As the dinghy merged with the horizon, Devers raised his terrible high voice.
I reminded myself that Devers was a novice and should be forgiven for assuming that I had time for leisure. Unlike Bertram, the first assistant keeper, I did not have to check the fog signal, clean the beehive lens, trim the lantern wicks, and scrub the walls, floors, windows, balconies, and railings, inside and outside. Unlike the second assistant, Carter, I did not have to polish the brasswork—a ceaseless operation, since nearly every fixture in Blue Rock Lighthouse was made of brass, which tarnished rapidly in the sea mist. And unlike Devers himself, the third assistant keeper, I did not have to assist the first two assistants. All that was left to me was the single remaining job, which encompassed all the others and was the very reason for the lighthouse’s existence: I had to save the lives of any mariners unfortunate enough to pass within a league of Blue Rock.
But I do love Bricks. I find it difficult to decline a game of Bricks. Devers knew this. It was why his voice lilted so cloyingly when he posed the question.
“Are the wicks trimmed?” I asked.
“Bertram saw to it before he left.”
“Carter just completed a circuit. I will begin again with the door knocker at the top of the hour.”
My watch gave 1430. That left enough time for two games. I paused, as if running through a mental list of various items of great complexity and urgency. I did not want to give Devers the impression that the next five days would be less busy than normal. In fact I had hoped that Bertram’s absence—his garrulous manner was a source of amusement but made solitary reflection impossible—might provide me with the time to pursue several projects of personal significance that I had neglected. I could not afford to squander my time on extra games of Bricks.
“There is no vessel in sight,” said Devers. “There is no wind. The nearest cloud must be ten miles.”
“It is not so simple to keep a lighthouse,” I said.
“You know best.”
“I suppose,” I said, “I can spare a few minutes.”
“I hoped so.”
“A game will sooth our nerves and sharpen our instincts.”
“That,” said Devers very seriously, “it will.”
I took the game box from the bookshelf. Devers clapped his hands together.
The dice were still warm—Carter and Bertram had played a final game before embarking on their provisions transport. As a concession I did not set the board on the dining table as customary but on the card table at the window, so that I could keep an eye on the horizon. It was a calm day, one of the last of its kind.
The weather held for two full days—but I should explain what that means. One’s conception of weather at Blue Rock was not the same as on land, mainly because here there was no land. Our screwpile lighthouse was built on a deadly shoal that was invisible to passing mariners except on the calmest days, when several jagged, slate-gray protuberances crested above the surface. (“Blue” is figurative, applying not to the color of the rock but the fact of its concealment beneath the blue Gulf water.) Before the lighthouse’s construction, the hidden rock had claimed the lives of hundreds of men, disemboweling their surprised vessels a mere eighteen nautical miles from shore. Because there was nothing around us but water and sky, cloudless days were a misery. The metal structure of the lighthouse vibrated with heat, particularly during the cruel summer months, and the reflective quality of the water multiplied the sun’s radiance, dazzling us from every angle. It was like sitting inside a bonfire. Inclement weather was worse. The world shrunk to the dimensions of our narrow tower, and we were like a reed being bent by the wind. Best were the mild gray days.
We were enjoying one of these but my mind was troubled. I reviewed the last forty-eight hours in search of the cause. Despite the departure of Carter and Bertram, operations had kept up admirably. The brass did not gleam, but it did not tarnish. Devers had kept the beehive lens shining brightly, the living quarters tidy, and the floors and windows streakless. I had assumed maintenance of the fog signal and the lantern, ensuring they functioned without incident. I had been able to take up one of my personal projects, the Malice Book. There had even been time to indulge in regular games of Bricks, which I had dominated.
That was it, I realized. I had won every game.
I should explain that I am a formidable player. Devers, while not without competence, was not at my level. Still even a master could not expect to win at Bricks, on average, much more than two-thirds of the time. We must have played at least four times a day, and this was the third day. It was not entirely outlandish for me to win a dozen matches in a row—I once won fifteen consecutive against my youngest brother during a summer vacation—but it raised the possibility of bad faith. Was Devers throwing games?
I would not have suspected it were his manner not so peculiar. Devers worked hard, so his professionalism could not really be faulted, but it was difficult to recognize his true intentions. His smile was like a wince. It was the smile of someone who had to be instructed how to smile, which muscles to tense, and had never quite mastered the art. Nothing came natural to him. I had noticed that Carter and Bertram did not fraternize with him, but my rank had insulated me from his ministrations. Now, however, I was alone with the man for five days in a tower in the middle of the sea.
“I am on quite a fiery streak,” I said.
He looked confused.
“I believe I have won every single game,” I said.
“I don’t think so.” He glanced up from the board, the thimble between his thumb and forefinger. “Did I not win yesterday?”
“Yesterday I won four to naught.”
“The day before, perhaps.”
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” I said. “But I cannot take credit. The game’s mysteries confound even the grandmasters.”
He gave one of his awful mechanical smiles and drew his first card. He flipped it over: a Brick.
He proceeded to give me the soundest drubbing I’ve received in my lifetime. It was as if he could see not just one move ahead but whole series, whole sets in advance. My sense of relief—perhaps he had not been throwing games after all—dissolved into bewilderment, and quickened to terror. It was a stunning performance. It was almost supernatural.
On the fourth day I was awoken at dawn by a high-pitched shout. Devers saw the dinghy.
I became enraged as one does when awoken prematurely (even, as it turned out, by twenty minutes). I was certain Devers was mistaken. But when I took the spyglass to the window I immediately spotted the familiar crisscross pattern painted on the dinghy’s side in bright red. It made no sense. The trip to Berwick, the nearest port, required two full days of paddling. It was possible to cover the distance in less time, but that would require paddling through the night without sleep, a practice forbidden by the Lighthouse Association. The schedule allotted a full day for Bertram and Carter to obtain provisions in town, with a second day granted for rest and relaxation. The bimonthly provision transport was in part an excuse for a brief paid leave to disrupt the seasonal rotation; the keeper was not permitted to leave the lighthouse, so invariably it was the first and second assistants who, by virtue of seniority, won the dispensation. The return trip took another two days, making six in total. At four days, the boat was both too early to have returned and too late to have been delayed by any known reason.
Devers knocked at the door.
“I’ll meet you in the office,” I called out.
Just because the first and second assistants were gone did not mean we had to tear the Code Book to shreds. When the keeper is in his dwelling he is not to be disturbed except in emergency. It says so plainly in Art. xii, § 9, cl. 3(b). Had Devers already begun to forget the basic precepts of the code?
“What explanation,” came his fluted voice, “is possible?”
“In the office.”
I was anxious to solve the dinghy quandary but I tarried several minutes to make the point. It occurred to me as I dressed—I was still not fully awake—that this might be an emergency. When I came to the bottom of the stair, I found Devers standing at the window, staring out.
The boat was visible on the horizon. I raised the spyglass and could see an oar lift and drop. We ran upstairs to the lantern room and unlatched the door to the outside gallery. As we stood at the railing I peered through the spyglass and made two astonishing observations.
The boat was not headed toward the lighthouse. It was not headed toward the shore either, at least not directly. It jogged in a northwest direction, a trajectory that would take it, four days hence, to a forsaken stretch of the coast some forty miles west of Berwick. This made no sense.
This was nothing, however, compared to the second observation. There was one man in the boat. A single pair of oars rose and dipped into the heaving sea. One of the men, therefore, was gone. Had some horrific accident occurred? Who remained—was it Carter, or Bertram?
Whomever it was, I concluded, must have been in shock. Otherwise he would have paddled to the lighthouse for help.
Devers and I raced down to the lighthouse’s lowest level. In the boat room we kept a second, smaller dinghy, reserved for crises. There was no question of my abandoning the post—the code forbids it, unless evacuation is required for survival. I reminded Devers of this as he helped me carry the junior dinghy to the gallery, place it in the davit, and lower it to the water. I also reminded him of Bertram’s service pistol—an entitlement the Lighthouse Association granted first assistants, mainly for protection while transporting provisions—and urged him to take extra precaution in case the occupant of the dinghy was not in his right mind. The situation was so deeply unusual and, given the trajectory of the wandering dinghy, so urgent, that we never discussed what Devers should do if the situation turned out differently than I expected. I could imagine only a single scenario: that Devers would find Carter, or Bertram, disoriented, and would lead him back to Blue Rock.
I realized my mistake when I returned to the lounge, which gave an unobstructed, 360 degree view of the ocean. The figure in the dinghy began to paddle away from Devers. It would be difficult for Carter, or Bertram, to outpace Devers, though he seemed desperate to try. Devers was an excellent oarsman and aided by the lightness of his vessel, unburdened by supplies. After an endless interval of this slow-motion pursuit, Bertram, or Carter, relented. Devers pulled alongside the boat. The two men sat facing each other for a long time.
I was distracted by the smell of smoke. You needn’t be a pharologist to appreciate that smoke is the most ominous harbinger that might haunt a keeper. The code lists more than one hundred duties but these really could be reduced to two: keep the flame illuminated and do not allow the lighthouse to burn down. The devil of the matter is that the two objectives are aligned against each other. For the flame to burn bright, you cannot stint on whale oil. But the more blubber, the higher the chance of combustion. It is the keeper’s job to balance the extremes.
