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Authors: Elizabeth Gunn

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BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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Rosie blew hair up and said ruefully. ‘Then I showed her the picture.'

‘What did she do?'

‘Dropped the knife she'd been using to cut off dough – kind of flung it away, so it clattered across the table and fell on the floor. And started yelling, making a God-awful amount of noise, this big voice coming out of a beautiful face, so surprising – yelling “Omigod!” and things like that and then names, and people came running – from the horse barn, the walk-in cooler and some older building on the other side of the cooler – they have a lot of hands on that farm. Couple of women in rubber aprons trotted in from a workroom that adjoins the kitchen, holding their hands up like this' – she illustrated, hands aloft like a TV surgeon after scrubbing.

‘Why?'

‘I looked out there later and saw they were making sausage. I guess they were greasy.'

‘So, a busy place, what of it?'

‘I don't know, I just – I felt like I was interrupting a peaceful flow of
useful work
,
you see? Made me feel . . . rude. But after they'd all run around yelling for a while, I got a different feeling – that this was a real calamity for all of them, they were very distressed and –'

We all waited while she sat there, shrugging uneasily, trying think how to describe what she had felt. When I couldn't stand it any longer I said, ‘Just say how it made you feel.'

‘OK.' She took a deep breath, blew it out, and said quickly, ‘I felt like they were very distressed and – alarmed, but at the same time not exactly . . . surprised. I saw a couple of them look at each other like, “You see?” Kind of the way my mother used to look at my father when we were kids and my brothers did something outrageous. She'd give him a look that said, “I told you to deal with this”.'

She looked at us guiltily. ‘I know that's not fair. Ugly picture of her dead husband, who wouldn't yell?'

‘Well, right,' I said. ‘But still, you've interviewed witnesses after crimes plenty of times before, so you must have felt that for a reason. Was it kind of a powder keg feeling – did it seem to you they'd been expecting something to go wrong?'

‘Yes.' She searched her memory, head cocked a little like a pointer looking into a bush. ‘
Something
in the air . . . like distant thunder.' Inadvertently she shivered and rubbed her upper arms.

I said, ‘How about you, Clint? You get any vibes?'

‘Well, not from any of those people. Because on the way over there Rosie and I agreed that it would be best use of our time if Rosie talked to the wife while I kind of moseyed around the yard and outbuildings looking for . . . you know,
whatever.
'

He looked so sheepish when he said it that I remembered how he had tried not to go on this errand.

I gave him my coldest eye and said, ‘So you managed to weasel out of the death announcement after all.'

‘Well, now . . . OK, call it that if you want to. But it was lucky I was outside when the ruckus started. Because that's when I met Maynard.'

‘Who's Maynard?'

‘One of the hands . . . not a cowboy, they don't herd those beauties they got in that dairy . . . probably wrap 'em in bubble wrap and haul 'em in padded vans. Maynard's just a journeyman stall-mucker and hay-hauler, I guess, but his major talent is gossip. Maynard's got his ear to the ground – he's curious about everything, especially the boss's wife. And he loves to talk – my kind of a guy,' Clint said, beaming proudly.

‘So you got lots of skinny from him?'

‘Boy, did I. Including a run-down on the big farming operation and a description of the major family fights.'

‘This rich industrious family fights? When do they find time?'

‘Morning, noon and night according to Maynard. Ethan and Owen argue constantly about the best way to run the farm. Ethan's got shares in the corporation, they all do. Including Doris after she practically staged a revolution, said she was working just as hard here as Owen and if she didn't get her own shares she was going to quit and go work in town. Maynard says there's nobody like her with the newborn calves, and the horses are entirely her doing, so they had to give in.'

‘So it's all about money?'

‘Not exactly. There's a third brother named Matt. He's the maverick who recently returned after years away on the rodeo circuit. That seems to be mostly about jealousy – Ethan didn't want to let him back into the corporation because the folks always treat him like a star, he says, at least the mother does, and he doesn't pull his weight. But Owen says, “He's our brother, he belongs here. I'm the one doing all the hard work so butt out”, and Ethan says, “I'm doing the legal work that makes it pay so I've got every right to an opinion”.

