Authors: Jerusha Jones
an Imogene Museum mystery — book #2
Meredith Morehouse, curator of the eclectic
Imogene Museum, stumbles upon the remnants of a stolen shipment of scary-looking wood figurines. Are they smuggled national treasures or clever fakes?
While Meredith is sucked into the secret federal probe of the fishy figurines and their importer, her ex-
fiancé — a man so annoyingly arrogant he could easily drive someone to murder — returns for another round of marriage proposals, and he won’t take no for an answer. Just when her friendship with hunky tug boat captain Pete Sills might be heating up.
’s a girl to do?
© 2012 by Jerusha Jones
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means
— electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise — without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
Cover design by Elizabeth Berry MacKenney. www.berrygraphics.com
The windshield wipers couldn
’t keep up. They squeaked rapid arcs across the glass, but my view of the highway wavered into watery columns. The entire Columbia Gorge had been blanketed by a low-pressure soaker for the past four days, long enough that even the earthworms came up for air and drowned on the pavement. I had tried to tiptoe around the bloated white squiggles while splashing the short distance from my fifth-wheel trailer to the pickup, but I was pretty sure gummy residue coated the thick soles of my hiking boots anyway.
Fashion went out the window on days like this. Silk long underwear, flannel-lined jeans, thick wool socks, a thermal t-shirt and bulky cabled sweater puffed me up like the Michelin man under a bright yellow, hooded raincoat. But I was warm and dry.
I turned off the highway onto the access road for my place of employment, the Imogene Museum. We’d be lucky to get any visitors today. The Columbia River Gorge isn’t scenic when the bellies of dark rainclouds float just feet off the choppy gray water and hide the forested hills on either side.
I relish the solitude, actually
— a rare chance to do the important, and usually neglected, curator’s task of entering more of the museum’s collection of random oddities into the database tracking system.
The mansion which houses the museum is by no means silent or lonely, even when empty. The old girl (circa 1902) creaks and clanks, whistles and groans like a decommissioned frigate straining against her final anchor chain, waiting for the blast that will send her to the bottom. Sometimes I talk back, promising the trustee board will keep patching her up as best they can.
Yesterday’s puddles had amassed into mini-lakes splotching the muddy lawn. I picked out Ford Huckle’s cabin through the spindly arms of bare oaks and maples. He lives in a converted pump house, one of the many outbuildings on the museum’s sprawling acreage. I hoped the groundskeeper’s new septic system could handle the rising water table. A bright blue porta-potty still stood next to the cabin’s front door, providing a shot of startling color in the otherwise drab landscape.
I turned into the paved parking lot shared by the museum, county park, and marina. A semi-truck idled longways directly in front of the museum, blocking the entrance sidewalk. Its blackish exhaust cloud hugged the asphalt, unable to rise through the downpour.
The white trailer was unmarked, but the passenger-side door of the dark green cab said ‘T&T Trucking, Seattle, WA.’ Probably a long-haul driver who’d pulled off the highway last night when the rain was so hard he couldn’t see. Plus, there are rules about the maximum number of hours a driver can be on the road in any 24-hour period in order to prevent sleepy drivers from becoming a safety hazard. He probably left the engine running to keep the cab heated while he dozed.
As I slowed to a stop, I realized the driver must be in the trailer because the rear door was rolled up. Pieces of a broken wood pallet littered the ground at the back of the trailer.
I slid my right arm into the sling that was supposed to keep my shoulder and broken collarbone immobilized, grabbed my phone and hopped out of the pickup, pulling my hood up to shield my face from the pelting rain. I’d learned to travel light while wearing the sling because I couldn’t manage the loaded purse I usually carried and everything else with one good arm. The empty right sleeve of my raincoat flapped as I trotted around to the back of the trailer and peered inside.
Hello?” I called.
Splintered wood, broken crates, clumps of raffia-like packing material and wads of plastic wrap were strewn on the trailer
’s floor. Scuff marks disturbed what appeared to be sawdust.
’t see all the way to the front end, but it did look as though there were more boxes and crates farther in. Some of them might still be intact. Who would unload crates in the museum’s parking lot in the middle of the night?
Unless Rupert had yet another surprise up his sleeve. I grinned.
Rupert Hagg is the museum director and great-great-nephew of the mansion’s builder, the philanthropist and visionary Lyman Hagg. Rupert had inherited responsibility for the non-profit museum. He’d hired me to do the day-to-day organizing and managing while he traveled the globe looking for items to add to the museum’s roster. Maybe Rupert was in the museum, unpacking goodies.
I dashed toward the museum
’s front doors, but skidded to a stop after just a few steps. In my peripheral vision, a rotund, person-shaped lump lay on the ground beside the back wheels of the truck cab. Yes. He’d been hidden from view when I was on the other side of the trailer.
’s door was open. Had he fallen out?
I gulped, trying to remember the basics of CPR from the lifeguarding class I took in high school over a decade ago.
I ran back and knelt beside the man. He looked as white and bloated as the worms I’d stepped on earlier. I jabbed two fingers in the fleshy fold between his jaw and neck. Maybe a little blip, blip, blip of a pulse. Maybe it was my imagination.
I leaned over, my cheek skimming his nose. Ragged, raspy breathing and a bitter, acrid smell. His salt and pepper mustache was stained tobacco brown directly under his nostrils.
