© 2017 by Bill Murphy
It was a most unsettling dream. The penitent is nervous and hesitant as he enters the confessional booth. His back is toward you, so you cannot see his face. He carries a small stack of books and a notebook in his arms. From what little you see of him, you assume he’s a student, or teacher. As he begins to kneel he fumbles with the books and several fall noisily to the floor. From the other side of the screen, you see the priest, also from the back. He yanks his face toward the screen, angrily shouting at the man, questioning the noise and profane confusion caused by the dropping books. Back to the penitent and still viewing him from the back, his face is still obscure. But you feel his shock at what he is hearing from the irate priest. Now back to the priest, his angry (unseen) face is inches from the screen. His tirade continues, shouting at the man on the other side of the ornate screen. Again to the penitent, who raises himself, his face also within inches of the screen. Anger has welled within him, distorting his unseen face. Now you see the wooden screen, inches from your eyes, as you would see it by either priest or penitent. But you know not what side of the screen you’re on. You study it, pondering, questioning – when suddenly the scene is shattered by an ear splitting gunshot – and the confession booth screen is splattered with blood. Shocked awake by the gruesome, impossible image, Doug Hastings’ whole body body quakes. Deeply disturbed by the vision, he sat up in bed, his sweaty face in his trembling hands. “Not again,” he muttered to himself. “Not again.”
Doug Hastings waited until 10 the next morning to make the call. By that time he’d done his homework. He learned that the chief of police of their little town of Glenn Meadow, population just under 10,000, had spent 18 years in the detective division of the St. Louis Police Department, before ‘retiring’ to Glenn Meadow. “I’m thankful to be here,” he’d said. “Police work here is like retirement compared to St. Louis!” Perfect. He’d know what he was doing.
Doug didn’t explain why he was calling, only that he needed to speak with the Police Chief. “Anytime after 2 or 2:30,” the voice said. The Chief would be in a meeting all morning.
The Police Department was on Main Street, a typical mid-american downtown and showing it’s age. On a glass storefront window in the 3rd block of the 5 block central downtown area, gold leaf lettering in block type proclaimed GLENN MEADOW POLICE DEPARTMENT. He parked two doors down, and walked back to the entrance.
The office was not exactly what he’d expected. It still had the look and feel of the 1920s when the building was completed. It was perhaps 30 feet wide at most. The rear wall had two doors hiding who knew what. The ceiling was a least 12 feet high, and was covered in ornate metal tiles as per that time period. A single open door on the shiplap wall to the left revealed a stairway leading to the floors above. Various calendars, dry-erase boards, cork boards, photographs, and a few merit awards covered the walls. A wall to wall counter was set back a few feet from the front wall. On the other side of the counter and behind a cluttered desk, sat a large man of around 60. He had a rugged Clint Eastwood look. But this man was completely bald, and smiling broadly.
“May I help you?” he asked.
YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS BUT –
“Yes, I certainly hope so. I’m Doug Hastings. I called you this morning.”
“Oh yes,” said the chief, rising from his chair. “Chief Burns, Harvey Burns. Nice to meet you. Most folks around here are more casual than you may be accustomed to,” he said. “Just call me Harvey.”
He walked to the front counter and raised a small walk-through section, allowing Doug to enter the office proper. “You were a bit vague when we spoke this morning, so let’s hear what you have to say.” He motioned for Doug to have a seat.”
“Well,” Doug began, “I’m here on an official matter, and I’d be a lot more comfortable calling you Chief Burns, if that’s OK with you.”
“If that makes you happy, it makes me happy.” The Chief leaned back in his chair. “What say we start at the beginning.”
Doug intwined his finger across his chest, breathing deeply, he hardly knew where to begin. “I’m a writer.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’ve lived here in Glenn Meadow just over 3 years now.”
“I know that also,” replied the Chief.
“That’s good. I’m glad you’re on top of things. That’s what I need. That what’s Glenn Meadow needs.” Now the Chief leaned forward, interested.
