Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 15

🏴 1990 * Roanoke.

That’s way too hot for me for 10:00 a.m.,” Alexandre Bellanger said as he sat at the counter of the Manteo Diner quickly drinking some ice water after having tasted the latest seafood bisque experiment whipped by the diner’s owner, Linda Delgado. Alex was a long-time regular in this diner — a small, out-of-the-way place a few miles west of his home. As much as he enjoyed eating hearty meals while gazing out over the Croatan Sound, he’d been cutting back quite a bit lately.

“As you can see, I’m not a young man anymore, Linda,” he said. “Those spices don’t sit right with me any longer.” He looked up at his blurred reflection in a stainless steel cabinet across from the row of stools. He could make out his thinning white hair, which looked thinner and whiter than he felt comfortable with.

“How about a small bit of vanilla shake then, to cool the heat, Alex?” she asked, reassuringly. Linda was a nice woman — an old friend who’d been getting up there in age herself, Alex noticed. Each of them regarded the other fondly and, had either of them had any sense about them, they may have made a happy couple together, perhaps settling into some sunset community in another ten years or so to idly wile away their final years. Neither had any real family to speak of, other than a nephew of Alex’s up north with whom he’d lost touch years ago.

“Oh, I suppose that would do just fine,” he said. Ice cream always did the trick for him when heartburn came around. But, lately, the chest pains had been different. He’d had a few spells lately that he kept to himself, though they worried him at times. On some level, he was afraid of doctors. What would be the difference if they diagnosed him with a heart condition? A heart is not like a bone that can be easily mended, he thought. And besides, he thought to himself, I’m a tough old salt. I can manage.

She brought him a small thin glass filled with a vanilla milkshake. “What’s on your agenda today, then?”

“Got some business over in Bath,” he said, taking a large draw from the glass.

“Bath?” she said. “You driving or taking a boat?”

“I’m driving it. There’s an auction over there that I have a good feeling about. Shouldn’t be too many people there, as it’s mostly old school items and junk. But I figure I’ll take a look.”

She nodded. “Well, if you find me another decent stove for the diner, chip in $500 on my behalf, okay?”

“Will do, Linda,” he said.

She’d been in need of a good range for ages after her number-two gave up the ghost a year ago. However, a restaurant quality appliance would run her several thousand new. She hoped that, with all of his auction wheeling and dealing, he’d come across a nice used one sooner or later.

Alex had developed one of the Outer Banks’ best intuitions when it came to auctions. He’d bought and sold more absolute junk and bona fide treasures than anyone else around. Bath was nearly the limit of his normal geographical range. However, considering the city’s historical past, he always kept an eye out for opportunities there.

He finished the milkshake and left a five dollar bill on the counter. Linda was right — it would be quite a long drive today — probably three hours. There were two routes to Bath, and he wasn’t sure which was the fastest. The northerly route, which would take him across Route 64 and then down Route 32, certainly had a mathematical allure to it. But, the southern route down 264 would take him along the Pamlico Sound and past Lake Matamuskeet and through Belhaven. This seemed much more preferable to an old man who lived on the coast.

Three and a half hours later, Alex arrived at the building a few minutes after the auction was to have begun. He was greeted by Thomas Flanagan III, a local businessman who proudly introduced himself to Alex. Thomas was an enormously fat man in a fancy blue suit and red tie. He had grayish hair and appeared to be similar in age to Alex, which helped the men get along.

“Welcome to my auction,” Thomas said, extending his hand. “I’m Thomas Flanagan the third.”

“Alex Bellanger,” he said, introducing himself and shaking Thomas’ hand. He looked at his watch again and wondered where everyone could be. “Am I too late?”

“I don’t see how you can be,” Thomas said, awkwardly. “You’re the only one who showed up. But, what the hell, let me show you around the place.”

Thomas unbolted the padlocked door and the men went inside. It was a complete disaster. Alex could see now why no one else showed up. A few of the original pews seemed to be there still along the far walls. An ugly 1970s paneled bar with a terribly torn burgundy vinyl top sat rotting in a corner and, if Alex wasn’t mistaken, a mirrored disco ball hung from the ceiling over what must have been the altar area ages ago.

“My grandfather was the caretaker of this old place way back when it was a church,” Thomas said, kicking some old Falstaff brand beer cans out of their way as they walked deeper into the place. He flipped on a light switch and numerous fluorescent lights hanging overhead flickered on.

Thomas continued the story. “Then it turned into a school around, oh, 1913 or so. My grandfather continued to work here until he died in the 1940s. After that, my father replaced him until they shut the school down in ’62. But dad really liked this place. He managed to buy it in the late ’60s after it sat dormant for years.”

“What did your dad want to do with it?” Alex asked.

“He had a few ideas, actually. One was a theater; another was to make it into an apartment building. But, we never quite got there. Dad died in the mid ’70s and he left this wonderfully strange place to me.”

“And, what are your plans for it?”

Thomas seemed winded. He brushed the dust off of a chair and sat down. “What use does a man have for a church, you know? I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. Back in ’79, I rented the place to some kids who wanted to have a disco.”

