The Unraveling of Violeta Bell: A Morgue Mama Mystery #3

The Unraveling of Violeta Bell: A Morgue Mama Mystery #3

Newspaper librarian Maddy Sprowls never gives story ideas to the editors at The Hannawa Herald-Union. She prefers to stay in the morgue and do her job, and hopes the editors ...

About The Author

C R Corwin

C.R. Corwin is the pseudonym of Rob Levandoski, a former newspaper reporter in Akron, Ohio. During his career in journalism, ...

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Monday, June 19

I learned long ago not to give my story ideas to the editors. They grin at you like a constipated duck. They quack, “Ooooh, what a great idea!” Then they never assign anyone to write it. And if by some miracle they do, the reporter gets the story wrong. So I stay in the morgue and do my job, and hope the editors stay in the newsroom and try like the dickens to do theirs.

But there I was, scooting toward Nancy Peale’s desk just as fast as my full mug of Darjeeling tea would let me go. But, good gravy, I couldn’t help myself. The idea was just too good.

Nancy has been the features editor since the Jurassic Age, which means she’s been at The Hannawa Herald-Union almost as long as me. So we’ve had our share of run-ins. “Sorry to bother you, Nancy,” I said with as much cheeriness as I could muster on a Monday morning, “but I just had to pass along something I saw.”

She looked up from her pecan roll. Gave me that duck look. “You know we’re always looking for good stories, Maddy.”

I bolstered myself with a long sip of tea and began. “Well—I was on my way to get some Milkbones for James, and a few groceries, and you know what Saturdays in June are like. More garage sales than dandelions. Anyway, I was on Pershing, just a couple blocks south of West Apple, and a taxi had pulled up in front of this house with a garage sale sign and a driveway full of junk. And these four old women were getting out, dressed in the most God-awful outfits, like circus clowns on their way to church.” I took another sip, peeking over the top of my mug to make sure Nancy was still listening. “Anyway, it occurred to me that maybe they hired a cab every Saturday to drag them from one garage sale to another. And wouldn’t that make a great story if they did.”

Nancy’s mouth was now full of pecan goo. “And do they?”

I was ready for her. “Every Saturday all summer. For the past four or five years. Garage sales and estate sales. I called the cab company. They always use the same driver, too.”

Nancy gave me a rare smile. “The stories he could, tell, huh?” “His name is Eddie French.”

She scribbled it on her desk pad. “City Cab or Yellow?” “Yellow.”

“Well—it sounds like a great idea, Maddy. Thanks.”

I went back to my desk figuring that would be the end of it.

I got busy marking up the Saturday and Sunday papers.

That’s my job. I’ve been the head librarian of The Herald-Union for the past thirty-four years. In the newspaper business we call the library the morgue. It’s where we keep stories that have already run—the dead stories if you will—in case reporters need them for background on the new ones they’re writing. In the old days, I’d clip the stories with my big, black-handled scissors, scribble a date on them, and cram them into those wonderful old battleship gray filing cabinets that used to grace the morgue. Now I go through the paper with a felt-tip pen deciding which electronic files to store them in. This new system cost the paper a bazillion dollars and took years to implement. And of course the stories are no easier to find in cyberspace than they were in those old A-Z filing cabinets. But you can’t stop progress.

I do try, of course.

For one thing, I refuse to use my computer for anything more complicated than reading my email or ordering clothes from Chadwick’s or Lands’ End. I leave all the real computer work to my assistant, Eric Chen. Keyboard-wise he’s a genius. Life-wise he’s a Class A doofus.

Another thing I refuse to do is retire. I know I’m a royal pain in the ass around here, but there’s no way in hell the morgue could function without me. And there’s no way I could function without the morgue. So I stay on, one birthday cake shy of seventy, making everyone’s life just as miserable as I can.

