Saturday, September 15, 2012

Excerpt from "A Formula for Murder"

Chapter 19 

Teachers have been diddling
their students forever ...
monday afternoon
It was precisely 1 p.m. when Nick rang the doorbell at the front entrance of the stately home where the Joselyns lived on Park Street, ritzy subdivision with big, manicured lawns, thick hedges, and as many flower beds as a commercial green house. The neighborhood oozed with the smell of another kind of greenery–money. Some of that dough came from banking, some from construction, and a whole bunch found its roots in health care as well as the sales of new cars and trucks. The Joselyns’ impressive four-story brick and limestone home stood as a testament to the old man’s ability to sell real estate and insurance.

Doris Joselyn answered the front door herself, though hired housekeepers scampered about just at the edge of Nick’s view inside the home. Doris was tiny, maybe stretching to 5-feet-tall in the highest of high heels. She was as slender as a straw. She wore a bright blue, knee-length silk dress. She did not try to hide the real color of her hair. It was shiny and gray and spun into a big beehive, resting neatly atop her head. Nick wondered what held it so firmly in place. The reporter averted his eyes instead of looking for pins or bolts or screws on the sides of her noggin. A big, warm smile spread across her face. “You must be the young man from The Blade. You’re right on time. Please come in.”



Nick liked her immediately. Anybody who called him a young man these days was cool. She also reminded him of a distant relative who gave him cookies and patted him on the head when he visited her as a boy. “Yes, I am. I’m Nick Steele. You must be Mrs. Joselyn. We spoke on the telephone.”

“Oh, call me Doris. Everyone does. Calling me Mrs. Joselyn makes me think of Charlie’s mother, and she’s planted over in Pine Ridge Cemetery, and that’s something I’m not quite ready for just yet.”

A grin spread across Nick’s face as he stepped into the home’s entryway, which was larger than his whole apartment. The room stretched more than 40-feet high. A large chandelier with more sparkling baubles than a belly dancer’s costume hung from the ceiling. Its light gave the room soft but full illumination. The floor was polished mahogany. The walls were lightly textured. A deep cherry wood trimmed the doorways and windows. A spiral, wooden staircase rose to second, third and fourth floor balconies. One opening to the right of the staircase led to the main living room of the home, and another brought visitors to the den, secured by huge mahogany doors. Doris walked toward the doors and called for Nick to follow.

“Charlie will meet you in here. He’s up from his nap and will be right along.” She stopped at the den’s entrance and pushed a button on a small remote control that she carried in her left hand. The giant door swung open. They walked into the lair of Charlie Joselyn.
Nick was impressed. An oak work desk with an overstuffed leather chair sat squarely in the center of the room, ready for duty. This is where the master sat when he was present, Nick thought. Trophies, awards, and certificates adorned the main interior wall. Photographs of Charlie with four former Michigan governors dotted the display. Books and maple shelving accented another wall. An entertainment center and full bar swallowed up another wall, waiting for thirsty guests. A limestone fireplace on the exterior wall


dominated the room. French doors led to a courtyard. A painting of a much-younger Charlie and Doris hung over the fireplace. Joyous smiles lit their faces and the den. It was the only time Nick would see a smile on Charlie’s face all afternoon.
“Please, make yourself at home,” Doris said. “Can I get you a drink? Something with a little bite to it?” She walked toward the bar, but Nick’s words stopped her as he slid into a chair that sat directly across from the work desk. “No, thank you. It’s way too early for me to get started. But I appreciate your kind hospitality.”

“Well, how about a soft drink or some water? You’re bound to get a little thirsty when you and Charlie get going. Once he starts talking about the school, you two could go on for a couple of hours or more. I hope you’re ready for this.”
“Water would be good, thank you.”

As Doris opened a closet and reached inside its refrigerator, the whirring sound of a wheelchair grew louder as it rolled closer. It stopped outside the doorway of the den, and then roared into view. Nick jumped up from his chair and turned to face the wheelchair as its occupant hit the brakes and made it skid sideways.

“I’ve always been partial to the grand entrance,” said the master of all that surrounded him. He looked up at the younger man and lifted his large right hand from the chair’s control panel and pushed it up toward Nick. “I’m Charlie Joselyn. Glad to meet you.”
“Hello, I’m Nick Steele. Pleased to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you that I’m finally glad we’re getting a chance to talk.”
Nick sank back into the big, comfy chair and watched a ritual that occurred every day. Charlie maneuvered the chair next to his grand leather seat behind the desk. The Vietnam War veteran locked the wheels on the chair and then hoisted himself up onto wobbly, spindly legs. Once standing, the former school board leader rotated his body gingerly until his rear-end squared up with the leather chair. He then put his hands on the arms of the chair and gently let his backside slap softly against the leather.

