Michael Stephen Daigle
The old Jews knew what to do with rain like this.
Conjure an honest man with a boat and spin a parable about the wages of sin.
In Ironton, New Jersey after five days of rain, people with eight feet of water in their cellars wondered why they had not been told about the boat.
The last waves of an August tropical storm stalled over the state bringing more rain than had fallen all year. Once the ground and plants absorbed their fill, the water pooled on rock ledges, in depressions in the woods and in backyards under the swingsets and began a slow fall toward the river.
The creeks overflowed in parklands and the old canal path topped its banks. Saturated earth began to slide down the slopes souplike and sloppy, smearing against cellar windows and car tires; then against car doors and windshields and red flower boxes filled with marigolds as the water rose, splashing against locked front doors, seeping under the carpet while frantic homeowners ran sump pumps two at a time as the narrow brooks split their banks and the old creek, done diving under the homes of the east side of town, spilled over the streets, slammed through fences, around the corners of the homes grabbing turf and dirt and a few white sheets; smashed under porches, gaining weight and speed flowing with a purpose until it smacked the middle school abreast and recoiled, pooling and rising until from the head of Berry Street hill as you looked under the stone archway of the old hosiery mill, the streets looked like Venice when hell broke loose and someone held a rummage sale.
By the third day, the Rockaway had backed up into the broken storm sewers and street by street Ironton was cut into segments with orange and white barriers blocking access to flooded roads. Cellars in the riverbank homes were floating with seat cushions, books and toys, blankets and shredded cardboard boxes while gas from a broken line bubbled through the black water to the surface, and the fire department in scuffed black helmets with bright spotlights and yellow turnout coats rowed down dark Richards Avenue to pluck families from their porches.
The Salvation Army served them weak coffee and hot soup as they huddled under thin blankets where they sat clutching a brown shopping bag with a pair of pants, a shirt or two, a Teddy Bear, a couple of photo albums and a cell phone.
When the water receded the families had waterlogged homes to clean, town officials had streets caked with mud and Detective Frank Nagler had a body in the Old Iron Bog.
“It’d be easier if she had a head, huh, detective?”
Frank Nagler squinted down at the rescue squad kid waiting as an investigator zipped up a black body bag that contained the headless, handless body of a young woman and tried to remember what he forgot to do last night.
Sleep, that was it. It was 5 a.m.
“And maybe hands,” the kid added. “Man, I don’t envy you,” he said as he wheeled the bag toward the ambulance.
And maybe a note pinned to her chest with her mom’s phone number, Nagler thought sadly. Solve this thing by noon and get some sleep.
Police Supervisor Chris Foley reached Nagler’s side and shoved a cup of coffee into his hand. Nagler nodded.
“What do we know?” Nagler asked.
“She was found by a couple of high school kids out here drinking beer and screwing,” Foley said, as he looked at a notepad. “About 3 a.m. They apparently fell asleep, woke up when they heard a car drive in, started throwing on their clothes since they thought it was the cops,” Foley rolled his eyes. “The car stopped off in the distance, they heard some voices but no words.” He turned a page. “A door slammed, the car drove away. The kids sat in the car for a while. They thought it was no big deal. Saw something alongside the road. Someone dumping trash, happens out here all the time, they said.”
Nagler smiled. Foley was a good investigator. Started at the local department and worked his way through the ranks and was appointed to a regional task force a couple of years ago. The coffee landed in Nagler’s stomach with a crash and was jamming its way to his brain, pushing back the sleepless, dull ache. Nagler shook his head. A couple of cylinders were firing, he thought.
“You look like hell, Frank,” Foley said.
“Wanted to look my best for you. I was up half the night with that other thing,” Nagler said.
“Oh, is that the…”
“Yeah, that thing.” Nagler pursed his lips and shrugged. “So where’d they find her?”
