BYLINE - J.F. JUZWIK
Originally published at CROOKED, April of 2009
Ralph noticed the room was chilly, and sparsely furnished. He supposed that it was probably intentional on the part of the decorator since no one actually spent very much time in here while they were waiting. The waiting – now, that was the worst part. Listening to the ticking of the clock, wondering what it will feel like when the chemicals start coursing through your veins, wondering what it’s like when you cross over to the other side... In anticipation of the commencement of that final journey, Ralph leaned back against the splintered slats of the wooden chair that had been provided for him, gazed indifferently at the colorless walls, and his thoughts began to drift back to where it all began.
Ralph Debumarsey picked up his cigarette from the ashtray and took a long, deep drag. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and blew the smoke out of his mouth in quick, short puffs. He could feel the sun’s warmth on his face as it shone brightly through the window directly in front of his desk. He had opened the curtains all the way, as he always did when he was writing his column. His column? There’s a laugh. No such thing as ‘his column’ here in Swaying Falls. The columns were written, the advertisements were strategically placed, and the local news was ready to roll. Anonymity seemed to be the catchword in this burg, Ralph thought, God forbid the folks knew the reporter’s name. Like his having a byline would violate national security... And, what was with calling this outpost of the damned ‘Swaying Falls’? First and foremost, no falls of any size or shape were visible for hundreds of miles. As far as the swaying crap was concerned, trying to figure that out made Ralph’s head hurt.
Feeling the sun on his face while he was typing helped him to fantasize that he was somewhere else, anywhere else, preparing the final draft of the hottest story his newspaper had ever run. Next to him was a FAX machine that he would use to send it on to his editor, who was waiting on his end, planning to run it down to the presses to make the midnight deadline. His story would headline the morning edition and the calls and telegrams would start pouring in as soon as the paper hit the streets. He would be congratulated for getting the scoop no one else could or had, and his colleagues would regard him with awe at the tremendous personal risks he had taken to get the story in the first place. Just another day in the life of a newsman, he would respond to them all, just another normal day, and he would smile that haunting smile of his, get into his Jag, and head out to his next assignment. Maybe a nuclear missile site in Beirut? Perhaps a revolutionary camp in Central America? Or what about right here in downtown Swaying Falls covering a bank robber who was wearing a bomb and holding a pregnant teller hostage in a second story suite of the Main Street Hotel? Yeah. Uh-huh. Right. Ralph began to laugh out loud, and then caught himself. Crazy people laugh to themselves out loud, he thought, and I’m not quite there yet; the day was still young, though.
He looked at the paper in his typewriter, and wasn’t terribly surprised to see it was still blank. The ‘hot’ story he had to crank out in time to meet his editor’s (the owner of the town’s only general store, Chester Mankowsky) deadline (whenever Chester decided to close the store and go home for dinner) so as to appear in the first edition (the only edition, that became available whenever Chester finished running off a couple hundred copies on his two hundred year old printing press) was difficult to put into words. After all, it wasn’t every day that Spengler’s Feed Store began to carry a brand of feed previously available only in the state of New York. What a coup for Jeremy Spengler and frankly, for Swaying Falls. That will put us on the map, Ralph thought. Hopefully, anyway, since we aren’t on any maps at present. He had to laugh again at that. Well, at least he could still laugh. He figured if the day ever came when he couldn’t find any humor in how ridiculous this town and even himself were, he’d probably end up in the loony bin. Not that that would be such a drastic change...
Ralph decided to heat up another cup of instant on his hot plate. Mrs. Franovsky technically didn’t allow hot plates in her rooming house, but she had never said anything to Ralph about it. He was sure Mrs. Franovsky kinda had the hots for him. Kinda. Maybe? No. Not really. Truth was, Ralph kept peculiar hours mostly, and his esteemed landlady wasn’t too crazy about climbing all those stairs to reach Ralph’s loft to say much of anything to him. Loft? There was another laugh. Ralph’s digs were what had once been a large attic used for storage. The ceiling was level almost all the way around, but in one of the corners, there was a low spot where Ralph had to duck down to get to his small bookcase. He wasn’t sure why it had been built that way since the roof did slant in from the outside in that spot and made the house look lopsided, but, since beggars couldn’t be choosers, he simply adjusted. After all, it was a clean, quiet place to live and he was able to pretty much keep to himself. Not that Swaying Falls was exactly a real estate developer’s dream.
