BY: JOHN ESSICK
Wes Byrne has lost his wife to cancer and his career as an investigative reporter is in a free-fall because of a decision to investigate the powerful drug company that contributed to her death. Now, after losing another, and what may have been his last, chance to revive his career, he arrives in his old hometown to attend the funeral of a murdered childhood friend before continuing on the road to oblivion. Despite his repeated denials, however, his reputation as a reporter leads people in the town to believe he has actually come to find his friend’s killer. Wes soon stumbles upon more dead bodies and becomes a “person of interest” to police in those murders. He has no choice but to go against his better judgment and, fueled with more than a few tumblers of Powers whiskey, expose the murderers to avoid becoming the next victim.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Last Respects by John Essick, Wes Byrne is a failing investigative reporter whose life is in a down spiral since his wife died of cancer. Now he has just been fired from his latest job at the Providence Sentinel. But when he goes to his old hometown to attend the funeral of a murdered friend, everyone thinks he is there to investigate the murder, even though all Wes wants to do is to attend the funeral and leave town. Then his car is stolen and an old friend from high school is murdered in his hotel room. Wes is now a person of interest in the newest murder and being drawn into the investigation whether he likes it or not, though he is just as likely to be the next victim as he is to find the murderer.
Essick’s character development is superb and the mystery intriguing, with a number of subplots equally as compelling as the main one—a highly entertaining read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Last Respects by John Essick is the story of a man who has lost everything important in his life—his wife, his career as an investigative reporter, and his self-respect—and who just wants to continue his downward journey in peace. Just as Wes Byrne is fired from his latest job, he gets a phone call telling him that an old friend has been murdered. Since he has nothing else to do, Wes packs his belongings into his twenty-year-old car and heads for his hometown to attend the funeral. He barely arrives in town when his car is stolen and everyone he meets thinks he is there to investigate the murder of his friend since the police don’t seem to care. Wes tries to explain that he is no longer employed as a reporter, and he is just there to attend the funeral, but no one believes him. Then when another old friend—who returns his stolen car on the condition that he take her with him when he leaves town in the morning—is murdered in his hotel room, Wes is arrested for her murder. Since the police have no evidence to hold him on, he’s released but told not to leave town. Now that he has to stay, he decides to do what everyone thinks he is already doing and find out what he can about the murders—a decision that soon has the killer targeting him too.
Last Respects is a suspenseful mystery/thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end, turning pages as fast as you can.
“The reason I’m showin’ ya the door, Byrne, is, despite whatever great reputation you may believe you have, I think your writing’s crap.”
I had to hand it to Rollie. There were so many other ways he could have told me the paper was letting me go. After all, it was no secret the newspaper industry was dying and jobs were being eliminated every day. I was one of the newest hires at the Providence Sentinel, the city’s first, now only, and, if things continued the way they were, last newspaper, so he could have taken the old lack of seniority tack. Or he could have trotted out the old standard about changing demographics and the need for the paper to attract new, younger readers. Either would have displayed a touch of decency. However, if I had learned one thing during my brief tenure at the Sentinel, it was that Roland “Rollie” Deeple, Features Editor, was one of the biggest sons of a bitch I ever had worked for.
I looked across his cluttered desk and couldn’t help noticing the smug look of satisfaction on his face. He was enjoying this. He had never wanted me on his staff in the first place. The decision to hire me had come from above, and I was given my column in Features over his strenuous objections. Now, here was an opportunity to not only kick me to the curb but also send a shot upstairs to remind the powers that be that no one tells Rollie Deeple what to do.
“Does Tom Hawkins know?” I asked.
“Yeah, and he agrees. All I had to do was show him this,” he said, waving two pages of my latest copy. “No one wants to read another depressing column about death and loss and whatever sad sack shit is happening in your life.”
A little meatball of a man, more bread crumbs than hamburger, Rollie represented everything I loathed in this business, what I’d come to call “tenacious mediocrity.” It made me angry to contemplate that this foul-tempered, mean-spirited hack had back-stabbed and manipulated his way to becoming an editor of a fairly important newspaper. Day after day, I watched him dash the ambition of every young reporter who possessed a modicum of the talent he knew he himself didn’t have, or crush the career of a good writer who he thought posed a threat to the power he had schemed so hard to attain. It further angered me to realize that, in my case, this horrid little fat man was right. My writing stank.
Rollie waited for my reply, but all I could do was stare at the stain on his shirt. Every day that I had worked at the paper, Rollie managed to have a stain somewhere on his shirt. As I sat there, I sadly realized the thing I was probably going to miss most about the paper was not the camaraderie of fellow reporters or the rush I once got from seeing my name in an article’s byline, but instead throwing my dollar in the office pool each day and making a guess as to what Rollie had managed to spill on himself that morning. Today I went with raspberry from a jelly-filled donut. Wonder if it was too late to change it to blood, my blood.
“I want you packed up and your desk cleared right away. When you’re ready to go, security will escort you out,” he said, interrupting my thoughts.
“Security? That won’t be necessary.”
“Paper policy. We wanna to make sure you’re not walking off with any state secrets and make sure you leave the building like you’re supposed ta. We’ve had nuts hide out in a bathroom and sabotage the next edition after the day-staff had gone home. We’ve learned to take precautions.”
