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Authors: Elizabeth Gunn

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BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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THREE

B
y the time Ray Bailey got around to calling me, I didn't much want to talk to him any more. I had enjoyed two rum punches, a large plate of brats and beans washed down with a couple of beers, and an hour of playing ‘Whose ball is this?' with Ben. My son and I were both about ready for bed.

At nearly eight months, Ben was a round and happy babbler, guzzler, and waver of undifferentiated hellos and goodbyes. While this limited agenda had never seemed interesting when I observed it in other people's children, in Ben's chubby hands I found it intellectually complex and amusing. Besides the endless ball game we'd been playing all week, this month we were into ‘This Little Piggy' big-time. Every night, watching Ben discover his hands and feet and learn to follow the ball with his eyes, I turned into a certifiable idiot who thought crawling on the floor making excited noises over ten pink toes and a small rubber ball was the best possible use of an evening.

I suppose I should admit that watching him learn new tricks wasn't all I enjoyed about playing with Ben. There was also the fact that at first sight of me, reliably, morning and evening, he wiggled ecstatically, crowed like a happy chicken, and grinned as if I'd brought him the best present he could possibly imagine just by showing up. I've never been anybody's hero before, and it's a little embarrassing how much I like it. In fact, when Ben looks at me that way I feel just about ready to strap on the cape and leap tall buildings.

Trudy handed the phone down to me and picked up the baby, saying, ‘Ray sounds as if he needs to be burped. Maybe you better take this in the other room.' We were in the big open kitchen/family room where we spend most of our time. The dining room is for rare family gatherings like the Thanksgiving feast coming up, and the so-called living room keeps getting more and more like a home office. I turned on a light and took Ray's call in there.

‘Well, the first thing to tell you,' he said, ‘is that Andy found the victims' transportation. Five-year-old pickup parked on the two-track on the other side of this grove of trees. Keys in the ignition.'

‘Registration?'

‘In the glove box. Says the owner is Owen Kester; all the same information as his license.'

‘Can you tell if he drove himself or—'

‘I didn't see anything obvious, like blood. BCA crews were gone, so we just impounded the vehicle and had it wrapped and towed to the police lot. BCA's arranging the tow to Saint Paul.'

‘OK. We should get good information from that baby.'

‘Yeah. We were doing all right till about an hour after we found the pickup.' He sounded morose. ‘But just when Rosie and Clint got back from the Kesters' farm wanting to tell me all about it, I got a phone call from the brother.' A windy sigh. ‘Ethan, his name is.'

‘Ethan's the attorney that Arlo mentioned?'

‘Is he ever. Of the firm of Kester and Robbins, as he reminded me several times.'

‘Lawyer Kester is somewhat assertive?'

‘You might say that. Or you might just say he's a pompous asshole with a paranoid streak. Unfortunately I think he may have almost as much clout as he's threatening me with.'

‘Let's make him prove it before we get worried. What does he say he can do to you?'

Cops take endless abuse all day long because they have to deal with people who are stressed out of their minds. Of course, I was much more understanding about this when it was the Kester brother attacking Ray than I had been when Arlo was shouting insults at me. Anyway, I knew that when Ray quit ranting about this rank injustice, we would decide together how to handle the uppity Kester. We're the police, after all. Unless somebody can prove malfeasance, we win most of our arguments.

‘He says he'll get me fired for gross incompetence. How dare I send my officers out there scaring the dickens – that's what he said, “scaring the dickens” – out of his sister-in-law, telling her that her husband's been shot? I should have checked with him first. Like everybody in Hampsted County has to check in with him for permission to die, or even talk about dying.'

‘That does sound a little overbearing.' I was listening with one ear while I Googled Kester & Robbins, reading off the screen that the firm specializes in corporate start-ups, tax law, and mergers. I read some of it to Ray. ‘Looks like they are kind of big Cahunas for little old Rutherford. The Kester on the masthead must be his uncle. Ethan was just a couple of years ahead of me in high school. He'd still be a junior partner, I think.'

