Sunday, June 17, 2012
When Lonergin arrived at the Fallon airport he hired a taxi to drive him to the hotel in the center of town. From what he could see out the cab window it seemed an average little mill town, tucked into a fold in the foothills and surrounded by lush green meadows and verdant forest. A tributary river, carrying runoff from that section of the foothills some five hundred kilometers to where it flowed into the big river running north, split the town into two equal sections. Strangely the houses along the banks seemed the same as those farther in. “Where are the houses of the rich?” he asked the cabbie.
“Ten Kilometers north,” replied the cabbie.
“Out of town?”
“O yes,” said the cabbie. “Taxes.”
“And outside on the south?” asked Lonergin.
“That’s where I live. Can you guess?” The back of the cabbies hand resting on the steering wheel was brown. Darker in the summer perhaps but even in deep winter it would be brown.
“I don’t have to,” said Lonergin. The cabbie laughed. “There are small farms out there, going way back. With a little farming and occasional work in town, people survive.”
“And the mill?”
“Only town people work at the mill.” The mill, out of town and to the west, was hidden by series of small hills. These hills protected the town from the stench in all weather excepting that blowing a direct east wind and that was rare. Today the wind was from the northwest and all you could smell was freshly cut grass, moist air carrying the scent of water from the river and the rich forest smell coming from the fully leafed trees both in the town itself and the woods surrounding.
Lonergin felt a little depressed. In the past ten years he had been in so many of these little towns and they were all similar, all depressingly the same. He came, unannounced, with a briefcase full of authorizations, his mind full of barked verbal orders from his superiors, to put out fires, to squeeze things down so they wouldn’t cause problems, so everything would appear normal, happy, running with the smooth precision of oiled machinery. Lately he found himself doing his job with all his usual cool efficiency but his heart wasn’t in it. In the fall he would apply for a transfer. When the leaves came down he would get an internal job, stay in the city and perhaps revive a few of the hobbies he had abandoned years ago.
When they retrieved his bags from the trunk the cabbie offered to carry them but Lonergin waved him off. The cabbie shrugged and Lonergin paid, him adding on a generous tip. He didn’t like other people carrying his bags. He could bloody well carry them himself. He wasn’t a Lord or a rich magnate, just a bureaucrat and a rather lowly one at that. But when he checked in at the desk he allowed the skinny young bellhop to carry his bags to the elevator and then into his room. How would the poor bastard make a living otherwise? The bellhop’s skin was brown too and he had a long, thin, elegant nose you would think would be perched on the face of an English aristocrat. Perhaps it was. There were a lot of remittance men out this way in the old days.
“Do you live in town?” he asked.
“On a farm to the south.”
“Some. Pigs and chickens too and a big garden.”
“Is there money in that?”
“Not much but there’s food in it. We eat well.”
“Well, that’s half the battle, isn’t it?’
“Yes it is, sir.”
Lonergin tipped him three times the going rate and the boy left smiling. They never queried his expense accounts. If he had a larcenous mind he could have made lots of money out of it but he couldn’t see any reason to bother. He made far more than he spent, the excess going into investments handled by a brother-in-law. Very conservative, very balanced investments, half of it government bonds. He already had enough to live in some warm country for the rest of his natural life, so why bother skulking about to pile up even more? His wife was a bureaucrat too. She made more than he did. The kids were grown and into lucrative professions, one a medical specialist, the other a businessman. It was ludicrous really. Money came to them like they were sponges absorbing water.
He watched a movie before going to bed. A space opera. Formulaic, granted, but well done with good actors and a good script. He was happy when the corner was turned and the good guys won without too much bloody annihilation. When it was over he read his book for an hour and went to bed.
The meeting was set up on a phone call from the Big Boss in the city. That’s the way it was always done. It sent a message to whomever that lack of cooperation would bring out the big guns, that the investigator was the voice of power and authority. Lonergin was grateful for this method of procedure. It meant he didn’t have to convince anyone of anything. He just had to ask questions.
