’s estimation was around 10 feet.
Early that morning Billy and crew had slipped, under cover of darkness, from the river mooring where the Knife was tied up. The boat was unregistered, more out of convenience than stealth. Between the application, bill of sale, proof of sales tax payment, and all the other crap you had to do to get a boat registered in the damn Commonwealth, it seemed easier to just keep this one on the sly.
“MILLER! Over the side with it!” He yelled through the swirling rain. “Or you’ll go over toes to turnips!” One of his father’s favorite phrases. It must have made sense growing up on a farm in southern Indiana, but it sounded like a foreigner every time it fell out in a Boston fishing bar.
Miller obediently craned his neck over the side and hurled another throatful of bile into the raging sea. Billy silently thanked his father for one of his many life lessons - “Whether it’s fishing or finance, no drinking on the job.” The bottle of rum shared among Miller, Murphy, and Lancaster less than an hour ago wasn’t helping their situation any.
“CLOSED FOR A PRIVATE FUNCTION” read the hand-scrawled piece of paper taped to the front door of Pat’s Nautical Bar. Several patrons expecting another night of cheap Bud Light and stale conversation had arrived, seen the note, and shuffled back to their salt-speckled vehicles, no emotions visible on their faces.
In the half-lit gloom of the bar, the four men hired by Steeps McIntyre grumbled, grunted, and shuffled the heroin out of the freezer and into large rolling suitcases.
It was go time.
Steeps watched from an armchair near the bar, his hands resting lightly over a semiautomatic pistol on his lap, the safety firmly on (he was still slightly terrified of guns).
“How we gonna move all this shit with only these suitcases?” complained one of the hired muscle. Dirk, Steeps thought. His name is Dirk. Must be kind to the help.
“Well, Dirk, the quicker you guys load, the quicker you’ll be done,” Steeps said brightly. He saw no reason to point out that Dirk’s actual question was accidentally rhetorical. He briefly considered the business merits of a company that specialized in intelligent muscle men for jobs like this, then realized with a smile that those people most likely didn’t exist.
“Just don’t think about the work, and it’ll be over in a jiff.” And soon enough, it was. The heroin neatly loaded into sixteen full-size suitcases, Steeps went behind the bar and gently lifted off a large framed portrait of a nearly naked mermaid, revealing a metal doorway with a recessed handle. He leaned the picture against the wall next to him, opened the door which extended from roughly shin to shoulder, flipped on his flashlight, and carried a Coleman lantern through the door, down the ladder, and into the gloom of a cement-walled tunnel.
As he sat waiting for the muscle to get the suitcases down into the tunnel, Steeps had one of those things that he had been having more and more of lately. He supposed they would be called “life evaluations.” Here he was, a wealthy, middle-aged man with a great family, nice house, and pretty much everything he could ask for. So why the hell was he the point man on what Hales had dubbed “the largest drug deal in Boston history”? He flashed a wry smile as the old tv commercial came back to him, not for the first time: “How do I do it? I’m in debt up to my eyeballs.”
That was about the size of it. Steeps was a proud man, and when his stock portfolios had plummeted, he’d refused to give up his membership to the golf club or to sell his house in Killington. In fact, rather than tighten his belt, he’d sent his daughter on a gap year in Australia and bought the Range Rover to boot. Even adding up all of these expenses, however, shouldn’t have seen him nearly 15 million in the red.
Blackmail, however. That will put you in the hole, and fast.
Ashley had secretly recorded many of their meetings. He supposed he wasn’t surprised - she had never loved him, of that he was sure. But he was naive enough to think that she would keep things simple - a few thousand in cash for a few hours of absolute, spine-tingling pleasure. That had gone on for too long - at least 10 years, if McIntyre’s memory served. And what did he get for trying to be the better person, for cutting off this source of infidelity? A $15 million ultimatum. Apparently Ashley had her eye on a beachside bungalow in St. Barths. Of course she did.
