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Authors: Kathleen Hills

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BOOK: Past Imperfect
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As he started to turn away, he became aware of a barely audible but persistent buzzing noise, higher pitched and independent of the steady rumble of the engine. It was only inches from his ear, and seemed to come from the clothing that hung on the wall, a yellow slicker, a couple of shirts, and the top half of a set of wool underwear. He listened for a moment, then reached over and shook out the tucked-up sleeve of a heavy plaid shirt. A bee emerged at the wrist and began a laborious climb toward the shoulder. Its fat body was banded with yellowish brown stripes. It was an unremarkable insect, hardly McIntire's idea of an instrument of death.

McIntire contemplated its sluggish movements. Did bees really die after they sting someone? He picked up the flimsy tabloid and rolled it into a tube. “Well, here's one that will,” he murmured. A swat sent the insect spiraling to the counter where it continued its angry buzzing, twirling helplessly on its back. He gave another whack, somewhat harder than necessary, and tucked the paper, with the squashed bee fused to page one, back into its spot. Then he clutched the blanket to his chest and teetered back to where the fallen fisherman lay.

Kneeling beside the body, he unfolded the blanket over it. When he reached the smooth, hairless chest he stopped. A narrow bluish scar snaked from the dead man's collar bone across his shoulder, a relic of another battle perhaps, one that had a happier outcome. McIntire placed the palm of his hand on one of the sun-browned cheeks. There was unexpected warmth in the skin and he recoiled as if burned. He sat back on his heels and contemplated the features: the network of tiny broken veins, the stubble of beard, the deeply carved lines around the slack mouth. There was nothing left of the intensity, the determination—admittedly the obstinacy—that had been written on that face in life. It was the face of a tired and defenseless old man—the old man that Nels Bertelsen would never be.

“Well Nels, you stubborn son-of-a-gun, if you're listening, I'm here on board the
Frelser.
You got your way, as usual.” His words were swallowed up by the grumble of the engine. “But I really think you've gone to extremes this time.”

The
Frelser
, savior, liberator. An ignominious death was surely not what Bertelsen had anticipated when he shucked off the burdens of his father's farm and took to the open waters.

McIntire reflected with regret on the limited acquaintance he had had with the adult Nels Bertelsen. That wood sprite on the fiery stallion was more real to him than the body lying here with the warmth of life ebbing away. “
Farvel, gamle venn, og takk for alt
.” Thanks for all, old friend. He smoothed back the hair and pulled the blanket up over it.

III

McIntire decided to take a short detour on his way to take the news of her bereavement to Lucille Delaney, Nels Bertelsen's…Nels Bertelsen's what? She was popularly referred to as his “mail order bride.” This was a misnomer on at least one count; while Lucy had shared Bertelsen's home for quite a few years, she had not become his wife. On the other hand, the romance may well have been conducted with the aid of the U.S. Mails. Bertelsen had not been known to travel far abroad—at least not since his soldiering days—and Lucy was definitely not a locally grown product. Her background was shrouded in secrecy, although universal speculation held that she was Southern.

McIntire considered himself a compassionate and tactful person, but he had little faith in his ability to console a grieving widow, legitimate or not, and no desire to be closeted alone with Lucy Delaney under the best of circumstances. It wouldn't hurt to have a woman along, someone to provide comfort and sympathy. His own wife would be that perfect someone, but Leonie preferred to live by what she called the “continental clock.” The time it would require to render her upright and functional before ten in the morning was time that probably shouldn't be spared right now. He turned off the aptly named Orchard Road, which would have taken him from Bertelsen's dock straight to his home, and traveled a half mile or so down the township's main thoroughfare, the Swale Road. With any luck he might recruit the notoriously early rising Mia Thorsen.

McIntire asked himself, as he had many times before without receiving a satisfactory answer, what demon could possibly have been in possession of his faculties when he agreed to this constable business. He had been astonished when the contingent of neighbors descended on him the previous autumn to request that he complete the tenure of the venerable George Armstrong “Walleye” Wall, who had suffered a fatal heart attack when attempting to hoist up a large hog for butchering.

They were most persuasive in their arguments. As a “military man,” and the flesh and blood of Colin McIntire, he was the perfect choice for the job. The constable, they emphasized, wasn't reviled the way, say, a game warden was. And after all, how hard could it be? Track down a stray cow now and then, break up the occasional beer party at the gravel pit. Anything really serious was a job for the county sheriff. Old Walleye had handled it okay, and he was past eighty when that sow had taken her revenge. Besides, only a few months were left in his uncompleted term.