Foley led Nagler along a narrow sandy road overgrown with small trees, cattails and grass. This was The Old Iron Bog, an old swamp that for generations going back to the iron mining days had been a dumping ground for waste rock, slag, trash, cars, and everything society needed to hide. Nagler thought it must be bottomless, given the amount of material that had been dumped here and still there was a large pond in the middle. The roads had been cut by the miners to give access to the swamp, and improved, if that was the word, by the towns that dumped garbage here before it was outlawed.
The place seemed undisturbed by a week’s rain, as if the hole at the bottom of the bog was deeper than anyone could guess. Nagler recalled a story about the construction of the interstate. Engineers were battering a steel piling into a hole on the edge of the old bog when the piling broke through the roof of an old mine shaft and disappeared into the void. The engineers stared at one another, pushed back their yellow hard hats, scratched their heads, consulted their maps, and stared into the hole.
This swamp, Nagler thought, will swallow us all.
They were going to build a shopping mall here, Nagler thought. A peeling, battered billboard hung for years along Mount Pleasant. Where’d it go?
Foley stopped at a spot on a road that had been obviously visited recently. The grass and brush had been beaten down and the soft sand on the side of the road showed signs where boots or shoes had sunk in and turned, near a larger print as their owner carried something.
Yellow tape marked off about one hundred yards of road and swamp. “The car stopped about here, probably two men,” – Foley walked about ten feet away – “took her out of the car, and dropped her. They just put her down. We found some spots in the sand that could be blood. If the kids are right, the car wasn’t here long enough for someone to dismember her here.”
Foley’s face went hard and his eyes cold.
“I wonder what she did to end up here?”
“Think she was a hooker?”
“No. What I saw of the body, there was no abuse. No needle tracks. Her belly was flat, legs in good shape. We’ll run the tests to see if there is semen. Maybe she was raped.
Foley stuck the notebook in the pocket of his sportscoat. Nagler smiled. Five in the morning and he’s dressed for the office. He’ll make a hell of a prosecutor.
“One thing I don’t like,” Foley said with a question in his voice. “They could have pushed her into the water. Why not? There’s five feet of thick weeds and brush on either side of the road here.. She would have sunk out of sight–the water is absolutely pitch black in this place–maybe got hooked on some roots and never came back up. Even if she did, you’d never see her.”
“You saying they were just sloppy?” Nagler asked. “Or they wanted us to find her?”
“I guess we’ll find that out when we find out who she is,” Foley said as he walked away. “I’ll call you later, Frank.”
About a dozen police, rescue and fire vehicles lined the roads with one set of wheels in the road and another in the murky ditch. Cops in hip waders crashed in and out of the brush and weeds and a fire boat was being backed into the swamp. Men and women on their knees with small shovels and baggies lifted samples of sand and placed them in the bags, which were then labeled and placed in black briefcases.
They had not yet found any clothes, or her head and hands, and the body had no jewelry. It was just the body. Maybe the rest was in the water.The roar of rush hour traffic on the interstate about a half-mile away started to filter into the swamp and fill in what until that moment had been a oddly quiet place. The sounds, even the chatter of the police radios was sucked into the deep endlessness of the swamp. The overgrowth absorbed all the noise just like it sucked nourishment from the water. But the grumble of daily life on the highway overpowered the dense swamp. By mid-morning once the trucks started rolling down from the quarry, ten at once, each carrying forty tons of rock, the water would begin a tremble that would shimmer on the surface until well after dark.
It’s a hell of a place to die, Nagler thought.
Nagler walked the site for a few more minutes, talking off and on to a fire captain, one of the county guys, or just observing trying to imprint the scene on his very tired brain.
The sand coated his shoes and he felt the ooze of the swamp soaking his socks. Dress shoes, he thought. What was I thinking?
The rubber-neckers lined Mount Pleasant, crawling by watching the lights flash on the police cars. A local cop with a flashlight waved them on, one by one, taking in what they could see or imagine they saw.
