New Draft Chapter 1 of “Swamps of New Jersey.”
Rewriting the story, page by page.
He had not seen the sky for days.
He had not seen the sun nor had dry shoes nor walked outside without a raincoat since the storm blew in and sealed the hills above the city with a dense smothering grayness, a swirling menace of thunder clouds and shrieking winds that pounded the city with an apocalyptic rain that sent the Baptist preachers howling to the hills about sin and damnation, emptied the grocery store shelves of everything but a few cans of cream of mushroom soup, locked the residents in the top floors of their homes as the river flooded streets and rearranged the city landscape like a madman with a earthmover.
The blue August sky had been replaced by rain that came and stayed. Rain with menace, rain that pulsed around corners carrying rocks and dirt and grabbing what it could; rain that claimed, rain soulless and dark as evil; that challenged knowledge; rain that took possession.
The phone call from the dispatcher found Detective Frank Nagler asleep, crammed like a suit jacket into an office chair. It hurt to unfold himself from the chair, hurt to force his mind to think and for his eyes to focus. It was 3 a.m. The coffee machine was off and the cup on his desk contained some brown liquid that hours ago might have been coffee, but now topped by a white skin of soured milk, was something that Nagler would drink only under the penalty of death. Somewhere, he thought as he threw on his coat, grabbed a hat and stepped into the rain and wind that pushed back against the door that led to the parking lot, there has to be a convenience store that has coffee.
He was wrong. The storm had knocked out power to the city, and as the streets void of humans filled with the rising river the mayor declared an emergency. Random spotlights flashed on a parking lot or an intersection rippling with dark water.
The usual drive from downtown Ironton to the Old Iron Bog took ten minutes, a straight shot up Rockaway Avenue. But at turn after turn, Nagler found orange-and-white barriers with flashing yellow lights manned by some poor cop with water streaming off his hat, waving a flash light.
Nagler rolled down the car’s window and caught a face full of rain.
“What’s open? Gotta get to the north side.”
“The only bridge open is Sussex, but Rockaway’s flooded, so you’ll have to head up Washington to the high school and circle around,” the cop yelled back.
“Got it,” Nagler yelled as he rolled up the window and wiped the water off his face.
The old Jews knew what to do with rain like this, Nagler thought wickedly as he drove through the deserted, puddled streets. Build a fucking boat and leave.
Half-an-hour later Nagler edged his old Ford down Mount Pleasant, squinting through the wet, smeary windshield into the flashing cops lights as he looked for a place to park. He found one that was too small but jammed the car in edgewise, suddenly braking hard when at the fringe of his headlights he saw a black space where the embankment had washed away.
“Oh, damn.” That would have made for an interesting night, he thought.
He shouldered the car door open and the scene exploded into sound: Yakking radios, a dozen vehicles left running, grinding fire trucks, winches, distant shouting voices. But the sound that mattered most to Frank Nagler was that of his right shoe being sucked into the liquid soil. “Oh, shit. Damn it.” Dress shoes. What was I thinking?
Ironton, New Jersey sits at the bottom of a valley like the bottom of a bowl and for the better part of a week as the last waves of an August tropical storm stalled over the state, the bowl filled and overflowed.
Nagler, like the entire police department, had been on extra duty to deal with the storm. The weariness of sleepless nights, more than the dampness, dripped through his skin to his bones and joints and he walked with a heaviness that made him think that if he stopped moving, he would end up standing in one place for hours, unable to lift a foot or bend a knee.
He tugged his foot from its watery hole, almost losing his shoe, and winced at the discomfort of wet socks and wet shoes and general unpleasantness of what he was about to examine.
Floods and disaster, he thought. And now this. He looked back at his car, the tires inches from the torn edge of the roadway. He pulled his long coat tighter, his dry foot slapping at the wet pavement and his wet foot clumping along like an oversized clown shoe. Slap, clump. Slap, clump. Slap, clump. Till he reached the soft opposite path, where both shoes sank in.
The days of rain left city families with waterlogged mattresses floating in their living rooms, powerless refrigerators filled with rotting, soggy food, natural gas bubbling through black water from a broken main and the family photos on the hallway walls bled white, the faces, the smiles, the goofy hats washed away. City officials had debris-filled streets caked with mud and blocks of holy wreckage, rivers where streets used to be, holes where there used to be walls and a city that looked like someone had built it on a picnic blanket, tossed it in the air and let it fall again in a creative chaos that only disaster brings.
And Detective Frank Nagler had a body in the Old Iron Bog.
He paused at the edge of the road that led into the bog just as a bank of lights hoisted above a fire truck blasted to life. Before him was a shadowy scene of twisted trees and shrubs, dark paths to nowhere and ghostly forms shifting in and out of the dim lights.
Frank Nagler took a deep breath and plunged in. “Where’s the body?” he asked a crime scene tech, who nodded in a general direction of a small clearing off the single-lane road that was the main entrance into the bog.
“It’d be easier if she had a head, huh, detective?”
Frank Nagler squinted down at the rescue squad kid waiting as a medical technician 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. When the call came and shocked him awake, Nagler had just crashed in the office rather than drive home.
