AN ACCIDENTAL POPE

Snippets from Prologue

 

TWIN RIVERS DAILY CLARION

 May 7 – Body Discovered behind Hotel Paradise 

During a routine patrol of the derelict Hotel Paradise, Twin Rivers police and Paradise County deputies discovered the body of a young man in an alley near the hotel fire escape.

While an investigation continues, the area is being treated as a crime scene. Identification is being withheld pending notification of next of kin.

No further information is available at this time.

 

May 7 – Note on East Pendle Street apartment door near Notre Dame University

Phil, all your friends are looking for you. Nobody seems to know anything. Mock Trials begin next week. Let us know where you are.  Jake and Brian

 

TWIN RIVERS DAILY CLARION

 May 9 – Foul Play ‘Ruled Out’ in Hotel Fire Escape Fatality

 

May 10 – Note on East Pendle Street apartment door near Notre Dame University

 Phil, if we don’t hear from you by tomorrow morning, we are calling the police.

Brian, Jake, and Paula

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Porky and Harriet White

Wilbur and Harriet White were one of Twin Rivers’ most conspicuous couples. Apart from separations during work hours, one would seldom be seen without the other, pushing grocery carts, sitting on benches in the mall holding hands, on the same side of a café booth, and out on a dance floor together wherever a band played. Sunday mornings were an exception: Harriet attended Mass at St. Callixtus and sang in its choir. Wilbur, a determined atheist, would meet her in front of the church afterward, and off they would go to a café for breakfast.

Whoever thought of calling cops flatfoots did not have Wilbur in mind. For that matter, whoever nicknamed him Porky did not have Porky in mind. He was as trim and nimble as a champion welterweight boxer. In another world than Twin Rivers, instead of wearing a police badge, he might have worn gloves and won by a TKO in the third round. He might have donned tights and been a ballet dancer. When he twirled Harriet around on a dance floor, other couples would sometimes drop out to watch, and then applaud when the spectacle was over. Add to this Wilbur’s skill as an amateur juggler, good enough to entertain at community events. Here was somebody who wasn’t the typical town cop and wasn’t a typical guy nicknamed Porky.

When he wasn’t twirling Harriet and lofting beanbags for local Scout troops and fundraisers, Porky used his dancing skills and juggler’s coordination in police investigative work. In place of Harriet, he twirled suspects and suspicious situations. In place of beanbags, he would have three or four questions in the air at once, barely seeming to handle any of them for longer than it took to flip them around in his investigative mind, or in a suspect’s face.

Harriet White worked in the background of her husband’s investigations. Credit for her crime-solving deductions went to Porky. Personal satisfaction came her way. She thought of detective work as a hobby: untangling a mystery was like filling in the last gaps in a jigsaw puzzle, or reciting old jump rope songs to the rhythm of Porky’s juggling. This steady rhythm helped her think. In the public world of Twin Rivers, she was the soprano soloist in Bernard Passmore’s ‘award-winning’ St. Callixtus choir. Otherwise, she worked as a veterinary assistant at a local pet clinic. As a victim of epilepsy subject to occasional seizures, she was unable to drive. This left her dependent on Porky to ferry her from point to point in daily routines. Recently she had discovered a new hobby in writing the history of St. Callixtus Church for its sesquicentennial celebration. The church archive had become a ferry point.

The archive held mysteries of its own, some the equal of those Porky encountered and brought home.

Women with first names of three or more syllables, often wind up with nicknames. Harriet insisted on being Harriet, no matter how many times it was spelled wrong. Only Porky got away with something else. In private, he often called her Wren. No one loved to hear her sing more than Porky did. It was almost enough to make him a churchgoer.

CHAPTER 2

Rain or Shine, Suicide or Murder?

On a mid-spring Saturday morning of the sort requiring both sunglasses and an umbrella, Porky White’s eyes were riveted skyward to the fifth floor of The Paradise, a derelict hotel. His thoughts wandered between suicide and murder. Fifty feet above him another Twin Rivers, Minnesota officer outside an open window leaned over the railing of a rusty fire escape. The two of them had been in this alley several times during the past week, each time with the same questions flipping around in Porky’s mind. This was his first time there with his juggling beanbags, which at his direction were being dropped and tossed in various ways from the fire escape’s zigzagging stairway. It was a curious sight, two cops appearing to play with beanbags behind a dilapidated brick building boarded up on its lower floors and with broken windows on its upper ones.

In fact, the scene had attracted an audience: a man watching the game from a red roadster parked beyond the alley; another man, of substantial girth, pacing within a grove of honey locust trees between St. Callixtus Church and the hotel. The man in the roadster expected to be noticed. The man in the trees thought himself concealed. Porky knew and was known to both. Sitting in the roadster was Dusty Dwyer, owner of the Purple Palace, a strip club as old as its hotel neighbor. Half-hidden beyond the trees was Bernard Passmore, St. Callixtus choir director, of burgeoning silhouette, unmistakable as any thumbprint. He appeared to be reading a book while casting sideways glances down the alley. In fact, it was a church hymnal held upside down.

Each colorful bag now lying scattered about in the alley marked Porky’s attempt to answer one of his questions. First, was it possible either to jump from there or be pushed and land where the young man’s body had been found? Second, if he had been pushed, were his injuries consistent with a body colliding on jutting parts of the fire escape in its plummet to the alley below? The coroner’s report had been inconclusive. If he leaped, how far to clear the fire escape entirely? Porky removed his sunglasses to study a yellow, spray-painted form on alley pavement. The form looked washed-out after several spring showers this past week. Its location bothered him. None of his beanbags were close to where the body had been found.