‘He told me something else – maybe this accounts for the feeling Rosie got. He said the farm has had a strange run of bad luck lately: the horses getting out are just the latest in a string of bad things happening.'

‘Like what?'

‘Um . . . a whole load of milk spoiled before the hauler could pick it up – somehow the power failed on the cooling station where they hold it. Let's see, what else? Oh, yeah, a good horse pulled up lame in the pasture, they never could find out what happened to it. And then in the last rainstorm a tree fell on the house at River Farm, so now they're all fighting over whether to repair it or tear it down and build a new one like Matt wants.'

‘So does your gossip see some sinister plot behind all this bad luck?'

‘No, but he says the old hands are shaking their heads and saying these things never used to happen when Henry was running the place. Henry's the old man – he's retired now.'

‘You and Maynard must have really hit it off.'

‘Well, he likes to talk and I like to listen, so it's a match made in heaven. And listen to this – there's a new fight that's getting really hot this year, because the family got an offer from some Canadian company for a piece of land they call the River Farm – the one I've just mentioned – over near Red Wing.'

‘Another farm?'

‘Mostly hay land, Maynard says – he hauls a lot of hay from there to the dairy farm.'

‘OK,' I said. ‘What's the issue?'

‘The company making the offer is a sand-mining firm. Apparently River Farm has huge deposits of silica sand.'

‘Ah. One of those money-versus-ecology fights. Nasty.'

‘You lost me about two sentences back,' Andy said. ‘What the hell is silica sand?'

‘Andy,' Clint said, ‘come on, you know what silica sand is.'

‘If I did would I ask and give you a chance to sneer at me?'

‘It's those perfectly round quartz crystals we have in the Jordan formation,' I said. ‘And the, what's that other name? Wonowoc. Big deposits underground. Good for making glass.'

‘Only now,' Clint said, ‘the big demand is for fracking.'

‘Oh, fracking, I heard about that.' Andy scratched and stretched. ‘But that's over in the Dakotas, isn't it?'

Andy doesn't follow the news very closely because he thinks most of what's happening in the twenty-first century is utter nonsense. Every time he turns on his TV set, he says, he sees something sillier than the time before. ‘One day last year I came across this program called
Dancing With the
Stars –
you ever see that?
Jesus. There was a guy on there, used to be in the US House of Representatives, now he's on that show dancing the tango. Making a horse's ass of himself – a Republican, can you beat that?'

‘Andy,' I said, ‘about the fracking?'

‘Yeah, OK. They mix that sand with water, right, and pump it into the ground?'

‘Along with certain chemicals nobody wants to talk about,' I said. ‘It breaks up the rock and lets the gas and oil percolate up where they can pump it.'

‘So we can have our own oil wells,' Clint said, ‘and tell Iran to take a flying leap.'

‘Which is probably a good thing,' Rosie said, ‘but the big question is, what's all that slurry we're pumping underground doing to the aquifers?'

‘Not to mention how much people in the tourism industry hate those sand mines being dug near the Mississippi,' Clint said. ‘Messing up the bluffs – hate it! But Maynard said to me, “Lotta farmers in this part of the country spent their lives struggling to pay the mortgage and taxes. Easy money's hard to resist after years of hard labor”.'

‘Easy money's hard to resist no matter what you been doing,' Andy said. ‘Who's winning?'

‘So far, in the Kester family it's a draw. The parents say hold off a while, as a lot of counties have a moratorium on sand mining right now – they want to see how much the bidding goes up when that ends. They figure sooner or later the moratorium can't last because the need for new sources of oil is so great and the profits so high, no government can hold out against exploiting it for long.'

‘Maynard told you all this?'

‘Yes. I told you, he's a talker; he knows a good story when he hears one.'

‘Or makes one up?'

‘Most of what he told me has the ring of truth about it, it seemed to me. Ethan wants to sell now because he's afraid Minnesota and Wisconsin have so much sand that pretty soon the price will go down. Doris and Matt both say they want whatever Owen wants, and Owen's been saying, “over my dead body will anybody turn my beautiful River Farm into a sand pit”.' Clint cocked one cynical eyebrow. ‘Looks like he got his wish.'

