Candace DeMarco parked her car at the farthest end of the parking lot and got out. She never parked close to the store; as the manager, she had a firm policy of all employees leaving the best spots for the use of the customers. It was still dark, only five in the morning. The air was chilly and so was she, except her left hand, which held the Styrofoam cup filled with hot coffee that she had just picked up via drive-thru on her way to open the store. She reached the front doors, which were locked as the store had been closed overnight. She took out her mass of keys, containing the means by which she could open any of the many doors and safes within the large Q & V Supermarket. She selected the appropriate key and inserted it into the lock. The doors opened as she forced them to slide on their tracks. When the store was open for business, the automatic doors would be turned on and part when motion was detected, but for the time being she had to use physical force to open the way.
She stepped inside, simultaneously putting her keys back into her pocket and taking a generous swig of coffee, sugarless with just a touch of cream. The store was lit only by the dim night lighting. The night crew of seven men who worked most nights packing out groceries had been given the night off to allow room for the floor waxing crew to come in and do their thrice yearly task of making the linoleum floors shine, which contributed greatly, in the opinion of Candace DeMarco, to keeping the place looking new and appealing to the public.
By five, the waxing crew should have been gone, leaving only one man present in the vast store. DeMarco’s assistant manager, Maurice Grunby, had offered to work overnight and keep an eye on the cleaning and waxing procedures. Grunby was not the ambitious type, preferring to delegate his work to others and spend most of his time sitting down. He was the opposite of his harder working superior, DeMarco. He was also quite obese, which created a vicious circle of self-perpetuating laziness and heaviness. He didn’t like to move because he weighed so much, and he weighed so much because he rarely moved.
DeMarco expected to find Grunby sitting up in the front of the stores, near the registers, waiting for her to arrive so he could go home and sleep, but he was out of sight when she entered. “Moe!” she called out. No reply.
She walked across the front of the store, her shoes sticking slightly to the freshly waxed floor, which took several hours to dry thoroughly. She glanced around at the floor, nodding at the fresh shine that reflected the light and made her smile slightly; she took pleasure in seeing a job well done.
She walked past the first few aisles, seeing that everything was in order. About to head to her office, which was located up a flight of stairs just past the customer service desk, she happened to glance up Aisle 6. That was when she screamed.
“Moe!” she cried out for the second time since arriving at work, this time because she had finally seen him. The obese man was lying flat on his back midway up the cereal, jelly, and peanut butter aisle. He was not moving. When Candace DeMarco reached him, she could see his open, lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling. His massive chest showed no signs that he was breathing. There was a bit of blood on the floor just behind his large, round head. “Oh damn!” DeMarco said as she turned and ran to the phone on the customer service counter to call 911.
The local police were there within minutes, two patrolmen from the town of Woodland Park where the store was located. Woodland Park had, up until recently, been named West Paterson, but the town’s population had voted to change the name of their town to avoid association with neighboring Paterson, a city with a bad reputation.
The two officers immediately determined that Maurice Grunby was dead. They asked that Candace DeMarco keep the front doors locked and let no one in until a higher ranking officer could arrive. Ten minutes later, Detective Thomas Blaine showed up, still trying to coffee away the sleep that had been interrupted by the call. The three cops stood in Aisle 6, staring down at the large corpse.
“Open and shut,” said Blaine wearily. “The floor’s just been waxed, the fat man slips, hits his head, and he’s done.”
Twenty feet away, Candace DeMarco opened her mouth in shock at the callousness of the detective’s words.
In short order, the body of Moe Grunby was liftedonto a stretcher, the original two officers assisted by three paramedics in hefting the large man onto his final conveyance. The body was removed from the premises and loaded into an ambulance to be taken to the hospital morgue.
Inside the store, Candace DeMarco sat in her office with tears in her eyes and telephoned the district manager. DeMarco’s boss, never the sentimental type, insisted that the store open for business as usual. DeMarco had no option but to obey. As strongly as she wanted to protest, she acquiesced, under the condition that the doors would open at eight o’clock instead of seven, to give her time to inform the arriving employees of her assistant manager’s death.
