|Buzzards in the Projection Booth|
Tornado, population 937, the largest town in Walnut County, Missouri, was abuzz this Monday with theories about Gil Corbin's weekend disappearance. Corbin taught math at Walnut County Consolidated High School, located on the eastern edge of Tornado. The most prevalent rumor said he'd run from or been caught by a father, husband, brother, uncle, or male cousin of one of the many girls who'd passed algebra or geometry only because she scheduled unclad tutoring from her teacher. Other gossip suggested that one of Corbin's failed business adventures had him leaving town with only a short lead over bankruptcy judges and creditors.
Jon Staggers avoided adding his own theories to the mix, choosing instead to listen over lunch at Janet's Highway Café—one of several businesses in which his grandfather had left him a silent interest. If no one was around, Janet didn't collect his check. Today he'd pay and consider a greasy cheeseburger and fries an investment in more than cholesterol. He'd inherited the weekly Tornado Independent, Walnut County's only surviving newspaper, from his father almost five years ago, and as publisher and editor-in-chief he had to figure out what to write about Corbin's unexcused absence from work and family life. He couldn't say what he thought—that based on what he'd experienced and observed while a student in high school, Corbin's disappearance improved the educational environment.
Trout season went well. The county's court was in session and had just finished a trial of six local burglars who specialized in making tourists' vacations memorable in the wrong way. Jon's correspondents generated detailed accounts of the comings, goings, and doings of their friends and extended families. Alexander's Funeral Home celebrated a banner week, having supervised seven buryings, four of which starred prominent citizens, thus making the obituary page overflow into the classified ads. Count on Gil Corbin to disappear at an inconvenient time. Corbin had disliked Jon even more than he did most male students ever since he learned that the tall athlete was Frank Staggers' son.
Corbin had taught Jon algebra. Jon was good at math, but you wouldn't know that from his grade that year. Frank Staggers was one of several local businessmen who laughed publicly at Corbin's pathetic efforts at becoming an entrepreneur. Furthermore, Frank gleefully recounted the teacher's various financial woes in the pages of the Independent. Corbin didn't have the nerve to fail Jon, and he didn't have the sense to realize the young man would become a nasty enemy when he inherited the newspaper. Corbin's disappearance looked like an opportunity for the editor to demonstrate that Euripedes had been correct about the mills of the gods grinding slowly but exceedingly fine.
Jon visited Madison, the county seat, and found Deputy Martin Goff, the sheriff's top investigator, in his office. Martin was almost 50 years old and not yet a coronary statistic. That might qualify as a miracle. He was six feet tall and before breakfast weighed in at approximately 320 pounds. He thrived on jelly doughnuts, strong coffee, Budweiser, and two packs of Winstons a day. He'd have been kicked off most city or suburban forces for being a slob. He did well in Walnut County because the sheriff wanted brains, not the ability to outrun juvenile offenders who got caught spray painting a water tower.
Martin provided basic information: Gil Corbin, 41, had been reported missing Sunday night by Laura Corbin, 39, his wife of 19 years. She'd last seen him Saturday morning at breakfast. She'd expected him home for dinner.
"Laura expected Gil for Saturday dinner," Jon said, "but she didn't report him missing until Sunday evening. Why the delay, Martin?"
"She told me she assumed he'd wrecked the car and was in a hospital and that we'd notify her. I asked her why she didn't call nearby hospitals to see if her husband was a patient. She said she hadn't thought of it."
"She believed he was in a motel in the next county helping a local teen angel pass geometry by learning angles not covered in the textbook."
"That would fit what I hear about him—and I'm waiting for the first female to give me courtroom evidence, Jon. Whatever Corbin was doing Saturday, it apparently didn't interfere with his driving abilities. Houston found his car."
"Houston? A deputy I don't know? If that's the last name, I've never even heard of the family."
Martin said, "Houston, Texas. Named after Sam Houston, who was a general and a politician and didn't like Mexicans."
Martin Goff suffered from a prickly personality probably caused by the rash typical of fat men who sweat a great deal.
"Meaning Corbin ran away," Jon said. "What from?"
"If you find out, let me know, Jon. His wife claims everything was heavenly at home. Max White says Corbin had become the model teacher. I checked court records. There are no civil suits against him. I did hear rumors of a business scheme so stupid that even Corbin had to stop and think it over, but men don't run from dumb dreams. In a way, that's too bad. Most premeditated crimes are dumb. If people ran from stupidity, those crimes would never happen."
"Then you'd be out of a job."
"Nope," he said. "There are plenty of unplanned crimes. Passion and opportunity drive them. They're hard to solve, Jon, because you can't find a logical basis for them to have occurred in the first place."
