Banner Headline, Front Page Above the Fold Short Fiction By Christina Hoag

Banner Headline, Front Page Above the Fold: Short Fiction By Christina Hoag

Christina Hoag, author of “Banner Headline, Front Page Above the Fold”, has previously published novels “Girl on the Brink” and “Skin of Tattoos,” and has also co-authored “Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence.”

A former journalist and foreign correspondent, she has written for Time, Business Week, New York Times, Financial Times, among other media. Her short stories and essays have been published in numerous literary reviews, including Toasted Cheese, Lunch Ticket and Shooter, and have won several awards.

*****

Pepper was sparking in his veins. At least that’s what it felt like. Tucker Macrae switched off his hot plate and stared at the slices of stale bread he’d been frying in bacon fat. He wasn’t hungry, although he’d barely eaten the last three days. He felt too unsettled, antsy. He knew that meant it was time to resume his mission. Hunting animals worked for only so long to stave off the pressure.

After bullying his hair into a ponytail, he headed outside for his daily check on the generator, unworried about the mosquitoes that swarmed around him. Years of living in the thick of the Everglades had turned his skin as tough as gator hide. He crossed to the shed where the machine hummed. It fuelled his sole modern convenience: a mini fridge, and occasionally a power tool or a lightbulb. But he mostly did without those things.

He topped up the tank with gasoline from a jerrican and then walked the perimeter of his self-built compound—his cabin, a work shed, a drying shed for hides, the generator shed, and just beyond the tree line, an outhouse—to survey the still dank water. Definitely higher than a week ago. His patch of land was an island except for a bank of earth that formed a causeway connecting him to what he thought of as the mainland. But a few more good rains and his bridge would be washed out. Happened every wet season.

He topped up the tank with gasoline from a jerrican and then walked the perimeter of his self-built compound…

The water had been about this high when he’d gone on his last mission. That meant it was coming up on a year. No wonder he was feeling so damn jumpy. Time was a blur in the Glades, a thick chain of days blended into an infinite rope. He scratched his beard. He couldn’t allow himself to get lazy, to shirk his life’s purpose. He had to get going again. He owed it to Ma.

He took a cigar from his breast pocket and clamped it between his remaining teeth. His last one. He’d better get to Arnie’s and stock up on supplies, especially with the water rising. Used to be he didn’t mind being cut off, living off what he could scrounge in the swamp until the water receded, but now he liked a few comfort foods—peanut butter, sardines, the shortbread cookies that had been Ma’s favorite. A diet of gator got awful monotonous.

Puffing on his cigar, Tucker plunged into the woods down a narrow, overgrown trail and pushed aside a drape of Spanish moss to reveal a shed. He opened the door, letting loose a musty vapor, and surveyed the shelves. Everything was there, wrapped in plastic against the humidity, silently awaiting his return. The wigs, the makeup, the dresses, the falsies. The knives. He’d shave, hack off his hair and head out tonight.

*****

The bell jingled as Tucker entered the small general store. He was feeling human again, renewed and ravenous. The immediate aftermath of a mission was his favorite time. He was free of the pressure that built like a tornado from a small funnel of anger into a giant, whirling subsuming vortex of blame, shame, humiliation, rage.

“Morning, Tucker.” Arnie Harjo rested the newspaper he was reading on the counter. “I see you did your annual self-haircut. There’s a real good barber on the rez, you know.”

He ignored him and eyed the pastry case. “Those Danishes fresh?”

“This morning.”

“Liar, but I’ll take a cherry. I’m treating myself today.”

“Yeah? What’s the occasion?”

“Just feeling good.”

Arnie slipped the pastry into a paper bag. “You want coffee with that?”

Tucker barely heard him. He was staring at the banner headline on the newspaper Arnie had set down: Mayor Wants FBI to Track Returned Killer. A bubble of glee popped inside him. He had to restrain himself from cracking a grin. He looked for the newspaper rack near the door and slid off the top copy. “Black, no sugar. I’ll take a Herald too.”

“You’re splurging. Must be a really good day. “

Tucker strolled around the store collecting soap, potato chips, a razor, pickles, peanut butter, bread, and other items until the cradle of his arms was full.

“Throw in a box of Santo Domingos, would ya?” he said as he deposited the goods on the counter.

“All out. I should be getting more in later this week.”

A minor nuisance. Tucker wouldn’t let it dampen his spring of joy.

Arnie rang up the stuff, bagged it, announced the total.

“Put it on my tab,” Tucker said. Arnie made a face.

Too bad, buddy. You’ll have to wait. He needed his money for his mission. Tucker grabbed the grocery bag, his coffee and pastry and hurried to his ancient station wagon.