Most of the folks lived in small pre-fab homes scattered in and around town, or in the town’s one apartment complex. Right. Apartment complex? It was one building with eight units in it. While they were cozy, two-bedroom apartments, they were inhabited primarily by twenty-something’s in transition. Their transition being having graduated from high school and not really having any plans to attend community college or begin a career in the family business in town, whatever that may be. They wanted to get out from under mom and pop and have their own place so they could come and go at all hours. They would drive the two plus hours to the city to find work where they could make a decent salary, then come back to Swaying Falls and pay next to nothing in rent and living expenses. This was done, not for any noble reason like saving to buy a home and settle there and begin to give back to their community. Oh, no. True, they did save what money they didn’t spend on liquor and partying, but that was so they could afford what they considered to be a real apartment in the city. Once they could afford to move, they did just that, at record-breaking speed frankly, and neither looked nor came back. This town was dying, Ralph knew that. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot anybody could do about it.
He had had his chance a lifetime ago. He had been young, had saved his money and had left Swaying Falls for the big city life and his dream of a career as a newspaper reporter. He possessed good instincts and a flare for the dramatic. He knew he would have to start at the bottom and work his way up, but all he needed was the chance to prove himself to an editor and he would be on his way. When he first arrived, he had picked up a newspaper and checked out the classifieds for a room to rent. He was surprised to find how many there were; most of which were in the most expensive section of the city. Since he had his own car and didn’t have to be concerned with public transportation, he decided he would seek a place to stay in one of the gated communities that skirted the downtown area. Every room that he checked out though was inside the glitzy home of a widow or a divorcee, who was looking for just a little bit more than a paying border. Never really having pictured himself as a ‘boy-toy’, Ralph had felt extremely uncomfortable during each application process. Whether he was employed or had a steady paycheck always seemed irrelevant. He could feel their hungry eyes groping every inch of him as he tried to present himself as a decent, hardworking, moral human being. He envisioned being defiled by these Harpies in the dead of night and then locked in his room, never to be seen or heard from again. Or, at least annoyed when they tried to show him the film of their first, and only, failed screen test from 20 years ago while he was trying to do his laundry.
Ralph thought life had beaten these ladies up pretty badly. After meeting the seventh or eighth one (he’d lost count), their faces, with the drawn-on eyebrows, lopsided fake eyelashes, surgically-implanted cheekbones and chins, and lips that had received about four too many injections that week, became a blur. It was as if they were all the same woman who just beamed herself from kitchen to kitchen throughout the subdivision just waiting for him to arrive. After a couple of days of this, he just knew he couldn’t swallow any more vanilla-flavored coffee and scones, or look at any more polyester jumpsuits with open-toed spiked heels and toenails painted with blood-red polish and dotted with glitter. Maybe this was not the way to go, he decided; time to look for a ’Y’.
He found a clean, quiet room at the back of the second floor. It didn’t take him long to realize that while this was a starting point for him, he’d better make sure it stayed just that. This was not somewhere he needed to remain for long. The other residents were all ex-wannabe something or others, and Ralph believed they were destined to remain that way, but not him; he was different. He was going to set the print world on fire with his dynamic reporting style and controversial commentaries. All he needed was an ‘in’. He would take any position that was available in the newsroom – anything at all, even errand boy to the big shots. Wouldn’t take them long to see what he had to offer. Wouldn’t take long at all...
Eight months later, Ralph was still in his quiet room at the back of the second floor at the “Y”. He had become quite close, in fact, with some of the ex-wannabe something or others. Most of them weren’t all that bad, really. When Ralph’s savings dried up because he couldn’t seem to get on at any of the local papers, a couple of them hooked him up with a position at the burger joint on the corner. It only paid minimum wage, but it wasn’t like Ralph had to spend any of his meager paycheck on gas to get to work. A couple of minutes’ worth of walking and he was there. On his off days, he stayed in his room and slept mostly. What was the point of staying up, after all. No newspaper, periodical, magazine or flyer shop in the city would hire him. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t get a job as a reporter. He couldn’t even get a job mopping floors in any of the media buildings.
Ralph didn’t understand where he had gone wrong. He had personally walked into the office of every editor of every publication in the city. No one had tried to stop him as he made his way through the maze of secretaries and reporters, and as he got closer to the editors’ offices, the excitement in the air was palpable. He could hear the tick, tick, tick of the typewriters, phones constantly ringing on every desk, men and women literally running with articles in their hands trying to meet deadline. He could picture himself as one of them, a pencil behind one ear, a smoke behind the other, sipping on his twelfth cup of stale coffee, his editor putting everything on hold waiting for his brilliant headline copy... By the time he arrived at each editor’s door, his head was swimming. This was the life he was born to live – this was his destiny. Unfortunately, no one had let any of the editors in on that little tidbit of information.
