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Stone Cold Dead
An Ellie Stone Mystery
By james w. ziskin
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2015 James W. Ziskin
All rights reserved.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 31, 1960
The room was hot to begin with. It was a huffing, pipe-knocking, radiator heat. The kind that desiccates the air and smells like blistering iron and rust. That I was wrestling with a strapping young man on the sofa didn't help matters, serving only to fog up the nearby window. I wouldn't have opened it, even if I'd had a free hand; it was freezing cold outside.
Mrs. Giannetti downstairs was sure to hear. Such a light sleeper. Judgmental landladies always are. She'd be thumping a broomstick on her ceiling at any minute, or worse, banging on my door for the chance to look me in the eye.
"Is everything all right, dear?" she'd ask, affecting genuine concern, all the while bobbing and weaving like Jake LaMotta to see past me into the apartment.
"Yes, Mrs. Giannetti," I would pant. "Just beating a rug."
"At two in the morning? Well ... Happy New Year."
Yes, it was New Year's Eve, and I was ringing it in drunk, my skirt hiked halfway up my thigh, my blouse tousled, with said strapping young man pressing his lips to mine. Seaman Apprentice Eddie Robeleski was home from the navy for the holidays. I had met him earlier in the evening at a party thrown by Phyllis Cicero, one of the girls from the steno pool at the paper. Eddie and I had chatted, flirted, and enjoyed a snootful together. Then, as midnight struck, he planted a sloppy kiss on my mouth and suggested we ditch the party. What he lacked in technique, he made up for in enthusiasm. Fooling nobody, we sneaked out to my car, which barely started in the cold, and I fishtailed my way through the snowy streets as Eddie blew in my ear and endeavored to separate me from my brassiere.
When it comes to eligible bachelors in New Holland, a single girl feels as if she's arrived an hour late for a bargain basement sale, and all that's left to pick through are the plus sizes and factory seconds. To wit, middle-aged, never-been-married carpet weavers slash bowling heroes; embittered, ready-to-retire thirty-year-old math teachers; local farm boys with their flattops, sunburned arms, and coarse hands; and divorced philanderers, after the one thing the female of the species possesses that they do not. It's enough to make a girl despair. Or at least concede. So when a handsome sailor appears at a New Year's Eve party, you don't quibble that he's only twenty-one years old (three years younger than I.) And Eddie certainly was handsome. Tall and well built, with toned biceps and a broad chest. Sure, he was quiet, but not socially backward. He had a sweet smile, good teeth, and his zeal boded well for a winning finale to the evening's program. Plus he'd already finished one tour of duty in the navy—had crossed the equator twice and managed to escape without a tattoo—so he was a man of the world by New Holland standards. The fact that he was shipping out in two days was a bonus; he wouldn't be around long enough to become cloying.
I shook Mrs. Giannetti out of my mind and—anchors aweigh—abandoned myself to the sailor. I wrapped my arms around his neck and drew him to me. But just then, there really was a pounding at the door.
We froze. Entangled in each other's limbs on the sofa, we wheezed quietly so as not to be heard, and we listened. My heart was thumping in my chest, and Eddie's arms—sturdy though they were—wobbled slightly in consequence of his exertions as he held himself aloft over me.
The radiator hissed in the dark, and the knocking at the door resumed.
"Who's that at this hour?" whispered Eddie.
"The landlady," I said, disengaging myself from our enterprise and wriggling out from under him.
"Don't answer it," he said, but I knew better. Mrs. Giannetti would use her own key if I didn't open up, no matter the hour or the likelihood of an embarrassing discovery.
I tucked in my blouse, straightened my skirt, and tried to smooth my unruly curls. I glanced in the mirror at my flush complexion. My red face and the smell of alcohol were a dead giveaway of what was going on. I told Eddie to wait in the bedroom.
But as things turned out, it wasn't Mrs. Giannetti at the top of the stairs after all, but a strange woman in a clear plastic rain hat and a dark coat. In the dim light of the landing, I could smell the wet wool of her overcoat, the vague odor of time and wear. Her eyes were pink, like a white rabbit's, as if she had a cold, hadn't slept, or had been crying. Maybe all three. She looked to be somewhere in her late thirties, a little worse for wear—what my friend Fadge so delicately describes as "ridden hard and put away wet." But in her severe face, you could almost discern the shade of a once-fresh beauty whose light had faded with the passing years. Life had been hard on her, that much was clear.
"I think you have the wrong place," I said, holding the door fast between us. "There's no party here."
She sniffled, staring at me. "I'm not looking for a party," she said, her upstate twang an ideal candidate for a phonological study. "I'm here because you didn't answer my calls."
"I beg your pardon."
"I left messages for you down to the paper, but you didn't call me back. My name's Irene Metzger."
I blinked at her. "Sorry. Doesn't ring a bell. Are you sure it's me you're looking for?"
