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EVEN IF NO ONE HAD been murdered, it's a safe assumption that the citizens of Sparta, New York (population approx. 191,000), would have been a long time forgetting that winter. Even for Central New York State, where (as the saying goes) the year is divided into winter and July, there was some memorable weather. From October to April, an even fourteen feet of snow fell on Sparta, including the thirty-inch blizzard on Ground Hog Day.
At the time, the date of the blizzard seemed like a particularly grim jest of fate. Sparta residents compared the Hog's day weather that stifled the activity of the community, with the mysterious individual who signed "HOG" on his notes boasting of the deaths; they told each other it figured. "He's tired of killing us off one at a time," an anonymous old woman told a local radio station. "He's gonna wipe out the whole city at once." The city laughed along with her. It was a way to hide the fear.
There had been mass murderers in the past—London's Jack the Ripper, New York City's Son of Sam, the L.A. Slasher, and Zebra and Zodiac in San Francisco. But these were big cities. The people of Sparta expected that kind of thing from a big city. But Sparta was only a nice, good-sized town halfway between Syracuse and Rochester, with a bunch of subassembly plants and a university in it. Why pick on us? they asked the powers that be. They had no answers.
And another thing. Jack the Ripper carved up whores. The Slasher took a razor to helpless derelicts. Son of Sam shot attractive young couples. Zebra and Zodiac, along with the other serial murderers of history, all had their preferences in victims.
But Hog would kill anybody, in any way, for no apparent reason, then laugh about it afterward. In a city like Sparta, where twenty homicides a year is a lot, six in the span of three short weeks (all apparently committed by the same hand, one that seemed to have God-sure control over people and events) were sure to provoke more than a little uneasiness in the population.
Benedetti took the case, though he proclaimed loudly (as always) that he was a philosopher, not a detective. He charged the usual stiff fee of course, but there is no doubt an affectionate regard for the city, Ron Gentry, and Inspector Joseph Fleisher, had something to do with the professor's decision.
The average Spartan didn't care. All he knew was that if Benedetti couldn't catch Hog, Sparta's own mass murderer would join most of his famous predecessors among the ranks of the uncaught.
As the professor was later to remark, if that woman in Oswego hadn't reached her 118th birthday, it would have been a different case.
Buell Tatham was composing his daily column for the Courant as he drove back to Sparta, mentally filling in the blanks in the standard centenarian-plus birthday story—I owe my long and productive life to —, — has changed most since I was a young boy/girl. You could get a computer to write it as well. A columnist's curse, he thought wryly—human interest starts to get boring.
It wasn't always like that, of course. During the civil rights struggles of the early and mid-sixties, Buell, as a bona fide expatriate southern liberal, had put the Courant on the journalistic map with a series of sensitive articles about the suffering and anguish he'd seen racism cause blacks and whites, and why it had to stop if the South were to survive. Some of the columns had even been picked up by the wire services, though he was sure the Knox County Register had never run any of them. He laughed at the idea of the home folk reading his words and never knowing it was his work hidden behind a new name.
He'd had offers to move up to papers in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, but had turned them down. It left scars, he had discovered, to leave the land his family had owned since George I granted it to an adventurous ancestor, and to leave behind the ancestor's privileges and name as well. He couldn't face the idea of leaving Sparta, when it had taken the better part of ten years to make that feel like a home.
Now, he had been in the North country twenty-five years, and was a kind of institution, a middle-aging champion of the little guy, and a slightly jaded celebrant of his small, heartwarming (Buell winced) triumphs. Oh, there was still good to be done, he knew, and he fully intended to do it. If they didn't muck it up on him. If they just didn't—
A blaring horn cut into his thoughts, and brought his attention back to his driving. He had been drifting out into the center lane, almost cutting off a yellow Volkswagen beetle carrying three young girls. Careful, boy, he heard the voice of the past scold him. You get in trouble when you think too much.
He brought his mind back to the road. It was too early for the evening rush hour, but it was dusk, and the sky was overcast, so he decided to switch on his headlights. His mirrors showed nothing behind him. The VW had gone by, and it was the only other car he could see on the highway, so Buell risked a look at the surrounding landscape.
Over the years he had come to enjoy the look of Sparta in the winter, the aluminized art deco look the snow and ice gave to everything. He enjoyed contrasting it with the red soil of Knox County. He'd enjoy it even more when he went back there. The red dirt would be there, but everything else would be different; and a lot more would be made different after he got there.
For one thing, he'd have Diedre and her little boy with him. That was the one thing above all he owed Sparta—Diedre Chester. He never knew how much he needed a woman to really love; you never know how deep a need is until you start to fill it.
