Sheriff Bill Wilkins popped an antacid and ground it between his teeth as the reporter fumbled with his tape recorder.
It was late on the evening of December 15, and outside, fat flakes of snow fell lazily from the black sky, adding to the six inches from the previous night. When Bill last peeked out, Main Street stood empty, the traffic lights at the corner of Main and Oak swaying in the wind. If the weatherman was right, there would be a foot on the ground come morning.
Bill’s stomach gurgled.
“Are you ready, Mr. Katz?” he asked impatiently.
The reporter looked nervously up. “Y-yeah, I’m ready.”
Bill sat back in his chair and sighed. “That thing’s on, right?”
“Yeah,” the reporter said.
Bill sighed. He ran over the story once more in his mind, gathering the steam needed to tell it.
“Well, it started Tuesday,” he began. “I was here, in my office, drinking a cup of coffee and reading over the reports from the night before.”
That wasn’t entirely true. He was drinking coffee, alright, but he was actually surfing the internet, looking up discount rooms on Hotels.com; a long week in Florida sounded good about now. The reporter didn’t need to know that. It’d make him look bad. The reporter, from Pittsburgh, wouldn’t understand how a cop could have the time to surf the net at work. In the city, someone was always doing something. Here, in Maspeth, population three hundred, no one did anything, expect farm and go to church. Of all the rural villages dotting the northern Pennsylvania highlands, Maspeth was probably the smallest and the most isolated; surrounded by densely forested hills, it was accessible by one highway and one highway only: US26. The interstate was only ten miles to the south, but there were no signs for Maspeth along its length; unless you knew where Maspeth was and meant to get there, you’d never find it.
Bill’s job, then, was more sitting than running, and the only shots he’d ever made in his three years as sheriff involved a wad of paper and a wastebasket. That was fine by him, though. He was a patrolman in Philadelphia for almost twenty years, and had had more than his fair share of excitement.
“It was…eight or nine, I think. I was just about to get up and go on patrol when I got a call from Old Man Jamison out on Deer Ridge Road.”
Bill shifted in his chair.
The reporter looked at him.
Old Man Jamison, in his late eighties, was a World War II vet who survived the Nazis unscathed, but kept going up against the basement stairs and getting his ass kicked. He was a sweet old man. Used to own the Texaco south of town.
“He was all in an uproar. Said he heard gunshots next door and saw a big black Lincoln peeling off.”
Next door was the Raymond residence, an old dairy farm gone to seed; most of the land belonged to the county now, except for the house and a few achers back. At one time, it produced all the milk in the county.
The Maspeth Creamery, as it was called, closed down in the fifties, and went through a couple owners before James Raymond, a short, bulldoggish man who wore big sun glasses, bought it in ’91. Bill didn’t know much about Raymond. Unlike the other residents of Maspeth, he was cool and standoffish, something of a hermit, even. There wasn’t much to do in Maspeth, admittedly, but there was a diner, a tavern, and a church.
Raymond was a stranger to them all. In fact, thinking about it, Bill was almost certain he’d only seen the man a handful of times in the ten years he’d lived in Maspeth.
To each his own, he figured.
“Old Man Jamison’s property abuts the Raymond place, but there’s a hill and trees in the way, so he didn’t see anything but the car tearing by on the road.”
Old Man Jamison said it was pistol fire. “Small arms” is the word he actually used. And Bill trusted the old man’s judgment; he was weak and frail, but as sharp as ever. If he said he heard pistol fire, by God, he heard pistol fire.
Dreading what he might find, Bill stuffed his two-hundred-and-fifty pound frame into his squad car and drove the six miles to Deer Ridge Road. The day was cold and bright, the sun a brilliant gold and the barren trees standing in full detail. The roads were still slushy from Sunday’s storm, and heaps of snow tingled black flanked the highway. One thing Bill hated about northern PA was that the snow never melted until spring, sometimes as late as April or May; once the snow flew, it stuck, and you either lived with it, or you hung yourself.
Deer Ridge Road was a narrow and winding tract of rutted pavement that coursed through the hills for three miles before the first signs of life appeared; shacks and sheds, their lawns strewn with wreckages. The hill people were poor and hardy. A lot of people up there drank fought; last summer, a meth lab blew up there, killing two brothers and a girl from Jerusalem who had a reputation of being a white trash slut. Most of the 911 calls in this part of the county came from Deer Ridge, and even those were few and far between.
Gunshots and speeding cars were unusual.
“The Raymond place is on the right-hand side of the road, just over a little hill. It’s a big white house with a wraparound porch and a green roof.”
Bill pulled into the dooryard and killed the engine.
The front door stood open.
Bill’s heart clutched. Something wasn’t right.
Bill grabbed the shotgun from its cradle and got out of the car. The air was crisp and dry. The windows were dark and evil.
“James!” Bill called out, his voice echoing, scaring crows from the tops of skeletal trees. “James Raymond! It’s Sheriff Bill Wilkins! Come on out…if you can!”
A gust of icy wind swept down from the hills.
Bill leaned back into the car, called for backup.
He doubted anyone was still here…if they were here at all. Better safe than sorry, though.
He intended to wait for the other units before going into the house, but he quickly grew restless and decided to go in anyway.
The front of the house was warm and dimly lit: To the left was a sitting room, and to the right was a den. Ahead, a staircase led up to the second floor. The hall continued into the kitchen.
