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Authors: Elizabeth Gunn

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BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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‘They didn't call you from the farm, then? About the accident on the road.' When he stared, looking surprised, I said, ‘The horses?'

‘Good heavens, no. Why would they?'

‘I don't know. You said you were very active in the organization, responsible for its recent rise in profits, so I thought they might ask your advice about the dead animals.'

He sat back in his chair then and looked me over carefully. ‘Now that sounds somewhat . . . hostile,' he said. ‘Have I annoyed you in some way?' He knew he had.

‘Nope. Just trying to understand how your organization works. If they didn't call you about the horses, when did you wake up?'

‘Seven minutes past five.' I raised my eyebrows over the precision of his answer and he added: ‘Coffee's set to start perking at five and the alarm goes off seven minutes later.'

‘I see, regular habits – that makes it easier. What's next?'

‘I get a cup and bring it back to bed to drink while I glance at the paper. Then I get up and shower . . . do you really want all this?'

‘Please.'

‘Dress, eat a bowl of cereal, and I'm on my way to my office by a few minutes after six.'

‘Even on Saturday?'

‘Every day but Sunday. Yes.'

‘Do lawyers usually go to work that early?'

‘Some do. I'm the junior partner in my family's law firm, so I do most of the dog work – billing and routine correspondence, case law from Lexus, other research on the Internet. Then there's legal work for the farm. I try to get that out of the way early so it doesn't interfere with the firm's regular work.'

‘Anybody see you leave home? Are you married?'

‘Yes, I'm married and no, my wife does not wake up to watch me get dressed and wave goodbye.' He snickered to indicate how ludicrous he found the concept of morning companionship.

‘She's a sound sleeper then?'

‘I believe so but we don't share a bedroom, if that's what you're trying to find out.'

Now that
, I briefly thought of saying,
sounds more than a little hostile.
But then I'd be tetchy too if my wife had quit sharing my bedroom. In fact, I'd be too pissed off to think about much else for quite a while, I realized, and wanted to ask Ethan Kester how long ago she had moved out and how the marriage was going since then. But it didn't seem to bear on the crime at hand so I shook off that distraction and pressed on, anxious to get out of his bleak morning bedroom and get on with his day.

‘Anybody see you arrive at your office?'

‘No. Well, maybe the janitorial service in the building. Sometimes we run into each other, sometimes we don't. I'm trying to remember if I saw any of them Saturday morning. I don't think so.' He thought. ‘I log in on my computer first thing – I guess you could check that.'

‘Uh-huh.' We looked at each other across our mutual awareness that anybody could boot up his computer if he wanted them to. Did he have a little helper? ‘But nobody else comes in early?'

‘My secretary gets there about eight.' He paused a couple of beats. ‘Usually.' He seemed to reconsider. ‘Actually, my Saturday secretary sometimes comes in a little earlier.'

I was just going to make a note: Secretary, 8 a.m., till he added that carefully considered, ‘Usually.' I looked up then, in time to see him lick his lips, and add the third estimate of his secretary's arrival time. By the time he'd said ‘my Saturday secretary', I had quit writing and was watching him carefully.

‘Your Saturday secretary?' I asked him. ‘You have different ones for different days?'

‘Only on Saturday. The regular one, Angela, works five days a week, and until recently I got along without help on Saturday. But lately my work load's been heavier, so we found a student from the college to come in for one day.' He looked into the corner of the interview room for a few seconds before he added: ‘And sometimes she comes earlier so she can get away earlier. For a, you know, a game or something.'

I said, ‘How much earlier?'

‘Well, last Saturday I believe it was actually around seven.' He still seemed uncommonly interested in the corner of the interview room, which was dingy and undecorated and only three feet away.

I said, ‘Give me her name and address.'

‘Patty . . . um, Patricia. Is it Johnson or Carlson?' He said he didn't know, offhand, where she lived – had trouble saying the word ‘offhand'. But, let's see, he guessed he knew her email address. After some confusion over where to put the dots he said he'd send it to me.

