Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Obnoxious Corpse
Steve Levi


Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department was stuck on 5-Across – a six-letter word with no vowels – when his cell phone throbbed to life. He hated the cell phone. It was supposed to keep him in touch with the office but all it did was steal time from his already busy days. Now his wife could reach him at any moment during the day and there was no secretary to screen his calls. Looking at the number on the small screen he sighed. His wife, Lorelei.

Again.

“And how are you, my dear,” he said as he answered the phone, “and what is a five-letter word in the English language that has no vowels?”

“I’m not sure,” said a strange male voice which Noonan did not expect or recognize. “It’s probably some word with a y for the vowel.” There was a pause. “I’ll bet you don’t know who this is.”

“You’d win that bet,” said Noonan. “Why are you on my wife’s phone?”

“Because I stopped by your house. You’re not supposed to be working on a Saturday and because you’re obviously working on a crossword puzzle, you aren’t.”

“That’s close to the truth. But that doesn’t tell me why you’re at my home.”

“That’s because I haven’t told you yet. I’m Deputy Marshal Hollister McNabb and, yeah, that’s really my name. I’m in Sandersonville from Pullman, on R&R, after being shot in the line of duty.”

“No bad, I hope.”

“No, just embarrassing. I have to sleep on my stomach.”

“I see. And you . . .”

“Stopped in because of a strange case we have in Pullman. It’s one of those baffling tidbits you are famous for solving. We’re not up against the wall in the sense that the judicial clock is ticking, but it’s a matter we’d like to resolve. I was on the Outer Banks on vacation so I thought I might stop by and see if you would be interested in helping us.”

“Always willing to help. Is this something you do over the phone or do you want to come to the office?”

“Phone is fine. It’s short. You see, we’ve got a corpse that’s making obscene phone calls.”

“A corpse that making obscene phone calls? That’s a bit, uh, unusual.”

“No kidding. The local press has dubbed him – he’s dead so I guess we can still call him a ‘he’ – the obnoxious corpse. He’s making phone calls from the morgue after hours. There are only three phones in the morgue and the place is pretty well locked up at night.”

“No one in the morgue?”

“Just the Ghoul,” he paused for a moment, “that’s the term we use of the corpse watcher. She’s a student in her 20s, new to town. Even if she was the one making the calls she wouldn’t know some of the things the corpse has allegedly been saying.”

“What has the corpse been saying?”

“Oh, revealing secrets. Like whose wife is having an affair, which businesses are cheating on their taxes, which lawyers are drunks, those kinds of things.”

“What makes you think it’s this corpse”

“People recognize his voice. He was well-known around town and this is exactly the kind of a prank he would pull …. if he were alive.”

“He made those kinds of phone calls when he was alive?”

“No. But it was the kind of information he would know.”

“How long as this been going on?”

“About 18 months.”

“You’ve had a corpse making obnoxious phone calls for 18 months and still haven’t solved the problem?”

“Well, no one has really put up a fuss because the kind of things he has been saying only embarrass people that no one likes anyway.”

“Who was he making calls to? I mean, were these random calls or was he calling to blackmail the callees.”

“Callees, that’s good. I’ve got to remember that. Actually he’s been calling a lot people and they’ve been telling the local newspaper. This corpse has even got his own column . . .”

“Let me guess. The Obnoxious Corpse.”

“That wasn’t hard.”

“Ok, I’ll try another guess. The reason you’re calling me now is because all of a sudden, the obnoxious corpse has hit a nerve with someone important. Like the Mayor or the Chief of Police caught in some kind of moral transgression.”

“As a matter of fact, you’re correct. They have been having an affair. Both are divorced so it’s not like someone’s cheating on a spouse. But the Mayor likes her privacy and the Chief of Police is not happy because his children are in the local school.”

“So there’s a fire under your butt to solve this.”

“Yup. That’s why I’m here.”

“Now let me make sure I’ve got this right. You have a corpse that’s been in the morgue for 18 months that is making obnoxious calls at night from one of three phones that are being monitored by a corpse watcher who isn’t making the calls and the information is accurate, up-to-date and personally embarrassing.”

“That’s right. And the caller’s voice is identical to the deceased.”

“That too. And the information that’s being released is being publicized in the local paper.”

Noonan went silent for so long that McNabb asked if he was there.

