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Authors: Ellen Hart

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

Dial M for Meat Loaf (5 page)

BOOK: Dial M for Meat Loaf
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And then it struck her. John Washburn was the spitting image of another man, someone she’d known as a child.

“Morgan Walters,” she whispered, feeling a prickle of excitement as she said the name. Morgan had lived up by Trout Lake, on the Iron Range, during the sixties. Every now and then, her grandparents used to drive out to his house in the country to buy fresh eggs. Sophie was only thirteen when they’d first met—a long time ago, though she’d never forgotten the encounter.

Morgan Walters owned a motorcycle. One summer afternoon, while her grandparents were inside the house talking to his wife, Morgan offered to give Sophie a ride. She still remembered the flush of excitement when she climbed on behind him, gingerly taking hold of his waist. It was the first truly sexual experience she’d ever had. In many ways, she still thought of him as the sexiest man she’d ever met.

When her grandparents came out of the house and found her gone, they were apparently quite worried; but as soon as they roared back into the front yard, everyone laughed, all anxiety forgotten. Morgan put everyone at ease with his disarming smile and his naturalness.

As Sophie sat in the chair now, thinking back about Morgan, she grew increasingly confused. She knew that John Washburn and Morgan Walters couldn’t be the same man. And yet, they looked identical. Sophie held the photo closer, scrutinizing every detail. And that’s when she saw it. The tattoo on John Washburn’s arm. It was partially obscured by the shirt he was wearing, but a small piece of it was visible. It was a snake, the very same snake she remembered staring at when she was riding behind Morgan all those years ago.

“Impossible,” she whispered, resting her fingers on her temple. “Totally, completely, utterly impossible.”

March, 1956

Dear Gilbert:

Hey, man! God, what a fucking mess, huh? I know we
were supposed to meet up at the bus station in Terre
Haute, but when I saw the cops pick you up outside, I
took off. I waited around in my hotel room for more
than a week. When I figured the coast was clear, I hiked
back to the bus station, grabbed the bags from the
locker, and hopped a bus for Chicago. But I followed
your trial. Every day. I couldn’t think about anything
else. And then that guard died. What a nightmare. Man,
I’m so sorry. Neither one of us wanted that. If there’s
anything I can do for you, you can reach me through
my mom.

You’re probably wondering what the take was. They
lied about it at the trial, but that’s bankers for you. Still,
it was more than we ever hoped for. Two hundred thou. I
feel guilty though. I’m out, free and clear, and you’re in
that awful hole. But what can I do?

I promise, I’ll keep in touch. I figure, for now, I’ll head
north. See where it takes me. That money’s got blood on
it, man. I don’t even like to be in the same room with i
So much for our stupid dreams.

J. D.

6

By eleven, the worst of the storm was over. Bernice sat by her father’s bedside, her gaze occasionally drifting out the window, watching the lightning fade in the east. She’d stayed late so that her mother could take a short nap. But the nap had stretched to almost three hours now, and she was still sleeping so peacefully, Bernice didn’t have the heart to wake her. Her mother had seemed terribly anxious that somebody from the family sit with her father tonight. If he woke up, she wanted to know about it right away.

A nurse had come in around ten-thirty to check vital signs. While she was adjusting the drip on the bag, she mentioned that a tornado had hit Milroy, a small town about fifteen miles away. Thankfully, Rose Hill had been spared the worst of it. The last thing her parents needed was for their home of over forty years to be flattened by an angry, churning sky.

When Bernice was a child, probably no more than three, a storm had come through town late one afternoon and taken the screened porch off the side of the house. She didn’t remember much about it, but she did recall her father grabbing her and carrying her down the steps to the basement as the back door burst open in the wind. Of course, she’d seen pictures of the destroyed porch, but her memory was of her father and his strong arms.

There were so many memories. The garage had always been her dad’s special domain. He loved to wash the car in the drive, make the chrome shine and the wide, white-sidewall tires gleam. He used a chamois cloth to dry the car off, then he’d squeeze out the chamois and hang it over the fence to dry. He was careful never to let it touch the ground because it might pick up a small stone that could scratch the paint. Since he was a salesman, his car was very important to him. He called it a “company car.” Every few years, he was issued a new one.

