nine

A soggy dishrag lay on the bar at Enright’s. Somewhere a faucet was running. The air tasted of mustard and pickled eggs.

At the far end of the long, whiskey-colored bar sat two regulars, both men, one stool between them, always one stool between them. They nursed their longnecks and lit cigarette after cigarette, never saying a word, just staring into the rank air in front of their unshaven faces, their eyes drifting up to the soundless television behind the bar.

Taking my own seat a few stools away, I considered for a second whether they might be contemplating where their lives had taken that wrong turn, how they had wound up spending every afternoon in a dive on an anonymous Main Street, shoving their last balled-up dollar bills across the bar. But they were more likely wondering how they were going to get out of splitting that pile of logs their old ladies had been bitching about since New Year’s.

“Trap-you want Thousand Island?”

Soupy leaned out of the kitchen at the other end of the bar and shouted at me, using the nickname he’d given me when I first started playing goaltender. I wasn’t playing goalie now, but the nickname remained.

“On the side,” I said.

“Blue Ribbon?”

I looked at the clock behind the bar. It bore the slogan “No Wine Before Nine.” All the numbers on the clock’s face were nines.

“Why not?” I said.

Soupy threw the dishrag in a sink behind the bar and set the beer in front of me with a plastic basket containing a cheeseburger and onion rings bleeding grease into a red-and-white checkered napkin.

I wanted Thousand Island dressing on the burger but I was so hungry that I picked it up and took a bite first. My teeth crunched through the charred crust and into the juicy red middle. The bite was too big and the melted Monterey Jack stuck to the roof of my mouth. Soupy wasn’t good at much besides hockey, but he sure knew how to make a burger.

“Boffing’ll get you hungry, huh?” he said.

I popped an onion ring into my mouth. It was the frozen kind but good anyway, crisp and hot.

“What are you talking about?”

“Fuck you,” he said. “I was going to the bank and saw you chasing the little lady up her stairs there, lover boy.”

“I was not chasing.”

“Nothing like a little afternoon action to break up a dreary day.”

“Mr. Carpenter declined to comment.”

Soupy leaned his elbows on the bar. Ketchup and grease streaked the white apron he wore over his Northern Michigan University T-shirt. His blond hair was tied back in a ponytail that hung between his shoulder blades. He knew I’d come to ask about Gracie, and I knew he’d probably do what he could to avoid talking about her. Soupy liked to jaw about hockey and beer and fishing and how to get women into bed. Everything else was small talk.

“How’s the bluegill wrapper?” he said.

I plucked the top bun off the burger and added the dressing, replaced the bun, took another chomp, just as big. Even better. I bit into half an onion ring, cooled it all down with a pull on the beer.

“Bleeding red ink,” I said. I made a show of looking around the bar. Pictures of Soupy as a kid in his River Rats blue-and-gold hung up and down the knotty pine walls in between the big brass hooks where snowmobile riders hung their helmets. There were no pictures of me, but Soupy had installed the goaltender’s mask I no longer wore on the back bar between bottles of Mohawk root beer schnapps and Southern Comfort. The backlighting gave the mask the look of a skull. A few bottles down stood two of Gordon’s gin, one full, the other half full, both marked on the label with a big black “G.”

For Gracie. Everyone else got Beefeater.

“When are you going to rename this dump ‘Soupy’s’?”

The summer before, Soupy had sold the town marina his family had owned for fifty-some years and used the cash to buy Enright’s. At the time he was actually trying to quit drinking, so he joined the legions of other drying-out northern Michigan drunks who reckoned the best way to be sure they were genuinely sober was to test themselves every single day by getting other people drunk. He quit the quitting thing pretty quickly. He kept the bar.

“You know what it costs for a lousy goddamn sign?” Soupy said. “Anyway, it’d be like putting up a billboard for the IRS: ‘Over here, dudes.’”

“Good point.”

My cell phone started ringing from my shirt pocket. I considered answering, but the jukebox was wailing “Moondance.”

