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Authors: Ellen Hart

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Nonfiction

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BOOK: Dial M for Meat Loaf
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16

Sophie sat behind her desk in her office at the Maxfield Plaza, punching in the work number of Laura Walters’s best friend, Rebecca Scoville. She’d found Rebecca’s home number in the Minneapolis area phone book and had left several messages on her answering machine to no avail.

Earlier in the day, she’d driven out to Deep Haven, the suburb where Rebecca lived, hoping she might talk to her in person. Pulling up in front of an attractive two-story brick home on a quiet, tree-lined street, she hopped out of the car and proceeded up the winding walk to the front door. After ringing the doorbell she waited, but when nobody answered, she took a pen and a notepad out of her purse. She was composing the message when a woman popped out of the neighboring house and headed in her direction.

“Morning,” said the woman, tucking her T-shirt into her running shorts. “You looking for Becca?”

“That’s right.” Sophie backed up so that the neighbor could pull the mail out of the slot.

“I’m Sandy Revas.” She flashed Sophie a friendly smile.

“Sophie Greenway. Is Rebecca out of town? I’ve left her several phone messages but she hasn’t returned my calls.”

“You a friend or a client?”

“Neither,” said Sophie. “We’ve never met. I was hoping to ask her a few questions about a woman we both used to know.”

Sandy brushed a lock of brown hair away from her forehead. “Becca’s out of town on business right now. That’s why I’m taking her mail.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, what does she do for a living?”

“She owns an investigation and security agency. Northstar Investigations.”

“She’s a P.I.?”

“Yeah, but don’t call her that to her face. She loathes the way books and TV portray people who do professional investigation for a living. It’s nothing like Magnum, P.I.—or Kinsey Millhone.”

Sophie smiled. She already knew that. But she’d never give up her crime novels. “Do you know when Rebecca will be back?”

“I don’t,” said Sandy. “Call her office. Someone there will probably know.”

“Northstar Investigations,” repeated Sophie.

“It’s in Minneapolis, near the Art Institute.”

Sophie thanked her, then returned to her car and headed back to the hotel. She made it just in time for a staff meeting. An hour later she was in her office punching in Rebecca’s work number.

Three rings later, a male voice answered, “Northstar Investigations.”

“I’d like to speak to Rebecca Scoville, please.”

“She’s not in. Can I take a message?”

“When do you expect her?”

“Well, I thought she’d be in this afternoon, but now I hear it may be the end of next week. If it’s urgent—”

“No,” said Sophie. She left her name and number and asked that Rebecca call her as soon as possible. Feeling thwarted but still hopeful, she sat at her desk and worked on hotel business until six, when she finally quit for the day and headed up to her apartment.

She found Bram ensconced on the balcony overlooking downtown St. Paul, with Ethel, their elderly mutt, lying next to him. In his gym shorts and T-shirt, he looked hot and sweaty, as if he’d been working out. It wasn’t like him to use the fitness center on the eighth floor. Generally, when the elevator passed the dreaded spot, he’d close his eyes or make the sign of the cross to ward off evil vibrations. Exercise was so unlike him, Sophie wondered what was up. His shoes and socks were resting next to his chair, and his bare feet were propped up on the iron railing, the only part of him in the sun. He was also drinking a beer. Grabbing her own beer from the refrigerator, she joined him. “How was your day?” she asked, giving him a quick kiss and Ethel a quick ear rub, then lowering herself wearily onto the chaise.

“Are you asking me or the dog?”

“Whoever cares to answer.”

Without raising her head from the terra-cotta tile, Ethel looked up at Sophie with unusually baleful eyes.

“She’s in an ugly mood.”

“She isn’t the only one.”

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“Don’t ask.”

“No, really. I want to know.”

“I am
so
out of shape.”

She laughed, glad that it wasn’t something more serious. “Join the crowd.”

“But it looks good on you.”

“Please. I need to lose ten pounds before Christmas. Otherwise—” she drew a finger across her throat. “—it’s curtains for all my slinky holiday outfits. I’ll have to walk around in a tent.”

He sipped his beer, looking morose.

“Bram?”

“What?”

“Are you really concerned about your weight? You’re a gorgeous, handsome hunk of a man. There are guys out there who’d kill to look as good as you do.”


At my age.
Why didn’t you finish the sentence, Sophie?”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Don’t humor me.” He sat up, then leaned forward in his chair, looking uncomfortable.

“Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“You know, honey, maybe you should get a physical. You haven’t had one in years.”

“I hate doctors.”

“And I hate dentists, but if I don’t go see one occasionally, my teeth will fall out.”

“Let’s change the subject.”

He really was in a rotten mood. “Okay,” she said, not sure what else to do. “Did you interview someone today, or was it the usual Baldric-inspired free-for-all?”

“Don’t you remember?”

