Coeur d’Alene — Chapter 1

Chapter 1

 

For none of us liveth to himself alone, and no man dieth to himself.
– Book of Common Prayer, The Burial of the Dead

The tuneless noise of an old truck echoed across the Bitterroot Range. It was a rasping music, composed of the scratch of old windshield wipers, the cough of corroded valves, the whine of a rusted exhaust pipe, the thin buzz of a wire against the road. As the brown truck moved across the Idaho Panhandle, the gears shifted heavily, sliding down a scale made of metal and grease, skipping notes as gravel rattled against the undercarriage.

In late summer, the mining towns strung along the highway glimmer in the dusk, blighted jewels on a vast stripped neck of mine tailings and blackened earth. The lights that blink on top of the mine slag conveyors become flickering motes in a dense and dusty haze. Ore from deep underground drifts down, falling like heavy chunks of darker snow.

At night in the mountains, the ragged grunt of an engine can be heard from miles away, it could be mistaken for some distant underground explosion. But the mines in the Silver Valley no longer run at full capacity at night. The mountains now resound with the hum of heavy half-tons that carry an endless stream of equipment and supplies to the tourist destinations in Priest Lake and Coeur d’Alene, on the flat side of the Bitterroot Range.

The old truck with the bad engine took the road less traveled. It came out of Coeur d’Alene, went over Fourth of July Pass into the Bitterroot and headed east towards Missoula, Montana. At the unfinished curve of the Independence Loop, the truck briefly turned north, accelerating past the ghostly shadow of the Cataldo Mission, went east again at the Sunshine Mine, and finally ground to a halt at the only remaining stoplight on I-90 between Boston and Seattle: Wallace, Idaho, former silver-mining capital of the world.

 


In Albi’s Wallace Bar and Grill, Matt Worthson found a table as far from the bar as he could get. The barkeep sauntered over to him, and stood there for a long moment. Old Albi’s unsurprised expression never changed, no matter how many times Matt went dry. The possibility of a drink was always there, and as always Matt waited for a moment, the thirst for it turning, a worm of want impaled on a hook inside him.

“A cup of coffee,” he said finally. “Black.”

Albi gave a sardonic grin. Matt held up a sudden hand, silencing him, taking hold of the cup of hot coffee, a hungry man with a meal. He was not worried about the comments old Albi had saved up to torment him with: he needed to think.

In fact, although Matt did not know it yet, these moments in Albi’s Bar and Grill were the last moments he would have to think for weeks to come. If he had known, he may not have cared. Just then, his thoughts were an affliction, they would not give him peace.

 


Matt took a slug of hot coffee into his mouth and closed his eyes. The previous

week, he’d finally worked up the nerve to talk to the chaplain about his accident – previous to that conversation, no one except his best friend Russ White knew what had happened. Telling a priest what he’d done was a big step. That’s what they used to say in AA. So to keep his nerve up, Matt had downed whiskey like water as he talked to Arlen. Looking back, what he could remember of his conversation with Arlen made him feel ashamed. Telling someone about the accident hadn’t helped. In fact, now he couldn’t even remember exactly what he’d said, the latter hours of the night seemed as blurry as an alcohol-fueled fire. Ashes of memory.

For all he knew, he had busted up the place or insulted God or something. He had to have done something that made Albi look at him now with such weary, cynical eyes.

But despite the embarrassement he’d made of himself last week, Arlen would still listen to him. The guy was a priest, a police Chaplain. And besides, there was no one else he could tell about his son leaving town. He took a long swallow. The coffee burned on the way down.

After Doug told them he was leaving, Matt had begun to feel an overwhelming sense that he couldn’t hold it together anymore, it seemed like his world was busting into little shards and broken bits all around him. It was just like he’d felt after the accident and losing the election, four years back.

He’d talk to Father Arlen. That’s what he’d do.

