Bobbing for Clues, a Cozy Mystery
October 29, 2012
As promised here are the first two chapters of our cozy mystery. We will add two chapters each week. Feel free to post your thoughts as the story progresses. Enjoy!
Fishing for trouble
It was a bracing, frosty morning when Alistair McAdams left the house, rusty reel in hand. Moving as quietly as he could, he made his way down the river-rock walkway without looking back. His pickup had complained as it struggled to turnover, thanks to the fast-dropping temperatures. The noise didn’t help his cause. He was a fugitive from his wife.
While the morning news promised the sun would return by Sunday, the grandkids were coming up from Pittsburg, and this was his best chance for a few stolen hours of fishing and solace.
Glad he’d shook the dust out of the heavier Carhartt, he mused how just 48 hours before he’d been sharing stories of the Indian summer hanging on with the young couple next door. The frost on his windshield confirmed the end of the warm October he’d been enjoying on the riverbanks.
The Allegheny River was choppy that morning like an over stirred broth, and he wondered aloud whether his trusty Quick-Snap weight would be enough to tempt the tricky Pennsylvania Walleye out from his murky hiding place, or if he’d be stuck sipping his lukewarm coffee to no avail and left with no option better than eating Carol’s reheated tuna casserole again.
He moved swiftly past doubt, confident in his secret fishing spot and its ability to deliver. Most of the tourist fishing traffic staked their claims along the public areas off William Penn Highway, past old Muskrat Springs Road, where the pavement made its presence once again known. The mouth of the Allegheny met the tributary of the Juniata River there, and the common misconception, according to Aly (as his friends knew him), was this made for prime fishing.
Aly’s secret spot fell due west of that guaranteed traffic jam, just off Wagner Road. Sure, he had to hoof it through an unfinished subdivision, and sure, it wasn’t exactly a sanctioned fishing zone, but it was worth the occasional run-in with the Juniata County Sheriff for the treasure trove of Walleye he’d been netting with some regularity.
What seemed the start of another a very pleasant Saturday morning for Aly turned quickly to the shock that would have sent so many of his other less hearty fishing companions—chests clutched—straight to the E.R.
It started with a dip of the bobber.
"Maybe that Quick Snap did the trick," he muttered, a grin beginning as he put down the coffee.
He gave the line a testing tug and the resistance held true. Whether through the teasing motion of dragging the line back and forth, or the temptation of his extra pungent bait, he had definitely hooked something. Aly began to pull, slowly at first, and then with more gusto in preparation for the anticipated maritime battle to come.
"Sucker must be hiding under a rock," he spit between tugs.
One last labored pull and the line suddenly went slack. The bobber resurfaced. It was as though the fish gave up and began his steady climb to the surface in defeat. Astounded as he thought he was at that, Aly could only stare slack-jawed at what ultimately broke the surface.
It was absolutely not a fish.
What appeared was not the conquered Walleye he’d expected, but another face he could just recognize and almost as easily—his local City Councilman Jack Hamilton.
Catch of the Day
The victim, the much debated Councilman Hamilton, was a man who elicited extreme opinions. He was known both as the charming, long-serving civic enthusiast by some, or conversely as the philandering womanizer—as shady in his business dealings as he was in his romantic pursuits by others.
It was simply a case of who you asked first.
If you asked Aly, which Sheriff Steven Michaels certainly did, Jack Hamilton was the face on the billboards, the name on the bumper stickers every election cycle, and a regular fixture at the pub in town, The Watering Hole, as well.
"So are you telling me he drowned while wearing a life jacket?" Deputy Carl Reynolds asked Aly pointedly, gesturing to yellow plastic vest on the water-logged mass that once was Jack Hamilton.
"I’m not telling you anything other than he’s no fish," Aly replied exasperated.
At that, Steven jumped back to reality and to the old-timer’s defense. Carl had clearly been watching too much CSI again and was primed for a bad-cop style interrogation. Never mind the truth that they didn’t really have any actual suspects to start with. Come to think of it, he wondered, did they even have a crime?
