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Authors: Tristan Egolf

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BOOK: Kornwolf
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Five turns later, a road sign appeared for the Lamepeter Township game reserve. Owen followed it down a gravel path cutting into the woods for a mile. Beyond a rickety wooden bridge, he came to a field of matted grass, on one end of which sat a tiny cottage with stacks of timber out front.

This was it.

He parked. Releasing his white-knuckled grip on the wheel, he got out of the car and stretched. He drew in the air, then looked around. Alone, it appeared. In an open clearing. With one other vehicle—a pickup truck.

Above him, a network of juniper limbs extended across the afternoon sky: for miles on end, gnarled and twisted and stark, with occasional hatchings of pine.

He made for the cottage—across the clearing and up a wood-chipped path to the entrance. A plaque read: “NO DRUNK SHOOTING”—facing outward. Then: “VIOLATORS WILL BE SHOT.” Signed: “KRATZ.”

Kratz, Owen had to assume, being Joel, his contact, the Lamepeter Township game warden—Kratz, who had claimed to have “something bizarre” which the paper would “definitely” want to see (though he hadn't known how to explain it by phone, and “no one would ever believe it anyway”), Kratz, the smallish, rigidly coiled, if typical make of a warden inside, beckoning hither, all scruff and grizzle: pure Kascynski behind his desk …

Owen swallowed and stepped inside. The room was hot and stunk of mold. A pair of antlers hung on the wall—and beside it, a VFW flag.

The warden spoke first: “You the reporter?”

Owen nodded, displaying his press badge.

Kratz looked him over, appearing uncertain. A wrinkle creased his brow. He was tentative.

Then he broke off and, shrugging, produced a manila folder.

“Here's your story.”

As Owen himself would reiterate back at the office, the explanation followed.

The morning before, October 6th, one Dwayne Gibbons, a native of Blue Ball and longtime hunter on Kratz's reserve, had come by the office with a puzzling set of negatives from his photographic “motion detector.” Motion detectors, the warden explained, were battery-operated mechanisms used in the tracking of game—in this case deer. Entirely legal, these common devices consisted of two very basic components, two small plastic boxes to be mounted on separate trees in close proximity. Between these units, a laser transmission was maintained. In the event of the beam's disruption, a built-in camera was triggered, recording the scene—with a flash, if needed—and the time. The purpose and function being: to determine the herding patterns of local deer. By such means,
both effective stalking and the placement of tree stands might be determined.

The use of motion detectors was not at all unusual, Kratz explained.

“But this,” he continued, shaking his head while presenting the folder, “
this
is a first.”

Not knowing what to expect, Owen took it and, flipping the cover, looked inside. There were photographs in there—a stack of enlargements. Grainy, underexposed and off angle, the first one appeared to be shot in the dark: a falling leaf in the flashbulb's range. The second exposure wasn't much clearer, just brighter, having been taken at dawn. The third and fourth prints showed a tangle of hooves and hindquarters, shot by the light of day. The fifth was a buck in profile, marked 9/28, 17:49. The next four shots featured groundhogs digging. Certainly nothing to fire up the presses …

Then he flipped to number ten.

Years down the road, he would hearken back to the very first image that came to mind: a fuming heap of scrapple some Philth Town waitress had served him, back in the drink—a brazenly heedless order placed, the arrival of something unfit for display, scarcely to be recalled, until now: something which shouldn't, and
won't
occur naturally. Something right out of a waste dump in Jersey. Or up from the depths of a portable toilet.

In days to come, opinions would vary with wild extravagance, far and wide: some people claiming this blotted image resembled a dog—only backwards and rearing with some kind of horrible skin disease. Others would argue those “weeping lesions” were actually calluses. Or parasites, maybe. One man would claim that it looked like Richard Nixon plastered in mud or feces. Others would lean toward a five-legged brown bear entangled in hawk wire, down from the Poconos.

No one would know what to make of the face. The jury would go out on every feature. A knotted mound of what might be considered a cheekbone was really a snout, some would say. Others
would doubt it, seeing the bulge instead as a cyst on a back-turned head—or maybe an angry boil, hives, a case of the shingles, cauliflower ear …

In truth, there would be many takes on which end of the photo was even supposed to be
up
—and which direction the “figure” within it (if even conceded) was actually facing. Skeptics would howl, of course—but to little effect, overall, and with dismal wit. Regardless of what else was said of the photo, it naggingly begged some basic questions. Such as: who would have gone to such crafty, elaborate lengths in staging this image but not followed through with a sharper photo? Why leave out a discernible profile? Why the contusions and the hairless patches? Why would anyone go so far without adding the final, convincing touches? After all, as long as Gibbons didn't check out as an anarchist yahoo, his alibi couldn't have been any tighter. It was brilliant—too brilliant
not
to be true. Why allow room for controversy?

Of course, maybe that was a part of the plan: befuddle the public with imprecision. Which
would
have accounted, in part, for Gibbons, whose record would complicate matters further. Domestic charges. Bankruptcy. Drunk driving. Outstanding warrants for unpaid fines—all of which would be held up to rigorous public review in days to come, yet none of which fingered Gibbons for a practical joker.

In a word, he was simply a wretch.

For Joel Kratz, the answer lay elsewhere—as yet to be fathomed, though pressing, surely: either somebody was running amok in a steel wool jumpsuit, at risk of drawing fire, or something ungodly was loose in his woods.

Either way, it gave him the creeps.