The mayor was a rolly poly man. He sat behind a gargantuan desk in an oversized chair, behind him a window overlooking the river. He wore a three piece suit, tailor made, containing enough material for two or three lesser men. He was telling Lonergin his version of the history of the town, the usual highly edited edition told by mayors, full of mercantile wonders and heroic members of the Chamber of Commerce. Lonergin was an old pro at listening to this sort of thing. He listened with one part of his mind while another part wandered about the back streets looking for other faces and other stories. He thought of the bellhop. He thought of the cabbie. He thought of the woman who served him bacon and eggs in the hotel restaurant. He thought of the young woman who knocked on his door just before he went to bed and asked him if he would like to have ‘a good time’. He didn’t. Professional sex was far too sad an affair for him to find pleasure in.
The mayor was a verbose but ignorant man. His language never rose above the deep fried rhetoric of tourist brochures and town council resolutions. His syntax was tortured, his thought without leaven and he was totally humourless. His smile never touched his eyes and not a single thing he said had even the slightest whiff of the genuine to it. He took himself very seriously and assumed through a fog of ponderous, bright, highly upbeat projections, that everyone else did so as well. In short he was a pompous ass. But Lonergin neither liked nor disliked him. To him the mayor was like a cow in a field chewing her cud, with the exception that the cow, as lowly as many might see her to be in the hierarchy of creation, was at least engaged in the performance of an act having behind it the full force of her animal nature. When the Mayor came to a pause in what Lonergin judged to be a far too long oration, which, if allowed to continue, would not only consume the morning but poison it as well, he broke in.
“Is there a union at the mill?”
“No,” said the Mayor. His face took on an expression of deep displeasure as if while speaking with a man he had assumed to be a sympathetic gentleman, it had suddenly been revealed to him that he was conversing with an unsavory character.
“Not so unusual in this day and age, is it?”
“People around here settle things through the family.”
“We like to think of the town as one big family.”
“You may like to think of it that way but is it true?”
“I think so.”
Lonergin took his eyes away from the mayor’s face and looked out the window. It was mid morning. The bright sun was lighting up the surface of the river in a great display of sparkling and reflection. He studied this for a while. The mayor was pretending to look at the papers on his desk but he was really studying him surreptitiously to see what was coming next. Without removing his eyes from the river Lonergin asked, “Did they tell you why I am here?’
“Yes.” the mayor replied.
“Five young men murdered within a single year. Rather unusual, isn’t it? Perhaps you have an opinion on the subject?”
“Not really,” said the mayor.
“OK, if you don’t have an opinion on that subject perhaps you have one on another. Five young men murdered and yet no one charged. In fact, according to the reports forwarded by your Chief of Police, not only are there no charges but there seems to be no evidence or suspects either.”
“The police do the best they can. We don’t have the big bucks out here like they do where you come from.”
“O, I don’t know,” said Lonergin. “On my walk from the hotel it seemed to me that this is a prosperous little town.”
“And it stays that way by not wasting money on useless investigations.”
“Useless? Isn’t that a strange word to apply to a murder investigation?”
“Well, perhaps useless isn’t the right word. What I mean is we have limited resources and we must use them judiciously.”
“Yet surely you are aware that in a situation like this you can apply to the central government for extra funds. Five murders in a single year for a town this size would almost certainly qualify. Yet you haven’t applied. Perhaps you could tell me why?”
“If a gang of thugs outside the town want to kill one another why should we waste money getting too excited about it?”
“So you think the murders were committed by outsiders against outsiders.”
“My Chief tells me that’s where the body’s were found.”
“Bodies can be moved, Mr. Mayor.”
“The Chief tells me they were killed where they were found.”
“Did he? It seemed to me from the reports that that was a matter of opinion rather than investigative fact. In the reports there seemed to be a great scarcity of investigative fact, almost as if the Chief didn’t have time to find any.”
“Well, he is a busy man.”
“And you too are a busy man, Mayor.”