“You going to get that?” Soupy said.

“Can’t hear in here.”

He leaned closer. “That lard-ass in the coveralls plays that damn song about seventy-two times a day.”

“At least it’s not ‘Dream Weaver.’”

“These guys think this is their goddamn living room. That one had his daughter’s fucking baby shower here the other day.”

“Must be good extra cash, though.”

“No. Lost my ass giving toasts away. And they left without paying the bill. Assbag down there”-Soupy jabbed his elbow in that direction without looking-“says put it on his tab.”

“That’s not good,” I said. “Kind of makes you wonder how a guy can afford to shut his bar down early with all his hockey pals coming in.”

Soupy ignored me. “So we tied, eh? Heard you hit the post.”

“Yeah. Where the hell were you?”

“Can’t be missing empty nets, Trap.”

“Where were you, Soup?”

Soupy never missed hockey. When the Chowder Heads were skating, he left Enright’s in the hands of his other bartender, Dave Lubienski. But Soupy had been a no-show the night before. Then we found the bar closed hours before last call.

“Loob’s wife had a chicks’ night out, and he had to stay with the kid. I tried to get Tatch to fill in but as usual he had his head up his ass.” He picked up the dishrag and began wiping down the sink behind the bar. “Ready for the game tomorrow? The Linke boys were in last night talking shit.”

The Linkes played for the Mighty Minnows of Jordan Bait and Tackle, our first-round opponents. Soupy was trying to change the subject. I decided to play along, for now.

“Should be fun,” I said. “Did you get the hats?”

“Oh, Trap, fucking-ay, hang on.”

Soupy hurried back into the kitchen. Every year, he bought the Chowder Heads hats for the playoffs. He thought they brought us good luck. His team hadn’t actually won the playoffs in three years, but Soupy did not relinquish his superstitions easily.

He emerged wearing a red wool cap with a fluffy white ball on the top and black tassels dangling to his shoulders. A pair of soup spoons crossed to look like hockey sticks were embroidered into the front of the hat.

“Awesome or what?” Soupy said. The regulars glanced up, unimpressed. “I ain’t even going to wear a helmet, man.”

“Sweet,” I said. “Is that mine?”

“Fucking-ay.”

He tore the cap off of his head and threw it at me. I pulled it on my head and looked in the mirror behind the bar, mugging. Soupy laughed and reached over the bar for a hand slap.

When I had played goalie for the Rats and for Soupy’s men’s league team, the Chowder Heads, Soupy had always been my best defenseman, the smartest at staying between the puck and me, the most adept at stealing the puck and hurrying it to the other end of the ice. If an opposing player gave me the slightest bump, or whacked one too many times at my pads, I could count on Soupy giving him a stick shaft to the back of the neck, maybe a glove to the face.

After his hockey career evaporated in a steam of booze and drugs in the minors, Soupy had stopped expecting much from life. It didn’t take much to make him happy anymore. A case of beer, a bag of barbecue chips, a Red Wings game on the tube, a new cap for a playoff game. Gracie’s return had been a bonus. She was at once the new woman in town, since she’d been gone so long, and a familiar one, who knew Soupy well enough to have no expectations, except for a few drinks, a little reefer, a night in his bed.

For a while I had been glad for him. But eventually came the creeping suspicion that my apparent satisfaction with Soupy’s lot was a symptom of my own complacency, a sign that I too was now willing to settle for a day-to-day existence in Starvation, with none of the visions I once carried around about changing the world with the things I could find out and write down.

“I like it,” I said, stuffing the cap in a coat pocket.

“Yeah, buddy. Calls for a shot.”

He snatched two glasses and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s off the back bar and poured us two fat shots. I really didn’t need it, but it gave me an opportunity to change the subject again.

I raised my glass. “To Gracie,” I said.

Soupy hesitated before clinking my glass. He drank the Jack down in a gulp, winced, poured himself another, swallowed that. I drank half of mine, set the glass down. “You all right?” I said.

“Fine.”

