Ironton was a city of alleys.
The big highways passed to the north and south of the city and the main local streets followed the river and the hilly terrain.
What connected all of them were the alleys, warrens of deadends, a network of narrow potholed passageways that carried the gossip of the neighborhoods from house to house, block to block, until it passed from the Italians to the Irish, through the Germans and back, so changed, so lost in translation it had become new again.
The alleys were where the household commerce took place. While the front porches stood guard over the main street, doors locked, shades drawn like deserted rooms in some dead train station, the back doors squeaked and slammed a hundred times a day as the family’s kids ran off to school, off to baseball practice, or off to Cheryl Johnson’s house, where she promised Bobby DeLuca she’d give him a blowjob.
The alleys were where the garbage trucks waddled down the street barely clearing the fender of George Stein’s new F-150, and where the snow plows, not so careful, nudged a few garbage cans into the light poles as they dug out a path.
Where the homeowner marked off their proud territory with fences. Some were slatted, a few were tall barricades, with a double-latched gate, a few others were new, white picket fences, the signs of progress and change.
But mostly the fences were rusted or green plastic-covered chain link. They drooped in the middle section where the boys had used the fence as a brace as they took the shortcut, or leaned at the corner post near the driveway where Nancy Harrington backed her father’s Impala into one or two while leaving for school.
It was one a.m. Frank Nagler was walking the alleys where he grew up, a section of Ironton wedged between the stoveworks complex, where all their fathers worked, and the section of the city where old Bowlby began to think like a governor of a Southern state and declared he was seceding from Ironton.
He didn’t, of course. While his neighbors were unhappy the new waterline skirted their five square blocks of rebel territory, they knew they would never get city water if they weren’t part of the city.
Nagler had been out on the streets a lot lately, wandering darkened alleys of childhood memory, leaning in the half-light against the granite face of the train station before dawn, waving off the commuter train that slowed as it rolled east, standing on the Sussex Street bridge just watching the river flow, as if the rails, the streets and the water held clues that could calm the cauldron of thoughts, questions and feeling that boiled in his head.
He had done the same thing as a rookie detective. The quiet streets allowed the dull stares of suspects, the wailing of wives, the curses of husbands, fathers and cops to settle out until he was able to clearly see the details, the reasons and the crimes.
Dan Yang, the forensic accountant, had developed a list of city bank accounts for the past 15 years, and line by line it was clear that someone had been shifting funds from one account to another for a number of years.
It wasn’t enough to make a case, but it was a start. Nagler knew they now needed more invoices, accounting ledgers, city rosters and countless hours to make sense of it all.
That wasn’t what had Nagler walking all night – that was just a case, a complicated one to be sure, but just a case.
What kept him walking was the gnawing knowledge that someone had been ripping off the city for years and that he had probably talked to that person a hundred times while they were stuffing the cash into their pants pockets. Nagler knew that he would only sleep again when the pain in his head and gut had been removed.
His old house was on Lincoln. It was a nasty, hilly, narrow alley that more often than not was blocked by the wreck of a stolen car left there by the Hansen twins, the neighborhoods thugs. That was their signature: Any car they stole was driven through the railroad yard downtown and then through as many crappy back alleys as possible to reduce the vehicle to scrap.
No one said they were the brightest crooks. Nagler smiled. He was the cop who caught them on their last spree when the old Jeep they tried to bury in the Old Iron Bog got wedged above its axles in mud. Just because it has four-wheel-drive, he remembered thinking at the time, it’s still not a tank.
Lincoln ran down to Mullen, then over to White, then to the highway. It was always dark, even in the daytime as tall maples overarched the homes, blocking out the sun. At night two streetlights a block apart cast more suspicion than light.
There were no sidewalks when he lived there, just two narrow worn down pathways on either side of the street that carried the men of the neighborhood to the mill, clean from an overnight bath, blue denim shirt, hair slicked back under a wool cap; and then back home at night smelling of ash and coal, hair dusted with white powder, faces black with oily grime, the blister on the left heel a little more raw where the cardboard inserted to stiffen the sole had rubbed through the sock.
Each trip to and from the stoveworks made the men five dollars richer. Five dollars closer to death.
Each day they molded doors, stove tops, stacks and panels for the Perfect Cooking Stove, a cast iron kitchen stove that was the star of many kitchens. During the wars they made small heaters designed to give foot soldiers some carry-along warmth.
This was Ironton at its peak. A dozen iron and steel mills operated along the river and rail lines; in the hills to the north and west mines has been dug into the rich deposits of iron ore that had supplied George Washington with cannon balls, and then with better technology, had been tapped to unimaginable depths so that the hills contained a lattice work of mine shafts and tunnels that generated the wealth that propelled the county into the Twentieth Century.
That only mattered to young Frank Nagler as he watched his father leave for the mill each morning and return each night. As he got older, Nagler measured the state of his world against the condition of his father’s nightly return from work as it transformed from the homecoming of the young, fit worker who carried his young son on his shoulders the last block to home while the boy breathed in the dust, ash and sweat of his father’s labors, to the middle aged man who limped on a bad ankle as his son took up his lunchpail and sometimes had his father lean on him to make the walk easier.
