Story by Dave D’Alessio / Illustration by John Waltrip
The air stank of burnt meat and death.
“Rolled down the hill,” the cop said. “Gas line must have split.”
“Anyone get out?” I asked.
He shined his flashlight around the burned-out roadster. “Doesn’t look it.”
I waved the photographer over.
“We’ll want copies of those for the file,” the cop said.
“Sure.” I flipped my notebook open. “Any idea who it was?”
He flicked his flashlight onto the license plate. “Registered to Carmine Scotto.”
But later that night I found out Carmine’d loaned his car to his daughter. Caroline Scotto was seventeen, and she wasn’t going to get any older.
Rain rattled the windows of the old house. My coat was soaked and water dripped off my hat. I tossed them across a chair. “Hell of a night. What can I do you for, Doc?”
Doc Winchester poured a stiff one and handed it to me. He had his own, and from the flush of his face it wasn’t his second. “Thanks for coming, Richard.”
I lifted my glass. “Your retirement,” I toasted. We drank.
“Thank you, Richard,” he said.
We stared away from each other. He had a fire lit and a log popped. He swallowed another slug of bourbon. “Richard, we go a long way back and sometimes you just have to get something off your chest.”
“Before you start, Doc, are you sure you want to be spilling secrets to a newspaper man?” Private is private, but a story is a story, especially where the Winchesters were concerned. Doc’s father and brother had run the city for nearly thirty years, and his nephew was next in line.
Doc poured himself the dregs. “You’re an honest man,” he said. His speech was still clear. That much bourbon would have had me mumbling about Pearl Harbor.
I hate a mystery. “Thanks.”
His hand trembled, and I guessed the booze was hitting his system. He sat down, stared into space. “Remember the Scotto girl?”
That made me want another drink. “Yeah.” That scene had reminded me too much of Okinawa.
He finished his glass, shook the bottle, put it down. “She was murdered…dead before she got behind the wheel.”
I nearly dropped my glass. “How…”
I was asking, “How did you know?” Dumb question. Doc was City Coroner, a perk of being born a Winchester.
He answered the question I should have asked. “Strangled. Her hyoid was broken.”
“I covered it up, Richard.” He held his head in his hands. “God knows I’ve done some terrible things, but this was the worst by far. By far.” He lifted his head to look right at me. “She was pregnant, too.”
He’d sat on that all these years. It had to be a family matter. I put my glass down. “This is big, Doc. You know I’ll have to write it.”
“No, Richard,” he said distinctly. “You won’t. There’s no evidence, none except my testimony.” He pulled a .32 from his waistband, jammed the barrel into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
— ♦♦♦ —
- J. Moore, the night reporter, was still in the office when the cops let me go. “Pull the file on Doc Winchester,” I told her. “That’s Winchester spelled the usual way, first name Martin. He needs an obit.”
“Can I write it?” C. J. had come from the University full of Women’s Lib and ambition to write for the Post-Dispatch. “Build a portfolio first,” they’d told her.
I was already at the typewriter, banging away. “Knock yourself out.” The obit was page 15. The news was page one.
LOCAL DOCTOR FOUND DEAD
by Richard Dell
Prominent local physician Martin Winchester was found dead in his home this evening. Police sources said he died at approximately 9:30 pm. They did not announce a cause of death.
Winchester, 62, recently ended his private practice and resigned as City Coroner. He planned to retire to Coral Gables, Florida, and was leaving Scottsville later today.
“Christ, you call that writing?” C. J. said, dropping a folder on the desk next to me. “That’s passive voice. And you stink of booze.”
“You use passive to hide the subject of a sentence.” I kept typing. “And I’m hiding the subject because it’s me.”
“You’re the one who found him?”
I stopped to look at her. She had a nice face, but they grow them too skinny for my tastes these days. “I’m the one who watched him blow his brains out.” I got my fingers back on the keys. Walter Austin, our editor, would need twenty inches of copy in the morning.
