There’s a man here in town called Micah Hollers.Born and raised in Appalachia, Archer Sullivan now resides in Los Angeles where she is a real life Beverly Hillbilly. Her fiction is hard-boiled and country-fried.
Tuesday, May 30, 2023
Monday, May 22, 2023
The stiff in the pink tutu stood frozen in fourth position. Hank knew this because his daughter took ballet. For three tortuous years, his wife barked out the positions while Hannah huffed and complied. They finally gave up and let her quit.
Fourth position. One foot pointing north, one pointing south. Right arm posed over the midsection. Left arm held gracefully above the head, slightly bent at the elbow.
“Betcha’ve never seen anything like this before.” The local sheriff who called Hank to the scene in the old Midland square dance barn stood with hands on hips and rocked from heel to toe, as if he owned the place. As if he was proud of the sight before him.
“Never in all my years.” Hank would venture to guess never in anyone’s years.
The corpse was posed, standing with perfect balance. No strings. No harness. Just there.
The male victim appeared to be in his late forties, dressed in a white leotard and pink ballet shoes laced up to his kneecaps. Over that, over all of him, was a thick, glistening layer of resin or maybe epoxy. Extra epoxy circled his feet on the polished concrete of the dance floor, no doubt keeping him upright. Frozen in position and time much like a figure in a wax museum.
Or an insect preserved in acrylic.
Hank circled the body. And then circled again.
“You’re getting every angle of this, right? I want the floor, the ceiling. Get down on your hands and knees and get shots from below. Bring in a ladder and get shots from above.” Hank barked direction at the two crime scene photographers. The forensics team continued to sweep the area. They hadn’t yet touched the body.
Hank put on a glove and tugged at the tutu, which had been placed on the victim long after the preservative dried, the waistband of the tulle skirt did not stick to the body. It moved freely and Hank could have slipped it over the corpse’s head if he wanted to. Easy on. Easy off.
“Any idea who this is?”
The sheriff dug a toothpick out of his pocket and held it like a cigarette for a moment before sticking between his back teeth. “No. Never seen him. But there was a dance in here just last night, so that gives a timeframe for the death.”
“That gives a timeframe for the positioning of the body, not necessarily the death.” Hank put his nose inches from the dead man’s mouth. He didn’t smell the all-too-familiar odor of decay. He smelled harsh chemicals, like the caulk he used to repair the bathtub and nearly fainted from the fumes. The time his wife told him if his job didn’t kill him, his handyman skills would.
He examined the man’s face up close. Relaxed jawline. Peaceful, closed lips. Nostrils filled with the preservative. A few crows’ feet and laugh lines. But the eyes.
The eyes were open. They were not the clouded-over orbs Hank saw a hundred times before. They were clear, brown with flecks of yellow, gazing straight ahead.
The perp preserved the eyes first. This man watched as his torturer poured the epoxy over his face.
Hank retreated to the edge of the barn, where low wooden benches circled the straw-covered concrete dance floor. A few tables in the corners covered with red and white checked tablecloths held forensic kits and gave respite to weary crime scene workers, called out before dawn. And now it was noon.
From one of the benches, Hank stared at Mr. Doe. The victim must weigh 160 to 170 pounds without the hardened preservative. The preservative had to have hardened on the body before the body was moved. The perp certainly didn’t have time to do all this work at the barn.
How did he do it by himself? How did he steady the hefty dead weight upright while the epoxy dried the feet to the floor? Without stepping in it himself?
Hank looked directly above the scene. Large wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling, dotted with dozens of hanging bare bulbs.
He slapped the table where a pair of lab geeks were taking a water break. “Glove up. Get the ladder back out and examine the beams above the body. I want to know if anything was hung over them, rope, chain. Look for fibers. Look for splinters that may have jabbed our perp. Anything.” They jumped to it. “And call me when you’re done. I want some time with the body.”
Hank stepped outside and walked the perimeter of the barn. Brown and yellow leaves crunched under his feet. The overcast skies and dry air matched his mood. He was thankful for the mild breeze which rid his nostrils of the chemicals and hay from the barn.
The yellow and black crime scene tape had come undone from a giant oak at the corner of the property and was whipping in the breeze. Hank walked over to fix it and noticed a set of narrow, parallel tracks leading from beyond the oak to the barn. He followed them past the tree about a hundred yards to a gravel lane. The crime scene techs most likely missed it because half of the trail was outside of their taped off boundary.
Because all crime boundaries fall neatly within the most available tree, fence post or stoplight. Why is everyone so head-slappingly stupid?
His cell vibrated with the message that the team was done with the barn, and he could spend some up-close and personal time with the frozen man in the pink tutu.
After twelve hours at the scene and forensics lab, Hank fell exhausted onto the motel’s bed. He allowed himself a thirty-minute cat nap before showering, pouring straight up black coffee and firing up his laptop to process the clues and information gathered earlier. More would come tomorrow and the next day after tests were run on the rock-hard preservative, but he had enough to get a start.
He straightened out a paper map of the area on the bed and pulled a file from his briefcase.
A man had been reported missing in the middle of the scene cleanup. A man who fit the description of the ballerina. He’d been gone for five days.