‘My, my,' I said. ‘You do give me interesting items to talk over with Ethan. Anything else happen outside while Rosie was inside doing what she was assigned to do?'

Clint scowled over the cheap shot but answered anyway. ‘I don't know where it fits in all this but there is something odd about that boy who ran into the house when the yelling started. The one Maynard says pokes his nose into everyone's business but never talks.'

‘Wait, now. Whose boy?'

‘I don't know, but he lives there. He talks funny; I couldn't make out what he said. Once it sort of sounded like “Mama” but he looked too big to be saying that.'

‘That's Alan,' Rosie said. ‘He's her son.'

‘What?' Clint stared at her. ‘You sure? Who told you that?'

‘The sausage ladies. I know – it's hard to believe.'

‘Boy, is it ever. A wimpy little weenie who won't look anybody in the eye? He belongs to that tall, beautiful dame?'

I said, ‘So he's another member of the corporation?'

‘Not exactly,' Rosie said. ‘He's Alan Kester, the bread lady's strangely silent boy. The help out there say he's autistic.'

‘What's that got to do with the case?' Andy shook his notes impatiently as if they might have crumbs.

‘Probably nothing. I'm just reciting facts as they come along, OK? They say – the employees there say – that their orders are to leave Alan alone and let Doris handle him. Which they say they're glad to do because if he gets puzzled or agitated Alan can get pretty hostile.'

‘OK,' I said. ‘We got a lot on our plates here, so let's not argue. We still haven't settled the main question: was Owen Kester's death accidental or a homicide?'

‘I thought we were going to answer that when we went back to look in the cooler Saturday night,' Clint said. He was carefully not meeting Rosie's eye. She was glaring at him like a hungry hawk, waiting for a chance to sink her talons in him if he said one word about her mistaken hunch. ‘But since we didn't find anything but a little weed on that excursion . . .'

Rosie pounced. ‘You make it sound like I just wanted a little joyride. You think I do that for fun, stumble around strange outbuildings in the frozen dark while family lawyers hurl threats?'

‘No.' He faced her squarely with his good-boy-scout-freckled face, sick of dodging her anger. ‘I wanted to go back out there as much as you did and it's not my fault we didn't find anything, so why don't you quit trying to make me the bad guy?'

‘Yeah, Rosie,' I said, ‘I stuck my neck out on that maneuver too, so ease up on the defensiveness, will you? Nobody's blaming you; we're all in this mess together.'

‘Anyway,' Clint said, ‘maybe when Ray gets back here he'll tell us the autopsy just settled the question.'

‘Wouldn't that be fine?' I said. ‘Meantime, Ethan's coming in for an interview in a few minutes, and according to Ray he's all primed to rip me a new one.'

‘And Doris is scheduled for some time this afternoon,' Rosie said, ‘if she shows. I tried to get a firm time but she says she's got a hundred jobs to do on the farm now; the whole staff's waiting for orders and there's nobody but her to keep the place running so “you guys are just going to have to take a number”.' Rosie held her hands out palms up. ‘I'm just telling you what she said.'

‘Rosie, you know we don't stand in line for anybody in a homicide investigation.'

‘I know, Jake, but the woman is understandably somewhat frantic and I'm trying to give her a little space.'

‘Yeah. Well . . . I want you to sit in with me on the Doris interview, Rosie. Clint, you better be my second on Ethan, since Ray's not here and you know him better than the rest of us do. And Winnie, you monitor both conversations outside.'

‘OK. I suppose we're looking for inconsistencies, right? But I'm not sure I know enough yet to spot one.'

‘Well . . . evasions, accusations – Ethan seems to be into blame. Why's he so angry? See if his answers agree with Doris's – did she seem at all shifty to you, Rosie?'

‘Not a bit. Everything right upfront. Confidence up the ying yang – you'll see.'

‘Guess I will. Decide if she strikes you the same way, Winnie. What other questions does anybody have before I see these two powerhouses?'

BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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