The Maybrick Affair
Author: Charles Salzberg
From Charles Salzberg comes a powerful tale of murder.
LENGTH: NOVELLA - Approximately 30,000 words
On the eve of America's entry into World War II, a young reporter for a small Connecticut newspaper works a story that has possible international ramifications as it's tied to a well-publicized British murder case and a notorious serial killer.
Available in .mobi for Kindle, .epub for NOOK and most other e-readers, and .pdf.
The Maybrick Affair
If there’s anything more boring, make that deadly boring, than a town council meeting I’ve yet to experience it. But when you’re a young reporter for a small newspaper in a small state—Connecticut—and you’re low man on the totem pole, you don’t have much choice in what you cover. Thank goodness, I only have to do it once a month or in the unlikely event an emergency meeting is called.
It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I broke into journalism after graduating from Yale a couple years ago. I can hardly budget my own meager salary much less understand the town’s budget, and the idea of sitting through lengthy, mostly pointless discussions about traffic violations, Christmas festivals, parades and holiday decorations, well, let’s just say I can think of at least a dozen better uses of my time.
But the truth is, not much goes on up here, so you wind up praying for something big, like a multi-car pile-up, a domestic dispute, a burglary, or even a small fire. Nothing too serious, just anything to break the monotony.
But it’s my job to be here, and so I make sure I pay attention and take good notes, which I’ll have to decipher later, since my handwriting leaves much to be desired. My friends used to joke that with that scrawl I should have been a doctor. Not much chance of that, since I gag at the sight of blood.
The way I figure it, I’m just biding my time, paying my dues, impressing my boss with my work ethic in hopes he’ll see he’s wasting me on crap like this and gives me something more interesting. Something like the crime beat. Not that there’s all that much crime up here, but every so often there is a break-in or a domestic squabble, or some two-bit white collar crime that can possibly make it below the fold on the front page.
I am a fish out of water, living and working in a small town like New Milford. I’m a city kid, born and raised in New York City. Yorkville, to be precise, which is on the upper east side of Manhattan. I literally grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, the tracks of the elevator train, also known as the subway or just plain el. The wrong side of the tracks in this case being east of Park Avenue. My family isn’t German, Czech or Hungarian, but that’s who mostly inhabit my neighborhood and that heritage is reflected in the local restaurants and bakeries, places like the Bremen House, Geiger’s, Schaller and Weber, and Kleiner Konditorei,
A small-town council meeting is a stretch for me, especially since the usual issues under discussion are so provincial and, for the most part, intrinsically uninteresting, at least to me.
At this moment the First Selectman, Martin Whitley, and two of his colleagues, it took me long enough to distinguish one from the other, is going at it with his political rival, John Tudor, while Jim Stowe, a carpenter and builder by trade and Whitley’s right-hand man on the board looks ready to jump in to defend his pal if needed.
The issue at hand: a motion to appropriate five hundred bucks from the General Fund to hire Towson Cabs for the 1941 Annual Christmas Festival, which is less than a month away.
“Do we have a second?” asks Whitley.
This is Stowe’s cue to do what he does best: rubber stamp anything Whitley proposes. “I second,” he says, raising his hand like he was a schoolboy asking permission to go to the john.
“Well done,” says Whitley. “Any need for discussion?”
“Yes, very well done, Horace,” John Tudor pipes up, sarcasm dripping from his voice.
I like John Tudor. He’s a long-time selectman, local attorney and descendant of one of New Milford’s founding families. It’s no secret that he likes to spend an inordinate amount of time at the local tavern, which means he’s likely had a couple drinks before he arrived at the meeting. But maybe he’s on the right track. Maybe the only way to get through an evening like this is to have a few pops beforehand.
Tudor, is in his early 50s and he can afford to lose a few pounds. He’s the leader of the board’s Democratic minority. The other member of the council is Horace Green. Thin, pale-faced, he is a teacher of English at the local high school. He’s a man who takes his duties on the board very seriously, much too seriously, if you ask me. He’s about to do what has become his sole honor and privilege to do at every Board of Selectman meeting: call an end to it. But before he can Tudor, who is obviously enjoying his role as provocateur, says, “I might be mistaken, but isn’t Harold Towson married to Eleanor Towson, formerly Eleanor Stowe, who just happens to be your niece, Jim?”
