Editor’s Note: Jack is one of the four authors reading tonight, Monday, September 28, at an event in his home town, Lexington, Massachusetts, called “Spellbinding Stories: Four Local Authors Read From Their Novels.” Jack will be be joined by Peter David Shapiro and X.J. “Joe” Kennedy. The reading will be held at the First Parish Unitarian Church, 7 Harrington Road, Lexington, and starts at 7PM. Readings will be followed by a discussion of writing and publishing. Refreshments will be served.
White Bike is a novel based upon a real incident and a growing problem in America: People on bicycles getting run over by motor vehicles. Across the country, an anonymous group that calls itself “Ghost Bike” leaves a white bike at the scene of accidents which take the life of a bicyclist.
As the novel opens, four close friends and owners of a high-end bicycle maker are out for a 100-mile ride in Northern New Hampshire to test an innovative drive they’ve developed to make cycling easier and more fun. Shieh-Seng “Luke” Lin is run down and killed by a hit-and-run driver of a tandem pickup truck owned by the local power utility. The following chapter is set in the offices of the local police in the aftermath of Luke’s death.
Chapter 4: White Bike
Chief of Police John Lemieux dropped the phone into its cradle. He stood looking out the window at the Loon Mountain east ski trails. Mountain bikes slewed this way and that down the steep slope, kicking up dust where once there was snow. “Merde,” he muttered under his breath.
“Excuse me, sir?” said Officer Michelle Madigan, who sat at the duty desk opening the morning mail. Who knew exactly what merde meant.
“Rien, rien,” said Lemieux. Without premeditation he sat down, ran his hands down his face and propped his double chin in his hands.
Michelle got up, went to the coffee urn, dispensed a cup, dumped in four heaping spoons of sugar, and set it in front of the Chief. She sat down on his interrogation chair, beside his desk, put her hands in her lap, and waited.
Finally he spoke. “That was Hooper, calling about that God-damned biker assay-dent yesterday,” he said, as much to himself as to her. Michelle nodded. Colonel Neil Hooper was Director of the New Hampshire State Police. “First he chews on my ass because I do not report the incident to him. He says it happened on a state highway, so his troops should have been notified and been on the site at once. Immédiate -ment. And on to the top of that, he says I must report any fatalité to him.”
“I didn’t think of that, either,” said Michelle, who had been on the Lincoln police force for five years. “This is the first hit-and-run homicide I’ve ever worked, so how -”
“Merde!” cried Lemieux, rising to his feet. “Do not call it a homicide, Madigan!” He sat down and said, more quietly, “At least not yet.”
Michelle was silent for a moment. “How did Colonel Hooper find out?”
“A citizen called him,” Lemieux said. “I suppose it was that maker of trouble Jed Smith or one of his biker buddies.”
The phone rang. Lemieux picked up the receiver and handed it to Michelle. “Lincoln Police Department, Officer Madigan speaking.” She listened, then handed the phone back to Lemieux. “It’s for you.”
Lemieux, practically spitting with rage, said, “Hallo, this is Chief of Police Lemieux.”
“Chief, this is John Smith calling from Holderness. I believe you met my son, Jedediah Smith, yesterday.”
“Hallo, sir. Yes, I meet your son yesterday. This, an unfortunate meeting, I assure you. Very unfortunate. Very sad. I am very upset about this event, sir.” Lemieux, taking advantage of using the telephone to let his eyes roam freely, gave Michelle’s pert figure a once-over, somehow keeping his tone of voice respectful. She got up; he watched her walk all the way back to her own desk.
Lemieux knew about John J. Smith, a powerful man in New Hampshire. He was a former governor, senator, and now executive director of one of the largest and most important land trusts in the state. John Smith controlled nearly every civic decision in the Squam Lakes region as if he were a feudal baron. Lemieux knew this as well, and knew the elder Smith had influence in every aspect of state policy, politics and government.
“Chief, let me say this up front. I know I’m pokin’ my nose into your business, and I do apologize for that. I’m sure you’re doin’ your job the best way you know how.”
“Yes, sir, I am doing exactly that. We are very agitated about this incident and I am working so closely with the Director of the State Police.” Lemieux lifted his coffee cup to his lips, gazed at Michelle, took a sip, set the cup down, and licked the remaining coffee droplets from his mustache. He lifted his cup to his lips again.
“I know you are, because I just got off the phone with Col. Hooper myself.”
Lemieux almost choked on his coffee.
“So I know the accident wasn’t reported as it should have been,” Smith continued. “Now, I do apologize for my intrudin’ here, but Chief, can you tell me why you didn’t contact the State Police right away? I think it should have been clear to you that they have the jurisdiction, and more important they have the investigative skills and techniques to handle an accident resultin’ in death better than you and your two deputies, if I can be so bold as to say so. No offense.”
“This is true, all you say, and I beg your pardon for this, as we simply were so stunned by the, you know, the assay-dent -”
“I understand, Chief, of course I do. Getting’ to the point here, have you spoken with Al Goncourt yet?”