“There, that’s got it. Bet you thought I’d have a hell of a time 

doing that,” Charlie said as his gaze shifted from the top of his desk to Nick. “I’m wearing out, but there’s still plenty I can do for myself right, Doris? The old bull can still get it done, right?”

“Right, Charlie,” Doris said as she put two coasters on the small table next to Nick and placed ice-cold bottled water on top of one and a chilled glass on the other. “I’m glad you said get it DONE and not get it UP.”

“Oh, thank you, Doris. I really appreciate you pointing out to this young buck that I’m firing blanks from an unloaded pistol these days.”

“Aw, come on, Charlie. You’re not firing anything these days. For crying out loud, you’re almost 80. Nick’s not stupid.”
Nick was a bit surprised by the salty exchange between Doris and Charlie, but he suspected they’d had many lively discussions during their 54 years of marriage. It actually amused him.

“I’ll let you two alone to talk,” she said, smiling at Nick and nodding toward Charlie as she headed toward the door. “Buzz me if you need me.”

“That’s right, Doris. You always have to get the last word in, don’t you?” Charlie fidgeted in his chair and watched her make her way out.”

“That’s right, Charlie. You’re right once again. See you two later.”

“That woman is going to drive me crazy.” Charlie looked over at Nick and reached for his hot tea, which steamed from a cup in a saucer at the corner of his desk. “Now, tell me again why you’re here.”

“I’m a reporter with The Blade and I’m working on a story about the legacies of Bob Johnson, whom I’m sure you know passed away last week, and George Pepadowski,” Nick said as he pulled his notebook out of his sports jacket. “I requested an interview because the three of you worked so closely together in your last years at the school. I thought you could add perspective to the story that no one else could. That’s why I’m here.”

“Well, first off, let me say this,” Charlie leaned back in his chair


and cleared his throat, which resulted in a bark of half-choking, half-gagging sound that echoed across the den. “I will consent to an interview as long as your intention is to do a positive story about the school. I worked most of my adult life, and so did George and Bob, to build that school up and I won’t have you or anyone else throw dirt on it. So, if it’s muck that you’re here to rake, then stuff it up your ass and take a hike.

“I’ve never trusted reporters,” he continued. “You bastards are all alike and I’m sick of it, to tell you the truth.”

“First off, Mr. Joselyn, I am not a bastard in any sense of the word and I am not like other reporters in any way,” Nick said, trying his hardest not to raise his voice. “I’m an experienced, skilled professional who expects to be treated with respect and dignity. If you cannot muster a thimble of decency and civility, then this meeting is not going to go well, or go for very long.

“Like I said a moment ago, I’m here to talk with you about the considerable contributions that Bob and George made to Central High School and the school district. I expect this interview to cover their years at Central and most of the important events that oc- curred while the three of you were there.”

“OK, before we get going, I’ve got to ask you a question,” Charlie said as he looked squarely into Nick’s eyes. “How old are you anyway?”

“I don’t see the relevance of your question, but I’m around 50, if you must know,” Nick said, shifting in his chair to look directly into Charlie’s eyes.

“Fifties. Hmmm,” Charlie rolled his eyes. “Why, I’ve got boxer shorts older than you.”

Nick laughed and wondered to himself how long it would be before Charlie changed them and put on a new pair. He pushed that thought aside and turned up the charm. He knew it was important to get through this interview. “You’re right, I’m just a kid, and I should be thankful anytime someone notes that. Central is full of rich history and you’ve been right in the thick of it with Bob and


George. You three have been through it all at the school. I know you can help me really pull this together.”

“All right, then. Shoot. What do you want to ask me?”

“Let’s start by going back in time. You grew up on this side of town and went to Central High School as a young man, didn’t you?” Nick asked the question, knowing it was like dangling a worm in front of a hungry catfish.

That’s all it took, and Charlie jumped on the hook and took off with it. Nick used all the skill of an experienced angler while trying to reel in information from the aging former school board president, and Charlie chomped on the bait, answering each question with rich detail and self-promotion. Nick took notes furiously, peppering the conversation with enough questions to keep Charlie moving through his whole personal history–Vietnam, his work as a real estate and insurance executive, his interest and devotion to the school and, ultimately, his relationship with Bob Johnson and George Pepadowski.