Nagler, like his friends, watched the stoveworks grind the life out of his father so that when it shut for good the boys were relieved their fates had been changed.
Nagler stopped by the stoveworks that night. It had been a mile long complex of thick walled brick buildings that lit up the night with forge fires and ever burning lights and drove away the silence with metallic screeches of metal wheels turning and grinding and the heavy slammings of boxcars, ore cars, cranes and iron parts.
Now it was a wreck of empty shells, the peaked roofs rotted to dust, the windows shattered by rocks and pistol shots, the bay doors of loading docks rippled with waterlogged paneling.
Feral cats kept the rat population down.
Lauren Fox wondered why Gabe Richman had not proposed to build his shopping center here. She said it was a project the state would have funded.
A neon street light a block away flickered to life, brightened and flashed, then darkened, The cycle was repeated about every minute. It made the alleys between the forty foot walls even more sinister; wind crept through broken windows, water dripped.
It was late September so Nagler knew the homeless crew that lived under the railroad bridge in the summer would be settling into the main building where a long section of the roof was intact. They were mostly old vets, a handful of guys who fell hard for whisky and drugs, people who lost their jobs and then their homes, or mental patients let loose when the state decided it no longer wanted to warehouse sick people.
There were always a few families. Dirty faced kids playing in the dust of the old mill as their mother sorted the black trash bag of clothes she picked up from the Salvation Army. Frank Nagler called the county when a family arrived; they could not survive the winter outside. Why do we allow this, he asked himself more than once. Why is this accepted? Even at the end when Ironton’s mills closed one by one, families weren’t living under the bridge or inside the shell of an old factory. Someone offered help.
I guess we just don’t care, he thought. The politicians don’t care, the schools are under attack and the feds just arrested scores of public officials for stealing. The words were bitter in his mouth even before he said them.
“Welcome to America the great.”
A camp fire cast grotesque shadows on the far corner wall as a dozen or so figures moved through the dark, a laugh breaking out of the low murmur like glass shattering in an echo chamber.
As he got closer, Nagler saw several tents, a clothesline draped with pants and towels, ice chests and coolers, a make-shift fireplace made of old stones and strips of metal with a battered cylinder of aluminum as a chimney, and an assortment of lawnchairs, each occupied by a body marked by a moving red flare that brightened and faded as they took a drag.
When he got closer, and some of the homeless men perceived he was a cop, they froze.
“Hey,” Nagler said. “It’s me, Frank.”
The voice emerged from the deepest corner of the site. It was Delvin Williams.
“Del,” Nagler acknowledged his old friend, who was walking stiffly out of the darkness. The men shook hands and exchanged a brief embrace. “Been a while, Frank.”
“Yeah. Too long, Del,”
They went to high school together. Del’s family lived a couple blocks away and their boys were inseparable. When Del’s father died in a mining accident, he dropped out of school to work and eventually was a porter on the Phoebe Snow, a luxury train that ran between New York and Chicago that always made a stop in Ironton.
Nagler would see him at the downtown station, sparkling in that white uniform with pants creases so sharp you could cut paper. Del was so proud of his job, and was so good at it that when the Phoebe Snow was taken out of service, the Lackawanna Railroad presented him with a silver medal.
But Del liked to drink and liked the needle and eventually all the bright lights faded into a blur. He’d been on the streets for maybe fifteen years, probably more, Nagler guessed. He avoided the social workers and cops, choosing to camp out under the bridge and in winter finding a place in one of Ironton’s empty buildings.
“So what brings you to our camp tonight, Frank?” Del asked.
“Just walking, Del. Was close enough so I thought I’d come by see how you’re doing,” Nagler said.
“Well, Frank, I’ll you I’m the fucking King of England,” Del Williams said. “Couldn’t be finer.” Then he laughed until he coughed, and then coughed until he nearly choked.
“You’re not well, Del, are you?” Nagler asked.
“Doctor in that hospital van said it’s probably lung cancer,” Del Williams said, and waved his hand at the darkness. “Untreatable, probably have six months. He told me he’d get me into the hospital, but I said no. I’d have to give up my luxury suite.” Del laughed, but looked into the darkness of the building with hollow eyes. “Next time you come on by, Frank, you’d better poke me because as Mercutio said, I might be a grave man.”
Frank Nagler felt helpless. He knew there was no way to talk Del into a hospital stay.
“Can you handle the pain, Del?” he asked.
“Man was born into pain, my friend. This ain’t nothin’. “
Lung cancer. It might as well have been the weight Del Williams carried, maybe three hundred and fifty pounds. A memory of Del as a high school basketball player flickered across Nagler’s mind. Thin as a rail. It was said he could slip sideways through a press and double-team like a shadow, a knowing grin on his face.
Now he was sitting wrapped in three sweaters reclining on a torn plastic lawn chair in a hobo’s camp with a couple dozen other men and women either too oblivious of the outside or too afraid to go back, a glaze over his eyes, a body torn and huge, poisoned by choices he had made, forced down a chute that got more and more narrow until he convinced himself like the others had, they this was the way to live and they proudly, defiantly, dared the outsiders to lure them back. The chute became too small, the choices too narrow and the nod too good. It’s easy to feel forgotten when you wander off alone.
