Imprints, page 1
Copyright © 2011 by C.A. Masterson
Cover image copyright © 2011 Meg Eubank
Learn more about C.A. Masterson at:
Thanks to Meg Eubank for her amazing photograph!
For Gary, always.
* * * * *
“Len-NEE! Len-NEE! Len-NEE!” a chorus of mostly male voices chanted in the hazy twilight of Buzzy’s Bar.
Len adjusted his velcro vest, narrowed his eyes at the oversized target on the wall. He held up one hand, chugged his beer with the other, then shoved the empty mug at Dave.
Again he held up a hand, forced a loud burp before running across the mat and maneuvering a flip. He missed the velcro target and landed in a moaning heap.
Someone yelled through the cacophony, “Are you okay?”
Len opened an eye. Dave’s face hovered above him.
“I think I zigged when I shoulda zagged.” Len grabbed Dave’s extended hand and pulled himself up, legs broad to steady himself in the swaying room.
“Len-NEE! Len-NEE! Len-NEE!” The guys banged their bottles and mugs on the tables and bar, the girls clapped.
Len announced, “No, three misses is my limit.”
Someone handed him a full mug of beer.
“Wuh! Wuh! Wuh!” they chanted, smiling.
Ah, his fans had spoken. “Oh, all right. One more time.”
He downed a few swigs and lined up for the fourth time with the target. His cell phone thumped The Black Keys’ “Howling for You.”
“H’llo!” Len yelled into it, but over the din of the bar, heard only a voicelike noise.
“One sec!” he yelled into the phone. He ripped off the vest, then strode outside where the night air splashed his face with its chill as he walked to his Jeep.
“Len, it’s Pete.”
Damn. Don’t editors ever take a break? Or let him have one? “What’s up?”
“You sober enough for a body?” Pete asked.
He smiled. “Depends. Live or dead?” His voice came across as woozy, even to himself.
A growl sounded through the phone. “Maybe I better try to find Joe…”
“No, no – tell me.” Len jumped in his Wrangler, grabbed his pen and note pad he always kept on the passenger seat, and scribbled down the address.
“Do we know the circumstances?” He scrawled a few more notes, then flicked the phone off, simultaneously starting the engine. He speed-shifted onto the street, glad he’d left the top off. The cold air pricked at his cheeks. He took a few deep breaths and shook his head in the night wind. He leaned into tight turns as he sped down side streets, hoping to beat the TV crews.
The flashing lights of the police cruisers had drawn a small crowd. Len popped a breath mint. Last time, an officer threatened to force him to take a DUI test when Len had asked him a few too many questions. Always know when to back off, Len reminded himself. The cop was a good guy, basically. Just a little too serious about his work. And everything else.
“Hey,” he said to Sgt. Snyder, who stood on the sidewalk outside the apartment building, hands on hips, as if he’d been waiting for him. Snyder had been around forever, and thankfully had lost most of the macho spunk a few of the younger officers seemed unable to contain.
“Len. You got here quick. Spending your spare time in front of the scanners again?”
“Nah. Just happened to be driving by.” Cop humor never got old.
Snyder scrutinized him head to toe and grunted.
“So what have we got?” Len pulled out his pad, noting some details about the street setting. He kept writing as Snyder described the girl who’d been murdered, apparently several days earlier. “Did you ID her yet?”
The sergeant sighed. “College kid. Allison Baylor.”
Len’s hand froze. The sidewalk shifted, and he struggled to regain his balance.
Snyder’s hawkish eyes were all over him. “You know her?”
Len nodded. She’d moved from campus to an apartment, apparently. “We dated a few times last year. She would have graduated next month, right?” He’d planned to send his congrats, maybe take her out to celebrate. Catch up. Or more.
Snyder nodded. “You haven’t seen her lately?”
The suspicion in the sergeant’s tone hardly registered. “No, it’s been almost a year.” He didn’t want to see her now, if she’d been laying around dead for days. “Did she have a roommate?”
