Chapter 1: Three Bodies and Cheap Beer
I felt the blade pinch at the testy bits around my mouth and once again pondered the wisdom of buying the generic disposable razors. Looking in the mirror I noticed I had shaved every area except that bastard piece just under my nose. It reminded me of my ex-girlfriend Kayla who’d walked in on me in a similar position years ago and asked, “You’re not gonna leave that are you?” To which I replied, “Yes. Yes I am.” And goose-stepped past her nearly forgetting to shave off the postage stamp ’stache before heading to work.
Kayla…great legs…good kisser. And yet somehow we drifted apart. Oh well…I was already running late.
“Do your taxes?” It was Housecoat Helen. My chatty, downstairs neighbor.
“Why, is it April 14th yet?” I cracked sarcastically, stepping into our shared vestibule.
She held up the early edition of The Boston Herald in answer.
“Crap,” I replied louder than I wanted. Then considered that I should really do better hallway reconnaissance before venturing out in the morning.
I smiled what I, but not her, thought was politely and pushed past and thru the door. Maybe it was that third Natty Ice I downed for “breakfast”, but I actually noticed the air smelled fresh and spring had arrived, dappling the leaves of the New England maples with subtle reds and browns. I briefly considered whether the presence of the word “dappling” in my thoughts may be indicating I had a burgeoning problem “breakfast”-wise. However, time was of the essence and it seemed to be more a dosage issue than full blown dipsomania so I put the matter to rest as I made my way across the parking lot.
Into the Ford Falcon where I pulled the “Defroster Glove” from the hole in the dashboard. Wiped the windshield. And prayed like Hell she turned over. That accomplished I made my way downtown and took an angled spot on the Rockwell-esque main drag in front of a narrow, two-story, clapboard office building with ARTFIELD HERALD printed across the bay window. As I approached the paint peeling front door I noticed a piece of loose leaf paper with a large magic marker-ed “F” had been stuck to the window with a wad of gum right in front of the “A” in ARTFIELD. The price of being located just down the street from the Calvin Coolidge Middle School.
I left it flapping in the light breeze and made my way inside. I waved to, but tried not to look at, the new 19 year old receptionist with gravity defying breasts. The paper went to press today and I didn’t need any more distractions than the slight buzz I had currently. Copy Editor Gladys Nutwell was hunched over a laptop in the rear office area. She was sixty and serious in a New England Puritan at a witch burning kind of way. She was decked out in her usual, seasons be damned, outfit: long solid colored skirt, frilly blouse pinched at the neck by a pearl pin and shoes so sensible they probably had their own 401k. Her graying hair was pulled back with such severity it looked painful and with the deadline approaching she was a safe distance from a barrel of monkeys.
“How’s it going?” I asked, turning toward the coffee machine in the alcove kitchen.
“How do you think it’s going?” she spat…and we were off.
There was no milk in the mini fridge. Just some fancy looking creamer and the only place I wanted to be less than here was at a tiny café table in Vienna. So I left it black, but made it up to myself by leaning against a file cabinet where I could engage Gladys while still glimpsing at the receptionist in my peripheral vision. Her brown hair bounced as she spun in her swivel chair to answer a call. I pictured diving into it nose first and it smelling like new tennis balls. Then before I started creeping myself out even more I decided to get back to business.
“Did you see the Middle School-ers ‘F-bombed’ us again?” I asked Gladys.
“Yes, I noticed that,” she replied distractedly while shuffling through papers with her left hand.
“It’s not the crudeness I mind. It’s having to scrape the gum off the window every time.”
“Why not get Miss Magna Cum Perky of Secretarial School out there to do it?” Gladys sniffed, casting aspersions on a young lady who had done nothing but warm the cockles of my poor heart. Or the poor heart of my warm cockles…I wasn’t sure which.
I decided to take a different tack. “Is that the minutes of the Council meeting?”
She picked up the stapled pages which I now noted were covered in more red ink than my Freshman Chemistry midterm. “No, it’s Carol Hanselman’s weekly editorial. She musta caught that 60 Minutes piece on Campaign Finance reform and she turned in 1200 words in defense of the Citizen’s United decision and money in politics.”
“No national stuff. We’re a local paper. Bad enough we agree to publish her rants about Freeholders and County Sheriffs every November. Isn’t there a pothole on her street or unkempt lawn in her neighborhood she could go off about?”