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m still here. Hummm, this is an interesting case. When are you going back to Pullman?”

“This afternoon.”

“Give me a call on Wednesday. In the meantime, I need some more information.”

“Shoot.”

“What kind of family did the deceased have? Was he insured? How many actual calls has he made? When were those calls made? When did the corpse watcher start working? Did any of the calls make threats? Who, exactly, said the voice was that of the deceased? Where did the deceased live? What was the state of his affairs and did he leave anything? Where are the three phones located in the morgue? Is the deceased frozen?”

“Is that all?”

“That’s all I can think of now. Oh, one other thing. How long has the newspaper editor been in Pullman?”

“I can give you some of those answers now.”

“Let’s hear what you’ve got.”

“The deceased had no wife; she died before him. He has two sons, both in their 20s and rotten as tomatoes at a melodrama. He has a brother somewhere. I don’t know if he was insured or whether he left some kind of an estate. He might not have been a millionaire – but he was close approaching it. I don’t know anything about his will. He’s made 27 calls in 18 months. Each of them has been logged into our local newspaper. No one knows who he’s been calling because the Obnoxious Corpse column only lists what readers have said he said. I do know that at least two people have recognized his voice, the Mayor and the Fire Chief. None of the calls were threatening or insinuating blackmail. They’ve been like hey-hey-hey-I-know-what-you-are-doing. Ghoul has been working there about two years and the newspaper editor has been in Pullman about the same length of time. There are two morgue phones in the office where Ghoul sits and the third is in the cooler – that’s what we call . . .”

“. . . I can guess. Does the cooler have a security door?”

“Yup. You’ve got to have a code to get in and every entry is time-logged.”

“I presume you’ve checked the entry log-ins with the phone calls.”

“Didn’t have to. Ghoul doesn’t make it into the cooler so there have been no entries after hours. Ghoul doesn’t even have the code.”

“How do you know the calls are coming from the morgue if no one knows who is actually receiving the calls?”

“OK, let me revise what I said. The Mayor and the Fire Chief know the calls they received came from the morgue because they have a digital readout on their phones. The Morgue and the Mayor’s Office and the Fire Chief’s Office are all on the same system. I don’t know for a fact that the other, what, 20-odd calls came from the morgue. But the newspaper keeps saying that the recipients – the callees as you refer to them – have stated the calls came from the morgue.”

“Are the Mayor and Fire Chief reliable witnesses?”

“Both were born in Pullman. They’re cousins. Both are reputable. The Mayor’s been known to pull a few practical stunts but nothing like this. Fire Chief is straight as an arrow, has the sense of humor of an engineer and grounds his kids if they steal pens from the Post Office.”

“Cousins?”

“Something like that. And, yeah, the corpse’s frozen.”

“You’ve seen the corpse?”

“Every time an article shows up in the paper I’ve got to drag my sorry butt down to the morgue and confirm that he’s still there, still dead and still frozen. Yeah, he’s frozen. I knew the guy so, yeah, I can confirm that he’s who he’s supposed to be and he’s dead and he’s frozen and he’s on a slab in the morgue and I doubt very much he’s been making any phone calls.”

“I’d say you were right.”

“Then how can I make someone who doesn’t exist stop making phone calls the obnoxious corpse isn’t making?”

“Call me next week with the answers to the other questions and I see what I can do for you.”

* * *

Mid-afternoon on the proceeding Wednesday, Harriet, Noonan’s Administrative Assistant/Gatekeeper/Confidant/Queen of Office Technology came into his office with a scrap of paper.

“Rhythm.”

“Eh?”

“Rhythm.”

“Rhythm what?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got a guy with a st-r-an-ge name on Line One and he said the word you were looking for ‘rhythm.””

Noonan counted the letters of the word on his fingers. “I’ll be! It has six letters.”

“Right,” said Harriet used to the convoluted way Noonan’s mind worked. “Now pick up Line One.”

“Is that you, McNabb?”

“Yes, Sir. I’ve got the rest of that information.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“The corpse was worth $2.5 million, most of it in secured paper. What cash he had was split three ways: two sons and the brother they are still trying to locate. There is an insurance policy but the insurance company is trying to dodge payment stating that the deceased is not actually dead because he is still making phone calls and that the body in the morgue is a double ganger.”

“Is there a death certificate for the corpse?”