After perching the coffee on the dashboard, he smacked open the Herald and read about a man stabbed to death on Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard. It matched the m.o. of the John Killer, and the cops were re-activating a special task force. The mayor also wanted to bring in the feds and their “behavioral science” profilers.

Too bad, buddy. You’ll have to wait. He needed his money for his mission.

Bring ’em on!

A rap on the passenger window startled him. Arnie’s bulldog jowls filled the frame. Tucker rolled down the window. “Can’t a man have a moment’s peace?”

“I’ll hold back a couple boxes of Santo Domingos for ya, if you want.”

“Sure.” Tucker rolled up the window.

Arnie twisted his face. “Jesus Christ. You try and do right by people and all you get is grief,” he muttered as he crossed the dirt lot back to the shop.

Tucker buried his head again in the paper. When he’d finished, he sat back and gulped the now tepid coffee, then attacked his Danish, reveling in the double luxury of carbs and celebrity.

He hadn’t followed media attention last year. Hadn’t even given it a thought. In the Glades, the outside world was an abstraction, and when he returned home after his missions, he was back in his cocoon. But now, seeing the big headline about him, all those words about him, people talking about him, he realized he’d been missing out. He was, in fact, famous. Now wasn’t that something? It was like the relish on the hot dog, the seasoning on the steak. It added flavor to the main dish. Ma would be proud of her boy.

He started the car and pulled out on to the dirt road into the bold sunshine.

*****

The next day, he woke up with questions banging his skull: What were they saying about him today? Are the feds coming in? The questions kept bothering him as he waded around the swamp looking for hatching gator eggs. But he couldn’t focus. After a fruitless two hours, he gave up. He headed back to his cabin and grabbed his car keys.

Arnie was on the phone when Tucker entered. He went straight to the newspaper rack and leafed through the Herald. Nothing about the John Killer. Maybe he’d missed it. He went through the pages again, slower. Arnie ended his call.

“This ain’t a library. You gonna buy that newspaper or what?”

“Nah, I don’t think I will today.” He folded the paper and tossed it back on the pile.

“I’m going to have to start charging you if all you’re gonna do is come in and read it. What’s got you so hyped up about the news anyways?”

“Alright already, I’ll buy your lousy paper.” He picked up the newspaper he’d just thrown down. “It makes good kindling. I gotta get gas too.”

“You paying for that?” Arnie said.

“Put it on my tab.”

“That’s the second time you filled up in a week. I can’t let the tab get too high.”

“I ain’t going nowhere, Arnie, you know that.”

Arnie frowned. “Where are you driving to so much all of a sudden?”

“You should mind your own business. I’m not sticking my nose into that freezer of yours. What you got in there? Some out-of-season snook or goliath grouper? Or some of them protected ferns and orchids collectors are always after in your back room?”

Exultant with the triumph of the last word, he exited the store, filled his tank and drove off, spinning his wheels in dirt just to show Arnie who’s who.

When he arrived home, he went through the newspaper again, reading each headline instead of skimming it. He reached the final page. Nothing about him. He felt the weight of disappointment. Just as well that he’d been planning to do another mission anyway.

*****

Tucker stared at the stack of Heralds. The headlines looked familiar. He realized why. He’d already read them.

“Hey, Arnie, these are yesterday’s papers.”

Arnie looked round from stocking the cigarette dispenser behind the counter. “You again? Maybe I should rent you a space here in the store.”

“You got today’s paper?”

“If I did, it would be there. The delivery guy’s late. It happens.”

“When’re you expecting him?”

“When he comes. If he called in sick, then nobody’s coming. They ain’t got the manpower to cover this route for so few papers.”

Tucker scratched the nape of his neck. “Where’s the nearest place I could get a paper?”

“Nowhere close. What’s so urgent?”

“I’m just trying to keep up with the world.”

“I thought that was the whole point of living out here in the boonies,” Arnie said. “You could get satellite TV, you know. Everyone’s got that on the rez.”

Arnie turned back to stacking Marlboro packs. Tucker wandered out to his car. Was it worth driving a ways for a newspaper? He slid behind the wheel. Yes, it was.

Fifty-nine miles later, he reached Miami’s westernmost suburbs that butted up against the Everglades. He pulled in at a 7-Eleven and was rewarded with another front-page headline above the fold, Killer Strikes Fear in Red-Light Strip. Delight filled him. Absolutely worth the gas.

*****

Two days later, a pack of reservation kids milled around the store entrance on paint-chipped bicycles, chewing candy bars and sucking on ice pops. Tucker walked up to the door but none of the boys budged.

“Hey kid, move,” he said to the boy straddling his bike in front of the door.