The corner of the mill was silent, no one even shuffled. Outside, an early commuter train rattled by.
“Someone find my friend a chair,” Del Williams said, and when it appeared Frank Nagler sat next to his friend and caught up.
“So how’s that fine lady of yours, Frank? How’s Martha these days?” Del Williams asked. “Last time I saw her was maybe on one of those return trips from Chicago on the Pheobe Snow. I think I met you and Martha at the steakhouse and the three of us had a grand old time telling stories about the neighborhood. Remember that?”
Nagler forced a smile in the dark. There never was a meeting downtown, or drinks at the steakhouse. It was just Del and his memories jumbled up, flaring, fading, every place he had ever been, everything he had ever seen at the edge of his damaged mind like sunlight slipping away.
“You came to our wedding,” Nagler said instead.
Del Williams laughed again.” I surely remember that, I surely do. That girl could daaaance. She was a marvelous girl, Frank. You tell her ol’ Del was askin’ for her.”
“I certainly will, Del. Thanks for asking.”
An hour later, as Nagler stood to leave, Del Williams grabbed his arm.
“Saw your friend Mister Chris Foley out here the other day,” he said. “He was walking around the place with some woman I think works at city hall. She was taking a lot of notes and they was pointing at the tracks, the bus garage and this old place and taking more notes.”
“He say anything to you,” Nagler asked. Foley? he thought.
“Naw, I asked him what’s up, because, man, this is our home, and he just said the owner filed another tax appeal and the city was going to fight it. He gave me twenty bucks, though.”
As he crossed Main back into the neighborhood, Nagler heard Jimmy Dawson’s voice. He was telling a story about Howard Newton and some deal he had pulled off on the east side.
“The only thing that has lasting value,” Dawson said, “is land. They aren’t making any more of it.”
The streets settled into a pre-dawn, holy quiet. A stillness so deep the sound of a car spinning its wheels in gravel three blocks away filtered through the dark streets; a quiet so dense the tapping of Frank Nagler’s shoes on the cement sidewalk sounded like a crack of steel against steel.
The house was a few blocks up and over. He knew the route so well he could walk it blindfolded: Out the back door on Lincoln, through the Harrigan’s yard, down the narrow walkway that led to the stairs the city put in so people could get down the hill to stores on Washington. Then a jog up to Elm, through the grouchy lady’s yard, which got easier after her stupid pit bull died, and there it was.
Martha Shannon’s house. 14 Elm Street. White with blue trim, one center gable and a slick tin roof so steep it would kill you just to try to climb it. Her room was on the second floor on the right, with two windows, one front, one side, and pink curtains.
Frank Nagler sat behind her in second grade . She had the neatest handwriting, and long straight red hair that she held together with a silver barrette. When they walked home from school she filled the air with vivid stories of her day. They stopped and spoke with everyone on the streets: old Mrs. Drake, whose husband died in the war and whose children never call; Mr. Adams who was always washing his car; Bobbi Jackson who had two kids by the time she was 20 and worked nights cleaning offices, but waited at the corner of Main Street for the little one to get off the school bus and run into her arms, jacket flapping, papers slipping from his tiny hand so he had to stop and pick them up and dropped his lunchbox, and just before he was going to cry she scooped him into her arms and they laughed all the way home.
The first time Frank Nagler held Martha Shannon’s hand was in the third grade. It was the softest thing he had ever touched and he knew he would hold it forever.
The early sun glinted off the topmost window of the old Shannon home. It had been vacant for years when the last owner lost it to the bank. The fence leaned to the street, a porch railing rested on the stairs and the glass in a couple windows in the upper floor surrounded the perfectly round entry hole of a small rock.
Her parents moved away years ago. They were probably dead now.
More than once on one of these night prowls he took the three concrete steps, walked around the pile of leaves and branches, opened the unlocked front door and stood in the dark hallway where he had waited for Martha Shannon to go the Baker Theater for the double bill, or waited for Martha Shannon to change sweaters one more time because, Frank, the green one just really didn’t go with my skirt, silly. Sometimes her mother would walk in from the kitchen, still wearing a white apron and wiping a pot and sweetly chide her precious daughter, “Hurry, dear. Frank’s still waiting, Martha.” Or her father would walk through to share the conspiracy, just to say, “Her mother made me wait, too. Can’t hurry them, no matter what.” Frank would just say, yes, sir and smile and when they left the house, he’d roll his eyes at Martha as they walked down the street.
He stood in the hallway where he had waited hopeful and thrilled to even have the chance to wait for her so many times before, so many, many times for dates, school, football games, walks, or trips to the Old Iron Bog. He laughed to himself when Foley talked about the kids in the car who called the police about the woman’s body. Thirty years ago those kids were Frank Nagler and Martha Shannon, huddling naked under an old quilt, the scent of her lavender perfume mixing with the musty quilt smell, the taste of her mouth and the softness of her neck and belly still fresh in his memory.
