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Authors: Elizabeth Gunn

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BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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‘Arlo's got all his guides ready to confirm that they scrupulously make sure their hunters use only steel shot,' Ray said. ‘This is very good news for the Hiawatha Valley Hunt Club.'

‘I got that part,' I said, thinking about Ethan Kester's conflicted face across the table.

‘Not such welcome news for us and the Kester family, I guess,' Ray said, and asked the question I had asked myself earlier. ‘Because if the bird hunters didn't shoot Owen Kester, who did?'

SIX

E
than said he had to hurry back to his office. ‘Letters to sign, a contract to check on.' He always seemed to be at pains to appear busier than anybody else. ‘After that I'll be with my parents.' He gave us their number. ‘I'm sure you can understand they're simply devastated. If you can give them a day or two, I'll really appreciate . . .' Even when he said compassionate things, his pomposity somehow leached all the sympathy out of the room. ‘They want to help, of course.'

‘Good. Tell them to call me tomorrow,' Ray said, handing him a card. He was back in charge of his department now, hot to go on the investigation. He glanced down at the note I'd just passed him and added: ‘You have another brother? Where can I reach him?'

‘Oh . . . Matt.' Matt's name called up a shrug that suggested he was easy to forget. ‘Yes, I suppose you do need to talk to him.' Ethan sighed. ‘He called the folks late Saturday when he came to town on his regular supply run. He hadn't heard about Owen and when they told him he got very upset. Owen was his buddy, he depended on his support.

‘He lost control and started to cry, Mom said, when he heard Owen was dead. He said he couldn't talk any more right then, but he promised he'd come back in town Sunday. But Sunday he never showed.' He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times. ‘So typical,' he said, in a strained, choked-sounding voice. ‘Matt's always been . . . kind of juvenile. You can't count on him to remember his promises, and in a crisis he's just . . . useless. Owen and I are the strivers, I guess you'd say. Matt's the playboy.'

‘I need to talk to him. What's his number?'

Ethan gave him a number but added: ‘He's hard to reach, though . . . he's outside most of the time and he often forgets to carry his cell phone. But I'll find him,' he said hastily, seeing Ray's expression. ‘I'll have him call you.'

‘He needs to come in here. I can send somebody out to the farm to talk to the employees who were working Saturday morning. But family members, we need to interview each of you here, at the station. I know everybody's upset,' he treated Ethan to a Grade-A example of the Bailey frown, which has been known to raise blisters, ‘but accidental death has been ruled out now. The bird hunters didn't shoot your brother; the shot that was in him doesn't match. This is a homicide investigation, and we need to get on with it.'

‘Well, I still think, in some way we don't understand yet, this is going to turn out to be an accident. Who'd want to kill Owen? But nobody's trying to dodge you, detective,' Ethan said stiffly. ‘Ask around. The Kesters are one of the founding families of this county. We have no need to play tricks.'

‘Good,' Ray said, clamping the muscles of his jaw tight. ‘Then I'll expect him to call soon.'

As soon as Ethan was gone we huddled around the conference table. I told Ray why Rosie and Clint had gone back to the farm, and that Doris had just called to say she could come in now, and was this a good time?

‘Yes, yes, let's get her in here today,' Ray said. ‘And listen, can we leave the interview line-up the way you had it? Because I already talked to this woman. I'll monitor outside with Andy for a while, and if I don't hear anything unexpected I'll go on and write up the autopsy.'

‘If you're acquainted,' Andy said, ‘tell us what you know about her.'

‘Rosie and I both thought this lady was perfectly straightforward. So if you see any fancy footwork that I missed, make a note. Jake, you'll be going for the timeline, right?'

‘Yeah. We need to be sure they're all telling the same story. And Winnie' – she was sitting beside me, trying not to show how pleased she was that Ray had not bumped her out of the interview – ‘we need to get some sense of the marriage, of how things were between them. Little early for that, of course, but . . .' I stopped when I saw them all nodding, wearing the look cops get when a colleague restates the obvious. Such as: at first, the newly deceased will be universally praised, remembered for his many virtues. In time, his faults will resurface.

