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When The Nights Were Long

Duncan R. Smith

March 2021


An enthusiastic reader (with a PhD in Eng. Lit.) described the story as "The Big Chill" becomes a "Grisham thriller."  Two of Charlie Sanderson's best friends and great college buddies become involved in an intrigue that threatens their lives and ultimately Charlie's, as he tracks them and what leads he has to Panama, the Caribbean, South America.

The novel opens in 1995: a grisly murder of a bank examiner in Providence intrigues a state's attorney in Providence, the protagonist Charlie Sanderson, who speaks with a suspect on his way to a long weekend reunion of his best friends from college in Newport.  He is stirred by memories:

Cut to graduation day, June 2, 1972.  Charlie and his four best friends graduate from UVA and head up to the Newport mansion, Four Winds, owned by the grandmother of Charlie's best friend, George Spaulding, where they are joined by dates and others for a week long bash before they scatter to their futures.  Charlie spends the summer working in Newport, while he and Julia Hoffman fall head over heels in love.  Julia's father owned many businesses in Chile but was forced into exile by Allende's confiscations and false accusations.  Come September, Julia flies to Chile to visit a dying friend and to do an errand for her brother, Martin.  Chile is in chaos.

Cut back to 1995:  George works in a senior position at a Newport bank, to which he has managed to land huge checking and trust accounts, mostly held in the names of offshore trusts and corporations, but a large, troubled loan creates jeopardy for the bank.  It also creates jeopardy for the heretofore anonymous owners of the offshore trusts, etc.

As Charlie hunts for his friends, he begins to wonder: who's hunting him?


[June 1972.  The week long bash for the graduates has begun. George takes his friends to a party at another Newport mansion.  Lucy, one of the first women ever to graduate from the the College at UVA, is engaged to "Quad," about to join the Navy, and she adores Charlie and George.  Joe Turlik is another great college friend.

Charlie's father passed away a few years earlier, and his mother succumbed to cancer in April.  She kept her distance, perhaps to spare Charlie, perhaps to spare herself, during her bout.  Charlie will always remain closer to George and his grandmother than anyone in his own family. When Charlie gets to the party at another Newport mansion:]

    Arriving, Charlie grabbed a bottle of beer from a cooler by the front door, sat side-saddle on a stone lion, and thumbed through a magazine.  He was still there when a small Mercedes - a well polished maroon two-seater with the top down - pulled into the driveway and parked at the far end of a line of cars.  A girl hopped out of the car, tucked the tails of a frayed dress shirt into her blue jeans, and started towards the house.  Her figure was exquisite, her face tanned, with brown eyes that sparkled beneath dark eyebrows.  She lingered at the bottom of the stairs before climbing them and wandering inside.  Charlie watched other strangers arrive before he, too, moved into the house.

   George was perched in a corner of the living room where Charlie joined him and pointed out the girl in the frayed shirt.  She was talking to George's date.  "Who's that?"

   "Talking to the witch?"  George frowned at the sight of his date, with whom he'd been feuding.  "Julia Hoffman, I think.  Her father owns half of Chile.  Or used to.  What with Allende."  George continued the briefing.  Members of that country's small power elite, they sent their children to American boarding schools and colleges. The family had fled to the United States soon after Allende took office, when their businesses were expropriated by the socialists.  George presumed the family was stuck in the U.S. unless, of course, something happened to Allende.

   "I guess they got pretty well screwed over," George said, "although they rented the Beckman house for the summer.  Her father, he knows everyone, not just Newport.  Nixon, Rockefeller, Pell, of course, the Mellons.  C'mon.."

    George took Charlie over to the two women, who didn't stop talking.  "God, you talk about conspicuous consumption," George's date hissed.  "I mean, it's like this whole town must have this big royalty complex.  Everything here's over the top.  Wow, all this excess, and there's a war going on."

  "In Newport?"  George recoiled with mock alarm.

   "Very nearly funny."