“Move yourself,” the boy retorted. His friends snickered.

“Don’t get fresh with me,” he said.

“Or what?” The boy, maybe twelve or so, shook a shock of dark hair back from his forehead and stared him down.

“Looks like we got ourselves a troublemaker here,” he said.

The store door opened with a jingle. “Move on, boys,” Arnie said. “You got your stuff, now git on home.”

The ringleader chucked his ice pop stick on the ground. “C’mon. We got better shit to do than hang with old farts,” he said.

He pushed off and the others followed. They sped down the dirt road, the ringleader pulling a wheelie to show his status.

“Goddamn kids,” Tucker muttered as he followed Arnie into the store, which was only half-cooled by an overtaxed air conditioner.

“Bet you pulled the same shit when you were a youngster,” Arnie said.

“I had to take care of my ma, that’s what I was doing. I wasn’t riding bicycles and bothering people.”

Arnie shot him a curious look. “So. The third visit this week. I feel honored,” he said.

“Just thought I’d check on them Santo Domingos. I finished the last one.” His voice trailed off as he spotted the front-page headline of the fat Sunday edition of the Miami Herald. Inside the Warped Mind of a Serial Killer. His stomach clenched. What the fuck was this? Arnie’s voice rumbled like a train behind him as he picked up the newspaper.

“I said, I told you it would be next week. Maybe you need to get your hearing checked one of these days,” Arnie said.

“Nothing wrong with my hearing.”

“It’s two bucks for the Sunday paper, by the way.”

“Highway robbery for this crap.”

“You’re buying it, aren’t you?”

“Put it on my tab. You got any old papers lying around?”

Arnie shook his head. “The delivery guy takes the old ones when he brings the new ones. You going to settle up your account soon?”

Unfolding the A-section of the paper with the rest of it tucked under his arm, Tucker ignored Arnie and stepped outside. He started to read the article as he walked slowly to his car, but he sensed something and twisted. Arnie watched him from the door. Goddamn the man’s eyes. He snapped the paper closed and marched to the station wagon.

He sped back home, paying no mind to his rear wheels fishtailing on the road, left slick with mud from last night’s rain. When he reached the solitude of his cabin, he spread the newspaper on the table he’d built out of pine scraps.

A serial killer expert who has done consulting work for the FBI surmised that the culprit harbored an intense rage against his father, which he takes out on male victims who patronize sex workers. Experts in forensic psychology voiced other theories, including that the killer had had a romantic relationship with a prostitute, but the affair had been thwarted by her profession.

Another theorized that the killer was likely a man who had felt emasculated by a domineering, overbearing mother and thus was driven by a need to express his manhood by dominating other males. One professor noted that it could simply be that the patrons of prostitutes were opportunistic killings, particularly as the murderer seemed to avoid choosing younger men who would be harder to fight off.

He flung down the newspaper in disgust. Shrinks. Out of everybody, they had always misunderstood him, not to mention underestimated him, the most. Poor potential for emotional and cognitive adjustment to adulthood. Profound affective disassociation.  Learning disorders. He’d read all the reports, memorized the mumbo jumbo, and then looked up the meanings in the detention center library.

Idiots. Counselors, teachers, judges, social workers, probation officers. More idiots. He’d fooled them all with his miraculous turnaround in the “training school for boys.” It had come to him in a dream one night, five months shy of his sixteenth birthday and seven months after he’d killed the john—killing men who used prostitutes was his life’s mission and he’d have to prove himself rehabilitated so he could carry it out. Three decades and six states later, he was still carrying it out. It filled him right up like summer downpours filled the Glades waterways.

He stared at the newspaper on the floor. He picked up the paper again, examined the byline. Ingrid Sorenson. Who the hell was she, writing all this crap about him? She’d never even met him! And those so-called experts and their theories? What right did they have to make up this crock of shit? He crushed the paper into a ball and hurled it. It bounced off the grime-furred window.

He leapt to his feet, energized by a current of anger, and paced. His forehead was being squeezed by a vise of words. Domineering overbearing mother! Emasculated! Romantic relationship with a prostitute! Avoid choosing younger men! As if he were some wimpish weakling, a coward, a mama’s boy. So what if he was a mama’s boy? How dare they insult her. They had no idea what she’d gone through, what she’d had to do to support him. What he’d had to do to take care of her.

An intense rage against his father. He laughed out loud at that one. He didn’t know who his father was. Shit, Ma didn’t even know, so how could he be harboring an intense rage against a nobody. Nobody was his father. Mr. Nobody. People had been trying to define him his whole damn life. They were all wrong. None of them had even come close.

