Department C
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Previously: The Trust

The to-do item I had added during dinner with Pennington was next on my list: visit the local newspaper. The Woolper Weekly was less of a newspaper and more of a newsletter, to be fair, with a circulation of little more than a college campus might print. That said, it purported itself to be the most thorough and timely news in town, and rumor had it that it had only missed a print deadline once in its 78-year run.

The entire Woolper Weekly staff consisted of four people: one editor, two writers, and a photographer. The photographer was an older, bulbous man named Carl, who would appear at interesting events with his camera in one hand and some snack in the other, snapping semi-blurry photos one-handed and using lenses with the wrong focal length. The writers, Lina and Danny, were Northern Kentucky University journalism students who used their time in the Woolper Weekly press room to work on homework in between blurbs about fundraisers and upcoming sales at the bakery.

Adria was the editor of Woolper Weekly, and I found it immensely interesting that a woman of her editorial background would find herself working for a local newspaper rather than something with far greater circulation. I later found out that her position of Editor was entirely part-time, and as her day job she ran a very successful online marketing business.

I had started to notice something about the people of Woolper. It was almost as if each and every one of them had a double life: one that existed inside the boundaries of the town and one that did not. Woolper was like some kind of country paradise, where businesses never went under and the city was always well-tended to. Because of the Bartlett Trust, people had the ability to live their lives at a leisurely pace, which seemed to promote a general happiness. And then, outside of the town, people had other jobs and other projects and other lives. There was a distinct lack of risk here in Woolper, which made it seem like a mini-utopia.

It was an alluring prospect. I began to consider whether I could afford a summer home here.

I waited in the lobby of the Woolper Weekly for a little while, waiting for Adria to finish up her phone call and join me for a few minutes. The front lobby was small and chilly, with a large community corkboard covered in flyers and business cards. I spent some time reading them. Mrs. June was selling a rocking chair. Ted's shop was doing a two-for-one deal on tires. Woolper Middle School was doing a performance of God spell.

"I saw it last week," I heard a voice from behind me say, and I turned to see a grinning Adria, in her pressed suit, with a notebook under her arm. "Mr. Lampert. It's a pleasure. I'm familiar with your work and I'm interested to know what has brought you to our little corner of the Bluegrass state."

As we settled in her office, Adria made some small talk about my last book, Dark Oranges, and shyly asked if I might sign her copy. I agreed, feeling a little strange at the prospect of a local newspaper editor having a copy of my last book. For one, it was not a book meant to appeal to the general editorial types. Oranges focused on the food industry, and particularly on the industry of oranges and tomatoes, and the massive bureaucratic and slavery-related organizations surrounding it. It was very…morbid book. One that had made many people mad. Even so, I signed the book, noting the fact that the spine hadn't even been bent yet.

Conversation turned to Woolper, and as ever it was immediately suggested that I visit the greenhouse. "The snapdragons are absolutely amazing this time of year," she said with a grin.

"So I've heard. I promise it's on my list." I decided to jump into the matter at hand. "I hate to change to a darker subject," I said with as much aplomb as I could muster, "but I have a question about Mr. Robertson from a couple of years ago."

Her demeanor soured. "Oh, I see. Well, I really can't comment on that."

I tilted my head. "I can understand why a small town might not want to report on such an ugly happening. I'm honestly just trying to get some answers. Is that alright? I'm more interested in the work that Department C is doing, and I think Mr. Robertson might have been exposed to some kind of interaction that caused his issues." I handed her back her copy of Orange. "Honestly, I think that something he experienced there triggered a massive attack of PTSD, perhaps mixed with some other personality disorder."

"Mr. Robertson…" she said through gritted teeth, "Should never have come back here. He was a terrible cop, he was an awful person. He mistreated everyone he met his entire life. Many of us weren't surprised at all to find out that he had flipped his lid at all, let alone that he had become violent. He was a ticking time bomb, Mr. Lampert."

I realized my eyes had become wide. "Really? This is really new information to me, because I had been under the impression that until his quick deterioration, he was a mild-mannered guy."

"Mild mannered? Ha." She shelved my book with a snap next to her desk, and I couldn't help but feel like she was discarding it quickly from her presence. Something I had said had really set her off. "No, he was a mess. He harassed people, he bothered people, and he was a general nuisance. Good riddance to him."

I could feel our conversation falling apart. "So the Woolper Weekly decided not to report on it because they didn't want to give publicity to such a horrid man?"

"Basically. He was a stain on our town's reputation." I recalled that Smith from department C had used that same term: stain. "He didn't fit in. And then he proved everyone's suspicions in the end."