The curved walls dripped condensation onto the floor of the tunnel, which was slowly filling up with suitcases full of heroin. With every passing moment, Steeps’s heart rate rose. This wasn’t his life - he didn’t hold guns in tunnels during heroin deals. He didn’t hire thugs and command drug operations - he sat in offices and made shrewd business decisions. He knew that this wasn’t the place or the time for regret, though, and Steeps hadn’t pulled himself up the corporate ladder by feeling sorry for himself.
Sooner than Steeps would have liked, the five men stood on the floor of the tunnel, the portal back into the bar a dim rectangle in the gloom above them. The suitcases lay spread around them - it would take two round trips - an hour each way - to roll the cases to the island. They had gone over the exceedingly simple plan several times, so there was no need to talk. Steeps led the way, lantern in one hand and flashlight in the other, down the echoing tunnel and out underneath the swirling currents of the harbor.
October 18, 2013.
Atlantic Ocean, roughly 3 miles NE of Hull, MA
Ducky Lancaster, who had been poised next to the “All lights” switch, killed them.
The squall had mercifully ended about an hour ago, giving Miller enough time to clean up his vomit. The night was clear and cloudless, the stars the only source of illumination as a sliver of moon hung above the city. Billy thought the storm might have been a blessing in disguise, as it chased the alcohol out through his crew’s sweating, shivering pores.
The Knife bobbed, invisible against the cold black chop. A mile south, off the northwestern coast of Great Brewster Island in outer Boston Harbor, a 500-foot barge and tug rig lay dark, a midnight silhouette outlined against the light pollution of Quincy a few miles distant.
Billy peered through the telescope, one eye screwed up against the wind. He truly looked like a pirate, even though he felt more like a tax collector.
“Right on schedule,” he muttered. “Ducky, tell the guys to suit up. We’ll skirt Outer and Middle, blow through the channel, and hit them at 12:30.”
If Billy’s information was correct, and he had no reason to think that it wouldn’t be, it would take a hell of a long time to load up that barge.
“Don’tcha mean oh-oh-thirty, cap?” chided Ducky Lancaster.
The kid was barely more than a teenager, fresh from a 14-month stint in Afghanistan. He had some sort of wiry light brown growth on his jaw that he described as a beard, and he lived for this sort of thing.
Wild-eyed and wild-haired, Cornelius “Ducky” Lancaster had lived about half his waking life in the water, hence his nickname. As his given name might suggest, he was from a family rippling with old East Coast money. Ducky had spent a year at Yale, majoring in swim team with a minor in coed studies, before his terrace-gardened house off campus was raided in one of the many heroin busts in the greater New Haven area.
So, like any caring and supportive father, John Lancaster IV had sent his son off to the army.
Looking at the boy now, Billy McMannigan had to say that it had probably worked. Ducky was a solid addition to the team. He had cut out the drugs, he took orders decently well, he was sharp enough to pick up some basic fishing principles, and (Billy thought enviously) his back muscles were long, strong, and had never given him so much as a passing twinge. Billy liked to think of Ducky as the son that he never had. Or, more precisely, the son he wished he’d had.
“You got it, Duck. Oh-oh thirty it is.” Billy collapsed the telescope and stowed it behind the steering column. “Now hit it. I’ve never raided anything before, so I want you on point.”
Ducky’s eyes shone with a feverish pleasure. The prospect of a raid was fun. The actual thing was something else. Billy suspected it might be something primal for the young sailor - something almost sexual.
He watched the youth bound down the two steps to the main deck, then dropped the Knife into drive and began his slow approach to the barge in the distance.
The “toes to turnips” line had been Jerome McMannigan’s most famous saying, but it was by no means his only one. The man was known in every fishing bar on the North Shore for his platitudes, maxims, and life lessons. It seemed that, as the years of gentle alcohol abuse wormed their way deeper into him, that he could scarcely hold a conversation without falling back on his well-worn cliches.