I knew he’d enjoyed sleeping with her, because he talked about it almost constantly. I wasn’t sure whether he’d gotten his heart as involved as his pecker, because he didn’t talk about that.

“Sorry, man. I know you liked her.”

“Yeah. Cool chick.”

“Are we going to talk about it?”

He picked up the dishrag again, held his arms up in an exaggerated shrug. “What’s to talk about? Obviously she wasn’t happy. So”-he looked into the sink-“she did what she did.”

“No, Soup.”

“Chickenshit, if you ask me.”

“No.” I lowered my voice. “She didn’t kill herself.”

“How the hell do you know?”

“Cops been to see you?”

He sneaked a look at the regulars. They weren’t looking, but the jukebox was off again, so they could hear. For months, Soupy had imagined, or pretended to imagine, that only a few locals knew that he and Gracie were sleeping together, even though she came into Enright’s every night around nine, sat at the same end-of-the-bar stool beneath a picture of young Soupy celebrating after a goal, drank her eight or nine gin and Squirts, stayed until the bar was empty, and left through the back door with Soupy.

“What the hell would the cops want with me?”

“You tell me. Soupy Campbell closed his bar early last night. That’s front-page news right there.”

“There was a big fucking storm last night, you know.”

“There’s a big fucking storm every two weeks and you never close early. And you weren’t at the rink. You think Dingus isn’t going to notice?”

“Dingus?” He was getting louder now. One of the regulars had turned his head to watch. Soupy looked at him. “What’s your problem, Lenny? You interested in settling up?”

Lenny returned to his cocoon. Soupy glared at me.

“What the fuck, Trap? You selling me out to your girlfriend?”

“Oh, Jesus, give me a break. You could get yourself in trouble here, buddy. Where were you?”

“Good question,” came a voice from the front of the bar.

We turned to see Sheriff Dingus Aho standing in the open front doorway, his cruiser’s lights flickering on the street behind him.

“Damn,” I said. “This is not good.”

“Christ, Dingus,” Soupy said. “Did you have to use the lights? I got a business to run here.”

Dingus spared Soupy the handcuffs. By the time they pulled away, Soupy in the backseat staring straight ahead, a small audience had gathered on the sidewalk, and Soupy’s bar had closed early for the second time in less than twenty-four hours.

“What’s all the hubbub out there?”

Phyllis Bontrager asked me the question as I came through the front door of the Pilot. Her eyes, replicas of her daughter Darlene’s, widened behind the huge lenses she’d worn for as long as I’d known her. As kids, we had called her Tweety Bird.

“You didn’t see?” I said. “The cops took Soupy in.”

Mrs. B pursed her lips and popped her glasses up onto her head. She was standing behind the front counter wearing a red cardigan with the shapes of reindeer heads knitted into it. A game show flickered silently on a black-and-white TV at the other end of the counter.

“Are you all right?” she said.

I must have looked worried, though I was telling myself the sheriff was probably just going to grill Soupy before letting him go. He could have done it more quietly, but Dingus had his own way of doing things.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” I said. “Worried about Soupy.”

“You’re a good friend, but Alden Campbell wouldn’t hurt a flea,” she said. Alden was Soupy’s real name, but Mrs. B and my mother were the only ones who called him by it. “How is your mother?”

“Not so good.”

“Yes. This is difficult for her. I went over this morning as soon as I saw her up.”

“Thanks. I must have just missed you. Have you seen Darlene?”

She shook her head no. “She woke me up in the middle of the night. I was glad she did, of course, but she wasn’t making any sense. All I could hear was that Gracie was”-she stopped, searched for a word-“gone. Then I just sat up all night.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “What do you think?”

She picked a pile of advertising invoices out of her in-basket, started stacking certain ones on the counter to her left, others to her right. “Alden didn’t really think he could close the bar early and nobody would notice, did he?”

“Who knows what goes on in that head?”

“Do you think he knows anything?”