"You're Eleonora Stone, that girl reporter from the Republic, aren't you?" I nodded. "I called you about my daughter." She paused and drew a short breath. "Darleen Hicks."
Now that name I knew. Darleen Hicks was a ninth grader from the wrong side of the tracks. She'd disappeared nearly two weeks earlier, shortly before Christmas, having missed her bus home from school. No one knew anything more.
The investigation never really got off the ground, and the hunt cooled off quickly with the Christmas holidays. Both New Holland chief of police, Patrick Finn, and Frank Olney, sheriff of Montgomery County, liked their investigations short and sweet, and a down-and-out fifteen-year-old girl from the farming hills beyond the South Side didn't merit much of their attention. They probably figured she'd run off with some hood who'd have her pregnant within a week.
"Please," I said, hoping Eddie Robeleski had the good sense to stay out of sight, and I opened the door. "Won't you come in?"
I invited her to sit at my kitchen table and offered her a cup of coffee.
"I'd rather something stronger," she said.
I fetched some Scotch from the cabinet in the parlor and pushed a tumbler across the table. I offered ice but she said she'd manage as is. Suited me fine; I wouldn't have to risk freezing my hand to the metal lever prying the ice out of the tray.
"Sorry to barge in on you like this, Miss Stone" she began once she'd taken a good swig of whiskey and lit an Old Gold. She paused to pick a bit of tobacco from the end of her tongue. "But the cops won't do a thing to help me find my Darleen."
"What can I do?" I asked.
"I seen your articles in the paper about that Shaw girl. Jordan Shaw. So I figured you could do the same for Darleen. Investigate and write stories to help find her." She hesitated a moment, brushing the tablecloth absently with her right hand. "I can't pay you."
I was flattered but still no more confident that I could do anything to help her. Who knew if there was anything to be done anyway? My guest waited for me to say something.
"You don't have to pay me," I said, embarrassed for her. "Could it be she went somewhere with someone?" I asked, trying to steer her away from talk of money.
"Don't tell me she's run off. I've had a bellyful of cops saying she's run off with some older fellow and that she'll come home when she's good and ready."
"But can you be sure? I mean, maybe ..."
"Impossible," she interrupted. "Darleen would never do that. She had no reason to go. A mother knows." Her expression was assured, her tone commanding, brooking no dissent.
For all I knew, Darleen Hicks had skipped town with some older guy. It wouldn't have been the first time a foolish young girl had done so. And I didn't know Irene Metzger from Adam. How could I be sure she knew better than experienced cops like Frank Olney and Patrick Finn?
"Okay," I said, throwing a glance over my shoulder. No Eddie. "Let's start at the beginning. When did Darleen disappear?"
"Wednesday, ten days ago," she said swallowing a mouthful of smoke. "December twenty-first. She left for school like always, took her lunch pail, and caught the bus at the end of our road about six fifteen. Her class was going on a field trip to the Beech-Nut factory up to Canajoharie that day. I had to sign a permission slip."
"Was she excited about the trip?" I asked.
"Would you be?" Her voice, pickled and scabrous, rasped like tires over loose gravel.
"Of course, she does like chewing gum," she granted. "Especially that Black Jack gum. She's always chewing that disgusting stuff" She took a drink as if to wash down the taste of the foul chewing gum then drew another deep drag on her cigarette. "But Beech-Nut don't make that brand."
"When did you realize Darleen had gone missing?"
"About five thirty that evening. She doesn't always catch her bus, but she always manages to make it home for supper. We eat at five."
"You live out in the Town of Florida, don't you?" I asked, vaguely recalling a story I'd read in the paper. "That's pretty far from the junior high school. How does Darleen get home when she misses the bus?"
" Well, I don't like it at all, but sometimes she takes rides from strangers."
My eyes popped open.
"Or taxis," she continued. "At least part way, if she's got some pocket money, which ain't often. She's a clever girl, though. Always finds a way to get by, even without money."
"That sounds dangerous," I said, wondering how Darleen hadn't disappeared earlier.
"You think I don't know that?" she asked. "I tell her the same thing all the time, but she's stubborn. And her stepfather said he'd beat her silly if she missed the bus again. But girls are girls."
(Stepfather.... And a beater besides.)
"Do you have any other children?" I asked, making a mental bookmark to return to the stepfather.
She shook her head.
(Black Jack gum. I was sure I'd heard that recently. It was itching my brain, but not germane to the matter at hand. I pushed it to one side.)
"What about neighbors? Any men living in the area?"
" Why, sure, there are men around. It's farm country."
"Any of them close by?"
"Walt Rasmussen owns the next farm over. He's a giant. Must be six foot nine or ten. And as unpleasant as he is tall. He's about sixty-five. Then there's Mr. Karl and his wife on the other side. They have a son, too. Bob Jr. About twenty-five years old."
"Nice enough people?"
