Chapter 1: Steve Bell
The only reason I woke up was someone pulled a knife on me in my dream. I forgot who it was—my mother, Abe Lincoln, my last best friend. I saw the blade and stepped back, turned on the mattress and came to with a heave. I have a gun next to my bed, a blued 9 millimeter automatic in a white box. So I woke up in self-defense. Once again I had forgotten the alarm and provided my own. Luckily, dreams don’t matter. You can dream anything.
I went to the kitchen, put some coffee in my crotch, and watched a blue jay hijack a finch’s nest. He got away with it, of course. He used his beak like an ax and the finch fluttered away hoping to sing to the Bird Cops. But there are no Bird Cops.
Am I a finch? I kept my eyes on the blue jay and did another kind of dreaming.
I wish I were someone else but I am Steve Bell, 34 years old, reporter for the Schuldburg Times. It’s a small city on Lake Michigan and believe me, no zoning commission deliberation goes unreported by our intrepid staff. I am at the bottom of this small heap but I get to write little features once in a while. I wish I were a Pulitzer laureate-movie star-test pilot working on a cure for the plague while playing in the NBA. But this is reality: it is 1991 and I’ve got to live the dream I’m stuck in. I really just wish I could get a gig with a big city daily, so I could stop working part time in the mail room. Whitman, my editor, keeps promising they’ll find a budget slice for me. “Nice work on the Meager story, Steve. Next year, you’re on the masthead! Empty that trash basket, will you?” Well, at least he hired me and I do get paid.
But this isn’t a story about emptying trash baskets. More like filling them up and stacking them against the wall. Until the wrong wind comes by and blows them down and suddenly you’ve got trash all over. And you can’t change it. It becomes part of the ground—part of you.
The Meager story was about the Meager Corn Syrup Refinery on the east edge of town. Once a year or so we get easterly winds and the stench coats Schuldburg. Have you ever smelled a corn syrup refinery? It makes the Gary steel mills smell like a five star meal. Thirty-foot vats of slime simmer in sulfuric acid and release the orange haze that brings nostril horror to anyone near it. When the wind comes from the east everyone writes letters to Meager’s and to the Times editor, bitching about the stench. I went among those who live just downwind from it and told how the stench affects their lives. When you live next to a corn syrup refinery your snot comes out black.
But the slime from their vats sweetens everything we eat and drink. Our pleasure rides on that awful smell. So Meager has the stench of a lie being processed. Something that has to smell that bad to taste sweet is full of unknown powers.
“We can’t control which way the wind blows: that’ll be the theme,” I said to Whitman while writing the story.
“No good, Bell. Too abstract. But I like the rest of it, the human side. I’ll get Merrill to rework it.”
Anyway, I got a 500 dollar bonus for the Meager story and a round of applause in the copy room.
That was my peak in Schuldburg, last year. No one remembers it and I’m still not on the masthead. I guess that makes me a “cub reporter,” at 34. I saved the headlines but when I look at it I wish I were somewhere else. I am from Chicago, just like Hemingway. I wish I were a foreign correspondent like he was.
So what am I going to do about it? Watch a blue jay clean-up, have some more coffee and think of headlines that never were.
The telephone rang. I slurped and lifted it.
“Is this Steven Bell?”
“It ain’t Alexander Graham Bell.” I don’t know why I said that. I guess the blue jay emboldened me.
“This is Richard Angstadt, Mr. Bell.”
“Oh, hello Judge Angstadt.” He was two things to me: he was a county judge, sitting at the Schuld County Courthouse here in town. And he was rich. The word was he inherited stocks from his father, who had gone into corn then gone deeper: ores in the Upper Peninsula. The stocks were very big winners and he was loaded. Money and justice: could you ask for more?
“Mr. Bell I have some news for you that I know you will want. Could we meet today and talk?”
“Name the time and place,” I chirped. This was good. I had interviewed him last winter about court proceedings for a puff piece, a day in the life of a judge. We got along well together, cracking a few jokes. Whitman rewrote it too much in an ass-kissing vein: he wanted Judge Angstadt to know our reverence—and get him into Greenbluffs, the country club. It worked and Whitman now keeps a putter in his office like some 50’s Rock Hudson swell. I didn’t get into any club but my name was second on the by-line.
Angstadt named a strange time and stranger place. “Mr. Bell, let’s keep this strictly between us. Tell no one that you’re meeting me. You get the scoop and I get privacy as a source. This is a big story. It will renew your life.”
“I’ll be there,” I said, “with my old life.”
After I hung up everything seemed sweeter and I forgot my dream.
