Morgue Mama: A Morgue Mama Mystery #1

Morgue Mama: A Morgue Mama Mystery #1

The morgue is that cold and sterile facility where medical examiners do their necessary but, to many of us, dreadful work. Less familiar is its dry and dusty version, usually ...

About The Author

C R Corwin

C.R. Corwin is a former newspaper reporter living in Akron, Ohio. He teaches a Writing That Novel workshop through the ...

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Chapter One

Tuesday, March 7

The poor lamb. One week on the job and she made the worst mistake a reporter on The Hannawa Herald-Union can make.

She called me Morgue Mama—to my face.

It was right after lunch, on a horrible Tuesday in March. I was perched at the counter that separates the library from the rest of the newsroom, going through the metro section of that morning’s paper. I saw her coming at me over the top of my 250+ drug store reading glasses. She was tall and willowy and young. And good gravy, she was smiling.

She plopped her arms on the counter, side by side like the runners on a bobsled, and leaned forward, actually casting a shadow over me. “Hi, Morgue Mama,” she said. “I need all the files on the Buddy Wing murder.”

I kept working, marking which stories should be saved, and where. In the old days I’d cut the stories out of the paper, scribble a date on them, stick them in an envelope and feed them to the file cabinets. Now stories are filed in cyberspace. Click and the job’s done. No more scissors. No more envelopes. No more of that wonderful inky newsprint on your fingertips. Anyway, I ignored the Morgue Mama thing and kept on working.

“The Buddy Wing files—I’d like to see them,” she said, a little louder but no less cheery.

I peeked over the top of my glasses again. “You’re the new police reporter.”

“Aubrey McGinty,” she said.

“Well, Aubrey McGinty, just so you know, Morgue Mama is what you call me behind my back.”

“Oops.”

“In front of my back you call me Maddy.” “I’m really sorry.”

“No crime committed. You called me Morgue Mama because that’s what you hear everybody else call me.”

“I really am sorry.”

I hate contrition, even when it’s sincere, which in this instance it seemed to be. “Apologize if it makes you feel better,” I said. “In a month you’ll be so sick of my crap you’ll be calling me Morgue Mama like the rest.”

I was expecting her to hop back to her desk like a frightened bunny. Instead she winked at me like we’d been friends for a hundred years. “But only behind your back?”

“If you know what’s good for you.”

So that’s how I met Aubrey McGinty, maybe the best police reporter the Herald-Union ever had, maybe even better than my dear Dale Marabout. “You can call up all the Wing murder stories on your computer,” I said. “Just type his name in the search box.”

She puckered her lips. Apparently she found it funny that an old bag of prunes like me would be telling someone her age how to conduct a computer search. The computer chip has turned the world upside down, I’ll tell you. Today the young teach the old. Can’t figure out all those teeny weenie buttons on your TV remote? Ask a three-year-old. Can you imagine five hundred years ago some pre-pubescent apprentice showing Michelangelo how to hold his chisels?

“I’ve already got all the on-line files,” Aubrey said. “I’m interested in the older stuff.”

I tried to preserve my perfected sour countenance, but I’m sure my delight was smoothing out my wrinkles. The sweet girl actually wanted something from the filing cabinets. She actually wanted something printed on real paper. I wiggled my finger for her to follow.

Let me explain a few things for those of you who don’t know diddly about the newspaper business. Newspapers report what’s new, what’s happening right now, history on the hoof as they say. But news is meaningless unless it’s put into some sort of perspective. Let’s say you read that the sewer pipes under Cleveland Avenue are exploding, and you think, boy, that’s too bad. Then you read that those sewer pipes are only four years old, and you think how can this be? Then you read that the contractor who installed those sewer pipes is the mayor’s cousin, who after serving eighteen months in a state correctional facility for stealing cars went on to operate a shady television repair business, and despite having not one day’s experience laying sewer pipe, got the Cleveland Avenue contract because he submitted the lowest bid, and that the pipe he installed was made of low-grade iron, illegally imported from the former Soviet republic of Belarus, and you begin to get some perspective.

And how did the newspaper discover all this interesting stuff?