I had half of them done before C. J. got her breath back. “You have to write that!” She slapped at the paper scrolling out of the Smith-Corona. “This is lies! It’s not the whole story!”
“This is the story I’m writing tonight.” I still pick with three fingers and two thumbs, but I can get copy out plenty fast. “It’s all the story that the cops are letting out. And if you think I’m screwing with the Winchesters for this one piece, you’re nuts.”
She hadn’t been in Scottsville long, but it had been long enough for her to put two and two together. “The family doesn’t want people to know he killed himself…” She was thinking out loud. She’d get there. I pounded keys.
She got there. “You said, ‘this one piece!’ There’s another story!”
I yanked the paper out of the typewriter and grabbed a pencil to fix the typos. “Yeah.”
“Well, what is it?” She spun my chair around to make me look at her. “Tell me what it is. Can I work on it?”
“Finish the obit. Have it on Walter’s desk in the morning.” When her face fell, I added, “And go down to the morgue and get the file on a woman named Caroline Scotto.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Caroline lived seventeen years making only tiny ripples until she’d died. The story I wrote back in ’50 was in the file, and the follow-up. Doc had said then she’d died instantly. A bone to toss her parents.
There were the pix from the scene in her file, and they brought the stink back to me. There was a page torn from the high school yearbook: her picture and her activities. “Junior Class Secretary. Cheerleading Squad. Girls’ Tennis. Home Ec Club. ‘There is nothing to fear except fear itself.'” Three other kids on the same page had chosen that quote.
There were pictures we’d gotten from the yearbook photographer, of a pretty girl with a broad smile who wore her dark hair in a bob. Caroline with a pie. Caroline with a bouquet of roses. Caroline and another girl I knew holding tennis racquets. I spun that photo over to C. J. “That’s Susan Winchester.”
“The mayor’s…what, daughter?” She took a closer look. “I haven’t seen her.”
“She moved to St. Louis. The black sheep.” I riffled through the other pix and picked one more: Caroline with her prom date towering over her. I gave it to C. J. “I’d forgotten that.”
She squinted. “That almost looks like Councilman Winchester.”
“It was.” Biff had been big then and put on a lot of weight since. “Now we’ve got half the story.”
Pregnant. Murdered. And Winchesters behind a coverup. Now we had to put the pieces together.
— ♦♦♦ —
“This story goes nowhere until you can prove every word.” Walter was pushing seventy, and he was a businessman, not a newsman. “You hear me, Dell? I don’t want you stepping on toes.”
“I know the law on libel.” I jerked a thumb toward C. J. “And Hot Shot here can fill me in on the details.”
I’d gotten twenty winks on the office couch. C. J. hadn’t slept a minute, as far as I knew. She’d been up all night reading files in the morgue. “I found Dell’s original notes.” She put a manila envelope on Walter’s desk. “But I couldn’t track down the Scottos.”
“They left town a couple years later,” I remembered.
Walter wasn’t buying in yet. “Stop it, right now. I can’t have you both on this story. Dell…”
- J. cut him right off. “I need this byline! I can’t stay here forever writing obits and puff pieces!”
Walter looked her up and down. “If you want a real job in a real newsroom, the first thing you should do is buy yourself a brassiere and wear it, young woman. And while you’re working for me,” he raised his voice, “you’ll do what I tell you. Dell, what do you say?”
“She’s got to learn the dirty side of the business sometime,” I said. “She can do legwork, and I’ll make sure her nose stays clean.”
“And I don’t write in passive voice,” she muttered.
Walter threw up his hands. “Your other stories come first. I have to get a newspaper out every day, or no one gets paid.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“I can’t read your notes at all,” C. J. said. She had the files she’d pulled laid out on the desk she shared with the society page writer.
I pulled over the seventeen year old pages. “Interviewed Missus Scotto,” I said. “You know the drill: ‘Tell me about the real Caroline.'” I read the quotes I’d gotten. “‘She was a good girl, so happy. She loved life. She loved Spanky.'”
“Spanky?” C. J. snatched the page from my hand, shrugged, gave it back.
