The laundromat was a single whirring room. Two rows of blocky machines on top of each other, mine jostled about as it spun my clothes inside a drier. Down the line a hunched lady in a ragged coat was extracting her clothes and putting them into a canvas bag. The timer ticked away and I stood aside, thinking of Stanley with both warmth and worry. Pulling out my phone I decided to call his sister.
"I can't believe you were in my parents' house yesterday." Claire snipped by way of greeting.
"The boss told me to get a quote, I had to try."
"You're so lucky, Phillip. If my Daddy knew you were investigating his son I don't know what he would've done..."
"Released the hounds?"
"That's not funny."
"Sorry. Look, Claire, the reason I called is because Stanley's doing his... persuasion thing. I need to talk to people who knew him most intimately so I want the contact details of his exes."
"Not to burst your bubble but I've seen Stanley with heaps of people, men and women, young and even really old..."
"But he had two serious relationships right? One in school and one after, or was that a lie?"
"No, wait... Shariar Patel is the guy he dated for two years after high school. When we were students he was with a girl called Penelope Harper all through Year Eleven and Twelve. I can give you a contact number for Shariar... it's in my address book, hold on..." ruffling over the phone "As for Penelope I think she still lives here and goes to the college, her Dad owns the hardware store and I saw her doing shifts there behind the counter."
"Thanks a lot, Claire."
"No problem, just tell me as soon as you find something."
I hung up when we were finished, added the given contact number to my phone. Bagged my clothes from out the drier and started walking back to the hotel. It was coming up evening and I'd managed to separate from Stanley under the guise of doing research and writing the article. He wanted us to go for another walk and then go to a drive-in theatre in a football park that the college kids attended. Sneakily making out or having sex in cars while a big projector board played family movies. After dumping my clothes I had to head back out, my guide was dutifully waiting in his car with that wide smile. He took me to another part of Lochdale, a memorial garden that led to a park.
It was bordered by waist-high hedges, there were flower beds amidst the mowed grass. A white obelisk sat in the centre with names of fallen soldiers from the second World War on all four sides. We were holding hands as we drifted along, toward a path that wound through trees. There were joggers and an elderly couple throwing bread to ducks as they sat on a park bench. A stone bird bath where tiny sparrows dipped, shook themselves dry and then flew off chasing each other.
"I love the serenity of this place." Stanley wrapped his arm around me, pulling me into his body.
"Lochdale reminds me of being in an old novel. It is nice."
"Country towns have their perks. For one thing, the bakeries are nicer."
"The meat pie servings are more generous." I admitted.
I did like it here, the rural town distance between houses and brighter greenery. I huddled against the cold and into his side. The cobbled path led us to a little planked bridge over a stream. We kept walking deeper into the park and I spotted a silhouette hiding in the thicket of a tree. Hunched and peering around the trunk like a mugger or stalker. No one else was around and the figure paced out of the coverage, it was a girl with leaves in her wild brown hair.
"Stanley." Her quick stride led her in front of us, blocking our way "Hey, I need you to help me out."
"Hello!" he greeted her merrily. "How've you been?"
"Not good." She had wide eyes, her body still but twitchy. I knew immediately:drugs. She was focused but looked out of her mind. What was it: crystal meth, heroin? Whatever she took it looked like a serious addiction. "Can we talk for a second?" Her eyes flickered to the underbrush.
"Alright, Phillip I'll be just a minute with this young lady."
I watched him follow her into the bushes for their secret talk. She was short next to his six-foot height, standing very close to him and speaking agitatedly. Her hands were together and fingers fiddling. This girl was all over the place. Stanley put a hand on her shoulder and she seemed to calm down. It wasn't hard to guess he was her supplier. Stanley walked back to me afterwards and she stayed where she was, watching us as a silhouette in darkness.
"Who is she?"
"Oh, that's just Kelly. She's a friend of mine."
"Kelly Mettler?" I saw him tilt his head then nod. I went around him before she could vanish "Kelly!" I called and she stepped back into view. "Kelly, hi!" I walked off the path toward her "My name's Phillip Cleckley, I'm a reporter for a newspaper. I was wondering if you could help me."