Every ‘interview’ was a carbon copy of the previous one. Ralph would knock on the door and a voice would tell him to ‘come on in’. Friendly, but professionally detached. The voice of someone who controlled the dissemination of daily city-, state-, and world-wide occurrences. Ralph had never met or spoken with an editor, but he just knew they were the heart and soul of the newsroom. They decided who covered what and when, and how much of it actually hit the streets. So much responsibility – so much power. Ralph wasn’t sure if he should sit down or remain standing once he entered, but decided to take his cue from the man he came to see. Once he did enter, however, it didn’t quite turn out the way he had anticipated.
In every newsroom, in every editor’s office, he encountered a basically well-groomed, but extremely psychotic individual, sitting behind a desk covered with several stacks of papers at least 15 inches high each. When Ralph would walk in, the man would glance up with a look of utter confusion on his face, and say ‘what’. Interestingly enough, it was not spoken as a question, but more on the order of a brutal declarative. Once Ralph regained his composure, his response was always the same. He would state, quietly and respectfully, that he was a fledgling reporter looking for an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. He would begin to explain how that had been his dream since he was a youth, and, it was at that point, that Ralph would receive the universal sign of dismissal – the sweep of the raised hand in his direction – and the man behind the desk would retreat back into one of his stacks of papers. Ralph figured it was a bad time; too close to deadline perhaps, so he alternated days and times and kept trying, but to no avail. After months of what he perceived as beating his head against a wall, Ralph decided it was time to go home, and crawl inside the black hole that was Swaying Falls.
Maybe he could speak to Chester Mankowsky about taking him on as a reporter, and about possibly spicing up the town’s paper. While it would be difficult to come up with anything newsworthy there, it would be a beginning – a launching pad of sorts. Perhaps the timing just wasn’t right – planets not aligned right, or some such other thing, Ralph wasn’t certain. But, one thing he knew for sure. He had given it his best shot and since nothing was clicking for him, he’d just go back home and bide his time. He’d save his money, and head for the city lights again. Only this time, he’d probably skip the “Y”, with all its resident losers. There was no way he was going to be the backdoor boy-toy of some divorcee either. Maybe he’d just save up a bit more and he’d get his own apartment or maybe buy a condo. Give it a few months, maybe a year, Ralph thought, and I’ll get on with a paper. I’ll be a bit older, have more experience under my belt, yeah. I’ll just bide my time...
Twenty years worth of biding his time later, there he sat. Shortly after Ralph’s homecoming, Chester did take him on, but was adamant about having him forego the byline thing. His was a newspaper of, by, and for the town, and it somehow just didn’t seem moral to try to take credit for sharing important information with one’s family and friends. Ralph knew then, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Chester was completely crazy, but, since beggars can’t be choosers, he decided against an altercation. Nothing would be accomplished; he was certain of that, and no sense making an enemy out of his only employment opportunity in the tri-state area.
And so, he still sat, staring at a blank piece of paper in his typewriter, still trying to figure out how to spark up the feed story. Lord knows it was a hot topic thereabouts and once word got around that was the headline, the papers would be off Chester’s shelves like hotcakes. Ralph decided to wait until he had a second strong cup of coffee. Maybe that would get the juices flowing and he could dig up some shred of enthusiasm for this story. He seriously doubted that, but anything was worth a try. This article did have to be written, and it did have to be written today. Best to finish it and run it over to Chester’s. That way, he could stop thinking about it and head over to that new place that opened just outside of town.
He had heard it was a pretty decent place to eat; of course, anything was a step up from Molly’s Diner. Molly MacDill was a decent enough dame, and Ralph didn’t really have anything against her, but that diner of hers was something right out of a bad movie. Ralph ate there, like most of the townsfolk, but that was because it was the town’s only eatery. Ralph however, preferred to get most of his meals from Molly’s on a to-go basis. The place was usually packed with the I-can’t-wait-to-leave-this-dump twenty-somethings chattering on and on about their hopes and dreams and plans – yes, plans. They actually had plans, and Ralph hated them. He hated each and every one of them with their plans to leave Swaying Falls, get high-paying jobs in the city, buy townhouses and condos, live the good life, live a real life...
Ralph finished his second cup of instant, lit another smoke, sat down at the typewriter and began. No sense in agonizing over it anymore, he thought, just write it. Nobody’s going to read it anyway since Jeremy Spengler already bragged to everyone within earshot of his store’s doorway about carrying the big city brand of feed. He pulled the paper out of the typewriter, folded it and shoved it in his pants pocket and headed over to Chester’s. Drop the article off and head on out to have dinner, he thought, shaking his head in disgust; this was going to be yet another magical night.
