Fourth in the Sticks Hetrick series.
Whiskey Creek Press
Some people believe violence is foreign to our nature. Dan ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, retired chief and consultant to the Swatara Creek police department, knows better. We put a lid on our natural tendency to violence when we started living in groups, devising moral codes to hold it in check and allow us to live in harmony with others. But, deep down in the Id, there is always that tendency to violence.
When an out-of-state reporter is found murdered in the restroom of a disreputable bar the tendency to violence spirals in the rural Pennsylvania community, and the investigative trail keeps bringing Hetrick and his team back to the family of a wealthy doctor who has come back to his hometown in retirement.
Hetrick and his protégé Officer Flora Vastine are joined by an old friend from his State Police days as they unravel old secrets and mysteries in a tale with as many shocking twists as a country road.
Neil Kehler pulled back the sleeve of his jacket and squinted at his watch. Blurry. But it looked like past midnight. Past midnight on Friday. He should get home. Ruthie would be pissed. Shit! Nothing new in that. Lately she was always pissed. Neil swallowed the last dregs of his beer. All he’d wanted was a couple beers and a game of pool. A little sport. Nothing that had anything to do with how he felt about her. Hell, they’d been together since high school. Did she really think he was looking for someone else after all this time?
Despite the hour, the place was still packed as it always was on a Friday night. Raucous, too-loud voices droned in his head. Country music on the juke box added to the din. The floor vibrated beneath his feet. Clouds of tobacco smoke stung his eyes and the stench of spilled beer, nicotine and unwashed bodies cloyed in his nostrils.
Well, he might as well go home and face her wrath. The couple beers had turned to too many after Earl took his money again. Nothing new in that either. Bastard must be cheating. But nobody had caught him yet. And who would dare accuse the man anyway?
Neil placed his hands on the bar and pushed off from his stool. Better hit the john first. He knew he couldn’t make it all the way home without emptying his bladder. Neil staggered around to the hallway.
His shoulder bumped against the wall on one side and propelled him across to the other. Neil staggered on. Dark. Overhead light was out again and Vinnie was too damned cheap to replace the bulb. Well, he’d been back here often enough to find his way without light. The ammonia stench of the urinals was enough to guide him. He figured he was almost to the restrooms when another hurrying figure bumped against him, knocking him up against the wall. “Watch it, buddy!” Neil squawked. The other person kept on going without a word of apology.
Neil might have had another retort but the urgency of his need made that less impelling. Just ahead he saw the dim glow of the restroom lights through a crack in the doorway. Neil pushed on.
As he stepped up to the urinal Neil noticed, from the corner of his eye, someone sitting in one of the toilet stalls. Jeez. He liked privacy when tending to business and this guy didn’t even have sense enough to pull the stall door closed. Neil unzipped, flipped out his penis and breathed a sigh of release as his stream flowed. Aaah! He leaned forward, hands against the wall. “Needed that,” he said aloud. There was no response from the guy in the stall. Shit. Probably passed out.
Finished, he zipped up and moved over to the sink. As he turned on the faucet he glanced into the mirror. What the…? Oh, shit!
Neil staggered out into the hall. “Vinnie! Vinnie! Get your ass back here,” he screamed. The noise from the barroom drowned out his voice.
“In the John?”
“Yep. Shot dead while sittin’ on the pot,” Aaron Brubaker said.
Sticks Hetrick was just crawling into bed when he got the call. He was filling in for Brubaker who was down with the flu. Somehow, the dispatcher on duty hadn’t got the word and contacted the chief.
“Where’d it happen?”
“Out at Vinnie’s.”
Hetrick grunted. Vinnie’s Bar was a dive out on the highway that should have been closed down long before. It was a blot on the community and its owner and his premises were no strangers to trouble.
“Who’s the victim?”
“Dunno. All I know is what Fred told me. Sorry about this Sticks. If it wasn’t for this bug…”
“No sweat. I volunteered, remember? Get some rest. Talk to you later.” It would have made no sense to be irritated with Brubaker. Hetrick, who had retired as chief, now served as a consultant to his less-experienced replacement. Filling in now gave him a taste of the old days and he was enjoying it—probably a lot more than Brubaker who just yesterday had given him a litany of the gruesome aspects of his illness.
Hetrick swung his feet out of bed, sat up and reached for his glasses. He wiped them clean with a Kleenex and put them on. Then he pulled himself erect, took off his pajamas and got back into his clothes.
Yeah. Just like the old days—getting called out of bed in the middle of the night to clean up some other person’s mess. Well, he’d asked for it, hadn’t he.
