One night when Dan was out of town, I awoke in the middle of a rain storm, sure I had heard a voice between the bursts of thunder coming from outside my bedroom.
“Look in the cistern,” the voice whispered in my ear. “Look in the cistern and you will find . . .”
The final words were covered by a timpani roll and I couldn’t make out what it was the voice was telling me. In fact, I figured the message was intended for my husband. Ghostly voices didn’t usually speak to me in the middle of the night.
I sat straight up in the bed. I looked around the room, which was momentarily illuminated by a flash of lightening. In the following dark, I turned on the reading lamp and looked around again. There was no one but me in the big old bedroom in the big old house out on Femur Road. I ducked down and looked under our bed. No one there to whisper in my ear about a cistern. The French window was open and the shears were blowing back into the room. I looked out on the balcony. No one.
The old hardwood floor creaked as I walked back over to where I kept my cell phone. As I began to wander the second floor, turning on lights and looking into every room without finding anything amiss, I called Dan.
“Does the house have a cistern?” I asked as soon as he picked up the phone.
“Huh? What time is it?”
There was a burst of thunder which rolled quickly away.
“Answer my question first,” I said. “Is there a cistern in the house?”
There was a pause as he shook himself awake. “A cistern. You mean like . . . Yes. Yes, I think the Realtor told me there was one in the cellar. A hundred and fifty years ago they used to collect the rain water off the roof and run it into a shallow stone cistern under the house, where they could . . .”
“Thanks,” I told him, and I hung up the phone. I pulled on my robe and slipped into my pink scuffs with the fluffy linings.
In two minutes Dan called back. “Judy? Judy? Is that you? Why do you ask about architectural features?”
I almost told him a ghost came to me as I was sleeping and demanded I look in the cistern, but Dan was already confused and hearing voices on his own. That was why he was visiting his brother, the minister, in Illinois. “Just wondering,” I told him. “How are you getting along?”
As he sighed and maundered on about his disillusionment and confusion, the storm continued and I walked down the stairs to the first floor and then to the musty, cluttered basement. Using a flashlight, I could make out the shape of the round stone cistern, now plugged with cement, over in the northeast corner of the cellar floor. “Gotta go,” I said, interrupting Dan in mid angst. I hung up.
I spent a few minutes examining the floor. Then I got out a sledgehammer and tried hitting the center of the cistern area. The second blow went straight through. Putrid air came out. I saw a puff of something awful and then it smelled horrible down there.
I knocked away more of the cement and pointed my flashlight into the cistern. At first I couldn’t figure out what the clutter down there was. But the smell tipped me off. Anyway, I recognized that it was a body and before long I saw a ring on one of its fingers, the flesh around it rotting away from the bone.
I climbed carefully down into the stone container and examined the remains. The clothes said this was the body of an adult man, someone who had been put in the hole during the 1980s. The jacket sleeves were pushed up and the decaying corpse wore Doc Martens, maybe size twelves. I almost checked the corpse’s fly to see if the body gave further evidence that big feet mean big man, but decided I didn’t really care. Hair gel, I discovered, doesn’t decay. I wonder if it’s like embalming fluid. I did take the ring with the big red stone off the body’s finger (unintentionally pulling a little skin off as I went) and put the jewelry in my robe’s pocket.
I didn’t move the body, but climbed out of the cistern and, back upstairs, made a cup of cocoa and sat down at the kitchen table to watch the storm and wonder how I could figure out the identity of the body and the name of the party responsible for the death—the back of the skull had obviously been hit hard with something heavy. I suspected murder.
I called Dan again.
“Hello?” he said, without articulating much. “Judy? Is that you again?”
“Can you tell me who owned the house before Mr. and Mrs. O’Shay?” We had bought the house from the O’Shays, who had lived there for quite some time.
“Ah . . .” Dan said. “I’m sorry. I’m a little groggy. Before the O’Shays. Well, that was when Roger O’Connor owned the house. It was before he was married, but he inherited it sometime in the seventies and lived in it by himself until he ran for Congress. About ninety-two I think. Is that what you wanted to know? What’s going on there?”
