Friday Morning -Chicago
As he drove back to the hotel from the hospital, Sledge Walker kept thinking about what Pam said as she was wheeled out of the emergency room, I can’t believe they really did it.
Who were they? What had they done? Could this have anything to do with Marcus Witherow?
He turned into the hotel entrance and handed his car keys to the valet parking attendant. He hurried up to his room and sat down on the couch where he had laid his computer case the night before. He opened the case, plugged in the banged-up Dell Inspiron 7000 and turned it on.
“Let’s see what we can find out about this Witherow thing,” he said to himself as the computer went through its beeping warm up and diagnostic routine. He looked in the C Drive for the Chicago Tribune folder. Finding the folder, he expanded the menu to show folders with the names of several people. Brad Ashmore was one of the names. He double-clicked the mouse on the name and the Brad Ashmore file appeared on the computer screen.
Brad Ashmore, Chicago Tribune, Basketball Editor, NBA and college. His phone number, cell number and fax number were all included in the data.
Walker dialed the number and waited for an answer.
“Sports, this is Ashmore,” a voice answered.
“Brad, this is Sledge. What’s happening with this Witherow story?”
“It’s a mess, Sledge. They fished his SUV out of the river and got the body, but it wasn't Witherow. Some guy -- a large black man -- was found in the truck. His head was stuck inside the hole in the steering wheel. His body was draped over the front seat and his legs and feet were still in the back seat. His right arm was a mess – looked like a bite was taken out of him. A big hunk of flesh was missing. I guess he couldn't get his head out of the steering wheel in time to get out of the car. There was a gun in the car. One bullet hole was found in the roof and another bullet went through the windshield. The clip in the gun was two bullets shy of a full load.
“They're doing an autopsy on the guy now, but we won’t have the results for a couple of days. I play softball with one of the ghouls at the Cook County Morgue. He told me he would call if anything unusual showed up. Unsuual, what am I saying. The whole fucking thing is unusual.”
"Do the police have any idea who the guy in the car is?" Walker asked.
"They got an ID off him. He wasn't local. They're checking it out with the FBI now. They’re also running the prints on the gun."
Walker was relieved that the dead man wasn't Witherow, but now he was confused about how a dead man, who wasn’t Witherow, was found in Witherow's car at the bottom of the river, head stuck in the steering wheel, bullet hole in the roof and windshield. Could Marcus have killed this guy? If he could find Marcus, he could find the truth.
“I guess I’ll be working on some column material from here while we sort through this thing,” Walker said. Witherow was a South Carolina hero and it was time for him to get to work on the story. Thousands of readers in the South Carolina Low Country would want to know what had happened to their favorite son.
"Some of my police buddies said that except for the arm, the body looked clean when it came out of the water," Brad continued. "No needle marks and no outward evidence of drug paraphernalia or booze in the car. It doesn’t make much sense how the guy got in the car.
"What do you make of it Sledge? Is Witherow a killer?"
“I don’t know Brad, but I guess you or me or the police need to find out what happened. Since you’re local, and I’m not, can I use the Trib’s library for info?”
“You know you can count on me, Sledge,” Ashmore told Walker. “I haven’t forgotten who helped me get my first real newspaper job . . . Jack Simms . . . it wasn’t you asshole,” he said laughing. “I’ll tell my boss that you need help with background and other stuff. He won’t mind. We’re all in the same country club you know.”
Ashmore and Walker had worked together on several papers – the first as interns on the Natchez, Mississippi Democrat. Walker kept Ashmore out of trouble on a daily basis at the Democrat, and Ashmore had always been grateful.
“Hey, on another subject,” Walker interjected. “Who were those girls you fixed us up with after the game last night?”
“You liked ole Pammy, huh? Is she the ultimate party girl or what?” Brad asked his old buddy, laughing out loud.
“Plenty of fun all right,” Sledge answered, “What was she doing at the basketball game hanging around like that?”
“She’s some kind of groupie type. She’s there a lot . . . usually with a girlfriend, sometimes with other guys. Hell of a looker, though. I’ve seen her with Witherow and another girl a few times. Did you sample that stuff last night, or were you too drunk to get it up?” Ashmore kidded Walker.
“Hey, ole Sledge can always get it up,” Walker said in the defense of his manliness, not really remembering if he had gotten it up or not. “I was trying to get in touch with her and I don’t know where to find her. Do you know how I can get in touch with her?”
