Friday, 7 January 2011


Wolf Moon over Youngstown

My workload jumped a notch when our resident film critic decided to pursue a degree in culinary arts at YSU. The publisher is an ancient, tightfisted soul who believes staff should be willing to “roll up their sleeves,” which is Frank Felice’s euphemism for “work for free.”

He stopped by my desk to congratulate me as the Trib’s new film critic starting this weekend with the Dreck at the mall cineplex. The films were about teenaged angst, teenaged mischief, or were the standard teenaged stabathons of the Jason Vorhees variety.

“Do I get Monesmith’s salary with it?”
That was rhetorical. I’d be lucky to get the cost of the tickets reimbursed.
“How’s that anniversary story coming?”
“I’m seeing her this afternoon,” I said. Besides crime beat, I do human-interest stuff.

If it weren’t for Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik giving rust-belt Youngstown something to cheer about at the Chevrolet Center, we’d be out in the streets restoring our lost reputation as the Murder Capital of America. Frank actually liked the old days when a “Youngstown tune-up” meant a few bucks in the morning by starting a gangster’s car for him in his driveway. The Mahoning Valley Tribune wasn’t exactly in the vanguard of a crimebusting, and he made a fortune with corrupt city officials to keep it that way.

My own standards have slipped lower than a gangbanger’s pants. When I lost my real newspaper job, I started over by patching up my marriage with Libby and quitting the late-night boozing. The hack work was one thing I stopped fighting. I can do Virgin Mary sightings without a whiff of sarcasm. But going along and getting by are never good enough if you ever had big dreams of making it in your profession.

The nursing home where they installed Mary Huberty was just outside Boardman. It’s a snobby township cultivating a rustic, faux Tudor appeal to Youngstowners with dough. The urban sprawl makes it seem lost amid the strip malls and fashion emporia. The recession has hit here too, though. You see lots of For Sale signs in the windows and the upscale deli has been converted to a working-class diner where the robust smell of steamed onions reached me all the way to the parking lot.

The first thing that surprised me was her age. Frank had me thinking she was an old woman but she was only 45. She sat hunched over in a wheelchair by the window. She was bone-thin. Her hair was a dusty battleship gray. A sliver of drool glistened from the corner of her mouth. The supervisor stepped in front of me to wipe Mary’s chin with a Kleenex.

“There’s someone from the paper to see you, Mary!”
Mary’s head bobbed on its thin stem of neck. She gurgled.
“Mary! Someone came to visit you, sweetheart!”

The supervisor turned her wheelchair around. I reminded myself of my pledge not to wind up in a place like this. I once investigated these kinds of facilities and discovered there’s a 70 percent chance you will if you do not have three daughters. Mary was childless. I tell Libby I’ll do her with a Louisville slugger and use a gun on myself. Libby doesn’t take me seriously.

Mary moved her head a tiny bit. It was like watching a sloth come out of a coma.
I introduced myself in short sentence. Frank’s description also omitted the fact that she was this mentally incapacitated.

“Look,” the supervisor said. She swept a lock of Mary’s hair back. The small white scar that dipped below her hairline near the temple zigzagged across her scalp; it was like a map where a spiderweb of trickles becomes a wide river at the estuary.
I stuck my notebook inside my pocket, thanked her and left.
Felice, you moron...

Outside the mingling aromas from the diner whetted my appetite. Nothing like the scent of human decay to arouse the old limbic brain: Eat, fight, flee, do the Wango Tango—messages from that glob at the top of the spine into the neocortex for processing into politer social interactions.

I reached Van Robinson’s voicemail and offered to buy him supper at MacGoine’s.
“Supper” is a euphemism for the mixed beverages served at Van’s favorite bar. Lieutenant Robinson was my best source, and he was the only cop who did not dump me when I lost my job at the big paper across town. Van was a detective sergeant back then.

He laughed when I told him what happened.
“What the hell did you think? The shooter sprayed the windshield with an assault rifle. We picked up spent shells for an hour.”
“No motive?”
“No nothing,” Van said. The memory coming back caused him to grunt. “Zilch-point shit on everything. Near as we can say, the shooter must have had an encounter—”
“Road rage, something—we don’t know. She couldn’t say. The doctors who did the surgery said her brain was so swollen they had to split the skull to ease the pressure. She was three months in a coma.”