“That was what I wanted to know,” I said, and broke the connection. Then I took out the ring and looked at it, wiping away a little of the gunk that adhered to it. There was an inscription, which I couldn’t read in that light. I thought the stone might be an agate. I decided to ask a jeweler if the ring was valuable. And then I’d do a little research at the newspaper office to see what young, local men went missing during the hair band decade and which of those guys had moved in the same circles as soon-to-be Congressman O’Connor.
The next morning I slept in. It was well after noon when I bathed, had lunch, dressed, and drove downtown, wipers on intermittent, to O’Hara’s Fine Jewelers with the three-sided clock, its six hands moving in slow sync, stuck out from the face of the building. Old Tubby was in the shop, and when I called out for him, he came at a dog trot over the blue carpet. “Judy,” he said when he recognized me. “You called?” He’d aged. Looked eighty or so.
“Here Tubs,” I said, taking the ring out of my pocket. “Take a look at this.”
His eyes got big. “That’s Gavin O’Fallon’s ring, isn’t it?” He took the ring from me and examined it. He got out a jeweler’s loop and peered at the agate or whatever it was. “I set the stone myself. Gavin O’Fallon. Goodness. I haven’t even thought of him for twenty years.” Suddenly Tubby looked up at me, surprised. “Where did you get this ring?” he asked.
“In the cistern,” I told him. “You’re sure it belonged to Gavin O’Fallon?”
“Well then what can you tell me about Gavin O’Fallon?”
“I can’t tell you where he is, if you’re wanting to send the ring back to him. There are more than a few people in town who would like to know where he went.”
“In 1983. And he absconded with the contents of the treasury of the local Odd Fellows. The organization never recovered. You notice how all the lodges have gotten to be less and less important over the years—well, I think Gavin O’Fallon started that by stealing that Odd Fellows money.”
“Was the money in cash? In bank notes?” I asked.
“I assume,” Tubby told me. “It would have been a lot to carry in change. How did you come by that ring, Judy?”
“Was Gavin O’Fallon a natty dresser?”
The jeweler made a face. “He was always kind of trendy. The more modest among us may have thought he dressed a tad cheap. And the last year of so before he disappeared he had his hair all stood up.”
Tubby made an upward gesture with his hands and shook his head, and I gasped.
“I know where he is!” I said.
My confidant looked at me in wild surmise and then shot a glance over his shoulder to see if his daughter-in-law, the shop clerk, was listening in. “Come along,” he said, and took me by the upper arm.
He led me out onto the sidewalk, so I got my little pocket umbrella open and then crowded against Tubby to give him a little of the cover. “You know where Gavin O’Fallon is?” he asked.
“I think so,” I confessed. “I think he’s dead.”
Within five minutes Tubby had made a phone call and had walked me over to the bank, a towering stone building perhaps a hundred years old. The master jeweler still had me by the upper arm, though that put a short but regular distance between us, which meant he kept bumping his forehead into the ribs of the pocket umbrella.. He guided me into the elevator lobby and then pushed the button to take us up to the top floor, where the institution’s president had his office. Tubby knocked twice on a vast walnut door, which he then opened. We entered a long, wood-paneled conference room with a high ceiling and an acre of costly oriental rug over a marble floor and under a table so long I couldn’t see the other end of it in the shadows.
“Water?” my escort asked. He poured himself one.
Then by fits and starts the city’s leaders came into the room, shaking drizzle off their coats—an alderman, a priest, the university dean, an old and very successful lawyer, a civil rights organizer, a union chief, the owner of the Coca-Cola bottling plant, and the bank president. They sat in chairs along the table, toward the end where I’d seated myself. They all turned to look at me. Tubby disappeared somewhere into the darkness around the side of one of the tall windows. The banker looked at me thoughtfully and tried to smile. When he sat down at the table, the lawyer arose.
“Judy, did you say you know where Gavin O’Fallon is?” he asked me.
“I think I do, Morty.” I took the ring with the dull red stone out of my pocket and held it up for everyone to see.
“I found this on a decaying body, its hair held up brush-like by styling gel, in the cistern in the basement of my house, the O’Shay house as was, the house they bought from Roger O’Connor.”
The elders in the room all sat upright. There was a pause. “Is this the ring?” the bank president asked the now invisible Tubby.
“Yes,” his distant voice answered. “Check the inscription inside.”