The time was 10:30 at night and the place was a parking lot behind the Lake Lanes bowling alley. It was mid-August and the tourists were thinning out. As I drove past the entrance a few shadows in bowling shirts scattered to a few cars. I rolled to the back of the big aluminum building. I saw a lone sedan parked under the sodium lights and I pulled up next to it. It was a black car but it glowed a pale electric orange.
A silhouette in the car waved an arm at me and I got out of my silver Pontiac. His car was a Mercedes Benz. Big deal: they’ve never impressed me. Maybe they scared me. His door unlocked electronically with a high-pitched bark, like a Dachshund being kicked out of the way. I opened it and sat on the finest leather. I smelled whiskey.
“Good evening, Mr. Bell,” he said with an orange grin that I wouldn’t want to be judged by.
“Nice to see you again, Judge,” I said and he kept grinning. Angstadt was 61, skinny in some places, chubby in others. His pear-shaped head glistened with some unknown pleasure. He wore a dark gray suit that looked light gray now.
“I didn’t know you bowled,” I said. His hand flicked, the door barked once more and I was locked in.
“Yes, you’re a funny guy, I remember that. Well, I’ve got a funny story for you, Bell. It’s about murder.”
I was silent for a second then said: “I’m all ears.” What do you say to murder? Something stupid and impossible.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s more to you than that, Mr. Bell. Mr. Bell…Don’t you want to advance in the world, do something bigger than what you have now?” His whole manner was different from when I met him before, when he had that worried countenance that is so dignified on a judge. Now worry had moved a few wrinkles and turned out to be a vindictive gloat. He leered at me without embarrassment. It was the corrupt leer of a public man after-hours, frankly enjoying the little perks of power.
I told him I wanted to advance in the world.
“Well this story will do that for you, sir. In fact it begins with you, Mr. Bell, and could possibly end with you.” He picked up a clear plastic cup from the dash and sipped on it.
“What does that mean?”
“It means I want you to have a whiskey with me, Mr. Bell.” He reached down and pulled out a silver flask. His other hand lifted a cup and he poured me some. I hate whiskey and wanted to tell him but you don’t say things like that to Judge Angstadt. I pretended to sip it and held it with both hands. I didn’t want to spill it on me.
He said, “You’re interested in murder, are you not? You have written wise words about murder in the Times. Words I read with fascination.”
“Oh, you mean the Sorensen case?” A guy named Jeff Sorensen had been murdered in Schuldburg last fall, the first killing here in four years. A dope dealer had paid a loser named Cass to knock him off. Cass was caught the same day and he squealed, but the dealer denied it and there was no proof. I shadowed the story while the main city desk got all the by-lines. But Whitman used a little commentary piece I wrote about how murder could happen in a nice town like Schuldburg.
“Yes, that’s where our story begins, the Sorensen case. Especially your coverage of it, Mr. Bell.” Angstadt reached inside his suit to pull out a piece of paper. “Such eloquence, Mr. Bell, and remember, I am an orator, a man of the bench, of the law, of Blackstone and Holmes.” His whiskey-shined rictus smirked with buttery delight as he drooled over his pro credentials.
“Sherlock Holmes?” I said.
He started to laugh but then broke out in gasp that turned into a hacking cough. He hawked up heavy phlegm but kept it in his mouth. In the quiet of the car I heard him swish the phlegm in his mouth, washing it with saliva, straining it through his teeth. It made me think of an industrial process of diluting. The slime churning in his mouth was the loudest sound in the car, the only sound, and I had to listen. Then a louder sound: he swallowed the whole load and I heard it flush down the toilet of his throat.
“Pardon me,” he said and let out a sigh. “Ah yes, the golden words of Steven Bell, Times reporter.” He put on glasses and held the paper to that orange sodium light. He suddenly looked very stern.
“Allow me to quote: ‘Why does a man murder? To play as gods do, to surpass God in judgement; to then replace a good God with one a killer might believe in. A killer carries out the sentence of his own self-loathing that he cannot bear to feel in its Damoclean presence. He seeks relief in the finality this sentence brings to others. But a murderer is at base a thief. That is why murder and thievery go together so often. A murderer steals another person’s life in the primitive faith that he gains something by stealing it. There is a crude mysticism of zero-sum existentialism. It reminds us of tribal warriors eating the organs of the conquered in hopes of gaining strength. So the murderer looks upon his victim’s life as a profane quantity, as if it were money. As such, murder is the strongest rejection of the sacred.’”
Judge Angstadt stopped reading and tossed his head in my direction. I could almost see two electric chairs blinking in his half-crocked eyes. “Thrilling words, Mr. Bell, words of inquisitive rapture. Such penetrating insights, as the blurb-hacks would say. You know your philosophy, no doubt.” He let out boozy snort.
I said nothing. I wanted to put the whiskey glass down but felt that any movement would rile the Judge.