It’s hard to imagine even during Youngstown’s bloodiest days: two cars on a freeway at night going south toward Canfield on Route 11. It’s late, there’s little traffic. A southbound exit is a thousand feet from the shoulder. Sodium arc lights on the overpass, reflector poles leading to the exit. Visibility that night was good. A full moon, Van said. A February moon is the wolf moon.

The husband and wife have just come from Lowe’s where they bought two hundred dollars’ worth of shelving and brackets shaped like plaited rope for their kitchen. They pass the Beeghley Center at the college and turn right down Market. One car bumps another from behind. The car stops to check damage. The driver of car two opens up on the Hubertys. The highway is littered with .9 mm rounds, 115-grain capacity slugs, from an assault rifle. Gerald is shredded. Mary recovers but her brain is pulpified and she is sent to the county home as a ward of the state. In two days it will be the seventh anniversary of the shooting. For seven years she has sat in a wheelchair during daylight hours and stared out a window.

“So it’s still an open case?”
“We’re actively pursuing all leads,” Van said and burped. The case would stay open until the heavens fell. I ordered him another Horse’s Neck.
“Prosit,” Van said.
I clinked with my club soda. “Anybody you liked for it?”
“About two dozen possibles,” he said. Sensational crimes bring out the loonie-tunes. “Nobody we didn’t clear,” he said finally. “We went deep on the family, believe me. Me and my partner were approved to fly out to Nevada to interview a cousin. The city was all over our ass on this. The watch commander made it a red ball and gave us extra guys. Nothing. Well liked, kindly, decent people. Salt of the earth—if that means anything.”
“You link it to anything?”

I remembered other unsolved crimes. Cocaine had made its presence felt in bars and nightclubs. Crack was eating the ghetto; then the scourge was all over the city: black tar heroin from Mexico, Ex for the raves from Amsterdam, and worst of all, the first wave of Nazi meth labs from central California.

Cops were so busy they almost had to overlook rednecks selling weed to the high schools. Thousands of men out of work, steel mills closing all over the Valley, no jobs that didn’t come with a blue smock and a Smiley face, or require you to point at pictures of hamburgers—it was a recipe for catastrophe. That was the time I had to pick to stop drinking.

Van thought about that for a moment. “We had some freeway shootings, some overpass rock throwers. Gangbangers, drivebys. Nutjobs. Nothing like this. It’s a mystery.” He savored the word as if it held a mystical note.
I reminded him about the prostitute murders.
“No connection,” he said. “Choke-and-dump jobs. Don’t get me started on that shit.”
“Could be a serial.”
“Screw you, serial.”

LaCresha Pettway’s body was discovered in rural Geauga County up north. Squirrel hunters found her remains a hundred yards from the body of Rhonda Byrd. Both were long gone to rotten and the decomp too advanced to reveal much. The same series of nicks were found on the spinal vertebrae of both.

The trouble was dead prostitutes started showing up in the wake of the crack epidemic all over Ohio. All crack whores, their clothes hiked up around their waists, some with faces pulverized, and several manually strangled. Pettway was the mother of four small children, the byblows of her wayward calling. The papers called them “Strawberry Girls,” borrowing Youngstown PD homicide slang.
Van downed the rest of his drink. “You sound like those TV-watching peanut heads who see serial killers under their beds.” Something in me still liked to watch a man enjoy that amber fluid, ambrosia of the gods.
Then Van dropped his bomb: “We liked your brother-in-law for a time for the Pettway thing.”
“My—what did you say?”

Three Horse Necks later I had all the details I was going to get off the record.
My brother-in-law Morty was a mope, a loser, and we cordially despised each other at the occasional family get-together. He worked as a machinist at the Sheet and Tube out of high school before it went under. He took odd jobs like fry cook or pizza delivery man. When I saw him, he was always looking for work or on the verge of some “breakthrough” that would make him a ton of money. He was also an equal-opportunity hater. He was fired from his last job because he refused to deliver to a house where he thought gays lived. He thought welfare mothers should have their wombs cauterized with acid.

Morty has these bulging eyes that remind me of a mackerel. His hair is always combed sleek at the crown, but it pops up in tufts. He asked the bartender for a beer chaser.