“Good. Then you will be pleased when I tell you that an investigative team arrives tomorrow to give you a hand. To take over the investigation in fact. When do you come into the office in the morning, Mr. Mayor?”
“Keep the first hour open then for the team. For the next two weeks or so.”
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Do what you like then. If they want to speak to you they will simply walk in and order anyone present to leave. It’s up to you.”
“Well of course then. I’ll keep it open.”
When Lonergin reached the door he opened it and turned. “Why are you convinced these murders are revenge, the settling of debts, whatever, among the outside people?”
“They are lawless ruffians. None of them have a pot to piss in. You always find high murder rates among those kind of people.”
“Then why is it,” asked Lonergin, “that before these five murders, for a period going back twenty years, was there not a single murder among them?”
“These things go up and down,” said the Mayor. Lonergin stepped into the outer office and closed the door.
The Police Chief, in contrast to the mayor, was an exceedingly thin man. So much so that at first Lonergin thought he might be ill with a wasting disease. When the investigative team arrived he had them look into it. The Chief was actually in robust health. Apparently even as a young man he had been cadaverously thin. He had a sad face filled with successive lines of rumpled skin. There was a blue black bag under each eye. He had a long, thin nose which reminded Lonergin of the plows the old people used to turn sod. His eyes were round like saucers, watery and pale blue and surprisingly kind and sympathetic, surprisingly to Lonergin for he had expected something else. He sat behind a modest wooden desk with not a thing on it but a small bowl of jelly beans. From this bowl, every few minutes or so he took a few jellybeans and popped them into his mouth. He offered the bowl to Lonergin, as a substitute, perhaps, for a glass of scotch. The Chief didn’t drink. To be sociable Lonergin took a few and tossed them into his mouth. They were truly delicious jellybeans.
“The reports, Chief.”
“Are lousy, I know.”
Lonergin was taken aback. The chief smiled. “You didn’t expect that, did you?”
“They were done by a Lieutenant on the Mayor’s orders. I just signed them.”
“You could have refused.”
“I have seven children. They eat. But I also have a conscience. It eats too if you don’t pay attention. There are sub reports, you might call them, put away where only I know where to find them. They are not much better than the official reports for almost no follow up was done. The bereaved were interviewed for form’s sake. There were no suspects because the Lieutenant was ordered not to look for any. But there is some physical evidence which didn’t go into the official reports and a much better detailing of the condition of the bodies - when they were found, time, place etc.”
“Autopsies? I didn’t see any reports in the files.”
“That’s because none were done. I know that’s illegal but the town refused to authorize payment for them.”
“And the bodies now?”
“Cremated a week after death.”
“Christ. Did the relatives give permission?”
“No. It was just done. But in my reports there is a very accurate summation of the condition of the bodies, the immediate surroundings, approximate time of death and some physical evidence.”
“Shell casings. A footprint in one case. Threads of fabric in the victim’s hand in another. I gathered all that surreptitiously, sometimes going back to the scene at night when no one was there.”
“Because I wasn’t in charge of the investigation.”
“Who was then?”
“The Mayor and the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant is the Mayor’s son-in-law.”
The Chief rose from his desk to pour them coffee. When he placed the full cups on the desk Lonergin asked him. “Who and why?”
The Chief popped in a few more jellybeans. “I really don’t know, at least in a concrete evidence based sort of way. I have hunches. I have intuitive leaps. I have educated guesses. But I don’t have knowledge.”
“Give me some of your educated guesses, then.”
“OK.” The Chief opened a desk drawer and took out a package of cigarettes. “Mind if I smoke?” he asked.
“No.” said Lonergin.
He lit the cigarette with an old time zippo lighter. He reached out with a long leg and pulled over the waste basket for an ashtray.