Ralph took Main Street going north toward Tippettville. He kept checking both sides of the road looking for the new joint. He couldn’t recall the name, but since it would be the only other place to eat in that part of the county, he was sure he’d recognize it. Tippettville was the closest town to Swaying Falls, but all they had was a soda fountain in their drug store. You could get a burger and some chips and maybe a root beer float, but chances were slim to none of getting a complete meal. Lights appeared in the distance on his left as he crossed the bridge over Wildon’s Creek and as he got closer, Ralph could see the place. The sign was on the roof of the building and flashed the name in alternating red, green, and yellow lights, some of which had already burned out. My, my, my, he started to laugh, another high class joint to be sure. The name, when all the lights came on together, appeared to be Soldano’s. Ralph wasn’t sure what the significance of having the different colored lights was, but there were a lot of cars in the lot, and as far as he was concerned, that was recommendation enough.
The place was pleasant enough, and Ralph recognized several couples from Swaying Falls. He figured the others had to be from Tippettville, since no one in their right mind would drive 50 plus miles from surrounding towns or from the city to come and eat here in Nowheresville, USA. It was classier than Molly’s though; they had a hostess here who seated you. Ralph hadn’t been in a restaurant that had a hostess in years. Maybe tonight wasn’t going to be all bad after all. He was shown to his table, which was in the back of the dining room and next to a table at which a young man sat, alone. Ralph noticed the young man was looking around and jotting things down in a notebook, sipping his iced tea, taking a bite of his meatloaf, a quick drag off his cig, and then jotting again. Ralph had never seen him before and wondered what he was up to.
“Excuse me”, Ralph tapped the young man on the shoulder. “Could I ask you something?”
The young man replied, “Sure, something you need?”
“Oh, no”, Ralph continued, “I was just wondering. I don’t mean to be nosey, but I noticed you looking around and writing things down and I was just wondering if you were one of those, like, food critics or health department people, or something like that?”
The young man smiled broadly.
“Oh, I wish I were something that important. No, actually, I’m a reporter.”
Oh, great, Ralph thought, a freakin’ twelve year old Clark Kent.
“A reporter? For what publication?”
The young man looked down and shook his head.
“Well, none to speak of at the moment. You see, I have always wanted to be a reporter for a newspaper or a magazine, and I haven’t had much luck getting on with the city papers, so I thought maybe if I tried some small town papers, they might give me a chance to prove myself. I don’t know what kind of stuff goes on in this area, so I thought I’d start with the restaurants and write up a sample column rating them. The problem is, this is the only restaurant around for quite a ways, except for the small diner over in Swaying Falls. Are you familiar with Swaying Falls?”
Ralph felt stomach acid creeping up into his throat. Boy, am I ever familiar with Swaying Falls.
“Yes”, Ralph said quietly, “I live there, and you’re never going to believe this, but I’m the reporter for the local paper there.”
Ralph could see the change come over the young man’s face. He was impressed alright – sitting up straighter and eager to hear more. Oh-so-eager.
“Wow, a reporter? A real reporter? This is fantastic. Oh, what am I thinking? My name’s Basil. Basil Hamner.”
He extended his hand and Ralph did the same.
“Ralph Debumarsey here. I report all the news in Swaying Falls. I’ve got kind of an exclusive territory there. You should come by sometime and I’ll show you an issue. Right now, it’s just local stuff, but I’ve got plans to go county-wide and then cover state events. I’ve just got some details to work out.”
Ralph hoped Basil wouldn’t ask too many questions about his plans to go ‘global’ with the Swaying Falls newsletter.
“Wow”, Basil had turned his chair to face Ralph’s table. “I would love to come by sometime. I know it’s in the early stages, but I’d still like to see your operation, your office, you know. Do you think it would be possible for me to accompany you on your rounds some time or when you go out on a call? I wouldn’t get in the way, I promise. It’s just that I’ve never met a real reporter before and I know I could learn so much from you if you wouldn’t mind me tagging along. Not all the time, mind you, I wouldn’t want to bother you, but just sometime? Do you think that would be at all possible, sir?”
‘Sir’. This young man called him ‘sir’. No one had called Ralph ‘sir’ in..., well, no one had ever called Ralph ‘sir’. It felt really good in an odd sort of way. He wondered what the young man would call him if he accompanied Ralph on his ‘rounds’ to the grocer to pick up that week’s specials, to the motel to pick up that week’s continental breakfast menu, to the elementary school to pick up that week’s dessert offerings... Not only that, Ralph couldn’t wait to have Basil tag along with him to his ‘office’ while he wrote his columns. He wondered if the young man would knock himself out on the lower ceiling while climbing over Ralph’s bed so he could sit next to him at his desk. My God, Ralph thought, what the hell am I going to do now?
