A Picasso Smith, Jr. Mystery

by Hugh Lessig

.......They found John the Polack all torn up on the third floor of Andersen's Mill. I got there late, which was just as well.

.......Someone had pushed him into the blades. So said the men in the parking lot, men who carried coolers as big as boom boxes, and who had circular tins of snuff tucked into the back pockets of their dirty jeans. They didn't talk to me, but I heard "John the Polack got his" and that kind of stuff.

....... I flashed my press badge at the guardhouse, and the rent-a-cop gave me a look when he saw I worked for The River City Blade. We wrote a week's worth of stories on this mill a few years ago when the feds cited them for dumping waste oil in the groundwater. I guess he must've been around for that.

....... A fine, rust red powder covered the ground just inside the gate. It covered the pickup trucks next to the mill. It covered the mill itself. It covered the forklifts and the men who drove the forklifts. The men looked liked coal miners if coal had been red. I wondered what the hell they made here.

......."Hey! Picasso."

.......As we approached the mill, one of the red men called to me. He was a fiftyish man with big forearms and a beer belly that an older woman might call cute. He wore the same hardhat and jeans and T-shirt as everyone else, but I recognized his voice.

....... As he came closer, I saw it was Scott. Scott Stavros? Scott Stackhouse? Scott something. His brother died in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and I did a story on it. Since then, I've seen him at Richmond Braves games, and he always mentions the story because that earthquake disrupted the World Series, and it makes him think about baseball.

....... We shook hands and I got the red junk all over me. It was a fine powder, like flour, and it smelled like nothing in particular. He laughed as I looked at my hand.

....... "Now you're initiated," he said.

....... Scott said he would look after me, and the guard left us to talk.

....... "You picked a helluva day to come here, huh? Right up in the mill, he got caught. They found him between the third and fourth floors. One of them blades caught him right in the DMZ. I hear tell he was calling for his wife as he got sucked down. She's been dead these ten years. Hell, I figure the last thing he heard was her voice from the Great Beyond."

....... "Scott," I said. "What do they make here?"

....... "Paint pigment. They grind up umber and pack it off in fifty-pound bags." I gave him a look and he answered my unspoken question. "Umber is a red shale, Mr. Smith. It comes from Cyprus or somewhere. This mill grinds it up into powder. Or it grinds up Polacks. They put this umber in dog food, too. Now maybe well have Purina Polack Chow."

....... I asked about what happened, about what I heard in the parking lot. Scott's round, red face turned serious.

....... "They said John the Polack had it coming to him? You'll find people who will say that. No one will deny it." Scott shook his head as if trying to clear his mind. "Hey, you wanna get some coffee? They're closing us down today, what with this stuff happening."

....... I told him I had work to do, what with this stuff happening. Scott didn't seem to want to settle down.

....... "Well, you heard the theory, I gather. One of the college kids did him in. We get them for summer help -- football types, mostly. It's a bad crop this year. The cops saw the green handprints. These kids never did honest work for a living and someone like the Polack gets under their skin. Last week? One of them kids wanted to ram a broom handle up the Polacks ass. Would've loaded him up like a breechloader."

....... "Green handprints, Scott?"

....... "Yessiree."

....... "Tell me about them."

....... "The Polack had green handprints on him."

....... "That doesn't mean much to me, Scott. Pretend I'm six years old and explain it."

....... He pointed toward the fourth floor of the corrugated metal building. It had four windows as big as front doors. Three windows had a fringe of the umber powder. The fourth window was a mix of colors

....... "This mill got four production lines," Scott said, his voice taking on an authoritative tone. "Three lines always do red umber. The fourth line is set aside for different colors. Sometimes white. Sometimes black. Sometimes green. It's different material, not umber. It packs real slow. You do maybe two hundred bags a shift. College help always works that line."

....... "And it was green today?" I finished.

....... Scott checked his watch. "It was green last night on third shift. The Polack likes working the third shift, this being summer. He had maybe two or three college kids working in the green. Another two or three doing cleanup and whatnot." Scott turned and spit a gob of red. "This umber gets everywhere. Up your nose. In your pores. We got showers here. Well take showers before we go home, but you still sweat it out. And when you blow your nose, oy . .. "

....... "That's OK, Scott."

....... We walked together into the plant and took the freight elevator to the fourth floor. Since I was late, a police flak had arrived to sanitize the story. Yes, the victim was working the overnight shift and the accident happened around 5:30 a.m. No, they weren't saying it was a murder. Yes, it was suspicious. No, they didn't have any suspects and they didn't have any eyewitnesses. Yes, they were questioning people. No, they weren't saying who. Yes, it was unusual for a veteran worker to just fall into the machinery. No, this mill didn't have a history of accidents, your journalistic whack-job on this company notwithstanding. Yes, cops are so lazy they feel out of place in real workplace. And for the record? You're an idiot, Smith. That's all you're getting today.

