Authors: Debra Gaskill
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
Murder on the Lunatic Fringe
© 2014 Debra Gaskill
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the express written consent of the author.
Cover design © 2014 Scott Shelton
Published by D’Llama Books, Enon, Ohio
This is a work of fiction. The situations and scenes described, other than those of historical events, are all imaginary. With the exceptions of well-known historical figures and events, none of the events or the characters portrayed is based on real people, but was created from the author’s imagination or is used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Is this how it will end?
The steel exam table felt cold against my naked back and legs. My neck was cradled on the hard metal headrest, immobilizing my skull. The back of my head felt soft, mushy and wet. Something pushed against my left eye and cheek. The room smelled like medicine… and death. At least a sheet covered me.
I was going to have children, then grandchildren. There were supposed to be big meals on Sunday with all of my family surrounding me and I’d end my days by dying in my sleep. I was supposed to spend my later years like Mother had, leaning out the window of our apartment, watching the young children play in street, walking to markets to get the ingredients for dinner. Our fire escape would be decorated with potted flowers and I would knit in front of the television at night, making mittens or hats or baby booties.
It wasn’t going to end like this. Not this way.
A man spoke, a voice I’d heard before. “Doctor, whenever you’re ready to begin documenting the case…”
Someone else sighed, then began to speak in a singsong Indian accent: “It is one forty-five a.m. on Thursday. We have a Caucasian female, approximately 32 years old. She is approximately five foot eight inches tall and approximately one hundred thirty five pounds. She has bullet wounds to her left eye and cheekbone, with exit wounds at the back of the skull…”
Is this what it’s like to be dead?
Chapter 1 Graham
A week earlier
The biggest disasters are always preceded by days like this, days when the news is so slow it crawls. I’ve only been in this business a little while—five years— but that’s the pattern I’ve seen, at least here in Jubilant Falls.
“Hey, some Russian woman won something at the state fair.” Elizabeth Day, the features and education writer was opening the morning’s mail. “She lives here, it says. Well, out in the county, I mean, according to her address.”
I looked up from my computer where I was working my way through the appeals court website. When news was slow, like now, sometimes I could generate follow up stories on previous court cases I covered. Generally the Common Pleas Court decision was upheld in appeal, but at least it provided local copy and kept us from running wire stories on the front page.
Addison extended her palm over the top of the copy desk computer. “What Russian woman? Let me have a look at that.”
Elizabeth smoothed her purple chin-length hair and handed Addison the press release, along with a photo. “Ekaterina Bolodenka. She lives out on Youngstown Road. She just bought that one farm where the barn burned a couple years ago.”
“Ah, yes. The old Jensen farm.” Addison scanned the one-page release. “She’s apparently re-christened the place Lunatic Fringe Farm. She’s a fiber artist, whatever the hell that is, and she’s won best of show for a woven wall hanging. This release is a month old! I wish they’d gotten us this stuff when the fair was still going on. The photo would have been better than what they sent. It’s just a picture of the wall hanging—she’s not even in it!”
It was mid-afternoon, long past the morning deadline. The police scanner crackled only with the occasional traffic stop, nothing in terms of real news.
City and county reporter Marcus Henning was at city hall searching for tomorrow’s story. As Labor Day approached, it was probably the annual round up on how bad the receipts for the city pool were over the summer and, once again, whether city council would take up the debate about closing it. I’d seen that story every summer for the five years I’d been here.
Jubilant Falls wasn’t a bad little town, I guess. I mean
liked it. It was a little more than an hour northeast of Cincinnati and the same hour’s drive southwest from Columbus, and not unlike a lot of fading small towns across the country whose best times were in the past.
The big limestone courthouse, where I spent the better part of my day, dominated the center of town. The town’s only other big building was Aurora Development, an incongruous tall glass building, that stared back from its place across the street from the 1840’s-era courthouse, demanding it keep up with the times and smug that it couldn’t. To the east of the courthouse, across a narrow one-way street, were the jail, the sheriff’s offices and the county offices. The city offices were in an Art Deco building a block north of the courthouse.