“Gee, Basil, why don’t you let me have your number and I’ll give you a call and we’ll set something up, okay? Right now, uh, temporarily, I’m working out of a small boarding house attic. That’s a laugh, huh? Anyway, it’s cozy and gives me a place to hang my hat and write undisturbed. When I get a hot lead, I’ll call you and we can meet. It wouldn’t take you long to catch up with me. So, if you’re able to pick up and go on a second’s notice, because that’s how the newspaper game operates, we’ll play it by ear. What do you say?”
Ralph hoped this pain-in-the-ass-eager-beaver would accept him at his word.
“That would be fantastic,” Basil was beside himself with excitement.
He wrote his mobile number on a napkin and handed it to Ralph. Basil dropped some bills on the table and put on his jacket.
“I’ve got to get going, got some calls to make, but you call me any time, day or night, and I’ll be there in a flash. Thanks so much, Ralph. Uh, is it okay if I call you Ralph?”
There in a flash, Ralph thought. Kid must be pissing himself with excitement by now.
“Absolutely”, Ralph said, “wouldn’t have it any other way. You take care, and I’ll be in touch. ‘kay?”
Ralph would swear the kid was glowing as he exited the restaurant – yeah, glowing. Ah, the fervor of the young. He remembered the passion of his youth - one with which he used to view life in general, but now? Well, maybe I can find something to interest this kid, he smiled to himself, something a little more exciting than Spengler’s New York City feed. But where?
Ralph finished his meal, which wasn’t half bad actually, took part of the tip the junior copy boy had left and added it to his own, and left a fiver on top of his bill and made his way outside. He decided this was going to be an all-nighter, trying to figure out some way to keep this Basil character believing he was a real newspaper reporter, and not what he really was: a broken down, old, never-used-to-be, nobody. But, first things first. Ralph realized he had to seriously pee, and no way was he going back inside just to use their bathroom. People knew when you did that, just went in places to use the toilet, and they’d talk about it after you left. He decided to head around to the back of the building and just relieve himself in nature’s own backyard. No one would see him back there, so what harm could it do?
The man came out of nowhere, stumbling, and mumbling something about God and white sand beaches. Ralph was just finishing zipping up his pants when the man shoved him up against the wall. The man smelled like he vacationed in the sewer, and Ralph was terrified he’d faint, and then the man would touch him or worse while he was out. That picture was too much for Ralph to accept without a fight, and he pulled himself up firmly on his feet, grabbed this creature that crawled out of the swamp, and pushed him away with all the strength he could dredge up. A terrible cracking noise filled the air and seemed to echo throughout the valley. Ralph looked down and braced himself, expecting to have to dodge a fist, but the man didn’t move. A pool of blood was beginning to form around his head and shoulders. Even in the dim light, Ralph could see the man’s partially open eyes were fixed in a vacant stare.
“Oh my God”, Ralph gasped, “hey? Are you okay? You pushed me and I couldn’t let you get away with... I thought you were going to... Hey! Answer me!”
Ralph began to nudge the man with his foot, but still the man remained still. Damn, Ralph shuddered, I’ve killed him. He saw part of the large rock the man’s head had hit when he fell and noticed the pool of blood was getting bigger. I’d better not get any of this on me, he thought, I’ve got to get out of here, got to think. Ralph looked around and not seeing anyone, went back, sat in his car and lit a butt from his ashtray. Got to call the Sheriff and just explain, Ralph was telling himself, I mean, it was just an accident. The guy’s probably a nobody, clothes all messed up, hasn’t had a bath in God-knows-when, hanging out by the dumpster in back of a restaurant... Wait a minute! Wait just a freakin’ minute! Why should I set myself up for a lot of grief here, he thought, going to the Sheriff’s office, telling the same story a hundred times, and what am I going to get for all this? Absolutely nothing but a headache and a sleepless night, and tomorrow morning, nobody’s going to remember any of this. But, now, if I went inside the restaurant and hollered for somebody to call the Sheriff because I had just witnessed a, shall we say, murder out back, but can’t identify the killer, well, things might turn out a bit different then. Sure, I’d have to still go to the Sheriff’s office and tell the same story a hundred times, but tomorrow morning, everybody would know about it because I’d go home and write about it for the paper. Oh, yeah, Chester, then you’d sell your weight in papers with that story on the front page, and I would have to put my name on that one so everyone would know it happened to me.
Making sure no one was around, Ralph went back to where the man lay, still bleeding. He looked down and spoke quietly.
“Look, you shouldn’t have come at me like that, but what’s done is done. I can’t afford to screw up what little of a life I have over a stupid accident. Besides, we’ll find out your name and you’ll become kind of immortal when I identify you in my column. Can you even hear me, or are you all the way dead?”