“I came here, to Glenn Meadow, to write. I love the small town, laid back, uncomplicated atmosphere. It’s very conducive to thinking clearly – and writing.” Doug paused to gather his thoughts again. “Writer’s get their inspiration from many places. I get some of mine from dreams. I dream every night. I always have. My dreams are vivid, active – often a strange jumbled up mixture of people, places, and events from my life. You might say that some are Alice In Wonderland like with their confused content.” The Chief sat back, somewhat confused himself as to where this might be heading.
“A couple of months after moving here, I had a dream – a dream about a murder. You don’t have very many murders around here do you?” asked Doug.
“Hardly,” said the Chief, “Let’s see – we’ve had 2 – in the last 8 or 9 years.”
Doug slid a thin file folder across the table to the Chief. “Skim over this for a moment and see if you recognize anything.”
It was the rough draft of short story written by Doug entitled, “A Small Domestic Murder.” Doug had omitted the date. Chief Burns read. After a few moments, he pushed the folder back to Doug.
“Excellent writing. Really. It’s not only engaging and interesting – but I recognize it as being the Franklin murder, several years back – when Paul Franklin killed his wife in a fit of jealousy.”
“Are the details correct?” asked Doug.
“Spot on,” replied the Chief.
“I wrote that before the murder,” said Doug.
“Ok. I see where this is going. It’s an old scenario. It’s happened before. A writer writes a story – some misguided soul reads the story and acts out the crime – and the writer bears the responsibility for ‘causing‘ the crime. It’s not your fault Mr. Hasting. It’s not! Paul Franklin acted on his own accord.”
“I waited until now to tell you the whole story. Otherwise you’d probably have laughed me right out of here. You see, Chief, yes – I did write this story before the murder. I wrote it based upon a dream I’d had. I wrote it, and did my own first proof-reading. But Chief Burns, these words were still on my computer, unpublished, and seen by no other eyes but my own – before Paul Franklin shot his wife! I’ve never let anyone, other than you, see this story.”
Chief Burns stared blankly at Doug for a long, heavy moment before speaking. “Before?”
“From a dream?”
“And no one else knew?”
“No. I swear.”
“There’s more,” said Doug. “Here’s another folder. It describes the Clark murder of last year. It was written the same way, under identical circumstances, and also never seen by other eyes until today.” Then he pushed the second folder across the table. And Chief Burns read.
He only read a few pages before pushing them back to Doug. “Do you really expect me to believe your story? Really?”
“I hope so,” said Doug. “I certainly hope so. Another life may depend on it!”
Doug leaned forward, his eyes staring intently into the Chief’s eyes. Then he spoke, his soft voice heavy with sincerity. “You see, I had another dream last night. I saw another murder. And I don’t want another person to die – not because I dreamed it. I will not write this story, and I refuse to. But – and this is what frightens me – I’m afraid NOT to do something, – something to – to – prevent this dream from becoming real also! But I can’t do it alone. I don’t know how. Only you can help – help me – and help Glenn Meadow. Help me save the life of some hapless soul.”
“Mr. Hastings, it appears you leave me no option.”
The Chief walked over to the dry-erase board and wiped it clean. “Let’s see. And he began writing at the top – CONFESSIONAL BOOTH – a wide space then – PRIEST – followed by – MAN WITH BOOKS. In smaller lettering under the books heading he made a column beginning with ‘student,‘ and followed by ‘teacher, librarian, bookseller, editor/publisher, avid reader.’
“Can you think of any more?” asked the Chief.
“Writer. Writers are associated with books.”
“Are you adding yourself to the list, Mr. Hastings?”
“It appears so, doesn’t it.”
The Chief then stepped to the left, under Priest, and began another column. ‘priest, any minister, any catholic, religious fanatic.‘ He turned to Doug, asking, “What else?”
“Altar boy.” They both chuckled.
Moving to the confessional booth heading, the chief paused. “I’m kinda at a loss here. Were you aware that there’s no Catholic Church in Glenn Meadow? Not a one. Not in 20 miles of here. So, does it mean a Catholic Church – or any church? If it means a real Catholic Church, your crime scene won’t be from around here!” Both men stared at the chart for long moments.
“As for the booth screen, is it some symbol of separation – an extreme difference between the two viewpoints, two individuals, two directions? Or maybe ‘guilt.’ It could represent guilt. Isn’t confession a means of ridding oneself of guilt? Any idea?”
