Beachcombing For Bodies In Loomis' Provincetown

Cover: High Season

Popular with gay and lesbian tourists, Provincetown, the bustling summer resort on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, is known for its packed beaches and cute boutiques — not for its crime rate. But looking out at Herring Cove one early morning, alone except for the odd seagull pacing the beach, author Jon Loomis points out the place where the corpse of a cross-dresser was found.

"The first body, Reverend Ron, turns up back in those dunes there wearing a dress, and causes a bit of a stir," says Loomis. "It seemed like a good place to dump a body to me."

A poet and a college professor with an ear for comedy, Loomis is referring to one of the victims who turns up in his fictional detective novel Mating Season.

The book is the author's second mystery set in Provincetown and featuring detective Frank Coffin. In his first book, High Season, Loomis describes the grisly death of real estate developer Serena Hench. As Coffin, the son of a sea captain and Yankee born and bred, searches the victim's beautiful trophy house on the bluffs, he is well aware of the differences between Provincetown's newcomers and natives:

Author Jon Loomis i i

Author Jon Loomis says that Provincetown's collection of quirky locals and tourists makes it the perfect setting for his novels, Mating Season and High Season. Joel Riddle hide caption

itoggle caption Joel Riddle
Author Jon Loomis

Author Jon Loomis says that Provincetown's collection of quirky locals and tourists makes it the perfect setting for his novels, Mating Season and High Season.

Joel Riddle
Inside, Coffin found himself thinking like a real estate ad: The cathedral-like spaces of the living area afford panoramic water views. In fact, the banks of floor-to-ceiling windows afforded an almost 360-degree view of the outer Cape: Long Point, the harbor, North Truro and Corn Hill. ... Coffin let himself out, climbed into the Dodge — which bucked and coughed before thundering to life — and backed down the long, steep driveway. Serena's house was less than a mile from Coffin's neighborhood, but she might as well have lived in a different universe. There was no panoramic view from Coffin's house, no Motherwell prints artfully arranged. His windows all looked out at other people's houses, shingled in gray cedar, packed in tight.

Provincetown has changed significantly since its inception as a fishing town; the fishing fleet that once sailed its harbor is long gone. Over on Commercial Street, there's only one townie bar left.

The town has dealt with the clash between newcomers and residents since the Pilgrims swiped corn from the Indians. Now Loomis writes about the undercurrent of tension that runs between the mostly gay summer people and the mostly straight year-rounders; between people who want the gray-shingled old ways preserved and the developers who want to build on every bit of beachfront.

In the books and in reality, the locals are totally dependent upon the summer visitors, who eat in the very good restaurants, shop in the very cute boutiques, buy biscuits at the dog bakery and jam the main street of town.

"The thing you have to think about in this town is that the off-season population is about 3,000 — high season it goes up to about 60,000 on a busy weekend," says Loomis. "It's unsettling in a way, and you want to tell them to go home, but to leave their wallets, because we need the money."

Despite this tension, it all works peacefully in real life: Standing on one beautiful beach, which he identifies as "the family beach," Loomis points: "Further down to our left is the lesbian beach, and way beyond that the gay man's beach. It's a funny little segregation but it seems to work for everyone."

But the novels are a different story; on the page, Loomis heaps up the bodies in this peaceful, playful beach town.

"There's a murder here maybe once every seven or eight years," says Loomis. "They don't happen very often, so when you have a book like my first one that's got four or five bodies in it in the space of a few days, people are like, 'That's kind of crazy.' But it's fiction."

Loomis says Provincetown works for his novels because the town is so crazy in the summer that it's impossible to create a character who is over the top. He notes, as an example, Miss Ellie, a local man with long blond hair and a miniskirt singing show tunes with a karaoke box in front of Town Hall.

As we walk down Commercial Street, tourist Bob Walsh, who overheard our conversation about Miss Ellie, stops us: "I heard you chatting at breakfast this morning about Miss Ellie," he says. "Miss Ellie's had the operation, so she wouldn't want to hear you say it's a fellow."

Loomis says he has a couple more Provincetown thrillers featuring Frank Coffin in the works. They use real events as a starting point, including a fire at the Crown & Anchor, the nightclub that hosts the town's famous drag queen show. The nightclub, which actually burned to the ground a few years ago, has remained a powerful image in Loomis' mind.

"Everyone worried that the entire town was going to go up because these great pieces of burning debris were sort of floating through the air," says Loomis. "We all stood on the beach and watched it burn down, and the drag queens wept because all their beautiful outfits burned up."

Excerpt: 'Mating Season'

Cover: 'Mating Season'
Mating Season
By Jon Loomis
Hardcover, 304 pages
Minotaur
List price: $24.95

Detective Frank Coffin stood in the sun-streaked living room that had, until sometime the day before, belonged to Kenji Sole. It was a very nice living room indeed: spacious and airy, furnished in an eclectic mix of antiques and Eames-era modern, with several excellent abstract paintings hung on the white walls. Coffin recognized a door-sized Rothko in violet and umber, and what might have been an early de Kooning in black and white. Tall windows ran along the living room's south side overlooking Provincetown Harbor, which sparked in the bright morning sunlight. A massive stone fireplace dominated the opposite wall. The floor, made of wide oak planks, was mostly covered by an enormous Persian rug, patterned in watery blues and greens, which would have been quite beautiful if Kenji Sole's dead body had not been lying on it in the middle of a large and complicated bloodstain.