Al? Did he say Al Goncourt? Lemieux was stunned: John Smith knows the General Manager and Chief Engineer at NEEC? And calls him Al? He dug in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, then remembered he’d quit.
“I know you and Al are countrymen. Quebecois. I’m sure you’ve discussed this with him and identified the driver, right?”
Merde! Screamed Lemieux in his thoughts. I am afraid already that this man knows more than I do! He thought fast. “Bien sûr, Mr. Goncourt and I know each other. Quite well, yes. I am, as a matter of fact, meeting with him in fifteen minutes,” said Lemieux. “I am certain we will get to the heart of the matter in a short while.”
“I thank you for that, Chief Lemieux, not only for myself and my son, but for his friend of over fifteen years. And for his family and his fiancée. Jed and the boys will be leavin’ in a week for Taiwan and takin’ the body with them for a family funeral. Chief, can you tell me where Luke’s remains are at this time?”
“Yes, sir. They are – he is – at the White Mountains Mortuary,” said Lemieux. “I am awaiting the coroner’s decision as to the autopsy.”
Michelle, overhearing this, began scribbling on a notepad.
“Can you speak with the coroner to arrange for releasing Luke’s body to my son?”
“But of course, Monsieur Smith.”
Michelle handed him her note: His body is in Concord!
“And the bicycle, Chief? Where is the bicycle?”
“It is here at our facility, sir. It is being held as evidence.”
Michelle wrote him another note: It’s still at the Visitor Center!
Lemieux waved a hand toward her. She walked away.
“That’s fine, Chief. Just as it should be, just as it should be. I have a favor to ask you.”
“Yes, sir, anything at all. I am at your service.” Lemieux looked across the room at Michelle, now standing with her back to him, pawing through a filing cabinet drawer. Quelle belle derriere, he thought, smirking.
“Would you allow my son to examine the bike when he comes for Luke? It’s very important.”
“Bien sûr,” said Lemieux. “That is no problem, Mr. Smith. “I will personally assure everything is handled smoothly and properly when your son comes for his fallen friend. But sir, it is being held as evidence, so I will have to keep it until the investigation has been concluded.”
“I appreciate that, Chief. Thank you. I look forward to talkin’ again.”
Lemieux wondered why they would speak again, then John Smith said, “When you tell me about your conversation with Al.”
Lemieux hung up the phone and sighed. He watched Michelle walk back to her desk, all perky and cute in her snug-fitting uniform. Sacre bleu, how I love a woman in a uniform, he thought. She sat down and leaned forward, waiting to hear what had transpired although there was little she didn’t already know. Lemieux looked at her with weary eyes. He lifted his coffee cup again, sipped, and abruptly set it down. “Madigan,” he snapped, “Get me a fresh cup of coffee. This one is cold.”
* * *
Lemieux drove back to the police station. Although it was only a few blocks from NEEC, he was certain it would not be appropriate for the Chief of Police to be seen walking the streets of Lincoln like a common citizen. He felt tired. Very tired. His meeting with Albert Goncourt had been exceedingly brief and unsatisfying. Goncourt had been an ass when Lemieux worked for him at Quebec Hydro as Chief of Security. Goncourt was still an ass, and he still treated Lemieux as a lackey. Maybe because he’d gotten Lemieux his job here. Goncourt said he’d launched an investigation and when it was concluded would tell Lemieux what he felt Lemieux needed to know. Lemieux told him he had to report to the Director of State Police today, and could not tell him he had nothing to report.
Goncourt shrugged. “I have no idea how long this investigation may take,” he said.
Lemieux briefly considered telling Goncourt that it was his investigation, but thought better of it. He asked to see the Chevrolet tandem pickup, number L-213, but Goncourt told him it was out in the field. He grudgingly told Lemieux that it was driven regularly by Steve Albrite, a Lincoln local, but he had no recollection of hitting anything. Goncourt would ask Steve to “drop by your offices and give you a statement when he had a chance.”
Chief Lemieux clearly had good reason to feel tired, but when he stepped into his offices, the feeling did not abate.
“A few messages for you, Chief,” said Michelle. She stood close, flagrantly pressing her breast against him, daring him to notice as he flipped the pink While You Were Out slips of paper. “Yeah, see this one?” she said, pointing with her fingertip and pressing even closer. “This is Mr. Sunderstrom, he was one of the, ah, bicyclists, yesterday, remember? Well, he’s good friends with Mr. Lin’s girlfriend – perhaps I should say ex-girlfriend? – oh, sorry, well anyway, her name is Suzie Sun, and she wants a white bike put where her fiancé…died.”
“What is this about a white bike?” Lemieux asked.
“Well, Rick – Mr. Sunderstrom – said it’s kind of a memorial, like, marker where a cyclist got, um, killed. The bike’s painted all white – the whole thing, even the tires, he says – and locked up to a pole or tree or signpost where the assay-dent happened.” She suppressed a smirk.
Lemieux recalled seeing a few memorials alongside highways, crosses or flowers, but never a white bike.
“It’s to remember him by, but also to remind other drivers to be careful,” said Michelle.
“Are we supposed to do this?” said Lemieux.
