“…So of course, I got the short end of the stick once again.”
“What’s that even mean?” I asked.
Jay blinked, and stabbed a fry into his Heinz. “What do you mean, what’s that mean?”
“Literally. Or I guess metaphorically. A stick is a stick – it has no long or short end.”
“It’s just an expression,” Jay muttered. “You want me to be a little plainer? There’s soccer moms next door.”
That he’d been leering at the millennial school-day lunch bunch since “I’m Erin” had recited the lunch specials, rendered his sensitivity suspect. “If you’re suggesting what I think, that’s an even more puzzling metaphor.”
Herb Finney cleared his throat. At his advanced age, that could mean he had a significant contribution to make, or he was endeavoring to clear a mass of possibly life-threatening phlegm.
“During the middle ages,” Herb began, “the rich would clean themselves with a piece of fabric after relieving themselves. The poor would use leaves or a stick with a slight curve known as a Gompf stick. You would clean your backside with the curved part of the stick, as to ensure greater hygiene. With due care, of course. Therefore, anyone grasping the ‘short end of the stick’ would be grabbing feces, ending in a very unpleasant experience.
“The phrase comes from the earlier colloquialism ‘get the short end of the staff,’ where masters would beat their servants using the aforementioned staff. If you got the wrong end of the staff, it meant you were in for a beating.”
“The more you know,” I said. “In short, Jay, ya got Gompfed.”
Once or twice a summer, a former colleague would crave that little bit of Mike Dodge that doesn’t go too far, and we’d eat like we were once again young and carefree and no spouse was watching. Over the past nine years since I’d retired, that select company had dwindled substantially due to organizational attrition and retirement, the young-uns’ family demands, and me and sometimes them.
Jay had been punching the clock before I’d clocked in for my 24 years, and he’d be there five more as a result of too many smart offspring and poor investment choices. He’d been an avid cyclist until his knee blew out about the time I jumped off the hamster wheel, and he was beginning to look like I did after nine years on my bike.
Herb was a tag-along of an indeterminate age, one of the governmental affairs guys who’d known Everett Dirksen and a rookie Paul Simon and survived at least a dozen farm bills. Herb hated the current corporate regime as much as any decent quiet quitter, but he still loved his job after, I dunno, 125 years. Dual cynicism and commitment had always been an appealing combo, and I was happy to see Finney again, even if for him it was simply a chance to expense a burger.
“Of course…” I considered, re-hinging my jaw and deferring my combo Italian beef/sausage. Jay quit leering. Herb perked, flicking a scrap of lettuce from his upper bun.
“Of course, you remember the 2013 Farm Innovation Show, Herb? Jay was on some bike thing in what, Arizona?”
“Oregon. This the one where that company dude got whacked?”
“You should be a crime blogger,” I suggested.
That August, the last before I hung it up, the Midwest Farm Innovation Show was in Decatur rather than Iowa. Ninety-some acres of the latest in ag technology close enough to the city you could still smell the rancid-Frito parfum that came off ADM, or as the Decatur economy viewed it, ATM.
As usual, we were double-teaming the show. Tim was onsite near-dawn to dusk chasing big machines and commodity insights, while I was there for the tent folks – the biotech honchos and hacks on the cutting edge, the university guys showing off their smarts, and every D.C. lawmaker up for a two-year renewal.
Billy Preston saw me through the last half-mile of show traffic, past the parking crew and their vague and impatient gesticulations, and over dirt and rocks and corn stubble into a snug harbor between a pair of ‘Murrican-made pickups seemingly designed to battle the alien advance force or gun control activists.
Last night’s storm had left the showgrounds schloggy, and I’d worn the last-generation Skechers with my best lost-cause khakis and organization-logoed polo shirt. By the time I got to the admissions booth and flashed my media lanyard, the shoes were golemwear.
I had a loose morning schedule – the junior senator had promised me 10 minutes in about 40 minutes to discuss his party’s spartan alternative to the other party’s health care strategy. In the interim, I could hit a few of the commodity tents and get some man-on-the-street. Ross Kingraham, the regional honcho at AgroGenix, wasn’t available ‘til 1, p.m., so I could grab a ribeye or pork chop sangwich and a shit-ton of promotional freebies prior to an enervating afternoon of tech jargon and agronomic razzmatazz.
But as if I’d summoned the biotech djinn, Kingraham’s amplified voice erupted from the nearby speaker’s stage. I fumbled out the Edirol, punched the record button, and held it to the sky as farmers and vendors and lookie-loos streamed around me.
“…Amid a morass of one-size-fits-all federal and state regulations, the luddites of the environmentalist community who fail to grasp technology’s role in future agricultural sustainability, in feeding the world, the industry, we’re dying. Dying by inches. It’s up to you -- the farmers, the stewards of this land, the producers of food and fiber and renewable energy, to save American agriculture and the American consumer from this slow death…”
He was just outside my peripheral. Lumberjack huge, with the beard to match, bisected with a big man’s grin. Ted Plattermeier was a corn-and-bean guy from about 50 miles south. We’d been on a couple Washington trips and a market tour of China back in ’01. He was old enough to laugh off the earnest jingoism of the younger farmers but young enough to have a little more bend than the old-timers.