Bingo! Now things might get interesting and my mind, which might have been wandering a little before, snaps back to attention.
“Yeah, that’s right,” says Stowe. “So, what?”
“Well, I wonder if there isn’t the slightest whiff of conflict of interest in giving this account to a relative of one of the selectmen on this board. Is $500 really the lowest bid?”
“John, I’m not sure what you’re getting at but if it’s what I think it is, then you’re calling me a crook, and I gotta tell you, I’m very offended.”
“It’s just business,” says Horace.
“You know as well as I do that Harry Towson is an upstanding member of the community, with a sterling reputation. But if it’ll make you feel any better, John, I’ll recuse myself,” says Stowe, as he pops a lozenge into his mouth.
I should be taking notes, but I’ve got a pretty good memory for the spoken word and frankly, I’m hoping things will escalate to the point where maybe a punch or two is thrown. Now that would make this assignment almost worthwhile and give me something to write about other than budgets and horse buggies.
Horace looks at his watch, then at the large clock on the wall at the other end of the high school auditorium, where this meeting is taking place. The committee sits at a long table in the middle of the stage, near the edge, while spectators—and anyone is eligible to attend—sit in the audience. Tonight, it’s just me. After all, who in the world would actually show up at one of these meetings on a Tuesday evening if they didn’t have to be there? If I wasn’t in attendance to report on the goings-on, they could just about pass any damn thing without the public knowing. I wouldn’t put it past these jokers. And if you ask me, the town would deserve it. I guess it only goes to prove that you get the representation you deserve.
“The next item on the agenda is a $200 appropriation for hiring a horse, buggy and operator to give rides around the town green during the Christmas Festival. Do we have a motion?” says Whitley, trying to throw cold water on any brewing brushfire.
“I move that we extend the search for a lower bid for at least two weeks,” says Tudor.
At first, there’s silence, but that silence is soon filled by Horace Green, who scolds, “That’s totally unrealistic, John, and you know it. It’s already close to the end of November. Two weeks would take us well into December. We can’t put off planning this thing till then. I move two vote on this here and now. Do I have a second?”
All eyes shift to Horace Green who seems to have nodded off. Can’t say as I blame him. If I didn’t have to file a story I’d be in dreamland, too. Whitley, who’s sitting next to him, gives him a nudge and his eyes pop open, just like in the cartoons.
“Would you like to second the motion, Horace?”
Green looks a little confused, but not so confused as to not to play along. So, he does by mumbling, “I second the motion.”
Whitley bangs his gavel and then calls for an end to the proceedings. The selectmen stand and stretch which is my cue to get the hell out of there.
I’m at the water fountain just about to take a drink when John Tudor approaches. “Cutting things a little close there, weren’t you?”
I assume he means that I got to the meeting a little late. It’s hard not to be noticed when you’re the only one in the audience.
“I don’t think I missed much.”
“You’re probably right. But you never know. So, how is New Milford’s newest fearless reporter?”
“Not bad. But not quite as good as you getting under Jim Stowe’s sweaty collar. I admire your fervent defense of the democratic process and attempt to stifle even the hint of corruption”
He smiles and pats me on the shoulder.
“Well, I just can’t stand to see Whitley and his lackeys get whatever they want.”
“By lackeys I assume you mean Stowe.”
He smiles and runs a finger across his lips, then tosses his hand back, obviously signifying that his “lips are sealed.”
“I get it. But is a $200 appropriation for a horse and buggy really the proper battleground for your crusade.”
“What’s the matter, Jake, bored with these small-town matters? I bet you’re just aching to expose some major scandal and get your name on the front page. But I don’t think that’s going to happen covering this town.”
“You never know,” I say, even though I do know that he’s right.
“It’s not a pretty sight seeing a young man like you so down and lacking hope. Why don’t you meet me at the Grill in half an hour? I might have something interesting for you.”