It wasn’t far from his house on Plum Street out to the highway junction where Vinnie’s Bar was located. As he pulled onto the gravel parking lot he saw two Swatara Creek cruisers and an ambulance with motors running and lights flashing pulled up close to the entrance. A scattering of other vehicles, including Vinnie Nungessor’s Lexus, were still in the lot. Not many for a Friday night. Hetrick anticipated a number of the regulars had taken off as soon as they were informed of the discovery. Nungessor’s customers included a number who might be suspect in whatever transgression arose.
Repressing the smile that thought prompted, Hetrick got out of his pickup, hitched up his trousers and entered the tavern.
Nungessor, leaning on the bar and nursing a mug of beer, glanced over as Sticks approached. “How long your guys gonna keep me shut down this time?” he asked.
A few customers, owners of the vehicles outside he surmised, lounged at tables back in the shadows. None of them spoke. Brent Taylor, a Swatara Creek officer standing watch over them, raised a hand in greeting. Hetrick nodded back.
“It’s past two Vin. Closing time anyway.”
“Yeah. I’m thinkin’ about tomorrow and the days after that. Youse closed me down for a week that time we had the stabbin’ here. And nobody died that time. Haint my fault some guy gets hisself shot.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
Vinnie chugged his beer. “Can I go home?”
“Not yet. After I talk to my people. I might have some questions for you.”
“How ‘bout us?” a raspy voice Hetrick recognized, asked from the shadows.
“Might have questions for you too, Fingers.”
“Yeah. You usually do—even when I haint involved,” Earl Schurke responded. He earned his nickname long before because of his propensity for putting his digits where they didn’t belong.
“Christ. I already answered their questions,” Nungessor said. “It was Friday night. Busy like always. Noisy. Nobody heard nothin’, seen nothin’.”
“Somebody did,” Sticks said, strolling on by him and going down the hall to the restrooms.
Standing at the doorway he saw Fred Drumheiser talking to Arnie Templin, the coroner. “Hey, Chief,” Fred said, spying him. “We’re just about to haul him out. You wanna have a look first?”
Hetrick nodded and they made way for him to pass between them and into the restroom. The corpse had been zipped into a body bag. An EMT kneeling by the carrier unzipped the bag to let Hetrick have a look at the victim. Sticks leaned over, hands on his thighs. It was a young man, mid-twenties with straight, recently barbered hair. A plump face, smooth-shaven. There was a small hole ringed by powder burns between his closed eyes.
Hetrick stood straight and waved a hand for the tech to re-bag. “Anybody know him?”
Fred shook his head. “Not Vinnie’s usual clientele. Clean-cut, wearin’ a suit. None of the regulars would admit to having seen him before.”
“Wallet with a driver’s license, press card, couple credit cards and about sixty bucks in cash.”
“Yeah. Name was Christopher Bachman. From down in Maryland.”
“Any idea what he was doing here?”
Fred shook his head. “Might have been a drug deal gone sour. Course he couldn’t have bought much with what he had on him.”
Hetrick turned to Templin. “Cause of death, Arnie?”
“I expect the bullet between his eyes. I’ll know better in the morning.”
“Found a casing on the floor,” Fred said. “Twenty-two short. Wouldn’t have made much noise and with the normal commotion out there don’t expect nobody would have heard it.”
“Who found him?”
“Neil Kehler. You know him?”
“Yeah. I think so. Lives over on Cherry, near Roger Steinbauer.”
“Right. That’s the guy. Have him coolin’ his heels out front with a couple other guys. None of them claim to know anything, though. Half the crowd was cleared out by the time I got here.”
“You came alone?”
Fred nodded. “Yeah. We’re short. Half our people are out with this damned flu or whatever it is. Harry’s at the station, Flora’s out on patrol. Harry sent Brent over here in case I needed him. Don’t even have a regular dispatcher tonight. One of those auxiliary police types fillin’ in.”
Sticks frowned. The auxiliary had been formed just this year by the township supervisors. To him it indicated a lack of confidence in their police force and not any effort to be helpful. Sure crime had increased here—just like everywhere. A factor of the times and the economy. The problem wasn’t an inefficient department but rather a lack of sufficient funding to provide manpower for increased patrols. Hetrick was a big believer in both foot and cruiser patrols as a means of curtailing crime.
“You about wrapped up back here?” he asked Fred.
“Good. I’ll see what Kehler and the others have to say.”
A light had been turned on over the pool table and Earl Schurke was shooting a game with one of the other customers. Kehler and another man were watching. Fingers looked over his shoulder as Sticks came up. “Haint no gamblin’ going on,” he said. “Just passin’ time waitin’ on you.”
