The New York Times
A cranky 68-year-old newspaper librarian finds herself investigating a murder that might be linked to one that had occurred 50 years earlier.
The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
DigA Morgue Mama Mystery
By C. R. Corwin
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2005 C. R. Corwin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMonday, March 5
The obituaries are the best part of my day. I get to the newsroom right at nine. I make my first mug of Darjeeling tea. I settle in at my desk with a crisp copy of that morning's paper. And I read the obits.
My assistant Eric Chen thinks it's the funniest thing in the world. "You just want to make sure you're still alive," he says, "so you can go about your earthly mission to make everybody else's life miserable."
"Poop!" I snarl back at him. "I'm just being nosy."
Anyway, the only person I made miserable reading the obits that particular Monday morning was me. "Good gravy," I gasped. My stomach was rolling like I'd swallowed ten pounds of baby snakes.
Eric's desk bumps right up to mine. He was drinking his first Mountain Dew of the day. "Somebody you know, Maddy?"
I answered in a whisper so faint I barely heard it myself. "Somebody I used to know very well."
I clutched the loose skin on my neck and read:
Gordon Sweet Gordon E. "Sweet Gordon" Sweet, professor of archaeology at Hemphill College, died this week. He was 69. He was born June 5, 1934, in New Waterbury to Archibald and Ruth (Berghoff) Sweet. He attended Hemphill College from 1952 to 1958. He received a Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Michigan and returned to Hemphill College in 1961. He was a member of the Society for American Archaeology, the Society of Professional Archaeologists, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Archaeological Society of Ohio and the Meriwether Square Baked Bean Existentialist Society. He is survived by his sister, Gretchen Gitlin of Captiva Island, FL, and a nephew, Michael Gitlin of Harper's Ferry, W.Va. He was preceded in death by his parents, and his brother, U.S. Army Lt. Walter Sweet. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at P.W. Leech Unitarian Universalist Chapel, 185 Goodhue Ave.
When I looked up I found Eric leaning over the front of my desk on his elbows. He'd been reading along with me, upside-down. "His name was Gordon Sweet and his nickname was Sweet Gordon?" he asked. "How cute is that?"
I did not like him referring to my old friend in the past tense. I did not like hearing myself do the same. "We called him Sweet Gordon because that's the way his name always appeared on college grade lists," I said. "Sweet comma Gordon."
Eric slipped back into his chair. "Better than Morgue Mama, I suppose."
He was referring, of course, to me. My name is Dolly Madison Sprowls. I'm 68 years old. I'm short, a little dumpy, and I haven't changed my hairstyle since college. For the past 33 years I've been the head librarian at The Hannawa Herald-Union. In the newspaper business they call the library the morgue. It's where we keep the stories that have already run—the dead stories if you will—from the big political scandals on the front page to the PTA bake sales buried deep inside. When one of our reporters needs background for a new story they're writing, they come to me. "Maddy," they say, "I need everything you've got on so and so." And I go digging through the files.
The problem is that reporters are always asking for information they don't need. That's why I go out of my way to be a royal pain-in-the-ass. So reporters won't bother me unless it's absolutely necessary for their stories. And that's why—behind my back—they call me Morgue Mama.
Anyway, Eric could see I wasn't in the mood for his teasing. He apologized by acting interested. "So you and Sweet Gordon were buds in college?"
I tried to force a smile on my face. And failed. "We were the best of friends for a long time. He went on to become a professor. Right there at Hemphill. In archaeology. He specialized in some kooky field called garbology—digging up old junk to see how people really lived."
"Well—sounds like he was an interesting guy."
"He was an eccentric old fool," I said. "I wonder how he died?"
Eric's eyes sagged with dread. He pulled the huge Sunday edition off the top of his computer terminal and shook out the Metro section. He turned the first page timidly, as if pulling the sheet off the face of a corpse. His eyes drifted down the page. "I knew that name rang a bell," he said. Now I was the one reading upside-down. Body Found At Landfill, the tiny headline said.
Those baby snakes in my stomach had grown into a ton of pythons. Gordon Sweet had been murdered.
HANNAWA—The body of 69-year-old Hemphill College archaeology professor Gordon Sweet was found Saturday at the abandoned Wooster Pike landfill in Durkee Township. Police said he had been shot once in the head. The body was discovered shortly before noon by a graduate assistant who told police he had been looking for Sweet since he failed to show up to teach his Friday morning class. The body was found in high grass a few yards from the gravel driveway, police said. The graduate assistant, Andrew J. Holloway III, told police Sweet had been conducting an archaeological dig at the landfill for the past four summers. Police said they have found no motive for the shooting and are continuing their investigation.
