That’s the thing about this city, it truly never changes. It’s not only historic, but also cold, industrial and decrepit. It’s the perfect place to run if you were trying to escape the consequences of a crime. Many people would call what happened a murder. It was a hit-and-run drunk or drugged driving incident that left only death in its wake. I’m Tracy Blane, and I’m a reporter for the Linoak County Gazette. Erie City may be as cold as ice, but I find myself on the trail of a very hot story.
This shopworn old city hides many secrets. It’s anonymous, and impersonal. If someone wanted to hide, this would be the place to come. I’m here because two and a half weeks ago I was sent an anonymous tip about the death of one of our county’s most beloved young men. Finn Ewan McCarthy’s life was tragically cut short on the cusp of marriage to his high school sweetheart. He had success and everything the world to live for. One night on a lonely dark road, Finn was hit head on by a driver in another car who simply left him to die. He was alone, by the time anyone saw his car in the ditch he was already gone.
Many years later I stand in the Erie City hospital with a Linoak sheriff’s deputy. He has a warrant to obtain certain documents related to a person admitted to with injuries following a car accident. The administration was less than thrilled about having to search their records for a patient admitted 18 years earlier. Eighteen years? Talk about a cold case! I found myself in the middle of the biggest story I’ve ever written! Not to mention it’s the biggest story the Linoak Gazette has had in decades.
It all began with an anonymous email from a reader after I wrote a story about the engagement of Bob Schlagel to Lillian Hyde. Bob and Lilli are my friends, therefore, the story was easy to write. It was a tender story that touched a lot of people’s lives.
In the background of this beautiful love story was the death of Finn McCarthy, Lillian’s high school sweetheart and former fiancé. I came to learn how Finn’s unsolved death by a hit-and-run driver devastated Lillian along with everyone who knew him or heard about the way he died. These things just didn’t happen in Linoak County. I never knew Finn, but I did see the aftermath of his death. People just wanted to know what happened. While the Sheriff’s Department never stopped working the case, the leads did dry up. Until now.
The story about Bob and Lillian got a lot of attention. Much to my surprise, I got a series of anonymous emails informing me that the writer had information on the death of Finn McCarthy. The last communication took us to the Belden family’s Summer Estate. There, in this rather odd setting, we found a large envelope with paperwork and receipts. One document looked to be a partial medical record from The Erie City Hospital. Which is where I find myself at present. Deputy Axel Persson and I sat waiting for the clerk to come back with the paperwork we requested.
I looked at my surroundings. The waiting area in the administration wing was as cold as the city. January snows covered the window frames. Gray sheets of tinted glass framed in by silver gray metal boxes. The photos on the wall depicted the gray city that one could clearly see through the windows. They did not brighten the room one bit.
Deputy Persson broke the silence, “I hate coming to this city. It’s like a machine that just swallows people. No one knows you or much cares who you are. Faces come and go like ghosts. Unrecognized and in some cases unrecognizable from every other face on the street. Give me Linoak county any day. How can anyone enjoy living in a place like this?” He let out a sigh.
“I used to live in Salt Center. It’s not as large of a city as Erie, but it was enough to cause me a serious case of burnout. That’s why I took the job at the Gazette. I don’t know what it is about this place. It envelops you in a feeling of emptiness. We get the paperwork we came for, and we can go home Deputy Persson!” I said with vigor.
We sat and waited for what seemed like hours. Each of us had our laptops Deputy Persson had been keeping the Judge who issued the warrant updated. He said he’d make a few phone calls if the hospital did not come up with the paperwork within a decent interval. I was keeping the office updated and making notes for my story. I emailed Lillian to let her know where I was and how things were going. She was anxious about the situation, naturally.
Finally, a bespectacled man came off the elevator and addressed Deputy Persson.
“Deputy, I have your file here, if you’ll follow me. I’m sorry, no reporters.” He said.
“I’m sorry too because she comes per the judges orders as you’ll see on the warrant. She’s a party to the legal proceedings,” He stated emphatically. “Or would you like me to phone the judge now?”
The bespectacled wonder thought for a moment. “I suppose, but I will be filing a report so that my role in this very unusual request is clear.” He said with a sniff.
I said “Thank you sir, I know this is a unique situation. You will be helping to resolve a grave miscarriage of justice. I know that thousands of people pass through these doors every day. It’s good to see someone who still cares about doing their job properly.”
The man softened a little. “My name is Wilton Brown III. I work in the legal department as did my father Wilton Brown Jr.” he replied, showing us into a windowless room. “You may make notes, but you may not take any photos, remove any part of the medical record, nor are you to deface them in any way. Bear in mind the age of this file. I cannot vouch for any of its contents. Please put your cell phones in the tray.” He said, pulling a tray from a cupboard. “I’ll be in the office next door please knock on the door when you are finished.” With that instruction he left the room.
The file was very thick. We’d have to divide and conquer if we had any hope of gleaning the information we’d need. Then Deputy Persson touched my arm.
“Torchy”, he said “Do you see the name on the top of this paper?”
He called me Torcy when he was off duty. A hat tip to the old 1930s movie series Torchy Blane. I told him she was my heroine.
“Yes, Lee Belden. Any relation to the Belden’s that own that odd house we visited?” I asked.
“Lee Belden is their oldest son. The guy Bob Schlagel hung out with for years.” Axel said, his face turned ashen. “Torchy, this is bad. This is going to hit everyone like a tornado if we prove that Lee killed Finn that night.” He moaned.