Ralph continued to look down at the man for a moment longer, and tried to figure out how he was going to handle this. He grabbed his own shirt and pulled so as to tear one of his sleeves. This happened, he would say, when he struggled with the assailant. He smudged his face with some dirt, messed up his hair and tore one of his jacket pockets. Yes, indeedy, this will work, he thought, this will work just fine. He started to yell and stomp and pound on the wall at the back of the building, then ran around the corner and in the main entrance, breathing heavily, and flung himself on the candy counter at the front. Everyone in the place was looking at him now. Here we go. Lights, camera...
This was the way it should have been all along, everyone crowding around him, patting him on the back, asking him if he was alright, trying to counsel him after his traumatic ordeal. Ralph was in his element now. He had taken the hands of the cashier in his and, holding back a tear, asked her to call the Sheriff because there was an unfortunate soul out back who had been murdered, yes, he did say murdered, right in front of his very own eyes. She had gone all pale and looked about to keel over, but had managed to hold herself together long enough to pick up the phone and call the Tippettville Sheriff’s Office.
Ralph had never met anyone from Tippettville, with the exception of his newly acquired admirer, Basil, and this lawman of theirs was a real piece of work. He arrived around ten or fifteen minutes after the cashier had called him, and Ralph had been directed to a chair and was sipping a warm glass of some kind of bitter purple wine the manager had given him. As soon as he entered, everyone pointed to Ralph, their hands trembling, all remembering the life and death struggle the two men had just engaged in; the one sipping wine inside who had obviously triumphed over the attacker and the other one lying behind the building who obviously had not.
“I’m Sheriff Dan Posner, from over Tippettville. Someone called in something about an assault?”
He looked over at Ralph, who was holding up his hand.
“Sir, I asked them to call you since we’re closer to your town. There’s a man out in back of this building, dead, I believe, who was murdered by this man I fought with, but he pushed me down and then ran away.”
Ralph believed that was a good start; not too hysterically told, fairly sequential, and vague enough not to trip him up later. The Sheriff motioned for him to remain seated and went out back to investigate. He returned and used his cell phone to call for the town doctor and the funeral home’s hearse to come and pick up the body. He walked over to Ralph, who finished the glass of odd-tasting wine with a shudder.
“Listen, fella, I know you’ve been through a lot this evening, but I’m going to need you to accompany me to the office and give me a statement. Maybe you remember more than you think you do, and maybe you could give us a description of the guy who did that out there. Then again, maybe not, but sometimes there are small details that people think don’t mean anything and they can end up being very helpful. Do you need to see a doctor first? Are you able to drive over, or would you like to leave your car here for the time being and ride over with me?”
Ralph knew he had died and gone to heaven. It’s about time I was treated like I was somebody, he thought, it’s about freakin’ time.
“No, sir”, he tried very hard not to laugh, “I’m able to drive and I don’t believe I’ve been injured. Not like that poor man outside. I don’t know what provoked that confrontation out there, but it’s all just so tragic. Certainly, I’ll follow you over and provide whatever assistance I can.”
Ralph took great pleasure in all the pats on the back he received on the way out, and especially enjoyed the winks he received from a couple of the women. He couldn’t wait to get all this over with and get back to his room so he could write it all up and get the article, his article, over to Chester, so a special edition of the paper could be run. This time, it would be a special edition because it wouldn’t have an anonymously written copy. This time, Ralph’s name would be all over it.
When he arrived home, he immediately got the hot plate going since this was most definitely an occasion for a hot cup of instant. His time in the Sheriff’s office, providing his statement, had been brief, which surprised him. Ralph had thought he would be given the third degree, as it were, but to his delight, the officer didn’t ask him too many questions. It was more a matter of ‘do you take cream and sugar in your coffee, here’s a legal pad and a pen, just write down what happened and sign and date it, and you’re free to go’.
Ralph was stunned. True, he hadn’t murdered anybody; well, killed maybe, but not on purpose, but still, somebody ended up dead. He wondered why that didn’t seem to be too big of a deal. Possibly, the man was homeless and didn’t have any family or friends as Ralph had originally thought, but one would think that wouldn’t matter to law enforcement. After all, a killed person was still a killed person, regardless of their station in life, right? Evidently not here in Tippettville. Odd behavior on the part of a policeman to be sure, but certainly beneficial to Ralph. He had been able to get out of there lickety-split, and would have plenty of time to write his column and get it to Chester so he could get the edition printed by breakfast-time. Residents of Swaying Falls began their meandering right after they had their morning coffee and oat flakes and Chester’s was where the congregating commenced. Everyone would see the paper and Ralph’s column and then they would know – then they would all know.