There was nothing on Spanky. “The dog, maybe?”
“Maybe it’s Winchester,” she said.
Kids these days. “We didn’t talk like that then.” I went on reading. “‘Her grandmother called her Fiorello, like the mayor. It means “Little Flower.” She didn’t have any special boyfriends. She was saving herself for marriage.’ Well, she’d broken into that savings account.”
“Why’d she do that?”
“Get laid? I hear that people like it.” I riffled through the pages. “It’s the usual. ‘Speak no ill of the dead.'” I flipped the notes back to her.
She glanced at them. “No one could possibly read this crap.” She put them in a box, along with the photos and her notes on last night’s chinwag. “What about her friends? Did the Winchesters have anything to say?”
“‘She was a fine young woman and this is a great loss for our community.'” I pointed at her box. “I put that in her obit.”
She shuffled though the box, not making eye contact. “Dell, I want to talk to Biff.”
“Dammit!” She slapped the desktop, hard. “I bet he’s in this up to his eyebrows. Why not?”
I ticked the reasons off on my fingers. “One. Because smelling bad doesn’t mean he’s a turd. Two. Because Walter doesn’t want us stepping on toes. And three. You’re going to be too busy finding Susan Winchester.” I looked outside. “Damn, still raining.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I hadn’t bothered to tell her four. Something was so rotten that Doc had decided to stop living with it. With Caroline that made two dead. And where there was two corpses, there was room for three.
We had no business with Biff. Mayor Winchester was a different question. Doc had been his brother, after all.
As I drove, the wipers slapping back and forth, I ran through what I knew of the Winchesters. Not the fluff in the files, but the real dirt I’d picked up in drunken conversations so far off the record the record didn’t know they’d happened.
The first Winchester, Harmon Senior, had showed up in Scottsville in the ’20’s. He’d kissed up to the Forrest machine that ran the town then. The Depression got people screaming for a shake-up; once the infighting was done, Senior ended up with the gavel.
He had a stroke on November 9th, 1960. Rumor was he’d heard Kennedy’d had won and blew his top.
Our current mayor, Harmon Junior, had taken over. He was no dummy, either, as sharp as his dad. His flaw was that he had no natural immunity to graft. His wife, Amy, was pretty and as vacant as she was expected to be, which was pretty damned vacant. That or she had a very well-developed blind eye.
Harmon the third, Biff, had been a star fullback. It had gotten him a college scholarship. He’d hadn’t needed brains then, and he hadn’t since, which was a good thing from his perspective.
Junior had a small palace on Evergreen. It had wrought iron gates. You could find it in the dark with a magnet.
“What can I do for you, Mister Dell? I’m sure you can imagine we’re preoccupied today.” Mayor Winchester was standing, after insisting I sit. He was fatter than his father, less fat than his son. Amy sat behind him in a black dress and hat, knees pressed together, a vague smile frozen on her face.
I opened my notebook. “I wanted to know if there was something you wanted to say about your brother. We had to go to press with what we had today, but we’re doing a follow-up tomorrow.”
“Yes, of course.” He hooked his thumbs in his vest and looked down at me. “I loved my brother, of course. I admired him for the way he put his patients in front of his own needs. Martin was appalled by the idea of doctors refusing to make house calls, wasn’t he, dear?”
“Oh, yes, completely,” Amy said dutifully.
I scribbled it down. “Thank you, sir.” I flipped the notebook closed. It was an old trick. People thought that when the book was closed I’d never remember what was said. “Between us, sir…you know I know how he died.”
He inclined his head toward me. “And we appreciate your discretion in that. It hurts no one to keep it quiet, and saves the family’s feelings.” Behind him Amy’s smile got thinner.
“Of course, sir.” I needed to phrase things carefully just now. “And I hate to ask this, but, well, at the time we were talking about something that had bothered him for a long time.”
“Yes?” His voice was hard.
I took a deep breath. Two dead already. “Do you remember a woman named Caroline Scotto?”
