I'd not packed for such an occasion, but I wore my finest coat. It was impossible to shake my pre-date jitters even in knowing that we could never amount to anything substantial. I hoped I'd please him. I remembered to pack my notepad but left the audio tape recorder – it was outdated, it didn't matter if he claimed not consenting to being recorded on my phone if he happened to confess to murder. It was seven o'clock when Stanley pulled up more or less on the dot, drawing stares from everyone in sight.
He was in a blue Ford Mustang convertible. Revving the engine once for me, face splitting in a big smile beneath sunglasses. With hands in my pockets I walked around to the passenger side, head dipped to hide my smirk. Stanley leaned over to pull the lever and push my door open for me.
"There's my favourite reporter."
"Good evening to you, Sir." I joked and strapped myself in.
"The pizzeria awaits!" he pulled out again and we were off.
I noticed that as we drove it was within the speed limit and he obeyed all traffic laws.
"Is this your usual car?"
"I'm afraid I crashed the jaguar. Milton senior was good enough to lend me this one." At his comment I remained silent, wondering if his Dad was also good enough to help him cover up for murder. Stanley continued "How are you liking Lochdale, been to any of the sites?"
"No, I've been working I'm afraid."
"Good, I get to be the first to show you everything." Those sunglasses faced me as he grinned.
The pizzeria looked like it came fresh out of an 80s sitcom, reminded me ofGrease Lightning. A long-stretched roof with angled glass walls. I was enjoying the free-flowing fresh air that the convertible afforded but was also looking forward to eating. I would've been worried about leaving such a nice car on this street, but Stanley locked it with the beeper after we got out and didn't look back. He led the way and I kept pace beside him.
It was warm inside, contrasting against the pale chill on our faces.
Stanley raised his arms "Mr Volpitto!"
"Ayyy Stanley my boy!" an olive-skinned man who was possibly Italian stepped out from behind the counter to greet us. "Where are your friends?"
"It's just me and Phillip here tonight. Strict journalism business." He made a mock show of posterity.
"I'll get you a booth!" the man led us down the length of the restaurant, I smiled and thanked him. We followed and he offered us comfortable-backed seats by the window-wall.
"Can I get you gentlemen something to drink?" the bright-eyed man asked us eagerly.
"Um, coke?" I looked at Stanley as we slid across from each other.
"A jug of coke, my good man."
"Coming right up!" he dashed away. I looked forward at Stanley who was smiling at me.
His sunglasses were now hanging in the collar of a nice white sweater. Green eyes on me. A loop of hair plastered to his forehead.
"Thanks for doing this. I wouldn't mind getting to know you better, but we can get to the questions when you're ready." Stanley knitted his fingers on the table, straightening.
"So here's what I'm thinking: TheMaudlin Postwill run a twelve-page piece on the life and times of Stanley Milton. While you show me around Lochdale I'll get to know your day-to-day life."
"Fantastic." He flashed his teeth.
"So I suppose to start with... what are you studying at college?"
"Physiotherapy." He gave a respectable nod.
"Are you still in your first year of courses?"
"And how long have you been a student at the college?"
"Three years."Truancy, as I'd heard. He wasn't embarrassed. I pulled out my notepad and jotted something down. "How about you? Do you study?"
"Not at a university."
"Why not? You seem very smart."
"Thanks. Maybe one day."
"Have you always been a journalist?"
"I was a barista and a waiter up until about a year ago."
"Journalism suits you better. I'm feeling thoroughly investigated." He dipped his head and I couldn't help cracking a smirk.
"Got many friends at the college?"
"Yes. Never met a stranger. How about you?"
"I have a fair amount of friends." I conceded.
Mr Volpitto soon arrived with our drink jug and we had to bashfully admit to not even looking at the menu. He gave us some more minutes while I scanned the laminated list. Despite what I'd said, I had plenty of acquaintances but no real friends. George was my closest friend, and he's not very socially perceptive, more self-contained. When it comes to relationships, or friends in general it looks to me like most people can connect but underneath I'm smooth, rubbed down, exempt of all features. Like a white cue-ball. Everyone just slides off me; I've never had a close friend. Even as a young teenager I could remember watching the other children play, and I was entertained by them but never wanted to join in. Like I was observing another species.
I looked up to see Stanley pouring my drink "Such a gentleman."
"I can assure you I'm a gentleman of the highest order."