Further north was the empty storefront of what used to be a department store called Hawk’s, and four blocks from the intersection of Detroit and Main were a string of storefronts that housed second hand shops, the occasional lawyer’s, accounting or insurance offices, and a restaurant called Aunt Bea’s. In the brick building it occupied since its founding a century ago, sat the
, a block south of the court house, facing west.
Golgotha College, a small fundamentalist institution, sat at the prosperous east edge of Jubilant Falls. The ever-smiling, well-dressed Baptist students who attended were at odds with the other south side faces I saw daily, pockmarked and toothless from meth or heroin addiction, their refuge from poverty and unemployment.
When the weather and the leaves began to turn, it wasn’t unusual to see a combine or tractor come through town en route to harvest the corn, beans or wheat from the fields that filled surrounding Plummer County.
On summer weekends, farmer’s markets filled the block-wide municipal parking lots that connected Jubilant Falls’ downtown and, in the fall, festival booths.
I didn’t have plans to stay here for the rest of my life, but the
was my first job out of college and I liked what I was doing.
Like most small towns, the Great Recession hit Jubilant Falls hard, taking with it a lot of jobs, including a big chunk of the
We worked hard, we worked as a team, but when the news was slow, like it had been for a while now, none of us could stand it so we spent the better part of the day scraping the bottom of whatever journalistic barrels we could find.
I was getting ready to head back to court, to see if the jury had reached a verdict on an assault case. The defendant would probably get a suspended sentence and probation for assaulting his roommate in a drunken brawl over the cable bill. He had no prior record, but broke his roomie’s cheekbones, nose and jaw.
I spent the morning with our photographer Pat Robinette, looking into who toilet-papered Mayor Dwayne Yoder’s house overnight one day after he declared his decision to run for an unprecedented fourth term.
It was that time of year for us, just past the county fair and a few days before school started again, when the action was so slow I’d cover a Dumpster fire if I had to. That was why, at eight this morning, Pat and I were standing in the mayor’s front yard, surrounded by toilet paper streamers hanging from the branches of a big maple, listening to Yoder swear. With a number of detractors in the city, Yoder could be abrasive. I could see somebody getting pissed off if he decided to run again.
But turning it into an entire story? There was a new word for it:
We ran it on page one.
The sports writers hadn’t come in yet and wouldn’t for another hour. At the end of the summer, their pages would consist of photos from the high school football two-a-days and previews for the upcoming season.
What I needed—what we all needed—was a good story, one we could sink our teeth into.
Like most afternoons, Addison and our city editor Dennis Herrick usually put together the advance pages for the next day’s edition. It was Thursday, so they were at work on Friday’s edition. That meant putting together a food page, a religion page, the comics and searching the Associated Press wire for a story to put on top the half-page of real estate ads that the
Addison handed the release back to Elizabeth. “Give Bolodenka a call. It would make a great story. Make sure we get pictures, too. At least better than this one.”
Elizabeth nodded and winked at me as she walked past my desk on her way to her own in the corner.
I hung my head over my keyboard, trying to look busy and hoping no one noticed. My private life was just that—private—and I wanted to keep it that way.
Quiet returned to the newsroom as Addison turned back to her computer screen and I turned back to the Court of Appeals website.
I closed my eyes and just listened as Elizabeth spoke on the phone, making an appointment with the Russian woman for the next afternoon, then chatting with our photographer Pat about his schedule and asking if he could come along with her on the interview.
“If you could come with me, Pat, you know you’d take a better picture than I ever would. Aww, c’mon,” she wheedled. “It won’t take more than a couple minutes.
She sounded like heaven, but then, her voice did that to me.
Her computer dinged as the information passed electronically through the editorial system to the news budget, the running list of stories that were slated for the week.
There was another computer ding as Addison finished a page and sent it to Dennis to be copyedited and checked for errors. She stood and stretched.
“You know something,” she said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a big story happen around here.”
