By Ben Sumner
9/21/02 – 9/30/02
“Um… This is hard for me to say, so I’m just gonna say it. By the end of the month, we’re gonna have to let you go.”
Eddie Smith stared at his boss, George Duncan, editor of the Brenton County Gazette. Eddie had been working there for a year on the crime beat. The problem was, there wasn’t much crime in that farmers’ town and millionaire hideaway, where local yokels and 80-year-old Scrooges shared the road.
“Is this because of the Tucker incident?”
Not once did Duncan look Eddie in the eyes. The old man stared at his chubby, wrinkled hands, which were palm-down on his desk. “It’s… no… it’s… a number of things, and it’s not your fault. We’re making cuts, and you haven’t been here as long as the others.”
Even as he sat there, looking shocked, watching Duncan not look him in the eye, Eddie really wasn’t surprised. This scene had become all too familiar.
You fucking jerk, Eddie thought, but kept it to himself, thinking there might still be a chance to keep his job.
“So you’re giving me until the end of the month,” Eddie said. He had burnt a few bridges after being let go at other jobs in the past – including at the Daily Tribune – but there was something here that made him think he could stay on board.
“Uh, yes, the, uh, end of the month. Until then, you’ll be fully paid, plus the standard severance package outlined…” Duncan went scrambling for a sheet of paper in the open drawer. He placed it on the desk and pushed it toward Eddie. “…here.”
Eddie didn’t even look at it.
“George…” he said.
“Yes?” Duncan finally looked Eddie in the eyes for the first time that afternoon.
“I’m gonna take this as a final chance to improve my reporting. When you see this improvement, I want you to reconsider and keep me on staff.”
Now Duncan’s expression resembled the same shock that Eddie had when he heard that he would be let go.
“Uh, I don’t know if I can do that…”
You prick. “George, you’re already giving me a month. So I want to make a deal with you. When my reporting improves, you to keep me on staff.”
“But you’ve already been here a year…”
I want to slam your face into concrete. “Then why not get rid of me now? If I’ll be writing articles for the next few weeks, I want to have a reason to do the best I can. Give me some hope, will ya?”
“I’ll… I’ll think about it, Eddie. There may be a slight possibility that I can keep you on staff, but it really depends. It’s not just the quality of your reporting, it depends, you know, on the news.”
“The news… right.” Eddie stood, then walked out of the office.
The fucking news.
There wasn’t any. The Gazette should have never hired a reporter solely for the crime beat. Hardly anything happened in Brenton County worth writing about. And if something did happen, the news would spread by word of mouth, and it was usually more accurate than what he was permitted to report. When the DeLang brothers got caught smoking PCP behind the WalMart, word spread, and everyone knew. But when Eddie typed that up in his weekly crime brief column, Duncan took it out. The police arrested them, but never filed any charges. To Duncan, that wasn’t worth mentioning. Eddie certainly knew it wasn’t worth ink at a newspaper with a larger circulation, but in Brenton County, that was all there was for him to write about on any given day for the bi-weekly rag.
There were occasional break-ins, usually at stores in the poorer southern side of the county. Those went into the briefs, but closely resembled the Public Information Officer’s reports. There were bar fights, but they only made the column when someone was arrested and charged. There were domestic disputes, drunk drivers crashing their cars, deer shootings outside of hunting season, and other public misbehavior that helped keep him employed for the year.
A month earlier, some high school kids were caught tipping over cows at the Tucker farm. In a private conversation with Eddie, Glen Tucker insisted that three of the cows were killed in the incident. That’s what Eddie reported, but that wasn’t exactly what happened. Tucker had killed the cows himself because they were injured. The police knew that’s what happened, but Eddie reported what Tucker had said. The next evening, when the paper hit the driveways, the headline read, “Teens Kill Three Cows at Tucker Farm.”
Though the error didn’t mean much to the Brenton residents, who had heard what had actually happened before the papers were delivered to their houses, it was a huge problem at the office. Eddie didn’t attribute the claim to anyone, nor did he follow up with the police about Tucker’s testimony. That was the first time Eddie had ever heard Duncan raise his voice.
Not in his ten years of reporting had Eddie made such an error, though he had committed a few. To Eddie, screw-ups were unacceptable, even the slightest ones that readers didn’t care about. At his first job at the Cecil County Sentinel, he mixed up the positions of two high school football stars. But that wasn’t so unusual considering so many players lined up for more than one position during a game. Over the next eight years, he worked at five other papers, committing three minor errors during that time. That wasn’t bad for a young reporter, but his good reputation wasn’t enough to keep him on staff at the struggling newspapers.
