Chapter 2: Smoke 'em If You Got 'em
With a 30-pack and a Slim Jim secured I started the drive northwest out of town to Logansport Road. Ted Sheehan lived in what used to be known as the Swinefield section. Pig farming area until it was bought up by developers who were in the process of fitting it with some gentrified, Downton Abbey-ish moniker like Manchester Meadows, Havisham Heath or Stick-Up-Your-Bum Estates. Approval for a strip mall to house the ubiquitous Starbucks, Chipotle and Whole Foods was all that was holding up their plans of sub-divide and conquer, but that would certainly come soon. The only thing standing in the way being passage by the Town Council, a five-member board of Revolutionary descendent Yankees so old, dry and crusty I could swear they farted dust. Sure they were social reactionaries, but they also had the first two nickels they ever earned and at least one of them had a buffalo on it. So it was just a matter of the price being right. In fact I had it on good authority the builders were already in negotiations with Artfield’s “zoning expert” Old Wes Willard, an octogenarian multi-millionaire so miserly he’d sooner “wet willie” a wolverine than touch his principal.
For a minute I considered whether Ted Sheehan’s murder and the development of the Logansport Road/Swinefield section could be somehow connected. Were the developers after Sheehan’s property, but he wouldn’t sell? That’s the kind of scenario that makes for a nice one hour TV drama, but it was too trite here. It didn’t explain Monica Carson and her father also coming up toe-tagged. Or maybe the whole radio silence thing had to do with fear of bad publicity in which case we were chasing after nothing. That was more likely until I considered that the type of money loving bastards that were going to be moving into the gated McMansions that were going up could care less. They ate working men like Curly Carson for lunch and the death of Ted Sheehan was simply a tax benefit in that it unburdened the public school employee pension fund just that much more.
I continued to second guess myself as the Ford Falcon labored up the hill toward Swinefield. Since the road was literally visible through the rusting floorboards I worried I might have to go “Flintstones” with my feet to get her up the last few yards. Kayla the Kisser had a litany of reasons beyond the moustache remark for breaking up with me and the Falcon was at or near the top of that list. “It runs like a bear,” I’d tell her. “You mean it barely runs,” she’d reply, but I wasn’t about to change. I loathed being burdened down with possessions which should indicate a bohemian bent, yet I craved stability. I thought this quirk made me an enticingly enigmatic escort, but Kayla, and a host of other women, seemed to think otherwise.
Romantic reminiscing aside I continued to worry the angle here, but the one thing that kept me thinking I was on to something was the lack of State Police. When it came to brains Artfield Police Chief Harry Bowden wasn’t going to Houston to build any rockets, but he did have enough common sense to know a double murder/suicide was out of his league. He was in his early sixties and could’ve retired long ago, but he was such a fixture in the town for so long he couldn’t give it up. In addition, to law enforcement he’d also served on the Town Council, the Board of Ed. and County Highway Commission as well as doing a spell as Building Inspector. However between suburban sprawl swelling the population and advancing age slowing him down one by one he dropped the other hats to focus completely on the growing force.
Not that the Artfield Police Department was turning into the East German Stasi overnight, but it had come a long way from the days when the sound of a siren would be met by cries of “another cat up a tree” by laughing kids- even as a youth I could be brutal. These days, I realized, police work even in a small town wasn’t so simple. The difference between the good folks and the bad had blurred. Thus it took tact and professionalism to walk the line between friendly neighborhood officer and badass with a gun. For the most part the members of the APD, even my brother-in-law, did it well. Unfortunately our relative remoteness from any high crime areas meant most calls were of a nature that mimicked that old John Prine song where “the po-lice arrived at a quarter to five and pronounced all the victims OK!” In other words for all their good intentions Harry Bowden knew his staff didn’t have the experience for this situation making his lack of a call for immediate help suspicious.
Though spring was in the air there was still snow on the mountains. Locals often wound through Swinefield as a scenic shortcut to Sugarbush, the nearest resort and a pretty good stripper name if you asked me. The police had cordoned off Cliffside Road which led to the mountain and was the fastest route to Logansport Road and Ted Sheehan’s place. Cars were backed up from there. Some asking for an alternate route others just rubbernecking.
The blockade looked hastily thrown up: a two-legged sawhorse, police tape and an old barrel straight out of a Depression-era cartoon. There was another entrance to Logansport Road on the opposite side of Burnet Hill. It was well out of the way and a much longer drive so I decided to take a shot that the police hadn’t got around to blocking it yet.