Every paper from the smallest weekly to The New York Times has a library. In the newspaper business we call these libraries the morgue. And it’s a fitting name. Just like they tag and store bodies in the city morgue, stories are tagged and stored in the newspaper’s morgue. But unlike the city morgue, the stuff we tag and store is never buried and never forgotten. It’s always there, waiting to be resurrected by some ambitious reporter. Waiting to give perspective to some current story. Waiting to send mayors and their shady relatives to prison.

So every newspaper has a morgue and every morgue has a crusty old pain-in-the-ass librarian like me, Dolly Madison Sprowls, whom, as you’ve already learned, the reporters call Morgue Mama.

But only behind my back.

The Herald-Union’s computer system was installed in June, 1985. So everything written before then was saved the old-fashioned way, clipped and crammed into a manila envelope, sardined into a file cabinet drawer.

You’d think the younger reporters could access information from a file cabinet without too much trouble, wouldn’t you? But file cabinets are as strange and mysterious to them as the computer system is to me. Oh, they can pull a drawer open—I’m not saying that—but they seem totally incapable of knowing where to begin. “Good gravy,” I hiss at them, “don’t you know the alphabet?”

I took Aubrey to the W cabinets first. We had three thick envelopes tagged Wing, the Rev. Buddy. Then I took her to the C cabinets and dug out four envelopes tagged ChuRChes, histoRy. “There’s plenty of stuff on Buddy Wing’s ministry in here,” I said, “going back to the Fifties, when he first moved here from West Virginia.” Next I took her to the T cabinets. Two envelopes were marked television, evangelists. “He started his television show in 1964,” I said, “the same Sunday in February that the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.”

“My mother wanted to marry George Harrison,” Aubrey said.

Good God, I thought, they make these reporters younger all the time. I was already twenty-nine years old in 1964, already divorced, already working here for five years.

“Who was your favorite Beatle?” she asked. “Mel Torme,” I said.

We headed back toward the counter. “You got a videotape of the murder yet?” I asked.

“You’ve got that?”

“Honey,” I said. “Follow me.”

# # #

Like a lot of TV preachers, Buddy Wing had too much hair and wore expensive white suits. The day after Thanksgiving, he dropped dead, at the ripe age of seventy-six, in front of fifteen hundred people, during his regular Friday night Hour of Everlasting Life services at his opulent Heaven Bound Cathedral on Shellborne Street.

Far more than fifteen hundred witnessed his murder, of course. Wing’s Friday night services were broadcast live over some two hundred cable channels nationwide. So I suppose a couple hundred thousand were watching when he grabbed his neck and staggered backward into the fake palm trees. By the time the TV networks got through replaying the tape, everybody in the country had seen Buddy Wing die a dozen times. We ran a four-column photo of it ourselves. Page one. Above the fold. Wing’s theological claim to fame was that he had Jesus’s phone number. Sometime during every broadcast he’d say: “Jesus gave me his phone number when I was just a little boy. And I’ve been calling him every day, ever since. And Jesus is always at home.

His line is never busy. Hello Jesus! Hello Buddy!”

People in the audience would shake their arms and shout, “Hello Jesus! Hello Buddy!”

I remember Dale Marabout saying the night of Wing’s murder, “At least Buddy will save a bundle on long distance from now on.”

So the murder was shown again and again on every newscast in the country, probably in the world, especially after the coroner announced just how Wing had been poisoned.

# # #

“I’d sure like to Jack-and-the-beanstalk my way up those legs,” Eric Chen said, shaking the last drop of a Mountain Dew into his mouth. He’d returned from lunch just in time to watch Aubrey retreat to her desk with the Buddy Wing files.

“She is a pretty girl,” I agreed. “And I hear a kick-ass reporter.”

Eric Chen has worked in the morgue since graduating from college, which makes him about thirty-three or thirty-four. Technically I’m still the head librarian, but Eric is really in charge. That’s because he understands how and why the computers do what they do. It’s all I can do to double-click my mouse.

The paper had figured I’d retire at sixty-five like everybody else. Then they’d move Eric up to my position, finally completing the modernization program that editor-in-chief Bob Averill initiated about a dozen years ago. But I had no intention of going peacefully. “Maddy-Maddy-Maddy,” Bob said to me after receiving the bad news about my intention to keep working, “don’t you want to enjoy life a little?”

“That’s why I’m staying,” I said.

And that’s why I’m going to stay just as long as I can. I  love this paper. I love the morgue. And so the modernization program remains stalled, one Dolly Madison Sprowls shy of completion.