“No. I mean, he probably knows something about what happened to Gracie, hopefully not enough to get himself in trouble.” Damn Soupy, I thought. He was a month older than me, but seemed like a little brother half the time. “Mail?”

“On your desk.” She flipped her glasses down again. “School menus. The phone bill. A notice from the Boy Scouts on their March fund-raiser. The county extension newsletter; this month’s focus is winter mildew. Revised town council agenda. Two letters to the editor: one from Jill Smith about the restrooms at the senior center; one from Danny Braun about your stories on the new rink-I can read that one if you’d rather not.” She tipped her head so that she was looking at me over the rims of her glasses. “And something from Detroit.”

She loved me like a son. And mistrusted me like the punk next door who had once broken her daughter’s heart.

“Probably a parking ticket I never paid,” I said.

Philo appeared behind Mrs. B in the doorway to the newsroom. “Good afternoon, Gus,” he said. He usually used that line on me when I showed up at 10:00 a.m. Now the wall clock over his head said 1:20. I had plenty of time to finish what I had to do for Tuesday’s paper, but that wasn’t what counted with Philo. He had a punch-clock in his head that his uncle had installed.

“Sorry, Philo. I was out gathering information.”

The look on his face told me he was not impressed.

“One other thing,” Mrs. B said. “Shirley McBride stopped in.”

Gracie’s mother. “Here? How was she?”

Philo pointed one finger at the newsroom then disappeared back there.

“Oh, you know. It’s all about Shirley. She said she was on her way down to see Parmelee.” Parmelee Gilbert was the only lawyer left on Main Street. “Something about a life insurance policy.”

“Gracie’s life insurance? Don’t tell me.”

“Her uncle supposedly sold her a policy not too long ago.”

Gracie’s uncle was Floyd Kepsel, Shirley’s brother and the owner of Kepsel’s Ace Hardware. He sold life insurance on the side and was a town councilman.

“How much?”

“I don’t know. Shirley, as you know, isn’t always crystal clear.”

“But if it’s more than a hundred bucks…”

“Exactly. She was doing her entitlement thing. You know.”

“Yeah.” I’d seen it on display at assessment appeal meetings. Shirley was the exceedingly squeaky wheel who rarely got the grease, or at least never enough to satisfy her. “Is she stopping back here?”

“Gus!” I heard Philo call out.

Mrs. B jerked a thumb toward the back. “Go.”

Philo was on the phone so I tossed my coat on a table strewn with yellowing Pilots and started on what I had to get done before deadline: Rewrite the school menu, Boy Scouts, and extension service items into briefs. Write the Jason Esper story. Get the sheriff to talk to me about Gracie, then write that story, doing everything I could to avoid the word “suicide.” Now Gracie supposedly had a life insurance policy. Who would take the trouble to buy a life insurance policy if they were deciding when and how they would die?

I left the rest of the mail for later, although I glanced at the Detroit piece to see if Mrs. B had peeked inside. It didn’t appear that she had.

The message light on my phone was on. I dialed. There was one message: “The animals are restless,” came a raspy voice.

I deleted the message, fished my cell phone out of my coat pocket, and dialed a number I didn’t want on the Pilot phone bill, which Philo now spent half an hour going over each month. He was either looking for pennies to cut out of the budget or trying to figure out who my sources were. Probably both. Our cell phone bills went straight to corporate.

The raspy voice came on my cell phone: “You didn’t hear this from me.”

“Good afternoon.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa-don’t be saying my name.”

“I won’t. What do you know?”

It was Clayton Perlmutter, town councilman and self-appointed curmudgeon. I didn’t trust him as far as I could throw my hockey bag. But he spent most of his days on the two phones in his house deep in the woods, trading this bit of gossip for that one until a lot of little bits added up to something that mattered. I had to keep him closer than folks I actually trusted, because he actually knew things they didn’t. In my eighteen years as a reporter, I had come to the reluctant realization that it was better dealing with liars and thieves than with people who didn’t know anything. Or people who were just plain stupid. Perlmutter was not stupid.

