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Authors: Kathleen Hills

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BOOK: Past Imperfect
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“No, I don't remember that he ever did, but I haven't talked to David for a long time. I thought he just worked for Wylie.” She gave a shudder. “That guy really gives me the creeps, the way he sort of hunches over…and that half an arm. When I was little, my dad worked for him sometimes, and Ma would make me take his lunch over. Once Wylie lifted me up onto the hay wagon, and he had a hook on his arm! It scared the bejeebers out of me. I had nightmares for weeks. All us kids used to work picking strawberries at his place, but if I saw him coming I'd head for cover.”

McIntire took time out from his investigation to give a member of the younger generation a lesson in both history and compassion, presenting Cindy with an inspiring account of the famous fire, the bravery and resourcefulness of both rescuer and rescued, and their abiding friendship. She listened patiently to his tale—Colin McIntire himself couldn't have told it better—not squirming more than was to be expected. Once or twice his words actually seemed to elicit a slight flicker of interest. Particularly, McIntire thought, when he mentioned the dashing young doctor Mark Guibard who had been no less heroic than Nels himself in driving horse and sleigh through a night of heavy snow to reach the fallen boy, and how, despite being forever maimed, that boy had grown up to become a respected and prosperous gentleman, maybe even wealthier than Mr. Godwin himself.

Her attention was transient, however. Cindy's face soon assumed the thoughtful, distant expression of a child on the brink of death by boredom. McIntire brought her back to consciousness with a final question—was she absolutely sure that she had no idea where David might have gone? He received a tolerant sigh and a, “Yes, I'm sure.”

He stood up and fixed his eyes sternly on hers. “If you do hear from him, you'll let me or the sheriff know, won't you?” She nodded emphatically, a motion that sent her carefully drooping wave of hair cascading across her face, obscuring her expression.

As McIntire left, he noticed that Annie had abandoned the fish, and, with the help of a large collection of dandelions, was busy creating interesting yellow stripes on her chubby brown legs.

A few minutes later he was sharing the back booth of the Superior Bakery and Coffee Shop with Pete Koski and half a rhubarb pie, which appeared to be the sheriff's standard order. David's brother hadn't seen or heard from him, Koski said. He'd heard David was gone, of course, from their mother, but he wasn't too worried.

“Al says the kid's taken off before, usually after some disagreement, but never for more than a couple of days. Did he have a fight with anybody this time, do you know?”

“Dorothy says not,” McIntire answered. “She says he seemed perfectly normal when he went to work on Sunday. Did his brother know where David went when he disappeared in the past?”

Koski swallowed a forkful of pie before he spoke. “When he was a little shaver he would run off to the barn or into the woods and just sit tight. When he got older, Al thinks he did the same thing except that he could get farther with the car, and sleep in it, too. What did you find out from the girl? Is she anything like her mother? Now there's a looker. Eight kids she's got, too—almost makes you believe in the stork.”

Sandra Culver was widely renowned for her comeliness, which, if her husband was to be believed, was surpassed only by her vicious temper. As Earl Culver was wont to put it, without much originality, “She's as pretty as a picture and as mean as a snake.” Earl's tales of his spouse and her extraordinary ferocity had long been a major source of entertainment at the Waterfront Tavern.

“So I've heard,” McIntire said, “but I've only seen Mrs. Culver when she's been out shoveling snow, bundled to the eyeballs, so I can't comment on the resemblance. Cindy's an attractive child. Doesn't appear to be your wholesome, girl-next-door type though. She's happy as a clam at Godwin's, not exactly pining away for home, and who can blame her? I'd be willing to bet that the infamous Hunters' Dance incident was part of an ingenious scheme to get herself ‘sent away.' No doubt poor David never stood a chance. She denies having had any contact with him since she left St. Adele, which is, to put it bluntly, a lie.” McIntire took the letters from an inner pocket of his jacket and handed them to the sheriff.

Koski examined each of the envelopes. “Humph…Have you read these?”

“Every word, but I didn't find a thing to give a clue as to where David could be. She writes mainly about how she intends to be rich someday, or, more to the point, marry a rich man. She's a movie fan. Maybe David went to seek his fortune in Hollywood. I have it on good authority that he's ‘as cute as a bug's ear.'”

Koski extricated himself from the booth with some difficulty. “Okay if I take these?” He stuffed the letters into his shirt pocket. “And,” he added with a heavy note of resignation in his voice, “I'll talk to your fishermen. If there's anything to your suspicions, one of them would be the likely culprit. Maybe Bertelsen was cutting in on somebody's fishing territory.” His expression showed plainly that he was of the opinion that, if such was the case, homicide wouldn't be entirely out of line. “If he was killed intentionally, I very much doubt that there's going to be any kind of hard evidence to show it. Unless somebody was seen snooping around the boat, or the murderer confesses outright, we don't have a ghost of a chance of finding out what really happened. That dock is pretty isolated. There wouldn't of been anybody just passing by unless they were on the water. You might want to ask a few questions around the neighborhood…maybe the guilty party came home in the middle of the night covered with bee stings and smelling like fish.” He turned toward the door. “But don't start seeing bogy men behind every tree. This ain't London, you know.”

