skip to Main Content
The world's leading Mystery magazine

Department of First Stories

The Body in Cell Two
by Kate Hohl

It took four men to carry the body into the police station. I opened the door for them, cold rain from the grey October sky stinging my cheeks like nettles. They struggled to maneuver their burden up the slick marble steps. As they squeezed by me in the narrow entryway, I caught a whiff of the wet-wool fug of the army blanket wrapped around the corpse. The men carried it past me into the small waiting room that housed my desk, an ancient filing cabinet, and a hot plate plugged in near the radiator. The American flag crisscrossed with the blue Maine flag on the wall next to the front door. Water fell from the sodden edge of the blanket. Plink. Plink.

Forming a puddle on the concrete floor.

“Thanks for coming in early, Evie,” Arn said.

Arn Colby was the Scarborough chief of police on that raw October day in 1951. He was a tall man whose blond hair and broad shoulders hinted at Viking blood mixed into his Yankee ancestry. He grimaced a little as he and the other three men shifted the weight of the body between them. Arn had tangled with a land mine in Anzio in ’44, which cracked his spine and blew off the fingers on his right hand. Arn never complained, but the pain scored deep brackets around his mouth. He spent the duration of the war in traction in a VA hospital in Baltimore.

That’s where he had met the pretty blond nurse who later would become his wife. He kept a picture of her on his desk. She had bright eyes and a no-nonsense curve to her lips. I think I would have liked her.

“Of course, Chief Colby. Cell Two is unlocked,” I said.

“You’re a good girl, Evie,” Arn said. “Come on, boys, you heard Miss Evie. Let’s bring our friend here to the back.”

Even with a bum hand, Arn was the kind of man others followed. On his right, he was flanked by Roy Landers, the deputy, and the only other full-time police officer in town. Roy’s cap sat at a jaunty angle so that it covered the cowlick in his light brown hair, like a kid playing dress-up. He carried the body at arms’ length, careful not to let the wet and salt-stained tarp brush up against his spick-and-span uniform. On Arn’s left were Martin and Eugene Pelletier, dressed in hip waders and rough wool fisherman sweaters.

I trailed the men down the short narrow hallway to the jail cells, bookended by a small window on one end and a locked door leading to the alley on the other. The two cells in the Scarborough police station didn’t get regular use during the week, but most weekends Arn was called on to break up fights at the Dog and Anchor, the local tavern. Occasionally, he had to lock up a local long enough for him to dry out.

That Monday morning, Benjy Boucher was firmly ensconced in Cell One. The Bouchers lived in a tumble-down shack out on Old Route One and had a history of starting trouble they couldn’t finish. Like all the Bouchers, Benjy’s eyes were small and close set and even though he wasn’t yet out of his twenties he had hair that was thinning near the crown of his head. His hand gripped the bars of the cell.

“What in the hell is that, Arn?” Benjy said.

“You’ll want to watch your mouth, Benjy. There’s a lady present,” Arn said. Benjy’s gaze slid over to me. “If you say so, Arn,” he said.

I ignored Benjy’s smirk. I knew how small-town minds worked. Tongues wagged when I arrived a few months before, a flatlander widow from Boston who stepped off the Downeaster train with a one-way ticket stub in her hand. It was few weeks’ wonder amongst the good people of Scarborough when Arn took me on as his secretary, but eventually most of the talk died down. Arn was clearly still committed to the memory of his wife. I was committed to keeping a job I knew I was lucky to get.

“This thing’s getting heavy. Let’s tack ’er up and dump it,” Martin Pelletier said.

“We’ll put ’em in Cell Two, at least until the medical examiner can get here from Portland,” Arn said. He shifted his weight on the balls of his feet, his face pale under the pendant lights. He would never show that the weight was straining his good arm, but I knew the signs when he was in pain.

Arn and the others laid the body down on the floor of the cell and filed out. I closed the door of the cell over, turned the lock, and hung the key on the far wall by the door.