“Not really,” said Doug. “I wish I did.”
For the moment, the confessional booth column remained blank. “What say we start where we might have the best chance of success, in the books column,” said the Chief. “I’ve a feeling this search should center close to home, so the education area of our search shouldn’t be all that difficult, as there is only one school here in Meadow Glenn, K thru 12.” The Chief glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Hmmm, 3:30. The last classes were dismissed at 3:15. Let’s give the halls a few more minutes to clear before we go. Let’s go the Bird.”
They walked across the street to the Red Bird Diner and enjoyed a slow cup of coffee. “Zeke Boykin’s the principal of the school. You’ll like him. He’s got his act together.”
“So you’re not thinking he might have a trigger finger?”
“Definitely not!” remarked the Chief, “Not Zeke. He wouldn’t hurt a flea.”
“Ted Bundy fooled a lot of folks, for a lot of years,” said Doug, and took another sip from his cup.
“And – YOU. You could just be covering your tracks – hiding in plain sight – working the system.”
The school building was huge – and old – yet clean and well maintained. Doug was impressed. A brass plaque in the hallway next to a trophy case proclaimed the structure was dedicated in 1937. A large doorway, sans door, opened into a large office. A deep counter stretched almost from wall to wall. A small space on the left allowed access deeper into the office. No one was behind the counter, and none at the desk to the right. Filing cabinets and various office machines lined the walls. On the back wall were 3 doors, offices for the principals – Kindergarten, Grammar Grades 1 thru 6, and Senior Grades 7 thru 12. Zeke Boykin was principal of the senior grades and also Senior-Principal. His door was open, and he was on the phone. He didn’t appear to notice the two men – or appear to be enjoying this phone call.
The Chief and Doug waited behind the front counter. They heard the sound of the receiver on the cradle. The principal sat at his desk, his head in his hands, his fingers rubbing his tired eyes. Then he looked up. “For crying out loud. What’d she do – call YOU before she called me?” The principal was clearly agitated.
“Whoa, Zeke. What’s going on? Nobody’s called me,” said the Chief.
“That James woman. Timmy James’ mother. She didn’t call you?”
“No. She didn’t. Why? Why should she?”
“It’s a long story, a crazy store, a stupid, typical ‘James’ story. So – why are you here?”
“Well – that’s a long story too,” responded the Chief. “But first, what’s up with Jeanette James?”
“That’s gotta be the most paranoid woman in Brent County. At least once a month I get a call about something else ‘fishy’ she claims is going on at school. There’s always something adversely affecting her darling Timmy. Last month it was gluten in the pancakes we serve in pre-school breakfast. The month before, our crayons are laced with toxic chemicals. Now she claims the new school custodian made what she called ‘goo-goo’ eyes at Timmy. What next?
“So you’re not concerned about it?” asked the Chief.
“Positively not. My only concern is that we’re facing 12 more years of Timmy’s mother around here! Now – what brings you to our fine temple of learning today? And, is this fellow here with you a gluten inspector or something?”
The Chief laughed hardily, as did Doug. “Sorry, I didn’t introduce you. Zeke, this is Doug Hastings. He’s fairly new to Meadow Glenn. He’s a writer. And Doug, meet Zeke Boykin – pardon, Dr. Ezekiel Boykin, senior principal of Glenn Meadow Academy.” The principal motioned for the two to have a seat.
“Zeke,” began the Chief, “I can’t go into any details at this time, but we think there might be plans in the works here in Glenn Meadow, to commit a serious crime. We have cause to suspect that the person involved might possibly be connected to education in some way. We’re wondering if you have any knowledge, however minor, however ‘out there,‘ of any suspicious goings on lately?”
“No. Not that I can think of. Nothing. Nothing that is – except for Jeanette James.”
The Chief looked over at Doug, then back toward the principal. “I think we can rule out Jeanette.” Then the chief remembered something. “Zeke, didn’t you mention a new school custodian? What happened to Mr. Lyle? He’s been here for as long as I can remember.”
“That’s the problem Chief,” replied the principal. “His age. And his health. He’s been sick a lot lately. Some weeks he could only manage 2 or 3 days here at most. 3 weeks ago, he finally retired – 5 years past retirement age.”