I raced upstairs to the lantern room. A layer of thickening smoke clung to the ceiling. If one does not act with composure in such a situation, a blowout is inevitable. I climbed the ladder to the walkway that encircled the Fresnel lens. Through the glazed windows I spotted the source of the problem: Devers had failed to trim the wicks. This was the most benign cause of smoke and the one most easily avoided. Some allowance should be made for the inexperience of a third assistant, especially in the absence of the first and second assistants, but wick-trimming was such an important task that it was enough to renew my irritation at Devers.
I covered my mouth with my handkerchief, passed through the gate, and trimmed the wicks without dousing the flame. I opened a ventilator to let the smoke escape. By the time I descended the ladder and returned to the gallery, the two dinghies were gone. Something leapt in my stomach. It made no sense, their disappearance. If the men had paddled away from the lighthouse I would be able to see them—from the lantern room, one-hundred-and-ten feet above the water level, it was possible on a clear day to see sixteen nautical miles in every direction.
I heard a voice and realized my folly. The two dinghies were directly beneath me. Devers was tying his painter around one of the legs of the tower. I hurried inside and hastened down the spiral stair, so that I could help to rescue Carter, or Bertram, whichever one he might be.
The other man was not Bertram. He was not Carter.
“There has been a misunderstanding,” he said.
From the lower gallery I stared down into the dinghies. Devers had harnessed both painters to the leg of the tower. The stranger was about thirty-five years old, with a heavy black beard and recessed eyes.
“Fellow says he purchased the boat from Carter and Bertram,” said Devers.
I made no move to lower the davit. The code explicitly forbade the admission of visitors to the lighthouse except during an emergency rescue. I supposed this could count as an emergency rescue, though the stranger was in no apparent distress. It seemed more likely that an emergency had befallen Bertram and Carter. If so, it would be insane to bring their assailant into the lighthouse with us. I searched the dinghy for clues but the canvas was strapped tightly over its cargo. It was impossible to tell what remained of the supplies Carter and Bertram had brought with them. I looked to Devers for some suggestion of knowledge or warning but his face was as blank as ever.
“What is the misunderstanding?” I called down.
“Your men sold me the boat,” said the stranger. “They didn’t tell me it was property of the Lighthouse Association.”
“Did they give reason for their sale?”
“I can explain all,” said the stranger, “only I’d prefer not to have to yell it at you.”
“We talked it through,” said Devers. “It checks.”
I realized that I did not have a choice. I could not let the man escape with our boat. But if we kept the boat, he could not leave.
I lowered the davit.
“I don’t suppose,” said Devers, “you play Bricks?”
“Not at an especially high level,” said the stranger. “But I enjoy the game.”
Devers noticed my glare. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “I see that the brasswork on the gallery could use a polish.”
“You stay here,” I said. We were in the office. The stranger sat in the chair at the table. Devers and I stood at the other end of the table. “Place your hands on the table,” I told the stranger.
He shrugged and complied.
“What is your name?”
“It’s Jones,” said Devers.
“Let the man respond.”
“Like he said,” said Jones. “But call me David.”
“You say you bought the dinghy.”
“Your men sold it to me.” He assumed a patient tone, as if tired of having to repeat what he had told Devers at sea. “I was headed to Berwick on a sugar ship.”
“What ship?” I asked, though I had no way of verifying a manifest until I reached shore.
“The Arbogast,” said the stranger.
“Why did my men sell the dinghy?”
“I did not question their motives,” said Jones. “But one let it be known that he was sick of the seafaring life.”
“That would have been Bertram,” said Devers.
“Did you ever hear Bertram say a thing like that?” I asked.
Devers shrugged. “It sounds like him.”
“If they sold you the boat,” I asked Jones, “where did they go?”
“They boarded the Arbogast.”
“If you were going to Berwick, why did you board the dinghy?”
“The Arbogast was unequipped to carry an additional dinghy. But I did not want to lose the deal. I knew that I could resell it for profit.”
“Your captain—he did not mind losing your services?”
“We have ten days in port,” said Jones. “He does not need me again until we continue to Galveston. I thought it would take me a day and night to reach land. That was my error.”
Devers shifted beside me. I could tell from his smugness that I had yet to ask a question he had not already asked.
“You say you planned to go to port in your new dinghy.”
“Yes sir. To Berwick.”
“Then how did you end up eighteen miles from port?”
“Eighteen nautical miles.”
“I’m grateful you spotted me. I guess I was taken by the sea.”
“Are you not a sailor?”
“I am a merchant by trade.”
“You just happened to drift to us?”
Jones turned over the palms of his hands as if presenting me a gift. The gift of his presence.
“Some coincidence. Of all the places the sea might have taken you.”
“A coincidence,” said Jones, “that saved my life.”
Something did not fit together but it took a moment for my mind to seize upon it.
“You are happy to be saved,” I said.
“Then why, when my third assistant went to meet you, did you try to escape?”
I glanced at Devers to see whether he had considered this inconsistency, but his face was as shapeless as the ocean.
“I can’t say.” Jones gave me a hard stare as if trying to communicate silently a secret.
“Devers? Did you not ask this stranger why he raced away from you?”
“Yes, sir,” he said cautiously. “I suppose I did not.”
“He did ask me,” said Jones. “But I did not tell him.”
I looked between the two men. Devers seemed oddly unbothered by Jones’s betrayal. Jones had betrayed Devers’s confidence, and Devers had betrayed mine. I did not know what to make of this.
“I will explain,” said Jones. “Alone.”
“We are alone.”
Jones glanced at Devers. “In private.”
Everything rested on his explanation. But I had to consider my safety and, more important, the integrity of the lighthouse, on which the lives of countless mariners depended. Jones was a younger man than me and strong. He was not strong enough to overwhelm two men but with one man he might have had even odds. I could not be too cautious.
Devers and I left the office. I closed the door firmly. There was no lock so I pushed a chair against it—silently, putting my finger to my lip to warn Devers against alerting Jones. I gestured for Devers to guard the door. I ascended to my quarters as quickly as possible without making noise, which was not very quickly at all, because the stair, like most of the structure, was made of cast iron. I found what I wanted and returned. I released Devers to take up the brasswork.
I withdrew the chair and entered the office, alone. I found Jones exactly as I had left him.
“I want you to know that I carry my service pistol,” I said. “I make no threat or warning. I allege nothing and mean no disrespect. I tell you in a spirit of fair play.”
Jones nodded. “Given what you’ve told me about your assistants, you have every reason for suspicion. Why would they abandon their command?”
“You have not answered that question.”
“I don’t have the answer.”
“You can tell me, however, why you tried to flee from Devers.”
“Yes,” he said uncertainly. “I can tell you that.”
“We are alone,” I said. “Devers is not within earshot.”
He studied me, trying to determine whether I was telling the truth. “I am certain,” he said finally, “that Mr. Devers is a reliable employee and skilled at his job.”
“But I do not trust him.”
“He came to your rescue.”
“Yes—and rescue I needed. But I was convinced he meant to do me harm.”
“What harm could he do to you worse than starvation?”
“Maybe I was beginning to lose my faculties.” Jones looked pained. “But I am one for instinct. There is a horrible blankness behind his face.”
Jones’s beard moved, subtly, like a picture frame being straightened. His voice lowered. He pressed his palms hard into the table.
“I do not trust him.”
I decided to carry the service pistol at all times.
My plan was to flag the first boat that came into view and order its captain to deliver our interloper into the custody of the Coast Guard Police. I told Jones that the Lighthouse Association, which after all was a subsidiary of the Coast Guard, would reimburse him for the cost of the dinghy. This was true—should the association be able to verify his story. But first he would have to submit to an investigation.
I did not want him to get the sense that I thought he was dangerous, a thief, or even a murderer. It would be foolhardy to make him feel cornered unless I was prepared to shoot him dead. Bertram and Carter were good men—Carter, especially—but I was not prepared for that. Yet I could not let him roam freely through the lighthouse. At the end of our private conversation I made a speech about regulations and the Code of the Board of the Lighthouse Association that seemed to convince him. For three hours, while Devers went about his duties, I sat on a chair pressed against the closed office door.
From that position, with the aid of my spyglass, I could watch for coming ships through the port windows spaced evenly along the walls of the watch room. It was not a total waste of time—I had thought to retrieve my Malice Book from my room. When I was not scanning the ocean, I composed new entries. I expected Jones might at some point try to budge the door from within but I never heard him move. The operation had gone as smoothly as possible, save for the absence of a ship. But now it was night.
I should explain the anatomy of the lighthouse more precisely. It had three levels, arranged around a staircase. On the bottom level was the boat room, where both dinghies had been returned to their holds, and the watch room, largely empty and unadorned aside from a table and a few motley items stored there for lack of a better alternative: a lucerne, a pope’s head, a rouge box, a sucking pump, several cords of wood.
The spiral staircase ascended to the keepers’ dwelling, which was itself two stories. The first story was the lounge, containing a kitchen, the office, and the assistants’ bedroom. The second story was my living area.
