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ON THE QUESO: THE ROQUEFORT FILES
Act One: That Can’t Be Him
“Where the hell is his head?” We all thought it, but only my brother, Romano, said it.
July heat waves baked up from the exterior of my Honda del Sol. The corpse in my stolen car, sans noggin, was roasted to putrid perfection. None of the three Zenith, Illinois cops, especially my brother, dared open the door.
The four of us, already suited up in latex gloves, stood frozen on the spot despite the triple-digit summer temperature. During the two weeks Romano has been police chief, he’s never had to crack open the crime scene kit that he carries in the trunk of his cruiser next to his lunch box. Not until today, that is. My hands started to sweat inside the latex.
The Big Muddy River trickled nearby as it dueled with the bang-thump of the blowflies knocking against the inside of the car windows. My heart sledgehammered at my chest as I watched flies ski across the lake of browned blood that had formed just below the driver’s side door. I tried to slow my breathing. Fainting was not an option. We all needed to know if this was my Uncle Stilton—the man who was more of a father to me than any other. We all waited for a moment of courage. Or stupidity.
Blue, my Uncle Stilton’s dog-size, silver tabby cat, jumped up from the Honda’s floorboard and onto the dashboard, his chin coated in blood. My big brother, all grown up and decked out in his official duds, gasped and clutched my bar smock. I yelped and clutched him back.
Bill Donnell, senior in years but second in command, reached for his gun. “Any other surprises in there?”
“Let’s find out.” Justin Michaels, my nephew in-law and a cop in training, took out his phone and snapped pictures of Blue perched on the dashboard. I wondered if he’d be tempted to post them on Instagram.
I had reported my car as stolen two days earlier. Romano had called me today just as I was opening up my inherited tavern, The Bent Whiskers, for the drunken lunch rush. At the time, I thought that he was calling just to annoy me, and I almost hung up. Although limited and questionable, my brother’s sense of humor does exist.
He finds it funny to call me at least once a week and tell me that some Zenithite has filed a charge against me for a fictitious yet serious crime. Two weeks ago, my crime was complaining about the inferiority of the organic leeks in the produce section at Bowlin’s market. (I knew that this was a fake report because nobody can get any leeks, organic or not, this time of year.) Last week my crime was hogging the last bag of chicken chow at the feed store. Today, I expected that I might’ve been reported for correcting someone’s grammar at the post office. Even when Romano told me that they’d found my pinched car and instructed me to haul tail, I first thought that he was just being my jerk of a brother. The semi-whimper in his voice told me that this was no joke. It also told me that he was not telling me everything. No time to change out of my tavern gear; I ran out to the street as instructed to hitch a ride with Justin in his restored Road Runner to find this horror.
My Uncle Stilton does have a history of borrowing my car, but he always brings it back, freshly washed, tank full of gas, with a new-car-smell air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. I always know when he’s been in my car because the seat is lightly scented with Palmolive soap, his perennial favorite. He’d never kept my Honda for more than a few hours, let alone for a couple of days. I also hadn’t seen him since I’d last seen the car. Find the car, find him—but not like this.
I sucked a deep breath through my nostrils as I avoided the blood pool on the ground. I reached for the car door knowing that I would have to take care of this myself, as usual. My eyes filled with liquid fire. I hate to cry in public. “Oh, hell.”
Romano grabbed my arm. “Dammit, Colby. This is a crime scene. Girls can’t just come along and contaminate the evidence. ‘Specially if that girl is my sis.”
Ignoring my brother is a lifelong goal of mine.
“Somebody has to do something.” I flung the car door open and the stench hit me the same time Blue did. He landed in my arms, accompanied by a cloud of blowflies that buzzed off to meatier pastures, and knocked me on my back. I’m fairly sure that I screamed, or maybe just oof-ed as I got the wind knocked out of me.
“Oh, man. That’s definitely not helpful.” Romano stared past me as he intently inspected a hollow tree stump some fifteen feet away. Knowing Romano, I decided he probably considered the stump a suspect.
River stones cracked against my spine as twenty-five pounds of frightened feline pinned me down and honked meows. Blue’s voice sounds more like a bicycle horn than that of a cat. We speculate that circus clowns must’ve fostered him when he was a kitten. No matter how he spent his kittenhood, it was spent long before he showed up at Uncle Stilton’s place one Thanksgiving dragging a roasted turkey stuffed full of oyster dressing by the scruff of its headless neck. Two thieves in a pod, Uncle Stilton took Blue and the turkey inside his trailer where Blue has lived ever since. The turkey didn’t fare as well.