Problem was the giant Hummer in front of me. Seeing as the Falcon got approximately 3 gallons to the mile and could still use leaded fuel I had no cause for getting all environmentally righteous, but it was pissing me off that I couldn’t see around the friggin’ monstrosity to make the left turn I needed to get to the back route. Unless you planned on cruising downtown Fallujah it hardly seemed you needed a car of this proportion. Though hauling this generation of fat ass kids and gear to soccer games and dance classes did, admittedly, require some extra square footage.
Slowly I edged past the Hummer’s back bumper, leaned forward from the beaded seat cushion and seeing nothing coming immediately around the slight bend gunned all 165 Vietnam-era horses and bumped noisily onto Evergreen Lane. Checking my rear view mirror I noticed the girl in the light green Volkswagen behind me try the same maneuver. Maybe it was the bend, maybe it was the cloud of sooty exhaust fumes I released, but she failed to notice the garbage truck bearing down until it was too late. Already committed she had no choice, but to mash down on the gas. Narrowly averting the trash mongers, but cleanly clipping the driver’s side of my rear bumper before sliding off to a grassy patch on the far side.
I eased the Falcon to the opposite side, got out and crossed over to check on the Volks. A girl was in the driver’s seat. She had white blond hair and a Scandinavian complexion that wasn’t so much pale as translucent. Her eyes were sky blue and...well, suffice it to say, if a guy like me was even noticing a woman's eyes, as opposed to other more desirable parts of her anatomy, they must be pretty captivating. I wondered if they even made an SPF high enough or if at the beach she had to slather herself in mayonnaise or Ranch dressing. As I got a better view of her makeup-free features she definitely had the look that would make such a prospect enticing. In the presence of such a creature I reverted to my usual coolness, leaned awkwardly forward and mumbled, “Uh..You alright?”
Like so many women before her she proved immune to my suave patter and staring straight ahead answered with a nod.
She looked pissed and her being young and pretty and me being, well…me, I assumed instantly it was something I’d done. “It was nobody’s fault,” I stammered. “Between the Hummer and the bend in the road there was no way to see the garbage truck.”
“That’s nice of you, but I know it’s my fault,” she said in a voice so husky it should’ve been pulling a sled. She looked up for the first time and while not as old as me she wasn’t just out of school either. I guessed early 30s or at least old enough to probably be thinking about things like her insurance rate spiking which let me off the hook for her anger. “Is your car damaged?”
“My car?” We both looked at the battered Falcon and it seemed like her question was rhetorical. “I think I’m fine, but looked like you had some damage on the front passenger side.”
I walked around to the front of her car, but she stayed put. The headlight was busted and there were scratches along the side where she glanced off my bumper. I looked at the Falcon. The only noticeable damage was a loss of a piece of one of the previous owner’s faded Boston Bruins bumper sticker that read JESUS SAVES…AND ESPOSITO SCORES ON THE REBOUND!
I walked back to the driver’s side where she was searching for her insurance info in what even I could tell was a rather expensive leather handbag. Like the kind I’ve seen in the Coach Store at the Rutland Mall when I walk in to get a lungful of that new leather smell then walk out.
“Don’t worry about exchanging info. My car’s good…uh, in a manner of speaking. You have a broken headlight and some scratches, but you might be wise to fix it out of pocket,” I said reassuringly. “You’ll make it back in savings on your premiums.”
This seemed to calm her a bit. She put down her bag, looked up and smiled, “Thanks.”
“No problem,” I muttered noticing she had a young Gwyneth Paltrow thing going on…you know, before all the political proselytizing and peculiar parenting stuff. “I’m just glad you’re OK.”
Though we were probably only 10 years apart in age I felt like she was giving me a “Thanks a lot, Gramps” look that made me feel dirty. It was probably just my irrepressible insecurity, but I didn’t have time to dwell on this before she started the Volks and sped off tossing a “You too” over her shoulder on the way out.
I went back to the Falcon, reached into the cavernous glove compartment and found my emergency cigarettes. I’d given up smoking years ago, but kept a pack around for just such an occasion- when the need to operate a vehicle and/or think coherently (I never found the two mutually inclusive) precluded a much needed Natty Ice or six.
