It was near Horse Creek I found the woman's body, embedded in the bank. She lied there arms out and legs open, as if interrupted while in the process of making dirt angels. The woman wore no clothes and I glanced about to see if they had fallen off or had been ripped off and thrown aside. She rested face up and from what I could tell she was maybe fifty or sixty—possibly older from the sag of her breasts.
Caked blood hung around her ears like morbid earrings. Most of the skin had decayed, wrinkled like the face of a Pug. The pallid skin appeared very loose, ready to fall from the body at a slight touch or a small vibration on the ground underneath. I would not be the one testing that theory—I had no desire to watch skin slide like epidermis syrup. It was bad enough I stood this close to the body without puking or—at the very least—getting an upset stomach. But I hadn't had that much to eat the night before, so I remained confident I'd be okay.
I quickly wondered how long this body had been here. Days? Weeks? Months? I realized this spot was not well-traveled, but shouldn’t someone have reported her missing?
Police Chief Hardass (or Bobby Hamilton, if you prefer proper names) withdrew from his car as he always did: spouting arrogance. The cockiness was unwarranted. So what if he was six and a half feet and 220 pounds of muscle? The Police Chief title gave him the right of absolute domain over assholedom in these parts, but what was there to be proud of, watching over a community of six hundred law-abiding citizens?
He made his last arrest two months ago on Old Man Noogan who drank a bit too much that day and ran over Miss Molly’s cat. Hamilton only charged Noogan with animal cruelty despite the entire incident being a clear accident. How’s that for showcasing your power? Now all he does was patrol the streets of Ilton and speak on the hazards of drugs at the local high school.
Besides me, Hamilton was the only one of my class that stayed. Everyone else got real jobs and made something of themselves in Chicago or New York or San Francisco or where ever people made something of themselves. Little old me was in charge of the Ilton Gazette and Bobby Hamilton was in charge of being an asshole. Technically, I attempted to make something of myself but I eventually returned to my hometown to run a twelve-page paper and endure the boundless ineptitude of the Police Chief.
Bobby nodded to me as he approached. “Grant.”
“Chief.” It's hard calling a classmate, who is the same twenty-eight years as you, ‘Chief’.
“What have we got here?”
I pointed to the body. “I found that body there about 20 minutes ago.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Bobby walked over to the body and knelt down. He took a pencil from his breast pocket and poked around the woman, focused on a few of the cuts and gashes. I watched him carefully lift leaves and push tufts of grass around, searching for evidence, but after a few minutes of that, he gave up. He rose and very rudely stepped over the midsection of the body and stared straight ahead.
“You found her like this? You didn’t touch anything?” He finally asked.
“That’s gross, man.”
“So you found her like this?” he asked, forceful.
I felt my cheeks burning when he said ‘Mmm-hmm’. Condescending, really. He stood back up and glanced around the scene.
“County coroner’s coming,” he said. “’Bout 30 minutes.” That’s about how long anybody took to get out here. Kankakee wasn’t just a hop, skip and a jump. No one visited here willingly. You have to plan to come to Ilton.
Grant picked up the woman’s wrist and checked the pulse.
“Dead,” he said.
“She look familiar?”
I hadn’t recognized her the first time I saw her, but I hadn’t really looked. I would have to force myself again, but I wanted out of here, so I looked at her face.
The eye cavities sunk back into the skull, leaving the eyes to protrude outward, like a surprised skeleton. Old, matted hair dipped across the forehead, almost thinning to the point of non-existence. Another few days or so and the facial bones would push through, saying a little hello to anyone else who looked on her.
"Well?" Bobby pressed. With a latex-gloved hand, Bobby put his index finger on the woman's chin and opened the lower jaw. Immediately, maggots and a couple of spiders and other multi-footed animals shot out, escaping from the toothy prison for a brighter day.
I looked away, a queasy rumble emanating from my stomach. A short second later, my abdomen lurched upward, pushing a dry heave through my mouth.
Bobby released a short burst of chuckles. "Everything okay?"
"I'm fine," I responded. I managed a swallow.
"I'm guessing she doesn't look familiar to you."
“No,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be from one of these farmhouses. I don’t know too many of those folks.”
“Not familiar to me either.”
“Listen, mind if I get going—“
“What were you doing out here?”
Bobby snickered. “Camping? I didn’t know anybody camped out here.”
“Been doing it since I was seven.”
“How far away?”
I looked past a clump of trees. “I don’t know. About 500 feet or so.”
“Hear anything last night?”
“No.” And come to think of it, I really hadn’t.