"Looks like a stabbing," said the policeman standing next to Coffin. His big belly strained against his uniform shirt. He was Coffin's cousin Tony Santos.

Coffin looked at him, then back at the eight-inch chef's knife protruding from Kenji Sole's chest. "You think?" he said.

Sergeant Lola Winters tapped Tony on the shoulder. "Maybe you'd better go outside and keep a lid on traffic," she said.

"I don't see any traffic," Tony said, looking out the north window at the steep, narrow road leading up to Mayflower Heights from Route 6A.

"Then it'll be easy," Coffin said.

"Okay." Tony sighed. "Fine. I get it. I could use a smoke anyway."

Coffin held up a finger. "Crime scene. No cigarette butts."

"Right, no worries," Tony said, trotting down the open staircase.

Coffin rubbed his temples. He felt dizzy; a high-pitched whine sang faintly in his left ear. Kenji Sole had been a beautiful young woman. Asian or part Asian, she had almond-shaped eyes, an oval face, a strong nose that hinted at some European genetics. She had long, shag-cut hair dyed honey blond. It was hard to say how old she was: early thirties, maybe. Slender and small-breasted, she'd kept her pubic hair trimmed to a neat, dark strip. She was nude except for a sheer baby-doll nightgown and an ankle bracelet made of tiny shells, which glowed pale in the sunlight against her skin. Coffin looked away, feeling queasy, then looked again. She had been stabbed at least five times and was covered in drying blood.

"Frank?" Lola said. "You want to go outside? Get some air?"

"Yeah," Coffin said. "Just for a minute. Sorry."

Coffin sat on the back steps. He felt better; the buzzing sound in his head had subsided, and his peripheral vision seemed almost normal. Lola fanned him slowly with her uniform hat.

"I'm okay now," Coffin said. "You can stop with the fanning."

"You still don't look so good, Frank."

A car passed below them on 6A, heading toward Provincetown. A pair of grackles waddled across the narrow lawn.

"I'm fine," Coffin said. "Let's check out the rest of the house. Then we'll go talk to the cleaning ladies."

The house was a big seventies modern, two stories, newly remodeled. There was a detached three-car garage with an upstairs carriage house.

The kitchen was well designed and almost pathologically neat. Sparkling crystal wine goblets hung, globes down, from an overhead rack; the six-burner Wolf range was spotless, as though it had never been used. There were gleaming black granite countertops and cherry cabinets so perfectly finished they seemed to glow from within. A sliding glass door opened onto a broad deck that faced southeast, toward Truro. The built-in stainless steel refrigerator was big enough to hang a body in. The thought gave Coffin a quick shiver. He resisted the urge to open the refrigerator door. There was an antique ship's clock on the wall. Coffin glanced at his watch: The clock was nine minutes fast.

"Check it out, Frank."

Coffin turned. Lola was squinting at Kenji Sole's collection of kitchen knives, stored in a slotted oak block.

"Shun," Lola said. "Japanese. The fancy set." She pointed to an empty slot in the block. "Our killer found his weapon here, instead of bringing his own."

"Indicating what?" Coffin said.

Lola cocked an eyebrow. "What is this, a quiz?"

"Sorry," Coffin said, smoothing his mustache. "Just thinking out loud."

"You could plan to kill someone and still improvise the weapon," Lola said. "You go to their house intending to strangle them and then decide you like the look of the chain saw out in the garage, or the fireplace poker."

The kitchen's southeast wall was made almost entirely of glass. Coffin stood for a moment looking at the small waves slopping into the curve of lion-colored beach, out past the treetops and the North Truro tourist motels. "I wonder what's upstairs," Coffin said.

"Holy crap," Lola said, standing next to Coffin in the master bedroom.

"It's like a bomb went off. I wonder what they were looking for." Clothes and jewelry lay scattered everywhere. Most of the books had been pulled from the floor-to-ceiling shelves. The closet had been turned inside out, the mattress slashed, the dresser drawers dumped on the floor. Two small paintings had been torn from the wall and flung across the room. One lay facedown; the other was a black-and-white abstract that might have been a portrait of a nude woman. One print still hung on the wall: a dune-and sunset picture with an idealized lighthouse in the middle distance.

It seemed oddly out of place among all the abstract-expressionist and color-field pieces — some of which, Coffin thought, were probably worth a lot of money.

He opened the door to the bathroom. The walls and floor were green marble. The shower and the Jacuzzi were enormous and outfitted with gold fixtures. "Jesus," Coffin said, his voice echoing softly off the marble walls. "You could throw a party in here. It's bigger than my living room."

There were three smaller bedrooms and two additional baths. All were as neat as the kitchen, thoroughly dusted, tucked, and straightened — tasteful and impersonal.