The suicide note had also missed its intended mark. Carefully folded and tucked into a jacket pocket, it looked like a fake. Suicide notes resembled messages scrawled on restroom walls or left as last minute reminders under magnets on refrigerator doors. They always had at least one spelling mistake, a torn corner, or a dog-ear. This one was the creation of a perfectionist with tunnel vision. Porky had seen a number of such notes doing his investigative work, last words scribbled by people angry, raging, half out of their minds, and revenging themselves on the world for screwing up their lives. Carefully printed in block letters, Phillip Fowler’s read like a rehearsed speech in act three of a high school class play. It used indented paragraphs and even included a bit of Latin legal lingo as if somebody had tried to imagine what a law school student would say at such a critical moment.

“You would swear that this kid was in a mock trial courtroom ridiculing himself,” said Porky.

Officer Charlie Cook nodded, pretending to understand. He was used to it. Porky’s analogies, as an old saying goes, often went in one ear and out the other.

Also too contrived was the blue windbreaker jacket bearing the victim’s monogram draped over the open window casing as if the victim had removed it to dive into a swimming pool, not fifty feet into an alley.

“A swimming pool?” said Charlie.

“You can bet on it,” said Porky. From where he stood,  everything pointed to a murder contrived to look otherwise. Whoever killed the young man had both a high opinion of his own intelligence and a view of police work bordering on mockery. In taking too much care, the killer had been careless.

Other thoughts Porky would keep to himself. For the time being, this would officially remain a suicide case. Thinking he had pulled it off, the killer would become complacent. A criminal thinking he got away with something was a cop’s best friend.

Having run out of beanbags, Charlie had trundled down the fire escape and was looking down on his boss from its last step. “Do you want to try it again?” They had gathered the beanbags twice before, with Charlie, overweight and breathless, struggling up the fire escape to send them down in various ways.

“I’ve seen enough,” said Porky, without revealing what he had seen. “I need to ask that priest Vesuvio a few more questions. The funeral is today, isn’t it?”

Charlie looked at his watch. “In about two hours, except Vesuvio won’t be here for it. Another Padre was sent in.”

“What’s that all about?”

Charlie shrugged, hung by his hands from the bottom of the fire escape, and landed in the alley, several yards from where the body had been found.

“You’re too old and too fat to be trying that stunt, Charlie, but my point exactly–a  guy simply lets go; he lands where you are. If he is pushed or makes a flying leap, he lands somewhere in this area.” Porky waved a  black baton hanging from his belt. “No way does he land there. You can bet on it.” He pointed to the faded yellow chalk form.

“Maybe someone moved the body,” suggested Charlie. “Maybe he crawled that far.”

“Dead men don’t crawl. This guy died instantly if we can believe the coroner’s report –blunt force trauma consistent with a fall of more than twenty feet. Of course, our county coroner should have retired twenty years ago, and lately, it’s like he earns his living by making mistakes. Keep that to yourself, Charlie, like I never said it–and Porky kept to himself the suspicion that Phillip Fowler had been killed somewhere else, with his body dumped in the hotel alley staged to look like a suicide.

“You’re a Catholic, right? Charlie, is the coroner a Catholic?”

“He and his wife sit three pews in front of me and my wife every Sunday.”

“By the way, did Corrie get over those migraines you mention now and then?”

“She’s doing all right. Thanks for asking, Porky.”

Having gorged himself on a youthful diet of detective novels, Porky was an encouraging example of a man who grew up to become exactly what he dreamt of being. He knew that great detective heroes always knew more than they said, and sometimes said things they knew to be false just to cast a net for the unsuspecting and complacent criminal. Like those detective heroes, he also noticed things that ordinary folk missed, but he would wait till the right moment to say something about it, the moment being when everyone else’s attention had drifted away. He glanced toward the church apse beyond the rangy locust trees at the end of the alley, and then the other way toward the parking lot of the strip club.

“And I would like to know who’s been circling around here overnight on a motorcycle.” Porky pointed to loose gravel displaced on the perimeter of the crime scene and darkened by an early morning shower. Any alert detective would have noticed.

“Somebody color-blind who can’t read.” Prior to this, Charlie had not noticed, but whenever he partnered with the redoubtable Porky, he had to pretend. He picked up a fallen section of yellow crime-scene tape and wrapped it around an orange traffic cone as if all along he had been thinking about the motorcycle.

“Or somebody with something on his mind,” said Porky. “—Speaking of which, I’m going to have another word with the guy who runs that strip joint. Guys who run dives like that always know more than they say the first time. You can bet on it. You go over to the church and check around. Maybe the new Padre will be there by now. Maybe somebody will know something. But, if you happen to run into him, ignore the fat man who’s been keeping an eye on us from those trees. He’s my wife’s choir director. I wouldn’t want to rile him. He might keep me waiting for her while she sings solos after Wednesday practice. I hate eating late. Makes my stomach hurt.”

“An ulcer?”

“You might say so.” Porky loped down the alley toward a nightclub called The Purple Palace. Too many unanswered questions also made his stomach hurt. He had a few for the choir director, but those could wait.