   "All this piety," George complained, "from you the ultimate party-hopper.  Anyhow, you can't take Newport too seriously."

   Anxious to interrupt their argument, Charlie smiled at Julia Hoffman.  "What do you think?"

   Julia looked at a huge breakfront on the near wall, the shelves of which housed a vast collection of miniature figurines of cats.  "I guess the question is, how much do you really need?" Her diction precise, Julia had an accent that, subject as it was to a variety of influences, was hard to place.  Certainly, it didn't sound Latin.  "Isn't there the chance," she continued, "that less is more?

   Charlie stared at her.  "You believe that?"


   "Less is more?"

   "It can be."

    "And the Mercedes you arrived in? It's a two-seater, not a four-seater.  So I guess you're making the big sacrifice and getting by with a little less."

   "It's not my car."

   "I didn't mean it .. like that," Charlie stammered.

   "How did you mean it?"

   "Uhh...   A joke?   Less, not more of one."

    "It's my brother's car," Julia admitted, letting Charlie off the hook.  "Daddy would buy me one if I let him."

   "You're Martin's sister, right?" George asked.

   "Is he here?  He's supposed to be."

   "I haven't seen him."

    Her brow furrowed with aggravation, George's date suddenly started off.  George grimaced at Charlie, made a crook of a finger, hooked his own collar, and dragged himself after his date.

   "So what do you think?" Julia asked Charlie.  "This town.  It's beautiful, but a little creepy.  Some of the biggest mansions turned into museums."

   "They're cold, right?"  Charlie also found it odd, the fact that some of the earliest mansions were such elaborate showcases of artisanship that the only way to preserve them was to turn them into museums.

   "So?"  Julia smiled.  "Less is more?"

    "I'm not the one to ask."


    Charlie scratched his head.  His life had been one of real privilege, as had Julia's, no doubt.  "What I mean is, if you ask someone who has nothing, if you ask some beggar in Calcutta if less is really more, he's likely to laugh at you."

    "Are you laughing at me?"


    As Julia studied him, Charlie's heart sank.  She was uncommonly beautiful; she was looking for a simple conversation.  He figured he'd blown it.

   "I suppose."  With a polite nod, Julia turned to greet a girl approaching her.  The party dragged on for another few hours until somebody suggested continuing it at a bar in the harbor area.

   Charlie gave Joe Turlik and his date a ride into town and parked near the designated bar.  Inside, musical instruments were arranged around a stage, but the band was nowhere to be seen.  Charlie was about to join some of the people from the party when he noticed Julia Hoffman sitting at the adjacent table.  She grinned at his hesitation.

   "It's okay."  Julia tapped the chair that backed against hers.  "You can sit.  I'll buy you a beer.  A big one.  More, not less, right?"

   "If you want..?"

    "I want to get this right.  I understand your point.  There are two kinds of silos, missile and grain, and some of them you want full.  My point was, some things don't matter."

   "What does?"

    "Some music, some books, some people, some ideals.  I'm working on my list - I want it to be long, but full of the kind of things you can take with you."

    "When you die?"

    Julia laughed.  "When you travel.  Things you can keep in your head, I guess."

    Soon after Julia returned with the drinks, Lucy and Quad joined them.  They talked for a while before the band started up, the keyboard player leading his group into a loud, extended version of "Light My Fire."  Conversation was difficult, so they took the floor.

   Charlie considered himself a good dancer; he was well-coordinated, limber, and could find the rhythm of most any song.  Yet Julia's dancing was a revelation: her feet were quick, her hips lithe, her spirit one of joyful abandon.  She cut loose to the music with a dancer's grace and a child's energy.  Her habit was to end each song with a twirl, an arm extended and snaked across Charlie's shoulders, the delicate flesh on the underside of her arm tingling the skin on his neck.