“Consider it killed,” replied Gladys with what qualified as a smile on “go to press” day. “I had already cut it down to nothing removing all the crap about the Koch Brothers. I figured that would rub you the wrong way.”
“Actually my problem with the Koch Brothers is more that with a billion dollars they could be renting out The Louvre for a private viewing, riding dirt bikes up the Pyramids at Giza, playing a game of A-S-S against the Great Wall of China. Hell, I’d be swinging from a chandelier in The Bellagio penthouse getting ready to do a Triple Lindy into an Olympic-sized pool filled with Dom Perignon and hookers. I mean the world is your oyster and you’re worried about getting an anti-labor candidate elected in the third Iowa congressional district encompassing the greater part of Cedar Rapids? It’s not the politics that bother me; it’s the utter lack of imagination.”
“What are we gonna use for filler?” Gladys asked, knocking me off my momentary soapbox.
“I’ll come up with something,” I replied, sipping the bitter coffee. “Lord knows they pay me enough.”
Gladys shrugged, tossed the pages on top of her overflowing trash bin and added, “While you’re at it Mrs. Kleinschmidt called saying she was sick all week and won’t have a social column for us.”
“Fabulous. Oh, the glamorous life of a small press editor.”
“Hey, you coulda wrote for a city paper, remember. But you were no good at taking orders. So you came back home. Now this is your job. You chose it.”
“Maybe so,” I responded, shaking my head. “But, trust me, starving came in a close second.”
Gladys looked routinely unimpressed. “Just get me something for Hanselman,” she intoned, rotating her swivel chair to attack the overstuffed IN basket on the other side of her desk. “I’ll go through the notices folks sent in and fudge up what passes for a social column round here.”
I looked down at my still quarter filled coffee cup then tossed it in the kitchen area trashcan thinking I really need to get a flask for days like these. Meanwhile Gladys went back to her keyboard and I headed into my tiny, cluttered office to look over some last minute advertising copy for this week. Next I gave a once over to our meager finances and fully depressed decided to phone the Town Clerk.
Miriam answered in a voice so husky it should’ve been pulling a sled. I was momentarily titillated until I remembered she was pushing 70 and built like an H-Back. I told her it was Luke Williams calling. “Is Rich in?”
“Not yet honey,” she purred.
“Any revelations from the Council Meeting last night,” I asked, hoping for a surprise that could fill Carol Hanselman’s space.
“Nothing really. I have the notes. Should I read them to you?”
I flipped through the junk mail on my desk until I uncovered the Victoria’s Secret catalog that I noticed had gotten mixed in by mistake. Locating a particularly buxom, bustier-ed brunette I bid her go on. Then I put the voice to the picture until it seemed silly that she should be kneeling on a four-poster bed licking her finger while discussing repairs to the town’s septic system. So I thanked Miriam and signed off.
Out in the office I saw Sandy Molesworth, a part-time reporter, enter. Her husband owned the biggest car dealership in the county and she was dressed in a full length fur in defiance of the rising temps. Despite the fact that she thought she was the second coming of Ida Tarbell and Martha Gellhorn rolled into one I tolerated her. If only for the fact she was happy to go up to Montpelier to cover the state legislature. Gladys claimed this was because she was sleeping with half the Assembly, but considering our sparse staffing I couldn’t afford to look a gift whore in the mouth. When I noticed Gladys stop typing I knew something important was up. So I left the mystery of Victoria’s ongoing secret unsolved and walked out to see what was prompting Sandy’s unscheduled visit.
As I sidled up behind Gladys’ left shoulder Sandy was just getting to the point. She seemed surprised at our ignorance though I’m sure her already subterranean estimation of our abilities couldn’t go any lower.
“So you really didn’t hear? Neither of you?” She placed her hands on her hips, but I fixed her with the sternest glower I could muster through the Natty Ice and caffeine. She caught her eyes mid-roll and continued. “Out on Logansport Road, a murder-suicide…”
“Holy shit on a shingle,” Gladys exploded. Sandy stopped and we both stared dumbfounded. It was like catching your grandmother watching porn. Worse it was like catching your grandmother doing porn.
Murders just didn’t happen here; let alone one with a suicide kicker. “Who was killed?” I asked.
“Ted Sheehan, he was Vice-Principal at the high school.”
I only knew of Ted Sheehan, but it was still sad and shocking. “I can’t believe it. What happened?”
Sandy fixed me with a smug, more informed than thou look. “Apparently he was dating an ex-student. Of legal age and all, but 16 years his junior. She was 23, he was 39. The girl’s father shot them both then killed himself.”