I picked up a plump hand which was surprisingly soft but heavy and limp. His steel-gray button-down uniform shirt said ‘Terry’ on the pocket that bulged around a pack of cigarettes. Presumably one of the Ts of T&T Trucking. I rubbed his hand but didn’t get a response. Still, his chest rose and fell in a pretty regular cadence, and I was glad his life didn’t depend on my shaky memory of CPR.
He was soaked to the skin. How long had he been lying here? In this rain, it wouldn
’t take long to get that wet.
I sprinted to my pickup and grabbed the hairy old blanket Tuppence, my hound, sat on when she rode shotgun. I winced as I wedged the blanket under my right arm, then fished the phone out of my pocket and ran back to the unconscious driver. Even though my collarbone was healing, I still felt twinges of unexpected pain with certain movements.
I flung the blanket over Terry, pulling and nudging to get most of him covered. Calling Sheriff Marge Stettler guaranteed as quick a response as calling 911, and sometimes faster. Sheriff Marge was always on duty.
Unconscious truck driver in the museum parking lot,” was all I had to say.
It’ll have to be the volunteer fire department,” Sheriff Marge replied. “The EMTs are in a training session at the hospital in Lupine. Get him warm and dry.”
I’m trying,” I said to dead air.
He was lying in about half an inch of water. I pulled off my raincoat and spread it over him. He was too heavy to drag one-armed, and until we knew what had caused his condition, he probably shouldn
’t be moved.
I climbed the steps to the cab, hanging on with my left hand, and fell stomach first onto the driver
’s seat. Maybe he’d have something I could use.
I scooted around until I was sitting behind the wheel. The cab was littered with crumpled potato chip bags, empty plastic drink bottles and fruit pie wrappers. A bobblehead chihuahua clung to the dashboard by a grimy suction cup. It jiggled above a protruding ashtray that overflowed with putrid butts.
No umbrella, tarp, rain poncho — nothing water resistant. I reached through the steering wheel with my left hand and rocked the key in the ignition until the rumbling engine shut down.
My foot bumped something light on the floor, and I bent to look. An inflated doughnut seat cushion, the kind new mothers sit on. And truck drivers, apparently. I tossed the cushion out the open door and eased down the steps.
Kneeling above the driver’s head, I slipped my right arm out of the sling and used both hands to lift his head. I grimaced against the pain in my right shoulder and kneed the cushion underneath.
My hands came away bloody.
Eeuww. Oh no.” I swished my hands through the puddle and shivered.
How long ago had he hit his head? The wound must still be bleeding freely for that much to get on my hands. Or else it was a deep or large wound. The puddle may have kept the blood from clotting.
I examined his face, upside down from my position. Stunted dark eyelashes. It had been at least a day since he’d shaved. He had thick, dark stubble that reached high on his cheeks and down into the collar of his shirt. The muscles in his face were relaxed, and there were wrinkle lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth and across his high forehead. Maybe in his fifties, or late forties. He would appear haggard if he was awake. Maybe it was the nicotine stains.
The weight of my wet wool sweater pressed against my back. I shuddered with sudden clamminess. Terry moaned again and jerked his right leg suddenly, pushing ripple rings through the puddle.
“Okay. Shhhh,” I murmured, still leaning over him to keep the rain off his face.
My short brown hair was dripping now too, and I pushed the dangling curls back, squeezing the water out.
Terry groped with his left hand, muttering something that sounded like “Get back.”
I crawled around him and captured his hand, holding tightly with both of mine. He pushed, hard, and I pushed back, pressing his arm across his chest with most of my weight. Thrashing about wasn
’t going to do his head any good.
Terry,” I yelled. It was like arm wrestling, but I’d sit on him if I had to. “Lie still. You’re going to be okay.”
He grunted but stopped resisting.
He opened his eyes. Hazel. More green than brown, and focused on a spot way beyond me.
He squinted, dropped his gaze. His eyebrows slid in toward the center, and he blinked.
“Hey.” I smiled. Water ran off my nose and dripped on his cheek. “You’re going to be okay. But you’re hurt, and you need to be still. Help is coming.”
A tremor ran through his body.
“Hit me — me—” He blinked again. “—on the head.”
Yeah.” I shifted. “Not me, though. I didn’t do it.”
Couple guys.” Terry exhaled and winced. “Came out of nowhere.”
A flashing red light bounced off the wet pavement around us. The fire truck geared down to make the turn into the parking lot and rolled up to the parked semi.
I peered under the trailer and, as soon as I saw boots on the ground, yelled, “Over here, on the driver’s side.”
A firefighter with a medic duffel bag jogged around and knelt beside me.
“Nasty gash on the back of his head. Was unconscious, but he just woke up,” I reported.
A couple more firefighters with a stretcher appeared, so I stood and backed away.
Sheriff Marge splashed around the trailer. “Mornin’ Meredith.”
Her stout form was draped in a clear plastic poncho, and her brimmed khaki hat even had a plastic cover, like the cellophane wrapper on a new lampshade. I tried to suppress a smile.
“Yeah, yeah. At least I’m dry.” Tufts of Sheriff Marge’s straight gray hair stuck out from under the hat, and she peered at me over the top of her reading glasses. She wore the glasses regardless of what she was doing, just looked around them when she didn’t need to look through them. “You’re supposed to be using that thing.”
I looked down and guiltily shoved my right arm back into the sling.
“So?” Sheriff Marge asked.
He came to just before the firefighters arrived. Said a couple of guys attacked him.”
Any idea why he was parked here?”
No. But that reminds me. Maybe it’s a delivery Rupert was expecting.” I pulled my phone out of my front jeans pocket and dialed.