Bill and Justin took steps toward me and extended their hands to help me to my feet.
I waved them away.
“I warned you,” Romano squeezed out as he hurried toward the tree stump. I wondered if that statement was meant for his colleagues or me.
As I lay on my back, tears slid down my temples and filled my ears. I stuck my fingers in both my ears to de-puddle the flood. Then I scratched Blue behind the ears a bit too vigorously just to avoid screaming. I cry when I’m mad, and I get mad when I cry. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember if I started out angry or sad. Either way, I seem to end up in the same spot.
Blue head-butted me in the face, sliming my cheek with blood and scent-marking me with eau de death. I petted him even harder as I repressed the urge to revisit my breakfast. His Detroit-built v-8 purr ignited and gave me a moment of authentic calm normal. My heart was broken at the thought of losing Unk. Unacceptable, my mind shouted, and I listened. Sometimes my brain has a mind of its own. I wiped my eyes, lifted Blue, and climbed to my feet. I was ready to get down to business.
Bill loaded three sticks of Black Jack gum into his mouth and then extended the pack to each of us in turn. My abhorrence of licorice aside, I readily accepted. Justin took a piece, unwrapped it, divided it into two pieces, and promptly shoved a half piece into each nostril. No stench would permeate that fortress.
Romano gestured. Bill tossed a gum stick to him, but it plopped into the dirt next to the tree stump. At a height of six feet five inches, Romano has more distance between him and the ground. He grunted as he retrieved the gum.
Stepping around me and carefully avoiding the blood pool, Justin bent next to the open car door. Another horde of disrupted flies relocated to the Honda’s roof as Justin ran his gloved finger along a deep gouge on the door’s panel. “This here before, Miss Colby?” Justin sounded like he had a cold, but I then remembered his unusual use of the gum.
“Not last time I looked.” I wanted to turn away but couldn’t.
Justin snapped photos with his cell phone as he worked. “Murder weapon must’ve sliced through it. Maybe some kind of ax or hatchet, meat cleaver, or one damned long knife. Looks like our guy here leaned out, and whammo, one clean slice. Dude who did it has got some skills.” Justin pulled out a fingerprint kit and dusted the door handle and steering wheel for prints.
“Got a bunch here. If your uncle drove your car regular like you say, his prints’ll show up here anyway.”
I watched as Justin carefully lifted some of the better prints off the pebble-textured steering wheel.
“Coroner’s office’ll take a set off our passenger here for comparison.” Justin lifted the body’s left hand—all the fingertips had been chewed off. Justin grabbed the right hand, which had meaty, gnarled scarlet flesh stumps where fingers should’ve dangled.
“Oh, no.” I looked down at Blue’s red beard, my stomach somersaulting. “Bad kitty” didn’t quite cover it, but that was the first scold that came to mind.
Justin quickly slipped the clumps of flesh that were once hands into Ziploc bags, which are not exactly standard police issue except in small towns like Zenith. “Miss Colby, you sure you don’t wanna leave it to us?”
I definitely wanted to leave it to them. Flee, and never look back. Instead, I heard my mouth say, “I need to be here.”
Justin, newest member of the Zenith police force, if you can call three men a force, had the most recent training for handling a crime scene. He nodded at me as he pulled out what looked like a crumpled, greasy fast food bag, which had been wedged next to the passenger’s side seat cushion. The bag was trademarked with the Fat City logo and Chubby Chester, the food chain’s cartoon pig mascot. Since Chester was depicted on the bag eating a truck-size barbequed pork sandwich, I assumed that he must be a cannibal.
What was Fat City promoting here? I wondered if an investigation into Fat City’s meat source might provide an unsavory reason for the rash of unsolved missing persons cases in southern Illinois as of late. The authorities might’ve just written those cases off as people moving out of state. I’m glad I stay away from fast food joints.
I refocused my attention on the matter at hand just as Justin stuffed the lard-stained Fat City bag into a fresh Ziploc bag. “Uncle Stilton eats at Fat City at least four times a week. I guess he gets tired of my tavern cooking. Or at least the meatless menu.”