By now I wanted that Saturday secretary right here in the interview room with us, and the hell with her email address. But I didn't want Ethan to get back up on his high horse, and I thought that whether they were working or romping she was a witness to his whereabouts, so I just asked him to send it as soon as he got back to his office, and went on with what I really wanted to know: did he stay in his office till he got the news about his brother?

‘Sure did,' he said, ‘because I was working on a land deal for a difficult client who's always in a hurry. It was complicated, a three-way swap involving land and money and they both kept moving the goalposts so I—'

‘I don't need all the details,' I said. Like all of us, Ethan thought his own work was fascinating.

‘OK, well, I was still working on that when Doris called from the farm. Crying, saying that Owen was dead.'

‘What time was that?' I was looking for wiggle room, holes in the story.

‘I don't remember exactly but I'll get it for you. It was whenever I logged off my computer. I got in my car then and drove straight to the farm.

‘I learned as much as I could from Doris and her employees – it was just chaos out there, nobody really knew anything. So I came back to the office, thinking I'd call the Chief of Police and find out who was handling the investigation and . . . I found a message from your detective . . . Bailey, is that his name? Yes. I called him, he told me where he was working and I went there. The rest of the morning I guess you know.'

‘Yes.' So far, his story looked solid as a brick wall. ‘Now tell me about your relationship with the victim.'

‘The victim.' He made a face. ‘Do you have any idea how shocking it is to hear your own brother referred to that way?'

‘I'm sorry. I know none of this is easy. I'll just call him Owen from now on, OK? Was he older or younger than you?'

‘Older. I'm the lucky second son. I was free to go to law school because the folks always knew, since we were boys, that Owen would stay and run the farm.'

‘Somebody had to?'

‘Well, the family's had the place since great-grandfather's time. It was always taken for granted – I mean, nobody's ever talked about selling the home place.'

‘Isn't there another brother?'

‘Yes. Matt is five years younger than me. But he wasn't interested in farming – he liked to sing and ride horses.' He shrugged, and Matt pretty much vanished off-screen.

‘So Owen stayed on the farm and you went to law school. But you seem to have remained very interested in the farm.'

‘Yes. I guess in a way I never left home either. Owen and I have both worked there since we were toddlers. Our dad insisted we do our chores, no matter what was going on in school – and I came home to work all vacations through college and law school. Now . . . I don't do chores any more, of course' – he settled the crease in his pants, looking briefly pleased with himself – ‘but as soon as I passed the Bar I took over the legal and financial work.'

‘Are your parents still involved?'

‘Oh, you bet. It's a family corporation now. They're on the board of directors and take part in all major decisions.'

‘That would be Anna Carrie and, let's see . . .?'

‘Henry. They kept very close tabs on the place for the first couple of years after they moved to town. But lately they're enjoying retirement more. They go south for a couple of months every winter, miss a few meetings. They stay in touch by phone, though. And God forbid,' an ironic smile and eye roll here, ‘we forget to send the monthly statements and check. Also, we can count on them to question any big expenditures they haven't agreed to.'

‘Like buying more land?'

‘Oh, we'd never do that without their approval. We grew slowly at first – a couple of nearby pastures that people didn't need when they sold off herds. Then a whole adjoining farm, the one we call Halfway, about ten years ago. That's when we began to buy pure-bred Holsteins – Owen's idea and it's finally paying off. And when I saw how lucrative the ethanol market was becoming, I pushed to buy River Farm three years ago, so we could grow our hay down there and put more of the Home Farm acreage into corn.' He crossed his legs and sighed. ‘Growth isn't easy, of course. We've been land-rich and cash-poor, like most farmers, for a lot of years.'

‘But Doris has quite a successful riding stable too, doesn't she?'