I stood to leave. So far, I thought I’d handled myself with dignity and kept my emotions in check. “I’m not the saboteur type,” I replied. “Besides, I couldn’t do any more damage to this newspaper in one night than you do on a daily basis.”
“Get the hell out of my office, you loser,” Rollie screamed.
So much for dignity, but sometimes dignity was overrated.
As I left his office, I could see from the faces of my now former co-workers that word about my dismissal had spread. Made sense, of course, since it was a newspaper staffed by professionals trained to be on top of the latest events. Some gave me a wry smile and a shake of the head. Others averted their gaze lest whatever I had that caused my firing be transmitted by eye contact.
I walked over to my desk and was surprised to see an empty file box already waiting for me there. Rollie didn’t waste time.
He needn’t have worried. It wouldn’t take me long to pack because I’d never really settled in. The Sentinel never felt like home, although I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what home felt like anymore. I had it once, really had it all, forever ago. Then everything seemed to crumble so quickly, and here I was packing up my stuff just like I had everywhere I’d been since everything…well, actually the only thing that mattered…had washed away.
Margie the office manager—a short, slightly plump woman in her mid-forties, with her hair cut short with jagged bangs and her reading glasses hanging from a chain around her neck—was also there. She had a file with my name on it in her hands, no doubt with my marching orders inside.
“Wes, I’m so sorry, really. Just a few papers to sign…” she said, putting her reading glasses on. “God, I hate this part of my job.”
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault,” I said just as my smartphone began to vibrate on my desk, where I’d tossed it when I came in. With my luck, it was my landlord calling to tell me my place was infected with bedbugs.
No, the call was from out of state. I didn’t recognize the number, but it had an area code I hadn’t seen for a long time. I hesitated for just a moment then answered it.
“Hey, Wes, It’s Tim. Tim Brewer,” a voice replied.
Tim didn’t have to give me his last name. I recognized his voice immediately, even after so many years.
“Hi, Tim. Long time. How’d you track me down?”
“I’ve got my ways. Listen, I know you’re probably busy, but I just thought you might want to know. Someone killed Stevie.”
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe and the room seemed to press in on me from all sides.
“Wes. You still there?”
I needed space. I found my distance by stepping back into the safety of what I did best, or once did best. I became a reporter. I picked up a pen that was on the desk and grabbed a notepad out of the desk drawer. I wrote Stevie dead. When? How? “Any idea who did it?” I asked Tim.
“No, not yet—and to tell you the truth the police aren’t exactly tripping over each other trying to find out. Anyway, the funeral’s on Friday. Thought you might wanta come down for it.”
I didn’t answer, just pressed my pen down hard as I underlined the words I’d written on the notepad.
Suddenly, I heard a loud thumping and looked up to see Rollie standing and banging at his office window that looked out over the newsroom.
He was glaring at Margie and pointing at me with his left hand while fanning at his ear with his right hand the way a dog that’s got fleas does.
“Tim—hold on a moment,” I said. I looked at Margie. “You don’t suppose Rollie wants you to tear my ear off, do you?” I asked.
She sort of smiled. “No, I think he wants me to take your phone,” she said with a please-don’t-blame-me shrug.
I put the phone back to my ear and turned to avoid looking at Rollie.
“Tim, listen things are a little crazy for me right now. Let me call you back in a little bit when I’m alone.”
“Sure, no problem. Whenever it’s good for you,’ he said.
I wrote down Tim’s number from the screen readout, ended the call, and handed the phone to Margie. I signed the papers she pulled out of my file. She put them back in the folder, patted me comfortingly on the arm, and left me to my packing. “I’ll need your ID card too. You can leave it at the front desk when you leave. Sorry. I hope things work out,” she said before walking away.
I started putting the very few possessions I had in the box while trying to collect my thoughts. Elaine from Accounting came walking up to my desk.
Elaine was probably in her late-twenties, although whenever we talked she mentioned yoga and weekend hikes and bike rides, so she might have been older and just in great shape. She wore her blonde hair short, cut above the ears, parted on left with the top hair sweeping across her forehead. She was probably the nicest person I’d met at the Sentinel.
“Gee, Wes. Real sorry to hear the bad news. Looks like it was quite a shock.”
It took me a moment to realize she was talking about me being fired, not Stevie’s murder.
“What? Oh, the job. No, it’s not a big deal, just goes with the territory sometimes.”
She handed me my last paycheck. “I’ve got some other bad news.”
“Really, what’s that?”
“You just missed out on Rollie’s stain pool. You were close, but it turns out that today he had a few slices of cherry pie for breakfast, so it’s a cherry stain, not raspberry. Pretty close, though.”
“Pie for breakfast?” I asked absently.
“Probably how he keeps that boyish figure. Anyway, good luck,” she said with a smile and a pat on my upper arm as she turned and walked away.
I finished packing the file box and put the lid on it. I looked up and standing in his open doorway was Rollie, watching me, a smug look on his jowly face. I looked at the stain on his shirt. That about summed up my sad-sack life. A guy like Rollie pigged out on a pie full of cherries while I got a large slice of the humble variety.
© 2017 by John Essick