Authors: Victoria Houston
Murder never takes a holiday — or so Loon Lake learns one wintry Thanksgiving Day.
Chief of Police Lew Ferris, short-handed thanks to an AWOL coroner, never even gets the turkey stuffed before the bodies start to surface. So she calls on reliable retired dentist Doc Osborne for help. Doc, who had counted on sitting by the fire with Lew (out of uniform) to plan a fly fishing trip to Wyoming, grabs his gear and heads out to help Lew make sense of the suspicious deaths.
By the end of the day, credit card theft and dysfunctional families have so muddied the waters of the usually clear Loon Lake that not even expert tracker and dedicated fishing guide Ray Pradt can hope to fish the final day of muskie season. And with the unexpected arrival of Gina Palmer, former investigative reporter turned forensics database expert, a bizarre link is made to the theft of merchandise from stores across the entire upper Midwest.
It seems that this year, the residents of Loon Lake may have less to be thankful for —
Dead Hot Shot
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
For the minnows:
Madeleine, Harry, Margaret,
Violet, Louisa and Lincoln
What if you suddenly saw that the silver of water was brighter than the silver of money?
— Mary Oliver “How Would You Live Then” BLUE IRIS
Nolan Reece stumbled down the flagstone stairs only to stop midway. One hand on the wood railing, the other holding her wine glass high, she wobbled in place, hoping she hadn’t spilled all the wine. High up over her left shoulder an owl hooted. She jerked around, eyes searching, but black clouds streaking overhead shut out the moon. No wonder she couldn’t see.
Should’ve skipped the champagne, you silly, she thought. Wine sloshed across her right foot, soaking the toe of one of the velvet slippers that had cost four hundred goddamn dollars — but what the hell, this was her night. The owl hooted again — the great horned owl that she had glimpsed only once in her forty-two years of running up and down these stairs. Nolan made a mental note to try to remember to ask her secretary to find out how long owls live. Could it be the same one she saw when she was twelve?
Swaying against the railing, she turned to look up and back towards the top of the stairs. Lights shone from every window in the big house, casement windows custom designed to replicate the tall, narrow lines of the majestic pines that swept up and up and up. Even the panes held patterns: pine needles etched into the glass.
God, what it had cost to keep those trees, to force the architects to find a way to nestle the house into the hill without cutting a single one of her trees. Worth every penny and every hour of argument. Hell, it was the beauty of the house hidden among the trees that first caught the eye of the writer from
That and the amazing circumferences of the logs she’d had shipped down from Canada. Well — also the soft silver glow of the wood that had required twenty-six coats of stain before she was happy. And Andy had fought her on every decision. What was he thinking? It wasn’t even his money.
Though the November air was cold and crisp, the windows facing west were half open, letting the heat of the party — laughter, voices pitched high in friendly argument, a caterer’s clatter of pots and glassware — flow towards her. Nolan took a sip from her wine glass, then held it high: a toast to the people behind the windows. It had been a perfect party.
Well, almost perfect. Blue had arrived an hour late. An hour late for her own engagement party? That was more than a little selfish of her. If the guests hadn’t all arrived and needed Nolan’s attention — well, she’d deal with Blue in the morning. All she had to do was remind her: in my house you follow my rules or I change the terms of your trust and you see no money until you turn forty. An empty threat, true, but Blue didn’t know that.
What was the girl up to anyway? First she had insisted on staying in the guesthouse instead of her own lovely suite in the big house. Nolan herself had chosen the fabrics, the furniture, the antique doll collection — oh, those priceless dolls from the Civil War era! Then, when Nolan had called on the intercom to hurry her down because Barry and his parents had arrived, there was no answer. Not even Barry knew where she was.
I’ll get to the bottom of this. Nolan set her jaw as she turned towards the lake. If Blue is so stupid as to be fooling around with that boy from up the road again — She took a sip of wine then started down the stairs. She’d bet anything that was it. She’d sure as hell put a stop to that just as she had managed to so far. Uncanny how those two gravitated to each other. And Blue tried to say they were just friends. Oh sure — as if she was dumb enough to believe that.
Foolish Blue. Here’s Barry, the perfect guy for her to marry: Dartmouth, Harvard Business School, an athlete, good-looking, a family business that could pay for her extravagances. His parents are so dear. Nolan herself couldn’t have picked a better man for her daughter. Another sip of wine. And, of course, she had. Picked Barry for Blue that is. Years ago.
The kids were still at Country Day when Nolan got the idea. Right before she’d had to send Blue away. And then last Christmas, five years later, the two had run into each other at a party and — thanks to a little prodding from her and Miriam — they seem to have been together ever since. She had to admit she was surprised at how it all fell into place so easily. Until tonight.
