Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Death by Default: Chapter 5 - Hiding Out

Photo courtesy of jgolby, shutterstock.com
They buried Winnie on Tuesday.

I didn’t go to the funeral. It didn’t feel right. I hadn’t known her that well in law school, and under the circumstances I figured her family would want privacy when they laid her to rest. The papers said it was suicide like Emily Mara the week before, although they had yet to reveal a motive. Emily had been in debt, but so far the headlines were mum on Winnie’s finances at the time of her death. I sent Derek a sympathy card at his office after looking up his address on the state bar website, and now I found myself all out of ideas on how to respond to yet another suicide by one of my fellow graduates. It felt like I should be doing something, but I didn’t know what.

I sat in my office on the morning of the funeral, staring at an article on the Huffington Post about law school debt. Apparently, most people never pay it off, an assertion which prompted me to open up my account on Upper Peninsula Lending to see if they’d received my most recent payment. They had, but I still owed them almost $66,000. Between my two jobs, I took home a little more than half that every year, which meant I needed to stop reading the Huffington Post and start scrolling through Facebook for cute cat videos instead.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Emily and Winnie. I’d gone to the wake the day before and found my eyes drifting to Winnie’s closed casket every few minutes as everyone spoke in hushed voices around me. I hadn’t seen her body up close, but from the library I’d seen enough. It reminded me of the first battery case I ever defended. When I opened up the file and saw the victim’s photo, I almost threw up. It looked like she’d been shot, although in reality her boyfriend had hit her in the head with a baseball bat. There was blood everywhere, her face swollen and her eyes like two slits carved into a potato. I wondered what Winnie’s eyes looked like now. They were probably sewn shut—

“Happy St. Patrick’s Day!” A voice shouted from the doorway, yanking me back to the present.

I closed my browser and looked up to see Ruth Woodward, the editor of the Cold Lake Weekly, bustling through the front door of the office wearing a shamrock hoodie with a Nikon Coolpix dangling from a strap around her neck. She usually did her own photography, especially if it was for something routine like a city council meeting.

“Hey, Ruth,” I said as she strolled past my desk to her office. The Cold Lake Weekly stood proudly on the bottom floor of a strip mall between a Subway sandwich shop and a nail salon. I sat out front while Ruth occupied the small office in back. The space was only about four hundred square feet and consisted mostly of filing cabinets, a few plants, and Ruth’s 90s-era boom box. It stayed set on 97.9 The Loop, a classic rock station which at the moment was in the midst of a Deep Purple marathon.

I followed Ruth into her office and watched her fire up her PC. She was in her early sixties, graduated from Northwestern back when a journalism degree still meant something, and didn’t like to be bothered with details.

I rapped my knuckles on the door frame.

"Have a seat,” she said breathlessly without looking up.

I did as told and sank into the vinyl cushion of a rickety chair that sat near her desk, which was actually a pile of rubble consisting of file folders, notes, and takeout containers.

“What’s up?” she said, clicking her keyboard.

“I think I have an idea for a story.”

“Come back when you’re sure of it.”

I sighed. Ruth didn’t like passivity, especially in women. “Ok, I have a story idea.”

“What’s that?”

“The student loan crisis.”

She frowned. “That bonehead from the school board still hasn’t gotten back to me.”

I stole a glance at her monitor and saw that she was scrolling through Outlook, which was what she normally did whenever I pitched a story idea. I had yet to hook her on any of them.

“Um, I was doing a little research this morning and—” I needed to make it sound sexy but didn’t know how. “Did you know a lot of young people are putting off buying houses and having kids and stuff? All because of student loans?”

She turned from her monitor and glared at me over her clear plastic spectacles. “Did you know they’re opening up a new Starbucks on campus?”

This was another thing she always did, answering a question with a question. The whole thing invariably ended with me returning to my desk with a list of administrative tasks to perform, and a directive to write the usual human interest fluff I got to publish once a week.

I took a deep breath and tried to remain hopeful. “A new Starbucks?”

She nodded and returned her attention to an email message. “Did you ever notice how many college campuses have a Starbucks on every corner?”

I shrugged. “I guess.”

“Why do you think that is, Mavis?”

“I don’t know, because students drink a lot of coffee?”

“Bingo,” she said, typing a few quick words and then turning back to me. “Because students drink coffee. And how much does that coffee cost?”

“I don’t know, a lot?”

“You’re right, a lot. And what do they pay for this coffee with?”

“Money?”

She leaned across her desk and smiled. “And where do they get this money from?”

I was starting to get her drift, my hopes sinking. “I don’t know, a lot of them get it from student loans I suppose.”

She nodded. “And do you think Starbucks is going to let themselves be driven out of business by the Cold Lake Weekly?”

“I’m not looking to put anyone out of business—”

“I know you’re not, but I’m talking about the system, Mavis. I’m talking about Starbucks and the federal government and the university and the whole economy. We don’t have the resources to devote to a crusade. Leave that stuff up to the New York Times or Youtube.”

“People used to invest in homes, Ruth. Kids, retirement, that kind of thing. I was on campus last week and couldn’t find the registrar’s office because they call it ‘customer service’ now. Isn’t that worth telling our readers about?”

She shook her head. “Our readers are too old to even know what a student loan is.”

That’s why I need to write this story, so they don’t co-sign for these things, for their kids or their grandkids.”

“You said you were researching it, right? That means the information’s already out there. What kind of unique spin could we possibly give it?”

There was no point in arguing with her. I should have been grateful just to have a job at a newspaper in the first place. I’d lied to Ruth to get it, leaving law school off my resume and telling her I worked at a coffee shop after getting my journalism degree. I fudged a few dates, she didn’t ask for a transcript, and pretty soon I found myself writing about stupid pet tricks and alternate-side-parking. Most days I felt guilty about lying. But that day, I felt something else. I felt like for the first time, I might be able to do some meaningful work. Although, deep down, I knew I needed to stop pushing my luck.

Right after trying one more angle.

“All right,” I said, leaning in to meet her gaze. “Forget about student loans. What about suicide?”

She groaned and leaned back in her chair. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day, Mavis. Take the camera, go out and cover the parade.”

“All right, forget about suicide.” I took a deep breath and mustered the courage to ask what I was about to ask. “What about dead lawyers?”

Just then, Ruth’s eyes darted past my shoulder toward the doorway.

“Can I help you?” She said.

 I turned to see whom she was talking to and froze. It was a middle-aged, balding man wearing a rain coat over his suit and a frown beneath a salt-and-pepper mustache. I recognized him from the recruitment mixer, where he’d interviewed a number of witnesses after Winnie fell to her death. I’d managed to avoid him until now. His cold gray eyes fell on me and he clenched his jaw.

“Detective John Rosetti, homicide,” he said. “I figured since you were talking about dead lawyers, maybe I could have a word with Mavis.”

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Coming up in Chapter 6 - Mavis gets grilled by Detective Rosetti and learns about a missing piece of evidence in Winnie's case...


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