With a little chuckle, Sticks nodded. He knew pool hustling was one of Schurke’s sources of income. “Get to you shortly,” he said. “Mister Kehler.”
Kehler turned to face him. “Yeah?” Fully sober now, the tautness of his nerves revealed by the twitch of a muscle along one cheek.
“Need a word with you.”
“Hey,” Nungessor said, “what about me?”
“In good time.”
“Whadya want me to do, Chief?” Taylor asked.
“You can head on back, Brent. Harry might have other need for you. Let’s sit down over here Mister Kehler,” he said, indicating a nearby table. “You live out by Roger Steinbauer don’t you?” he asked as they pulled up chairs and sat.
“Work out at the chicken plant?”
“No. That is, my wife does. I’m a USDA inspector. The poultry plant is one of my sites.”
Schurke gave a coarse laugh. “Makes you really feel secure, don’t it—knowin’ a twerp like him is makin’ sure our food is safe.”
“Shut up, Earl. Mind your game before I have to bust you for interfering in an investigation.” Schurke laughed again, turned back and racked up the balls. Sticks wrinkled his nose. Even this far away and over the other powerful odor in the room he smelled the stench of the restrooms. “Now, Mister Kehler, why don’t you tell me how you came to find the body.”
Kehler squirmed. The seat squeaked under his weight. He ran a hand over his face, his eyes darting at Hetrick. “Think I could call my wife? She’s probably worried I haint home yet.”
“In a few minutes, sir. First…”
“I already told the other fellow. Don’t know what else I can add.”
Kehler was quiet a moment longer, the only sounds in the room the clinking of the pool cues, the ticking of a clock on the wall behind the bar and the hum of the coolers. Then, like rote, he reeled off his tale.
Sticks leaned toward him, listening intently, taking a few notes. At the end, he asked, “And you’re sure it was a man bumped into you?”
Kehler shrugged. “I don’t know. It was too dark to see but—based on the weight of the body struck me—I guess I assumed it must be a man. Could have been a woman. Can’t say for sure either way.”
“Thank you, Mister Kehler. I know where you live if we need to talk to you again.”
“I can go?”
“You’re free to go.” He swiveled in his chair. “Fingers.”
“Damn it, man,” Nungessor squealed, “when’s it to be my turn?”
“When I’m ready. Come on over here, Fingers.”
Hetrick made Vinnie wait until he’d talked to Schurke and the few others who had stayed on. None of them had anything worthwhile to add. None admitted to knowing the victim and all said they didn’t remember seeing him earlier in the evening. Most confirmed they had made a trip or two to the restroom but didn’t notice anything amiss. Schurke was certain the stall in question was empty the last time he’d visited which he thought might have been in the neighborhood of 11:45. “Can’t be sure about that, though,” he said. “You know how it is when you’ve had a few. Hell no, you probably don’t Sticks. Can’t remember I ever saw you enjoying a beer.”
Hetrick didn’t reply to that. He liked a beer now and again as much as any man. It was company he was particular about.
“Bout time you got to me,” Nungessor grumbled as he finally walked up to where the owner sat.
“I don’t suppose you have anything worthwhile to add.”
Vinnie scowled. “If I did, don’t know I’d be inclined to tell you.”
“That would not be wise.”
“Yeah. Well, truth is, I don’t know that I can tell you anything helpful.”
“So you didn’t know Christopher Bachman?”
Nungessor shrugged. “Can’t expect me to know everybody that comes in here. I know my regulars. But this is a business. My doors are open to anybody wants to come in.”
“Even the police?”
Nungessor gave him a little smile. “Even the police. I got nothin’ to hide.”
Hetrick had his doubts about that but he let it slide. “You on your own here tonight?”
“Ronnie was helpin’ out as usual,” he said. Ronnie Huber was his barmaid and lived in an apartment above the tavern. “Complained of a headache. I let her go early.”
“I dunno. The place was busy. I wasn’t watchin’ the clock.”
“Make a guess.”
“Maybe ten-thirty, eleven.”
“We’ll have to talk to her, too.”
From the corner of his eye Hetrick saw Fred coming toward him, loaded down with his evidence case, camera and other paraphernalia. “All done back there, Sticks.”
“We’ll be on our way then.” His gaze swung back to Nungessor. “You can shut down now. Ronnie can be interviewed later. We’ll escort you out and you can lock up.”
“Hey! Can I open tomorrow?”
“We’ll let you know.”