The massive skeletal structure of the Brightman Institute of Mental Health towered above the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean like an ancient sentinel; its rough walls and dark window panes bleached white by the sun and washed clean by decades of exploding green waves.
The Institute, as much a modern art deco masterpiece as it was an ancient citadel, was built in the summer of 1934 off of the California coast on a small, squat island known locally as the Bodega Knuckle. A Public Works Administration project, it was built with the same New Deal dollars as the Overseas Highway linking the Florida Keys and New York City’s mighty Triborough Bridge.
The jutting concrete fortress had grown steadily skyward that year, heavy with the sounds of rumbling concrete mixers, shouting foremen riding steam powered cranes and screaming seagulls. It was a sight to behold and the coastal residents had spent many a Saturday splayed on blankets along the shores of Bodega Head watching the hulking, yet oddly delicate building take shape and reach skyward like a great grey creature emerging from the depths of the ocean – its hundreds of rectangular glass eyes reflecting the sun like glittering diamonds across the water.
Those small, oddly-shaped windows had looked in on some of the most notoriously insane individuals in America between the years of 1935 and 1942. Gerald MacNear, Buster Wally, Floyd Pusich and even Dame Merry Hanson, the Cleveland socialite who admitted – even bragged – about eating all four of her children.
In early 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly 2,000 miles to the Southwest, the modern castle on Bodega Knuckle had been hastily emptied and converted into a Coast Guard station tasked with protecting the coastline from just north of San Francisco to where the Point Arena Air Force Station now stands. Much as they tried, the Coast Guard could never quite convert the long, echoing hallways and tiny, dimly-lit cells into anything even resembling comfortable lodgings. Finally, by September of 1945, mere weeks after the signing of the Japanese Surrender in Tokyo Bay on the other side of the world, the Coast Guard just quit trying and escaped from the Institute, cowering on a flotilla of boats which bobbed and swirled away from the bone-white spires like leaves escaping the expanding ripples on a pond.
A few patients were moved back out to Brightman in 1947, but following an escape attempt and subsequent massacre of the staff in June of that year, the Institute was officially closed and the structure was left to rot, empty and hollow, above the crashing waves of the Pacific. Except for a brief Native American protest occupation in 1971, the Institute was completely devoid of life for the next 50 years.
In December of 1997, during the week of Christmas break, a whisper started making its way through the small town of Bodega Bay, soon creeping as far north as Irish Hill and inland to Valley Ford.
“I heard a light’s been spotted out at The Brightman,” was a rumor passed around excitedly and with such vigor that the speaker would soon be taken into somebody’s confidence and told it again within days of uttering it.
“Have you heard?” Those conspiratorial words would be whispered through the produce aisle at the Safeway store in Guerneville, or around the solitary picnic table next to the Tasty Freeze in Sebastopol. “Buckham’s son Ryan says he saw a boat coming back from The Brightman on Tuesday evening.”
“Oh yeah? Well, my cousin’s neighbor, Ed, whose son flies for REACH, the medical helicopter out at the Sonoma County airport, says they were doing a training flight up off Bodega and saw someone shuffling around in the exercise yard at The Brightman.”
“Did you know that some of the football players at Piner High took a Zodiac raft and tried to reach The Brightman this summer…like we did when we were kids, remember? Only they said they got turned away by some guys in uniforms. I think it’s a government thing going on out there now.”
“Oh hell,” Some of the older locals would cough and spit. “Ain’t nobody been at the Institute for some fifty years. They aren’t gonna just start slipping people out there now. The place is such a mess it’s not worth fixin’ up…not even for the crazies. They’re all up at Napa State now anyway. Way I hear it, that big eyesore’s gettin’ sucked into the Pacific somethin’ like six inches a year.”
“I heard back when I was a kid they had a guy out there they had to keep handcuffed twenty-four hours a day because every single time he got his hands free he’d try to pull his own eyeballs out. Jerry Combs from Jenner told me about it because his dad had to go out there and do some work on the plumbing.”
Although the news media was curiously silent on the matter, it soon became common knowledge that on dark nights when the fog stayed far off shore, a single yellow light definitely appeared in one of the upper windows of the Institute. And, just as sure, on Tuesdays and Fridays a single grey boat would cruise out silently between the buoys floating in Bodega Harbor and disappear around the far side of the Knuckle and return with different people than it set out with.
“It’s work shifts, I tell you,” Those same older locals would now talk low at the seafood and pizza place up on Highway 1. “Picking up and dropping off teams out at The Brightman. They opened that sonofabitch up again. You mark my words.”