Nagler rubbed his forehead, stopped and looked up and down the street into the confusion of cars and lights. Where the hell did I park, he wondered. He turned to face the swamp and remembered he came in from the left, then walked that way.
He squeezed his eyes shut and let the kaledeoscope of swirls and circles fade to black. He hoped they would take along with them the endless lists numbers he had been examining for the past three weeks, ever since the letters began to arrive. Nine of them. Just lists and dates and numbers with no explanation, but day by day, Nagler could see they were heading toward some conclusion.
Just send the last chapter, he thought.
Shit, did I say that out loud, Nagler asked himself.
“Yeah, you did. Said ‘just send the last chapter,’ out loud.”
It was Jimmy Dawson.
“Don’t you ever sleep?’’
“I’m Icabod Crane. I hear the headless horseman is out tonight.”
Dawson was a reporter for the local paper. He was cynical, hard nosed, fairly nasty at times, but always got it right. He knew the rules of the game and Nagler knew he could lay out a story on background and no one would ever know the source.
“Yeah,” Nagler said. “Some young woman. Headless, handless. Looks like she was dumped here after being killed elsewhere. No clothes, no ID.” He shrugged. “No clue.”
Dawson finished writing and waited for more description.
“How do you do that?” Nagler asked.
“What?” Dawson asked.
“Read your hand writing. Especially while taking notes in the dark.”
“You write extra big. Trick I learn when I was a movie reviewer.”
Nagler and Dawson had been meeting like this for years. There was a respect between them, a knowledge that comes from being in the same places under the same circumstances too many times.
“You in later?” Dawson asked.
After 10. I gotta sleep.”
“I’ll call you,” Dawson said as he walked away.
Then he stopped.
“Hear from Lauren Fox?”
Nagler just stared at the reporter as he walked away. “No,” he finally said.
The Pakistani girl behind the counter at Dunkin Donuts asked, “Onion bagel?” And Nagler smiled and nodded. “And a small regular,” he added.
He took a seat at a window table and listened through the glass as the NJ Transit engine blasted its horn at the Warren Street crossing and he pictured the long red and white gates bobbing while the cars piled up on Orchard and past the traffic light on Blackwell just as they did a dozen times a morning as the old streets of Ironton came back to life.
Across the street, wrapping around the corner about 50 scruffy Latinos eyed each passing truck to see if the driver would stop and offer them a job. In an hour most of them would be gone, stepping inside the back door of a longbed Ford or Chevy with rakes and mowers or ladders and paint in the bed. What a life, Nagler thought. But better than the one they left in Mexico or Colombia.
The streets of Ironton hummed each morning. The restaurants or coffee shops were lined up five deep. The buses belched and swayed from stop to stop and the cars queued to fill the parking lots or cut through town heading for the interstate.
The suburban Jersey commuters parked their pick-ups and SUVs in the main lot and took the long gleaming trains east to New York, Hoboken, Morristown, Florham Park where they worked in towers changing money, inventing drugs and computer applications, while in Ironton the shop keepers swept the sidewalks, arranged their goods and prepared for a day of commerce.
The city was founded three hundred years ago when men figured how to turn the iron ore buried in the hills in that part of the county into shovels, plows, then cannon balls for George Washington’s army, then gates and rails for the canal boats, and finally iron wheels for the railroad.
The iron business filled the streets of the old city with a buzz as miners and forgers, canal men, and merchants rubbed shoulders with the bankers who financed it all and tradesmen whose skill was needed to shape the hard ore into the things of the modern world. The sounds of industry filled the air: the hammering at the forge, the hiss of iron cooling, the brays of mules pulling canal boats along the old towpath, the scream of train wheels on that last wide turn from Wharton; the sound of a dozen languages spoken at once, the tapping of a fine lady’s shoes as she window shopped at George Richman’s department store. The clatter of a world being invented daily.
Ironton had always been a brawny place, a place of men with biceps bulging from rolled up sleeves, of smoke filled bars where language differences sparked fights that left more than one family fatherless as underpaid, overworked immigrants burned off their frustrations.