The hallway held all those ghosts, the trapped sounds of their young love woven into the dusty spiderwebs that clung to the corner of the ceiling, silent witnesses to all the times they kissed and then jumped apart when the floor above them creaked or a light carved a slice into the darkness. Or stood facing opposite walls when they argued over something they never remembered. But then they made up when he would ask, “Are you okay?” and she’d say yes, and she’d ask “Are you?” And Frank Nagler would gaze deeply into her green eyes, hesitant to answer because they had been at this point before and sometimes he said he was okay when he was still sore, but he would gaze into her green eyes and the little hurt would be drawn out and he’d slowly nod his head and say, “yeah.”
The hallway where he stood nervous and stunned on senior prom night as 17-year-old Martha Shannon slowly and elegantly descended the stairs in a red satin gown with thin straps on her pale shoulders wearing a smile as wide as tomorrow, trying to be as cool and adult as possible when she really just wanted to shout, half crying, “Look at this dress, Frank. Isn’t it beautiful? I want you to like it so much. I got it just for you.” A gown that hugged her body and billowed around her legs as it ran to the floor, a gown like Hollywood actresses wear to the Academy Awards. A gown that had been her big secret for weeks, and had been so secret that she yelled at him for even asking about it; a gown that comically knocked Frank Nagler back against the front door, his knees so weak he grabbed for the door handle.
A gown so red and so perfect on the girl he had loved since the third grade, he cried.
It was the hallway where Frank Nagler reached out to steady the ambulance gurney that carried Martha Shannon Nagler down from the second floor bedroom around the tight platform turn to the first floor, where the medics put it down and with a jerk popped out the wheels; where they slowly passed through the front door, toward the ambulance with the pulsing red and blue lights that shined off the darkness, pausing to lift it above the concrete steps while he stood transfixed by fear and pain and dread until one of the men said softly, “you need to come, Frank,” and he walked out of the Shannon house for the last time and into the back of the ambulance.
He kneeled beside the gurney and held her hands as carefully as he could. The leukemia that had been diagnosed at 19 had come back, eating her away for the past four years, until all she could do was rest in bed. Nagler the young cop was at her side every night as she told him about all her visitors in as bright a voice as she could muster, that in the last few days had become a whisper.
The ambulance bounced through Ironton’s streets and Frank Nagler held on to his wife’s gurney and tried to gently brush from her forehead her red hair, now thin and sparse and streaked with gray, all the while whispering, “it’s okay; it’s okay.”
She gazed up from the pillow, eyes soft with love for her husband, then dark as pain flowed, then unfocused as the last moments they had entered and passed, her eyes worried not for herself but for her husband, helpless in his grief, searching her eyes for solace that she could not offer, and trying to pass to her what strength he could find, what words he knew, what prayers, what hope, what love; something that would last.
The grave stone was red granite, as close as he could come to the color of her hair.
She died in October and the cemetery was carpeted in fallen leaves of red, orange and yellow as a chilling early morning wind blew in from the iron hills.
He stood at her grave long after all others left. They had tried, honestly tried, especially the priest, to transform the death of his young wife into some metaphor for the grace of God, who would comfort and keep her for however long … and Frank Nagler just didn’t give a damn.
As the cold sun crept past the hills, Frank Nagler felt his heart break, but sorrow did not then emerge, just for one thin moment, joy.
“We were a celebration, weren’t we, kid. A star blazing across the night sky, leading all the way as they all followed. You and that great mane of red hair, so red the sun would blush, a laugh so pure it was like singing. Oh, how they loved you. Loved to be near you. And I was so thrilled by you and so humbled you would be with me. But we cut a path, took no prisoners. They would just see us and smile. What could they do? Man, I loved you so and it filled me with a passion of life that I can’t explain. Everything was alive; everything was new, and would be new as long as you were here with me. I will always love you, Martha Shannon Nagler.”
Then just like that, his heart closed. He felt the change as his body stiffened and his mind stopped spinning. He absorbed the cold, welcomed it, made himself in its image.
The tears of the early day were gone.
He knelt beside the grave and ran his hands over the soft soil.
“Good bye, my sweet love, my sweet Martha.”
He was 24, but as he stood up he knew he felt older. He welcomed the hardness that circled his heart.
He stood above her grave watching the golden-red sunlight creep through the cracks in the gravestones and trees, casting elongated shadows that melted into the grass as the sun rose.
Martha’s grave was the last stop on all of his nightly rambles. He didn’t know why. He just wanted to be as close to her as he could, to have her as close to him as he could get her. For years, even after she died, there was no one else Nagler felt close to.
Dawson would think he was nuts, Nagler knew. Once, years ago, He asked Dawson to come to the cemetery. He was a lot younger and a lot less sure of himself, so he felt a little embarrassed to be standing in the middle of the empty graveyard, maybe, sometimes talking to his wife’s grave.
“Right , Frank,” Dawson said. “that’s what I’m going to do. Stand in the middle of the Locust Street Cemetery with you and talk to your wife’s grave. We’d both have reservations at the state hospital.”