‘Uh-huh,' Ray said. ‘But a junior partner with the right family name, in a firm that's making a bundle off these green science guys that are all over us this year like ticks on a hound.'

When Ray and I were growing up in Southeast Minnesota, Rutherford was a quiet market town where prices for hog bellies and feeder calves were featured on the noon news. There's still plenty of farming going on in Hampsted County, but every year Rutherford – the town that we thought was stuck in its comfortable little rut forever – changes in front of our eyes. It's getting more like the Twin Cities and Chicago, becoming part of one vast urban sprawl in which biotech and new energy sources are beginning to upstage agriculture.

Maybe it's all good, but so many quick changes make people uneasy. Around Rutherford lately, a lot of conversations end with somebody saying, ‘Where's it all going to end?'

‘So what did you say to pushy Ethan?'

‘I said, “You're only ten minutes away. If you think we've made a mistake, why don't you come over here and check it out?” I gave him the address and he made it in eight minutes.'

‘And?'

‘He was in a Cadillac El Dorado and the tires were smoking. I led him to the body; he made a couple of choking sounds, and went into the woods and began beating up on an oak tree. Oddest reaction I've ever seen – punching and kicking this big strong tree. Clint helped him bandage his hands afterwards – he wouldn't let me touch him.'

Ray sounded even gloomier over the next part of his story. ‘When he settled down he started talking lawsuits again – saying this is no way to notify the family, lucky you didn't give that poor woman a heart attack. Says he's going to take this right to the top, it won't end here . . . and so on.'

‘Well, you know, people look for somebody to blame.'

‘Uh-huh. But Ethan seems to be a bottomless pit of anger and he wants to pull the whole police force in there with him.'

‘That's very well stated, actually, Ray. And since it is a bottomless pit, let's leave Ethan to wallow in it while we get on with our jobs. Did Pokey say when he'll probably do the autopsy?'

‘Well, for a change he didn't say dawn tomorrow. In fact, he said, “Hell, the body was frozen stiff and the crime scene hopelessly compromised by the time I got here, so no hurry. Wait till I see how many appointments I've got to move around and I'll let you know”.'

‘OK, Ray. Who's got the weekend duty this week?'

‘Um . . . it's one of Kevin's guys . . . Josh Felder.'

‘Is he the kind of nerdy one I've heard him talk about?'

‘Yeah. The introvert with the great searching techniques.'

‘Good. We don't have a whole lot for him to do, do we? Nobody he has to take to court?'

‘I don't. I don't know what Kevin's got. Why?'

‘Let's get him to look up everything he can find on the Kester family and related branches, huh? What they own, what they owe, any dirt he can dig up?'

‘OK, good idea, yeah.'

‘And then let's get all your People Crimes people together first thing Monday morning. Get LeeAnn to sit in and take notes, and we'll map out strategy. See where we stand, huh?'

‘I guess.' He didn't disagree. He just said those two half-hearted words, and then didn't say goodbye.

‘What?' I knew it was dumb to ask – but I can't stand phone calls that end on a dissatisfied note. And he knows that. Damn! I took a big tired breath and said, ‘Say what you want in plain English right now or forget it, because I froze all day in that field and I just did “This Little Piggy” ten times with Ben, so I'm almost out of juice.'

‘Well, if you're too tired I guess it can wait—'

‘Ray, goddammit – state your problem!'

‘OK, I know you said we don't have any money for overtime, but Rosie and Clint are worried about a locked outbuilding, between the horse barn and the house on the Kesters' farm, that they couldn't get into. When they asked Mrs Kester about it, she said that's the smokehouse and the walk-in cooler. They use it for all kinds of meat preparation, I guess. She says her husband always kept it locked and she didn't know where he kept the key.'

‘That sounds like bullshit.'

‘I know. But she was, you know, crying . . . so they let it go and concentrated on getting somebody to come and stay with her.' He stopped talking and breathed into the phone.

I can't stand agitated breathing either. I said, ‘OK, what else?'