"What about Corbin's disappearance?"
"Until I find evidence of foul play, I have to assume it's voluntary—and more logical than you might suspect. A man can't stand his job. He's been married almost twenty years and suddenly feels aged. His daughters are teens and don't think they need him, even if they still do. His wife has a good job and can make the mortgage payments on her own. Maybe something went wrong between them and she threw him out of the house. Nothing illegal, Jon. Lying about such situations isn't moral, but it's understandable. Look back at why the first man and woman in your family to migrate west left back east or Europe. The reason probably ain't polite. I don't care how tight Homeland Security gets. In America, the right to walk out of a lousy job or marriage is too fundamental to take away from citizens."
The obese deputy seemed a peculiar source for the sentiment. Martin's wife had walked out on him 50 pounds and 15 years ago—or run out, since she and her skinny boyfriend had to get clear of Walnut County before one of Martin's colleagues arrested them on a phony charge. While Martin was no one's favorite drinking buddy, he was popular with other deputies because his brains had helped most of them out of a jam at one time or another.
Jon said, "Corbin was last seen Saturday morning by the woman who reported him gone Sunday night. He could have driven to Houston easily in that time frame. Are any high school girls missing?"
"Not that we've heard about."
"I'll check with White at the high school."
"Let me know what he tells you," Martin said. "He gave me what the law demands and nothing more when I talked to him earlier today. My guess is that he hopes Corbin is all the way to Mexico City and still moving south. White isn't the first administrator to cover for Corbin's sex games, but if Walnut County is lucky, he'll be the last."
Max White was approximately 30 years old and in his third year as high school principal. Like most of the students for whom he was responsible, he saw little future in Walnut County. The small school was to become the first entry in the administrative section of his resume, a starter job that should eventually lead to a six-figure salary and a comfortable portfolio for early retirement to Florida or Arizona. White was marginally competent and had apparently never heard about being nice to those you meet on the way up because you'll meet the same people on your way down. Downward trips didn't exist in his shoddily-constructed dream world.
Etta Jenkins had been the secretary at Walnut County Consolidated for as long as the school had existed—40 years. She hadn't been young when hired. When Jon was in high school, students had joked that her first job had been inventorying animals for Noah. The lady remembered every student who'd gone through the school and immediately reminded the editor that Jon Staggers was no stranger to the principal's office. When he told her why he was there, she broke out her meticulous records to answer his first question.
According to Friday's time sheet, Corbin had left the building at 4:13 p.m., later than most of the faculty, normal for him.
"He sits in his room and grades papers Friday afternoons. He doesn't want them hanging over his head on weekends," she explained. "There are those who'll tell you it's a sign that he's finally matured as a teacher and a family man."
A barely perceptible toss of her head and a disgusted expression showed that one of "those who'll tell you" an obvious whopper was Max White. Jon wasn't surprised to learn that Etta Jenkins was among the detractors who thought White's pose as the Messiah who'd save Walnut County from a lack of management jargon was a bad joke for which the taxpayers got cheated.
"You can probably answer the next question better than the person I need to ask, Mrs. Jenkins," he said, "but I don't want to cause trouble by attributing the answer to you. See if his majesty is receiving."
"You remind me of your grandfather, Jon. He was an honorable rascal, too."
God bless small towns. No one mourned Frank Staggers—and that included Frank's only child. Jon had been named for his grandfather because Jonathan was a traditional name among Staggers males since the first Jonathan had migrated west from the dying Confederacy with a wagon, two aged mules, and his commanding officer's young, pretty, and reckless wife. If Jon was like his grandfather, who reputedly had been a worthy heir to the first Jonathan's name, honorable rascal was a fair description.
Mrs. Jenkins left the door between inner and outer offices open while she informed White that Jon Staggers wished to see him about Gil Corbin's absence. The principal said he didn't have time. She suggested it was unwise to treat the local newspaper editor rudely, to which he replied that he'd treat a goddamn hillbilly journalist however he damn well pleased and reminded her that she was a mere secretary. If students had repeated that conversation to Jon, the editor would have doubted them. Etta Jenkins abhored profanity and objected to its use. Furthermore, there was nothing mere about the lady, secretary or otherwise.
She came out, quietly closed the door, and smiled at Jon grimly. He nodded to indicate that he'd heard. No matter how much contempt White had for the area or for Jon's profession, his refusal to see a journalist, make hypocritical noises about a wonderful teacher having gone missing, and give the illusion of cooperation was stupid. Perhaps White had a reason to cover up what Martin Goff had yet to find.