There were only two locks in the entire lighthouse. The first I had installed on the door to my chambers. The second was an unused bronze padlock on the door of the lantern room, the third and highest level.
Both locks were on the inside of rooms. This meant that I could lock Jones out of a room but not inside a room. The only solution was to barricade Jones in the office. The trick was to keep Jones unaware of his prisoner status until a ship arrived.
“Do you really believe,” I asked Devers, when he next passed the office, “that the men would have freely sold the dinghy and abandoned their duty?” I spoke in a whisper. For all I knew Jones stood pressing his ear to the wall.
“It seems far-fetched,” Devers acknowledged, too loud. I pressed my forefinger urgently to my lip.
“It seems far-fetched,” he whispered.
“Bertram has wild tendencies,” I said. “But Carter?”
“I once overheard Carter express a desire to work on shore. Closer to his Deborah.”
I shook my head. “I don’t see it.”
“Then you have to ask yourself the opposite question.”
I did not follow.
“You have to ask,” said Devers, “why a man would steal a dinghy.”
“And why bring harm to two strangers in order to do so? Our dinghy is a good dinghy but there are items far more valuable to be found for much less.”
“Especially since the man showed no boating ability to speak of.”
“There is no good reason to steal the dinghy,” said Devers.
“Yet it would seem that a dinghy thief sits behind this wall.”
We considered this in silence.
“Once a ship comes to take him away,” I said, “we will be out of any shadow of danger.”
“Once a ship comes.”
We glanced at the same moment out the window. The sea was flat. The sky was dark purple.
“How can we know the heart of this man?” I asked.
“I know a way.”
“I see you play the Covington variation,” said Jones, as Devers dealt the cards.
“Of course,” I reassured him.
Jones bowed his head.
“I’m sorry—do you mean to lodge an objection to Covington?”
“I prefer Watley’s,” said Jones. “But I’m old-fashioned when it comes to Bricks.”
“I am unfamiliar with Watley’s variation,” said Devers.
“It’s only a preference,” said Jones, waving his arms. “I don’t want to create confusion.”
I laughed, a bit too loudly. Bricks revealed much about a person’s constitution. But it was important not to draw conclusions too quickly. It was, after all, a game of bluffing.
Devers dealt the cards and placed the dice on the octagonal board. He nudged the first thimble into place.
“Remind me,” said Jones. “Is it in Covington that the runs are capped at five?”
“You might be thinking of Queen’s. The main feature of Covington is that triplets are counted as second-rank instead of third.”
Jones nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
Bricks has a way of focusing one’s mind. The pauses allow for reflection. It is while playing Bricks that I have some of my sharpest insights into lighthouse operation and design. It is also when I tend to come up with entries for the Malice Book.
The dice roll awarded me first move. I played the standard opening and passed the thimble to Jones. The game enfolded us in a friendly atmosphere. Jones was at ease. Devers never really seemed at ease, but at least he behaved normally. I was careful to project an air of calm assurance. Jones did not appear to suspect anything. He played his response, somewhat clumsily, and we were underway. I much preferred the three-person game to head-to-head. Four was ideal, but four was no longer possible. Three was at least an improvement.
Jones was a surprisingly ferocious player but the old pattern resumed: We played four games and I won them all. Devers finished last in all but one. So thrilling was the gameplay that it nearly managed to take my mind away from the present reality: that Carter and Bertram had relinquished their duty to the Lighthouse Association, the Coast Guard, and Blue Rock, either by choice or by force. This fact carried an even more pressing corollary: Without replenishment of our supplies, we would run out of food and whale oil. Provision transports are delayed as long as possible, initiated only when supplies dwindle to a level sufficient only to feed two men, or fuel the lantern, for ten days, whichever should come first. The previous day Devers had estimated that our store of blubber would last two weeks. There were a dozen jugs of water, which could be refilled during a rainstorm. But we had run out of canned beef and pork, were down to our final quart of beans, and were nearly out of rice and flour. The only item we had in large quantity was raisins. We had barely touched the raisins. Most significantly, however, we were no longer two hungry mouths. We were three.
It was fruitless to delay further. We would not be able to spot a passing ship before dawn at the earliest. A decision had to be made. Short of binding Jones to a bed or barricading him within the office overnight—both scenarios to which he was unlikely to consent passively—we would have to grant him the ability to move freely through the lighthouse. I could lock myself in my room. I would have to trust Devers with the lantern room. But the rest of the lighthouse would be open to Jones.
“Don’t bother about me,” said Jones, as if divining my thoughts. “Any warm corner or crevasse will do.”
“You are our guest,” I said, with a bow, excusing myself from the next game. Devers, shuffling the cards, gave me a meaningful look but was intelligent enough not to say anything.
I headed first for the gallery, where I unclasped the davit to ensure that Jones would not be able to steal the dinghies. He could, perhaps, shove one off the gallery into the ocean, but it would likely capsize and sink, or be carried away by the waves, before he could jump inside it. As an added precaution I gathered the six oars from the boat room and carried them into my quarters, where, as compensation for my labors, I awarded myself with one of my few remaining chunks of peanut brittle. I returned for the few sharp or blunt tools lying around the watch room—a pair of curved scissors, a caliper, a lamp stand, a dripping pan. Out of breath, I descended the stair to the lounge, scanning for anything that could be put to nefarious use. From the kitchen I gathered every sharp implement and most of the remaining provisions, leaving the raisins. In the living area I removed the oil beakers from the lamps. I carried everything into my chambers and snatched another handful of brittle. Again down the stair, I paused briefly outside the office.
“I raise a pair,” I heard Jones say.
“Very well,” said Devers, “I will trump double.”
The three cots in the assistants’ bedroom were neatly made. The small desk was spare, apart from several papers and an old grease cup in which stood a trio of pencils, which I placed in my pocket. That left the trunks, one at the foot of each bed. I would order Devers to carry his own trunk upstairs to the lantern room but the two others were locked. Carter and Bertram would have taken the keys with them, along with the only dangerous instrument the trunks contained—First Assistant Bertram’s service pistol. Even if I had time to hammer the trunks open, the blows would alarm Jones in the next room. I looked beneath the beds and found nothing else that might be used for violence. A final glance about the room made me pause, however. I returned to the desk.
The papers were, on closer examination, three sealed envelopes. Each bore Carter’s seal. The first two were addressed to a local credit union and our chapter of the Fraternity of Maritime Workers. The third was addressed to Miss Deborah Fawn, 8 Balsam Road. It appeared that Carter had intended to bring these with him to shore.
I understood, of course, how severe a violation of decorum it was to open another man’s private correspondence. But it was also a crime to steal a dinghy belonging to the Lighthouse Association, abandon one’s brethren to potential starvation, and imperil the integrity of Blue Rock, which itself was responsible for defending hundreds of mariners annually from dashing their brains against the shoal. And if Carter had been victimized by the stranger Jones, would his ghost not pardon this one impropriety committed in an effort to bring his assailant to justice?
I opened the business letters first, in case they should tell the whole story. The first contained his most recent pay slip. The second contained his quarterly dues. The dues suggested he intended to continue working in the union as a member of good standing. But it was hardly conclusive evidence. I tore open the third envelope.
Darling Deborah, it began.
I occupy this brief moment of leisure between the obligations incumbent on me as Second Assistant Keeper to relay some remarks to you.
Though I write this letter within the dark recesses of Blue Rock Light, it so happens that I will be the man to deliver it to the post office. I set off tomorrow on a provisions transport. It is necessitated by Third Assistant Devers’s detection of an alarming, unexpected decline in our stores. We have less than five days’ food remaining for four people, and no salt meat. Bertram and I will take two days to reach port. You should not worry. The conditions are calm, the weather temperate. Besides, your receipt of this letter is evidence of our successful passage.
We have two days in Berwick to secure provisions. How I will miss you as I walk the cobblestones that last I tread beside you. I hope this news does not make you bitter for traveling north to see your sisters. I suppose, had I paid closer attention to our provision levels, I might have foreseen this circumstance and warned you to postpone your trip, but to engage in this kind of speculation is agony.
Anson continues to aggravate my nerves but I have tried to follow your advice and tell myself that sufferance of his character is part of my professional burden. I have even let him beat me in several rounds of Bricks, as you suggested. It has soothed his nerves and improved our relations, though the practice tests me.
On the subject of Bricks, I wanted to respond to your question about gameplay strategy. The selection of markers is forbidden in certain variations—Cross Church, Watley’s, Diamondhead—but adjustments can be made to compensate. I can enlarge upon marker tactics another time.
I hope that whatever disappointment you may feel upon learning of our missed opportunity for a reunion in Berwick will be mitigated by the knowledge of my renewed determination to ascend the ranks of the Lighthouse Association. As you know, there is no maritime position that offers a higher salary than lighthouse keeper. With each day of service I come closer to a promotion to first assistant. From there it is only a matter of time before I am keeper myself. I make no promises at this moment but will share with you an excerpt from the Code of the Board of the Lighthouse Association: “While the Assistants share a single bedroom, the Keeper commands a personal quarters of at least three rooms. The discrepancy in size of living space is not merely a deference to the seniority of his position. It is intended to encourage the co-habitation of the Keeper’s spouse. The isolation of the lighthouse life and the pressures of the office can be much relieved by the companionship of a wife.”
