NOTE: This contains yesterday’s post, with just a few minor edits, so this story won’t be read out of order. The title of the post has also been changed.
More than anything, I like reading. I’ll read anything, but when I’m looking for a comfortable place in my mind, I turn to murder mysteries. Reading takes me places I’ll never go and lets me hang out with people of superior intelligence, insight, courage, eccentricities, gumption, mastery, majesty, endurance, and fun that don’t exist in my mundane, but pleasing, life. When I read a mystery, I do so knowing that everything will land on the side of justice, and boy, are we ever in short supply of that in this modern world. Murder mysteries also take me for a walk on the wild side, where people kill each other, which is simply not the polite thing to do in the real world I inhabit.
Or is it?
When I stop and think about it, which I don’t like doing, I realize my life has been intimately touched by murder two times. My first encounter with murder was tragic and took me into a world I didn’t want to stay in for too long, so I got out and stuffed it far away in my mind so I could pretend such things didn’t happen, that I hadn’t seen what I’d seen, or entered a world too overwhelming to handle. My second encounter with murder has been harder to shake.
I’m going to dump that murder here and hope this is where it stays. I’m tired of having it come to mind out of the blue and bedeviling me, reminding me that murder is real and the average person can rub shoulders with it on a daily basis without even knowing. I’d like to stop thinking about Stan and the horrible history packed with nightmarish memories he carries with him.
I want to pretend it’s not true. I want to pretend it’s a story trapped on paper and close the book.
So here goes.
The desert suburb we lived in had it’s focal point, which was the large patio of the Starbucks attached to Barnes & Noble. On any given day, even during the big bust days of this recession, that patio was packed with people. Some were out for a treat, but most were coffee addicts, a.k.a. The Regulars. My husband and I were part of The Regulars and had a whopping good time hanging on that patio, brew in hand, and talking with the mixture of people that came and went for their fix, stopping for a chat as they did so. Addiction is a vampire, and all blood tastes as sweet to its cravings, regardless of gender, age, or income bracket. We coffee addicts were a mix of people spanning a wide spectrum of human variety.
Stan was one of the most interesting. He was tall with long, flowing blond hair down to his muscular butt, and bold facial features that made Fabio look like a girl. Whatever the time of year, he wore cut off shorts and tight-fitting tank tops, along with a glaze of sunshine that turned his skin a deep, dusky bronze. But you know how some people are butt ugly, but you forget how ugly they are because of their big, glowing, outrageous, and entertaining personalities? That was Stan, only in reverse. I may have registered his hunk-a-hunk-a California-beach-boy good looks when we first met, but all that was forgotten once his personality took over.
He called everybody “sweetheart,” or “buddy” or “pal” or “darling” with convincing enthusiasm that made us all believe we were God’s favored children, and he knew who God loved best. His voice was big, but nowhere near as big as his laugh. I worked at B&N for a time, and even when I was way back in the storage room, I knew when Stan was in Starbucks getting one of his five-per-day venti coffees with two shots of espresso. I could hear his laughter even when I was buried in books and behind two sets of doors, that’s how big it was. The only time he ever used profanity was when someone started in on feeling sorry for themselves, then he’d whip out a unique invention of cuss words like pistols and shoot down that self-pity, telling whoever was weeping that life was good, life was short, cut the crap and laugh, then he’d throw back his head and show them how real laughter was done. He was a master.
That’s why it was such a surprise when my husband and I came to the patio one day and found Stan looking a bit down in the dumps. We asked him what was going on, but he just brushed it off by saying it would be three more minutes before the coffee was done brewing, and he hated waiting. It was through some of the other Regulars that we learned Stan was having bizarre health problems. He was passing out without warning, just dropping flat out cold. Stan was a handyman, so passing out knocked him out of work, and he couldn’t drive a car. There were enough Regulars to drive him around for groceries and his time on the patio with his Regulars, but his episodes of instant swooning put a cramp in his free-wheeling lifestyle.
Stan spent more time than usual on the patio during the days when the doctors were trying to diagnose his problems, and that’s when we got to know more of his story. His passing out had something to do with his heart, but that didn’t scare him. It turned out he’d been having heart problems since he was in his early 20s. He told us he was accustomed to his heart cutting out on him, but not this often. He was pissed. He also knew that one day his heart would cut out and stay out, but that didn’t seem to bother him. The man knew his days were numbered, yet there was no false bravado when he said the only difference between him and other people was his awareness of his own mortality. He also told us he’d never had a headache in his entire life. Not one, and he couldn’t even imagine what they felt like.
