When Chip got back home, his mind turned to Don Mockson again, just like it had yesterday. He couldn’t stop wondering about the circumstances of his death. For some reason, he didn’t feel like the man who had landed on his shoes had gotten there purely by accident. His mind just couldn’t accept the possibility that a healthy, erudite individual could be reduced to that in such a short and natural order.
Recognizing that his memory of the events of that night might have been skewed by the level of emotional trauma that he had suffered, he thought that his first order of business today should be establishing some outside corroboration for what he had seen.
Besides Lurlene, there was only one person at the meeting who he had said more than one word to in the past decade, the reporter Allison. Besides the fact that he figured he would enjoy any decent excuse to talk to her again, the fact that she was a reporter probably meant that she would have a better, more consistent sense of what happened than anyone else. Pulling out his phone, he sent out a multi-call to her contact information, inviting either a voice call, a video call, or a text conversation. She responded by text message that she was on the phone with someone else right now and would call him back soon.
“Soon” was soon enough that even though he had planned on surfing the web aimlessly until she called, he hadn’t even managed to get sidetracked from the first thing he had looked up, the Wikipedia article on “community rights”. When the phone rang he answered it and got himself settled for a detailed rehashing of the events of only two nights ago.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Allison began.
“In Iowa, in November? If we’re going to have this conversation in meatspace, then why don’t we at least do it somewhere indoors?”
“I’ll tell you why while we walk. Meet me in 15 minutes at the prairie reserve on the south side of town.” She hung up without any further discussion of her suggestion.
Chip didn’t know anything about a prairie preserve in this town. When he had still lived here, nobody cared very much about the prairie, except and something that had been on the ground long ago for their immigrant ancestors to walk through on their way here. He always thought of prairie as a historical artifact from the time of covered wagons, but he didn’t want to seem like an idiot for having to call back and ask where that was. Searching for “prairie park” got him directions to what looked like a completely blank area on the map, near a place where the river bent.
He indulged himself by following the search results down the rabbit hole of articles from the days when the prairie park was built. Apparently prairies still existed, even in the modern post-wagon world. Someone had proposed restoring vacant land in the floodplain of the river into the state that it might have had 200 years ago, and the board of supervisors had gone for it 5 years ago. Judging by the articles and discussions online from that time period, it had been heralded as a “jewel of the region” and an “ecological triumph” which sounded like good things to put on a poster if parks had posters like movies did: “Two thumbs up for the walking trails!”
Chip’s indulgence of his brain’s curiosity was going to make him late so he grabbed his laptop and coat and ran out the door. When he got to the gravel parking lot with its freshly painted signage, courtesy of the chamber of commerce, he found Allison already arrived and sitting on a peaceful bench, also courtesy of the chamber of commerce. Rather than adopting the peaceful posture of her environment, Allison seemed quite tense. As she sat, she kept turning her head in broad circles like she was trying to scan for marauding bears.
“I don’t think you have to worry about any bears, Allison. All of the predators that survive here are the two-legged type.”
She gave a weak smile and stood from the bench, tugging Chip’s arm to hurry him along.
“What is this all about? Are we on some kind of secret mission?”
“Just relax, look cool and I promise I will tell you soon what is going on.”
Chip nodded just a small nod and then tried to focus on the tall, waving grass stems that stuck up 5 or 6 feet above the ground. Shooting a few more glances over her shoulder, Chip couldn’t stand it anynore.
“Are you going to tell me why you think the aliens are trying to probe you now?
“This isn’t very funny.”
“What isn’t? You still haven’t told me what is so unfunny that we have to come outside in the wind and cold instead of being civilized and meeting at the coffee shop in town.”
“Okay, here goes. My notebook was stolen.”
“Wait, what? That’s why we have to walk around outside? Because you lost a notebook.”
“I didn’t say that I lost it. I said that it was stolen.”
“How do you know it was stolen? Yellow pads have some seriously evolved walking capabilities. That’s why they invented Post-it notes, you know.”
“Hey now, I’m a reporter. My notes on a story don’t just up and walk away. I had the notes in my bag when I went into the Fareway and when I came back out, my bag was still there in my car, but the notebook was missing.”
“So, they broke into your car?”
“Well, it wasn’t locked.”
Chip had forgotten the steep trust gradient that existed between Iowa and the coasts. In Iowa, it was nothing to leave your car running in a parking lot on a cold, winter night while you went in for a package of jumbo marshmallows and a two liter of knock-off Dr. Pepper. In Portland, you locked up your bike before you got all the way off it for fear that the city’s illicit bike recycling apparatus took advantage of you if you turned your back.
“So, if your car wasn’t locked, couldn’t anyone have gone in there? Couldn’t this be like a drive-by notebook stealing.”
“Come on. Think here. Why would someone go into a parked car and take a pad of paper. If they urgently needed to write a note, they could have just taken a single page. No, whoever took that notebook knew what they were taking.”
“But why would someone take your notes from a public hearing? Didn’t a hundred people see everything that happened that night? What could possibly be on that pad of paper that someone would want to suppress enough to violate the iron-clad social norm against automobile invasion that must prevail around here?”
“That isn’t even the most weirdest part of this. I take all my notes with a smart pen. Everything I wrote that night was already uploaded to my cloud account and transcribed. The paper is a hook for my memory. It’s almost impossible to get beyond a jillion years of evolution that preference tactile information over almost everything else. I try not to fight my lower brain parts, so I take my notes on paper and then I keep the paper around so I can leaf back through it if I need to jog my memory more effectively than I could in a search box online.”
