A Novel

Chapter 20: Mister State Trooper

Monday morning » August 31, 1987 » Art Newman arrived to work » almost dancing with excitement.

Blondie, suspicious, wondered what could have brought him to such a state of glee. She had never known him to become excited over anything other than somebody else's misfortune. Around Art, Blondie often thought of her grandfather, who used to say, "Them's that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same." Art Newman delighted in witnessing the harvest.

She didn't have long to wait before learning the reason for his glee.

Within fifteen seconds of entering the lobby, he said, "State police were here yesterday looking for you. They wanted to speak to you."

Acting unconcerned, nonchalant, but feeling pure panic, she asked, "Did they say what they wanted to speak with me about?"

"Oh yes, they did. They were quite specific. They wanted to speak with anyone who was here on the morning of August twenty-fifth. I told them you were the only one working that morning."

The morning she met Floyd Hotchkiss. "The only person working isn't exactly the same as being the only one here, Art. Anyway, why did they want to speak with anyone who had been here that morning?"

"Because a dead body was found in a coal car down at Powerton, smashed into the bottom. Railroad says the coal in that car was picked up here, at Fulls', and'd been collected on August twenty-fifth. The police think the man was probably a drifter who had overdosed on drugs inside the hopper car. Either that or he had been murdered and then dumped into the hopper car. That would have had to happen sometime before the train arrived. They still don't know the actual cause of death—they're gonna do an autopsy. Police said he might even have been buried alive!"

"Well what if he was? I don't see what any of it's got to do with me or anyone else who might have been here that morning."

"They're hoping to find somebody who saw anything unusual the morning that train passed through here."

"Well I didn't see anything unusual."

"You'll get to tell them so yourself. I told them you'd be here this morning if they wanted to talk to you."

"That's fine Art, just let me know when they arrive—"

"Oh, and a couple checked in this morning. They had the word. They'd like to do a little gambling."

"How much money do they want to spend?"

"They seemed like 'B' listers."

"That's fine. Call out to Shady Rest, have them send the van out tonight. I'll be in the office."

First, however, she walked into the cocktail lounge and bought a pack of cigarettes, from the cigarette machine. Again she thought of her grandfather. Strange morning to be thinking of him twice. But buying cigarettes from the cigarette machine always reminded her of him playing the church organ—the way he'd pull out the stops.

Her pack of cigarettes dropped into the pick-up bin. Something reassuring about a fresh pack of cigarettes. You never minded giving cigarettes away when the pack was still new. A new pack of cigarettes was a little bit like payday, when your bank account fills back up again, and people happily buy rounds at the bar. As the pack begins to empty, however, you guard each cigarette with increasing scrutiny. Every cigarette, every purchase, every expenditure, every grain of sand.

She lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply, feeling the smoke steady her shaken nerves.

The man in the train car must have been the mysterious second person, Floyd's whom Delaney had addressed as Joe on the voicemail message, and whom Fernando had been seeking along with Floyd.

Floyd had claimed that his partner "skipped". Was it possible that Floyd actually murdered him? With this possibility raised, the bizarre contents of Floyd's backpack began to make a little more sense: Floyd probably etherized Joe before killing him.

She tried to take stock of the situation. Art's revelation changed the entire complexion of her scheme, cutting into Floyd's blackmail job. This new information raised the stakes considerably, and made Floyd a more dangerous proposition—certainly a person to be handled in a way that she hadn't previously thought necesary.

Blondie hoped Art hadn't noticed her surprise at, and deep interest in, his news. In all likelihood, however, he not only noticed her surprise, but had anticipated it as well.

She put the pack of cigarettes into her quilted cigarette wallet. She snapped the brass-colored kiss clasp shut. She put the wallet into her purse. She left the cocktail lounge, walking back through the lobby. Art stared at her. He grinned. She conspicuously ignored him.

Again she thought of her grandfather. She remembered, as a little girl, sitting on the front porch with her mother and her grandfather. She and her mother were on the porch swing, and her grandfather sat in a rocking chair, just a short distance away, but visible only by the glow of the burning tobacco in his pipe, which cast a vermillion glow onto his face when he drew upon the pipe. Once, her mother pointed to the sky, and said, "Quick, Blondie, look: a shooting star! Make a wish." Blondie began to wish. Her grandfather said, "Blondie, sweet girl, be always on the lookout for the star that falls from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit; and when you see that star, do not wish upon it, but run far far away, for that star will use the key to open the pit, and from the pit there will arise smoke as from a great furnace, and the sun and the air will be darkened by reason of the smoke from that pit."

Blondie regretted ever having taken pity on Floyd Hotchkiss.

About twenty minutes later she heard the sleigh bells on the lobby door jingle. Art appeared at her office door, with two men: one wore a state police uniform, and the other wore plainclothes. The man in plainclothes asked, "Are you Miss DeSoto?"

Blondie stood, out of respect, and said, "Yes, but call me Blondie."

Apparently rejecting her attempt at friendliness, he coldly said, "Miss DeSoto, my name's Captain Braddock with the Illinois State Police, and this is my partner Sergeant Leo Schlageter." Then, looking down at his notepad, he continued, "Your coworker tells us you were working here the morning of August twenty-fifth, about the time the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific stopped to collect a load of coal from the Fulls Coal Company."

She asked, "What time would that have been?"

Art interjected, "It always comes through about five o'clock."

She hoped she wasn't as visibly flushed with anger as she felt: she had never known a person who so delighted in thwarting the plans of others as Art Newman.

Holding back her anger, she said, "Yes, I was here at that time."

"Did you notice anything strange that morning or the evening before? Any strangers in the area?"

"No, not that I can recall. We're a motel so we get a lot of strangers."

"Had you seen anyone recently in his mid-thirties, dark brown hair, about six one, hundred and eighty pounds, possibly wearing a Seattle Super-Sonics jersey? Tattoo of barbed wire around his left wrist?"

"No, I didn't see anyone like that."

"Think hard Miss DeSoto: did you see anything strange around that time."

"I'm sorry, but nothing at all comes to mind. If you leave your card, I'll get in touch if I remember anything. Maybe looking through the guest registrations for that day and the day before might jog my memory."

Handing Blondie his business card, he thanked her, and wished her a good day.

They left the office, and she sat back down, not knowing whether she had successfully fooled them, or if they realized she had lied. Police could be trickier than they seemed. The last thing she needed was to have them snooping around here. Damn that Floyd, he would bring a fine kettle of fish down on all of them. And damn Art Newman too.

As she contemplated the potential consequences of this latest development, she looked out the office window, and saw the police speaking to a man in the parking lot. The police seemed to be very interested in what the man had to say, and he appeared equally interested in them. She recognized the man. It was the guest who had registered under the name "Mr. Esquire-Man".

Panicked, but hoping to hide her panic, she walked out to the reception desk, and, pointing through the lobby door, said to Art, "Do you see that man speaking to the police?"


"Who is he? I've seen him hanging around here. He sits out in front of his motel room a lot, and then he sits in the bar a lot, but he hardly ever seems to leave the motel."

She hoped to trick him into revealing something by pretending that Mr. Esquire-Man hadn't left a strong impression on her.

"Yes, but he can't have anything to do with this accident. He only arrived a few days ago. I imagine he's probably just curious to know what all the excitement's about."

"When did he check in?"

"Oh, it must've been Friday, I guess. He was the one you were asking all those questions about, Mr. Esquire-Man. Surely you remember that."

"But I thought you said that man was here to visit his sick mother?"

"That's what he told me."

"He doesn't seem to visit her very often."

With a burnt-in trace of malice, he said, "No, he doesn't, does he?"