I hope you will not think it rash of me to have copied that section of code here.
Until our next embrace, I remain
Philip F. Carter
Letter in hand, I burst into the office. Jones and Devers looked up from their cards. From the placement of the markers I could tell that they were nearing the completion of a match.
“This stranger is a liar and a criminal,” I said, pointing at Jones.
With a reluctant final glance at his hand—no doubt he was on the verge of a surprise victory—Jones laid down his cards.
“That is hot talk,” he said. “I urge you to take caution.”
“Carter had no interest in selling the dinghy,” I said to Devers. “He planned to return to the lighthouse. This letter is proof.”
“You read his correspondence?” said Devers.
“It was not Carter who sold me the boat.” Jones raised his hands in a supplicatory gesture. “It was the other man.”
“Bertram?” said Devers.
“That’s right. The man named Bertram.”
“It’s not credible. Devers, do I need to lay it out for you?”
Devers glanced at Jones and in that glance I thought I glimpsed the twinkling of conspiracy. “I think we should be careful about what conclusions we might—”
“Help me tie him to the bed.”
“Hold,” said Jones. “I warn you.”
“Did you not steal the dinghy?”
“Will no answer satisfy you?”
“You stole the dinghy. What did you do to Carter and Bertram?”
Jones stood abruptly. I reached into my jacket for the service pistol.
“Keeper Anson!” said Devers.
“There will be no violence.” I did not take my eyes from Jones. “You will follow my instructions.”
Jones slowly returned to his chair. The small room was heavy with sweat.
“You are mistaken,” he said.
“Did you murder my men?”
Jones sighed. “If you heard my story,” he said, “you would understand.”
“Is it true?” said Devers. His tone was oddly earnest. “Did you kill them?”
Devers rose from his seat.
“Sit down,” I said.
“You killed those men,” I said to Jones. “Will you deny it?”
“I killed them,” said Jones.
Several moments passed in silence.
“I can explain all,” said Jones.
“Scream it as loud as your lungs allow.”
“Scream it louder, if you please,” said Jones. “There is no one to hear you. There is no one but the three of us.”
Isolation is not a bad thing or a good. It is a medium like tacky or clay that a man can shape to his fancy. It can be balm or barb. It can atrophy to nothing or expand to fill the universe. The form depends entirely on the individual. As for me—I have spent a lifetime learning how to shape it to my benefit. Long before I joined the august (or so some believe) Lighthouse Association, before accepting the posting at Blue Rock, I had a familiar relationship with isolation. You could say that, with perhaps one exception, it is the most familiar relationship I ever had.
Because I do not fear isolation I can take risks that other men would never dare.
Take, for instance, the dangerous moment in the office. We are finishing a competitive game of Bricks, Jones and I—what a relief to play without ulterior motive, without restriction—when Anson bursts in like a maniac, waving his pistol. Another man in my position would interfere. I make a token effort; I do what might be expected of a third assistant. But I do not interpose myself. For if Anson shoots Jones dead in an illegal crime of vengeance, the association would have no choice but to remove him from his post. A murder, in other words, would accrue to my advantage.
Anson does no such thing, of course. He has been softened by decades of solitude, the unblinking deference of his rotating, largely indistinguishable trio of assistants, and the cache of toffees and brittles that he hoards in his private larder. Instead, while Jones watches bemusedly, Anson makes one of his incoherent speeches. “Accountability” and “deceit” are the words that recur most often. At last he announces his plan for the evening. He orders me to retrieve a rope at least two and a half feet long.
When I return to the office Jones is standing with his forehead pressed against the wall. Anson orders him to hold his hands behind his back. Anson tells me to tie the hands in a tom fool knot. When I step between the gun and Jones it occurs to me that this is a dangerous moment, a moment that a quick and desperate man might exploit. Jones could spin suddenly and put me in a hold, giving me the hostage treatment, using my body as a shield. But Jones does nothing. I conclude that the two of us might have an understanding after all.
We march Jonesto the lowest level of the lighthouse, the watch room. On the threshold Anson gives him an unnecessary shove, sending him to the ground. It is not a violent gesture so much as a pathetic one, given the great gulf between it and the threatened bullet. I suppose Anson feels he must demonstrate that he is not a softie. But he proves the opposite.
We are beginning to consider the means by which we might barricade Jones inside the watch room when our prisoner raises an objection.
“Where,” says Jones, “am I supposed to relieve myself?”
Anson scans the room and sees, among the scattered items remaining in the chamber, a hauling bucket.
“That should do,” he says, putting some gruff into his voice.
“And how,” says Jones, “with my hands bound behind my back?”
This is a stumper.
“Either the barricade will have to be airtight,” says Anson at last, “or we will have to supervise him.”
“But if we unbind his hands,” I say, “could he not break the windows?” The question is so obvious that even Anson would have thought of it at some point. The wide windows in the watch room are made of leaded glass that, while hard enough to resist hail, could be broken with determination.
“Let’s barricade the door,” says Anson. “Then we’ll see about the windows.”
We spend the next hour improvising various methods. The door opens into the room, so we cannot simply construct a barricade of heavy objects. At last we tie the knob to the staircase with the thickest cord we can find. It only has to hold one night. The next morning, Anson is certain, a boat will pass, and we will unload the prisoner.
While Anson runs upstairs to the lantern room to rummage for a stronger length of rope, I slip into the watch room. Jones, I observe, has already soiled himself.
“Release me,” he says.
“Tomorrow,” I say. “When he is not expecting it. It will be better for both of us.”
I can tell from the vibration of the iron staircase that Anson has begun to descend from the lantern room.
“Quick,” he urges. “Before he returns.”
“Tomorrow. Trust me.”
Anson reappears with the rope and the bronze padlock. Jones does not speak and he does not take his eyes off me. I avoid his stare lest Anson notice. He leads the braided rope from the knob to the stair, pulling it taut, and knotting it on either end with a buntline hitch. This does not fully alleviate his anxiety, however. We haul a heavy oak desk from the boat room. Its drawers are stuffed with unsorted sea charts, guidebooks, and maps. Anson unknots one end of the rope and we set the desk on top of it. At last he expresses himself satisfied with the contraption. A resourceful man perhaps could escape but it will gain me nothing to raise a concern.
“What about the windows?” I ask instead.
We exit to the terrace to inspect the windows from without. The air is cool, damp; the sky is starless and the waves below churn in a blackness a shade darker than the night. A drizzle coats the bronze railing with a faint sheen. We walk the tower’s circumference, careful not to slip on the slick grating. The room is dark and we cannot see our prisoner inside. I wonder whether he might be standing at one of the sealed windows, watching us. But I detect no motion.
“The windows are secure enough,” concludes Anson, after we have finished the circuit. “If somehow he breaks out, despite his bound legs, his only answer is to swim.”
“And the dinghies?”
Anson retrieves the bronze padlock from the desk where he had left it. It is an impressive lock, with a thick shank. He pins it to the handle of the boat-room door and pockets the key. “That protects the dinghies. If he manages to escape the lighthouse, only to drown, the better off we’ll be.”
It occurs to me that by removing the padlock from the lantern room, the only secure zone remaining in the lighthouse is the keeper’s quarters. Were Jones somehow to escape the watch room, hungry for revenge, nothing would protect me from him. Had I not reached an understanding with him, I would raise this point. But we did reach an understanding. Even in the unlikely chance that he tries to break out, I do not fear being alone with him.
During the Lighthouse Association certification training, the instructor tells recruits a story about the perils of prolonged isolation. It concerns a lighthouse called Deadman’s Cove Light many miles from shore, not unlike Blue Rock, operated by a keeper and three assistants. After an unusually bitter winter storm severs it from worldly contact, the enervated men grow hostile to conversation. They begin to eat separately, at uneven hours. After a month even the slightest observation or stray comment is taken as a deep personal affront. When duty forces them to occupy the same room, they face away from each other, even if that means staring at the wall. Observations from the tower are relayed through written notes, left to be discovered in conspicuous locations. The story of Deadman’s Cove is intended as a cautionary tale but there is nothing in the scenario that I find undesirable.
Only the most intrepid lighters apply for a posting at Blue Rock, where near-absolute isolation is the rule. I had the sense, when reporting to the regional office, that I was the only applicant—the skeptical manner of the regional officer suggested as much. I had to reassure him, under persistent questioning, that there was no other lighthouse I would rather occupy. I had to reassure him that I was a bachelor, which was not entirely a lie, if not entirely the truth.
Anson understands the appeal of the posting—he has held it, after all, for nearly twenty years. But I do not believe the same can be said of Carter, who was drawn by the promise of easy promotion, or Bertram, who was lucky to secure employment anywhere in the association (or outside of it). As I told the regional officer, I covet isolation. In society I am at odds, overwhelmed by social calculations, and struggle to shape the impression I make on others. In isolation I live honestly, without pretense.