But it had always been a place where things were made or invented. The Perfect Cooking Stove, the world’s largest silk hosiery mill, tubes for the tunnels under the Hudson River. The mills for clothes, machinery; things made in Ironton were shipped around the world.
Cramped in a narrow valley, the city was a place of wonder, life, achievement and glory.
It was such a place, such a center of that small corner of New Jersey, that when the silence came, no one knew what to do.
“It was like everyone in town was struck dumb,” Jimmy Dawson said one day. “Everything grew from that old iron mill, but at the end, in the Fifties, it was a rusting, falling down old hulk, an embarrassment, a symbol of failure in a world that after the war demanded something spiffy, something shiny, something new.”
So it was torn down without so much as a good-bye, thanks a lot, or a second thought.
Its absence left a giant hole in the middle of Ironton that fifty years later is just a gray, nasty parking lot that ends in a stone wall that once channeled the Rockaway River into the mill.
What happened in Ironton was repeated all over the United States as the new highways pulled the returning veterans out of the cities and the G.I. Bill that helped an entire generation go to college made it possible for them not to have to return to the mills, the mines and the sweatshops. In the rush to the future Ironton was left hat in hand along side of the road, sleeves rolled up, forge hammer in hand; John Henry tired and beaten as the diesel engine pulled away, the cry of the working man unheard as the world changed overnight.
All that was left was the hush of the river pouring daily uselessly through that old stone channel, water passing over stones with the meaninglessness of time.
It took fifty years for the politicians to realize it was never coming back. “All they talked about was the good old days when there were five department stores, three groceries, ice cream shops, jewelers, fancy men’s and women’s shops and three newspapers,” Dawson said. “Like some old jewel waiting to be discovered. The real sin was they thought Ironton was unique,” he said. “Like the place was surrounded by a wall. They were waiting for Commodore Perry to sail up the river and open the place up like he did Japan.”
There were no Commodore Perrys. Just Urban Renewal and in one swift decade the wreck of Ironton’s historic past was swept away — before it burned down. The seedy bars, the old warehouses, railroad shops with no roofs, all the claptrap 100 year old, wrecks of homes and businesses that leaned over the streets in need of a cane.
Urban Renewal brought more parking lots.
“Parking lots!” Dawson raged. “Parking lots.” The glorious colors of the past beaten flat into acres of sun-baked asphalt.
Worst of all, Dawson said, they all forgot.
All but Gabriel Richman, grandson of George Richman, the first mayor of Ironton, who in the late 1890s led the drive that carved the city of Ironton from the surrounding townships. George Richman didn’t invent Ironton, but he nearly owned all of it: the mills, the mines, the railroad, the water and sewer companies, rows and rows of tenements; sat on state commissions that oversaw the mines, mills and railroads, and when the city was formed set its borders along the property lines of all his friends.
He even owned the Old Iron Bog , but for all of his connections and money could not figure out how to use the swamp for anything but a dump.
But Gabriel Richman knew. A century of modern industrialization and environment law later, Gabriel Richman, now the four-term mayor of Ironton, had a plan that he touted as the saving grace of the old city. It would rid the region of an old smelly swamp, trade that wetland for a piece of riverfront property that needed restoration — a plan the environmentalists loved because it would improve the quality of the river’s water and help solve the chronic flooding in lower East Ironton — and build a shopping center.
Not just a shopping center. But a power center, he declared the day he made the announcement, standing behind a podium that had been hauled to the swamp on the back of a town pick-up truck. Large, national chain stores, a small golf course, a transportation center for bus and train service with a hotel, fancy restaurants and shops, some upscale housing. All the taxes the old city would ever need. All the prestige the old place was lacking since the days of his grandfather. He would reinvent Ironton, he declared to a cheering crowd.
The fact that the old bog was a more than a mile from the heart of the city and would require billions in investment and environmental clean-up didn’t faze the 42-year-old mayor.