They passed the ring from boss to president to director, examining the inscription and shaking their heads. When it was passed back to me, the chairwoman of the local PBS station spoke. “This needs to be kept from the citizenry,” she explained to me. “There is nothing anyone can do for Gavin O’Fallon now, if the corpse you discovered is—as seems likely—his.”
The insurance executive said, “If the public learns of the discovery, the associations between Congressman O’Connor and the deceased man will cause a tremendous distraction during the campaign. It is crucial that we get to the election and that O’Connor wins and actually takes his place in the Senate. So we need you to cooperate.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why is it so important that you keep the discovery of the body secret?”
“Because,” explained the bank president, “if the press gets on to the story, they’ll say things that will make it likely O’Connor will quit his campaign. And we can’t stand a year of searching for someone else willing to run for the office and serve. I’m not sure we could find anyone else to run even if we had more time than that. Nobody wants one of those legislative jobs, or at least nobody does except someone fame-desiring with no other avenue to notoriety or someone so naive they believe they can further some ideology if they are elected. Fools we can occasionally find. But its hard to find someone who isn’t obviously cock-eyed but is still willing to run for office.”
There was a murmur of agreement from several of those in attendance. Then they all looked at me. I distracted them by spinning the ring on the conference table. It went round and round.
“O.K.” I said, when the ring dropped onto its side. “But I’m going along with this on two conditions. One is that I talk with Roger for a few minutes before I commit myself.”
A newspaper magnate got out a phone. “I’ll find him,” she said.
“And the other is that Tubby take a picture of us. I haven’t seen some of you for years, and I’ve never been in this room before. This is kind of nice. I want a memento.”
So we lined up and the jeweler took a picture for me, using my cell phone. And then one for the property developer on his. And one for the president of Kiwanis on hers. And so on.
Then two men in black suits and white shirts approached and told me they would take me to Congressman O’Connor.
“What is this?” I asked Morty. “Are you sending me out with the CIA or are these guys mob hit men?”
Before the banker could answer, the priest waved his hand. “I’ll take her. I’ve got to go over anyway.” The goons in the suits disappeared, then, and Msgr. O’Carmody put his hand on my arm, picked up his umbrella, and led me from the board room. “How are you, darling?” he asked. His smile revealed a gold tooth.
“I’m o.k., Mikey. Where are we off to?”
“The candidate is taking a break just now,” the priest explained. “He’s over at headquarters.”
“Headquarters,” I found, when Mikey pulled his Buick into the wet parking lot, was the Ride a Cock Horse Gentleman’s Club out on Route Thirteen.
I’d never been there before. Mikey seemed to know where he was going, though. He led me through the front door, where a couple of bouncers very like the big men in dark suits nodded to us and took the priest’s umbrella. Then I followed him into the long, low barroom, crowded with colored lights but mostly empty of paying customers at that time of day. A few topless girls danced as if exhausted on the four free-standing bars. But the loud music was coming from the stage at the back of the house, where a brunette with global breasts was just pulling off her g-string in time to the last measures of Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band.” She held out the star-spangled cowboy hat she had been wearing as she went along the edge of the stage, picking up a few last tips. Then she was gone and the stage lights came down.
They were back up again as a curvy Asiatic girl pranced on to the accompaniment of Head East’s “Goin’ Down for the Last Time.” I muttered, “Yeah, sure,” and Mikey led me around a couple of guys in suits and loosened ties, and on to the candidate, who sat, legs spread, staring up at the action on stage.
“Roger?” the monsignor said. The priest waved his arm majestically and the music volume came down. Congressman O’Connor looked up at us.
“Hi, Mike,” he said. Then he nodded his head at a couple of chairs. “Grab a pew.”
A topless waitress arrived and took our order. Mikey was having a Jamison. I considered asking for white wine, remembered where I was, and then told the girl to bring me whatever was on tap.
“What’s up?” Candidate O’Connor asked.
“You remember Judy?” Mikey gesturing at me.
Randy stood. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” he said.
“I’m Judy, the lifeguard from the Crystal Plunge,” I told him, waving away his attempt to shake hands.
He stepped back, surprised. “Judy. Golly. Sorry. I’ve been meeting too many people lately. Hey, how do you like the old house?”
“That’s what we’ve come to talk to you about,” the monsignor said. “Judy seems to have found the body of Gavin O’Fallon hidden beneath the cellar floor in your old home.”