Matt put his empty mug down and stepped to the door. He hated himself because nothing ever changed: here he was, coming out of Albi’s again, after nine o’clock at night. He was only fifty-seven, but sometimes he felt like his life had ended a long time ago.

 


The blue neon sign for Olympia beer blinked behind him. Someone yelled from inside to shut the goddamn door. Outside the Bar and Grill, the endless traffic on the highway was a rumbling murmur, it cut through the darkness.

Matt walked down the sidewalk, zipping his windbreaker closed to cover the Sheriff’s department uniform. It was late at night, but maybe he could still find Father Arlen. The man wouldn’t turn him away.

As he turned the key and the engine came to life, the radio sputtered with sound. “507,” it hissed. “Come in, Lieutenant Worthson? 507 – urgent call for 507.”

His head ached and his eyes were bloodshot with weariness, but automatically Matt reached out and picked up the microphone.

“Yeah, this is 507,” he said. “What is it? This is Matt – but I’m on my way home.”

There was a crackling buzz, and then the thick voice of Sheriff Andrew Merrill punched through the static. “Matty?” he said. “Thank God I got ahold of someone – I need a lieutenant over at the Coeur d’Alene Resort – and I need you here fast. I got a body.”

Matt swallowed dryly. Four years since he last supervised a major crime scene. Why was Merrill calling him, of all people?

“The Resort? Jesus, they won’t like the bad publicity,” said Matt. Even acts of God – rainstorms in July – seemed a personal affront to the tourist hotels in Coeur d’Alene. “What’s going on – ”

The Sheriff’s voice crackled over the radio. “Just get your ass over here, Matty. I need someone to be in charge, someone who won’t fall apart on me.”

There was a click and the radio went dead. Matt massaged his tired eyes, ran his quivering hands over the wrinkles on his face. The tremble had stayed on his hands ever since that old accident. Even now, the accident and the way Matt had abdicated the election for Bitterroot Sheriff were connected for people who knew him only from the newspapers. Those in town who had known him for decades discounted what the newspapers had said about him then – the rumors, the innuendo, and her subsequent death.

But Matt knew the truth.

He couldn’t get rid of it, even four years after. The snow falling all around them as the car slid off the road, the woman beside him, the sounds she made as her head collided with the glass, the shaking in his hands as he tried to pull them both out of the wreck. The snow falling all around, like stars melting into him as the engine popped and burned. Snow melting on her skin. Always with him.

He felt like getting rid of himself half the time now, he hardly cared why anymore. He thumped his fingers on the steering wheel, willing them to be still. In the neon light from Albi’s Bar and Grill, the veins on the backs of his hands twisted darkly like paths running into his skin, a road map of journeys begun, destinations unreached.

 

 

The Coeur d’Alene Resort rose like a ridged needle over the lake. As Matt Worthson’s old truck came down the long hill, the lights glittered far ahead. They sparkled indistinctly against the darkness of the lake. A mist was rising off the water, a thin fog that surrounded the media vans, the tourists with cameras, the police officers holding the line.

Matt knew the glossy advertising brochures by heart. Each luxury suite was the parapet of a customizable castle, each room was bathed in a fine glow of calibrated light, each and every balcony extended far enough to see the floating golf course a thousand meters out in the lake. He knew the brochures, but he’d never stayed in the damn place: few who lived in the city by the lake could afford the price of a room.

At eleven thirty that night, he had picked up his trainee deputy at the Sheriff’s station. Matt waited until they were near the Resort to check the equipment. He turned his head and looked at the trainee, Jerry Kelberg. “You got everything we need?” he said.

Jerry touched the top of an oversized thermos, it stuck out of the camera bag on his shoulder. “Java is here. Notebooks, pens, tapes,” Jerry said. “Camera and film.”

“Right.” Matt drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “I wonder if Merrill called the Chaplain, if he got hold of Father Arlen yet.”

“What for?”