Billy’s eyes crinkled into a smile. He remembered his father holding court as last call loomed, dressing his tired fishing stories in ever finer wisps of danger and intrigue. He had been old then, old enough to share a beer with his son.
As a child, Billy had been faintly terrified of his father. On weekends, when Jerome had returned home roaring drunk, long past midnight, to the now-sold house on the bluffs, he had not simply gone to sleep. Billy recognized these late-night horror films now for what they were: not punishment, but a misguided attempt by Jerome to communicate with his son. With an untold amount of alcohol coursing through him, often Billy’s father wouldn’t form coherent thoughts, but the cliches were always there.
The bedroom door would burst open those weekend nights, Jerome’s solid body framed by the hallway light as he made his unsteady way to the bed and dropped into the armchair where, when sober, he would read Billy stories of pirates and treasure. Billy would cower in the corner of his bed, listening to the ramblings of a stranger who had inhabited his father until one of them, usually Jerome, fell into a fitful sleep.
But aside from the strange feeling of dread that Billy recalled from these nights,he remembered a few of his father’s sayings as well: “A man gets what he earns, and no more” was a classic. And on that oldest human art, the art of bullshitting, Jerome posited that “Everybody knows two sentences about everything. Know three, you’re the smartest guy in the room.”
These instances became less frequent as Billy grew older, and before he knew it, he was tagging along to the bars with his father on Friday nights. Jerome always drove there, emphasizing the importance of meeting the types of people he hung around with, so that Billy would be sure to stay away from them when he grew up. Another grin flitted across Billy’s weathered face as he remembered one night: his father balancing on the low rungs of two barstools, his hand braced against Billy’s shoulder, leading the shining-eyed patrons in a rousing version of “Drunken Sailor.” On the last line, Jerome had brought the song to a halt. After belting out “And what do you DO with a DRUNKEN SAILOR?” he calmly and coherently said “Let him drink.”
Billy supposed it was no wonder he hadn’t turned out to be a great father. Still, he always thought he’d have done better than oh for two.
Just off the NW coast of Great Brewster Island
There are more than a dozen recognized islands between the city of Boston and the Atlantic Ocean proper. Along with the Brewsters (Great, Little, Outer, and Middle), sit the Graves, Green Island, and Shag Rock Island. These seven form a sort of protective barrier for the inner islands and the city itself.
The nose of the Canadian tug rig Jocelyn II was firmly attached to the rear of its much larger counterpart, the barge Mary’s Tears. Both tug and barge lay anchored with all lights extinguished. Looking from the north, it was nearly impossible to spot the hulking mass of metal unless you knew where to look, as it painted a pitch-black outline against the faintly lighter charcoal of the island.
The squall had tested the strength of the anchor chains, and the five-man barge crew had nearly become four as they loosed an auxiliary anchor over the port bow. Terrance Gordon, an inexperienced engineer and electrician, had skipped out of the way as the heavy chain went rippling down into the depths.
The silence lay around the barge heavier for the earlier storm. The sea, which had thrown its best punches against the high walls of the barge and been defeated, now lapped apologetically at the waterline. Three of the crew napped in the tug’s quarters, one stood forward contemplating the lights of the city’s Seaport district away to the northwest, and the final man sat in a folding chair, looking at Great Brewster through a pair of field glasses.
The island was dark - the hilly spine of the land obscured the flashes from Boston Light on Little Brewster, about a half mile away to the south. Captain Carlo Ambrogio peered through the binoculars as his bony elbows rested on the iron railing of the barge. It was an unseasonably warm night - the cement deck gave off a faint steam as the puddles from the squall slowly dissipated. Carlo spit and scanned the shore of the island.
He knew what to look for, and he didn’t have to wait long to see it. In the blackness of the hillside about a thousand feet from the shoreline, a rectangle of dancing flashlight beams suddenly appeared.
“Timmy,” Ambrogio said.
“Cap?” said Timmy Doyle, striding from his post to the captain’s side.
“Wake everyone up. Let’s get this shit on quickly and get moving.”
