Gregory J. Wolos lives in upstate New York on the bank of the Mohawk River. His short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, Silk Road Review, A-Minor Magazine, JMWW, Yemassee, The Baltimore Review, The Madison Review, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, A cappella Zoo, Jersey Devil Press, and many other journals and anthologies. His stories have earned three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his latest collection was named a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.
Because he'd read the morning paper with his coffee, William knew that the beast he found dead in his garage was not a buffalo, but the wisent missing for three days from Saugerties Game Park, thirty miles south of his city. Wisents, according to the article in the Journal, were native to Europe and resembled American bison; both were protected species. Wisent or bison, this one was dead, William was sure, as he circumnavigated its body. It had collapsed like a melted mountain to the concrete floor. Its shaggy head was braced awkwardly on one of its horns, and a slab of tongue spilled from its mouth. The initials “SGP” were embossed on its iron nose ring. Delicately lashed lids were shut under a brow that reminded William of God in the Bible comics he'd trembled through as a boy. Whoever had caused this wanted William humiliated. At this very moment the perpetrator might be tipping off the newspaper. He could imagine the Journal's headline: “Stolen Beast Found Dead in Beleaguered Superintendent's Garage.”
If he'd remembered to replace the batteries in his garage door opener, William might have discovered the wisent the previous evening after his return from the Boston conference on Safer Schools. Had it still lived? Maybe it had huffed its last breath while William tossed sleeplessly a few yards away. The dying wisent wouldn't have known or cared that William's heart had been broke—that after three days and two glorious nights together in Boston, Marilyn, the married head of student services for the district, had ended their year-long affair. “I love my husband,” she'd said, as if reading from the sign for Springfield they passed on the Massachusetts Turnpike, “and I love my child.”
“Don't expect to be loved,” the school board president told William when he was hired, and he hadn't. But he hadn't bargained on contempt, even after he'd failed to save the district money, raise test scores, or keep gangs out of the schools. After his second year as superintendent, an editorial cartoon in the Journal depicted him as an evil Santa, his half-buried sled harnessed to the city's children. The caption read “Snow day? Humbug!”
The city hated William, and he hated it back. He lived in a vacuum, daily survival his only object, until Marilyn burrowed into his life—a rash of student suicides had left her floundering, and, after she broke down in William's office, she'd found solace in his arms. Their miseries parallel, the two administrators had fallen in something like love—until Marilyn terminated their romance in the middle of the Masspike.
William contemplated the dead wisent. Its stench reminded him of a childhood spent at 4H Club meetings and county fairs. He sighed and speed-dialed Tony Costello, the district head of buildings and grounds. “Tony has his ways,” the outgoing superintendent had told William. “Keep on his good side, and he'll be there when you need him.” During the first month of William's tenure, Tony Costello had emailed him: You are strong and sensible. The district needs you.
You are someone I can trust, William had replied. The next day the head custodian had come to William's office to show his new boss a framed print-out of that message. “This will go on my wall,” he'd said.
William was watching a fly disappear into the wisent's nostril when Tony Costello picked up.
“This is the superintendent,” William said. “I'm at home, alone, and I need you here.”
William waited on his front walk for Tony Costello. He stared at his garage door—it was as broad and white as a movie screen. No one would guess what lay behind it. He spotted a flattened clod of what had to be wisent dung behind his car a moment before Tony pulled up in a silver SUV. William led him to the garage through the house. When Tony saw the beast, he nodded, then shut his eyes and sniffed. The smell had grown worse. Tony stood with his hands on his hips. William did the same. Nothing moved except the flies buzzing around the wisent's head. The two men gazed at the body as if it were a sunset.
“You would like to know who did this,” Tony concluded.
“It's obviously some kind of terrible, tragic joke,” William said. “Could be anyone. I would prefer that the police not be involved—if the Journal finds out, it's just more negative publicity. Getting rid of it is the priority.”
“But someone is responsible for this,” Tony said. “When you get home tonight, it'll be as if this never happened. I'll change your locks. There'll be new keys in your mailbox. Go to your office and take care of the city's children. But,” his frown mirrored the superintendent's, “you can't have the meat. It's gone to rot. Spoiled. Otherwise, you could have had buffalo steaks.”