She’d been so preoccupied for the last few days, she was ashamed to admit she didn’t. Then it struck her. “The governor?”

“Give the lady a cigar.”

“How did it go?” Finally, she felt she’d hit on a topic that could pull him out of his funk.

“It was a blast, Soph. Jesse Ventura is the best guest I’ve ever had on. He’s funny, quick, and he says what he thinks. I mean, the guy doesn’t sound or act like any politician I’ve ever known. The phone lines were lit up like a Christmas tree for the entire hour.”

Bram had first interviewed the governor last spring. The program had gone so well and they’d had so much fun together that they agreed to meet for lunch the following week. From there, they’d struck up a friendship. Sophie felt they were an unlikely duo since Ventura was so rough-and-tumble, and Bram was, well, more . . . sophisticated. But in this case, their opposite natures seemed to complement one another. And since they both enjoyed the good life, loved a good laugh, and had similar political views, Ventura had agreed to make Bram’s radio show a regular event. This was the third time he’d been on.

“The gov told me he’s thinking of having a white-tie ball at the mansion next December. If he does, he wants me to be in charge of the artistic elements, as he put it. He thinks I have impeccable taste. I do, you know, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Have you ever told him you didn’t vote for him?”

“No,” he said, wiping a hand across his sweaty forehead. “It hasn’t come up. And it won’t, if I have anything to say about it.” He gave her stern look.

“Mum’s the word.”

“I’ll vote for him next time—when he runs for president.” After chugging the rest of his beer, he continued, “I’ve got some other news I think you’ll be interested in. I talked to Al Lundquist this afternoon. He stopped by the studio before I went on air.”

Al was one of St. Paul’s finest, a buddy of Bram’s from way back.

“And?”

“I asked him about the Runbeck murder case. Thought I’d see if he knew anything we didn’t.”

“Did he?”

“Are you going to drink that beer or just hold it against your cheek?”

Taking a quick swig, she handed him the bottle.

“Thanks. Okay, here’s the scoop. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension sent some hotshot out to Rose Hill because the local sheriff’s department has never handled such a high-profile homicide before. They did some testing back in the B.C.A. lab and figured out that whoever blew up Runbeck’s truck did it with nitrogen tri-iodide.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a chemical compound that’s often used by terrorists because it’s so easy to make. Al said you could even find recipes for it on the Internet.”

“Can they trace it?”

He shook his head. “If the murderer had used dynamite, I guess it is traceable. But this stuff isn’t. Al said the B.C.A. guy figured that the perp mixed up a bunch of the stuff, crawled under Runbeck’s truck and found a spot where the exhaust pipe and the fuel tank are relatively close to each other. Heat sets the compound off. The murderer probably figured that Runbeck would start the motor, back out of the drive, and a little way down the street the heat would cause a chemical reaction, and pop—the explosion would hit the fuel tank and the truck would go up like a firecracker. Runbeck’s home is on the edge of town. The closest house to it is maybe half a mile away. Only thing is, Runbeck must have sat in the drive for a minute or two, so it detonated in his backyard.”

Even on a warm summer afternoon, Sophie felt herself shiver at the thought. “Somebody must have really hated him.”

“Al said that the local sheriff would already have arrested John Washburn if Washburn wasn’t still in the hospital recovering from a stroke. They don’t think it will be long before they have a strong enough case to convict.”

Sophie petted Ethel’s head. “Could a guy John Washburn’s age crawl under a truck and do all that?”

Bram shrugged. “Why not?”

“Poor Bernice.”

“Yeah,” said Bram, blowing over the top of his beer bottle, “I feel sorry for the entire family. And, if what you suspect is true, Washburn could be a double murderer.”

The phone inside the apartment began to ring.

“Want me to get that?” asked Bram.

“No, I will,” said Sophie, glad that his mood had improved. She’d eventually have to dig it out of him— whatever it was that was wrong—but not right now. Grabbing the cordless phone off the coffee table in the living room, she clicked it on. “Hello?”

“Mom?”

“Rudy, hi! I was hoping it might be you. How’s the cafe search going?” She sat down on the couch.

“Okay, I guess. My main impression is that real cafes are a dying breed. Most of the small towns I’ve visited have a pizza parlor and a Chinese takeout, but the old-fashioned cafes are few and far between.”

“But you have found some.”

“Oh, sure. One place served the best chocolate pecan pie I’ve ever tasted.”

Sophie smiled. “Where are you now?”

“Well, I headed west on Tuesday, and now I’ve worked my way up almost to Fargo. I’m in Loomisville at the moment, about to have dinner at Dub’s Lounge.”

“Sounds kind of sleazy.”

“Well, let’s just say it’s not much like the Chatterbox Cafe in Lake Wobegon. A lot of the places I’ve found have attached bars. I’m sure it’s the only way they can make a go of it financially. Hey, but there’s one bright point in all this.”