“That’s novel, I suppose,” Alex said.

“Yeah, that lasted four years or so, and now it’s just as you see it.” He pointed to the ceiling over the altar. “I’m not sure that the old-timers liked to see the glass disco ball suspended from the same metal rings that used to hold up the crucifix, but hey, times change.”

“Well then, Thomas, let’s get down to brass tax, shall we? How much?” Normally, he’d pass on an opportunity as disappointing as this. However, he noticed a decent restaurant stove in the far corner — probably a remnant from the place’s days as a disco. It couldn’t be more than seven or eight years old, and probably was worth a couple of thousand dollars.

“That’s a good question, Alex. Given the utter lack of interest from any other buyers, I’d like to ask you the same thing.”

“Excuse me?”

“How much would I have to pay you to empty this place?”

Well, this is interesting, Alex thought. “Let me get this straight. You want to pay me to take all of the stuff out of here? But, when I came in here …”

“I know, I know,” Thomas interrupted. “But, this is clearly more of a job than an opportunity. I think I’d like to clear this whole joint out — broom clean, you know?”

“I see,” Alex said.

“Then, maybe I’ll either sell it to a developer, or turn it into a theater or apartments after all — fulfilling dad’s dream. So, how much?”

For the next week, Alex made numerous trips to and from Bath with a rented truck. He’d come to a financial agreement with Thomas Flanagan III. The place would be spotless and completely empty within one week. He scored points with Linda as well, refusing any payment for the stove, which shined up spectacularly and worked flawlessly upon installation.

The old bar and many of the pieces related to the disco establishment went directly into a large dumpster that Alex had arranged to have sitting outside of the church for the week. The old school desks went to several consignment shops where he had contacts, as did some of the older furniture. During this rather laborious work, he’d had a few more of his spells — each of which seemed to pass after resting for several minutes. Still, he’d become a bit more concerned with his health during this job. He decided that this should probably be the last job he’d take that required a lot of lifting.

On the seventh day, Alex entered the building to review his work and take one final look around. He’d emptied the place throughout, as agreed. The floors, he thought to himself, would be useless for whatever they did next. Years of use as a church, as a school, and as a dance hall had taken a clear toll. He went downstairs for a final check there as well. Most of the school equipment had been down there.

“Well,” he said to himself, “I guess that just about does it.” That’s when he saw something else — a rather large item that seemed to be wedged into a far corner up near the floor joists. He could hardly believe he hadn’t noticed this thing before, but its position seemed so utterly unnatural, almost as though someone had hidden the box there in a special custom-made cranny of the building. With a bit of effort, he retrieved the item. It turned out to be a spectacular old wooden box — a mariner’s chest. And, curiously, it was nailed shut.

Now this, he thought, could be interesting. With the back of the truck largely packed, he decided to load this final item up front in the passenger seat. He left the old church building vastly improved by the removal of so much junk. However, the work had taken its toll. He’d become rather winded and looked forward to finishing up for good, which required only one more burst of effort in unpacking the contents of the truck into his barn.

It began to rain during the journey home. He flipped on the windshield wipers with one hand and rested his other arm on the sea chest, wondering what might be found inside. The ancient mariner’s chest, he thought, recalling a portion of one of his favorite seafaring poems:

God save thee, ancient mariner! 
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! 
Why look’st thou so? “With my cross-bow
I shot the albatross.”

Hours later, he arrived home and wasted no time in unloading the truck contents into the barn. He carried the sea chest into the barn first, as his intention was to grab some tools in a little while and go to work opening it. As he struggled with the rest of the items, he realized that he’d begun to run out of storage room. Ordinarily, he’d have simply moved the chest into his yard temporarily. However, he wanted to keep it out of the rain. He began piling boxes of lighter items next to the sea chest, as these things would be easy to move around once he had the truck completely empty.

The heavy items bothered him today, but he managed to work his way through it all the way down to an old radiator that had been quite a struggle getting onto the truck in the first place. This was going to require one heck of an effort. In fact, he’d be happy at this point to simply get it off the truck. Perhaps he could just let it fall into his yard where it could slowly rust forever — a kind of miniature tribute to the waters around the Cape that were known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because of the unusually high concentrations of shipwrecks there.

He climbed into the truck and pushed the radiator with extreme effort and watched it fall to the ground, leaving a decent dent in the sandy grass. As he exhaled, thinking the tough work to be finished for now, a strong gust of wind began to topple some of the lighter boxes in the barn. He leaped from the truck to quickly get to the barn to attend to the boxes.

According to the coroner, Alexandre Bellanger was almost certainly dead before hitting the ground. He’d had a serious heart attack related to an undiagnosed condition and likely brought about by the stress of such demanding physical labor. The town sheriff, who had known Alex for some time, solemnly closed the barn door and padlocked it shut. He’d drop off the key a few days later at the office of Nathan Pride, Esq.

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☠️ Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various Medium.com publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. “Chapter number” background photo atop piece is adapted from “Light Reading” by Martin (Flickr, Creative Commons).