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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

John J. Dillon: The Perks

95_ym_perks_kduncan.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2022

The Perks

by John J. Dillon

 

          “It’s Sigma’s fault Ernie Holbeck ended up dead,” the guy named Norris Vann was saying. “Spoiled fratboys took the hazing way too far. Now everyone’s got to pay for the cover-up, university, fraternity, parents, even the Ridgeburg town cops. There are monsters out there, Mr. Reid. I want them nailed.”

          Reid had never set eyes on Vann before he’d walked into his one-room office-studio tucked away behind Donnie’s Computer Repair Shop. Walk-ins seldom panned out, but Reid didn’t have the luxury to ignore. A source was a source. “Crimetalk’s always looking for good true crime material,” he said. “But just to be clear, most stories never make it to the podcast.”

          “This would make a killer series,” Vann said. “Guaranteed.”

          “Feed me some details. We’ll go from there.”

          Vann stretched his thick neck slowly from side to side, leaned forward in the groaning office chair and gripped the edge of the old desk. Someday, Reid hoped, he’d have a new high-tech studio, leather furniture, and more. One of the big streaming services would pick up Crimetalk, allowing him to quit sales at the Skeggs Ford dealership and make a good living off the show. True crime was always hot, as long as you had quality. You just had to stick with it, he told himself every damn day.

          “There were six of us Sigma bros: Ernie Holbeck, me, the ringleader Mel Cross, and three others—Wesley, Sean, Kaiser. I assume you know something about Sigma Nu?”

          “I’m familiar with the, ah, illustrious institution,” Reid said. “Brandonworth University’s big cheese fraternity, owns the four-story mansion up on Hangman’s Hill. Run by fratboys from rich alumni families who’ve built half the buildings on campus and pumped millions into the university endowment. Porches and BMWs in the underground garage, endless parties, girls, 24/7 gourmet cooks, Mediterranean cruises at breaks, great employment contacts. Way out of my league back when I was a journalism student.”

          “That’s the picture. Enough money to fund a moon landing.”

           “You sound like a disillusioned rich kid.”

          “Not even close,” Vann scoffed. “I got into Sigma three years ago because every so often they stoop to admit a local star from some upstate Mayberry. Usually it’s a high school sports hero so they have a trophy pledge to show how fair-minded they are. I was all-state wrestling. They offered me a small scholarship, free room and board, and everything else that went along with it. But from day one I hated trying to fit into the pampered rich-kid set.”

          “I see,” Reid said. “No offense, but let me get it straight. You didn’t hate it enough to leave.”

          Vann’s face tightened and he shook his head. “I know what you’re saying. Definitely, it was my effing mistake to stay. I should’ve gotten a job and worked my way through college. But it was the perks, Mr. Reid. I got addicted to the bloody perks. Parties, girls, flash, mansion, grades. They bought me off with the perks just like they’ve bought off everyone else at Brandonworth. I got sucked into the corruption.”

          “That’s the problem with corruption,” Reid said. “It sucks. You’ve only got one year to graduation. What made you decide to break the spell?”      

          “Prime thing is that I draw the line when a bunch of entitled zillionaires gets someone killed then blames the victim. That’s what’s happened right in front of me. I can’t see living another day with that stink on my hands. You must know how big donor money rules this cesspool of a university. You’ve been digging up stories in this part of the state for what, seven years?”

          “I started Crimetalk right after graduation eight years ago. So yeah, I know there’s more than rolling mountains and pretty waterfalls around here. But you’re making a very heavyweight accusation. Unfortunately, moral outrage isn’t enough to base a series on. I need a solid story I can prove.”       

          Vann looked around at the scattered equipment and stained ceiling tiles. “I’ll bet,” he said, “over those eight years you’ve seen a lot of your Brandonworth classmates move away to juicy careers in the city. You must dream of it too. Don’t worry, Mr. Reid, you’ll get a solid story. I’ve got the goods on them. And it’ll also put Crimetalk on the map.”

          Reid stared at Vann, assessing, then sat forward. “Okay...” he said. “You’ve got my radar up. I didn’t think much about this Holbeck incident at the time.” He flipped open his laptop, typed in a search, read the results. “I figured it was just a bad accident, as reported. No mention of hazing.” Reid looked up. “Tell me what really happened.”