He saw a highway sign indicating Downtown Sparta, and knew he was about twenty minutes from his exit. It used to be about ten minutes of driving, but last summer the county had started to build a new overpass and approach ramp, and had only managed to get the skeletons up before the first blizzard of this incredible winter hit, in early October. Further work was impossible until the thaw, assuming the part already built wasn't washed away by a flood of melted snow.
There was the incomplete overpass just ahead, with the temporary wooden DANGER—CONSTRUCTION sign hung on it, faded by the elements but still discernible.
He was about a hundred yards behind the girls, who were just about to drive under the incomplete structure. At that precise moment, the sign gave way.
There must have been a snap, but Buell never heard it. The heavy wooden sign suddenly came free at the upper left-hand corner, swung heavily down and to the right, then came free all together. Buell watched, horrified, as it fell some fifteen feet, corner first, onto the hood of the yellow Volkswagen.
The young girl driving could not have known what hit her. The car went crazily out of control and crashed into one of the overpass's concrete supports. The car, nose end now with a huge concavity, as though some giant had taken a bite out of it, spun once, then turned turtle.
Buell pulled his car to a stop. He looked at the wrecked car and shivered for a few seconds, but he soon realized what he had to do. The steps he should take came like diagrams to his mind, sharp and clear.
Buell raced around to the trunk of his car, got his fire extinguisher, a blanket, and some other things he thought he might have use for, and ran to the crippled car.
The Volkswagen's wheels were still spinning uselessly in the air. Buell got down on hands and knees on the freezing asphalt, reached in through a crushed window to turn off the ignition, sprayed the extinguisher on the car, then turned his attention to the girls.
Buell had first seen death at his father's wake, but he didn't count that—it had been sanitized, almost sissified. He saw men shot and blown apart in Korea, though, and since then had seen death in all its forms—every reporter does. But this was different, for a lot of reasons.
The driver of the Volkswagen was obviously dead. She was a small, delicate-looking Oriental girl. The steering wheel was pressed into her stomach, apparently bent down from the force of the falling sign. Its pressure held her tight against the seat, dangling upside down in the overturned car. The girl in the passenger seat, a blonde, was tangled up with the instrument panel. Her hands clawed at the padded dashboard as though it were a lover's back. Buell thought her lips were unnaturally red, and he wondered about it, until the girl's feeble cough produced a fine red spray.
She needed more help than Buell could give her, he knew, so he concentrated on the girl in the back seat, a tall brunette. She was bleeding from the scalp and trying to crawl through the back window. Buell went around and got her out, covered her with the blanket, and made her as comfortable as possible.
Then, after making sure he had nothing left to do at the scene of the accident, Buell went up the road to try and get help.
It didn't take long before a state trooper drove by.
"Call an ambulance!" Buell told him. "Some girls are hurt pretty bad."
The trooper had intended to ask a couple of questions about Buell's abandoned car, but the nature of the reporter's request, along with his aristocratic appearance and distinguished "suthun" accent, changed the trooper's mind. He radioed for the ambulance, he radioed for more police, then asked Buell what happened.
Buell told him; later on he told the trooper's superior, and after that he told the superior's superior. He didn't mind. The longer he hung around the scene, the more facts he picked up. After all, he was a reporter. He found out the dead Oriental girl's name was Beth Ling, the blonde's Carol Salinski, and the tall brunette who appeared to be least hurt was Barbara Elleger. Later, he learned the Salinski girl died on the way to the hospital, but that the Elleger girl would survive.
He looked over the cops' shoulders as they checked the contents of the girls' purses. They all had G.O. cards from Grover Cleveland High. Beth Ling had an autographed picture of Erik Estrada. Barbara Elleger had a brand-new diaphragm, and instructions from a gynecologist on how to use it.
And just before he told the story for the last time, he learned something else. A state police captain called Buell over to him.
"That girl that survived owes her life to you, the hospital tells me, Mr. Tatham."
Buell was truly glad. "'I'm just a humble man, tryin' in my own way to serve the Lord,' as my daddy used to say," he said.
The captain smiled, and started to say something, but was cut off by a yell from one of his men, a technician who'd been looking at the wooden sign.
Buell turned and looked at the man, a fat guy holding a magnifying glass. He was standing in the middle of a world that no longer was a clean art deco fantasy—it was a lurid nightmare, painted police-flasher blue and blood-red.
Buell followed the captain to where the technician was standing over the sign, being careful not to step on any splinters. "This is why the sign fell, Captain. See this clamp?"
The sign had been held to the overpass structure by two U-shaped metal clamps. Both were still bolted to the wood. One was twisted and broken, but the other remained straight, with a gap of about three quarters of an inch where the curve of the U should be, leaving a metal structure that looked not unlike a caterpillar rearing up at his reflection in a mirror.