XI

It was past eight o'clock, but the sun was still high in the sky when McIntire strolled into the Thorsens' yard for the second time that week. If he was going to “ask a few questions,” Nick Thorsen might be the best place to start. He was always up and on his way early in the morning and, more to the point, from what Mia had implied, he had been out late the night before Nels died, most likely at the Waterfront Tavern. That tavern was located on a road that led to just one other place—Nels Bertelsen's dock. If anyone was messing around the
Frelser
that night, Nick or his friends might have seen them either coming or going. Nick was also in a position to be kept abreast of local happenings on a daily basis. And he wasn't above spreading the news of those happenings. The mailman was one of Leonie's most faithful sources. He would be sure to know about any unusual altercations Nels Bertelsen might have had.

Nick was seated on the porch, his feet on the railing, with a tumbler in his hand. He didn't get up when McIntire approached, but called out, “Bring another glass, Meggie!” and used one toe to push a chair in McIntire's general direction.

Mia came out, smiled a restrained greeting, and poured a second he-man sized glass of a dark liquid that McIntire feared was homemade wine.

McIntire watched as she retreated to the kitchen, her lean figure silhouetted by the light streaming through the screen door. He was, as always, struck by the contrast between Mia Thorsen and her husband. If she had combed the far reaches of the earth with the object of uniting herself to her exact antithesis she couldn't have made a better job of it.

Nick was short and compact, with the dusky skin and snapping black eyes of a gypsy prince. Even in his present relaxed attitude, he seemed as bursting with energy as a tightly wound spring. McIntire felt as he might have in the presence of a colorful snake lazing in the sun—one that he knew could deliver a deadly strike without warning.

He sipped tentatively from the glass and barely controlled an audible gasp.

“Chokecherry, September vintage,” Nick informed him. “Good nose, eh?”

“A veritable proboscis,” McIntire replied and watched Nick's eyes roll heavenward. “I imagine in a pinch Mia could use it to strip paint.”

Nick gave him a pitying look. “It's an acquired taste. So what brings you out after supper? No more bad news I hope.”

McIntire removed an envelope from his pocket and tossed it on the table. “This should have gone to the Munsons.”

Nick picked up the letter and stuck it in his own shirt pocket. “Sorry. But you didn't have to bring it over. You could have just put it back in your mailbox.”

“That's what I
usually
do.” It slipped out before McIntire could bite it off.

“You get your package okay? It wouldn't fit in the box so I had to just leave it on the post. It didn't say ‘fragile' or anything.”

As Lucy had pointed out, in his professional capacity, Nick appeared to have a single goal: getting the mail out of his own hands before the end of the day. Such concern for its subsequent well-being was uncharacteristic. The mailman was on a little fishing expedition of his own. Imagine Nick's interest if he was to “accidentally” damage one of those packages and see that the contents were written in Russian. McIntire wished for both their sakes that the material was something more intriguing than what it was—generally a couple of dry manuals describing the inner workings of some kind of engine.

“No, the package was fine, nothing fragile. But I did have some other matters I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Ah, so this isn't just a neighborly visit.”

Nick was not above indulging in his own bit of sarcasm. McIntire had to acknowledge that maybe he had it coming. Neighborly visits were admittedly not something he made a regular practice of.

“We're just tying up some loose ends—about Nels Bertelsen.” McIntire saw, with dwindling confidence, the light of curiosity in Nick's eyes. There would be no chance of passing his questions off as idle chit-chat. This was not Lucy Delaney. “Nels died early in the morning, and I know you're up earlier than anybody else around here. I just wanted to find out if you noticed anything out of the ordinary on Friday morning or,” he added, “late Thursday night. You know, anything or anybody unusual.”

McIntire was conscious of a sudden cessation of the domestic sounds that had been emanating from the kitchen.

Nick brought his feet down off the railing. “Like what? A bee headed straight for the
Frelser
with blood in his eye? What, exactly, are you getting at?”

The screen door creaked open, and closed softly behind Mia. “John,” she asked, in a slow, deliberate voice, “are you saying there's something suspicious about Nels' death?”

McIntire frantically plumbed the depths of his brain for some plausible sounding lie, but came up empty.

“I don't know,” he finally admitted. “He had medication, but it didn't do a thing. He died within minutes. There were bees in not one, but
two
, shirts that he had left on the boat. And one of those bees was a drone, which would never even leave the hive on its own.”

Nick stared at him, wide-eyed with incredulity. “Mac, I think you spent too much time in Jack the Ripper territory. Meggie, no more wine for the constable! You can't possibly be serious. Who could come up with such a lunatic scheme?”