The smoke hitting my lungs felt good. Between the deaths, the decisions, the accident and the girl it had been an overly eventful morning already. Though I wasn’t really sure why, the last one bothered me. After splitting with Kayla a couple of years back I decided to leave the hetero world, skip over the homo- and bi- and get an early start on the asexual. Neither gender, as far as I know, displayed any objection.
At first I thought this would free up time to write my Magnum Opus or at least some half-assed, snarky murder mystery, but instead all I did was write less, drink more and watch every episode of the decidedly average Mike & Molly five times over.
I took another drag, coughed like a tuberculosis patient and eased the Falcon back onto the road. My assumption was the police wouldn’t bother to block this long and windy back route and I was half correct. As I approached the turn for Logansport Road I noticed something shiny yellow crossing the road that turned out to be police tape tied to a sapling on the right and anchored down in the middle of the road by a pile of small boulders. The effect was like that of a Mall cop car with a light on top. It looked official from a distance, but as you got closer you simply snorted thinking “whaddya gonna do give me a ticket for doing 12 in the parking deck 5 MPH zone?”
I slid around the hapless obstruction and turned left. Ted Sheehan’s place was the last on the right before the road ended at a brook and thicket of pine trees. The house was a small bungalow which surprised me. Though not knowing the salary of a Vice Principal and having never lived in anything more than a one-bedroom apartment I was hardly in a position to judge. Still it seemed small and rundown which suggested maybe there was a nasty divorce and a bad lawyer somewhere in Ted’s past. I made a mental note, bunched up some phlegm, hocked it onto the gravel driveway and proceeded up to the house.
I immediately regretted my ear-catching expectoration as I looked up to see Miss Iceland and her Volks up closer to the scene. Her blonde hair shimmered and seeing her out of the car and upright only increased her comeliness. She stood in profile as she talked to Woody Maynard who’d obviously been assigned to protect the outer perimeter. He’d dropped his guard- and from his goofy look would like to drop something else- for her, but I couldn’t say I blamed him. She had the kind of body that could make a Republican raise taxes and dressed to accentuate it. The clothes like the handbag reeked of cash.
I approached and smiled as I noticed Woody struggling to suck in his considerable gut and look authoritative at the same time. “Hey Woody,” I started, glancing over to catch the girl’s reaction. She half-looked then did a double-take recognizing me from the accident.
“Oh…uh…hi,” she sputtered. “Is everything OK with your car?”
Obviously neither of us knew why the other was there. “Everything’s fine. I’m here to check out what’s going on,” I said, taking a step toward the house.
“No chance,” answered Woody. “It’s an active crime scene, Chief’s orders.” Then out of vindictiveness or to change the subject he pointed to the cigarette I’d forgot was still smoldering in my hand and added, “I didn’t know you smoked?”
“Uh, I don’t. These are prescription cigarettes,” I replied. “My doctor says I don’t get enough tar in my diet.” I quickly dropped the butt and ground it out under a stained Chuck Taylor. Feeling self-conscious for no reason other than Miss Iceland (I still didn’t know her name) looked like the type who viewed smokers as worse than Hitler.
I needn’t have worried. She couldn’t care less about me, my crappy car, filthy footwear and horrible habits. Instead she stared down Woody and asked coldly, “So you’re not gonna change your tune? About anything?”
“Sorry Miss,” declared Woody, his gut inching out in direct proportion to how much he could hear her estimation of him dropping in her voice. “No one allowed in and no information released to the press.”
“You’re with the press?” I let slip out in a manner that would’ve caused Gloria Steinem to kick in me in the balls.
She made a face, said, “Is there a problem with that?” then arched her back and ran her fingers through her long blonde hair. Her chest pressed against her tight, white blouse and if this had been a tennis match you could hardly say she was “down a set”. Considering Kayla was not so much flat chested as concave I was certainly intrigued. I cocked an eyebrow at the suddenly aptly named Woody and he averted his leer long enough to fill in some details.
“She’s with the Bee,” Woody offered, “Glenn Hubbard’s replacement.”
“I thought they hired some tech whiz kid for that spot?”
“They did,” she interjected coldly, “but he quit two days ago. To work for a political blog or something. They hired me away from the Concord Courier-Times. I just started.” I still didn’t have her name, but based on her general demeanor I thought Miss Iceland just might stick.