It wasn’t until George Duncan hired him at the Brenton County Gazette did he feel he would be set in the same place for a while. Duncan said that there was plenty of room for promotion, and they would soon send him out on a number of other projects outside of his regular beat.
But that didn’t happen. Even if the Gazette had to make cutbacks, it was because of money, not because there wasn’t any news happening outside of the crime beat. There was never a shortage of ideas for feature articles. Marina Delaney went out on those assignments, writing about unique residents, who’s new in town, weddings, births, and other fluffy page-fillers. She sometimes wrote up to seven articles a week divided between two papers, some of which were good, others that didn’t deserve any ink at all. Eddie had often asked Duncan for assignments outside of his beat, but each time he said that Marina was already on the case. Instead, Eddie would return to his jeep, drink a beer, and listen to the police scanner.
Eddie did, however, know that newspapers across the United States were hurting because advertising wasn’t bringing in as much revenue as it did in the 90’s. Though the Brenton County Gazette was the only paper – free, bi-weekly and delivered to doorsteps – that focused exclusively on local news, residents didn’t have the same passion for it that they once had. First, the Census 2000 report listed Brenton as having the largest population decline in 10 years for any county in the country. That was mainly a result of a couple of bad droughts that kept farmers from paying back loans, and the banks foreclosed on their property and forced them to move. Second, the millionaires on the northern side of the county had been receiving the regional edition of the Daily Tribune since 1998, but only after the executive editor built a house there. They certainly didn’t need the Gazette.
Yet, it had only been a year since Duncan had hired him. Eddie was puzzled why the balding stutterer didn’t have the foresight to see that things would only get worse after several years of decline. At the same time, Eddie was sick of constantly changing jobs, getting new apartments, and altering his lifestyle. At least in Brenton, he had plenty of free time to himself, and he didn’t have to put up with the traffic of the suburbs and cities. He dreaded looking for a new job far more than he dreaded his current one.
The fucking news.
Eddie got into his jeep, looked at his note pad and pen on the passenger seat, and sped away.
It was almost 5 in the evening, and Eddie was sitting in the Lucky Leaf Irish Pub, sipping a draft beer and watching television. The judge on a courtroom show was screaming a verdict. The bar’s owner, Matt Kelly, washed down the counter though Eddie had been the only customer in there for more than an hour.
Eddie didn’t know what else to do, which wasn’t any different than most days. He couldn’t just go out and find news. Something had to happen. Maybe, if he sat there long enough, a bar fight would break out, and this time someone would be charged with assault. He’d be an eyewitness to everything, so he wouldn’t have to rely on someone else’s testimony. One for the Monday briefs, Duncan would say. Filling out that column was always a pain, but at least he didn’t have to make one for Thursday’s paper, too.
“Certainly slow in here today,” Matt said. “I’m thinking about moving Happy Hour up to 4 o’clock. Might boost business.”
Happy Hour. Shit. Could’ve saved some money, Eddie thought. He hadn’t paid yet. Maybe if he waited until 5, Matt would charge him half price for all of the beer he had ordered beforehand.
Eddie drank, and waited. He could have gone back to his jeep and listened to the police scanner. His cell phone was on, as always, by his side. Maybe it would ring. Maybe someone would get killed, and the office would call to tell him about it so he could rush to the scene and write an article before the Daily Tribune and broadcasters got word. However, that wouldn’t mean much, considering the article wouldn’t be printed until Monday, when it would be old news.
Regardless, if it only happened… And then, if it only happened enough.
Eddie ordered another beer just as the local news came on. “Local” was a relative term for Channel 2. He considered its coverage of Brenton County as half-assed, even when something happened worth mentioning. Unless it was a major crime story, like the homosexual lynching two years earlier which made national news, or another population shift study, it focused on every county in the state but Brenton.
Shortly after 5 o’clock, farmers, still dirty from a long day of work, began filling the tavern to suck down half-priced beers. Eddie suddenly had company at the counter.
At one of the tables was a man named Charles Downs, the owner of a Lexus car dealership outside the city, sitting with a blonde woman who looked to be 20 years younger than him. He was the richest man in the pub, and probably the only one there from the northern side of town.
There was another man who Eddie only knew as Herb, but had also heard townsfolk refer to him as Herb the Hermit. He was a strange man, like a country bum. He lived in a shack in the hills, but frequently made his way to the tavern to drink, socialize, and occasionally stir up trouble.
Then, someone in the far corner caught Eddie’s blurring eyes, and it took a moment for him to recognize the old hillbilly. After taking another sip of beer, Eddie looked again. It was Glen Tucker, the man who had screwed him over with the misinformation in the cow-tipping incident. He was sitting with a tall younger man, his son, perhaps.
