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Authors: Kathleen Hills

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BOOK: Past Imperfect
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II

McIntire took one last lungful of air and himself reentered the cabin.

It was as if a bag had been pulled over his head. The
Frelser'
s interior was a murky cavern choked with odors of coal smoke, motor oil, and fish, overlaid with the acrid smell of human excrement. McIntire felt his gullet threaten to erupt and edged nearer to the open hatch. The space would not accommodate his entire height, and he stood with knees slightly bent and his head and shoulders painfully cocked to one side as he regarded Dr. Mark Guibard, semi-retired physician and Flambeau county coroner.

The doctor had apparently completed his examination and had assumed a similarly contorted position, not from any lack of headroom, but the better to sight along the deck and under the pot-bellied heater in the attitude of one who had dropped a dime and wasn't sure where it had rolled to.

Behind him, in a weak pool of electric light, Nels Bertelsen sat on the damp deck boards with his back against the door of an unpainted pine cabinet, and his feet, in heavy rubber boots, extended before him. His wool shirt lay discarded at his side, and his waterproof overalls and woolen longjohns were pushed down to bunch around his knees, exposing a torso that glowed stark blue-white, ironically reminiscent of the fish he had come seeking. The pallor of this ample mid-section gave way abruptly to a deep purplish-brown on his throat and forearms. The contrast was even more pronounced between his weathered face and the fringe of white hair that straggled, scarecrow style, from under the tattered gray stocking cap. His eyes, staring out through the hatch, were the hazy blue of a winter sky. Fully clothed, Bertelsen's stockiness, ruddy cheeks, and snowy hair had always given him something of a clown-like appearance. This morning the watery light revealed chest and shoulders wrapped with muscles like steel bands—a body that radiated vigorous masculinity. McIntire could scarcely comprehend that there was no life in it.

The doctor turned back to Bertelsen and tugged at the overalls to cover the soiled underclothing. He picked up the hypodermic syringe that rested against the lifeless fingers, and stood erect, his feet wide apart on the wet deck boards. At the sight of the constable, he boomed, “Christ Almighty, if you weren't more or less standing up, I'd think I had two corpses on my hands! I'd sure as hell hate to see what you'd look like if we were actually out in the lake—in a moving boat—with maybe a wave or two thrown in.”

McIntire put a hand against the boards of the hull to steady himself. “I'd hate to be feeling what I'd feel like if we were really out in the lake, and I'd appreciate it if you'd avoid making references to undulating water.”

The doctor chuckled at McIntire's discomfort, his verbiage, or both. He could afford to laugh, McIntire thought. For all that Guibard had spent a lifetime dealing with death, disease, and traumatic injury, it seemed that such human misfortunes could never touch him personally. He had the body and constitution of a man half his age. And the vanity. Even this morning he was pressed and polished and brushed to perfection, and exuded a cloying aura of Old Spice and Wildroot Cream Oil. McIntire would have paid money to see how he had managed to effect such sartorial splendor between the time his call had rousted the doctor from his bed and the fifteen minutes later that he had come charging over the water to snatch McIntire off the end of Bertelsen's dock.

“Don't worry,” Guibard advised, with a hint of a smile still lurking in his eyes, “I know it's hell, but in all my years of practice, I've never seen anybody die of
mal de mer.
” He dropped the syringe into his bag. “I have come across quite a few who would have liked to, though.” His expression became marginally more sympathetic. “But take a few deep breaths and try to pull yourself together. We're going to have to lay him out straight before too much rigor sets in. And the term ‘dead weight' is an apt one; he'll be heavy and every bit as uncooperative as he was in life. You think we should get…?” He nodded toward the thin back of Jonas Lindstrom, just visible through the opening to the pilot house.

McIntire considered, and shook his head.

A deck a few feet wide ran around the perimeter of the boat's interior. Straight down the center was an area open to the bowels of the vessel, revealing the engine, some components of the steering mechanism and, McIntire supposed, a place for holding fish. The boards on which Bertelsen sat were water-soaked and slimy with the residue of Simon Lindstrom's “baiting-on.”