Jon had entered the school in pursuit of one story. He exited with a different story. Its dimensions were amorphous, but its aroma made a skunk's artillery smell sweet.
White ordered Mrs. Jenkins not to inform Jon on Tuesday or Wednesday that Corbin was absent. She technically obeyed, informing Jon only about the order. Martin learned no more than Jon had. Martin and Jon were good old mountain boys united against an outsider who thought them contemptible. Tuesday afternoon the large lawman gave the Independent a scathing quote about the school system's failure to aid the deputies in their search for a man who might be dead or in dire need of assistance.
The Independent was printed late Wednesday afternoon for distribution Thursday morning. Jon obeyed what his father had called the prime rule of journalism and kept the story on page one objective. That made it the Gospel According to Martin Goff. Only the deputy's quote and Jon's statement that White had refused to meet with a representative of the Independent or make any comment on Corbin's disappearance suggested that the school system might be covering for a teacher who preyed on girls in need of a passing grade. Jon saved that charge for his editorial. Since he wrote editorials for less than half the weekly issues, he alerted readers that one existed by announcing it in a sidebar to the main story.
"Unfortunately," he concluded, "the failure of the high school administration to be forthcoming lends credibility to rumors that have long circulated about the extracurricular activities of the missing man. Instead of putting the gossip permanently to rest, White has added the new suspicion that Corbin misbehaved with the knowledge, if not the approval, of the school system."
On Thursday afternoon Martin showed up at Jon's office and said, "Get your jacket and a camera. I have one of those leads that may amount to nothing or may be the break we're looking for. If it pans out, I'll tell you what I want the public to know."
The Independent would provide crime scene photos, thus saving the sheriff's department's a few dollars. It was the small-town version of checkbook journalism, a barter from which both parties profited.
King of the Hill, located beside the main north-south route through the county, had been the area's only drive-in theater. It closed permanently before Jon was born, a victim of TV and newly installed air conditioning in the four indoor theaters, which soon after lost their battle with TV. Now there was no place but cable, satellite TV, or a home entertainment system to see an uncut, uninterrupted movie in Walnut County. Corbin had spent the past four months trying to raise venture capital to re-erect the outdoor screen, repair the crumbling projection booth and snack bar, and install a modern sound system so he could reopen King of the Hill. Most area businessmen considered the scheme the genesis of another Corbin joke, more proof that he should stick to teaching and invest in nothing riskier than a money market account or certificate of deposit.
Eight buzzards took off as Martin's car bounced through the ruts of former aisles to the projection booth. The birds came from inside the building. The men got out of the county cruiser. The concrete-block building smelled even worse than Martin did.
"My God!" Jon said.
"A farm wife reported the buzzards and said they'd been in the area since the weekend. She initially assumed a deer had died. When she read your story, she remembered seeing Corbin hanging around the property. All we need to do now is find out if that's him. It isn't a deer. Deer don't wear clothes."
The corpse lay on its back. The buzzards, probably aided by rats, had destroyed the man's exposed face, tearing away the soft tissue and rendering him unrecognizable. They'd also dragged the flannel shirt up, ripping it in several places, so that they could gnaw on the torso. The jeans had proved tougher, so the lower body remained intact. Almost gagging, Jon snapped several pictures. Martin didn't seem bothered by the stench. He reached under the corpse, fumbled in a jeans pocket, and found a wallet. The two men went outside.
"Corbin," he said, showing Jon the driver's license. "Let's take a look at your pictures while we wait for backup. You couldn't have shot from any angle without picking up brass. It looked twenty-two."
"Any notion about the shooter's identity?"
"I've got notions, but I may never have enough evidence to speak a name. Here's a detail I didn't share earlier. Corbin's car was on blocks, the tires missing, the chassis stripped. That's how you expect to find vehicles abandoned in the neighborhood the driver chose, Houston says. The interior had been wiped clean. No corpse nearby. The boys who commit homicides in the area generally leave their handiwork where the citizens can see it until the law takes the body away."
"Who called you about the buzzards?" Jon asked.
"One of my nameless suspects. When I wanted to know how firm her identification of Corbin was, she said she'd have to see the man with his pants down to be sure, but she remembered his face from class."
"She's angry at him after however many years?"
"Angry at herself, I suspect," Martin said. "Is a grade worth hooking?"
"The morality preached in churches says no. A more pragmatic morality says it depends on what a girl uses the grade for. High school graduation might be worth it if she plans to find better paying work than a custodial job."
"How about college?"
Jon said, "Tests help determine acceptance or rejection and measure what the student knows or can do, especially in subjects like math."
