A navy-blue colored, four-door sedan screeched into a secluded, abandoned warehouse park, which sat along the Delaware River in Burlington County, New Jersey. Three men, armed and dressed in black suits, stepped out of the vehicle. They had dark hair and sinister eyes. It was nearly midnight. There were dim lights illuminating a small area near where the car was parked, alongside the body of water. The asphalt was damp from a downpour earlier in the evening.
The largest of the men moved to the trunk of the car and opened it. He reached inside and pulled out a bound and gagged victim. The victim’s name was Vinny Buttiglieri. His hands were tied behind his back and he was blindfolded. Vinny was forced to his knees and the gag was removed.
“Please don’t do this. I won’t tell anyone. I can help you. I’ll do whatever you say,” Vinny begged. His warm breath could be seen against the frozen backdrop of the night sky.
The men surrounded him. “Unfortunately, Vinny, you know too much,” the leader of the pack said in a gravelly voice.
“Please, I swear to you. I didn’t tell anyone and I won’t,” Vinny pleaded.
The largest of the men pushed Vinny down to his knees. He whimpered. The men moved their positions to face Vinny after they removed his blindfold. Vinny squinted in the darkness to get a better look.
“You?” he asked.
“Yes, Vinny, it’s me, and now it’s time to say goodbye,” one of the men said.
Vinny closed his eyes tightly. Gunshots rang out in the night.
* * *
It was late January when I received a text message that would start a snowball effect down a trail of darkness and corruption. The message was from my friend, Kathy Norcia, the municipal clerk of Madisen Township, New Jersey. Kathy and I met after a hurricane had nearly destroyed the town where I worked and I opened a temporary headquarters in her municipal building. We instantly hit it off and kept in touch over the past year. Her message said, Hey Chelsey, I got gossip!
I hit reply and I typed, What’s up?
Meet me for happy hour tonight? she typed back.
Sure, I responded.
I’ll tell you what I heard tonight, she replied.
My curiosity was going to have to wait. Kathy and I decided to meet at Savoy’s Bar and Grill, a local pub that was close to both our homes. My parents had agreed to babysit. I was a single mom. My daughter, Mandy, was almost two years old, and quite a handful. She was in a full-blown temper tantrum when my parents arrived, banging her curly blonde head on the floor. My dog, Snickers, was barking at her. It was chaos at my house.
“What happened?” my mother asked.
“I won’t give her the remote control,” I explained, “because last week, she managed to order three hundred dollars of pay-per-view when I wasn’t looking.”
“Huh! You’d better call the cable company and get the charges reversed,” my dad said in a failed attempt to be helpful.
“Already did that, Dad,” I told him.
I handed him the remote, and he made himself comfortable in the recliner, tuning in to Monday Night Football on the TV.
“Sorry I’m leaving you with her like this.”
“It’s no problem,” my mother said. “Have a good time!”
“Thanks!” I said.
I threw on my winter coat and mittens and went outside into the bitter cold. Flurries danced in the air. The Jersey shore area was in a deep freeze with sub-zero temperatures outside.
Kathy was already at a high top, drinking a Belvedere and tonic when I arrived. She was wearing a crimson-colored shirt, which looked good against her pale skin and short blonde hair.
“Rough day?” I asked her.
“Mondays are always rough,” she said.
“Anything you want to talk about?”
“No, it’s nothing worth mentioning. It’s just busy at work.”
“So spill. What is this gossip you have?”
“Did you hear the news about the clerk of Coral Beach?”
“No. Vinny Buttiglieri, right?”
“Yeah, that’s him. He died.”
“Really?” I asked, shocked. “That’s so sad. He was young, right? I met him several times at classes I took, but I didn’t know him well. How did he die?”
“He was in his forties. The police found him washed up on the banks of the Delaware River near the Bordentown Yacht Club. Someone had shot him. Rumor has it that between the wounds and the body being water-logged, he was unrecognizable. They had to identify him with DNA or dental records or something. Had to be a closed-casket funeral, I suppose.”
“Ugh, that’s awful! Did they catch anyone?”
“No, they haven’t caught anyone. Rumor has it he owed a lot of money to some loan sharks for gambling debts.”
“I used to see him down in Atlantic City at the municipal clerks’ conferences, playing a lot of poker, so I guess that could be true.”
The waitress came over and took my drink order.