          Vann’s fingers met his temples with a deep, circular motion. To Reid, his eyes were the washed-out red you get from too little sleep and too many nightmares. “What really happened was that we planned it all out in advance,” he said. “We were going to initiate Ernie into Sigma with a crazy dare, like they did with me years ago with a bungee jump off a cliff. We took him to a part of Lake Eden that Sigma used for private parties. It was night. We built a campfire, started with the usual freshman humiliation: honk like a goose, strut like a Nazi, barf like a baboon. We got him stumbling drunk on vodka but didn’t touch the booze ourselves. Then we gave him his task: swim out to a spot called Fish Hook Sink where an old telephone pole sticks up out of the water. It’s been used for years by the locals as a casting target. We lied to him that there was a bottle of gold label Irish whisky sitting twenty feet down at the bottom of the pole. His trick was to dive for the bottle and bring it back. He did that, we’d celebrate our new Sigma bro. He was smashed senseless but the guys were hooting and taunting at the top of their lungs for him to show his stuff—his ride was for swimming. We pointed headlights on the water and goaded him, Mel even gave him a shove in. He began thrashing his way toward the pole. Right from the start I was shocked at how clumsy he looked, what a terrible idea this was. But everyone else was cheering him on. Somehow he made it to the pole and clung there waving at us. Bros chanted ‘Make the dive, Aquaman!’ until the words were pounding in my ears. Then he went under. A few minutes passed, no Ernie, we started to panic. Mel and I jumped in and raced out to the pole. We were exhausted when we got there, dove under, couldn’t see a thing, splashed around for ten minutes, still no Ernie. Two other bros joined us. Eventually we gave up and fought our way back to shore, barely able to drag ourselves out of the water. Nobody was cheering anymore.”

          “Jesus,” Reid said. “You called the cops?”

          Vann had to force the words. “Not right away. The bros were zeeked out beyond purple, knew they were in deep crap. ‘We gotta cover our asses or we’re hosed.’ So they cooked up a story that Ernie had pulled a drunken stunt swim while we were busy partying, we didn’t even know he was gone until we heard his yells from out on the water near the pole. The rest of the story was the same, failed rescue, easy to remember. But I was petrified at the thought of lying to the police. Worse, I was even more petrified of telling the truth. What the hell did I have to cover myself? A single mom working second shift at a QwikGo in Unadilla? The bros told me not to worry about a thing, their family attorneys would take care of me, we were all in this together, all I had to do I was stick with the bros, float along, everything would be fine. I finally caved, Mel called 911, reported a drowning accident. Then the bros phoned their parents and got us lawyered up. By dawn the lawyers and parents had driven upstate and were on the scene dirty dancing with the cops and university officials. By noon everyone agreed it had been an accident and the Sigma bros were even heroes for risking their lives to save Ernie.”

          “What about Holbeck’s family?”

          “A stroked-out father and a nurse’s aide mother living in a trailer outside a flyspeck called Bleekerville. They had zero clout and swallowed everything the lawyers told them. I’m sure it didn’t hurt when the fraternity released a fat bereavement payment within twenty-four hours.”

          “So far you’re in this up to your neck,” Reid said. “How long before you started to change your mind?”

          “At first I was able to keep it together, stayed quiet even after seeing Ernie’s body hauled out of the water draped in slimy fish line. That was bad. The divers had to cut him free down at the bottom where he’d entangled himself in old line and spoon lures wrapped around the pole. I was in shock but managed to convince myself nothing was going to help Ernie and that I should just keep my mouth shut and move on. But the way the frat bros acted started eating at me. Behind the scenes they were high-fiving each other, blaming Ernie for getting himself drowned, planning for the next party. Two weeks after the funeral it was back to business as usual up on Hangman’s Hill. It was sickening. I felt disconnected from the guys and sensed they were starting to watch me.”

          “Have you talked to anyone outside Sigma?”

          “Sort of. The paranoia and guilt were too much, so I contacted the police a month ago and said I wanted to discuss my original statement. Next thing I know, two very scary university attorneys came to visit, took me for a ride, private talk only, told me how dead serious the alumni parents were when it came to protecting their innocent kids’ good family name. They implied that if I had any thoughts of slandering the wholesome fraternity sons, I’d end up expelled from school, sued, and under investigation by local law. I could kiss my comfy life goodbye. They left me shaking and knew it.”

          “The cops squealed to the university.”

