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Speak Ill of the Living
By Mark Arsenault
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2005 Mark Arsenault
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLowell, Massachusetts Thursday, August 17
Resurrections are hot news stories. This one would be no different.
It began for Eddie Bourque with a ringing that would not quit. Eddie counted seven rings. Eight. Nine. Then he drifted off for a moment and lost count. The noise woke him again. He peered across his bedroom. Too dark to see textures. His room was a clutter of black walls and blacker shapes. His dresser was a rectangle. Square red numerals floating above it said: 4:14.
The phone jangled the sleep out of him.
Must be one of his students on the line, he thought. They always called on the days they had class. Somebody's dog ate somebody's homework. He started to drift off again, a new dream at the ready ...
Big, fat, wood pulp-eating dog.
"Cripes!" Eddie shouted, startled.
Some student's grandmother had died again. It was a fine excuse for skipping a class—upsetting for a day but not necessarily debilitating for the rest of the semester—and hard for a part-time professor to verify, or even to question, without seeming insensitive. Eddie wondered about the college record for dead grandma in one school year. Eddie's class had lost four before the mid-term exam.
Maybe a dog was eating them.
He had shut off his answering machine before bed so the phone would be sure to wake him. Why the hell did he do that every night?
Work. A job.
Eddie lifted his head, blinked away the sleep. Students didn't call in the middle of the night, editors did. This was probably one of the wire services with an assignment. Such was the life of a freelance writer. When Eddie had quit The Daily Empire, he had expected freelancing to be just like working for a news-paper—except without a boss. What he had found was a life of late night calls, irregular paychecks, irregular hours, no health benefits. He was constantly living at the whim of the customer, getting paid only by the job, and then often forced to fight for his money.
Being a freelancer was like being a hooker, except you were on your feet all day.
When the newswires needed a good newsman fast in the Greater Lowell area, they called Eddie Bourque. Eddie needed the work, but the seductive pull of the warm pillow drew his head back down.
They'd have to dynamite me out of this bed.
Another dark shape, round-ish and blob-like behind Eddie's pillow, rolled over and stretched out with a quiver. Eddie felt the swish of a cat's tail against his cheek.
The telephone's electronic ring sounded like a robot laughing.
Eddie sighed. It wasn't going to stop until he answered. He reached across the emptiness on the other side of the bed and grabbed the phone. The cat chirped, annoyed.
"Yup," Eddie said, dropping hard on the pillow and closing his eyes, "it's Bourque."
It was Springer, the overnight assignment editor at the Associated Press. Eddie pictured him: six foot six, maybe a hundred seventy pounds, as pale and skinny as a young white birch. If Springer had a first name he never used it—unless Springer was his first name. He said to Eddie, "How'd you like to make a quick eight hundred?"
Eddie's eyes popped open. That could scrape a bill collector off his back, maybe two. But nothing meant more to him than a story. If the Associated Press was willing to pay that much for a few hours work, how big was this one?
"I haven't hung up on you, man," Eddie said, dryly. "Thrill me out of bed."
"Ever heard of Roger Lime?"
"Bank president carjacked last winter in his Audi."
"Six months ago, to be precise. What else do you know about him?"
"As much as anybody. A high school winter-track team found Lime's skeleton in the woods, in his burned-out car—what, maybe three weeks later? The bones were torched black. The crime's still unsolved. No witnesses. No suspects. They buried him in a lime-green coffin, so I guess somebody in the family has a sense of humor, though you wouldn't have known it from all the security at the cemetery."
"You have a good memory, Ed."
"I covered Lime's funeral as a freelancer for the Times-Union."
"Well, they need to print a correction," Springer deadpanned, "because Roger Lime isn't dead."
Eddie threw aside the sheets and sat up. The cat dashed off.
Lime? Alive? It wasn't possible. "Okay, I'm thrilled," Eddie said, trying not to giggle at how big this story might be. "Gimme more."
"There's a fresh picture of Lime with a recent newspaper—same tactics the kidnappers used six months ago. The cops want to get the picture out on the national wires as soon as possible."
"The cops are actually helping with this story?" "They assume that somebody must have seen Lime the past half-year," Springer said. "It's hard to hide a man for that long and keep him alive. The mailman comes to your door every day, meter readers want to see inside your basement from time to time."
Eddie thought about how many strangers had knocked at his three-room cottage the past year. "Political candidates are always coming by harvesting votes," he said, "and kids selling waxy chocolate to pay for band or football, or some other part of school the taxpayers don't want to pay for."
"A bachelor like you must see the pizza guy about three times a week," Springer added.
"I guess it's logical for the detectives to get the photo in the news," Eddie said. He slid out of bed, stumbled over dirty clothes, patted the wall, found the light switch and slapped it on. "Except the story doesn't make any sense. The cops had Lime's dental records. The medical examiner matched them to the body. He was sure it was Lime."