“Your old pal Laird,” Clayton Perlmutter said, “has visited with a few select members of your town council-not including yours truly, naturally, because he knows where I’d tell him to go-with a great big hat in his hand.”

“Really? I thought you were the one with the hat.”

I heard the low bark of a dog in the background. Perlmutter muffled the phone and yelled, “Shep. Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” He came back on. “No, son, no hat for me. That’s past history, you know that.”

“Of course.”

He fancied himself an entrepreneur. A year before, he’d gotten into some trouble with the state of Michigan for using research grants to support a sasquatch museum he’d never actually opened. Now he was proposing to build an Up North Hockey Hall of Fame on a couple of acres abutting the land where the new rink would be. He didn’t have a nickel to build the thing, but that wasn’t the point. Perlmutter merely wanted to scare Laird Haskell into buying his little plot at a handsome premium. Until Haskell did, Perlmutter would be juggling his phones and spreading rumors and trying to make trouble on the council.

“So, anyway, old Mr. Haskell, it turns out, ain’t as rich as he looks.”

“I think we’ve written that.”

“Ha,” Perlmutter said. “Nobody wants to believe it.”

Philo walked over and sat on my desk. He crossed his loafers and folded his hands on his knees. I smiled, pointed at the phone, held up a finger, and pressed the phone harder to my ear.

“Anyway,” Perlmutter continued, “the big rich lawyer now wants the town to give him a little loan. You know, just a short-term thing, no strings attached, thirty days same as cash, like we’re some kind of special bank for millionaires.”

“Really? How much?”

“Oh, not much at all. And of course it ain’t because he’s having any financial problems. It’s just a little cash-flow glitch is all.”

“How big of a glitch?”

“He just needs a little six-figure bridge loan.”

“Can you be more specific?”

Shep barked again in the background. “Oh, give or take, about one hundred thousand smackeroonies.”

No shit, I thought. So that was what Haskell meant by “a bit of help”-a pretty hefty bit for a town that had to have bake sales to raise the money to buy a new backstop for the softball field. I doubted the town council had a hundred grand cooling in a bank vault somewhere. I sat up a little straighter in my chair, happy for the interesting turn of events, even happier that I knew and Haskell didn’t know that I knew. Philo was watching, so I tried not to look too happy. Plus I’d still have to get it confirmed elsewhere.

“Impressive.”

“Maybe next he’s going to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge, huh? You know, it might be nice to have all of this in the paper before it suddenly shows up at Wednesday’s council meeting. Otherwise, it’s a done deal, and I got a feeling we ain’t never going to see that hundred K again.”

“Well, thank you, sir,” I said. “Not sure we’d be interested, though.”

Perlmutter paused a moment, then let loose with a guffaw. “Oh, someone listening in, huh?” he said. “You are a regular Geraldo Rivera, sir. A regular Geraldo Rivera. Over and out.”

I ended the call and looked up at Philo.

“What’s up?” I said.

“Who was that?”

I riffled through my mail for the town council agenda and tore open the envelope. “Some whack job,” I said. In the middle of the agenda, below old business, an item had been added: “Executive Session re: capital construction.” That would be where the council went into a private caucus and wrote Haskell a big check.

“Are you sure?” Philo said.

He had watched me carefully. But before I told him anything, I wanted to do a little more reporting on Perlmutter’s tip. Bosses couldn’t always be trusted with good stories. The more time they had to think about them, the more time they had to mess them up or kill them outright.

I tossed the council agenda on my desk. “Would you like a story about how the White House is scheming to poison our lake so it can be turned into a cooling pond for alien spaceships?”

“Hmm,” Philo said. “I think not.”

“OK. Going for another correction tomorrow, Philo?”

“Pardon me?”

I gestured at my computer screen. “I was looking at the obit you wrote for old Mrs. Guthaus. Where the hell is Toussaint, Arizona?”

He looked at me, dumfounded. “Two what?”

“Tou-SANT.” I said it with what I fancied to be a French flourish.

