2016 has thus far brought us a cool Spring. Some years, Southwest Michigan skips the season altogether, switching the weather from cold and slush to heat and humidity over the course of, say, a weekend. This is not one of those years, though, and we are looking at a week of upper-60's temps with mostly sunshine.
So now would be the time to get any heavy-duty projects off the slate, before we get the warmup, when such jobs become more misery than benefit. With that in mind, I bust the wheel off my Honda to replace the driver's side axle shaft - work that I've been putting off for a while.
You have to get kind of far into the wheel-well to do that. And inside, where the axle meets the transmission, there is this tiny little piece of metal called a C-clip. You need a special pair of pliers to get that clip off - well, you can do it other ways, but ideally you'd like it to go back together, so mangling it isn't a very good option - and I don't have that kind of pliers.
So I'm hunched up in there, like a monkey loving a football, when a heavy finger taps my shoulder. I uncork myself from the vehicle, turn on my heel in the squatting position - and I drop my needle-nose pliers, because there stands Mick the Mechanic. He's come back from The Beyond to tell me I don't have the right tool - and so much more.
"Hey," I exclaim, startled because I know he died last January.
Those won't work, dude. It's a Honda. You gotta have metric needle-nose pliers.
(He always thought that was a good one.)
"Oh, God," I say. "Do you have a pair on you?"
Ha. The question is, Heller, do YOU have a pair? What the hell is going on with your nephew's case?
"It's complicated," I say, because it is. "I'm bangin' on 'em pretty good, though."
Yeah, I read it.
"They have Internet in the afterlife?"
Of course. We all read your stuff. But you've been fuzzy about the whole thing. Nobody's really sure where this is going. Some of these dummies don't even know what it's about. You have to spell it out or it's nothing but a story.
"What haven't I said?" I ask. Because I think I've pretty well covered it. "Anyway, you're up there, you know what happened. Ask Charlie yourself."
Oh, I know what happened, just like you do, just like your lawyer does, just like your sister does. We all know. But Doctor Miss Murder She Wrote down there at Slab City lied on your family.
"Right," I reply, appreciative that someone could put it into such a nutshell. Mick, however, does not like my answer.
Whattaya mean, 'right'? What's with all this 'make them cry' bullshit, anyway? Why aren't you hitting them harder? Don't make 'em cry. Make 'em pay.
"Make them pay?"
Sue their sorry asses for mental anguish. Go for $50 million, or better, $100 million. That's what I'd do. Make it sting so they don't ever do this same thing to anybody else.
"Well," I explain, "We asked a civil attorney about that, and he told us that the coroner's office has immunity from lawsuits." Mick snorts.
No, they don't.
"I didn't think they did... Anyway, I'm not after their bloody money. I'm out to sink their ship entirely." Mick looked and sounded dubious.
How you gonna do that, Heller?
"I'm going to shade their reputation with so much light and truth that their funding will dry up, their faculty will slink away and they will have no students to speak of. Can't really be a medical school without any students, I figure. Then they can leave my hometown and take their dirty business elsewhere... Valparaiso, I'm thinking."
Mick shakes his head, even though he has seen me do it before. More than once.
It's never gonna happen. They're entrenched.
"Then I'll have fun trying."
Paul, listen. They lied on official paperwork. You can prove it - Christ, you already did. Their paperwork lists three false reasons why Charlie would've killed himself. One, he had a close friend or relative commit suicide by hanging a day or two before. That's a lie. They said he had a crisis the week before, also a lie. And the third thing is just gobbledegook.
Absolutely. So Doctor Mrs. Sweeney Todd used made-up bullshit in order to cut up poor little Charlie. As if your family's suffering wasn't bad enough.
I sigh. "It's been established. They did it for the money."
No, it hasn't. You've been vague. Why don't you just come out and say that the investigator, Kai Cronin, is a certifiable nut-job with his own suicidal and homicidal tendencies, and that you know who he is because he was friends with Stoltman, and besides, you worked with him at Pizza Hut 20-odd years ago? So you know what a crazy asshole he is.
"Well, yeah, plus I found a long report about Kai online, written by his ex-wife's new husband, who is a federal law enforcement officer. Kai Cronin fired a gun at his wife, did you know that?"
Yep, I knew that. But he's in good with the Portage cops, so the prosecutor took care of him, made sure he could have his guns back.
"Yeah. And there were much worse allegations than that in there. Funny thing is, when I went to look it up again, in the event we might need it if we ever go to court... It was gone. I've published thousands of online articles, Mickster. Do you have any idea how hard it is to make something like that disappear?"
But you had a copy saved. Right? You had a copy saved?
"Sure, we did, it's on thumb drives and email servers and the like, and I even printed off a few copies. I've got all the time in the world to delve into that later."
What did the cops say?
"Ah, see, the next thing I want to do is go through the police reports and quote the many instances in which neighbors were asked about Charlie's demeanor and such, and they all said he was a funny, happy kid who had no issues. That's what the cops reported."
But it was Kai Cronin who went ahead and did you dirty. Twenty years ago, you wouldn't have been writing about it. You'd have gone ahead and done something. I know you.
"We all get older, man."
No, we don't.
My friend reaches past me with his bear-claw hand and yanks the C-clip out of its stubborn mooring. He hands it to me.
You should be able to get it back in no problem with your metric pliers, there. Sorry I can't do more than that.
"Thanks, man," I say, because Mick always cared more about the gratitude than he did about the money. He stands up, blotting out the sun, and I can tell he has to go back now.
"Say," I ask, "Can you do me one more solid? Can you say hi to the kid for me? Tell him how much we all love him and miss him."
He knows that. He's just waiting.
To see if you're really the wild, ass-kicking sumbitch Uncle Paul that you always told him you were... Or not.
And, with that, my friend was gone.
NEXT WEEK: Chapter Seventeen - "The. Police Reports"