Eddie felt like getting up, running over and slapping Tucker across the face. Even better, he’d break the butt of his beer bottle over the table and stab him. After all, the redneck deserved it. He had lied, hoping to get those boys in more trouble than they deserved for tipping over those cows. Tucker sold them for meat, anyway, and would have eventually killed them whether they were injured or not.
“Hey Tucker!” Eddie hollered across the room. “You lied to me, asshole!”
Tucker looked over, saw Eddie, and quickly looked away. The tall man began to get up, but Tucker grabbed his wrist and kept him in his chair. Others in the tavern shifted their heads between Eddie and Tucker, but when nothing else happened, they resumed drinking.
Eddie knew he had to get out of there before his temper got any worse. He was a notoriously violent drunk, and four beers in two hours was just enough to get him angry about anything. With Glen Tucker sitting there, he would’ve gotten mad even if he hadn’t been drinking.
“Hey, gimme my tab.”
Matt, who had been watching Eddie, went to the register, punched in some numbers, then handed him the bill.
Eddie looked it over. Matt was charging him full price for three of the beers, and half price for one of them.
“Hey, you should’ve charged me Happy Hour prices.”
“But you were drinking before 5.”
“Oh, come on, man, you were just telling me that you wanted to move Happy Hour up to 4. Gimme a break, would ya?”
“Eddie, I can’t, that’s the rules.”
You can change the rules, asshole.
“Come on, cut me a break. I was the only one in here for more than an hour.”
Matt shook his head.
Rounding up stares from nearby customers, Eddie slammed $12 on the counter and stormed out of the bar.
In the dusky sky, a breeze hit his face as he took a deep breath, feeling the beginnings of a buzz cloud his head.
He needed another drink.
The only liquor store on that side of Brenton was three miles away. Eddie noticed that he usually drove more carefully when he had been drinking than when he was sober. He had been in three minor accidents in his life, but not once did he get into even a fender-bender while drunk, nor had he been pulled over for suspicion of DUI.
In Brenton, there was little chance of being pulled over regardless. The police didn’t set up any speed traps or alcohol checkpoints. The only way they’d catch someone doing anything wrong behind the wheel was by coincidence. The cops in Brenton were just as laid back as the locals. Maybe too laid back. After all, they hadn’t made any arrests in the burglaries on the northern side of town. Six houses had been robbed in a single month, not one of which had a security system. Eddie had learned that from the victims themselves, and wrote a front-page article about it. Soon after, WalMart reported an increase in sales for burglar alarms. Eddie took pride in that, though it probably would have happened regardless.
That had happened four months ago. Only a few weeks earlier, Eddie had returned to the WalMart to ask about security system sales. They were flat again. That wasn’t exactly surprising due to the lack of residential burglaries since those June incidents, but clearly a good number of houses remained vulnerable.
Then again, in the small county of Brenton, most residents had three things in common: Land, dogs and shotguns. It wasn’t easy to burglarize a house in the center of 200 acres, because the dogs would be there. Some people had up to seven different breeds, even pit bulls. If they were home during the robbery and the dogs were restrained, the intruder then had to worry about getting his head blown off.
But those weren’t the homes that had been burglarized. The houses that were hit, on the northern side of town, were richer and didn’t have an army of rabid mutts standing guard. The only dogs that Eddie had seen around those parts were beagles, Jack Russell terriers and a poodle. One old lady had about 15 cats.
At the liquor store, Eddie purchased a 40 oz. bottle of Jack Daniels. He needed it badly. The beer wasn’t enough. He had never gotten sick from mixing beer and liquor, no matter which order he drank it. Sitting in his jeep in the parking lot, he flipped on the police scanner, uncorked the lid, and chugged.
Eddie knew that Tucker didn’t have a burglar alarm. He did, however, have a shotgun and two senile bloodhounds.
And a herd of cows to push around.
Tucker had said that he only caught those boys that night because the cows were making more noise than usual. He saw the suspects out the window and called the police, who showed up 10 minutes later. Any other farmer would have charged outside in his pajamas and scared them away with a shotgun, but Tucker was probably drunk off his rocker and didn’t feel like moving.
That lying sonofabitch.
Eddie started the car and stomped on the gas pedal.
Tucker wasn’t home. His pickup truck was still probably parked outside the Lucky Leaf, Eddie thought.
Eddie first returned to his house to get a few items. An old pair of Nike sneakers, which he hadn’t worn in years. Pepper spray – the kind rangers used to scare off bears. A butterfly knife – one with a smooth blade, not a jagged one that could leave a pattern.
Of course, he also brought his handheld police scanner.
He parked his jeep behind a dumpster in back of St. Martin’s Church. No one was there at that hour, no one to suspect anything.
The Tucker house was half a mile away. He walked, stopping twice to piss.
