Author’s note: Just practicing the craft of fiction, a quick read, less than three thousand words, a little poetry at the end. Thanks to Joseph Bird for some great feedback. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks for reading, A.S.
IT SO HAPPENED on the fateful evening of Bill Avery’s death, Officer Tony “Pudge” Romano was nearing the end of his second twelve-hour shift. He was tired, hungry, and punchy when he received the call, a 419, dead human body, on the railroad tracks just outside city limits. It was 3 a.m.
“Can’t we bring county in on this thing?” Romano asked.
“Negative, Pudge, all available county and state police are working that jackknifed rig on the interstate thirty miles away,” said Jenny Powell, the Linville Police Department’s veteran dispatcher. “You’re the tenured officer. I’ll send Rick Webster along to assist.”
“Hell, I’d rather do it alone… damned rook.”
“Now play nice, Pudge. When you get a positive ID, I’ll bring the coroner in on it.”
“Body’s in two parts, stone cold. Engineer didn’t even know it happened. Two teenaged boys found the corpse.”
“Oh, great. 10-4.”
Rick Webster was, if anything, a bird of a different color. On the scene, with his gloved hand, Webster lifted Avery’s head by the hair as callously as a bowling ball.
“Look here,” he said to Romano, shining his flashlight onto the face. “It’s that little drunk, Bill Avery. Looks like beer sales’ll be hurt in town. He’s good for a keg a week.”
Romano said nothing, shining his flashlight down the tracks.
“There’s the body. Let’s step off the yards between them.”
“Between them? You mean between him, don’t you Pudge? Can’t say that every day. Let’s step off the yards between him.”
“Shut the hell up, Webster,” Romano said, shining his light on his own face for effect. “Damn, most newbies would be puking their guts up on a call like this. Not you though, huh. Just enjoying the hell out of it.”
Webster ignored him, counting his steps aloud, carrying the head by its hair in his right hand.
“Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one,” Webster said. “Twenty-one yards. Pushed his head on down the tracks like it was a marble or something.”
Avery’s body was on its stomach, a blood trail of just two feet.
“This was a suicide,” Romano said. “He must have just laid down and put his neck on the track. It was clean, body barely moved.”
“Why would Bill Avery commit suicide?” Webster said. “All the bum had to do was drink beer every day – sounds like a hell of a life. Hey Pudge, you know what you call a large draft with no head? Bill Avery.”
Romano was silent. He thought about Avery, who, as a hopeless drunk was certainly the exception in the charming hamlet of Linville. Its population of three-thousand, nine hundred claimed to be hard-working, respectable, God-fearing people. As veteran law enforcement, Romano knew that occasionally the partiers entertained themselves by kicking Bill Avery around. “Hey, you drank your weight tonight didn’t you Bill?” “Have one on me Bill. You’re still walking straight.”
Sometimes he didn’t remember the insults. Other times he did. The slights, and his standing in Linville, had caused him to grow life-weary.
“Ok, how ’bout this one?” Webster continued, breaking the strained silence. “What do you call an animal that’s sixty-three feet from head to toe and likes to chug Budweiser? Bill Avery.”
“I’m surprised you could do the math.”
“What do you call a giraffe with no neck? Bill Avery.”
“Now that one just sucked,” Romano said. “You’re a worse comedian than you are a cop.”
It was pushing four. Webster sensed he’d broken Pudge’s resolve. It was pitch black other than their flashlights, and a hundred yards down the tracks, the flashing blue lights of the two patrol cars. The railroad rounded the western edge of Linville, then turned north. To the east shone the lights of the town, though not many. Somewhere in the nearby woods an owl offered three lonely hoots.
Romano clicked off his light and glanced upward. “Damn clouds. No moon, no stars.”
The tracks were slightly elevated, creating a bank. As Romano stepped away to radio Jenny Powell, Webster sat the head down facing outward, then moved the stiffening body until it was resting upright on the rocks. He then took Bill Avery’s head and placed it by the waist, the arm holding it there like a basketball.