“Only reason I ask is that this probably happened sometime in the night. You out here all night?”
I nodded. “Since around 10 p.m. or so.”
There it was again. His asshole ‘Mmm-hmm’.
“Show me,” he said.
“Show you what?”
“Show me your campsite.”
We followed the creek until the treeline began. Rain blanketed the area with a light drizzle early this morning and the banks became mushy as a result. Hamilton’s shiny police boots collected mud and I loved it.
The forest enclosed us within a few steps of entering the forest floor. An abrupt temperature drop shook my bones and with each step, I hoped the moisture wouldn’t seep into my shoes. Inside the trees, it was hard to ascertain whether this was the early spring season—where the melting show or early March/April rains soaked everything—or the middle of the Fall season—where the forty or fifty degree days just made things blustery.
The trip was not a direct shot to my campsite. Bobby and I zigzagged through the evergreens and an occasional thorn bush grabbed at us while trying to avoid overly-damp areas.
When we reached a drier area, Bobby stopped me.
“See something?” I asked.
Instead of answering, he bent down and grabbed a handful of leaves and grass. He used that to wipe the clumpy mud from his boots. I shook my head and continued on.
I saw my grey, two-man tent a few moments later. I left the flap open and hoped there weren’t any animals milling around in there—like a raccoon or a field mouse. Or worse, a coyote. The past few weeks, farmers have reported more coyotes than in the past five years. I witnessed one personally last year. It was skinny, bones pushing through the fur and it’s eyes and stomach hungry for a kill.
“That it?” Bobby asked.
“Who else’s would it be?”
He cautiously approached it first. He popped his head inside the tent and—seeing everything was okay—relaxed. He waved his hand at the defunct fire. “You know a fire’s illegal on private property,” he said.
“Is that all you’re concerned about? You got a dead lady back there, you know.”
Maybe I made a mistake saying that last thing. Bobby stomped over to me and tapped my shoulder with his finger.
“Listen here, Grant. I know we went to school together and we graduated together and that we’ve been stuck in this God-awful town since and we’ll probably be stuck here for many years yet, but don’t you think for one fucking second that you can treat me like an idiot.” His voice quivered at the end, but he regained his thoughts and continued. “I know I wasn’t the smartest guy in school, but I kinda made something here as Police Chief. I’m proud of this town. I’m horribly sick to my stomach about having a dead body on my watch.”
I took a step back. “Okay, okay. Just didn’t know why you're worried about a stupid fire, anyway.”
“Did you leave the campsite at any time last night?” Back to the questioning.
“What did you do?”
“I made a fire. I made dinner. Then I read a book until I went to sleep.”
“What did you have for dinner?” he asked.
“Some sandwiches. Bologna and Cheese.”
Bobby looked around the campsite. “You didn’t litter out here, did you? I mean, what did you do with the little plastic baggies you put your sandwiches in?”
“Fuck you, Hamilton. I used Tupperware.” If he looked inside, I’m sure he’d see them.
“Were you camping by yourself?”
“Yup. Felt like I needed to get away for the weekend.”
Hamilton laughed. “The big city, right? Ilton getting you down?”
“No, but you are. What’s your problem?”
“We got plenty of time before the coroner gets here. Besides, you do realize you were only 500 feet or so away from the scene of the crime, right? Don’t tell me being editor has warped your brain.”
“I didn’t do anything.” I tried not to sound defensive with the heat of anger ready to control my mouth.
“Mmm-hmm.” Dammit! I wanted to take that ‘Mmm-hmm’ and shove it up his ass!
Bobby started walking back the way we came. “I suppose I need to check the scene out.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
He jerked his head back to me, but didn’t say anything. He wanted to, I saw his eyes flare.
Of course, he didn’t.
Instead, he walked up to the bridge and looked both ways. Probably be another 10 minutes or so before the Coroner came.
“Need a ride, Grant?”
“No. I’ll walk back.”
“Will you be at the office all day?”
"Is that a yes or no? I don't know your schedule."
“Talk to you later, then.”
That sounded like we were good old friends. No, not good old friends: the bestest friends in the whole wide world. Talk to you later, then. Fucking Hamilton.
The walk took me fifteen minutes, which calmed me. Police Chief Bobby Hamilton had pissed me off and I needed to clear my head before the day’s editing took place. The Ilton Gazette was published every Tuesday and each Monday I had to look over the proofs, write my editorial and do any last minute print settings. I know: sounds pretty damn boring and it was. But I got it down to a science where I can be done by one p.m., two at the latest.