“I’ll have what she is having,” I said, motioning toward Kathy’s drink. “I feel so terrible. When did it happen? Did he live in Coral Beach?”
“It happened about a week ago. It was very devastating. He was divorced. I don’t know where he lived, but I remember him telling me once that it took him an hour or so to get to work, so my guess is he lived somewhere not far from Bordentown, given that’s where his body was found. I know; it’s a sad situation, but it seems they have a job opening if you are interested.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I said.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to work just yet. A little over a year ago, I had a terrorizing experience working in the Town of Sunshine. I was held hostage by an irate resident and I wasn’t really sure I was ready to return to the daily grind. The situation lasted until a SWAT team put the resident to rest…forever. I sued the town for their failure to provide a safe working environment, won a half-million dollar settlement, and resigned. I loved having the time off to spend watching my little girl grow up, but it took me a full year to pick up the pieces of my broken former self. It was only recently that the glue I used was holding.
“You should think about it. I’m sure they took a lot out of your settlement for taxes. Plus, health care is likely costing you a pretty penny. Your money won’t last forever and jobs as a municipal clerk are few and far between,” Kathy, the voice of reason, said.
She had a point. I had enough money to stay out of work for a few more years, but what would happen when the money ran out? Would I be able to find another job? Openings for municipal clerks only happened when someone died or retired, and there weren’t that many municipalities in a reasonable driving distance from my home, so options would be limited.
“I don’t know; would I be walking into another unsafe situation and putting myself at risk of being murdered again?”
“I don’t think so,” Kathy said. “He lived far away from Coral Beach. I think Coral Beach is a safe place. I truly don’t think his murder had anything to do with his job.”
“It’s kind of morbid for me to send in my résumé, isn’t it? What would my cover letter say? ‘Heard your clerk got killed, so you must need someone to fill his spot.’ I don’t know.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it that way in your cover letter. Wait until they advertise the position.”
The Village of Coral Beach was a small shore community, several miles south of my former job in the Town of Sunshine. Both municipalities were situated on a barrier island in New Jersey. I lived over the bridge, on the mainland, in Madisen Township. My parents, Tom and Mary Alton, lived in Sunshine and they had previously provided day care to Mandy when I was working full-time. They missed Mandy since they no longer saw her daily. They would likely be thrilled to babysit regularly again. Depending on the pay, I would be foolish not to at least investigate the opportunity, since it would be in a convenient location.
The position of municipal clerk required someone who was certified by the State of New Jersey. I already had that certification. It entailed being the head of the department and reporting directly to the governing body. It also required being responsible for a myriad of other duties, including elections, licensing, and budgeting, to name a few.
“What can you tell me about Coral Beach?” I asked Kathy. “I know the area—the beach club, the small amusement park, but I don’t know anything about the government.”
“I never heard anything bad. Vinny seemed to like it. He never complained about anything.”
Kathy went on to explain that they were governed by the “Village Form of Government,” which essentially worked like the “Township Form of Government.” I was familiar with how a township was run, since I had worked in one in Middlesex County years ago. Instead of a township committee, they had a board of trustees. Instead of a mayor, there was a president. The board of trustees in Coral Beach consisted of five members who were elected at large. They each served for a term of three years and their terms were staggered.
“Well, keep me posted if you hear anything more,” I told her.
“Good! Then you can come to the Annual Clerk’s Conference with me this year.”
“I don’t know about that. What makes you so sure they’d hire me? I don’t even know yet if Coral Beach would pay for the conference. I also don’t know if I’d have a babysitter for a full week.”
“I think they’d hire you. Use me as a reference; I’ll give you a glowing recommendation. And as for the conference …you could go one night instead of the full week. It’s in Atlantic City again. You’re going to need credits to keep up your certifications.”
We finished our dinner and I headed for home.
“How was your dinner with Kathy?” my mother asked.
“It was good,” I said.
My parents had been worried about me lately. Since my ordeal in Sunshine, I hadn’t gone out of the house often. They were always pestering me to get out more. I was afraid of my own shadow for a while. I had an alarm system installed, bought a German Shepherd, got a gun, and kept to myself…until recently. They liked that I had started to be my old self again.
“Kathy told me there might be an opening in Coral Beach.”
“Oh dear. I read the obituary for that Vincenzo Buttiglieri guy in the paper. A tragedy, passing away like that so young,” my mother said.
“Did you see anything else in the newspaper about it?”
“It was a homicide.”
