Southerners will go to great lengths to avoid speaking ill of the dead, no matter how much they hated a person’s guts while they were alive. “He sure loved his mama.” “There was nobody who knew more about NASCAR.” “I’ll bet he was a real good flosser.” In my experience as an obituary writer in Tuttle Corner, VA, people dug deep to find any bright spot in an otherwise dim and detestable life—or at least that had been my experience until I was assigned to write about Justin Balzichek.
Justin Balzichek was thirty-one years old when he was brutally murdered, and no one I talked to had anything remotely nice to say about him. I’d interviewed several of his school classmates, two former employers, even his childhood pastor—and not one of them could find a single positive thing to say. Justin had been a bad seed from the very beginning, according to Doris Johnson, his third-grade teacher. Tricia, the woman who worked at the Kwikee Stop where he bought his chewing tobacco, said she got the heebiejeebies every time he looked at her. And Justin’s landlord, upon hearing the news of his death, said simply, “He’s the devil’s problem now.” From what I could tell, it came as a surprise to exactly no one that Justin had met a sticky end, and it was even less shocking that he’d left a trail of violence and destruction in his wake.
I was on my way to the Campbell & Sons funeral home to see if they had had any luck finding his next of kin. It had been almost two weeks since Justin’s body was found, and so far there’d been no takers. I was writing a piece on him for the Tuttle Times, and I thought if I could talk to a relative, I could get a broader perspective on who Justin had been—or perhaps more interestingly, why he had been that way. I wasn’t trying to glorify who he was or what he’d done, but I didn’t believe that anybody outside of a Bond villain could be so one-dimensionally bad.
There were no services scheduled for that day, so I figured Franklin wouldn’t mind me popping in. Over the past few months, I’d gotten to know Franklin Campbell fairly well. When someone died in Tuttle County, the families would often work with the funeral home to submit death notices to the Times, and it was part of my job to help edit and format the pieces for publication. It was, unfortunately, what passed for an obituary section in most newspapers these days due to declining budgets, although the Times had recently decided to allow space for one editorial obit each week. Justin Balzichek, however, would not be our featured obit this week; I was writing his story for the Crime section.
Franklin Campbell was an older man, probably the same age my granddad would have been if he were still alive. Old-school through and through, Franklin favored the Victorian approach to death notices. That is to say, no one Franklin wrote about ever died. They “went to be with the Lord,” or “were called home,” or my personal favorite, could be found “gathering the angels for a rousing game of canasta.” Franklin was a quiet man who always spoke in hushed tones and gentle metaphors, even when he wasn’t at work. The years of restrained sympathy had seeped into his bones, and when you came upon him walking through Memorial Park or eating dinner at the Shack, he’d clasp your shoulder gently and say, “How are you?” And even when you were having a perfectly lovely day, the reflex was always to respond with, “I’m hanging in there.”
When I walked into the building, I saw that all the lights were off except for one coming from Franklin’s office in the back hallway. This was unusual. Franklin often had his staff dusting the pews or polishing the brass fixtures when services weren’t going on. He took great pride in Campbell & Sons, a family-owned funeral parlor serving Tuttle Corner since 1877.
“Hello?” I called into the empty space. “Franklin, you here? It’s Riley.”
When I didn’t get an answer, I walked back toward his office. The door was cracked slightly. “Knock, knock,” I said, hesitating for a minute before peeking my head inside. But instead of seeing Franklin, I saw a much younger man sitting in his chair. He was leaning over, holding his head in his hands as if he’d been crying.
“Oh, I’m sorry—”
The man wiped at his eyes and stood up quickly. “We’re closed today. There’s a sign out front.”
“Sorry…I didn’t see it.” I swiveled my eyes to the floor. This man, whoever he was, was clearly embarrassed. “I’m here to see Franklin. I’m from the Times.”
“Franklin isn’t in.”
I looked up. The man was dressed in a plaid shirt in reds and blues untucked over worn-in jeans. His eyes were moist, his cheeks ruddy from wiping away the tears. He looked like the whole world had just crashed around his shoulders. I took a half step closer. “Are you okay?”
He looked down for a split second, and when he raised his eyes it was as if he’d put a little suit of armor on each one. “I’m fine.”
I blanched at his harsh tone. “Okay, um, do you know when Franklin will be back?”
I was starting to get the feeling this guy didn’t want to talk. But, as my mother always said, being upset is no excuse for rudeness. Besides, I knew most of Campbell’s employees and I’d never seen this guy before. It was strange that none of the regulars were here. “Do you mind me asking who you are?” I said, careful to keep my tone conversational.
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
So much for keeping things conversational. “Well,” I said, crossing my arms in front of my chest. “I really need to speak with Franklin, so if you don’t mind, I think I’ll wait.”
“Suit yourself.” He grabbed keys off the desk, turned off the lights in the office, and walked past me, nearly knocking my shoulder with his.
“Hey!” I called after him as he moved down the dark hallway. “Where’re you going?”
“I told you. We’re closed. I’m going home.”
“And you’re just going to leave me here?”
He let out an impatient sigh. “You said you wanted to wait.”
I sped down the hall to catch up to him. He opened the front door, but I came up behind him and slammed it closed. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, whoever you are! I don’t appreciate being treated like this.”
“Look, honey, you’re going to have to—”
“—Oh no, I am not your honey—”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine. Whatever—your honor, your majesty, your eminence—whatever your name is, I gotta go. I don’t have time for this.”
Now that I was up close, I could see that this guy wasn’t much older than me, despite his condescending tone. It gave me a boost of confidence. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me where Franklin is and—”
“Fine,” he said, and with that he walked out the door, leaving me inside. I heard the key go in the lock from the outside.
I was stunned silent for a second. “Hey!” I shouted once I recovered. I banged on the door a few times. “Let me out!” It took a good thirty seconds of shouting and pounding on the door before I realized I could just twist the deadbolt and let myself out.
I swung it open to find the mystery man standing there, an amused grin tugging up one corner of his mouth. He reached around me to close the door, pulling on the handle to make sure it was locked. “Figured it out, did you?”
“There is something seriously wrong with you,” I grumbled. “I’m going to talk to Franklin about this. Just who the hell do you think you are?”
The man was halfway down the front steps when he turned around to face me, the sunlight bouncing off of his tawny eyes. “I think I’m Ashley Franklin Campbell,” he said, pausing to watch the surprise register on my face. “And I think you’re trespassing on private property, honey.”