You’d think Eric would be pissed at me for hanging on, wouldn’t you? He stands to make at least $15,000 more a year if I retire. But he never says boo about it.

“I wonder if she likes Chinese?” Eric said when Aubrey sat down and propped her knees against the edge of her desk. He was referring to himself, of course, not won ton soup.

Eric Chen is always nurturing the stereotype that Asian-Americans are smarter than Other-Americans. But the only things Chinese about Eric Chen are his eyes and his last name. He was born in Youngstown, for goodness sake. And while he certainly knows what all the buttons on his keyboard are for, he’s a world-class doofus when it comes to things that really matter, like feeding his belt through all the loops in his pants, or making sure there’s enough antifreeze in his pickup truck, or having a relationship with a woman that goes beyond watching her carry an armful of files back to her desk. Still, I like Eric Chen. He’s funny and polite and honest. He’s one of the few people in the newsroom who isn’t afraid of me.

To tell you the truth, I’ve spent years perfecting my act as the newspaper’s rottweiler-in-residence. Every morning I come to work determined to be as cranky and uncooperative as I can. It keeps the reporters and editors from asking for information they really don’t need—which they’ll do every damn day, ten times a day, if you let them.

But Eric Chen saw through me the day he was hired. And Dale Marabout sure saw through me. And now I knew that Aubrey McGinty saw through me, too.

As soon as Eric wandered off, I went to my desk and dialed Dale Marabout’s extension. His desk was way over by the elevator but I could see him pick up the receiver and cradle it under his neck. “Hi, Mr. M,” I said.

He swiveled in his chair and smiled in my direction. “What’s shakin’?” he said.

“Up for lunch tomorrow?” “Something interesting cooking?” “Just lunch. Speckley’s at noon?” “Noon it is.”

I watched him hang up and swivel back to his computer screen. So many stories to edit and so little time.

# # #

I came to Hannawa, Ohio, in 1953—the most timid eighteen-year-old on the face of the earth—to attend Hemphill College. Hemphill at that time had one of the best library science programs in this part of the country. I was going to get my degree and go back to New York, get a job in one of the big library systems in Albany or Syracuse or Utica, anywhere but my home- town of LaFargeville, a crossroads clutter of two hundred and eighty-five people surrounded by seven thousand dairy cows. Instead I fell in love with Lawrence Sprowls and after graduation stayed right here in Hannawa.

Lawrence was a journalism major and made the dean’s list every semester, and so while other J-grads went off to little piss-ant papers around the state, Lawrence went right to the Herald- Union. They assigned him to the business section, where he quickly made a name for himself covering a vicious three-month strike at the Ford plant. Like other big cities in the Midwest, the 1950s in Hannawa were boom years. Factories were popping up everywhere, outstripping the local supply of workers. Poor families by the thousand streamed out of the South to work twelve hours a day, six, seven days a week, making things they  could not yet afford to buy for themselves. It wasn’t long before those workers, their feet now firmly planted in the middle class, got sick of the low wages and long hours. They joined unions and bargained as hard as they worked. Their strikes were long and often violent, and the times being as prosperous as they were, they almost always got what they wanted.

For the first couple of years after Lawrence and I married,  I worked part time at the city library. Then Lawrence saw the posting for a job in the morgue. I found myself in the newspaper business, too, clipping stories, stuffing them in envelopes, feeding them to the file cabinets, every night trying to scrub the newsprint off my fingers with Boraxo.

In 1961, Lawrence was lured away from the paper by the local office of the United Auto Workers to handle their public relations. It was irresistible money and we bought the bungalow on Brambriar Court where I still live. In 1963, Lawrence was lured from our marriage by a secretary with irresistible tits.

So Lawrence got the irresistible money and the irresistible tits and I got the bungalow. Over the years Lawrence moved from city to city doing PR for unions and banks and phone companies and race tracks. He would divorce and marry three more times before dying of a heart attack at age fifty-seven. I stayed right here in Hannawa. Stayed divorced. Stayed in the morgue. I was named head librarian in May, 1970, the same week those four students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, not thirty miles down the road from here. Every time I run across those Kent, May 4 shootings files I just boil inside.