Doris Kester walked into the station a few minutes after three looking calm and capable – no sign of the hysteria Rosie had reported on Saturday. Her beauty didn't seem to need or get much assistance – a shine of lipstick, hair in a bun. She wore clean Levis and a turtleneck sweater, and made both garments look like the luckiest cotton in town.

We got her settled in an interview room without much preamble and began to review the terrible events that had torn up her life on Saturday morning. The dying horses that had caused so much distress in the predawn darkness concerned her less now – she basically waved them away, saying, ‘Accidents to animals happen on farms, no matter how careful you are. But Owen . . . I keep asking myself, “How could this happen?” I've been over it and over it, and it just doesn't make any sense – Owen shouldn't even have been in that end of the pasture, and why would he wander in front of men shooting guns? He wasn't a careless man.'

She was still trying to explain her husband's death as an accidental shooting by goose hunters. Without knowing how much of that assumption might be a ruse, I had to get her to abandon it now.

‘I know you've had a terrible shock and I wish I didn't have to ask you to go over it all again, but there's some new information I need to share with you . . .' I explained the lab findings to her.

She wasn't a shooter but had lived all her life with men who were. She understood about the ammo and saw at once that the goose hunters were no longer suspects.

‘But then who' – as she processed the information, her voice got a little higher, raspy and short of breath – ‘who did shoot him?'

‘That's what we need to find out,' I said. ‘Who did shoot him and why?' I watched her do some more fast thinking. ‘You got any ideas?'

‘Well, God no. Why would anybody? I mean . . . Owen was . . . a quiet farmer who kept to himself.' She blinked several times, fighting for control. She turned sideways in her chair, said something silently to herself, turned back and took a deep breath. ‘This is . . . hard to believe.'

‘I know. But we need to keep this investigation moving forward and right now you're the only one who can help us.'

‘I am? I don't know how I can help. I've just been out there in the country, doing what I always do.'

‘Let's start with that,' I said. ‘It wasn't a normal morning, was it? The horses getting out on the road, how often does that happen?'

‘Never! Owen keeps our fences right up to snuff! Kept.' She shuffled her feet and looked embarrassed. ‘I keep doing that. He's not gone for me yet.'

‘Perfectly natural,' I said.

‘Is it? I can't tell. Nothing feels natural to me right now.'

‘I bet. Have you figured out what happened?'

She stared. ‘Isn't that your job?'

‘To the fence, I mean.'

‘Oh. We've been calling it a break in the fence but now Elmer says the wire was cut.'

‘Elmer's one of the men your husband sent to find the break?'

‘Yes. Now they tell me Owen never got back to them with the tools and wire, so they went ahead and jury-rigged a mend with the tools they had on them, then rode back to the barn and went to work. By the time they got all the horses fed and watered your detectives were there with the picture, and we all got kind of crazy.'

‘But Elmer can show us where the break was?'

‘Sure.'

‘Were you surprised when Elmer told you the wire had been cut?'

‘Well, in a way, because who would do such a thing? We all know each other out there. But on the other hand, I asked Owen that morning, out on the road, “How could the horses get out?” and he said, “I don't know but I'm sure as hell gonna find out”. Real disgusted, because he always kept his fences solid and tight, and he ragged on everybody about closing gates. Another thing: the horses weren't torn up – they had broken bones from the truck, but not the cuts they'd get from barbed wire. And we both knew a horse that broke through one of Owen's fences would be cut up bad.'

‘Why would somebody cut your fence? Got any feuds going with neighbors?'

‘Absolutely not. We both grew up here. We have lifelong friendships in our neighborhood. And I run a riding school. I know the value of good will, and I work at keeping it.'

‘So who do you think cut your fence?'

‘I have absolutely no idea.'

Confronted with that dead end, I decided to back off and approach the morning from a little more distance. ‘Tell me,' I said, ‘a little more about your life. You grew up in the country? Your parents were farmers?'