The first thing Bill noticed was the sound of music, soft and faint, drifting from the sitting room. He recognized it. “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole. “So I’m offering this simple phrase/ for kids from one to ninety-two…”
Bill crept into the sitting room, the shotgun raised high before him.
A fire roared in the hearth.
A Christmas tree stood by the window, its lights twinkling red, blue, and green.
Nat King Cole’s voice slowly faded, and a commercial for Bender’s Auto and Tires in Skaamville came on, the owner wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Bill followed the sound to a radio in a corner. It was an older cabinet-style model, from the fifties or sixties, all knobs and glass glowing softly yellow.
From the sitting room, Bill went into the kitchen.
It smelled like cookies.
“I went in, and, aside from the cookies, I noticed blood on the floor, a big pool of it.”
He also noticed three brass shell-casings, twinkling in the light.
A cold chill came over him.
The back door was open.
Bill went to it.
The other buildings of the Creamery had been torn down long ago, and the land smoothed over. Deep hills rose on either side. The ground was coated with frost.
Something lay unmoving in the field.
It looked like a man.
“Shit, I said, and ran over to him. It was James Raymond alright. He was wearing a denim shirt, jeans, and slippers. He had three holes in him. One high in his back, another lower, and one square in the middle of his forehead.”
“And the mouse?”
Bill started. “Yeah,” he sighed. “There was something hanging out of his mouth, pink and long. It was mouse.”
The reporter shivered.
Back-up shortly arrived, and by the end of the day, the Creamery was crawling with cops and highway patrolmen.
“The news got out quick,” Bill said, “and some guy in New York City recognized James Raymond in the paper. Turns out he was a mobster.”
“James Raymond” was, in actuality, Tony Scarvo, a Genovese Family captain who turned states’ evidence in 1990 and went into the witness protection program. Though his features were doughy and unthreatening, Scarvo was one of the most feared enforcers the Genovese had. His father, an Italian immigrant, owned a funeral home on Staten Island, and, when he died, Tony took it over, and used it to dispose of dead Mafioso, sometimes even employing caskets with false bottoms, burying grandmothers and ministers on top, and rats on the bottom. They called him “The Undertaker.”
“They caught him with a dead body in his trunk on the George Washington Bridge,” Bill said, recounting what he’d read. “They offered him a choice: Rat or spend the rest of your life in jail. He chose to rat.”
Scarvo’s testimony decimated the ranks of the Genovese Family. When the trial was over, he disappeared into the system.
In 1994, a famous New York director brought his life to the screen. The Undertaker was hailed as a cinematic masterpiece and went on to become the third-highest grossing film of the 1990s.
“They finally kicked him out in 1999,” Bill said. “He liked getting drunk and bragging about who he was.”
Bill’s theory was that the Genovese Family had finally caught up with him. It went down like this: Tony was making cookies and listening to the Christmas music, getting himself ready for the holidays, when someone knocked at the door. Maybe he answered it, found a team of guys in suits, and tried to get away. Maybe he looked out the window, saw them, and tried to get away. In either case, he made it to the kitchen before being shot the first time.
Like an animal trapped in a corner, Tony fought through his wounds, making it out the back door. One of the guys, probably the leader (Bill imagined him wearing a long black coat and black leather gloves) stood on the back step and hit him again. He went down, and maybe tried to crawl away. The hit men strode over, put a bullet in his brain, and then stuffed a mouse in his mouth, to symbolize that he was a rat (did they mistake the mouse for a rat? Could they not find one small enough?).
Mission accomplished, they got back into their car and peeled off.
“Do you have any evidence?” the reporter asked.
Bill shook his head. “The casings, but something tells me they won’t be able to trace them back to anything. The gun’s probably unregistered, probably in a lake or a river by now. It started snowing shortly after I got there, so any footprints were filled back in. The CSI team’s been through the place a few times, but nothing.”
It looked like the murder of Raymond James AKA Tony Scarvo was heading for the cold case files.
Bill didn’t like that. He wasn’t the type of man to rest easy when something was left undone. He didn’t see himself becoming one of those obsessive detective types he saw on Investigation Discovery, working endlessly on solving one case from thirty years before, but he also didn’t see himself ever being able to fully relax.
He said as much, and the reporter nodded.
“That’s pretty much it.”
It was snowing heavily by the time the reporter left Maspeth; white sheets fell sideways across the highway, dancing and whirling in the headlights. He kept his speed low, between five and ten miles an hour, and stopped once when he felt the tires beginning to slide underneath him.
When he was in the next town over, he parked at a well-lighted Sheetz, and made a call on his cellphone.
“Yeah?” the voice on the other end asked.
“It’s me,” the reporter said, “Jimmy.”
“Yeah? What’s up?”
“I talked to the sheriff. He’s got nothin’.”
Silence as, presumably, Vinnie Castello smiled. “Good. No evidence? Hairs? Nothin’?”
“Nothing at all.”
“What’d he say about the old man?”
“He says he didn’t see anything, just the car, and not even that clearly.”
Vinnie Castello, the most trusted captain in the Genovese Family, made a small noise.
“How’d it go out there?”
Vinnie sent two guys out to Old Man Jamison’s house on Deer Ridge Road in addition to sending him to the police station.
“He had an accident. Basement stairs. You know how it goes.”
Jimmy knew alright. He knew all too well.