Scratch the surface of a small town planning and zoning department, and you’ll uncover a story. That’s what Carol Rossi counts on in the winter of 1983, and she’s right. A former teacher, age 47 and romantically involved with a much younger police officer, she needs a big story to make a success of her new career as a reporter for a Wilton, Connecticut, weekly newspaper, but murder isn’t what she had in mind. When the victim turns out to be a woman on Rossi’s beat, writing a story no longer seems enough, and she vows to find the killer. Stalked and terrorized, Rossi soon finds herself in over her head, professionally and romantically.
Murder at the P&Z NOW ON SALE!!!
“... Perhaps the larger portion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.”
Edgar Allan Poe
Murder at the P&Z
Maddy Trowbridge at the Planning and Zoning Department
It was business as usual at P&Z. Maddy was standing imperiously behind her desk in the receptionist’s area straight ahead, about twelve feet from the front door. As always, she reminded me of Lady Bird Johnson, tiny with black hair and very white skin.
“Here,” she said without looking at me as I approached her. She was peering down at her desk with her right arm extended, handing me a copy of this week’s public hearing announcement. She continued to gaze down at her desk, strewn with stacks of files, notes and pink telephone message slips, as if I weren’t there.
She was as terse as usual, I thought with a smile. Her actions told me once again that she preferred the young reporters, the ones she could mother.
Her black hair was combed straight back and obediently tucked into one tight curl that miraculously circled the nape of her neck from ear to ear. I couldn’t help but stare at the curious curl and wonder how she managed to do it. She wore a beige wool coatdress, low beige heels and stockings. Neat and prim as usual, yet a pair of aluminum Christmas ball earrings, green, silver and red, hung from underneath the curl, clashing completely with her conservative style. On her desk sat a Christmas tree dish filled with the traditional hard candies. Three Christmas wreaths that she’d probably made
2 Dorothy H. Hayes
herself adorned her desk, a window and the town planner’s office door, leaving no doubt about her Christmas spirit.
Nothing subtle about Maddy. That’s her major charm.
I scanned the public hearing notice with the Colonial Crest of the Town of Wilton, Connecticut, that listed the names of those who will appear before the planning and zoning commissioners on Wednesday night.
“Anything special I should know about?”
“No,” she said, but then she glanced up at me with a
doubtful expression. “The Stuart Island Condominiums again. They’re requesting another special permit. He’ll fix it,” she said of the builder, Jack Manners, her voice deep and confident. “The feed lines to the underground storage tank have to be changed,” Maddy rattled on without consulting any reports. “The developers applied for a special permit to change the UST as well.” As she spoke her Christmas ball earrings swung back and forth under the curl. “They’re going to replace the single-walled underground storage tank with a double-walled tank. The new tank will also get them up to speed with current leak detection measures.” She was controlled as always, but her voice was growing in volume. “It’s a more secure UST, since they’re in the Aquifer Protection Zone. Knowing that they’re in the APZ, why didn’t they do that to begin with?”
She was talking about the precious pond of water, I told myself, that sat under the town and provided the majority of the town’s well water, and the underground oil storage tank for the one hundred seven units of the condominium that could possibly pollute it.
The condos and their various problems were not news to me, but Maddy’s worried expression was.
“Manners is here at least a couple of times a month for special permits, answering complaints from the DEP or to avoid legal problems with prospective owners,” she said, her
Murder at the P&Z 3
voice now resounding off the walls. “There’s a mile high stack of DEP warning notices. If it’s not about flooding in the basements, it’s about what they’re doing to avoid flooding in the basements. Then there’s misplaced berms, railroad embankment erosion, parking spaces that direct rainwater runoff in the direction of the aquifer. And nobody has even moved into the condos yet. Wait until those complaints come in.” She burst into thunderous laughter. “It’s always something, but that’s what we’re here for.”
She was like that person in charge of running a small shop, I thought, but the shop happens to be Wilton’s environment. I glanced at Maddy’s pictures of her ancestors, proudly displayed on the wall next to her desk.
“Jonathan Wood,” I recalled her telling me, “built the first log cabin in Wilton. They were willing to die for the land. The least we can do is protect it,” she said of the founders of Wilton. I remembered that from the first day I started covering P&Z, I got the feeling that her job was not just a job to her but a legacy.