I took a note. "When you say 'everyone—'"

"Mr. Lampert," she said, leaning back in her chair, "I have a lot of work to do. It's been lovely having you here, but unfortunately, I need to place some calls. Have a good morning."

I didn't argue and stood up with a polite smile, pocketing my notebook and heading for the door. She picked up her phone on my way out the door, and I pulled it mostly closed as I headed out into the hallway.

I am not a bad person, I must remind myself, when I look back on what I did then. After checking the hallway to be sure I was not on camera and was really alone, I crept back to the door and listened. Terribly unprofessional of me, I know, but I was so overwhelmed by a sense of deep curiosity that I couldn't help myself.

"Yes, this is Adria. No. No, not at all. I know. Yes, he just left."

I felt a chill, the way one does when they overhear themselves being talked about.

"I know, it's interesting. I saw that he had gone out and visited the hospital. No, I don't, he didn't bring it up. I know. Well, all of us know everything is fine. It's just irritating. That's fine. We'll talk about it later. Bye."

The horror-novel vibes were settling in strong as I stopped by the convenience store to pick up some snacks that afternoon. I had texted LaChiara and asked about her plans. I also apologized for not joining Department C in the greenhouse photography the day prior.

No problem, she texted. I'm filing some paperwork for the town treasury office. One of their employees is out this week. I was starting to think that Department C was basically the town temp agency. Plans for lunch? she texted.

"How long have you been with the department?"

"Two years." Our lunch plans had been to a small café bistro next to the creek, with little healthy-looking sandwiches and smoothies listed down the chalkboard menu. We were sitting outside on the patio under a striped umbrella, and LaChiara had been more responsive to my line of questioning so long as it didn't stray too close to the Robertson case.

"And you do mostly this temporary work and fill-ins, right?"

"Basically. And we have to do 'research' on the occult, which usually just amounts to getting the Bartlett trust to rubber-stamp a 2-page essay on astronomy around Woolper or that we spent a night looking for werewolves. It's entertaining, and every year the director basically has to spend a few weeks filling out bullshit paperwork."

"And if it's not good enough, the town loses its funding. No pressure."

She nodded. "Which, to be fair, is why she's probably one of the highest-paid people in town. She's on the city council, too."

I raised my eyebrows. "Huh. Interesting mix for that city council. The chief of police, the local doctor, the local paranormal director…" I grinned. "All the ingredients you need for a nutritious breakfast."

She laughed. "Yeah. They've also got a Bartlett trust investor, the head of the local bank, the local Elementary principal, and the editor of the local paper."

"Adria?" I took a gulp of my smoothie. "I didn't know, I was just talking to her today. Nice lady."

"I think so. She tries to keep the paper really legit. Back in the day, it used to be a sort of a gossip column, and I think she took it as a personal challenge to make it a real newspaper worth reading."

"Fair enough." I took another thoughtful smoothie gulp. "How did you get involved in the department?"

She laughed again. "Actually, it was because I had this weird suspicion that they were something bigger and more important. I grew up near here and I had heard about Department C…I'm a big paranormal and occult nerd so I made up my mind I would try and get a job there. And…well, it's not all it's cracked up to be."

"That's a shame. Did you think it would be more like the X-files?"

"Exactly! I grew up with that show so that's exactly what I envisioned." She popped a forkful of salad into her mouth.

"To be fair that's what I envisioned, too. It's a weird situation isn't it? I wonder what Bartlett would say to what the department does these days."

We were quiet for a few long moments, and I almost felt like LaChiara was searching my face for the answer to a question she hadn't yet asked. Finally she spoke. "I'm sorry that Smith was a little brusque. Everybody's on edge about Robertson."

I didn't want her to think I was trying to pry more information out of her. "I don't need to talk about—"

"It's fine. Honestly, it happened right after I got hired. See, Robertson was on light duty for about three weeks, and there was an opening at the Department, so they had him do paperwork there. Then he got transferred back to the police and I got hired to fill the vacancy he had left. There wasn't much drama about it when I started."

I didn't say anything. I wanted to ask if anyone had looked into what Robertson had done at Department C, but I knew that the information I was currently getting was already pushing my luck a bit.

"But anyway," she said, her face lighting up again, "There's a lot of good stuff around town anyway. How long are you in town for?"

"Just until Friday."

"Oh wow, that's only a couple days. Wish you could stay longer."

"Why's that?"

Her eyes went briefly wide and she looked away. "I mean…it's a nice relaxing place. Good for the soul or something."

I gave her a sidelong look as I took another gulp of the smoothie. "Well, you know, I'm sorta on the time clock. Pushing for too many days out here might make my editor tetchy."