“It's not so preposterous,” McIntire argued. “Everybody knew about Nels' reaction to bee stings, and probably knew that Lucy made him change his fishy clothes before he came into the house. It'd be a simple matter to slip a couple of bees into his shirt.”

“But,” Mia pointed out, “it wouldn't have done a murderer much good to put a drone in his shirt. They don't sting anyway.”

“Not everybody would know that, and whoever did it probably got the bees at night—they'd be quieter then—so maybe they didn't notice. They could have just opened up the hive, scraped a few bees into a box or something, and got out in a hurry.”

“They wouldn't only need to plant the bees,” Mia said. “They'd have to make sure the antidote didn't work, and Nels never let that stuff out of his sight.” She flicked her dish towel across the seat of a dusty wicker chair and sat down. “Unless somebody only wanted to scare him, and it was just a fluke that the shot didn't take. Nels could be a little crotchety sometimes, but we were all pretty much used to him. Who would hate him bad enough to want to kill him?”

“That's a good question,” McIntire agreed. “Did he have any, for lack of a better word, enemies, that you know of?”

Nick answered. “You know what a bull-headed old coot Nels was. He probably fought with everybody in the state at one time or another.”

“You?” McIntire asked.

Nick gave out with a terse “Humph” and took a long swallow. “Everybody has complaints about the postal service.”

“No doubt,” McIntire responded. This was not the way to get into the mailman's confidence. Somehow Nick always brought out his most uncivil side. “Anyway, if somebody intentionally put those bees on the boat, they would have had to do it sometime during the night or really early in the morning.
Did
you see anything unusual on Friday morning?”

“Nothing I can think of.”

“What time do you go to work?”

“About six. Somebody has to get the mail from the early train. It comes about ten after. I take it back to the post office, and then if Elsie's got the store open she gives me coffee. If she's not up yet, I head back home for breakfast. Marie comes in on the dot of seven and sorts the mail.”

Marie Goodrow must have held the position of postmaster, or, in this case, postmistress, since sometime shortly after the last of the dinosaurs turned up its toes.

“At about seven-thirty,” Nick continued, “I get started on my route. But anybody that figured to do away with Nels would have to be out a lot earlier than that. Nels'd be setting out hooklines in the deep water this time of year. He'd probably have been on the lake by around four o'clock.”

“Do you usually see anybody when you're driving to work?”

Nick swatted at a mosquito that hovered hopefully around his left ear. “You mean early, when I'm going to meet the train?” At McIntire's nod, he replied, “Not often, maybe somebody going fishing or hunting. Once in a while a passenger gets off the train, or somebody's waiting to get on. I see Lucy Delaney from time to time if I go back home between the time I meet the train and when I leave to do the deliveries. She walks along the tracks to town every day to pick up her mail, you know, summer or winter, rain or shine. Neither snow nor sleet nor dark of night can keep her from her appointed rounds, that's for sure. Doesn't trust me I guess. But if she wanted to put Nels out of the way she could have done it at home, fed him some poison. Maybe she did. You don't suppose she's one of those con artists you read about that marry people and bump them off for their money, another Michigan Wildcat?”

“Another what?” Had McIntire missed something?

Mia laughed. “Mrs. Boston, the Michigan Wildcat. Chandler's notorious husband murderer. It was twelve or thirteen years ago. But Lucy'd be jumping the gun. She hasn't married anybody.”

McIntire filed Mrs. Boston away as something to explore later and went back to the problem at hand. “Did you ever see Nels in the mornings?”

“Nah, he'd be long gone before I'm even out of the sack.”

McIntire hesitated before asking, “What about David Slocum?”

“David Slocum? Why him in particular?” Nick eyed McIntire closely. “You're not saying that kid really
did
have something to do with this?”

The phrasing of this last question led McIntire to suspect that his revelations were not coming as a complete surprise after all.

“You know that David has disappeared?”

“I might have heard something about it.”

“Did you see David Friday morning?” McIntire persisted.

“No.”

“What about on your way home Thursday night?”

Nick looked at Mia, and drained his glass. “My comings and goings seem to be more well known than I thought.” His glance flitted to McIntire's face and then back to the empty glass in his own hand. “No,” he said. “I did not see David Slocum or any other sinister being lurking about the lakefront, or cramming his pockets full of bees—not Thursday night, not Friday morning, or any other morning!”

Nick appeared to be running out of patience, and McIntire was running out of questions. It seemed like a prudent time to take his leave. He stood up and handed his glass to Mia. “Leonie will be getting up a search party if I don't get moving. If you think of anything let me know. Thanks for the drink. 'Night, Mia.”

As he drove off, McIntire wondered if he'd been foolish in voicing his suspicions so soon, especially to one who traveled over half the county and was not known for discretion. Well, it
is
suspicious, he concluded, and it's already late to be starting an investigation. For better or for worse, the cat was out of the bag now.

BOOK: Past Imperfect
4.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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