I'd read the Sunday paper at home. From front to back. As I always do. But it was such a small story, stuck at the bottom of an inside page, next to an inky ad for truck tires. The headline must have passed through my eyes and out the back of my head without my groggy, Sunday-morning brain taking notice.
I pulled the metro section from under Eric's elbows. I cut out the story with the big, black-handled scissors I've been using since my first year at the paper. (I call them my black-handled scissors even though the black paint has been worn off for ages.) Then I cut out the obit from that morning's paper and stapled the two together. I read them again and again. There was more information in those two little columns of print than my mind—or my heart—could digest. Yet I wanted more. I wanted every horrible detail. I wanted to know that the bastard who killed Sweet Gordon was already in jail, hanging from the ceiling by his big toes.
One thing I did know was that the story in Sunday's paper hadn't been written by Dale Marabout, our regular police reporter. It had been written by one of the general assignment reporters in metro, whose turn it was to work the weekend. Pestering that reporter for more information on Gordon's death wouldn't do me a bit of good. The weekend people don't physically go to the central police station downtown the way Dale does during the week. They call from the desk. They jot down what the cop on the other end tells them. They pound out the shortest story possible. So if I wanted more information on Gordon's murder, I'd have to wait for Dale to come in, and hope he had something new to tell me.
I knew I should put Gordon's murder out of my mind and get to work. Louise Lewendowski would be drifting in at noon and I'd promised her all the old stories we had on the Hannawa Zoo—she was writing some dreadful puff piece on the zoo's 75th anniversary—and knowing Louise she'd almost certainly have a little sack of her delicious apricot kolachkys for me. She bribes me with bakery the way house burglars carry raw meat in their pockets for big nasty dogs. But how could I not think about Gordon that morning? About the young Gordon I knew in college dancing madly in smoky jazz clubs, or slumped against the trunk of a big oak discussing poetry or politics? Or about the old Gordon I still bumped into occasionally at the supermarket, sprawled out dead in the high, soggy grass?
"You would have liked him," I said.
Eric had gotten to work. He was clicking away at his keyboard with all ten fingers and both sides of his brain. "That Sweet Gordon guy, you mean?"
When Editor-in-Chief Bob Averill decided to computerize the morgue some years back, he knew I was too much of a Neanderthal to handle the job. So he hired Eric as my assistant. And no doubt about it, Eric is a wiz on those computers. He is not, however, a wiz at real life. He is sloppy and absent-minded. He never loses a story in cyberspace but he is forever losing his wallet, or the keys to his pickup, or his heart to the wrong kind of women. "That's who we're talking about, isn't it?" I growled.
Eric gave the left side of his brain permission to pay attention to me. "What was that baked bean thing in the obit?"
"The Meriwether Square Baked Bean Existentialist Society—I was puzzled by that, too."
"So you don't understand it either?"
"Oh, I understand it," I said. "I'm just surprised to see it listed among all those real organizations."
"The Meriwether Square Baked Bean Existentialist Society isn't a real organization? Hard to believe."
I rolled my eyes in embarrassment. "It was the little group of beatniks we belonged to in college."
Eric stopped typing and focused both sides of his brain on me. "You were a beatnik?"
I retreated. "I shouldn't have said beatniks. Gordon hated that word. He said it was a made-up word by some smart-ass magazine writer that trivialized what we stood for."
"Which was what? Eating beans?"
As horrible as I felt I had to laugh. "We did eat a lot of beans," I said. "But we also stood for looking at the world in a new way. That life wasn't all about making money and living in a big house."
He squinted at me over the top of his soda bottle. "You majored in library science. Was there any danger of you ever living in a big house?"
"We were young, Eric. The campus bohemians. Members of the beat generation. Maybe we weren't beaten down ourselves—we were just silly middle class kids with too much time on our hands—but we did relate to those who were. We wanted to purify America's corrupt, materialistic soul. So we listened to jazz, drank little cups of coffee and talked and talked and talked."
"And ate a lot of beans," he added.
Eric was only in his thirties. Even the 1970s were ancient history to him. I could no more expect him to understand the crazy excesses of my youth than I could understand the crazy excesses of his. "It was a long time ago," I said. "I just can't believe they put that in his obituary."