Roger looked at me more curious than guilty. Then he looked back to the stage as the girl with the long, black, straight hair gave a couple of hip bumps just as a burst of thunder sounded. “Gavin?” he asked me, still looking at the stripper.
“How did you come to be knocking holes in the basement floor?” Mikey wanted to know.
“Well, I heard this ghostly voice, and it told me to look in the cistern.”
“Ghostly?” Mikey asked.
“Maybe like . . . Gavin’s voice?” Roger asked.
“I can’t remember what Gavin O’Fallon sounded like. I’m not sure he ever spoke to me. Besides, it was a whisper, which is a sort of disguised version of a voice. So I didn’t recognize it.”
We sat quietly for a moment, watching the bra top come off. Great big pasties on that girl. Then Roger said, “I didn’t know he was buried there. You probably won’t believe me, but I didn’t know for sure he was dead. Though, you know, he disappeared abruptly and I haven’t seen him around the last twenty-five years or so.”
“Announcement of the discovery would probably hurt your campaign,” the priest said.
Roger shrugged. “Well. Why don’t I just ask them to take my name off the ballot. I’m sorry, Mike. I know how hard it is to find anybody decent to run.” He smiled. “I’ve actually sort of enjoyed the major league campaigning. I wouldn’t have guessed I would. But you’ve got to sort of embrace the opportunities life gives you, I think.”
“I’m not going to announce anything about finding the body,” I assured him. “But I wanted to ask if you knew how O’Fallon died.”
“I didn’t kill him,” Roger said. “There’s my qualification to run for higher office: I haven’t actually killed anybody.”
The girl on the stage dropped some miniature element of her costume onto his lap. He held up a five spot, which she immediately snagged.
“Are you sure you don’t want to report finding the body to the police?” the candidate asked me.
“No,” I said, shaking my head.
He looked surprised. “Don’t be hasty now. Let’s talk this over.”
So we had dinner there. The special was steak frites. A little waitress with wall-eyed boobs brought our order. We had some trouble balancing all three of our dinner plates and drinks on the tiny ringside cocktail table, so Roger sat his on the lip of the tiny stage. Then we sat around, talking about high school and watching the dancers. One did hand stands on pyramids of plastic stadium cups. Mikey tipped her. She nearly stumbled into Roger’s frites.
After the club began to fill up, the disc jockey went back to his original booming volume and announced it was almost time for the amateur wet t-shirt contest. Apparently girls who wanted jobs in the club showed up for this as a sort of audition. Roger encouraged me to embrace the opportunity (though I wasn’t looking for work), and told me the club had a real problem attracting any contestants or dancers who didn’t look like hookers. I was just the sort of thing the house needed, or so he said. I wasn’t certain he was complimenting me. I thought I’d be self-conscious up on the stage in a wet t. But then I decided maybe that wouldn’t be all that bad. So I went backstage and got into one of the official house t-shirts, went out onto the stage with maybe a dozen women (all of them younger than me), got my front wetted with half a pitcher of beer, was a little embarrassed and a little cold, drew a few hoots from the crowd, and finished third in the contest. I didn’t think the judging was exactly fair—the disc jockey told the crowd that a little red-head got louder applause than did I, but I didn’t think so.
Luckily it was warm outside, because I hadn’t bothered to put my blouse and bra back on before I left the club. But it was still raining a little. Mikey drove me to my car and told me Ricky O’Horigan would come by the house. Ricky was the City Animal Control Agent at that time. I got inside our home and slipped on a wind breaker before Ricky showed up. He had a helper with him.
I got out a big black garbage bag with a yellow cinch top and took the jumpsuit-wearing dog catchers down to the cellar and over to the cistern. The smell had abated a bit. I turned on the overhead light.
“See?” I said. “The remains are in there.” I pointed to the hole in the floor.
Ricky and his helper sidled around to the opening and shot flashlight beams down into the old cistern. They would squat and look and then scoot one way or the other and then stand up on tippy toes, all the while peering into the hole.
“There he is,” Ricky finally said, looking back at me.
“We’re going to get him out,” Ricky announced.
“That’s the idea,” I said.
The helper crouched down and tried two or three spots before he lowered his legs into the hole. He tried to pick the body up all at once. Slimy, it slipped from his grasp. The boy looked up.