Ralph wondered if he should call the kid and let him in the big scoop. Yes, but after the paper hit the street, definitely after. He’d tell Basil he’d been traumatized and needed to rest, but of course, the second he’d arrived home, he knew he had to get the column in the hopper. That’s what a reporter does, he’d say, get it down regardless of what you’ve been through. That would impress the hell out of the little boot-licker, but it would also keep him out of Ralph’s hair.
Ralph plumped the pillows on his daybed, put his hands behind his head, laid down and took a deep breath. He closed the curtains by his desk, but the sun was still shining brightly through, although he didn’t care. He was exhausted and it felt great. Sitting at his typewriter to write this column – his column – had been the easiest thing he had ever done. The words flowed smoothly and when it was completed, he didn’t even bother to go over it to make any edits. He could feel the power of it as he held it in his hands. This was what he had been waiting for these past twenty some odd years; this was the beginning, and there was no way Ralph was going to let this slip away from him. No freakin’ way.
Swaying Falls is alive and prospering now solely because of me, Ralph laughed out loud, and didn’t care who heard him this time. Coming home to his new digs at the downtown hotel was just another reminder of all he had done for the sorry-ass residents of this fly-speck on the way to oblivion. Those in transition weren’t transitioning anymore. They were putting down roots, and expanding the family businesses. Funny how murder draws them all in, he thought; one would think murder in, and around, a town would drive folks away. Well, ‘one’ would be oh-so-wrong.
It occurred to Ralph that, after the third or fourth one, this whole process was getting easier and less stressful. The latest was what, number six? Let’s see, he thought, first there was the disgusting creep behind Soldano’s, which technically was an accident. If only he could have known the phenomenal effect his passing had on Ralph’s career. As it turned out, the weirdo had been homeless, and no friends or relatives could be located. Those who had been in the restaurant the night it happened had all contributed so he could have a decent burial with a headstone. Ralph, naturally, had been the most generous donor.
Then, there was the old broad in the support shoes, toting the canvas grocery bag, who needed help climbing the stairs in the rundown tenement in which she lived. Ralph had helped her climb the stairs alright; almost made it to the top too, before she tripped over that heavy canvas bag she’d been dragging. Too bad, and messy too. Nasty way to die.
The jogger in the park had been next. He had been hydrating himself from a full flask he carried. Ralph had guessed Crown Royal when it had fallen and spilled on the grass. The approach had gone smoothly with Ralph joining him for a friendly late afternoon jog on the deserted trail. They had shook hands, laughed a bit and the man had even offered Ralph a sip right before he stepped into a hole and fell and hit his head on that water fountain – hard. You could never be too careful; holes in the ground sometimes just appeared out of nowhere.
The hooker and her john turned out to be Ralph’s daily double. They had been getting to know each other behind the sales office of the used car lot on the edge of town. Ralph knew that spot was utilized at that time of night for happy hour, and took a chance. He parked his car at the business next door and crept around and sure enough, there they were, getting ‘happy’. Their focus was not exactly on the world around them, and it had been no problem for Ralph to come up behind the girl and hit her over the head with the pipe he had found leaning up against one of the sheds. When she fell, the man just stood there and looked at Ralph; didn’t make a move or say a thing. Crazy how some people react in a crisis, Ralph thought. When Ralph swung the pipe at his head, and connected, the man didn’t make a sound then, either. He just fell over, quietly. Easy peasy; two for one.
Yes, tonight, number six it was - the dried up old man on his way to the drug store to pick up his asthma inhaler. Old people shouldn’t be out alone at this hour, Ralph thought. Why, something bad could happen to them, couldn’t it? Well, something bad did happen to this one – that’s for sure. Beaten to death with his own cane right there on the sidewalk ten feet from his front door. Darn shame. What’s this world coming to...
What the hell, who’s counting anyway. He already had his book deal signed, sealed and delivered, and he was confirmed on three cable crime documentaries. He was thinking this might be a good time to start scaling back, what with that bottom feeder dogging him all the time. Good ole boy, Sheriff Dan, had mentioned it in passing that he found it suspect that Ralph was always the first on the scene of all those deaths he was reporting on. Ralph had responded, also in passing, that it all came down to a reporter’s instinct, but the flatfoot had appeared less than convinced. Measures would definitely need to be taken.