“What’s that?”

“The coffee house craze hasn’t made it into
every
nook and cranny of the boonies yet. At least there are a few places in this world where you can still get bad coffee.” He laughed.

Sophie looked through the double French doors leading out to the balcony and saw Bram pick up Ethel and cuddle her in his lap. She was getting to be such an old dog. They wouldn’t have her much longer. “What about that photo of John Washburn? Has anybody recognized him?”

“Actually, that’s why I’m calling. I’ve shown it to dozens and dozens of people, but nobody knew a thing. Until today. When I drove into town, I stopped at a gas station. The man behind the counter inside the office— his name was Morey—looked like he was in his seventies. So I pulled out the picture and asked him if he’d ever seen this guy before.” Rudy paused.

“Don’t keep me in suspense!” Sophie cried. “This is no time to use your dramatic skills.”

“Okay, do you have a pencil and paper?”

“Just a minute.” She went into the kitchen. Finding some scratch paper and a pen in the drawer next to the sink, she said, “Shoot.”

“The guy at the gas station, Morey Hall, said that the man’s name was Jim Newman. He married a woman who used to be the town librarian. Her name was Viola Little. They lived in house that was torn down about ten years ago. I guess there’s a Wal-Mart store there now.”

“What happened to Viola?” asked Sophie.

“Morey said he thought she was still alive, in a nursing home somewhere, but he wasn’t sure. I guess she was quite a few years older than Newman. No other family around. If she is still alive, she’d be in her eighties. I left the photo with him and he said he’d try to find out more information. I wrote the number at the paper on the back.”

“Good work,” said Sophie. She still had so many questions. “Was he positive he recognized the man in the photo?”

“Absolutely. He said he used to play horseshoes with Newman—until Viola had to go into a home. Newman sold the house and moved away. ”

“He deserted her?”

“That’s what Morey said. He thought Newman was scum.”

“What did he say this Newman did for a living?”

“He was a salesman. Look, Morey seemed to be a nice old guy. There’s no reason he’d lie to me.”

“No, I’m sure he wouldn’t.”

“I’ll keep showing the snapshot around, and I’ll let you know if I find out anything more. I better get going now, Mom. My dinner reservation is for seven.”

“Dub’s Lounge takes dinner reservations?”

He laughed. “In my dreams. But I am pretty hungry. I’ve only eaten seven meals today.”

“The restaurant critic’s cross.”

“Yeah, it’s a hard life, but somebody’s gotta do it— preferably a man with a high metabolism and abs of steel, like me. Later, Mom.”

17

Bernice hefted her heavy leather bag over her shoulder and pushed through the hospital doors out into the early evening sunlight. The scorching heat and the brightness were almost too much for her tired eyes to bear. The grass was brown and burnt and the trees had that late August look about them—dry and lusterless.

She’d spent part of the afternoon at the library, trying to get some work done. The Times Register had FedExed her over forty new meat loaf recipes people had sent in since last Friday. She was glad it was just about over. She’d been working hard, testing recipes at her parents’ house, trying to select the three prize winners and the three honorable mentions. She also had to finish an article she’d started on American fall food festivals— everything from the National Hard Crab Derby in Maryland to the Okra Strut in South Carolina. She’d made plans to personally attend the Feast of San Esteban in New Mexico this year, but wondered if she’d still be able to make it. If her father’s health took a turn for the worse, she couldn’t leave Minnesota.

Bernice assumed that everyone in the family had taken a private shot at her dad in the last couple of days, trying to get him to open up, to explain why he’d admitted to killing Kirby Runbeck. Bernice had been alone with him for the past two hours. He’d slept most of the time, but he did wake briefly before her uncle arrived. She asked him some pointed questions, but as usual, what she wanted from him was what he refused to tell her. What she wanted was certainty.

And now she was wilting in the early evening heat as she walked the half mile back to her family home. Every morning when she got out of bed, she hoped she would be one day closer to finding an answer to her father’s predicament and to her own.

As she rounded the corner and headed down First, she heard a horn honk. Turning around she saw that Angelo had pulled his rental car up to the curb.

“Hey, doll. Want a ride? I got air-conditioning in here. Nice and cool.”

She turned and kept on walking.

He drove beside her, matching her pace. “Just think how hot and tired you’re gonna be when you get home. And that shoulder bag—what you got in there? Bricks?”

Realizing her nose was in the air, she lowered her head and forged on.

“Got some sweet jazz playing in here, Bernie. Cool air and jazz? What more could a girl want?”

“Don’t call me Bernie. And I’m not a girl.” She quickened her pace.

“What should I call you?” he asked, turning up the music so she could hear.

It was Duke Ellington. Her favorite.

