Arriving early for his meeting, Arlen decided to park at the Municipal launching ramp and walk the three blocks back up West Main Street. The digital display on the First Savings & Trust read eighty degrees, warm for the first week of June. The marinas and boatyards were quiet; the commercial boats were off somewhere on Chesapeake Bay and half of the pleasure boats still wrapped in tailored canvas, waited the arrival of the season, still 2 weeks away. Getting out of his car, Arlen decided to leave his suit coat on, preferring to risk sweat rather than wrinkles from carrying it in the crook of his arm. The dark grey, (with a nearly invisible blue pinstripe), suit was a souvenir of an un-planned trip to London the year before. Lia Amante, his companion and instigator of the luggage-less trip, insisted that he visit Kilgours on Saville Row. Standing on the small tailors platform, Arlen watched Lia smile her approval and ordered three suits.
The smell in the air was very much a factor in Arlen’s decision to park as far from his destination as he did; he enjoyed the take-no-prisoners scent of salt air and dead shellfish as he walked past the white-on-white parking lots that ran along the water side of lower West Main Street.
The ‘Seafood Capital of the World’ for much of the 20th Century, Crisfield, Maryland now found itself every bit the spinster sister, pretending the family home still bustled with loving family members, when, in fact, the only people remaining were the gardener and the banker, the preservation of the property, their only bond. During its heyday, Crisfield flourished on the sea’s bounty; blue crab and scallops found Tangier Sound and the Chesapeake Bay very hospitable. Seemingly endless catches brought fishermen and processors, who were followed by merchants and shopkeepers and so, the town grew. Now more a tourist attraction than the heart of the town, the fishing boats caught what fish remained to be caught.
Retired fisherman sat on wrought iron and bleached-wood benches overlooking the docks. Land-bound, age and infirmity achieving what neither the elements nor the ocean could, they took obvious pleasure in informing the summer visitors that, ‘the Post Office and the lower half of West Main Street was built on scallops…’ They would invariably pause, to permit their listeners, (not always wide-eyed children), to infer that they were speaking in purely economic terms and only then would finish their sentence, “…shells”.
As Arlen walked, he scanned the rooflines of the buildings that continued up on both sides of West Main Street past the Post Office. What convinced him to move from Salisbury, Maryland was the fact that the commercial, (and municipal), heart of the town was contained in three blocks along one street. Rather than the traditional ‘tree ring’ pattern of development observed in small towns along the Eastern Seaboard, Crisfield’s main street continued until it ran out of land. Leaving the two and three-story, stone and masonry commercial structures behind, it ended at the boatyards and fish processing plants. These buildings, in turn, were square, blocky and thoroughly utilitarian structures; un-bounded by granite-curbed sidewalks, they would never be on a parade route. The warehouses and canneries were wood and corrugated enclosures surrounded by wire fences and un-paved parking lots. They served to protect the noisy, malodorous processing equipment from the elements and nothing more. The docks where the fishing boats tied up to unload their catch were crowded with plastic barrels of bait and coils of salt-encrusted rope. The wooden pilings wore metal dunce-caps, an effort to discourage the seagulls and other birds of opportunity; King Canute would have approved of the ambition, if not the results. The commercial docks became picaresque ghettos, as the fishing industry consumed itself with an efficiency that stole the future to benefit the present. Pleasure boats now far out-numbered the commercial, and history makes clear, when two interests compete, the first battlefield is always real estate.
Arlen cut across the small triangular park at the branching of West Main and ‘MD 413’. At this point, the street quieted down into what locals called, ‘Old West Main’. This un-official name betrayed the stubborn individualism inherent in those born in a small town. That the online maps and the glossy Chamber of Commerce brochures insisted the entire length of highway that ran up from the docks all the way out to Route 13 was ‘MD 413’, the beginning of downtown Crisfield would always be where West Main branched away from the waterfront.
A mere three blocks of two and three-story buildings, downtown Crisfield resisted the development that came when recreational boating began to replace the fisheries as the economic lifeblood of the town. The old buildings on Main Street, with their non-virtual display plate-glass storefronts were coming back to life. That this small downtown could retain it’s identity owed a great deal to the limited amount of useable land. Crisfield, and the shoreline areas of the entire Delmarva peninsula, was primarily marshlands and salt ponds; pretty much suitable only for residential and recreational development. As the 20th Century capitalist saying holds, ‘It takes a highway to build a mall’. When half of the open land in a community is wetlands and ocean, it’s hard to get a good highway built. Crisfield’s saving grace was that it still had parking meters.
Arlen Mayhew spent the previous year working in a Century21 franchise in Salisbury, the largest city on the Delmarva peninsula. He’d picked Salisbury as a ‘good-enough’ place. ‘Good enough’ to spend time as he waited for his life to re-order itself after an un-anticipated departure from Atlantic City with only two suitcases and a broken heart. He managed to build a following and the start of a decent referral base in his new home city. His business provided for the necessities and enough income for his trust fund to begin to recover from the damages it suffered during his time in Atlantic City. Fortunately, the spendthrift clause protected the core assets from his testosterone-fueled spending. Arlen Mayhew’s newly monastic lifestyle allowed the trust fund’s core assets to generate dividends, which, in turn would be re-invested.