....... I called the metro desk on my cell phone. They stuck three paragraphs on the web site as breaking news and told me to work up a profile on John the Polack, whose real name turned out to be John Victor Rukoski, age sixty-three, native of eastern Pennsylvania, wife dead, one daughter working overseas for a petroleum firm, one older brother in a New Hampshire nursing home and absolutely no friends.

....... I went to the personnel office to get a line on the college help, but they weren't releasing names. I went to Plan B and asked if the good Mr. Rukoski had any friends at work because we wanted to work up a nice obituary.

....... That got me to see the personnel director. She was a fortyish woman, impossibly thin, with square, black glasses and no wedding ring. The name on her desk said AHERN.

....... "You might try Scott Stafford," she said.

....... Scott Stafford was my Scott.

....... "They were good friends?" I asked.

....... "They, uh, knew each other. Served in the military together, if I'm not mistaken. Mr. Rukoski was the miller, of course. He ran the operation. Mr. Stafford is a shift supervisor. Mr. Rukoski had thirty-six years in the mill and Mr. Stafford had thirty-three and a half."

....... "They were friends?"

....... "They knew each other," Miss Ahern said evenly.

....... She had a firm math teacher's voice, the kind that told you to figure out the problem for yourself. I thanked her and went out to the parking lot. Scott was standing next to my car. He had taken a shower. He looked like the guy I always saw at the ballpark with his slicked back hair and a fresh T-shirt. Or it grinds up Polacks, was what he had said.

....... "You still want to go for that cup of coffee?" He asked. I said sure and he quickly jumped in his pickup. Scott looked a little hinky.

....... We decided on the Denny's at the I-64 interchange. I followed in my car. We drove on a two-lane road that paralleled the interstate and, halfway there, Scott passed a Winnebago on a two-lane road. I couldn't make it around. I called the newsroom library and asked them to do a morgue search on the names Scott Stafford and John Rukoski, figuring if he split Id have my story anyway.

....... When I pulled into the Denny's, Scott's pickup was right out front. He had snagged a seat in the smoking section and had ordered us coffee. There were two doughnuts on the small plate in front of him. I sat down and eased my tape recorder from my back pocket onto the seat beside me. I felt OK in here. It was a public place. The worst that could happen was for him to get spooked, so I decided to dive right in.

....... "Scott," I began. "Miss Ahern said you and John knew each other from way back. In fact, you were the first and only one she mentioned. Now am I missing something or . . . Scott?"

....... "Ssshhhhh."

....... "What's wrong?"

....... "Outside. The blue car."

....... I casually turned toward the parking lot and saw two men in a dark blue Ford Torino. One had thick, black hair and the other had a Washington Redskins ball cap. They were looking directly at us. Scott lowered his eyes.

....... "I seen them at the mill, hanging outside the fence," he said. "Now they followed us here. I seen them on other days, waiting for the college kids to finish their shift." Then he said something I didn't catch.

....... "Scott, they can't hear us."

....... "Drug buddies," he said. "That's what I'm talking about."

....... "Scott, that doesn't . . . "

....... "These college kids are violent. They don't know right from wrong. If Johnny got under their skin, they'd just as soon knock him off because that's what they do. I think they were watching me when I was talking to you in the yard."

....... "That's why you were . . . ?"

....... "Yeah. That's why I was acting like anyone else instead of John's best friend. Maybe they could hear me, I don't know. I thought you were some kind of investigative reporter, Mr. Smith. Don't you got radar for this kind of thing?"

....... He stirred his coffee with a shaking hand. He took two big bites out of the first doughnut. He dropped the spoon and hunkered forward on the table, resting his forehead in his hands. The waitress approached our table, gave us a look and kept walking.

....... My cell phone vibrated in the breast pocket of my sport coat, and I almost jumped out of the booth. The research assistant at the library had come up with two Scott Stafford stories: mine on the earthquake connection from ten years ago, and a piece from twenty years back headlined "Friend gives gift of life." It told of two military buddies, Scott Stafford and John Rukoski, and how one was sick and the other donated his kidney. The story was big on gushy quotes and Kodak moments. I thanked the assistant and put my cell phone away.

....... "Your office?" His forehead still rested in his hands..

....... "Yeah. "

....... "You gotta go now?"

....... "No. I gotta ask you some questions."

....... The two men in the Ford Torino had not taken their eyes off us.

....... "All right, Scott. Lets assess this. We are in a public place. Nothing will happen to us here. I've got my cell phone. If worst comes to worst, Ill call 911 and well get ourselves a police escort out of here. Now why don't we just have a conversation? You're still allowed to talk to a reporter in this country, last time I checked." I smiled. "You donated a kidney to your friend. Tell me about that. "

....... Scott finally looked up. A line of sweat had formed on his forehead.