"Reynolds, I think we can let Mr. McAdams get back about his day, don’t you?" Steven asked his overzealous co-worker.
Again his eyes followed the muddy rut to where the former councilman now lay. He did indeed have a life preserver on. Carl was right to spot that, but the elderly fisherman was the last person to want to have Jack Hamilton anywhere but safely posing for more billboard photos. Aly was just the unfortunate schlub who found him.
"Guess we won’t have to worry about chasing ole Aly out of here for not having a permit again for a while," Steven said, pointing to the disappearing figure teetering back up the riverbank.
Getting back to the matter at hand, he looked first to the problem lying in a heap at his feet and then to his partner.
"The late councilman was not our most-popular citizen. I’ll give you that,” Steven said to Carl. "However, we should probably start-in with people who actually knew the man."
Carl didn’t miss a beat and jumped right in. "Yeah. He had all those ex-wives. You know it’s always the ex-wives. I saw this episode of CS..."
Steven cut his deputy off before his thought process got to being too far flung. "I guess you’re forgetting the two ex-Mrs. Hamiltons who died, and unless you’re assuming we have a paranormal crime on our hands," he trailed off. "And I somehow doubt the other two even are speaking."
Jack had lost a wife to cancer, another to the icy Pennsylvania back-roads, and the last two had been neighbors and friends before he strutted into their lives. Both had moved out of town, in opposite directions if he remembered clearly.
Steven only had the snappy comeback for Carl waiting in the wings as he was replaying Jack’s timeline in his own mind seconds before his partner started looking for dots to connect.
Jack had come to the sleepy town of Walker in the early nineties when the Pennsylvania real estate market boomed and pushed folks from the more established suburbs out. While their little town had its share of the growth boom, it did not sustain the upward motion and, like so many small towns, snapped back into place elastically after only a few years.
That should have been the end of Jack Hamilton, local real estate guru. He and his first wife Wendy had come to Walker with their newly minted real estate licenses –ink still damp on the pages. For a short time, they did well, but then the housing boom ended, the recession took its place, and Wendy got sick. Jack and Wendy’s real estate business quickly withered as did her health. Everyone felt terrible for their family. When Jack was left a single parent to the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, Katie, the pity carried over.
It’s awful to think it, but if it weren’t for the continued outpouring of sympathy and support from the community, Jack’s next endeavors to bring commerce to Walker’s Main Street shops, most of which he had bought up, might not have passed through the council so speedily.
His first run at the City Council spot may not have been the landslide victory it was if every hen at Bonnie’s Bayside Beauty Boutique hadn’t chirped endlessly about that poor man and his poor daughter.
That was all it took.
Once Jack was installed on the council, he ruled with a reputation for ruthlessness to match that of any Mafia Don. As he owned most of the commercial space in Walker, he set the rent for every would-be shop manager and restaurateur. The businesses started and buckled under his ever increasing rates. The dynamic of downtown Walker was always changing, but regardless of everyone else’s situation, Jack made money.
The three Mrs. Hamiltons who began their short successions followed Wendy within a year of her death. For all the talk of his short bereavement, it seemed an understatement when compared to the rapid pace with which he made his way up and down the aisle. Within seven years, he’d been married and widowed and married and widowed again. Then he fell for the neighbor, then the neighbor’s best friend.
Once the last divorce was finalized, he told anyone fool enough to pull up the bar stool next to him that women who be the end of him. He’d been single, or at least unmarried, for quite a while now. The Henry the VIII rumors had been really stacking up. If nothing else, his political career needed the breather.
"What about somebody from the council?" Carl asked. "Maybe a rival politician, like somebody discovered a government cover-up, and he was the crook at the heart of it…"
"Alright, Carl," Steven stopped him again. "We’ll look into it if we need to, but no one has even reported Jack missing. It sure looks like drowned unless you’re seeing phantom bullet holes and bludgeoning depressions that I’m missing. We don’t know anything more than that, so let’s not get a head of ourselves here. We may have an accidental death."
