Chapter Three: Pants (by Gregory Frost)

Vincent “Pants” de Leon sat at the end of the long table in the front room of Hub Bub Coffee. The place was bustling. Almost every chair was taken. He gnawed at his croissant and reread the blog post on his tablet.

The author, a local journo named Ben Travers, was connecting some bizarre dots. If he was right, then it was holy shit time. Visions of bylines and dollar signs danced in Pants’s head.

Pants wanted to be a journo. He’d tumbled onto Travers’s blog column, “The Daily Traversty,” courtesy of a pal from English Comp at Drexel, Nick Hodges, the unlikeliest of sources. Hodges was not the intellectual giant of the class. Pants had read three of his papers so far. What impressed him the most was that Hodges occasionally, and obviously by sheer accident, completed a full sentence. On the other hand, Hodges really didn’t give a shit; he had a lacrosse scholarship and was majoring in Hospitality and Sports Management. Unlike Pants, he only cared that he could pass Comp 101 with something higher than a D.

Pants wasn’t sure that was a realistic goal for Hodges, but he could appreciate the attitude. Pants sued his parents for tuition before he enrolled at Drexel. He had benefitted from a quirky New Jersey law: divorced parents were legally required to provide their children with a college education. George and Martha (and wasn’t that a riot?) de Leon divorced when Pants was two. Like the titular characters from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? his parents had been hideous to one other and acted like bigger babies than he was. Throughout his school years, his dad had routinely been the Invisible Man. Sending checks on birthdays and at Christmas was his version of parenting. Martha, on her third mariage, had elected Pants the de facto babysitter for the twins she bore to her second husban before he left her. Mom seemed to be toxic for men. She owed him for not kicking the bastards into the swimming pool, and he was more than happy to take her to court. The lawsuit got him on George’s radar, too. Although, his dad had issues with him before that. He had objected to  Pants’s oversized trousers, which Pants wore with suspenders so elastic that the waist bounced when he walked. It was his trademark in high school. That was how he’d gotten his nickname. George, who had taken no interest in him, despised him for it.

The two ex-parental units colluded in trying to game him into going to Cumberland County College, but Pants didn’t bite. He settled on Drexel and on Criminology as a major. He wanted to become a crime reporter. His decision had caused a nasty fight, but the law sided with him. He hadn’t intended to spend five more minutes with either of those estranged begetters ever again. Tuition was payback, pure and simple, for a life of neglect.  All he wanted now was to strip the paint off the Philly political machine with his brilliant (how could they not be?) columns.

Meanwhile, Ben Travers was doing exactly what Pants wanted to do.

The headline of today’s blog post read “The Killer Cheesesteak” in Times Roman Bold.

Yesterday evening, within a forty-five minute period, two Temple University students were found dead in unusual circumstances. The first was a nineteen-year-old named Logan Walsh.

Pants clicked on a photo and enlarged it. He saw a short stocky guy with Superman black hair who wore a spandex outfit without sleeves. The man was barefoot and posed before one of the Boathouse Row buildings.

Mr. Walsh was found in his Norris Street apartment by his girlfriend, Denise Campbell, when she came to give him some chicken soup ‘because he was sick.’ That was the story the late Mr. Walsh had given her for his reclusiveness from her that day.

The cause of death was poisoning. The source was a cheesesteak purchased from a food cart on the corner of Fifteenth and Diamond Streets. The remains of said cheesesteak were found on a low coffee table and strewn across the floor of Mr. Walsh’s living room. So far, it sounds like a matter for the FDA, right?

But wait.

The second death was that of Kathleen ‘Katie’ McFarland.

This accompanying photo was of a smiling, tanned, and honey-blonde amazon. She had the sort of biceps you got from pushing a lot of free weights. Hell, Pants’s own arms weren’t that muscular. Pants continued reading:

She was found sprawled across a bench within sight of the campus bell tower a few blocks from Mr. Walsh’s apartment. She also had been poisoned. But there was no food anywhere in the vicinity of Katie’s body.

Detective Chelsea Simon, in charge of both cases, had uniforms digging through trash and recycling containers in the area, but they came up with nothing.

Initially these deaths seemed unrelated beyond that curious link of poison.