What they all suspected, but couldn’t seem to verify, was true. The Brightman Institute had been partially renovated and was operating on a limited basis. The facility had actually been occupied since 1975, but it wasn’t until the new arrival in 1997 that electricity, supplies and staffing were required at the sea-bound stronghold once again.
For on December 12, 1997, under the cover of night and an impossibly dense fog, a young woman was moved to the Brightman Institute of Mental Health across the waters from Bodega Head. A young woman who needed the towering white walls, the small misshapen windows, and the expanse of undulating ocean to separate her from the rest of the world.
A young woman who needed solitude from humanity almost as much as humanity needed her.
* * *
“Hey Port?” Queenie’s tinny and muffled voice burst from the telephone.
Detective Portnoy King pressed the worn orange button with a finger that ended in a chewed and bleeding fingernail. “Yeah?”
“There’s a couple of guys in suits here to see you.”
“Send ‘em in.” He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He had known that this moment was coming. He just didn’t know how he knew it. Or what the moment even was. Just that something had been rumbling in the distance…gathering like thunderheads…building like an army in the darkness on the edge of his life. Something that would change everything.
“Detective King,” Two men entered his office and closed the door behind them. “I’m Special Agent Fitch and this is Agent Brackin. F.B.I.”
Port stood and shook hands with both men, immediately disliking the one called Brackin because of his dead handshake.
“I’d offer you a seat but Vice took my chairs for a training thing next door.” He then sat comfortably behind his desk and hid his hands in the pockets of his green windbreaker. “What do you need?”
Agent Fitch produced a small photograph with the flourish of a magician and tapped it onto the desk in front of Port. The detective’s bowels turned to water and he had to fight the urge to run for the restroom. One hand climbed out of his pocket, raced up to his mouth and he was chewing on a thumbnail before he even realized it. He forced his hand back into the pocket, never taking his eyes off of the small photo of the teenaged girl.
Her dark hair, cut in a short, bobbed style was draped perfectly around her heart-shaped face and her large, curious eyes looked up and to left of the camera, as if something intensely interesting was happening over the photographer’s right shoulder. Her lips were parted and held slightly crooked as if she was about to burst with spontaneous laughter an instant after the image was captured.
“Jenny,” He didn’t so much say the name as he just breathed it. A barely audible whisper – a total surrender to a word that held more meaning than the two men in his office could have ever understood. The thunderheads broke and the army began marching out from the darkness, trampling everything in his brain that wasn’t about Jenny Chamberlain. He realized at once the sense of impending doom that had been following him these past few weeks couldn’t have ever been about anything other than this. Other than her. The delicate mental framework that he had so meticulously built over the last decade, piece by piece, simply crumbled into a flat heap. No rumbling and dust and wavering back and forth for dramatic effect. Just, one second it was up and built and the next it was a gone, the pieces spanning acres inside of his brain. Tears immediately glistened in his narrow blue eyes. “Why are you doing this to me?”
The two agents glanced at each other and Fitch reached for the photograph.
“No please. Leave it. Just talk.”
Fitch shrugged, unbuttoned his suit jacket and placed his hands on his narrow hips. He wore a gold wedding band on his left pinky. Port noticed it and immediately filed it away – like any good detective.
“Look,” Fitch spoke softly. “I understand how this might be….”
Port looked from the small photo to Fitch’s face, incredulous. “Might be what?”
“…hard. For you.”
“You have no fucking idea,” Port was chewing on a fingernail again and didn’t care.
Fitch sighed, his chest moving higher, causing his tie to lift above his belt before slowly lowering back down. “Well, I’m sorry but we’ve got a few questions for you about the…incident. Now I know it’s been awhile, but….”
The air was suddenly gone from the office and Port gasped, mouth opening and closing like a fish lying on the carpet far below a gently humming fish tank.
Like it was some cold piece of metal found in a field somewhere. Like black, typewritten words on an old scrap of paper. Or a spent shell from a fired bullet, safely sealed in a small evidence bag locked up into a cabinet.
The word had meant something for a brief moment…but its meaning had simply drained away, like a plug had been pulled. The office was spinning, rustling the papers on the bulletin board with its momentum, and Port sat with his head in his hands, elbows on the desk, staring at the photograph. A single vein cruised across his forehead, from brow to hairline, and grew full.
“You motherfuckers!” He suddenly stood and screamed at both men, his face red and growing larger as it loomed across the desk. The window on his office door vibrated. “Do you…what have…why? I’ve...FUCK!”