“Two years ago the outsiders figured they were not being given a very good deal. Low class jobs. None on the police force. In fact not a single one as an employee of the town. And none at the mill. That’s were the real money is. Even a labourer at the mill, with overtime, makes as much money as I do. I suppose they figured if they didn’t do something it would go on that way for ever. So they decided to do something. They looked around them and came to a conclusion – a very intelligent conclusion but also very dangerous. The outsiders come into town to buy everything – food, hardware, booze, building supplies, farm supplies, everything. There are ten thousand people in the town but the outsider population is perhaps twice that amount. Some of the younger one’s who had been away to the university decided to set up a co-op. They held meetings and started the process of registering the co-op with the central government. Apparently they planned to set up a general store carrying practically everything. With volunteer labour they started to renovate an old barn about twenty klicks from here. They were about half done when the first murder occurred but they kept going. After two and three things slowed down to a crawl and after the fourth, a particularly grisly torture murder, they stopped altogether. It’s still out there on the 1169 if you want to take a look. Some say it would have been burned down but the outsiders, at least I’ve been told so, guard it around the clock carrying shotguns.”
“So that’s why. Now who?”
“The Mayor’s son-in-law. But he is on a leash and the holding end of the leash is held by the Mayor and four or five of his pals. Now I say this and am 99% sure of it but there is absolutely no proof that will stand up in a court of law. The bodies are gone. No autopsies. The physical evidence I gathered will never convict anyone. It might give an intelligent investigator who knows the situation a good idea of what happened but it will never convict anybody. But I doubt if it will matter anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because they tortured the last guy before they killed him. Somebody gave the family pictures of the body before it was cremated and a detailed list of its wounds. The outsiders are on the bottom end of the social scale but that doesn’t mean they are stupid. They have their clods like all groups of people do but there are many among them who are resourceful, ingenuous and intelligent. What would you do if someone tortured your son, killed him and then set it up so they could not get caught?”
Lonergin didn’t say anything.
“You know what you would do but you just don’t want to say you being a law abiding government official. You know what you would do, don’t you?”
Lonergin took a long time to reply but the Chief waited patiently. Finally he said. “Yes. I know what I would do.”
“Well, I think that’s what the outsiders are going to do.”
The team arrived the next day and set to work. The Chief gave them the sub reports and drove them around the gravel roads to interview the victims’ familiars. They worked for three weeks out of a room in the Police Station. But it was as the Chief had predicted. They arrived at a fairly accurate picture of what happened but had no evidence which would stand up in a court of law. The Lieutenant and a suspected cohort had lawyers at their interviews and said practically nothing. The Mayor refused to be interviewed and without solid evidence they couldn’t force it. The Mayor’s pals were even farther away. They were ghosts moving across the far edge of a field in the twilight. The team wrapped up its work and flew back to the city to file its report. Lonergin decided to stay another day.
He was woken by the phone beside his bed at five in the morning. “This is Phil Gillis,” the voice on the other end of the line said, “the Chief. There’s a body at 506 Compton you should take a look at. I’ll send a car.”
When the car arrived Lonergin was in the Lobby. First light was beginning on the eastern horizon but the town was still dark. When they came to the house the Chief was on the porch smoking a cigarette. There were two police cars in the driveway and the Identification van was at the curb. When Lonergin came up the stair the Chief, sitting in a lawn chair, offered the empty one nearby with a gesture of his left hand. Lonergin sat down.
“It’s the Lieutenant, of course,” said the Chief.
“Right,” said Lonergin.
“Do you want to go in and see?”
“Did you ever see this sort of thing before?”
“Once or twice.”
“Probably not like this though. They were vengeful. People have nightmares for two years after seeing something like this. A lot of times it doesn’t even hit people for two or three weeks. It takes time to sink in. Then they wake up at night hollering, covered in sweat. Still want to see?” Lonergin shook his head.
“You are a wise man. There are enough terrible things we have to see in this world without volunteering for more. I look because I’m a cop. I have no choice. When I was young I should have went into the gardening business with my uncles but at the time I had fool ignorant notions about noble heroes and so on. By the time I realized they were fool and ignorant it was too late. Five kids and twins on the way. I should have worked flower beds and used contraception.”
Two identification officers came out of the house carrying plastic cases. They walked over to the van, loaded the cases and drove away.
