“Anything else I can get you, honey?” Annie asked. She was a plump, little waitress, and Howie Stuggs was enjoying her pleasant southern drawl. She was cheeky and conversational. Howie was conversational, too.
“Well I’ll tell you what,” Howie said in his gravelly, deliberate baritone, “that meatloaf and potatoes has done filled me right up, and really I ought to be done.” He smiled and gave a wink. “But I am a creature of habit, and I ain’t never had a dinner without dessert in nearly fifteen years now!”
“Well I cannot allow that Del’s Diner would be the place you broke such a longstanding tradition!” Annie grinned. “Did you need to look at the menu again? We do recommend our Apple Pie to everyone that comes through here.”
“I think I remember it from the menu,” he closed his eye to recall the image. “Was $2.50 for a slice?” he asked in surprise. “Is that right?”
“And worth every penny!”
Howie chuckled. “I’m not surprised at how little, not how much! But then, I just got back from New York. A slice of that Apple Pie would do quite nicely, thank you.”
She made a mark on her notepad and walked away. Howie smiled contentedly to himself as he leaned back in his chair and placed fork and knife on his finished dinner plate. In truth it wasn’t the prices in New York that alarmed him most, it had been the lack of this hospitality. Hospitality, he had learned, was the result of having enough time. If people were always in a rush, then they couldn’t stop to give any of themselves. Here in a small town like Davey’s Fall you could sit down and really get to know a person. They were more real here. They had a sort of aura about them, and when one of them walked into a room the others knew who it was without even having to turn around and see.
Howie’s phone buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket and squinted at it as his fingers hunted for the right buttons to press. He didn’t care for this new technology. If the world wanted to have it, fine, but he wished his employers didn’t require him to as well. Eventually he worked out how to open the message and read its confirmation. Tonight then.
Annie was coming back and Howie shoved the phone back into his pocket. He smiled as she set down the plate, upon which sat a massive sector of apple pie. A slice of cheddar cheese was draped over half of it, softened by the heat until it molded to the shape of the dessert. Howie took hold of fork and knife again, and let the steam waft up to his nose as he gave a long, deep snuff.
“Seems a pity to break it,” he winked to Annie.
“More the pity not to.”
He plunged the fork through its flaky crust and carved the knife through slices of apple that had turned soft as jelly. He tucked the bite into the corner of his mouth and chewed it in a slow, circling motion.
“Oh my,” he breathed softly. “Oh that is wonderful. That is truly wonderful.”
Annie smiled in approval.
“But how can it be so fresh? You’ve only been gone a minute.”
“Hmm, trade secret,” Annie shrugged knowingly.
“Please, corporate nonsense doesn’t fit a place like this.”
“Well this is a business, you know?”
“No, this is dinner at family,” Howie averred solemnly. “Go on. It’s not as if an old gruff like me, who can’t tell a pot from a pan, is going to put your place out of business!”
Annie glanced over her shoulder, then lowered her voice confidentially. “Well…if you must know…what the cook does is he puts a whole pie in the oven, but sets the heat just as low as he can. It cooks, but it takes it a full three hours. Any time someone orders the pie he cuts out a single slice, transfers it over to his ‘hot’ oven, and finishes it in just a minute or two. Going slow you get all the flavor steeped through, all the texture turned soft, but finishing fast you seal it all up and give it that nice caramelization.”
Howie laughed and clapped his hands in admiration, then set to taking his next bite. Annie brought him the check, and ten minutes later he was on his way out the door, though not without a hefty amount of lingering chit-chat with everyone he passed along the way.
At last he settled down in his old ford, turned the engine over, and sat still while the radio came on. It was an old western ballad, and he hummed along to the familiar tune as he popped open the glove box and pulled out his notebook. Propping it against the steering wheel he transferred all of the information from his phone message to this more comfortable medium. Then he flicked back and forth through the most recent pages of the notebook, the ones detailing his latest job.
“Bay View Motel,” he muttered to himself, then looked out of his car window. In a town as small as this, there was a decent chance you could find whatever your next destination was just by peering around.
Behind him was the highway, less than a tenth of a mile distant. Traffic was so infrequent that the noise didn’t present a nuisance to the shops and businesses that the turn-off led to. Among them was Del’s Diner, a gas station, a small grocery, and a cozy motel that was not Bay View. At the end of the diner’s parking lot was a junction onto another street, down which Howie could see the sign of the local lawyer, an auto repair, and a two-floor building with a sign that was mostly obscured by a scrubby tree. What little bit he could make out, though, looked like a wave crashing on a beach.
“Bay View,” he guessed, and turned on the ignition. Thirty seconds later his suspicion was affirmed and he pulled into the parking lot, his wheels crunching over the unpaved gravel.
No wonder it was the other motel that faced the highway. This one was a low and mean looking place, with large brown stains baked into its peeling siding, and boarded windows on rooms that were in a state of constant disrepair.
Howie took a moment to fully take in his surroundings. He noted the rickety staircase that went from the first floor of the motel to the upper, the way that some of the doors inexplicably opened outwards into the narrow path instead of inwards to their rooms, and the way that the only camera present was pointed at the main office’s front doors. That office, he observed, was being manned by a teenage boy, clearly not the manager of the place.
He reached into the glove box and took out a piece of hard candy, popped it into his mouth and slowly sucked it down. Once he would have lit a cigarette, but ten years ago he knew he had to quit. What mattered was to have something to occupy him long enough to really take a good, hard, second look. Rushing things was never the right way.