“So—the wife,” Morty said. “What did she say?”
“She didn’t say anything,” I said. “The poor thing’s brain is mush.”
“That’s a shame,” Morty said. He took a big swallow of whiskey and then downed half the beer.
“The cops still don’t know what happened,” I said. “Maybe a robbery gone bad.”
“Are you nuts? What kind of asshole does that? Not even a nig—not even a—you know, one of them—” He did a quick tattoo on his wrist with an index finger in case I missed his point—“not even one of them would do something that stupid.”
“Got to be a motive the police missed,” I said. “Somebody doesn’t just kill two innocent people in the middle of a highway for no reason at all.”
That night I called Van.
“Give me something to bait the hook with,” I pleaded.
“I could lose my job for talking to you about this,” he said.
“I’ve got to know whether he’s a sociopath or just the world’s biggest asshole for a brother-in-law,” I said.
“Ask him—ask him about the bumper sticker,” Van said.
“What bumper sticker?”
“The Hubertys had a sticker on the back window. It said ‘A Woman’s Right to Choose.’ You didn’t hear this from me.”

Something clicked. Morty’s pendulum swings between a point somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun all the way to the delicate sensibilities of the princess who complained about a pea under her mattress. I remembered an argument between him and Libby once. It was about why we had no children. My sperm count is abnormally low but Libby isn’t one to shout our marital woes from the rooftops. Morty accused us of being “selfish,” spoiled by our love of material possessions. I didn’t think much of it at the time—just another crackpot theory of my wife’s goofy brother.

At two in the morning the phone rang and kept ringing. The answering machine picked up but the caller left no message. Finally Libby got up and checked caller ID.
She punched some numbers. She said one word: “Morty.”
She turned to me. “He wants you to go over there.”
I got out of bed. “If I don’t call you back in one hour, call Van Robinson,” I said.
The trailer was a double-wide situated at the end of a cul-de-sac. The front door was wide open.

I walked in and confronted a mess. I had been inside it once when I helped him move in. The clutter he had accumulated since was beyond anything I had ever seen. Every conceivable space had something wedged into it. Chairs or tables were submerged under piles of junk. The next thing I was aware of was an olfactory assault that went straight through my brain—a rancid, disgusting reek that felt like a wall had caved in on me. The interior was dark except for the magma glow of a computer screen. I had to twist and turn my body through the debris to get to it. It was like being in a nightmare where you’re stuck in quicksand and something’s chasing you. Twice my foot went through something slushy before I extracted it. The screensaver was a fetus with its disassembled parts on a stainless steel table after a partial-birth abortion.

I waded down the corridor to the back bedroom. I called his name but no one responded. Before I was halfway there, I had to lean over to vomit. I couldn’t bend over very far so some of what I spewed up spattered against my leg, which was thigh-deep in some slurry of garbage.

I inched my way to the doorway. A small halo of light illuminated a nude form. I could barely discern Morty through the stacks of paper that stretched to the ceiling. He lay on his side in a fetal position, whimpering and sticking his fingers in his mouth. Biting his hand until it bled. The mattress was black and wet-looking and seemed to be squirming. It seethed with maggots.

“Morty,” I said.
“She—she told me those weren’t real babies,” he cried.
His great, bulging eyes looked black. “She said they were just tissue! Like Kleenex—like used Kleenex! Those were babies!” He made a moaning sound that rose up the scale like a wolf baying at the moon.
“Rhonda Byrd, LaCresha Pettway—” I began.
“Scum, whores, sluts! N-no business bringing in-nocent children into the world!”

His big body rocked on the mattress in spastic jerks like a man being electrocuted. He tried to tuck his legs closer to his belly. His skin appeared ghostly green. He kept twitching in that rocking motion like a giant baby cocooned in a green womb of bliss.

Blips of turquoise and cherry flashed between the slats of blinds against the far wall. I heard the shrill notes of caterwauling sirens in Doppler time. Two cruisers turned onto the winding entrance road of the trailer park. The sound grew louder until they ripped a hole in the night, but nothing could penetrate the walls of muck where I stood looking down in silence at Morty’s shimmering mass.

I dreaded going home to my wife.

Terry White lives in Northeast Ohio and has been publishing noir and hardboiled fiction for the last several years. Among his recent publications are stories in Yellow Mama, A Twist of Noir, Sex and Murder and “The Dog Returneth to His Vomit,” archived in TKnC. “The Frotteur in the Dark” was named one of the 6 Best Of stories for 2009 by 10,000 Tons of Black Ink.