“It's a wisent, not a buffalo,” William said. He pronounced the “w” like a “v” without knowing why. “I can't tell you how grateful I am.” He offered his hand, and Tony shook it. Then the head custodian crossed his arms, waiting for the superintendent to leave.
Printouts of budget figures and grant applications littered William's desk, but his thoughts wandered. What exactly was happening in his garage? Then he pictured Marilyn, as she'd posed for him in their Boston hotel bed. She'd be shocked by the wisent situation. “My goodness,” she'd say, after she'd learned of its removal, after she'd forsaken her family again for William's embrace, as she surely would. He imagined the wisent's head, tilted like a curious puppy's—it seemed to be eavesdropping on his private thoughts.
When he pulled into his driveway long after darkness, William knew the job had been done. There was no sign of Tony's SUV, and in his mailbox he found new keys and his garage door opener. With light-hearted daring he pressed “open”: the door rose; the wisent was gone. The concrete floor looked freshly poured under the fluorescent light. The walls and ceiling gleamed as if repainted. William's lawn tools had been neatly arrayed. He stepped in and breathed deeply—the garage smelled like a pine forest washed by rain. For a moment he thought the wisent had been a dream. Tony had worked a miracle.
Two weeks later, William took his seat at the conference table among the district's senior staff members gathered for their bi-monthly meeting.
“You've heard about the bull balls?” the assistant superintendent smirked.
“Excuse me?” William glanced at Marilyn, who sat across the table and didn't lift her eyes from her agenda. “Is this appropriate?”
The assistant superintendent lifted an eyebrow. “Bull testicles,” he said. “One of the high school custodians found them hanging from his pickup's rearview this morning. Apparently he had an argument with you-know-who-Costello about overtime hours and wrote a letter to the regional union head. He complained about Tony's conflict of interest—your boss shouldn't be your union rep. But the letter got forwarded back to Tony, who didn't say a word about it. Instead, he made copies and posted them in the custodian rooms at every school. Then the bull balls.”
“Was any of this on school property?” William asked.
“I think he switched the balls back to baby shoes before he drove to work,” the associate superintendent said. The others laughed. Even Marilyn smiled. William tried to hold her gaze, but her eyes slipped away.
“I suggest we move on,” he said. “No one's come to me about it.”
Your hard work as energy manager has not gone unnoticed. You are one of the district's unsung heroes. Please keep me advised regarding future issues concerning personal property.
Thanks for the support. We are men who believe in decisive action. There are not many like us.
—Sincerely, Anthony Costello, District Manager of Buildings, Grounds, and Energy Conservation
William appreciated Tony Costello's enthusiasm, but the custodian shouldn't have sliced through the cords of the coffee makers and microwaves three faculty members had neglected to unplug—the new policy forbidding the unauthorized use of appliances was barely a week old. William had immediately guaranteed the furious teachers full restitution. Problem avoided—the superintendent sensed in Tony's Monday morning email reply that his head custodian and he remained on the same page.
But a moment after reading Tony's message, William opened a letter from the state education commissioner and learned that the district's application for a multi-million dollar Safer School's grant, money that William had been counting on to balance the budget, had been denied. William read the letter three times. Inaccurately reported information? Missed deadline? Mistrusting everyone else, William had taken care of the application on his own. This failure would be impossible to explain. He was still dazed when he took the phone call from the president of the teacher's union.
“William,” she said, “this can't happen.”
“No,” he agreed, before realizing she couldn't possibly be referring to the failed grant application.
“Bloody horse hooves, William? 'Waster' written on the paper bags they were in? Who the hell does he think he is, the Godfather?”
William's temples throbbed. “Who are we talking about?”
“For God's sake, William, who else? Tony Costello. Those teachers who had their appliances ruined found the horrible things in their mailboxes. At home! One of them lives all the way in Saratoga. Where does he even get horse hooves from?”
“You say it's their home mailboxes? I don't see how this is a district matter,”
“What if they'd sent out their kids out for the mail? Would you want one of your children finding a blood-soaked bag with a hoof in it? You've got to stop him.”
On the wall behind the head custodian's desk was a framed printout. William couldn't read it, but he knew what it said: You are one I can trust. The superintendent stood sweating in his coat. His fingers felt numb, and he clenched his hands.