"So Corbin's grade means nothing to students?" he persisted.
"I'm sure it still means something if you're going to college or are a marginal student whose parents believe in the high school diploma. I think a lot of girls who are neither would have nothing to do with him. His run of luck over the years proves he possessed canniness in picking his pigeons."
Martin said, "A run of luck can end, Jon. It only took one wrong pick, if that's why he's lying here."
Laura Corbin taught third grade in Fillmore Elementary, a school ten miles south of Tornado. A tired-looking brunette, she politely received Jon the following Sunday. Her daughters, Grace, a lush young woman of 17, and Mina, already buxom at 13, said hello and left the room. Mrs. Corbin added little to what she'd told Martin. Gil went broke frequently. They'd nearly lost the house a couple of times. His heart had been in the right place, however. He wanted his girls to have a better start in life than he and Laura had received. Neither she nor Jon brought up the gossip to which he'd alluded in the editorial. A wife whose husband had been notoriously unfaithful observed Cicero's dictum to speak only good about the dead. In this case, eliminating the negative made for a brief interview.
Walnut County had an elected school board of seven members, one each from the small high school districts that had been rolled into the consolidated school. By Sunday evening Jon heard from five. Three assured him that they'd attempted to investigate the rumors. The other two tried indignation. He explained to the upset pair that he intended to start by interviewing girls who'd been in school with him. Then he'd branch out to talk with those who'd gone before and after his high school years, but when Corbin was there. Now that the math teacher posed no threat to little brothers or sisters, younger cousins, or sons and daughters, anonymity should elicit steamy details.
Jon told all five who contacted him, "I'm not letting it go because the known offender died. If one teacher did it, and I have better evidence that he did than the board wants to believe, there might be other teachers who also consider the high school their private harem."
The board members who contacted Jon were unanimous about one point: Max White was so eager to set the record straight that he'd make time to see Jon whenever the editor went to the school. The smile that Etta Jenkins gave him Monday morning suggested Jon was the greatest student who'd ever gone through Walnut County Consolidated. She ushered him into the office.
White tried indignation: "There was no need for you—"
"Try this for need," Jon told him, tossing one of the more graphic photos of Corbin's remains on his desk.
White turned pale and swayed. Fearing the principal might be one of those lower animal forms who use projectile vomiting as a defense mechanism, Jon moved out of range.
"Since I came here, I've received three complaints from former students," White said, aggression gone. "Former students. Girls beyond any danger of retribution for filing a false report. Corbin denied their charges. His word against theirs. After looking at the girls' records and talking with a couple of men on the board of education…" His shrug was better than a comment, but a shrug would be difficult to print.
Jon said, "The girls are also beyond retribution for filing a true report. I can finish your sentence. They come from two radically different backgrounds. Either they were running wild and Corbin didn't have an exclusive franchise on their bodies, or they came from homes where the greatest sin a child could commit was bringing home a bad report card. What about current students?"
"None. Corbin had reformed."
"What did he catch?"
"Fatherhood," White said. "Mr. Staggers, there may have been a coverup before my watch. When I came here, Corbin had gone straight—if he ever really misbehaved, that is. You can check with any faculty member. Grace, his oldest daughter, is a mature young woman. She drives them to school most mornings. King of the Hill, an investment several members of the board have warned me against, was meant to secure her future. Personally, I think helping her get a scholarship at a good university would do more for the girl, but that's none of my business. If Gil Corbin ever saw girls as prey, he eventually began seeing them as daughters. You really have no proof he saw them as prey in the first place."
If he took the same attitude with Martin and the other deputies, White would find his career derailed within a year. He assumed that if he had no proof, the yokels lacked it.
Jon said, "You feel confident no one from his present shot him. How about from his past?"
"More than likely he fell over a drug deal and got himself killed, if you want my opinion. Students tell me that King of the Hill is a rendezvous for some rather nasty specimens."
Teens occasionally parked in the deserted area. So did slightly older men and women. Their drug of choice was a six pack. The meth labs and users concentrated themselves in less visible sections of the county. Part of the stench in the projection booth came from males using it as a latrine. Jon let White think he'd fooled him. He knew a number of women to call, including five whose morals definitely deserved reproach, since they'd had affairs with their friendly newspaper editor. A couple of them were so dumb that he was sure Corbin had worked a deal with them so they could graduate.
