Cold Hard News

S&H Publishing, June 2015 http://maureenmilliken.com

This is the first chapter of Cold Hard News:

CHAPTER 1

T

he snowbank had a gash in it. A bright white bite in the gray.

A body-sized bite.

Bernie O’Dea skidded her car to a stop on the mud and half-frozen puddles that passed for the road’s shoulder. She’d barely opened the door when Rusty Dyer leaned in, eager, almost triumphant.

“It’s Stanley Weston.”

Bernie looked down the road at the lumpy tarp, way too clean next to the moldy snowbank and mud-streaked pavement. The only other clean thing was that bite. She grabbed her notebook, pencil and camera from the passenger seat. Rusty moved back as she stepped out of the car straight into an ankle-deep ice puddle.

“Bad day for sneakers,” Rusty said.

“Thinking spring,” Bernie said. She headed toward the action, trying to zip her jacket without dropping her gear, doing her best to ignore her quickly numbing wet foot and Rusty as he nipped at her heels, more like an annoying overgrown puppy than middle-aged police officer.

“Entombed. Looks like all winter,” he said.

Bernie nodded as she took in the scene, already writing in her head. Dead quiet, she thought, feeling the gray end-of-winter stillness. Naw—she’d have to think up something less of a cliché. A huddle of vehicles was scattered on the otherwise deserted road. The town’s cruiser, two from state police, a Warden Service pickup, the town public works truck. She knew them more by their colors—navy blue, robin’s egg blue, hunter green, bright orange and brown—than by their seals, mostly invisible under the chalky film of salt and sand that March throws onto every piece of metal that gets near pavement in this end of Maine.

“Newspaper’s here,” Rusty shouted, sprinting ahead of her to get to Police Chief Pete Novotny before she did.

The state troopers and warden were a few feet from the tarp, talking quietly as a woman wearing rubber gloves—Bernie figured from the state medical examiner’s office—poked through the remains of the snowbank. Pete stood off to the side at the edge of the dense pines that kept the thin mid-afternoon sun from breaking through, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his heavy police jacket. Bernie stopped next to him, giving up on her zipper, wishing she’d remembered gloves.

“Stanley. Shit,” she said, the weariness in her voice surprising her. She didn’t realize she felt it until it came out.

Pete gave her a sad smile and cocked his head. He’d heard it, too. “Yeah. Stanley.”

“A hit and run that got plowed in?” Bernie said, trying to picture how that would happen. “When, even? How?”

“The injuries look pretty extensive. Hard to tell if it was a car or something else that killed him.”

“Something else?” Bernie jotted the spare facts down in makeshift shorthand. There were surprisingly few possibilities for the something else. A Massachusetts yahoo up here for some gun fun and Stanley hit by a stray bullet? Maine’s lax gun laws inspired that sort of thing, even when it wasn’t hunting season. Or maybe, more likely, a heart attack in the road with no one to help? Or a drunken stumble? Then the plow? She could feel Rusty next to her, practically bouncing with his need to get into the conversation.

“Can’t think that’d be anything but a car accident. In the dark,” he said.

Thanks for that in-depth analysis, Bernie thought. She looked at Pete. He shrugged. Pete was a thinker, not a talker like his predecessor Cal. She knew there were things he wasn’t saying, could feel it, but damned if she could penetrate the force field and figure out what it was. Once in a while she felt like they were on the same wavelength, but not today. Today any answers were going to take good old-fashioned Bernadette O’Dea persistence. “Whatever it was, obviously a plow played a part? Given he was in the snow like that.”

Silence.

She tried again. “When, I wonder?”

“Dunno.” Pete looked at the gritty pile of snow. “Months, maybe.”

Bernie felt the weariness again. She’d covered plenty of bodies as a reporter in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This felt different. She pushed it away. “How was he found?”

“Jogger,” Pete said. “Saw part of his arm.”

She’d run on this road all winter herself. Right by Stanley, apparently. She realized where some of that shaky feeling was coming from. “No one noticed he was gone?”

Pete took a deep breath, was about to say something. Stopped.

“Wasn’t he gonna go south, visit his cousin for the winter?” Rusty said. “Stan wasn’t feeling good. Cal’d been taking him to the VA all fall. Cal was working on sending him somewhere warm for a few months.”

“South? Like New Hampshire?” Bernie asked, still thinking about the snowbank, the plow. Stanley often helped at the paper sorting postal labels, but only when he showed up for the once-a-week chore. When he didn’t, she didn’t think twice. Right now, that was making her hate herself a little.