Another wave of laughter from above and Nolan turned away, determined to resolve the issue of Blue’s late arrival in the morning. Aside from that, the rest of the evening had gone precisely as Nolan had planned: the food was excellent and the new caterers quite competent, the two college boys tending bar were absolutely darling, and even Andy managed to be more sociable than usual.
Frances and Josie seemed to do okay. Their new clothes helped, of course, and Nolan had made sure they were introduced around. When the girls had skittered down to the media room to play pool and horse around, that had been fine. She had planned for that, too.
Reaching the glossy, dark green platform that fronted the long boat dock, Nolan heard a scurrying in the brush off to her right. She paused to listen. A crackle of leaves and sticks. A deer? A bobcat? More likely that muskrat that had carved its den in the roots of the big red pine beside the dock. A bear had been spotted on their peninsula — but a bear would make more noise, wouldn’t it?
She stepped up and onto the dock, walked out over the black water, lifted her head high and ordered the universe to clear the clouds from the Milky Way.
• • •
“Now make a wish and kiss the moon goodnight,” her grandmother had said so many years ago, rocking Nolan in her lap on this very dock. It was that memory of an uncomplicated time that bound Nolan to a daily ritual she missed only if she was traveling, if there was lightning, or if the wind chill hit below minus twenty. It was Grandmother’s way of promising that life would never hold too many surprises: you can always kiss the moon goodnight. Not even Andy and Blue rolling their eyes on the overcast or rainy, snowy nights could keep her from that sacred moment. Always the wine, always the wish. Always the comfort.
• • •
Wine glass clutched in her right hand, she searched for the moon but could see only a shadow behind black, rushing clouds. Nor was the lake able to gather enough light for a reflection — the surface so dark she could hear rather than see the water.
A clinking off to her left. Nolan glanced across the dock. Damn! Jake left the bassboat in the water again. How many times did she have to tell that idiot to take five more minutes, press a button and raise it into the shore station? All right, if a storm blows in and damages the boat or the dock, he can pay for it out of his salary. Serve him right, the dumbyak.
Again a scurry in the woods. Had one of the dogs gotten loose? As Nolan turned, fire exploded in her eyes. She felt herself falling back, back into the black water. Something immovable landed on her, holding her down. She refused to breathe — wondering if the water would ruin the Armani evening pants and the Japanese tunic that was worth over five thousand dollars. Still no chance for breath.
I can’t die, I have to write the check for the caterer. She tried to push back but her fingers clawed at something slippery, hard, unyielding. The dark of the sky and the dark of the water moved closer, closer. She knew better: she refused to breathe. Until she couldn’t refuse any longer.
• • •
“Mom looked pretty tipsy to me,” said Blue as she stood with her fiancé and her father in the doorway after waving goodnight to the last of the guests.
“It’s not the first time she’s left a dinner party and just gone to bed,” said Andy. “You know your mother.” He was relieved that he’d managed to find Nolan’s purse with the house checkbook so he could pay the caterers and the bartenders. Nolan wouldn’t be happy about that. Now he knew how much she had spent on this affair and he was appalled. Thank goodness her father wasn’t alive to witness her spending.
When the last guest had departed and Blue and Barry were on their way up to the guest house, Andy poured himself a glass of milk, selected one of the leftover dessert pastries that appeared to have cost twenty dollars each, let the dogs out one last time, then walked slowly up the stairs.
At the door to Nolan’s bedroom, he paused. Balancing the pastry and the glass in one hand, he gave the doorknob a slow, silent turn and nudged the door open a crack. The room was dark. He listened. Quiet. She wasn’t snoring. He knew better than to wake her — that could only lead to thirty minutes of harangue for something he probably did wrong tonight. Oh well, deal with it in the morning, he thought, and pulled the door closed.
the next day, a crisp, clear Thanksgiving morning, Andy followed the two golden retrievers down to the dock. Nolan was waiting. Though Loon Lake has dark water, it’s quite shallow. Only three feet deep where his wife lay slumbering beneath gentle waves — arms still reaching for the sky.
Hoping to shut out the shrill voices coming from his kitchen, Paul Osborne closed the bedroom door and resumed searching, for the second time, every pocket in his hunting vest. Then back to his brush pants — front pockets, back pockets. No luck. He re-checked the pockets in the Filson oilcloth that he wore on rainy days. Not even a forgotten cartridge. Looking around the room he exhaled hard, puffing his cheeks in exasperation.