“And maybe hands,” the kid added brightly. “Man, I don’t envy you,” he said as he turned to carry the bag toward the ambulance. Nagler just nodded. Why are you so excited? It’s three a.m. and you’re hauling a corpse.
“Open the bag,” Nagler instructed the kid. “Unzip it.”
The kid fumbled at the zipper but finally opened the side of the bag halfway. “All the way.” And the kid complied.
She was young, Nagler thought, too young to be here. Someone had hacked off her head and hands, just like the kid said. “Thanks,” Nagler said, and stepped aside as the kid and another fire fighter lifted the bag and walked up the muddy slope in the rain.
He looked out over the old bog, cast grey, dark and suspicious in the heavy rain. The world’s in a rage, he thought as he looked at the body. And it all landed on your pretty head, wherever it might be.
Police Supervisor Chris Foley reached Nagler’s side and shoved a cup of coffee into his hand. Nagler nodded, but wondered, what are you doing here? He let the thought pass. The man has coffee.
“What do we know?” Nagler asked.
Foley was a straight shooter, a razor cut, white shirt kind of cop. He examined crime scenes as if they were math problems and left no remainders. But he never saw the magic the math produced, Nagler knew, never imaged that in a crime sometimes one and one equaled three. Crimes for Chris Foley were a formula, a step one, step two affair. Sometimes the formula worked; sometimes it didn’t.
Foley read from his notes, which were wrapped inside a plastic bag. Nagler thought: The man is prepared, I’ll give him that.
“The body was found by a couple of high school kids out here drinking beer and fornicating. They were underage. We will speak with their parents. About one a.m. Let’s see. They said they fell asleep, woke up when they heard a car drive in, started throwing on their clothes since they said they thought it was the authorities … Hum … car stopped in the distance … heard some voices.”
He turned a page. “Door slammed, car drove away. The kids sat in the car for a while. They thought it was no big deal. Someone dumping trash, happens out here all the time, they said.”
“Speak to their parents, Chris?” Nagler said. “Jesus, they’re just kids out here screwing. This ain’t Sunday school.” Nagler shook his head. “I supposed you would have turned me in, too.”
Foley paused a moment, then looked Nagler, and then again at his notes. “What?”
It’s early in the morning, Nagler said to himself. Cut him some slack.
Still, Nagler knew, 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. But he was as stiff as a two-by-four and as narrow minded as a telescope viewed through the wrong end. But it didn’t make him a bad guy, Nagler knew, just a pain in the ass.
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.
Foley gave Nagler the once over. “Little casual this morning, aren’t we, detective?
Was that a joke? I’m wearing pants, right? Never could tell with Foley. Nagler ran a hand through his hair and scratched the stubble on his chin.
“Dressed in the dark. Little hard to match my socks and tie when I can’t see them. Besides, I wanted to look my best for you. You have power?”
Foley shook his head. “No. I just have my week’s wardrobe set up in the closet… Never mind, Frank.”
“Yeah, sure.” Nagler pursed his lips and shrugged. Then he asked, “What are you doing here, Chris? Working below your pay grade aren’t you?”
Foley turned slowly. “We haven’t had a decapitated body in some time. Thought you might need the help. I am, after all, a police supervisor.”
Nagler slugged back some coffee rather than say anything. “So where’d they find her?”
Foley led Nagler along a narrow sandy road overgrown with small trees, cattails and waist-high grass.
Foley stepped carefully around the mud and debris so his tasseled loafers would not get ruined, but caught his jacket sleeve on a small tree branch and spent more than a minute examining the cloth. “Sorry, Frank. I just got it back from the dry cleaners.”
Whatever, Frank Nagler thought.
This was The Old Iron Bog, an old swamp that for generations going back to the beginning of the iron mining days three hundred years ago had been a dumping ground for waste rock, slag, bad iron parts, bent rails, then in modern times, trash, cars, and everything society needed to hide. 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 for years 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 highway. Engineers were battering a steel piling into a hole on the edge of the 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 a year or so along Mount Pleasant. Where’d it go?
Yellow tape marked off several hundred feet of road and swamp. The car stopped about here” – Foley walked about ten feet away – “They took the body out of the car, and dropped it. One thing I don’t like,” Foley said with a question in his voice. “They could have pushed her into the water. Why not? Look at this place. 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’re saying they were just sloppy?” Nagler asked. “Or they wanted us to find her?”
Foley just waived his hand in the air as he walked away.
About a dozen police, rescue and fire vehicles lined the Mount Pleasant with
one set of wheels in the road and the other in the muddy ditch. Cops in hip waders crashed in and out of the brush and weeds, and a fire boat was being backed into the swamp. They had not yet found any clothes, or her head and hands, and the body had no jewelry. It was just the body.
Nagler lifted his head and looked over the old bog. The rain had let up, and in the earliest light of dawn, the black canopy began to shift to a lighter grey. The muted rumble of rush hour traffic on the interstate about a half-mile away started to filter into the swamp to fill in what until that moment had been an 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 roar of daily life on the highway would soon overpower 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 investigators, or just observing, trying to imprint the scene on his very tired brain.