She nodded, her eyes very intently fixed elsewhere, with a little bit of a blush appearing to fill her cheeks. "Still. You're pretty decent company. You'd probably fit in well out here." Was she flirting with me? Maybe it was the 'small town versus outsider' kind of vibe, but I was slightly uncomfortable, professionally, with the prospect.

I drained the remainder of my smoothie in a gulp, feeling a flash of searing cold cross my face and I winced hard. "I appreciate that. Anyway, I should be off. I wanted to check out the—"

"Would you like to get dinner later?" She said with a widening smile. "I can tell you everything I know about the Bartlett Trust." She fixed my gaze and half-lidded her eyes. "I've been handling certain parts of their paperwork for the last year or so."

"What kind of paperwork?" I couldn't let myself be swept into this nonsense. LaChiara was toying with me now, I could tell, and I was growing increasingly irritated, no matter how cute she might be. "And why are you doing it?"

"Because we're the temps of the city," she said bluntly. "It's interesting to see what kind of gains come from that money, and where it's going. I know you're interested. Admit it."

"I'm interested," I said, my brain-freeze finally clearing, "but I want to iterate that I'm a professional."

"I know you are. So am I."

"Okay then. We're on the same page."

"Of course."

I suspected we were not on the same page, but nonetheless we made plans to meet at Department C's office the following evening. In the meantime, I was very interested in seeing a little of what Department C actually did.

I had the opportunity to do shortly after my lunch with LaChiara. I got an email from Antoinette Smith. "You wanted to see what we do. Meet at the creek bridge at 3pm. Wear boots if you have them."

I reread the email once or twice and then went out to my station wagon to look for boots. I found the vehicle unlocked, and was mildly alarmed at the prospect, it being a deep habit of mine to lock and re-lock the car whenever I leave it. It was possible, of course, that I had somehow forgotten this once, but to be sure I spent a little while digging around to see if any of the mass of things I had brought with me had been stolen. Nothing appeared missing, so I put the matter to the back of my mind, grabbed a pair of boots I had brought, and headed toward the bridge.

The bridge crossing Woolper Creek was a two-lane concrete structure about 60 feet long, suspended about six feet above the bubbling creek below. Off toward the west, the twisting and odd bend of the water formed an S-shape, and then emptied out into the Ohio River about a mile down.

Smith was waiting there for me, along with LaChiara. They were in a rather serious conversation as I pulled up, and I tried to not act suspicious.

"Assuming that's the case, I'm pretty sure we're all in agreement," Smith was saying as I got just barely into earshot with the help of a convenient downwind.

"When is the due date?"

"I would say next week. Nobody really gives two shits in the end, but I like to have everything neat and tidy."

"I get that. When does Lampert get here?"

"He should be here any—oh. Mr. Lampert."

I waved. "Speak of the devil and he shall appear."

Smith raised her eyebrows. "Clearly. In any case, I thought since you were interested you might like to see what some of the municipal groups here in Woolper do to make use of the resource that is Department C." She wiggled her fingers in some mock-spooky way.

"That's fair. I appreciate you letting me show. What's going on?"

"That," she said, and she pointed over the bridge at what looked like a large clump of moss poking up from the surface of the running creek water.

"What is it?" I tried to make out details.

"Dead dog." I cringed a little. "Normally sanitation would be doing it, but what do you know, one of them called out this morning. So here we are, with gloves and rope and boots, and we're gonna pull this bitch out of the water, bag it, and dispose of it." She looked me in the eye with a gaze so cold that it could freeze a flame. "Glamorous, isn't it?"

I looked over at LaChiara, who was rather pointedly staring at her feet. I wondered if Smith had volunteered to take this job in some way, just to stick it to me and my nosy nose. Speaking of noses, Smith passed me a small container of menthol cream to put under mine, and as she threw the rope out to catch a hold of the clump of stuff, I began to slightly regret being so curious. She handed me a set of thick rubber gloves and we went to work.

It took four tries to be able to hook onto the thing, but we finally managed to grab it, pull it up the side of the bridge, and get it over onto the sidewalk. I was instantly glad for the menthol cream, because the dog had already become quite bloated and was filled with all manner of organisms that I could see bubbling and writhing under the mottled fur. Smith wasted no time opening up a heavy-duty bag. "Watch it, be careful where you lift. Don't want to bust it open and spill maggots everywhere."

Of course, no sooner had she said that when I tried to shift my grip and somehow caught hold of some kind of pouch full of things. It burst open, spilling over my gloved and onto my pants, covering me with a foul-smelling stench and hundreds of bloated white maggots. I groaned audibly and forced the rest of the carcass into the bag before trying to scoop the things off of myself and into the bag while trying to hold down my lunch. I failed miserably at the latter task, and a few moments later my smoothie came back up my gullet, basically the same color as it had been when going down, and covered the sidewalk in sticky, sugary goo.