“So, whoever took your notes didn’t deprive you of anything.”
“Exactly. At best, they made me a fraction less efficient in recalling the contents, but it isn’t like so much happened that night that I can’t just read over all of it if I need to remember something.”
“So, wait, what are we doing here in the uh, throes of nature?”
“Well, if someone knew where my car was parked at Fareway, then someone has been following me. And if someone is following me and I don’t know it, then they could also be listening to what I say, especially in confined public spaces like a coffee shop. So, I asked you to come out here so we wouldn’t be eavesdropped on.”
“It seems like this would be a very hard place for someone to come in and follow you without someone noticing. I can’t say a single swear word without being the talk of the town and I’ve only been gone for ten years. If an outsider was skulking around, then it would be public rumor already.”
“Maybe it is and we just aren’t plugged into the rumor mill.”
“Maybe you aren’t plugged in to the rumor mill. I’ve got a connection who may be the grindstone of the rumor mill. I’ll ask her.”
“Let me know what you hear, if you would please. So why did you call me?”
“I’ve been going around and around in my head since that night about what could have happened to Don Mockson to kill him so suddenly. I was hoping that you might have seen something out of the ordinary that might give me a clue.”
Chip recounted his stumbling investigation at the morgue and his conversation with Mrs. Mockson.
Allison nodded encouragingly as he spilled out the evidence that he was a lunatic if not yet a raving one, but she didn’t seem to judge him. When he finished pouring out his doubts about the police’s lack of investigation, she said, “You know I should think you’re crazy.” He nodded. “But I don’t.”
“Really, why not?”
“Because I’ve seen lots of dead people and most of them don’t look nearly as surprised as Don Mockson. Because I’ve got a nose for news. Because I had a front row seat for what must be the strangest murder ever.”
“Wait, what? Murder?”
“Isn’t that what you call it when one human causes the death of another human?”
“Sure, but Mockson couldn’t have been murdered, there wasn’t anything that anyone could have done to him. What did you see that night that the rest of us didn’t?”
“Not much different than what you just told me except for one thing. From my vantage point when Lemaire yelled ‘That’s enough out of you’, that was the exact moment when Mockson fell down. It looked like he had turned off a light switch and the lights went out for Don Mockson.”
“But that’s not possible. We don’t have wizards or warlocks. You can’t just point a finger at someone and cause an artery in their brain to burst.”
“Of course not. Which is why I haven’t filed my exposé yet.”
“You’re going to write a story about this?”
“Of course. The one I was going to write before this happened was going to be deadly dull. ‘Local self-aggrandizing board holds pointless meeting’ is an article that could cause the demise of old people if they aren’t accustomed to a certain level of boredom. But now, I could write ‘Mining company spokesperson kills’ if I can figure out how that makes any sense at all.”
“But you can’t go making criminal accusations in your article without any proof. There’s laws against that kind of writing aren’t there?”
“Slander is illegal if that’s what you mean. I do need some evidence, enough that a reasonable person could believe what I am telling. I don’t need nearly as much evidence as a court would require to tell my story.”
“I always knew the court of public opinion was a kangaroo court.”
“Sneer all you want, the free press is the only thing between this country and a complete constitutional meltdown.”
“Freedom is a strange thing to attribute to a media universe that consists of 4 bright network suns and uncountable dim nebulae of citizen journalism. The networks are never going to act against their own profit motive and who cares how free the rest of you are if nobody hears what you are saying.”
“When something important happens, the independent voices get out virally before the oligarchs even know that something is happening. In fact, they are so terrified of being scooped by some blogger that they’ve stopped fact-checking before they broadcast anything. Now they just say ‘alleged’ before every piece of news and if they’re wrong, well, it was just the allegation of some blogger.”
“Kangaroo courts again. Listen, I grant that there are important things being said by the independents and the people on the scene, but their voices get wiped out so fast once the spin doctors get their act together. With a couple of ‘experts’ and some 3D recreations, the loud voices end up telling people what the story is really about.”
“So I guess we’ll just have to trust citizens to be able to discern the difference between corporate pablum and truth.”
“Methinks though doth trust them a bit too much. Anyways, I didn’t call you to come argue media theory on a blustery November day. What are you going to do to move your story along? Do you have any leads? Perhaps you drew a smoking gun on your notepad?”
“No such luck. I’m a bit stumped right now. What I really need is some suggestion that Mockson didn’t die of natural causes. I can sling around some public records stuff that makes Lemaire look guilty, but until I have something that makes it looks like dropping dead of natural causes isn’t the most likely explanation, I’ve got nothing. Impugning the reputation of a mining company thug is in the vein of the best of independent journalism. Pretending that someone didn’t have a stroke to advance our liberal agenda is a little too conspiratorial for this collective’s taste.”
“What a trip to have to consider the reporting tastes of the colelctive. It’s like the Borg putting out a newspaper.
“I’m going to see what I can pry out of the city’s databases about that night. The police weren’t forthcoming, but these days there’s better sources of data than those officious pricks.”
“Simmer down Tex. You sound like you could up and join a collective right now.”
“It’s just my keen sense of justice speaking.”
“Sure it is. Apparently the sound of the light rail must have drowned it out right up until you moved back to the Midwest.”