It’s a body. That’s all I know.”
The woman’s voice coming through the phone was still new to him. He had met her only once, after she had hired him, in a rushed introduction to the central offices of the paper in nearby Docksport. She had been uninterested in him, insisted on calling him Hank when he said he preferred Henry, said he really didn’t need to know anything about the central office in “this fucking computer age,” hacked up a gob of phlegm that she then swallowed and would probably chase with a cigarette as soon as she could, and dismissed him swiftly when news came that a school supply storage shed in Upton had burned to the ground. He could barely remember her name: Doris Whiting.
“You got a car yet?” she asked now.
“Not yet. I’m …”
“Well, pedal your ass out there and let me know what’s up. Find the sheriff. Armey. Jack Armey. Townies are going to be standing around fucking lost. Jack’s a Nam vet. He’s seen a dead body or two. And don’t take any ‘no comment’ shit from him. Get him to grunt something. That cell phone we gave you might not work out there. Go to The Ding Dong and ask Walt if you can use his phone.”
She hung up. He looked out the gable window of his single-room apartment over the Rumskis’ one-car garage and saw that a gray day had dawned. He was cotton mouthed and hungover, and shuffled through a couple of crushed beer cans to his cramped half bathroom, thinking he was going to throw up. But after standing in front of the toilet for a couple of minutes he realized he wasn’t going to heave then. That would come later, he guessed. When he saw the body.
He was pedaling hard uphill against a light wind, a little spitting rain blurring his vision, when he realized he didn’t have his helmet or his notebook. Or a pen. He looked down at himself to make sure he was actually wearing clothes. He had covered mock murders before, mock accidents, one just weeks ago, before graduation, but this was the real thing. What kind of real thing, he didn’t know. “It’s a body.” A body in a wooded area off a two-lane country road. Doris had said there were some details on the scanner, but she didn’t trust them. She wanted eyes and ears on the ground. A week and a half on the job, a couple of nights getting shitfaced with a new friend. Was he ready for this?
He crested the hill and saw a long flat stretch of road and a cluster of cop cars and an ambulance in the distance, about a quarter of a mile before The Ding Dong, the roadside tavern he’d helped close down two or three nights ago. What was the sheriff’s name? He fished a piece of paper out of his pants pocket. Armey. The light rain stained the writing. Hadn’t there been some kooky congressman from this part of Pennsylvania named Armey?
He put the paper back in his pocket and realized he had a pen after all. He braked quickly when he saw a flattened paper bag by the side of the road. He was ready now. He had his tools.
After he got off his bike and moved in the direction a couple of cops were heading, a trooper held out his hand. Henry showed his newly minted press ID and the trooper scowled, looking down at his parked bike.
“You workin’ on a reporter merit badge or something?”
“You goin’ up there to see the body?”
“You won’t be new for long.”
He had folded the paper bag and stuffed it in his back pocket, hoping when he had to take notes he could do so surreptitiously. He caught up with the cops, who he thought were town cops, introduced himself, asked for Armey. Both of them were close to his age and looked as nervous about what they were about to see as he was. They said Armey had gone up about five minutes earlier. He asked what the cops knew as they tramped through brown weeds and then brush leading to a stand of hardwoods. They shrugged, not with indifference but with something like fear.
A trooper surprised them, running out of the woods, barking into a walkie-talkie. They parted and he ran through them without acknowledging their presence. The younger of the two cops stopped and shook his head, giving his partner a defeated, pleading look.
“He said we didn’t have to do this. I ain’t gonna do it.”
“Don’t pussy out on me. This is real shit.”
“You take the nightmare. I got enough.”
He turned and walked back down the incline. The other cop had a moment of decision, flipped his cohort the bird, and kept walking. He was mumbling and about to say something coherent when they looked up to see a small gaggle of troopers and cops in a clearing ahead.
Though the cop with him slowed at the sight, Henry kept moving. In the days and months later, when he told the story, when he wrote about it, he couldn’t say what it was that hooked fingers in his nostrils and hauled him forward, that made him think he wasn’t going to throw up, that had him reaching for his flattened-out paper bag notebook. A reporter’s curiosity? The clarity that comes when a hangover lifts? A sense of duty? He didn’t know, he didn’t care. He simply went up to a spot where he could see all as the technicians and the ME and the cops hovered and worked and photographed and jabbered. He stood with his pen and his paper bag, but he made no attempt to take notes.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Henry had not yet glimpsed the body when the gravelly voice barked at him. He turned to see a man in his fifties, wearing a faded Eagles T-shirt over a sizable paunch, shorts, flip-flops, and a seed cap that said SHERIFF on the front. Henry held out his ID.
“Henry Saltz. I’m the new—”
“Yeah. Don’t touch anything, okay?” He started to walk away.
“Can I get a comment from you?”