Benjy sniffed the air and grimaced. “I never smelled such a Christly stink.”

“Benjy, what do you say I go get you some breakfast?” I said.

Arn threw me a grateful glance that warmed me better than a fur coat from Filene’s.

Benjy’s expression brightened at the mention of chow. “Fine. But tell Dinah to go easy on the eggs this time. The last ones were so hard-boiled the only thing they were fit for was to bounce ’em off the walls,” Benjy said.

Roy and the Pelletier brothers followed Arn into his office. I stuck my head in the door. The office was just large enough to accommodate Arn’s big metal desk and his three visitors. The surface of the desk held the framed photograph of his wife, a green blotter which I changed twice a month, and the seventy-five-cent fountain pen gifted to him by the Elks. The window behind Arn’s desk looked out onto Main Street. The other overlooked the alley between the police station and the Methodist church next door. Once the rain stopped, Roy would pull his Duesenberg into the alleyway next to Arn’s Buick and wash the car. He treated that jalopy better than most men treat their wives.

“Fresh pot of coffee on the hot plate,” I said. “Anyone need anything over at Dinah’s? I’m going to fetch Benjy’s breakfast.”

“We’re fine here, Evie,” Arn said.

“I’ll be back in two shakes,” I said.

“Yessir, best part of the job is looking at that view every day,” Roy said in a low voice as I walked away. The Pelletier brothers snickered.

Small towns are filled with guys like Roy Landers. Confident about their place in the world, they point with pride to their names on mossy headstones in boneyards, generations of their families intertwined with the soil. The problem with roots that deep? You can’t see the rot until after it’s already set in.

Dinah’s Coffee Shop was located across the street and down a few buildings from the Landers General Store run by a prosperous branch of Roy’s family. Dinah was one of the few women in town who was friendly to me. She and her husband Joe ran the place together. He did the cooking and she waited tables.

A customer sat at the horseshoe-shaped counter, his head buried in the morning paper. The radio on the counter was tuned to WABI out of Bangor. Skeets McDonald’s pure country wail warned his fickle woman to “Scoot, Git and Be Gone.”

“Morning, Evie,” Dinah said with a bright smile that belied the tired look in her eyes.

“Morning, Dinah. I’m here to order breakfast for Benjy Boucher,” I said.

Dinah clicked her tongue. “Again?” she said with a rare frown.

“Two eggs, soft-boiled, crispy bacon, and some of Joe’s special hash browns,” I said.

Dinah scribbled the order on her pad, then slapped it down on the high counter behind the pastry cases. “Hey Joe, did you hear? Benjy Boucher is back at the jailhouse.”

Her husband’s face appeared over the counter. He had a wide, pleasant face under his paper cap. “Now Dinah, that’s no business of ours,” he said, then disappeared back into the kitchen.

Dinah rolled her eyes. “Men. Their tongues rattle with hinges on both sides but they pretend they don’t like a good gossip as much as we ladies do.”

We shared a smile, but all I said was, “How much do I owe you?”

She stepped behind the register. “Since the county’s paying, that’ll be sixty cents.”

I fished out three quarters from my change purse. Dinah punched in the amount on the register. The double ding of the bell rang and the cash drawer popped open. The man at the counter started a little at the sound, but when I turned to get a better look at him, his face was buried again in the paper.

Dinah handed me the paper bag. It was warm and smelled of the bay seasoning Joe sprinkled into his potatoes.

I stood in the doorway to the coffee shop and waited for a break in the rain pumping down from the sky. I shared the awning with two boys dressed in school clothes clutching newspaper boats in their hands. They were part of a gang that sometimes hung out near the police station.

“You Chief Colby’s secretary?” the older, rougher-looking boy said.

“Guilty,” I said.

“Was that a dead body they just carried into the station house?” the younger one said.

“A simon-pure corpse,” I said. “But anyone asks, you didn’t hear it from me.”