His face got red, so red that I wondered whether strokes ran in his family. But before he could tell me to get out of his sight, Amy spoke again. “She was a nice girl.” Her voice was thin and high. “Harmon took her to the prom, as a favor.”
“Yes, a favor,” Junior put in. His wife had calmed him down. “His sister asked him to do it. She felt sorry for the poor girl. They were doubles partners on the tennis team, and if Biff hadn’t asked her, no one would have.”
“I’ve seen her picture,” I put in. “She looked okay. Why wouldn’t anyone ask her?”
Junior waved a hand around his head, as though the question was too stupid to be bothered with. “How would I know? Kids. Who knows why they do what they do?”
“Susan said the boys didn’t like her,” Amy said in her thin voice. “She said she wouldn’t put out.”
“That’s enough, Amy.” Junior hated losing control of information. “And as for you, Mister Dell, what does this inquisition have to do with my poor brother?”
I tapped my closed notebook. “Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.”
“Then get out.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“I found her.” C. J. sounded smug.
“Looked her up in the city directory,” I guessed.
“The what? No.” She waved a scrap of paper in the air. “Called the tennis clubs.”
“Not bad.” I reached for the paper.
She snatched it back. “Nuh uh. This is my lead and my source.”
She had a point. I had a better one. “She doesn’t know you from Mary Magadalen, and you don’t know what to ask.” I held out my hand, palm up.
“We’ll both go.” She mimed tearing up the paper. “We’ll both go, or neither of us.”
It was an empty threat. She’d already told me how to find it. But while the Depression and World War II had made sure I’d never be as young as her, I’d been a kid reporter once, too. “Fix it with Walter.”
— ♦♦♦ —
We left the next morning. The constant rain was making broad puddles across our streets. Money for paving had gone into Winchester pockets.
Scottsville had one boarding house. St. Louis had miles and miles of apartment buildings. It took us two hours to drive to the city and two more to hunt down the address C. J.’d found. The doorman ignored Mr. Dell and Ms. Moore, but was at home to President Lincoln.
We stopped in front of 3-B. C. J. raised her hand to knock but I grabbed her wrist. I sniffed. “Reefer,” I whispered.
She rolled her eyes. “They don’t call it that any more.”
She was the college kid. She’d know. I let go of her wrist. She knocked.
Seventeen years had turned Susan Winchester from a slim, pretty kid into a full grown woman, harder of figure and harder in the eyes. Her blond hair was cropped short and she wore a black pants suit. “Who…wait…I know you, don’t I?”
“I’m Richard Dell.” That got a frown. “From the Scottsville Daily Guardian.”
“Oh, God, I knew I knew you from somewhere.” She didn’t invite us in. “So, what’s this about?” She looked over at C. J. “Does your daughter need tennis lessons?”
I raised my voice over C. J.’s protest. “And this is C. J. Moore. She’s with the Guardian, too.”
Behind Winchester an alto voice called, “Baby, is everything all right?”
Winchester pulled the door half closed and lowered her voice. “Don’t look so shocked, Dell. Why did you think they ran me out of town?”
“We’re here about your uncle,” C. J. cut in.
Winchester’s eyes flicked over to her, but she spoke to me. “What of him?”
She laughed. “And you came all this way to hear from me? Fine. Are you writing this down?”
- J. got her notebook out. I handed her my pen.
Winchester said, “He was a worthless piece of shit, and I’m glad he’s dead. How come you’re not writing this down?”
- J.’s mouth had dropped open.
“I’ve got the gist of it,” I said. “Do you mind telling us why?”
“Yes, I mind,” Winchester said. “But I’ll tell you anyway. Do you know what they did to people like me…” She jerked her head over her shoulder, to where the voice had come from before. “…People like us? Did they tell you I went to St. Louis, Dell?”
“That’s what I remember hearing.”
“I went to St. Louis, all right. St. Louis State Hospital. For three years. They used drugs. They used shocks. They wouldn’t let me out until I swore I wanted a husband, one with a big, fat dick. My uncle signed the commitment papers. He signed them because my grandfather told him to. So now they both can rot in hell.”
