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Authors: Elizabeth Gunn

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BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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‘We might be close to wrapping up a murder case in one day,' I said. ‘Wouldn't that make a good story?'

She gave me the kindly smile she saves for times when I say something dumb. That started me thinking about all the things that could go wrong for three detectives in the dark, on a farm where the dead owner's killer hadn't been caught yet. After that I wasn't sleepy any more.

‘Let's have another beer,' I said, but Trudy reminded me she'd been baking holiday treats and care-taking our son since dawn.

‘Gotta go to bed while I can still climb stairs,' she said, and went.

I read the evening paper and then a science journal I like. I fell asleep over some hot news about the God particle, and bumped my head on the reading light when the phone rang.

Ray sounded embarrassed. ‘The walk-in cooler is full of sides of beef and pork, like Mrs Kester said it would be. The other half of the building is an old smokehouse, not used much anymore, she said, but it's still got all the tools and tables so they can fire up again if they decide to do their own hams.' He gave a tired little chuckle. ‘One reason Owen kept it locked is that he had a little weed growing under a couple of lights in a cupboard at one end. The night wasn't entirely wasted, Jake – at least when we found the pot Ethan Kester shut up about suing the department for a few minutes.'

‘But it doesn't sound as if you found anything that's going to nail a murderer.'

‘No. Rosie's really having a snit. She keeps saying, “I had such a strong feeling about that building”.'

‘I know how she feels. You do investigations for a few years, you start to think you have instincts. But not this time, huh?'

‘No. It's funny, though. Usually Rosie's got a pretty good nose for stuff people are trying to hide.'

‘Well . . . shit-oh-dear, huh? Do we have a door to pay for, too? Did you have to break it down?'

‘Oh,' he snickered. ‘No, when we walked in with the warrant Doris suddenly remembered Owen had a cabinet in his machine shop where he kept a lot of keys. We opened it up and there they were, hanging on a hook labeled “walk-in cooler”.'

‘Funny how that warrant works.'

‘Yeah. Rosie said on the way back she thinks Doris knew right where it was the whole time. Probably knew about the cannabis too.'

‘Well, sure she did. Hell, they were married – they no doubt shared the toke.'

‘Yeah, that's what Clint keeps saying. “A toke in bed with that Doris might get pretty lively, I bet”. He thinks we should keep our eye on the widow. Says, “That good-looking Kraut lady didn't just fall offa no turnip truck”.'

‘I have got to see this woman.'

‘Well, I guess we'll both be seeing plenty of her before this is over, and after tonight I'm kind of looking forward to that part of the job. Great pair of knockers and she looks good with no make-up in the middle of the night.'

‘I hope I don't have to verify that any time soon.'

‘Me too. Can we quit work now? Because I'm already asleep.'

Sunday passed in an entirely different blur of work because, Trudy reminded me, in five days we were committed to hosting dinner for about two-dozen Swedes from Trudy's Hanson clan plus the half-dozen waifs and strays that make up my own extended family. ‘I got most of the pastries done yesterday,' she said, ‘but about the turkeys, now . . .'

‘That's a plural? We're doing more than one?'

‘Two if we can find two big ones,' she said. ‘Otherwise three. My mother's bringing her usual specialties and cousins will bring all the veggies, I think. I need to pin that down, though. My sister does Waldorf salad and the aunts will furnish desserts and drinks. But I need to rely on you for the stuffing, Jake – we need to figure out the timing for that. And we have to figure out the table set-ups today.'

‘You think I have a dressing recipe in my desk, just waiting for times like this?'

‘No, but I do,' she said. ‘And I'm going to guide your baby steps, poor, pitiful Jakey.'

‘OK, then. Maxine wants to bring a pie.'

‘Fine. We already have three or four, but the more the merrier, I guess. First thing we do today is go shopping. I make the list and you get to dress the boy.'

I had no idea what to put on the list so I couldn't argue, but she knew she was leaving me the hardest job. Lately dressing Ben Hines in three layers of clothing took roughly the same ergs of energy as running down a herd of baby buffalo and penning them up without ever putting a bruise on a single one. Benny knew almost as many moves as a wild animal his age, and he thought it was fun to watch me sweat. I pinned him between my knees and got the undershirt and hoodie top on, but the rules say you don't get to reverse them to do the bottoms, so that part is trickier.