Matt glanced sideways at the kid. “Dead body. Family. Usually, folks need a Chaplain. Why don’t you try to raise Father Arlen?” Matt leaned across and rummaged through the glove box. “I got the priest’s pager number here somewhere. He never minds getting called late at night. Doesn’t bother him, as long as he’s helping someone.”

Jerry did not move forward. “What dead body?”

Matt killed the siren as they came closer to the Resort parking lot, the sound murmuring away across the vast expanse of water. “Merrill treats you like a kid.” Matt said it as a fact. “Why do you put up with that?” Jerry shook his head, as if he did not know.

“In Merrill’s book, no one from outside Coeur d’Alene is worth a plugged nickel. Especially guys like you.” The seething crowd of reporters and camera crews surged forward as the car came to a halt.

“You’re from out of town too,” Jerry said.

“Um-huh, Silver Valley, wrong side of the mountains,” grunted Matt. “Silver Valley. My Pop was a miner too.”

Jerry did not say anything in reply. Droplets of water streamed down the windows of the car. Their lights strobed over the waiting people, and then throbbed out.

The crowd of media moved with them as Matt and Jerry walked towards the Resort building. Questions peppered them from either side. “Any comment for us, Lieutenant?”

Flash bulbs spattered their faces with light. “What can you tell us about the dismembered body, officer?” Matt waved the questions away, wordlessly.

 


Inside the Resort, the floors were a deep maroon color, it reminded Matt of some ancient color, royal blood. The place was expensive enough for royalty: benches were carved from solid maple logs, fixtures were brushed titanium, the chandeliers hand-blown Chihuly glass.

“Call the Chaplain,” Matt repeated as they came around the corner. “Let me take a first look at the scene.”

The corridor in front of the restrooms no longer looked royal. The hallway was strung with overlapping lines of yellow police tape. The center of the carpet was covered by a roll of plastic tarp, taped indiscriminately to the walls, the floors, and the maple benches. A deputy was waiting for them at the restrooms, along with a man who was sitting on the floor, wearing a soiled Resort Security uniform.

Matt looked at the man on the floor. “I’m Lieutenant Worthson. You can call me Matt.” He held out his hand, and then removed it when the man didn’t look up. The security guard got to his feet slowly. Then he brought his coffee up close to his face as if he needed the heat more than the liquid.

“Robert Allen Fosworth.” The man finally looked up at him. “But it’s just Bob.”

Matt took a notebook and a tape recorder out of his briefcase. He flicked the switch.

“The deputy told me over the radio that you’re the one who found the body. Would you mind going in the bathroom with me – tell me what you did in there, what you saw?”

The security guard nodded at the tiny tape moving. “You gonna go with me, right?”

Matt nodded reassuringly and motioned them forward. Bob spoke in a vague mutter. “I mean, I didn’t sign up for this, I just work for Tri-State… Jesus Christ, this week was supposed to be slow… I saw that – thought the toilets might be leaking again… ”

On the floor there was liquid, a dark reflection glimmering on the maroon tile floor. It seemed to spread from the edge towards the drain in the middle of the room. The security guard pointed. “So I looked underneath the stalls – see where it was coming from…”

The doors of all the stalls were firmly shut. Matt Worthson bent over, craning his neck to see under the doors. In the first stall, he could see feet. Black wingtips with thin dark socks.

He straightened up and looked at Bob. “What did you do then?”

“I said… I said ‘Scuse me, the hotel will be closing soon… ‘scuse me, sir’…”

Matt’s shoes felt sticky, like he’d walked through hot blacktop on his way to work.

The security guard kept talking, his voice higher now, wavering with anxiety.

“…I thought maybe he’s drunk. ‘Nother sleeper. So I went out first, give him time. But he didn’t need the time, because he wasn’t there anymore. Jesus Christ, what a way to die. See, I know him – that’s what makes this so hard – ”

“Before you saw the body, when you went out, did you see anyone else?”

“Let me think. No, I don’t think I did.” Then Bob snapped his fingers. “Well, yes – I saw Valerie Herrick, standing inside the elevator. You know her – hotel manager?