“Absolutely. I have to check that every time a column shows up in the paper.”

“By the way, how old are the Fire Chief’s children?”

“Twins. In their mid-20s. Why?”

“Well, I don’t want this to come as a shock to you but your corpse is not making any calls.”

“I am stunned.”

“Don’t be. In fact, I doubt if any calls are being made at all.”

“But the Mayor and the Fire Chief.”

“One of them is lying. Most likely the Mayor. Here’s what I think has been happening. As the corpse’s estate was being settled the sons must have figured out that they were going to be broke if they couldn’t find their uncle. They could get their hands on the cash – two-thirds of it anyway – but the bulk of the estate could only be sold if the sale was co-signed by the missing brother. But no one knew where the missing brother was. The police were not going to look for him because they had no reason to. So, until the brother showed up, the sons had to sit and wait.”

“So far so good.”

“So the brothers had to come up with a scheme to get the police to look for the missing uncle. The obvious answer was to convince the police that they should look for him. Once they located the uncle they could get the third signature to settle the estate. So they faked the calls.”

“But the calls came from the morgue!”

“No. Only one of them did. The first one. There is not a shred of evidence that any other call came from the morgue. I’m sure the sons bamboozled the newspaper editor into a filler story about the obnoxious corpse and the concept took on a life of its own. It was better than the sons every expected. But it backfired on them. The police didn’t start to look for the brother and the insurance company refused to pay. So the sons continued to allege the phone calls, each one juicier than the last. That couldn’t have been too hard to do in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.”

“True but the Mayor and the Fire Chief?”

“There’s no connection between the obnoxious corpse and the Mayor and the Fire Chief. The Mayor just wants to end her affair with the Chief of Police. What better way than to use the obnoxious corpse to leak the story and then tell the Chief of Police they should cool their ardor for a while? That would make it an honorable end to the relationship. The obnoxious corpse has served her purpose so now she wants it ended. That’s why you’ve been told to deal with the matter and end it.”

“What about the Fire Chief? I don’t see him lying for anyone?”

“I don’t either. That’s why I think that he did get a call, probably the only legitimate call from the obnoxious corpse. I’ll bet if you talk to the Fire Chief you’ll find that his was the first call. The sons needed a rock-solid witness to start the ball rolling. The first person had to be someone of impeccable character. If they could convince the Fire Chief, their scheme would work. When you talk to the Fire Chief I think you’ll find that his conversation was very short. I’m sure you’ll also discover that what he was told was a bombshell to him, probably something he did not know anyone else knew. That probably threw him for a loop. The voice was obviously faked but the Fire Chief was so intent on the message he just assumed it was the corpse. I mean, a call from the morgue and all. He thought he knew the man was dead but here he was, talking to a dead man on the phone with a digital code from the Morgue who revealed a deep, dark personal secret. That call had to have been made from the morgue because the call code showed up on the Chief’s phone. That clinched it for the Chief. Then, as soon as he started nosing around, the newspaper editor picked up the story. Then it was just a matter of having the sons keep feeding the newspaper with anonymous calls from the corpse. As long as the information was accurate, the newspaper would print it.”

“Even if this is all true, I can’t stop the sons from calling the newspaper and leaking another obnoxious corpse story.”

“Sure you can. The reason they started the hoax was to scare their uncle out of the woodwork. Cut them a deal. You’ll find their uncle; they’ll kill the obnoxious corpse.”

“I’ve already tried to find the uncle. When the obnoxious corpse started calling, I ran his name through NCIC. No luck.”

“You’re not looking in the right place. Call the IRS and run his Social Security number. If he has nephews in their 20s, he’s still alive and working somewhere. If his Social Security number is inactive, see when it went inactive and where. That will give you the city where he lived when he died. Then check their morgue records.”

“You think the sons will quit when they find their uncle?”

“Should. They have no reason to continue the scheme.”

“Well, I’ll see what I can do. Anything I can do for you?”

“Well,” replied Noonan as he picked up the crossword puzzle from the weekend, “What’s a six-letter word with an ‘r’ that has no natural rhyme?”

“Depends on where the ‘r’ is.”

“I have a choice?”

“Yeah. How about circle, circus, orange or purple. Take your pick. But the one you should try first is corpse. But without any adjectives.” And with that the phone went dead. 



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