“Aye aye, cap’n,” Timmy said brightly.
Carlo snorted. He’s just a child playing games, thought the greying captain. God help us if we’re made.
Just off the NE coast of Outer Brewster Island
The Morning Knife puttered slowly along. Outer Brewster’s mass obscured the outline of the barge and tug. Ducky Lancaster, Brendan Miller, and Seamus Murphy stood ready at their positions: Ducky at the prow, Miller halfway between the wheelhouse and the prow on the port side, and Murphy at the port stern. Billy’s plan was to skirt Middle Brewster as long as possible, then cover the final third of a mile to the barge’s side at top speed, hopefully catching the crew in the middle of loading up.
Billy had navigated these islands hundreds of times, and despite the delicacy of this particular voyage, he still found himself on autopilot, his mind turned (as it was quite often) to his past, and the circumstances that had brought him to this point in life.
Billy had been married once. That hadn’t been a great idea for either party, but there didn’t seem to be any choice. Steph Johnson was 19, unemployed, and pregnant. Billy was 20, a fisherman, and Irish. Both were Catholic. There was no question about keeping the baby, and very little choice in the marriage. Somehow, it almost seemed like a point of pride. Growing up in a fishing town, you want to prove your manhood. Bar fights sometimes work, if you win. High school athletic accomplishments do the trick, provided it’s not soccer. But one of the truest measures of a fisherman is having a fisherman’s wife to call your own. Steph wasn’t salty; hell, she barely drank. But she was his woman, and he his boys could swim, and dammit, even if he hadn’t envisioned his life playing out like this, he was going to embrace it.
The island slipped past the port of the Knife. The water kicked gently against the hull. Twelve minutes to midnight, Billy thought.
At least, that was what he had thought then. It was so easy to see, now, after 33 years, how foolish he had been. Of course he wasn’t going to be able to support a family. His mother was dead and his father was on his way down with a bottle in his hand. Steph’s father was dead and her mom was long gone; last she heard of her was a postcard from San Diego telling her that it was always warm and the fishermen shaved… and not just their faces.
The wind ruffled Billy’s dark hair. In the distance, above Calf Island to the west, he could see Boston’s yellow glow. Above the city, inaudible for the distance, the Old South Church bell chimed twelve times.
So they had lived together for a year or so, then the divorce papers went through and Billy lost half of his nearly nonexistent worldly possessions. He packed up and moved to the Cape for a few years, living in the back of a boatyard and doing whatever jobs the owner might have for him. He never reconnected with Steph or Brian, his son, but figured that was for the best.
And so, oh for one.
The Knife slipped out of a small bay on Middle Brewster’s north coast and headed into the final stretch of its covered approach. After making a final turn south, around the western tip of the island, there would be nothing but 2,000 feet of black, glassy sea between the raiding party and the barge. Quarter past midnight came and went. Billy’s heart rate started to rise.
Billy’s second kid had started off better. In fact, as he recounted the 15 years that Jack McMannigan had lived on this Earth, he couldn’t see how he could have raised him better. Yes, Billy was gone for months at a time, but that was the life of someone who works the sea for a living. He had met his wife Mary at a town fireman’s funeral - an inauspicious meeting place perhaps, but somehow it suited their dark and strange humor. The running joke was that Jack had been conceived in the bathroom at the reception - Love at a Funeral, or something.
Mary was the best possible match a sailor could have asked for: short, tan, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-tongued. She could swear the habit off a monk (another one of dad’s sayings, Billy thought), but she ran her house like a military barracks. Homework had to be done, dishes put away, bed made, the whole nine yards. God knows it wasn’t easy raising a kid half by herself, but someone needed to bring in some money. And Jack was a hockey player, so the treacherous North Atlantic winters were spent jammed three-across in the cab of the family pickup, hockey bag slung into the bed, driving across southern New Hampshire and northern Mass for tournaments and practices at all hours of the day and night.
