Read Dial M for Meat Loaf Online

Authors: Ellen Hart

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

Dial M for Meat Loaf (9 page)

BOOK: Dial M for Meat Loaf
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15

When Cora Runbeck entered the Prairie Lights Cafe on Wednesday afternoon, the place was packed with hungry diners. Ever since Sunday, she’d been wracking her brains, trying to figure out where Kirby could have hidden the one hundred thousand dollars. The police had stopped by to question her about it, but she said that Kirby had never mentioned it to her. That was the truth. She wasn’t about to let them see the map Kirby had left behind in her old recipe box. If what Doug Elderberg told her was true—that her husband had likely been blackmailing John Washburn—well, too bad for John. If she found the money, as far as she was concerned, it was hers. She was due for a break in this life, and that money was it.

The key to the map seemed to be the location of the Devil’s Tree. In a rather offhand, low-key way, she’d been querying her friends and neighbors about it. That nobody had a clue what it meant led her to believe it was something Kirby had made up. If that was true, if the location of the tree existed only in his head, then she might as well forget it. She could look for the tree for the rest of her life and never find it.

But Cora refused to admit defeat. That’s why she was here today.

Easing into a booth, she waited for a waitress to bring her a menu. Kirby always raved about the meat loaf sandwiches with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, but she was more of a Denver omelet person herself. Or sometimes she liked the pork chop dinner, which came with mashed potatoes and gravy, a vegetable, usually green beans although sometimes it was carrots, and a small red Jell-O, cranberry, and Cool Whip salad.

Decisions, decisions, she thought, glancing over at the lunch counter. Sitting on the stool closest to her was a middle-aged man laughing with one of the waitresses. Something about his voice struck a familiar chord. He was foreign sounding, like the people on
NYPD Blue
. She turned her hearing aid up to high, wishing she were just a little closer. With his classy pin-striped suit, expensive shoes, diamond pinky ring, and his black hair slicked straight back from a high forehead, he reminded her of a ballerina in a barnyard. In a small town like Rose Hill, he was totally out of place. And then it hit her. She’d heard that voice before.

Several weeks ago, just after her eye surgery, she’d been lying on the couch in the living room when she heard some fella talking to Kirby out on the front lawn. She was positive it was the man sitting at the counter. When Kirby finally came inside, he seemed shaken up. It was so unlike him that she asked him who the man was, but he just grunted, said he didn’t want to talk about it. She’d forgotten about the incident until this very minute. Who is that man? she thought to herself, watching him take a fat money clip out of his pocket and toss some cash on the counter. Once he was outside, he dashed across the street to a dark sedan. Cora watched through the window as he drove away. She wondered what her husband had been talking to him about.

After she was served a glass of water, Cora concluded that she was in a pork chop mood today. The waitress took her order, then sauntered back to the kitchen. Cora hated the decor in the Prairie Lights. It was much too country for her tastes. This wasn’t Texas, for goodness sakes; it was Minnesota. The man who owned the restaurant, Melvin DuCharme, was a transplant from Norman, Oklahoma, so maybe there was a reason for it, but it was still annoying. Melvin was an old buddy of Kirby’s. They liked to drink beer together at the Timber Wolf Tap over on Myrtle. They also fished together in the summer and hunted in the winter. Kirby didn’t have all that many friends. He wasn’t a friendly kind of man.

As Cora sipped her water, she watched two young fellows from her church sit down in the booth directly across from her. They were talking so loudly, she couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.

The man with the beard said, “I was up near Grand Maris last November. Shot six grouse one afternoon. Couldn’t believe there were so many around the cabin.”

“I’ve been mostly bow hunting,” said the other man, the one with the longish blond hair.

“Yeah, I bow hunt, too,” replied the first man, “but I’m not a very good shot. I’m better with a rifle.”

“My uncle and I nearly got us a six-point buck last December, just south of Hibbing. It was standing behind this big old oak. When I aimed, I held my breath because I figured I’d hit the tree, but I got it in the haunch. Not my best shot. It took off and we ran after it, following the blood through the snow. But then I saw it run close to a tree and the arrow broke off. We tailed it a while longer, but we never found it.”

“Too bad,” said the man with the beard.