"Now they're pretty sure it wasn't."
"What a fuckup!" Eddie howled. He pounded to the kitchen in his cotton boxers and clicked on his coffee pot, three hours before the auto-timer was set to brew a dozen cups of Blue Mountain Peaberry from Eastern Jamaica.
General VonKatz sprang onto the kitchen counter and rubbed his chin on the cabinet in which Eddie kept the cat food. The General's gray coat was shiny even in the dim light. He gurgled for his breakfast as Eddie flashed by, out of the kitchen.
Springer said, "The police have photo experts working right now to confirm that the pic is authentic, but their first impression is it's legit."
Back in the bedroom, Eddie dug through dirty clothes on the floor and salvaged a pair of crumpled tan chinos. Wrinkle-free fabric? Says who? He jammed one leg into the pants, held the cordless phone between his head and shoulder and hopped on one foot while he dressed his other leg. "How much do the kidnappers want for him? I heard that last time they asked for a quarter million, though I could never substantiate it."
"The police won't say. And they won't comment on any ransom note."
"So they want us to help them with the photo, but they won't give up any sizzle for the story?"
"Not unless you still have sources down there."
Eddie still had sources, especially in the detective's bureau. "I'll work my people at headquarters. What kind of story do you want from me?"
"I need copy to move with the picture. Maybe twenty inches of text. Just the new stuff and enough background so this story can play in Peoria. With Roger Lime coming back to life, I'm sniffing coast-to-coast interest."
Eddie buttoned the pants. He grabbed a white linen dress shirt from the bedpost. At least linen was supposed to be wrinkled. "Did you say this package was moving on the national wires?"
"Uh-huh. Your byline will be in half the papers in America."
Eddie pumped a fist in the air.
"Hang on a sec," Springer said. Eddie heard him begin a muffled conversation with someone in the Associated Press newsroom.
Back in the kitchen, the deep porcelain sink was cluttered with dirty coffee mugs. Eddie splashed one pint of Blue Mountain Peaberry into a giant two-pint Pyrex measuring cup. Steam fogged the inside of the clear glass.
The General sat up on the gold-flecked Formica and whined impatiently.
"Do you know what time it is?" Eddie said to the cat. "You don't usually eat for hours. I'll feed you when I get back from this job." Eddie hurried to the bedroom and stepped into black Doc Martens shoes with frayed and knotted laces.
He thought about angles for the story. If Lime was alive, that meant somebody else's bones were in his grave. Who was that person? How did they get into Lime's burned out car? And how did the medical examiner make such a blunder with the identification? It was great follow-up material, he decided, but the first-day coverage had to focus on the new evidence that Lime was alive. It was a resurrection story, in a sense. Eddie Bourque had never written anything like it. But how many writers had, in the past two thousand years? A reading from The Gospel according to Eddie. He quivered with delight.
Springer got back on the line. "Bourque? We just got confirmation—police experts have verified the photo of Roger Lime. No doctoring, it's the real thing. They're showing the picture at a media availability in thirty minutes."
"I'll be there."
"I'll need a story thirty minutes after you see it."
"How about sixty?"
"C'mon, Springer! I type with two fingers."
He groaned. "You're one of them. Forty-five minutes, Bourque. We have afternoon papers to feed. Their morning deadlines are getting earlier all the time."
"We'll make it." Eddie clicked off the phone and flung it on the bed.
He stuffed his laptop computer into its case, grabbed his keys and started for the door.
Eddie whirled and hurried to the kitchen. General VonKatz was reaching a paw into Eddie's coffee. The cat slapped three times into the cup, then shook the wet paw, splashing Blue Mountain Peaberry over the wall.
Eddie sighed. He fetched a peel-top can of sliced beef and giblets from the cupboard. "I don't want to know where that paw has been," he mumbled, and then downed the coffee in six hot gulps.
* * *
Outside, Eddie's Pawtucketville neighborhood was still. His three-room cottage, with its sloping roof and rough asphalt shingles, was unique among the houses around it, yet blended perfectly. Pawtucketville was a mish-mash of building styles: two-family duplexes, triple-deckers with clotheslines strung between the porch posts, square little single-family homes with steep roofs—all built on lots barely bigger than the buildings. The neighborhood was so compressed that if you didn't like your neighbor, you could spit out your window and into his. The streets were narrow, choked even further by parked cars that formed tunnels through which two drivers could not pass in opposite directions. Utility poles in front of every third house strung webs of black spaghetti over the sidewalks and across the roads. The closeness of the buildings blocked the view of everything beyond the next street, where the homes rode higher on a little hill like houseboats on the crest of a wave.