“Tony, I just want you to know you're doing a fine job. Excellent reports all around. Something silly has come up—and I have to ask you about it. Have you heard anything about horse hooves?”
Tony looked puzzled. He sat back in his chair. “Horse hooves? Why would I know anything about horse hooves? Where would a person find such a thing?”
William's grin hurt. “Well, if you do hear anything, could you let me know? Give me a head's up? We can do that for each other, right, a head's up?”
The head custodian smiled. “Of course. Any parts I hear about, I'll tell you.”
William met the school board president and Marilyn in a diner. The president, as always, was concerned about the district's image. “Gangs and suicides are a lethal combination,” he fretted. “Property values are in freefall.” William sat beside Marilyn in the booth, but couldn't look into her eyes—their faces would have been too close. He watched his former lover's fingertips turn her coffee cup while the board president droned on about his concerns. He felt her thigh against his and remembered her beneath him in the Boston hotel bed the first night of the conference. She had whispered to him, nicknamed him Willy, complimented his bulk and strength, and she had been so smooth. Marilyn had the same scent—perfume and something else—she'd had the last time they'd made love. An image of the wisent arose, its shoulders and back humped like the Matterhorn, its head bowed, its short horns curved forward. He thought about mounting Marilyn from behind, and the muscles of his face slackened.
“Have we heard back about the grant yet?” the board president asked.
William shivered and crossed his legs. His cheeks tingled. “I should find out something by the end of the week,” he lied. What he wanted was to be left alone with Marilyn. He'd move across from her in the booth, tell her he missed her, remind her of their Boston trip, reach for her hand—
“What's this I'm hearing about animal parts?” the board president asked.
William sighed and shook his head. “Just rumors. I've been investigating. It seems to be some kind of practical joke. Kids, maybe. Could be gang related.”
“Well—keep it out of the Journal. We don't need people thinking we're into some kind of voodoo craziness.”
“There are also animal rights activists,” Marilyn said. William felt her warm glow beside him, like an incubator full of baby chicks.
“And if Tony Costello's involved—he's useful, but rein him in.”
“Tony's a good soldier,” William said. “I'm on top of him.”
“Stay there. Plan on unveiling the grant at the board meeting next week. Emphasize the 'millions.' Marilyn-suicides?”
“I'm sending out fliers to the community with information William and I gathered at the Boston conference.” William flushed when she linked their names. Call me, he longed to murmur—or at least pick up when I call you. If she did he might tell her about the wisent.
The leg, from haunch to split hoof, was longer than William's desk. It was surprisingly thin, considering the weight it had once borne, and the hide was smooth, not shaggy. Dried blood stained the white cloth it had been wrapped in. The thing's smell revived the superintendent's shock at finding a wisent in his garage.
“Please shut the door, Stan,” he asked the athletic director who towered before him. “Girls—” William called to the secretary and receptionist hovering in the doorway, their noses wrinkled in disgust, “—the door.”
“What the fuck, William? What the fuck? My wife found this. There was blood smeared on my windshield. It's a good thing Sandy's a nurse—she kept her head. But what the fuck?” Stan's spit flew. “You know who did this, the little coward!”
“You're not going to get very far making unconfirmed allegations, Stan. If it was on your property, that makes it a police matter. You don't live in-district, do you? Don't you think you should, by the way? It gives an impression—”
“This happened because I came to you last week about keeping the gym open late for middle school basketball practice. Because I complained when he locked the kids out in the cold. Christ, he said they were 'using too much electricity.'”
“Stan, there's a chain of command. I told you to work it out with him.” The men's eyes dropped to the bloody leg. “This is just a practical joke that got out of hand. Somebody shot a deer,” William said, “or they found some road kill. But I'll investigate.”
“You'll investigate.” Stan sneered. This was Stan Chutsky's city—he'd lived in it all his life, had been a beloved athlete and coach, and William hated him for it. The athletic director placed his hand on the limb he'd flung onto William's desk. “The police will investigate. You can count on that. We'll see who's joking.” He lifted the leg with a grunt. For a moment William thought Stan might swing it at him, and he slouched back in his seat. Instead, the athletic director threw open the door and strode out, cradling the amputation as if it were a rescued child.
Through the door William saw the secretary and receptionist watching him. The limb's taint remained; shed hairs were scattered over his correspondence. Without hesitation he typed an email to Tony Costello: Just a heads up. Maybe an investigation. Be prepared. I'll do as much as I can.