Billy guessed that hockey was where Jack had picked up drugs. Understandable. The timetable gets shorter every year - Billy was even hearing stories of kids “having sex” in elementary school, whatever the hell that meant. But two years ago, when Billy’s life had slammed headlong into a concrete barrier with a simple phone call, it hadn’t been understandable at all.
Middle Brewster tumbled from a thick ridge to a narrow hump on Billy’s left. The lights of Quincy and points south came into view. The Knife drew around the inner edge of the island, skipping out beyond the rocks and snarls in the shallows as Billy revved the engine. The sprint was approaching. It was 12:20 AM. Billy’s nerve endings began to sizzle.
Jack had been at a party in Wayland, Mass. Steve Prutz, one of the kids on his traveling hockey team lived there, and the drive from Salem to Wayland wasn’t one that Billy wanted to make twice in one night. Jack slept over, along with a couple other players. Apparently, Steve’s older brother came home from college that weekend. With heroin. Some of the hockey kids, eager in that uniquely teen male way both to show off and fit in simultaneously, tried it. Billy’s son Jack, ever the one-upper, took too much.
“Hold onto your hats, boys!” Billy called as he dropped the engine into gear and the Morning Knife fizzed forward, throwing arcs of white foam into the night sky. Their orders were to shoot on sight. Billy had never killed anyone. Then again, he had never busted what he’d been told was the largest heroin shipment in Boston’s history. Billy checked his watch as his knees automatically absorbed the shock of the pounding surf: 12:23.
When Jack’s lab results came back, they said that it was some of the purest heroin they’d ever seen in the area. They were amazed that none of the other kids had died.
Billy just didn’t see what he could have done. Sports were supposed to teach life lessons like teamwork, sportsmanship, and the value of hard work. No one said anything about peer pressure, lack of supervision, or drugs. His hands clenched the wheel as he drove straight towards the barge. Its black outline slowly grew larger in front of them. So far, there was no outcry from the deck.
Just off the NW coast of Great Brewster Island
“Fuckin’ hurry it up!”
Captain Ambrogio, furious that a group made up of pure muscle and shipwise braun couldn’t load simple suitcases into a barge faster than this, hung over the port railing and fumed at the lifeboat’s occupants. A pulley system had been rigged up, and Ambrogio silently cursed the use of his large, blunt craft for such a specialized procedure. Stowing a few bags of heroin on an oceangoing barge was akin to hiding three dollars inside a false-bottomed cooler before going in the water at the beach - safe, but unnecessarily complicated.
The bags came up one after the other. Slowly, ever so slowly. God, how hard is it to haul in a bag of blow, thought Ambrogio as Timmy Doyle wound the line around a winch amidships. At this rate, it would take nearly half an hour to get all sixteen cases onboard.
Although he had never transported heroin before, it was a fairly common practice for barge captains to move some sort of illegal material. Guns were a popular shipment, as he regularly made the route from the woefully underregulated Canadian provinces down into such gang strongholds as Providence and New Haven. Marijuana was rampant everywhere, and Carlo had carried his share. Cocaine as well, and recently, more and more prescription painkillers. But Carlo had never heard of a shipment this large. It seemed like there was no end to the heroin.
Though Carlo was agitated, he couldn’t figure out a better way to load the suitcases. Doyle wound the winch, bringing the product up and over the gunwale on the port side of the barge. Derek Bruxton (Ambrogio’s son-in-law, and a young but useful sailor) untied the cases from the line and passed them to Terrance Gordon. Terrance then took the cases and, after making sure they were firmly closed, stowed them neatly inside the back of a white van. This van was one of hundreds of others stored in the large containers on the barge’s deck - Ambrogio was transporting the seized assets of a moving company in Canada whose CEO had just been indicted for fraud.The remaining crew member, a transient named Brian that Carlo had taken in less than a week ago, was on guard duty on the starboard side.
Carlo clicked the button on the side of his watch to light up the display.
The cases were nearly all up. Carlo thought he heard a faint humming.