"I saw it go," the reporter reminded the captain. "I knew it had to be something like that."
"Yeah," the expert said, bitterly, "but look. Of course I'll confirm it in the lab, but look at this." He ran his fingers over the broken part of the clamp. It narrowed from the roundness of the metal's regular thickness to a straight edge, rather like an extremely blunt-bladed screwdriver. "This metal didn't snap," the technician said. "Somebody was at it with a bolt cutter. This is a murder, Captain."
The captain commended his man on his good work. Then he swore. Then he radioed the Sparta Public Safety Building, and told someone to tell Inspector Fleisher that he had a murder on his hands, that the crash occurred three tenths of a mile inside Sparta's city limits.
That was Thursday, January 15. On Saturday, January 17, Buell Tatham, author of the "Human Angle" column in the Sparta Daily Courant, found a note in his mail at the office.
It was in a cheap, plain white envelope with no return address. It had been mailed at a dropbox somewhere in downtown Sparta. It was addressed in uniform, well-formed, untraceable block capitals, written with a nineteen-cent ball point pen.
There was a single piece of paper inside, with a message in the same letters and the same ink. It read:
YOU WERE ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES THURSDAY EVENING. SINCE YOU WERE THERE AS A WITNESS, YOU WILL DO AS WELL AS ANYONE TO PASS ON MY MESSAGES TO THE POLICE. THE POLICE WERE LUCKY TOO. I WAS SLOPPY ON PURPOSE SO THEY'D KNOW WHAT I CAN DO. IN THE FUTURE, NO ONE WILL KNOW I'VE STRUCK UNTIL I TELL YOU SO. THE TALL GIRL WAS ALSO LUCKY. SHE WILL LIVE TO USE THE DIAPHRAGM SHE HAD IN HER PURSE. THIS WON'T BE THE LAST NOTE. MORE DEATHS ARE COMING. TILL THEN.
This is it, Buell thought, holding tightly to the letter in one hand and dialing the police with the other. This is where it starts for real. Because outside of a few law officers, Buell, and the gynecologist who gave it to her, nobody knew Barbara Elleger and her friends were on the road that afternoon to drive to a nearby town and pick up that diaphragm. It hadn't been printed. The girl's parents hadn't even been told. Barbara herself was still unconscious.
So, Buell thought, anyone with any intelligence will have to concede the probability that this note came from the killer.CHAPTER 2
DIEDRE ROSE AT DAWN, threw her coat on over her nightgown, and took a quick trip to the newsstand for a copy of the Courant. She could hardly wait to get the details of the latest development in the Hog case—Buell only had time to give her the barest sketch when he phoned last night. She raced back to her apartment, threw aside her coat and shoes, and bounced down on the bed.
"HOG CLAIMS NEW MURDER" the headline said. Buell had gotten the note yesterday, that was why he had to cancel their dinner and spend all day and night with the police. The story went on to say that Hog's note, which was identical to the first one in paper and printing, said the death of eighty-one-year-old Stanley Watson, at first believed accidental, was really the work of Hog. "Watson didn't fall down those stairs," the note stated, "I gave him a little push."
Again like in the note following the first two deaths, the writer knew something no one outside the investigation was supposed to know: Watson had been found with an unopened can of Miller High Life beer clutched in his dead hand.
Watson had about seven hundred dollars in small bills stuffed in a cookie jar and two vases in his house; it didn't appear to have been touched. Watson had retired twenty-two years ago from his job as a welder in the General Electric plant in Sparta. The police were baffled.
That last fact wasn't in the article, Buell had told Diedre that, personally. It was horrible, of course, but still very exciting. Buell was very important to this case. He was helping the police.
Diedre took anything good that Buell accomplished as a personal compliment. It made her feel special. Sure, she had natural platinum blonde hair, and deep blue eyes, and the face and figure of a movie star (which she once had been, almost, until she found out about the movie), but all the girls in Fogelsberg, Minnesota, where she had grown up as Diedre Swenson could say that, almost. But could they say they had once been the very good friend of the president of the second richest bank in the country? Had they married the Liberian ambassador to the United Nations, and had a beautiful son who was a citizen of two countries? Were they engaged to a reporter who was so respected in his town that the police asked him for help? Of course they couldn't. They were all still back in Fogelsberg, working in the public library, or married to summer-wheat farmers. It took a special kind of woman, a remarkable woman to be loved by such fascinating men. Diedre only regretted that Ricky was with his father in Africa, and couldn't share the excitement of his future stepfather's importance.
Excerpted from The Hog Murders by William L. DeAndrea. Copyright © 1979 William L. DeAndrea. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 1, 2014
Posted July 9, 2014
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