Smith laughed at me as she threw the dead dog into the back of the pickup truck she had parked on the side of the road. After disposing of her gloves, she walked over to me and looked down with a gaze of utter victory.

"Welcome to Department C, Mr. Lampert. I hope it was everything you were looking for."

I spent the rest of the day trying to assuage my sick stomach. I alternated between my laptop and the bathroom, taking at least three showers over the course of the evening. My pants that had been covered in dog-slime were utterly ruined, and I was thankful that I had been over-cautious about my packing because I had plenty to replace them.

I was also frustrated at Smith. It was very clear that my presence here irritated her beyond measure, and I didn't quite understand why. It was also clear that there was something strange going on with the town council, and I tried to devote some time toward getting answers. It was late when I heard a light knock on my hotel room door.

It was LaChiara. "I'm so sorry," she blurted out, "We don't normally do that kind of stuff. Maybe once in a while. But I think Smith asked to grab one of those jobs on purpose just to be a bitch."

"I actually kind of figured that," I said with a little yawn. "But it's alright, you didn't need to come out here—"

She looked down the line of hotel doors and shook her head at me. "Can I come in? It's really important."

I hesitated. Nothing had really felt right since I had showed up in Woolper, and I wasn't quite sure who to trust. "I mean, can it wait until—"

"No." She shook her head emphatically, her eyes wide.

I sighed and pulled the door fully open, letting her slip past. "What's going on?" I asked as the door closed.

She spun on me. "Everything, ok. Remember how I said I'm not originally from Woolper? Well, I'm not. And ever since moving here it's been really strange. The town council, like, controls everything. The newspaper, the police, everything. But I haven't been able to figure out what the cause is. I figured if we work together—"

"Wait, wait," I said, putting my hands up defensively, "You've been here for two years and work in the super-secret department already. What could I possibly find out that you can't?"

"I don't know, but you've got a lot more research on this town than I do already. I told you I have information about the Bartlett Trust. Do you want it or not?"

The original head of the Bartlett Trust was Bartlett's own attorney, a very stern and conservative man named Artie Holt, in an office back in Detroit. The setup of the Trust had been a long and arduous endeavor, spanning several months of back-and-forth with the Commonwealth of Kentucky and easily 500 hours of paralegals doing grueling work to be sure that every "t" was crossed and every "i" dotted. Most of Bartlett's vision for the trust was retained—some even stranger requests simply weren't feasible, like the building of a statue of some pagan god in the middle of town square—but for the most part, the Trust was going to be an expression of a man's devotion to his community. It was, to be sure, an expensive endeavor, but Bartlett appeared to be perfectly happy with sparing no expense to get it done. If something were to fall through for some reason, then the whole beautiful and meticulous setup of the Trust would all be for naught.

The days after Bartlett's death were excruciating, 20-hour days over the course of two weeks while a whole forest's worth of paperwork was filed in government offices across three states. But the Trust had become a very valuable endeavor, and since the stipulations included major penalties on Holt's law firm if the Trust did not get into working order within 30 days, it was well worth the overtime to make it happen.

And it did. The stipends to businesses went out on time the first year without a hiccup. And the town created its investigation department, titled "Department C", within the 6 months allotted to them.

When the trust paid out its final payment to Holt, he almost immediately retired. He moved to Delaware, bought a new house, and appeared to completely forget everything about Woolper and the Bartlett Trust.

And within a week, he had killed himself.

The new head of the Trust was a man named Sandley Henderson, who took charge of the Trust quietly and without much ado. Henderson lived in nearby Lexington, KY, and made frequent trips out to Woolper for meetings with the mayor and town council just to be sure everything was still on the up-and up. The town, for the credit, was doing everything perfectly, from the staffing of the Department to the reports that were required to be filed—they were doing Bartlett proud, for sure, in boosting their town's economy and benefiting the people who lived there.

In the 90's the economy took a nasty toll. The Bartlett Trust paid out significantly less during the recessions that followed, but somehow it was still able to meet the town's needs. More businesses sprang up, working to meet the requirements that, if met, would warrant a stipend from the Trust. People worked together then, too, because the benefit of each business was inexplicably tied to the payouts, which were based on the town's own ability to manage its finances well.

The exact requirements were known only to a few. It was therefore necessary that any business which sprung up would do everything within its power to be successful under its own steam first, and then adjust as necessary in the hopes that a stipend check might arrive in the next year. "Blind chess," LaChiara called it, when explaining about the businesses that never quite met the requirements in some way and always ended up closing. If you weren't on the "in", it seemed, you were very much on the "out".

