Cracking Open a Cold One
Rena Neri’s morning had been hectic, her lunch had been odd, and her afternoon was looking to be boring. It was practically dead in the library and after the day she’d already had, Rena couldn’t bear it. It was the perfect excuse to call Pam Bendixen and tell her all about her lunch date with Christabelle Calder.
The first time Rena checked out Pam’s books, they instantly recognized each other as a kindred spirit. Pam was checking out a few true crime books and Rena’s obsession with that genre, particularly in regard to cold cases (there was something fascinating about going over clues in cases that hadn’t been solved), prevented her from keeping her mouth shut. From that first exchange, a friendship had been born and it was through that friendship that Pam decided Rena needed a romantic relationship. Rena had told her that it was the curse of married people, always looking to recruit single people into the cult, but really, Rena was ready for a nice, stable relationship. She’d tired of casual dating and relationships filled with drama and no promise.
Sequestered in her office, pretending to be going over next month’s new releases, Rena called her friend. Pam had been insistent about Rena going out with Christabelle, thinking Rena’s cold case hobby and Christabelle’s profession would provide a decent starting place. She’d warned Rena that Christabelle would be reluctant, citing her painful divorce, and asked Rena to be patient, which she was. Pam assured her that Christabelle was a woman worth waiting for. When Pam finally sent word that Christabelle had agreed to a lunch date, Rena jumped at the opportunity before the woman changed her mind. Maybe this wouldn’t be a match made in Heaven, but the mystery of the woman had Rena so intrigued she didn’t want to miss out on the chance to get to know her.
“Rena! I didn’t think I’d hear from you until later tonight,” Pam exclaimed. “How did it go?”
“Hello to you too, Pam,” Rena said, shaking her head at her friend’s excitement.
“Yes, yes, hello,” Pam said. “I hope that you calling me in the middle of the afternoon doesn’t mean that the date was a disaster and you hate me.”
“No, the library is dead right now, so I thought I’d kill time by calling you.”
“Thanks.” Pam paused, but only for a quick breath before she prompted, “So?”
“It wasn’t a disaster,” Rena said. “But it was interesting.”
“Interesting,” Pam repeated, sounding disappointed. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“No, it was fine. The date was fine. I guess,” Rena said, failing at conveying her mixed emotions. The date was fine, just really odd. She felt like she hadn’t gotten a chance to make any kind of impression on Christabelle, other than rude. As soon as Jerry Cooley sat down, Rena paid more attention to him than her date and she felt awful about that.
“Yeah, this is sounding anything but fine,” Pam said, and Rena could picture her frowning. “This sounds like it was terrible and you’re trying to soften the blow.”
“It wasn’t terrible! It was just…” She floundered for a second. “To be perfectly honest, I kind of want a do over,” Rena said with a sigh, sitting back in her chair and staring at her favorite water stain on her office ceiling. She thought it looked like a dragon most of the time.
“Oh no. What happened?”
Rena recounted the events of the lunch date, explaining how everything had been going smoothly and then got derailed by the man with the newspaper.
Pam let out a loud sigh.
“Oh, you met Jerry Cooley.”
“You know him?”
“If you go to Dillman’s and eat at the counter enough, you know him,” Pam said. And then she added, “I can’t believe Christabelle didn’t know the details of his story.”
“She said she didn’t. Do you?”
“Of course I know about Marybeth Cooley,” Pam said. “I grew up over by the park where she disappeared. Parents used that story as a way to keep us out of the woods and away from that creek back there. It never worked. If anything, the curiosity made us more keen to go back there. We used to spend afternoons in those woods looking for her bones or her ghost.”
“Oh, you know how kids are. Every town has a Bloody Mary. Usually more than one. Marybeth Cooley became one of ours. The kids in our neighborhood believed that if you went in the woods and said her name three times, she’d appear behind you and slit your throat.”
Rena laughed, and it sounded more nervous than she liked. She knew the kind of story Pam was talking about. The kids in the neighborhood she lived in had something similar, but it involved an old woman, an abandoned building, and a being stabbed in the heart with a large nail.
“Nobody I knew ever had the guts to say her name three times while we were in there and I never heard of any kids getting their throats cut, so I’m pretty sure it was all just a rumor.”
“Yeah, seems like,” Rena said with a chuckle.
“So, aside from a special guest appearance by Jerry Cooley, what did you think of Christabelle?”
Rena thought about it for a second.
“At a glance, I like her,” she said. “She seems interesting. She’s funny. I love her hair. She’s…I wouldn’t call her pretty, but she’s got a style, a look that I find very attractive.”