“But as we both know, Mr. Bell, they are not your words. No, not at all. They were written by Zachary Fisk, 62 years ago, and published in this book.” He held up a familiar looking hardback, thin and dark. “As you know, Mr. Bell this book is entitled Questions in Moral Philosophy and was published by Harvard University before I was born. It’s out of print, which is a pity. Because it’s an interesting book, don’t you agree Mr. Bell? You relied on that didn’t you…it being out of print.”
I said: “Uh…well…I’m not sure…” I finished by timidly squeaking, “Accident? Coincidence?” I lowered my head and gazed into the whiskey glass.
“Ha!” he shouted at me. “Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence? Right here at the Schuldburg Times? Or perhaps Husserl’s bracketing could help us in this.” He looked into the orange haze with a sad, cruel smile.
“That’s plagiarism, Mr. Bell and you are caught. If Whitman sees this you are finished. Finished! You would never work as a journalist again. You could go back to scraping out old bathtubs or whatever you did before you put on a tie. A cheap tie.”
He was right. My piece had caused a flurry of letters to the Times and had been a lively discussion. Except for the Meager story it was my biggest day at the Times. If it was shown to be plagiarized Whitman would give me the ax quicker than Lizzie Borden trying out for lumberjack.
I was embarrassed. No, embarrassment is too social. I was ashamed. I didn’t have to respect Angstadt to be ashamed. It had just looked so easy and I knew I would get paid.
“I’m really better than that, Mr. Angstadt,” I said in a low voice.
“Of course you are,” he replied in loud sarcasm. “You’re an educated man, Mr. Bell. An educated young man. I like the way you shortened up the clauses in Fisk’s writing. You have a such a modern ear. Ha! A man of the law appreciates that, what with all the windbags we have to listen to.”
“I just thought the ideas were interesting and nobody would notice—”
“Sure, sure. You did it out of selfless intellectual courage, to seek and tell the truth. Not for any worldly advantage such as a promotion at the Times.” He took a long sip of whiskey and I sat there like a whipped dog.
“Now you listen to me, Bell. I don’t give a damn why you did it but I think deep down you are right and Fisk was right. But never mind that. We can help one another right now.”
“There’s nothing new under the sun, Bell, all is vanity, I’ve been to Sunday School. There’s nothing new under this streetlight. There’s you and me and murder, Bell. That’s nothing new. You were right to plagiarize; everything is plagiarism.”
He stopped for a few seconds then wheezed, “Nothing is pure.”
“Judge Angstadt, I—”
“Shut-up!” The car was quiet except for his stomach.
“Now I am also a plagiarist, Bell. Heh, heh, heh. And I come to you now with a very old idea…that’s been around since…I didn’t think of it, I just saw it somewhere and thought I could use it. I have a wife, Bell. And you also have a problem.” He burped out a loud smelly belch like a sick walrus beached on a rock.
“I could call Whitman tonight, at home. He’s a friend of mine. Do you want me to do that?”
“No,” I said firmly. I put the whiskey glass up on the dash. Angstadt thought that was a prelude to action.
“I have a gun at my side, Mr. Bell. I hope you’re not thinking of trying something here in the car?”
“No no no,” I said quickly and it felt good to be truly innocent. For I hadn’t been thinking of strangling him.
“Okay. The point is, I won’t call Whitman…if…you fix my problem. You can get rich here, Bell. I mean to pay you big money. And I can get free. Freedom and money don’t always go together.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about my wife, Bell. Cassandra. Prophetess of doom but this time I believe her. She is my wife, Bell. Thirty-four years younger than me, no thirty-five.
How about that?” He looked at me with a leer that got tired mid-leer. “She has a bastard daughter I’ve taken in and treated as my own (better than my own). She is beautiful, Cassandra is, have you seen her, Bell? Black hair fine as silk, and her silver eyes. She is an ancient beauty but she is so impossibly young. Oh she is…she is…the prize ruby of a sultan’s harem. She is the darkest beauty, the deepest one.”
I let his poetry take its effect on him. But he seemed to sober up.
“She is from a rich family back east, lawyers in fact. But they have detached from her. Cassandra has led a…confused life. She fooled around with assorted cults when she was in her late teens. I met her two years ago, at Greenbluffs, my country club. She worked in the office there. Cassandra always lands on her feet…She was wearing a gold bikini when I met her, with a see-through chemise…She was 24 and I felt young again.
I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, I recall. And white shoes.”
He suddenly started laughing his balls off. It startled me and I watched him closer. He laughed and moaned and banged the steering wheel and laughed some more. I couldn’t help it, I started laughing with him. In my mind was this shriveled up old Michigan kraut in a Hawaiian shirt stepping off a golf cart and making suave with a sexpot young enough to be his daughter. Imagine the natural urges she repressed after smelling the money in those white shoes.