How utterly ghastly, Cora thought. The poor animal. Terrified. Running through the woods bleeding from an arrow in its side. She would never understand the pleasure men got from chasing animals around with guns and bows. Where was the sport in that? Her father had never been a hunter. Sure, he’d lived on a farm since he was a little boy so he understood that if you ate meat, you had to kill it first. He’d slaughtered his share of pigs and chickens, even a few cows, but he still couldn’t fathom why men poured out of the city every fall heading for the big woods so they could blow their toes off, or cripple some poor critter in the woods. He always maintained it didn’t really qualify as a sport unless you gave the animals guns, too. He usually got a laugh when he said it, but Cora thought it made sense.

She was glad her food finally arrived so she could think about something else.

Kirby used to pack his gear every fall, and he and Melvin DuCharme would drive up to Melvin’s cabin on the Cottonwood River. Knowing them, she assumed they spent more time guzzling beer and peeing in the woods than they did sitting in a deer stand. Kirby rarely came back with anything other than a hangover. She wondered who Melvin would take up to his cabin this November. Might get kind of lonely for an old guy up there all by himself. Kirby said the cabin didn’t even have electricity or running water. Melvin heated it with wood. Men certainly had a different idea of fun than she did.

The pork chop was a disappointment. It was tough and the center wasn’t cooked enough. She ate the vegetables and the potatoes and gravy, but she left most of the chop sitting on her plate. Cora didn’t like to spend a lot of money eating out. For the price of a meal in a restaurant, she could make three at home.

Wiping her lips daintily with a napkin, she waited for the check. Instead of her waitress, Melvin DuCharme pushed out through the swinging kitchen doors and entered the main part of the cafe. Just the man she was looking for. As he headed toward the cash register, he spied her sitting in the booth. She could tell he didn’t really want to stop and say hi, but he was stuck. Unlike Kirby, he had some semblance of manners. She waved her hand, yoo-hooing at him pleasantly.

“Hey, Cora,” he said, walking up to the table. “How are you?”

“I’ve been better,” she said, taking a last sip of water.

“Sure, I understand. I was up at my cabin last weekend doing some repairs. Can’t believe Kirby wasn’t with me. I sure do miss him. I know how hard it must be for you.” Glancing at her plate, he added, “Something wrong with the pork chop?”

She turned the plate around so he could see the center. “It’s pink. I don’t think a person should eat pink pork.”

Melvin scratched his chin. “No, Cora, you’re right. I’ll have to say something to my cook. Hey, maybe you’re still hungry.”

She wasn’t, but she nodded anyway. You never knew when somebody in a restaurant was going to feel bad for serving you inedible food and give you a deal.

“Why don’t I buy you a piece of our famous apple pie?”

She looked up at him pitifully. “Why, that would be very kind of you.” But she didn’t smile. Not yet.

He cocked his head and stared at her a moment. “Ah, why don’t I throw some ice cream on that. Apple pie needs a scoop of ice cream.”

Now she smiled. As he motioned to the waitress to get her attention, then barked the order at her, Cora said, “Melvin, I wonder if I could talk to you for a minute. Privately.”

“Me?” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Well, sure. I thought that’s what we were doing.”

She nodded for him to sit down. He looked kind of uneasy, like a mouse sticking its head out of a hole, looking for the cat. Too bad. He could give her one minute of his time. “You know, Melvin,” she began, picking up her unused spoon, dipping it in her water glass, then wiping it off with her napkin, “after Kirby died, I found a diary he’d been keeping.”

“A diary,” repeated Melvin, this time scratching his snow-white hair. “Kirby didn’t seem like the diary type to me.”

“I was surprised, too, but there it was, tucked inside his tool box in the basement. It was awfully sad for me to read through it.”

“I imagine.”

“He talked about a place that was very special to him. Said that before he died, he wanted to bury the diary under this special tree, so that there’d always be a piece of him there.”

“Really.” Melvin didn’t look very interested. He was starting to get squirmy.

“In a way, I take it as a last request. Except, I don’t know where the tree is, Melvin. I thought maybe you might. He called it the Devil’s Tree.”

Melvin gave her a blank stare. “The Devil’s Tree?”

She nodded.

He thought for a moment, crossing his arms over his thick stomach, then shook his head. “Can’t say that I ever remember him talking about anything like that, Cora. Sorry.”