In January 1999, Henderson announced his retirement as head of the Trust, transferring control to a woman named Carla Heron, a legal advisor from New York. The reason for Henderson's retirement was very private—all that is known about this particular affair was that Henderson visited Woolper one last time to finalize the transfer of ownership, left town, drove to Florida, and shot himself on a white sand Florida beach.

Carla Heron managed the Trust and its assets since that time for the most part remotely from her office in New York. She occasionally sent polite letters and cards to people in the town. But it was very clear that, perhaps having heard of the fates of her two predecessors, she worked very hard to stay as far away from Woolper proper as she could.

"Two suicides?" I said over ordered-in Chinese food, as we pored over public records and news articles that LaChiara had brought. "Both shortly after leaving the Trust. That's not a good sign."

"Definitely not," she agreed with a forkful of beef and broccoli pointed like a pencil in my direction. "But that's not all. Everyone that's even been on the Town Council that moved away…they basically vanished off the map. One guy—this was a few years ago—moved out to Colorado because his mother was sick. He never even boarded his flight at CVG. His family did a missing person's investigation, but he never turned up anywhere."

I crunched down on a cheese rangoon. "That's awful. But if there's foul play involved, why didn't this turn up anywhere? Who investigated?"

"Woolper police, of course."

"And Chief Ryder is on the council. Dammit, that's…I don't even know what that is. This is small-town-itis like I've never heard of before."

"You're telling me. I've lived here for years and it's the same thing day in and day out. It's like a prison. A nice prison, where I have a nice job that pays pretty well, but a prison nonetheless."

A thought occurred to me. "What about the people who work or leave town temporarily? Like the NKU students down at the Woolper Weekly."

"Haven't noticed anything personally. Do you think they're being followed or something?" She tilted her head as I scribbled a note.

"Maybe. We've got to get some demographic information for this population. I may have to head out to Florence and start on some record searching. Are you in?"

LaChiara thought quietly to herself. "In…theory. Yes. I could probably take a personal day or two. Might even get it paid if I tell Smith that I'm keeping an eye on you."

I nodded slowly. "Are you keeping an eye on me, though? Not to sound suspicious or anything, but what you just told me about this town reduces my ability to trust the locals. That includes you."

She laughed. "Oh, I'm keeping an eye on you, alright. But for completely different reasons."

She left shortly after that, and as I watched her car pull out of the hotel parking lot, I felt a strange chill come over me. It is that feeling one might get stepping into a cold pool on a hot day—the kind of chill that starts at the feet and makes the body shiver not out of cold, but out of fear of suddenly being swallowed up by the wave.

I was afraid of being swallowed up.

I had to call Marcie. I dialed her number, hoping she might be willing to pick up even though it was rather late already. "Come on…come on…"

"Hello, Kyle. Must be important; it's almost midnight."

"It is important. And I'm sorry for bothering you." I gave Marcie a run-down of what had happened so far with Department C and the history of the Trust. Marcie listened attentively, to the point where I was almost suspicious that she might have fallen asleep on the other end of the line. "…and she just left. What do you think?"

"Hm." She was quiet for a few long moments. "Kyle…this all sounds very bad. Even more so to hear some of the things Mr. Robertson mentioned. But I have also learned a few things here, and I think action is necessary."

"Well, I'm about ready to pack my stuff up and leave."

"No, no, don't do that. In fact, I'm going to come to you. We're going to go talk to Mr. Robertson again. And you and I will get to the bottom of this together."

I balked. "You're going to…come out here? After all I just said?"

"Absolutely. I have a rapport with the Mayor and the Council. I can come up with reasons to be back in town. Final paperwork, whatever. But I do need you to keep safe, alright? How would you feel about meeting me at CVG airport tomorrow morning and we'll make a plan?"

I thought it over and couldn't find any particularly overt flaws in her plan. "OK, that sounds good to me."

Marcie arrived at the airport the following morning. I had had a bit of trouble sleeping after the revelations of the previous night, but I was determined to not let the creeping feelings of dread cloud my judgment or spoil my journalistic integrity.

Speaking of journalistic integrity, Marcie had a few choice words as soon as we had passed out of the glass doors toward the airport parking garage. "You mentioned that this LaChiara woman was flirting with you."

I blushed a little bit. "Yeah, at least I'm pretty sure she was. Some heavy signals."

"And you realize that that kind of behavior is problematic both professionally and emotionally for you." It wasn't a question.