“A double murder!” It was Gladys again. “Son of an ass!!”
Though I was far from the touchy-feely type I put a hand on her shoulder to steady her while wondering if there was such a thing as shock-induced Tourette’s. “Poor Ted,” I managed. “I’d only ever heard good things about him.”
“I got the news from Bob Carpenter,” said Sandy, dropping the name of our district’s State Assemblyman and one of her probable lusty liaisons. “He’s a certified EMT. Picked it up on his scanner.”
She fixed me with a contemptuous stare as if I was derelict in my duty. When in actuality the last thing I wanted when I was trying to wind down with a Natty Ice and some Graham Greene was background static keeping me posted on every old bastard’s broken hip or police station donut run. “So who was the girl?”
“He didn’t get it. The signal wasn’t great and he missed some of the details. Isn’t your brother-in-law on the police force?” I thought missing the names of the girl and her father sounded suspicious. But she re-upped on the disappointing looks when she reached the last part of the statement. I couldn’t blame her. Having a brother-in-law on the force should’ve be a directly pipeline to big news like this. Problem was she didn’t know my brother-in-law.
Patrolman Andrew O’Scanlon is a doughy, pasty, redheaded Irishman who could talk the balls off a brass monkey. To the extent that I was never really sure whether he won my sister’s heart through courtship or battering her into a conversational coma. And like most of the violently verbose there wasn’t a subject he couldn’t or wouldn’t discourse on with absolute certainty. I tolerated him for a while. First for her sake then for the sake of inside info, but after she leaked it that I referred to him as “the man Will Rogers never met” my pipeline to police secrets dried up toot-sweet. Though, on the bright side, my ears finally recovered from their dog toy-like consistency.
I checked Gladys again. She seemed to be coming back around. Her eyes no longer glazed over; her need to curse like a rapper in a strip club subsided. I then made my way back to my office and dialed the Artfield Police.
Sergeant Wally Reynolds was working the desk. I knew him well from years of playing softball and drinking beer together; the former really just an excuse to participate in the latter. “Hey Wally,” I said, trying to sound official. “Give me Andrew will ya.”
“Hi Luke, how’s it going,” he said too nonchalantly and it was instantly obvious something was up. “Oh, uh, your brother-in-law Andrew…uh, he’s not in yet. Wanna leave a message.”
Big city departments may have layers of faceless, monotone underlings to steer the curious away from sensitive matters, but that wasn’t going to fly here. “Listen Wally, I know about the double murder-suicide, no thanks to you guys. Now what’s going on? I’m about to hold up the press here. Gimme something!”
I’d always been the laid back type, but I saw an entire day of re-writes and re-arranging coming my way and it gave my voice an unfamiliar edge. This obviously took Wally by surprise and he switched to trying to level with me. “I’m sorry Luke, but we’re under orders not to talk about that. Straight from the Chief.”
The change in his voice indicated the aggressive approach was working so I forged ahead. “Cut the crap Wally. This isn’t the friggin’ Rockford Files. It’s ‘Buttfuck’, Vermont. We went to elementary school together. That night we won the league championship I saw you trip and pass out in your own vomit in front of Pete’s Pub…”
“Yeah and if I remember correctly,” he cut in; “you didn’t help me up, but stood over me yelling ‘officer down, officer down’.”
I suppressed a chuckle and kept on working him. “Yeah and you once kept Pete’s entertained with your impression of me crapping out on a head first slide and doing the Australian Crawl into third base. That’s what I’m talking about. Give me something to work with. You know I won’t throw you under the bus.”
It was his turn to hold back a laugh and he softened a bit. “OK. All I can say is try Glen Hubbard,” he said, mentioning the name of the former Artfield correspondent for the nearest daily paper the Burlington Bee. “He’s still in the loop. He might be able to point you to folks who can talk.”
It wasn’t much, but I couldn’t play tough-guy for long. “Thanks Wally I’ll give Hubbard a try. Next time I see ya at Pete’s remind me I owe you a beer.”
“I’ll remember. Sorry I couldn’t do more.”
He hung up and I shot my drawers for Hubbard’s home number. Found it under an old Molly Hatchet cassette. Noted that it didn’t feature “Flirtin’ With Disaster”, tossed it in the trash and dialed.