“Let's get him over to a dry spot.” McIntire stepped over a pile of soggy netting and grasped the slick, rubber-clad legs, leaving the exposed flesh of the shoulders to the other man. Together, accompanied by panting and grunts, they maneuvered the body along the deck and around the still hot potbellied stove to place it in front of a closed hatch opposite the one where Nels had been retrieving his catch. As the doctor eased his burden gently to the deck, McIntire retrieved the fisherman's crumpled shirt and slid it under his head.

Guibard extracted a gleaming white handkerchief from his coat pocket and pressed it daintily to his brow. “I'll zip back into town and call for the ambulance. I'd as soon get well back into the bay before the wind starts to kick up. Simon tells me Jonas drives this beast all the time, so he should be able to get you back okay. But take your time, eh? Once I get in, it'll be at least another half an hour before the ambulance can make it out from Chandler. We don't want to be hanging around the dock attracting a crowd any longer than necessary.” He made a circuit of the deck, frowning slightly as he surveyed the surroundings a final time, peering down into the greasy mechanical innards. He turned back to McIntire with abrupt severity. “Oh, and be sure you leave everything the way you find it here. Don't take anything off the boat.” Before McIntire could respond he added in a milder tone, “If Nels had life insurance there might be questions.”

McIntire nodded. Curses! The looting and pillaging would have to wait for another day. He pulled the string that switched off the single naked bulb, plunging the cabin into twilight. They didn't need a dead battery. “Will you be doing an autopsy? Hold an inquest or anything?”

“What for? There's no doubt about what killed him. I'll give him another once-over when I get in some better light, see if I can find the stinger. But bees don't always leave their stinger behind.” The doctor looked down upon the inert body. “He spent the last ten years of his life scared shitless of this happening. Took every reasonable precaution and a hell of a lot of unreasonable ones, and for what? Made life miserable, looking over his shoulder every minute, and in the end one of the little buggers nailed him anyway. We might have been able to desensitize him, but he went into conniptions every time I brought the subject up. Wouldn't have anything to do with it. Damn fool.”

“What about the antidote or whatever you call it? Didn't he give himself the shot?”

“Epinephrine—adrenaline. He must have gotten some of it in anyway. There's a mark on his leg from the injection. But there are no guarantees.” He pulled the bib of the dead man's waterproofs up a little higher over the pale abdomen. “Not a very dignified way to die, eh? I told him to put the shot in his thigh. I wanted him to get it into a good-sized hunk of flesh. If he'd tried to jab himself in the shoulder and tensed up, he'd have snapped that needle like a toothpick. His muscles were like concrete.”

McIntire swallowed. “How long would you say…?” He let the question trail off.

Guibard shrugged. “Oh, I'd figure he's been dead between an hour and an hour and a half—not more than that for sure. It couldn't have happened very long before he was found. He'd already started to pull in the nets when he died, and he wouldn't have got out here much ahead of the Lindstroms.”

It didn't take a coroner to figure that out. “I meant to ask,” McIntire said, “how long did it take for him to die?
How
, exactly, did he die?”

Guibard rubbed his palms with his handkerchief and gazed out over the water. McIntire followed his line of sight. The sun had burned away the last of the vapor. Superior stretched away to merge imperceptibly with the horizon, interrupted only by the distant Huron Islands, the interplay of light and shadow on their steep cliffs creating misty castles suspended in air, unreal as a desert mirage. A light breeze was now teasing the lake with sporadic gusts, sending intermittent streams of ripples skipping across its surface.

The doctor cleared his throat and touched the handkerchief to his lips before he spoke. “Anaphylaxis is a complicated reaction, but basically it boils down to one thing, the tissues swell and cut off the airway and the victim chokes to death. I can't say he never knew what hit him, but he wouldn't have suffered long. If the epinephrine had no effect at all he would have passed out within fifteen minutes or so and probably not lived long after that.”

Fifteen minutes? The way Nels had been sitting it didn't look like he'd lasted much more than fifteen seconds. “But why wouldn't the epinephrine have an effect? Why didn't it work?”