Eddie glanced to a house on the next street, just visible between two duplexes. At this hour, the peak on Phebe Avenue looked to be just a sharp gray triangle, but Eddie knew it to be light blue, lighter than the sky. He knew it as a former home of Jack Kerouac, the founder of America's Beat Generation writers. Kerouac had a brilliance that any city would be lucky to see one time in its history.
The Kerouac family had lived all over Pawtucketville in the 1930s and 1940s. They had moved to that house on the next street in 1932, when Jack Kerouac was ten years old. Eddie nodded to the peak, his way of being neighborly to genius.
The Mighty Chevette was parked on the street. Eddie's fifteen-year-old Chevy ran like a cheetah—it could reach sixty miles per hour in a short burst, then needed lots of rest. The Mighty Chevette was at one time yellow, and parts of it still were, but now the dominant color was rust. Eddie yanked the door open with a jarring creak and stuffed his laptop under the seat.
He steered the car through streets laid out in a senseless tangle, and then drove onto Riverside Street, past a concrete university building that reminded Eddie of a futuristic prison for comic book villians. He followed a divided boulevard along the north bank of the churning Merrimack, traveling northeast with the river around an elbow bend where the Merrimack widened in the heart of the city, and then southeast to a bridge of red iron lattice, one of six bridges that suture the two halves of the city divided by the river. Other than a few delivery trucks and a pair of fresh-water anglers with fishing rods in the back of their pickup, the Chevette was alone. Eddie pulled up outside the 1970s-style concrete police station and parked at a meter. He jogged across a plaza of scattered trees and flagpoles, and up the stairs between two illuminated blue globes that each read: POLICE.
Inside, a paunchy middle-aged officer directed foot traffic outside an interview room the size of an average bathroom, as reporters and photographers squeezed in two at a time to view the evidence that Roger Lime was still above ground. Eddie could see from the hallway that the police had displayed the photograph from the kidnappers in a plastic zipper bag, taped to the cinderblock wall. Two TV photo crews were inside, shooting film of the picture on the wall.
"You two, next," the cop said, pointing at Eddie and another scribe, whom Eddie had never seen before. "You get two minutes once these clowns are done." He had the bedside manner of a mugger.
The reporter paired with Eddie was short and slightly built, in his early fifties, with an inch-long gray goatee. Two silver hoops pieced his left earlobe. He dressed in black, including a felt beret. His press pass, dangling from a paperclip threaded through a buttonhole, identified him as Lewis Cuhna, editor of The Second Voice, Lowell's weekly alternative broadsheet.
Cuhna wore a digital camera on a cord around his neck, and a tanned messenger bag on a strap. His notebook was a full-sized lined pad. He scribbled on it with a dull green pencil that looked like eyeliner. Eddie couldn't help notice what he wrote:
"I'm next ... two minutes."
Then Cuhna crossed out what he had written and below it printed in jittery letters: "Not important ... no need to note."
He sighed and crossed that out. Then he read over the four-paragraph press release from the police again.
He seemed so nervous. Was this his first major cop story? At his age? Eddie said to him, "Timing sucks, huh?"
Cuhna shook, startled, and pointed the tip of his pencil toward Eddie, as if to defend himself with a tiny spear. He looked Eddie up and down, recovered, exhaled heavily, doodled a swirl on his legal pad, and then sputtered, "What do you mean ... the timing?" He sounded suspicious.
"I meant this timing is no good for your weekly deadlines," Eddie explained. "You guys are on the newsstands on Thursdays, so you must put the paper to bed on Wednesday nights. It's too bad the cops didn't get this photo a couple days ago. You could have made this week's paper."
Cuhna's shoulders slumped. He shrugged listlessly. "I try to tell them we shouldn't chase stories like this if we're going to get beat by a week, but they don't care."
"Sometimes I don't even know," he said. He sketched a question mark on his legal pad, and then crossed it out. Cuhna had melodrama in his voice, as if he was reporting on the approaching end of the world. "That's the problem when you're owned by a media chain—new supervisors all the time. My latest boss is in Salt Lake City. Do you think she cares if I get scooped in Lowell?" His voice rose as he worked out some pent-up anger. "And the office they rent for me? They knocked down the wall between a former greasy spoon and a bankrupt laundromat. Stinks like pork sausage and lemon Tide."
Eddie hid a smile behind his hand. For Cuhna, this seemed like serious stuff, and Eddie didn't want to make an enemy out of him.
"My lease says that I have to let the people who live upstairs use the giant washing machines in my office anytime they want," Cuhna said.
"Now the family upstairs has started making evening meals in my kitchen on deadline, and I can't find anything in the lease that says they can't!"
Excerpted from Speak Ill of the Living by Mark Arsenault Copyright © 2005 by Mark Arsenault. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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