“Thought that was you,” Ted rumbled. “Heard you were talking retirement? Couldn’t believe my ears.”
“End of the year. Sarah bailed last spring, and I decided to take early.”
“Must be nice,” Plattermeier chuckled harshly but with a congratulatory note. “We’ll miss you -- you got it right more than most, even if you are a closet lib.”
Laughed nervously at that one, but took it in the spirit.
“You’re leaving?” Ted and I turned to the compact old man leaning on a walking stick, his jeans cuffs caked. Glenn Morrissey had been around as long as I’d been on this particular “beat” – hell, probably since my predecessor’s predecessor collected his first paycheck. Ted’s smile half-froze, and I tried to keep mine loose: Since losing his wife a few years back, Glenn had been what one of my cohort called a “sad sack,” chummy with anyone who’d listen to memories of Edna or his three bypasses or his stint in Korea. The same cohort called me a soft touch, so I usually endured it.
“Anyway, I need to catch the planter demo in about five, so I’ll leave you two to it,” Ted announced. The crowd parted for the genial giant as his gunboat boots slapped up mud.
“Lemme buy you a cup of coffee,” Glenn invited. “Those bastards didn’t fire you, did they?”
The senator provided me a fortuitous escape, and I had time to grab some empty proteins. Some Decatur church group had a pig wing stand three tents down. I looked like a CSI extra after tackling a trio of barbecued shanks, but I arrived in mud-speckled style at the Barnumesque AgroGenix tent just ahead of 1.
“Yeah, Ross had to take a last-minute ZOOM with the CEO and the Brazilians,” Kelli, my communications liaison reported. “But if you can be patient with us for another five minutes?”
I’d been patient for roughly 55 years. So after about nine, Kelli ushered me to a partitioned area within the big tent where from the huge AgroGenix logo high on the back wall was for media availabilities. Then Kelli stumbled back, knocking over a couple of folding chairs. I glanced past the flack to where Ross Kingraham was slumped against the bloody canvas under the company banner, found a corner trash barrel, and divested a pig wing or two.
“And you two didn’t hear a thing?”
Illinois State Police Capt. Broughton looked like the recruiting pamphlet, except for a kinda cheesy mustache that with the campaign hat conjured a humorless Burt Reynolds. A mob of Decatur and Macon County cops had been through the tent, but somehow ISP had won whatever arm-rassle cops do to claim top dog.
Kelli was pallid, and still blinking at an alarming rate. “I was posting some company news from the show and checking online releases before Mr. Dodge showed up about 1. I was in the back of the tent, pretty far from Mr. Kingraham, plus he’d been clear not to bother him ‘til the Zoom meeting was over.”
“Which according to your CEO, ended at about 12:50,” Broughton murmured. “And you took Dodge here in for his interview about 1:10, right?”
Kelli and I nodded as one.
“Anybody else in the tent at the time?”
“Pretty slow at this point – a lot of the equipment demonstrations started at 1, and I think the lieutenant governor was on stage about then, too,” I related. “Nobody else.”
“And the other company reps went for lunch I think at the cattleman’s booth,” Kelli added.
I took a breath. “I saw the rip in the back of the tent right behind the body.” Broughton’s face moved for about the first time, just the right brow. “I assume he got stabbed through the hole.”
“Just because you’re Johnny on the spot doesn’t mean you get an exclusive,” the trooper stressed. “Kingraham’s wife is coming from the hospital, and I don’t want things leaking online or on Facebook before she has a chance to get up to speed.
“I’m one of the ag press, not police beat. No worries.”
The trooper debated with himself. “It wasn’t a rip – someone sliced the canvas open, my guess somewhere right before or during that Zoom call. They could see when the victim was positioned in front of the opening, and jabbed him with what seems to be a pretty large spike. Guess he died almost instantly, or was in too much shock to call out. Since you’re a curious sort, Mr. Dodge, lemme show you something.”
Half the aisle in front of AgroGenix’ tent had been taped off, and Broughton led me to the space between it and the vet meds dealer next door. AgroGenix had staged a seven-foot-tall standup pitching its 2024 releases directly at the opening to the gap. Behind the sign, an unhappy tech was examining the homicidal hole. I looked beyond him to the back of the tent and the backside of the tent on the next aisle.
“So he or she probably got away in the ‘alley’ behind the tent, don’t you think?”
“Yup,” I said. “Want to know what else I think?”
I told him anyway. “Well, to start, I guess you realize you have a virtual cornucopia of potentially lethal weapons on the grounds here. No pun. Blades and bludgeons and and hazardous and incendiary materials. That’s not to mention the setup/construction materials and tools left onsite for the show.
“Then you got the freebies.” I reached into my tote and extracted a 12-inch ruled plastic stake bearing a popular seed company logo. “Rain gauge — wife loves them, asked me to grab one. In the wrong hands…”
“Would shatter into a million pieces before it hit an organ,” the captain stated. “Where you going with this?”
