Why Isn't Becky Twitchell Dead?: A Mystery (Tom & Scott Mysteries)

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9780312059965: Why Isn't Becky Twitchell Dead?: A Mystery (Tom & Scott Mysteries)

One would think teaching would be a quiet profession. But not in Chicago, thinks high school teacher Tom Mason when he hears that one of his students has been accused of kissing his girlfriend. As a friend of the boy's family, Tom is asked to help clear him, and the more he probes, the more it seems that something sinister is going on in the usually quiet suburbs of Chicago. With the aid of his lover Scoot Carpenter, a professional baseball player, the two set out to discover what really happened that night.

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Why Isn't Becky Twitchell Dead?
1 I hate grading spelling tests. Quizzes, essays, book reports, even twenty-page research papers I don't mind. Somewhere in the seventh circle of hell, the doomed English teachers slave away for eternity grading spelling tests. No fate could be worse. A cold Monday in late December and I wanted to go home. But I felt guilty because I'd delayed grading the damn things for over two weeks already. Under the pile of spelling tests lurked a stack of senior essays waiting to be graded. I sighed and grabbed another stack. Scott wasn't due to pick me up for another hour, anyway. Erratic noises drifted in from the corridor. At first, I presumed one of the janitors had been overcome with a mad desire to move a mop from one storage closet to another. Nothing ever seemed to get cleaner at Grover Cleveland High School. They built the main portion just before World War I. The school looks as if it hasn't been cleaned since just prior to World War II. A janitorial staff of even average competence could at least cover the major flaws after all these years. I gave a sour look to the back wall of my classroom. What used to be a few flakes of plaster forming charming patterns as they fell threatened to turn into a gaping entry into the science room next door. Science being even worse than spelling, I shuddered at the possible merger. The noises grew closer. I heard loud voices punctuated by angry bellows and stomping feet. I strolled to the door. Mrs. Trask and a male janitor approached. He saw me and grumbled about parents not being allowed in the building without permission, but that if I was here, it was probably all right. Throwing spiteful looks at her back, he retreated. I invited Mrs. Trask into my classroom. Today, she wore electric green trousers under a maroon woolen overcoat. Her thin blond hair swirled in greater disarray than usual. She said, "Mr. Mason, Jeff's been arrested." She had two boys--Eric and Jeff. The older, Eric, is the dumbest person I have dealt with in all my years of teaching. Forget this nice bullshit about how he was "slow, disadvantaged, socioeconomically deprived," or any other pet name. He was dumb. I knew it. He knew it. I never threw it in his face, just helped him cope. When I had him as a freshman six years ago last September, what he scrawled on a piece of paper could have been generously ascribed to a human being. By June of that year, what he wrote contained definite signs of punctuation at the ends. Most fair-minded observers would say that the enlargements at the beginnings resembled capital letters. Even the stuff between the enlargements and the punctuation could be said to resemble words, not necessarily from any language known to me but close enough. Besides, I had more success with him than any teacher'd had in five years. Mrs. Trask checks in as the second dumbest person I've dealt with as a teacher--not counting administrators. I suspect that she is illiterate. I've never seen her read one of the notes or letters teachers and social workers have sent her. She's approached me numerous times, asking me to explain what a note from a teacher really meant. Her good-heartedness approached the embarrassing sometimes--always remembering certain teachers' birthdays with little cakes dropped off in the office;constantly willing to help but fearful of intruding. In many ways, in bringing up her boys on her own she floundered out of her depth; but she knew what was best according to her lights and never compromised what she thought was right. The first time I helped her bail Eric out of jail had cemented us as friends forever. I liked her barrel-shaped dowdiness. It was her, with no apologies to anyone. Her first time in juvenile court in front of a cynical and uncaring judge had cured her of easy sentiment regarding her boys. Eric's the only kid who ever tried to take a swing at me. Mrs. Trask told me I should have decked her kid. Now he keeps my eight-year-old Chevette in more than reasonable working order. Mrs. Trask and I had fought side by side as a succession of administrators, sociologists, counselors, and psychiatrists had tried to convince her how rotten Eric was. "He's stupid, and he's ugly," she said at one point, "and they don't like him because he's extra work and disproves all their bullshit theories, but he's not as bad as they claim." She was partly right. In all the years I'd dealt with slow kids, you could be dumber than a mud fence, but as long as you were a handsome boy or a pretty girl, you got passed to the next grade. If you were blond, it was even better. It isn't fair, but teachers are as human and hypocritical as everybody else. Jeff, the child announced as arrested, I now had as a senior in my class of remedial readers. He was reasonably dumb, probably more attributable to years of laziness than to any educational deficiency. He had a wicked sense of humor. I found myself laughing at his stories and jokes more than is recommended in the university-education courses. Feet planted solidly apart, her coat