As the weeks of dead-end medical testing wore on and Stan’s episodes of passing out tapered off, his kick-ass personality returned. And so did his laugh. It turned out that most of his moodiness was due to his doctors telling him he had to lay off coffee for a time, and, as he put it, stick with mother-fuckin’ water until excessive caffeine consumption was ruled out as a cause of his heart problems. Once he was back guzzling coffee, he was a happy camper, despite living in the valley of the shadow of death. He was feeling good and started talking about his kids, which was a huge surprise. We didn’t even know he was a single father raising two teenagers, let alone the high standards he expected of them. From the way he talked, and what the Regulars told us about him and his kids, he was the kind of dad everybody wished they’d had. Seriously? Free-wheeling, raggedy-rugged Mr. Good Times was a hard-nosed father with a mortgage and a loving iron fist for two kids?
Stan’s enigma grew as we got to know him better. What an odd and beautiful creature he was, and I’m not talking about his looks. Those had already disappeared, remember?
It took about 6 weeks for Stan’s beautiful body to completely stump the doctors and give him back his car keys and job. No reason could be found for him dropping like a rock, and by the time all the test results were in, he was standing strong and conscious.
Stan, the man, was back.
Life on the patio was back to normal, and life was good for the rest of that summer, all through the fall, and straight on through the holidays.
It was February when we first sensed something was off balance. Something felt weird, and the only thing my husband and I could see that was different was Stan’s pants—he was wearing full length jeans. Stan was oblivious to weather, except for the heat, which he loved and couldn’t get enough of. He’d been in shorts every time we saw him, even when he was passing out without warning and decorated with gaze and tape where he’d torn off skin during a fall. What was up with the jeans? Everything else was the same, including that laugh, but those jeans…Nope, not right. The easy good time on the patio continued, so neither my husband nor I let our focus drift to the oddity of those jeans.
At least not until one particularly crowded night on the patio when Stan came over to our table and asked if we could go somewhere and talk.
Sure. Anything for Stan.
We followed him to a corner of the patio, where we all sat down. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped and dangling between his legs, and his head bent and silent for longer than I’d ever heard the sound of silence that was in Stan. He finally lifted his head and looked me straight in the eye. It was the first time I noticed what a cold, brittle shade of blue his eyes were.
“I need a favor,” he said, then turned those blue eyes on my husband.
“Sure,” we both said in the syncopated rhythm of our 25 years together. “What do you need?”
He told us he needed us to write letters, lots of letters, and the reasons for those needed letters was one of the most gruesome murders ever committed in our desert town, or anywhere. A murder with fingers laced deep inside Stan, and soon to reach out and put us in their hold, pulling us in so close we couldn’t escape the smell of flesh rotting in the desert sun for eight of the longest days of the year.
When we first moved to this desert community…Wait a minute. Who am I kidding here. We moved to Vegas. It was early 1980, and the only communities existing there at that time were the Mafia and Mormons.
And gamblers and losers and instant winners and a whole bunch of old people looking for warmth and somewhere to go when the nights were long and lonely. We had been warned that it was hard making friends in Vegas because it was such a transient town of drifters. Those warnings were true, and for our first decade there, every time we met a new couple we clicked with, my husband and I would turn to each other and say, “They’ll be moving soon.” And they did.
We didn’t pick up on much local news when we first landed there because we were trying to make sense of the prickly, ragged landscape and the houses made of cinder block. We watched news every night, but mostly to make fun at the sorry state of reporting. We’d joke that the news channels opened their front door an hour before air time, grabbed the first sober person they could find, and said, “Hey, wanna come in and read this copy on camera?”
What captured our attention most were the headlines splashed across every local and national newspaper, reading: THE MOB IS ALIVE AND FUNCTIONING IN LAS VEGAS. Gee, ya think? What we didn’t know what the stranglehold on verifiable evidence journalism operated on under that time, and the media’s inability to state anything without the sources to back it up. That hard evidence had just been amassed in enough verifiable quantity for media to run with it. But it still didn’t make sense to us, and was a part of our general confusion about living in such a wasteland as Vegas.
Another thing we didn’t know was how some people could look at a wasteland and see opportunity, or the stealth with which they worked on cultivating that opportunity. Steve Wynn was one of those people and just beginning to crack into gaming from his low-level position in beverage distribution. He’d bought a crappy casino _____ with plans of turning the town upside down.
A chunky monkey of a reporter was another guy who saw Vegas as the golden land of opportunity, and he jumped on every sensational case their was, pumping the Wow! Factor to the max. He did make a name for himself, and he did end up a professor of communications at UNLV. But at the time we moved there, he was still a young punk on the make, and the sensational Show And Tell Murder was fresh kill he jumped on and munched on and grew his Master Of The Media Universe on, feeding his gory leftovers to the public and pumping up the shock and horror of something that already had enough shock and horror to last a lifetime.