          “How stupid could I possibly be? They’re all tied together in this dirty town, with the university at the top. I was just a dumb, penniless, totally outgunned outsider with no powerful friends or family. Someday maybe years from now, maybe tomorrow, if they ever need to, they’ll throw me to the wolves. No question. For the rest of my life, I’ll have to worry that I’m expendable. Somehow I had to protect myself. That’s when I thought of Crimetalk, right in my backyard. I’ve listened to some of your exposés, cheating grocery stores, bribe-taking hospital officials. Loved that one you did about the crooked town council over in Mass. I figured you were worth a try. Death, corruption, cover up, money, privilege. What’s not to like for a muckraker like you?”

          Reid let a minute crawl by, hearing through the thin wall some customer out in Donnie’s whine about a refund. “I’m drawn,” he said, “There’s definitely Crimetalk potential here. I love the angle, one honest guy against the wealthy privileged university crowd. But this isn’t going to be easy. Like you say, you’re alone against many. And they’ve got to be suspicious of you. Any chance one of the frat bros—Sean, Kaiser, even this Mel—will corroborate your story?”

          “Forget it. Everyone’s feeding from the same trough.”

          “We only need one person. But one step at a time. I have to piece together a chart of everything that’s happened and everyone who’s involved so that an audience can—and wants—to follow it. It’ll take weeks to vet and produce this for a podcast series. I want to give this a shot, see what I can build, but it’s a minefield. They’ll come after me as well as you if they learn we’re nosing around. It could get dangerous.”

          “I’m willing to do what’s needed, Mr. Reid.”

          “What’s needed is to keep quiet and watch out. First thing, I want to visit Lake Eden to see this Fish Hook Sink where you’re alleging it all happened. Tomorrow morning. Are you ready for that?”

          “I’m prepared,” Vann said, as solemn as a baritone monk at vespers. “I don’t want this haunting me any longer.”

***

          Reid drove through the Skeggs Ford dealership lot in his new red Ford Mountain Mover Limited Edition 4x4 accessory-loaded pickup. The street beast handled like a dream and felt like a sleek patrol boat with a thundering engine. It was massive, with surging power wrapped up in a militarized frame and mother-crushing big tires. What a ride.

          As he left the exit, he waved out the window at a beaming Mr. Skeggs watching him from the curb. Despite having worked for four years in the used car department without much recognition from the aloof Mr. Skeggs, Reid felt they’d now become good friends.

          He turned a corner and headed west out of town, toward the postcard Catskill Mountains and a bang-up weekend, also compliments of Mr. Skeggs. Resort hotel, high-class escort from the city, radical dinners and bottles of local wine awaited.      

          Norris Vann hadn’t gotten it exactly right. Brandonworth University wasn’t the top of the heap and neither were the alumni parents. The top was Reid’s boss and owner of the Ford dealership, Tony “the Toenail” Skeggs. He ran this part of the tri-state region with a steel grip for the community downstate, and Brandonworth was under his protection umbrella. He told the university, along with everyone else in Ridgeburg, when to pay and how much for his services. In return he made sure the town and university were safe from the freelance parasites trolling for opportunities.    

          Reid had finally found something for Mr. Skeggs that would lift him, Reid, from the crowd, give him a chance to shine: there was a problem in their midst ready to wreck the whole ecosystem. It was more, much more, than the minor confidential do-gooder whistleblowers he’d offered up to Mr. Skeggs in the past. This time the problem was this big mouth college kid Vann who probably wasn’t going to go away by himself. So why let it fester? He’d given Mr. Skeggs a golden chance to fix this before it went public. Mr. Skeggs loved such initiative from his employees, was known to reward it well.

          Indeed, Mr. Skeggs had appreciated so much the opportunity to disappear Vann that Reid was now driving a new Ford LE pickup and had a bright future with the community. To hell with piddling around with some podcast no one ever heard of.

          Vann, however, had been right about one thing.

          Yes, there were monsters out there.

          But oh, how Reid loved the perks.

John J. Dillon’s worked for many years in the computer industry, and his favorite job was on an atom smasher project. During that time, he’s published non-fiction and fiction—book reviews, mystery/crime short stories, edited textbooks on the reign of Joseph Stalin, and co-authored a spy novel from Cliffhanger Press.  He finds Italian cooking worth robbing gas stations for.  So his favorite party topics are cybersecurity, crimewaves and despots, and meatballs.



Kevin D. Duncan was born 1958 in Alton, Illinois where he still resides. He has degrees in Political Science, Classics, and Art & Design. He has been freelancing illustration and cartoons for over 25 years. He has done editorial cartoons and editorial illustration for local and regional newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His award-winning work has appeared in numerous small press zines, e-zines, and he has illustrated a few books. 

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