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Authors: Michael Craft

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Body Language

BOOK: Body Language
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Body Language
A Mark Manning Mystery
Michael Craft

The author is indebted to Agatha Christie, master of this genre, one of whose stage plays inspired the core idea for this story. Further, he thanks Mari Higgins-Frost and Joel Wallen for their assistance with various plot details. As always, the author expresses his gratitude to Mitchell Waters and John Scognamiglio for bringing this series to print.

—M.C.

Naturellement, à Léon

Contents

PROLOGUE This Afternoon

PART ONE Three Months Ago

PART TWO Three Weeks Ago

PART THREE Three Days Ago

PART FOUR Three Hours Ago

EPILOGUE This Afternoon

Preview: Name Games

A Biography of Michael Craft

PROLOGUE
This Afternoon

M
Y NEW LIFE SEEMS
bogged by funerals, peppered by the last rites of passage into some vast unknown. The mourners who surround me are watching the spectacle of grief played out at the altar. With a numb sense of detachment, they mime the prescribed motions and mouth psalms about sheep, lost in their memories, as I am lost in mine.

This journey, this launch of a faithful soul to its presumed reward, mirrors my own journey north to this town, seeking a future still rooted in my past. While the events that led me here were personal and introspective—selfish, some might say—the circumstances of this funeral, and the one that preceded it only days ago, have deeply bruised the public psyche of this town. Wondering what thoughts are harbored by the others here in church today, I am tempted to make a few notes.

Reaching beneath my topcoat, my hand brushes the spiral of a steno pad as I remove from my pocket the wonderful old pen I carry everywhere, even here. In the course of my career, I’ve known legions of reporters, but none other have used a fountain pen for notes—idiosyncratic perhaps, and not entirely practical, but it’s a luxurious affectation that is by now second nature to me. Rolling the Montblanc in my fingers like a fine cigar, I remove the cap and examine the gold band beneath the nib. Engraved there in tiny letters is the name
MARK MANNING
, barely legible through the years of wear.

The priest drones through the script of his fill-in-the-blanks sermon, eulogizing “this allegiant child of the church.” Heads bob, some sob, but most try to huddle deeper into their scarves; outside, the midday sun may glare in a crystalline sky, but inside, the building’s old boiler is no match for the January cold spell that now grips central Wisconsin.

Pulling the notepad from my coat, I flip it open and poise my pen, searching for the first words of a story that wants to be told. After all, the events of the past few weeks are the stuff of sensational journalism. I know a great story when I see one, and my reputation stems from an ability to report it. Groping now for that opening phrase, I find that words seem to resist the tangibility of ink. But why? This one has it all—deceit, greed, secrets, and lust. Not to mention murder.

And it dawns on me. I’m too close to this story. This is family. This is
me.
Though page-one material, this will never carry my byline. This is a tale I can spin only in my mind.

PART ONE
Three Months Ago

W
HERE TO BEGIN?
The roots of this story trace back to my boyhood, some thirty-three years ago when I first visited Dumont, Wisconsin. And there were even earlier chapters, with a hidden prologue written prior to my birth in Illinois forty-two years ago. But the events that led to the tragedies of the past few weeks are not nearly so distant. The main action of this tale began just three months ago.

It was autumn, mid-October in Chicago, arguably the most pleasant weeks of the year—cool, dry, and invigorating. Kids were back in school, the opera and symphony seasons were in full swing, and the world got busy again with the productive grind of life. For all of these reasons and countless others, I have always enjoyed fall.

But last October was different. A mild despondency had gnawed at me all year, and by the time the leaves began to yellow, I found myself in the throes of full-blown depression. On the surface, this condition could be glibly diagnosed as a common case of midlife crisis. Indeed, like most men in their forties, I had begun to contemplate my mortality, and my staunchly rational creed did not permit the safety net of an afterlife. At the suggestion of an attorney friend, Roxanne Exner, I even wrote a will.

The truth was, though, that while I wasn’t getting any younger, there wasn’t a thing physically wrong with me. I was (and still am) as fit as most at thirty. So it is simply inaccurate to say that my depression was caused by the pull of the grave. What was really eating me was my job.

Doubtless, there are many who look back at their life’s work and wonder why they’ve bothered. All too often, visions of a changed world are dead-ended by the realities of a future that doesn’t measure up to the plan.

My career, however, exceeded all expectations. Back in the seventies, as a journalism student at Champaign-Urbana, I didn’t dare dream that success might await me in Chicago, where I managed to land a reporting job at the
Journal
, one of that city’s two major dailies. Over the years, I honed my skills and eventually secured a reputation as the most respected investigative reporter in the Midwest—a statement that verges on boasting, perhaps, but it is not with empty pride, because I did, in fact, deliver a unique brand of journalism in a city that’s known as a newspaper town.

Most notably, last summer’s big story dealt with a civic festival of the arts and sciences. When I took on the assignment, I had no idea—no one did, other than a handful of conspirators—that the festival was related to a bizarre scheme with insidious social implications for the entire country. During the course of my investigation, several of my coworkers were killed, and while there were many who considered me a hero in these developments, I myself had a hard time shrugging off the notion that I had played a role in these deaths.

