Monday, 8 August 2016

Excerpt from 'The Perfectionist' - Chapter 1: Meet Gerry Stokes

Only 5 weeks left until my first book signing event in Toulouse.

In the run-up to the event, a few excerpts from 'The Perfectionist' will be published on my website - Today, you get the chance to read Chapter 1.

Chapter 1
Clarion, Iowa - February 2, 1988.
The fog came rolling in from the fields, closing in, and shutting out the world. Impenetrable and hostile like the eerie silence engulfing the town. An opaque layer of frost covered front lawns and rooftops, gutters bent under the weight of crystal daggers. Trees shimmered pale gray, and parked cars had turned into sculptures.

Cautiously breaking through the dense white mass of dawn fog, a noisy GMC Sierra pick-up drove slowly down Madison Avenue. The fog swirled in the light of the headlamps in a thick flow of white dust, and the truck’s windshield wipers painfully scratched away at the thin but stubbornly resistant sheet of ice. A minute later, the Sierra’s driver hit the brakes and pulled up to the curb beside the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, the only source of light in the deserted street.

Gerry Stokes cut the engine and stepped out of his vehicle. He looked around. Fog and silence. The merciless cold of the icy blasts hit him hard. Surprised by how cool it was, he shivered and zipped up his coat. Rubbing his hands, he walked energetically towards the sheriff’s office. Stokes knocked and entered without waiting for an answer. Despite the early hour he knew he was expected.

Two men he knew well were sitting in an office near the entrance. Both turned to look at him. They were clutching coffee mugs, inhaling the hot brew’s fumes as if their lives depended on it. They seemed nervous, preoccupied, stricken by some intangible menace.  

The elder of the two, Sheriff Dwayne Clanton – a gray-haired and weary man, who was counting the days until his retirement - waved slowly at Stokes and pointed to a spare chair in the corner of the room. As Stokes grabbed the chair and placed it nearer the Sheriff’s desk, he couldn’t help noticing how tired the man looked. His eyes were bloodshot, with dark circles, surely nicotine-induced. He was badly-shaven and his uniform was creased and scruffy. Stokes was unaccustomed to seeing Clanton in such a neglected state.

‘Sheriff… Earl. Morning to you both… Can you tell me what’s going on?’ Stokes asked.

‘Take a seat!’ Earl DeVries, Stokes’s Editor-in-Chief, ordered.

‘Seriously, guys. You’re making me nervous.’

‘We got a situation here, Gerry. Dwayne’s going to give you the lowdown,’ DeVries said.

Dwayne Clanton glared at Stokes before gulping some more coffee.

‘It’s a fresh pot. You want some, Gerry?’ he asked, wiping his mouth with his shirt cuff.

‘I’m fine, thanks.’

‘I need your help.’ He turned to DeVries. ‘Both of you. I got a dead man. Found him a couple of days ago in one of Jim Hardy’s corn fields bordering Hancock Avenue, right near Eagle Grove. Coroner tells me he’s been dead for at least a week. There was no way to I.D. him at the scene and I still haven’t been able to put a name on the stiff. We reckon he could be in his sixties. Deputy Hobbs and I looked through all the Missing Persons reports. We cross-checked with the sheriff’s offices of Humboldt, Webster, Hamilton, Hardin, and Franklin counties. We got nobody matching the description.’

‘Well if he’s not a local, he could be from just about anywhere,’ Stokes said. ‘Have you considered casting the net to all counties or state-wide?’

‘Dwayne wants to keep this contained. He doesn’t want to spark a panic wave in Clarion,’ DeVries interjected, brushing off Stokes’s remark.

‘It’s the first stiff I’ve had for a long time,’ Clanton added. ‘I don’t want townsfolk going haywire, thinking we got a killer on the loose. I can’t imagine the shit-load of pressure I’d be under if this goes public.’

‘Then why request our help?’ Stokes asked.

‘Well, Earl and I go way back. Don’t we Earl?’

DeVries nodded. ‘I’ve been tipping the Wright County Monitor for years and I’ve never shunned away from making comments.’

‘Dwayne, you don’t need to justify yourself to Gerry,’ DeVries said. ‘He’s still junior and learning the tricks of the trade.’

DeVries stared at Stokes for a while; his dark eyes questioning his employee’s amateurism, suggesting he keep his mouth shut. Stokes remained unfazed.

Looking back at Clanton, he said, ‘Dwayne, if you need a favor, you know you can count on us.’
Clanton seemed relieved. ‘Thanks Earl. Appreciated.’

He pressed the coffee mug to his lips again and sipped some more.

‘I was telling Earl that I kept you guys out of the loop because I didn’t want any media coverage until I was sure about what I’d be dealing with. Now I’ve got to the point where I need some assistance from the public.’

Stokes nodded out of politeness, hiding his frustration that they were already a few days behind on a murder story.

‘Gerry, I need you to go see Blake Anderson,’ Clanton resumed. ‘He’s got the stiff in cold storage. He’s only going to keep our John Doe there until tomorrow. Afterwards we’re going to have to get the funeral home involved. He’s not going to need a full-sized casket, though.’