Money can be the difference between a beautiful girl kissing you or hissing you. And I’ve been hissed. But it’s still just money and I needed to think that the best kisses were worth more.
I think that was on his mind, too, as he laughed. He wanted real kisses and got money-kisses. He hated himself for not getting real kisses and now he laughed at his own hate, or laughed with it. That can be a cold joy to release without mushy excuses: I just plain hate myself. That’s funny, isn’t it?
I blew my nose and my snot came out black with orange veins.
“So we were married,” he said and it killed the hilarity. “So we were doomed. It was an act, she was acting, right from the start. I couldn’t believe someone would expect to pull off a deception for so long but she thought she could. She couldn’t of course, no one can. She hates me Bell, she hates my touch. Have you ever reached for a woman and seen her cringe with disgust, right in your face? I hate her for hating me. And I hate myself for being hated.”
He glared at me with this hate in his eyes, forcing me to understand.
“I hate myself for hating her. Ha! Ring-around-the-rosy…But you know, Bell, ‘hate’ is a big word; ‘loathing’ is really what we have. You don’t hate vermin, you loathe it. Loathing is worse than hate, Bell; it has no dignity. How’s that for ‘happily ever after?’”
“I don’t know. I guess.”
The Judge’s eyes searched me for a second. Then he looked into the orange haze.
“We signed a pre-nuptial agreement that has an old-man, sexy girl clause in it, or that’s what I call it. She made sure of that. I was fooling myself by signing it, I was in a trance. She put a spell on me. It has still not worn off. I guess it never will.”
His body jerked in place, as if taking volts.
“She just sits there waiting for me to die—she’ll get everything. If I divorce her she will get half, at least. I’ve already looked into it…discreetly, mind you.”
I was a reporter and I had to interview. So I asked the timely question: “What are you going to do about it?”
“You mean what are you going to do about it, Bell.” Neither of us spoke for some seconds. My guts churned with the dirty laundry of desire and terror. I was a washing machine that didn’t really want to clean. I wasn’t a bad person, but I was low on soap.
“I want you to kill her, Bell, do you hear me? I have lost all other hope. You are going to get rid of her for me or I’ll call up Whitman and you’ll be finished.”
I couldn’t reply.
“But I know how awful it is, Bell, I understand. I am not a bad man! I’m going to pay you money to do it, Bell, a lot of money. More money than you have ever seen in your young life. In your hopeful life.”
The time had come for me to speak. I said, “How much?”
“One hundred thousand dollars, Bell. One hundred thousand dollars. When you’ve…done it…I want you to take the one hundred thousand dollars I give you and leave Michigan for good.”
What could I say? I said what we Americans learn to say from the start: “That’s a lot of money.”
“Yes, Mr. Bell, that it is. It is to ensure that you do the job and do it carefully, and have plenty with which to build your life again, far away from here and me and our secret. Money keeps you professional and quiet.”
“I don’t know about this, Judge. I don’t think I can do it. It’s crazy…I’m afraid…”
“Bell! I’ll let you in on a secret of great men: you must have a little madness in you. That’s how you rise up, Bell, by the divine madness of a strong will, a daring will.”
I felt paralyzed sitting locked in that car. I didn’t dare scratch my chin.
“Listen, Bell, tonight I want to give you this.” He twisted his fat belly with surprising quickness and reached into the back seat. He pulled out a red athletic bag with ‘Spartans’ written on it. “Guess what’s in here, Bell.” He handed me the bag. “Don’t guess, look.”
I unzipped it and saw a brown grocery bag. I unrolled the bag and held it under my eyes. It was full of bills, about ten wads of them fastened with banker’s ribbons. I shuffled through and saw that they were all hundred dollar bills.
“That is the down payment, Bell. 25 thousand dollars. You are holding 250 hundred dollar bills there. You get another 75 thousand once you have…killed her. I won’t mince words. See how serious I am, Bell?”
“Drink your whiskey!” he commanded.
I could have chosen not to drink it.
I picked up the glass and guzzled it with my eyes closed. It had the bouquet of Satan’s enema bag—whiskey always does. I moaned. I let out a dry retch like a Chevy with a bad starter.
“Don’t try to skip town with the twenty-five grand, Bell. I am a judge and I can find you. I have your arrest record: that little unpleasantness when you were 19?” I had a bust for B and E, a prank gone wrong.
“So you see that I am serious don’t you, Bell?”
“You’re going to do it, aren’t you, Bell?”
I looked at him in silence. Tears came out of my eyes. I searched his face, hoping to find the answer there. I did. His orange face unveiled a mystery—about me. I opened my mouth.
I said, “Yes.”