He grabbed the edge of his desk and flipped it over with a resounding BOOM, scattering files and pens and paperclips and pieces of the worn telephone all over the office.
“GET OUT!” He advanced on the two men who crashed into each other while trying to escape from the office. A field of slack faces stared from the adjoining areas and watched as the F.B.I. agents scampered to the elevator, touching each others’ back as they went, as if each man imagined himself helping the other along.
Port was so tight with anger that he no longer even felt human, but like a machine with an overwound spring at its core, threatening to simply snap and blast him limb from limb. He curled his hand into a tight fist, took a hop-step to the left and crashed his knuckles into the dark, wooden doorjamb.
The pain was bright and exquisite and as he slumped, panting, into his chair he knew that he had broken his hand. He closed his eyes and let the pain radiate up his arm and into his brain. The pain was huge and overwhelming and it cut the anger down in large swaths and left him shaking in the chair with tears streaming down his cheeks. He reached down and picked up the photograph that had fluttered down to the linoleum when the desk hit the floor. He cried openly, cradling one hand with the other, and rocked back and forth, looking at the young girl’s expectant face.
Queenie entered his office and after silently admonishing the others who were staring across the squad room – causing them to guiltily return to their work – she closed the door and stepped over the mess to stand next to him. He immediately threw his arms around her large waist and sobbed on her hip, darkening the fabric of her slacks with his tears and snot. It was the first time that he had ever touched her and she liked it.
“It’s okay, Portnoy,” She spoke softly, shushing him and rubbing his shoulder. “It’s gonna be okay.”
(WRITE SOME BACKGROUND ABOUT QUEENIE HERE…)
* * *
“Can I get you anything?” Port tossed his windbreaker onto the dark couch and was momentarily surprised by the weight of the cast that extended from the second knuckle of his fingers to within an inch of his elbow. He had chosen the black casting material so no one would even ask if they could write something stupid on it.
“No thank you. How about a beer?” Queenie looked around Port’s small apartment. It was as simple and messy as she’d assumed it would be. Stacks of files near the couch, clothes strewn on the carpet and an empty pizza box stacked with beer cans on the kitchen table. She noticed that there was only one chair at the kitchen table and felt a crushing sadness about that. The whole place smelled faintly like burned popcorn. He noticed her sniffing the air and one corner of his mouth tugged up into a sort of half-smile.
“I’m…uh…sorry about that. I forgot I had popcorn in the microwave the other day and caught the fuckin’ thing on fire. It came out burning like a little meteor or something. And it just kept glowing and smoking, even when I had it under the tap in the sink. It’s like they make those stupid things out of magnesium or something. Unreal.”
“I like that smile,” She said. “For just a second there you looked like Harrison Ford.”
He laughed out loud and she smiled, liking to be in the place where he lived. To be so close to him.
He popped the top on a Budweiser can and handed it to her and then filled a glass with water for himself.
“How’s your hand?” She said after slurping the foam that was slowly oozing from the top of the can.
He held up the black cast and turned it this way and that. “It’s okay. The doctor gave me some Valiums but Valium doesn’t do crap for me. I prefer Motrin eight-hundreds. It’s funny. I had a sergeant years ago who went to prison for forging Valium prescriptions. Pulled a knife on a drug store security guy who questioned him.” He shook his head and drank some water. “He’s willing to do that…and yet I can take eight of ‘em and not notice a thing.”
“I’ve never taken Valium,” Queenie took a long drink and started reading the side of the beer can. She felt a warmth rising in her stomach and knew that, at that moment, if Port had asked her to stay all night she would. Of course, he never would. Since that one fall morning five or six years ago when he had come in to the squad room so silently – looking like he hadn’t slept in weeks – and mentioned that Bella had left him, Queenie hadn’t known him to look twice at a woman. “Can I ask you a question, Port?”
He slumped onto the couch and started sliding files off of the pile and flipping them open. “You want to know what happened? In my office today?”
“Heavens no!” She waved her hand in front of her as if to knock his words out of the air. “That’s your business Port. I was just wondering if you…I mean, do you ever get lonely or anything?”
He stopped flipping through the files for just a fraction of a second and then continued. She could tell that she caught him off guard and that he had hoped she hadn’t noticed the briefest hesitation of his hand as he reached for a photo that fell from a folder. He slid the files onto the pile and leaned back on the couch, straightening his legs and crossing his ankles.