There were also added benefits: a telephone at township expense, the opportunity to keep up on the latest news of the neighborhood, and a little extra cash from the odd fine. They graciously avoided mentioning that, unlike most of the able-bodied men thereabouts, John McIntire appeared to have plenty of time on his hands.

Admittedly, McIntire was not only surprised, but more than just a little flattered, although not particularly encouraged by the implied comparison to his late father. Most of all he welcomed the opportunity to become an active member of the community. So after demurring only as strenuously as courtesy demanded, he had allowed himself to be persuaded. “Allowed himself”? Hell, he had pounced on it like a cat on spilled milk.

The job had kept him busier than he had anticipated and was far more burdensome than the pittance in compensation reflected. He had not endeared himself to the town's adolescents, but once their fall party season had drawn to a close and the countryside became buried under several feet of snow, he expected things to settle down. He had neglected to consider the resourcefulness of the Upper Peninsula folk. Hardly a day—and, more to the point, a night—went by that he wasn't dragged away from the warmth of his home to investigate some nefarious goings-on or settle some petty squabble, invariably finding, upon reaching the scene of the alleged crime, that the issue had resolved itself. The frequent summonses came to a suspicious halt following the December town board meeting, where he had presented a meticulous report of each incident, along with a detailed record of the expenses he had incurred. Not a single further call had come until that night in mid-February when things did indeed turn serious. A local farmer was bludgeoned to death with a manure shovel, without a doubt a job for the county sheriff, if there had happened to be one handy. On this particular evening, Sheriff Koski and his deputies were up to their armpits in snow some thirty miles away. By the time they reached St. Adele around noon the next day, McIntire had, through some fortunate alignment of the stars, apprehended the criminal who had obligingly confessed.

Shortly after this event, when the constable's term was drawing to a close, the McIntires embarked upon an extended sojourn in warmer climes, giving St. Adele's criminal element free rein. After a month spent visiting McIntire's mother in Florida and driving leisurely through a southern spring of soft warm nights and hills ablaze with mountain laurel, they had returned to find Northern Michigan still held in winter's implacable embrace, and John McIntire elected to a full term as constable on a near unanimous write-in vote.

It was barely possible that this vote of confidence was the result of his rapid resolution of the homicide, but McIntire couldn't help but feel that he somehow had been the victim of a well organized version of “put one over on the new guy”—a sort of civic snipe-hunt. Well, at least the blackfly hatch had been a bit early this year, nipping the spring gravel pit parties in the bud.

He left his car at the end of the Thorsens' rutted driveway and walked up to the house.

He had driven past many times since his return, but, for one reason or another, had not actually visited. And his passings-by hadn't given him a clear view of the structure, shielded as it was by a grove of spruce. Now he stopped in the shelter of those trees and gazed with interest upon the familiar slate-gray asphalt siding and solid brick chimneys of the house in which he'd spent the first six years of his life.

It was within those walls that, from the time he first realized that
minulla an jano
would get a dipperful of water from Mama Saarinen as quickly as
jag ar torstig
did from his own mother, he began the love affair with languages that had become such a dominant force in his life. It was also here that he'd formed that other bond that had played its own part in shaping his destiny…he pushed the thought aside.

Except for the screening in of one of the two wide porches, the home looked much as it had in his boyhood.

The sound of a light but steady hammering intruded on his thoughts and reminded him of the reason he had come. The tapping emanated from a building added since his youth, a low-roofed structure of unpainted concrete block, sunk deep in the shadows of spruce and giant hemlock. Even on this bright June morning a faint glimmer of electric light showed through the open doorway. This must be the new workshop, which Mia insisted upon referring to as her “studio.”

His approach took him past a garden in which the first shoots of green beans and sweet corn were emerging optimistically from the earth, but appeared to be condemned from the start by an already flourishing crop of pigweed and quack grass. He reflected that if Mia Thorsen's garden was any indication of her nurturing skills, her childless state might not be a complete tragedy. He had some fleeting second thoughts about the wisdom of asking her to minister to Lucy.

