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Authors: Elizabeth Gunn

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BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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We reached the van, where our driver waited. He slid the big side door open and we loaded our gear. We were almost the last ones out of the field and the driver, impatient to be gone, had already strapped in and started the motor. As I slid the door closed, the driver's two-way radio beeped. He pulled it off his belt and answered while he looked back over his shoulder, beginning to back up one-handed. He stopped the vehicle as Arlo's voice, a little reedy and short-winded, said, ‘Ask your passenger Jake Hines if he's carrying his cell phone.'

When he had me on the phone he said, softly, ‘Can you come over here and help me a minute?'

‘Sure. You want us to drive the van over?'

‘No,' he said quickly. His voice was tense but low – the ultra-calm voice people use when they realize they're looking at a calamity but want you to know they are Still In Command. ‘Will you please get out and walk over here by yourself? Tell the other people to wait in the van.'

‘OK,' I said. ‘What—'

His voice dropped again, almost to a whisper. ‘I got a man down here—'

‘Arlo,' I said, ‘if one of your customers has had a hunting accident you should call nine-one-one right away.'

‘I'm not sure this is an accident, Jake, and this man ain't my customer. He didn't rent no blind from me – I've never seen this fella before. He looks a little familiar, but – listen, if you'll quit talking, Jake' – he was doing all the talking – ‘and come on over here' – his voice was cracking a little now – ‘you'll see for yourself what the problem is.'

‘What do you say it is?'

‘That whoever this bozo is, he looks to me like he sure as hell is dead.'

TWO

‘I
'm going to be a little late,' I told Trudy an hour later. At the curb on the street side of the field, many vehicles were parking.

‘You're already late,' she said. ‘What else is new?'

‘Didn't Ozzie call you? I asked him—'

I'd sent him home with a message for my wife when I saw what I had to do. My own call to Trudy had repeatedly been delayed by the blizzard of phone calls with which I had ruined a lot of Saturdays and summoned a crew.

‘Yeah, Ozzie called as soon as he got home. So I wouldn't have to worry, he said. Then he bent my ear for fifteen minutes making it sound as crazy and ominous as possible. Somebody got shot?'

‘Yes. And the guys who run this hunt,' I turned my back to them and muffled the phone with my hand, ‘are very concerned, of course.'

‘Why are you still there if it's a hunting accident? Isn't that something for the DNR?'

‘It would be if I was sure it is an accident. But some things don't seem to quite add up.' Besides being a cop's wife she's a criminalist at the State crime lab, so I don't hesitate to share details with her. She'll be seeing it all on Monday anyway.

‘Well, so, you've got a crew coming?'

‘Yup. I can see them unloading now.' The street was filling up with detectives slamming doors, loading up with gear, calling out warnings as they took their first steps into the field.

A big snowstorm had blanketed this area two days earlier. A gusty wind overnight had piled it in little hummocks around the corn stubble, and today's low temperature froze the top layer. Every footstep broke through the rime ice with a crack and sank into inches of soft snow over patches of remnant ice from earlier storms. With miserable footing and a chance of frostbite for hands that needed to be bare for any tasks, there would be no need to urge this crew to work quickly.

‘Soon as the People Crimes crew gets over here and I brief Ray,' I told my mate, ‘I'm out of here.'

‘Good,' she said. ‘How will you get home, though?'

‘Dispatch located a social worker who has to visit a case in Faribault,' I said. ‘He'll drop me off.'

As she well knows, I have no business at a crime scene. I'm head of Rutherford's police detectives; my job is to stay in the station and tell people what to do. Of course, when a case comes along like this one and gets in my face, I can hardly just walk away. I was rehearsing that speech for the chief, who promoted me to this job several years ago and still sometimes has to remind me to stifle my fondness for field work.

The area around the body was being taped off by the street patrolmen who'd arrived first. I'd done my best to protect the crime scene till they got there, standing between the body and the street and telling everyone who approached, ‘Don't come any closer, don't come any closer', like a recording stuck in an endless loop.