I smiled at her robust laughter. It crossed my mind that she had not been herself lately. She had been uncharacteristically subdued, but I figured that was pretty normal under the circumstances with her boss of twenty- eight years retiring. Things were changing for Maddy. She had not only worked for Harrison, she had idolized him.
“The man wears seven hats,” I recalled she said to me when I first met her two years ago as a way of introducing me to the functions of Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Department and its town planner. I could still see the stars in her eyes when she listed Harrison’s seven roles within the department. I wondered how the heck she was dealing with the new town planner. Timothy Esposito was a young man with a growing family and was a very different sort from
4 Dorothy H. Hayes
Harrison. Not the kind of person that Maddy could mother, that’s for sure.
“You must miss Harrison,” I dared to say as I glanced at her.
Her black eyes beamed back at me at the sound of his name, to my surprise. “I’m thinking of joining him in Bimini,” she joked. She shot a look at her daughter’s picture on her desk. “We got a couple of more years to go.” I remembered that her daughter was a Yale student.
“I can’t even imagine P&Z without you,” I said.
“Right. No doubt I’ll someday be pushing up daisies in one of the cemeteries along with my ancestors,” she joked and let out another bellowing laugh.
As usual, I was in awe of Maddy’s spirit, her sense of self and purpose.
I pulled my eyes away from her ebullient face to look over the public hearing announcement again and inquired about the proposed new preschool building. She frowned but shook her head, implying it was a regular application for a permit to build. I surmised that whatever perplexed her about this permit application was none of my business.
“The building site is on Route 7, just past Ridgefield Road, the west side heading north,” she said, being specific, as usual. Her telephone rang. I waved a goodbye. She failed to notice. In her top sergeant voice and with her hand on her hip, she listed all the requirements necessary for a building permit to her caller.
I smiled back at her, grateful again for Maddy and her info. She never disappointed me. I headed toward the annex door. Whether she liked me or not didn’t really matter. She was the source. The town planner seldom had time for reporters regarding routine matters.
As I turned to leave I recalled how she had softened up to me a little. The Professional Journalism Award is what did it.
Murder at the P&Z 5
That was almost a year ago, when I became a local hero, the reporter who is protecting everyone’s well water. Ever since then we have a little more conversation. She also liked my two-part series on the aquifer. I loved writing it. I learned about the land, and so did our readers, which was the idea.
Yeah, great, I thought, but neither one of them landed me a job on a daily.
I caught myself reaching for the raspberry and mint green Christmas candy. You could get fat visiting town hall this time of year. I glanced at the file cabinets, but I was running short of time as usual. I would check the condos’ and preschool files on Wednesday morning and ask Maddy my seemingly endless questions. I loved hearing her loud and jolly again, I thought, smiling. Maybe she was overcoming missing Harrison. I pushed open the annex’s glass door.
A blast of cold air hit me in the face.
Dorothy H. Hayes
The black ankle boots were so sensible, yet they were exactly where they shouldn’t be. Only the poor woman’s boots and a bit of her legs, clad in stockings, were visible. The rest of her body disappeared under the towering black spruce.
I checked my watch. In this brutal weather, at seven- thirty on Tuesday night, December fifteenth, I told myself, it appears as though I’m covering a murder. I shook my freezing cold head at my good fortune. My editor should be here. How lucky was I that he considered the telephone call about the body of a dead woman on School Road a crazy mistake of some kind?
Why would he think it was real anyway? Crime doesn’t happen in Wilton. “There hasn’t been a murder in eighty-six years,” I recalled Evan saying as I beat it out the door while putting on my coat, thinking there is a murder.
This could be it for me, I told myself. The big one. At age forty-seven and about twenty years older than my fellow reporters, I needed this story. This is the one that gets you from a weekly to a daily.
I rubbed my freezing hands and estimated that I was about forty feet away from the murder scene. A screeching ambulance roared up Route 7, followed by a fire engine. They pulled into School Road and headed right toward me. I backed up to the road’s far side. It came to an abrupt halt, parking in the middle of the road. A patrol car followed and
Murder at the P&Z 7
parked across the entrance to School Road, blocking it off, while others raced up the highway to pull onto its shoulder. In seconds they lined Route 7 for about a block south of School Road.