“I know her.” Matt said dryly. “She’s not just the manager – Company President.”

The guard nodded slowly. “One other – cleaning lady – name is May Brue, or Bruce or something. She musta been passing through too. Only folks I saw on my rounds.”

Matt wrote the names in his notebook. “Okay, I got that. Thanks for the detail.”

“When I come back, I tell him I’m a’gonna open the door, ask him if that would be okay.” Bob shook his head again, mournfully. “But he doesn’t say anything.”

“And then you opened the door.”

“It was locked.”

“Locked? From the inside?”

“Sure was. Someone had fun doing this one.” Bob’s voice trembled for a moment. “So I told the gentleman I was going to open the door, and I reached up underneath, my face almost touching what was on the floor, and I fumble away at the lock. And then…”

Matt looked again at the black wingtips. He pushed gently on the door and it swung open, a soundless motion.

The feet stayed there. The whole thing stayed there. Two feet in shoes on the floor, legs in soiled grey pants bent awkwardly, unnaturally, onto the seat of the toilet, and a pair of hips that projected crazily, out of the loop of a rawhide belt. Above the left pocket of the pants a shred of white hung down from a piece of mostly detached skin. At the beltline the bones were rounded and streaked with something purple and yellow and for a moment he couldn’t think what was the matter with the legs in front of him, and then he saw the stump of a backbone projecting an inch above the tattered whitish, pinkish insides and there was nothing above them.

Suddenly, he felt the nausea come over him. He dry retched, and pulled the door sharply closed again. The security guard was babbling away, which didn’t seem to help.

“Goddamn, that’s a bad thing to see sir, goddamn sir, are you all right?”

“Sure, I’m fine,” Matt said, but he could hear that his voice was high and strange, and then he retched again, and this time he could taste it. He hung desperately to the door of the stall he was at and bent over so anything that came out wouldn’t get on his uniform.

Jesus Christ, first serious case in four years, and he was going to pass out. He was going to pass out on the floor, in the cold sliding blood on the floor, with only a nervous security guard with him. He bent his head down, holding his elbows up and closing his eyes, willing himself not to pass out. For a long moment, all he could hear was the blood rushing in his ears, the thrumming sound of surf.

Matt had pushed the next unlocked stall door open when he bent over and he turned now to get some toilet paper now to wipe his mouth, to clean himself off. Balanced on the toilet and against the wall behind it were the missing parts. Not all of it, but enough to matter. The wall was streaked and splashed and blotted with red, as if it had taken a great deal of labor to balance that torso up there. The arms on the torso were twisted awkwardly, painfully, to hold the body up in the stall. The toilet paper beside the bowl was soaked through. It hung in thick chunks of bloody sodden paper from the holder. He did not want to look at what it was that overflowed the bowl and strung itself all over the seat of the dirty toilet. An ugly half inch of spine stuck up out of the dead white neck. He began to retch all over again, tasting the dry bitter bile coming up and dirtying his uniform shirt.

“Goddamn,” the security guard was still muttering. Matt tried to steady himself, but the wet floor seemed to sink out from under him, as if he was lying on his back looking up at it. He lunged in the wrong direction, and bumped hard into a post between the stalls. The doors of the first few stalls vibrated from the impact, all of them slowly swung open.

In the third stall, hair and forehead barely visible over the rim of the open toilet bowl, was the head.

Matt could feel a cold sweat start out on his chest, and then the heavy perspiration went all over his body, a sickness spreading. Under his fingers, he could feel the solid metal of the tape recorder case. He hefted his notebook like a charmed thing. Behind him, the security guard had never stopped saying “Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn” over and over until it was like a rosary.

“You said you knew the dead man?” said Matt hurriedly. “You know him?”

The security guard looked at Matt with haunted eyes. “Don’t you know him too? It’s the Chaplain – Father Arlen got cut up in pieces in this place. Arlen Bowman is dead, right here.”

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