When Bernice got a little older, she would travel with her dad a few times a summer. He knew all the best bakeries in all the small towns. The best cafes. The movie theaters. In Rice Lake, Wisconsin, he’d bought her a ukulele and taught her how to play a few simple chords. From that point on, they sang together in the car, windows open, sailing over the country roads and past the corn fields, eating sugar cookies out of white bakery bags, stopping for gas and soda. Ever since, whenever Bernice caught the powerful scent of a skunk—or drank grape pop—she would think of those carefree summers. She still remembered the first time she’d eaten prime rib. It was in Red Wing at the St. James Hotel. She had her first lobster in the rustic dining room at Lutsen’s, her first taste of beer in Thief River Falls on a hot summer evening.

Plato never wanted to travel with their dad. He always had more important things going on. Bernice couldn’t remember what any of them were. Mainly, they were excuses. John Washburn expected a great deal from his son. Plato once confided in her that he’d felt the heavy hand of that expectation his entire life. Because of it, he seemed ill at ease in their dad’s presence. It was a sad commentary on how boys were raised, but for Bernice, whose only pressure was to be a good person, the time she spent with her dad was golden.

Even though her father was what everyone considered a straight arrow, Bernice had seen another side of him. Since her dad called on drug stores, he’d made friends with a number of druggists. Several of his friends in Rose Hill regularly bought pills from him—mostly tranquilizers for their wives. He got the pills at wholesale prices from his druggist buddies. It was all illegal, of course, but Bernice figured her dad viewed it as nothing more than a simple favor for a pal.

Her dad also kept a BB gun hidden in the garage. Every now and then, he’d dig it out and the two of them would take turns shooting at a telephone pole across the street. Even as a kid, Bernice saw the potential danger. Behind the pole were a bunch of bushes. And behind the bushes was a yard. One stray BB at the wrong moment could have put out an eye or hurt an animal. And yet, her father never seemed to think about that. Not that Bernice and her dad weren’t damn good at hitting the pole. They rarely missed. She loved the sound of the BB hitting and sinking into the soft wood.

So many memories. So much love. And now her father lay in a hospital bed, fighting for his life. Bernice was just about to get up and adjust the pillow behind his head when she noticed his eyes flutter ever so slightly and then open. She was so excited, she forgot about her mother’s instructions to wake her.

Instead, she got up and bent down close to her father’s ear, hoping he could hear her. “Dad. I’m here. It’s Bernice.”

His eyes moved to the side.

“Oh, Dad, I’m so happy you’re awake. I’ve missed you so much.”

The right side of his mouth moved.

He’s smiling at me, she thought. Or, at least, he was trying to. “Don’t exert yourself.”

“Pah . . . ” he said, his voice immensely weak.

“I don’t understand,” she said, her brow furrowing.

He closed his eyes, then tried again. “Pah . . . pah.”

“Pah,” she repeated, shaking her head.

She watched in amazement as he lifted his right hand off the bed.

“Pen,” he said, his voice clearer this time.

Oh my god, she thought. He wants a pen and paper. He’s trying to communicate. She quickly dug through her bag until she came up with a pencil and a notepad. Placing the paper carefully under his hand, she helped him get a feel for the pencil.

Staring up at the ceiling, her father scratched,

“No, no, no,” said Bernice, kissing his forehead. “No. You’re getting better.” Again, she watched his hand move.

Oh, God, her heart was breaking. “I love you too, Dad. So much. Please, you’ve got to believe me. You’re going to get better. I just know it. You can’t give up.”

“I
am
afraid,” said Bernice. “I’m afraid you’ll stop fighting.”

The pencil fell out of his hand. His eyes closed.

“Dad, listen to me. You’re strong. You always have been. Stronger than all of us put together. You’re the best part of this family. We can’t lose you. Stay with me, Dad.” She started to cry. “I need you now more than ever. I’ve done something . . . something I haven’t told anyone about. And I’m so confused.” She held her father’s hand, squeezing it, trying to get him to respond.