As the owner of the tavern, I only put items on the menu that I would eat. Since I do not eat beef, pork, poultry, anything cute, or anything that I’ve previously met (you won’t catch me selecting a live lobster out of a restaurant tank), the menu is rather limited, except when it comes to cheese (a.k.a., the food of the gods). Sunday, my day off, is “bring your own meat day.” Besides, most people come to my tavern to drink, not to eat. So what if they call me a whack-a-tarian? I prefer to think of myself as a cheese-a-tarian, but no matter what they call me, my odd eating preferences certainly do provide entertainment value.
I set Blue on the ground, grabbed the Ziploc bag that contained the Fat City wrapper, and opened it.
“Put that back, Colby, or I’ll have Bill take you to the tavern.” Romano bossed from a distance, probably so I couldn’t punch him in the arm or give him a wedgie for sassing me.
At that moment, I wished that Bill would take me to the tavern where I could pretend that none of this was happening. Instead of standing at a crime scene, I could be grilling up quesadillas and de-capping longneck bottles of Falstaff beer. On second thought, de-capping anything might only serve to remind me of the horror in front of me. Rather than focusing on the anger that was knocking on my brain, I decided to focus on finding out the identity of the man in my car.
Romano, planted at that tree stump, was too far away to be effective, not that I have ever listened to him from any distance. “Bill, get her out of here.”
Bill chewed on the command as he chewed on his Black Jack gum.
I wiggled my fingers, especially the two middle ones, at Romano. “I’m wearing gloves.” In the Fat City bag, I found crumpled sandwich wrappers and a receipt with a time and date stamp marked exactly two days earlier, right after the time my car and Uncle Stilton disappeared. I swallowed hard. I couldn’t accept that he was dead, but all of this evidence suggested otherwise. Who would do this to him?
Romano boomed, “Justin secure that evidence.”
Justin looked up at me and held out his hand.
I behaved and returned the Ziploc bag as I pushed back the throbbing pulse of anguish that rose from my ribs to my head. As a true-crime journalist, I have been conditioned to document the horrible side of human nature after the fact. It’s hard enough to compartmentalize the horrors that human beings exact on one another and still have faith that the world is a just place.
This today, I found, was way too immediate, way too personal. I distracted myself from the creeping realization by blowing a bubble with the Black Jack, but instead got a gooey gray goatee when the gum refused to cooperate. As I de-gummed my chin, I stepped back from the car and accidentally plowed my flip-flop into a crusty pile of poo. “Crap.”
“I’m with you on that, Miss Colby.” Justin concentrated as he skimmed a sample from the blood pool on the ground.
“No. Crap. Here.” I stuck my soiled shoe at Justin.
Justin lifted his head, scraped off a chunk of the evidence, and bagged it. “Hey boss, this might be sheep stuff. What about the Sheepman? Think we ought to talk to him?”
The Sheepman is a celebrity to all Zenithites although he never talks to anyone but his sheep. More roving landmark than person, he is self-reliant albeit stinky.
Bill volunteered. “Son, that poor man won’t talk to someone in uniform. Why do you think he’s been living out here for the past fifty years? He ain’t exactly social.”
As I scuffed my soiled flip-flop across the ground to remove the remaining alleged sheep poo, Blue rubbed against my leg. I picked him up, gagged at his stench, and turned toward Romano. “Maybe I could talk to the Sheepman. I do have some experience dealing with difficult people.” Such as you, brother, I wanted to add.
Romano kicked the tree stump and looked skyward. “I’m warning you, sis. Keep out of it.”
“Our guy’s got a prosthetic leg, boss. Hear that?” A hollow thud-thud-thud sounded from inside the Honda, followed by another thud-thud-thud-thud, thud-thud-thud, thud-thud-thud. “Smoke on the Water?” Justin’s professional training didn’t always make up for his youthful goofiness. After hours, Justin plays drums in his own heavy metal band that he named Blue Justice.
Justin continued to drum.
I had to stop myself from singing along.
“Positive ID then.” Romano turned away, removed his hat, and used it to fan his face and hide the tear that I could see was forming in his left eye.
My legs suddenly gave out from under me. Blue slipped out of my hands and jumped to the ground as I fell against the side of the car.
“Justin, have some respect for the deceased man. He was a veteran. Gave his leg for your freedom,” Bill snapped.
Justin stopped drumming on the artificial limb. “Sorry.”