Just off the NW coast of Great Brewster Island
The Knife cut through the water like its namesake. The hull of the massive barge loomed ahead of Billy and his crew, darker than anything Billy had ever seen. The plan was a simple one - pull alongside the hull, use old-fashioned grapple hooks to pull themselves up, subdue and tie up the crew, and call the Coast Guard.
Although Nancy had told him this was a lazy bunch, Billy didn’t think they’d be without a guard, so he didn’t approach the barge in a straight line, taking banked turns every two hundred feet or so to keep the Knife headed in the right direction.
Suddenly, from the middle of the barge’s deck, a muzzle flash exploded. Billy couldn’t hear the report of the gunshot, but he knew Lancaster, Miller, and Murphy had seen it too, as they ducked behind cover.
Ducky’s voice came high over the steering column: “Now we’re into it, boys!” he cackled as he reached for his AR-15. Billy swung the boat wide again, his veins blazing with adrenaline as he raced for the stern of the barge. The Knife was 500 feet away. Another shot rang out. Billy saw the muzzle flash, heard a crack, and felt lucky as a chunk of his transom went spinning off into the ocean.
“Hit ‘em, Duck!” he called to the prow. Ducky Lancaster got to one knee and squeezed off a barrage in the direction of the muzzle flashes. Billy brought the Knife alongside the barge, and Miller and Murphy immediately launched their hooks up the side of the hull. Miller’s caught, and he began climbing. Murphy’s caught on the second try, and he started up.
A shot rang out from down the hull, towards the prow. The guardsman was using the boat as cover, leaning out over the ocean to shoot and then pulling back. Ducky threw another hail of bullets up towards the front of the barge, where he’d seen the flash.
Billy’s heart pounded. He knew they’d have heard the firing by now, and just hoped that Miller and Murphy had reached the top before the barge’s occupants had time to find weapons.
Carlo Ambrogio’s first thought when he heard the gunshot was how he actually wasn’t surprised. Fifteen of the 16 suitcases were already on board, and the 16th was on its way up, when Brian’s gunshot rocked the deck of the barge.
“Timmy! Terrance! Derek! Get your guns! Starboard with Brian!” Ambrogio yelled all this as he sprinted down the port side of the barge, old leg muscles protesting as he cursed himself for leaving his gun in his quarters on the tug.
He heard more shots, and felt his heart drop to his intestines. Automatic weapons. They weren’t fucking around. He knew his crew only had pistols, plus the flare gun on the bridge, not that that would be much help.
He caught a glimpse of two of his men running to the Brian’s aid, and turned his head to shout some final instructions, when his foot came down awkwardly on something in the dark. His right foot twisted horribly underneath his leg, and Carlo pitched to the right, cracking his head against the railing of the barge. The last thing he felt before unconsciousness took him was a searing pain in his right ankle.
Miller and Murphy were over the side and onto the deck. It was nearly pitch black, and Miller could just make out the superstructure of the barge to his left. He motioned Murphy behind it and threw three road flares down the deck towards the prow. The middle of the barge lit up red, and Murphy made out the silhouette of the guardsman hunkered against the gunwale 100 feet away. He put three bursts of gunfire towards the man, then ducked behind the mass of metal and fished out his flashlight.
Ducky Lancaster scrambled up the hull of the barge after his comrades, after giving Billy a look somewhere between crazed excitement and pure fear. His AR-15 was slung over his back like a banjo.
The bank of light switches was right where the blueprints to the barge said it would be - chest-height on the back of the superstructure. Miller wrenched up the biggest-looking lever, and the deck was flooded with crisp, white light. Two of Carlo’s crewmembers - Terrance Gordon and Derek Bruxton, were crouched behind the same container, a large, blue rectangle of corrugated iron that sat 15 feet forward of the superstructure.
Gordon saw with alarm that a grappling hook was locked around the railing of the barge directly in front of him. He started for it, but then a hand gripped the railing next to the hook. Gordon’s heart leapt to his throat and he shot reflexively.