After almost a minute, his eyes opened again. “Peh . . . ” he whispered.

“The pencil? You want the pencil again?”

He gave a slow blink.

“Sure. Oh, Dad. Don’t give up.” She positioned the pencil in his hand.

This time he wrote—

“What?” she said, staring at the words. She didn’t understand. “Do you mean . . . Kirby Runbeck? The man who died in the bombing?”

At the same moment, one of the night doctors entered the room carrying a chart.

John Washburn kept his eyes focused on his daughter.

“What do we have here?” asked the doctor, seeing the pencil and the notepad. He stepped up to the bed and watched John write:

7

The next morning, Sophie made it to the hospital by eight. Milton had left her a note propped against the salt shaker on the kitchen table explaining that he’d set off for the hospital shortly after seven, and to help herself to anything in the refrigerator. Since no one else in the Washburn family seemed to be around, and the coffeepot was already on, Sophie poured herself a cup, ate a piece of pumpkin bread, and was on her way.

Last night’s thunderstorm had blown in some cooler, dryer weather. After nearly a month of unbearable heat and humidity, Sophie welcomed the change. On the way to the hospital, she turned off the air-conditioning in her car and opened the windows all the way down. The breeze felt wonderful as it ruffled her short, blond hair.

Rose Hill was bisected by the Cottonwood River, placing St. Matthew’s Medical Center on the south end of town. After parking in a lot across the street, Sophie entered the hospital and headed up to the fourth floor. She couldn’t leave without saying good-bye to Bernice, nor without an update on her father’s condition.

Before bed last night, Sophie had examined all the family photos scattered around the house, framed or otherwise. There were lots of pictures of Plato and Bernice at various stages in their lives, a professional wedding shot of Plato and his wife, a wealth of pictures of their twin boys, and a recent professionally done portrait of John and Mary, but not a trace of the young John Washburn. The conundrum mystified her. Just before leaving the house this morning, she’d done a bad thing— to paraphrase Martha Stewart. She’d taken one last look at the snapshot of Mary and John Washburn on their first anniversary, but instead of putting it back in the knitting basket where she found it, she’d slipped it into the back pocket of her jeans. She knew she had no business stealing a family photo, and yet John’s likeness to Morgan Walters had been too puzzling to let it drop.

Stepping off the elevator on the fourth floor of the hospital, Sophie found a crowd standing outside John Washburn’s room, talking in a low buzz. She approached cautiously, noticing that the group included doctors, nurses, a police officer, and most of the members of the Washburn family. She could tell by everyone’s serious expression that whatever had happened wasn’t good news.

Bernice was standing between her mother and Plato, listening intently as Milton spoke quietly but heatedly to the officer. Since nobody had noticed Sophie’s approach, she moved unobserved into the waiting room to pour herself a cup of coffee. She might as well hear firsthand what was going on.

“You can’t possibly believe my brother had anything to do with that man’s murder,” said Milton, his hands rising in frustration to his hips. “He’s been an upstanding citizen of this town for over forty years! Besides, he just had a stroke. He’s not in his right mind.”

The young officer rubbed his square jaw thoughtfully. “I’ll admit, I’ve never come across anything quite like this before.”

“This is ridiculous,” muttered Plato. “Utterly absurd. Tell me, Doug, were you planning to take my dad away in handcuffs?”

“No. But I thought maybe I should put a guard on his door. Just in case.”

“Oh, right,” said Plato. “I forgot. He’s a dangerous man. Before you know it, he could be hopping a plane to Switzerland.” The sarcasm appeared to be lost on the cop.

“I don’t think a guard will be necessary,” said one of the doctors, folding his arms over his chest. “I can assure you, John Washburn isn’t going anywhere.”

Doug, the cop, nodded. “Yeah, ’spose not. But the fact remains, he admitted to a murder.”

Sophie nearly spilled her coffee.

“I’ll bet a good lawyer—hell, even a crappy one— could get that confession thrown out of court.” Milton wasn’t even trying to hide his disgust.