She shrugged. "Suppose they are. Walt Rasmussen had a disagreement with Dick over the property line a few years ago. He said our fence was a couple of feet on his side, but Dick don't make mistakes like that. He's careful that way. We're not friendly with him, but I don't know that he's ever talked to Darleen."
"Anyone else in the area?"
"There's Pauline Blaine and her two boys who live not too far. She's a widow."
"How old are the boys?" I asked.
"Small. Maybe the older one's ten."
"Is Dick your husband?" I asked, shifting gears, and she nodded. "Tell me about him."
"Dick? What do you want to know about him for?"
"I want to know about everyone Darleen knows, starting at home."
Irene Metzger didn't much like it, but she explained that Dick Metzger was her second husband. She'd lost her first, Gene Hicks—Darkens father—in the closing days of the war in the Pacific. Dick was forty-five, a simple, dirt-under-his-nails, hard-working Joe, struggling to make something of his small dairy farm. He had borrowed money from every bank in town, each to pay the last, enough to hold off foreclosure at least until spring. He had a plan to buy some good cows from a neighbor, and things would turn around soon. I didn't see it.
"How long have you been married?"
"Fourteen and a half years," she said. "Dick and Gene were childhood friends. When Gene was killed in action, Darleen wasn't even born yet." She paused then explained that Darleen was born December 9, 1945, the consequence of her husband's last furlough in February of that year. Irene Metzger wanted to be sure I understood the timeline. "Gene was home in February, you see. Nine months earlier," she said, punctuating the math with a sharp tap of her finger on the table. "Anyways, when Gene was killed, I was six months along. A war widow, living on aid. Then Dick come back from overseas and stopped by to see me. He helped me out, and we got married a year later."
"How is he with your daughter?"
"He's a good father to her," she began then suddenly caught on. She frowned at me. "I don't know what you're driving at, but you got the wrong idea about Dick. He loves Darleen like she was his own. Always treated her like his own daughter. He's sick about this thing. Drove me over here at one in the morning and is waiting downstairs in the truck. That's how much he cares."
"He didn't adopt her?"
"Of course he did," she said.
"But she didn't take his name?"
"I wanted her to, but Dick thought it wouldn't be right for Gene's memory. Like I said, they were fast friends, and Dick wanted Darleen to keep her father's name."
"Why don't you invite him up?" I asked, wanting to have a talk with him. "He must be freezing."
"No, he don't want to come up," she said, draining her glass and stubbing out her cigarette. She'd smoked the whole thing right down to her brittle, yellowed fingertips, wasting none of it. "He wouldn't be any help in this; he don't know about girls."
I regarded her with suspicion, and she picked up on it right away.
"Look," she said, "Dick is a good husband and father. Why do you have to go suspecting him?"
"I don't suspect him," I lied. Of course I suspected him. He might well be Father of the Year, but other stepfathers before him had put a bull's-eye on his back in cases like this. "I'd still like to talk to him. He might know something."
"Don't waste your time," she said simply.
I sighed, poured a short drink for each of us, and asked if Darleen had a boyfriend.
"She took up with a boy last spring. Joey Figlio." She pronounced it FIG-lee-oh. "He's in Darleen's class, I think. Lives near the hospital on the West End. I had to stop her from seeing him last month because things were getting too serious all of a sudden."
"And you don't think Darleen might have bucked and taken off for a while with him?"
"Nope," she said, lighting another cigarette and sucking half of it down in one gasp. "I told you, she didn't run away."
I must have appeared skeptical, because she offered more without my asking: "She couldn't have run off with him because he's up to Fulton over in Johnstown. Locked up in reform school since the beginning of December. He snuck out, though, and Dick found him hiding in our barn the night Darleen disappeared. You see, he was waiting for her to come home, too."
"Okay, so she didn't run away with her boyfriend," I said. "Does she have any friends?"
"There's a couple of girls she rides the bus with. Susan Dobbs, Carol Liswenski, and Linda Attanasio. And there's Edward, a boy who's had a crush on her since the seventh grade."
I stood and fetched my grocery pad and pencil from the counter near the icebox. I wrote down the names. I also noted the neighbors, Rasmussen and Karl. Under normal conditions, my memory is as faithful as a dog and as trustworthy as the mighty Jeep, but this night, I feared the whiskey might prevail and blur everything in the morning.
"Now, about your husband," I said. "I really would like to talk to him. Since he's just downstairs ..."
She seemed to ignore me.
"If you want my help, you'll have to let me do things my way," I said. "You can say what you want, but I need to believe what you tell me. And the only way I can do that is to satisfy my doubts."
Irene Metzger sat quietly, slouched a bit to one side, fixing me with her stare. I couldn't tell if she was riled or just considering my words. Finally she spoke.
"I'm sorry if you don't like what I'm telling you, but I know my daughter. And my husband."
Excerpted from Stone Cold Dead by james w. ziskin. Copyright © 2015 James W. Ziskin. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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