“Yes. We’re looking for him, but all indications are he moved out last month.”
“He,” he repeated. That one little word felt like a punch in the gut. Of course she’d moved on. Get the story, he reminded himself, but tried not to sound hopeful as he asked, “Were they more than roommates?” Did it even matter now?
“We’re checking into that. Hey – you don’t look so good. Maybe you should get someone else to cover this one.”
This one. Was there any difference between “this one” and the countless others? The bodies mangled in car crashes? The stabbings that tore into chests, gunshots that blasted holes in heads? His first few stories on the police beat, Len had lost his last meal, but lately, each case seemed like a TV rerun. There was the twelve-year-old boy who’d hung himself in the park – that one was tough to write. He’d convinced the mother to talk to him by softening his voice, not prodding too hard or too fast; she’d trusted him. Asked him to come to the funeral, even. Of course he did; there was a follow-up story to be done, and the funeral provided easy access to the very people he needed to question.
Len shook it off. “I’ll be okay. Where is she?”
“C’mon.” Snyder’s sideways look told Len that the sergeant wanted to gauge Len’s reaction to the body when he first saw it. Eliminate one possible suspect.
“Careful.” Snyder held the yellow police tape high so Len could duck under. Inside the ground-floor apartment, a few officers dusted for prints, examed dark blotches on the beige carpet.
Instinctively, Len looked for framed photos. A few stood on the end table but none included him, he noticed with a twinge of something he couldn’t quite name.
“So what did you say happened to her?” Len asked.
“Strangled. Probably raped – she was naked. Left in the closet.” Snyder pointed to the bedroom. The stench hit Len halfway down the hall. He tried to take a big gulp of air before it became overwhelming. Too late. He held his sleeve over his mouth, but that meant he could only write in spurts.
An investigator held a lighted magnifying glass just above the bed covers, as if it were perfectly normal to have a dead body lying on the floor nearby.
The folding closet doors stood open. Allison lay in a crumpled heap, her skin a faded bluish grey. Len tried not to stare. He’d rather remember her naked body as it had been last year – a perfect, delicious peach, warm to the touch.
Len had really liked her, the few months they were together. She’d dumped him for some law student. He didn’t blame her, and had even been a little relieved; they hadn’t been long-term material. Not really.
“So, no suspects?” Len asked through his sleeve. He’d momentarily forgotten the odor when he first saw her, but now it seemed twice as bad. His stomach churned; that hadn’t happened in a long time.
“None that I can share with you. We’re looking into a few leads, like I said.” As Snyder described his theory on what happened during Allison’s last minutes, Len tried not to picture it in his head.
He squeezed a few more details out of Snyder as Allison stared past them. Len wished he could take a blanket from the bed, tuck it around her.<
He made Snyder promise to call with any more info. “Don’t want people to panic, thinking there’s a serial killer loose.” It was tough getting cops to open up. He tried to grin, show a friendly façade to let Snyder know they both wanted the same thing: Allison’s killer behind bars.
Snyder’s voice was weighted with weariness. “Good night, son.”
Len’s eyes fell on Allison one last time. He hesitated, then remembered to respond. “Okay. Thanks.” He scribbled a few more notes on the way out, then drove to the Daily News to pound out his story before the presses rolled.
Pete made one minor edit, and Len’s byline was under the front-page, above-the-fold headline the next day: “Student found dead.”
As Len re-read it the next day, he felt pleased with the story’s cold presentation of the facts, yet he still managed to give a sympathetic portrayal of Allison. He’d been able to throw in a few personal details – Allison’s goal of becoming an elementary teacher, her love of animals – that made for a more touching portrait.
His colleagues praised his poignant writing; Pete said to save clips to enter in the journalism association contest.
Joanne, one of the copy editors, pointed to the picture that ran beside the story. “Didn’t you…” She hesitated.
Len read the question mark on her face. Allison had come by the newsroom a few times to pick Len up.
He nodded. “Yeah. Same Allison.”