“I got some Count Basie, too. Come on, Bernice. Quit being so stubborn. You’re gonna die of heatstroke out there. Who would’ve thought Minnesota was so freakin’ hot.”

“You should have stayed in New York.”

“Like I said before, babe, no can do.”

He was so infuriating. “I suppose you think you’re making me an offer I can’t refuse.” It was the only kind of offer he ever made.

“Huh? Look, I’ll even let you drive. I’ll put my life in your hands, Bernice. You can take me anywhere you want. Total control.”

“Like I was ever in total control.” She turned to glare at him and saw that he was grinning at her. Sweat trickled down her back. She was hot and miserable and being stalked by a relentless jerk from New York City. Life didn’t get any better than this.

“Look at it this way, Bernie. It’s either me or the paramedics.”

She stopped. Very slowly, she turned. “If I agree to let you drive me home, will you promise to shut up? Not say a word?”

“If that’s what you want.”

What she wanted was of no consequence and he knew it. Still, he wasn’t an ax murderer. If he was going to take somebody out, he’d probably do it with a quick bullet to the head.

She climbed into the seat beside him, glancing at him briefly. His eyes were so large and round and blue. They reminded her of a doll’s eyes. And his aftershave smelled spicy and inviting. It made their current proximity seem way too intimate.

Angelo took the long way back to her parents’ house. And he was driving about fifteen miles an hour, but he wasn’t talking. At least he kept his word about that. Except, his silence was beginning to bug her.

“Why don’t you say something?” she demanded.

“You told me not to.”

“So? Like you always do what I ask?”

“Okay. How’s your father?”

“Fabulous. He’s dancing a jig in his hospital room.”

“Don’t do that,” said Angelo. “Don’t start with the sarcasm.”

“How do you
think
my father is?”

“I talked to his nurse this morning. She said he was doin’ better.”

“His nurse wouldn’t talk to you.”

“I told her I was family.”

Bernice turned her head away and stared out the side window. “Do you always get what you want?”

“Not always.”

As they pulled up to the house, the conversation hit a dead end.

“Thanks for the ride,” said Bernice, opening the door.

“You wanna have dinner?”

She was torn. She hated eating alone, and she’d been forced to eat alone so much lately. But wasn’t that exactly what had gotten her into trouble the first time round? “I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. If she said yes, he might take it the wrong way. It was just like a man, wanting things to mean more than they did.

“Come on. Aren’t you sick of eating that garbage in the refrigerator?”

She whirled to face him. “How do you know my parents’ refrigerator is filled with garbage? You broke into the house, didn’t you! You picked the lock. How dare you invade our privacy like that!”

Now he seemed angry. “Why do you always jump to such wild conclusions about me, Bernie? Most people’s refrigerators are filled with junk.”

Just then, a squad car pulled around the corner and headed straight for them. It came to a full stop in front of the house.

Bernice watched it silently, sensing that Angelo’s uneasiness matched her own. “I better see what they want,” she said, climbing out.

Angelo cut the motor and followed her across the street.

“Evening,” Doug Elderberg said. Sitting next to him in the squad car was a small man who looked like a pelican. Long neck and nose, beady black eyes, and a tuft of white hair on top of his head. “This is Bill Fordam,” Doug said, making introductions. “He’s from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Bernice. “This is a friend of mine, Angelo Falzone.”

Angelo shook Doug’s hand, then nodded to Bill.

Pulling a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, Doug continued, “I’ve got a search warrant here, Bernice. We need to get into your parents’ house.”

Bernice couldn’t believe her ears. “You can’t be serious. I can’t give you permission for something like that.”

“They don’t need your permission,” muttered Angelo.

“That’s true,” said Doug. “We don’t.”

“My father didn’t murder
anyone
,” Bernice said defiantly.

“I know you believe that, and I’d like to believe it, too, but the fact remains—”

“You wouldn’t know the facts about my father if you fell over them.”

Looking impatient, Bill got out of the front seat. He rested his arms on the roof of the car. “Do you have a key to your parents’ house, Ms. Washburn?”

She glanced at Angelo for help.

“You better do what they say,” he said softly.

“But what do you expect to find?”

“Evidence,” said Doug. “We can’t be any more specific.”

Feeling as if the entire world had just landed on her shoulders, Bernice searched for the keys in her bag and handed them over.

As the officers entered the house, she remained by the squad car, drooping against the rear fender.

“It’s gonna be okay,” said Angelo, his lips barely moving.

“How can you be so sure? My father’s had ample opportunity to recant his statement, but he hasn’t. And he won’t. I just know it.”

“Don’t worry, Bernice. I’m here.” He put his hand on her back. “They won’t find anything.”

She looked up at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“There’s nothing in that house to tie your father to Runbeck’s murder. You trust me, don’t you?”

“Of course I don’t trust you! Are you crazy?”

He smiled, socking her on the arm. “That’s my girl.”

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