‘Well, soon as they got back and heard Andy say he'd found the pickup, but speculating with me about no signs of innards in the snow there, they started saying we should get a warrant to search that locked building. Because if we wait till Monday whatever's in there could be gone.' He paused. ‘If, you know, there's anything in there that has anything to do with the body in the field.'

Like all the blood and guts that should have been where we found the body. Damn!

‘I see what you mean but now it's Saturday night, and . . . What are you thinking? Are Rosie and Clint still there with you?'

‘We're all at the station, yeah. They didn't want to go home till they heard what you had to say about it – they thought maybe they should get back out there now and . . . look at that locked building.'

‘Just the two of them? Or are you thinking of mobilizing the National Guard over this?'

‘You think it's a bad idea.'

‘I didn't say that, come on . . . You think they're onto something, huh?'

‘I think they were the ones on the scene and they didn't get such a strong feeling for no reason at all. I thought maybe,' he cleared his throat, ‘I might go back out there with them, carry the warrant and take a little of the heat off.'

So there it was. Ray was just as tired as I was. I'd called him away from his quite new bride on his day off but he was willing to put his body where his mouth was, to back up his troops. I looked at the rock and then at the hard place. After about thirty seconds I told him, ‘Keep your cell turned on. Saturday night, this might take a while.'

I'd had my neck stuck out all day, trying to handle this case without disrupting the chief's ski vacation, but now I felt it was time for a pivot. If Ethan Kester was mad now, wait till he heard we were demanding access in the middle of the night to a locked building on his family's farm. We were all going to need some cover then, of the kind only Frank McCafferty could provide.

He'd left me a number to call if I had to. He knew I was well aware how long it had been since they'd had a trip.

Sheila answered the phone. It was an hour earlier in the mountain chalet, so at least I wasn't waking anybody. In fact, to judge by the jolly noises nearby, the McCaffertys must have found a dozen or so friends to join them in after-ski revelry. The chief said he'd call me back on his cell so he could step outside to talk. I heard Sheila say, ‘Here, take this blanket', and got a vision of his large bulk hunched in the cold starry silence of his cabin's front step, wrapped in some woolly comforter.

‘We got a dead man just at the edge of the goose-hunting field on the north edge of town,' I said, and told him quickly, in short words, what we'd found and hadn't found, about the dead man's pickup, the weeping wife and the angry brother.

‘OK,' he said before long. ‘You want my approval on what you've done so far? No problem, I don't see what else you could have done. But now there's something else?'

I told him about the two conscientious detectives, the locked cooler and the body that seemed to be missing some innards.

He sighed. ‘You're pretty sure it's homicide?'

‘There wasn't enough blood under the body. It looks as if he must have been moved at least once. But the clean pickup with the keys in the ignition makes you think maybe he drove himself here. So there's a lot to figure out.'

‘OK.' He sighed again and then said decisively, ‘Screw the overtime, we'll find the money somewhere. The Kester family has lived on that farm for three generations that I know of – maybe more. Always been solid farmers, till Henry, the father of this victim, married into a family of lawyers. And now one of the sons is a lawyer, too, huh? Quite a powerful bunch. Let's be sure we leave no stone unturned, Jake. If we have to defend ourselves we want to be sure we did everything by the book. Tell those two detectives – who is it, by the way?'

‘Rosie and Clint.'

‘Tell them I said, “Good job”. Hurry up now and try to find a judge who's not having too much weekend fun. Call me tomorrow at noon – sooner if you need to.'

Incredibly – it felt like the middle of the night to me – Judge Cartwright and her husband were just going out to dinner. She said I'd caught her at her front door with a key in her hand, but she kindly put the key down and listened to my reasons for wanting a search warrant. Halfway through my list she said, ‘Stop, that's enough. What an interesting weekend you're having, Jake.'

I phoned her approval code to Ray, told him to pass on the chief's ‘Good job' message to Rosie and Clint, and asked him to call me when they finished the search, regardless of the hour.

Part of me wished I'd been sleeping for an hour. But I was thirsty and the last-minute change in plans had made me jumpy, so I talked Trudy into sharing a beer at the kitchen table and ended up telling her about this surprise return to the farm.

BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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