Okay, he decided, I know it’s absurd but. Yanking his fly fishing vest out of the closet, he tackled the Velcro on every one of its two million pockets: the horizontals, the verticals, the squares, the oblongs, the tubes, even the deep, wide, zippered pouches stuffed with fly boxes. Nothing was out of place.
He laid the vest on the bed and opened both the right and the left sides to expose the flat plackets sewn to the interior lining. With the vest on, these were spaces only a contortionist could reach. But who knows? Perhaps, in a moment of dementia, he had stuck it there? He slipped fingers into each hidden pocket, hoping. Nope. The hunting license was not to be found. Phooey. This was one time when that license was more than just a license.
He sat down on the bed to think. For a day of celebration, this Thanksgiving was not off to a good start. Why had he ever agreed to let Fred Merrill and that annoying wife of his, Kathleen, stay at his place until their new house was finished?
• • •
He knew why: Kathleen had been so sweet and insistent that it would be “only two weeks” and “a wonderful favor that will save us at least thousand dollars.” In retrospect he thought about that “thousand dollars.” Baloney! Fred’s a retired orthodontist. He has hundreds of thousands — for God’s sake the man’s got dollars up the wazoo! He should be spending, not saving.
Worse yet — that was five weeks ago. Five excruciating weeks spent with two people who weren’t happy unless they were bickering, badgering and otherwise upsetting each other. Listening to Kathleen zing her husband with one snide remark after another until Fred would snap back reminded Osborne of life under the critical eye of his late wife — a memory that arrived with the old, familiar, chest-tightening chill.
• • •
What he couldn’t abide was the contempt in their voices: it hit him right in the gut. He had never known exactly when it was that Mary Lee had stopped loving him — but she did, turning her into a woman with a tongue as unkind as Kathleen’s. But Mary Lee was dead, she didn’t live here anymore and the house was his. His alone, his sanctuary. At least it was before the Merrills arrived.
Osborne jiggled open the top drawer of the lamp table beside his bed, knowing even as he did it was a fruitless effort. And it was. Still no sign of the flimsy computer printout tucked into its beat-up little orange plastic case, an innocuous item that was growing more precious by the moment. This wasn’t just a trek to hunt grouse that he was after. That hunting license was his ticket to freedom — hours in which to ponder how he could boot the Merrills from his guest bedroom without appearing rude.
Then it occurred to him. Of course! Mildred’s Food Shop never closed. He’d just stop by and get a duplicate. Cost him ten bucks but, hell, a small price to pay for peace and quiet. Now why hadn’t he thought of that sooner?
• • •
Minutes later, backing his car out of the drive, he was so eager to put the Merrills behind him that he pretended not to see Fred barge out the back door waving, pretended not to notice Mike going crazy in the back seat of the car — barking, tail wagging, throwing anxious looks back at his master. Had he forced himself to pay attention to the man waving so frantically, he would have seen the phone in Fred’s hand. But he didn’t, and so he drove to Mildred’s Food Shop in peace.
Osborne rolled his window down and inhaled the fresh autumn air. The day was crisp and cool but sunny. The morning’s frustrations slipped away, replaced with a light heart and a burst of energy. No problem planning the day now: he would hunt for an hour or two in the sunshine, giving Mike lots of exercise, then drive straight to his daughter’s house for his first turkey of the day.
After that, home to change fast (during the hour he knew Fred and Kathleen were planning to dine at the Loon Lake Pub) and on to his second Thanksgiving with the one person with whom he would share his house, if she would only say yes. And if that Thanksgiving went really well. he might just stay over and avoid the Merrills all together — while having a very, very nice time. He made a mental note to pack his Dopp kit and a toothbrush just in case.
Osborne was still grinning as he pulled into the alley that ran alongside Mildred Taggert’s ancient grey box of a building. As he drove down towards the shop that was attached to the back of the old house, he was glad to see the Open sign scrawled on cardboard and stuck in a side window. Yep, Mildred’s Food Shop was one of Loon Lake’s few sure things: you count on her being open, on the milk being fresh, the cooler packed with night crawlers — and immediate access to a license for hunting or fishing. He parked in front of the old barn that Mildred used for storage.
Striding across the drive towards the shop entrance, Osborne tripped over a chunk of broken asphalt. He cautioned himself to slow down. While Mildred might believe in retail, she sure as hell didn’t put much stock in repair. Kicking aside a shingle that had drifted off the roof to land on the stoop, he reached for the doorknob, worn down to bare metal and dangling. Thirty years he’d been coming by the shop and thirty years that damn doorknob had been dangling.