It had been kind of a kick in the beginning, making those calls to the station, alternating between claiming to be a witness and claiming to be the killer, and leaving tantalizing clues at all the scenes that, of course, led absolutely nowhere. Ralph wouldn’t see Danny Boy for a couple of days, and then, out of the blue, there he’d be: On the street in front of the hotel, a couple of tables over while Ralph was having lunch at Molly’s, sitting in his car staring at Ralph coming out of the grocery... This rummy had hit on Ralph’s last nerve two bodies ago. Time’s come to leave his life as a reporter behind, Ralph thought, and cross over and assume his role of international correspondent. Interviews, film cameos, and possibly a movie of the week; shouldn’t keep them waiting. Ralph knew it just didn’t get any better than this.
The kid was coming along nicely, too, following him around like a lapdog hoping to be thrown a scrap. Contacting Basil following each murder and allowing him to type the articles while Ralph dictated had been a brilliant move. It allowed the little suck-up to feel involved without having any real input or being able to steal any of Ralph’s thunder.
The arrest, indictment and trial did all occur with unanticipated precision. He had been charged with six counts of first degree murder. That the death of the perv behind Soldano’s had been added as Murder One truly surprised Ralph. That one, at most, should have been ruled as accidental. At arraignment, he had entered a plea of not guilty, as expected, having been advised by the best the Public Defender’s pool had to offer.
Interestingly enough, bond had been requested and granted; not the norm for a capital case. Of course, this was Tippettville – not the norm by any means. The case was being prosecuted there since the deaths all occurred in, or near, their jurisdiction. The jury, however, was hand-picked from Ralph’s main stomping ground of Swaying Falls, and quite the vindictive bunch they turned out to be. As he watched and listened to them during the selection process, the air was thick with bias, but the judge was deaf, blind, and most assuredly, dumb as hell. There were no jury instructions about not discussing the case until deliberation, and the street corners and shop doorways were constantly abuzz with detailed descriptions of evidence presented and testimony obtained.
From the perspective of these two towns, this was the trial of the century. From Ralph’s point of view, this was the century’s biggest practical joke. Seeing as how a man’s life was hanging in the balance so to speak, that did seem to detract somewhat from the humor of it all, though.
The exhibits and photographs filled the pint-size courtroom vestibule, while most of the spectators stood along the walls and crouched in the aisles between the rows of benches. People brought boxed lunches and coolers filled with soda pop and ice cream bars. Ralph wondered if they were permitted to witness the execution whether they’d bring hot dogs and their toddlers’ bouncy seats along.
The testimony now, that was brutal. People he’d known all his life as quiet, unassuming small-town mopes, suddenly became hateful, accusatory vipers. Ralph had to admit, though, it did surprise him that they obviously took great relish in the fact that their words could send a fellow human being to his death. Talk about not being able to judge books by their covers...
When the verdict was read, everyone in the courtroom cheered, including the judge and all the members of the jury. While Ralph deemed this totally inappropriate, he did find it humorous, in a grotesque sort of way. It was, of course, guilty on all counts, and the sentence was indeed pronounced to be death. No real shock there either, he thought, bloodthirsty bastards, all.
So, here we are in the now, he thought, in this limbo, this portal between life and the everlasting. The sedative’s already been administered and soon, his eyes would close for the last time, but no sweet dreams would invade his slumber this night. He remembered the struggle and all the heartache, all to win what prize? A deadly cocktail administered in the State’s death chamber? Did this end justify those means?
Oh, hell, yeah, Ralph thought, hell freakin’ yeah. He did briefly feel a weak tug at his heart for young Basil whose life would be coming to a supposedly painless conclusion soon, but hey: It wasn’t as if he didn’t really know how the game was played. Come on, everybody did. Didn’t they?
It had been laughably easy to set the chump up to take the fall, considering his irritating way of fawning over his self-appointed mentor. The fool had developed tunnel vision from the second Ralph had taken him under his wing. Leaving his butts everywhere, ripe for the taking, only to be strategically placed at the crime scenes... What’s the matter, newsboy, never heard of a new thing called DNA? You pick up a bag and a flask to move them so you can sit on the only chair made available to you, and they show up later on or near a murder victim... Oops, kid, you got to keep up with the times – they do fingerprints these days. Ralph had never visited his protégé on Death Row, and his presence had never been requested. Odd how the boy seemed to passively resign himself to his fate. He had wanted to learn from the best, and he had to know that he did learn from the best. And, at approximately seven minutes after midnight, the kid was about to learn the most important lesson of all.
When all was said and done, it was all about getting the byline; yes, the byline. That was all that really mattered.
BIO: J. F. Juzwik has had a crime fiction novel, a horror short, and several crime shorts published. Her thriller will soon be appearing in an anthology. She is a member of several writers' networks and maintains a blog for both writers and readers at J F Juzwik's Blog. Information on all her projects can be found on her website at J. F. Juzwik - Author - Published Novels.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
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