According to the BMV’s copy of the dead man’s driver’s license, Mason Bradford, 46, resided in Belvue, a town three removed from rural Midland. His actual wallet was nowhere to be found, and Hank doubted they’d find it tucked inside the leotard when they got the guy thawed out.
Or chiseled out.
He ran the stats through the database and got a hit. Two years ago, Mason Bradford was brought in on charges of possible misconduct with a minor. The charges were dropped, and nothing ever came of it since the girl was a month from her eighteenth birthday.
According to a local gossip site, Mason Bradford had also gone through a terrible divorce.
Hank would have to check further with Belvue’s local police force, and he made a note to check the ex’s alibi.
The cell vibrated with another message. This time from the lab. They had no clue what covered Mr. Bradford’s body, but it was lightweight, and they’d broken two bits trying to get him unstuck from the barn floor. Approximate time of death was hard to pin down. Could be a couple of days. Could be a week. He ordered a sample be sent to headquarters. No sooner than he sent his instructions he got another message.
Another body. Epoxied.
Baseball diamond at the south side of town.
Hank rubbed the back of his neck and slipped on his dress shoes. He folded the paper map and stuffed it into his back pocket. He closed his laptop and grabbed the small Styrofoam cup the motel graciously provided and filled it for the third time with fuel for the evening.
The baseball field was lit up like the Cubs were playing. The field’s lights lit the whole diamond and outfield. The forensic lights pointed to the Away Team’s dugout. Hank lifted the tape, this time tied to the edge of the fence behind the dugout and to the lamp post near the parking lot. He shook his head in disbelief and lost his temper.
“Widen this area. Look for tracks, same as were at the barn!” He yanked the tape loose and shouted his orders a little too loud and his voice echoed across the field.
Hank gloved up and trod into the dugout, as astonished by the sight in front of him as he was in the old barn.
Another man, about the same age as Mr. Bradford, same approximate build, covered in the same epoxy. This corpse was plastered in a seated position to the wooden bench that stretched the length of the dugout.
The vic wore a white clown suit covered in multicolored polka dots. Great red clown shoes adorned the man’s feet. His legs were crossed, his arms outstretched, a bottle of bubbles in one, the bubble wand in the other. The glimmering preservative covered the suit and shoes and extra could be seen between his thighs and the wooden seat.
Over the top of the dried epoxy, just like the tutu, a bright blue curly-haired wig sat atop the victim’s head. Hank reached for the wig, which came off easily. The epoxy covering the body was dried and smooth, nearly the feel of porcelain. That on the bench was sticky and trapped a couple of moths that had ventured into the lights.
This man’s green eyes stared at them in horror, but his mouth was painted in a bright red smile to match the bulb nose glued to his face.
The sheriff came behind Hank. “We got ourselves a serial, don’t we?”
Hank didn’t respond.
“Maybe someone who’s been done wrong on Halloween, or somethin’. Dressing the folks up like this and all.”
Hank rolled his eyes at the body, away from the gaze of the sheriff.
“What should we tell the press?”
Hank whirled around. “Tell them nothing. No photos. No clues. No comments. Nothing.” The last thing he needed with two crime scenes was the press sensationalizing this.
Sensational, it was though.
Hank’s phone went off. He pulled it from his pocket, forgot himself for a second and sat on the bench with the clown. He reread the message until it sank in.
“Sheriff, I need your people to stay here and lock this place down until the body’s removed.”
Hank walked a few yards onto the field and called headquarters. “Yeah, I’m gonna need a couple of fresh teams. Yes, I said two. We have three scenes now and my people are exhausted.”
Hank walked off the field, under the crime scene tape, which had been moved out a whopping ten feet, and got into his car to head for the third scene in less than 24 hours.
As Hank approached the theater, he tried to remember the last time he had taken Hannah to see anything. He always promised, but never quite made good on it. Work always got in the way. She was old enough to understand now, but it didn’t make up for the lost time.
The manager/owner let Hank in. The tiny town supported a two-screen theater. The manager discovered the body when a silent alarm went off at his home. He told Hank three times before they reached the body that he’d spent his own money and worked hard to update the building with the latest tech and was hoping to get a 3-D screen soon.
The man was a nervous talker. Dead bodies can do that.
Some people cry. Some people puke. And some talk.
He preferred the pukers, so long as they were outside his crime tape perimeter.
The house lights were up. The theater sat about a hundred. The plush blue folding seats were empty except for the front row.
“Go back outside and wait for my team. Don’t let anyone in.” The manager was happy to scamper up the aisle, chatting about clean up and opening day and who knows what else.
Hank stood in front of the victim and gloved up. Fear embedded the man’s brown eyes. He took a shot with his cell phone and sent it to headquarters for identification. Hank wondered how long it took to die after the process began. Maybe the lab would have some more information. Whoever did this had taken lots of time. And now he was delivering the preserved bodies, one by one, all over town.
The gentleman in front of him wore khaki slacks, simple dress shoes and a blue and white striped polo. If it weren’t for the props, Hank would have had a hard time guessing what he was supposed to be. In one frozen, outstretched arm, the man held an apple. One bite removed. He could lift the apple from the body, like the clown wig and the tutu. Other than the bite, it was complete and fresh. Recently bitten. Hank set the fruit back in the victim’s hand.