“Sure. Tell Doris to lay off the fucking exclamation points and report the fucking facts. I guess that goes for you too, Wet-Behind-the-Ears.”
“Okay. What are the facts?”
Armey gestured toward the body. “Take a look.” He moved away.
Henry waited until the ME and a photographer weren’t blocking his view. He then took a couple of steps forward, as if he were approaching a casket at a wake. He heard a voice to his right say, “… waitress at The Ding Dong.” Henry knew then what he was looking at. But he didn’t make a note as he took another step. Then as he came close to the body, as he saw its features, something kept him from seeing the corpse as dead. He both lost focus and saw things with utter clarity. He looked through the body to something deeper.
She had been pretty and alive, but that had been days ago, when she walked and laughed. Now she was part of the earth, a fallen log across the trail, gravity and the elements working to make her one with the soil. She was no longer whole, but she was recognizable, her hacked, cubist features hinting at the woman she had been. He could see that woman in sunshine, with white teeth and shiny legs, with glistening hair curving over an ear. He could see how untouchable she had been, a perfect specimen of grace and form. The more he looked, the deeper he went. He knew her now, in a way no one could ever have known her in life. To the cops she was a broken body, a case, a puzzle, but to him she was elemental existence. Whatever had happened had closed off one thing, closed off time and space for her, but it had opened him to new life. As contradictory as all this was to any rationality, he didn’t question it. He felt it with ever more assurance. The cops were looking at an endpoint. He was looking at a commencement.
There was a small commotion and a trooper came into the circle gingerly holding a curving machete between his latexed thumb and forefinger. The blood-caked metal made sense to the cops. They could see how it had been used, how it explained the beauty pageant ribbon of open flesh from her shoulder to her hip. But to him it was an intrusion, an ugly mechanism that explained nothing, that was all surface. He would write about it, but in the first flush of its appearance it had the effect of pulling him back from the fuller picture. He wanted to stay in the presence of this creature, lifeless as she was, to know in his bones and his heart that all was over for her, that all was over for him. These weren’t things you could write about. You could barely feel them. But here they were now. He only wanted to stay.
Then the sheet came over her, and as it fluttered down on what he would later call the remains, it was as if a curtain had been dropped on a stage, on a play. The end. That’s all, folks. He raised the flattened paper bag, but he knew he had nothing much to write. He didn’t need to make notes. He would never, ever forget any detail of what he saw.
Nor could he ever write the strange yet certain sentence forming in his head now, billowing like blood from a wound, giving him finality and assurance despite the almost depraved incongruity of the words. He fought against letting the sentence have life, but the battle only agitated him more. Blood soaked through the sheet and he saw again the macheted flesh. Henry was at war with himself now, working to keep the sentence at bay. But finally it burst through from nascent words to something whole. Then, as if the sentence were a physical manifestation, Henry turned, took two steps back, and covered a photographer’s open camera bag with a spray of vomit. But that couldn’t stop the words from surfacing. As the photographer protested, Henry only looked back at the draped body.
“Whatever happened to her,” he said to himself, “maybe she deserved it.”
© 2011 Doug Magee
Darkness All Around
Within the span of one harrowing week, Risa’s alcoholic husband, Sean, disappears, and her best friend, Carol, is brutally murdered. Eleven years later, Risa has seemingly put her life back together again, comforted by the love of her new husband, who is a local politician, and the knowledge that Carol’s killer has been convicted. But then just as suddenly as he had disappeared, Sean resurfaces— sober, plagued by horrific recollections of Carol’s murder, and convinced he was the real killer.
Sean’s startling claim buzzes through their small Pennsylvania community, and Risa is left to wonder if the man she still loves actually committed the grisly murder. Her growing belief in his innocence sends her on a treacherous search for the truth: a search that reveals ugly secrets that her new husband and the town’s law enforcement community are hiding.
Part murder mystery, part love story, Darkness All Around is a gripping exploration of the depths of the criminal mind, the fine line between the truth and a lie, and the bravery of the human heart.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Sean Collins is a recovering alcoholic, trying to put his life back together after years on the streets. He is also recovering from Amnesia and is haunted by graphic memories of a dead woman named Carol—a woman he used to know. When he discovers that Carol really was murdered and that the accused murderer might have given a false confession, he fears that he is to blame. He returns to his hometown of Braden to turn himself in.
Risa, Sean’s ex-wife, has not only remarried but had him declared dead after he went missing eleven years ago. When he returns to Braden, it turns her world upside down. Is her ex-husband, the father of her son, a killer? Is her current husband Alan, Sean’s erstwhile best friend, the man she believes him to be? Who really killed Carol? The answers will surprise everyone.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. At the opening of the novel Risa is plagued by a sense of looming disaster, which is borne out by events. Have you ever had similar intuitions? see more