Neither was Mary. “You get out of here now, Doug. Go keep the peace somewhere else. My husband could be dying in there.” She nodded to the closed door. “We should be with him, not wasting our time standing out in the hall talking a lot of nonsense.”

She must know him, Sophie thought. She was treating him more like a son than an officer of the law.

Looking around, Doug lowered his voice, and said, “You can’t talk to me like that, Mrs. Washburn. You’re not my teacher anymore.”

Sophie shifted her gaze to Bernice. All during the conversation, she’d been silently biting her lower lip.

“There’s no way I will allow my patient to be interrogated until he’s stronger,” the doctor continued. “You do what you have to do, but I can’t allow you or anyone else from the sheriff’s office into his room.”

Looking frustrated, the cop removed his hat and scratched his blond crew cut. “Okay, okay. Maybe I better run this one by Sheriff Foley, just as soon as he gets back from his fishing trip.”

“You do that,” said Plato, shoving his hands into the pockets of his wrinkled, tan suit coat, the same one he’d been wearing yesterday.

Just then, a rangy young woman in black jeans and a red blazer stepped off the elevator and strode purposefully toward the group. Her dark brown hair was piled haphazardly on top of her head and fastened with two red plastic clips. The silvertipped cowboy boots she was wearing added three inches to her already tall frame.

“What the freaking hell are you doing here?” demanded Plato, moving away from the group to intercept her.

The woman’s blue eyes were unusually wide-set and pale. “We just got word at the
Gazette
about your dad. I’m covering the Runbeck homicide, so Byron sent me over to get a statement from the family.”

“You think I want this in my paper?” Plato exploded. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Keep your voice down,” cautioned his mother.

“Tell Byron he needs to run everything about the Runbeck homicide past me before he prints it. Got it?”

The woman flashed her eyes flirtatiously at the officer. “Hey, Doug.”

“Hey, Viv.”

“Is that understood?”
Plato fixed her with a lethal gaze.

Viv pulled out a stick of spearmint gum. As she unwrapped it, she said, “Got it, Chief. Except, you know how word gets around a small town. If the paper doesn’t cover all the news that’s fit to print, isn’t it going to look kind of suspicious? Like . . . maybe the publisher is trying to hide something?”

“Leave,” said Plato. “Now.”

After she’d gone, Bernice spied Sophie in the waiting room. She whispered something to her mother, then joined Sophie by the coffeepot.

“I suppose you’ve figured out what’s going on by now,” said Bernice, looking tired and ragged.

“Your dad confessed to a murder?”

“He can’t talk, but he wrote a note to that effect late last night. Apparently, he wrote essentially the same thing yesterday afternoon, but my mother insisted on throwing it away. She also failed to tell me about it. That’s my family in a nutshell. Instead of addressing the problem, they ignore it and hope it goes away. We didn’t have that option last night because one of Dad’s doctors happened to be in the room when he confessed.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Sophie.

“Thanks. But it’s all a stupid misunderstanding. It has to be. My father isn’t a murderer.”

For the next few minutes, Bernice filled Sophie in on the details. Kirby Runbeck had been a handyman in Rose Hill ever since he retired from his job as manager at Bjorke Hardware ten years ago. He was in his mid-seventies, he was married, he had no children, and he was notorious for cheating people if he thought he could get away with it. Still, he was good at what he did, so he never went without work. He’d repaired the garage door opener for her parents several months ago, but Bernice insisted that, other than minor house repairs, Kirby wasn’t the kind of man her parents would ever associate with.

“How did he die?” asked Sophie.

“A car bomb—or, in this case, a truck bomb.”

“Yikes.”

“Yes, I know. Things like that just don’t happen around here.”

“Do the police have any leads?”

“They do now. That’s why the deputy sheriff is here.”

“But before your father confessed?”

“None that I’m aware of.”

Sophie could read the anxiety in Bernice’s eyes. “I’m sure it will all get sorted out. How is your dad doing this morning?”

“He woke up when Milton and Plato arrived, but he’s been sleeping most of the time.”

“Do the doctors have any more news?”

“They’re guarded, but they think he’s going to make it. They’re giving him all sorts of drugs. He seems to have some paralysis on his left side, but he can move his right arm and his right leg. With therapy, the doctors think he may regain full use of his left side, too.”

“Then, he’s completely coherent?”

Bernice lowered her head. “I don’t know. For Dad’s sake, I hope so. But then, if he’s in his right mind, why would he confess to a murder? It doesn’t make sense. I’m sure our family lawyer will want to put his own spin on it.”

“Does your lawyer normally handle homicides?”

“Heavens, no. I doubt he’s
ever
handled a homicide.”

“Then, you might want to find someone else. A good defense attorney is worth his or her weight in gold.”

“That might be easier said than done. Sam Sullivan is a personal friend of the family. It’s a typical small-town problem. On some level, everybody knows everybody. Mom probably thinks Sam would be insulted if he got replaced before he even had a chance to work the case. Fact is, he probably would be. And then it would end up being hard for our family to interact with Sam’s family after that. Nola Sullivan is one of Mom’s best friends. They’re in the same garden club. They play bridge together every Wednesday afternoon. It just gets so complicated.”

Sophie remembered now why her grandparents had hated small-town life. Checking the time, she said, “I’m sorry I can’t stay longer. I’ve got to head back to Minneapolis. I take it you’re planning on staying?”

“I can’t leave now,” said Bernice. “Not with everything so up in the air.”

“Did you even come home last night?”

“No, I stayed at the hospital.”

Sophie shook her head. “You take it easy, kiddo. If there’s anything I can do—”

Bernice smiled. “You’re a good friend.”

“See you back at the paper?”

“Right. I’ll be in touch with you soon about the meat loaf contest.”

They said their strained good-byes to each other in the hall.

Just after lunch, a nurse came into John Washburn’s hospital room and told Bernice she had a visitor.

Bernice didn’t have a clue who it could be, but she excused herself and stepped outside.

The visitor, a fiftyish-looking man in a black suit, black silk shirt, and white tie, sat in the waiting room, his narrow-brimmed fedora resting in his lap. Hurrying across the hall, Bernice blurted, “What are you doing here?”

Patting the chair next to him, the man said, “Can’t you guess?” When he opened his mouth, his New York accent fell out like a brick hitting a dirt floor.

“But you promised. You said—”

“I changed my mind.”

She stared at him for a moment, her heart thundering inside her chest. Finally, sitting down two seats away, she whispered, “You’ve got to leave. You can’t be here.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want my parents to see you. I don’t want them to know what happened.”

“I already talked to your father.”

“What?” Her eyes grew large.

“We met last week.”

Now she was really thrown. “Last week? You were here last week?”

“I’ve been in Rose Hill for ten glorious, fun-filled days. What do you people do around here for fun? Watch the grass grow?” He leaned closer to Bernice and lowered his voice. “Look, just so you know, I called your parents’ house last Wednesday and your dad agreed to meet me at this funky health food restaurant on Myrtle. Sprouts and tofu, the smell of B vitamins wafting through the air. You know the kind of place. It’s just off Main.”

“There’s only one health food restaurant in town,” she said testily.

“So sue me for explaining.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Everything.”

“Angelo!”

“I’m a bastard. What can I say?”

She dropped her head in her hands.

“I came all this way to get your attention. Do I have it, Bernice? Do I?” He cracked his knuckles.

“I can’t have this conversation right now.”

“I heard about your father’s confession. It’s all over the hospital.”

“It’s a mistake.”

“What the hell. Mistakes happen. You made a big one in New York, babe. There I was, just a nice guy, trying to help you out with your book, show you the club scene. What did you call it? Cafe society.” He laughed. “How could I, a simple good Samaritan, predict the future?”

“You’re harassing me.”

“I am? Sorry.”

“You’re not sorry at all.”

“You’re right, I’m not.”

“I can’t stay here and argue with you. I’ve got to get back to my father’s room.”

“Fine. But I’m not leaving town.”

Rising, she said, “Stay away from me.”

“No can do, doll.” Placing his hat carefully on his head, he looked up at her and smiled. “See you around.”

BOOK: Dial M for Meat Loaf
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