Eddie hid in the barn with a few cows. Old man Tucker hadn’t even locked it. A spade with a splint-wooded handle sat in the corner amongst other tools. He grabbed it, and then tucked the butterfly knife into his back pocket. He wouldn’t need it.
Then he waited.
Though he was buzzed out of his mind, he wished he had bought another bottle of liquor.
As his digital watch hit 11:00 – he could see by its fluorescent light – he began to have second thoughts, thoughts that had somehow escaped him before. What if Tucker didn’t come home? What if he came home with that man he was with? What if Tucker stopped being such a pussy, like when those boys tipped over his cows, and decided to get his shotgun when he suspected trespassers?
Peering through a broken piece of wood, Eddie saw headlights coming up the road.
Sure enough, it was Glen Tucker’s pickup truck, speeding up his own driveway, and coming to a screeching halt.
He was alone. And he was limping like a peg-legged pirate.
Occasionally, he heard a random moo out in the pasture, but the ones in the barn had been rather quiet.
And then Eddie made them make noise.
He climbed onto the gates and swatted their corpulent bellies with the spade. Soon enough, a chorus of bovine screams came from the barn, a sound so awful that he instantly felt guilty about it. The cows were stepping back and forth, pushing against the gates, trying to get out. For a moment, he was scared they would escape and then trample him.
Eddie could suddenly hear Tucker’s dogs howling from the house. His head began to spin from all the cow screams, and his stomach started churning. He hadn’t eaten anything since lunch. Suddenly, he felt like he needed to puke, which would leave DNA evidence that he had been in the barn.
Bile rose to his throat, and he barely got his hand over his lips as it soaked his tongue. He swallowed, tasting what was left of the liquor that had been sitting in his stomach for three hours.
That’s when the barn door swung open. Glen Tucker stood there.
“What in the eff are ya’ll crying about?”
From the corner, Eddie swung the spade like a baseball bat, nailing Tucker square in the face, sending the old farmer to the dusty ground. Standing over him, Eddie took an overhead swing, swatting the back of the spade to the front of the man’s skull. The cows continued screaming as if they knew what was happening.
He dropped the spade, pulled out the pepper spray and pressed the trigger, tainting his own scent. He emptied the bottle, leaving the barn in an uninhabitable mist. The cows screamed even louder, and he could still hear them as he ran.
When Eddie got back to his jeep, sweating, out of breath, and sneezing from the lingering pepper spray which clung to his jeans, he turned on the police scanner and listened to it all the way home. He knew that they wouldn’t find out about the murder until morning at the earliest, but he had to listen, anyway. They weren’t saying much of anything, as usual. Apparently, a fight broke out at the Lucky Leaf that evening and someone was arrested. That was one for the briefs.
When he got home, he threw his clothes in the washing machine, and hid his shoes underneath the lawnmower in the shed. He showered for 30 minutes, shampooing and soaping himself twice over.
Then he went to bed, hoping to get a good night’s rest. After all, he had to work in the morning.
His alarm went off at 7. Normally he pressed the snooze bar several times, but not today. Instead he turned on the police scanner, but all he heard was the typical static.
He turned on the television. Since he didn’t have a satellite antenna – unlike most residents who had antennas that resembled NASA transmitters – he could only watch Channel 2 when the weather was right.
It was Saturday morning. No one was in the office. The next edition of that paper wouldn’t hit the streets until Monday evening. Then he’d have to write another for Thursday.
Why didn’t I do this Saturday night?
By Monday, the news would be old. The Daily Tribune and Channel 2 would already have it.
The pitfalls of working at a bi-weekly, Eddie thought, again wondering why he wanted to keep that job so badly. It certainly wasn’t the salary. At the very least, he was able to afford his shack of a house, with a chain link fence separating him from the neighbors with the swing sets and padlocked sheds in the backyards.
He sat at the kitchen table, staring at the police scanner. He didn’t have a hangover. That was the most he had drank in six months, yet he didn’t have so much as a headache or even a steady tone in his ears.
Ten minutes passed, and he didn’t move.
What if no one finds him for a few days? Eddie pondered. Then he’d make an anonymous call. He’d have to; otherwise he wouldn’t have a story to write. But he probably wouldn’t even have to do that, because Tucker’s son was in town. Where was he last night?
More importantly, Eddie thought, did he cover everything up? No one would find his old Nike’s to match the footprints at the scene. No one had seen him park his car behind the church. No cars passed him as he walked down the street toward the Tucker farm. No one saw him enter the barn. The lingering pepper spray would certainly disturb the police dogs looking for his scent. He had already washed that odor off his clothes, and showered.
The scent would still be in the jeep.
Eddie went outside. The neighborhood was still quiet, just as he thought it would be on a Saturday morning when he normally slept. He went to his car and sniffed.