“Hello,” Hubbard answered on the first ring. It was early, but I knew he’d be up. He was a family man after all. Three kids from a first marriage, all grown now, and twins, under the age of 5, from a second marriage. He even wanted more, but wife number two was not a player. He joked that if she didn’t come around he’d dump her and start a third family that’s how much he enjoyed it. I shot back that his obituary was gonna look like the actor Tony Randall’s: “He leaves behind two daughters, ages 46 and 3.”
“Glen, it’s Luke Williams. Did I wake you?”
“Are you kidding? I’m surprised you’re up. Did Artfield repeal the 21st Amendment or is it a ‘go to press’ day?”
“You know I only drink at home alone these days…like George Thorogood. I really called to see if you heard anything about the murder-suicide last night.”
“In Artfield? Jee-sus,” he was shocked as the rest of us. “No. Not a thing. I can’t recall a homicide ever happening up there.”
“No one can and that’s the problem. Seems like the cops don’t know whether to shit or wind their wristwatches and so they’ve brought down the Cone of Silence. It’s like a goddamn Benedictine monastery up here,” I declared, stopping before I cross-referenced yet again. “Can you get me any info. Work a backchannel, call in a favor?”
“I’d be happy to, but I’m not on the beat anymore. Haven’t been for a month,” he said. “If you picked up the Bee once and a while and got your nose outta Evelyn Waugh you’d know that. I’m big time now; on the Editorial Board.”
“Who replaced you?”
“Some kid named Aden,” he spat the name out with disgust. “Green as freakin’ grass. Thinks he can do the job by text, email, Twitter and Google searches. Buncha BS if you ask me.”
“Yeah, outside of gambling and porn I don’t really get the purpose of this Internet thing.”
“OK, OK I’m a dinosaur. I get it. Listen I’ll reach out to the kid and see if he’s got anything, but don’t count it.”
“Thanks,” I replied, hanging up. Another dead end.
I leaned back and pondered the options. I could try my brother-in-law’s cell phone. Hope he picks up and via his congenital diarrhea of the mouth spit something out for me. But then just the way I phrased that in my head made the idea distasteful. I could go out to the scene of course, but this would take time. I’d have to push the press run back a day and the printer over in Farmingdale would no doubt charge us for the change of dates and rush job. Having just perused our meager monetary situation this was not an option I was anxious to embrace.
By now Gladys and Sandy had taken up spots in my doorway. For lack of better options I was in charge and they were looking for me to make the big call on 3rd and long. Instead I ran a draw and punted by calling my sister, Amy Williams O’Scanlon.
The phone ceased ringing, but there was no answer on the other end. “Hello…Amy…Hello,” I tried.
“Gimme that you little shit,” I heard, and remembered why her and Andrew were a couple. There was faraway laughter and then, “Yeah…hello?”
“Amy it’s Luke. Is Andrew there?”
“No. The phone rang in the middle of the night and he took off. Stopped back this morning for a thermos of coffee and was gone again. Barely said two words.”
“Lucky you,” I replied, then wondered what those ‘two words’ might have been. “Where’s your husband now?”
“Probably with anyone in the world except Will Rogers.”
“Ouch.” Things weren’t going well.
There was a crash in the background and Amy held the phone away to yell something unintelligible. “Luke, I’m juggling three kids, two dogs and a cat that likes to piss in my shoes here. If you want somethin’ tell me now so I can get back to livin’ the dream.”
Sarcasm apparently ran in the family. I got down to it. “I know about the murder of Ted Sheehan last night. I also know the cops aren’t talking. What did Andy say this morning? Who’s the girl?”
I shot the last question out as part plea and part opportunity to get me off her back. The sound of crying started up in the background and she gladly took the bait. “Monica Carson. She graduated in 2009 or 10. Her father had some weird name…Burly or Curly or something,” she said, her voice fading in and out, the phone obviously cradled between shoulder and ear. “You good, now.”
“Hardly,” I said, thinking about how I was going to sort this out on a deadline. “But thanks and don’t worry I didn’t hear it from you.”
“Yeah…” I think there was another “yeah” coming, but a dog barked, there was more crying, a thud and the line went dead. Suddenly I was looking more benignly on the prospects of chemical castration.
“Monica Carson,” I said looking up into the expectant eyes of Gladys and Sandy. “Class of 2009, I think.”
There was a stack of High School yearbooks on top of a filing cabinet in the corner. Before I could move Gladys had maneuvered her sensible shoes through the detritus of my office like a halfback running the tires at an NFL training camp. She deftly plucked 2009 from the stack and had flipped to Carson, Monica by the time she laid it out on my desk.