Wrapped in the other arm, and under epoxy, were two hardback textbooks, English and elementary math. A box of chalk and a ruler laid in the man’s lap, also under the epoxy.
A ballerina, a clown, and a teacher.
Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.
Hank went to the back of the theater to take in the view and try to map the movements of the man who’d placed the victim here. To make a mental movie of the steps, effort and struggle that was endured to get across some seemingly random point.
His phone jarred him from his thoughts, and his fresh team had arrived. He gave the room to them with strict instructions for photography and collection.
The message on his phone gave him two names. The clown and the teacher and their respective towns. He went to the lobby and pulled the map out and spread it on the concession stand.
“Would you like me to start a batch? I’d be happy to.” The owner came up behind him, chewing nails on one hand, pointing to the popcorn machine with the other.
“Uh, no. I’ll pass. And don’t make any at all. It could contaminate the scene in there.” Some people. Hank went back to the map.
Midland was smack in the middle of the towns the three men called home. But that didn’t tell Hank much. He texted back that he needed their records and BMV files.
He turned the scene over to the junior detective and left for the motel. He couldn’t think and he needed rest. And another shower. And more coffee. But mostly rest.
He was unaware how long he’d been out. He awoke in a pile of papers and had apparently used the map as a blanket. He shook the cobwebs and pulled the motel drapes. No matter how cruel the night, morning always comes.
He threw on a clean change of clothes and opened the laptop. He pulled up all three men’s information in separate windows. The second two had files like the first. Almost convicted, but not quite. All in separate towns. All accused of inappropriate conduct with a minor.
As he was connecting the dots, someone banged on his door.
“What is it?” he didn’t even bother opening it. Half of his team was doubled up in the fifteen-room motel at the edge of town.
“You gotta see this, sir,” came the muffled reply.
Hank threw the door open. The tech stood in socked feet with an open laptop scrolling photos of the ballerina, clown, and teacher in their final staged poses on the internet. Among those, however, were two others, a chef and Mickey Mouse, the police had not discovered.
He grabbed the computer. “Is tech on this?”
“As soon as I saw it, sir.”
“Can we take it down?”
“No, we tried. We keep getting blocked. Whoever it is is really good.”
“Get out. Let me think.” Hank slammed the door in the tech’s face.
He watched the website scroll across the screen. A bright red banner under the photos remained stationary. Across the banner was a recipe.
The recipe for the hardening epoxy.
And a call to action.
Hank put in an emergency call to each of the three police precincts in the victims’ towns.
Within an hour, they all called back, and Hank had nailed the motive down without a doubt.
One girl after ballet practice.
One girl during the state fair.
One at recess.
In all the cases, not enough evidence was gathered to convict—or the girls were nearing eighteen.
He read the call to action again: Mix up a batch of your own Recipe for Revenge. Post your photos here.
Hank recalled the fear in each man’s eyes and thought about the fear that each one had caused their own victims.
Hank thought of Hannah. And the therapy. And the night terrors she still suffers after that day at the zoo.
He took a long draw on his room-temperature coffee and popped his neck.
And then he flipped to the last page in his notebook and copied down the recipe.
Beth started writing epic space sagas using dull pencils on wide-ruled notebook paper in grade school. She’s since upgraded her writing implements (she is, after all, an adult now) and has a blog (again, with the adult thing). Find her books, short story collections, and a free fiction tale at bapaul.com.
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
I wasn’t sure whether the knock I heard was in my head or at the door. It took me a second to figure out where I was, a small cabin with a fireplace and a kitchenette, a table and an armchair and not much else. I was sweating and shivering; when I sat up I coughed until my chest hurt. I dragged myself out of bed and wrapped myself in the fleece blanket folded in the chair. How long had I been here, and where was here? There were no cabins like this in Perrine.
The knocking continued. I took a brief survey of the room. No bottles, no needles, no empty bags or tin foil. So I wasn’t hungover or cranked or going through withdrawal. There was an itch of a memory kicking around inside my skull. I ignored it while I answered the door.
The woman knocking on the door was a little older than me, in a fleece vest and hiking boots, short blonde hair turning the last corner to full-on grey. “Wanted to check in on you,” she said. “I haven’t seen any movement in since you got here. You okay?”
I turned away and coughed into my elbow. I was in critical need of a shower. “I guess not,” I said.
“Do you need me to call a doctor?”
I shook my head, too afraid of coughing again if I spoke. She peered past me into the cabin. “Look, I don’t mean to sound suspicious, but if you’re up here trying to shake some habit….”
“Just a cold,” I insisted. “Worked myself to exhaustion, that’s all.”
That softened her some. “I got some meds in the house, if you want,” she offered. “It’s just the drugstore brand, but it might help.”
I coughed so hard I couldn’t answer. I coughed so hard I got woozy, leaning against the doorframe for support. I nodded with the last of my strength.
“I’ll leave them on the porch,” she said. “You rest up and call if you need anything. The house number’s in the binder on the table.”
I gave her a hoarse thank you and closed the door. The brief glimpse of the orange and red peaks that I got out my window told me I was either in the Catskills or the Adirondacks, possibly the Berkshires. Somewhere quiet and mountainous, somewhere a man could hide out and pay cash. I couldn’t even check to see if I had service; my phone was dead. I had a charger in my car, but that would require me to go outside. I wasn’t ready to face that yet.