Hell, he said, a decade ago the state filled in a corner of the Old Iron Bog when it built the interstate. How hard can it be?
Apparently harder than he thought. Five years after the announcement and after the forty-foot billboard declaring “Ironton Center: The Center of Your World” was erected, there was no transportation center, upscale hotels or condominiums.
Just acres of black water, tree stumps and old rusted cars settling into a bottomless goo.
Gabriel Richman’s big dreams had run headlong into the reality of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the opposition of nearby apartment dwellers, historians, environmentalists, the dot-com crash, corporate scandal, Wal-Mart, the jealosy and opposition of the mayors of neighboring towns, and the sweet-voiced, but reasoned concerns of Lauren Fox.
It wasn’t that she opposed the plans. It was just as the manager of a program designed to revitalize the downtown area, she had to tell the mayor that the state would rather see all that effort and money spent filling in the 12 acres of empty parking lots in the center of Ironton and not the Old Iron Bog
The mayor, however, was not one to take no for an answer, Jimmy Dawson reminded everyone. And since he could not move the engineers, the environmentalists, the money lenders or the apartment dwellers — or the area’s politicians, who love to silently lie in wait while one of their own with perhaps a big mouth seemingly puts a foot in it — he targeted Lauren Fox.
Six months after she told the mayor what he did not want to hear, funding for her job was removed from the city budget and she was gone.
Gone without a trace, Nagler thought. Gone without good-bye.
He shut his eyes against the pain. We talked nearly every day for two years. In the corridors of city hall, in her office, on street corners, at ballpark ribbon cuttings. God, she was kid. That’s what raised all those eyebrows, he knew. She was a kid, maybe 26, and he was 50.
And she was beautiful. Every single cop in town hit on her. The mayor probably hit on her. And old dumpy Frank Nagler caught her eye.
No, he said silently.
He stuffed the waxed paper from the bagel into the coffee cup and jammed them both through the dirty swinging door of the trash bin. I can’t do this again.
She’s gone. No one they both knew had heard from her. Vanished. Bury all the old memories, he thought. That’s what I’d do. All the confusion. All the disappointments.
He stepped from the silence of the coffee shop into the clash of sounds that was Blackwell Street: Horns honking, engines revving, shouts, train whistles and the wail of distant ambulance.
I wonder what the mayor will think about the headless horseman, Nagler thought.
Nagler hated the medical examiner’s lab. The light made everyone look like a corpse and slight odors of decay floating off the bodies stuck in his nostrils for days after.
The woman was on a stainless table and didn’t look any better there than she did in the bog, he thought.
Dr. William Mulligan was the medical examiner. He stood over the body and peeled the gloves off his hands and reached over and shut off the tape recorder. Then he shook hands with Nagler.
Mulligan’s voice was like sour milk found in a glass under the bed, soft and terribly unpleasant.
“She was five-eight, about 120 pounds,” he started. “Muscular, kept in good physical shape. She has very narrow feet. Two incisions are notable,” he said and directed Nagler’s vision to two small cut on her neck, one on either side.
“They were made prior to her head being removed, by a very sharp implement like a razor or a scalpel.”
“Practice?” Nagler asked.
“Maybe torture. See this?”
Mulligan laid the shoulder gently back on the cold table and lifted the left arm.
“This is about the size and location of an incision that hit the artery,” the doctor said. “They might have bled her out.’’
Nagler exhaled. He’d heard that drug gangs used gruesome torture techniques when a deal went bad. But those stories always came from somewhere else, someplace foreign, and featured shouting men with black masks and bandannas showing off automatic weapons. “So where’s all the blood?” he asked no one in particular.
Mulligan said the woman might have been alive when they cut her head off, although not conscious. “Anyway you look at it, she died a terrifying, horrible death.”
“Could they have shot her in the head, or beat her to death?”
“Without the head, we’ll never know,” the coroner said. “But there are no deep contusions on her torso.”