So he scanned everything again, this time rehearsing his future steps in his mind. Door 27 was four rooms from the west staircase. A car parked at the bottom of that staircase–front pointed out of the parking lot–would be able to make the highway in less than three minutes. Maybe less than two.
Four rooms from the west staircase meant four opportunities for someone to come bolting out into the walkway and becoming an obstruction. A firm shove with his left arm would be enough to quell the curious, and his right hand would grip a more imperative persuasion for anyone who wanted to play the hero.
The west staircase meant he would be on the opposite end from the office, far from the lone security camera. He had already verified that there was no local sheriff’s office, so no one in an official capacity would be on the scene for at least fifteen minutes. And fifteen minutes was enough to make it down to Hogswell, a town large enough to lay low, but small enough that no one should be out to see him rolling in at two in the morning.
Satisfied, Howie stepped out of his car, went to the trunk, and pulled out his bag of tools. He clipped a nametag to his shirt, put on workman’s gloves, a baseball hat, and thick-rimmed glasses. His razor was in the front of the car, so he’d shave off his mustache when he got to Hogswell.
Now he strode up to the front office, the bell on the door ringing dully as he came to the teenage boy at the front desk.
“Hey, how can I help you?” the boy rehearsed.
“Call for a bathroom leak?” Howie pointed to his nametag.
“Call this morning. Came from a Jerry,” he read the name of the manager off a plaque hanging from the wall, “said there was a leak in one of the bathrooms. Asked if I’d be able to make it in the morning and I said I’d try,” he shrugged abashedly, “but I never know when the previous appointment is going to be ten minutes or two hours. Today it was the two hours, for Miss Maislee down the street. I could swear she tried to flush a cat down her pipes!”
“Oh, the lady from the diner?”
“Sure kid, I dunno where she works. Course you never know if a client is a yapper or a go-brooding-in-their-corner-while-you-work sort of person. Deidre is a go-off-to-her-corner. Suits me, I don’t need to know the secret life of a cat-homicide-maniac.”
“What, it can’t have really been a cat!”
“Well the way things run in pipes, half the time you can’t really tell what they originally were. So that means either you’re devoid of imagination and tell yourself its just a clump of hair, or you start anticipating the more colorful side of people. And let me tell you, it doesn’t take that much imagination to start seeing crimes everywhere in people’s pipes. Most people think their plumbing is a private place where no one will find the worst of their secrets,” he raised an eyebrow solemnly.
“Huh, like what?” the boy grinned.
Good. The kid was bored. After five minutes of Howie satiating him with horror stories and the boy finally got around to asking which room it was that needed plumbing.
Howie was led to the room, and then left to do his “work.” He rummaged about in the bathroom for a minute, until he was sure that the kid was truly gone, then he went over to the front door of the motel room, pulled out his screwdriver, and removed the plate around the doorknob. Now came the process of extracting the door-lock mechanism. He would take out the deadbolt, then put everything back the same as it was before.
It was a fortunate thing that the man currently renting this room wasn’t here right now. If he had been Howie would have had to ask him about the leak in the bathroom, and when he denied it Howie would have had to feign frustration at having been given the wrong information. Then he would have left, and things would have been much louder this night.
It was delicate work on the door, but Howie was practiced at it. He got the deadbolt out and also the tumbler in the doorknob, so that neither lock could work. He replaced the deadbolt with a custom-made one. It had been sawed short so that it wouldn’t actually extend into the door frame, but it would provide a similar weighty “click” when you tried to lock the door. He also put a pin in the doorknob so that it would stop when you twisted that lock, rather than spin freely. If someone looked closely, they would notice that neither lock was actually catching, but most people never would.
His work done, Howie grabbed his bag and left the room. He didn’t take the gloves off until he was settled back in the car. Now he just had one more errand to run, and then he would make himself scarce until the middle of the night.
As I said on Monday, this piece was inspired by my work in Washed Down the River. In that story I featured two inspectors following a more grounded approach to detective work than is usually seen in a murder mystery. It felt fitting that this more down-to-earth story have a somewhat mundane ending, in which the exact reason for the victim’s death remain somewhat uncertain, though foul play is finally ruled out.
As such, there really wasn’t a real villain in the story, and I found myself wondering what one would have looked like. I certainly wouldn’t want some caricature, mustache-twirling, rogue. As with all of the other characters in Washed Down the River, it would have to be someone that felt grounded and believable.
I had come to mind a man in his late fifties, with a pot-belly, and a genial, southern manner. Someone that had been weathered by life, but someone who also knows how to entertain and influence people. Suddenly I wanted to write a story about this easygoing assassin, and detail how he moseys about a sleepy town, enjoying the local hospitality, before then committing the most unspeakable of crimes in its borders.
Detectives Price and Daley will not show up in any part of this story. If ever their paths did cross with Howie Stuggs, it would have to be in an all-new chapter. And yet the story of those detective directly paved the way for this tale of a criminal who might exist in their world. It is the fruit of their tree, just as they were the fruit of the many other murder mysteries I’ve consumed over the years.
Now in this story I wanted things to go very easy and slow. I even opened it up by detailing a meal in a diner for quite a while, which meal has absolutely nothing to do with the real plot of the story. Yet I felt that that scene was completely essential in how it established tone and character. At the same time, I’ve read more than enough stories that were over-indulgent in unnecessary “character-development” scenes. I’d like to take a closer look at what it is that makes a scene actually add depth to a story, and what it is that makes it useless fluff. Come back on Monday where we explore that, and then on Thursday we’ll see the next chapter of Howie’s tale.