I found a can of coffee in the kitchenette and started the five-cup coffeemaker. I took a long hot shower and inhaled slow hits of steam, trying to clear my lungs. I hated putting back on the clothes I fell asleep in, but did so long enough to go to my car and get my go-bag. I felt better when I had on a clean shirt and fresh socks. I smelled better too.
Over coffee I leafed through a binder of brochures for white water rafting and cave tours. I was in Fair Forrest, nearly three hours north of Perrine. Another hour or so and I would have been in Canada. I had only a vague memory of stopping for gas, of drinking coffee that curdled in my stomach. But I had driven here deliberately. I was on the run. Not from the cops – although I’m sure they wanted to talk to me too.
I was on the run from myself.
It was a simple tail, that’s all. A woman who wanted to know why her husband suddenly started staying late at work. We all knew the answer, but she needed that confirmation, needed the details to take to her lawyer. I got the pictures and took them back to her, Valerie took the check to the bank and closed out the file. No different than any other case we’d handled. Hell, it was almost easier. Sometimes you have to wait a couple of days for the khaki-wearing Romeos to make their amorous moves.
But four days later the wife called me screaming, saying he’d left with his gun and she was worried he was going to do something drastic. And he did. Three hours later Valerie and I were standing with Captain Hollander and his pack of blues at a two-body crime scene in the same bedroom I had dirty pictures of. The husband shot the girlfriend and then he shot himself, blood and misery everywhere. And everyone at the scene knew that I was the strip on the back of the matchbook. The only thing that kept me from grabbing the bottle of vodka on the nightstand and swallowing it all right there was that there wasn’t enough left to get a teenager drunk for the first time.
So I got in my car and I drove, drove to outrun my anger, drove to outrun my cravings, drove until dawn when I found the Pleasant Pines cabins, paid for three days with all the cash I had in my wallet and collapsed into bed. I came here because I wouldn’t know how to score when I wanted to more than anything, it was too early when I arrived to find an open liquor store or some barstool to park myself on and drink until I blacked out why I’d come here in the first place. That much, I realized, I had spared myself.
My phone began to buzz back to life. I only had a few bars, not enough to make a call but enough to get my text messages and alerts for the four voicemails I had. Three were from Valerie. One was from Hollander. I’d listen to those later. I sent Valerie a text telling her I was safe and that I’d call her soon. If she never forgave me for the time she spent worrying whether I was dead somewhere, I’d accept that. But she didn’t need to worry one second more than she already had. I’d get another day or so of rest, shake this cold and head back to Perrine to face what I had fled. It was the only real option left on the table.
Every town, no matter how small, has a diner. The Lucky was at the end of the main drag, a six-booth with a Formica counter and one teenage waitress doing homework on the last stool. There was only one other pair of diners in the place, an old man reading a local paper and a young woman on her phone. I sat in the last booth so as not to disturb them. They had the air of regulars.
I ordered runny eggs and burnt toast and orange juice for my cold. My coffee came in a mug from a local auto repair shop. My waitress had a thick blonde braid and a nametag that read Jess and when she asked where I was from she didn’t seem to recognize the city. She asked where I was staying and I told her. “Sorry there’s not more to do here,” she said. “Once Labor Day comes, this town quiets right down.”
“I’m in the mood for peace and quiet,” I replied.
“Then you’ve come to the right place,” she said. “Stick around long enough, you’ll get sick of it.”
She brought me my plate and refilled my coffee. I stuck my nose back in the paperback I’d grabbed off the cabin bookshelf to keep my mind from wandering while I ate. I heard the bell above the door ring as the old man and his companion left.
“Hey!” Jess cried after them, bolting out the door before it even had a chance to close behind them. “Hey, you forgot to pay!”
I could hear her yelling on the sidewalk. I got up and glanced out the window. Now the man’s companion was yelling too, gripping him like he would crumple to the ground if she didn’t. After a few more heated words and the glimpse of a police badge, she grabbed a wallet out of his pocket, took out a single bill, crumpled it in one fist and threw it in Jess’s face.
“You okay?” I asked when she came back inside.
“Not the first time it’s happened,” she said. “Guy’s the old police chief – he’s got dementia, I think he remembers when cops used to eat for free here. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if his niece wasn’t such a raging bitch. She’s a cop too. If you can call part-time traffic enforcement a cop. Daphne walks around here like a four-star general.”
So some things weren’t just city problems. “Did they cover their bill, at least?” I said.
“Barely,” she said. “Nice tip. A whole buck. More than she usually gives me.”
She went back to her history textbook. I finished my breakfast and left a $20 on a $9 check. It was the least I could do.
I wasn’t ready to go back to the cabin, so I took a stroll through the downtown. At least that’s what I told myself I was doing. I wondered if I would see Guy and Daphne harassing other shop owners. I wondered if I was just avoiding calling Valerie.