Joanne’s hand fell to the desk with the newspaper. “God. I’m so sorry.”
“She was a great girl.” But it wasn’t like we were engaged or anything, he thought.
“How did you manage to cover this? You saw her, right?”
“Last night? Yeah. Had to.” He tried to block the image of her, as he’d been doing since last night – the graphic flashes of someone tightening a cord around her throat until the gaze of her blue eyes floated away somewhere past the horizon.
“Geez.” Joanne turned her head away, as if Allison’s naked blue body stood limply next to him.
Len didn’t want to get into the paradoxes of the job right now. “Hey, I gotta run. We’re headed to Buzzy’s, if you’re up for it.”
Joanne tsk’d. “More velcro jumping? What is the point?”
“It’s therapeutic, a great stress release. You oughta try it.”
“Right.” She stood, and her baby belly hung over the desk, her hands cradling its expanse. “I don’t think this one’s into it.”
“Might be – you never know.” Len grinned.
“I think I’ll wait a few years before exposing him to Sports for the Extremely Stupid.”
“Aw, don’t be mean.”
She leaned her hands on the desk. “Get married, Len. Stop beating yourself up. Literally.”
“Not yet, Mrs. Moore. Gotta live it up while I’m young.”
“Or kill yourself trying, huh?”
“See you tomorrow, Joanne.”
“If your eyeballs don’t fall out on impact,” she said, waddling away.
As Len got into the Jeep and drove off, an image of himself and Allison and two tousle-haired toddlers flashed in his brain. She’d have made a good mom, he bet, and a good wife. Now she’d be neither, to anyone.
He slammed the gear into third as his Jeep climbed the ramp to the highway. Buzzy’s happy hour lasted til six, and he didn’t want to miss too many dollar drafts.
He found a spot at the bar and watched Dave fit the velcro vest on some guy who had poorer aim than Len did when it came to vaulting against the wall. Len waved, and Dave smiled and pointed at the target, his eyebrows raised in question. Len raised his bottle in salute.
“Maybe later,” he yelled, and took a long swig.
Too many people slapped him on the back, asked him how he was doing in a somber tone, smiling and frowning at once in that concerned way people reserved for wakes and funerals.
“Great!” he told each of them. “How are you?”
They each nodded in turn, walked away looking slightly confused.
When Pete slid onto the barstool next to him, Len wasn’t too surprised. A lot of the people in the newsroom hung at Buzzy’s. It was close by, and Buzzy gave them a break sometimes. A few years ago when Buzzy had been robbed, Len and another reporter had asked the right questions of a few people that knew the answers. Their story pushed the police investigation in the right direction, leading to the arrest of a guy who’d pulled off a few other messy burglaries. He didn’t have the makings of a career criminal, Pete had said. But Len felt a rush when the guy was arrested.
Pete bought the next round. “I checked your file today,” he said.
“And?” Len asked.
Pete’s face became cartoonish in its feigned innocence; his gruff nature was not easily masked. “I noticed it’s been quite awhile since you took a day off. Thought maybe you might like to get away for a few days.”
Len smirked. “Was my story too close to the bone? Did I write anything inappropriate?”
“Your story was great,” Pete said emphatically, then reached in his back pocket with the grunt of an overweight, overstressed middle-aged man. The curse of a newspaper person’s life, probably how he himself would look in another twenty years, Len thought.
“I’d collected these pamphlets awhile back. Someday I’ll take the missus somewhere. Meantime, I thought maybe one of them might appeal to you.” He spread the flyers on the bartop like a winning hand of cards – a fan of glossy paper images of St. Lucia, Cozumel, Belize.
Len picked them up, studied the vibrant orange-red sunsets, the couple walking hand-in-hand on the pristine beach.
“I could finish my novel here.” He pointed to the empty beach chair that sat beneath a pair of palm trees facing the endless blue of sea and sky.
“Well, I couldn’t let you go for that long.” Pete chuckled roughly.