Pam giggled, sounding like a teenager.
“I would like to get to know her better,” Rena said slowly, considering. “Even if she doesn’t want to pursue anything romantic with me, which after today’s lunch date I wouldn’t blame her, it was so weird. But even if it were only as friends, I could live with that. She seems like a fun person to hang around with.”
“That’s the kind of optimism I like to hear,” Pam said. “I’m expecting her to call me with her feedback on the date. And I’m going to make sure I ask how her nosy, private investigator self doesn’t know Jerry Cooley’s story. But if she’s on the same page as you, wanting to get to know you better, can I give her your phone number?”
“Absolutely,” Rena said without hesitation, hoping she sounded more excited than desperate.
“Yay!” Pam giggled again and Rena laughed along with her. “I’m so excited about this. Okay. I’ll let her know and hopefully, she’ll be giving you a call.”
The two women said their goodbyes and Rena set about actually doing her work for the afternoon, all the while both Christabelle Calder and Marybeth Cooley bounced around in the back of her mind. Both people intrigued her.
Come four o’clock, Rena’s work was finished, but her day was not. She still had an hour left of her shift and nothing much to do. Sticking her cell phone in her pocket (in case Pam or Christabelle decided to get in touch), Rena left her office and made her way down to the periodicals room. Years ago, the back issues of the Munsterville Courier were on microfiche. An extensive fundraising campaign led to the digitalization of all of the back issues of the newspaper, an involved project that took over a year to do. It was worth it, though. It was so much easier to find and read old newspaper articles this way.
Only Penny LaGrand, the daytime periodicals clerk, was there. The older gentlemen who filled the room in the morning to read the daily copies of the various papers the library subscribed to were long gone, off to spend their afternoon at cafes and coffee shops and restaurants all over town, drinking coffee, eating pie, and talking about how right they were and how things were better back in their day. People looking to borrow movies in the afternoons weren’t as regular and this particular afternoon, it seemed no one was in the mood. Penny glanced up from the entertainment gossip magazine she was reading and when she realized that Rena wasn’t there on official business (or at least any business that involved her), she went right back to it. Penny was forty-four going on twenty-two and while she was good at her job, she wasn’t exactly invested in it. She got her work done to get it done because as soon as she got it done, she was free to do whatever she wanted, which was usually reading romance novels or trashy magazines.
Rena went to the digital newspaper archive and quickly found the issues from around the time Marybeth Cooley disappeared, including a copy of the one that Jerry Cooley carried with him. The details in that first article were much the same as what Mr. Cooley had told them: Marybeth had been with friends in the park, had gotten upset at being teased, was taken into the woods, and then never seen again. The police were conducting a search, but it was hampered by the parents reporting Marybeth’s disappearance late in the evening and a series of severe storms coming through the area at the same time. Due to the weather and lack of light, the police couldn’t begin their search of the woods until the following morning and by then, any potential evidence had all been washed away. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the creek that cut through those woods on its way to Lake Munster, already swollen from snowmelt, had flooded out from the rain. The spot where Nannette Sullivan had said the two of them had been standing didn’t exist when the police conducted their search.
Subsequent articles highlighted the fruitless search for Marybeth Cooley as well as floated speculation all over the place. Rumors swirled as to what had happened to the good girl who lived on Violet Way with her parents and her younger brother Jerry. She was a model student, attended church with her family every Sunday, was never in trouble, the teenager every parent wished they had. The newspaper articles made the girl out to be a saint. That was something Rena noticed about missing persons: an asshole never went missing.
Naturally, suspicion fell on the friends that Marybeth had been with that day. Two of them, Dwight Harmon and Butch Taylor, were from well-to-do families, considered to be a bit rowdy, but boys would be boys, especially when they have money. Nannette Sullivan was also from a good family but had a reputation in school as being rather mean. One unnamed classmate was quoted in the paper as saying, “You never want to cross Nan. You don’t want to get on her bad side. You won’t like it there, for sure.” The fourth friend, Jimmie DuPage, was a known troublemaker, always in trouble at school and with the local police. Nannette, Butch, and Dwight all defended him, saying they were trying to help Jimmie stay straight, that’s why they were hanging out together, and that Jimmie had nothing to do with Marybeth going missing. Still, there was strong speculation that either one, two, or all of the four friends, either accidentally or on purpose, killed Marybeth Cooley in the woods and buried her body there.
And then there wasn’t.
Rena digs deeper into the Marybeth Cooley case while waiting for Christabelle to call. Become a patron for as little as $1 an episode to get all the details!