For Owen, the case was less in doubt. Moreover, it called for a tip of the hat. Somebody—
other
than Kratz or Gibbons, most likely—had whipped up a fabulous hoax. Its presentation, down to the last detail, made Owen flush with envy. It also managed to take his mind off of smoking (or not), if just for a moment. For that much, he would remain indebted, and moreso, amazed: he
had actually
laughed
… It was truly a first-rate piece of work. The least he could do was publicize it.

Back at the office, his (questionably mad) city editor, Terrance Jarvik, agreed. On viewing the photo, the old man broke down in laughter. Emerging from which, he was game.

His rival pulpit, the
Horaceburg Screed
, would be livid, he claimed. They had no sense of humor.

Thereby, Owen was handed not only the story, but his very own “Halloween” series (he couldn't dispute the title just yet), beginning with five hundred words by midnight—an order which, after speaking with Kratz, then delving into the public files, would yield his unearthing a long-forgotten chapter of Stepford County's past: something familiar to none but an aging resident few. The caption would follow: a lead that, upon publication, would cast a tenuous line into area memory, something to prompt many locals to ridicule, others to barring their doors at night, and the rest to a vague, bewildered disquiet.

Indeed:

The Blue Ball Devil was back.

JACK

By noon, the West Side Gym had begun to warm up from the early autumn chill. Sunlight spilled through the windows to the rear of the ground floor, bathing a rack of free weights. Swirls of dust kicked up from the ring mat, over which Calvin and Marty Boy shuffled in time with the music of Gil Scott-Heron—“The Bottle,” from 1976. Two other junior competitors, Franklin and Holy War, stood by the glove rack, tying up. Everyone present had arrived on time, yet still, there was no sign of Roddy Lowe.

For Coach Jack Stumpf, this didn't bode well. It was certainly no way to kick off training …

Once upon a time ago, Roddy had been the most promising amateur The Coach had ever worked with. In truth, he was probably one of the very best fighters the West Side had ever turned out—and that would date back to the turn of the century—whole generations of durable prospects. Here, in a state renowned for its barrios, Roddy, a humble suburban white boy, had torn through the ranks with a transcendental vengeance. The kid had been tough as a Jersey fireplug. Discipline, focus, listening and (hard to imagine)
punctuality
had never been issues. He'd always been cool under fire. His performance had always been purely driven and spirited. What's more, his conduct outside of the ring had been flawless, thanks, in part, to his father. Aldo Lowe, one of Jack's best friends, a fellow trainer and the gym's former bookkeeper, had always been a rigid
stickler for discipline (at times to a fault) with his only son. Outside of the ring, Roddy had been known, in the early years as “Gentleman Lowe”—a moniker that stuck until he grew a bit older, giving way, in due course, to “The Unbelievable.” Such, as it happened, appropriately so: by fifteen, he had scored several
unbelievable
upsets—a trend that would only continue that season at the Golden Gloves finals, upstate—where Roddy, with his usual corner—Aldo, Jack and Syd—would go up against Choppo Suarez, the state champ at 132, in his backyard—and drop him with a hook in the first.

He hadn't made too many friends in the crowd, but Roddy had caught the public's attention—and, in stripping Suarez of his title, the nation's.

He had held that title for the next three seasons.

By the time he'd turned pro, at nineteen—too early, in Jack's mind, regardless of Aldo's insistence—the local promoters had been lined up. In a world where black and white made green, Roddy, as fresh meat, had been in demand. His excellent amateur record and his limited professional experience had marked him for booking. On appearance alone—ruggedly handsome & cool—he was sure to be sought out by every regional promoter, from D.C. to Boston, intent on grooming a star for the networks. His name would have looked good on any contender's record: solid, career-building stuff.

Yet again, when the time came—right from the opening bell—Roddy would fail to “cooperate.” Three more upsets, and heads would start turning. His public appeal would go up with each outing. Before long, big-time promoters had been calling. Which had led to a short-lived but glorious series of matches that steadily jockeyed him up the ladder to primary undercard pickings for Thursday Night Fights, national broadcasting. There, at last, he'd been robbed of a decision that most (if not all) broadcast and ringside observers scored a shutout the other way. Even now, it ranked among the top five worst decisions Jack had ever seen. He still found it hard to believe the judges had made it out of the club alive.

That was the first night Jack had seen Roddy dive straight to the bottom of a fifth of bourbon. It was also the evening when Aldo and Roddy at last reached an overdue fork in their road—the specifics of which, in all likelihood, no one would ever know. The Coach still didn't. He only remembered waking to crashes and screaming from down the hall at the hotel—after the show, it was five a.m.—in responding to which, he'd found Aldo raving and clutching his jaw by a soda machine (“
The little son of a bitch hit me!
”)—while random explosions of porcelain and glass and furniture, mingled with bursts of profanity: (“
*
$% this $#!+—if I @#$% come back here, I'll
*$%
—”), boomed out from behind Roddy's door.

He was tearing the room to pieces. He sounded like some kind of animal.

Jack could relate.

Almost a third of their evening's pay—the biggest of Roddy's career, to be sure—went to covering damages rendered that night. A mortified Aldo had withheld the rest, claiming Roddy could have his share if and when he atoned for disgracing his team and the gym. Despite all attempts to mediate between them—as well as to straighten out finances fairly—Jack had not been able to salvage the wreck of Team Lowe. The damage had been done. Father and son had gone separate ways—Aldo to cool his jets for a while, and Roddy, disgusted, following one more bout on his own (which he'd lost), to Horaceburg. There, as persisting rumor would maintain, he worked as a plumber for the next five years—never, in all that time, once getting in contact with Jack, much less his father. Talk of debaucherous evenings and mishaps with women would filter back to The Coach. But nary a phone call or visit. Disgusted, Roddy had turned his back on boxing.

BOOK: Kornwolf
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