The cabin’s walls were moving in on him, becoming the closet Ma put him in as a kid, for his own good, to protect him, while she was working. She’d tried to be a good mother, but he could still hear the sounds, the animalistic noises, and then he figured out a way to prevent the door latch from catching so he could escape. Then he could see too. What those men were doing to her.

He marched outside. The rising day after the night rain was turning the air steamy and thick. Birds cooed in the trees. He trudged down a short trail to his special place, a glen where several hundred wild orchids he’d gathered over the years hung from the surrounding trees, their roots twisted around trunks and boughs or hanging loose, feeding off the humid air. The forest was alive with the blooms’ brilliant colors. He caressed the crinkled tendril of a cow horn orchid, fingered the delicate veins of a butterfly orchid cluster, took a deep breath. He felt himself calming as he always did when surrounded by his beloved flowers, the purest, most innocent and beautiful things he’d ever had.

No one knew about his orchids. He had collected some rare species over the years. A couple of them had even been reported as extinct. But they weren’t. It was another of his secrets. He liked secrets. They were his power over the world.

Then he knew what he was going to do. He’d call that reporter. Anonymously. Set her straight. Shit. He’d have to use Arnie’s phone. No privacy. Wait, he could write a letter. Cutting out the letters from the newspaper. Like they did in the movies. He smiled.

“Anyone around?” A voice boomed.

Goddammit. Had to be Sam Roundtree. Tucker tramped quickly up the path, saw the airboat pulled up to the bank before he clocked the reservation cop peering into the cabin, aviator shades pushed on top of his head.

“Yo!” Tucker yelled to get him away from the window.

Sam turned. “There are you are. I smelt your cigar. I figured you were close by.”

“Can’t a man answer the call of nature?”

“Just wondered if the rain last night washed out your road.” Sam pointed to the causeway. “Water’s rising fast.”

“Since when were you so concerned for my welfare?”

Sam shrugged. “Being neighborly, that’s all.”

“You looking for some gator hides?”

“You got some?”

That was the real reason he’d stopped by. Without stopping, Tucker walked straight into his work shed. Sam followed. Skins hung on several cords drying out.

“Woo-wee! You better watch it or you’re gonna have Fish and Wildlife on your ass,” Sam said.

“You want ’em or not?”

“I’ll take ’em.”

They haggled over a price for the next five minutes.

“You gotta get rid of them hides,” Sam argued. “Gator season’s coming up, and Fish and Wildlife is gonna be out here in full force checking trapping licenses.”

But Tucker held out. He needed the cash. They finally agreed on a price. Sam parted with a fair few more bills than he’d originally offered.

“I might have to go elsewheres from now on,” Sam said.

“Suit yourself.” Tucker stuffed the money in his pocket and watched Sam cover the pile of hides on the airboat with a tarp. He didn’t offer to help.

Sam nodded in the way of a goodbye, then slung the airboat into a perfect arc of churned water.

*****

Tucker spent the next afternoon deciding what to write to the reporter and cutting out the letters in squares from the newspaper. He tore out a sheet of paper from an old notebook then realized he had no glue. He also needed an envelope and a stamp. He’d get them at Arnie’s. But he couldn’t mail the letter from there. Arnie stuck his beak into everything. He’d have to go into town tomorrow. He’d go late, do a mission at the same time. Save some gas.

*****

Tucker looked for the newspaper rack as soon as he entered the store. Nothing above the fold. He flipped the newspaper. There it was: bottom of the front page as if shoehorned in. He felt a pang of disappointment.

Reward Offered in Serial Killer Case.

He was worth fifty grand, as it turned out. Well, that was a sight more than chump change.

“The Santo Domingos came in today,” Arnie said.

“I need some glue, an envelope and a stamp, the peel-off kind not the licking kind.”

Arnie pointed. “Down that aisle. Envelopes come in a box of twenty.”

Tucker wandered down the aisle. He’d have to buy the box then. Shit. Well, maybe this reporter lady would turn into a regular pen pal. He wouldn’t mind that. He deserved to have his say in these newspaper stories. He’d be like, what do they call them, a confidential source or some shit?, about himself! He snorted and laughed out loud.

“You alright back there?”

He stifled the laughter and turned the aisle corner to the small housewares section, where he spotted rubber gloves. He hadn’t thought about gloves. He was slipping. He grabbed a pair and placed everything on the counter, where a single stamp and a box of Santo Domingos were waiting. As Arnie rang up the purchases, Tucker drew out a cigar and lit it using one of the lighters in the cardboard holder on the counter.

Arnie swept up the lighters and shoved them under the counter. “Those are for sale, Tucker. Can’t you wait to smoke them things til you’re outside?”