"A newspaper...?" Her face was still hidden in black.
"A friend of yours, um... Wendy, said I should talk to you. Please, even if we keep things confidential it'd be a real help."
"Great." I turned to Stanley "Would you mind getting us something from that ice-cream shop across the road?"
"As you wish." My guide left us.
Kelly and I found another park bench to sit and talk, this one under the shade of a great big tree with looping roots and hanging branches. It would take Stanley time to find us, so we'd be undisturbed for a while. It was times like this I wish I'd brought that audio-recorder, but I didn't want to frighten this spazzy girl. Her eyes were fixed to me like arrows.
"I'm going to be blunt, do you know who killed Adam Creson?"
"Of course I do. But you'd better not write that article if you know what's good for you... you have no idea how much influence those Miltons have. They lied to the police and gave a fake alibi." She wasn't even trying to keep her voice down, but we seemed to be in a secluded space. There were still leaves and a twig in her hair.
"Are you saying it was Stanley?"
"I'm not saying nothing. I'm scared for my fucking life."
"Why would Stanley kill Adam?"
"Stanley is a psychopath. I'm not saying anything more."
"How am I supposed to believe you?"
"Fine. You want fucking evidence? Fine." She pulled out a phone and started scrolling. I was expecting her to pull up screenshots. What she showed me was worse. I jumped to my feet, colour drained from my face.
It was a photo of Adam's corpse. Lying limp and sweaty amongst grass, one eyelid drooping and dark bruises around his neck. The photo's caption said 'how is he now bitch'. I looked at her with horror and she stared back, twitched.
"You got that a week ago?" I watched her nod. "You have to go to the police!"
"The fucking pigs don't do shit. The Miltons will find a way to cover everything and protect their son. Then I'll get fucking killed."
She put away her phone while I started walking in circles frantically, hand over my mouth. She watched me freak out for a good minute.
"You are abetting a crime! I will be abetting a crime if I don't come forward about this!"
"If you tell the police I'll destroy my phone before they take me." She threatened. "And I'll tell the Miltons you know." I stopped and we stared at each other. "This was a fucking favour to you, mate. Leave it alone and go back to whatever city you came from." Then she got up and straggled deeper into the woods, leaving me behind.
It was some time after I was wandering alone. The edges of the sky were sunset-orange, like the edges of paper caught alight. Stanley appeared holding two ice-cream cups with little plastic spoons in them. Is he a burgeoning psychopathic killer after all? Is he just beginning to get a taste for murder? He showed me the cups when I was close to him, couldn't tell by my face and posture that something was very obviously wrong.
"This one's coffee and this one's choc-chip peppermint. Which would you like?"
"I'm not hungry anymore..."
"Oh well. I think I'll have the peppermint."
We made our way back to the memorial park and open town. I told Stanley I wasn't feeling well and he agreed to drive me back. Outside the hotel he pulled me in for a chaste kiss that made me jump. I farewelled him and then went quickly upstairs and to my room. No George around. Good, I didn't want to tell him when I was unsure. George would go forward about it, he hated those who did injustice and got away with it more than he loved actual justice. He loved it when the bad guys died in explosions at the end of movies when the good guys couldn't convict them. But neither George nor I had any military or spy training. We could die, right? Mr Milton knows now that the press is looking into his son.
Maybe he'd just ring our boss's boss and we'd get a solemn call telling us to come home. That might be the best-case scenario.
I called Shariar Patel once I was in my room. Pacing around before a meek-sounding man answered me.
"Hi Shariar, my name's Phillip Cleckley. I'm a reporter for theMaudlin Times. I hope I'm not interrupting you but I wanted to talk about Stanley Milton."
"Stanley?" A pause, suction of breath. "Is he okay?"
"Yes, so far."
"Well. That's a relief..."
"I've been investigating his odd and criminal behaviour... I'm sure you must know what I mean. I wanted you to tell me about your relationship with him."