We all looked down at a fresh-faced blonde with the kinda freckled nose that is cute in a young woman, melanoma in an older one. The caption was the usual jumble of recognition for sports, clubs and awards over someday-to-be embarrassing shout outs to good times with friends and the music of Miley Cyrus and Jason Mraz. Though considering my own yearbook ramblings made Flock of Seagulls sound like the next Pink Floyd and included the ubiquitous Bruce Springsteen “…it’s a town full of losers and I’m pullin’ outta here to win…” line I was hardly one to cast aspersions.
Gladys was the first to make a connection between Monica and Ted Sheehan. “Flip to the ‘Clubs’ section,” she said, leaning in closer. “There they are…the Random Acts of Kindness Club. I remember Sheehan sending in blurbs about their fundraising for Darfur that we printed. And there’s Monica right next to him in the picture.”
This was an excellent catch by Gladys. It wasn’t so much that my memory was shot. It was that high schoolers were constantly collecting for one cause or another. I suspected it had more to do with how it looked it on their college applications than a real concern with victims of some disaster in a place they’d forget by the time they attended their first kegger. Plus they seemed to always set up outside the automatic doors of the supermarket where I didn’t need any help feeling guilty while wheeling out with half a dozen boxes of Yodels and Twinkies in my bags. “Donate to the Native American Tribal Council,” they’d beg. “I already gave at the casino,” I’d reply.
“Interesting, but it doesn’t really tell us much. It looks like half the student body was in the club,” I mused.
We flipped through more pages not really knowing what we were looking for. Time was wasting. A decision on the printer had to be made when Charlie Grissom, our photographer, came in, his comb-over blown to crap, and went straight for the coffee.
Cup poured he made his way over to the office and stood in the doorway next to Sandy. “Guess you know about the murder already. I picked it up on my scanner this morning and stopped over there on the way in.”
Sandy looked at me, eyebrow cocked. “What is this 1977? Do I also need a CB radio with a 17 foot antenna for my car?” I lamented. “Anyway, what’s going on out there Charlie?”
“Hard to say other than every cop in the force is there roaming the property.”
“Sounds like a good time to knock over the liquor store,” I joked to silence. “OK, what were you able to find out?”
“Not much. I got a few shots of the house and the commotion going on, but I couldn’t get closer than the street. They had so much yellow police tape running from tree to tree I thought Tony Orlando and Dawn were in town.”
If the comb over that had now settled into a soft serve ice cream swirl on top of his head had only partially given away Charlie’s advanced age that reference clinched it. He was still an excellent bloodhound though. Twenty-something years at an Albany paper had honed his instincts. Even in retirement he knew a good story and we were lucky to have him. I saw in his eyes a look that matched the feeling in my gut so I pressed him for more. “Any State Police or even County cops out there?”
“Not a one,” Charlie smiled, and I knew we were on the same page.
Outside of one minute to post at the Wonderland Dog Track snap decisions were not my forte, but the time had come today as some forgotten 60s rockers once sang. “OK, here’s the plan,” I started. “Gladys call the printer and cancel the run. Tell ’em we’ll get back to them and when we do it’ll be a rush job.”
“That’s gonna cost us,” she replied, fully aware of our hemorrhaging finances.
“Don’t care. Whatever the vig is we’ll pay it.” Coming from a man who lived on Elio’s Frozen Pizza and drank gas station coffee that could rip the enamel off your teeth this was attention grabbing. “Charlie and Sandy get over to the High School and see what’s going on there. I’m heading out to Sheehan’s place and see if I can crack this Blue Wall of Dumbness. Something’s going on beneath the surface here. Let’s see if we can pop this zit.”
As that last line will attest when it came to pep talks I was more Rockhead than Rockne, but it had the desired effect. Thrilled to be chasing a story with potential everyone bolted. I, on the other hand, sank back in my chair exhausted. As a man who once listed under hobbies on a dating profile “napping” I was hardly a get-up-and-goer…more like a get-up-and-wait(er). Still, even I felt like I was in a rut or maybe as Waylon Jennings once put it I was just “sick and tired of waking up sick and tired.” Whatever it was I pushed myself out of the desk chair and set sights on…the liquor store. Ted Sheehan’s house could wait an extra fifteen minutes. It was gonna take at least another 30-pack of Natty Ice to get me through this ordeal.