“Back in ’95 I was a working for the P.D. up in Poland Park, in their organized crime unit,” He stared straight ahead, tapping the base of the water glass on his cast. “We got a request to do this witness protection thing for a girl and her boyfriend who had fingered a guy. Both of ‘em picked the dude right out of a photo lineup the second they saw him. The Bureau had this guy dead to rights, you know? It was a Federal thing…a bank. But it turns out that he’s somebody. Well, more to the point, he was the son of somebody.
“His dad was Beryl Stain.”
“The Beryl Stain who built that god awful hotel in Atlantic City? The one that looks like a big, nice building that fell over on its side and sprouted neon palm trees?”
Port nodded. “Yep…the Webb Grand Plaza. The one and only…that’s not all, though. Stain was also running most of the guns and half of the women on the east coast. Had politicians in his pocket like fuckin’ loose change. I mean real politicians. The talking heads you see on C-Span all the time…speaking out against guys like Beryl Stain.”
“I always thought that was a girl’s name. Beryl.”
“Same as everyone,” Port smiled and looked over her. “Oh shit, Queenie! Have a seat. You don’t have to just stand there! I’m sorry.”
She had honestly not even noticed that she was still standing with her purse dangling from one thick wrist. She looked around the small apartment. Her choice was either the couch, next to Port, or the solitary chair by the kitchen table. She chose the kitchen table and set her purse on the floor next to her.
“So these two kids are suddenly splashed on the front page of the paper and the Bureau had an absolute shit fit. I mean, come on! You’re a witness against somebody with connections in the mob like that and they put your name in the paper right below a full color picture of your frickin’ face? Anyways, I get the call that they want to put the kids in protective custody up in Poland Park somewhere. So I set everything up over at that real retro lookin’ little pink motel on Asbury. You know the one? I think it’s called Palm Harbor or somethin’ now. It was the Flamingo Motor Lodge back then.”
“Yeah, okay…that’s that motel where that…” Her words trailed off and her face went slack. “Oh shit, Port. That was your deal? That was all over the papers forever it seemed like. Them poor kids…and right under the cops’ noses.”
“Right under my nose,” He drank the rest of his water, fished Jenny’s picture from the pocket of his discarded windbreaker and was silent for a long time.
“When I found her she had a bullet hole right here,” he pointed above the girl’s left eyebrow, not noticing or caring that Queenie couldn’t have seen the photo. “Her boyfriend was in the next room with a hole right through the bridge of his nose. Fuckin’ professional job for sure. Blew that poor kid’s brain stem all to shit. The M.E. said he was dead probably before the shell casing even got ejected from the shooter’s forty caliber. The control. The precision. A real money job.”
Queenie was up and across the small space before she had even formulated the thought to try and comfort her boss. She rubbed his shoulders and looked sadly down at the photograph held lightly in his fingers.
“I’m so sorry Port.”
“She was still alive when I found her. She died in the E.R.,” He raised the glass to take a drink, remembered that it was empty and lowered it again. The beautiful young girl looked up from the photograph, her laughter always just on the verge of ringing out…but never quite happening.
He still loved her.
He had loved her back then. It was instantaneous, unexpected and unbelievable. The moment that she had been lead into his team’s office in Poland Park he had looked up, caught her eyes full-on and felt like his mind and body had turned to stone. For a long moment he couldn’t look away and she simply didn’t. There was something about her that made young men want her and older men want to save her.
“Nothin’ is gonna happen to you, Miss Chamberlain.” He had meant it with every muscle, nerve ending, bone and swirl of consciousness in his body. He had meant it beyond anything that he was…or ever would be. The Earth could spin off course and crash into the sun for all he cared but she would survive because he was there to protect her. That was his purpose. That’s why he was born. He didn’t apply to the police academy all of those years before to bring justice to the invisible and downtrodden and to save society from its own rotting underbelly…he had done it so that someday he could be sitting in the chair that he sat in now.
Of course, he knew none of that until the moment their eyes met.
Then, like a ponderous, clanking machine under the floor of his office, his entire life lined up and locked into place so that he could see back from where he sat in the Poland Park police department to his earliest childhood memory – and he became intimately aware of the synchronicity. He could see that every step the machine had raised up under his foot as he blindly plodded through life had been leading him to this one moment. And that the machine’s final, climactic act was to open up his office door and set this girl onto the worn tile right in front of him. This girl, clad in worn Lucky jeans with an upside down smiley face drawn on one tight knee and an impossibly pink hooded sweatshirt holding her together and framing her flawless face, allowing only a few wisps of dark hair to hang onto her forehead.
He fought the urge to encircle her with his strong arms and tell her that everything would be alright. He absolutely knew – with the same certainty that he knew there was a five dollar bill in his wallet and ten bullets in the Beretta hanging under his left arm and the Red Sox would never win the World Series – that her hair smelled like strawberry shampoo.
