He'd read it wrong the first time. It wasn't some cleverly coded incitement to give up your family, start all over, buy a car, be young. It was, on the contrary, something more straightforward, something as simple as an ad for life insurance, no doubt. He'd read it wrong the first time.
So why did it now seem so important?
He'd parked in some dreary, low-rent neighborhood. A kid in a red raincoat standing under the tattered awning of a convenience store. A flattened basketball lying in the burbling gutter. The wet sidewalks blue in the evening cloudlight. A flock of crows fighting over a styrofoam container. The engine of his car ticking like ice in a warm drink.
He knew this neighborhood. He'd been here before. No, more than that: he'd lived this moment before. When?
Not a flock of crows. A murder of them.
You're going crazy.
He made a phone call.
"Is Billie there today?"
"She's here every day. Who's that?"
"Billie, it's Drew. Over at the Post-Times."
She laughed. "I think I remember you."
"How've you been?"
"Sure: kind of portly? Glasses? Beard? Small face, big head?"
"I wanted to ask you something."
"Down to business? Okay. Everybody's busy everywhere."
"It's strictly off the record."
"The girl in the hotel room."
"Should I be sitting down? What about her."
"Any ID on her yet?"
"Not to my knowledge. But not really my bailiwick either."
"What's a flock of crows called?"
"Never mind. I don't know why I called."
"To talk to me? To hear my voice?"
He went across the street and entered the convenience store. The kid in the raincoat was inside now, her hood up, kneeling on the floor and pushing two boxes of crackers around in the dust with ceremonial solemnity. She looked up at him and smiled, as if she remembered him. His cancer throbbed, his eyes tingled.
"You carry the Argonaut?"
The old man behind the counter pointed to the newspaper stand.
"GRISLY" DEATH IN HOTEL ROOM DEEMED SUICIDE, by Hank Casey, with additional material by Elroy Harper.
Why, Drew wondered, was Casey putting his byline on a non-story like this?
Police are now saying that the grisly death of a young woman early Monday in a Brotoks-area hotel was a suicide.
An autopsy conducted late Tuesday by the coroner's office has concluded that the woman's wounds were self-inflicted.
The cause of death was found to be fatal blood loss caused by numerous incisions from a razor blade.
The results of toxicology tests are still pending.
But sources close to the police investigation say that they are satisfied with the coroner's findings, and are no longer treating the incident as suspicious.
"This case will not be handed over to our homicide detectives," said Sergeant Mark Davidson, who is leading the investigation.
And yet mystery still shrouds the woman's death, as well as her identity.
According to police, the still-unidentified woman checked in to the hotel on Sunday morning under an assumed name.
No identification was found in the room or on her person.
Police have reviewed security-camera footage and interviewed hotel staff in an effort to identify the woman, but so far without success.
The unknown woman was found dead Monday afternoon by the hotel cleaning staff. Paramedics called to the scene at about 4:30 p.m. discovered her body to be without any vital signs. Police now believe that she had been dead for several hours.
According to an anonymous source, the body was found on the floor of the bathroom. Police say that she was fully clothed.
No drugs or drug-related paraphernalia were found in the hotel room.
No further details about the crime scene have been released. But Sergeant Chuck Harmon, media liaison for the police department, suggested that the details were probably grim enough that the family would find them "upsetting."
"This means the death was either violent or unusual," said a crime analyst and former police officer who preferred to remain anonymous.
"Something gruesome, no doubt," he added.
This certainly fits with what one source close to the hotel administration had to say. According to this source, the woman on the housekeeping staff who originally found the body was "deeply traumatized," and was expected to take a few days off from work.
"You want to read," called the old man from behind the counter, "you should buy newspaper."
"I'll buy, I'll buy," Drew muttered.
When asked why the death was at first treated as suspicious, Sergeant Mark Davidson gave no comment.
When asked why the body was handed over to the coroner's office for an inquest, an employee of the coroner's office said only that this was "standard operating procedure."
This "conspiracy of silence" has aroused suspicion in some quarters.
"It just gets stranger and stranger," said Thornton Willis, local television celebrity and former columnist for the Argonaut.
There was no suicide note found in the hotel room, but an anonymous source believes a message of some sort may have been written on the walls. Police have neither confirmed nor denied this.
A partial description of the woman has been released. She is described as being between 16 and 30 years old, with long black hair.
Carl Merrill, the manager and part-owner of the Hotel Seven, could not be reached for comment as of press time. A clerk working at the front desk yesterday afternoon declined to comment, aside from agreeing that it was "disturbing." He's gone crazy.
Drew looked up. The old man was seated on a stool behind the counter, stooped over some accounts, his lips moving silently. The girl in the red raincoat was standing in the doorway, looking out into the street. A television mounted high in one corner of the shop was on, but no sound came from it. On the screen, the President was making chopping motions with one hand.
He's gone crazy. He'd heard it. He hadn't just imagined it.
You're going crazy.
Hotel staff are not the only ones shaken up by the strange suicide. Residents of the area also find it upsetting.
A woman who lives near the hotel described the case as "grisly" and "weird."
The Hotel Seven is located at 1550 Greene Road, close to Highway 9.
He folded up the paper and went back outside. The street was still. The world was holding its breath. He had a definite feeling that something was about to happen, right here. It was written on everything. The stillness belied itself.
"Did you pay for the newspaper?" the kid in the raincoat asked.
"Buzz off, would you?"
He crossed the street and got in the car. He called Billie back.
