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"A fabulous read!"

Holy Hell
A Lillian Byrd Crime Story

by Elizabeth Sims
©Elizabeth Sims 2001

Chapter 1

       A new chapter for me began on an average Monday at the offices of the Eagle Eye when I abandoned diplomacy for mild violence, and it worked. Unfortunately I also became suddenly and vividly unpopular with my boss, the publisher.
       I liked Ed Rinkell because he let me report on anything I wanted as long as we didn't get sued. And he paid me a decent wage. He was a former ad man, however, and in the newspaper business, revenue from advertising makes the world go 'round, so naturally his values system put the look and quantity of our advertisements at the top. Since his son, Bucky, was in charge of advertising layout and I was combination reporter and editor for our tiny weekly paper, you can grasp the dynamics. When Bucky needed an assistant, he got one; when I needed a photographer, I got a camera. This is not to complain. I enjoyed taking pictures.
       What burned my toast was when Bucky pawed me. Yeah. The first time he did it I was so taken aback I almost doubted it happened.
       I'd been working at the Eye for about four years when he came on board after losing his job as a bouncer at a strip club in Sterling Heights called Big Dick's. I don't know why the place shut down; it couldn't have been for lack of wit. We worked together in the composition room nearly every day, the Buckeroo manicuring ad layouts while I stripped down photos and copy, and wrote headlines to fit.
       Usually Bucky was sullen, but when he was feeling festive he'd make sparkling comments. "Hey, Lillian," he'd say, above the loser-land strains of the Jimmy Buffett tapes he played over and over, "thighs! and breasts! are on sale! Sixty-nine cents a pound at Kroger's. Think I oughta get some for dinner?"
       Our typesetter, Nona, sometimes tried to interfere, touchingly, by replying, "That price isn't until tomorrow. Tomorrow is when they go on sale." Nona missed the point a lot. Usually I'd ignore him. Once in a while he'd get to me and I'd respond with something droll like, "Well, you might as well. I doubt you'll get any other kind."
       Bucky looked the ex-high-school linebacker he was, thickly muscled but plumping up. He wore stretched-out polo shirts and Dockers, whose current ad campaign was saying it's OK to be a boring guy going to pot 'cause you're in good company. His face might have been handsome but for a distinctive dullness about the eyes, which I associated with poor study habits in his early years and too much beer later on. He covered his bald spot with some gimme-cap at all times, indoors and out. That summer his favorite one was a purple tribute to the Gibraltar Trade Center, a gigantic and wondrous indoor flea market off I-75 south of Detroit.
       Bucky admired Steve, his best friend, whose dad got him an incredibly high-paying job as a welder right out of high school and who totaled three Trans Ams before he was twenty-one. Bucky quoted that statistic with awe whenever Steve's name came up. There was something poetic about it to him. Bucky himself had recently gotten under payments on a brand-new Camaro with a custom blue sparkle paint job. He loved the hell out of that car, you could tell, the way he talked about it and looked at it and rubbed invisible dust off the fender every time he parked it. He kept it immaculately tidy and waxed, which was the one thing I respected him for. I like a nice clean car.
       Occasionally he'd get disgusted with himself and go on Slim-Fast. He'd struggle along on coffee and cigarettes, and claim to be working out every day at the Y, but he couldn't keep it up. I felt sorry for him, actually, knowing the women at the young-'n'-restless bars he frequented didn't give him much of a chance.
       All this might make Bucky sound to you like a real shithead. I don't mean to be unfair. He had friends. He could make me laugh. I've known bigger shitheads.
       To prevent wasted steps the layout counters were set in rows close together, so we had to squeeze past each other as we moved from page to page. One day after Bucky'd been working at the Eye a few months he squeezed past me, and at the same time rubbed his crotch against my backside. It was one of those moments where maybe it was or maybe it wasn't, so I let it go.
       But it happened again a couple of weeks later. I felt I'd done my bit putting up with the verbal crap, so I felt a tad pushed. But then, what did I expect? If I put up with crude comments, I was in effect saying they were OK with me. On the other hand, they sort of were OK. I mean, what the hell. Sometimes Bucky was funny, especially when he ridiculed his dad's hairpiece, which the rest of us couldn't get away with.
       And, I have to tell you, I loathe prissiness.
       So, right or wrong, it took his dick against my thigh to get me good and revolted. After the third time, when I was sure it was no accident, I turned to him.
       "Bucky," I said loudly, "you rubbed your crotch against my rear and touched my breast, too, this time. You've done it before. Don't do it again, goddamn it." Nona reeled in her swivel chair in front of the CompuGraphic. Later she told me she too had received Bucky's creative attentions from time to time.
       The normal buzz in the outer office ceased, and Archie, the circulation manager, poked his head through the doorway. Bucky retreated to the classified board and grinned uncertainly.
       He left me alone for almost a month, then did it again. As his broad back moved away down the counter he leered over his shoulder, and suddenly the X-acto knife in my hand took on a whole new meaning. A slim, silvery wand with an inch-long blade, always close at hand, what a sudden little friend!