....... The sweat was green.

....... "He was never grateful for that," he said.

....... "Scott?"

....... "The kidney, I'm talking about. And his promotion over me. I'm sure god damn nosy Miss Ahern told you about that."

....... I forced myself to relax. "She did mention something about it, yes."

....... "Water under the bridge now," Scott said. "It's true I said things at the time, but it's water under the bridge now."

....... My hand fell to the seat. I reached over and turned on the tape recorder, coughing to hide the click of the button. I took out my notebook and cocked my pen. This was a public place, I had said. Nothing could happen here.

....... "Let me ask a couple of basic questions, just to start off. You're a shift supervisor, right? So last night, on the overnight shift, you were working with Mr. Ruskoski, right?"

....... Scott nodded. He had seen the look on my face. He had heard the shift in my voice.

....... "Did you see anything suspicious? Or hear anything? Maybe one of these college kids threatened Mr. Rukoski?"

....... "No, Mr. Smith."

....... I scribbled something, anything. "You had said Mr. Rukoski cried out for his wife. Who heard that?"

....... "I don't know."

....... I put down my pen and tried to lock stares. "A bad crop of college kids come to work for the summer. Maybe they're drug dealers and maybe they're not. But they're easy suspects, aren't they? If someone is planning something for a long time . . ."

....... "Hey now."

....... I took out a cigarette, lit it, and blew a lungful of smoke directly into Scott's face. He waved it away. I blew out another lungful. He coughed and tried to say something. The third time it had the intended effect. He sneezed, then took a napkin and blew his nose. I grabbed the napkin from his hand and looked at it -- a mixture of bright green and umber red.

....... "This umber gets everywhere. Up your nose. In your pores. And when you blow your nose, oy..."

....... Scott's face took on a hard edge. His mouth set into frown. He put down his coffee cup very gently and folded his hands. "Well," he said. "Look at that."

....... As we sat looking at the napkin, a waitress came by again. She saw the greenish sweat on Scott's upper brow and dropped her notepad.

....... "Mister, what the hell is wrong with you? Did you have the eggs?"

....... The next few minutes train-wrecked into each other. Scott nearly fell out of the booth, claiming in a loud voice that the doughnut filling had made him sick. The manager of the Denny's came out of the kitchen. He hustled Scott into the men's room, then into the kitchen, then into a back office. Finally, I looked directly at the two men in the car and shrugged my shoulders. They looked at each other and got out of the car. One had a sports jacket, and when it flapped open I caught a glimpse of a police badge clipped to his belt. Cops. What a surprise. They walked through the front door and made a beeline for my booth. The guy with the Redskins cap sat next to me while the bigger one sat across the table.

....... "He's in the back office, detectives," I said.

....... Big man gave me a look. "He who? If you're Picasso Smith of the River City Blade, we want to talk to you. You've done investigative work on Andersen's Mill and we have a few questions . . . "

....... I sat contentedly as the cops asked me about my series of A-1 stories. Meanwhile, the helpful manager hustled Scott Stafford out of the Denny's by a side door.

....... Later I learned the manager had offered a ride to the hospital, but Scott said he would be OK. He hopped into his pickup and remains missing to this day.

....... I play back that moment a thousand times, wondering why I let him go with two cops sitting there. Maybe the cops pissed me off. Maybe I didn't think Scott Stafford would run away. Maybe I pitied him. The guy loved to talk. Who would he talk to if he ran?

....... The cops cleared the college students. The missing Scott Stafford was officially declared a suspect. It came out that Rukoski used to tease the hell out of him -- make him go on errands, remind him about the lost promotion. The cops made some noises about a manhunt, but Scott Stafford covered his tracks pretty good for a first-time fugitive.

....... Then today? I get a post card from Ocean City, New Jersey. It has a picture of a boardwalk attraction -- one of those haunted house rides where you sit in a little car and things jump out at you. The entrance to the haunted house had a sign in big, bold letters. ABANDON ALL HOPE. I imagined him living like that. Just waiting for something to jump out from the dark.

....... The postcard had no message, only my address.

....... The green ink was a nice touch.

Copyright (c) 2001 by Hugh Lessig.

Hugh Lessig is a newspaper reporter who lives in Richmond, Va. His pulp heros are the newshawks of old, especially Kennedy of the Free Press, a creation of Frederick Nebel. (Hugh did the a biography of Nebel for this site)

Millstone marks Hugh's third appearance in Thrilling Detective. Check out his other stories at his site: The River City Blade. It contains stories of Picasso Smith Jr. and other hardboiled news guys.

And head here for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!

Please direct further comments and inquiries about submissions to the fiction editor, or check out this page.
....... ."And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."

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