"Well, obviously! And to be fair, given what I suspect about the town, and the fact that her advances kind of came out of nowhere, I'm not too comfortable with it. On top of the fact that I'm a professional, of course…"

"Of course. So did you sleep with her last night?" The question was so blunt, it hit like a punch.

"What? Of course not! We ate Chinese food and read through public records. That's all."

Marcie nodded, apparently approving of my superhuman man-willpower. "I am mildly disconcerted by the way she's acting. As it also means that the information she gives us is going to need to be treated as suspect." I unlocked my station wagon and moved some empty cups out of the way; Marcie wrinkled her nose a little bit at my messy car but made no comment about it. "But you already knew that."

"Yes, I did. Which is why I figure we should go up to the district courthouse in Newport and pull some records of our own. Are you with me?"


I started the car as Marcie got in and I couldn't help but notice that she seemed a little bit colder than usual. More calculating. Maybe it was that she was out of her comfort zone, but I suspected it dealt more with the impact of her firm's research: if the town of Woolper had done something so criminally invasive that it had impacted her team and led an otherwise relatively normal man to commit an act of cold-blooded murder, it was absolutely within her best interests to take care of it. My only wonder was why she chose to do so herself, rather than sending a team of lawyers and investigators to swarm the city and practically bury it in paperwork. Field investigation wasn't really Marcie's style. That's why she needed people like me.

Her phone rang just as we got onto the highway. She glowered at the screen and then answered it. "This is Marcie." A long pause; she stiffened in her seat. "When?" I tried to keep my eyes on the road and saw Marcie put her hand to her forehead in frustration. "Alright. I greatly appreciate you letting me know. Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you." She hung up and looked at me. "So much for the plan of going to see Robertson again."

"Why?" I already knew the answer.

"He's dead. He killed himself."

I am not quite sure what kind of massive credentials Marcie just have, but I found myself in awe as we arrived at Kentucky Psychiatric. She had spent the majority of the trip on her phone, rapidly tapping out messages one after the other, I can only assume to various project managers and leads. Her eyes didn't leave her screen, but I heard her mumble words under her breath as she typed: "liability", "unnecessary", "incredibly unfortunate".

I could put together a picture of what must be going through her mind. She had obviously already linked Robertson's stint in Department C with his breakdown, but the fact that it appeared, at least on some level, to be connected to Marcie's company's work opened up a whole slew of questions related to what exactly they did, and whether or not they should somehow be held liable for his death. I could imagine that she probably dealt with Dr. Schubert's death similarly, but as Robertson was the definite and immediate cause it would be hard for anyone to try and put liability on the company.

I found myself back in Dr. Abernathy's office. His friendly round face seemed a decade older than a few days prior, and I could tell that the presence of Marcie gave him a deep concern, as if he was afraid that she had shown up Monty Python-style to put a stop to the whole thing and put everyone under arrest. (It's a fair cop.)

"Dr. Teeter. Please have a seat. And hello, Mr. Lampert." We were ushered into chairs at the administrator's desk. "I honestly didn't expect to hear from you so soon, let alone in person."

"I don't think we have time for small talk, Fred," Marcie said, and the way that she called him by his first name made him appear to recoil as though he had been hit by a water balloon. "One of your patients is dead."

"Which is terrible, but not an uncommon occurrence in a psychiatric hospital. I assure you, there's no—"

"There is absolutely cause for alarm. Don't give me that shit. I give it a week, maybe two, before I have lawyers at my New York office with malpractice lawsuits. We both know that the research my company did was not clinical—it was entirely data-driven and analytical. But unless you can give me some answers, I won't have anything to give to my attorneys to make that case."

Abernathy looked from Marcie to me and then back. "Can we talk privately?"

Marcie didn't even move her head. "No."

He sighed deeply. "Alright, if that's how this is going to be, then I don't think we have much more to talk about." He glowered over his glasses.

Marcie didn't give any indication of being intimidated or anger at being brushed off. Instead, she pulled a small notebook from her pocket, wrote something on it, and passed it across the table. "Call this number, please."

Abernathy picked up the paper and furrowed his brow. He glanced to me again, and then to Marcie, and then picked up his handset and dialed. "I don't know what you're playing here, Marcie—"

"Dr. Teeter, if you please."

"Right, I—Oh, hello. I was just given this n—Yes. This is Dr. Abernathy. Who am I speaking to?" There was a long pause and I tried to strain my ears and hear the response from the other end without giving any indication in my face that I was doing so. I didn't catch the response, but Dr. Abernathy's face slowly drained of color over the next thirty seconds of silence. "I see," Abernathy said when his face had become a satisfyingly white color, "Of course I will cooperate. What kind of doctor do you take me for? No, that's not necessary. Of course. Thank you, have a great day." He put the phone down with a trembling hand. "What exactly do you need, Dr. Teeter?"