I stopped at a tiny department store and bought a shirt and a pair of pajama pants and some extra socks. My go-bag had one change of clothes, but the nights were colder than I expected. I got another cup of coffee at the shop on the corner and drank it in the park, watching a handful of other late-season tourists in fleece vests and hiking boots stroll by. When I was done with my coffee I went back to my car and explored the other streets, found the grocery store and the laundromat and a bar called Taylor’s that I drove by like I was stalking an ex. I could convince myself of a lot of things, but being able to handle a drink was not one of them. I kept driving.
I pulled over in the parking lot of the school. My phone was charged and I had decent service. Valerie answered on the second ring. “Jesus Christ, Martin, where the hell have you been?” she spat. “I’ve been freaking out here.”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” I said. Even pissed at me, it was good to hear her voice. She’d only been my assistant for three months, but I’d come to rely on her in a way I hadn’t relied on anyone since the French Letters broke up. I was surprised she was actually worried, that she gave a damn whether or not I came home and in what shape. I’d been on my own for so long that wasn’t used to that.
“Where are you?”
“Fair Forrest,” I said. “Somewhere in the Adirondacks.”
“Tell me next time you’re going to take a vacation,” she said. “I was about to file a missing persons report. You seemed pretty rattled when you left. You okay?”
“I’m better than I was,” I said. “How are things there?”
“Mr. LaGuarde is still dead,” she said. “But the papers seem to have moved on. Hollander wants to interview you, but he said no rush. No one to take to trial, after all.”
It was of little comfort. There was always the chance the widow could sue me, but seeing as how she’s the one who hired me, it’d be little more than an inconvenience to everyone involved. “Do me a favor and set up the interview,” I said. “If Friday works for him. And get Vinny on the books too; I don’t want to talk to anyone without my lawyer.”
“Can do,” she said. “Does this mean you’re headed back?”
“Not yet,” I said. “But soon.”
When I got back to my cabin, my bed had been made and my dishes had been washed and there was a small bag on the table; cold tablets and tissues and tea and a note that said there was soup in the fridge, two bags of frozen chicken noodle and a pot set up on the hot plate when I was ready. I made the tea and took my book out to the porch to sit in the sunshine. For the first time in three days, I felt all right.
Susan came by with a cord of firewood. I thanked her for the gift bag. “I hope I didn’t offend you this morning,” she said. “Every so often some city kid comes up here to try and dry out and it never goes well. Fresh air is great and all, but it can’t cure the DTs. I know from experience.”
“So do I.”
She smiled at me. I nodded towards the other chair and she set down the firewood and sat. “22 years,” she said. “You?”
“Just crossed 18.”
“I go to a meeting in town,” she said. “If you feel like you want to join me.”
“I might,” I said. I’m never quite as touched as when someone invites me to their meeting. It’s a reminder that people do care, that they are kind if given a chance. In my line of work, it’s easy to forget that. But my temptation was starting to wane, I had confidence again in my sobriety. Hearing Valerie’s voice helped more than she would ever know.
“So what do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a private investigator,” I replied.
She lowered her voice. “Are you on a case right now?” she asked. “Something going on with one of the other guests?”
I laughed. Even if I was working someone over, it would be against the PI’s code to tell her. “No,” I replied. “Just needed a place to relax for a few days. It’s a stressful job.”
“I’ll bet,” she said. She stood up and pointed to the white house up the driveway. “If you need anything, even just someone to talk to, I’m up there,” she said. “Day or night, you just ring the bell. I’ll answer no matter what.”
“Do you always take such good care of your guests?”
She smiled and picked up the wood. “Sometimes,” she said. “Enjoy the rest of your stay.”
I woke up to someone banging on a door somewhere in the distance. It took me another minute to realize where I was, that it wasn’t my door. I got up and peered out the window to see a shadowy figure on the porch of the empty cabin next to mine. I put on my shoes and my jacket and went outside to see what was happening.
In the dim light from the road I could see Guy, feeble and frail, pounding on the door with all the strength he had left. If he was trying to yell, his voice was little more than a crude whisper, a barely-audible rasp. “Guy,” I said, approaching cautiously. “Is everything all right?”
“Claire’s in there,” he grumbled. “I need to see Claire.”
“There’s no one in there,” I said. The only other people I’d seen were a young couple with a dog and an SUV, another few cabins down the line.
He ignored me. I wondered who I should call, Susan or the cops or just let him dotter away when lucidity kicked in. I was on vacation. I didn’t need this. I was just about to turn back when I saw Susan advancing in her robe and a pair of hastily-tied hiking boots. “Not again, Guy,” she said, reaching for his arm. “Claire’s not here tonight. C’mon, let me call Daphne, she’s probably worried about you.”
He muttered something both of us pretended not to hear. “I can stay with him,” I offered. “If you want to go call someone.”
Before she could take me up on it, a second car roared up the driveway, lighting us up like fugitives. Daphne stormed towards us. “I was just about to call you,” Susan said. “You need to hide his keys better.”
Daphne seized him roughly. “Again with this?” she snapped. “There’s no Claire here.”
“Easy,” I cautioned. “Don’t want to make things worse with a fall.”
“I don’t need advice from another one of Susan’s joyriders,” she sneered. “So mind your own goddamn business.”
“Get out,” Susan barked. “Both of you. Now. Next time I see him here, I’m calling the cops. The real ones.”
Denise yanked her uncle back towards the car. There was a brown Buick parked crookedly in the lot. “Get that junker off my property by daybreak,” she continued. “Or you’ll find it in the tow yard.”