misbuttoned in haste, Mrs. Trask explained that the police had gone to their home around 3:30 that afternoon. "They slammed Jeff up against the wall, handcuffed him, and dragged him away. It was awful." "Did they say what happened?" I asked. "You know the police around here," Mrs. Trask said. "If your kid's been in trouble once, they always think the worst of him." I knew Jeff had had several run-ins with the River's Edge cops, mostly concerning teenage rowdiness rather than actual criminal behavior. Mrs. Trask showed the first signs of anger as she explained further. When she's angry enough, I've known her to be able to stand off a crew of burly police sergeants. "They accused my boy of murder." I drew in a deep breath, stood up a little straighter. "His girlfriend, that Susan Warren, they found her dead. They think my Jeff did it. I told them that was stupid. They wouldn't listen to me. You've helped me with these cops before. You know how to talk to them. Could you come with me? I guess you might be busy, but if ..." Her voice trailed away. "I'll do what I can, but you need a lawyer for this. It's more serious than the other times. I don't think we'll be able to post bail, if they'll even allow it." "I just want to talk to my boy. Find out what's going on. See if he's all right." I agreed to accompany her to the police station. I didn't have my car. Eric had been working on it for three days. His prognosis for its eventual return to health was not good. I called home. Scott didn't answer. I left a message on the machine so he wouldn't come pick me up.  
River's Edge is one of the oldest southwestern suburbs of Chicago, founded soon after Blue Island. From its outward appearance, you'd guess the police station was the first building erected after the founding. Dirty faded bricks--probably originally yellow--crept around the two-story disaster area. Gutters along the north side of the building hung at crazy angles. Around the outside of the building, shattered glass, broken bottles, and rusted beer cans decorated the mounds of dirty unshoveledsnow, remnants of a mid-December blizzard. The janitors here must come from the same union as the ones at the high school. Warped shutters nailed haphazardly closed over the first-floor windows added appropriate touches of dreariness. The inside continued the dumpiness scheme begun outside. The walls needed painting. Scratches and nicks beyond counting scored the solid mahogany admitting counter. The smell of mold and mildew struck offensively as we hurried in from the below-zero temperatures. The cop behind the desk fit right in. He saw us, put down his newspaper leisurely, stood up, hitched his belt over his sixty-year-old paunch, and harrumphed slowly over to us. He walked as if his muscles were as wrinkled as his face. Retirement had to be a day or two away. A small crowd of kids from school huddled in one corner. Among them, I recognized Becky Twitchell and Paul Conlan. They approached me and Paul Conlan asked, "Mr. Mason, what's going on?" "I'm here to help Jeff," I answered. Abruptly Becky yanked him away and the rest of the group followed them. The cop refused to let us see Jeff. He couldn't or wouldn't tell us anything about the case. I asked to talk to Frank Murphy. He wasn't available. Frank and I used to work together with troubled kids when he was in the juvenile division, before he got transferred to homicide. We'd enjoyed numerous successes with some very tough kids. I drummed my fingers indecisively on the countertop. The cop retreated to his newspaper. Mrs. Trask looked ready for a major assault on the duty cop. The entry of a short potbellied man dressed in baggy coveralls, flannel shirt, and slouch hat forestalled her annihilation of a suburban police station. The man ignored us, marched to the counter, slammed his fist on the top, and demanded to see whoever was in charge. The ancient cop behind the counter rolled his eyes upward, shuffled to his feet, and began another trek from his desk to the counter. When he got there, the cop pulled at his lower lip a minute while he waited for the red-faced guy to shut up and draw a breath. After his face achieved a curious state of purple, the guy stopped. The cop asked him his name. "Jerome Horatio Trask," was the bellowed reply, followed by more demands and outrage. A few curious uniformed cops peered from around doorways. The old cop sighed. He pointed to us. "Wait with them," he muttered. Trask looked where he pointed, turned several more shades of purple, and began another set of protests. However, the cop had already begun the long journey back to his desk. Trask raved at an indifferent back for a minute. He twisted around, perhaps hunting for support, then stormed over to us. Upon reaching us, he began verbally abusing Mrs. Trask. His comments centered on what a rotten mother she was. Mrs. Trask bore the attack with a grim frown until he called her a cheap whore and said the boys probably weren't his, anyway. Mrs. Trask waved her fist in his face. "Get out, you son of a bitch!" Her bellow attracted a mob of cops. Before the crowd could react, he slapped her. I could have told him that was a mistake. In seconds, he lay on the floor. She sat on top of him, pummeling him none too gently into insensibility. His shouted threats turned to strangled yelps. A woman police officer got hold of Mrs. Trask and dragged her off him. With the help of the cop behind the desk, I got hold of Mr. Trask. I'd never met Mr. Trask. Many's the time I'd gotten an earful from Mrs. Trask about what a rotten human being he was. He drank. He cheated on her. He couldn't hold a job. I could add that he didn't use deodorant. At the moment, he held the side of his jaw with his right hand; his left gingerly probed a rapidly growing blue and black mound around his left eye. The cops led a slightly disheveled but generally unhurt Mrs. Trask to a women's room to put herself back together. We put Mr. Trask into a chair and let him moan. Frank Murphy walked down the stairs. He wore the same dark-blue rumpled suit I'd seen him in a hundred times before. He beckoned me over. We exchanged brief pleasantries. The desk sergeant tottered over and explained the recent fracas. "Keep the two of them apart," Frank told him. He took me to a gray, cheerless room. A scarred and battered table and two chairs sat forlornly in the center. The clanking radiator threatened to turn the room into a sauna. We sat on opposite sides of the table. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He sighed deeply, then began twirling his glasses in his right hand. He said, "Even you, Tom, are not going to be able to rescue this kid. He's guilty. We've got him cold." "What happened?" "We found the girl around ten last night. She was a few feet from the railroad tracks near Eightieth Avenue and One Hundred and Eighty-first Street. She'd been strangled and beaten up worse than I've ever seen. Her right arm was broken in several places and mangled as if someone had tried to twist it off. They found bloody snow all around the body. The medical examiner said she might have been raped. We found her purse nearby with her I.D. inside. She wasn't robbed. We think she must have died sometime after eight, but we're still working on the exact time." He put his glasses back on. "That's horrible," I said. "The poor kid, who could do something that awful?" He shrugged. "We think the boyfriend did it." The rest of the story was fairly simple. An engineer on a passing freight reported something suspicious. They sent somebody to investigate. She'd been killed somewhere else and taken to the tracks. The body wouldn't have been discovered for a while if it hadn't been for the engineer. He finished, "She was three or four months pregnant and high on coke." "Why arrest Jeff?" "We got bloodstains in his car and on his clothes. They match the dead girl's. He admits to fighting with her last night. He can't account for his movements at the time of the murder." "Can I talk to him?" "I've got to get this chaos out front settled first. His public defender was supposed to be here by now. We'll have to check with him." The scene at the front desk needed only machine-gun emplacements to complete an armed-camp effect. A young female cop and Mrs. Trask huddled at one end of the room. Mr. Trask, a burly male cop with a tattoo of a sailing ship on his arm, and the old guy from behind the desk scowled at each other in another corner. A dapperly attired gentleman stood between the two groups resting his arm on the counter. His bored look told the world he'd been through this a million times. He introduced himself to Frank as Jeff's public defender. The warring camps began to make stirring noises. Frank forestalled a resumption of hostilities by asking the lawyer and Mr. Trask to join him in the interrogation room He told Mrs. Trask she would be next. Frank didn't uninvite me, so I tagged along. The lawyer and I stood against the wall on either side of the door to the room. Frank and Mr. Trask sat at the table. Frank introduced us all. Trask burst out, "I want to know what the hell is going on here. Why have you arrested my boy? What right do you have holding him?" "Mr. Trask," Frank began. Trask thumped his fist on the table. "It's all his goddamn mother's fault, anyway. The kid's been trouble since he was five. She babies him. What he needs is some fast kicks on his backside. Then he'd know who was boss. That's what all these kids need today, if you ask me." Frank said, "Mr. Trask, when's the last time you saw your boy?" "My wife only lets me visit him once a month. I've been busy lately. I drive a truck long-distance. But that doesn't mean I don't know my boy." He thumped his fist against his chest. "He picked me last summer. He stayed three months. I knew this Susan Warren. You can't hide the kind of reputation she had. She filled him with all kinds of crazy notions. Don't get me wrong, I'm sorry she's dead, but facts are facts. He's better off with her gone." "What kind of reputation did she have?" the lawyer asked. "Slut. Whore. Ask any of Jeff's friends. They'll tell you." "Who told you?" "I don't memorize shit like that. You hear it around. You hear it enough, you know it's true." "What crazy notions did she give him?" I asked. "Trips alone for t...

Review:

" A Simple Suburban Murder deals with ugly Chicago scenes, but has sympathetic characters as well. Though you'll squirm at times, it's a gripping story." -- Chicago Tribune

"Zubro deserves praise across the board. His characters are believable, the plotting is intricate and taut, the Chicagoland locations and personalities are very convincing. We look forward to future works by Mr. Zubro." -- Gay Chicago Magazine

"Filled to overflowing with complicated themes and emotions, this novel by Mark Zubro is one of the braver mysteries I've read in years. I applaud Mr. Zubro's audacity, his ambition, and his talent. I think he deserves a medal." -- Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger

"A real page-turner, the action never lets up. Writing an ingenious mix of the mysterious and the erotic, Zubro has a sharp command of local color and believable dialogue, and the parts fit like a bright lavender mosaic." --Lawrence Bommer, Windy City Times

"I didn't stop reading until well past dawn! Mark Zubro isn't just writing mystery here, but keen-eyed satire. Public school administrators, high school teachers, Chicago cops, gay bar owners, hustlers, and activitst-they all get done it, and the portrayals are wonderfully, deliciously wicked." --Darrell Yates Rist

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