White's story hung together too well to be true. The faculty would lie to protect a dead colleague and themselves. Martin had trusted Jon with a detail he didn't want made public. Corbin, who carried a wad of cash to impress people with his imagined standing as a wealthy entrepreneur, carried nothing but change in his pockets when found. His credit cards had been in his wallet, however. The law gave the contents of his pockets to the survivors. White had asked Grace about the amount of money Corbin had been found with. Grace had told the principal the truth. White had then concocted his theory about the passing, murderous robber.
When Jon came back from lunch that Monday, he cut through the copy center. A different perspective on the story collated a job. He told Betty Hillen to come to his office when she finished the task. Because another employee could overhear them, he didn't tell her why.
Betty, a blonde who went to school mornings and earned work-study credit as well as wages for five afternoons a week in the copy center, was a senior. She and Grace Corbin, also a senior, had been fellow members of the drama club. Betty was still active in drama, although Grace no longer showed up in cast lists. The Independent carried school news because parents not only subscribed, but also bought extra papers for distant friends and relatives whenever a child's name appeared.
Jon hadn't meant to frighten Betty, but the young woman walked into his office looking the way students generally look when sent to see the principal.
"What's wrong, Mr. Staggers?" she asked nervously.
"Betty, don't assume that my wanting to see you means you've done something wrong. I need some information for a story. That's all."
She gingerly perched on a chair and stared at her faded jeans. Betty knew which story Jon meant.
He said, "You and Grace Corbin are friends and in drama together."
"Is this gonna go in the paper?"
"Betty, I'll keep your name out of whatever I print, just like Martin Goff and I did for the woman who phoned him about the buzzards at King of the Hill. A man was murdered. Maybe he deserved death, or maybe he didn't. I want to learn more about him than I knew years ago when I took algebra from him."
She studied Jon's face for a minute, as if sizing him up. "Grace and I are friends. She dropped out of drama a couple years ago, not long before it got so I didn't want to visit her house unless Mrs. Corbin was home."
"Yeah, you're the right age for Gil Corbin and prettier than most," Jon said. "The smart chicken doesn't visit Mr. Fox in his den."
"Not me, Mr. Staggers. Grace."
Her remark made sickening sense, a twist Martin hadn't suggested and Jon had never suspected. "What did you see, Betty?"
She said, "His hands on her. He'd pat her bottom or fix it so an arm brushed her boobs. One time I went to the bathroom and couldn't make the toilet flush. When I came out Mr. Corbin had his hand down her blouse and was squeezing."
"Did Grace say anything to you afterwards?"
"No. The scene embarrassed her, though. People say that he took her to restaurants and treated her like a date. None of the guys in school went with her. It was like she had an ownership tag that said this girl belongs to Daddy."
"Think she liked the attention?" Jon asked.
"For awhile. I went through a phase when I dreamed about replacing Mom as my daddy's favorite. Now that I'm eighteen, I'm grateful that he teased his little girl, kept on loving me, and never touched me. Grace didn't get that chance to appreciate her father. I think her mother understood, though. Mrs. Corbin acted nice to Grace and her friends."
"Are you sure the arrangement was consummated?"
"That they actually did it?"
She said, "I can't prove it one way or the other, Mr. Staggers. But he looked at her like a guy looking at his steady and thinking about the next time. She had birth control pills in her purse."
"When you came in here, Betty, you acted as guilty as if you'd been cheating on your time or stealing supplies or petty cash. I know you're an honest young woman. I'm also sure you're supposed to tell me a lie. Lots of people lie to newspaper editors, and I won't fire you if you insist on joining the parade. But if you're planning to give Grace or her mother an alibi for this weekend, think carefully before you lie to Martin Goff."
Her hand went to her mouth as she stifled a scream.
Jon wondered if Martin was going to feel like an idiot when informed about this interview or if the deputy already suspected incest. He said, "That car didn't get to Houston on its own."
"No. Grace drove there and flew home. She was supposed to have spent the weekend at another girl's place with two other guests. She wasn't there. The girls in it with me are Ruth Simpson and Adelaide Markham."
"If she flew, her name is on file. You have to show identification when you buy a ticket. The lie never had a chance. Don't get yourself caught in it. If you want to call the other girls and warn them, feel free to do so. You can cover your friends' normal transgressions, but murder and armed robbery generally make those who cover them accessories eligible for the same sentence. This sounds like first-degree homicide. It doesn't get more serious unless you commit treason in wartime."
"Didn't she have a right to kill him?" Betty asked.
"No. She had a damn good reason. There's a difference. Make your calls fast. When you leave here, I'm phoning Martin Goff. My word is good. I said your name doesn't go in the paper. A deputy sheriff isn't the newspaper."
"I've been a publishing writer since 1963. Your magazine once helped me enjoy this guilty habit."