“Like Myrtle Beach,” Rusty said. “South Carolina?” Rusty didn’t have to add “you moron” to the end for her to hear it. Usually she was in more control of her interviews, but despite two decades of reporting, most of it in much bigger cities with tougher cops than this, she couldn’t get a feel for the undercurrent today. She’d dealt with Pete enough to know sometimes he was “just the facts, ma’am,” but this felt like something else. Stanley, always alert and purposeful as he marched down the street—that image didn’t jibe with him being plowed in, helpless and alone. She tried to stop thinking of Rusty as an annoying mosquito buzzing into her thoughts and focus more on what he was saying.

“Cal always looked out for him in the winter,” Rusty said.

“Not this year,” Bernie said.

Pete, who’d been watching the medical examiner and state cops, turned to her, glared.

She felt heat rise up the back of her neck, realized she better spool back in before her mouth shut things down for good. “I didn’t mean because Cal died,” she said. “I meant because Stanley’s right here.”

“Cal never said anything to me about sending Stanley somewhere,” Pete said to Rusty.

“Can’t account for that,” Rusty said.

“Someone should have told me, let me help,” Pete said. “Cal wasn’t doing well either.”

“Maybe we should get back on the record,” Bernie said. “Can I get the name of the jogger?”

“Not much for the record right now,” Pete said. “I’ll get you that later, when the report is done.”

The three stood in silence, watching the state cops pick through the crap that had come out of the snow with Stanley. Leaves matted together with frozen mud, crushed soda bottles, indefinable road kill. A hearse had pulled up while they were talking, and the murmurs of the state cops were punctuated by doors opening, the metal creak of a gurney unfolding.

Bernie put her hands, still gripping notebook and pencil, in her pockets, pulling her jacket around her, trying not to care how cold it was. “It was a long winter,” she said. It had been, even for here. Everyone was just trying to get somewhere warm. “I bet no one really expected to see Stanley around whether they thought he’d gone away or not.”

“I should have known what was going on,” Pete said. “With Cal, with Stanley.”

“Kind of a domino effect,” Bernie said. “Cal wasn’t doing well. Cal was taking care of Stanley. Cal died. Stanley wasn’t doing well. He falls through the cracks. No one’s fault really.” She wasn’t sure if she was trying to make Pete feel better or herself.

In either case, it didn’t seem to be working. “So nothing else on the record?” Bernie tried to pull the conversation back from wherever it had careened. She still had a job to do.

“Not right now,” Pete said. He turned and walked over to the other cops.

“Should we have noticed we didn’t see him around?” Bernie asked Rusty, not sure what he’d have to add, mostly just looking for reassurance.

“Like you said, no one’s fault.” He followed Pete.

She took some pictures and hit up the state troopers, who echoed Pete—sorry, no information. It was Thursday and the Peaks Weekly Watcher had come out that morning, so she had almost a week to get the story together. Walking back to her car, she pictured Stanley, a familiar sight on the road most of the year, pushing his shopping cart, stopping in at the paper to do the postal labels for a few bucks and a sandwich. He wasn’t her friend. She didn’t even know him that well. But there he’d been all winter, entombed, as Rusty had put it, and no one had ever given him a thought.

Earlier, when the scanner had played a bar or two of tuneless static before its feedback-punctuated voice spit out 10-47 and Pond Road, what she heard was a seductive whisper, “Bernadette, baby, you’ve got a story.” She hadn’t needed to look at the grubby paper taped to the wall to know 10-47 meant call the medical examiner. She wasn’t ashamed to say her heart raced with anticipation.

After nearly two years running a weekly newspaper in Maine’s northwestern Franklin County, Bernie was still trying get used to the slow pace. Maybe it’s what she deserved after screwing up her career so badly. She may be in High Peaks country—and the name of her paper, the Peaks Weekly Watcher was a daily reminder—but sometimes she felt like she was in a low valley of gloom. She should be happy here in her home state, the same paper she started at two decades ago, fresh out of Boston University. She had no one else in the newsroom elbowing her out of the way for the big stories. The problem was, aside from Cal’s death a few months before, there hadn’t been any big stories. And she spent a lot of time doing things that as a hot-shot reporter she never dreamed she’d be doing. Payroll, circulation, appeasing advertisers and the garden club president, paying the bills and cleaning the coffee pot. So yeah, the scanner had stirred that story-chasing buzz. She was pissed at the fates that the buzz was now mellowed by, ugh, feelings. Well, big shot Bernadette, she told herself, that’s another tool in the old tool box.

The late afternoon sun was burning off the clouds, almost warming up the bright penny March day. A slight smell of mud and decay, a sign things were thawing, hung in the air. Winter wasn’t really over, but maybe it would be soon. She got in her car and pulled onto the road behind an old pickup truck toddling down the center line about ten miles below the speed limit.

 Feelings. Got ’em? Then use ’em.  She knew the best thing she could do for Stanley was to figure out the truth.

“Out of my way, gramps,” she grumbled, leaving the pickup in her wake. “I’ve got a story to write.”