“Oh,” he said. “Tucson. I would have caught it.”

“Let’s hope. You know, you’ve kind of got to imagine your corrections ahead of time. That’s the best way to avoid them. If you can imagine a correction-“ Tucson is a city in southern Arizona. A story in Tuesday’s Pilot misspelled the city’s name” — then you have to double-check it.”

I prided myself on this. Once I got out of bed in the middle of the night and called the printing plant to make sure that a caption referring to a shotgun said shotgun and not rifle, a common mistake among pointy-headed journalists who’d never held a real gun in their hands.

“So you’ve said,” Philo said. He uncrossed his loafers. “How did your meeting with Mr. Haskell go?”

“Fine.”

“Did you get a story?”

I thought for a second. “At least one.”

“Right.” I figured he already knew about the new Rats coach, courtesy of his Uncle Jim. “And how was the body language?”

“Fine. Everyone’s fine.”

Philo cleared his throat. “My meeting in Traverse was unnerving, to say the least.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yes. Long story short: revenues are way behind budget, and the budget was conservative to begin with.” Philo looked nervously around the room. “I don’t know where else to cut.”

I recalled him on his first day at the Pilot. A week before Christmas, he bustled around the newsroom like a kid about to open his presents: just twenty-eight years old and the managing editor of a real newspaper. A tiny newspaper, an obscure newspaper, a newspaper that didn’t report much news that anybody outside of Starvation Lake cared about, but a newspaper nonetheless.

He had told me then how he had decided to eschew the route taken by his grad-school peers, which was to turn summer internships at the big dailies into full-time jobs that would someday have them covering the White House or Wall Street or wars in foreign hells. “I want nothing to do with the Washington media mob and the whole backstabbing New York scene,” he’d said. “I want to learn this from the ground up, get the ink in my veins, if you know what I mean.” Part of me found his purity and naivete endearing. Another part wondered if Philo had failed to land any internships and had fallen back on his uncle.

Either way, I couldn’t help but feel for him now as his eyes darted around our wretched little newsroom, looking for ways to clip a few pennies off our monthly outlay. There in the corner was the desk of our old photographer, who had worked on and off at the Pilot longer than Philo had been alive; Philo had had to call him up and fire him on New Year’s Day. There on Philo’s desk was the mug jammed with ballpoint pens Philo had sneaked one by one out of the Pine County State Bank. There on a shelf were the last three legal pads in a package that had to last until the end of the month.

“Philo,” I said. “You went to journalism school.”

“I did.”

“Why?”

He laced his fingers together in front of his argyle sweater. “Because I like the way newspapers can knit communities together.”

He must have read that somewhere, I thought.

“And you understand how newspapers do that, right? They do it by telling people things they don’t want to hear.”

“Please,” Philo said.

“Well, why aren’t you doing journalism then, however you want it?”

“I’m the managing editor of this newspaper.”

“You’re the Bob Cratchit of this newspaper.”

“You must mean Scrooge.”

“Nope. Scrooge was the boss. You aren’t the boss by a long shot.”

I saw him look at the thermostat on the wall near the back door.

“Go ahead,” I said.

He couldn’t help himself. He slipped off the desk and walked to the thermostat and actually turned the heat down. I laughed.

“It’s not funny,” Philo said. He came back to where I was sitting and stood over me. “We could let you go. Would that be funny?”

It didn’t hit me as hard as he might have hoped, because I didn’t think he was serious. After all, who would actually put stories in the paper if I was gone? Philo spent most of his time writing e-mails and going to meetings about all the other businesses Media North was now in, cell phones and television and the Internet and billboards and video rentals.

“Hilarious,” I said. “Tell you what, why don’t you just fire yourself? Get the hell out of here and see the world, get drunk, get laid, do the things you really want to do. What’s that you always say? ‘Earth’s turning faster on its axis.’ What are you waiting around here for?”

“What makes you so high and mighty? What are you, thirty-seven, and you’re still messing around in Starvation Lake?”