After more than three hours of steady chatter between the two, Doris poked her head into the den to check on them. “I could hear you two way down the hall. I guess that means everything is going well?”

Charlie looked away from the reporter and directed his voice toward the doorway. “Splendid, dear, just splendid.”
“Do you need anything?

“No, we’re fine. And, if we do, this big guy here can hop up and get it,” Charlie said, his heavily jowled chin swaying in the direction of Nick.

“Well, I’m going to run a few errands, then. I’ve got to run by the pharmacy. They called and said your new prescription is ready. I’ll pick it up. Anything else you need while I’m out?”

“If you’re going to the pharmacy on Center, then pick me up a bottle of scotch. If not, we can pick it up later.”

“That’s where I’m going. I’ll get it for you.” Doris disappeared behind the mahogany doors.


Nick jotted down a note and circled it twice: “Doris and Charlie use the pharmacy on Center, the one where Tanya ran into Gus Phelps.”

“Where were we?” Charlie asked, swinging his attention back to Nick.

“You were talking about how important it was to get the new field house built. You said you decided to make it your life’s mission. Did you ever think that if getting it built was so difficult, maybe it wasn’t meant to be?”

“What the hell kind of question is that? Of course it was meant to be. I decided it was. It was the only way we could turn around the fortunes of the whole school district. I knew it would work, but I had to sell it to every son-of-a-bitch in town. I worked night and day and weekends and holidays, twisting arms, kissing ass, threatening, pushing, pulling – anything it took to get it done. And then, after I did that, I went around and did it again.

“I literally begged for money,” he continued. “We had to raise $4 million in cash, and then the matching grants and donations from foundations and the government would kick in. Bob and George helped. We worked on it all the time, and we finally got every last dime of it raised. That was one of the hardest things I ever did. Raising money in Bay City is as tough as fighting the damn Viet Cong.”

“Didn’t you run into problems? Were there any obstacles that popped up during the fund-raising campaign?”

“Oh, sure. It’s a big goddamned school district. There are always problems, but we handled everything that came along.”

“There’s one thing that I’ve heard about that must have been very difficult to deal with.”

“What’s that?”

“The suicide of Candace Phelps. When a young woman takes her life, it’s always difficult for the whole school. How did you handle that?”

“Oh, yes. That was tough, but suicide, as ugly as it is, is part of 137


life. You have to deal with it and move on. We handled it just like we handled everything else.”

“But her involvement with the band director must have made it extremely difficult. The other students. The parents. The other families. The media. Weren’t there a lot of questions?”

“No, there weren’t. We didn’t let out all the details. We kept a lid on it as best as we could. Nobody really knew about the band director at first, that came out later. But we’re getting off track here. Let’s not talk about her. It’s too depressing and doesn’t really have anything to do with the school district and the construction of our field house.”

“Well, I’m simply curious about it because some aspects of it don’t make sense.”

“What doesn’t make sense?”

“There’s a series of events that don’t add up, and it must have been disruptive at the time. A young girl has a hush-hush affair with her band director, and then one day the band director up and disappears at the end of the school year, and then the girl kills herself.”

“What’s so difficult to understand about that? Teachers have been diddling their students–both boys and girls–since the beginning of time. Ever hear of Socrates and what went on in the ancient schools? Go look it up. It’s part of history. It happened to us and it will probably happen again at some time in the future. It’s human nature. You can’t stop people from screwing.”

“But don’t you feel you have an obligation to protect your students from someone who would prey on them?”

“What? Why, you smart-ass. I had an obligation to look out for the interests of all our students and the school district as a whole. That meant making sure that our project stayed on track. I wasn’t going to let a few young girls, tramps, really, wreck the fund-raising campaign.”

“Tramps? A few young girls? You mean there were others besides Candace Phelps?”


“Now, wait a minute. Why are you asking me these things? We’re getting off track again.”

“There are a lot of loose ends here. This doesn’t make sense. How many girls were involved with the band director?”

“Well, you’ve got the loose ends part of it right. Four girls all together had loose ends. They were knocking each other over to get extra attention and direction from that son-of-a-bitch band director. It all went to hell when those girls found out that he was banging each of them. The little bitches got jealous of one another. It looked like the whole thing was going to blow. I wasn’t going to let some young tarts that can’t keep their knees together get in the way of our fund-raising campaign. Can you imagine the scandal? So, we just called the prick into the office and told him we knew what he was up to and that he would have to leave the school district.”