I picked something with chicken and aioli, Stanley picked pulled-beef with BBQ sauce. I was sure that in terms of friends we were the same: well-liked, plenty of acquaintances, no deep connections to other people.
When our food came we were pulling apart cheesy slices and I was asking questions as soon as they popped into my head.
"Have you ever worked?"
"I've had lots of jobs. Accountancy, assistant shopkeeper, workshop underling, factory worker, I've been an errand-boy coffee getter at my Dad's factory. Spent a month or two at a distant relative's ranch." He took another big bite, dropped the crust in a pile with the others and dusted off his fingers.
"How's your dating life been since you left school?" Between genuine-interest questions I'd been letting loose a few to appease my own curiosity. I wanted to see how similar our pathologies were.
Stanley covered his mouth to talk so I couldn't see his mouthful "I dated a girl for some years in school. I dated a boy for some years afterwards. Since then nothing serious."
"I've had a few boyfriends. Longest was ten months."
Stanley nodded. Neither of us had much to say on that front.
As the night wore on he made me laugh. Stanley could list off famous artists and literature. He could give quotes, but only well-known ones and offered no preferences of his own. If I'd been less astute I would've had the impression he was a man of great culture. Nothing indicated a personal opinion, instead he made it sound like his was the same as the scholars. But even so, he was able to make me laugh.
A few other booths filled up with families and college kids. When our pizza trays were empty, a littering of crumbs and pile of crusts, Stanley was insisting on taking me to see the art galleries and museums around town. I told him that tomorrow I'd rather he show me around the college. We walked to the counter and I pulled an unhappy face when Stanley insisted on paying for me.
"I always pay for everyone's meals when I come here." Bright smile.
"That's why I love you Stanley." Mr Volpitto said while he paid on card. "You boys have a nice night."
We were out under the streetlights, huddling against the cold when a flash caught my eye. Stanley was offering me a chocolate bar he'd swiped from the wrack beside the register. I didn't take it.
"So which one are you, Stanley? Are you a gentleman or a petty thief?"
"I'm a maverick." He took a bite then slipped the chocolate away.
We hopped into his blue convertible and he drove me back to the hotel.
A nice night, a nice date. I lay in my hotel bed while thinking of green eyes. There were notes in my pad and I had a more comprehensive idea of Stanley's interests and hobbies. They were eclectic. He tried many different things only to give up and do something else. Some of his adventures were more obviously interventions arranged by his family, like spending time on a distant ranch before he was undoubtedly kicked out for misbehaving. One might assume he was restless, but I could tell that Stanley's listless changing and dilettante ways came from a chronic boredom.
Thursday morning I was ready and fed by nine o'clock. Stanley surprised me by being perfectly on time again.So he can be diligent and punctual when it's something he wants...The sky was grey, perfect weather for an Autumn-draped European-style college. I was wearing my warmest sweater, dark green with diamond patterns and Stanley was in a wool cardigan.
"Good morning, champ."
"Good morning yourself."
And we were off. I hoped it wasn't going to rain. Over hills and gaps in the trees I could see mist by distant mountains and a silver lake. The college was a little ways out of town. There were green paddocks, healthy fields. I'd seen pictures of the college in pamphlets but upon arriving it impressed me still. Gothic buildings and a clock tower. Cobbled footpaths and orange trees, dead leaves scattering in breezes. We had to park a good way from the entrance. Our shoes crunched over gravel and when we reached the stone arch I saw a Latin engraving:momento mori, carpe diem.
"They have a fine library." Stanley began. "Canteen's not bad either. Where do you want to go?"
"Wherever you like." I answered. "I don't mind studying the outsides some more. The architecture's beautiful."
There was a dormitory building for live-ins. Different blocks for lecture halls and subjects. Fountains and random art monuments between walkways. Young people sitting and reading textbooks, others walking between classes with bookbags. I was daunted by the thought of tuition fees. Even applying for a student loan and working part-time, I wasn't sure I could palate the thought.
Stanley stopped to talk with fellow students and some stopped to talk with him. He was vibrant and friendly, introduced me to various well-dressed preppy types and affirming intellectuals. I just smiled and introduced myself. Spoke a bit about my shitty paper when asked.
"Stanley, it'll be impossible to write about your life here without touching on the Adam Creson tragedy." I brought up as we moved away from a group of nerdy guys. "Can you let me know if any people we meet were mutual friends of his?"
"Stanley my boy," now we were stopped by a stern professor "To what do we owe the pleasure of your rare presence?"