Her spirits sank. A second later, the pie arrived. Wasn’t that just like life, she thought. One minute you’re up, full of hope, the next minute you’re flat on the floor. And then somebody serves you pie. Cutting off a bite with her clean spoon, she thanked Melvin for his time.

As he edged out of the booth and started to walk away, he stopped. “You know, Cora,” he said, turning around and resting his knuckles on the table. “There was this one tree. It’s up near my cabin. The tree’s dead but it’s still standing, and you always see a lot of crows in it. Kirby wanted to build a deer stand in a tree about ten feet away from it once, but he was afraid that the crows would scare off the deer. Those birds make such a racket. Anyway, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that I remember him referring to it as a Devil’s Tree once— because of all the black crows, and because it was still standing when by all rights it should have fallen over long ago. I thought it was kind of funny at the time, but also kind of true.”

Cora thought it was creepy. “That’s fascinating, Melvin. What kind of tree is it?”

“A weeping willow.”

“You own that property, don’t you? The cabin and the property surrounding it?”

He nodded. “Ten acres.”

“I don’t suppose you could tell me how to get there? If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to bury that diary just like my dear husband wanted.”

“Sure, Cora. Anything you want.” He grabbed a clean napkin from another table, pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket, bit off the plastic tip, then drew her a quick map. “You can’t miss the tree,” he said finally, pushing the napkin toward her. “It’s due north of the cabin, right along the river.”

“I’m sure I’ll find it.”

“You’re welcome to use the cabin while you’re there.” He wrote down his secret hiding place for the spare key. “I only go there on weekends.”

“Thanks, Melvin. You’re a good friend.”

“If I see some fresh digging, I’ll know it was you burying your piece of Kirby. Well,” he said looking over his shoulder, “I’ve got to get back to work.”

“You do that,” said Cora, tucking into her piece of pie, resisting the urge to jump up and shout Eureka!

April, 1964

Dear Gilbert:

Thanks for your letter. Sorry to hear your parole was
rejected. Maybe next time it’ll be different. Also, sorry to
hear you’ve been under the weather. I suppose those
prison doctors aren’t the best and the brightest, but
they’ll fix you up. I don’t think too many people die of
bronchitis. Hey, I’m joking. Of course they don’t. But
when something like that lingers a long time, it’s hard to
live with. If I could, I’d send you some of my wife’s
chicken soup. Viola’s the best cook. I’m actually getting
fat. Hey, didn’t I promise to send you a picture of her?
I’ll include one before I seal up the letter. She’s a little
older than me, and maybe she’s not the best-looking
woman I’ve ever laid eyes on, but I think she’s wonderful. She’s just what the doctor ordered after a long
stretch on the road.

Life’s been pretty good to me lately. Got a new company car. It’s a Chevy station wagon, but it’s got a lot of
zip. Handles real well. I love being out in the country.
Who would have thought a city boy like me would end
up traveling the back roads to a bunch of hick towns.

Believe it or not, Viola’s got me real interested in classical music. Every now and then I can pick up a radio
station in the car that plays the classical stuff. You know,
Beethoven, Brahms, Bach? Viola gives piano lessons.
She’s also the town librarian. I suppose you could say
she’s refined. I like that. And I’ve really grown to appreciate Chopin’s etudes, and Wagner. Man, that Wagner
had some major darkness in him to write the way he did.
And you know me. I was born angry. That music makes
me want to drive a hundred miles an hour, roar like a
banshee. When I listen to it I feel powerful, strong, like I
could live forever.

I guess it’s hard to explain about the music, how it
makes me feel, but when you grow up thinking you’re
nothing, that your dad didn’t care enough about you to
even stick around and see how you turned out, things get
to you in a way they don’t get to other guys. I never
thought music would help me, but it has. My brother
seems to be able to live with what our dad did, but for me
it still hurts. I could never just abandon someone, just
walk away and never come back. I remember thinking in
high school that I hated my dad’s guts so bad, if he
showed up, I’d beat him to death with my bare hands. I
still would.

Hey, here I’m going on about my childhood and yours
was even worse. Kids are so important, man. But you
have to teach them right from wrong. Hell, if anybody
knows about wrong, it’s me and you, right?

Hang tough,

J. D.

BOOK: Dial M for Meat Loaf
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