“How the hell would I know? I'm a doctor, not a magician!” Guibard balled the handkerchief and stuffed it into his pants pocket. “Maybe the sting went straight into a vein or artery. Maybe he didn't get the shot in soon enough. Maybe some of it ended up on the floor. The shot didn't help much. If it had, he'd have had time to get his pants on and start to head back in. At least he'd have still been alive when Jonas showed up.”

“Are you sure he wasn't?” McIntire asked. “He might have only been unconscious. Maybe if they'd put
him
in that motorboat and gone in ‘lickety-split' you could have saved him.”

The doctor picked up his bag. “It's possible, but not very likely. It looks like he lost consciousness within minutes. The syringe was lying like he'd just dropped it. Simon was sure he was dead. He did what he thought was best; that's all you can ask.”

“It sounded a bit to me like old Simon did what he thought would be the least time consuming. Did you notice that he even went so far as to help himself to Nels' hooks and bait? Sat right next to him and chopped the heads off those fish, couldn't even be bothered to cover the poor man, just let him lay there half naked in his own…”


Shit,
John. You can say it. You're not in some duchess' drawing room now.” Guibard looked at McIntire with an air of astonishment mingled with that same patronizing sympathy he had shown at his sea-sickness. “And, Jeez, come down to earth. The Lindstroms weren't headed out to make a few casts and have a goddamn picnic lunch. This time of year they're working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, just to stay alive. The time Simon spent hanging around here means it'll be midnight before he gets to bed tonight, and he'll be up again at three o'clock tomorrow morning.”

The wiry coroner climbed up into the pilot house, lowered himself with enviable agility out the narrow door into his bobbing motorboat and departed, leaving a somewhat chagrined McIntire alone with a fourteen-year-old boy and the body of his childhood friend.

McIntire slid the door of the hatch into place and called up to Jonas that they could go. Without a word, the young man cranked up the anchor and started the engine. They moved off at an agonizingly slow crawl. Guibard need have no worries about their having a long wait for the ambulance.

With the hatch closed, the mélange of odors combined with the monotonous grumble of the engine to make the space even more claustrophobic. The only light entered through the narrow doorway to the pilot house and four tiny portholes, two near the bow, two in the stern. McIntire bent his head under the low ceiling and shuffled unsteadily toward the rear, where an arrangement of cupboards covered by a wide shelf for a countertop made a rudimentary kitchen. The “galley,” he reminded himself, and wondered why ordinary things always seemed to have out-of-the-ordinary names when they happened to be found on a boat: the galley, the cabin, the head. Sailors were, by and large, a pretentious bunch.

The boat gave a sudden lurch, and McIntire lunged for a small hinged box that came skipping across the counter toward him. Its interior was cushioned and contained a long strip of soft rubber, a small bottle with a handwritten label—“isopropyl alcohol”—a wad of absorbent cotton, and a hypodermic syringe with a piece of adhesive tape wrapped around the barrel about a third of the way up. These were accompanied by a folded paper which proved to be a typewritten list of instructions. Bertelsen was to have used a tourniquet between the site of the sting and his heart, if possible. He was to fill the syringe to the level of the bottom of the tape, and, after swabbing off the spot with alcohol—a step Nels had apparently chosen to omit, the cotton was dry—inject the entire contents into the thigh area. He should then briskly rub the area around the site of the injection to improve absorption, and immediately seek medical attention. McIntire held the syringe up to the beam of light coming through the porthole. It was empty and appeared to be dry, not the one Bertelsen had used that morning. A spare maybe? The instructions didn't say anything about a second injection, just admonished Nels to
SEEK IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION
. There was no sign of a bottle or other container that might have held the epinephrine. Maybe Guibard had taken that, too. He returned the syringe to its case and snapped it shut.

The only other objects in evidence were a barn-shaped black metal lunch pail and a red thermos, held in place by a sort of wooden box affair nailed to the counter. A folded copy of
Grit
, dated February 7, was wedged between them. He stuck the bee sting kit in next to the thermos, and, grasping the edge of the counter to steady himself, opened the cupboard doors one by one until he located a slightly musty blanket woven with a flamboyant Indian-inspired design.

BOOK: Past Imperfect
11.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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