The rush hour traffic that had been ebbing began to build up again. Commuters were rubber-necking, trying to figure out what crime had occurred on or near the otherwise sleepy suburban highway.
Meanwhile, Jerry squatted under the tree and leaned over the woman with a flashlight. Was he actually looking for signs of life? Someone lying that still on the snow-covered, frozen solid ground in this single-digit weather? His thick, black overcoat fanned out against the snow like ominous dark wings hovering over the poor dead woman. He finally crawled backward until he was clear of the lower branches and sprang up from the squatting position with his natural athleticism. In this cold weather I was impressed, even though Jerry at thirty-six had the slimness of youth.
He waved me forward with a quick gesture. He directed me to follow in his tracks by pointing to one of the two paths in the snow that led to the body. I followed his instructions and stopped about twelve feet away and next to the lead detective, Al Jenkins, who had just arrived.
I quickly introduced myself to Al and mentioned that Jerry had called me to help identify the body. I felt the need to explain my presence, since Jerry and I were seeing each other. Al just looked back at me from his puffy, cold, meaty face, saying nothing.
Jerry walked toward us with his head down. He seemed to be buying time to sort out the injuring moment.
“She’s gone,” he said, reaching us, his voice solemn.
Al and I exchanged glances.
“I know she looks like she’s gone,” he said with some
impatience, “but I hoped.” His near frozen lips and cheeks
8 Dorothy H. Hayes
barely allowed him to speak. Each word was accompanied with puffs of smoke.
“A man walking his dog found her. He went into Cider Mill to call the station.”
The lighted primary school building was about five hundred feet west of us and up a slight hill.
“There’s blood behind her head. I only saw one entry wound to the back of her head. It looks like a single shot. A nine millimeter. It looks like death was instantaneous. So the one good thing, if there can be a good thing,” he said, glancing back at the body, “is that by every indication she didn’t see it coming. She looks peaceful.”
Jerry’s speech was clipped by the cold, and his breath was short and shallow from the stress of examining his first murder victim. He glanced at me and revealed his sadness. Then he quickly turned to gaze across School Road and about twenty feet up the spacious, snow-covered lawn to the shoveled cement walk. I followed his eyes. The walk led to the wide cement steps at the school’s entrance. A dim lamppost barely illuminated the walkway.
“She was shot there,” he said, nodding in the direction of the school’s walkway. “She was about halfway up the walkway when she was shot, and then she was dragged back down here and shoved under the tree.”
The drag marks in the snow were obviously drawn by the tips of the woman’s boots. They ran from the walkway, across about twenty feet of the school’s lawn, School Road’s two lanes, and to the black spruce, which was about another twenty feet away. It appeared as though the murderer raked a branch or something similar through his footprints to obscure them.
The tracks in the snow, however, left no doubt about the pattern of the murder. Jerry revealed that the tracks began behind the mammoth trees that acted as a buffer to Route 7.
Murder at the P&Z 9
The killer’s tracks led from the highway to the row of black spruces. It appeared as though he used the thick evergreens for cover while he waited for his prey. He then shot the victim and walked to the sidewalk to retrieve her body. He dragged her body from the shoveled sidewalk, down the hill, across School Road, and to the black spruce. In doing so, he retraced his trail in the snow.
Jerry’s flashlight circled in on cherry red stains. The victim’s blood marked her path of death in the snow as if she were revealing what occurred here.
The footprints of the man who discovered the body and his dog were also distinct. The man was obviously walking his dog down School Road. The road, having been plowed and sanded, was easily navigable, yet he and his dog stepped off the road to walk in the half a foot of frosted snow to reach the spruce. The only explanation for that, particularly on such a cold night, was that he wanted to investigate the object under the tree. After discovering the body, it was clear by the mass of churned snow that the man had been horrified by what he saw, swooped up his dog and ran up the hill to the school.
A thick cloud cover hovered overhead, turning the night sky pitch black. Al instructed three patrol cars to park in such a manner that they would illuminate the crime scene with their brights. One parked on each side of the area, and another cruiser parked across School Road. The beams crisscrossed and lit up the area like stage lights, illuminating the trees, the body and the police carefully picking through the area looking for clues. Two other cops were stringing crime scene tape.