The sand coated his already soaked shoes and had squeezed inside his socks so it felt he was walking on wet sandpaper; he knew he’d find a ragged blister on his heel.
The rubber-neckers lined Mount Pleasant, crawling by, watching the lights flash on the police cars. With the power still out in most of the city, and many streets still blocked by fallen trees and floods, there weren’t many other routes out of town, Nagler guessed. A local cop with a flashlight waved them on and they passed, 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 kaleidoscope of swirls and circles fade to black.
Add this to the list. He began to mentally schedule who he had to see and how quickly they would have any information: The crime scene techs, the medical examiner, re-interview the kids who called it in. Another session with Foley. It was odd he was here, Nagler thought. He’s the head of the city’s emergency response office and has a whole city trying to get its head above water. Nagler laughed. I must be really tired if that line is funny, he thought.
Not like I don’t have anything else to do, he thought.
For the last three weeks he had been receiving packages with invoices and letters on City of Ironton letterhead. The letters said the material was a link to a big cover-up of theft in city hall. But what he had received so far was so disjointed it was hard to see that. After the first few letters he wondered who was trying to pull a fast one — He asked himself more than once, who did I piss off — or use all this paper to make a little, tiny point about government waste. There were two or three media-savvy gadflies who had filed several complaints to state agencies about access to public records and other things, and maybe these records were from one of them. But why send it to me? Nagler asked himself. The invoices had information that had been blacked out, none of the dates were in any sequence, and even if one or two of the invoices seemed to leading from one account to another, the last pieces were missing. God, Nagler thought, it’s like some stupid Russian novel. Sometimes he wanted to dump it on someone else, let them wade through the pile of paper, but then he would flip through a couple more pages and think: What if this was real? Nagler had asked the chief about it and was told to just keep collecting the letters, just in case.
He sighed and turned to walk back to his car; fine mist began to fall again. 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. “And now you’re gonna have to tell me the rest.”
“Don’t you ever sleep?’’ Nagler shook Dawson’s hand and actually wondered what took him so long to get there.
“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. Seems she was dumped here after being killed elsewhere. A car, no description, was seen in the neighborhood. No clothes, no ID.” He shrugged. “Right now, 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.”
“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 have power?” Nagler asked. It was the question of the day.
Dawson laughed. “Been almost living at the office. My road was flooded and half the trees are down. Office complex has a generator. There’s a couple of us there.”
“You in later?” Dawson asked.
“After 10. ”
“I’ll call you,” Dawson said as he walked away.
Then he stopped.
“Hear from Lauren Fox?”
Are you kidding? Nagler thought as he stared at the reporter as he walked away.
“Hey, Dawson. Don’t you want an answer?” Dawson stopped walking and half-turned back toward Nagler, and spread his hands and shrugged as if to say, “Well…”
Nagler stared a moment. Too much to say about it. “No,” he finally said.
After he watched Dawson walk down Mount Pleasant Nagler had wandered back to his car, stopping every few steps to shake mud off his shoes and to imagine the street several hours earlier without the police vehicles, fire trucks and a slow parade of cars, when an unknown vehicle drove slowly and carefully through the darkness, the driver probably stopping more than once looking for a dumping spot, then moving on until the side road was found. Did someone get out and shine a flashlight down that road into the darkness? Did the driver have a companion with whom they discussed their options?
He knew this street well as a dark, slightly spooky section of Ironton. Little had been built along the road, mostly because of the bog which spread for acres in each direction. Even if the electric power had been on, there were only a couple street lights and those were hundreds of feet apart. Everything here moved in shadows.
Nagler looked up and down the street again. A grey dawn was rising, and Nagler shut his eyes against the light to hold the image of the blackness and a single vehicle slowly moving through a murky night. With the power on there might have been enough light to make this little side road visible, but in the blackness of a heavily clouded sky, air still damp with mist or slight rain, it seemed a longshot. The kids who reported the body to the police said they had been here dozens of times – man, that kid was getting a lot of action – so for them finding the top of that side road in the dark was easy. But a stranger?
That knowledge made the case more local, more personal, Nagler thought.
When he got to his car Nagler was surprised to see how close he had come to driving into the gully. “Damn,” he said, “That was lucky.”
What wasn’t lucky was how close his car was to the vehicles on either side. While he was at the crime scene, the compact sedan that had been parked to his left had been replaced by an extended body pick-up, whose owner it seems took delight in parking as close as he could to Nagler’s car. One of us, Nagler thought as he started his car and slipped the transmission into reverse, isn’t going to like this. The car rolled for second or two and he felt the satisfying thump as the bumpers touched. He rolled forward, then back, and again felt the slight collision. Three of four such efforts allowed Nagler to get the front wheels correctly angled and pull the Ford into street while the alarm in the truck sounded, a whoop-whoop echoing off the dark silence of the street.
The effort to pull is car out into the street allowed Nagler to avoid the name that was trying to edge its way into his head.
Lauren Fox. Damn you, Dawson.
He turned up the volume on his police radio and let the irritating squawking overwhelm the silence in the car. He slammed the car door as he stopped by his home to get dry sock and shoes.