‘Still are. Their place is farther north, on the other side of the river. Smaller . . . and quieter. The Kleinschmidts are not as . . . hell-bent on progress as the Kesters.' She showed a glint of amusement. ‘My dad has the same three-hundred-and-sixty acres he's always had and he and my brothers do all the work themselves.'

She had married Owen Kester, she said, at the end of her first year at university, ‘which turned out to be my last year, because by the time we were married I was pregnant'. She told this part of her story matter-of-factly, with no embarrassment over the early pregnancy. Owen finished his degree less than two years after the wedding, going full-time to class while she toughed it out in student housing with a baby. For his graduation, Owen got the present he'd been promised: a job on the family farm.

‘Most of my friends thought I'd feel cheated, quitting school for a shotgun wedding. But they were wrong. Owen and I had been dating since our first year of high school and we were ready to settle down and raise a family. We felt lucky to be farmers on our own place. Naturally we weren't glad when his dad had a heart attack four years after Owen graduated, but to be honest it fit right in with our long-term plans. We'd been living in a double-wide next to the house, but as soon as Henry got out of the hospital, Ethan and Owen helped their parents move to town. Ethan went back to his dorm at the U and on to law school, and we moved into the main house.

‘But by then it was clear that our son Alan had some problems.' She hunched her shoulders and brooded, briefly, then took a deep breath and explained. ‘He'd hit all his marks as a baby, learned to walk all right, a little late but they said that wasn't unusual for a first-born. They don't have, you know, examples to follow. He'd been babbling like they do when they're getting ready to talk, but shortly after his second birthday he just . . . quit.' She shook her head, still struck dumb by the suddenness of his retreat. ‘Like he just folded up his little tent and walked away from camp.'

I thought about my nightly romp with Benny, how joyous he got when we played. Any questions I thought of were too painful to ask. I waited, and presently she said, ‘The next two years, we went for all the tests.' More silence, until she was able to say, ‘I finally settled for a diagnosis of autism. Not that the name helps much because the symptoms vary so widely. But so-called experts place kids “somewhere on the spectrum” and tell you to accept it. Learn to make do, they say, with very small successes. Which I've done.

‘Alan pretty much lives on his own island and life on the farm flows around him.' Her voice had grown gravelly, as if her throat hurt. ‘He talks to me, a little. Not to anybody else. He watches and listens, though.' A flash of a smile. ‘Some people would be surprised to learn how much he knows about them.'

‘You have other children?'

‘Two. Not an easy decision, but Owen said, “Why let one misfortune rule our lives?” So we went ahead with Heidi and when we saw what a joy she was we rolled the dice again and got Jeff, a good little farmer like his dad. They're five and eight now and normal in every respect. I was about ready to take a deep breath and relax a little, if that might ever describe life on a farm that's going flat out like a runaway train. But now my husband gets . . . murdered?'

Her face was suddenly all craggy and furrowed – a preview of how she would look in old age. ‘Is that what we have to call it now? On his own f-f-farm?' She broke down. Tears flew out of her and she cried out, ‘How the hell am I supposed to accept
that
?'

‘You're not. It's too soon for that.' Winnie surprised me, leaning forward suddenly on my left, talking softly across the little table to the top of the sobbing woman's head. She nudged the box of tissues closer to Doris's side. ‘Mrs Kester, my grandmother died last year.'

She did? Why didn't I know that?

‘She was the one who always held the family together, even in the refugee camps, and here during the first years when nobody wanted us around. So now . . . I find that I can't afford to let her go. I need to tell her things the way I always have. So I just go ahead and talk to her every day.'

I was astonished, hearing spiritual confidences spill out of the normally stoic Amy Nguyen in this bleak little room.
Didn't she go through the same training course we all took? What the hell's come over her?
But then I saw that it seemed to be working for Doris Kester.

‘You do?' She pulled a handful of tissues out of the box, mopped her face and smiled crookedly down at Winnie. ‘Does she ever answer?'

BOOK: Eleven Little Piggies
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