However, Katie’s laptop computer—surprisingly not stolen off her slumped body—revealed another set of fingerprints. Some of these, as it turned out, belonged to Logan Walsh. The fingerprints found in Mr. Walsh’s apartment—in particular, a greasy print on the foil wrap around the lethal cheesesteak—belonged to Katie McFarland. Further evidence suggested that Katie had been in his apartment. Some hairs found in his bed proved to be a match for hers. It appears that Miss Campbell had been misled about her boyfriend’s whereabouts.

The police tracked down the owner of the food cart, Mr. Panos Paules, who identified Katie and Logan from photos in which they appeared together, and extremely friendly, when they bought the cheesesteak in question. He recalled that Katie had an REI crossbody bag that contained her laptop, which was the same bag that was found with her body. He also remembered that Mr. Walsh held a notebook. Mr. Paules was briefly taken into custody and then released. In his statement, he recalled that there had been at least half a dozen other people in line who stood around and ate but didn’t get sick from their meal. While he wasn’t absolutely certain, he thought there was also someone else that they knew standing behind Katie and Logan in line. Why he thought that, he could not say. It was the kind of impression one picks up without being aware of it—something in their manner he supposed. He remembered that Katie was very picky about her sandwich. She had unwrapped and checked it—for what, he wasn’t sure—while Walsh teased her.

A third set of fingerprints were identified both in the room and on Katie’s laptop. They belonged to one Joseph DeLuca, who lives on the same floor as Mr. Walsh. When he was a minor, Mr. DeLuca had been arrested for shoplifting. Thus, his prints were still on file. He was arrested again and charged with a double homicide.

His story is that while he did help Mr. Walsh move Katie’s body out of the apartment, he did so because he knew Logan Walsh hadn’t killed her. Mr. Walsh’s girlfriend was due to show up at any moment, and Logan Walsh did not want her to discover a naked girl from the rowing team in his bed, especially a dead one.

While it’s understandable that the police arrested Mr. DeLuca, his story is so ridiculous that in all likelihood it’s probably true. He was helping out a pal and not thinking about the consequences. In the whipped-up panic that he shared with his friend, he didn’t have enough sense to wipe his prints off everything, much less fasten the victim’s bra. The only place his prints didn’t appear was on the cheesesteak foil. One has to ask what sort of cold-blooded killer leaves their prints everywhere except on the murder weapon? Either Mr. DeLuca is a psychopathic idiot or he is telling the truth. He is certainly guilty of attempting to hide a crime, and by doing so he contaminated a crime scene. Neither Mr. DeLuca nor Josh Whitcomb are likely to be killers.

Pants nodded to himself. He picked up the tablet, grinned, and got up from the table. He walked to the counter for another Americano. He eyed his chair. He’d left his bag dangling off the back to make sure nobody else tried to sit there.

He returned to the table with a fresh cup of coffee. A dark-haired girl sat down across from him. She was probably a Penn student. He gave her a quick and undisguised once over before returning to the tablet. He continued reading:

 Josh Whitcomb. That name will be familiar to anyone who read my column of the 16th, when I wrote about another murder by poisoned cheesesteak that happened on the Drexel campus in West Philly. A student by the name of Nicholas Hodges died on the sidewalk beside the truck where he had purchased and attempted to eat his cheesesteak. Detective Chelsea Simon was also in charge of that case, so it looks like the cheesesteak murders have been dropped in her lap.

Detective Simon had more luck sealing off the crime scene on Thirty-third Street, because it was so public. Mr. Hodges had collapsed on top of his lacrosse stick so suddenly that he’d flung the offending cheesesteak away. Three pigeons died in the aftermath.

At the time I reported that Detective Simon had charged Josh Whitcomb, cook and owner of the truck, Naked Philly, with the murder. After all, one poisoned cheesesteak is not an epidemic. It surely seemed like a deliberate attack upon a specific individual. However, police have no motive for the murder of young Mr. Hodges. They have even been looking into rival lacrosse players and teams. In light of these new and almost identical murders at Temple, Mr.Whitcomb has been released on his own recognizance, no doubt thrilling Angela Nicholetti, his girlfriend who supplied this reporter with some of the details published in this column two days ago.