Stokes waited for the explanation. As it wasn’t coming he steered his gaze to DeVries, who wasn’t acting surprised. The Sheriff waited for his cue to continue.

‘What do you mean?’ Stokes asked.

‘Well Gerry, we ain’t got a body. All we got is a hacked-off head.’

Taken aback Stokes felt shivers down his spine. He finally realized why Clanton was so worked up and why DeVries was showing support for the old man. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

‘Just a head, you say. That’s fucking sick!’ Stokes said.

‘In my entire career in law enforcement, I’ve never seen anything so crazy. Clarion has had its fair share of homicides under my tenure. Mainly husbands beating up their wives too much or the occasional harvest accidents, but this is something else. This is cold-blooded fucked-up shit, young man!’ Clanton said, rubbing his chin anxiously. ‘Jim Hardy found the head when out checking the frost damage on his crop. First he thought it was some kind of sick prank. Then he realized it wasn’t and lost his balance, tripped over, crashed to the ground. That’s what he told me. Anyhows, Jim hurried home and called me. So I got off my ass and drove there like a bat out of hell. Jim was waiting for me, shaking and clutching his rifle. He led me to the head, right in the middle of the field. It was there on the ground. Eyes shut. Bruised and smashed up. The teeth had been jerked out. There was dirt all over. It seemed like the guy had been buried and only the head was above ground. I took Hardy’s rifle, pressed it against the earth right next to the head. Ground was solid. I then gently touched the head with the rifle’s butt. And it fucking rolled over.’

Clanton took a deep breath. He’d been through this only minutes before with DeVries, yet his tale seemed to frighten him as if he were physically reliving the experience.

‘I told Jim to go home, stay put and mention this to nobody. I surveyed the scene for a few more minutes. Then I returned to the car and radioed Deputy Hobbs for assistance. Franklin arrived with all the gear I’d asked him to bring. We sealed off the crime scene, looked around for the body or any trace of evidence, but found nothing. Later Hobbs returned to town, picked up Dr. Anderson, and brought him back for an expert opinion. After a preliminary inspection he told us it was likely that the head had been there for a few days and the cold weather had already inflicted a lot of damage. The only bright spot was that the cold had helped slow down the head’s deterioration. We decided to place the head in a bag and take it back to town. It’s been at Blake Anderson’s clinic since.’

‘Dwayne wants us to run a short article in tomorrow’s edition in which we’ll include a picture of the head,’ DeVries said.

‘What about the panic factor? I thought this needed to be contained,’ Stokes replied.

‘Well this is where we do a favor for Dwayne. Blake Anderson has cleaned the head. He’s camouflaged the bruises, used some make-up and whatnot. He’s also stitched the head temporarily to another corpse retrieved from the county morgue, and worked his magic again to hide the neck level stitches as much as possible,’ DeVries continued.

‘I’ve seen the end result. It’s real Dr. Frankenstein crazy shit!’ Clanton said.

‘Anyhow I need you to go see Blake Anderson, take the best headshots you can. No pun intended, Gerry. And we’ll make sure our dead guy looks as much alive as possible. Hopefully with the picture being black and white, the readers won’t notice what we did,’ DeVries said.

‘Don’t think I’ll manage anything better than a headshot,’ Stokes interjected.

DeVries seemed oblivious to the joke. ‘Just take care of the article. We’re just going to say that the Sheriff’s Office is looking for this man. The guy may be able to help in an ongoing investigation. We’ll add a phone number. Who knows? Maybe some good Samaritan might have some information to share.’

Sheriff Clanton nodded approvingly. ‘Yeah, maybe it’ll help us catch the sonofabitch who did this?’ he said, smiling for the first time.

Stokes struck back angrily, ‘Sheriff. With all due respect, I think the sonofabitch who did this is long gone by now. He’s got a week’s head-start and you’ve been wasting time by not involving the state police or the media. And all that for the sake of not frightening the people of Clarion… I don’t buy it Sheriff. It seems like this case if way above your head and you are too old and proud to admit it!’

‘Shut the fuck up, Gerry!’ DeVries hollered. ‘You’ve got no idea what’s at stake here. Covering a murder story, sure, it’ll sell a few papers. It’ll get us some attention from TV crews in Des Moines. We’ll be local heroes. We’ll get the spotlight for a day, maybe two. But when the dust settles, we’ll return to our normal state of anonymity. The people of Clarion will be insecure. They’ll hate us for not reporting the facts earlier. And Dwayne, well he might just end up becoming the laughing stock of Iowa. There’s no way in hell we’re going to let that happen.’

‘But Earl…’

‘No buts, you arrogant little prick! Just do what you’re told. I knew I’d made a mistake in hiring you. You simply don’t get it, do you? We run a tight ship here in Clarion, and we’ve got no room for recklessness. You’ve got ambition to report big murder stories? That’s fine, but you’re keeping your mouth shut on this one. Do I make myself clear?’

Stokes hesitated, before replying a feeble ‘Yes, Earl.’

‘Guys. Keep this bitchin’ for later. You got jobs to do,’ Clanton said. ‘Oh, and Earl, I want to see that article before you run it.’

‘Sure. Will do, Dwayne,’ DeVries answered, bobbing his head like an obedient dog.

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