I broke my own rule once briefly in the first few minutes. To make sure Arlo's opinion of the downed man's condition was correct, I crashed through the underbrush and squatted by the victim, held two fingers behind his ear for a few seconds and looked in his eyes. He had no pulse at all, and was very cold. Besides that, he had that stony stillness, and the waxy pallor and milky eyes of a body that had stopped breathing some time ago. When I stood up I said, ‘Yup,' to Arlo, who was standing nearby looking as if he'd just passed a stone. ‘Now we wait for the coroner.'

‘Come on,' Arlo said. ‘You know he's dead.' He wanted me to bag the victim up, call a meat wagon and get him out of here. ‘No offense,' he said, ‘but this is not good for business.'

‘None taken,' I said, punching buttons on my phone, ‘but rules are rules.' He muttered something crude. I said, ‘Pokey lives on this side of town; he won't be long.'

I continued making phone calls while Arlo hopped around me like a frustrated sparrow. You know how they never seem to be content with the branch they're on? Arlo was jittering like that, hopping from one foot to the other and emitting chirps of distress. This was going to wreck his reputation, he said. His hunters sure as hell didn't shoot this guy, he knew for a fact, so now why did he have to get the penalty for carelessness he would never commit? He actually asked me, ‘Why is it cops aren't ever around when you need them, and then they come down on the innocent like a ton of bricks?'

I stopped dialing for a minute and said, ‘I'm out here freezing my ass off trying to help you. Now put a sock in it before I find an infraction to write you up for.'

Working up to a nice argument with Arlo felt good for a few seconds – I could feel my hands and feet start to warm up. But there was a lot of work to be done, so I put a lid on my anger and went back to dialing and talking. Arlo shut up and made do with pacing and panting.

A few minutes later a noisy crew began unloading at the curb. I looked across the field and said, ‘Hey, here comes the lab team from BCA. How'd they get here so fast?'

They pulled open the big doors on the back of their van and swarmed across the field like ants. ‘We were just finishing up on an assault case in Owatonna when Saint Paul got your call,' Tom Baines said. He's a Minnesota BCA photographer, so he owns a large assortment of gloves with the ends cut off the fingers. ‘Dispatch decided to save some gas, so you're catching us on the fly.' Baines is a bow-hunter who loves to talk about his ability to follow spoor through trackless wilderness. I had a pretty good idea what he'd think of a hunt like this one and was hoping he'd keep his opinion to himself while he talked to the hunt club people.

When Arlo first called me, I thought he was describing a simple hunting accident, so I wasn't going to call the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. But after Arlo said over and over that there was no way any of his hunters shot into that tree line where the body lay, I'd decided to get the experts involved. When it comes to fingerprints and photography, St Paul has the latest machines and the best-trained techies, and their DNA wizards are legendary.

Trudy's one of them. She used to work on these outreach crews before she went full-time to the DNA lab, so I sympathize with these lab scientists. They go out in all weather, day and night, charged with bringing back precise information that may decide a case later on.

Baines ducked under the tape first, to photograph the body from every angle before anyone else touched it. Holding up the tape for him and helping to pass his gear inside, I got another good look at it, and began to sort out my first impressions.

This man wasn't dressed as a sportsman. He wore green twill work pants, frayed at the cuffs, with long johns underneath, and four-buckle rubber overshoes. His cap was a plaid wool farmer's cap, with ear-flaps turned down and fastened with Velcro under his chin. He had leather gloves with wool liners, stuck in the pockets of his plaid wool jacket, and his bare hands were hard and thick with calluses.

He was lying between two trees, just inside the barbed-wire fence that separated this field from the one next to it. His body was easy enough to see now that I was close to it and knew where it was. Shielded by the underbrush of the fence line, and surrounded by a maze of animal prints and churned-up snow, it had not been visible from where we were shooting. Nobody had seen it, in fact, till the two men from the nearest blind began packing their camper to go home.

‘Long, cold morning and we drank a lot of coffee,' the older one said. ‘We decided to take a leak before we started the drive.'

