Not exactly. Although Great News Town is fiction, the story was inspired by a series of murders that happened in 1983 in Will County, Illinois. For more details -- spoiler alert -- go to this web page.
Becky leaned against the fence, watching as a trio of corn pickers sucked in the brittle brown stalks and spewed golden grain into the open trucks behind. Like an army of bright green tanks, they devoured everything in their path, mowing down Mark Conley’s vast fields in a matter of hours.
The October ritual had been played out in these fields every year for more than a century, but it was the first harvest for Becky. She was amazed at the speed with which the fruit of the fields was neatly condensed into trucks. The Conleys weren’t even here to enjoy it.
Three months had passed since Natalie Conley was wounded during the summer’s murder spree, but she still was unable to cope with reality. Her paranoia and depression had become so severe that she had attempted suicide twice. Shirley had moved with her daughter to a friend’s beach house in South Carolina, hoping the total change of scenery—and a mental health expert in Charleston—would heal her unseen wounds.
Neighboring farmers had offered to take care of the harvest so Mark could join his wife and daughter. Becky was here to chronicle this act of charity for a Sunday story in the Jordan Daily News.
She had finished her interviews with Delbert Thompson and the other farmers who were helping. Mack had taken his photos and left, but Becky remained, trying to absorb the rhythm and grandeur of the whole operation.
Watching the transformation of the cornfield made her think of an old joke about not being able to tell a secret in a field because the corn has ears. Oh, the secrets and sadness this corn had heard! Last spring, when Mark planted it, he couldn’t have imagined the death, fear, and ultimate unity that a “Cornfield Killer” could create.
Malcolm Jones still was making headlines in the Daily News. Just the day before, his attorney’s petition for a change of venue was resolved and a court date had been set for early December in Peoria, one hundred miles to the southwest. Already jokes had started about “playing Peoria,” though Becky doubted the trial could move to any city in the state that hadn’t heard of the Cornfield Killer.
The summer’s events had left a mark on the Daily News as well. Josie had taken a month off after her ordeal in the ceramic shop. She and Kevin had spent two weeks at a cottage in the Ozarks simply treasuring life. The experience had transformed Josie into a tiger, with a strength and determination she’d never had before.
Becky smiled, thinking of the day Josie had burst into the office, a full week before her leave was scheduled to end, and marched into Ham’s office to demand that Nick be made her assistant to allow her more time at home with her son. She’d also demanded that Hoss be named news editor. Hammond argued that Hoss’s failure to follow basic rules made him unfit for management. Josie countered, loud enough for the whole newsroom to overhear, that the rules about not eating or drinking in the newsroom were stupid and punitive and had been broken by virtually everyone. She pointed out that even Hammond had a roll of Life Savers in his desk drawer.
She offered a compromise: No eating at desks during regular business hours but no prohibition against snacking at the desk after hours. That brought the rules into compliance with practice, and was something even Hoss could accept. Of course, there was the little matter of smoking in the newsroom, and Josie assured Hammond that rule would not be broken by Hoss or any of the late-night sportswriters. Then, somehow, she convinced Hoss that his new title and hefty pay increase were worth his compliance.
The air had seemed fresher in the newsroom in the last month or so, and the reporters had a pool on how long it would be before the determined Josie convinced Hoss to give up the vile habit altogether.
After all, she had convinced Duke to enter a dry-out clinic for six weeks, at the newspaper’s expense. Though Sharon and Jennifer had not moved back into the house officially, the family was together every weekend. Duke had been out of treatment for less than a month and seemed strong in his sobriety so far, writing more poignantly than ever.
Yes, so much had happened since this corn was planted. “Do that many changes happen every season?” Becky wondered. These events had been more dramatic perhaps, and closer to home, but as Becky watched the last corn picker finish the last row, she thought how change is all around us all the time. Some of it makes it into the newspaper, some of it doesn’t, and the events that never make print are sometimes the most significant.
Becky weighed these thoughts as she pulled out of the Conley driveway and headed down the gravel road to Old Ben’s. He would have some wise words to share. Becky had visited with Old Ben regularly during the past few months, hungering for the rural simplicity that she never had known and feeling an acceptance there she never had expected.
Becky could see him in the porch rocker as she pulled up, but he didn’t rise to greet her or wave as he usually did. He must be asleep.
“Hey, Ben,” she called as she came up the walk. She bounded up the two steps onto the porch, expecting the creak of the old step to awaken him with a start. When he didn’t jump, her smile melted into concern.
“Ben?” Becky said tentatively, then reached out her hand and gently shook his shoulder. “Ben!” she said louder and touched his cheek. The cool stiffness of his body made her jump back.
