The July Fourth weekend was upon them and Farnham was packed to the gills with mobs of people. The sunny forecast meant there probably wouldn't be a single vacant rental within twenty miles, nor would there be any place to park.
Alan returned on the third with his parents and Beetle in tow while Eric's family had wisely chosen to stay at home and attend the fireworks in the Nation's Capital. The best part of this was that the condo would be empty, although the rest of the building would be jammed.
Mr. Connors had delivered a solemn lecture to the staff on morals which everyone endured quietly and hoped this would be the end of Neil's legacy. The doors opened on Friday morning and Neil was quickly forgotten in the mad crash of noise as children dashed for their favorite games.
Alan and Beetle walked in just around eleven and joined the mob. Eric saw them over the heads of the crowd standing in line for the bumper cars and Alan gave him a wave. Of course the tall read-headed Freddy was very obvious behind the prize counter and Beetle went straight for him.
Bobby Connors had been forced to take Neil's place for the holiday weekend, nothing he could do about it, he was family. Alan approached the bumper cars when he saw Eric and they exchanged greetings.
"How was the trip?" Eric asked.
"Interesting…at least I got everything packed up. Most of my gear will ship to Granny's place in Georgetown, but I did bring some stuff here you might like to see."
"Let me guess…helmets and gloves?"
Alan laughed. "On the money, we might have a chance to use them before the summer is over. When do you get off duty?"
"About five-thirty today and tomorrow. Have you made plans?"
"Granny has a large picnic dinner planned to which you are expected to attend, even if you don’t get there until six o'clock. This is a big event for her so don't be surprised at the scope of everything. The tents arrived yesterday and the caterers will have everything set up by four o'clock. Then everyone will sit around in the yard and watch the fireworks when it gets dark. Does that work for you?"
"Caterers? Okay, I'll deal with it except I would like to watch the fireworks from the beach," Eric said.
That put a frown on Alan's face and he slowly shook his head. "After the issue with Beetle I don't think my parents are going to take their eyes off of him while they're here. I hate to abandon the boy and he'll be jealous if we go off together."
Eric sighed. "Understood. It will be fine as long as we're together. So…what about tonight?"
Alan grinned. "I thought you would never ask."
They lay in Eric's bed at the condo with the drapes open to allow the final rays of the sun to illuminate the room as night began to settle in. Their lovemaking had been over much too quickly, a victim to the week-long separation.
"I hope we get to do this every day once the holiday is over and things go back to normal," Alan said.
"Define normal," Eric replied. "Things around town are a little tense at the moment. Not that I completely blame Freddy, but his relationship with Valerie is just stirring up trouble."
"That is such crap. They are both old enough to do what they want…and I guess they are. This is just resentment because Freddy is an outsider and that makes her brothers look like inbred morons."
"I can't argue about that, but the attitudes are real and likely to cause problems. I don't want to see Freddy get hurt. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't want to be put in a position of defending him."
"You'd defend him? Well, of course you would, noble creature that you are."
Eric groaned. "Chivalry has nothing to do with it, but I won't back down from a fight."
"You mean we, I'm in this, too. So…since we will be too occupied tomorrow, do we have time for a repeat performance?"
"I hope you're this aggressive on the playing field," Eric said.
"You know it," Alan said and rolled over onto Eric's chest.
The Glorious Fourth, the day everyone in Farnham had been waiting for. The weatherman predicted a bright sunny day with temperatures in the low eighties which made the chance of an afternoon thunderstorm a real possibility. But not even a little rain would keep the tourists from invading the town.
Playland was overrun with kids and parents from the moment they opened, and everyone knew they were about to have the busiest day of the summer. Mr. Connors had given them a rousing speech at breakfast along with prayers for patience and understanding. Their young clients would be anxious and excited, something they all expected.
The lines for the several rides were long but Connors never considered shortening the times. People would have to wait to get a full measure of fun. Eric was again running the bumper cars, but now he had Bobby there to assist in clearing the deck between groups of riders.
"Where did they all come from?" Eric asked as he started the cars moving.