“I need to check in on him. He’s a good man, always so kind, so generous,” said the Chief.
“And the darnedest thing,” continued the principal with his story, “The day after Mr. Lyle’s little retirement party, in walks Ben Nicholson, looking for work. Heaven-sent, I’d say. The best worker who ever walked on two feet.”
“So, tell me about him,” asked the Chief.
“Really not much to tell. He’s new to the area. ‘Claims he’s looking for a place to settle. He’s – 49 according to his application papers, hails from out west, on the coast, a small town south of Portland. ‘Says he has no family to speak of, never married, and lost his home repair business due to a careless employee – resulting in a law suit.”
“Can I get a copy of those papers?” asked the Chief.
“Sure. Just say the words ‘police business‘ and I’ll feel better about it. You know how I am Harvey, just trying to follow the rules.” They both chuckled. “May I have a copy of your new custodian’s employment application – for police business?”
The principal stood, and walked over to the center filing cabinet. Pulling out the second drawer, he thumbed through a few folders, then pulled out a thin file. “Just a sec and I’ll have your copies for you.”
The Chief and Doug stood, preparing to leave. The copies ejected from the printer, and Zeke handed them to the Chief. Looking over the freshly printed copies, the Chief made a hurried scan. “Nothing indicates religious preference. Don’t you folks ask that?”
“No. It shouldn’t matter. Should it?”
“Guess not,” the Chief replied. “You don’t suppose he’s – catholic – do you?”
“Don’t know,” said the principal, “He never said. I never asked.”
“Thanks, Zeke. Say hello to Mildred for me, OK?” said the Chief.
On the drive back to Police Headquarters, the Chief made his pitch.
“So – Mr. Doug Hastings – are you ready to get into this little investigation with both feet?”
“I’m all in Chief. 100%”
“Good! You’re a writer. And writers research.” The Chief paused for a long moment. “Researchers do most of their researching on their butts in front of a computer. Now I’m best on my feet. On the street. Face to face with real flesh and blood people.” He paused again, as if to allow Doug to digest what he was saying. “So, Mr. Hastings, I’m suggesting that you do your investigating at headquarters. And – with the law enforcement sites we have access to – you’ll be surfing files few civilians ever see. Whata ya say?”
“As I said Chief. I’m all in.” They agreed to begin the next day.
DOWN TO WORK
Doug arrived at the station at 10, as Chief Burns asked. “G-morning, Doug. Ready to get your hands dirty?”
“Ready. Just tell me what you want me to do – what direction in which to look. And – am I allowed to have my coffee mug within reach?”
“First things first pardner. We have a bit of ‘official business’ to take care of first. I did a small bit of research myself – on you – and I see that you’re a US citizen, honorably discharged from the Marine Corps – and have no arrest record or outstanding warrants. So – what I need to know is – is your record still clean – as of this moment.”
“Squeaky clean. Actually, I’m a rather boring fellow. Ask my dates, what few of them there are.”
“Good. Then raise your right hand.”
“So I can deputize you.”
“Is that necessary?”
“Somewhat. It’s a precaution, a technicality – so I won’t get my butt in trouble for giving you access to some of the files you’ll be rummaging through. Just call it police business.” Doug dutifully raised his hand and was sworn in by the Chief.
“Do I get a badge?” asked Doug.
“This is Glenn Meadow, not the wild west. If you want a badge, you can get one at Dollar General. Toy section.”
The Chief instructed Doug on the ins and outs of proper police protocol, how to log onto the computer he’d be using, a few other passwords he’d need, which sites might prove to be the most useful, and where to add files concerning their investigation. It was a lot to take in. Several times Doug asked refresher questions, but slowly, he was beginning to get the hang of it, and the ‘police way’ of doing things. Soon it was lunchtime. They walked across the street to The Bird. “Is lunch on the city’s tab?” asked Doug, a big grin on his face.
“Don’t push your luck buster. But maybe we can score a donut at Danny’s later this afternoon.” The Blue Plate Special at The Blue Bird Cafe was truly remarkable. Both men ate hungrily, in silence. Both cleaned their plates. The Chief picked up the tab.