The Grill John is speaking of is the Tudor Grill. The name is not a coincidence. Like so many other establishments in our fair town, the Grill bears the Tudor name because it’s owned by his family. Other signs that this is a Tudor town is the Tudor Floral Shop, the Tudor Funeral Home and then, of course, there’s Tudor Road which, as it happens, is where the rooming house I inhabit is located.
“Sure thing,” I say. I’m guessing Tudor will be springing for the drinks and that’s not something I’m in a position to turn down.
When I walk in I immediately spy Tudor sitting at his regular well-placed table to the left of the entrance. It might as well have had a reserved sign on it since everyone knows that’s John’s table and only John’s table. It is located in a spot where he can see everyone who enters the establishment and once they’re in everyone can see him.
I pull up a chair and sit down.
“What’ll you have, Jake? On me, of course.”
“Beer is fine.”
“That’s strong enough, John. I’m young. I haven’t built up the tolerance you have yet.”
“Very funny,” he says, puffing out his chest because he knows it’s true and on some level his capacity for alcohol is something he’s very proud of.
“Where’s that cute girl friend of yours tonight, Jake? She waiting for you somewhere?”
“It’s been a long day. I’ll see her tomorrow.”
John signals to the bartender with his hand, indicating two beers.
“The bartender’s my nephew, Peter’s son and so the service is superb.”
“Is there no business in town that’s not owned and operated by a Tudor?”
“Son, there wouldn’t be a town if it weren’t for the Tudors. My great, great grandfather built the first church. There’s been a Tudor on the Board of Selectmen since Connecticut was a colony. And whatever we’ve taken we’ve given back tenfold.”
The waitress arrives with our drinks. She places John’s scotch on the rocks, in front of him and starts to pour my beer into a glass.
“So, John, the suspense is killing me. What have you got for me? Did the school drama club go over budget? Is the board considering a special tax for people who wear hats?” I ask, as I take a sip of beer. It’s very cold and very satisfying.
“The name Philbin mean anything to you, Jake?”
“You mean as in the Philbin Brass Works, off Route 7?”
Tudor nods, then takes a swallow of scotch. “The very same. And you know about the so-called accident that happened about six months back, right?”
“What do you mean, ‘so-called’?”
“A watchman falls out a window, breaks his neck. That doesn’t seem strange to you?”
“Don’t you think it’s a mite odd that in the middle of the night a watchman should be upstairs in a half-finished building, where he has no cause to be and then suddenly tumbles out a window?”
“You know, John, all this happened before I moved here, so I’m a little unclear as to what you’re getting at. Are you saying this guy’s death wasn’t an accident?”
“I’m not saying anything, Jake. I’m just asking. You’re the reporter. You’re the one who’s supposed to come up with the answers. All I know is the Brass Works might become a very important place, what with the War coming and all.”
“You really think we’re going to wind up in this thing?”
“I think it’s inevitable. The Brits and the French have been pressing us to join their side and I don’t know how much longer Roosevelt can hold out. Something will come along to tip the scales. You can bet on that.”
“What does a watchman dying at the Brassworks have to do with all this?”
“Maybe he saw something he wasn’t supposed to see. Or heard something he wasn’t supposed to hear. It just strikes me as rather odd that someone so familiar with the place should suddenly take a wrong step and fall twenty, thirty feet.”
“Maybe he’d been drinking?”
Tudor shakes his head. “I knew him. He didn’t touch the stuff.”
“You think I should look into it?”
“I’m not your editor, Jake. I’m just making idle conversation.”
“I don’t think it’s so idle, John.”
Tudor shrugs. “It’s getting a little late. My wife’s gonna start worrying if I don’t get home soon. It’s been fun, Jake. And the drink’s on me. In fact, if you want to stick around a while, maybe get something to eat, that’s on me, too.”
He finishes his scotch, in two big swallows, leaving two ice cubes melting in the glass, pats me on the shoulder, then heads over to the bar where he says something to his nephew, the bartender. He looks back at me and smiles. It isn’t the kind of smile in reaction to something funny. No, come to think of it, it’s much more sinister than that.