William lay in bed, one hand holding his cell phone, the other down his shorts, cupping his balls. He shifted, and the cardboard tray from his frozen dinner slid to the floor. It might as well have sunk into a midnight sea. He despised the city that engulfed the house, and after dark only his bedroom felt safe. Tony Costello was becoming a burden. But William had a more immediate problem than his bond with the custodian. If he couldn't conjure up an explanation, tomorrow night at the school board meeting his failure to secure the multi-million dollar grant would become public. What he needed was time to think, and he'd crawled under his sheets at seven with that intent. But now the digits on his phone read three-thirteen, and he'd done nothing except worry. He hadn't even been able to frame a proper prayer.
With a thumb twitch he could speed-dial Marilyn. It wasn't fair for her to rebuff him. Right now she lay next to her husband, probably believing she'd reclaimed her virtue. But she'd always be marked. William had branded her—she'd feel it when she ran her fingers down her flesh.
No sleep until he solved his dilemma—if God helped him get out of this, William swore he'd head back to Indiana. If his mother were still alive, he'd have called her. “When you're worried and cannot sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep,” she'd sung to him when he was little. Tony Costello—he'd started out as a blessing. Now he had the wisent and was parceling it out bit by bit. It was possible, even probable, that Tony had stolen the beast and led it into William's garage in the first place. Hadn't William suspected something like this all along? A dead wisent was the perfect way to make someone beholden.
William rubbed his cock. He thought of Marilyn's pale skin under his hands, her mouth opening to his, her legs spreading under him. Again, what a delight it would be to mount her from the rear. Months ago, after fate had thrown them together, they'd been wildly indiscreet, and she'd shared this bed. As William gave in to sleep, Marilyn's figure seemed palpable. But his nostrils twitched from an unpleasant waft, and the weight of something that wasn't his lover's body compressed the mattress beside him: the wisent head. It haunted his dreams.
The next morning William dressed by reflex. Twelve hours—half a day—until he'd face the board, and neither God nor reason had provided him with a way out. Maybe if he broke down at the podium and wept over his mother's death—but an obituary's date was too easy to confirm. He stared into his hall mirror. His fingers trembled at the knot of his tie. Marilyn would be a witness to his colossal failure. What if he publicly confessed their affair? But that didn't make sense, and his tiny spasm of hope dissolved. William stepped into his clean garage, touched a button, and the door hummed open. Here was his car. Somewhere else lay a mutilated wisent. He saw his mother's embalmed, waxy face, her gray curls against the white satin of her casket. How peaceful she looks, voices whispered, how youthful, how like her son.
William got into his car and sat behind his steering wheel. Reflected in his rearview were his neighbor's house, the trees, lawn, and driveway. Nothing distinguished any of it. He could be anywhere. He unpocketed his cell phone and dialed the police, asking that a detective meet him at his office in an hour. He'd give them Tony Costello. William had the cleanest garage in the world—there was nothing to trace the wisent there—the head custodian had taken care of that himself. Tony had the carcass. Any claim implicating William would only sound silly. William would be a hero! He'd spend the board meeting outlining the head custodian's wrong-doings. And in the weeks of chaos likely to ensue, wouldn't a missed deadline or two be understandable? Certainly the state would allow a reapplication under such circumstances. His heart lifted—he felt as if he'd been hoisted to the shoulders of an adoring mob.
A detective was waiting at the door of William's office. “Thank you for being prompt,” the superintendent said. “The matter I've asked you here to discuss concerns the safety and security of our city's residents.” William ushered his guest into the conference room and sat beside him at the long table. “Lieutenant—?”
“Wilson. You called the department? I didn't know that. I'm here as part of a continuing investigation—I need to ask you a few questions about one of your employees—Tony Costello.”
“Yes, certainly.” A “continuing investigation”? That would be Stan Chutsky's doing—the athletic director had followed through on his threat to contact the police about the bloody leg. But William could still control the story. He answered the detective's preliminary questions quickly: he'd known Mr. Costello for two years; their acquaintance was strictly professional; the head custodian had a reputation for being “difficult to work with,” but had otherwise been a loyal employee with years of service to the district and city—until William's recent suspicions.