Al was under the tree, examining the corpse, as Chief Dominic Romano arrived in his patrol car and parked in front of the fire engine. The Chief stepped out of the car, his huge belly protruding from his unbuttoned dark blue overcoat. No
10 Dorothy H. Hayes
doubt he’s worried about the politicians in town who will be breathing down his back, I thought.
Murder doesn’t dare happen in conservative, safe Wilton.
I backed up and stood in the middle of School Road as Jerry filled in the Chief. Al clumsily crawled backward from under the tree. Al, thick around the middle, I figured was in his late fifties. He was off-balance, his shoulders hunched, and he seemed chilled to the bone.
The police cars now blocked Catalpa Road, one block north. This made sense because it led to the back road to the high school, which eventually ran into School Road. Barely illuminating the pitch-black area that led to the school building were two dim streetlights that resembled colonial lanterns. One light was halfway up the sidewalk to the school. The other was in the opposite direction near the four- car parking lot where I had parked my car.
The one car in the small parking area seemed familiar but I couldn’t place it.
My shivering intensified. I tucked my stinging thumbs under my fingers. Jerry, Al and the Chief were now in a huddle. At that moment, the Chief retreated from the weather to his nice, warm patrol car with the motor running.
“Ros, think you can take a look?” Jerry finally asked. My chest heaved with anxiety. Jerry stood a few feet from the body.
Of course, the cops wouldn’t know the woman, I told myself, walking toward Jerry. Most town employees can’t afford to live in Wilton, the bedroom community to Wall Street. Al’s in Norwalk, five miles down the road and several rungs down the economic ladder. Jerry’s place is in Georgetown, the old manufacturing section of town, where house prices are lower, I recalled.
I stood next to Jerry and took a deep breath. I avoided looking at the woman’s exposed legs and boots. He instructed
Murder at the P&Z 11
me to follow his lead. I retraced his footprints in the snow with a bit of a stretch. We bent down before the spruce. The thick excurrent branches offered just enough space with a healthy squat. I managed to avert my eyes from the dead woman while I avoided getting stabbed in the face or back by the sharp needles or the piercing points of the lower branches. I couldn’t see her face, at any rate, from this angle.
As soon as we were under the tree, the scent of evergreen engulfed us, and it was less bitter cold. The infinite shoots of the bilateral branches crisscrossed and wove an intricate web above our heads. My fingers touched the ground on either side for balance. The earth was so soft and spongy under my feet and fingers that it surprised me. I felt the thick padding of natural detritus of green needles, earth, crunchy snow and twigs that had collected over the years. I thought the tree had to be hundreds of years old. My skimpy gloves would be soaked in no time. I couldn’t help but think of my warm, thick ski gloves going to waste in my closet.
Jerry stepped ahead and to the side of the woman. I was at once overwhelmed when I finally looked. It was my first sight of her full body. My pulse quickened. I felt the burn in my gut while adrenalin shot through me. Her face was still hidden from me. Her body lay on its side away from me. She wore a black woolen coat. The small of her spine was thrust against the tree trunk. The rest of her was deep under the tree toward the back branches. It seemed that a half-hearted attempt had been made to hide her. Her coat sleeves were jammed around her biceps. They revealed thin, bare forearms and ungloved hands. Her palms and fingers were outstretched in front of her as if someone had dragged her there.
Her head was between her outstretched arms.
I heard a heavy sigh and realized it was me. My knees were shaking. They sank into the frosty padding as I
12 Dorothy H. Hayes
stretched and dared to get close enough to see the woman’s face. A shadow fell across her face, obscuring it. Jerry focused his flashlight directly on it.
At the first glimpse of her face, everything changed. I saw the familiar profile, her bare cheek against the snow, her sharp nose. That black hair. A fist grabbed my stomach and tightened. Recognition was accompanied with a cataclysmic sense of dread, that sinking feeling as if everything worthwhile in life was gone. Fear shot through me.
I had seen this woman twice a week for the last two years at the planning and zoning department. I thrashed backward through six feet of evergreen branches, driven to get away from the scene and my own feelings. The sharp needles scratched the round of my back and dug into my quilted coat. Now out from under the tree, I attempted to stand. My fingers pushed against the hard snow, and I was standing. There were her sensible boots facing me. I shuddered with my eyes fixed on them. This is Wilton. Not the south side of Chicago. Not New York City.