"Hello Mr Greenblatt," he chirped. "I'm here to fill my noggin with your monumental wisdom. Also showing the new kid around."
I gave a small smile in response to his quick glance.
"In that case I trust I'll see you in my lecture this morning?"
"Oh absolutely Sir!"
"Carry on then." And we separated.
I blended in well enough here cause of my age. Sneaking into a lecture theatre sounded risky, probably illegal and boring. It didn't matter because Stanley never stopped showing me around all morning. If I didn't know better I would've thought that whole conversation slipped his mind. As we headed to the Milton Library my curiosity got the better of me.
"Were you lying to that teacher about going to his class?"
"Mr Greenblatt? No."
"But it's almost the afternoon."
"It doesn't matter." He shrugged it off as we walked up steps and into a marble-floored building "I'm an excellent student."
There were ladies doing work behind an admin desk and a row of desktop computers full of students on a study break. Our shoes tapped against the shiny floor and we passed an antechamber into a high-ceilinged space full of aged books in rows upon rows. A chandelier glittered gold overhead in a thousand diamond shards. There were tables and sectioned alcoves of lacquered wood where students quietly read, one fellow secretly eating his lunch in the corner. Stanley wandered over to one boy who had headphones in, slapping both hands onto his shoulders and startling him.
"This is my new friend, Phillip. He's a journalist."
"Hi," I shook hands with this Toby who looked spritely like an energetic chipmunk. His dark hair was combed like a cap, he had freckles. Brown eyes big and pretty like a doll's.
"Press aye? You wouldn't happen to be here cause of Adam?"
"Toby here was a good friend of Adam Creson, like you asked." Stanley told me when I looked at him.
"Sorry for your loss." I said and he nodded, jaw set.
"You guys can talk about Adam, if you like, and when lunch comes around we can get some of the guys to play a game of basketball."
"I'm studying right now." He was slipping his earpieces back in. "But sure, I'm down to play at lunch."
Toby studied on his laptop while Stanley struck up conversation with a couple of girls he seemed to know, I wandered away and started looking around. Climbed up a wooden staircase, hand on the gleaming banister to peer into private rooms designed for organizing group projects. The bathroom –lavatory– was comparably plain. I heard the clock chime midday from outside a frosted glass panel so headed back down.
They gathered friends and soon I was walking with a group of guys across the mown grass of the college's centre-square. One guy spinning a basketball he'd pulled from his locker between his hands. Toby bit into a juicy green apple before turning to me "You good at sports, Phil?"
"You can be on my team then. I want to thrash Stanley."
The courts were inside chain-link fencing. I looked up at the tall hoop and started doing some stretches.If I bonded with these guys they'd more likely divulge information, especially when tired afterwards. And some exercise wouldn't hurt. Alright, then.
Toby was competitive and barked orders at the other guys. Stanley was also determined to win, and fairly talented. I pushed myself to exertion with the others. I was playing defence when Stanley ran over dribbling the ball, turning his back to me so I couldn't swipe it from him. The cool sweat of his arm mingled with mine, he turned quick and made a shot that scored. Toby cursed. Stanley raised his eyebrows at me.
"Gotta be faster than that." He walked off and I felt a fire ignite inside me.
I pushed myself even harder. Sneakers skid against the concrete. One guy tripped when his opponent feinted, the others guffawing. When Stanley came back with the ball I dove and slapped it from him, it bounced to a teammate. I smiled at him and he went back to his side of the court.
The game ended in a draw. There was ten minutes until class and some of the boys wanted to wash off. Others were spraying deodorant under their shirts. Toby popped the cap of his water bottle and drank as we sat by the chain-link fencing.
"Good game. Guess the tie-breaker will be next week."
There were murmurings ofgood game. I was handed a bottle and squirted water into my mouth. Muscles tired but endorphins flowing from the exercise. One of the guys was a diabetic, and after a high blood reading he stood aside to give himself an insulin shot.
"Did Adam play basketball with you guys?" I asked.
"Yeah, usually." Toby answered. He seemed genuinely bummed about not winning and went quieter at the mention of his friend.
"You guys... don't know if he had any enemies?"
The boys were still breathing out their mouths, the atmosphere softened. Toby had another drink, he narrowed his globe-like eyes and they darkened at a spot in the distance.
"I spoke to the police about some people." Toby remarked. "But it was just like... dumb, competitive, macho shit. Or pranky hijinks. Nothing, like, feral. No real hate, or so I thought."