He smelled faint traces of pepper spray, which made him cough as the burning fumes entered his nose again.
Eddie tossed the empty liquor bottles into his trashcan and spent the next hour running a soapy brush over the plastic seats and dashboard. One of his neighbors, Angel Miller, came walking outside, wearing a bathrobe and pink curlers. She was married to a guy named Stu, and had two young kids. The houses in Eddie’s neighborhood were closer together than anywhere else in the county.
“Hey,” he said, glancing at her only briefly.
“Didja hear about Glen Tucker?”
Eddie stopped scrubbing and looked up at her.
“He was found dead this morning in his barn.”
Holy shit. I killed the bastard and she hears about it before me.
“Jesus Christ,” Eddie murmured. “How’d you hear about that?”
“Christine called me. Hey, wasn’t he the guy who lied to you about them cows?”
“I gotta go,” Eddie said, tossed his brush back into the bucket, started the jeep and sped away.
His cell phone rang.
“Eddie, it’s George.”
“I can’t talk now, I’m on my way to the Tucker farm.”
“Great!” Duncan said.
Eddie hung up and turned on the police scanner.
A muffled voice spoke, followed by sneezes. “…smells like pepper spray in here. This is killing me!”
Eddie, driving down the street toward the Tucker farm, howled.
“Can’t you tell me anything?”
“Sorry, nothing yet,” Dawn Little, the Public Information Officer, shrugged her shoulders. Eddie was the only reporter there. “You got here way too early.”
The barn had yellow police ribbon surrounding it, and the cows had been let out into the pasture. Sheriff Jesse DeCroft, a thin man in his late fifties with a thick southern accent, barked instructions to two sneezing investigators. DeCroft was the same man who said he’d bring the northern-side burglar to justice.
Eddie’s cell phone rang again. He was amazed that reception worked out there, but he could barely pick up a single television station in his own home.
“Hi George,” Eddie said, recognizing the number on the caller ID. He saw a truck pulling up the Tucker driveway, joining the three police cars. An ambulance followed.
“Hey, how’s, how’s it going?”
“I’m the only reporter here, but the cops haven’t said anything yet.”
In the driveway, a man opened the back door of a truck and let out three leashed dogs.
“This is big news. I want you to see this one all the way through.”
“Hey, I’ve got one month, George.”
“We’ll talk about that later, Eddie. This is big, big news for this town. I’ll see you first thing tomorrow after church.”
A police officer was leading the dogs up to the barn. Sweat rolled down Eddie’s forehead and his heartbeat quickened. Behind them, medics pulled a stretcher out of the ambulance.
“See you then.” Eddie hung up the phone and turned toward Dawn. “Hey, can I call you later?”
“I wasn’t planning on working today,” she said. Dawn normally wasn’t so unpleasant, and Eddie had always gotten along just fine with her. However, he had never seen her so early on a Saturday morning. Judging by the gold crucifix hanging around her neck, Eddie wondered how she would have reacted had it been a Sunday.
One of the dogs turned its head toward Eddie and sniffed as the officer led them toward the barn.
“Bring them in,” Jesse said to the officer with the leash. “Eddie, I’ll see to it personally that you’re the first one to know the facts, ya hear? Call me tonight at the office. I’ll fill you in then.”
At first, Eddie thought the man was being sarcastic. The only cops that Eddie regularly got along with were Public Information Officers, and even they had their mood swings. The others, including DeCroft, often acted like assholes around reporters.
“I got your word on that, Sheriff?”
DeCroft tipped what looked to be a cowboy hat instead of a sheriff’s hat. “If the Daily or the television folks don’t care enough to be out here this early, then they’ll get secondhand treatment.”
Eddie was suddenly suspicious of Jesse, who had never spoken more than three words at a time to him in the past. And those words were, “Talk to Dawn.”
“Okay,” Eddie said, then turned around and hurried back to his jeep as he heard a dog sneeze in the barn.
Eddie sat in his house, turned on his laptop and began typing. He didn’t even look at his notes. His fingers just kept pounding away on the keyboard, every last detail, except for the fact, of course, that he did it. He felt that he had to get it all down, everything that he could afford to say without incriminating himself. He also wrote too much. It was doubtful that Duncan would give him that much space. The first draft measured 70 inches long. That was the version he wanted to print, that was all the information he wanted to ‘learn’ from one source or another.
But he couldn’t. Just having that information on his laptop was enough to make him a prime suspect in the case. He had to press the delete key, erase one paragraph at a time, and slowly restore those sentences when he heard them from the police and other witnesses.
But he didn’t.
“It’s Eddie. Find out anything about the case?”
“Yeah. A few things I can tell you now. We’ve got a suspect.”