The Chief waved his cigarette towards the departing van. “They’ll find a few things. They are pretty good and they always do. But it won’t be of any use. There won’t be anyone to match it to. The guys who did this are already gone. We will ask questions but no one will answer them. Remind you of another situation? That’s just what it will be like.”
“Won’t it matter that he was a cop?”
“Not really. There will be a little of that but not much. Everyone in the force hated his guts. They all thought him a sadistic son of a bitch. He would have been fired years ago if he wasn’t the Mayor’s son-in-law. He was killed because he deserved it. Just about nobody who knows anything about all this will really care if the killers are never caught.”
“What did they do to him?”
“Probably when he got off shift yesterday morning at eight and climbed into his car they knocked him out with something. He lived in this house alone. How could anyone live with a man like that? They drove him home and into the garage. He always kept the door opener on the dash of the car. Took him down into the basement and strung him up by his hands with his feet a few inches off the floor. They duct taped his mouth. When he woke up first they castrated him. They duct taped his genitals onto his forehead. Then they shot out first his ankle joints, then his knees, then his hips, then his elbows and then his shoulders. They let him hang there for a while I suppose then they shot him through the head three times.”
“Just like the last outsider.”
“Just like the last outsider.”
“What a horrible way to die.”
“And what a horrible way to make someone die.”
The murder of the Lieutenant terrified the suspected cohort. He left town and then, after some sober afterthought, never came back. But the Mayor refused to leave. The Chief provided him with a twenty four hour bodyguard. “Do your best but don’t get too close to him. Do you know what I mean?” he told the guards and they all nodded. Even the dull witted ones nodded.
Lonergin was back in the capital when the Mayor was killed. It was on a September day with a nice fresh breeze coming in the window one of the night cleaning staff left open. When the Mayor arrived he found it so refreshing that he decided not to close it. They shot him through the window with a 222, a rifle with a flat trajectory, and as the window was open, there was no glass imperfections or glare to cause sighting problems for the shooter. The shot was well aimed. The slug entered the back of his head at the joint of the spine and the skull. The slug was hollow point. It broke into four parts rattling around the inside of his skull chewing up his brain as if it had been placed in a blender. The Mayor wasn’t the sort of man to have regrets. This was just as well for the way it turned out he was given no time to have them.
There is a co op now operating on the 1169. It does a good business. Most of its customers are outsiders but it does a sprinkling of business from townies who come out for the bargains. There are now two outsider police officers and three outsiders have just started to work at the mill.
Lonergin decided not to tell his wife about the details of the murders. So when he began to wake at night hollering, flailing his arms about, he told her it was the return of childhood nightmares. After the third night of this she demanded he go to a psychologist and he did. The psychologist, who considered himself to be a radical shaman type of healer, told him he was a spoilt bureaucrat, a soft and useless creature and thus easy prey for malignant furies. He suggested Lonergin sell his sailboat and give the money to the poor. As Lonergin did not have a sailboat he was unable to follow this advice. Instead he bought a membership in a gym and took up weight lifting. After three months of pumping iron the nightmares went away and he was able to leave the guestroom and rejoin his wife in the connubial bed.
Chief Gillis retired early, a year after the Mayor’s murder. He and his family moved to a farm outside town where they breed sheep and Lamas. At first the kids complained bitterly but they stopped when their mother bought them three horses and they started to play hockey with the outsider kids on the local pond. The new co -op is just down from their farm which pleases the Chief for since his retirement he doesn’t like going into town. He finds the streets too crowded and the faces too innocent and imbecilic. Saturday mornings the Chief can be seen at the coop hovering his hawk’s nose above the tool displays while his wife does the grocery shopping. Saturday afternoons he sits on his front verandah drinking coca cola and eating jelly beans. Old friends from town, out for a drive in the country, sometimes join him there along with people from around the neighbourhood. Everybody gets along. Sometimes they even sit down together at the Chief’s table for supper and have a delicious meal of fresh pork and garden vegetables.