“Time of death?” Nagler asked.
“After midnight. She was put in the swamp shortly after. There was some soil in the blood clots on her neck, so they might have been nearby, but no indication that she was bleeding heavily when they dumped her.”
“So the bog might have just been a convenient spot, rather than a message or anything like that,’’ Nagler asked.
“Can’t say,’’ Mulligan said, “but possible. She wasn’t there before the rain came. There would have been no blood and the body would have been more seriously degraded.’’
In his mind Nagler scanned the streets in the north part of Ironton near the Old Iron Bog. Lots of homes, but a few older warehouses, machine shops and storage sites left over from the days when manufacturing took place, back alleys, narrow streets, lots of dark out of the way places worth checking.
Mulligan covered the body with a white cloth.
“I’m sorry, Frank. Nothing magic here. She wasn’t raped, she didn’t appear to be a drug user, but we’ll have the tests back soon. Just one terrible death.”
After he left the medical examiner’s office Nagler headed back to the Old Iron Bog to ponder the scene in full daylight.
Wasn’t any better.
The yellow tape was still there, tire tracks in the sand; the same emptiness.
He walked along the narrow dirt road unfulfilled, head down, kicking clots of dirt until he heard a door slam.
At the head of the road parked with its big fat cargo butt half in the travel lane was Gabriel Richman’s gold Cadillac Escalade.
Gabe Richman stuck out his hand and the men shook hands. “Frank. What do you think?’’
“I think some unfortunate kid got caught up with the wrong gang and they sacrificed her,’’ Nagler said. “We’re going over the evidence. We’ll find the out soon enough. Something like this, something this messy …. someone talks.’’
Gabe Richman was gazing off into the distance.
“I hated this place as a kid,’’ he said. He turned back to Nagler. “Hated this town.”
“That something you want to tell me, Gabe?”
“It’s not a secret,’’ he said and laughed.
“This town was old George Richman’s creation. You’ve seen the photos. The department store with the line of horse-drawn delivery wagons. The dress shops, the theaters. The old mills. People worked hard here, raised their families, made dreams come true. And I wanted that. But when I grew up, the dreams were gone, the mills shut down, the great passenger trains just photos on the station walls. The politicians at the time began to blame my grandfather. Lived for himself, paid off his friends, made them all rich while the town declined, when the truth was that this was not going to be an iron center for ever. The mines were played out, the new technology was not used. The mills were old and inefficient. It the end it collapsed under its own weight. The world changed after the war and Old Ironton was not ready for it. In fact of it had not been for the war, it would had stayed shut after the Great Depression.
The mayor rubbed his hands on his pants to loosen some sand.
“When I went to college I realized that lots of places were like Ironton. Places that found themselves running behind. That’s why I wanted to build that center here. To show people in this town that dreams can happen. If it had worked, Ironton would have been a place to remember again.”
Nagler asked, “so what happened.”
“Politics. Gamesmanship. Graft. A mayor whose name I can’t tell you wanted a big political pay off for his support and another wanted to create a shell company so he could buy in and not have to declare the income. Some state officials said they would approve the clean up if I was willing to contribute to the governor’s campaign. Every developer in the county wanted a piece of the action and every lawyer wanted to handle the rezoning application. I never realized how many people thought they could make money off an old swamp.’’
He rubbed his eyes with the palm of his hands like he was grinding the sleep out of them.
Then he laughed, but it did not disguise the weary bitterness in his voice.
“I’ll see you, Frank. Have a meeting downtown with the business administrator over next year’s taxes.’’
Nagler said he’s keep the mayor informed of any developments in the case.
He glanced up at the Escalade as the passenger side window slipped down a bit.
Behind the dark glass for just a second before the panel slid closed, Nagler thought he saw a blonde woman. In the next moment as the image sharpened, he was sure it was Debbie Glance, the planning board secretary.
Nagler looked his watch. It was 9:30 in the morning.
Debbie Glance. Ouch.