We walked out of the office a few minutes later and Abernathy closed the door behind us. I turned my head slowly to stare at her as we walked out toward the waiting room. "You are terrifying."

"Thank you."

The office placed calls to the Commonwealth of Kentucky's district courts and within a half an hour, a copy of a court order for records release was faxed to Dr. Abernathy's office while Marcie and I waited patiently in the lobby. I made myself a cup of nasty waiting room coffee with powdered sawdust that was meant to stand in as creamer; I offered to make Marcie a cup, and her reply was a stare of disgust so strong that the coffee machine itself made a noise of recoil as it decided to rethink its sad, sorry life.

An orderly met us in the lobby while the office made copies of all the requested files. "Dr. Teeter? We're ready downstairs if you'd like to see Mr. Robertson."

She nodded and rose from her chair, sauntering out the door after the orderly, with me trailing quietly behind. One large elevator later, we arrived in the basement, and a sticky chill of air rushed in the doors, making me feel like I had just splashed formaldehyde on my face. I followed closely behind Marcie as we turned a corner. I realized, as we pushed nearly-dramatically through the swinging doors into the main room of the morgue, that I had inexplicably become the sidekick as soon as Marcie had shown up. I didn't hate the prospect.

Another doctor stepped out of an office and greeted us. "Dr. Teeter?" She nodded curtly in reply. "I'm Dr. Huber. I have the deceased over here. Mr. Robertson, yes?" He walked over to a storage slab, opened the door, and rolled out the body, covered in a sheet.

In my time as a journalist I have seen many corpses over my time. I don't think it ever gets particularly easy to look at a corpse over time, but I think it does become manageable as you begin to explain, politely, to yourself that you are looking at the shell of a person, not the person you once knew. I told myself that as the sheet was gently lifted away and I looked down at the man I had spoken to just a few days prior.

"Cause of death," Dr. Huber said, lifting one of the corpse's wrists with a gloved hand, "is loss of blood from self-inflicted wounds to the right wrist."

"And no one saw it happen?" Marcie sounded downright irritated.

"No, he pulled his covers over himself and then did it. Security didn't notice anything until they started to see a pool of blood dripping from the bed and by then it was too late."

"How did he…?"

"Pencil. Someone gave him a pencil and he used it to scrape his wrists with the sharp point until the skin broke. Administration's in a tizzy over how it happened, and they're launching an investigation."

"I am launching an investigation," she corrected in such a manner that her tone of voice indicated her credentials. "So I would like a full report on the autopsy as soon as it's ready. You will send it to no one except me."

"Well, of course I might—"

"That includes family members who might come asking questions and also includes other staff of this hospital. This especially means anyone who lives in or near the town of Woolper." She handed over her business card and, without any further words, turned on her heel and I followed her out of the morgue.

"You think Woolper council might send someone?"

"I think they already did. I don't know what any of them might have on Abernathy, or if they're just paying him, but I wouldn't be surprised if any evidence is already gone."

The elevator door opened, and we stepped onto it. "I don't think Dr. Huber is going to keep the records away from his boss."

"Neither do I, but it was worth the try at intimidation. Might buy us a few extra hours when it's done. In the meantime…"

"District court, still?"

"Yes. And then the library."

Covington is a town downriver from the northernmost tip of Kentucky, right across the river from Cincinnati and about a half hour northeast of Woolper. Several bridges over the Ohio River separate it from Cincinnati, and it is near Newport: often the heart of vintage architecture, nightlife, and general gaiety and entertainment in the area.

We, however, had no time for such frivolity. Our destination was the District Court in Covington, and the records that required a court order to unseal. Marcie, apparently, had this all in hand as we went through the metal detectors and into a waiting lobby. She continued to hammer out emails on her phone.

"What are you doing?" I asked with real curiosity.

"Calling in a favor. I hate calling in favors."

"How did you get the favor in the first place?"

Before she could respond, a door on the right side of the hall opened and an older woman stepped out in trim button-down shirt and slacks, looking rather relaxed but at the same time alert. "Hello, Dr. Teeter. Please, come this way."

We followed. "Are you Judge Hopple?"

"I am." She opened a side door. "And you are…?" She raised her eyebrows in my direction.

"Oh! I'm Kyle Lampert, with—"

"He's an associate of mine," Marcie interrupted, shooting me a sidelong glare. "Did you have a chance to read the reasoning behind the request?"

We took a seat in the judge's office and she plopped down behind her desk which was covered in papers. "I did," she said, picking up a printout of the email, "And I'm afraid I don't completely understand."