"Stanley..." I thought I heard a sniffle, and then a door close.Is he crying?"I loved Stanley."
"Did he treat you badly?" There was a pause. "Don't worry, this is off record. Did he ever hit you?"
"No, never. He was a chronic cheater though."
"Why did you stay together for so long, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Because I believed he loved me too. He talked about wanting to save me, things weren't safe at home. He'd always tell me how much he loved me, how we were meant to be, that he would always love me and couldn't bear to be apart. But when we weren't together he'd always cheat with all kinds of people, random people. Old, overweight, middle-aged men and women, anyone that would have him. He wasn't sneaky about it. I couldn't figure it out. He'd promise me he wouldn't do it again, he was always so convincing, but he never stopped."
There was another sniffle, he blew his nose. Shariar sounded like a sweet and sensitive guy to me.
"Why did you two break up?" I asked softly.
"I couldn't take it anymore. It was killing me. I let it drag on for far too long. Stanley would go on and on about how much he loved me... but the cheating was happening constantly and he frequently just... got bored and stopped talking to me for weeks. When I'd threaten to leave he'd dowhateverit took to get me back. Crying on the phone, begging, writing me poetry. One time he was comatose outside my house from alcohol and drugs, it might've been a suicide attempt. One time he flew to India and found me, I was holidaying with my grandparents. He did it just to get me back. He was completely relentless."
"Oh my God..."
"But no matter what he did, as soon as I was his again he went back to cheating, back to ignoring me. I didn't understand it. I didn't know why he couldn't just let me go. In the end I had to run away from home without a trace. I told my parents I was gay and they cut contact. When Stanley couldn't find me he gave up. If he had been able to find me... he would've never stopped doing absolutely anything to get me back."
I gave him my thanks and condolences. With that conversation wrapped up I took a moment to process it, imagine the things Shariar told me. Then I used my laptop to find the business number for that hardware store. There was still ten minutes until closing. A boy picked up, and after asking for her my luck continued when Penelope Harper came onto the line.
"Yes? This is Penny speaking."
I introduced myself and the girl clicked her tongue, then excused herself to go into the back room to talk "hold on a moment." She settled herself down, I imagined her sitting on boxes and crates.
"I got with him cause his parents were rich." She surprised me with her honesty. "Also he was popular, handsome, every girl wanted him. So... high school. I was never a super pretty girl, you know? I was like mid-tier popularity. I had a little crush on him, my friends started joking that we were a couple whenever we talked, then Stanley's friends would make the jokes too. Then I suppose he thought about it, then one day asked me to be his girlfriend."
"He was never rude or abusive, was he?" I already knew the answer.
"No. He was actually... extremely romantic. Like over-the-top 'I would die for you' kind of romantic. I was just using him, I'll admit it. I was suddenly so popular and all the other girls were jealous of me. I was more starstruck by the fact he was a Milton than anything else... When we were together he'd take me places, drive me around, say lovey-dovey theatrical shit even when his friends were around. But when we were apart he'd barely text me. It was like he forgot I existed until he saw me at school. His family was always nice to me."
"Why were you together so long?"
"Well I was using him for the popularity. I broke up with him a month before school ended, neither of us cried about it or cared. It was just too much for me: his crazy stunts, the criminal stuff, I was scared he was going to get himself killed. Also the constant cheating. He gave me STDs at least twice, maybe three times while we were school students. We weren't even adults yet and he was doing so much crazy shit."
"Thanks... thanks for this."
"Am I going to be in the paper?"
"I don't have to put your name in-"
"But I'd like my name printed."
"Is there anything else you can tell me about what Stanley was really like?" I evaded.
"Okay, um..." she thought. "He changed personalities a lot based on who he was speaking to. It surprised me whenever I saw it, it was like he could flip a switch and suddenly be a different person. Even his affects were different. I don't think he was playing games with people... it looked more like, experimentation. If that makes sense."
After that conversation was done I paced my room, rubbing my temples. I felt like a drink. That would be a really, really bad idea. Just one would dull my edges, but I never stopped at just one.