Dennis poked his thick glasses up his nose. “Now you’ve gone and done it. We’re now cursed with whatever unvarnished human misery the gods will splash all over the front page.”
Addison grinned and reached into a desk drawer for her lighter. She carried cigarettes everywhere, even if she couldn’t smoke them, like some nicotine-filled safety blanket. Although the Journal-Gazette had been a non-smoking workplace since before I got here, my boss regularly skirted the regulation by going back into her private office at the rear of the newsroom and opening the back window.
I dreaded opening her office door and being surrounded by the stench of blue cigarette smoke.
“Oh, don’t be an idiot. It’s been so damned quiet, I’m about ready to run a headline about the grass in the courthouse lawn growing a whole quarter inch this month.”
“Be careful what you wish for.” Dennis pushed a button on his computer, sending a completed page down to the pressroom, where it would be printed out on thin metal plates and placed in readiness for tomorrow’s edition. “You may get it.”
Hovering over my keyboard, I hoped he was right.
Chapter 2 Addison
The sun was just barely rising Friday morning when the phone rang in the milking parlor. I was in my farm wife gear: dirt-brown Carhartt overalls, steel-toed boots and a ratty tee shirt. I looked up from the back end of a cow, whose udder I was washing before attaching the inflator cups for the automated milking system.
Duncan and I milked a small herd of Holsteins twice a day on our Plummer County farm. Most mornings, I tried to help out before I went to work. My job at the
Jubilant Falls Journal-Gazette
may not have paid as much as my compatriots earned at larger papers, but it did provide cash and medical insurance for our family, allowing Duncan to keep the family farm and run his own graphics business from the renovated hen house just beside the barn.
Duncan, attending the cow beside me, jerked his head toward the phone as he worked. “You get it. It’s probably for you anyway.”
I picked up the phone, a convenience I’d insisted on when our daughter Isabella got her driver’s license in high school. “Hello?”
“Addison,” Elizabeth Day’s voice whined through the line. “Addison, I’m sick as a dog. I can’t make it in today.”
“What’s the matter, kiddo?” I watched as Duncan continued to wash udders.
“I went out with some girlfriends after work to the Mandarin Moon restaurant and I think I got some bad sweet and sour shrimp,” Day moaned. “I’ve been up all night puking my guts out.”
“Good God. Remind me never to eat there. Sounds like you need to stay home. What have you got going today?”
“Just that interview with the Bolodenka woman, the fiber artist, at two. I have a couple other features already in the can that are ready to edit, too.” Day groaned again.
“Don’t worry—I’ll cover it for you. Take some Pepto and go back to bed, OK? We’ll see you when you feel better.” I replaced the phone.
“Another late night?” Duncan began moving down the line of cows, attaching the teat cups to udders. His words were terse, as if he’d had to deal with too many of my interruptions over the years.
“Nah.” I watched as he flipped a switch above each milking stall to begin drawing the sweet milk into the clear pipes overhead. Those pipes rushed the white liquid to the stainless steel cooling tanks housed in an old stone milk house built on to the side of the barn, holding it there until the refrigerated tanker from the dairy in town came to pick it up later that morning. The system was nearly thirty years old, but it beat the hand milking that Duncan remembered from his own high school days. “One of my reporters is calling in sick—she’s got food poisoning. She’s got an afternoon feature story I said I’d cover for her. I should be home in plenty of time for dinner.”
“Famous last words.”
“What? Between you and Dennis—” I playfully shoved my husband, who at six foot three towered over me. “He thinks I’m going to bring the wrath of God down on us by talking about how slow it’s been. Honestly, I’m kind of enjoying it.”
Duncan gave me a quick squeeze around the shoulders and a kiss atop my head. “I just wish I had more time like this with you.”
A cow mooed, reminding us of the task at hand. Whatever was going on in the outside world didn’t matter. Right now, only milking did.
By seven, chores were complete and I’d showered and changed into my work clothes. I had just a few minutes before the race toward deadline started in the newsroom at seven-thirty. I poured coffee into my outsized plastic travel mug, ready to begin the day at the newspaper.