A fifteen-year old girl had herself a new boyfriend, a young man fresh from Canada looking for the American Dream. Like others who saw opportunity beyond the facade of a wasteland, he’d left home and family to cash in. His intention was to work hard, very hard, until he had enough money in the bank and an eye developed for scanning opportunity. He was romance-book handsome and he knew it, so when the pretty young woman came on to him, he felt he’d met a girl that complimented his good looks just right. We don’t normally think of strapping young beefcakes as being smitten, but that’s exactly what he was—smitten with this young vixen.
And he wanted to impress her, so he’d show off his roll of sweat-earned cast (a whopping $1,500), then turned into a puppy dog who followed her every command. It’s possible he loved her.
There was no hesitation in his need to impress and belong to the pretty young thing, so he readily agreed to help out a couple of friends of hers whose car had broken down I the desert. He unlocked his car for her two male friends, helped her settle into her place in the front seat, then drove them to an empty spot of desert far removed from town so he could help them get their car running well enough to make it back to town. This was another score for the young man from Canada. He was impressing the young girl by helping her friends. He was showing just how hard he could keep on working after a day of having already worked hard on a construction crew.
Once in the desert, a gun was pulled on him and he was told to hand over his money. He fought the two guys who had no car anywhere and were conniving friends of the sweet young girl who stole hearts so easily. The friends hadn’t anticipated a fight, so they shot him. Nothing serious, just enough of a shot to take him down and make his wad of money easier to pry from his hands. Court records indicate that he was shot in the face when the young woman grew annoyed with the Canadian’s moaning and wanted him to shut up, which was accomplished easily by blowing his face off.
For the next eight days, the Canadian’s young and perfect body, if you don’t consider the mess a bullet in the face had make, roasted in the hot desert, rotted in the sun, and fed the birds of prey from the sky and the coyots on the ground. And for each of those eight days, the pretty young blond brought a parade of friends to the murder site, showing off what a wild thing she and her friends had done. Pretty cool, huh? Killed the guy, shot him in the face, and made off with his car and $1,500 in cash.
For eight days the family of the Canadian waited and worried about the handsome young man who hadn’t yet returned home. They worried he’d lose his job if he didn’t return soon.
For months after his body was found and his murderers put on trial, his family sat in court and witnessed the evidence of his decaying body, his vulture-eaten face, the snacks taken from his muscled body by four-legged predators, and listened to their lives, all of their lives, dragged through the mud the attempts at turning the young Canadian’s murder back on him. His fault. His family’s fault because they had been drug dealers back home, and the move to America so they could start over clean and fresh, spun by the defense into a cover-up of something unfathomable that somehow made this young man his own victim.
It didn’t work, and in large part, the failure to pin the young Canadian’s murder on the young Canadian could be credited to the chunky monkey of a news reporter that dogged this case and stirred up public emotion against the pretty young blond, now the deceptive face of pure evil. Go, chunky monkey! Stir the pot of blood lust and make sure that child-demon was put away for life, which she was. Her accomplishes were also put away on lesser charges. In her own sworn testimony, they had not ripped off the kill shot.
My husband and I had vague memories of the incident and weren’t too surprised by it all. We hated Vegas and didn’t want to be there. It was supposed to be a place we stayed for just two years as we made our way to New York, the place where we were going to prove ourselves as writers, actors, and musicians. Of course Vegas would be the place where children murdered people, and of course Vegas was the place where pretty young girls would show off their acts of murder to friends before getting caught. We were more concerned with avoiding the Mafia as we looked for jobs and walked through heat so intense we thought it would make our skin blister.
We were also young enough to think the murder had nothing to do with us. Everything is fantasy when paired with the reality of big plans and dreams of a big future.
“First read this,” Stand said to us, twenty years later on the patio of Starbucks. He had reached behind him and pulled out a folder he’d left in the planter in anticipation of talking to us. “I made plenty of copies,” he said, handing three sheets of paper stapled together to each of us. They were the conclusions of a parole hearing held three years earlier, with the conclusion that Rebecca was a cold-blooded murdered and should stay in prison the rest of her life.
“Holy shit,” I said after reading my copy of the document. “This is nasty business. But–”
“That Rebecca in the conclusion was the girl in the Show And Tell murder twenty years ago,” Stan said, his eyes fixed on the ever-moving door of Starbucks. He got up and headed towards that door, saying, “I’m getting another coffee. Get you anything?”
Both my husband and I told him, no, go ahead, then looked at each other after Stan was gone and wondered what the hell was going on. We discussed it in the unspoken language of those who have lived together for 25 years, and agreed we should sit tight and wait until Stan came back and told us what was going on. We never spoke a word out loud.