“Oh, no! Ben! Ben! Can you hear me?” When there was no response, Becky ran into the house and quickly dialed the Thompson place. She knew it was too late for an ambulance, but she had to do something. Grandpa Thompson said he would be right there, but Becky still was shaking as she went to the kitchen sink and filled a glass of water from the tap. The well water had a strong metallic taste, but Becky noticed only the coolness that seemed to ease the burning in her chest.
She walked back to the porch and sat down in the rocker next to Ben. The contentment on his face conveyed a calmness that made her smile.
“Oh, Ben, how lucky you are,” she said aloud. “You’ve never been to college or around the world, but you learned all about life watching corn grow. Watching sunsets and rainstorms, tilling the soil, planting seeds, harvesting grain. I wish I had half your wisdom, half your faith!”
Becky was silent for a few minutes, the porch creaking as she rocked. She could almost hear Ben’s reassuring chuckle.
“Time” he would say. She would have her wisdom and faith in time. She smiled again, tears seeming out of place. Ben’s passing was an occasion for celebration. His season had ended, his harvest had come.
A “V” formation of geese passed overhead honking loudly, but to Becky it seemed like a chorus of angels trumpeting a soul’s arrival in heaven. She felt at peace, rocking and watching the cloud of dust from Grandpa Thompson’s car wending ever closer on the old dirt road.
Yes, it's really over. But there are two more Jordan Daily News mysteries waiting for you to discover. Go to suemerrellbooks.com
As the Serial Killer Serial concludes, another Jordan Daily News adventure begins. Full Moon Friday will officially be released on June 13, -- a full moon Friday the 13th. Josie, Duke and all the staff of the Jordan Daily News are back solving more mysteries -- a school bus disappears, a body lands at Duke's feet and there's a shootout at a crowded movie theater. It will all be solved before Full Moon Friday ends. Kindle fans can download a free copy on June 13.
“What bar?” the detective repeated to Eddie Simms.
“I don’t want to get them in trouble,” Eddie said.
“You’re already in a hell of a lot of trouble.” The detective grabbed Eddie’s shirt and pulled his face across the table until the two were nose to nose. “It’s your truck. Your beer, your house. If the guns are where you say they are, what’s to say you didn’t do all these murders?”
“Eddie?” Mae called from the side door.
“Listen, if I thought I could make this all go away, I would confess.” Eddie pulled free of the detective’s grip and rose to his feet. “Don’t think I haven’t thought of doing that very thing. I would go to jail in a heartbeat if that would mean Mae could have her son back. But you and I know that won’t stop this killing.”
Eddie turned his back on the picnic table, looked at Mae standing at the door, and turned back to the deputies.
“Joe’s. Joe’s Tap Room. On the corner of Second Street and South River Avenue. Let me call someone to stay with Mae and I’ll go with you. If he’s there, maybe he’ll come to me without any trouble.”
The sheriff’s department radioed the city for backup. But two squads were en route to a burglary in progress at Su Le Ceramics, two doors down from Joe’s Tap Room. The call had come in when a broken window activated the burglar alarm system.
The city police pulled up in front of the ceramic shop, and one officer caught a glimpse of a man inside with a possible hostage. Soon, sheriff’s deputies arrived, and the block was surrounded. A couple of officers tried to sneak in the back door, but shots rang out and caught one officer in the shoulder, the second in the knee. The injured policemen retreated, and everyone ran for cover. The officers reported seeing a body at the bottom of the stairs.
“Let me talk to him,” Eddie said. “Maybe he’ll listen to me.”
In a matter of minutes, Chief Miller handed a bullhorn to Eddie.
“Biggun, son. It’s me, Eddie.”
“I’m not your son,” came the thunderous reply from inside the building. “Did you turn me in?”
“They came to the house, boy. Frightened Mae. She needs you to come home now.”
There was a brief silence and then a voice that sounded like a young boy called, “Mama?”
“I’m not going nowhere until those pigs leave,” interrupted Malcolm’s deep, gruff voice.
“Jones, put down your gun, and come out with your hands up,” Miller said, grabbing the bullhorn.
“Is Mama here?” the boy’s voice called again.
“Biggun, you know how Mae hates it when you make a mess,” Eddie called, taking the horn back. “Come out, and we’ll get the mess all cleaned up before she gets here.”
“You’re just another pig!” came the gruff reply. “Get those cops out of here or I’m gonna to kill this bitch.”
Miller grabbed the horn. “Jones, how many hostages do you have?”
“Hostages? I ain’t got no hostages, just one bitch who’s still breathing. But she won’t be for long!”
“Okay,” Miller said. “Don’t get excited. Send the woman out and we can talk.”
“No way, man,” Malcolm said. “She’s going with me.”
The officers could hear a conversation inside the building, and then a woman’s scream.
“Send the woman out,” Miller repeated into the bullhorn. “We have to see that she’s okay.”
There was no reply. After a few silent minutes the officers could see movement in the doorway, a bloodied face emerging, and behind her, a giant, dark shadow.
“OK,” Malcolm said as he stopped Josie in the doorway, holding her by one hand twisted behind her back and pressing a gun to her head. One of her eyes was wide with fear, the other was swollen shut. She whimpered softly.
“Here’s your woman. We’re going to get in that car over there and drive away as soon as all you pigs get back in the pig pen.”
From one of the purses, Malcolm had selected keys with a Cadillac logo and headed toward Barb’s large yellow Caddy parked in the lot behind the ceramic shop.
“We can negotiate,” Miller shouted.
Malcolm cut him off. “Tell your officers to disappear. If I see one pig, she gets it in the head.”
Miller turned to the squads that ringed the parking lot and waved for them to leave. The officers got into their cars and slowly pulled away. Becky climbed into Page’s brown van, and they backed slowly down the alley.
Holding Josie like a shield across his chest, Malcolm backed toward the Caddy.
“Get out of here,” Malcolm repeated. “And take that pig in father’s clothing with you. He’s just another stupid cop.”
“Biggun,” Eddie said, “Your mother would not approve—”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” Malcolm fired a round in Eddie’s direction. Miller shoved Eddie toward the squad car, and the remaining deputies scattered.
Malcolm pressed the hot barrel to Josie’s temple and pulled her closer to the yellow car, as Mae came running through the gangway between the buildings. When she saw her son holding the gun to a woman’s head she gasped, then she pulled her shoulders back, raised her head and spoke in a controlled, reproachful tone.
“Biggun, put that gun down before somebody gets hurt.”
“Mama?” Malcolm said in a voice so small that Miller opened his mouth in disbelief.
Just then the door of the Cadillac opened with full force into Malcolm’s back, sending him sprawling to the ground. He lost his grip on Josie, who crumpled before the open car door. Malcolm’s pistol skittered across the pavement.
Duke tumbled out of the car, where he had sought refuge, and threw his body over Josie’s. He expected a shootout, when a dozen officers lunged out of hiding, guns drawn on Malcolm. But the monster was gone. Only a big boy remained, curled in the fetal position and whimpering, “Mama.”
Eddie held Mae back as she tried to run to her son.
“Don’t hurt him. Please don’t hurt him,” she screamed as the officers rushed forward, cuffed Malcolm and dragged him to his feet. Malcolm seemed deflated and limp as the officers shoved him into a squad car.
Josie moaned and squirmed beneath Duke’s weight.
“Are you OK?” Duke said, pulling back and seeing Josie’s swollen face for the first time. “Jeez, you look like, like . . . ”
“Peacock piddle,” Josie croaked in a voice he could barely hear.
COMING JUNE 19: The killer is arrested. Jordan begins to heal. But the final chapter delivers one last surprise.
This weekend the Windy City welcomes the return of the book that spawned this serial killer serial. Great News Town will be featured at the Printers Row Literary Festival, one of the largest book festivals in the country. The story began in the Chicago suburbs back in the 1980s with a series of murders in Joliet. From 2-6 p.m. Sunday, author Sue Merrell will be signing copies of Great News Town and One Shoe Off in a tent sponsored by the Chicago Writers Association.If you stop by, be sure to say you read about it on GNT: The Serial Killer Serial.
Josie was so excited as she pulled into the parking lot behind the ceramic shop that she started shouting as soon as she entered the open back door.
“He did it! Kevin made a goal!”
But when she stepped from the bright sunlight into the dim stairwell leading down six steps to the studio, she saw something that silenced her enthusiasm.
She could make out a figure crumpled at the bottom of the stairs.
“Su, help me,” she hollered as she rushed to Barb’s body. “Something has—”
As she rolled her friend over, horror grabbed the voice from her throat. Barb’s head lolled back like a rag doll that has lost some of its stuffing and blood gushed from the grotesque red smile just below her chin. Barb’s eyes were open wide in disbelief.
Josie wanted to scream but no sound would come. Her mouth moved as if trying to pump up words from deep inside. She turned and saw blood and broken pieces of half-finished pottery everywhere. Penny lay awkwardly over the table, her head surrounded by the puddle of blood that oozed from her throat.
A moan pulled Josie’s attention to the right and she could see a pair of feet sticking out of the bathroom. Josie stumbled over Barb and the chunks of shattered Christmas tree and fairly fell on Aggie in the bathroom. There was hardly any blood on her, no seeping streak of red across her neck, just a perfectly round hole in the middle of her forehead.
“Aggie! Aggie, can you hear me?”
The old woman was unconscious but moaned again.
“I’ll get help.” Josie headed for the phone at the front counter. As she started through the shelves of greenware, she passed Su’s body, bent in half, looking perfectly delicate except for the circle of red that surrounded her. Josie didn’t slow to check her but stumbled on to the phone, looking back in horror to see her footprints tracking through the blood. Her footprints and someone else’s.