“Thirty-five. And, hey, it pays the bills. I don’t have a trust fund, pal.”

“Pardon me?”

“Come on.”

“What do you know about me? You know nothing about me.”

“No offense,” I said, “but you’re miserable and you know it.” I felt Mrs. B move into the newsroom doorway. “You came here thinking you were going to run this little empire and knit these nice little towns together and take over for Uncle Jimbo. But it’s not working out, is it? You fire me and you won’t have time to worry about the Internet anymore. You’ll have to go to things like drain commission meetings. Ever go to a drain commission meeting? It’s actually even worse than it sounds.”

“Well, let me tell you something, pal,” he said. “I just might do that. But you know what that means? Huh? It means we’re all goners.”

“Right, right, we’re all goners. But the Internet, that’s going to save us.”

“That’s right. Print’s kaput, my friend.”

“I’m not your friend.”

He pointed at me. “Our biggest cost? Those big damn presses that print the paper. And the trucks that have to haul it around. When we’re rid of those, we’ll have-”

“Squat,” I said.

“We’ll be in the money. You’ll see. I’m going to make them see.”

Although Media North had an Internet business, it did not yet have the Pilot itself on the Internet. Philo had stood before Kerasopoulos and the other directors of Media North and patiently delivered his Internet-is-our-future speech. They had listened politely, as if they were indulging a boy asking the company to sponsor his Little League team, then moved to the next order of business. They wouldn’t even let us have our own experimental website. Kerasopoulos said we couldn’t be handing our stories over for nothing; that would be the death of us. He would also have a harder time controlling the news if the Pilot had an instant pipeline.

“All they can see is their 401(k)s and their pensions and their long-term bonuses. They’re not about to piss all of that away on your-”

“Excuse me.”

It was Mrs. B. Philo turned. “Yes, Phyllis?”

“I’m sorry, I thought you two might like to know. Channel Eight just had a bulletin. The River Rats have a new coach.”

I jumped out of my chair. “You’re kidding.”

It hadn’t taken Haskell but two hours to burn me.

“No,” she said. “It’s Jason Esper.”

“And what do you think about that, Mrs. B?”

“What do you think I think?”

She wasn’t her daughter’s estranged husband’s biggest fan.

“Who cares?” Philo said.

”There’s something else,” she said. She drew her reindeer sweater around herself. “They said the police are going to charge Alden in Gracie’s death.”

“Impossible. Charge him with what?”

“Alden who?” Philo said.

“They didn’t say,” Mrs. B said. “They just said he’d be charged.”

“There’s a difference between being charged and being taken in for questioning.”

“I’m just telling you what was on TV.”

I felt Philo staring at me. My heart was in my belly, partly for Soupy, partly because I’d just been scooped. Twice. In about thirty seconds. On the two biggest stories to hit Starvation in a year.

I could blame Haskell for the first one; he’d obviously turned around after our meeting and leaked it to Channel Eight. Or maybe Jason himself had, I thought, maybe while I was in bed with his wife. On the other, I had no one but myself to blame. Then again, even if I knew the cops were going to charge Soupy, what the hell was I going to do with it? The Pilot wouldn’t be out till the next morning.

Excuses, I thought. It felt lousy.

I turned to Philo. “Alden is Soupy, the guy who owns Enright’s. The thing about him could be bullshit. Channel Eight gets stuff wrong all the time. I’ll chase it.”

“OK,” Philo said. “The coach is a bigger story anyway, don’t you think?”

No, I thought, the murder of a Starvation Lake citizen is way bigger. But I said, “Maybe. Just think, Philo, if we had our own Internet page, we might have beaten Channel Eight to both these stories.” I grabbed my coat. “I’ll be back.”

“Where are you going?” Philo looked up at the wall clock over the copier. “You don’t have a lot of time.”

“You want to help?”

“I wish I could,” he said. “I have to do this budget.”

“No problem,” I said, and gave Mrs. B a light squeeze on the shoulder as I headed out to Main Street.

Contents