I handed him the garbage bag.
He spent the next five minutes picking up the bones and then the bigger hunks of flesh and dumping them into the bag. Ricky gave him a direction or two, but I don’t think he actually helped the kid in any way. The helper had trouble scooping up the last of the goo in the cistern with the carrion shovel from the truck, but he did a fairly thorough job.
When the bag was cinched up, I went with the guys out to their white step-van and rode with them out to Union Cemetery and along the long, winding central roadway past decades and decades of area residents, with stones ornate and simple, polished and pitted, gray and a granite red that immediately recalled that garnet in the ring. “What’s the next step?” I asked Ricky as he drove slowly down the gravel way.
“We’re supposed to go out and meet O’Naughton,” he explained. O’Naughton was the sexton at Union Cemetery. He went to school with my father.
He was waiting with a backhoe on a hill out at the far end of the graveyard, and he looked pretty wild in silhouette with his long, wet hair whipping around in the wind. It wasn’t raining at just that moment, but there was thunder and lightning. The dog catcher’s assistant shivered beside me on the bench seat of the animal control van.
Ricky stopped the truck, opened the door, and put one foot on the running board. “Halloo, O’Naughton,” he called out against the noise of the rising storm. “Halloo.”
The sexton gestured silently for us to approach the open grave. Then he reached out for his equipment’s controls and swung the cement vault around so that it hung directly above the burying hole.
The three of us got out of the truck. Ricky supervised silently as the assistant got the garbage bag out of the back of the truck and took it over the sodden grass to the hole.
O’Naughton sneered, I think at the improvised body bag. “This is evil work we do this night,” he announced in a high pitched, nasal voice. Then he gestured and Ricky seemed to consider going down into the grave himself to place the bag gently. He looked back at the Sexton, who shook his head. So Ricky held the bag out as far as his stubby arm would reach and let the remains of Gavin O’Fallon fall into the grave. Then the dog catcher only had time to stand back before the O’Naughton hit a switch on the wench motor and the vault began to lower into the hole. The Animal Control officers reached out to guide the vault in straight. And then down it went, over what remained of the body in the plastic sack.
There was a shock of thunder, then, and I was startled to see a jogger circle the most distant memorial stone in the graveyard and turn back up the gravel track to run home. As Art O’Keen came by us he waved. “Evening O’Naughton, Judy, Ricky, Tim. Wet night for cemetery work,” he called out.
“And for jogging,” Ricky replied.
“Just two months left before my class reunion,” he called back over his shoulder. “I’ve got still got ten pounds to lose.” Then he was gone.
O’Keen can’t have made it to the cemetery’s gates before the storm let loose. We were still out at the new grave, with O’Naughton saying a few solemn words over the internment. I was wet clean through by midnight, when Ricky let me off at the house.
“Thanks fellows,” I said as I got out of the truck. “I know that can’t have been all that much fun for you.”
“What are you talking about?” Ricky said. “I’ve had this job for fifteen years and this was the most exciting shift I’ve ever worked.”
I went upstairs, stepping out of my wet clothes as I went. I was just slipping the agate ring off my thumb and getting into a hot shower when the cell phone rang. It was my husband, Dan, calling from Illinois.
“Hey bud,” I said. “What’s shaking?”
“Judy?” he asked.
“This is she.”
“I’ve been worried all day about you. Did you find whatever it was you were looking for last night?”
“I think so,” I said, checking myself out in the bathroom mirror before it steamed up. “How’s the therapy going?”
“Oh. We talked for a bit this afternoon about why I feel so useless. What came out was that I’m worried I’ve reached middle-age without accomplishing anything. Stan says that’s normal. He says lots of adult men feel that way, especially if they aren’t fathers.” There was a long pause at his end. “Judy, are you tired of being married to me?” he finally asked.
“Hadn’t thought about it. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a shower and go to bed. I won’t eat anything—I could stand to lose a couple of pounds. I nearly won a contest this evening. Saw a lot of old friends today. And as you know I was awakened last night by a ghostly voice.”
“Everything seems to be happening to you,” he said. “So now you’re thinking you’ll make up your sleep by getting to bed a little earlier tonight?”
“I’m thinking maybe the voice may be back again tonight, and I want to be a little more awake this time. A nap ought to set me right up.”