“Oh, no, Chief, we just have to say it’s OK,” she said, running a comforting hand down his bicep. Lemieux leaned ever so slightly into her. “Rick said they would bring a white bike when he and Jed Smith come back for Mr. Lin’s body day after tomorrow. Rick said he’d call you back about it, to make sure it’s OK with you,” she said.
Lemieux nodded. “You call him, tell him it is OK with us.”
Michelle caught his eye and said, “We probably better check with the Staties, make sure it’s OK with them, too.”
“Alors, cherie, please do that too, s’il vous plait?”
“Okay. Oh, and this guy from Granite State Wheelmen in Bedford called. They want to come take pictures of the white bike for their website.
“And there’s one more thing,” Michelle continued. “A reporter from the Concord Press-Intelligencer called. Teresa Lawton. She’s coming over this afternoon to write a story about the accident. She wants to interview you.”
Lemieux slumped down in his chair. “Merde.”
“Anything else I can do for you, Chief?” said Michelle, smiling sweetly up at him. It slowly dawned on Lemieux that he’d been played.
“Oui. Go out and patrol or something – anything – just get out of here.”
“Yes, sir.” Michelle flipped him a halfhearted salute, stood still for a minute, then said, “Um, can I take your car?”
He silently handed over his keys. Although it was only a quarter past eleven, he really needed a nap.
* * *
Officer Michelle Madigan climbed behind the wheel of the Chief’s Ford Edge AWD police interceptor. She started the engine to kick on the air conditioning, something her patrol car didn’t have. Pulling the shift lever into gear, she cruised over to Church Street and the St. Joseph Catholic Church parking lot. It was less than a block from the police station, but the church blocked the view. She pushed the shift lever back into Park, popped the snap on her Sam Browne belt pouch to release her cellphone, and dialed a seven-digit number.
“Hello, this is Teresa Lawton.”
“Tessa. It’s Michelle.”
“Hey, girl! How’d it go?”
“As the man himself says, merde. He is such a piece of shit. I hate him leering at me all the time, so you can imagine how merde it felt to have to cozy up against him. Ugh. I got my way, but ugh.”
“You’re a brave woman, Mich. Grace under…subversion?”
“Yeah, right. He’s totally paranoid right now. Scared of everything. Everybody. And he probably ought to be. So anyway, it worked – I cozied up to him when I told him you were coming to do an interview, like we said. He hates the idea but he couldn’t say no to me. And I told him Jeffrey Finn from Granite State Wheelmen is coming, too, but I didn’t use his name cuz I don’t want merde to think we’re in cahoots.”
“Smart. Mich, you are such a good friend, letting me know about this. It stinks. Really bad. And I’m all over it.”
“Like flies on merde, huh?” said Michelle. They laughed.
Teresa Lawton and Michelle Madigan met while attending New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord. Tessa earned an Associates degree in journalism, Mich in criminal justice.
“It makes me a little nervous, though,” said Michelle. “I mean, merde gets this call from John Smith – Jed’s father – down in Holderness this morning. The man knows everything. Like he’s already talking to the Staties. Hooper. Right straight to the top, you know? And Goncourt. Smith already talked to him, too. This is gonna get big, and big means it can get out of control. I can’t get any of this stink on me or, like, my career in law enforcement is over, you know?”
“I will protect you, Mich. I swear it. Like we always cover for each other, all the way. But you’ve got to help me, girl. I need to follow the stink. I don’t know where it’s coming from. Yet. I think you’ll know before I do. Then I will break this story. It’s not just a hit-and-run accident. I think it’s politically motivated and if it is, and if I do this right, I’m up for a Pulitzer.”
“Yay for you, Tessa. But politically motivated?”
“Yep. IMO, somebody wants to make NEEC look bad. Somebody wants to see Northern Pass happen, and they think making NEEC look incompetent is the way to do that.”
“Oh, come on. A bike accident? Come on.”
“You’d be surprised how little it takes to besmirch a reputation. Personal, business, political, doesn’t matter. And in case you don’t know it, the electric Co-op has been on the ropes for a number of years. Electricity rates in New Hampshire are practically the highest in the country. The Pilgrim nuke has been shut down and Vermont Yankee’s next. NEEC has gotten itself backed into a corner because it refuses to support Northern Pass. Opponents says all that power will go to Massachusetts, but believe me, New Hampshire could roll up its sleeves and negotiate. Instead they just pout and stick up those ‘STOP NORTHERN PASS’ signs on people’s lawns. They just don’t have the spunk.”
“OK, got that, but what about me? I gotta stay squeaky clean. If I leak to you, nobody but nobody can know. I don’t want end up Lemieux’s hit-and-run victim.”
“Michelle, if we handle this right, you could be looking at a big promotion. A meritorious service award, minimum. Maybe a police benevolent association scholarship to get your bachelor’s degree. Maybe a law degree? You help me, I’ll take good care of you. Real good care.”
“Well, okay. But right now I think I’d settle for getting merde fired and sent back to Canada.”
* * *
Jack B. Rochester is the Founder and Chief Barista at The Fictional Café.