“That’s right, Bill Avery… decapitated,” Romano repeated. “It was definitely suicide.”
“Oh that’s terrible news,” Powell said. “I know his mother. We go to church together. Barbara will be devastated.”
A flash caused Romano to see his shadow on the gravel and trees that lined the tracks. At the edge of his image was a worn bookbag he knew to be Avery’s. Romano turned his light back on to examine the contents. Inside was a locked, leather-bound journal, a Bible, Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, a copy of Stein On Writing, a half dozen pens, and an unopened Coors tallboy.
“Always had this with him,” Romano said. Remembering the flash, he turned, shining his light. Webster had taken a selfie with the body and was checking the quality of his work.
“That didn’t get it… my arm ain’t long enough. Take my picture, Pudge.”
“I’ll get back with you, Jenny. Send the wagon on out here, please.”
Something unexplained, his exhaustion, the look on Webster’s face, the positioning of the body, the fact that Webster had laid on his side, like he was snuggling up to the corpse, caused Romano’s sense of right, his sense of procedure, to break. For the first time ever, Webster heard Romano laugh. It was a low, throaty laugh, but it was genuine, and like each distinct sound they made, it eerily broke the silence of night.
“You don’t have a lick of sense.”
“Here, take a couple.”
Romano slid the bookbag on his shoulder, took the phone, shined his flashlight on it, aimed it, then hit the appropriate button. The phone’s flash sized up the situation with a half burst, then illuminated the scene for an instant. He took another.
“Now I’m taking one of you,” Webster said, grabbing his phone.
“The hell you are.”
“You can’t even tell what’s going on. Look at it. Gives a whole new meaning to having a red eye, doesn’t it?”
Romano glanced at the screen, ignoring the mangled flesh that used to be a neck. Avery’s open eyes indeed had the red glow photo subjects occasionally suffer.
Romano shook his head. The darkness that engulfed the two officers was surreal, as though they were sharing a dream. Not far from a state of delirium, he chuckled under his breath.
“That one was pretty good,” he said. “Ok, one picture.”
It was four days after Bill Avery’s funeral that the mayor of Linville, Art Randolph, sat at his desk staring at the picture of Pudge Romano and Avery on his computer screen. Chief Lance Chaney sat across from him, having sent the photo in an email. Only one image had become public from that early morning call — somehow. It had made its way on to the internet, and had been seen by just about everyone in town, including Barbara Avery and her grandson, Jimmy.
Bill Avery’s son, Jimmy, was the product of a university romance with Candice Jones during their sophomore year. Her parents decided that Candice would have the baby, then place it with an adoption agency. James and Barbara Avery adamantly rejected the plan. They would raise the child themselves, until Bill picked his profession, followed through on it, and was on his feet.
But James Avery, a wealthy stock broker, died tragically in his car just after Jimmy was born. He was struck head-on by a sleepy truck driver, Pete Tanner, another Linville resident. Though James Avery was innocent of any vehicular wrong-doing, he was returning home from having cocktails with a client. That fact came out in the autopsy. Bill, a promising English major, dropped out of school to help his mother with the toddler, their financial future secure. As Jimmy grew and began attending elementary school, Bill left their home daily, spending his afternoons in the local bars of Linville. Years went by this way. Now sixteen, Jimmy saw the image on the day he returned to school after the funeral.
Pudge Romano had thus far remained tight-lipped about the entire incident, choosing not to implicate Webster for taking the lead in their mutual lack of judgment, a code policemen typically followed. Webster, who’d been off for the forty-eight hours since the photo had gone public, had yet to be seen by anybody.
“Well, this is just about the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen,” Mayor Randolph said. “Gives Linville its worst black eye ever. What’s your recommendation?”
“I’m suggesting a four-week suspension without pay,” Chaney said.
Randolph’s jaw snapped open like a bear trap.
“Are you insane? I want him fired!” Randolph said. “Make an example of him.”