Len cocked his head, answered him with a lopsided smile. He had no one to bring to such a paradise, no one to walk hand-in-hand on the beach with. He dated casually – the women he’d met lately had been too self-absorbed, or too giddy, or too eager to “settle down.” He hadn’t dated anyone steadily since… Allison, he realized, his insides suddenly feeling as if he’d been drinking concrete instead of beer.
Besides, he couldn’t leave when there was too much to do here right now.
“Well? What do you think?” Pete asked, though Len could tell he already knew the answer.
“I think,” Len said, standing, “it’s time to try my luck on the wall.” He laid a hand on Pete’s shoulder, then left him at the bar, donned the velcro vest, and slammed himself toward the target, again and again, as hard as he could. Dave cut him off at his fifth attempt.
“But I was so close the last time,” he argued. “Just once more!”
Dave told him to take a break, come back and try again another night. Pete left, finally, so Len climbed onto his seat at the bar. A couple of cute girls gave him The Look, giggling, from the corner of the bar. Len slid down a few seats so he sat next to the one with cropped red hair and green slanty eyes, and offered to buy them drinks. When they said they were from the college, though, he excused himself, ran behind his Wrangler and vomited.
He spent the next half hour cruising through Tarragon Hill. He knew this neighborhood too well; there was a crime here at least once a week. The name Tarragon Hill implied an upscale area, but its residents were mostly crack heads, prostitutes, drug dealers. There were some old-timers, too, who refused to leave, to be driven out. They stayed indoors at night, windows shut tight behind their flowered window boxes.
He often came here at night. A few times, he’d happened upon an arrest in progress, and was able to get a good first-hand story. Mostly, he just felt drawn here.
Tonight was different. He had an appointment with someone who’d promised him information. If his source was telling the truth, it would be the biggest story Len had ever cracked.
He slowed down as he turned onto Penny Lane. He was s
Three long-legged girls stood on the corner, their colorful clothing under the streetlight a sharp contrast to the darkness surrounding them. Len parked and got out.
“Hey, Lennie baby,” one said in an inviting drawl. The other two walked down the street into the darkness, laughing, toward two figures sitting on a stoop.
“What’s shakin, Kandi?” Len leaned against the street light and offered the girl a cigarette.
As she slid one from the pack in his hand, she said, “If only you’d let me show you, sweetie, you wouldn’t have to keep askin’.”
Len smiled, and looked away. “So, not much going on tonight?”
She tsk’d. “I don’t get it. And this is a brand new outfit, too! You like?” He watched with appreciation as she twirled slowly, her sparkling brown eyes fixed on his. Her short spandex skirt showed every movement in relief; she was as perfect as a statue come to life, a statue chiseled by a lewd sculptor with an acute attention to detail.
She giggled as Len blew out a long breath. “Very nice,” he said, nodding.
He lit her cigarette, then his, and they stood there in a fog of their own making.
“Why do you do this, Kandi? You’re a smart girl. You should get the hell out of here. Go to college.”
She let out a high-pitched squeal of amusement. “You make it sound soooo easy.” She took a long drag, her leg twitching. Len watched her jut out her lower lip and blow the smoke into the night.
He frowned. “Just do it. You’re beautiful. Why live like this?”
She leveled her gaze at him, and spoke slowly, deliberately, her jive accent suddenly gone. “It’s what I know. It’s my life.” She put her hands on her hips, then, resumed her sassy demeanor. “Don’t you get all preachy on me, dammit. You know better.”
All too well, thought Len. He’d written gut-wrenching stories of fathers raping their own daughters, mothers forcing their boys to deal drugs to keep the supply steady. Every week, someone here got stabbed or shot, a drug deal gone bad, a drive-by shooting and some random kid in the cross-fire got killed sooner rather than later. People here were more blatant about their crimes than in nicer neighborhoods. The blue-collar crimes didn’t interest Len as much; they were so much less urgent. Less necessary.