“One step at a time Axel. All we have are individual bits and pieces. We still have a long way to go before there’s a legal case for an arrest, right? For all we know our anonymous friend could be pointing to Lee as a witness.” I stated, trying to calm Axel. I knew in my heart Axel was right. If Lee Belden hit Finn’s car that night it would devastate Bob. We did have a long way to go to decipher who the culprit was in this story. For all we knew Lee Belden was a passenger not the driver. One thing was certain, the then young Master Belden knew something about Finn’s death.
“If these records are correct, the younger Mr. Belden did sustain more than a few injuries. Looks like he injured his knee pretty badly, had a nasty break to his collarbone and a separated shoulder for which he needed a brace and physical therapy.” I said to Axel.
“Do you see any record of physical therapy being done here? I can’t find anything that says he had physical therapy at all in this facility. They did take blood work when he arrived by ambulance. It did show alcohol and THC in his blood. The level of alcohol is well below the legal limit, but THC shouldn’t have been there at all'' said Axel. “If he was driving, we can now prove that he was driving under the influence. I’m calling the DA to get an injunction to keep the hospital from destroying this file. Legally they cannot destroy it but better safe than sorry.” said Axel resolutely.
While Axel was on the phone my mind began to wander. I thought what it must have been like to be Lee Belden. He was sent here to this awful city. Buildings belching white smoke and occasionally flame from red and white smoke stacks. Once beautiful old buildings and houses swallowed by edifices made of gleaming glass like sharp teeth jutting from some faceless creature. Roads and overpasses strung out in all directions like a tangled ball of twine. Stuck staying in a hospital with windows everywhere yet not a single window could be opened for fresh air. Listening to the dinging of bells, the beeping of monitors, the chatter of nurses, the sounds of television and the moaning of people in pain. If he were only a witness to the tragedy of Finn’s death, this atmosphere, this city would certainly be enough to drive one over the edge. Perhaps it did. If he were guilty of Finn’s death, running away was cowardly. It is high time justice was served.
I heard Axel say, “Hey Blane, are you hearing me?”
“What? Oh! I’m sorry Axel, my mind was a million miles away!” I said apologetically
“No problem. You really were a million miles away! I got word from the DA. The local state police barracks will be sending over an officer with an injunction preventing the hospital from destroying the original and an order requiring them to make a copy for the Linoak Sheriff’s office. I know the cop they are sending over. He’s a cousin. He should be here in about 10 minutes or less. Meanwhile, we don’t let that file out of our sight.”
Trooper Persson arrived. He was about the size of the Empire State Building. Taller than Deputy Persson by about 1 inch. By contrast, I was barely tall enough to drive a car legally. Axel introduced me to Edvard, his cousin.
I thanked Trooper Persson for the assistance and he in turn assured me I was very welcome, shook my hand and left the building. My entire hand was enveloped by the hand of the taller Persson. I can’t say as I have ever had that experience before, thankfully.
Axel said, “Well Torchy, time to go get glasses and tell him we need a copy of the files. He won’t be happy”
“He might not be happy about the file, but I think I can distract him while you go make the copy.” I said.
“Okay, you’re on!” Axel said as he gently tapped on the door.
The man with the glasses came out of the office squinting. “It’s you two!” He said looking a bit bewildered.
“Yes! It is. I have these two pieces of legal paperwork for you. We’d like that copy in our hands before we leave, please.” Said Axel gently.
“Well! As if anyone here would even think of destroying a medical record! That’s just insulting. I see you want a notarized copy of certain pages of the file?” Wilton Brown asked.
“Mr. Brown, Wilton. May I call you Wilton? We did not intend to insult you. The judge overseeing this investigation is a bit of a stickler and wants all paperwork formally filed. Deputy Persson is really just the messenger. You understand I’m sure.” I said plaintively
“Yes of course I understand. Wilton is fine. I may call you Tracy?” Asked Wilton as he walked over to the copier.
“Please do call me Tracy. I have another little favor to ask. Nothing to do with the paperwork. Would you happen to know where I can get a good bagel? I love a good bagel and a cup of coffee.” I said
“Absolutely I do! One moment while I notarize these pages for you and put them in a folder” replied Wilton.
He returned a few moments later with a notarized copy of the paperwork, neatly placed in a folder and a print out of 3 bagel shops in Erie City at which we could eat
“Wilton you are too kind. Really. I wish I had more time to chat but it's getting late, and we want to get home, you know these roads can be so treacherous in January! I said. “Let me give you one of my cards. Have you ever been to Linoak County? I live in Bushwick. In February, we have the Winter Festival. You should come! I’ll introduce you to my favorite bakery.” I continued.
“No, Tracy, I’ve never been to Bushwick, but maybe I’ll take a chance and venture up there for a day or two. Get out of the city. It might do me good.” He replied.
“Well you do that then! I have to go, but I want to thank you for all your help in this very important matter. Goodbye for now!” I smiled and waved.
We beat a hasty retreat to the truck. We went to the drive up window to grab a coffee and a sandwich at one of the places Wilton recommended, a deli just outside the city.
“I think, said Axel, “this is just the beginning of our work”
“I wholeheartedly agree.” I replied.
We had scratched the surface of the papers that our anonymous friend had left us. There was so much more to go through and facts to check. I wasn’t sure how or even if we should tell Bob and Lillian all that we found. I knew it would depend on what the District Attorney and the Judge had to say about the investigation.
I knew that what we were uncovering about Finn’s death would change Linoak county forever but if it brought closure and some peace to my friends I had to keep going. This was more than just a story for the Gazette now, it was a search for a just outcome to this tragic event 18 years ago.