“New Hampshire huh,” I said nodding at the Volks’ tags that I was noticing for the first time. “Live Free or Die…great state motto, I mean, unless you’re in prison and have to stamp it on license plates all day. Then it’s kind of a cruel joke.”
I thought this might lighten the mood. Woody chuckled, but she was all business so I decided to act professional though it really wasn’t playing to my strengths. “Luke Williams. I run the local paper, The Artfield Review.”
“Karina Leach,” she returned, reluctantly, while eschewing my proffered hand.
Well, Miss Iceland it is, I thought, and turned to Woody to find out what the Hell was going on. “What the Hell is going on, Woody?” I started unimaginatively.
“Like I told Ms. Leach here I know nothing.” I looked at his considerable girth, but let the Sergeant Schultz comment slide as he continued. “The bodies are gone. They’re almost finished inside. Wait awhile and I’m sure the Chief will have a statement.”
“He’s nothing if not consistent,” she sniffed. “But I’ve got a deadline and who knows when this so-called statement is gonna be released or if it’s even gonna have anything I can use.”
Woody shrugged. It seemed useless. We’d both have to run it as a general news piece, albeit a big one for these parts, and fill in the details later. This was easy for her at a daily, but if I went to press and something juicy came out later she’d have me scooped by a full week.
Just then I saw the curtains move out of the corner of my eye. I kept my head turned toward Woody, but could see Chief Bowden give Miss Iceland an optical sponge bath. When I caught his eye the curtain dropped and he retreated no doubt to fill in those still at the scene about the latest talent.
With this in mind I figured it would behoove me to play nice with her. Certainly winsome and willowy had a better chance of extracting info than soused and sarcastic any day. Besides this looked like a mystery and didn’t every Private Dick need a dazzling doll. Not to mention the fact that since Kayla my dick had been private as they come. A little quid quo “pro” action wouldn’t hurt.
“You’re right,” I started, turning towards her. She hadn’t softened, but being brand new on the job it looked like she wasn’t adverse to help from someone who knew the lay of the land. “Listen I’ve got a reporter and photographer at the High School getting notes on Ted Sheehan, the girl and anything else that seems pertinent. I’ll call ’em and tell them to put themselves at your disposal.”
“Thanks,” she replied. “I knew the male victim was a Vice-Principal, but that’s it. This will save me time.”
She half-smiled and I felt half-stupid for caring as much as I did, but such was my pathetic life. “I’ve got to get back to my office,” I lied, a few of the Natty Ices were burning a hole in the cooler in my trunk and I figured I’d slip off the road and have one for lunch. “Give me your number and I’ll call you if the Chief decides to release a statement.”
She called up her contact info as I brought my phone out in a closed fist. She made to do one of those tap it from phone-to-phone things like you see in the commercials. Unfortunately my flip-phone didn’t possess such capabilities along with no camera, BlueTooth, WiFi and a host of other things most 15 year olds took for granted (I could probably text, but wasn’t sure how).
She read me her number and I punched it in while trying to keep my hand over the antenna that could be pulled out for better reception. She gave me a look of womanly disapproval that at this point in my life bounced off like bullets off of Superman. She was obviously worried about who she was trusting her professional life to so I immediately addressed Woody to deflect her fears.
“Were Sheehan and this Monica seeing each other?” I demanded in my most reporter-ly tone. “Were they sleeping together? Was this some kinda relationship gone wrong thing?”
Woody looked shocked. Maybe it was it was because I’d stumbled on part of the key to the cover up. Maybe because he was conservative concerning their age difference. Maybe because the guy he once saw drunkenly karaoke “It’s Raining Men” was going all Jimmy Breslin on his butt. Who knows, but he wasn’t cracking.
“Listen Luke I got nothing for you. Why don’t you go ask your brother-in-law. He was inside when I got here, but he went home about a half hour ago. He’d be your best bet.”
“Your brother-in-law is on the force?!” Things suddenly took an ugly turn vis-à-vis Miss Iceland.
“Yes, but it’s not that simple…,” I began, but she cut me off by turning hard and heading for the Volks.
“I’m going to the High School. Get in touch with your brother-in-law for crissakes and call me if you find out anything…ANY-thing,” she demanded, turning her pale, pretty face to me one last time before starting the car and driving off.
I turned to Woody who was standing mouth agape. “Pleasant sort,” I shrugged…and in a lot of ways I really meant it.