* * *
I sped to Dale Marabout's desk the minute I saw him sit down. I had the clippings in one hand, my mug in the other. "You know anything more about this?"
Dale put on his reading glasses, tilted his head back until the print came into focus. "Ah, yes—the dead professor. I'm following up for tomorrow."
"Have they arrested anybody yet?" I asked.
Dale handed the clippings back. "It's only been two days, Maddy."
"He was an old friend. From college. So whatever you have."
Dale pulled a reporter's notebook from his jacket. He squinted at his scribbles. "Single, small caliber bullet in the back of the head. Probably dead a couple of days when he was found."
"There's no way it could have been an accident?"
"Almost point blank."
"Or a robbery?"
"Still had his wallet and Donald Duck watch."
"No chance it was a suicide?"
"Not unless he used a biodegradable gun."
"So no weapon was found?"
"Not at the landfill or anywhere else."
"Definitely a murder then?"
"Yup—the professor is dead because somebody wanted him dead." He flipped the notebook shut.
I was disappointed. And angry. "Nothing more?"
"Just that the grad assistant who found his body also found his car," Dale said. "By the college ball fields. A good fifteen miles away. His name is Andrew J. Holloway III." He put a sarcastic, lilting accent on the third.
"Do the police consider this Andrew J. Holloway III a suspect?"
Dale searched his clutter for his coffee mug—it was hiding behind a stack of old newspapers—and headed for the cafeteria. "I gather he's piqued their curiosity."
I followed him. "Anything in particular pique your curiosity?"
"The Meriwether Square Baked Bean Existentialist Society—whatever that is."
"I know exactly who they are," I said. "In fact, Mr. M, I'm a charter member of that prestigious little gaggle of fools."
Dale and I chatted for a few minutes in the cafeteria. About Gordon Sweet. About Dale's son's chances of graduating from high school on time. Once upon a time Dale and I had been lovers. When I was in my horny forties. When he was a pudgy young reporter thrilled to be sleeping with anyone. It went on for five years, until a young kindergarten teacher named Sharon Saporito moved into his apartment building. Now Dale and I were just friends. Full of advice for each other.
"It wouldn't be the worse thing if your boy had to take a course or two in summer school," I told him. "It would be a good lesson for him."
"Now don't get crazy with this Gordon Sweet thing," he cautioned me. "Let the police handle it."
Then I rushed back to the morgue and the Z files. Louise Lewendowski got the old stuff she needed on the zoo and I got my little sack of kolachkys.
Chapter TwoSaturday, March 10
Eric showed up at my house at ten-thirty, wearing an ill-fitting sports coat and the only necktie he owned, a bright red Cleveland Indians tie dotted with grinning Chief Wahoo faces. "Don't you look nice," I said.
I'd put on my navy blue funeral suit. I hadn't worn it in maybe five years. The jacket was a little looser in the shoulders than I remembered. The skirt a lot tighter around the waist. I hated to face it, but I'd reached the age when a woman shrinks and expands at the same time. Caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies. Women metamorphose into caterpillars—shapeless, low-to-the-ground lumps. "You're not looking too bad yourself," Eric said.
"We'd better get going," I said.
Eric offered to drive but there was no way in hell I was going to Gordon Sweet's memorial service in a pickup truck. Not that my old Dodge Shadow was any classier. We took Brambriar to Teeple, then turned east onto West Tuckman and headed toward Meriwether Square and Hemphill College. The sky was purple. Snowflakes as fat as my fake pearls were blowing in every direction.
To tell you the truth, I was glad that Eric was going with me. After all these years even my old college friends would be strangers. There was likely to be a lot of uncomfortable small talk. Inane comments about the hereafter I knew Gordon didn't believe in. It would be good to have company.
Eric was glad to be coming, too. "Are you kidding," he said when I'd asked him if he wanted to tag along. "How can I pass up a roomful of old beatniks?"
We reached the campus and the statue of the college's famous founder, Horatio Ellsworth Hemphill, pointing toward the future. H.E. Hemphill had been one of those indefatigable Renaissance men that nineteenth-century America produced by the bucketful: theologian, Civil War general, advocate for women's education, pioneer in rot-resistant seed potatoes for farmers. We took the brick circle to the right and turned north on Goodhue Avenue. We parked across the street from the P.W. Leech Unitarian Universalist Chapel.
Gordon's memorial service was nothing like I'd feared and everything I should have expected.
Excerpted from Dig by C. R. Corwin Copyright © 2005 by C. R. Corwin. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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