On this night Frank Nagler just told his wife, ”There’s a lot of trouble brewing, kid. Someone is stealing money from the city and I think they’re trying to blame a young woman who worked there a couple of years, Lauren Fox. I told you about her. We fell hard for each either, you know, but it sort of never took. But she opened me up again, Martha. I was grateful for that. You don’t know what I was like after you died. I didn’t know who to be mad at, so I was mad at everyone, and then no one. Just mad.”
He stopped taking to himself and shut down his mind.
“I love you Martha Shannon Nagler,” he whispered. “It’s important that you always know that.”
A delivery truck grinding up Locust stalled and the started up again with a cough and bang. The driver ground the gears and the truck lurched up the hill.
The sounds shook Nagler out of his reverie.
Why would the owner of the stove works file another tax appeal? he asked. And why would Chris Foley, a cop, be out looking at the property?
They went bankrupt years ago and it seem to him that Dawson wrote a story a couple years ago that said the town couldn’t locate the owners, they were in Minnesota or Wyoming or someplace else. Manitoba. Seemed to cause Gabe Richman a lot of grief, Nagler thought.
Who’d know that stuff,? Nagler asked himself. And he didn’t like the answer.
Debbie Glance. She was the planning board secretary.
As he left the cemetery, Nagler thought, she’s been seen in the company of the mayor early in the morning, and I’ll bet anything that the city hall woman Chris Foley was walking around with, the one that Del Williams saw, was Debbie Glance.
Debbie Glance and Chris Foley. Debbie Glance and Gabriel Richman.
Frank Nagler didn’t believe in coincidences.
It was raining again.
A weak storm got itself trapped in the hills and valleys northwest of Ironton and squeezed three days of drenching, cold rain out of the sky. The state closed a main highway running to the northwest suburbs when a quarter-mile of hillside let loose and blocked the road with boulders and dirt that buried a couple of cars and pushed a tractor trailer over a cliff. To the far north a series of old, man-made earthen dams gave way and the water followed the brooks and streams down the mountainsides to the east side of Ironton where riverfront homeowners had surrounded their homes with piles of sandbags squeezed in next to the big green trash containers that held the washers, freezers, floors tiles, wall paneling and sopping couches left by the last flood.
Man, we’re cursed, Jimmy Dawson thought as he walked head down through the cold, persistent rain toward city hall.
The streets were oddly vacant, this storm having finally driven everyone inside. In the last big storm residents and visitors tried bravely to carry on their business, until their umbrella turned inside-out one time too many and that one last truck hit the water running curbside and sprayed the sidewalk where they were waiting for the light to change.
Or maybe it was a sense of doom, Dawson thought. That was a newsman’s thought. He saw the headline: “State declares Ironton doomed.” Forty days of rain fill basin. Residents buy tickets for boat passage. Or maybe it was just October. Not cold enough to snow, but just cold enough to bring that nagging, damp feeling in your shoes, the coat that doesn’t quite dry, the irritating throat scratchiness. A damp darkness that hints of depression.
There was a trembling underground. He could hear it in people’s voices as he asked questions about any number of recent events, see it in their eyes.
As he got the porch at town hall, he asked himself, what’s that old blessing, if the creeks don’t rise? He looked at the water flowing through the streets, watched the shimmering veils of water cascade off rooftops; felt the dampness intrude. Well, they’re rising.
Dawson entered the small council room that acted as the municipal court and, like today, a media room. The officials had not yet arrived so the only person in the room was a kid from Yourtown.com, a new Internet based news service that had invaded the area. It was a slight news outlet, a cross between an old-style weekly and a high school newspaper. It was mostly lists and calendar items and badly written opinion pieces contributed by readers. But that was the idea: To give citizens a feeling they controlled the news. The quality of the pages was in the layout and the design, not in the writing or reporting. Dawson had heard Upton complain about Yourtown.com a lot; they seemed to be winning the war.
Dawson nodded a greeting to the kid, whose name he recalled, Wilson Smith.
“What do you think this is about,” Wilson Smith asked. He was setting up a video camera so the event could be broadcast live on his website, which meant, Dawson knew, that they would have this story first. He used to worry about that, but then he watched a few of the videos and realized the quality and sound were terrible and the “news” was just the talking heads repeating what they had just said without being questioned on the content.
Dawson said, “might be something on the storm damage.. The governor announced this week that towns and schools would be getting some extra state cash next year because of the disaster declaration. The feds announced the declaration the other day and it usually comes with some funds.”
The city could use the money, Dawson knew, Ironton was going to lose a couple million in state aid.
A door opened and Gabe Richman and Chris Foley enter the room. An odd pair, Dawson thought.
Dawson chuckled at the formality of these press conferences, as if Richman was going to announce he was running for President.
But it was Wilson Smith and him, Dawson thought.
Richman and Foley stood awkwardly in front of the dais, each clutching a few papers.
“Thanks for coming,” Richman said. He seemed extremely nervous, Dawson glanced over his shoulder at the empty room. Who exactly are you speaking to, Gabe? He thought.
“Relax, Gabe,” Dawson said as he settled into a seat in the front row of the pew-like benches with their hard straight back and cushionless wooden seats. “There are only about five people watching that video.”