‘I certainly hope and expect,' I said as I strapped him into his car seat, ‘that you will get rich and kindly when you grow up, and take devoted care of me in my dotage.' He bounced and drooled and threw a small plush toy on the floor to seal the bargain.

In the grocery store, while Trudy went into intense negotiations with the butcher about our turkeys, Ben and I took the rest of the list and shopped. He loves to ride in the basket, so that part was kind of fun when I remembered to allow for his adjustable arms, which magically extended so he could grab things he had no reason to want but would gladly throw down.

When we'd filled two carts and Trudy declared we had enough, we began a round of visits, to leave one turkey in her mother's refrigerator and drop off several food items she had promised her sister. At each stop the women discussed at length what each would cook, when they would bring it to our house, who else was bringing what and the hours at which all these items would be consumed. Fortunately Bonnie's husband was watching the Vikings fight for a rare win against the Redskins, so I didn't think about food logistics any more until Trudy poked me – twice, actually – and said she was ready to go. The game was tied six all and I hated to leave the excitement, even though I knew I had it on Tivo at home and could see it all again later.

I did, too, after we put a lot of food away, unwrapped Ben from his several layers, dressed him all over again for sleep, and ate a stew. Then we played musical sawhorses till we figured out how to make a second holiday table. We had big paper tablecloths with, surprise, painted turkeys on them, to disguise the fact that half the guests would be eating off the Sullivan brothers' workbenches. We had candleholders shaped like . . . wait for it . . . pumpkins!

When Trudy declared we had decked the halls enough, she took a magazine to bed and I finally got a look at my recorded ball game. It was a real sizzler of a contest, and I watched it with fascination until I fell asleep just before half-time. So I never did see that heartbreaking loss. I read about it the next morning, quickly, before Trudy reminded me, twice, that it was time to put the sports page down and triple-wrap Ben Hines again for the trip to town.

I love being a husband and father, but I would be the last to deny, if anybody ever asks me, that family life sometimes intrudes on time formerly devoted to all-out support for the home team.

FOUR

W
e didn't have a whole lot to work with, Monday morning. All the physical evidence from the shooting was in the hands of lab people, who as usual would say nothing till they finished doing what lab people do.

Josh Felder sat in on the first half hour of our meeting, to detail the research he had done for us over the weekend. He looked about fourteen, with round wire-rims and freckles – the only detective I'd ever seen who looked less like a cop than Winnie. He had brought us exactly what we asked for, though: the complete history of the Kester family in Hampsted County since the mid-1850s. Hardworking farmers with no unexpected adventures, they had prospered in Minnesota for four generations, never moving from their original homestead but adding some acres in each generation. When I saw my detectives sliding toward narcolepsy after thirty minutes of their history, I thanked Josh and declared a fresh-coffee break to revive us enough to read our own notes.

Clint declared that the search of the Kesters' farm on Saturday night had yielded two shotguns and a deer rifle, all in a locked cabinet in the house. Doris had produced the key to the cabinet with no fuss, and the weapons were in our own forensics lab in Rutherford.

‘She even volunteered that there was one shotgun missing,' Clint said. ‘Gave me the numbers on it and told us to ask Ethan if he has it.' He wiggled his ears and crossed his eyes. ‘I am
so
looking forward to
that
.'

Late Sunday afternoon, Pokey had called Ray to say he'd put a hold on a lab for Monday morning. So Ray was at County Medical, watching the autopsy. The rest of us were sitting around his meeting table shuffling the meager notes we'd managed to scribble with cold hands on Saturday. But detectives live and breathe to process information, so with nothing much to read, the People Crimes crew were soon talking about first impressions.

‘That's a helluva farm,' Clint said. ‘You realize they had almost six hundred acres planted in corn this year? They're getting rich off ethanol and putting it right back into more land, plus blooded horses and a prize dairy herd in a neighboring farm. Smart, very smart. The ethanol craze is bound to end one of these days, but they'll still have all those beautiful animals and hundreds of paid-up acres of the most productive farmland in the country.'