I was careful not to tell the regional officer that the most urgent reason I sought employment at Blue Rock was to escape the mainland. In one of the more prosperous sugarcane towns, where I’d worked as a broker for a local distribution firm, I’d had an adulterous affair with a woman named Ellen Favery, from one of the leading planter families. When she became pregnant, her husband found us out. I was forced to flee. A manhunt went up across the countryside. I figured that Berwick was far enough away to evade their dragnet, though as an additional precaution I took a certification course at the local office of the Lighthouse Association. The shrewdness of this measure was validated the week before I shipped to Blue Rock, when two agents from the town arrived in Berwick, presenting a sketch of my face to bartenders and local police. It was only by careful strategy that I managed to evade them long enough to board the dinghy to Blue Rock.
I may have certain unfortunate character failings but I do know how to see several moves ahead. They say Bricks is a distraction, a time-devouring pastime, but at least it has taught me that.
I cannot trust Anson because he has been dishonest with me from the beginning. He claims that he is preparing for his retirement, but this is a lie meant to inspire his assistants to work more diligently in the hope of inheriting his post. I know this, and much more, because I read the little journal in which he scribbles his basest thoughts and desires. He calls it his “Malice Book.” He seems to think that, by writing down these slurs, many of them directed at his assistants, he exorcises them from his mind. He imagines himself virtuous for doing so. But I have read the book and I know that he is a sick man. With each entry the vitriol thickens.
Jones, however, was honest with me from the moment we met.
“Stop,” I had called to him on the water, “on order of the Coast Guard!”
My shouting only seemed to make him paddle faster. When I finally caught up with him he begged me not to shoot.
“Why do you flee?” I asked.
“Take pity,” he said. “Don’t shoot.”
“Sir? I have no intention of firing at you. I only ask for an explanation.”
“I beg you,” he said. “I am dying of thirst.”
I tossed him my canteen. He drank violently. After a minute he appeared to regain his senses.
“That dinghy,” I tried again, “belongs to our lighthouse. What happened to the two men who traveled in it?”
“I killed them,” said Jones.
We bobbed side by side, our dinghies facing opposite directions. Both of us were out of breath.
“By the power vested in me as Third Assistant by the Board of the Lighthouse Association and the United States Coast Guard—”
“I had cause.”
I hesitated. “What,” I asked, “could those men have possibly done to you?”
“Allow me to explain.”
I let him do so, in great detail, for nearly fifteen minutes, a tangled story involving a case of mistaken identity, in which the two assistants took Jones, traveling in a borrowed skiff, for a thief, and, on behalf of the Coast Guard, attempted to seize him with force. As Jones spoke, the moves started coming to me, one after the next. I saw how Anson would react when I brought the stranger to Blue Rock. I saw how Jones would acquit himself. I saw how I could gain.
“Stranger,” I said, when he finished his story, “you have said nothing that I am in position to verify or disprove. The story’s details seem far-fetched, yet fall within the boundaries of plausibility, and your descriptions of Carter and Bertram are not inaccurate, even if the behavior you describe seems extreme under the circumstances. I do not accuse you of guilt or endorse your innocence—it is not for me to pass judgment. But I cannot let you escape.”
“I understand your position,” said Jones.
“The person to whom you must appeal is Mr. Anson, keeper of Blue Rock lighthouse.”
“Who are you, then, if not the keeper?”
“Ernest Devers, keeper’s third assistant.” I paused. “I suppose, in light of what you say, I am now, by rights, first assistant.”
This was a happy realization on which to reflect. Third assistants are disposable. A first assistant, particularly at a posting like Blue Rock, is indispensible. He is first in line to become keeper. Even if Anson loathed me, it would be difficult for him to lobby for my removal if I were the only other man alive suited to the position. But I couldn’t dilate on these matters—I knew that Anson would be watching from the lighthouse through his spyglass.
I warned Jones not to confess to Anson, no matter how justified the killing might have been. I suggested that Jones claim instead that he purchased the dinghy from Carter and Bertram and did not know where they would head after reaching shore. Anson might voice doubt but he would not feel obliged to exact revenge. When a boat next approached the lighthouse, and Jones were taken into custody, he would have the opportunity to defend himself in court. I promised I would not betray him in the meantime. Jones considered this strategy for some time.
The window is a rectangle of purple darkness this morning. It rains. My watch surprises me: It is nearly seven o’clock. I dress and find Anson in the living quarters with his service pistol in hand. He does not appear to have slept. For a quarter second I suspect that he will point the pistol at me and pull the trigger.
“It will be an ugly day,” he says.
“Have you been to the lantern room?”
“We are at the edge of a large system. It travels north-northwest. It will pass over us. We will not see the sun.”
“Have you been downstairs?”
“I was waiting for you. It will have to be a careful operation.”
I nod. I would like nothing more than to pour myself the coffee I see prepared on the stove but Anson is already headed to the stairwell.
He slows as we near the lower level. The rope remains securely knotted around the banister. Anson raises his finger to his lips, gesturing for me to follow him to the terrace.
I am unprepared for the gusting wind and the iciness of the rain, which seems both to fall from the heavens and levitate from the ocean fifteen feet below us. The skies are blood-tinted, vicious. We circle the terrace; the windows are intact. It is difficult to see through the leaded glass into the watch room. I cannot make Jones.
Without speech we lift the desk off the rope. Anson checks his pistol and aims it at the door. He gestures for me to untie the hitch from the banister. We listen for movement. The only sound is the muted strafing of rain against the tower walls. Anson gestures for me to open the door.
Jones stands in the middle of the room, his lips twitching. It is unclear whether he is smirking or it is a symptom of exhaustion. There are no indications of an escape attempt. The hauling bucket is at his feet. In the corner, beside the wood stove, lay scattered several innocuous objects where we left them: a lucerne, a rouge box, a sucking pump, some cords of wood.
“It is raining and dark,” he says.
We do not respond.
“Do ships pass in this weather?” he asks.
“Not often,” says Anson, without lowering his pistol.
“I need food. I need water.”
Anson tells me to bind the prisoner. The rope we used the previous night lies in a snarl on the floor near the door. I carry it to Jones.
“Is that necessary?”
“I’m afraid it is,” says Anson.
“Mr. Devers,” says Jones, under his breath, as I approach. “Is it really necessary?”
“What was that?” says Anson, from the doorway. “You do not address my third assistant. You address me.”
I try to caution Jones firmly with my eyes to be careful. I will help him. I just need time. I hope he understands that I am not the villain.
Jones says nothing but does not resist the binding of his feet and hands.
“Is it secure?” asks Anson from the threshold. “Did you use the tom fool knot?”
I stand back so that he can see the prisoner’s bound wrists.
Satisfied, Anson enters the room. I do not like the look on Jones’s face. Out of instinct, presentiment, or just pure luck, I retreat to the door.
“I will bring you food,” says Anson. He lowers his pistol. “I will bring you water. But you will have to remain in this condition as long as it takes—”
In a single abrupt gesture, Jones grabs the bucket of waste at his feet with his bound hands and tosses it at Anson. The keeper turns away but not before a surprisingly large quantity of fluid and fecal matter whip across his face and chest.
Anson never inquired about my personal life, I reflected, when Jones, during our slow transit to the lighthouse in our dinghies, asked whether I had a wife. I was cautious in my response. I told Jones only that I knew a woman who had unusually dark, black hair, a delicate neck, and a raucous laugh. Still I was surprised by how this brief exchange affected me. It was as if, for a moment, Ellen had appeared in the dinghy beside me. I did not imagine our child in the dinghy, perhaps because I had not yet met it.
Anson would not understand any of this, of course. He was a devoted, lifelong bachelor and, unlike Carter and Bertram, declined to participate when conversation turned to the foreign gender. As we were without female company for months at a time, conversation turned in that direction more often than not. Carter spoke of one day marrying his Deborah and, after ascending to keeper and earning the right to spousal accompaniment, inviting her to live with him. He disregarded the cautionary stories bandied among members of the Lighthouse Association about the many keepers’ wives who react poorly to a life of isolation: the Wood Island mistress who blinded her husband with the edge of a sextant; the madwoman of Boon Hole setting off in a dinghy without provisions during a ferocious squall and disappearing; the keeper’s wife at Gay Harbor who threw her children, wrapped in blankets, from the terrace of the lantern room. My Deborah, Carter said, is nothing like those women.
I did not know about his Deborah. But I did know about my Ellen. At Berwick, when I drafted identification documents under my new name, I ordered an additional set of papers for her. They list her as “Ellen Devers.” I understand it is possible that she will never come to Berwick. It is possible that she has never left her husband or the town. It is possible that she, and our child, have left Earth. It is also possible, however, that fate—spurred along by careful strategy—will reunite us. But that cannot happen until I am keeper of Blue Rock.
After the bucket incident Anson revises his plan. He will remain downstairs in the watch room with Jones, keeping our prisoner under close observation. I will supervise the lantern room, watching for ships and striking up the fog signal.