Wilson Smith objected. “Our audience is bigger than that.”
“Not by much,” Dawson said.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Richman said sharply. “I’ll start now.”
He looked the papers in his hand. Dawson chuckled and let out a loud breath.
“You all will get a copy of these remarks after the conference,” Richman said. Reading, he said, “The governor has announced that Ironton, like all towns in New Jersey, can expect a sizeable reduction in state aid next year, possibly as much as $4 million. To offset that loss, and to build in some room in what already is a tight budget, I am announcing some staff reductions…”
“Layoffs?” Dawson asked. “What?”
“I’ll get to that,” Richman said. “most of these changes involve part-time municipal workers, but it will mean that two openings in the road department, a secretary position in the tax office, and the open sewer department director’s position will not be filled at this time. More significantly, we will not be hiring the three conditional police officers we had previously announced. Two desk sergeants will be reassigned to patrol duty and one detective will be assigned to a supervisory desk post to cover the time made vacant by the other moves. We estimate this will save the city $1.5 million in salaries and benefits. In addition, all employee bargaining units will be asked to accept no salary increase next year, saving an additional estimated $1 million.”
“Who’s the detective?” Dawson asked, although he thought he already knew the answer.
Chris Foley stepped forward.
“It’s Frank Nagler,” he said. “It is thought that with his years of experience…”
“What about his investigations,” Dawson interrupted. “Who…?”
“I’ll be taking over the investigation of the Iron Bog death,” Foley said. “I have some new information on that…”
“What about the other one? Isn’t he working on some financial thing?”
Foley hesitated. “Not that I’m aware of,” he said.
“Didn’t you have an accountant working with Nagler on some old town ledgers?” Dawson asked.
Foley said, “we did have an accountant review the accounts of the old development director’s office that was shut down a few years back.”
“You mean Lauren Fox’s operation?” Dawson asked. His skin was crawling, there was something so wrong here.
“I, yes,” Foley said. “It wasn’t an investigation, but a review of the books so we could file a close-out report with the state.”
“Thought you already did that.”
“It’s not complete,” Richman stepped in to say. His voice took on an edge, as if they and run out of answers on those sheet of paper they held and glanced at often. “Do you want to hear what we have on the bog death or not?” he asked.
“The report’s not done? Been, what, three years? Why are you running Nagler out of the department?” Dawson rose from his seat and walked toward the two men as he asked that question. He wanted to see them lie up close.
“That’s not…” Foley started. “Look, Frank is an outstanding detective, you know that. But before he was a detective he was an outstanding rank officer with administrative skill. With the department cuts, we need him to provide that skill from now on.”
Foley’s face hardened into a mask, and Dawson knew it was time to move on.
“So what about the bog death?” he asked.
Foley stared at Dawson for a long moment before he stepped back and began to speak.
“We have an ID,” he said. “Her name is Carmela Riveira, 18, from the nation of Columbia. She was an undocumented immigrant who was coming here, we believe, to work. We identified her after a missing person’s report filed by her family in Colombia made its way to the Columbian community in Newark. Other evidence confirmed her identity. She had a brother in Boonton who had moved here years ago, and she was supposed to live with him, but she never arrived at his house even though she left Columbia three months ago. She got on a plane in Bogota, but she never checked in with her family.
“With the help federal agents, New Jersey state police and immigration officials in Florida, it was determined that Miss Riveria may have been employed transporting drugs. They uncovered airline tickets from Bogota to Miami, and from Miami to Newark. We are investigating the possibility that a dispute with the drug smugglers resulted in her death. We feel that would account for the brutality of the crime. Federal officials have identified a possible gang of drug smugglers working out of Miami who bring drugs into New York regularly and who have been known to execute people in the manner we found Miss Riveria. And no, Jimmy, we can not identify the drug gang.”
“Where are the drugs?” Dawson asked. “Isn’t it common for drug mules to swallow the drugs? The medical examiner said she had no drugs in her system.”
Foley paused before speaking. “Can’t say much about that. The federal drug agents are investigating that situation. But I’ll say this. It is possible that the absence of drugs in her system might have been a factor in her death. OK?”
“How’d you ID her?” Dawson asked. “You had no head.”
Foley turned back. “The family’s report said she had a small tattoo on her left wrist. We asked Dr. Mulligan to examine the body again and he found what at first he thought was a bruise, but enlarged, proved to be the corner of a dragon tattoo. We brought in an expert who reconstructed the mark and it matched.”
Foley and Richman turned to leave.
“What about the ring?” Dawson asked.
“The ring. About six weeks ago officers hauled out of the bog a hand with a lion’s head ring on one finger,” Dawson said. “You made a big deal of handing out a photo of it and we all ran it.”
“Right,” Foley said. “That’s a, um, an ongoing investigation and I can not comment on it.” Foley and Richman moved toward the door to leave.
“So you’ve got another chopped up body in the bog?” Dawson shouted after them.
Foley stopped in the doorway. “Just can’t comment, Jimmy. Thanks for coming.”