Bobby laughed. "There are more rental units now, and the rest are day trippers. Keep an eye on that kid in green number seven, he must be off his meds."
Eric had already spotted the boy as one who might cause trouble. Road rage was not just a highway occurrence, getting steadily bumped often built up anger and had to be quickly diffused. The boy in green seven was having a hard go of it so Eric hit the deck and jumped on the back bumper of the car.
"Hey, you keep turning the wheel too fast and clogging up the lane. That's why all these kids keep hitting you. Watch the kid in front of you and when he starts to turn left you go right and accelerate."
The boy did as he was told and zipped past the kid who had been causing him grief. Eric waited until they had made a full circuit before he jumped off and stood behind the side bumper for safety. The boy had the idea now and was navigating the deck successfully. He gave Eric a thumbs up as he zipped by.
Bobby was at the controls so Eric hopped the fence and walked around the outside back to the entrance.
"Giving driving lessons, I see," Freddy said as he walked by.
"Oh yeah, and thank goodness most of these kids won't be on the highways for years to come."
"I see Alan is back in time for the Fourth," Freddy said. "You going to the beach tonight?"
Eric shook his head. "Probably not, his parents are having a cookout to which I am invited. I guess we can see all the fireworks from their backyard. What are you going to do?"
Freddy looked around. "I have a date with Val. She told me to watch out for her brother, says he's up to something with his buddies."
"Oh great, what an idiot."
"I'm not too worried," Freddy said. "It seems like every cop in the state is working the town today. Gotta go, here comes Mr. Connors."
"Take your break, Eric," Connors said.
Eric looked at his watch…damn, it was after twelve already. The morning had been so busy, the crowd so large.
"Thank you, sir."
The boardwalk was jammed as he made his way around the building to the stairs. When he reached the top Eric looked back over the rooftops at the town. His nose twitched…was there the smell of smoke in the air? Must have been a house fire somewhere in town, he thought.
The smell was still there fifteen minutes later when Eric opened the door, a sandwich and carton of milk in hand. He sat on the top step to eat his food and had just finished when Bobby Connors came around the corner and began to mount the steps.
"You smell that?" He said, pointing back towards the Ocean Highway. "A gang of boys robbed the liquor store out on the highway last night, smashed the place up and set a fire."
Eric was on his feet now. "How did you find out?"
"Doris over at the police station is calling everyone with a warning. She told dad they think it's locals on a rampage, so the first thing that comes to my mind is Ethan and his friends."
"Okay, this is more than a poke at the tourists…what is Ethan's problem?"
Bobby nodded. "He joined the Army last fall and most of us were glad to see him go. Four months later he was back because they kicked him out. He's been pissed off ever since and a lot of his friends are avoiding him. He's always resented the tourists and that attitude got him fired from a bunch of jobs ever since he was sixteen.
"Same old us and them, Eric. He resents people with money and fancy cars. The cops have arrested him numerous times for starting fights and he did some jail time before he turned eighteen. We all thought the Army would do him some good, but I guess that failed. Freddy better stay in tonight if Ethan is out there on a rampage."
"Why don't the cops arrest him?" Eric said.
"Nobody saw a thing it seems. But a State Police car has been sitting in front of his house all morning so they're looking for him. Keep your eyes open."
Eric slowly walked back to his post. Things in Farnham were out of balance and it felt like all it would take was one idiot to push it over the edge. Maybe there were just too many people in town these days and a lot of things were changing.
All his young life he had been coming here while never really noticing how the town was evolving. The cycle of relationships between townies and tourists had seemed much the same over the years, but it seems not for everyone.
The locals like Bobby had a purpose in life, his family ran one of the most successful business on the boardwalk. Someone like Valerie could work at low wage jobs during her school years and then leave after graduation. Perhaps she saw Freddy as a means to that end. But what about the rebellious Ethan?
His life in Farnham was unstable which had to make him feel insecure and very much a failure. Even his brief tenure in the Army had been a bust. Eric couldn't imagine how anyone could fail in a military career where they told you how to do everything. But Ethan was the town's problem and it would be best to let them deal with him.