Anyway, I finished marking up the weekend papers and then walked down to Ike’s Coffee Shop for lunch. I spent my usual two hours there, at my little table by the window, stuffing myself with tuna salad and potato chips, yakking with Ike about this and that. On my way back to the paper I stopped at the bank and renewed a couple of CDs, locking in that astronomical 2.3% interest rate for another eighteen months. I also picked up my Lipitor prescription at Walgreen’s. By the time I got back to the morgue it was three o’clock. I made my afternoon tea and settled in at my desk to mark up the Monday edition. Before I could get the cap off my felt-tip, I saw Nancy Peale heading my way. Behind her was some snippet of a girl I didn’t recognize.

“In the middle of something?” Nancy asked.

She’d been civil with me that morning, so I had no choice but to be civil with her. “Not yet.”

“Good—I wanted you to meet Gabriella Nash. She just started today. I gave her that idea of yours.”

I hadn’t recognized her face—how could I without that awful spiked green hair she used to have—but her name sure rang a bell. Before I could force my frown into something that resembled a smile, she stuck out her hand. “Remember me, Mrs. Sprowls?”

I reached across my clutter and shook her soft, sweaty paw. “Of course I do, dear. Welcome to The Herald-Union.”

Nancy seemed genuinely surprised that I knew her new reporter. “I thought maybe you could help Gabriella get started with her story.”

“Of course I could.”

Nancy wiggled her fingers good-bye and hurried back to the newsroom. Gabriella and I were left smiling at each other like a couple of brainless Raggedy Ann dolls.

Gabriella Nash was actually a very pretty girl without that green mess on her head. Her hair was straight now. Sensibly brunette. Her nose rings were gone, too. Instead of the ratty jeans and bare-midriff I remembered, she was wearing trim-fitting khakis and a striped blouse with white cuffs and collar, an outfit that even I’d wear if my dumpy, post-menopausal torso would permit it. For the record, I was wearing my usual baggy chinos, my Tweetie Bird T-shirt, white anklets and a pair of canvas earth shoes I’ve had since earth shoes were in fashion.

I guess we talked for a good twenty minutes. I told her everything I could remember about those four crazy women I saw crawl out of the cab. About the cabbie, Eddie French. I was just as helpful as I could be. After she thanked me and went back to her squeaky clean desk in the newsroom, I made a beeline for Alec Tinker’s office.

Tinker has been the managing editor for two years now.  He came to us from our sister paper in Baton Rouge with the impossible task of boosting The Herald-Union’s sagging circulation. He’s only thirty-four. One of those alpha-male types who shaves his head to cover up his bald spot. Anyway, I stormed right into his office, making sure the glass in the door rattled when I closed it behind me. I hissed at him like a forty-foot python. “What in the hell were you thinking?”

Tinker answered me without looking up from the avalanche on his desk. He had one stack of computer printouts in his left hand, another in his right, and a third clenched in his teeth. “About going into the newspaper business? Good question!”

This was the most frantic half-hour of Tinker’s day—when he prepared for his afternoon budget meeting with the other editors to decide what was going in the next morning’s paper and where. It was the perfect time for me to torture him. “Your decision to major in journalism is a good topic,” I said, “but I was referring in particular about your hiring Gabriella Nash.”

Tinker took the printouts out of his mouth. “She’s a good hire.”

“As good as Aubrey was?”

Tinker pushed himself as far away from me as the casters on his big, black managing editor’s chair would take him. His decision to bring in Aubrey as police reporter nearly cost him his job. “Now come on, Maddy. Gabriella Nash is hardly another Aubrey McGinty.”

I came around his desk. Propped my rear on the edge so his carefully stacked printouts slid into each other. I poured on the salt and pepper. “I’m not saying she is. I’m just saying your objectivity occasionally wanes.”

“Are you accusing me of sexist hiring practices?” “Of course not—you’ve hired plenty of ugly men.”

Tinker enjoyed our verbal duels. But he had that budget meeting to get to. So he got right to the point. Or at least tried to. “I know you had a little problem with Miss Nash in the past—”

“Little problem? All that stuff she wrote about me? Without once calling to confirm it?”