We shackle Jones, double knotting both wrists to a pipe that leads from the wall to the stove, a process that is complicated by the wretched stink of waste clinging to Anson’s face and clothing in vile threads and splotches. He asks me to lower the bucket to the ocean and fill it with saltwater; he dumps it on Jones. At last we retie the hitch knots to seal the watch-room door. After I take up my position in the lantern room, I hear Anson repair to his chambers for a brief interlude, to bathe and change clothes. I consider the risk of releasing Jones. The operation would take too long, and the sound of my clambering down the entire length of the cast-iron stairwell might alert Anson, who has a nearly supernatural ability to sense vibration and sound within his island tower. Best to wait.
I begin my rounds. The tower is quiet and still. This, I think, is what it would be like to be keeper. At night, Ellen and our child would cook and read and gather with me around the Bricks board. By day I would be free to sit in tranquility atop my sea tower, the ocean rolling at my feet, the encircling horizon, the boundless empyrean. But this morning it is so dark and wild outside that all I can see are billowing black clouds.
Every few hours a bright clang summons me to descend the several hundred steps to the watch room. The clang is audible despite the continuous drone of the foghorn, which roars like a dying bear. The bell noise is the sound of Anson slamming the butt of his pistol against the stairwell in a kind of mania. It raises such a loud reverberation that my appearance beside him comes as a shock and for a moment I think he will train his weapon on me. I hope it is not loaded. To slam a loaded gun repeatedly against a cast-iron rail is foolhardy, to put it gently. But Anson seems to have lost mastery of his nerves ever since his drenching with human excreta.
We settle into a new routine. Anson takes residence in a chair he has set in the doorway, as far away from Jones as possible without leaving the room. The pistol rests on his lap. I appear every two hours. He asks whether I have seen a ship. I report that I have only seen lightning and violent rain. Jones never speaks in my presence or, as far as I can tell, in Anson’s. The two men appear to spend the entire day in silent hateful contemplation of each other. On my first two visits, Jones glares at me imploringly, but I refuse eye contact. On subsequent visits, Jones ignores me, even as I attempt to catch his eye. Fortunately it appears that his distrust of Anson equals my own. I never stay for more than a couple of minutes, for Anson is anxious that I return to the lantern room and resume my watch. I wonder how long this state of affairs will last. No ship arrives. Jones refuses to speak. Anson refuses to leave Jones alone. Which of these three conditions will break first?
Night falls. We seal Jones inside the watch room. I help Anson move Bertram’s old cot downstairs so that he can sleep outside the prisoner’s door.
The next morning I spot a ship. The storm has intensified and visibility is low, but from the lantern room I can see the vessel crawling along the horizon to the west-southwest of Blue Rock, slipping between clouds of fog. With the sextant I determine it is approximately four nautical miles away. It travels toward the coast. It should be able to see our beacon or at least to hear the foghorn, which I have continued to wind, every two hours, as Anson ordered. Before it slips back into the fog I can identify it as a cargo steamship, with a tall central smokestack, a set of derricks fore and aft, a deep bulkhead. It is the kind of ship that carries bananas or sugar to port from South America, the kind that, in fair weather, passes within sight of Blue Rock about three times a day. It would have various cargo holds and sub-decks that could be locked from without, capable of housing a prisoner. It would be operated by a major international commercial firm, helmed by a captain certified by maritime law. It is, in other words, exactly the kind of ship that Anson wants to summon. A distress pattern signaled by both the foghorn and lantern would compel it to change tack, as mandated by the International Mariner’s Code.
The steamship clears the fog and comes back into view.
I dislike not being able to supervise what is passing between Anson and Jones in the watch room below. Will they spend their second day together in total silence? Is it possible they conspire against me? I doubt it. Jones may or may not be cunning, but Anson’s face is a transparent portal to his mind. I have played enough Bricks with him to be assured of this. I doubt that he will be able to overlook Jones’s fecal stunt. If conversation does arise between Anson and Jones, I conclude, it is likely to be hostile.
I watch the fog swallow the ship.
Two days pass in stalemate. The storm is constant as a painting. There are few variations in routine. I continue to man the lantern. The foghorn blasts all day and night, at three-minute intervals, though I no longer register it. Anson continues to supervise Jones. They appear not to speak with each other. A change has come over Anson—over Jones too, perhaps, though his character remains obscure to me. I think of Deadman’s Cove Light and the silence that fell over its inhabitants after they were cut off from society. We were already cut off from society at Blue Rock but recent events have deepened the cut. The three of us have entered a purgatory that can only be resolved by some decisive action that none of us are willing to take. Until then, there is no need of speech. There is nothing to say.
In the afternoon I descend to the watch room in silence, careful not to vibrate the iron stair. A descent that might require three minutes takes four times as long to complete. I must be careful in case my calculations are mistaken—in case, by surprising them, I might catch them in conspiratorial conversation. But I encounter a silence so thick that the sound of my voice disturbs them.
“Why,” asks Anson, “must you yell?”
“I do not yell,” I say.
“You are screaming,” says Jones. He is doing push-ups. When I speak he pauses mid-push-up, wincing.
They have found common cause, perhaps for the first time. I won’t visit them more than necessary.
The next day two more ships drift past the lighthouse.
On the fourth day I come downstairs to find Anson inside the watch room. He sits on the floor opposite Jones, within spitting distance. Their heads are bowed; neither speaks. I watch from the doorway, uncertain. It is as if they have entered a mutual trance. Are they praying? Has Jones bewitched him? It is only when I enter the room, the sound of my steps disrupting their mutual stupor, that I see between them the cards, dice, and thimbles on the octagonal board.
“Give us a minute,” says Anson, after briefly glancing up.
“Yessir,” I say. “It’s only that—”
“Please,” says Anson.
I wait for what seems like fifteen minutes while Anson contemplates his next move. I am so perplexed by this turn of events that I cannot think clearly about my own next move. I find myself focusing on the bristles of Jones’s beard.
“I see no other option,” says Anson at last. He nudges his thimble two positions forward. Jones says nothing but I can see in his face a ripening confidence. Anson selects a card from the turn-down pile and curses forcefully.
“What is it, Devers?” he says. “Have you seen a ship?”
“The storm is too strong,” I say. “Visibility remains poor.”
“Why, then, do you interrupt us?”
To see whether either of you have killed each other yet.
“I thought to check whether you might require food or water,” I say lamely, “or relief of any kind.”
“I require nothing,” says Anson, “except your absence.”
At that Jones glances up sharply, catching my eye. He communicates a message that I cannot interpret except to judge that it is fierce, urgent, and unrelated to Bricks.
Jones gathers the dice and rolls.
I awake to a gruesome screaming. The stairwell vibrates like an alarm. I jump from my cot and am at the stair when it occurs to me that it might not be wise to run downstairs blindly toward the clangor.
“Help,” yells Anson. “Devers!”
In the kitchen I pull the butcher’s knife from the drawer. It is a powerful knife, used for decapitating red snapper and speckled trout. Moonlight does not enter the stairwell, which is not only windowless but located within the lighthouse’s innermost core, the tower’s spinal cord. I hold the knife in front of me, angled downward, so that it will be the first point of contact should anyone rush up from the blackness. I consider turning back for a lantern but decide the darkness is preferable. If I remain silent and invisible no one can harm me.
“Devers?” The tone is different and I pause, confused, until I realize it is not Anson’s voice. “Devers,” shouts Jones. “Come down here at once.”
I continue my descent, careful not to make noise. Because I am barefoot this is easier than usual. At the bottom of the stair the darkness pales, the moon bleeding through the leaded glass. At the final turn I see that Anson’s cot is empty, the sheets torn off the mattress and scattered on the ground.
“He’s not coming,” I hear Jones say. “What did I tell you?”
Anson shouts my name. His voice is hoarse, strangled.
There is too much uncertainty in this situation. I feel unprepared. Anson has a gun, after all. If Jones has broken from his shackles and obtained the gun, what would stop him from shooting me? But it seems worse to wait for the violence to find me. I take the final five steps in two bounds and enter the doorway of the watch room, where I try to make sense of the grisly moonlit scene.
Anson lies on the ground in the middle of the room, clutching his stomach, writhing in a pool of black mess. Jones is in his familiar position on the far wall. But he is turned away from the door. I notice, too late, that he has freed himself from the ropes that bind his wrists.
“Devers!” Anson’s eyes, open wide, are silver in the moonlight. “See what you’ve done?”
I cannot. There is a loud flash and I see no more.
You can tell a lot from a man’s fingernails. The keeper Anson’s were long, tapered, buffed, womanly. The keeper was meant to be responsible for the operation of the lighthouse but it was obvious he hadn’t worked a hard day in years. Jones knew his threats were baseless.
Devers’s fingernails, on the other hand, were cracked, blackened, filthy. They were not merely a laborer’s nails. They were the fingernails of a man accustomed to toiling in muck. If it came to violence, Devers would get heavy odds.
What their fingernails did not tell him about their characters, their Bricks games did. Devers was a schemer; Anson was a planner whose plans were continually being thwarted. Jones himself relied on instinct. That is how he ended up in the upper level of the lighthouse, alone with the lantern in its great bejeweled case. Leaving the two wounded men behind, he snatched the padlock and key, darted up the stair, and enclosed himself inside. Instinct got him out of messes but it also got him into messes. When he bolted the lock he realized he had nothing to drink, nothing to eat.