The brief afternoon thunderstorm sent people scurrying off the beach and into the boardwalk businesses. The aisles of Playland were packed with wet tourists and their belongings which left a wet musty smell in the air. It was almost too much to bear, and then the sun returned.
The cleanup crew went into action and Eric joined them as Bobby ran the bumper cars. Lots of soda cans and candy wrappers littered the floor as the herd of people left behind their debris before moving on. There had just been too many people to stop the eating and drinking.
"Hey, I found twenty dollars," Michelle said. "Do you suppose I can keep it?"
Eric laughed. "No way to find the owner so I suppose it's yours."
Eric replaced the plastic liners on several trash cans and hauled the garbage out the rear door to the dumpster. In the distance he could hear sirens, this time to the north side of town. Now what…was the whole weekend going to hell?
A liquor store robbery and now a smash-and-grab run through a mini-mall jewelry store Eric was told. The six culprits wore ski masks and gloves but the cops were pretty sure the young men were all white. They escaped on foot into the neighborhood behind the mall and vanished.
Mr. Connors was visibly upset since the owners of these targeted businesses were well known to him. It was unfortunate that the police were hampered by the mass of people in town, but Eric was sure that had been part of Ethan's plan…if it was Ethan…there was no proof.
Bobby didn't think the boardwalk businesses would be targeted since there were just too many people around. Playland was a cash business but each of the ticket booths had drop boxes where large sums were placed throughout the day. A holdup would yield only quarters and no one in their right mind would try to lug those away.
But even as Bobby and Eric traded off the bumper car post they both noticed the increased presence of police uniforms in and around the crowd of tourists.
"Does Farnham have that many policemen?" Eric asked.
"Dad says the Mayor hired some off duty guys from Georgetown and Dover to augment the force for this weekend. I'll bet he's glad he did," Bobby said. "You know Dad thinks the fireworks would be a great cover for a robbery. He's even considering closing the arcade before it gets dark."
"He is? Wow, that would be an awful difficult thing to do with all these people…" Eric stopped in mid-sentence. "Hey, isn't that Ethan's brother over there by the side door?"
Bobby looked over and his mouth dropped open. "Yeah, it sure looks like Nelson. The guy must be crazy…what is he doing here?"
"If anything he's looking for Freddy," Eric said. And they watched the young man head across the arcade and walk right up to Freddy.
There was an exchange of words, and then Freddy smiled. Nelson shook his head and continued to talk, then it was Freddy's turn to shake his head. Nelson shrugged, but then he stuck out his hand and they shook before the guy turned and left the arcade.
"Okay, I want to know what that was all about," Bobby said.
"I'll go ask," Eric said.
"Nelson is Val's younger brother," Freddy explained. "He loves his big sister and doesn't follow Ethan's lead. She sent him here with a message about meeting me tonight. Val says Ethan will be out looking for me tonight and she's worried."
"You ought to cancel your date," Eric said.
"Not going to happen…Ethan will not rule our lives. Besides, we're planning to go down to Rehoboth for the fireworks since things around here seem unfriendly."
"That might be a good move."
"Look, Val says she is going to tell me something important tonight and maybe it will explain all of this. She turns eighteen next week and I don't want all this crap following us around after that."
"This relationship is beginning to sound serious," Eric said.
"Maybe it is, but I don't have any experience to compare it with...I just can't accept Ethan's crap, and neither can Val."
"Let's hope we both have a quiet evening," Eric said.
The afternoon waned but the crowd did not. Eric didn't see how Mr. Connors could possibly close early and no official word was passed around. Eric took his last shift on the bumper cars and was relieved by Michelle at five-thirty.
He ran up to the dorm for a shower and a change of clothing. It felt good to get out of the Playland uniform and become part of the masses swelling the boardwalk. Granny would have a full house this weekend and Alan had warned him this picnic would not be some small affair.
Eric's parents had hosted some large neighborhood parties, filling the yard with tents and tables. Those were nothing compared to the events held at their country club, but Mrs. Pierpont would probably go all out if she had guests in attendance.