Their eyes widened. “Tolja,” the younger one said. The older boy cuffed him on the ear. The younger one roared and dropped his newspaper boat in the gutter. The boat bobbled away, then circled down the storm drain as the boys chased each other down the street.

When I got back to the office, the Pelletier brothers were gone. After I delivered Benjy’s food, I ran the mop over the floor of the waiting room. I put away the mop in the utility closet and slipped a fresh piece of paper into the typewriter. The door to Arn’s office was ajar.

“So you found the body in the marsh,” Arn said to Roy.

“Don’t know how I would have pulled it out if the Pelletier boys hadn’t stopped by,” Roy said.

“What in blazes were you doing out there before dawn?” Arn said.

“It was my shift for the Observers,” Roy said. During the war he was 4-F, but he had led a group of Scarborough citizens known as the Ground Observer Corps. The Observers watched the skies above the coastline at Dunstan for enemy planes.

“The war’s over, Roy.” The pop of a match, then the sweet smell of Arn’s pipe tobacco trickled out the door.

“That dog don’t bark, Arn. We might have whooped the Nazis but what about the Ruskies? Let those dirty Reds fly their planes too close and next thing you know their tanks’ll be rolling up on U.S. soil,” Roy said.

“So, in your opinion, a Commie lands here and the first thing he does is visit a racetrack?” Arn said. When Arn searched the body, the only thing on it had been a racing form tucked into the inner pocket of the corpse’s jacket. It was a sodden mess, the fine print barely legible.

“Just because the fella had a racing form on him, it don’t mean he went to the Downs,” Roy said, his voice sulky. Scarborough Downs had been built two years earlier, in spite of protests from many of the locals, including Arn and several town leaders. Since it opened in 1950, people from all over the state had flocked there. Town gossip had it that Roy was a little too fond of playing the ponies.

“Did you search the Observation Post?” Arn said.

“What do you mean?” Roy said.

“Gee, I don’t know, Roy. A dead body shows up a few feet from the post, I figured you’d search it. See if you could find any clues,” Arn said.

Arn’s desk chair squeaked as he pushed it away from his desk. He emerged from his office, a shamefaced Roy at his side.

“Evie, Roy and I are going to take a ride out to Dunstan,” Arn said.

“What should I do about Benjy?” I said.

Arn sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. Purple smudges under his eyes told the tale of yet another sleepless night. “Let him cool his heels a little longer. I’ll cut him loose when I get back.”

*   *   *

The phone on my desk had remained mute all afternoon. No word from the coroner in Portland. It was almost four o’clock and Arn and Roy still hadn’t returned.

The day had folded up, the sky fading into a battleship-grey dusk. I grabbed the extra set of car keys from the top drawer in my desk and brought Benjy’s supper to him.

“It’s about time,” Benjy said. “I could have starved to death in here.”

I handed him a paper bag.

“What is it?” Benjy said.

“Guinea hen under glass,” I said.

He opened the bag and took out one of the hamburgers Dinah had scraped off the grill.

“You call this suppah? This food is stone cold,” he said. He threw the bag down on the cot. “And how am I supposed to eat anyway with that corpse rotting in the next cell?”

For once, Benjy was on the nose. Thanks to the efficient new central heating, the smell of the body in Cell Two had only gotten worse since that morning.

I cracked open the window in the hallway and grabbed the keys off the wall. Benjy looked hopeful, but I walked past him and opened up Cell Two. The body sat in a kidney-shaped pool of water that almost stretched to the back wall. The blanket wasn’t long enough to completely cover the corpse’s feet. I averted my eyes from the sight of the black wing tips sticking out and grabbed the extra blanket off the cot.

“Here,” I said and handed the blanket to Benjy.

“Where you goin’?” Benjy said around a mouthful of hamburger.

“To look for Arn,” I said.


Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023 The Body in Cell Two by Kate Hohl

Back To Top
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop