Billy Snyder parked his unmarked cruiser on Morningwood Promenade, just below the pylons that marked the entrance to Morningwood Heights. He could see all of Fester spread out below him. The morning sun sparkled on the Black River to the east of downtown. Down by the Iron Bridge, huge plumes of steam rose from the Schmidt Pretzel Bakery as they fired up the ovens for another shift. The traffic on Route 17 and Route 23 began to pick up as Fester’s workforce made their way into the city for another workday. Billy watched the school buses from Fester’s two school districts, Fester and West Kerian, trundling down the streets like yellow beetles.
He took in the view of morning in his town and he knitted. When he had given up smoking three years ago, his wife had suggested that he take up knitting as a way of keeping his hands busy and his mind off of cigarettes.
Billy had kept at it long after the last pangs of nicotine craving had departed. He enjoyed knitting gloves the most and was usually able to deliver several pairs a month to the Fester Men’s Shelter. This civic-mindedness had paid off in a front-page story in the Fester Daily Dispatch, and personal kudos from the mayor and the city council.
Billy knitted and waited. From time to time, he glanced up at his rearview mirror as he worked on the thumb—always the trickiest part of the glove.
A huge black BMW sedan descended from Morningwood Heights and breezed by Billy’s cruiser. It had a vanity license plate reading “ZIFF 1.” It belonged to Dr. Michael Ziffer, chief administrator of Kerian Memorial Hospital. Billy observed the car with interest. He had recently learned that Dr. Ziffer may be involved in some sort of shady dealings with a large pharmaceutical company. Billy knew he was going to have to do a little more investigation into this, but not today.
In his rearview mirror, he could see a Mercedes 300-SL speeding down the hill. The little roadster tore past Billy’s car, doing nearly sixty. Billy pulled out behind it and hit the flashers.
The driver either didn’t see the flashers or didn’t care, and it wasn’t until Billy had come right up to the rear bumper and hit the siren that the Mercedes deigned to pull over just outside the gates of Highland Country Club. Billy pulled up behind it and waited until a count of sixty before getting out of his cruiser and cautiously approaching the sports car.
The driver of the Mercedes was Cecilia Schmidt, the CEO of the Schmidt Pretzel Bakery. Normally, Billy would have looked the other way if a Top Hat had been observed violating the speed limit, but Cecilia was a special case. First, she wasn’t really a Top Hat—she had married the previous head of the company, Emile Schmidt III.
Emile hadn’t been much of a corporate director—his real passion was deep sea fishing and he spent most of his time in its pursuit. When he’d dropped dead of a heart attack while battling a marlin off the coast of New Jersey, control of the company passed to Cecilia.
The rest of the Schmidt family had been appalled. They had always considered Cecilia to be a gold-digger. However, they couldn’t overlook the fact that she actually did a good job of running the company, and it had grown every year since she had taken over. Eventually, the family had—grudgingly—accepted Cecilia’s control. After all, she was making them more money than Emile ever had.
Billy walked up to the car and rapped on the window. Cecilia sat staring straight ahead, not acknowledging him. She was in her early thirties, with a wave of bright red hair that cascaded past her shoulders. She was dressed to the nines, with an expensive-looking fur coat over a watered-silk peasant blouse. Her makeup would have been the envy of a New York fashion photographer.
Billy rapped on the window again. The driver’s window slid down, unleashing an eye-watering cloud of Chanel No. 5, Cecilia’s signature scent.
Still staring straight ahead, Cecilia said, “You must be new around here. Do you know who I am? “
“Oh, I know very well who you are, Ms. Schmidt,” said Billy. “Don’t I just.”
“Well,” said Cecilia. “If it isn’t Fester’s top pig.”
“Yes, that’s me,” agreed Billy. “Did you know that you were doing sixty in a thirty-mile-an-hour zone?” He pulled out his ticket book and began writing.
“You son of a bitch!” Cecilia spat. “You really don’t know your damn place!”
“Oh no, Ms. Schmidt, you’ve got it all backwards. I’d say that you’re the one who doesn’t know her place.”
“Screw you. My place is running the largest business in town. I do a damn good job of it, too. I provide a good living to a whole lot of people in this crummy burg.”
“Yes, you’re a real pillar of the community,” said Billy. “I think you’ve had a busy week, too. Caused a bit of a fuss in the Schmidt boardroom, from what I’ve heard.”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” Cecilia growled.
“Well, a number of citizens—very well connected citizens—are quite upset. My job is to keep the citizens of Fester safe and happy. So it kind of is my business.”
The day before, Cecilia had instituted a major shake-up at the company. She had fired half of the board of directors, all of whom were blue-blooded Schmidts. Even worse, she announced the expansion of the company into potato chip production, and that the company was going to be renamed the Keystone Tasty Snack Food Corporation. The Schmidt family was outraged, but there was nothing that they could do. Cecilia had already called in the hyena-like law firm of Nasté, Brutus and Shore to make sure there was no way the rest of the Schmidts could thwart her plans.
“The problem is that you seem hell-bent on upsetting the apple cart,” Billy continued. “You’ve got a lot of people very upset, Cici!”
“Don’t you call me that!” Cecilia snarled. “And how I run my company is no damn business of yours, you overblown rent-a-cop!”
“I just wanted to give you a little friendly advice,” he said. “You can waltz into this ‘crummy burg’ after things get a little too hot for you in Pittsburgh, and you can marry into the most powerful family, and you can even connive to take over the biggest business in town. But there are a few things that you won’t ever be able to do.”
Cecilia checked her nails and said, “Are you getting to that advice any time soon?”
“Let me explain it to you. You’re a big deal in Fester. But you’re not from Fester. You’re not really part of this town, you’ve just managed to sleep your way into a position of power. But that doesn’t really mean jack shit in the big picture, you understand?”
“‘Big picture’? What the fuck are you talking about, Snyder? I think you’ve finally lost your little piggy mind.”
“What I’m talking about, Ms. Schmidt, is that there are a lot of things about Fester that you don’t know. This town is different from any other place in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else, really. We have our way of doing things, our own rules. Rules that have kept things chugging along nicely for a long time. It’s not good when an outsider comes along and starts dicking with those rules. It makes important people very unhappy.”
“Like I give a fuck, Snyder. What, did some of my shithead in-laws tell you to give me a scare?”
“Oh, no,” said Billy. “Nobody asked me to do anything. I’m just performing my civic duty.”
“Civic duty?” snorted Cecilia. “Don’t puff yourself up, Snyder. You’re nothing but the hired help. I ought to . . .”
“Ought to what? For all of your money, there isn’t diddly squat you can do to me. What are you going to do? Complain to the mayor? That wheezing dimwit is my brother-in-law. You gonna sic your high-powered lawyers on me? I’ve known Pierre Nasté since grade school.”
“Yeah, you’re quite the big shot around here,” spat Cecilia. “Well, here’s a bit of news for you: you and me aren’t all that different. For all your talk of important people and old money, you’re no more part of this shithole of a town than I am. Talk about sleeping your way into power? You did the same damn thing, marrying the mayor’s sister. You’re just a fucking watchdog, owned by people like my dipshit in-laws to keep guard over their treasure. Nothing more. You’re a dog.”
Billy felt his anger flare up. He smacked an open palm onto the Mercedes’ door, producing a hollow boom. “Hey! I’m done listening to your crap. You just better watch your step, because I’m keeping an eye on you. If there’s any more bullshit like your little shake-up down at the factory, you are going to regret it. That’s a promise.”
Cecilia blew a stream of air through her teeth. She turned back to face straight out of the windshield. “Are you through yet?”
“Almost,” said Billy, as he ripped the pink speeding ticket from his ticket book.
Without a word, Billy thrust the ticket through the roadster’s window. Cecilia made no move to take it. Finally, he released the pink slip and it see-sawed down into her lap.
She turned and spat a fat loogie at Billy. It hit the seven-pointed badge pinned to his chest, slid down the bronze face, and soaked into the fabric of his tunic.
Billy had his baton out of its holster before he knew what he was doing. He almost used it, but his temper subsided quickly enough for him to realize he was about to make a big mistake. Slowly and deliberately, he replaced the baton in the holster. “I could take you in for that.”
“Go ahead. Try.” She reared back as if to spit again.
Billy remained perfectly motionless.
Something in Billy’s stance must have made Cecilia think twice. She turned away from Billy and started the roadster with a roar. “Stay out of my business, you dog. Just fuck off.”
“Careful what you screw with in my town, Cici.”
The Mercedes pulled away with a screech, showering Billy’s pants with gravel. A piece of wadded-up pink paper sailed out the car’s window and came to rest in the middle of the road.
Billy watched the roadster roar around the hairpin turn at the end of the country club grounds and disappear into the trees. He looked down at the spit-stain on his shirt and the dust and gravel covering his pants legs. He’d have to go home and change into a clean uniform now. That pissed him off mightily, but not nearly as much as some of the things that Cecilia had said to him. “Dog, my ass,” he muttered. He turned, walked stiff-legged to his cruiser and drove off.