   When the band finally played a slow song, Julia slipped in close and let Charlie steer her through a lazy two-step, the two of them shuffling back and forth on a corner of the floor.  By the time the song finished she had her arms around his neck, and his arms were wrapped around her waist.

   "I have a question," Julia said, pulling her head back.  She glanced at his group of friends before continuing.  "Are you .. seeing anyone?"

   "Are you?"

   "I asked first."


   Julia didn't volunteer her own answer.  Instead, she placed her cheek back against Charlie's, and he was left to imagine her smile, which he hoped explained the shift of her jaw on his shoulder.

   On the band's next break, Charlie bought a beer for Joe, who was standing nearby and flashing empty pockets that hung out of his pockets, then looked for Julia.  He found her talking to some guy in a suit by the front door.  The phrases that drifted to Charlie, as he approached, were French, not Spanish, the language of Julia's homeland.  Julia noticed Charlie and interrupted.

  "Wait.  Martin, this is Charlie."  And to Charlie she continued, "This is my brother, Martin."

   "I was practicing," Martin said, extending a handshake to Charlie.  "Julia's French is much better than mine."

   "Martin's got a meeting tomorrow.  With some Haitians.  God, will that jerk be there?"  Julia's lips curled with disgust.  "Papa Doc?"

   "I hope not."  Martin made the sign of the cross.  "Or there may be something to Haitian voodoo.  Duvalier's been dead a year.  His son's in charge.  Baby Doc.  My meeting's just with some bankers."

   "I'm going as a translator," Julia explained.  "God, they don't speak true French, do they?"

   "The rich ones do," Martin assured her.  "Except the meeting's really early.  In the city."

    The jukebox started booming, so Julia leaned close to Charlie and shouted.  "I'm sorry.  If I didn't have this stupid meeting so early.."

   Julia started to walk out of the bar with Martin, but stopped and spun to Charlie.  "Hey?  Will I see you..?  She pointed at the floor, then her watch, and mouthed some instructions.  When she was gone, Charlie worried that he might have misunderstood.  He thought, and dearly hoped, that the words had been:  Same Time?  Tomorrow?

   Charlie spent the next twenty-some hours worried that he had misunderstood. His breathing remained a bit shallow until he was crossing the street near the bar the next evening and saw Julia step out of her brother's car, who honked a salute as he left.

   "Thanks for coming," Julia said, taking his arm and walking beside him.  I wasn't sure if.."

   "Me, neither."

   "I made Martin wait.  In case you stood me up."  Julia's laugh was at her own expense, and it was perfectly contagious.

   Charlie snuck a look at her, then another: she was more beautiful than he'd allowed himself to remember.  The wind rustled her hair, a few locks trailing away from a slight widow's peak and sweeping across her forehead.  Pale and soft, her lips were perfectly symmetrical, except for the tiny heart-shaped indent that centered the upper lip.

[Though the party of the classmates ends five days later, with great friends scattering to unknowable futures, Charlie spends the summer working at a Newport law firm and Julia works nearby, and the two of them spend every night together and fall madly in love. Julie and Charlie plan to live together while she finishes a semester of college and he starts at Columbia's law school. However, Martin sends Julia on a political errand when she goes back to Chile to visit an ailing former governess and which creates difficulties.

   [Back to 1995. Charlie will discover the murder of the bank examiner is likely related to other murders. Meanwhile, he tries to help George with his bank's troubled loan. George has his dear friends to one of their frequent reunions at Four Winds, the Newport mansion that is now quite rundown and that George hopes to sell.  Friday evening, Joe gives Quad some hazy responses to questions about his job, which George has helped him secure.  When Joe heads to the bar, Quad turns to Lucy and Charlie:]

   "His job?  Do you know what Joe does?"

   "Not exactly."

   I don't think he does either."

    "It's his birthday."  Lucy frowned at both of them.  "Not that I'd expect you'd remember."

    "How do you do it?" Charlie asked.

    "I not only own a calendar, I actually look at it."