Hannawa is a lot different today than it was in the Sixties. The good union jobs are pretty much gone. Almost anybody with money has fled to the suburbs. City Council keeps launching various redevelopment schemes, but the downtown remains a canyon of empty storefronts and the neighborhoods continue to crumble. Only on the west side, in the hills surrounding Hemphill College, are there still some safe and tidy middle-class neighborhoods, including mine.

I’d say the city has lost a good seventy thousand people over the last couple of decades, some to jobs in the New South— Atlanta, Houston, Charlottesville, places like that—but mostly to the city’s own suburbs—Greenlawn and Brinkley, North Hannawa and Hannawa Falls—once beautiful rural townships now choking with strip malls and big showy houses with adjustable mortgages.

While a lot of the factories have closed, Hannawa has one industry that just keeps growing and growing: Evangelism.

Hannawa has more evangelists per capita than any city north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I’m not kidding. Several years ago we ran a six-part series on the phenomenon. It seems that all those southerners moving up here in the Fifties and Sixties—whites from Appalachia, blacks from the delta states—brought their own brand of Bible-believing Christianity with them. Preachers in need of flocks made the move north, too, setting up shop in vacant breweries and bowling alleys, anywhere they could put up a row or two of folding chairs. Buddy Wing was one of them. He was a high school dropout from Webster Springs, West Virginia, a young man with a knack for healing both spiritual and physical ailments. He also understood early on that God had permitted the invention of the cathode ray tube for one reason and one reason only: to save souls.

Before tumbling into the fake palms, Buddy Wing was the most well-known TV preacher in Hannawa. But he was hardly the only one. Today, I bet there are a dozen preachers here with their own shows on cable.

Anyway, Hannawa is known for its evangelists. So much so that ever since the paper’s series brought the phenomenon to light, Hannawa has been known as “The Hallelujah City.” I think it’s a hoot, but Mayor Kyle Finn sure doesn’t like it. Of course he can’t say so publicly, but Sylvia Berdache, who covers city hall for us, says hearing that nickname literally turns his orange Irish freckles maroon. She does a wonderful impression of him: “We’re workin’ our arses off trying to build a progressive city here—attractin’ high-tech jobs and foreign investment dollars—and what are we known for? Faith-healin’ hillbillies!” Sylvia claims she actually overheard him say that to a Catholic priest once, at the Feast of the Assumption carnival at St. Patrick’s on West Molamar.

Sylvia didn’t say what the priest’s reaction to the mayor’s blasphemy was, but I’ll tell you mine: People can believe anything they want and worship any way they want—just as long as they stay the hell away from me.

# # #

At four that afternoon, I saw Aubrey McGinty heading toward my desk with the envelopes I’d given her. Her youthful bounce made me nibble on my bottom lip. I’d been much too helpful earlier. Much too friendly. I needed to re-establish my witchiness. “You sure you’re done with those?” I asked sourly. “I don’t like digging out the same stuff twice.”

“I’m pretty sure I Xeroxed everything I need.” “Only pretty sure?”

“If it’ll make you sleep better tonight I could go Xerox some more,” she said.

I’d wanted to see her wilt. But she’d only bloomed. I motioned for her to put the envelopes on my desk. They slid in every direction, one nearly capsizing my end-of-the-day mug of Darjeeling tea.

Before waltzing back to her desk she said something that was going to upset my applecart for months to come: “Maddy, I don’t think Sissy James did it.”

Reviews of

Morgue Mama: A Morgue Mama Mystery #1

“Every hometown newspaper has some colorful old crab like Dolly Madison (Maddy) Sprowls on the premises, and C. R. Corwin had the wit to make her the heroine of his amusing debut mystery, “Morgue Mama.” Having rejected graceful retirement for the more rewarding role of staff busybody, Maddy is back in all her despotic glory in DIG (Poisoned Pen, $24.95), presiding over the archives of The Hannawa (Ohio) Herald-Union and poking her nose into another local murder. When Gordon E. (Sweet Gordon) Sweet, a professor of “garbology,” is found shot to death at an archaeological dig in the town landfill, Maddy’s thoughts leap back to the 1950’s, when he and she were campus beatniks, charter members of the Meriwether Square Baked Bean Existentialist Society. “We listened to jazz, drank little cups of coffee and talked and talked and talked,” she explains to the young librarian who gives her a hand on this case, which is both a brainteaser and a comic salute to the rather terrifying charm of its heroine.”

The New York Times

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