"The 'Mr. Robertson' listed in this case is recently deceased, and since I oversaw a doctor who recently had him under care, I took interest in his case. Presently, I believe that there may be a criminal element related to Mr. Robertson, and I need to take a look at the case file and evidence. If anything is found it will be turned over to the police. If not, then the case remains sealed and we are still bound under HIPAA."

The judge read over the email again. "But you said Mr. Robertson is deceased. If he is a criminal element…?"

"I have reason to believe he had an associate. Perhaps more than one."

"And what leads you to this conclusion?"

"Research related to his previous position. A short stint working in a municipal department that I think may be the front for criminal activity. I would know; if you look at the case my name is on half the documents related to the victim, Dr. Schubert."

The judge nodded and sat very quietly for a long moment before she made her decision. "Alright. I can get it done. But the file will have to stay here at the courthouse."

"Done. Thank you, Your Honor. You may be saving lives today."

"That was brilliant." I handed Marcie her coffee cup that I had just purchased from somewhere that made coffee suitable for consumption. "I don't know how you do it. It is just all your credentials? Or what?"

Marcie shrugged and mixed her coffee with the wooden stirrer. "It's all in how you carry yourself. Understand and believe that you have the authority or expertise and you will often not be questioned at all. It's social engineering at its finest. Now, in my case, of course, I am also highly-credentialed, which means that often I do have the authority and expertise."

"Like I said. It's brilliant. You're brilliant."

She shrugged again. "If you say so. Now while we wait for the judge to sign off on this, we need to formulate a plan."

"A plan to do what, exactly? Are we trying to prove something specific?"

"Yes." She sipped her coffee. "Something happened while Robertson was in Department C. Something the town council has covered up. It's important enough to kill Robertson over, and you have evidence already that this might not be the only instance."

"The other two heads of the Bartlett Trust."


I sighed. "OK, be straight with me, Marcie. Why are you so agitated? Why are you out here yourself and not bringing an army of lawyers and analysts?"

"Because," she said with a clear of her throat, "the head of the Bartlett Trust—Carla Heron—she works in my building. And she came up to visit me yesterday afternoon."

"Carla! Come in!" Marcie said, rising politely from her plush chair. Carla entered and shook hands with Marcie before taking a seat. "What brings you up here to the penthouse?"

"Oh, nothing really, at least I don't think." Carla took a deep breath and seemed to calm her nerves. "Something has happened related to a major account downstairs and I think you might want to act on it."

"What's happened?" Marcie tried to remain as stoic as ever, reading Carla's features and body language in a detailed fashion and surmising that the woman was intentionally trying to be disconcerting.

"One of the major accounts I run is a wealthy and old trust out in Kentucky. You might have heard of it, I think you all did some research for the town a year or so ago?"

"Woolper?" Marcie raised her eyebrows. "So your firm manages the Bartlett Trust?"

"Ah, you are familiar with it. Good. Well, the problem is that recently I have been getting calls from the Woolper town council."

Marcie nodded but said nothing.

"There's a gentleman down there in town who's doing some research, but he's causing quite a stir. Showed up at town hall raving about the x-files and aliens. Saying that Woolper is a government conspiracy. And then, he said he was hired by you."

"Really." Marcie tried to keep not only her tone but her whole body language as nonreactive as possible. "When did this all happen?"

"Yesterday, as far as I know. Now, Marcie, the town is small and they're a little closed-off, but the last thing they need is a journalist ranting about aliens. It'll cause a scare, you see. And we wouldn't want that."

"Of course not. I can speak to Mr. Lampert."

"I think it's beyond that, Marcie. Now I've always been upfront with you, and I don't intend to stop doing that now: The Trust and the Town Council are considering legal action."

"On what grounds?" Marcie couldn't help but raise her eyebrows slightly higher.

"I don't know just yet. I'm not a lawyer so I don't have my finger on that button myself. But I think it's a good idea to maybe pull this gentleman out of town and forget the whole thing."

Marcie just stared. "Carla, you have come into my office and now you are laying legal threats against me which I can only assume are baseless. This is above you. This is basic thuggery, Carla. What are you, a mobster?"

Carla soured instantly. "Thuggery! How dare you? I am trying to help you."

"Carla, I think you should leave."

"You want me to threaten you, I can threaten you." Carla stood up.

"I'm going to call security."

"When the town council hears about this, you'll be sorry, Marcie. You have no idea what you're meddling in. You don't know how many people in your own company that work for me, Marcie. It's a lot. The Bartlett Trust does not play nice." Carla turned and stomped out of the room, leaving Marcie exceptionally confused.

She immediately opened her tablet and began to book a flight.

Concluded in: Small Town Secrets

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