Back at their desks, Doug got down to work. Using the custodian’s employment application copies, he got to work. On the first site of his search, he typed in NICHOLSON, BENJAMIN ROBBIN, the custodian’s name. The work was slow, at least Doug was slow with the work. He was, after all, on a learning curve. He was meticulous, careful. At first, he thought he must be doing something wrong. He didn’t want to ask the Chief for help, not wanting to appear incompetent. He took another track. But this too hit a dead end where there should have been no dead end. By his third attempt, from yet another direction, he still came up empty. He pushed back from the desk, and turned toward the Chief. “Houston – we have a problem.”
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
“What’s the matter Doug?”
“This application, or rather Benjamin Robbin Nicholson – is bogus.”
“He doesn’t appear to exist.”
“How about the Social Security Number?” asked the Chief.
“Belongs – or maybe belonged to – a Randal Boyd Johnson, listed as a missing person, missing for the past 12 years.”
“Missing from where?” “Chicago.”
“You suppose that’s our janitor?”
“No way. Mr. Johnson’s taller, far younger – and black.”
“Dig a little deeper into this Johnson fellow. Look at the missing persons reports. That might give us a link to Nicholson, or whoever he is.” Doug continued to search. But his search lead nowhere.
Their school custodian was definitely hiding something. He stared at the screen until his eyes burned. His back ached. He was on his 4th mug of coffee. But nothing.
The while researching missing persons for the 3rd time, something caught his eye, the word ‘priest.’ How catholic could you get shy of the pope.
“Got something,” exclaimed Doug. A priest by the name of Father Fredrick Boyd Givings was reported missing also. He too was reported missing from upstate Illinois.
By 3 PM he was thoroughly searched out. He turned to the Chief. “We need to talk with our bogus janitor. Something’s definitely not kosher.”
The Chief agreed. He made a call to the school. “Hello, Gloria. Is Principal Boykin available?” There was a long pause. “Hello Zeke. Say – we’ve been doing a little research into your new custodian, and we’ve found some a few suspicious things on his application. I’d like to come back out to the school later this afternoon, and chat with him. Being the school custodian, I assume he’d be there until – what – maybe 4 or 4:30?” There was long silence, as the principal responded. “Great. Say around 4:30. It shouldn’t take long. And Dean, don’t tell him I called, or that I’m coming,” the Chief said. “There’s no need to put him on the defensive unnecessarily. Thanks Zeke. We’ll see you at 4:30.”
The Chief turned to Doug, satisfied that they now might be making progress in this the strangest of cases. “Zeke says they’re having a middle school basketball tournament beginning at 6:30 tonight, so they’ll be at the school for the duration. He says that from 4 until around 5 or so, he and the custodian should be the only ones at the school, getting ready. The coaches and players will be going home for supper before 4.”
“Does that mean I can have a break from the eye-strain machine?” asked Doug.
“Sure. Stop and have a cup of coffee.” Then the Chief walked over to a large metal cabinet on the side wall. Unlocking the cabinet, he removed a holstered revolver. He checked the weapon to assure that it was loaded, then removed a small box of extra shells from a upper shelf. Turning to Doug he said, “Here Mr. ex-Marine. Strap this on. If necessary, I’m sure you know how to use it.”
“I’d rather have the badge instead,” replied Doug, “but if you insist.”
THE TRUTH REVEALED
The two men arrived at the school at 4:30. The building appeared empty, eerily silent. They proceeded to the office to meet with the principal, but the offices were empty. They walked toward the gym. Still 20 or more yards from the gym, they heard the sound of voices. It didn’t sound like a pleasant, chit-chat conservation.
The voices were not shouting, but were distinctly harsh. The Chief stopped, and placing a hand on Doug’s shoulder, ushered him back to the corner they’d just rounded. The Chief spoke in hushed tones, “I don’t know what’s going on in there, probably nothing, but let’s split up. You continue on down the hall to the second intersection. That’ll lead you to a short hallway with an outside door. Walk down the outside of the gym, and you’ll find a back door, 2 actually. Go in the second door. It leads into a hallway which parallels the rear wall of the gym. If you’re careful, you can peek around the inside door and keep an eye on the goings on inside. Now go!”