       "Bucky," I said, this time in a low voice so only he could hear, "if you do that again I'm going to carve your ass off with this blade." He laughed delightedly and scratched his back with a ruler.
       Like the dolt I was, however, I thought I should try again for a peaceful resolution: I had a private talk with his father. Hey, the boss is the boss, right? He should take care of trouble, right?
       I explained the situation, bouncing the heel of my penny loafer on the aorta-colored carpet in Ed Rinkell's office. Rinkell looked mildly surprised, then chuckled indulgently. He promised to have a talk with his son. "That's my boy," his face told me. I knew, I knew.
       We come up to the ordinary Monday afternoon under discussion, actually a Midwest-style fireball July Monday afternoon, about a week after I'd complained to Rinkell. Our building wasn't air conditioned, but it was built of cinderblocks so it usually stayed cool. This afternoon was an exception: the heat was turning the composition room into a sweat lodge; as a matter of fact the weather was to stay murderous all week, an appropriate choice of word, you will see.
       I was leaning on one perspiring forearm over the sports board, cropping a rare action photo of children's softball, when Bucky sidled over. Absorbed in trimming the shot, showing a diving catch by an infielder, I didn't realize he was coming until I felt that flabby crotch.
       He eased past, casually stroked my waist, and looked down at what I was doing. "Whoa," he said, "Don't trim his little HEAD off, Lil, heh. Heh."
       My adrenaline surged, and without thinking at all I turned as he passed and sank my blade up to the hilt into the left buttock of his stonewashed Dockers. I twisted it a little. The sharp blade moved easily in his soft flesh.
       Looking back on it, I suppose it was one of the few real moments of truth in my life. Diplomacy can work, but you have to have common ground. There needs to be dialogue. Bucky Rinkell and I had no common ground until I stabbed him. Or maybe it was the heat.
       The aftermath of the stabbing unfolded in slow motion. I drew the blade out, saw it coated with blood, and threw it into the trash can. Ignoring Bucky, I took up another blade and continued to trim the shot. His roaring filled my ears, but I couldn't quite make out what he was saying, my own blood was rushing around so. He stumbled into the men's room and stayed a long time. Rinkell didn't fire me on the spot because he wasn't there. I think he would have, given how men—well, you know, how men can be sometimes.
       As I finished the sports section it occurred to me that my days at the paper could be numbered. Yet I'd acted in justifiable self-defense. I figured Bucky's butt would heal, he'd never touch me again, and everything should be fine.
       I didn't really consider that when you don't bend to the powerful—or worse, when you humiliate the powerful, however briefly—they have ways of getting you. Subtle ways, instinctive ways. While Bucky Rinkell might not come across as a particularly powerful guy, circumstances gave him an edge over me. Blood is thicker, as we all know, and I had spilled his.
       That afternoon when I crossed the street to the police station for my weekly check of the white sheets—the crime reports—I savored the moment in a state of high numbness. My heart was still pounding, though an hour had passed. Bucky's engorged face and Nona's pale, joyful one bobbed in my mind's eye; the bloated roar of Bucky's voice echoed in my ears.
       I stabbed a guy, I affirmed dramatically as I crossed the shimmering street. True, it was only a one-inch blade plunged into surely more than an inch of extraneous butt tissue, but still. Before, I'd always believed the pen was mightier than the sword. Now, while you couldn't exactly say I was gripped by bloodlust, I was beginning to understand the efficacy of pure action.
       Eagle is one of Detroit's older suburbs, one whose downtown is really a downtown, with a main drag and a business district, brick storefronts and a craggy City Hall. The streets are lined with big old trees that cast thick, deep shade.
       The Eagle Police Department occupied a compact building with a great set of stone steps and massive iron lampposts on either side of its varnished double doors.
       "Yo, Lillian," called Katzinger, the traffic sergeant, as I pushed through the doors. He got up from behind the counter and handed me the week's sheaf of reports on a clipboard. "Not much here this week."
       The accident and DUIL reports were usually small potatoes, though sometimes you'd come across a piquant statement ("As soon as I collided with the post office the car just flipped over") or an amazing circumstance ("Vehicle struck a refrigerator in the right lane of northbound Elm.")
       I always skimmed for names I recognized. Not that I'd necessarily make a point of reporting the drunk driving bust of, say, a school board member, out of all the drunk driving busts for the week, but it would be wise to have a note of it somewhere for future reference.
       "Righto, Sarge," I said, flipping through the pages. I handed them back. "Thanks."
       Upstairs was where the interesting white sheets were, in the detective division. "Hey, I was about to call you," said Tom Ciesla, the boss lieutenant, as my head poked up from the stairwell.
       His family was descended from some eastern European tribe; Tom had the dark, deep-eyed sturdiness of a rural priest. He once told me that most of his relatives changed Ciesla to the more pronounceable Chester; but he wanted to respect the old country, so he kept Ciesla. You pronounced it "Chessla".