Tinker conceded the point with a bobble of his shiny head. “But everything she wrote about you was true. It showed she’s got a nose for news.”

He was right enough about that. That day I went to see Gabriella at Hemphill College, quietly snooping into Professor Gordon Sweet’s murder, she’d quickly put two and two together and came up with a very big scoop for the college paper. And she was only a junior then. God only knows how good she might be now. “But she didn’t color inside the lines, Alec. Rule One of journalism is to let the subject of a story confirm or deny what you’ve got.”

Tinker shooed me off his desk, scooted forward in his chair and gathered up his papers. “And if she had, Maddy? Would you have confirmed or denied?”

“No comment.”

Tinker walked me to the door. “I had the same concerns you had. I talked to her about it. She was genuinely anguished.”

I reached for the doorknob. “Was she now?”

He grabbed the knob before I could. “A lot more than a certain librarian when she was caught investigating another murder on company time.”

“I did not investigate Gordon Sweet’s murder on company time.”

I headed for the morgue. Tinker headed toward his meeting.

Both of us were laughing.

# # #

My old Dodge Shadow likes June better than any month. It’s neither too cold nor too hot for its delicate insides. I made it all the way home to my shoebox on Brambriar Court without a single warning light on the dash flashing at me. Which was a small but welcome victory given my foul mood.

Good gravy! Gabriella Nash? Of all the hungry kids with journalism degrees out there? If I didn’t know Tinker better, I’d think he hired her just to get my goat. But he’s a serious newspaperman. He wants The Herald-Union to have the best reporters possible. He wants the people of Hannawa, Ohio, to have the best coverage possible. So if Gabriella Nash hadn’t had good grades, a good portfolio of clips from the college paper, and high praise from her professors, he wouldn’t have hired her, no matter how much he wanted to punish me.

And I did deserve to be punished. I’d not only promised Detective Grant that I wouldn’t interfere in his investigation of Gordon Sweet’s murder, I’d refused to give the paper what I dug up.

So I was prepared to coexist with Gabriella Nash. As long as she had the good sense to tread lightly.

James was waiting for me in the kitchen. So were a puddle of spilled water, a chewed up potholder, and a big glob of poop. “Looks like your day was more fun than mine,” I said, scratching his floppy ears.

James, I should explain, was not my husband. That worthless beast was long gone. James was my neighbor’s American water spaniel. An enormous ball of brown knots. A drooling pink tongue the size of an Easter ham. Eyes that could melt the icecaps on Mars.

My neighbor, Jocelyn Coopersmith, left James with me when she went to California to take care of her daughter, who’d fallen apart after her husband was swept into the Pacific Ocean while collecting mussels for a paella. Jocelyn said she’d be out there for five months. That was fifteen months ago.

So after all those years of living alone, I had a dog. And a man, too, believe it or not.

I cleaned up James’ mess. And before I could stop myself I called that man. “Hi—you have your supper yet?”

“Good Lord, Maddy. It’s only Monday.” “A bad Monday.”

“I’ll pick up a pizza.” “Thanks, Ike.”

That’s right. The new man in my life is a man who’s been in my life for a good fifteen years. For a long time Ike Breeze and I were nothing more than coffee shop owner and cantankerous customer. Lunch hour by lunch hour we became buddies. Now all of a sudden we were, well, we were something a whole lot more complicated.

At my age, any man would be a complication. I’d been with- out one for decades. But Ike and I both came with a few high hurdles for the other to leap. Above and beyond the usual not-putting-the-cap-back-on-the-toothpaste crap. Ike, for example, was a man. And I, thank God, I was a woman. Ike was black. I was white. Ike, for some reason, was a Republican. I, like anybody with a thread of common sense, was a Democrat. Ike went to church. I went past them as fast as I could. Ike was a widower who’d loved his wife to pieces. I was a divorcee who had long ago picked up the pieces. Ike was even-tempered, understanding, excruciatingly tolerant of others, simply a beautiful human being to be around. I was, well, I tended to have trouble in those areas.

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