So Stanley wore masks? That would make sense. All his reformed, epiphany speeches were learned and recycled from meetings with councillors over the years. All his romantic speeches were adapted from movies and media. Social skills were learned through purposeful mimicry and years of experimentation. I bet when he was younger he slipped up a lot more. Trial and error. With no emotional understanding of his own, he practiced in mirrors and tested on people. Consciously behaved in ways that got him rewarded by others and not avoided.
He knew his weird habits as they'd been relayed to him, so by being intellectually aware he could come up with things to say to explain away the faults in his make-up. Like anxiousness or being in love with me. But it slipped through his careful facades when he'd say things like he loved Mrs Seaborn, an indifferent high school teacher from years ago, more than his own mother. I imagined Stanley driving alone in his car with that deadpan face, listening to radio hosts laugh and joke, practicing by repeating what they said and mimicking the tones of their voice to sound normal.
I did notice that whenever Stanley did broad actions or gestures they weren't fuelled by real emotion. Sweeping his arms wide as he greeted Mr Volpitto in his restaurant. Clutching his shirt and assuring me of his love. He was never flushed, his skin remained pale. What he did was mimic the exuberance of a daytime TV cast. He was never pushed by emotion. All social behaviour was acting, and when you peeked through the gaps you could see how awkward, how un-intuitive and unaware it was at a genuine level.
Among various other psychology problems that helped me diagnose myself, I have read a book and articles on psychopathy, true psychopathy. Things that can't be seen, like emotions, can only be shown through language and facial expressions and gestures. Stanley could always say the right things and calculate events, but how he acted was in complete contradiction. Because there's no meaning under his words, he uses them purely for social navigation. No emotions but having an intellectual brain intact means Stanley may truthfully understand very little about life. You'd never know from talking to him, because he's had just as much human interaction as everyone else. He couldn't understand what he's never known. He'll repeat meanings and sentiments that countless other people have said, copy statements and pretend they're original, but there's no originality or feeling in him. He's convincing because lies are just words and words have no real meaning.
The only indicator is his constant criminal actions. The lack of regard for himself and others. The rare moments he makes a gaffe and the mask slips.
Those are things he can't truly grasp.
Everything about life: sitting down to have a meal, walking to the shops, a brutal murder, going to college, a vicious rape, doing a test and running along the beach. It is all painted in the same shade of grey. Those things are all an emotional neutral. Stanley could've easily murdered Adam.
"Hey buddy." George caught me in the hall. Another guest in a thermal jumper stepped out of his room and made his way down the stairs on stiff knees. "You alright? You look pale."
"Yeah I'm fine. What's up?"
"I was on the phone with the boss. He's not happy with how the case is going, the police haven't made any arrests. He wants us back in the office on Monday."
"Well... suppose it was fun while it lasted, huh?"
"I suppose. He said we can work together to write up the finished piece and he'll run it on page six of the next issue."
"That's if Mr Milton won't make noise when it's out."
"That's if Mr Tourvel wants us mentioning Stanley at all seeing that no one can link him to the murder. It'll look like we're running with gossip if we have nothing more than 'he was friends with town hooligan Stanley Milton'." He scratched his neat beard thoughtfully.
"Maybe..." I imagined the Milton's huge garage. Them using a blow-torch on the stolen vehicle, smouldering it into parts and shipping it away in cargo vehicles. Destroying the evidence. "Maybe there's something we can still do... if Sunday's going to be our last day in Lochdale I want to try one last thing."
"That's the spirit! The police can't give me any more details. Want me to come with you?"
"Maybe later. This one's a private source. I'm not sure there'll be anything else she can do for me..."
Last week... did Stanley go out drinking Friday night, leave with Adam, steal a car, drive onto farm property, attack or get attacked by Adam who was high on drugs, wrestle in the grass and strangle him? Then did he take a photo with his phone, write that awful caption before sending it to Kelly Mettler? What was Kelly's connection to Adam? I had all of tonight to go through the facts before I'd spend my last day in Lochdale figuring it out.