This notion may have been shared by the Partridge Committee, that august body of publishers and scholars responsible for handing out the Partridge Prize (investigative journalism’s highest award, known among reporters as “the coveted brass bird”). When the nominations were announced last fall, my efforts were again ignored, and the elusive prize was awarded posthumously to a reporter who was felled by the events of my story. Ironically, this was his
second
Partridge. The one awarded to him in life meant little to him—he treated it like a knickknack, a gaudy paperweight.

I am a reasonable man, self-analytical and perhaps overly logical, hardly prone to fits of peevishness. But that story was easily the highlight of my reporting career—any journalist would drool at the prospects of typing his byline over it. A combination of circumstances, luck, and my own best efforts produced an investigation that was hailed by my editor as the story of the year, if not the decade. Public acclaim was overwhelming, but the Partridge people ignored me. And this has happened before. I believe this is the result of a particular prejudice against me. I believe this is a reaction to the fact that I am gay.

Recognition of prejudice is not a persecution complex, and my insistence upon maintaining this distinction is not mere defensiveness. People are free to believe whatever they wish, and if, as a result of their beliefs, they don’t “like” me, so be it—I’m not apt to like them, either. But the Partridge Foundation, while private, functions in the public arena, claims open-mindedness, and parades a veneer of objectivity. By any objective standard, I was screwed.

In other words, last October my career at the
Journal
maxed out. I had taken the job as far as it was likely to go, and while my performance was recognized by the adulation of my readers and the respect of my cohorts, I was convinced that my reporting would never be endorsed by that one evasive plum it deserved. Further, assignments like the festival story don’t come along every day—subsequent stories fired no passion within me. And there was still that nagging thought that I had played a role in the death of friends.

I was beginning to grapple with awareness of the unthinkable: my reporting days at the
Journal
were drawing to an end, and I had no idea where I was headed.

All was not bleak, however, not by a long shot. Though the stability of my professional life was approaching a crisis of uncertainty, I had achieved emotional bedrock at home with Neil Waite. Meeting him, learning to love him, had precipitated a different kind of crisis—an identity crisis—some three years earlier. Approaching forty, I was single, straight, frustrated, and curious when an intriguing young architect, barely in his thirties, came to Chicago on business from Phoenix. At first glance, I judged him athletically handsome; during our first evening of conversation, I came to understand that he was intellectually rigorous as well. I was doomed (perhaps “destined” has a less pejorative ring) to fall in love with him, and my lifetime of fears became meaningless.

Roxanne introduced us, a courtesy she learned to regret, as she’d set her sights romantically on both Neil and me over the years. By the time Neil made his decision to relocate to his firm’s Chicago office, it was obvious to both of us, as well as to Roxanne, that he and I belonged together. We were relieved when Roxanne ultimately reconciled herself to the role of unwitting matchmaker, and she has since been our closest friend.

The other aspect of my life that was anything but bleak last autumn was finances. As the
Journal
’s star reporter, I was well paid, of course, but that was just the beginning. When I solved a prominent missing-person case nearly three years ago (at the time I met Neil), I received a substantial cash award from the woman’s estate. Not long after that, I learned that I had inherited a large house from an uncle in central Wisconsin—Dumont, Wisconsin—which I had seen only once during a boyhood visit. Since both Neil and I were then anchored to our jobs in Chicago, I sold the house to an architecture buff and his wife from Madison, a Professor and Mrs. Tawkin.

The proceeds from all this were used to customize a cavernous loft apartment in Chicago’s Near North area, which I had bought and Neil redesigned. The renovation took nearly two years, but we both enjoyed the process despite the upheaval. We were literally building our life together, and our home was the tangible symbol of that commitment.

The loft project, while substantial, did not exhaust my windfall, and I proved myself a shrewd investor of the remaining funds, watching with bemused disbelief as they multiplied. Then, last summer, after my investigation of the festival story made page-one headlines worldwide, I found myself in constant demand as the recipient of outrageously inflated lecture fees, which fueled my investment hobby with additional capital.

No, money wasn’t a problem. Nor was my home life the problem. The problem, as I have said, was my job. I wanted out.

“So just quit,” Neil told me. “Take a breather. Or take an early retirement.” We were at home one evening at the loft, and he waved his arms at our lavish surroundings, all paid for. “You don’t
need
to work.”

“But I do need to work.” I handed him one of the two cocktails I had just poured, Japanese vodka over ice with a twist of orange peel—more of a summer drink, actually, not quite right for October, but ever since the evening we first met, this had been “our” drink, our ritual.

Taking the glass, he said, “Concentrate on your investments. You’re good at it.”

“Just because I’m good at it doesn’t mean I enjoy it.” I sat next to him on a sofa facing a tall bank of windows looking east toward Lake Michigan. “I’m no bean counter. I’m a journalist.”

“Then write a book.”

A tempting thought. I knew very well, though, that books get written by people who have something to say, not by people who are merely in search of a literary pastime. I told Neil, “Someday, sure, I’ll try my hand at a book. Now, I’m still absorbed in the day-to-day mind-set of newspapers—that’s all I’ve done, and that’s really all I know. But it’s time for a change.”

BOOK: Body Language
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ads

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