‘I didn't want to leave my pickup back there in the parking lot – I carry some pretty expensive tools in the lockbox. So Arlo let me drive it over here and park it nosed up to the tree line where I could keep an eye on it.' The younger of the two men, who on first impression looked baby-faced and playful, grew more serious and consequential as he talked. Now he looked a little embarrassed as he said, ‘Tell you the truth, once we started shooting at birds I forgot all about my truck.

‘But when we started loading up I opened the doors on both sides and they shielded us kind of like a little outdoor privy. I was just standing there in front of the Dodge, shaking off my willy, when I looked into the trees and that plaid cap suddenly kind of . . . 
stood out
.' He shuddered. ‘Boy, talk about your Kodak moments. I think my heart stopped. I stood and stared at that thing till I damn near froze my dick.' He nodded toward his partner. ‘I said, “Whoa, Herman, is that what I think it is?”'

I asked them, ‘You never saw anybody over here in the trees?'

‘Never had any reason to look,' the older man said. ‘Arlo made our allowable shooting range very clear before we started and there were plenty of birds there, coming up from the river, so we were busy watching for the next likely target. We never looked back here in the trees till it was time to load up.'

‘It's odd,' I said. ‘A farmer from the neighborhood would surely know about the bird hunting going on here – only an idiot would wander onto the range and get shot.'

‘He did not get shot by anybody here, I'm telling you,' Arlo said. ‘Our rules are crystal clear about lines of fire – these men just told you – absolutely no shooting except to the south and west, never back into the trees, and believe me, we check constantly.' He was very bristly and defensive, of course, feeling that his business was at stake.

Any one of the guns that had been used here this morning could have made the shot that had torn open the front of the dead man's coat – we all knew that. I had only taken one glance at the wound in his chest, which offhand looked to me like a close-range shot. But how could it be, if he was killed by one of the bird hunters? The nearest blind was fifty yards away at least.

Well, Pokey and the rest of the forensics team would give us, eventually, an educated guess about how far away the shooter had been. I was already dreading the inevitable conclusions at the end of this puzzle. The victim would have needed the arms of a gorilla to administer this shot himself – no way did this present as a suicide.

But here he was, in the field with the Hiawatha Valley hunt. So . . . 
if one of Arlo's hunters didn't shoot him
,
who did?

Ordinarily by the time a case reached this level of complexity I'd have called Chief McCafferty and shared some concerns. Beginning with:
This is starting to look like a complicated case where somebody might soon be talking about suing somebody, and a lot is going to depend on the physical evidence.

I know it's Saturday afternoon, and the overtime budget is in ruins. But doesn't the need for speed and accuracy trump the need to save dollars?

However, the chief was skiing in Montana with his wife and his three youngest children. It was a rare outing for them and I wanted to leave them alone to enjoy it. So I decided to use the assets I had at hand and figure out how to pay for them later.

‘OK, let's roll the body so I can get some pictures of the back,' Baines said. ‘I got all the other shots I need.'

‘Better wait till Pokey's had his first look,' I said.

‘Oh, crap,' Baines said, blowing on his hands. ‘I stand around here much longer, he's going to have to decide if me or the victims' further along in rigor mortis.'

‘Do some push-ups,' I said. ‘He'll be here soon.'

And here he came now, slip-sliding across the wretched footing with his shoulder bag slapping against his hip, looking agile and interested.

Time never seems to lay a glove on Pokey. When I first met him, I was twenty pounds lighter, with no bags under my eyes. That was before Trudy, and long before Ben – for me, a different life. But Pokey hardly seems to have changed at all since then.

His name is Adrian Pokornoskovic, but nobody in the Rutherford Police Station can pronounce that, so we all call him Pokey. He comes from that embattled East European borderland where the citizens rarely knew, for most of the twentieth century, what to call their country. ‘Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Poland . . .' he told me once. ‘Whoever's lying to us today, we used to say.'

Now he manages his dermatology practice full-time and doubles when necessary as Hampsted County coroner. It works out all right given Rutherford's low crime rate – mostly he signs death certificates for old people in rest homes. He does have the occasional sudden-death-or-suicide puzzle to figure out, but this homicide, if it proves to be one, would be only his third this year – and the other two occurred in one case, back in June.

BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
3.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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