Eddie nearly dropped the phone.
DeCroft continued. “It’s Herb Baker.”
Herb the Hermit? Eddie wondered. There was only one Herb in town that he knew of. Where’d he come up with Herb?
“Not sure if you heard, but Herb and Glen got into a little scuffle last night at the Leaf. Glen’s son stepped in and clocked the old bastard across the face. Had to lock him up.”
“You locked up Glen’s son?” Eddie asked, realizing the moment it came out that it was exactly what DeCroft had just said.
“Yes, of course.”
“Okay, so we have a motive. But what evidence do you have linking Herb to the crime scene?”
A long moment of silence passed.
“Got a match on the footprints in the barn, for starters.”
Footprints? Nike sneakers? Herb was short, and he certainly didn’t wear size 10 shoes. Nor did the guy, or any hick like him, wear Nike’s.
Eddie was on the verge of asking what kind of shoes they were, but he bit his tongue. He’d get to that later, perhaps. “Did you find a murder weapon?” Maybe he’s gonna say it was a knife. Eddie didn’t even want to waste time asking the question, but knew that he had to for the record.
“We believe the killer hit Glen over the head several times with a spade, which was left at the scene.”
“Can you give me a timeline of everything you believe happened?”
“Glen was last seen at the Leaf at 10:45 last night, right after I stuck his son in the paddy wagon. He said he didn’t have any bail money, so we assume he went home. Herb refused medical attention, and Matt said he left shortly after. I noticed that Glen was wearing the same clothes this morning, so I’m guessing he was killed last night. Herb must have caught up with him, lured him into the barn and whacked him.”
“Who found Tucker?”
“Farmhand. Came in early to milk the cows.”
“Has he been ruled out as a suspect?”
“Sheriff, are you prepared to press charges against Herb Baker?”
Again, there was a pause. “Yes.”
“Thank you, Sheriff. If you don’t mind, I’m gonna be asking around town myself.” Eddie said this as a sign of good faith, though he had no obligation. After all, it was his job.
“Of course you will,” Jesse said.
“Have a good weekend.” Eddie hung up the phone. He hadn’t been taking notes as he normally did during interviews. He remembered every last word that DeCroft had said.
The footprints matched?
Of course they didn’t match. There was no way Herb the Hermit wore size 10 Nike sneakers. But Herb had a motive, and that’s what mattered to Jesse DeCroft, elected sheriff of Brenton County. He spent his career locking up farmers when they had too much to drink and caused trouble.
A cop rushing to judgment wasn’t so unusual, Eddie thought, nor was evidence tampering. Thirty years earlier, the Brenton police wouldn’t hesitate to arrest a black man when someone on the other side of town was robbed. George Duncan told him that on his first day of work. Now, with all the black people out of Brenton, the police needed someone else to pick on when they couldn’t solve a case. That might as well be Herb the Hermit, a local drunk who was no stranger to the inside of a jail cell.
Eddie sat back down at his kitchen table, flipped open his laptop, and clicked on the article he had written. He pressed the delete key.
“Oh my,” Duncan sighed. “Are you sure about this?”
“I’m positive.” Eddie reclined in the chair, his hands behind his head and elbows bent out like wings.
“You believe Sheriff DeCroft is covering up evidence?” Beads of sweat dripped from Duncan’s brow and he adjusted his spectacles and looked back over the printout. “You’re not just doing this because…”
“Because I have only one month left of employment here? Hell no. I’m putting my reputation on the line. I won’t be able to get another job if I’m wrong about this.”
“I want you to tell me who this anonymous source is.”
Eddie shook his head. “All I can tell you is that it was someone on the inside.”
“And what if he was lying?”
“Why is it so far-fetched that there’s corruption in the police force? Maybe the northern-side burglar was never captured because he was in cahoots with DeCroft. And get this: DeCroft didn’t say anything about Herb to Channel 2!”
Duncan’s eyes shifted back to the paper. “He’s never trusted broadcast.”
“He didn’t say much to the Daily, either. It had two paragraphs in the briefs! When this article goes to press Monday, the Daily and Channel 2 are gonna be quoting us.”
“I know, Eddie. You don’t have to tell me that.”
That was the first tone of cockiness Eddie had ever heard in Duncan’s voice. Talks to me that way again I’m gonna…
Duncan let out a huge sigh. “All right, we’ll run it. Your byline, front and center.”
What the fuck am I doing? Eddie’s heart was racing as he got back into his jeep and sped home. By claiming that Jesse DeCroft was wrongfully pinning the blame on Herb Baker, the state police would intervene and investigate the case from scratch. Under any other circumstance, that would be a good thing, a great thing, but what if they somehow found out that he did it?