Wilson Smith looked over at Jimmy Dawson, who was writing something in his notebook.
“Did you get all that? Can you explain what it means?” Wilson Smith asked.
Dawson just closed his eyes. At any other time in his career he would gladly helped out a kid reporter.
“No, kid, I can’t. They’re out in the hallway. Go ask ‘em. I’m not going to cut my own throat.”
Wilson Smith started to shut down his camera and put away his gear.
“You got hip boots, kid?” Dawson asked. “Gonna need them.”
As he walked out of the room, Dawson thought about the green, perfect lawn at Howard Nelson’s Trenton Street Club. There’s a lot of fertilizer being spread around, he thought.
After Dawson filed a quick story for the webpage on the mayor’s announcements, he headed to the place where he’d find Frank Nagler. He was parked along Mount Pleasant, leaning against the car’s passenger door, collar raised to the mist, gazing out over the Old Iron Bog.
They had been doing this stuff forever, Dawson thought, running around Ironton all hours of the day, standing in the snow and rain and brutal hot sun trading tips and information, telling stories or just complaining. Today, with mist and cold, he wished Nagler had picked Barry’s.
Dawson knew he did most of the complaining, but that was the nature of his business. Listening to people lie to your face tended to sour your outlook on life. Frank Nagler had a coolness about him, always did. When the police department was being slammed more than a decade ago over some phony charges about police brutality, it was Nagler who calmed everyone down. He carefully conducted hundreds of interviews, spoke with residents who had filed charges, with out-of-towners who came to city hall to protest the allegations, and worked all the details with the state police to end the case with a couple of letters of reprimand.
But there was also a sadness about Nagler, and it was not just the death of his wife. Even before she died he seemed withdrawn. He was not a back-slapper, and in a department that called for camaraderie, no matter how forced, that was a mark against him, Dawson knew. He went to work and did his job. Dawson could not remember a case that Nagler investigated that had been thrown out of court or challenged by department brass. His testimony in court was clear, detailed and well spoken. He went to court prepared and made sure that the prosecutors had the details lined up. So it was not a surprise when he landed a big case like the body in the bog.
And it was an even bigger surprise when they took it away.
Nagler looked over as Dawson walked up to the car and smiled.
“What do you want?”
“Ball scores,” Dawson said. “Looks like the bottom of the ninth.”
Nagler looked out over the bog. “You’re too pessimistic, Jimmy. It’s the seventh inning stretch.”
“Foley kicked you to the curb, Frank,” Dawson said. “Took your investigations, put you behind a desk.”
“On the over-night shift,” Nagler said laughing.
“What? You’re kidding.”
“Lot of supervising needs to be done on the graveyard shift,” Nagler said. “Did Foley tell you I found the brother in Boonton? The airline tickets? That I was talking to the feds?” Nagler laughed. “I’m sure he didn’t.”
Dawson started to ask a question, but Nagler cut him off.
“Know how big this swamp is, Jimmy? A thousand acres. A thousand acres of black water, dead trees and unknowable debris, trash, and stuff. And right over there, in a space about five feet square, a mere fraction of the size of this place, two cops in a tiny boat conveniently found a severed hand with a gold ring on one finger. Isn’t that odd? Did you know that the medical examiner can not match that hand with the body that was also found here? They don’t know who it belongs to and so they also don’t know who the ring belongs to.”
“What are you talking about?” Dawson asked. “Do you know whose ring it is? Did you tell Foley?”
Nagler shook his head.
“So I was right,” Dawson said.
“At the press conference. I asked Foley about the ring and he started tap dancing about how that was still under investigation. So I asked him if that meant there was another body in the water, and he left the room. Man, something strange is going on.”
Nagler stared out over the bog. The mist shrouded the westernmost end in a blanket of gray; elsewhere stark broken trees, dead for years, poked branches through the murk. The center of the bog seemed darker, and wrapped in a brighter haze as if light was being funneled down some unseen channel underground.
“I was walking through the bog this morning,” Nagler said. “There’s probably two miles of roads and trails in there. Dead-ends that lead to sinkholes. A couple of them have grabbed the roots of a tree or two and are sucking them down to the underworld. A day like today you could wander on some of the roads and get lost easily, maybe lost for a good long time. The road sounds don’t penetrate. You have no sense of direction. All there is a swish of flowing water and the croaks of a few bullfrogs.”
Dawson pulled his collar tighter and glanced at Nagler to see if his friend had been replaced by a French philosopher or something.
“Sure, Frank. What…”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Foley said he was bothered by the fact that Carmela Riveria’s body was found out in the open like that, like it was meant to be discovered. Who would do that? Would agents of a Columbian drug gang operating out of Miami and New York drop in a swamp in Ironton, New Jersey the body of a drug mule they had killed elsewhere so the police could find it? You kill someone like that because you want to send a message. You don’t drive forty-five miles in the middle of the night and just find this place. So why didn’t they drop it in the city near a flophouse where other drug mules might find it, or near some two-bit motel where illegals live?