Daphne cursed us both out until she got in her car, scattering gravel as she sped off into the night. “I’m sorry about that,” Susan said. “He’s old, he has dementia.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said. “They pulled a similar scene at the Lucky earlier.”
“He really needs to be in a home,” she said. “Or have a full-time nurse. But Daphne won’t allow it. Probably because she’s been dipping into Uncle Pennybags’ account.”
She started to walk away. Before I could stop myself, I heard the words slip out of my mouth. “Who’s Claire?” I asked.
She turned back. “No one,” she said. “No one of any importance.”
Cold-wise, I felt better the next morning. I took half a dose of cold medicine and called Valerie, gave her the name of the motel, of Claire, of Guy and Daphne and Susan. Maybe she’d find nothing at all. Maybe she’d find an old girlfriend. But more curious than an old love affair, was that Daphne had called me a “joyrider.” There had to be a reason for that.
Susan came by with firewood around 11. “Sorry about last night,” she said.
“Does that happen often?” I asked. “Him showing up like that?”
“First time it’s happened here,” she said. “But like you saw at the diner, he’ll show up places and make a scene. Only been in the last six months or so. Should have guessed he’d find his way here eventually.”
“What did she mean when she called me a joyrider?”
She hesitated. “I’m a PI,” I reminded her. “I can ask around, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
She set down the wood carrier. I offered her a seat on the porch, but she didn’t take it. “I thought I was doing the right thing,” she started. “We had really bad drug problems up here, same as everywhere. But they closed all the clinics, hospitals can’t take them to dry out and the closest in-patient is three hours from here. So I offered my place in the off-season for people who might not have anyplace else to go. A lot of these guys have burned through their family, and the only friends they have are still using.”
I was lucky. My sister Sandy took me in after I completed rehab. Hell, I had rehab to complete; a bed, a gym, counselors, green space to stroll and food to eat. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. My cravings, even 18 years later, told me that much.
“A lot of people got clean,” she said. “I’d take them to meetings, talk with them, all the stuff my sponsor did for me. Some of them helped around the camp, splitting firewood, raking leaves, simple stuff. Some of them still send me Christmas cards. But I had a rule – you only got one chance. You screwed up, you got kicked out. There were too many people who needed a place to stay and I didn’t have time to screw around. But I got a reputation. Someone started saying I was feeding them junk so I could keep cashing county checks. The cops would roll by and give me a fake name, just to let us all know they were watching.”
Sounds like cops all right. I wondered if one of them was Denise.
She continued. “I got this one kid, Kyle. Sweet kid, very nervous, really struggling. I’d make him dinner, bring him books, try and talk with him. But one night, while I was at my meeting…”
I knew where this story was going. It was a story that had been told a thousand times, in every city and town across the country, always with the same sad ending. “He broke into the other cabins,” she said. “He stole their tapers. He went into town and shoplifted some allergy meds and a six-pack. I don’t know if he had a seizure or an OD or if he choked on his own vomit, but he was dead the next morning. I told them to stop sending me people after that. His parents tried to sue me, but the judge threw it out. There were less than 10 of us at his funeral. His parents weren’t among us.”
I had one last question. “What cabin was he staying in?”
She looked at me like she’d just realized her mistake too late. “This one,” she said.
I didn’t need Susan to move me. I didn’t believe in ghosts, but something had me unsettled enough to want to get out for awhile. I went into town for lunch. “Saw Guy again last night,” I told Jess. “Banging on the door of Cabin 8 at the Peaceful Pines.”
She snorted. “Sounds about right,” she said. “My grandma said that place was a whorehouse back in the day.”
A waitress, like a bartender, is an invaluable source of information. They’ll never give a name or the full story, but they hear and retain stories like a tape recorder. Ask the right questions and they’ll playback anything you want to know – within reason. They had codes like priests when it came to the identifying details. She clapped her hand over her mouth as soon as the words were out. “I’ve heard worse,” I assured her. “Tell me more.”
She was blushing. “She said the girls would come into town once a week or so to shop,” she continued. “And they’d come to her beauty parlor to get their hair set, all at the same time. She would block off Wednesday from two to close just to do those girls’ hair. She said they tipped better than any of the ladies in church.”
“Susan was telling me it was a crash pad for people in outpatient rehab,” I said “But you were probably too young to remember that.”
“I heard stories,” she said.
“Any of them about a girl named Claire?”
She shook her head. But before she could say anything, my phone rang with Valerie’s number. I muttered an excuse me and took the call outside. “What did you find?” I asked.
“There was a woman named Claire Londner who was found strangled in a roadside cabin in 1977,” she said. “They never arrested anyone in her death.”
If what Jess had told me was true about the locals, I doubted they looked too hard for her killer. Probably considered it an occupational hazard. “Who was the cop assigned to the case?”
I could hear her flipping pages. I imagined her at her desk in my office, the scent of coffee and ink. “The paper quotes a Detective Guy McDuff,” she said. “What’s this about?”
“Not sure yet,” I said. “But I’ll let you know when I find out.”