Romano, his back still turned away from the scene, pushed his hat down tight onto his head. “This is really gonna hurt our moms.”
Uncle Stilton is brother to Velveeta and Fontina Meadows, our twin moms. As it stands, none of us knows, and they aren’t saying, which of them actually gave birth to us. In fact, they could not be closer, or more inseparable in will, if they were Siamese twins.
My thoughts went down a bad road, and I had to talk even if it was only to distract myself from the grief that was moving in. “We don’t know if it’s him until we find the head.”
Romano’s face always puffs up like he’s going to bawl, no matter what emotion he’s feeling at the time. “Who the hell else can it be? Doesn’t take running a bunch of tests on the taxpayers’ dime to figure that out. Question is, who did this to Unk?”
“Romano, nobody would do this to Unk. We need the head. Without it, you can’t be sure it’s him. Thanks to Blue, we can’t exactly fingerprint him.” It felt so good to yell, which was so much better than crying. “Whether this is Unk or not, you still have a killer to catch, so unless you want Zenith to turn into Sleepy Hollow with people losing their heads down at the Dairy Queen, stop whining, and let’s get busy.”
“D.Q. closed down last year.” Justin drummed the leg twice more. “Sorry.”
“Colby’s got this covered, guys.” Romano pulled down the brim of his official hat, which I thought was meant to emphasize his crazy idea that he was in charge. “Apparently, she thinks watching reruns of The Rockford Files and living in Lost Angeles for ten years is all it takes to do my job.”
“If you were doing your job, maybe you might connect this to the unsolved murder over in Herring last week.” If I didn’t love my irritating brother so much, I would’ve punched him. I restrained myself, not a simple task for a thirty-three year-old redhead like me, from blurting out that I probably know as much about police procedure as he does. He has no idea of my work and life in LA.
“That fire was ruled accidental, both victims still had their heads, and Herring is out of my jurisdiction.” Romano rubbed his palms against the sides of his trousers.
“Apparently even Zenith is out of your jurisdiction if you don’t agree that we need to find the head.” I came back to Zenith six months ago for a two-week visit when my grandparents died in their sleep from a gas leak. Two weeks after that as I was driving a rental car to the St. Louis airport for my flight home, our moms were almost killed in a car accident just outside Zenith city limits.
Luckily, they’ve healed. The relationship with my husband, who’s still in LA, is not yet on the mend. Until the divorce is final, or until an earthquake sucks that bastard into the dirt where he belongs, I have vowed to small-town it and enjoy the respite from mayhem. Today’s events have blown that plan.
“Hang on there, boss. I’d have to agree with Colby.” Bill asserted himself, but took the edge off by averting his eyes.
“Me, too.” One piece of the un-chewed Black Jack gum shot from Justin’s nose when he spoke. Resourceful, he took the gum from his other nostril, split it in two, and re-armed his schnozzle.
The leather on Romano’s gun belt groaned as he adjusted it. “You’re theorizing that somebody with a prosthetic leg, just like his, stole Unk’s cat, then stole your car to make a fast getaway while Unk conveniently hiatus-ed it to some undisclosed location and will probably walk into your tavern tout suite and order a Falstaff draft?”
“We can hope.” I stepped around the car and the adjacent scene thinking about where I would hide a severed head. But, what if the killer had taken the head as a souvenir? Oh, man what a thought. Since I had never been in this position previously, I decided to focus on the immediate task, not the horror of it all. I reduced my search to places big enough to serve the purpose of hiding a head. Bill and Justin followed my lead.
Bill unconsciously tapped his wedding ring against the butt of his holstered pistol, the latex glove muffling the sound to a soft tink-tink. “I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times that we hauled Stilton McGhee in for petty theft. The man just loved to get into trouble.”
“Loves,” I corrected.
“The evidence isn’t stacking up in favor of your optimism, sis.” Romano’s voice cracked, and I suspected that he wished he could be an optimist, too.
Bill shot a glance at Romano, the kid who is twenty years his junior and recently took over his position as chief after Bill prematurely retired. The retirement lasted one week and ended when Sally Anne, Bill’s wife, threatened to leave him if he didn’t go back to work. “Right after Em’s death, Stilton broke into his first house and stole a bunch of Swanson TV dinners.”