In Tarragon Hill, a girl was lucky to finish high school without at least one abortion, or without having at least one kid by the time she reached eighteen. The boys proudly carried scars from gang fights. Everyone here seemed to carry a knife, a gun, some sort of weapon. Kandi had none of the outward scars; Len supposed she carried them on the inside. Just like she carried the imprint of this place – her home – like an invisible brand, an inner gang tattoo. It was why she would never leave.
“Sorry,” he said, crushing the cigarette out on the pavement with his shoe. “I just hate to see an intelligent girl like you waste your life in a place like this.”
“Well, Mr. Sanc-ti-monious,” she said haughtily, then softened her voice. “I appreciate the thought. But lookin’ at you, I bet things ain’t that hot on your side of town, either.”
He snapped his head up. Did she know about Allison? He looked at her hard – her face was filled with concern, but not pity. Maybe she was alluding to the obvious effects of sleep deprivation. It occurred to him that in Tarragon Hill, her beauty afforded her a higher status. In other parts of the city, she’d be just another black girl.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said.
A dark, shiny car drifted by, the bass of the radio making Len’s teeth rattle. It stopped, and the two men inside called Kandi over, hooting hungrily.
“Bye, baby. Looks like I have a date after all,” she said.
As she sauntered away, Len flushed with an overpowering need to take her in his arms, feel her soft mouth on his, feel as if he really mattered to her, to anyone.
“Hey Kandi…” He stepped toward her, then stopped himself as she turned quickly, her face hopeful.
The guys in the car called louder, blew the horn.
“Just hold on!” she yelled at them. Her voice hinted at a desperation Len had never heard from her before. She took an uncertain step toward him.
He shook his head, jammed his hands in his jeans. “Nothing. Sorry. Just… nothing.”
A look of disappointment, then disgust, flashed in her eyes. “All right.” Her lips quivered with a forced smile, but her eyes accused him: coward.
He watched her swing her hips as she walked to the car. She looked back at him once, before she leaned on the long door, and it swung wide to swallow her. Len hoped she got a good price, at least, as she rode away between the two. More than that, he hoped she wouldn’t be the next breaking news.
He took one last drive by the corner where his source had promised to meet him. Like everything else in Tarragon Hill, his source was only reliable for being unreliable. Len would have to catch him later.
As he drove home, Len strained his voice trying to sing too loudly along with Clapton as his stereo blared Change the World.
“But for now I find,” he sang, “it’s only in my dreams… that I can change the world…”
Len was beyond wondering why people succumbed to temptation. On his first few assignments, he’d felt an intense need to know why – why a man would beat his wife to within inches of death, why a parent would starve one of her four kids yet take good care of the other three. Why evil touched some and not others.
Over the years, he’d built an immunity to wondering; someone had told him: that way lies madness. He believed it. He accepted now that some things just were the way they were; people did stupid things, sometimes many times over.
Everyone seemed corroded to Len, tarnished, to some extent – no one was immune. Even Len felt the pull of it sometimes. As he fell into bed that night, his mind swirled with images of Kandi, sweet Kandi. All hard edges where she should have been soft. What he might do with her, were he not afraid of a colleague finding him out. He imagined the story in all its damning detail on the front page of the Daily News.
At the staff meeting the following morning, Pete assigned news stories to the reporters who weren’t already pursuing a lead on something viable.
Pete addressed Len. “What have you got?”
Len tipped his chair backwards, tapped a pencil on his shoe that rested on his other knee. “Two things. First, a follow-up on the college girl that was killed. The investigating officer called me this morning. They’re charging a guy from Tarragon Hill. Must have wandered too far from the neighborhood.”
It only took a look from Len to silence the other reporters’ murmured comments, but it didn’t erase their smirks.
“What else?” Pete asked.
“I need to do some research, but I think I have something. Potential front-page, above-the-fold news.” His eyes met Pete’s warily; he didn’t want any of the other reporters to get a bead on his big story.
Pete scowled. “I’ll give you a couple of days. See what you can come up with.”