Dawson admitted he didn’t know. “But you don’t buy it.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Nagler said. “What makes sense, given the apparent carelessness of the body disposal, is a crime of passion, yet she had no other wounds, no defensive wound, no stab wounds, gunshot wounds, no bruises. She wasn’t raped, but might have been tortured. They cut off her head and her hands, which then fits the drug gang model, but not the Columbia-Miami-New York thing. That sounds made up. Despite Foley’s announcement, the feds told me that was just one theory they were looking at, but also said that this seemed to be more local than global. Then with the possibility that there might be another body in the bog, who knows. A serial killer? This place does hide its secrets pretty well.”
Dawson just let the serial killer notion pass. “So you’re saying Foley is lying?” Dawson looked at the ground and spit. What the hell is going on?
“Not lying. Protecting something,” Nagler said. “And I’m not saying it. You are.”
Dawson, for the first time in months felt that old familiar rumble in his gut, the zing of nerve ending cranking to hyperdrive as he tossed the details of a scene and story back and forth in his mind, following ideas down dark and hidden paths.
“You’ll make sure the details are available?”
“They won’t be hard to find.”
It began to rain harder, now a steady drizzle, but neither man made an effort to move off.
“This’ll ruin your reputation,” Dawson said as his face broke into a smile.
Nagler laughed. “What reputation is that, Jimmy?”
“The last honest cop.”
Nagler just looked at his friend and then at the ground.
“That’s not true. There’s lot of others,” Nagler said. “At this point, what do I have to lose?”
“Just saying,” Dawson said as he began to move away. The mist and drizzle had become a steady rain. “But you know what they’ll be saying before that?”
“That we’re not smart enough to know when to get out of the rain.”
They went to Nagler’s car just as the rain intensified and pounded on the roof like ballbearings.
“So what do you think is going on?” Dawson asked.
Nagler shook his head and cracked open his window a little.
“Well, Foley wants to be chief, and McDonald is going to retire in a year, so if he takes credit for leading the investigation in to the bog death, he looks good. Gabe Richman is up for another term next year and even he knows the bloom is off the golden boy. Not much has gone right for him, and that overblown promise of building a shopping center on this place still hangs in the air. People still remember how damn cocky he was, how sure he could pull it off. Trying to be his great-grandfather, the biggest wheel in town He’ll never live that down, unless he comes up with another plan. City’s dying, and Gabe Richman has no idea how to revive it. They both need to be seen as taking charge, being the leader in a time of uncertainty.”
“But Foley’s making stuff up.” Dawson said.
“Is he?” Nagler shrugged. “What did he say? They have an identity of the woman found in the bog, that she appears to be tied to an international drug gang, which they base on plane tickets and the manner of her death. And that an investigation is continuing into the discovery of a woman’s hand with a ring on one finger. Didn’t make any of that up.”
“But it is still odd,” Dawson said. “Has a funny smell.”
“Don’t disagree, but I guess that’s why you became a reporter, huh?”
“Yeah, right. Upton will love this.” Dawson said. “I was talking to Howie Nelson the other day. Went to ask him what he knew about Richman and Lauren Fox.”
“So how is old Howie?”
“Still kicking, still dealing, still denying he’s ever done anything wrong,” Dawson said. “He’s a million years old, but he knows more about the crap in this city than anyone. I’ll be talking to him when he’s in his grave, because even though he’s dead, he’ll still know. We’ll find notes on his headstone.”
Nagler laughed. That’s about right, he thought. “So what’s he say about Gabe and Lauren?”
Dawson leaned back against the car door. “He said she was asking about how the city’s accounting system worked. She had grant applications that needed to show that the program would be connected to a city department, so she apparently needed some account numbers or the name of an employee in that department who might be in charge. Seems like pretty standard stuff. Howie said Richman went nuts for some reason, and assigned, you’ll love this, Debbie Glance, to help Lauren out.”
Nagler laughed a little. “That woman is everywhere and I have no idea why.” He thought a moment. All that was before he was assigned to help Lauren out. “Lauren had done a lot of work before I was asked to help her out. When I got there she was beyond the grant writing stage and working in the field. They felt she needed she help getting into homes in the factory district. The slumlords didn’t much like the city poking around.” He looked out the window at the rain. “So what does Nelson think got her fired?”
“This is the strange part,” Dawson said. “He thinks she didn’t get fired as much as maybe ran and hid.”
Frank Nagler knew she had done that. He was supposed to escort her to an apartment building on the south side where housing inspectors found dozens of men sleeping on mattresses scattered on the floors of a three-story home. The men paid the homeowner ten dollars for an eight-hour shift on a mattress. Then someone else took their place. He remembered he got to her office but it was dark and locked and she did not answer her cell phone. Later that day he went back to the office and, shit, he thought, Debbie Glance, was tossing files into a cardboard box and a cop was taking Lauren’s computer. He remembered Debbie Glance saying, “we’ve got a problem here, Frank.”
Later that night a fire broke out in a section of the old stoveworks. By morning twelve fire companies were working the fire that had spread to four buildings. By the afternoon of the next day, a half-dozen companies remained, pouring water on the piles of rubble to cool the hot spots as a damp, white, smoke-filled haze settled over the old factory. Three bodies were found.