Unk’s twin, Emmental, was hit by a train and killed when the boys were seven. Unk and Em were playing beat the train, and Em didn’t. Unk blames himself to this day.
Bill kept his eyes to the ground. “If he hadn’t stayed to heat and eat all twelve of ‘em, he’d have gotten away with it.”
“Unk never has been interested in getting away with it. Getting caught is part of the point.” I pushed aside a dead shrub. Field mice scrambled away, and Blue scrambled after them.
Bill moved some dead limbs aside and looked beneath them. “My dad locked him in an empty cell for a couple hours to punish him. Figured Stilton had punished himself enough by eating all those Salisbury steaks and freeze-dried peas.”
“He’s never touched a TV dinner since.” I poked at a huge pile of rocks.
“Hate to see it come to this, though.” Bill gingerly toed a pile of fetid leaves. “Maybe I should’ve stayed retired.”
“Maybe he should’ve retired. How many garden gnomes does one man need?” Romano chewed his gum, adjusted his shoulders, and stood up straighter.
Although Unk has stolen everything from TV dinners to used wigs, his Achilles’ heel is an unguarded garden gnome. If he sees one, he must steal it.
Unk, freshly showered and smelling of Palmolive soap, always shows up at the back door of The Bent Whiskers after every heist. Partly because he lives in a trailer behind the tavern, and partly because he can’t wait to show me what he has just stolen. The tavern’s lawn is covered with pilfered garden gnomes. The tavern rule is, if you see your gnome, steal it back. Most nights, everyone leaves with a belly full of beer and an armful of gnome.
“My favorite job that he pulled was the drive-through dry cleaners/liquor store heist. He got two bottles of Tequila and four pairs of slacks from Buck’s Clean-But-Not-Very-Sober. If he hadn’t gone through the drive-thru on his bike with Blue in the basket, he might’ve gotten away with it.” I smiled at the image of Blue honking his way down Maple Street as Unk, disguised in sunglasses and stolen Afro wig, peddled furiously.
“Or, if I hadn’t recognized my own slacks at Sunday dinner.” Romano kicked the tree stump, still fuming about those plundered pants. “They were three inches too long for him anyways. When you roll a pant leg up for too long, the crease sets in kind of permanent. He should’ve just had them altered rather than rolling them up like some hillbilly. Those pants have never been the same.”
When our father, Jack, left our moms, Uncle Stilton stepped in and taught me all of the regular dad lessons: how to build a tree house, ride a bike, and steal a candy bar from a vending machine. Years later, I discovered that every time we got a so-called free candy bar, he would return to the violated vending machine and slide four quarters into the change slot, which was twice the price of the pilfered PayDay.
On the other hand, teenage Romano, consumed by football and heartbreak administered by heavily mascara-ed girls, never benefited from Uncle Stilton’s wisdom or well-guarded sense of fairness. Maybe that is why Romano went into law enforcement.
Ten minutes after our headhunt had begun, I felt slippery inside my own skin as sweat poured and pooled. The fingertips of my latex gloves held at least a half-inch of liquid. I was dressed for work, but not for this work. I used a used Kleenex, not too crunchy, to dab the saltiness from my eyes. As I refocused, I noted that Romano was seated in defeat, using the tree stump as a Lazy Boy.
Blue, tail up, trotted toward him.
“Now, go on, Blue.” Romano patted Blue briefly. Blue rubbed on Romano’s official pants, spiking the dark blue fabric with bloody, death-scented silver fur. “Dammit, Blue. I gotta make these pants last all week.”
Maybe I should speak to my brother about his ongoing issues with trousers.
Blue plowed back toward the pants, in a gesture I assumed was meant to show Romano who was really in charge.
“Oh, man.” Romano brushed at the cat hair gunk, fusing it even further to the fabric. He rose and stomped away.
Blue leapt up and disappeared inside the hollow tree stump.
“We should come back tomorrow when we’ve got better light.” Romano licked his fingers and applied them to the gooey, fuzzy spot Blue had left on his trousers.
“It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. He was your uncle, too.” Even if Romano is the law, I can still butt heads with him. Anger is sometimes a good distraction from my more dangerous emotions. “If not for the family, then how about for the record?” I gave Romano my dirtiest, evil redhead glare just as Blue trotted by, eager to share his bounty.
“Son of a bitch.”
Blue dropped the engorged scarlet head on Romano’s expertly polished shoes.
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