    "I bought him a present.  You two can chip in.  But first, get everyone moving.  It's dinner-time."

   Once the plates for the main course had been cleared, the dining room went pitch black as Lucy flipped off the lights.  After several seconds a violet glow flickered from a side table and slowly suffused the room with unnatural light that transformed everything into lavender and phosphorescent lint.

  "My God, a black light!  How long's it been..?"

  "Where in hell did you find it?"

   "Joe!" someone else hollered, familiar with Joe's fascination with black lights during his college days.

   Lucy flipped the room lights back on and unplugged the black light, which was stuck into a birthday cake like a candle.  "To our original mushhead," Lucy said, raising the tubular light in a toast.

   At Lucy's insistence, Joe stood up while the other guests sang "Happy Birthday."   Lucy presented the black light to Joe and announced that she had another gift for "Popeye the Sailor Man."  The joke, which everyone understood, was that Joe had recently been forced to do some yachting with clients: Joe, who hated boating, who claimed to have once gotten seasick on a dinghy ferrying him from a dock to a yacht.  Although not very expensive, the watch was all tricked out with fancy dials, with a chronometer and a depth gauge and an inset face that displayed Greenwich Mean Time.

    Joe kissed Lucy, then threw an arm around Charlie.  "You guys," Joe mumbled.  "You're the goddamn best.  No one better.  Never goddamn will be."

    [Late that night a dog starts barking when strangers visit George in his den, but the party continues the next day and night.  Come Sunday morning:]

    Charlie was the only one awake when Joe left for his nine o'clock flight to Miami, with  a connection to Grand Cayman.  Joe said he'd booked the flight late and dreaded having to fly on a small commuter airline over Cuba.  He was old enough to remember the mayhem created by the Cuban missile crisis; it felt stupid, he told Charlie, to bisect Cuban airspace with or without Castro's permission.

                     Grand Cayman Island

   Joe landed on Grand Cayman without incident.  After collecting his luggage, he hailed a cab and headed for the harbor.  The cab traveled west alongside a tranquil turquoise bay before passing through George Town, the thriving capital of the Crown colony.  The island's prosperity never failed to amaze Joe, the island not much more than a sun-bleached sandbar made affluent by its status as a tax haven, almost six hundred banks on an island with only thirty-five thousand people.  The principal business of the island was sheltering large sums of money from the confiscatory raids of high-tax governments elsewhere: business was good.

   Once again bound for an onboard meeting on board a boat, Joe was making his fifth trip to the island in ten months.  It was the worst part of his job, the shipboard meetings.  He hated being out on the open water, hated his unshakeable dread of the ocean.  The people with whom he met - Joe assumed they were the owners of the holding companies and offshore trusts that employed him - preferred to conduct meetings on their yachts, no doubt because remote locations helped keep the conversations private.  These were people who had their yachts periodically swept for bugs.

   Joe heard the wail of sirens, a crescendo rising from the waterfront, before the taxi stalled in a traffic jam abreast of the harbor road.  Some catastrophe - a slew of red lights blinking and flashing, a few ambulances crunching past on the gravel of the road's shoulder - had turned the normally sleepy waterfront into a war zone.  When five minutes had passed and traffic hadn't budged, the driver got out and ambled forward to investigate.  Minutes later he was back with a report: a capsized trawler had been towed into the harbor; more than a hundred bodies had been discovered in the ship's cargo hold.  "Dem Haiti folk, mahn!  Dey jump on anyteen' dat float," the driver said, before suggesting that Joe would make better time walking.