He reached the end of the boardwalk and could already see the street was filled with cars. The peaks of several tents could be seen poking above the walls as Eric made his way across the dunes to the front gates. More cars lined the driveway and the sound of music drifted across the yard.
Eric walked around Mrs. Pierpont's house and encountered dozens of guests standing on the lawn or sitting in chairs under the tents.
"Eric," a voice called and Beetle came running up and grabbed him around the waist. "We've been looking for you."
"Oh, you have? Who is we?"
"Mom and Dad, Granny and Alan…and me," Beetle said with a laugh. "Is Freddy coming?"
"I'm not sure…he has a date with Valerie."
Beetle grinned. "Valerie, huh…she's a foxy lady."
"Eric, so glad you could come," Mrs. Pierpont said as she approached and Beetle turned away to go play with the other kids. "I'm sure you had a busy day and I hope you’re hungry…dinner is just about ready to be served."
"Thank you for inviting me, Mrs. Pierpont. This looks like quite a party."
"You're always welcome in my home, Eric. As for this, just a few friends who live nearby, and of course the family." She paused for a moment. "Can I ask you something?"
"Certainly," Eric replied.
"Alan says that Freddy is dating a local girl. Do you think this is wise?"
"Valerie is a bright and intelligent young lady, Mrs. Pierpont. Having said that I think she also wants out of Farnham and sees Freddy as a means to that end. I can't say that's a bad decision since her family is problematic, but Freddy seems quite taken by her and I wish them the best of luck."
Granny smiled. "You're a good friend to Freddy…let's hope things work out for them."
A handsome man in a white chef's outfit approached and gave her a slight bow. "The dinner buffet is ready to be served, Mrs. Pierpont."
"Thank you, Roberto." She looked at Eric. "Shall we?" She said, and Eric took her arm like a gentleman and lead her towards the tables under the nearest tent.
Most people had already chosen their place at the tables and it was at Granny's table that Eric saw Alan and his family gathered. Greetings were exchanged and then everyone moved towards the serving line.
"Some picnic, huh?" Alan laughed.
"Who are all these people?" Eric asked.
"Locals in Granny's circle of friends, mostly business owners in the country club set and her ladies in the summer bridge club. Let's go stand in line."
Eric had spent the summer consuming pizza and the salads offered on the Connors dinner menu, but what he saw on the buffet now was calorie rich and cholesterol laden. Oh what the hell, even if he chose carefully he would still have to run some extra miles tomorrow.
With a plate full of food, he returned to the table and laughed when he saw Alan's choices.
"Lobster and shrimp, I didn't know you were a seafood junkie," Eric said.
"I'm from New England, this is what we eat. I see you still have that steak and salad mentality."
"I'm saving my calories for the desserts," Eric said. "Did you see all those goodies?"
"Oh yeah, I'm with you on that."
Conversation around the table was polite with Alan's parents asking Eric about his summer. But then the talk turned to the sudden crime wave that had hit the town this past week. Eric didn't want to name the Talbot boys and their friends because it would cast doubt on Valerie's family.
"Enough," Granny finally said. "We have children at the table...can we please talk about something else?"
"How long is the fireworks show?" Beetle asked.
"As I recall from last year it's about an hour long, but it always has a big loud ending," Granny said.
Dinner ended and people got up to circulate. The catering staff went around collecting dishes and clearing the tables. Eric could see that some extra chairs had been set up on the lawn facing the beach for the fireworks display, but that was still some time away.
"Shall we toss a few balls?" Alan asked.
"Sure, we still have some daylight," Eric said.
Alan led Eric up to his room and took the lacrosse sticks down off the wall.
"These look worn, have they been used before?" Eric asked.
"Oh yeah, they were used in the state championship game four years ago and I bought them from the school. So here's a helmet for you, our heads about the same size…no wisecracks from you."
Eric laughed. "I wasn't going to say a thing." He donned the helmet and snapped the chin strap in place while Alan shoved several balls in the pocket of his shorts. "Fits just fine…shall we go show off?"