The library was the only place I could get a reliable internet connection. I found the same scans of old newspapers that Valerie must have; Claire Londner, 28, was found strangled in her cabin on Oct. 28, 1977. Back then the cabins were called The Alpine, their logo showed a cheerful girl in a short dirndl and high-heeled clogs. How very Gil Elvgren.
“Excuse me,” I asked the librarian. “Is there a local historian? A museum, maybe?”
She brightened. “You want to talk to Dana Hale,” she said. “He knows everything.”
The librarian gave me Hale’s number and he agreed to meet me at the museum on the edge of town. I told him I was working on a book about the area. He believed me.
Hale was short and bald like a high school science teacher nearing retirement. “I’m looking for anything you had on the girl who got murdered at the Alpine in the 70s,” I said. “Claire Londner.”
“Pretty grim subject for a book,” he grumbled. “What brought you to that?”
“Research,” I said. “Do you have anything from that? A phone book, a property listing?” I didn’t know yet what I was looking for, but someone in this town had to know something that would connect me to why the former police chief was looking for a murdered girl by her first name in the middle of the night.
“It’s a chapter this town would rather forget,” he said. “And most of them don’t want to admit that the johns spent a lot of money in this town.”
“Until one of them murdered one of the girls,” I said. “What’s the prevailing theory in her death?”
He didn’t say anything. He disappeared into the back room and was gone so long I thought he might have escaped out the back. When he did return he had a grey box in his hands. “I came across these while cataloging some property for an exhibit we had a few years back,” he said. “But I never knew who to tell, so I didn’t say anything. I think you’ll understand why.”
Inside was a priest’s collar, a small gold cross with a broken chain, some photos and a leather-bound Bible. I picked up the Bible and a flattened matchbook fell out onto the table.
The Alpine Motel.
The Bible belonged to Father Curtis Franklin, a priest at St. Mary’s from 1965 until the early 80s. “This guy was practically the Pope,” Valerie said. “When he retired in 1991, the newspaper dedicated their entire front section to him. He oversaw the opening of the food pantry, personally made the corned beef for the annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner, all that sort of small-town shit.”
I had managed to find Chinese takeout and a spot in my cabin that got halfway decent cell phone reception. I put Valerie on speaker and kicked my feet up on the table, like we would have if we were chewing over a case in the office. I just wished I had enough bandwidth to put her on video. I was starting to miss seeing her face. I imagined there was a lot of eye-rolling I was missing out on. “Any police record?” I asked.
She snorted. “Of course not,” she said. “And none of the records of getting bounced around the way pervs do. He was here for 20 years and beloved in every single one of those.”
“All the better reason to cover up a crime,” I muttered.
“You think he murdered Claire?” she said. “My money was on the police chief.”
“I think Guy helped bury it,” I said. “And I think in his confusion, he’s going back to the scene of the crime. The director of the history center gave me the name of the madam’s daughter, Jeannine Dorne, thought she might have something.”
“What are you going to do if you solve it?” she asked. “Franklin’s been dead for 20 years and no judge will find McDuff fit for trial.”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Hell, I don’t even know how I got involved except for my own goddamn curiosity. All that got me last time was two dead bodies with my photos at the crime scene.
I let Valerie go with a promise to be home soon and finished my takeout. I wished I had some music; I was 200 miles away from my piano and my signal wasn’t strong enough to stream anything. For the first time in three days, my cabin felt very lonely. I tried whistling The Mighty Lemon Drops, “Inside Out.” The only problem was that I wasn’t very good at whistling.
Jeannie lived on the road that wound along the lake, on property that would sell for triple what she likely paid for it when the time came to move. “I thought about giving this to the police years ago,” she said, handing me a large brown ledger. “But I knew they’d just destroy it. Half their names are probably in it, but I’d never know. They’re all coded and Mama never told me what the patron code was. She had it memorized.”
“No surprise there,” I said. “Was there ever anyone your mom was really scared of? Worried about?”
“Not locally,” she said. “Occasionally she’d get some bad vibes from an out-of-town client, but she would have never put him in with Claire. She saved those guys for Ramona, she knew kung-fu or some shit. No one messed with Ramona. Claire was more the girl-next-door type, played that pretty and shy routine, like she was a virgin 10 times a night.”
“You remember her?”
“Sure I do,” she said. “She used to give me a little spritz of her perfume if I came by. She said it was from France, she kept it in one of those fancy atomizers with the feather and the pump. Years later I found out it came from Sears, but still, it was sweet of her to do.”
She got out a photo album. “Mama had a code for each girl too,” she said. “Claire was #24,” she said.
“V for virgin,” she said. “24th letter of the alphabet. #4 would be dominatrix, that sort of thing.”
When The French Letters were in Amsterdam on tour, my guitar player Ron and our bass player Vic tried to get me to go with them to a brothel, but I wasn’t interested. Instead I smoked a couple Gladstone cigarettes in the bathtub and ran up an international phone bill that infuriated our management. I never wanted any woman but Cecelia, back home in LA. Her voice was all the pleasure I needed right then.
Jeannie pulled Claire’s photo out and passed it to me. She was pretty, a redhead in a lace-trimmed nightgown, with those too-trusting eyes. She wore a small gold cross around her neck. I wondered if it was for real or a prop for her good-girl routine.
Or her murder weapon.