"She didn't have any gear on her then? No earbugs or ...?"
"No, and the laryngeal reconstruction didn't come up with anything, but then it often doesn't. And I guess so far nobody's missing her too badly."
"What's she look like?"
"Oh, real pretty. Sorry. Levity."
"Her specs, I mean."
"Five-eight, Caucasian, as we used to say, hundred thirty-eight pounds, not pregnant, hadn't eaten for a couple days ..."
"Her hair was black?"
"Nah. Dark brown."
"What happened? Off the record."
"Oh? I thought all this was more or less on the record now."
"You mean what's in the Argonaut?"
"I don't know, I don't read the papers."
"I mean ... What does she look like?"
"I don't know. She looks like a kid who killed herself. Probably a little crazy. Broke up with her boyfriend or something. Starched off at somebody, anyway."
"Then it was definitely suicide, you think?"
"An angry one, but yeah. More like 'self-murther.' There was a lot of blood, a number of lacerations caused by razor blade, bottom blade as a matter of fact of a Lady's Chic Select, though I don't suppose that's the sort of thing you can use. I dunno. What else. Brown eyes?"
"What about her teeth?"
"Sure, she had a few."
"I thought you could do some kind of thing with dental records."
"They're not like fingerprints, you know. How long you been on police beat? You can't just search for a match on some nationwide database. You've got to have a hunch already as to the ID, then you can compare. Assuming the hunch-individual even ever went to the dentist. Mostly we only use teeth if that's all that's left. Fires and stuff."
"Okay. Sorry. Never mind. I think I'm going crazy."
"Okay. That makes several hundred million of us, last I counted."
"Off the record: you're welcome."
He went back into the store and paid for the paper.
"He gone really crazy now," the old man muttered as he made change. He waved with the back of his hand in the direction of the TV and the President.
"The volume's off."
"It's not on. The sound. What makes you say he's crazy? You can't even hear him."
The old man peered at him and smiled. "Sound is on."
The girl in the raincoat tugged at his sleeve. "Did they tell you to come back?"
"Who? Nobody told me. I said I'd pay, I'm paying. Where are you from?" he asked the old man. "Originally."
"You know what," said Drew, "I don't want this one. This one is garbage. No information."
"Take other newspaper." The old man shrugged. "Same price. Same news."
He traded for a Post-Times. Principle.
"And give me a pack of cigarettes."
"It doesn't matter. The red pack."
He looked up at the President, whose mouth was moving silently. Maybe he could hear something, a slight buzzing ...
"Is the sound really on?" he asked.
"'Facing the enemy we face,'" the old man quoted without emphasis, "'is not,' something, 'to be easy, in fact it is going to be damn difficult. Because we will need to come face to face with what is darkest and most dangerous'—you don't hear?"
Drew slapped his ear, shook his head. "My earbugs. Must be busted."
"Lucky for you. Man is crazy."
He slapped his other ear, shook his head. "Do you have a photocopier? Or a printer? I need to print off some files."
Drew looked at the paper in his hand.
AMERICAN WOMAN STRANGLED A2
SEWAGE DEBATE BACKED UP A5
GRUESOME HOTEL SUICIDE A8
What the hell?
"DEFINITELY NOT FOUL PLAY": POLICE
by Drew Dunkel, Post-Times reporter
I didn't write this. I didn't file this. This isn't my story.
The cause of the death of a young woman found in a Hotel Seven this Monday was definitely suicide, police investigators said at a news conference yesterday.
The body of the young woman, who remains unidentified, was sent to the coroner's office Tuesday for an autopsy. The inquest quickly arrived at a verdict of suicide.
Though the results of toxicology tests are still being awaited, no drugs or related paraphernalia were found in the hotel room. Police say they are satisfied with the conclusions of the inquest, and are now directing all their efforts towards establishing the young woman's identity and contacting next of kin.
"The case will not be handed over to homicide detectives," said the leading investigator, Sergeant Mark Davidson.
The woman is believed to be somewhere between the ages of 16 and 30, according to officials. No note, nor any identifying documents, were found at the scene. The name that she checked in to the hotel with is believed to have been false. Interviews with hotel staff have not been able to provide any clues as to the woman's identity, either.
The body was discovered Monday afternoon by the hotel's regular housekeeping staff. Paramedics were called to the scene at about 4:30, at which time they declared the woman deceased. According to the coroner's report, the time of death was several hours earlier, in the early hours of Monday morning.
Sergeant Chuck Harmon, media liaison for the police department, said that the details of the suicide were too "upsetting" to release to the public. Now this man talks sense.
"What?" Drew looked up at the television, where some red-faced governor or other was shouting and making the same chopping gestures as the President.
"He tell the truth. Finally someone tell the truth."
A check-in clerk working Tuesday afternoon would say only that the occurrence was indeed "disturbing." Carl Merrill, the manager of the Hotel Seven, which is located in Brotoks just off Highway 9, could not be reached for comment.
It was as if someone had taken the Argonaut story and simply plagiarized it—trimming, while they were at it, all the worst bits, all the hysterical speculation and low-brow sensationalism. But there was no new information at all. They were essentially the same story, tailored for different audiences, filed under different bylines.
What the hell was going on?
"What the hell, what the hell," the old man grinned. "You talk like the President."
"I didn't say that," Drew objected.
"Say? Say what?"
What he'd meant was: I didn't think that. That wasn't my thought. That wasn't me.
He hurried out to the car, nearly tripping over the girl in the red raincoat.