The offices of Renaude & Associates were in a three story, art deco building on West Main Street. Drusilla Renaude was both landlord and first floor tenant. Through the efforts of a very gifted interior designer, a good friend from her successful days in the Baltimore real estate market, the former McCormack’s Department Store became the premier address for commercial space in downtown Crisfield. Bucking conventional wisdom that real estate offices needed to be in suburban strip malls, with their easy access and ‘plenty of free parking’, Drusilla anticipated the revival of Crisfield’s downtown, and bought the three-story building at foreclosure. Less than a year later, she opened her real estate brokerage on the remodeled first floor. As the landlady, she also had the second floor space leased to an attorney and an appraisal company. Half of the third floor was being re-done for a dance/martial arts studio. Three other buildings on the main downtown block were beginning renovation, the revival of downtown Crisfield assured.
The gold-lettered glass door swung open as Arlen was reaching for the polished brass handle and, with a motion at once powerful and graceful, a dark-haired man in a dark suit stepped out through the doorway. Arlen stepped back, held the door open in a parody of a doorman and smiled, “If I may?”
The man turned, and with a feral intensity that made Arlen think of tigers and his ex-girlfriend, looked at him and smiled in a slow sort of way that made it oddly difficult to turn away. Although shorter than Arlen by at least three inches, the dark man managed to look him in the eye. Without a word, he reached out and touched the lapel of Arlen’s suit coat and, smiling, said, “Kilgours. Very nice. You have just made my day in this backwater town a little bit more interesting.” With a nod he crossed the sidewalk to a black Aston Martin, that stood out among the angle parked cars like a surgeons scalpel in a kitchen drawer, got in and drove off.
“Is Ms. Renaude expecting you?” The very attractive young woman at the receptionist desk gave the impression that his arrival was a welcome relief to any otherwise stressful morning. She smiled her question and Arlen enjoyed the brief moment of eye contact before answering.
“Yes, I have an appointment with Miz Renaude.” Arlen heard himself pronounce the un-spelled ‘z’ in Ms. He resisted the impulse to grin, substituting a light frown, hoping it would lend him the sincere gravitas that he could never quite manage, no matter how serious the occasion.
Celeste, according to the nameplate at the front of her desk, picked up her phone and spoke in hushed tones, looking up at Arlen from time to time. Feeling self-conscious, as if, by remaining in front of the receptionist, he was intruding on a private conversation, Arlen turned and stared out the plate-glass window. On the sidewalk, pedestrian traffic was increasing, the noon hour approaching. As he watched, businessmen, phones held importantly to the side of their heads, passed the real estate office and young office workers, their cell phones in front, the better to text as they walked, managed to not run into any buildings, nor walk out into the traffic on West Main Street.
“Ms. Renaude is ready to see you now.” Arlen heard the young woman’s voice before he realized that she was standing next to her desk. Remembering to take a breath and re-center himself, he turned and followed her past six empty desks, towards the back of the office. At the back of the space, on the left side, behind a glass wall, was the private office of the broker, Drusilla Renaude; to the right of that was a conference room and, finally, at the right side, a restroom and small kitchenette.
Celeste opened the office door and stepped back. Arlen smiled at the young woman, knocked on the half-open door and leaning into the room, asked,
“May I come in?”
“I’m his wife. I don’t understand the problem answering a simple question. Is he still at work? No, I don’t want to hold one more minute for you to check with his supervisor.” Roanne stood on the porch and waved silently at her neighbor, Mr. Costa, as he began his morning walk out to check his mailbox.
Three-year-old Edwin was sitting in the middle of the spare room, surrounded by his toy cars. The roller coaster-like plastic track was tipped over on its side near the open closet door, clearly not needed. The game he was playing, were he asked by an unimaginative adult would be called, line the cars up in rows.
Roanne walked through the living room to check on her quiet son and so did not see the State Police car park in front of the house. She resumed her mostly one-sided telephone conversation and so, did not hear the thunk of the car’s door closing.
“Yes, I’m still here. Where would I go? Have you found anyone who can answer my question?”
The Maryland State Trooper knocked on Roanne and Roger Avila’s front door. The sound was not excessively loud, however, there was nothing the slightest bit tentative to it. Although she was two rooms away, watching her son play his too-silent game, she heard the first knock. The trooper waited until Roanne came to the door before speaking, “Mrs. Avila? Mrs. Roanne Avila?”
Roanne ignored the tiny voice that came from the phone, now at her side, as fear grew within her, a malignant growth that blossomed within her chest. She managed to nod her head, which served the awful purpose of allowing the process to continue, now well-past the point of no return.
“May I come in?”