Tucker puffed an extra-large cloud. “What time does the newspaper guy come?”

“Around six in the morning. I leave the returns outside the door. He picks ‘em up and drops off the new ones.”

Tucker plucked a shred of tobacco off his tongue and flicked it away, ignoring Arnie’s look of distaste, then he pulled out Roundtree’s cash.

“You settling up your tab with that wad?” Arnie asked.

Tucker paid his debt then he drove up the road apiece, pulled over, wriggled his hands into the rubber gloves and glued the letters to the paper.

You and the shrinks got it wrong. He’s doing a service. It’s for his ma.

He copied the address from the newspaper onto the envelope, peeled the backings off the stamp and envelope flaps and pressed it all closed. Then he drove into town to find his next target and a mailbox. He’d try Hialeah this time.

*****

Two days later, Tucker posted up at the store at ten to six. He grabbed the previous day’s newspaper from Arnie’s return and then waited for delivery of the new edition. The van pulled up twenty-five minutes later and deposited a bundle. As soon as the van pulled out, Tucker ran over, wrenched a copy free and beat it back to his cabin to read both days’ editions, congratulating himself for getting two days’ newspapers with one trip.

He leafed through the newspaper. There it was, on the local news section front. Pretty good, but not front page: Hialeah Homicide Linked to Serial Killer.

Nothing about the letter, though. Too soon maybe.

He followed the same routine two days later. Cops Check Serial Slayings. The story was inside, on the next to last page of the A section. Upper right corner. He should be on the front page! Swallowing his anger over the placement, he read on.

Police were checking murders with similar m.o.’s over the past twenty years across the country, as well as a slew of tips that came in after the reward was announced. Almost at the end, there was a mention of DNA evidence recovered at the Hialeah scene. The cops were being coy and wouldn’t say what it was.

Tucker shrugged. A hair. Skin cells. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. He’d never been arrested as an adult and his juvie record was well before they started swabbing cheeks. That’s one reason they’d never found him. But he was more fidgety than ever the rest of the day. He’d couldn’t wait two days to see what was going on. He’d go the next morning to wait for the delivery guy. If there was no mention of the letter, he’d send that reporter another one. And he’d pull another mission, guaranteed to get him back on the front page. He got up at sunrise the next morning and drove to the store.

The van turned into the lot a little faster than usual. It stopped, the driver tossed out the bundle, picked up the old one, zoomed off. Tucker got out of the car. Then cops swarmed from behind the building and the tree line like a constellation of ants, yelling at him to freeze, get his hands in the air, get on the ground. Seconds later, his cheek pressed into the sharp gravel and he felt cold steel tight around his wrists.

*****

“You want the newspaper?” The guard spoke through the window in the door. “You’re on the front page.”

“Nope.” That fucking newspaper caused his arrest, lured him into a trap. When he got free, he’d see to that reporter. Wait, the front page? He ran to the door and called out. “Hey, I’ll take one.”

Everglades Hermit Arrested in Serial Killings

Banner headline across the top, he noted with satisfaction and read on.

Macrae was arrested using genetic genealogy and old-fashioned shoe-leather, homicide Detective Rick Gonzalez said. “We found a tiny piece of tobacco in the envelope that he sent to the Herald. Analysis determined it was from the Santo Domingo brand of cigar and it contained DNA from saliva.”

A search of DNA in law enforcement databases yielded no results so detectives turned to a public genealogy website, where they located the suspect’s aunt. The aunt told detectives about her sister, a prostitute who was murdered by a customer, and her sister’s son, who had witnessed the murder from a closet and then sprang out and killed the john. He had disappeared following his release from a youth prison.

Detectives then tracked all retailers of Santo Domingo cigars, eventually honing in on a convenience store in the Everglades.

Storeowner Arnie Harjo said Macrae was an oddball who’d been a regular patron for years, but recently had become obsessed with reading the newspaper.

‘When the detectives asked me about customers who smoked Santo Domingos, it all made sense. It had to be Tucker,’ he said.

Harjo said he’s hopeful he’ll be awarded the reward upon Macrae’s conviction.

A scream rose from Tucker’s gut as he ripped the pages, cursing the newspaper, the reporter, Arnie. He crashed onto his rack. Night fell. Overbright lights flicked on. Tucker got up and stared at the pieces. His life’s mission reduced to scraps? What would Ma say? He gathered the pieces of paper, put back the front page on the floor like a jigsaw puzzle. He was a banner headline, front page, above the fold. He called out the door. “Hey, I need some sticky tape.”

*****

If you’ve enjoyed “Banner Headline, Front Page Above the Fold”, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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