The rest of the week was reserved for the fun stuff, like writing about my find along the creek this morning.
I reached Main Street and wondered if the Coroner was there, checking things out, making shit official. Probably. Unless he stopped off for a quickie with Harriet Miller, the Mayor's daughter. Mayor Miller. Now doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? Mayor Miller. He’s been Mayor for over ten years and was the only person who didn’t know Coroner Fergins was banging his daughter. Oh, and maybe Bobby. If Fergins stopped off for that quickie, then he might not be there yet. Or, maybe Fergins followed that nickname for sex and really was quick. I don’t know the man, but he was pushing fifty.
9:15. Shit. The peons were wondering about me.
I quickened my pace and walked by Betty’s Grubs, the local greasy spoon. The scent of scrambled eggs and waffles drifted out and slammed my nose. Maybe a fast detour and I could grab myself a quickie of breakfast—
I didn’t have to look. It was my Ad-man, Joe Griffin. He trotted in my direction. Joe was the stereotypical short, stocky, bald man. I could see the rolls of fat jiggling under his dress shirt and wished for a different image.
—I thought of Harriet’s boobs—
Better. Just a few years older than me, she still had some great tits.
“Grant, where’ve you been?”
His fat pushed Harriet’s boobs from my mind.
Finally, Joe reached me. I waited for him to catch his breath before speaking again.
“Want some breakfast?” I knew he wouldn’t turn down food.
“Not really.” Was this a short, stocky, bald man who didn’t want food? That surprised me. “We’ve got a problem with an advertiser.”
“Do I have time for breakfast?”
“Not if you want to get the paper out on time.”
And if there’s one thing I wanted to do, it’s just that.
“So what’s the problem?” I asked my staff of four.
Maggie Johnson sat closest to me and chewed on a pen. Who chewed on a pen? Pencils were the thing; the little wood divots made the habit satisfying. I guess Maggie enjoyed the threat of spewing ink. Her long, red hair streaked back into a pony tail, opening the view to her smooth, tanned face. My eyes were too wanton at the moment; a small stirring shifted in my pants. My eyes wandered to her skirt and to her perfect legs; then out of courtesy, I lifted my eyes back up to her face. She smiled at me. She knew, but she smiled anyway.
“…And that’s why he won’t purchase the rest of the ad space.”
How rude of me. “Who won’t? I’m sorry, I only half heard.”
“Alan’s Auto,” Daryl Benton said. He was my community guy. Usually drunk at night, but he's able to sniff out the tiniest bit of story in this area during the day. If a tractor had a flat tire because of a nail that a neighbor had deliberately set in the road, then Daryl was the guy to get to the bottom of it. And sometimes that’s the biggest story we had for the week. He took off his glasses and set them down on his notebook. “Alan’s Automotive doesn’t think he’s getting the response he should from his ad. He feels another four inches of space won't help.”
The sports man, Pete Folly, finished typing something and spun it out of the typewriter. That’s right, typewriter. Damn guy refuses to submit to the wonders of computer word processing. He’s forty and it's slightly strange he hasn’t embraced the awe that is Microsoft. He set the paper on my desk. The title: ILTON HIGH DEFEATED FOR 4TH STRAIGHT. Another loss for our hometown basketball team.
"Looks like no State for our boys, eh Pete?" I wondered if my comment would rile him. Some days it was hard to read Pete’s mood.
“What do you think?” I asked Pete when he turned away. “Is Alan getting his worth?”
Pete shrugged again. “Couldn’t tell you. I take my car to town when it needs repairing.” By town, he meant Kankakee.
I thought for a moment as the penetrating eyes of my employees sought the salvation of an answer. “Joe, offer Alan that extra space free for two weeks. Tell him if his business doesn’t improve by 25%, then nothing lost. If it does improve, then he must buy two months worth of ads.”
Joe smiled. “Like a bet, eh?”
“A friendly business wager.”
I caught Pete shaking his head. “Crafty, boss.” He plopped back at his desk and started typing again. Clickety-click-click-click.
Pete never liked that I took over the paper after the previous editor passed away. Heart attack, or something with his heart. Most days, Pete was pleasant enough, but sometimes— in the things he says—I usually sensed bitterness. I suppose I understood. With Pete, though, he had a shot. First, he was writing obituaries and trying to put himself through school, and then he’s working more and more just to stay afloat and soon, the scholastic opportunity passed him by and now he was resigned to move back to his hometown and cover pissy little high school games because without an actual degree, he wasn’t just not good enough for Head Honcho. That could have been me three years ago.