"Did Adam have a girlfriend?"
"Not that I ever saw."
They weren't happy talking about it, so I let it drop. Stanley was standing and gazing out at the empty fields, index fingers of both hands hooking into chain-links.
When we were walking back to the main buildings I walked up to Stanley's side.
"If you have classes you can leave me in the library for an hour or so. I reckon I could do some writing or research." I imagined introducing myself to the dean or trying to get a quote from the lecturers.
"Wouldn't dream of it! I don't have any other classes today so it's fine."
"Alright."Liar. I had to think it because he was always so convincing.
I told Toby and the other guys it was nice meeting them. We separated by the buildings as it started to drizzle. My stomach growled and I was embarrassed when he heard it.
"Shall we get something to eat?"
The canteen he took me to was down an incline, there were steps and I saw a Subway, coffee stands, salad wraps and sandwich places. We walked by them and into the canteen proper. A sea of tables and chairs. A counter which had burgers, pastas and even containers of Chinese food on display. Chalkboard menus were overhead. I followed Stanley to the end of a short line. He let me pay for my own food this time and we went to find a place amongst the multitude of tables.
"Look there's Alisha! She's in our biology class, she did a group project with Adam." I followed Stanley whose cardigan was slung over his shoulder. A sweat mark between the shoulder blades on his white shirt. Smelling strongly of deodorant and hair still damp from when we played.
A girl our age was sitting by herself, dark hair in an overhead bun. A lined book with handwritten notes out and beside a container of fruit salad with a little plastic fork. Long white nails clicking on the screen of her iPhone.
"Hello hello," Stanley greeted her cheerfully. I got the feeling this girl wanted to be alone, her legs were crossed under the table.
"Hii." She smiled politely after recognizing him.
"You knew Adam right? This is my reporter friend from theMaudlin Post."
"I'm Phillip." I shook her hand and cool blue eyes studied me over winged eyeliner.
"Are you allowed to be on campus?"
"He got special permission from the teaching staff." Stanley assured her light-heartedly before she could see me flounder. "If it's not too much bother could we sit and speak with you a bit?" he asked pleadingly.
"Alright, go for it." She didn't want to be rude but I could tell she was a no-nonsense type of person.
I put down my container of potato bake and sat with Stanley at the shiny silver table.
"Thank you. Did you know Adam Creson well?"
"I'd say pretty well. I'm friends with his sister."
"Did he have an active social life? Play sports?"
"He had a very active social life. Sports, no. But pubs and clubs on the weekend. Hanging around the wrong sort of people. The kind of people I've seen you with, Stanley."
I eyed him from beside me before looking back at her.
"Wrong sort of people, like drugs?"
"Lochdale has a minor but very real drug problem. There's a street or two of dingy houses down the west side. That's what his family thinks it was, drug-related murder."
I nodded my head thoughtfully. If that were true it seemed much less likely that Adam was strangled by a co-ed. Maybe he picked a fight with one of those town undesirables. They were out together high at night, stole a vehicle, trespassed, argued, wrestled in the grass and then Adam got strangled. Then they lazily dragged the body to a nearby ditch. Got back in the car and left.
I'd seen one or two homeless-looking men out on the streets. So it wasn't an extensive problem but it was there. Was Stanley with Adam the night he got strangled? I suddenly wished he wasn't sitting beside me so I could talk to this girl one-on-one.
"Well that's a very possible angle, especially if he went out drinking and spent nights with those types of people."
"The police are looking into it." She assured me.
"Such a waste," Stanley shook his head morosely. "Drugs just ruin young lives and potential. What could have been, aye? I actually convinced the principal to let me head an assembly about it. Make it sort of a eulogy piece for him. I wrote up speech cards, got information and healthcare numbers. Got several teachers on board but when they consulted his family they ruined it. A shame."
A shame.It would be a growing trend: odd moments like this that made me jump a little bit in my seat with surprise. That someone as supposedly lazy and unreliable as Stanley could organise a detailed and heartfelt school assembly. Display passion, intelligence and charisma, enough to convince the whole teaching staff. Only for it to be disproved by Adam's family, confused to hear about someone talking to the whole college about their son, claiming he was Adam's good friend, when they hadn't been very close at all. Talking about the risks of drug-taking while being a frequent drug-taker. Heading an important event, public speaking at a college he rarely attended.