She ran right into him, a mountain of a man standing at the register, one purse dangling from his neck, one at his elbow, and his hands stuffing dollars from the register into the third purse.
Josie squealed in surprise and Malcolm chuckled with macabre satisfaction. Josie turned and ran, past Su slumped against the greenware, around Penny teetering on the table. She was just about to leap over Barb at the base of the stairs when a huge arm encircled her waist and yanked her into the air.
“No! Put me down,” Josie screamed, finding her voice at last. She flailed her arms and legs wildly as Malcolm whirled her around, laughing as though playing with a squirming child. In her fight to break free, one of Josie’s jerking feet found its mark in the big man’s groin, and he threw her to the floor as he bent in pain.
Josie crawled a few feet to the base of one of the rolling pottery shelves. Without thinking, she grabbed one of Barb’s gigantic porcelain bowls, whipped around and hit the still bent Malcolm Jones in the head. He stumbled backward a few steps, enough that Josie probably could have made it up the nearby stairs, but an odd rage possessed her. Unaccustomed power heightened her senses and a strange feeling of invincibility vanquished any fear.
“That’s for Barb,” she thought as the bowl shattered. Then she turned and grabbed one of Penny’s gnome cookie jars, so big that it took two hands for Josie to pick it up.
“And that’s for Penny,” she screamed as she threw the heavy piece. It glanced off the madman’s back.
Malcolm shot up to full height and growled like an angry bear. No longer was he having fun. His switchblade glinted in his right hand and he lunged at Josie, barely nicking her leg as she ran around behind the shelf, grabbing pieces of pottery and slinging them as she went. Even Su’s dainty butterflies, which could sting no more than a mosquito bite, sailed toward his advancing hulk. Aggie’s delicate designs bounced off his shoulder and exploded on the floor.
In the rage that gripped her, it seemed that each of her dead friends was placing weapons in her hands. The china shop was avenging itself on the bull.
Amid the pelting of pottery, Malcolm slashed at Josie, pushing her back to the wall by the shelves of heavy greenware until she was trapped in a corner. She had nothing more to throw and no outlet for escape. Malcolm paused to laugh at his triumph.
“Father, help me,” Josie breathed, looking into the madman’s eyes. Pressed against the concrete block wall, she reached an arm behind the shelves of greenware. She felt something solid, a water pipe, and pulled.
Just as Malcolm stabbed toward her with all his weight, Josie disappeared, slipping into the imperceptible space between the shelf and the wall as miraculously as a newborn emerges from a ten-centimeter opening.
Frustrated, Malcolm poked at her behind the shelf but his beefy arms were too big to reach her as she slithered up the backs of the metal shelves.
Through the shadowy greenware, Josie could see Malcolm straining like Hercules to pull the shelf away from the wall. Feeling the shelf start to move, Josie grabbed a water pipe overhead and straightened her legs, pushing against the top shelf with all her strength. The unit wavered and then toppled forward with a thunderous crash.
Dangling from the water pipe like a kid on monkey bars, Josie saw a streak of movement through the torrent of ceramic shards. Malcolm Jones had escaped.
No longer thinking of her own safety, Josie dropped to the floor and started after him. Beyond the register she could see that the front door was open. Had it been standing ajar before? She couldn’t remember.
She ran to the door and looked both ways but could see no one. She was turning back into the room to call police when Malcolm slammed her head into the doorframe, practically knocking her out.
“Where you goin’, bitch?” he whispered with eerie calm. He pulled her back into the room, closed the door, and bolted it.
“It’s my turn,” he said pushing her up against the counter. Her face was bloodied now, one side swelling where she had hit the doorframe. His lips curled into a hideous grin, but his dark eyes lacked the fire of madness Josie had seen before. Instead, as he lifted the knife to her throat, she saw sadness in his brown eyes . . . and hesitation. Two words flashed into her mind, words Duke had said when she wasn’t listening but that somehow had stuck with her for their incongruity.
“Good boy,” she choked out. “Good boy.”
Startled, Malcolm lessened his grip enough that she slipped under his arm and tried to run back into the studio. He grabbed her wrist. She whirled around and threw one last piece of pottery, the heavy earthenware vase that Su had said could be a hammer.
Perhaps it was her aim, or the way Malcolm jerked to one side, or maybe it was a guardian angel’s doing, but the vase missed Malcolm entirely and sailed like a vandal’s brick through the plate glass window at the front of the store. The lights seemed to flicker as the glass shattered in slow motion, the break creeping in all directions with a crackling noise as it painted a spider web on the pane.
The shock seemed to stop Malcolm and Josie for a split second. Then Malcolm’s fist exploded into Josie’s face, and everything went black.