       "C'mere," he said. He smoothed a fresh yellow file folder open on his desk. "Old Lester Patchett found a body this morning on his property. Unidentified. It's a miracle the guy came across it, 'cause he doesn't get around so good anymore."
       "What happened?" I asked, scanning page one.
       "Homicide. The body was rolled up in a piece of carpet and stuffed into a big crack in the foundation of one of his barns."
       "The one that's falling down? Back from the road?"
       "Yeah. The great thing is, she was just dead, last night, and the night was cool. For a change. So there wasn't much decomposition."
       "Great," I agreed. "No ID, no nothing, huh?"
       "Lester said he had a junk dealer coming to clean the place out, and he wanted to go through his stuff."
       Not much in the way of murder happens in Eagle, though body dumpings occur on its outskirts now and then the same as other metropolitan Detroit suburbs. During the string of Oakland County child killings, owners of remote pieces of property found themselves taking long walks on weekends, poking around for something they didn't want to find.
       "Any likely missing persons reports?" I asked as I read the description: dark-complected black female, 5'4"-5'5", slight build, short haircut. "She was shot?"
       "No missing persons yet," Ciesla said. "Once in the back of the head. A twenty-two, from the look of it. No obvious signs of sexual assault. The coroner's doing an autopsy, maybe today. He's had a slow week. But here's what we want. Erma, where're those Polaroids? We'd like you to run a drawing of her in the Eye. An artist from the sheriff's department's making a sketch of her now."
       "You'd give it to the dailies too, right?"
       "Yeah, but they might not run it, or maybe only way inside the paper, but you guys could run it on the front page and at least people around here would see it."
       "Think this one might be related to the midnight five?"
       "I don't know. There's a body this time."
       One by one over the past two years, five women in the metro Detroit area had disappeared inexplicably, overnight. Since there was no evidence of foul play and no bodies found, the cops were stymied. No one knew whether any crime had, in fact, been committed. The papers were starting to call them the midnight five, as if the string was over. There hadn't been one in a few months.
       Det. Erma Porrocks handed me a Polaroid snapshot. Porrocks was a diminutive, graying institution at the Eagle P.D. Her feet never touched the floor from any of the man-size chairs there, but I once saw her subdue a rampaging drunken bastard three times her size when a brawl spilled from the Eagle Tap Room into the street.
       The photograph, of the victim's face, had obviously been taken at the scene. It was blurry and off-colored, but legible enough. Most people think, from the movies, that if a person gets shot in the head, half the head explodes and the face disintegrates. With a shotgun or rifle, that's often the case, especially at close range. But with a small-caliber handgun there's usually just a little hole and some blood. Something about the photograph made me turn and hold it under Ciesla's desk lamp to get a better look.
       What the written description in the file can never convey is the character of the face, the suggestion of its mobility, its grace: this dead face, upturned to the morning sun, had been intriguingly beautiful, with deep mahogany skin, a wide firm mouth, slightly crooked nose, and a brow high and strong like the prow of a ship. I say that because I had been intrigued by it before, some little time ago.
       "Do you know her?" Ciesla asked sharply.
       He and I had gotten pretty friendly in the years I'd been reporting in Eagle. I liked the police department. Carefully, over time, I'd built a good rapport with the cops, especially Ciesla. He was the ideal cop in my opinion; he had common sense and a brain in his head. He actually read, would sometimes walk over to the library on his lunch hour and look at Psychology Today, The New Yorker, magazines most cops, face it, don't read. We'd discuss current events.
       The phone rang and Porrocks answered it.
       "Ah, no I don't," I said to Ciesla, composing myself, still looking at the picture. In fact I did not exactly know her, but I had seen her and talked with her in an attempt to get to know her, and it jolted me down to my socks that she was dead, and I was trying to decide what to say or not say when Porrocks announced, "Southfield police. They got a positive ID."
       Ciesla and I turned.
       "Yeah. Uh-huh," Porrocks said into the phone. "Ciesla and I'll probably come over. OK." She hung up. Cops never say "Good-bye," on the phone, they say "OK," or they just hang up.
       "Name, Iris Lynn Macklin. M-A-C-K-L-I-N. Age 34. Address in that big apartment complex on Plaza Drive in Southfield. Her husband reported her missing at noon. He just ID'd her." She hitched up the waistband of her skirt.
       "OK, let's go talk to him," Ciesla said. "Is that what you said: he's at the coroner's now? Let's go." He turned back to me. "We won't need you to run that drawing, then."
       "I'll talk to you when you get back."
       I walked over to the window and gazed out at the street, at the Eagle Eye office, at the Eagle Tap Room next door. I looked down again at the picture in my hand. It was Jean all right. Iris Macklin? What else did Porrocks say? Her husband identified her? Husband? This was news to me, news to the newswoman.

..

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