Since most of the guests were still around the tents behind Granny's house they moved over behind the Morgan house which gave them some safe playing space. Eric tossed a ball straight up and then made a swooping catch before passing it off to Alan.
"The stick has a nice feel," Eric said as Alan tossed the ball back.
"I haven't really had the chance to use them. My dad tried to play catch with me but I spent all my time chasing the ball since he has no ball handling ability," Alan laughed. "Know any trick moves?"
Eric snagged the ball out of the air and ran a route that turned him ninety degrees from Alan's position, and then he whipped the stick behind his back and the ball flew straight at Alan.
"Yeah, man," Alan yelled, catching the ball and sending it right back to Eric who grinned.
"Oh, sweet…you have a fast return."
They ran up and down the yard, moving the ball away from the small group who had gathered to watch their play. Beetle, his sisters and two cousins started yelling something and Eric turned to see what was going on. That's when he saw Freddy running through the tents with Valerie in tow.
"Freddy," Eric yelled, but then he paused when he saw the look of terror on Freddy's face. "What…?" And then Ethan and several of his buddies rounded the corner of the house.
"Run," Freddy yelled, waving Beetle and the girls towards the house.
Ethan was carrying a baseball bat, the others were armed with various sticks and one even carried a shovel. There was no doubt that they were after Freddy and Ethan didn't seem to care that he had invaded Granny's property.
The various adults scattered, grabbing children and dodging the tables and chairs Ethan and his boys tossed out of the way. Valerie pulled away from Freddy and turned on her brother only to be shoved to the ground. Eric wasn't sure what to do, but he had a familiar weapon in his hand and he used it.
Ethan was only thirty feet away when Eric whipped the sick around and sent the ball flying. A five-ounce solid rubber ball left the crease of his stick at almost ninety miles per hour and covered the distance to Ethan's chest in just over a second. The baseball bat went flying as Ethan hit the ground.
One of the other boys who turned his attentions on Eric made about three steps before Alan's ball hit him upside the head and he was out of the fight. Freddy had made it to the back door of the Morgan's house with one of the Talbot brothers close on his heels when several of the adult guests grabbed the boy.
Eric was ready to continue the fight against the remaining three thugs when there was a mighty explosion of sound. He turned to look at Granny's house where he saw her jacking another round in the shotgun she carried.
"Next one of you scumbags that moves gets it in the legs," she yelled, pointing the gun at Ethan who had managed to crawl to his knees. "On the ground…now."
There was no arguing with Granny. Eric was sure she would have fired another round, but she never got the chance. Sirens were fast approaching and within several minutes there were cops all over the yard. Eric felt a hand drop on his shoulder.
"Tough old lady, huh?" Alan said, nodding towards his grandmother.
"She scared the hell out of me," Eric said.
"Senior Skeet Champion at the country club. Ethan is just lucky she fired that first shot towards the ocean."
The thugs were handcuffed by the police, all except for Ethan who was going to need an ambulance. They were awaiting transport when State Police Detective Parker arrived on the scene.
"What is it with this family?" Parker asked Alan. "Am I going to spend the rest of the summer with you boys?"
"No, sir…we were just defending Freddy."
Parker looked over at Ethan who was being lifted onto a gurney by the ambulance attendants.
"And what did you do to him?" Parker asked.
"He came at me with a baseball bat so I defended myself," Eric said. "What would you have done?"
"I would have shot him, but what exactly did you do?"
Eric handed Parker a lacrosse ball. "Solid rubber, hard as hell…I hit him in the chest with a full swing of my stick. Knocked the air out of him, probably broke a rib or two."
"Lacrosse, huh…must be a tough game," Parker said giving the ball a squeeze only to discover it was like a smooth rock.
Alan and Eric both grinned. "Yes, sir, it sure is," Eric said.
Darkness had fallen while the cops interviewed everyone and Eric was startled by further explosions…the fireworks display had begun.
It was hardly a good conclusion to the Fourth of July celebration, but Eric stood in the yard with Alan to watch the display. Freddy and Valerie had left for the beach to join the crowds of tourists. Eric didn't know how this episode would change things in Farnham, he just knew something else would happen.