With that, the Chief continued toward the door and the voices – voices which now sounded much more calm. Not wanting to make the custodian unduly suspicious, the Chief chose to enter the gym peacefully, casually, and with his weapon holstered. He took a deep breath, and pushed open the door.
“Oh – hi Chief. What are you doing here?” asked the principal.
“Hello Zeke. Looks like you’re getting ready for a ball game. This won’t take long. I just wanted to chat a moment with your new custodian, Mr. Nicholson.”
The custodian stood still for a long moment. His coloring seemed to change before their eyes.
His face paled to a chalky white, then slowly reddened until it was almost glowing. Slowly, he took a small step back, his arms dangling by his sides, as if useless. His lips quivered, muttering something under his breath which sounded like ‘no, no, no.’ His head dropped downward, until his chin nearly touched his chest. He presented the image of a crushed and shattered wretch. He appearance was one of total defeat.
Then began twisting his body, right then left, slowly at first, then repeating the motion over and over – his arms still dangling. Now as his arms swung loosely to and fro, his hands traced a slow and stead arc from side to side. The arm on the back swing, each time disappeared behind his back. He continued to mutter, “No – no -no,”
Chief Boykin was about to speak when – In the blink of an eye, the man’s head jerked erect. Just as suddenly, both men were staring down the barrel of an ugly black pistol.
“I – I suppose I always knew the end would come,” he said. “I guess it had to. But why now? Why when life was so peaceful here – so happy?”
“Why should it have to end?” asked the Chief.
“Because you – you – you county mounty – would soon uncover my whole nasty story, that’s why. Something told me not to come here. I shoulda listened.”
“Look, Ben – can I call you Ben? A little bogus employment application is really no big deal, not at all. What can be the worst that could happen? Zeke would probably fire you and send you packing. – maybe you’d lose a few weeks pay. That’s it. Come on – relax man.”
“Just pointing this gun at you, that means jail time, and we both know it. Let’s not kid ourselves officer. Then you’d really dig up the dirt on me – the truth – the dirty, nasty truth.”
“Then will you answer one question that’s been bugging me?” asked the chief, “Are you catholic?”
The custodian laughed. “You’re jerking me around, aren’t you? You KNOW I’m catholic! And you probably know that I was a priest for crying out loud! You know. It was stupid of me to use Randal’s social security number, that was my big downfall. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t. It was a way of feeling close to him again. Oh how I loved that man, that dirty, scheming, cheating, worthless man. He tried to blackmail me he did! He didn’t love me, he was using me, the worthless tramp! But I still loved him – why?”
“Where’s Randal now?” asked the Chief.
“Naperville. Naperville, Illinois. They were building a sidewalk at the apartments where I lived, around in back, out to the new trash dumpsters. They had the ground all dug up, and the wooden forms in place. I dug his grave in the sidewalk. It took me most of the night to do it. Man oh man was that work – almost as much as it was strangling him. But I got him in, and smoothed over the surface. No one knew any better the next day – when they poured the sidewalk. I guess he’s still there.”
The Chief and Dean Boykin looked at one another. “And you two are one more mess I’m forced to clean up.”
Suddenly the custodian raised the weapon directly toward Chief Burn’s head.
Instantly a shot rang out from across the room. A strange look crossed the custodian’s face, his knees buckled, then he toppled to the floor.
“Chief! Chief, are you OK?” It was Doug, running towards them.
“Nice shot deputy Hastings!” exclaimed the Chief, a look of pure relief on his face. The principal stood trembling, trying to restrain the strong impulse to empty his bladder.
“Paul, if you hadn’t taken that shot when you did, I’d be a goner right now. Thanks.”
“If I’d had my Marine rifle, I could‘ve shot the gun out of his hand instead. But it’s been years since I shot at anything – and pistol’s aren’t accurate,” he said, looking at the small weapon in his trembling hand. “I needed a larger target.”
“Not to worry Doug. You didn’t kill a man today – you saved 2 – you saved me – and my friend Zeke. Hey, you might get that badge after all!”
The Chief was reaching to shake Doug’s hand when he paused, “You also cleared up a mystery today deputy.” The chief made a sweeping motion with his hand, toward where the priest lay crumpled on the floor. “There’s your priest. And – it looks like you were the book-toting repentant shooter after all!”