Ducky screamed in agony as the bullet punctured the top of his hand, clanged off the railing, and ricocheted out into the night, nearly tearing his hand from his wrist. With no support, Ducky’s body flopped backwards into the darkness and fell, twisting, 20 feet into the surf.
Miller heard the scream and rolled out into the walkway between the gunwale and the middle part of the barge, spraying gunfire down the lines of containers. He saw a few of his bullets nip clothing behind the blue container, and motioned for Murphy to cover him as he ran up the side of the barge. Derek Bruxton dropped into a crouch and spun out into the open, hoping to catch Miller off guard. Miller killed him with the first burst, and put two more into him to make sure. As he sprinted up to the edge of the container, he saw a pistol skitter out into his path and Terrance Gordon’s pleading voice, several registers higher than normal, begging him not to shoot.
Using the barrel of the gun to emphasize his orders, Miller had Gordon sit against the gunwale. He secured his wrists to the railing of the barge with zipties. He then checked the pulse of the guardsman who remained slumped next to the gunwale - light, but still discernible. It looked like he had taken three bullets - one to the right thigh, one to the right shoulder, and one that grazed his left temple. Miller told Murphy to check the rest of the barge while he secured the guardsman’s hands to the railing and packed the bullet holes with gauze from a back pocket. No sense in having more deaths than necessary. If they could help it.
The red and white lights and wailing sirens didn’t take long to reach the barge. Billy smiled faintly as he wondered whether the cutter from the head station in Boston and that of the satellite station in Hull were racing to get there first - they would both claim they only wanted to help, but in truth, the chance to be the first Coast Guard unit on the scene of such a drug bust was bound to come with some perks.
Ducky lay on his back, a blanket over his dripping body and his head in Billy’s lap as Billy sat against the transom of the White Knife. He would live, Billy had made sure of that. His hand was completely enveloped in gauze and tape, elevated above his body by an overturned bucket. Billy had pulled Duck from the ocean not thirty seconds after he had come crashing down off the railing. Billy’s hands had been shaking more than Ducky’s entire body, despite the younger man’s blood loss and possible hypothermia - he had known that this raid wasn’t entirely foolproof, but the sight of Ducky’s shattered hand made things a little too real.
Miller and Murphy stood by the gunwale of the barge, next to their captives - Brian, bleeding but alive; Terrance Gordon, shaken but unhurt; captain Carlo Ambrogio, nursing a severely sprained ankle and a tremendous lump on his head; and Timmy Doyle, who had surrendered without a fight to Seamus Murphy when he had found him hiding between two containers amidships.
As the Coast Guard lights rippled over the dark water, Billy let himself think, for the first time in years, about what it would be like to be out of debt. No creditors calling him, no veiled threats coming his way from across a lunch table, no looking over his shoulder every time he walked down a Boston street after midnight. He knew that this wasn’t a clean job - whoever was on the other end of this deal was going to be in some serious shit. But that was their problem. Right now, Billy wanted two things: for Ducky’s hand to be fixed, and a cold Miller Lite.
Billy sat comfortably in his fraying leather recliner. College football was on the TV, Wisconsin vs. Michigan State, not that Billy was terribly interested. His black Lab, an old fellow named Chuck who had been with him for more than 10 years now, lay next to the chair in a patch of autumn sunlight. The phone was mercifully silent, and the front door was unlocked for the first time in years.
Billy took a moment, one of many he’d taken over the past few weeks, to count his blessings. All in all, he’d been outrageously lucky. The plan had gone off almost without a hitch.
First, the Coast Guard had radioed their station in Hull the night of the raid, and a squadron of policemen had been waiting outside Pat’s bar when Steeps and his hired men had exited the front door.
Then, they had piloted the barge into its bay in Boston Harbor and taken the wounded men to the hospital (and the dead one to the coroner). The only one still in critical condition was the guardsman from the barge - Billy had heard from a friend that the bullet had done a little bit more than simply graze his scalp.