   Joe paid the fare, slung his suitcase over his shoulder, and walked around the barricade and the drowsy policeman who was stationed at the entrance to the harbor road.  Spectators were everywhere, crowding the end of the breakwater, perched on the roof of a supply store, scaling the pilot's cabin on a sport-fishing boat.  The capsized trawler had been towed to a cargo dock at one of the piers, where lines from hydraulic lifts had been attached to it and dozens of emergency workers were scurrying about.  Drawn to the scene, unrestrained, Joe approached the cargo dock until he got an unobstructed view of the temporary morgue.  Twenty corpses, just disgorged from the boat and grotesquely swollen, were laid side by side.  The disarray was such that it was impossible to tell who, if anyone, was in charge, but a man in uniform was yelling at one of the lift operators, whose winch was raising the stern of the boat. Suddenly, with a great metallic groan, the trawler shifted, the stern rising eight or more feet, the bow dipping a proportionate amount, a huge wave splashing the dock, the emergency workers leaping out of the way of whipsawing cables, curses howled the length of the ship while the boat rocked and settled into a new and tenuous balance.  A few portholes were now visible along the waterline of the vessel's stern.  Joe saw it the same time the crowd did, the instant that a low gasp rippled through the bystanders.  Rigid with death, its fingers spread in a last appeal, an arm was stuck out of a porthole; in his struggle to avoid drowning, a man had been trapped, an arm crushed and pinned as the boat rolled and uncountable tons of waters pushed against and through the porthole.

   The stink of death was unavoidable, the chemical reek of decay unscrubbed by even a slight breeze.  There were no survivors.  The talk was that there may have been a mutiny, hundreds of desperate people crammed into a boat manned by a crew of six; the trawler was presumed to have capsized in a storm three days earlier.  Bodies of other victims were floating up on the beach at Spanish Bay.  No one understood why the ship, terribly overcrowded with its cargo of desperate people, would have steamed due west from Haiti rather than north, but bystanders speculated that the captain must have intended to to circumnavigate Cuba, risking a long passage to Florida in hopes of avoiding the Coast Guard dragnet.

   Next to Joe, a woman was weeping, all the while whispering a prayer for those who had drowned.  Joe had never had much sympathy for the Haitians.  True, it was a nation that had been plundered by its rulers, but its peasants ravaged the republic too, the hillsides cut and burned for the pennies that charcoal cubes brought, the rootless topsoil left to wash into the ocean, the black magic of voodoo given the stature of science, the people breeding so often in the midst of unspeakable poverty and disease.  Now, confronted by the sight of half-starved victims and stunned by the realization that these men and women had voluntarily undertaken a terrible risk for a modest chance at survival, Joe began to understand their plight, the ineluctable and godawful horror of it.  When Joe was a boy, he had often sung a hymn in church for sailors lost at sea.  Joe wished that he could remember the words, the haunting tune, that he could summon some prayer for the souls laid out like cargo on the dock, but the hymn was lost to him.

   It was a bad omen, this shipwreck.  Anxious, Joe hustled away from the drama unfolding there and hurried to a pier a hundred yards away, where pleasure craft and sport-fishing boats were tied up.  He found the cabin cruiser that would ferry him to the day's meeting and stepped aboard, but didn't recognize the skipper, a guy not much more than half his age.  The skipper was curious about what Joe had seen: had Joe learned anything about the tragedy or had the chance to discuss it with the harbor police?  Joe pointed to his new watch; he hadn't had the time to discuss anything with anyone.  The skipper had Joe put all his personal stuff - phone, wallet, everything - in a locker as he wasn't allowed them at meetings, and ordered the deckhands to cast off.

   The boat quickly steamed out of the harbor and turned north, Seven Mile Beach visible off its starboard bow, until they lost sight of land altogether.  After an hour or so, when they still hadn't rendezvoused with the yacht, the skipper cut his engines and the boat slowed to an aimless drift.  Puzzled, Joe stood up as the two deckhands approached, then asked the skipper.  "Where's the damn boat?"

   [When Joe is late returning from his trip, Charlie tries to unravel the mystery, which becomes even more urgent when George goes into hiding.  All the old friends help, insofar as they can, but Charlie - and at a point Julia -are both the pursuers and the pursued - as the hunt for Joe and George moves repeatedly offshore and back to Rhode Island.]