I made the right move, Eddie reassured himself. That murder, no matter who committed it, wasn’t enough to save his job. If Jesse DeCroft put Herb Baker behind bars for life, case closed, Eddie would be finished, too. There wouldn’t be anything else to write about. Unless another murder happened. And another.
The Brenton County serial killer.
He could kill Matt the bartender, beloved owner of the Lucky Leaf Irish Pub. Maybe he could make his way up north, cut the throat of millionaire Charles Downs, which would make even bigger headlines.
But how long will that last?
The article he gave Duncan was the one he needed to write. Even if that alone wasn’t enough to save his job at the Brenton Gazette, it was certainly enough to get him a gig at just about any other newspaper in the state. That kind of reporting didn’t happen enough, and editors knew it. Ordinary journalists spent much of their time writing the obvious, writing what they were told, refusing to fish for an inside scoop because it was too much damn work. And if they were wrong, it was the journalism equivalent of a doctor committing malpractice, a construction worker causing a collapse because he didn’t properly install a crossbeam, or a school bus driver wrecking with a bus-full of children. Newspapers paid through the nose in libel suits. Reporters lost their jobs, their credibility. But not Eddie. This one would make him a star.
That evening, as the paper was finished being typeset and sent to the plant in Cecil County, he celebrated with a bottle of Jack Daniels.
Monday, Sept. 30, 2002 edition – Brenton County Gazette Page 1
Source: Baker innocent in Tucker murder case
By Eddie Smith and George Duncan
Lifelong Brenton resident Herb Baker was arrested Saturday morning under suspicion of murdering local farmer Glen Tucker, but an anonymous source insists that Sheriff Jesse DeCroft tampered with evidence. The sheriff said that Baker’s shoes matched footprints at the crime scene, but the source insists that the prints did not match, and that DeCroft had rushed to judgment because Baker and Tucker had an altercation earlier Friday night at the Lucky Leaf Irish Pub. According to witnesses, Baker had argued with Tucker before Jerry Tucker – Glen Tucker’s son – punched Baker in the face. Sheriff DeCroft, who was called to the scene, promptly arrested Jerry Tucker.
Saturday evening, Sheriff DeCroft said that after the altercation, Baker followed Tucker home, lured him into the barn and killed him with a shovel. But the source disputes that, pointing out that Herb Baker does not own a car, and would’ve had to walk seven miles from the Lucky Leaf Irish Pub to the Tucker farm. Baker was seen leaving the tavern on foot.
When asked about the disputed evidence Sunday, Sheriff DeCroft had no comment.
Jerry Tucker, who was released from a holding cell Saturday afternoon shortly before police brought in Baker, would not comment on the case, either.
A farmhand found Tucker’s body at 6:45 Saturday morning.
Continued page 3.
How dare he add his byline to the article, Eddie thought. The only way he contributed was by asking DeCroft for his comment on the disputed evidence, as if the sheriff would have anything to say about that. Now he had to share the credit. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing, though, because then the sheriff wouldn’t know which one of them infiltrated his force. Eddie wouldn’t put it past DeCroft to take revenge against him, especially after that phone conversation.
That day, Eddie had slept late, watched Channel 2, went out and bought a copy of the Daily Tribune – which had no follow-up article – and waited. Then, it was 4 p.m., and he was the first on the block to pick up The Brenton Gazette. By 5 p.m., boys on bicycles – who probably didn’t even read – would finish delivering all the papers with that headline staring up from 10,000 driveways. Maybe this time, the residents would at least skim the lead before tossing it into their garbage cans.
Eddie couldn’t exactly blame them if they didn’t. After all, this was a paper that once had a Marina Delaney front-page article about the tweeters that came to Mrs. Higgins’s window every spring. This was Brenton. Everyone had tweeters come to their windows every spring. Who would read such nonsense?
But even if the Brenton County residents tossed away the paper out of habit, the Daily Tribune would see it. So would Channel 2. Hell, it would even make the AP wire, then appear in national news roundups across the United States.
He needed a drink.
The Leaf was the only bar in town that had Happy Hour Monday through Friday, but this time, he waited until 5 o’clock. The bar was empty when he got there, except for Matt, who was sitting behind the counter, reading the Gazette.
“You’ve got the biggest balls in this town, Eddie,” Matt said almost threateningly.
“Gin and tonic,” Eddie said, sitting down at the counter.
Matt didn’t budge. He kept reading. A smirk crept to his face. He put down the paper, and began to make the drink.
“Wait, before you do that, do me a favor. Turn on the news.” Eddie motioned toward the television.
Matt stopped, put down the bottle of gin, glanced at Eddie, then flicked the button.
A few minutes later, a Brenton County graphic appeared over the shoulder of the usual female anchor.