No matter. From this height Jones could see to the horizon in every direction. He needed only to get the attention of a ship. He would tell the captain his story and pray for mercy. It would simplify matters, of course, were Anson and Devers not to have a voice in the outcome. Without their interpolation, he could claim simply that he bought a skiff, became disoriented in the Gulf and, after seeking rescue at Blue Rock lighthouse, was greeted by two men deranged by isolation, paranoia, and malnutrition. He would not have to describe the murder of the two lighthouse assistants, a somewhat thornier narrative.
The main question now was whether the bumbling keeper and his monstrous third assistant would survive until a ship came. If they did not die from their wounds, it seemed likely that they would attack, and perhaps kill, each other. He would have to wait it out.
Having secured the lock to his satisfaction, Jones ascended the stair to the upper gallery. It was dawn and the rain had finally passed. The sea was in every direction endless blue.
Only a few minutes elapsed before he saw it: In the southern distance, interrupting the horizon, a great ship approached.
He had not wanted to harm Anson. He figured that, after the waste bucket incident, a few games of Bricks might calm him and avert a physical crisis. And it did, for a time. How could Jones have forecast what followed? Devers should have warned him.
Anson was not a bad player, just a highly conventional one. He had never been challenged, had only played the classical variation, good old Covington, and was oblivious of recent developments in game strategy. But what could be expected of a man who had spent most of his adult life in a tower surrounded by roiling ocean? His only opponents for decades had been toadies who sought his favor by losing to him. Jones had no incentive to lose to him, however. Jones acknowledged to himself that he could be a petty man but he was also a proud man.
The shift occurred after Jones won the ninth of ten games. It was not the losses alone that bothered Anson. It was Jones’s attitude. He had said, repeatedly, that he wasn’t particularly skilled at Bricks, that he played recreationally, occasionally sitting for games at his local club, and read the Bricks column in the Saturday paper—all true. Anson, after all, had boasted of his own skill. But after several matches the gulf between their abilities became plain. Jones could see that it had begun to dawn on Anson that for years, decades even, he had been deceived by generations of sycophants. Then Jones referred to Devers by his Christian name and it all came apart.
In Jones’s defense, he had been imprisoned for more than four days by this point, subsisting on raisins and a handful of dried beans. Much of that time he was shackled to a stove and forced to soil his trousers, which had hardened into vile slick chafing cardboard. There had been moments during their Bricks contests when Anson had come close enough for Jones to hurt him, perhaps fatally, but he had restrained himself. Jones trusted Devers, and prayed that the third assistant’s plan would bring about a peaceful resolution to the impasse. But as the days passed Jones grew desperate. He had managed to free himself from the knot cinched around his right wrist by abrading the cord along the length of the pipe, thousands of times, until it snapped. But there remained his other wrist and he had only just begun on it. When Anson snored, Jones turned and used his free hand to work the second knot but it would take at least another night to free himself.
Devers visited less frequently. He did not seem capable of reading Jones’s increasingly urgent glares. Finally he could take it no more.
Ernest! Jones shouted madly. Ernest!
The assistant did not respond but Anson, sensing conspiracy, did. He threw himself at the prisoner. With his free hand Jones unmanned the keeper, pinned him down and, after knocking him cold against the floor, removed the keeper’s pistol. He shot through the remaining cord, burning his wrist but liberating himself at last from the stovepipe. The gun blast startled Anson to consciousness and, despite Jones’s warnings, he renewed his manic flailing attack. Jones fired, and Anson’s stomach burst.
Devers appeared in the door waving his butcher knife and Jones fired again. Perhaps this was foolhardy. Perhaps Devers had no interest in assaulting Jones. But Jones was long past perhaps.
After Devers fell to the ground Jones had an urge to tend to him, even to apologize for firing, but felt a more powerful desire to run. He grabbed the padlock and climbed the stair as far as they went. It felt good to run. Inside the highest chamber he locked the door and it was only then that he saw for the first time the great lantern on its platform in the sky, encased in a glass honeycomb. The beauty of the device carried Jones back to the world. He stepped outside to the gallery and breathed deeply the sultry air. He realized that the worst was not over. The worst remained ahead of him. The worst remained behind him and beside him, extending on all sides.
How does one get a ship’s attention? Was there a special distress call, a combination of flashes and sustains, that directed a captain to approach a lighthouse? If so, how did one signal during the middle of the day? Was the lantern even visible?
Jones climbed the scaffold and entered the glass honeycomb. He examined the oil drum that fed the lantern. He was no engineer but its operation seemed straightforward. The tube that led from drum to lantern was controlled by a valve. He turned the valve and heard the hissing of gas. The wicks dampened. By turning a crank attached to the drum, a flint sparked, and the wicks caught flame. The blaze, magnified crazily by the lens, grew so bright that he leapt back, as from an explosion, and stepped outside to the gallery. From there, however, he could tell the light would not be visible from a great distance. It needed to be brighter.
Jones stepped back inside the honeycomb and twisted the valve further. The flames brightened furiously, growing white, then blue, and then he was falling through air.
As he fell he remembered.
Nearly everything about the job had been carefully planned. The First National of Morgan City stood on Front Street, backed against the black Atchafalaya. Deposits were picked up each Monday by a treasury boat, which traveled along the Intracoastal Waterway to Houma and beyond. They chose the First National because the security gate was rusted and the guard was senile and had an arm in a sling, but they had not given sufficient consideration to its location.
The deputies materialized as the thieves exited the vault with the bounty stuffed in briefcases. Jones was last out. He found the others entangled with the guards, guns popping, banknotes dancing on the floor like discarded confetti. He ran through the gunfire. As he burst onto Front Street he realized he no longer held either briefcase. That was an advantage, he quickly realized, for another trio of officers was rushing toward the entrance.
Jones slipped around the corner, racing toward the back of the building, and found himself trapped. There was only the dock and the rushing viscous river. A skiff, powered by an outboard motor, was tied to the dock. He understood now how the deputies had managed to surprise them. They were treasury officers; they had come three days early for their weekly pickup.
Later, alone with his terrors, he put it together. The following Monday was Columbus Day, a holiday. The collection was moved forward a business day, to the previous Friday. That was the rational explanation for the unfortunate turn of events. But Jones settled on a different interpretation: The entire history of his life, the entire history of the universe, had conspired to place him on the bank of the Atchafalaya River before a vacated treasury boat. He could no sooner decline the empty skiff than he could reverse the arrow of fate.
He engaged the motor and was under the railroad bridge by the time an officer returned to the dock. Jones checked his pistol and thought to fire but the officer had no way of pursuing him. Soon Jones was around the bend. He could leap at any moment and swim to shore, but the cops would be waiting for him—if he were not first pulled under by the current. He pushed the engine. Some time later the bay opened before him, vast and sparkling pink. The sun dropped toward the horizon, the coast shrunk behind him, and he cut the motor.
When he awoke it was night.
He fell asleep again and it was day. The sky was gray, the sun everywhere at once. He steered the skiff toward the coast. After several minutes or several hours he realized he was lost. He had to consider the possibility that the entire time he had been jetting directly out to sea. He did not know how much fuel remained in the engine and was afraid to check.
There was nothing of use in the boat except a can of water. That is not to say that there was nothing of value. A small burlap bag filled with banknotes was enclosed in a chest, but no amount of paper currency would be enough to buy him a crumb. He tried not to think of the money and he tried to conserve the water. He failed to do both. He counted the money several times. It came to $11,410. It came to $11,510. It came to $11,230. It came to $11,450.
There was no point in wasting the remaining fuel so he waited, hoping to encounter some indication of where to steer, something beside endless water. The sun hid behind clouds and seemed to change hiding spots when he wasn’t looking. He tried to stay awake. He did not sleep, exactly, but his mind ran wildly. Several times he came to with a start, disoriented. He could not tell how much time had passed. He counted the money. It was the only thing that kept him sane.
Much later he saw a dinghy. He waved but the two passengers seemed confused to see him and consulted with each other. Jones started the engine, praying there was enough fuel to catch them. The men began shouting but Jones could not make out their words. They seemed alarmed by the presence of a bedraggled civilian in a treasury boat, or of a treasury boat so many miles from shore, and his incoherent yelling did not mollify them. One of them kept shouting at him: “Stop, on order of the Coast Guard!” But Jones could make no sense of these words; he only sensed his starvation and his thirst. The other man showed his pistol. Yet the skiff seemed to accelerate as Jones approached and as he sought words to explain himself the man in the dinghy fired his pistol into the sky.
Jones fell to the flat floor of the skiff. He could not understand what was happening. But he knew he was under attack. He grasped his pistol. The treasury boat roared implacably toward the dinghy. In seconds they would either collide or Jones would pull close enough for the man to fire down into the skiff. At the final moment he leapt up and emptied his pistol. Both men flew back, one into the water, the other into the bottom of the dinghy. The boats bounced against each other and the skiff swiveled, sending Jones overboard. Jones climbed into the dinghy and, after searching the corpse’s pockets, toppled him into the ocean to join his friend.
Jones watched the empty treasury boat putter into the horizon.
The door to the lantern room reverberated in its frame. Jones opened his eyes and saw above him the glass honeycomb cage, sparkling in the lowering sun.