My family was Methodist, but growing up, my best friend Rudy was Catholic, so on weekends I spent over at his house, I’d go to mass with his family. I liked the ritual of it even if I had to stay seated while they took communion. Later on, I liked that I got to sit next to his sister Lucy, who wore Love’s Baby Soft and was tall enough that her skirts were a little shorter than they had been a year ago. At 13, I would have nailed myself to the cross just to touch her hand. Years later, when I was back in Duluth for my mom’s funeral, she showed up with her two sons, as beautiful as ever, kissed my cheek and told me how good I looked, that Rudy had moved to North Carolina to become a basketball coach and he was sorry he couldn’t get away. She smelled like cucumber melon when she hugged me and she had a much better husband than an ex-junkie rock star could have ever hoped to be.
But I wasn’t here to confess the lustful heart I’d had for Lucy Archer 40 years ago. I wasn’t even here for prayerful reflection. I was here because Guy’s car was in the parking lot, because he was alone in the third pew, clutching a rosary he wasn’t counting. I sat behind him and leaned forward so I was practically whispering in his ear. “I heard nice things about Claire,” I said.
He looked back at me. He smiled. “She used to sit right here,” he said, pointing to the pew across from him. “She never missed a Sunday mass.”
“I bet Father Franklin liked that,” I said. “Good looking girl in the pews.”
“He saw her soul,” he said. “Her devotion to the Lord. He wanted to save her.”
“None of us are without sin,” I said. “Not even a priest.”
He didn’t respond, so I kept talking. “He killed her,” I said. “And you helped cover it up. You had to. Because he knew all your secrets. He knew who drank too much, who hit their wife, who sent their daughter to stay with relatives when she started to show. All the little sins you unburdened yourself with, week after week. If he was revealed, you all would be. And none of you could take that chance.”
I expected him to get up and leave, to respond with fight, to speak in tongues, to drop dead of a heart attack. I expected him to do anything but smile and sigh. “Yes,” he said. “He went to her. More than once. He called me from her phone, said she needed help. He was gone when we arrived. All of us did. They never caught her killer. But we all knew.”
“How come the Madam never said anything?”
“Because we threatened her,” he said. “She saw what happened to Claire. She closed up shop pretty quickly after that.”
Maybe it wasn’t fair, confronting a confused old man with his crimes. Guy might be gone in another six months. Father Franklin was dead. But so was Claire. Maybe that only meant something to Jeannie, the only woman who remembered her, who lit a candle for her wandering spirit. I knew a few things about the ghosts that linger, about leaving lights on so someone can find their way home to rest. I’d light a candle for Cecelia on the way out, the same way Rudy had taught me. Hell, I’d light one for Valerie and Susan too, a prayer in the darkness for the people who might need it.
Guy seemed lighter, somehow. Confession cleared your head, saying your sins out loud held you accountable. I never understood what that meant until I got to rehab, until I had to spell out my own weaknesses week after week, until they disappeared like vapor. I remembered that weight being lifted, the relief I felt when it was all given up to some higher power.
I squeezed his shoulder as I stood up. He lifted his eyes to meet mine. “Thank you,” he said. “The peace of God be with you.”
“And also,” I said. “With you.”
I let Hale make the call to the village police. They interviewed me at the museum; we showed them the cross and the matchbook, all circumstantial. They interviewed Jeannie too, and picked up Guy for questioning the next day. Daphne screamed at the cops who came to get her uncle. I watched from my car across the street as she followed them out. I wondered if she believed his innocence, if she kept up the family business of secrets or if she was pissed because her meal ticket was gone. There might be elder abuse charges waiting for her, or she could empty his accounts and take off, have the pension checks forwarded to some other small town with a police force she could bully her way into. Guy would never see the inside of a court room other than the day of his arraignment, but none of it was my problem anymore. None of it was my problem to begin with
I was drinking coffee on my front porch when a cab pulled up and Valerie got out. She didn’t have any luggage. “I thought you could use some company on the ride back,” she said as she approached.
“Maybe I’ve decided to stay,” I joked. “Set up shop here. I’ve already solved one case.”
“All your music is back in Perrine,” she said. “Your French press and your piano and all your suits.”
She had me there. “Let me finish my coffee,” I said. “My bag is all packed anyways.”
We sat on the porch without saying a word. There’d be plenty to talk about on the ride home. When we’d finished I rinsed out the cups and the coffee pot, put my bag in the car and went up to the white house to pay the remainder of my bill. Susan gave me a hug and said thanks and that everyone was talking about what happened. That was my cue to ride off into the sunset.
LIBBY CUDMORE is the author of THE BIG REWIND (William Morrow 2016), and previous Martin Wade stories have appeared in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE and the Anthony Award nominated anthology LAWYERS, GUNS & MONEY: CRIME FICTION INSPIRED BY THE MUSIC OF WARREN ZEVON (co-edited with Art Taylor). Her short stories have been published in MONKEYBICYCLE, SMOKELONG QUARTERLY, HAD, THE NORMAL SCHOOL, THE COACHELLA REVIEW, BLEED ERROR and others, and she is the co-host of the OST PARTY, MISBEHAVIN' and SHATTERED SHIELD podcasts. This is her second contribution to TOUGH; her story "The Covenant" was published in October 2019.