“The Brenton County Sheriff’s Department still has not released details about the murder that took place Friday night. To recap, farmer Glen Tucker was found dead in his barn, allegedly beaten with a shovel…”
She went on, but Eddie had heard enough.
Dammit! He wanted to scream. Even Channel 2 news hadn’t seen the Gazette, and Duncan always made sure that an early copy was delivered to its studios. How could they miss this?
Eddie picked up his cell phone and dialed Duncan’s office. A moment later, they were speaking.
“What’s the deal with Channel 2?” Eddie asked. “Why aren’t they reading us?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea. Maybe they’ll quote us at 11.”
“Did the Daily get a hold of you?”
“No one’s called. This… this is disturbing.”
Matt placed the gin and tonic on a napkin and slid it to Eddie, who picked it up and took a long sip.
“I’ll have the first draft of the follow-up ready tomorrow afternoon.”
“Okay. Good work, Eddie,” Duncan said.
Asshole, Eddie thought. If you ever put your byline next to mine again…
Eddie couldn’t understand why the Daily Tribune or Channel 2 weren’t alerted to the Gazette article. If anyone read the Gazette, just to make sure they didn’t miss anything, it was the other news organizations. Maybe they saw ‘anonymous source’ and ignored it. That was the most logical explanation, but the enormity of the Gazette’s claim should have been news in and of itself. Then there was the fact that they hadn’t even mentioned Baker being a suspect.
Eddie began thinking about the Thursday article. He wondered what else the sheriff might have fidgeted with. He could have placed a bottle of pepper spray in Herb’s house. Plucked a few hairs from the bum’s head when he was arrested and claimed to have found them in the barn. Of course, Herb would get a lawyer, or at least a public defender, and poke holes in DeCroft’s testimony. But it would still be up to the Brenton County jurors, who had a history of ignoring reasonable doubts and tossing innocent people into jail – at least with the blacks. They’d do the same to Herb Baker, too.
Now, Eddie knew he had to wait for the state police to step in to investigate the allegations against DeCroft. That would be the Thursday story. Who actually committed the crime would be secondary.
Secondary, but still something that would be dealt with. They might find him somehow. All because he wrote that article.
“Gimme another gin and tonic.”
Matt, who had briefly ducked away in the back, was smiling oddly. “Coming right up.”
This sucks, Eddie thought. If he had just written what Jesse DeCroft had said, pinning all the blame on Herb, case closed, he’d be off the hook.
A moment later, Matt placed his second glass of gin and tonic in front of him.
Maybe he’d write one last article, confessing to his crime, and submit it to Duncan. The look on the man’s face would be priceless. There they’d be, in his office, Eddie grinning as Duncan poured over the words, his eyes slowly rising over his specs as he realized that it was Eddie all along.
Maybe he’d kill Duncan himself. At least then there would be another job available.
The tavern door opened.
It’s about time someone else came in, Eddie thought.
“Eddie!” A familiar voice yelled. “Put your hands on your head!”
Eddie spun around. Standing by the door was Sheriff Jesse DeCroft and two officers, aiming pistols.
“You gonna shoot me for writing that article, DeCroft? Exposing you for what you are?” Eddie placed his palms on the back of his head.
“Get on your knees!”
“You’re not gonna get away with this, Sheriff.” As he kneeled, Eddie suddenly pictured himself being taken back to the station and tortured by these crooked cops.
“We knew it was you, Eddie,” DeCroft said.
“You’re just gonna have to read about it in the paper.”
The two officers walked over and handcuffed him.
Thursday, Oct. 3, 2002 edition – Brenton County Gazette Page 1
Reporter charged with murder
By George Duncan
Sheriff Jesse DeCroft on Monday admitted to passing false information to Brenton County Gazette reporter Eddie Smith regarding the evidence in the Glen Tucker murder case. In an added twist, DeCroft arrested and charged Smith for the Friday night murder of the local farmer.
This paper reported Monday that an anonymous source contradicted DeCroft’s claim that lifelong Brenton resident Herb Baker was the prime suspect in the case.
“I lied to him because he was one of the suspects,” DeCroft said Monday night, only hours after the Gazette was delivered across the county. “Then he further incriminated himself by writing that article.”
DeCroft said that Smith was seen threatening Tucker at the Lucky Leaf Irish Pub that evening, only a few hours before Tucker had an unrelated altercation with Baker, who was also a suspect but soon cleared. Baker, who has a history of arrests for public drunkenness, agreed to be a part of DeCroft’s setup in exchange for community service.
DeCroft also said that he matched the fingerprints on an empty bottle of pepper spray found near the scene with liquor bottles inside Smith’s trashcan.
Continued page 3.