“It's come to my attention, lieutenant, that Mr. Costello might have been responsible for some extremely inappropriate, even illegal, activities. At first I regarded them as practical jokes that were outside district jurisdiction, and I'd advised the parties concerned to contact the police—but I began an investigation of my own, after which I concluded—well, as I said, I called this morning. About the animal parts. The wisent parts.”
The lieutenant cocked his head. “Viz-ant?”
William had slipped into the accent again. The detective tapped his notebook with a pen. “I'm not sure how you pronounce it,” William smiled, then frowned, searching for the right expression. “It's the animal that all the parts came from.”
“Hunh. What's a 'viz-ant'? We've got a deer leg. A 'viz-ant'?”
William cleared his throat, admonishing himself to slow down. “W-I-S-E-N-T. It's a European buffalo. It's on the 'vulnerable species' list. I read in the Journal a few weeks ago that one had been stolen, so when Mr. Chutsky—our athletic director, who I advised to call you—well, I just put two and two together.”
“Your first thought when someone dropped fifty pounds of meat on your desk was that you were looking at a viz-ant and not a deer or a cow?”
“I grew up in farm country,” William said. “I was in 4-H. There were hunters in my family. I know what deer and cow parts look like when I see them, and the leg Mr. Chutsky brought to show me was definitely neither of those.”
“So your next best guess was a viz-ant because you'd read one was missing. You'd make a good detective.”
William grinned, but his ears burned. “I told you,” he held up two fingers on each hand and brought them together, “two and two. Because I remembered about the other recent incidents regarding district employees and animal parts. You know about those, I'm sure. I told my staff members to inform you.”
“And you think the three hooves and the, uh, balls, were from the same viz-ant as the leg?”
“I told you I'm not sure about the pronunciation. I didn't see the other parts. But all of the aggrieved had been in a dispute of some kind with Mr. Costello. That's the link. I think he's been using those animal parts to intimidate our employees. And I suppose that means that he stole the wisent.” William pronounced the “w” carefully. “It was valuable—and endangered, too, I think.”
“There'll be DNA testing,” the lieutenant said, jotting something down, “of the parts we have and everything they touched.”
William felt sweat droplets pop at his hairline. Exactly how clean was his garage? “Have you spoken to Mr. Costello?”
“He's been in custody since yesterday evening. We picked him up at his home. There'll be more questions for you down the road about what we found there. We're searching all district vehicles he might have driven. We're presently going through his office. We've impounded his PC and the hard drive from his office computer. Your cooperation is appreciated.”
“Of course.” Had the wisent been found? It had to be at Tony's. William saw himself at the podium. His audience awaited: the board president; a reporter from the Journal; Marilyn.
“You are one I can trust?”
“On Mr. Costello's wall. From an email you sent him.”
“Yes—he'd done an especially fine job as energy manager.”
“Trust?” Lieutenant Wilson flipped over a page in his notebook. “What about this one—: Just a heads up. Maybe an investigation. Be prepared. I'll do as much as I can. That was from late yesterday afternoon. From you to Mr. Costello.” The detective's eyes were like a shark's.
William heaved a breath. He shut his eyes. He heard himself speaking, but it was Marilyn, the reporter, the board president who were listening: “So many terrible things in this city. Gangs and kids killing themselves. My mother's dead. I lost my girlfriend . . .” Then his mother's whisper: Time to pray. Time to count your blessings. His eyes popped open. “You're sure that message was sent from me?”
“Your computer. Your name. There's a reply, sent from Mr. Costello's personal account—from just a few minutes before he was taken into custody—maybe you didn't get it?”
William squinted. The lieutenant seemed to have joined the spectators at the board meeting. He sat next to Marilyn, who looked over his shoulder as he read Tony Costello's reply. The detective's voice even sounded like Tony's:
“'Heads up'—Ha-ha. There's something in your attic in a large black contractor bag. A souvenir of our deal.”
“Deal,” Lieutenant Wilson repeated. “What do you think is in your attic?”
Had William really slipped to his knees? The floor was cold and hard. He seemed to be nudged from behind, and then he tipped forward onto all fours. His back swayed beneath a sudden weight; something nuzzled his ear. A thrust rocked him forward. Another, and his chin met the tiles. He waited for more.
“Oh, Tony,” he sighed.