“It’s me,” came a high voice from behind the door. “Ernest.”
Jones sat up and was laid down again by a violent throb in his temple.
“Open the door,” said Devers. “Before he comes.”
Black smoke swaddled the ceiling. Jones experimented with shifting his leg and heard the gravely sound of crushed glass.
“I know you did not mean to hurt me,” said Devers. “You were confused, weakened, desperate. I was holding a knife. It was dark. I don’t blame you.”
Jones moved his legs. He moved his toes. His left arm did not move. His right arm moved. The fingers of his right hand moved. The fingers of his left hand he could not feel.
“I’m bleeding ugly,” said Devers. “I need your help. Please. Anson will kill me. Then he’ll come for you.”
Jones reviewed his situation. As long as he remained in the locked lantern room, could anything worse befall him? Not immediately, at least. Though there had been an explosion, nothing was now aflame. But if he did not open the door, he could not contact a passing ship, nor could he eat or drink. Apart from the beacon itself and the blown-out lens in its shattered honeycomb case, the lantern room contained only a drafting table, a chair, a wastebasket, a tin bucket of cleaning supplies and, on the table, a sextant, a nautical map, several pencils, a compass.
“When the Coast Guard comes,” said Devers from the other side of the door, “I’ll tell them you’re innocent. On my honor.”
Jones rose to his feet. He cradled his bad elbow with his good arm. Silently he hauled himself to the door. He pressed his head against the door and tried not to breathe loudly enough for Devers to hear.
“Please,” whispered Devers. “Hurry.”
The lantern was beyond repair. The explosion had blown out the glass and twisted apart the tube that carried the oil from the drum to the wicks. Some oil remained in the drum but without the magnification of the honeycomb lens it would burn no brighter than a candle. Jones returned to the gallery. It was nice in the wind and drizzle; the dampness soothed the throb of his elbow. A tapping that had played around the edges of his consciousness for some minutes grew louder: It seemed that Devers had returned, only this time he was not using his knuckles. He was using something stronger, a hammer perhaps.
Jones, one-armed, lowered himself down the ladder. A few rungs from the floor he misjudged the height and stumbled, knocking over the tin bucket of cleaning supplies.
Through the crosshatched windows Jones saw grimy clouds, streaking the horizon, approach from the west. The tin bucket and the wastebasket beneath the drafting table, if filled with rainwater, would provide about three gallons between them. Jones carried the buckets outside to the gallery. The knocking resumed, more frantic now. Jones wondered how much knocking it would take to break the door down.
He would die if he stayed in the lantern room. He listened at the door. He heard only the sound of waves in his ears, waves crashing against the metal walls of the lighthouse. These were not real waves, he understood, they were remembered waves from the night before, the waves he had heard while he lay semiconscious on the grated metal deck of the gallery. A soft rain had fallen much of the night. Jones drank the drops as they collected in the wastebasket and tin bucket. The warm rainwater turned a lever inside him and he became aware of being deranged with thirst. He licked the inside of the buckets. He licked the metal guardrail. He licked the grating. He scratched his tongue and tasted blood but there was not nearly enough water. His ears were chaotic with the roar of waves.
With trembling fingers he turned the padlock key and listened: only waves. He took a final glance around the room and noticed the sextant lying on the drafting table. He positioned it in his palm with the sharp edge of the arc facing out. He returned to the door. He pushed it open. Nobody was there.
He followed the trail of blood downstairs. His goal was the kitchen, where the glass water jugs stood in a row beneath the sink. Several images passed dimly through his consciousness as he emerged from the stairwell into the living quarters, tableaux that in other circumstances would have stopped him flat: Anson’s bloody keeper uniform, balled together with his soiled undergarments, discarded on the landing; the Bricks board bent, the tumblers and cards and markers scattered across the floor; and, cratered in the armchair by the card table, third assistant Devers, his chest matted with blood, his lugubrious eyewhites bulging, his lips flexing unintelligibly, some part of him too broken to allow him to rise. Jones continued to the kitchen.
There was only one full jug remaining; a second was less than half empty. A man dying of thirst, Jones seemed to recall, was not supposed to drink large quantities at once. Tell that to a man dying of thirst. Jones chugged the full jug with such force that much of it spilled down his chest and back. He stopped only when he choked. The second time he drank until he vomited. The third time he drank until the jug was finished. The fourth time he drank until his throat hurt. The fifth time he got nearly to the bottom of the last jug when he was interrupted by a noise behind him.
Anson stood in the door to the kitchen, heaving. He held his stomach as if trying to prevent it from bursting. “Devers is a maniac,” he said. “He is a charlatan. A criminal.”
Jones finished the jug.
“He will kill us both unless you finish him.”
There came a concussion from the next room. Anson, growing pale, slid down the doorframe until he was sitting on the ground. He said something inaudible, defeated.
Jones put a handful of raisins in his mouth and regripped the sextant. He stepped over Anson and looked out of the kitchen.
Devers stood beside the chair, holding himself up by one of its arms. He was too exhausted to move any further. Jones showed him the sextant. Without breaking eye contact Devers sunk back into the chair.
Jones returned for more raisins. As he put them into his mouth he hesitated, unable to remember where he was. Ah—a tower in the middle of the ocean. But who was he? His name was Jones, yes, but that alone didn’t signify much. He searched for words or images that connected with “Jones” and saw only the rolling movement of giant masses of water.
He lay in one of the assistants’ beds. He had fallen asleep shortly after his last meal of raisins, which he had dipped into the flour tin. A vein in his forehead throbbed. There wafted through the open door a stench of vomit, of rust. He stood slowly, holding his head with both hands, and coughed when he inhaled flour. Outside the bedroom the slumped form of Devers was draped about the foot of the chair. Anson sat opposite him on the floor, several feet away, propped against the leg of the dining table. Devers mumbled.
“What is it?” said Jones.
“I will not see Ellen Favery again,” said Devers. “I will not meet my child.”
Anson groaned. The men turned to him. He said something unintelligible in a quiet grim voice, without moving his lips. He made the sounds with great effort, as if trying to remind himself that he was still alive. He repeated his murmuring until it seemed to take on a tone of wonder.
The sunlight came brightly through the window. It was the first balmy day since Jones had arrived at Blue Rock. The light picked out details that had escaped his notice: the moth-eaten fringe of the card table’s peach-colored velvet cover; a book in green binding and gold letters, titled Majestic Solitude: the Lighthouses of the Gulf Coast, strewn on the ground, opened to a chapter titled “Hidden Hazards”; a mantle clock with a chipped glass face that acted like a prism, the sunlight darting across its cracks like mercury. Now that he needed rain, there was none. He went to the window, as if by habit. There, not a mile distant, was a steamship.
He turned to the dying men on the floor.
“A ship!” he said. “How do I summon it?”
“It is easy,” said Devers. “Flash the international distress pattern. Long-short-long.”
“But it is day—the ship won’t be able to see it.”
“Are you certain?”
“I imagine a ship one mile away might not see the flashing light when the sun is overhead.”
“I meant, are you certain it is day?”
He noticed that Devers’s eyes were closed.
“The light is exploded anyway,” said Jones, remembering. “The lens burst. The oil has run out.”
Anson’s broken body sunk lower.
“Well?” said Jones. “Do you have another idea?”
Anson moved his mouth as if he was chewing marbles. “Firework,” he said finally.
“Firework? What firework?”
“There are two rockets in the upper gallery,” said Devers. “But the keeper forgets that we used them during our New Year’s celebration. Bertram and Carter were to pick up more in Berwick.”
Neither Anson nor Devers seemed particularly concerned with being rescued. Even if the Coast Guard arrived that minute, they would not likely survive the passage to Berwick Hospital. As for Jones himself, if he lived without water long enough to be rescued, he would be tried and hanged. If the other men somehow survived, they would report his murder of the lighthouse assistants. If Anson and Devers died, he would be held for their murder. There was also the bank robbery, and the theft of the treasury boat. The best he could hope for was lifetime imprisonment. He would be isolated in this sea tower, in a jail cell, or in death. He could trade one for another, but he could see little difference between them.
The men kept silent for some time, lost in private reveries. Finally Jones began to gather the cards from the floor. He picked up the tumbler. He unbent the octagonal board, pressing it flat.
Devers partly opened one of his eyes and glanced at Anson.
“Keeper Anson,” said Jones.
He offered the tumbler.
“Anson,” he repeated.
“It’s no use,” said Devers. “He’s dead.”
The keeper’s eyes were open. Jones watched him for some time.
The Bricks board would not stay flat. Jones tried to anchor the recalcitrant corner beneath the foot of the armchair but he was not strong enough to haul the chair into place. As he shuffled the deck, cards kept escaping and he had to settle for gathering them into a sloppy little pile. He raked together the dice with the side of his good hand. He thought one die might be missing. Were there supposed to be three, or four? He pressed the corner of the board back down and it popped up again.
“You begin then,” he said. “Ernest?”
Devers’s hand fell from his chest.
Very well—Jones picked up the dice and rolled. He turned over the first card. He played the standard opening. He waited for the next move to come.