She tried to shut the door, but my foot was in the way. “Your uncle killed himself, Miss Winchester. It had to do with Caroline Scotto.”
She closed her eyes and slumped.
“Are you all right, Ms. Winchester?” C. J. asked in a little girl’s voice.
Winchester opened her eyes. There were tears in them. “Tell me, Dell.”
“He said she’d been murdered. He said she was pregnant at the time.”
Her eyes closed again and her shoulders shook as she sobbed silently. C. J. reached out to touch her but I grabbed her hand away. This was the time for truth, not sympathy.
“Biff,” Winchester said. “That piece of shit did it.”
“Made her pregnant? Or killed her?” C. J. asked. She was still using the little girl voice.
“He didn’t have to kill her just because he knocked her up,” I said. “Even back then, there were options if he didn’t want to marry her.” For instance, he had an uncle who was a doctor and willing to do anything the family wanted. Abortion was only illegal if you got caught.
“What, do I have to spell it out for you, Dell?” Winchester’s voice was getting louder. “Caroline wasn’t Biff’s. She was mine. She wouldn’t have touched Biff, or any man.”
“Susie? Are you okay, honey?” A tall, athletic brunette about the same age as Winchester showed up. “Maybe you should go.”
My foot was still in the door. “He raped her.”
“He took her over and over,” Winchester said. “All night he had her.”
“I’m serious,” the brunette said. “Get out or I’ll call the cops.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The rain had stopped, but the sun wasn’t out yet. C. J. was quiet all the way back to Scottsville. Maybe she was rethinking life choices.
Me, I had a story to put together, and I had no glue. Doc was dead. Caroline Scotto was dead. I had what I had from Susan Winchester, but I couldn’t use it. If it came to trial any two-bit lawyer could rip her to shreds. A lesbian with time in the looney bin? A known drug user? No jury would believe a word a word out of her mouth.
I sat down at my desk and reached into the back of the bottom drawer. I had a .38 stashed there.
- J. spoke for the first time since St. Louis. “What are you doing with that?”
“We’ve got the biggest story this town has seen, and we’ve got nothing unless I can get Biff talking. And we know he’s a killer. I’m taking precautions.”
“I’m going with you. It’s my story, too.”
“He won’t talk in front of witnesses,” I told her. “And yes, it’s your story, too. Go pull his file. We’ll pull the whole thing together when I get a statement out of him.”
I shoved the revolver in my waistband, in back where no one could see it coming.
— ♦♦♦ —
Biff had a house up among the hoi polloi, and a flat downtown that he shared with lady friends. I tried the house first. If he was downtown, he wasn’t alone.
Maybe dusk was early for a tryst in his book. He was in. “Mr. Dell, what can a city councilman do for you at this hour? Got a deadline coming up?”
He wasn’t the sleek athlete he’d been in the prom photos. His chiseled good looks had turned to jowls and piggish little eyes. “Thanks for your time, Councilman,” I said. “It’s about your uncle.”
His house was like his father’s, dark heavy wood, but he had Bakelite where his father had marble. It looked like the graft wasn’t falling far down the family tree. “Of course, Father already gave you a statement. I’ll just say that my uncle was a great and humble man who did a lot for the people of Scottsville. Drink?” He reached for a bottle.
“Caroline Scotto,” I said.
He stopped reaching. “Who?”
“Caroline Scotto. Seventeen, dark hair, about this high.” I held out my hand. “Your prom date. Died in a car accident.”
“Oh, yeah.” He poured himself a drink. He didn’t offer me one. “That was a long time ago, Dell. What does that have to do with my uncle?”
“He covered up her murder.”
He looked at me over the rim of his glass as he drank. His hands were still enormous, made for folding around a pigskin, or a girl’s throat. “And?”
“Your sister says you did it.”