Steven thought long about what he knew of Jack, trying to tie together all he’d read, what he’d heard, and what he knew first hand.
Jack was not a man without credentials and was constantly in the local paper, not that there was much else for the local fish-wrap, actually called The Fish Wrap, to report.
Jack was always at some conference: a luncheon here at the Penn State Small Business Development Center or a speaking engagement at the Center for Entrepreneurial Assistance. He’d been up unsuccessfully for the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development’s Man of the Year award.
He bragged about everyone he knew to anyone who stood still long enough. It had been Steven more than once.
Jack championed the Walker move from a township supervisory system of government, with three well-established supervisors permanently installed, to the current city council model, which allowed for four districts and would need four councilmen to adjudicate.
Jack had been the one to suggest the move and led the charge for signatures to see it through. Once he’d made the place for himself by realigning town’s management, all he had to do was get elected and stay in office. He didn’t have to depose any sitting members to do it. He could be progressive for the sake of being progressive and no one seemed to suspect anything else.
It sounds like quite the feat, but if Jack ever broke a sweat over it, no one ever saw him wipe his brow. Of course, Jack had rivals. He also had partners in his dealings. You can’t make that much money in a small town unchecked, unless you aren’t the only one.
There was also the matter of his business persona. Jack had justified the short life cycle of each new business as poor planning on the part of inexperienced entrepreneurs, adding that Walker was made more interesting by the regularly changing face of their historic downtown. He basically patted himself of the back, and said as much in quotes for The Fish Wrap. Steven remembered reading an op-ed about Jack keeping their town from becoming a static, colorless burb like so many other sad, surrounding communities.
Even the hens at Bonnie’s, once his champions till the end, quit singing his praises. After he closed the doors on their beloved salon and replaced it with an overpriced sterling silver jewelry shop, it was to those colorless and sad communities they had to travel for their weekly pedicures and root jobs. Steven pulled himself from his thoughts and stooped to get a better look at the deceased.
Jack was indeed wearing a life jacket, which was strange to be sure. It was muddy like everything else about the scene. Thinking just enough to grab a pair of plastic gloves, Steven prodded at the remains of the jacket and discovered a puncture in the plastic under the layers of grime. He wondered about the cause –a twig or a sharp rock…until he looked closer. There was a hole.
The edges of rip were serrated and perfected serrated at that. The jagged peaks making up the rim of the hole were completely equal. The pattern could have matched just about any common steak knife. The life preserver had been deliberately compromised. Someone certainly didn’t want to help Jack stay afloat.
Curiosity peaked; Steven began to check the body for injury. There wasn’t any obvious trauma. The body was in bad shape, but nothing that wouldn’t be explained away by a day or two on the bottom of the Allegheny.
Then, it clicked into place. He was pulled up from the bottom of the river. Aly had struggled to pull up what he hoped was the mythical Walleye of Pennsylvania lore, and had instead only ever hooked and tugged Jack up from where he was stuck or from where he had be put.
Even with a leaky life vest—surely Jack could swim. What would cause him to be rooted to the inky depths? Steven continued to search the body. Hamilton had no shoes on, but was otherwise fully clothed in his standard business attire, right down to the tweed suit jacket. The sheriff nervously pulled up on the pant leg of Hamilton’s clearly pricey chinos.
There it was. There was the tip that really made the prospect of the early night Steven had hoped for fizzle right in front of him. The tell-tale bruising on Jack’s ankle, the grain to the injury was that of rope, tied tight enough to mark the skin with a ring of purple.
This was officially a crime scene.
"Reynolds," he barked. "Get the yellow tape from the trunk. Mark it off. We aren’t going anywhere."
To be continued...
CL Library Staff