She was an evolutionary marvel. A completely perfected, flawlessly feminine seventeen year-old girl who didn’t seem to know the affect that she had on those around her. Hell, he could tell by her easy smile that she didn’t even know enough to be scared about the situation she was in.
“Do you remember back when you didn’t know what you didn’t know?” Port forced a smile up at Queenie, who was still running her thick, gaudily manicured fingers on his shoulders.
“I’m still there, baby,” She laughed. It was bright and honest laughter, as if he had caught her off guard.
“I wish I was,” He lowered his eyes back to the picture.
Port had been standing on the mezzanine between the two rooms, smoking a cigarette and watching the horizon grow brighter behind the skyscrapers to the east when he heard something like a thump in the boyfriend’s room. He immediately thought of the door connecting the two rooms. He had made sure it was secure, but what if that little bastard had figured out a way to open it and get into her room? Port just couldn’t stomach the thought of that shithead touching her. He was nothing but a skinny little punk in baggy jeans with a stupid tuft of hair growing just below his bottom lip, always strutting around like an epileptic rooster wearing headphones and shouting out every third or fourth word of the rap song that he was listening to. Just an absolute waste of DNA.
He had only been in the kid’s room for about two seconds before he saw what the noise had been. The boy was dead. A gaping red hole splitting his nose into equal halves and a Jackson Pollock painting was on the wall behind his head.
“Oh please no…please no…please no…please no…” He hissed as he crashed out of the room onto the mezzanine and sprinted to the next door, fumbling with a brass key attached to an orange plastic tag with the number 211 burned onto it. “Oh jesus jesus jesus jesus.”
She was sprawled on the bed and for just the briefest of moments his heart settled because he saw her leg move.
Holy fuck…she’s okay! She’s okay!
He allowed himself to exhale.
But of course she wasn’t okay.
He saw the blood on her pillow first, completely staining the white fabric to a dark, almost purplish, red. He crossed the room in two leaping steps and everything registered all at once, which he mentally catalogued for later documentation and subsequent obliteration – like any good detective.
And I will remember you no more.
The faint but pungent scent of gunpowder; the sheets pouring down the side of the bed and pooling in a white mass on the floor; the blood bubbling weakly from the hole gouged into the smooth skin of her forehead; her half-open, unfocused eyes; the grey and red clumps of brain pushing from the back of her broken skull; the rhythmic jerking of her left leg, which had initially given him hope; the soft blue pajama bottoms covered with silly sayings in bold white letters: ohmygawd, liketotally, gagmewithaspoon, i’msosure; her oversized Oklahoma Sooners T-shirt; a Diet Pepsi knocked over on the nightstand, soaking into a People magazine; a wide open bathroom window; no shell casings; a weak carotid pulse.
“Get a fucking ambulance! Get a fucking ambulance NOW!” Port screamed from the open door of the girl’s the room. The other officers stationed around the motel complex began to look around, surprised, and make their way quickly towards Port with guns drawn. One of them, a short, pudgy detective named Chase Malloy stopped at his unmarked car and radioed for back up and medical assistance. Chase Malloy, who would die of a massive stroke on Christmas day in 2001 while standing in his kitchen, reading a newspaper and waiting for the coffee to brew.
“Get a fucking ambulance! Get a fucking ambulance!” Port kept screaming, his voice growing hoarse, as he put pressure on Jenny’s head. He felt her warm blood pulsing slowly into the palm of his left hand and her brains throbbing in his right. Tears stood in his eyes and a burning lump was punching the inside of his throat. This can’t be happening, he thought. This can’t be happening I was her protector this can’t be happening this can’t be happening.
“I’m gonna get you, you motherfucker!” Port shouted at the ceiling as urine poured from between Jenny’s legs, darkening her pajama bottoms and soaking into the bed.
And then her leg had stopped moving and slowly relaxed.
And here she was again – over a decade later – smiling her crooked about-to-laugh smile from the photograph held in his broken hand. His eyes were brimming with tears and his stomach ached like it was filled with boiling water. He had never gotten the guy who actually killed her – but he did do the next best thing. Somebody paid. Oh yeah, eye for an eye and all that. Fuckin’ A.
Nobody would ever know that it was him, though. He had made damn sure of that. But it did start him wondering now about the two F.B.I. guys in his office today.
At some point Queenie had begun kissing his neck and running her hands over his chest, occasionally whispering “it’s okay baby” into his ear and hair and neck.