It seems bizarre, but these three deaths are likely related. Although there is no obvious connection between the two separate incidents—two scullers and one lacrosse player—the delivery system seems to be identical in each case. The symptoms are certainly identical: swollen lips, bleeding or darkening about the mouth, and swift death upon ingestion.

Someone, it appears, has got it in for the Philadelphia Cheesesteak. It might be a good idea for police to place a plainsclothes officer at Pat’s Steaks before this turns into an all-out massacre. Meanwhile, just to be safe, make sure you order your steaks with everything.

And that’s today’s Traversty.

Pants closed his browser. Wow, so much for a lacrosse scholarship saving your ass. Where in hell did Travers get all of his information? That girlfriend he mentioned could not have supplied him with ten percent of what he’d published here. The way he dished it out, it sounded like the entire city police force had spoonfed him all the information he could eat. Was he somebody’s nephew or something?

Pants wanted to meet him and get the inside scoop. He wanted to shake him up. He would have considered dropping in at the Pen & Pencil Club to see if Travers turned up there. The trouble was, he couldn’t show his face again at the journalists’ club.

When he’d first arrived in the city, Pants had spent a lot of evenings in the Pen & Pencil Club, cadging free drinks and a few meals from the clientelle. He’d claimed to be the nephew of the respected journalist Clark DeLeon, until the night that Clark had turned up there himself. It was inevitable, he supposed, that they would encounter one another sooner or later, but he’d been banking on later.

Pants had been in the middle of telling a couple of cigar smokers at the bar about “Uncle Clark” when somebody tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around to find himself staring at a man with glasses and a short beard. He knew something was wrong. Tom Purdom, a music critic who wrote for the Broad Street Review, stood beside the man.  He said, “Look, Vincent, your uncle’s here.” The entire club fell silent. They knew he was a fraud.

Pants barely made it out of there alive. He still had a cigar scar on his hand from where one of the smokers had mistaken him for an ashtray. When he ran out the door and down Latimer Street, he had been amazed that twenty feet weren’t slapping the pavement after him. He guessed the club owners had his face framed on the wall alongside all the portraits of the greats, except under his picture hung a sign that read “kill on sight.”

He would have to find some other way to talk to Travers. He could email him through the contact form on the blog.

Pants sipped his Americano.

He contemplated calling Detective Simon but the cops would pressure him for information, saying he owed it to Hodges to tell them what he knew. They’d end up with more information than he’d get from them. In a couple of months, he’d gotten to know Hodges pretty well. They’d smoked a few times and shambled down to Slainte across from Thirtieth Street, where Hodges had bought him beers. Pants had drunkenly offered to rewrite those awful essays, but Hodges insisted that they were good enough to get a C. Besides, Hodges said he’d look like a phony if he suddenly started writing in somebody else’s style. In the end, Pants was glad Hodges hadn’t taken him up on it. What was he thinking, offering to do somebody else’s homework?

Now Hodges was dead and nothing could bring him back.

Pants saw two ways of playing the situation to his advantage.

First, he could approach Travers about collborating. They could investigate his suspicions, share a byline, and break a story that the cops couldn’t crack. That sounded like a plan if Travers was willing to share the limelight, help a struggling fellow journalist to launch his career, and give him maybe a catchy blog title of his own like “De Leon Digs” or “Vincent’s Venom.” Something with real bite.

He laughed. Bite, yeah, like into a poisoned cheesesteak.

The trouble was he suspected that Travers wouldn’t welcome the competition. The smart thing would be to come on like a fan and find out how Travers got his leads. Then he would let him in on the facts in the case. But what if the cops managed to solve the case in the meantime?

Alternatively, he could follow up on his own and scoop Travers. If he was right, he might even do better to shake down the killer. He could promise not to write the story. Maybe he could go with both. Whoever got the story out first, Pants would flip it to his advantage. He had something Travers didn’t: Because of the papers he’d helped Hodges with, he had access to Hodges’ school account. He would figure out who’d killed Hodges himself. Yeah, that was the way to go. If George and Martha had taught him nothing else, they taught him to look for the angle and play it for all it was worth.

Pants figured he was way out in front on this one. Next time he set foot in the Pen & Pencil, they would fall all over themselves to buy him a drink.