He made a small, dismissive sound: ‘Hmmp.' I watched him consider how to make his case without sounding mean-spirited. ‘Depends how you define success. She enjoys a wonderful reputation for producing winners – horses and riders both. But horse sales and riding lessons . . .' He sighed. ‘More flash than cash, a lot of the time.' An ironic smile next, to show forbearance. It seemed to me he had these little set pieces composed and stored up for making his points. ‘County fairs and gymkhanas must be the most expensive form of advertising ever devised by the mind of man.'

‘So the farm doesn't make enough money to satisfy you?'

‘I didn't say that. It's always made a fair living, and I have my own practice. But it's only in the last few years, since we expanded the corn crop – at my insistence, I'd like to point out – that we're showing a good return on investment.' A small, self-deprecatory chuckle. ‘In fact, we did so well last year I was finally able to charge for my legal work.'

The lawyer who was proud of doing no chores on the farm wanted to be sure I understood how central he was to the success of the place.

‘But now there's an issue, isn't there, about whether to sell the farm by the river to sand miners?'

‘Oh . . .' he cleared his throat, ‘we have had an offer, yes. Nothing's decided yet.'

‘But you're quite interested? It's a lot of money?'

‘Dear me, how gossip does travel.' He sniffed again – he had a knack for accusative sniffing. ‘These offers do tend to be quite sizeable, because we're talking about a unique resource that exists in only a few places and is essential to certain processes. Glass manufacture is one . . .'

‘And fracking?'

‘That's another use for it, the one that's got everybody all excited right now. It's very lucrative and quite controversial. And of course Minnesota folks will seize any excuse for a fight, as you must have noticed.' He had a little humorless laugh that seemed designed to reduce any opposition to a joke. ‘Fortunately controversy is very good for the law business.'

‘How did Owen feel about the sale? Was he for it?'

‘Not so far. But the folks like the idea. After all, it's not the Home Farm the buyers are after – just the River Farm, that piece of land by the river that we bought three years ago for a hay field.'

‘So you figured you could talk Owen into selling when the time came? There wasn't any argument going on?'

‘We always had a lot going on and it wasn't in the cards that we could run a family business together and never argue. There are pros and cons about the River Farm sale and we haven't figured them all out yet. But luckily my firm's doing fine and so is the farming operation as a whole, so there's no hurry about making a decision.'

‘Whose idea was it to rent the cornfield to bird hunters?' I asked.

‘They came to us. But we all agreed on that deal right from the start – there simply isn't any downside. After the corn's harvested, you know, usually we sell right away but sometimes it's better to hold out for a better price. Renting the field – it doesn't make any big fortune, but it's money coming in. Makes it easier to wait.'

‘And Owen agreed – it was OK with him?'

‘Once he was sure . . . he made me go back to the hunt company several times till he was satisfied about their safety measures.'

‘Then how could he possibly have wandered into the line of fire and gotten shot?'

‘Don't you think I've asked myself that question over and over?' When his anxiety peaked his face resembled a death mask: the skin grew sallower and his eyes seemed to sink in his head. ‘Doris says he wasn't even supposed to be in that end of the field. The break in the fence where the horses got out was down at the other end of the pasture, near the gate.'

The call-waiting light showed on my cell phone. I said, ‘Excuse me,' and walked out of the interview room to answer.

It was Ray. ‘Pokey finished the autopsy about an hour ago,' he said. ‘But I stopped here at the crime lab because I thought you'd want to know as soon as possible . . . that was number seven-and-a-half birdshot Pokey took out of the body. Very small lead pellets suitable for upland bird hunting. The ammo used for waterfowl is number four steel shot – well, you know that, don't you?'

‘Boy, do I. They made sure that's what everybody was using, checked it more than once.' Waterfowl ammo is larger, for long-distance shooting, and these days it has to be steel because a lot of environmentalists started to claim that lead shot was poisoning the dabbling ducks that feed off the bottom of rivers. There was a public argument that went on for some time, and some hunters still mutter from time to time that ‘the tree huggers never made their case'. But the law got passed anyway, and steel shot is the only legal ammo now for hunting waterfowl.

BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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