“Probably go to the next game. She’s usually there,” Ashmore said. “Hey Sledge, I gotta go -- got a deadline to make. I'll give you a call when I hear anything else."
Walker hung up the phone and scratched his head, playing possible scenarios over and over in his mind. “Something smells like yesterday's fish with this story,” he thought. He grabbed the phone again and dialed his mentor’s cell phone number. The phone rang, and then a voice that made other people’s throat hurt answered, “What?”
“Jack, you sorry ole bastard, did I wake you up? Maybe I should have waited until after noon,” Walker said in his usual greeting to the man that had taught him how to be a real newspaper man.
“You son-of-a-bitch Walker, who gave you my private number?” Jack shot back, knowing full well that he had given Sledge the number as well as a key to his ocean-front home on Charleston’s Sullivan’s Island.
“Have you heard about the Marcus Witherow story?” Sledge asked long-time, retired Sports Editor Jack Samuels.
“What do you mean, ’Have I heard about it?’” Jack growled. “I can smell news on Mars if the god-damned wind is blowing in the right direction. How did you find out about it? Were you in the car with the kid? That’s about the only fucking way you would know anything about it," Jack said, hacking out a couple of lifelong smoker’s coughs and then nearly choking on a belly laugh as he talked. "You wouldn't know news if it bit you in the ass."
“The whole mess stinks, Jack. Do you suppose that Marcus had anything to do with the stiff found in his SUV?" Walker asked, the usual banter between the two starting to turn serious.
“I think you’re right, Sledge,” Samuels agreed with the man he treated like a son. “It just doesn’t smell right. I thought Witherow was a good kid. Is he mixed up with the wrong crowd?”
Samuels had written sports for the Charleston Sentinel for 30 years. He had retired on his 70th birthday and he had spent the last five years of his new life drinking straight bourbon whiskey, smoking two packs of unfiltered Camels a day, fishing, carousing and walking up and down the beaches of Sullivan’s Island – not necessarily in that order. He still loved to read the newspaper – a trait that a journalist can never lose, no matter how old he gets, or how long he's retired. He was learning how to read the news from different papers all over the world on the Internet – something that was hard to do back when typewriters and line-a-type machines were used to create papers – and he liked it, but he would never admit it.
Walker trusted Samuel's opinion more than anyone. Samuels was a 50-year veteran of the news game. He had worked for almost two decades with the Associated Press in Boston and New York, and he had toiled in both sports and news as a writer and editor on several of the south’s best papers. His claim to fame was leading an investigative reporting team that helped the Columbus, Georgia Ledger-Enquirer win a Pulitzer Prize in a series of stories about murder, gambling and prostitution in the infamous Phenix City fish camps in Phenix City, Alabama – just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus – in the early 1950’s. He kept investigating and reporting on the Phenix City mob even after he almost lost one of his legs in a botched car bombing attempt in front of the Columbus newspaper office late one night.
“A young kid like that has everything going for him,” Samuels said. “No way he's going to hang out with scum like they found in that truck."
"How do you know the guy was scum?" Walker asked.
"It's just a gut feeling of mine," Samuels interjected.
“The initial police report says no foul play,” Sledge said.
“I don’t know about you, but when I hear a car is in the river with an occupant with his head stuck in the steering wheel who doesn’t own the car, I don’t need to be told no foul play,” Samuels barked at Walker. “The only thing it could be is foul play.”
“I heard what the police said at the press conference, but that's just throwing the press a bone until they really find out something. I'd bet Witherow had something to do with the thing, but I hope I'm wrong on that. But Sledge, you know there’s a trail of something somewhere – follow the money, sex or drugs.”
“Jack, I’m going to stay in Chicago and dig around some. Are you going down to the office today?” Walker asked.
“I’ll mosey on in about lunch. Can I do anything for you?” Jack still went to the Sentinel once or twice a week, just to stay visible. He kept his old office, but he didn’t really write anymore.
“Yeah. Tell the boss I’ll be in the Windy City for a while. Got some digging around to do.”
“Sledge,” Samuels said before Walker could hang up the phone. "Be careful. Don’t dig so deep that you dig your own grave.”
Causes John Haslam Supports
I support the Constitution of the United States of America.
I support St. Jude's Hospital.
I believe in GOD.