The door creaked open and Bobby strolled in. He took off his hat. “How ya doin’ Maggie?”
She smiled. “Fine, Bobby. Just fine.”
I sensed a little more there, but it wasn’t my place. Maybe I’ll ask her later.
“What brings you by?” I asked.
“Can I talk to you in your office?” he asked.
This got a few strange looks from Joe and Pete, but Maggie kept right on smiling. Definitely something there. Whether it had been acted on or not was hard to tell.
“Sure, sure.” I lead Bobby to my office.
Bobby shut the door and laid his hat on my desk.
“I thought you said you didn’t leave the campsite,” he said.
“I didn’t leave. Dinner, read, sleep.”
“I got a problem with that.”
“With my dinner, my reading or my sleeping?”
“Well,” he sighed and sat down. “I found a half-eaten bologna and cheese sandwich next to the victim.”
“Isn’t that what you had?”
“But you didn’t leave the campsite.”
“I didn’t. Do you want to go again? My answer will always be I didn’t leave the campsite.”
Hamilton waited. I knew he wanted me to say more, but there was nothing more to say.
“Then how do you explain it?” he asked.
“Did you finish your sandwiches in their entirety?”
“I don’t remember.” Who remembers that shit anyway?
“Well, try. This is part of a murder.”
“Am I part of the murder?”
He paused. “For now.”
I gave it to good old Bobby Hamilton. He was handling himself like a pro—like he’s investigated hundreds of murders and knew exactly what to ask. Perfect questioning. He must have an Investigating Murders for Dummies book sitting on his shelves at home.
“Do I need a lawyer?” I asked him.
I peeked at his eyes and I knew he wasn’t going away until he was satisfied. “Look, I don’t know if I ate the whole thing. Maybe I threw it on the ground and some animal carried it off and decided the body might taste better.”
He nodded. “Maybe.” He stood up. “Thanks for your time.”
“Did you get an I.D. on the woman yet?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Probably within the hour.”
“Can you keep me posted? For the paper?”
Bobby sized me up, trying to affirm some suspicion. “Sure, Grant. But don’t get anything out yet. I want this whole thing to go smoothly.”
“Anything for you, buddy.”
Bobby left amid curious gazes.
Joe was the first one in. “What was that all about?”
“He asked me for advice on the ladies. He’s a little shy and small-brained—“ I indicated an inch with my thumb and forefinger. “—and asked if it really is the motion of the ocean.”
“Right, Right. He looked serious.”
“He was. But I can’t discuss it yet.” I pulled a manila folder from my desk, hoping Joe would take the hint this conversation was done.
“Okay, but is it good?”
“It will increase circulation for the next few weeks.”
“Might sell some more ads, huh?” Joe offered.
“Always thinking money. That’s what I like.”
When Joe left, I flipped open the folder. I needed to proof my editorial. The day was running on and if Bobby kept holding me up, then I may as well publish next Tuesday’s paper.
I flipped through the folder and couldn't find my editorial. I had the feature, a couple ads to go over, Pete’s story and some tidbit pieces, but no editorial.
I checked under the folder, on the floor—
Fuck! I left it in my tent. I worked on it last night.
The clock read 10:30. Half the morning gone and I’d spend the other half getting my article.
“Where you going?” Maggie asked. “Don’t we have a paper to put out?”
“I left my editorial at home. Be right back.”
I pushed through the door.
The body had since been removed and a couple of yellow flags protruded from the ground. Something important here, they seemed to say.
I ambled down the side of the bridge and stood by the first flag. Some crumbs were scattered. My damn bologna and cheese sandwich. How the hell did it get here anyway?
I stepped over a string outline of the body and peered down at the second flag. Nothing around it or even near it; just dirt, pebbles, and dying grass. Had I missed something earlier? Or did I even pay attention? Doesn’t matter. When it was time to write the story, I’d have to ask Bobby what was at Flag #2.
I made my way through the small forest again. The wind blew through the trees, whooshing through at a snail’s pace and whisking ground leaves around and displacing them from any one spot. I heard one bird call out into the air. I paused, hoping the bird received a response. He didn't.
The tent was still erected and the flap remained open. Most of the remnants of the campfire had been blown around. Charred bits of wood littered the area straight west.
Inside the tent, I rummaged around until I found my editorial. Luckily, the pages were intact. Now, back to the office to get this shit done.
As soon as I took one step outside my tent, the wind died down. The bird stopped yakking. Leaves came to a rest. I took another step and didn’t hear my feet crunching the ground. Weird.
And through the trees, something blurry rushed by.