Bells over the screen door gave a loud jangle as he pushed it open to enter the small shop with its familiar, musty smell. The place wasn’t more than three hunudred square feet but Mildred crammed it full. Shelves sagged under cans of soup, pickles and olives, boxes of cereal, bags of rice (white and wild), marshmallows, potato flakes, slightly squished loaves of white bread, bags of hot dog and hamburger buns, boxes of donuts, Danish and coffee cake. Redemption for the forgetful.
The aisles between the shelves were so narrow only a small child dared squeeze down most of them. In the far left corner a frosted-up refrigerator case held milk, assorted juices, worms by the dozen and a couple cartons of eggs. Random stacks of soda six-packs were scattered throughout the shop, teetering one on top of the other and adding to the challenge of maneuvering the aisles.
Osborne might have retired from the practice of dentistry but he would never lose the instincts that had drawn him to his profession. His eyes, long attuned to discerning discrepancies in small places, could never overlook the perpetual layer of dust covering many of the shelved goods. Streaks left by eager, reaching fingers only emphasized what was either Mildred’s carelessness or her worsening eyesight.
Whatever the reason, the dust cast a gloom over the shop and, as always, caused him a frisson of worry: Did enough people come by? Was Mildred making enough to live on? Could she care for those girls? It was the well-being of the girls that really worried him.
But in the next instant, he would assure himself everything was okay. The shop was the same as it had been the last time he was there — and no bad news had surfaced since then. After all, Mildred had an instinct for what people were likely to run out of when the Loon Lake Market and the local gas stations were closed. He knew for a fact that he was hardly the only Loon Lake resident willing to risk death under a toppling shelf on a national holiday. Given that she opened at five
and stayed open til ten, the cigarette trade alone was sure to keep her in business.
• • •
The finances of Mildred’s Food Shop were a favorite topic of Osborne and his buddies as they nursed their early morning coffees at McDonald’s. “Yep,” Pete Ratliff, the retired accountant among them would say, “if you start with minimal overhead for upkeep and add to that the free labor she gets from those foster kids of hers, plus her location and the increase in Loon Lake property values over the decades. Hell, old Mildred must be worth at least a million.” Thoughtful heads would nod as someone echoed Pete’s words, “Yep, at least a million.”
• • •
Always as they talked, Osborne would think about the girls. They were sisters off the Ojibwa reservation whom Mildred had taken in as foster children four years earlier. Frances Dark Sky, the oldest, was so shy that when she came for her annual dental exam, just to look at Osborne had seemed to cause her pain. Josie, younger than her sister by two years, was the polar opposite — ebullient, chatty, not in the least intimidated by an adult.
Osborne knew it was his own Métis heritage that piqued his interest in the girls. Though he was not as nut-brown as they, his complexion was darker than most Loon Lake residents, the majority of whom were descended from a mix of northern European settlers. But even though the girls were full-blooded and he was only a sixteenth Ojibwa, his eyes were as black-brown and his forehead as high and wide as theirs.
The girls, of course, had no idea that he kept an eye on them, that he checked with the young dentist who had taken over his practice to be sure Mildred didn’t skip their six-month cleanings and check-ups. And she didn’t. The old woman might be crabby but she appeared to take good care of the girls. It helped that Osborne arranged for the dental visits to be free. Mildred was led to believe that the state paid.
• • •
“Seems the only thing old Mildred spends money on are those damn raccoons,” Pete would add to his assessment of Mildred’s net worth. Again the heads would nod in agreement: yep, you couldn’t get in or out of Mildred’s Food Shop without confronting a raccoon.
Granted they were dolls — stuffed animals dressed in outfits ranging from firemen to Peter Pan to ballerinas — but they were a bit overwhelming. Dozens crowded an overhead row of shelving that circled the interior of the store. Twins dressed in waders, red checked shirts and fishing hats, each holding a cane pole with a tiny plastic fish swinging from it, sat in a birchbark boat that hung over the cash register. A baby raccoon in diapers, a bottle of milk in one hand and a rattle in the other, snuggled up against the computer that printed the licenses for fishing, hunting and the harvesting of wild rice.
Osborne found the raccoons unsettling and he once made the mistake of commenting to his daughter, Erin, that Mildred’s “thing for ‘coons” caused him to question her mental state. “Oh, right, Dad,” Erin had said. “And what about all the guys you know who hang dead deer — heads and shoulders — over their dining room tables, their living room fireplaces, over their beds for God’s sake. At least Mildred’s raccoons aren’t dead. You know, she’s had some of those dolls for years. They could be worth a lot of money.”
“Well — ,” said Osborne, “I still think it’s weird.”