“Oh my; that’s terrible!”
“Do you think if I applied for that job, it would bring bad karma to me?’
“Oh, Chelsey, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Well, it kind of gives me the heebie-jeebies thinking about taking the job of someone who was murdered.”
My mother rolled her eyes and gave me that look. “Don’t start with the paranoia. It’s close to our house. If you decide you want to go back to work, we’ll watch Mandy for you.”
“How was Mandy tonight?”
“She cried herself to sleep, then your father put her in her crib.”
“Thanks for watching her, Mom.”
My parents left and I sat on the couch, weighing the pros and cons of applying for the impending job opening. I decided it couldn’t hurt to apply if they advertised. The phone rang, interrupting my thoughts about the job. I glanced at the caller ID before answering. It was a number I didn’t recognize.
“Hi. Chelsey? This is Kris.”
I was shocked. Kris was a guy I had met at a New Year’s Eve party. He had kissed me and told me that he wanted to take me out, but then, never called. Since it had been more than three weeks since we had met, I had assumed that phone call was never coming.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied.
“I’m sorry I haven’t called. My manager at work quit and I’ve been working double shifts. I hired someone new this week, so I have a little more free time now.”
Kris owned a restaurant in Jackson Township, New Jersey, named Bratz. It was a German restaurant serving specialty bratwurst and German beers. I had eaten there once before I had met him. He ran a fairly successful business. He was a single dad with a three-year-old son, so I was understanding about him not having any free time. Especially since his wife had passed away during childbirth, making him the sole caregiver of Kris, Jr.
“I totally understand,” I said.
“So are you free tomorrow night? I’d love to take you out.”
I gave him a tentative “yes” with the stipulation that I’d have to make sure I had a babysitter, although I already knew my parents would babysit for me. I guess it was my feeble attempt at sounding like I wasn’t overly desperate.
“I’ve missed those big green eyes of yours,” he said. I melted inside. Needless to say, I went to bed with a huge smile on my face and drifted off to sleep dreaming about the exciting, new life waiting in the not-too-distant future for me.
* * *
Early in the morning, I was awakened by Mandy screaming. I could tell by the way she was screaming that something was wrong. I rushed to her room, placed my palm on her forehead, and found she was burning up. I brought her to the kitchen and gave her ibuprofen to try to reduce the fever. I stripped off her pajamas in an effort to cool her down. Her curly blonde locks were plastered to her head with perspiration. I took her temperature, which turned out to be one hundred and three degrees. I rocked her in my arms for two hours before she fell back to sleep. I carefully placed her back in her crib, then tried to go back to sleep myself, but didn’t have much luck, so I decided to surf the internet.
I checked the website for the Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey, and there it was—the ad for municipal clerk of Coral Beach. It appeared that Coral Beach was still in the dark ages—not unusual for a government entity. They asked for résumés to be mailed via snail mail instead of through e-mail. I brushed up my résumé and typed up a cover letter. I reckoned I could stop at the post office on my way to the pediatrician’s office. I then dragged my over-tired body to the bathroom to get showered and dressed before Mandy woke back up.
When nine o’clock rolled around, I called the pediatrician and got an appointment. As luck would have it, they agreed to take Mandy in right away. I woke her up, got her dressed, let the dog out, then loaded Mandy into the car. I swung by the post office and dropped my résumé into the outdoor, drive-up mailbox, then headed over to the doctor. Mandy was an unhappy camper at her appointment. She screamed when they took her temperature. Screamed when they put her on the scale. Screamed at the first sight of the doctor. She continued screaming through the whole examination.
The pediatrician informed me that Mandy had an ear infection and he electronically zipped the prescription for antibiotics over to the pharmacy. I gave the receptionist my co-pay and loaded Mandy back into the car. After a stop at the pharmacy to get her meds, we arrived back home. Given her condition, I decided that I should stay home with her the rest of the day, so I left a message for Kris that I had to reschedule our date for tonight. I wanted our first date to be special, and I didn’t want to ruin it by calling home every ten minutes to check on Mandy. I knew that I would be too worried about her to enjoy myself.
Kris called me back and asked me if Saturday would work to reschedule. I agreed. My next call was to Kathy Norcia. I wanted to let her know I saw the job listing and that I took her advice about applying for the job and using her as a reference. I was actually getting excited about the new job prospect. I guess I had wanted to get back to work more than I originally thought I did.