The study had been tossed as thoroughly as the master bedroom. The drawers of the carved antique desk had been yanked out and dumped onto the floor. Pens, pencils, legal pads, CDs, paper clips, and Post-it Notes were everywhere. The Aeron chair lay on its side. There was a printer on a wooden stand, and a computer keyboard had been flung into the corner.

"Keyboard, printer," Coffin said, pointing.

"No computer," Lola said.

"I hope this isn't going to be about technology," Coffin said. "I hate technology."

"I'm guessing it's about sex," Lola said. She scratched her belly. She had a long scar that ran from below her right breast to her left hipbone; sometimes it itched. "They only searched her personal space. Not the guest rooms, not the kitchen or the living room. Weird."

"Like they knew where to look," Coffin said. "Or got scared off. Or found whatever it was and left."

The bedrooms all opened onto a wraparound deck, suspended over a steep bluff that dropped sixty feet straight down to the edge of the old highway. The trees below had been trimmed so that the view of the harbor and Cape Cod Bay were unobstructed. Coffin stood on the deck for a long moment and watched a red sailboat noodling around on the water. The sun glinted; the sailboat fluoresced. Coffin wanted a cigarette, but his girlfriend, Jamie, had thrown away his last pack and ordered him to quit again.

"I wonder what's keeping Mancini and the boys?" Lola said, standing in the sliding glass door. Mancini was the Cape and Islands district attorney; he and his team of state police detectives were on their way from Barnstable, driving up Route 6 in Mancini's big Lexus.

Coffin looked at his watch. It was almost 8:45. "They'll be here any minute," he said. "We'd better have a talk with the cleaning ladies."

In the past few years there had been an enormous influx of Eastern Europeans — mostly girls in their late teens and early twenties — into Provincetown's summer labor force. They came with student visas and worked mostly illegally, waiting tables or cleaning toilets or running cash registers at the A&P. No job was too menial, no living conditions too squalid. Coffin had ridden along on more than one nuisance call to the older North Truro motels that now served as cheap living spaces for seasonal workers and found as many as twelve Eastern Europeans living in a room, sleeping in shifts, three to a bed. They came from poor countries, mostly: Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia. They needed money to pay for school, and the rest they sent back home to their families, at least until they got caught up in the American consumer frenzy and decided to keep it for themselves. Some of them, unsurprisingly, fell into drug use or prostitution, though there wasn't much demand for female prostitutes in Provincetown.

Kenji Sole's cleaning ladies were young Eastern European women who worked for a service called Maid to Order. Their car, a ten-year-old Honda Civic with a trunk full of vacuums and cleaning supplies, was parked in the drive between the house and the garage. Both girls were very pretty: a tanned, big-breasted blonde named Minka and a slim brunette named Zelenka. They were sitting on the steps to the carriage house and smoking. Coffin didn't bother checking their IDs.

"So you got here at what time?" Coffin asked them.

"A little after eight," Minka said, her hand shaking as she took a drag from her cigarette. "We went in kitchen door and right away start to work. Zelenka saw her first."

"The door was unlocked?" Lola said.

Minka shrugged. "Is P'town," she said. "Who locks their door?"

"Was that normal?" Coffin asked. "You'd just show up at 8:00 a.m., let yourselves in, and get to work?"

The brunette, Zelenka, nodded. "It was normal," she said. Her eyes were bright blue and almond-shaped, her hair cut short. "She always leaves money on the counter — cash, two hundred dollars. Sometimes she comes downstairs for coffee, but mostly we don't see her."

Coffin nodded. Their accents made his heart leap in his chest. "If you didn't see her, where would she be? Out?"

Minka shrugged. "I don't know. Out, sure. Not in the house, or we would see her."

"Two hundred dollars?" Lola said. "Isn't that kind of a lot?"

"Is big house," Minka said. "We clean everything."

"So," Coffin said. "Zelenka, you saw her first?"

"Yes." Zelenka's hair bobbed a little when she nodded her head. "I am going into living room to vacuum, and she is there. So much blood! I feel very frightened when I see her."

"Did you touch her? Or touch anything in the living room?"

Zelenka shook her head vigorously. "No. I don't touch nothing."

"She screams very loud," Minka said. " 'What is going on?' I say. She runs outside, screaming, screaming. So I am afraid. I go outside, too. She says Miss Kenji is dead."

"You knew she was dead?" Coffin asked.

"Yes," Zelenka said, taking a last hit from her cigarette, then lighting a new one from the butt. "I see dead people before, in my country. Many times. She is dead."

"So then what did you do?"

"Minka calls our boss on her cell phone. Boss calls police." She pointed to the carriage house. "Also, the man who lives there comes outside to help us. He is nice man, I think."

"He helped you? How?"

"He checks in house, to make sure is safe."

"Safe?"

"He makes sure whoever stabs Miss Kenji is gone," Zelenka said. "He is very brave."

"How long was he in there?" Coffin said.

Minka shrugged. "I don't know. It seems like long time. Ten minutes maybe? Long time."

From Mating Season by Jon Loomis. Copyright © 2009 by Jon Loomis. Published by Minotaur Press. All rights reserved.

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