Obviously, we were older at that time, and the reality of that murder came back to us with a freshness so sickening we could smell it, see her victim’s destroyed body, and recoiling at the revulsion of a pretty young woman-child living without a heart or soul. Why was Stan handing us this crap?
“Yeah, so,” Stan said as he eased himself down between us, a fresh venti in his steady hand. “She’s coming up for parole again the end of next month.”
“You’re shitting me,” my husband said, waving the documents from her last parole hearing. “She gets another shot?”
“Yeah.” Stan took a long drink of his coffee, then put his elbows on his knees again and leaned forward. “But my brother doesn’t.” His eyes were fixed on his cup of coffee. Stan wasn’t cunning enough to let what he’d said hang in the air so it could sink in. He just needed to gather himself before saying anything else. Then finally, “My mom and dad don’t get a second shot. The trial killed them both. My mother stroked out, dad got cancer.”
“This guy, the one she shot, he was–”
“Yeah,” Stan said. “My brother.”
I still can’t figure out if it was me or my husband or both of us who shouted out that “What?” or if it was an unspoken but tangible silent shock that bounced back and forth between us.
“But there’s no way she’ll get parole,” I said. “Right here it says she’s a…”
I couldn’t continue because the “she” in this murder case was now somebody real. The entire Show And Tell murder was real, and I was friends with the remains of it. Stan, the man’s brother was the one murdered on that day? Stan, the man with the big laugh and a rock-solid father an armory of foul language at the ready to take down self-pity wherever he found it?
“Fuckin’ new evidence,” Stan said, straightening up and running a hand through his long, shaggy hair. He looked at something only he could see, never letting his gaze touch ours as he continued. “One of the guys with her finished his time a few years ago, killed some guy, got caught cold sitting on death row in Phoenix. He’s saying he’s the one shot my brother in the face, not her.”
“That’s convenient,” my husband said, and I’m sure he’s the one who said it because I was still numb from the fury Stan’s body threw off with raw animal energy, pouncing on me and overwhelming my senses.
“And that jerk-off reporter is making a case for her release.”
By this time, Vegas was the fastest growing American city of the Twentieth Century, and that little chunky monkey reporter was correct in seeing opportunity in this wasteland. He was now a Chunky Monkey (all caps), and a hot shot of the boom town’s media circus. He had weight, and not just on his fat ass and girdled belly. He’d even grown a distinguished beard with streaks of gray, neatly trimmed into the dash of a man about town with clout.
“But it says right here she’s a cold-blooded murderer,” I said, my senses crawling out from under Stan’s blast of fury, and poking a finger into the document he’d given me.
“Doesn’t matter,” Stan said, fixing me with his eye. “New evidence, that reporter changing his tune, and I’ll be alone at the hearing with no support for keeping her locked up. I need some letters.”
“You got it,” I said.
“It’ll be just me and whatever letters I can bring in,” Stan said, turning to my husband.
“You got it, buddy.”
“Thanks. Appreciate it,” he said standing up and adjusting the creases in his full length jeans that had bunched up while he sat. “Gotta run and talk with some other people who know how to string two words together.” He got a kick out of that and laughed, but it wasn’t the Stan laugh that could be heard a block away. Just a laugh like any ordinary laugh.
I hadn’t thought about the Show And Tell Murder in decades, but during the following weeks, it was the only think I thought about. I became an ordinary person who had just gotten a diagnosis of cancer and felt that word grow bigger and bigger until it was larger than life because it was a real element of life and I’d just learned I had a life that could be ended. Evil, like cancer, was no longer an abstract idea that happened to other people, walked into the homes of others while I had no fear in my well-constructed world. I’d been friends for years with a man whose life had been bitten by evil, and I didn’t even know it.
What else didn’t I know? How vulnerable was I? Could my family become a victim of evil, in any one of its disguises—pretty young girl, chunky monkey reporter, criminal court systems, new evidence, old facts. Again, like a newly diagnosed cancer patient, I dug in and learned everything I could learn about this murder. If I could understand it, maybe I could control it, keep it away from me and the people I loved.
But it was already too late for than. Stan was someone everybody loved, and evil had touched him. And evil was going to rise up again in the disguise of “new evidence.” It didn’t matter. I had to know. It was a compulsion that drew me beyond public documents and into internet chat forums on the story of the upcoming parole hearing of Rebecca, the pretty young girl I the middle of the Show And Tell Murder.
With print outs on every bit of journalism surrounding the case, and the face of Stan’s brother constantly in front of me, I dug deeper and deeper and deeper in trying to know and understand, and that’s when I think I betrayed Stan.
It’s unthinkable that I could have done such a thing, especially since I was convinced Rebecca was as guilty as I was guilty of having been indifferent to the world around me, but I did.
(To be continued)