She was shoved under a tree and left like so much garbage.
Once again, death had slapped me in the face.
I glanced at the two detectives who were at my side and reaching out to brace me. They were the picture of concern and curiosity, but I couldn’t speak. I just stared down at the woman I had seen just yesterday during my typical Monday morning routine at town hall.
“Maddy Trowbridge,” I managed to utter from tight, freezing lips. “It’s Maddy Trowbridge. She’s the town planner’s secretary.”
Murder at the P&Z
Maddy Kept Us Honest
The tears of sadness and outrage sat behind my eyes, waiting for a chance to break loose as I told the detectives what I knew about Maddy. How her husband was probably at home and wondering where she was. Her daughter was probably also home from Yale for the semester break. Maddy’s married son and a couple of grandkids lived out of state.
“She was a healthy, vibrant woman,” I said, my voice sounding strange, “and you should know that she was a prominent figure in town.”
The icy cold had tightened the muscles in my face and formed a thick elastic band that wrapped around my cheeks and jaw. Each time I attempted to pronounce a word, it barely allowed me to form the words well enough to be understood. “She showed me photographs of her ancestors who were some of the founders of Wilton. ‘They were willing to die for the land, the least we can do is protect it,’ she told me. I never forgot those words, basically because I agreed with her.”
I stared hard at the two detectives as everything Maddy had told me in the last two years started to rush back to me. I gave myself a few seconds’ break from talking.
“Our recently retired town planner, Harrison Hayden, ran around, and everybody in town knew it. But to Maddy, Harrison was George Bailey, keeping Wilton from turning into Potter’s Field.” Al’s attention was periodically drawn to
14 Dorothy H. Hayes
the uniformed officers, as if he were monitoring them. Jerry, however, stared down at me, seemingly enrapt.
“You should know that Harrison told me that Maddy kept us honest. He meant during the growth years of the town, Maddy kept the planner’s department honest.” I wiped my running nose with a crumpled tissue I was grateful to find in my coat pocket. “My story about Maddy will begin there,” I said.
“Her bag is missing,” Jerry said calmly, his intense eyes still on me. “and her hat and gloves. Her coat pockets are turned out, and she isn’t wearing a wedding ring,” he said. “She is still wearing Christmas earrings,” he added, his voice flat. “So as far as we know, the mugger stole her jewelry and took her bag, hat and gloves.”
“I never knew Maddy to wear a hat,” I muttered, “but she always wore gloves.”
At that moment a man in a thick red and black plaid parka, cap and calf-high boots trudged up School Road. Jerry revealed that he was the county coroner. The average sized man shook his head sorrowfully. With a flashlight in hand and without saying a word, he knelt down to examine the woman under the tree. When he stood up again, the medical emergency team placed the body on a stretcher and set it down in the open. A few minutes later the coroner pronounced Maddy dead from what appeared to be a nine millimeter gunshot wound to the back of her head. The bullet was lodged in her brain.
He estimated the time of death to be at least two hours ago, approximately between four-thirty and five-thirty.
“Death was instantaneous,” he concluded. “The woman didn’t suffer. I didn’t see any other marks on her body except a few scratches that occurred most likely from being dragged.” He looked up to the school as he spoke. “I don’t think she saw it coming. I’ll know more tomorrow.”
Murder at the P&Z 15
Town hall closes up at four-thirty each afternoon. Maddy usually stayed a half-hour later, I explained to Jerry and Al. If she died a little after five, it appears that she had driven directly to Cider Mill from town hall. It would have taken almost a half-hour with the heavier than usual rush hour traffic on Route 7, given the Christmas shoppers.
The two medical emergency technicians delivered the body to the open doors of the hearse. With a sense of helplessness I watched Maddy’s body disappear into the hearse. She’d be taken to Farmington to the medical examiner’s office for a mandatory autopsy, Jerry explained. The coroner promised a full report the next morning. Her body would be delivered to Johnson’s Funeral Home in twenty-four hours. As the coroner offered his observations to the detectives, I stood off to the side. With an awkward grip on my pen from frozen fingers, I took down every word.
With each shaky letter I inscribed on my yellow legal pad, I found myself promising Maddy that the truth would prevail. I vowed that we would find the person who had stolen her life.