‘Which is inside the new city limits, you said,' Winnie said, looking at Rosie. ‘How's that going to work?'

‘Oh, the developers are going to want it enough to offer top dollar for it eventually, and when the offers go from high to obscene the farmers will sell,' Rosie said. ‘But that's a long way down the road in the current financial climate.'

‘Yeah,' Clint said, ‘plenty of time to get rich off milk and corn first.'

‘Isn't it fun to see Minnesota farmers in the winner's circle for a change?' Rosie said. ‘But I have to tell you, I have seldom been more confused than during my first few minutes with the wife.'

‘Oh?' I watched her flip pages around. ‘What was confusing?'

‘Well . . . she was baking bread when I got there,' Rosie said. ‘And crying.'

‘Crying? You mean bawling out loud?'

‘No, weeping silently.' She tapped her notes with a pencil, thinking how to say it. ‘Kind of eerie, actually – a tall, good-looking woman in a big white apron, with dough and flour spread out all over this butcher block table. She's kneading the daylights out of the loaf she's making and watering it with her tears.'

‘So she already knew about the . . .'

‘Well, see, that's what I thought. So I said, “Oh, so you already know?” And she said, “Well, of course I know, I've been out on the road with them since four o'clock this morning”.

‘I said, “What? Out on the road where?” And she said, “Where they got hit, County Road 230, by the back pasture gate”. I just kind of stared at her, very confused, till she said, “Aren't you here to ask about the accident?”

‘I said that's what we're trying to figure out, if it was an accident, and she said, “Of course it was an accident; nobody runs over horses with a truck on purpose”. So then of course I had to say I didn't know anything about horses getting run over by a truck and she said, “If you don't know about the horses why are you here?”

‘I felt like the whole investigation was sliding out of control about then so I said, “Ma'am, do you know where your husband is right now?” and she drew herself up like this . . .' Rosie did the best a short Irish redhead can do to imitate a statuesque German blonde, adding, in case we didn't get it, ‘Kind of like a Valkyrie, but with flour on her nose . . .'

‘OK, Rosie,' I said, ‘well-built blonde does power farm wife – I think we all got that part.'

‘I'm only trying to convey to you,' Rosie said, retreating behind her stoic street cop's face – it means she'd like to throw a brick at your head but is waiting for a better time – ‘this woman is not your average country hausfrau. And she doesn't seem to match the dead man we found.'

‘But she answers to Doris Kester? The horse lady?'

‘Yes. And there's a barn full of elegant horseflesh at the bottom of the yard, which I have no doubt she can handle with ease. Turned out she was crying because two of their show horses – “including the best quarter horse I ever owned!” she said – somehow got out on the road and got hit. Jumped right in front of a big tanker hauling milk and both of them had to be put down. That's where her husband was, she said, fixing the break in the fence.'

‘Are you sure this bread-baking scene wasn't staged for your benefit? It felt real to you?'

‘Absolutely. She cut and kneaded six loaves of bread and a panful of biscuits while she talked to me. Handles dough like a baker.'

‘OK, she's good at everything. What did you say to her?'

‘I asked her if the pasture she's talking about borders the field where the goose hunters were shooting. She said yes, up on the north end it does. They own that cornfield too, but the hunters rent it in the Fall. Then I said we'd found a man shot just inside the goose-hunting field, and we're here to find out if it might be her husband. She said, “No, no, soon as we heard the horses were out on the road Owen sent two men out to inspect the fence line, and they called his cell in just a few minutes and said they'd found the break”.

‘I said I was surprised they could find it in the dark and she said the break wasn't far from the gate at the bottom end of the pasture, so Owen told them to stay there and watch it so no more horses could get out. He went up to the barn to load the pickup full of fencing gear, to take out to them. “He's down there now, somewhere near the county road”,' she said, “wherever they found the break, and he'll stay out there till they get the fence fixed. It must be one helluva break, it's taking forever. I expected him back an hour ago”.'

BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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