Billy and his crew had been given a Coast Guard escort into the harbor. After an extensive round of questioning at Boston Police Headquarters, they had been let go with no charges. The police had understandably been embarrassed in being upstaged by some civilian fishermen, and they wanted this all to blow over quickly. In fact, the Police Department actually went beyond what Billy would consider normal praise and gave him the money and proper forms to get the White Knife legally registered, as well as a hefty reward for him and his crew.
Not that he needed the money, of course.
Because Billy hadn’t been idle as the Coast Guard cutters had made their way out towards the barge that night. After bandaging Ducky’s hand, he had grappled himself up and onto the barge, found the van where the suitcases were located, and took two for himself. He stowed them in a secret compartment near the stern of the Knife, figuring that none of the perps would mind a conviction for 175 pounds of heroin, as opposed to 200.
The street value of the contents of each suitcase was $1,132,500. Which meant that Billy, five million in debt as of two months ago, had pooled the sale of his father’s land and the drugs to pull himself free. Of course, that meant selling twenty five pounds of ultra-pure heroin, the same stuff that killed his second son, to various Boston-area drug cartels.
It was no wonder that he had started drinking heavily again.
“Pull me another pint, you beautiful creature,” crooned Billy in a terrible Frank Sinatra impression. “And pour one for yourself as well.”
He sat, drunk, at the far end of the bar at Pat’s, near the taps and the dartboard, which also gave him the best view of the grey, rain-battered ocean outside the window.
“If you insist, Mister Big-Shot.” Billy wasn’t even looking at Nancy and he could tell she was smiling. That was good, Billy thought. If she knew that his drinking was more complicated than celebratory, she could go into armchair psychologist mode at a moment’s notice.
The lone TV above the bar was tuned to NECN - the New England Cable News channel. Nancy claimed it was the only news station without an agenda, though she couldn’t precisely articulate the agenda that the ABC, NBC, or CBS affiliates were pushing.
Billy’s heroin bust still led the news every once in a while, when it had been a slow day or, in this case, if there was a development.
“BREAKING NEWS” read the banner at the bottom of the screen as Melissa O’Toole and Peter Graham looked earnestly into the camera, all frozen hair and Botox.
“A new update in the Boston Harbor heroin case, as one of the alleged perpetrators has died in the hospital. We go live to Jessica Stark at Mass General. Jessica?”
The screen shifted to a shot of Jessica Stark (a true babe, thought Billy) outside Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. A few snowflakes swirled around the concrete-and-glass facade of the building behind her.
“Thanks Melissa. We have just received word that as of about two hours ago, one of the five men allegedly involved in the infamous Boston Harbor heroin bust has died of wounds sustained during the encounter.”
Billy leaned closer to the bar. This might not matter, or it might matter quite a bit, depending on how the stories of all involved shook out. But then, as Jessica babbled on about finding the mother of the deceased, Billy’s world crashed into a cement wall again.
The weeping, hunched woman who was leaning into Jessica Stark as if she could physically transfer some of her pain to the reporter was someone that Billy had known very well, a long time ago.
It was Steph Johnson.
Billy gave an involuntary yurp noise and felt his liquid dinner beginning to come back up. He dashed past the dartboard and out the back door, and launched three pints of Smithwick’s into the sea. Then he wiped his mouth and went back inside.
The years had not been kind to Stephanie Johnson. Her slight frame was bent almost double with grief and time, and she could barely get her mouth to the height of the microphone. Billy only caught snatches of her words between his tears. Nancy was nowhere to be found - sadness wasn’t her strong suit.
Stephanie finished her interview and walked unsteadily away, staying in the camera shot as she moved up the wide driveway of Mass General towards the main entrance.
“Absolutely heartbreaking for a mother to lose her son, no matter the circumstances,” finished Jessica. “Back to you in the studio.”Billy sat with his head in his hands, his elbows propped on the polished driftwood bar, arms and torso shaking with controlled sobs. He was oh-for-two again, but this time it was final.