“Art, please. The guy has over nineteen years. He’s near his pension. He and Sissy have three kids. He’s never done anything like this before. I think the kid Webster had more to do with it than Pudge is letting on.”
“I don’t care. This is a damned P.R. nightmare. Barbara Avery will probably sue the city and I can’t blame her. He stood and slammed a notebook down on his desk. “This is the most disrespectful, un-Christian-like act I’ve ever seen. And that includes Vietnam.”
“Just let me talk to the two of them together, see if I can get to the bottom of what went on,” Chaney said.
Mayor Randolph rubbed his forehead.
“That can only make it worse, Lance. It doesn’t matter. The picture alone is grounds. You get rid of him, or I’ll get rid of you. Suspend the kid if you want for taking the picture.”
“If I fire Romano I can’t really suspend the kid. I’ll be too short-handed.”
“Put him on probation then,” Randolph said, falling back into his chair and restoring order to his desk. “Tell him one slipup in the next six months and he’s out. Make sure he knows we mean business.”
PUDGE Romano blamed himself for the mistake. He said as much to his wife and friends, who were stunned by his temporary lapse in protocol, though they knew he was dead on his feet at the time. If Romano owned a thought that told him Webster egregiously undermined his career it didn’t surface until he began searching for new work. Between a downturned economy and word-of-mouth news of his behavior, two weeks of pounding Linville’s pavement brought him no closer to a steady paycheck.
It was his wife who offered a solution.
“Why don’t you become a private detective? You have experience, and it wouldn’t take much in terms of equipment,” she said. “We can survive on my salary for a few months without dipping into savings much.”
“I’m afraid there wouldn’t be much work in this town, Honey,” Pudge said. “Lost dogs and cheating husbands.”
“Well, its work isn’t it? What’s it matter if the client’s paying.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“I haven’t told you this, but I’m in line for a promotion at the bank. That would help, yes?”
“Sure it would. What’s the job?”
“Mr. DeWitt asked me if I’d be interested in training as an assistant manager. Might mean some after-hours for a few weeks. He’s in charge of personnel.”
“Sounds like a good opportunity,” Pudge said. He smiled, attempting to mask his disappointment in his own prospects.
By the next week, Romano was practicing surveillance by tailing Rick Webster in his off hours. It was halfway through a fifth of Jack Daniels on Saturday night that he felt it was time to confront his former colleague. Webster was making time with Sally Harper, a single girl with a less-than-stellar reputation, in the parking lot of a bar named “Gill’s” when Romano staggered up to Webster’s truck.
“Pudge. Long time. How’s it going?”
“Pshhtt. How do you think it’s going, you back-stabbing son-of-a-bitch?” Romano said, leaning against the side of an adjacent car. “I gotta know just one thing. One thing.”
“What is it? I’m kinda busy here.”
“You’re busy? You… you piss-ant. Get out of your fruck and tace me.”
“Damn Pudge, you’re drunk,” Webster said, after dropping down boots-first from his full-sized truck’s cab. “Did you say tase you?”
“You know what I meant.”
“I know what I heard.”
With that said, Webster zapped Romano with the oddly-squared gun he was hiding behind his wrist and forearm. The oversized man crumbled to the pavement, twitching.
“Just gonna end up like Bill Avery, aren’t you?” Webster said. “The force is better off without your ass.”
Ten minutes later, lying in his urine-soaked jeans, Romano was picked up by Linville police officer Bill Walker. But not before his presence in the parking lot had drawn a crowd. Under the circumstances, and after checking with Chief Chaney, Walker drove his friend home. There would be no arrest for public intoxication.
Laura, Romano’s 15-year-old daughter, met them at the door. She’d put her two younger siblings to bed. Her mother was not yet home from work, though the bank had closed at 2 p.m. Pudge’s head snapped with the news.
“What did you say?”
She faced her father, but said nothing more.
Walker then helped his sobering friend into a much-needed shower.
