Here’s a little gift for the holidays: my first-ever prose novel. It’s a roman-à-clef political murder thriller about a serial killer with a big agenda. I’m serializing it at Rall.com/chain-of-command. A new chapter goes up every Thursday or so.
Thanks for reading me in a different format. I look forward to hearing your thoughts as the story unfolds…
OTTMAR MERGENTHALER MIDDLE SCHOOL (DECOMMISSIONED)
THE UPTON SECTION OF BALTIMORE
“What the fuck is that?”
“What the fuck is what,” Denny Romero mumbled as he cut-and-pasted “I love you” from a text to his wife into the thread with his girlfriend. Tony was always bugging out about everything. Which usually turned out to be nothing. When they were kids growing up together in what passed for the bad part of Annapolis the “awesome stash of print porn” Tony unearthed from the basement turned out to be a bundle of their mom’s old Cosmos. As business partners Tony’s blockbuster can of Mercury dimes in the abandoned bungalow morphed in the light of day into a bunch of worthless bottle caps.
“That what the fuck!” Tony shouted as though he were on the opposite side of the site. He slapped at Denny’s phone.
Tony pointed toward one of the mountains of bricks and plaster and pipes and rotten planks that a better city in a better time had arranged into the shape of a school.
In 1924 people did things right.
Despite the shadow cast by the office tower next door and clouds of swirling mystery powder you could tell Mergenthaler Middle School had been a gorgeous building. What a difference a century makes. Now companies like Romero Building Salvage bid for the privilege to breathe through face masks and sift through the rubble of public works to scavenge bits of molding and copper fixtures. Some would be sold on consignment to hipster couples hoping to de-generify their cookie-cutter converted lofts.
Tony and Denny merged the faint beams of their iPhone ARs toward the spot where Tony gestured. Insufficient. The brothers reached in tandem for their Mag lights. Protruding from beneath a hillock of battered bricks and plaster fragments directly beneath a splintered wooden door whose window bore the words “Vice Principal” in frosted drop-shadow lettering was a pair of legs.
In the same way you can tell from her giant hands that the beautiful woman with big eyes and a button nose at the bar was physically born male, there was no mistaking that these body parts belonged to a woman. The skinny probably-dead legs wore knee-high socks with wide black-and-white stripes. Red slippers trimmed with sequins adorned her probably-dead feet.
“We’re not in Kansas any more, Denny!”
Men less experienced than the Romero brothers sometimes mistook corpses for mannequins. But bodies were more common than mannequins. Demolition and salvage workers found them all the time.
Police chased the homeless off the streets. Some walked into banks, announced a robbery and waited to be arrested so they could secure two hots and a cot. Others took shelter in one of the city’s abandoned structures. City building inspectors were assigned to ferret these societal rejects out before the old places came down. But they were workfare recipients who could barely be bothered to show up for work, much less feign dedication to their jobs.
Anyway, vagabonds were expert sneaks. They secreted themselves in nasty asbestos-laden nooks, ignoring amplified warnings to leave due to impending demolition. Explosives were set, connected and detonated. Bye bye bum, hello a downward nudge of the unemployment rate.
Some of them must have gone out that way on purpose. Suicide by gentrification.
“Help me move this shit,” Tony beckoned his brother.
Denny didn’t argue. This was their site. They were salvagers.
“What do you think? Fake or real? A prank?” Denny asked.
“Dig,” Tony ordered.
If it was a dead woman and she was carrying cash or jewelry they had dibs. If they called 911, Baltimore’s Finest would loot their corpse.
“Maybe the munchkins got her,” Denny joked, chucking a cinderblock. “Or the same tornado that took out K.C. got the Wicked Witch of the West!”
Denny stared at the legs. “East.”
“I know, dumbshit,” Tony huffed. “Auntie Em’s house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East. It’s her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, who runs down Dorothy for corpse-robbing her dead sisters’ shoes.”
They worked fast and gingerly, like emergency workers trying to rescue earthquake victims inside a ruined house minus. Finally the tableau was revealed.
The woman was definitely dead. She was still, dusty, white and in her mid-fifties. Or maybe sixty? Her face wore that perpetually-surprised Botoxed look, her hair frosted like the talking heads on the old Fox News channel. She wore a crushed-velvet purple jacket with broad shoulder pads.
And a tall black witch hat.
Her skin wasn’t discolored. No odor, unless you counted perfume overpowering enough to make itself known above the dust. She couldn’t have been dead long.
She was bound, hands tied firmly behind her back, her legs to its legs, to an wooden school desk scarred with ancient graffiti. There was a hole on the upper right corner for the student’s inkwell.
“Looks like some kinky schoolboy shit,” Tony said as if he were answering a question. “They gagged her with a fucking apple and duct tape.”
“What the fuck is in her nose?” Denny asked. He answered his own question: “Paper.”
Denny tugged on the sheet sticking out a few inches out of the dead woman’s face. He pulled it open and read: “Common Core Mathematics Level 8 Answer Sheet.”
Practiced hands searched pockets, violated lace-covered intimacies. No cash. A choker made of big metal balls. Probably costume but you never knew. Denny yanked, severed and pocketed the jewelry while Tony called 911.
(C) 2019 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.