He swallowed again. Fat he was, and piggy, but he was twice my size. “That dyke,” he said. “She’s wackadoodle. Her word’s worth nothing, inside a court or out.”
I could feel the .38 digging into my back and wished I’d put it in a jacket pocket. But I had to call him on this, call him on it or end up hating myself to death like Doc. “Your sister says you raped the girl.”
“I don’t rape women, Dell. I get plenty without it.” He put the glass down. It wasn’t empty yet.
“Your sister says Scotto wasn’t interested in men.”
He smirked at that. “How could she know? She’d never tried one. All I did was show her what she was missing.”
“And then she got pregnant,” I said. I unbuttoned my jacket. I’d still have a slow, awkward draw.
“She got knocked up, the silly bitch. And she said she was going to the police. That wasn’t going to happen. I’m going to be running this town.” He flexed his hands. I wasn’t sure it was deliberate.
“You should have let the cops handle her. Your granddaddy could have fixed it for you. He had someone fix the body for you, so it looked like an accident, didn’t he?”
His eyes narrowed. “I didn’t need anyone to hold my hand then, and I don’t need it now. I know how to take care of liars and squealers like you.” He drew himself up. It was like the quarterback was yelling ‘hut’ in his head.
“Is that a threat, Biff?” I had to hold still, not let the shakes get me. It was too much like Okinawa again. “Do I fear for my life?”
“Yeah, do that,” he said.
He was fast, faster than I’d guessed. He had his hands on my throat before I could get the gun clear. He squeezed. He was grinning.
I pulled at the gun. It wasn’t coming loose. Black started to crowd my vision.
I pulled hard, and .38 came free. I jabbed it into his belly and pulled the trigger, then gave him two more for luck. He let go, staggered back, tried to hold his guts together, blood spreading, face white. “You son of a bitch,” he wheezed. “You shot me.”
He fell forward to his knees, and then to the floor. I waited until he stopped breathing. “No,” I said. “I killed you.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Jesus Christ, there’s blood all over you,” C. J. said. Her big eyes were wider than I’d ever seen.
“It’s not mine. But this is yours,” I told C. J. I grabbed the phone and dialed the cops while C. J. was still saying, “What? What? Dick, what’s wrong with your neck?”
Mahoney’s voice said, “Who’s there?”
“This is Dick Dell. I’m on the second floor of the Daily Guardian building. Come get me.” I hung up. “Type, dammit! We’ve only got a few minutes.” I waved the photographer over, had him shoot my neck from three angles.
She rolled in two sheets of paper, a carbon between them. “You sound hoarse. What happened?”
“Start,” I told her. “Councilman found dead. By C. J. Moore. Graph. City councilman Harmon Winchester the third was found dead tonight by police.”
“Police found City Councilman Harmon Winchester the third dead tonight.” She fixed the passive voice automatically. “Oh, Dick, what did you do?”
“Graph. Local newspaper reporter Richard Dell, 49, of Locust Street, turned himself in for questioning. Graph. In an exclusive interview with this reporter, Dell said quote It was self-defense. He was trying to kill me close quote.” Outside I could hear a siren in the distance.
“Oh, Dick,” she said again, but her fingers hammered at the keys.
“Graph. Dale said he was interviewing Winchester about the case of Caroline Scotto, who died in 1950. Quote I told him I had evidence proving he’d murdered the girl. He strangled me and I shot him until he stopped close quote.” The siren cut off as the police pulled up outside. “Stick in the background about Scotto there,” I told her. “Include what we got from Susan Winchester attributed anonymously. Follow that with bio on Biff. Got it?”
“Oh, God, Dick, they’re going to send you away for years,” she moaned, but her fingers kept flying. She grabbed the Winchester folder.
Outside Walter was arguing with Mahoney. “Let ’em in,” I called, then told C. J., “I’ll beat any rap. The pictures of my neck will prove self-defense.” Mahoney came in and I held out my wrists for the cuffs. “See you, C. J.,” I said.
She had her head down, banging away at the typewriter. It looked like we’d made a reporter out of her.