“You confronted him? Did he admit being involved sexually with the girls?”

“No, he didn’t admit it. But he didn’t really deny it, either. He just sat there with a big-assed, smug grin on his face.”

“Why didn’t you call the police when you found out he had become intimate with young girls at one of your schools?”

“So what? Why, this wasn’t rape. The girls were all 16 or older. They were of age, and they were throwing themselves all over him. They begged to be banged. It was disgusting, and I wanted to be done with it. We thought it was best that he just go.”

“We? Does that mean that George and Bob knew all about it?”

“Of course they did. It was their school. They’d heard whispers about the band director and his favorite students. But it was all just talk. He was too smart to ever get caught with one of the little snip- pets sitting on his face. They warned him about the whispers – sev- eral times.”

“And did they go along with not calling the police?”

“They did what I told them to. We had too much at stake to get the police involved and let it get messy. I told them we had to get rid of the son-of-a-bitch, and get rid of him in a hurry.”


“How did you fire him, then? Was there some kind of agreement made?”

“Bob and George got him cornered in a room and told him he would not be brought back in the fall. They told him he had to go, and we wouldn’t make a stink about it if he went quietly and quickly.”

“What about a job reference? What kind of job reference did you tell him you would give him?”

“We had a policy that we didn’t give out any job references on any former employees. At the time, if you hurt someone’s opportu- nity to gain future employment, they could sue you. Ask any lawyer who handles employment or personnel issues. Like everyone who’s ever worked at the school district, we don’t give a recommendation for or against. We simply tell the caller that the employee worked for us during a certain time period, and we do it without further comment.”

“That means your band director walked away from here after taking advantage of four high school girls and didn’t end up with a blemish of any kind on his record. I can’t believe it. How could you let that happen?”

“By the time I found out about it, the damage had already been done. He was already screwing four of our girls and I wanted to get him out of here before he got his hands on any more. That was the cleanest way to handle it.”

“But then one of his victims became distraught after he left and killed herself.”

“No one saw that coming. She lost her head and went over the deep end. Really, there was no way of stopping it from happening. Once she became distraught, she got crazy.”

“Do you think that being pregnant had anything to do with it? The man she loved, trusted, believed in and gave herself to decides to simply disappear one day. Do you think that could have pushed her over the edge?”


“Nobody knew she was going to pop a kid. As far as we knew, she was one of four young floozies who got carried away with one of her teachers. Sure, it was a tragedy, but those kinds of things happen all the time. Dying is part of living.”

“But what about your responsibility to protect her? What about the responsibilities of her superintendent and principal to protect her? Who was looking out for her and her baby?”

“Now wait just a goddamned minute. How dare you talk to me in that tone? We had 10,000 students to look out for, and we did the best we could in a very tough situation. Don’t you come into my home and lecture me about what’s best for students. I did what was best for our students, and that was to get that field house built on time and within cost. And we did it. I couldn’t have stopped what happened. I had to deal with it. Now, this interview is over. Please leave. And if you print any of this, I’ll sue your ass.”
Nick got up from his chair and headed for the door. He stopped suddenly and turned back toward Charlie. “But what about the Phelps family? What did you tell Gus Phelps and his wife?”

“I said that this interview is over.” The old man was now barking at Nick.

“I’m leaving, OK? I simply cannot believe that you could look Mr. Phelps in the eye after you allowed the band director to leave town without being held accountable for what he did with those girls.”

“I told him I was sorry about his daughter.” Charlie’s voice settled to a low roar. “I told him I wished we could have helped her. We didn’t find out until later that she was pregnant.” Charlie looked down at the polished floor, and swiveled his leather chair away from Nick, pointing it out toward the courtyard. “Now, please go.”

Nick reached the large mahogany door and turned back to- ward Charlie, as the elder man slumped down into his chair. The top of his head was now barely visible above its back. “I’ll be back in touch with you. I know I will have more questions for you about what happened.”


Charlie didn’t want any more questions. He didn’t want to think about what happened. He simply wanted it all to go away. And he wanted Doris to hurry up and return home with his medication and the bottle of scotch. But the pills that were headed for the Joselyn home were much more than Charlie or Doris had bargained for. By the time those pills were all consumed, Charlie would be gone, too.

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