“There are so many ways to kill somebody here. And so many places to kill them. Point is, why in one of the show’s highest-traffic areas, in such a risky way? Kinda makes me think there was a reason why this place, that weapon.”
“Got an idea. See if any internal splinters turn up in the autopsy.”
“Splinters?” Broughton grunted. “You think Kingraham was killed with a wooden stake, like a vampire? What I hear, mighta been kind of appropriate…”
“You notice a lot of these old timers stumping or strolling around here with new walking sticks? That's your holy grail of farm show freebies. The square yardstick, meter stick, whatever you want to call it. Back in the days before sensors and high-tech gauges, the guys used ‘em to measure the fuel left in their tanks or the level of corn in their truck or wagon. Wound was what, little more than an inch wide? And how deep?”
Broughton just smiled politely, but his left brow quirked.
“So our guy sharpens his stick. No guns allowed on the grounds, but nobody’s going to check the farmers for jackknives or whatever. It shouldn’t have taken long to convert a souvenir freebie into a spear.”
“So you’re suggesting we search the grounds for yardsticks?”
“May not be as hard as you think — like I said, they’re not as common these days, and the few tents that had them probably ran out early this morning. Some of these guys likely headed out after lunch. May not be too many left onsite.”
“If the killer kept it. We could start with the garbage — I was the killer, I’d have gotten rid of the stick straightaway.”
I sighed. “If we’d had good weather the last few days, I’d say the trash would be your best bet. But the rain yesterday night gave the killer an extra edge. He’ll probably walk off the grounds with the murder weapon, if he hasn’t already.”
“Why take with?” the trooper drawled. “Pretty big risk.”
“For the most obvious reason,” I said, glumly.
It didn’t take long. They escorted the killer to the ISP trailer near the main entrance, and Broughton thought I might be a settling presence.
He was much worse for the wear when they brought him in halfway across the parking field. Relatively few get a taste of what it actually means to take a human life with impulsive purpose. He smiled briefly as he spotted me at the makeshift “interrogation” table, but his face was flush and glistening, and not solely from the mid-afternoon sun. The stick rested against the chair, by his left thigh. The last several inches were caked with mud, but that didn’t disguise the tapered tip.
“Glenn,” I murmured. “You realize the wood’s probably soaked with blood, right?”
The old farmer shrugged, handed the altered Bounty Hybrids yardstick clean-end first to Broughton. The trooper nodded, handing him a bottle of Dasani in kind.
“Mr. Dodge here thinks maybe this had something to do with your wife,” the cop said, lowering himself into the chair beside Glenn Morrissey. Broughton glanced over.
“Put it together when I found out Kingraham’ wife worked at Ecumena-Decatur. An oncologist, in fact. The one who treated your wife, I’m guessing.”
“Treated,” Glenn echoed. “Couldn’t have been bothered most of the time — kept rescheduling appointments, not telling us important shit, had the bedside manner of a Nazi commandant, whenever she’d even bother to show up in person. And in the end, when Edna was in such pain and misery, and I tried to get just one drop of human decency out of her, she just kept saying the same thing over and over…” He trailed out, shaking his head.
“Yeah, I know, Glenn. Then when you heard Kingraham’ remarks today— Glenn?”
The old man had slumped back in his chair, a broad smile spreading across his sallow face.
“He’s got a heart condition,” I informed Broughton, who already was dispatching the onsite EMTs. “Glenn, you take your meds today?”
The widower’s smile widened. “Yep,” he breathed. “Matter of fact, all of ‘em.”
“They tried to bring him around, but shit, he was 82,” I concluded.
“What’s a life sentence when you’re 82?” Jay demanded. “He prolly woulda been dead before the trial.”
Herb scrubbed at his tie with a wet napkin. “Edna was gone; he was too old to get out on a tractor any more. Glenn probably figured this was his last piece of business. Pretty cold revenge, though – eye for an eye, spouse for a spouse.”
“If Kingraham had just considered his words,” I lamented. “And his perspective. When he likened the state of his industry to the misery Edna’d endured – unconsciously channeling his wife’s words to her patients and their families -- I think it was more than Glenn could take. And Glenn decided on a very exacting Old-school Old Testament revenge. The walking stick wasn’t just a handy murder weapon – it made a statement. He’d watched Ross Kingraham talking to reporter after reporter, farmer after farmer, standing rigidly under the corporate banner. Kingraham knew he’d get lots of Facebook posts and online coverage, with a ton of free promotion for AgroGenix. He gave Glenn a very precise window of attack. On that muddy ground, in his shape, he had to keep the murder weapon simply to get away. Glenn hobbled behind the tents, between Aisles 5 and 6, then just blended into the lunchtime crush, having made his statement.”
“Which was?” Jay sighed.
“Ross Kingraham died the way Edna Morrissey had died. The way agribusiness was dying, according to Kingraham; the way Kingraham’s wife characterized Edna’s agonizing, protracted bout with cancer. Death by inches.”
“Wait a minute, though,” Jay said, abruptly. “Cool story, but what the hell does it have to do with the original conversation? Which I can’t even remember.”
“The short end of the stick. Which, metrically speaking, is what Ross Kingraham got.”