Pudge Romano vowed to never drink again, and said as much to his pastor at church Sunday. But from Saturday night to Monday morning he was the talk of Linville, all of his “circumstances” combined: posing with Bill Avery’s corpse, unable to get a job, now taking to drinking, and in his mind, a wife on the loose. The sentiment ranged from either “how tragic” to “he’s a bum” and the attitudes became a current that was building to a tidal wave.
Laura Romano was first exposed to it in second period English. “Heard about your drunk father pissin’ himself, Laura.”
“Your dad is a loser. He spoke to my scout troop once. What a joke.”
She excused herself from class, and once alone, had a good cry.
At lunch she chose a table at the far end of the room, hoping to be anonymous. It wasn’t long before a group of hecklers pointed her out and began walking her way.
“There she is,” one boy said. “Kid-of-the-drunk – Pudge Romano.
“Been on Instagram today?” another said. “Great pic.”
“I’d think you’d be drinking your lunch,” said a third, as the crowd laughed.
“Stop it! Don’t you have anything better to do? It’s shameless,” a tall boy said, stepping between her table and group. “Leave her alone or I’ll get the principal. You’ll all get D-hall… or expelled.”
“Jimmy Avery. Why are you defending her?” one said.
“Well, ya’ll deserve each other. That’s for sure,” said another.
“Just get lost. Who do you think you are?” Jimmy said.
When the crowd dispersed, Jimmy turned and faced Laura. “May I?” he asked.
“Thanks,” he said, folding his legs into the cafeteria table. “I’m sorry that had to happen. You don’t deserve it.”
She looked at him. She was tired, her brown eyes solemn, relaxed, and unfocused. He’d always known who she was. He’d watched her blossom into an adorable young woman, but, a grade apart, they’d never struck up a friendship.
“Well, if I do deserve it, it would be from you. Not anybody else, I don’t think. I’m sorry about what happened to your father.”
Jimmy looked down at his lap, then up again.
“He gave up a long time ago. The other night was just the last step… but thank you.”
“How’s your grandmother holding up?”
“Not too well. She’s hurting.”
“Is she reading her Bible?”
“That’s all she does.”
“She’ll be ok then. It’ll just take some time.”
One side of his face was lifted by a half smile.
“Would you… would you mind if I walked you home after school?” he asked.
“I’d like that.”
CHIEF Chaney opened the journal that’d sat on his desk since the morning after Bill Avery’s suicide. He’d been too busy with the winds of discontent to take the time. He’d watched Avery through the years. Like so many, Chaney had never been unkind, yet, had never helped. He knew Avery drank in the afternoons, often staggering home, sometimes staying out late. He occasionally was found passed out in the unpleasant nooks and crannies of downtown.
There were hundreds of entries in the journal, sometimes just a few lines, a line space, then the next entry.
He doesn’t understand,
He doesn’t ever judge.
He reaches upward for my hand,
’Cause all he wants is love.
We’re the last to see the sunset,
These friendly rails and I,
Which hum to warn of danger,
Long ’fore the eye can spy.
These woods they shelter fully,
From slights, and jokes, and lies.
That follow me insistently,
Not a single tear I cry.
Sometimes he’d write about events he’d witnessed. One entry in particular caught Chaney’s interest. Its date just a few months prior.
“I am Muff Potter, just not framed by Injun Joe. Who would believe me about anything? I see Rick Webster selling drugs most every night. WHEN HE WAS GOING TO THE POLICE ACADEMY. He’d be in the bars bragging about it. “Oh, I’m going to stop,” he’d say. I saw him selling uppers to Pete Tanner, not long after Pete killed Dad. I’ve seen him selling since becoming a cop… laughing and joking. He has a stash somewhere.”
Chaney turned to Avery’s final entry, entitled For Giving.
For the joyous and final sin my Lord,
For every one that came before,
For failing as a father,
For failing as a son,
For failing each and every one,
For being a fool when opportunity was bountiful,
Chaney closed the book and picked up the phone.
“Judge McGrath, please,” he said. “Randy? Lance. I need a search warrant pal, pronto.”
© 2015 Andrew Spradling