Outside the store, a young man was getting out of his car as the police and paramedics were removing their burden from the interior of the store. He watched as they transported the body to the waiting ambulance, recognizing the body immediately from its build and girth. As the ambulance pulled away, he went inside. He was a tall young man, lanky and in need of a haircut. His glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, his heart racing from the unexpected and tragic sight that had greeted him upon his arrival at work. He saw that the automatic doors had not been activated but had remained unlocked. He pushed the doors open as Candace DeMarco had done an hour earlier and walked across the front of the store, proceeding to the stairs that led to his boss’s office.
The young produce clerk entered the office to find DeMarco sitting with her head in her hands, a wet tissue on the desk by her elbow. She looked up as he walked in.
“What happened to Moe?” David Dexter asked without waiting for DeMarco to say anything.
“He slipped, he hit his head, and he died,” DeMarco said, her voice cracking.
“Where?” asked Dexter.
“Aisle 6,” the bereaved manager responded. “Why does it matter? He’s dead.”
“You mean the police said it was an accident; that he just fell down in the aisle and died from hitting his head?”
“Yeah, it was just a stupid accident. And I just got off the phone with Phil. He’s making me open the store like nothing happened. What an ass.”
“I’ll be back in five minutes,” David Dexter said, and he turned and walked out of the office, down the stairs, out the front door, to his car, where he got inside and turned on his cell phone, which he always left in the car so he wouldn’t be bothered at work.
He dialed 411 for information and waited for the operator’s voice.
“I need the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, please,” he said into the cell phone. It took a moment for the 411 operator to connect him. When he heard the Sheriff’s dispatcher answer, he made a very specific request. “Detective Lieutenant Marcel Picard, please.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but Lieutenant Picard has not arrived yet. May I take a message?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said David Dexter politely.
“My name is David Dexter. I work at the Q & V food store in West Paterson, umm, I mean Woodland Park. I’ll be here until three-thirty today. I was wondering if you could ask Lieutenant Picard to call me here or come to the store. I need to speak to him.”
“May I ask what it’s in regards to, Mister Dexter?” asked the dispatcher.
“I think I might have some information about a murder,” Dexter told the voice on the line.
Dexter went back inside. Other employees were beginning to arrive and punch in for the day’s work. Candace DeMarco was waiting by the punch clock to gently inform each of them of the death of their coworker. Dexter admired his boss’s composure. She looked calm and collected; a reassuring presence for those she led, a comfort in the face of tragedy. She may have vehemently disagreed with having the store open on that day, but she would make damned sure that things ran as smoothly as possible.
Dexter went over to his produce department, began to go through his daily routine. He was the ‘first man’ in the department, second in charge after the department manager, who happened to be on vacation that week, leaving Dexter in charge.
Dexter was only twenty-five, but he had been working with produce since he was sixteen; he knew what he was doing and didn’t mind being left in charge. He started his day by grabbing a few empty boxes from the backroom, rolling them out on a silver, wheeled worktable, and beginning the process of culling the rack, which meant removing any overripe, poor quality, or outdated product from the stands.
With the weird way in which his day had begun, it felt good to Dexter to be performing a familiar task. Still, in the back of his mind was the hope that the man he had called that morning, Marcel Picard, would receive and respond to his message. Dexter knew what he had seen as he had walked up to the front doors that morning and he knew that what the local police had told Candace DeMarco had been dead wrong. He knew it would do no good to try to argue with the detective he had seen outside the store. He knew Detective Blaine, as the cop had been a customer there, and not one that Dexter liked dealing with. He hoped he would have better luck talking to someone from a different agency of law enforcement. He had read a news article about Lieutenant Picard just the day before, an account of the recent arrest of a murderer in the nearby town of Wayne. That article had stuck in Dexter’s head and he thought of it when he saw what he did as the body of Moe Grunby was carried out of the store.