A black morning. Early. Very way too. Black. Muggy. Rainy. Early. Early. Day two of 26-year career. The newspaperman gig. Already looking hard. Very way too.
Muted Hi to some Notre Dame guy doing the early morning cops rounds for the last time. Going on to a bigger paper on Long island. No more cop shops. No more Binghamton Evening Press. First, though, show the new kid the ropes. Introduce him to the cops. Then, for Long Island and all its iced tea.
Kid is nervous. Scared. Green as a goober. Newly graduated from college, newly married, newly thrust into unsheltered landscape of grownup reality. Tall, gangly. Brand new Sears trench coat. Wingtips. Green, three-piece herringbone suit. Green. Rookie get-up. Too heavy for mid-August. Kid’ll learn. Or he won’t.
You start ‘em on cops–on this day the cop shops in western Broome County. West Cops. They step into the Johnson City copper hive. Big men in white shirtsleeves. Guns clipped to belt. Smoking. Laughing. Above, life-sucking fluorescents. Throughout: faux wood paneling. A 1950s clubroom gone bad. Undoubtedly, scene of triple-murder in alternate universe.
Meets his first cop ever. Sour, hardened, mean. The desk sergeant. Hasn’t had a dream in thirty years, but a comb-over just this morning. A classic type. Of human being, not just cop. The first of many. Oh God, yes. Don’t like anything or anyone. Generally unhappy to be alive. Resolved to make the world pay for it.
Notre Dame guy hands him an overnight report. Man found dead. Adjacent to railroad tracks.
“See that?” Points a finger at a line in the report. “Guy had no head.”
“That one’s yours.” Notre Dame guy smirking. He can smell Long Island—which will turn out to be the problem. He’ll learn. Or he won’t.
Goober scribbles notes. Not nearly enough of them. Back to the city room. Writes up story on a Boer War-era typewriter. City editor reads. Not happy. Barrage of questions. Simple questions anyone not wearing wingtips would ask.
The Who: Dead guy–got an ident?
The Where: Railroad tracks. Lots of them out there, in case he hadn’t noticed. Pin it down.
The What: What the hell happened? Foul play? Drunk play? Chekov play?
The When: Last night came with 12 hours, in case he hadn’t noticed. Pin it down. Boss now talking in italics. Not good.
The How: Story says train de-headed the guy. Did cops say that? Or is that an assumption?
The Why: Can wait for second day follow. Meanwhile, find what happened to the guy’s head. Are they looking for it? Have they found it?
Kid gulps. Just one way to get those answers. Call Sergeant Friendly. First, visit the bathroom.
Sergeant not glad to hear goober’s voice. Sharp tongued, barren answers, bitten off like beef jerky. Doesn’t know squat about missing head. Relayed to city editor. Sharp tongued, more italics: “Call him back! Was the guy’s head severed by the train or by some other means?”
He calls. Gets blat of laughter. “Some other means? You mean like a gill-o-teen?”
Nine humiliating call-backs. Each response snottier than the last.
Bright side: Crucial but easy lesson learned on day two of 9,490 day newspaperman career. Dark side: Lesson learned the very hard way: Ask every question you can think of while you’re at the cop shop so you never have to call that undead, picklehead back.
Long time ago. Cop surely/hopefully dead by now. Notre Dame guy, who knows? All that iced tea. Forget it. Long time ago.
But then the trains call in the night. Terror still answers. Whole massacre comes back under only headline he remembers across all 26 years.
“Body Found Headless on Rails.”
©Patrick A. McGuire and A Hint of Light 2014, all rights reserved