Four or five geese lounged near the pumphouse that stood at the end of the garden, taking advantage of a brief period of sunlight reflecting off the white walls. It was clear that the fowl frequented this path, too. McIntire grimaced and stepped carefully as he crossed to the studio and stood in the doorway. He searched the gloomy space for the source of the light. It proved to be a single lamp at the end of a long arm, aimed at a littered work bench where the angular figure of Mia Thorsen was bent over a piece of wood, hammer and chisel in hand. As a child, McIntire had once heard his father voice the baffling opinion that young Mia Vogel looked “like she'd been conceived through a sheet.” In the dusky workshop, with the meager lamplight imparting a frosty translucence to her silver-gray hair and fair skin, her aspect was even more wraithlike than usual. He held his breath until the delicate tapping sounds ceased, and Mia straightened up. “Come on in, John, you're blocking the light.”

“What light?” McIntire questioned. “It's darker than the inside of a cow in here, as Ma used to say. It beats me how you keep from chopping your fingers off.”

Mia bent to blow the piece she was carving free of shavings, and squinted critically at her work. “This is a clock case for
Madame
Sylvia Hollander. What Madame wants Madame gets, and she wants it to look ‘just like Eban did it himself.' If I want to carve like Papa did, I have to see like Papa did. He used kerosene lamps, and his eyesight was almost as bad as yours. But he was sure a heck of a lot more observant.” She dropped the tools onto the bench and held up her hands, which were curiously out of keeping with her overall appearance of fragility. They were square, blunt-nailed, and strong, and bore the healed scars of a score or more minor mishaps and at least one major calamity: they comprised nine and a half fingers.

She waggled the stub of her left forefinger. “This is what happens when people sneak up on me.”

She switched off the light. “But come on out, I was about to take a break anyway. How're things going with you?”

“Maybe you should get a watchdog, if you don't want unexpected visitors,” McIntire stalled. For reasons he wasn't telling himself, he shrank from bringing up the purpose of his visit.

“That's what the geese are supposed to be for.”

McIntire looked at the droppings that littered the path and the grass of the yard. “I would imagine they do keep the Fuller Brush Man on his toes,” he observed.

“Worthless critters. Arnie Johnson swore to me that they would sound the alarm the minute anybody set foot in the yard,
and
they'd keep the weeds out of my garden, too. ‘You'll never pull another dandelion,' he said.” At McIntire's inadvertent glance in the direction of the garden, she smiled. “And you can see, he was right about that.”

She removed her canvas apron and began vigorously shaking out the collection of sawdust and shavings, but McIntire's expression must have been easy to read; looking directly at him for the first time, she froze in mid-shake.

“I take it this isn't a social call,” she said. “Don't tell me Nick's run afoul of the law again. What's he done this time—dumped the Sears catalogs in the lake?”

Her tone remained light, but her grasp on the apron had accelerated to a deathgrip.

McIntire hastened to reassure her, “So far as I'm aware, your husband hasn't been treating either Sears-Roebuck or the mighty Gitche-Gumme with anything other than the respect they deserve.”

Mia looked at him through narrowed eyes before she tossed the apron in the general direction of a peg inside the door, shrugged when it landed on the concrete floor, and brushed off the sleeves of her flannel shirt. She wore baggy twill work pants that obviously belonged to her husband, barely reaching mid-calf, but bunched up where they were belted around her narrow waist. McIntire had never gotten quite used to seeing grown women wearing trousers, and he stared in fascination as he followed her to the porch.

“He did have his so-called barber shop quartet practice last night,” she was saying. “There's no telling what those yahoos will get up to when they get turned loose together. I thought when Wylie joined them he'd kind of keep the lid on things, but he's turned into a regular Good Time Charlie himself. They're worse than a bunch of high schoolers, and they must have made quite a night of it last night; this morning Nick could hardly keep awake long enough to make it out the door. Well, he always says he can drive that route with his eyes closed—and no doubt he has, many times. I thought I noticed a new dent or two in the car, too, but it's kind of hard to say.”

When McIntire was seated on one of the worn wicker chairs with Mia regarding him expectantly across a scarred metal table, he hesitated once more. In his anxiety over the necessity of informing Lucy about Bertelsen, he hadn't considered what Mia's reaction might be. She, too, had known Nels since they were children. They had lived practically within shouting distance of each other for over forty years. She might have much stronger feelings about the tragedy than Lucy herself, who, after all, was a relative newcomer, practically a stranger by comparison. For that matter, McIntire himself was a stranger in many ways. He felt the familiar pang of envy that always struck when he was reminded that St. Adele and its inhabitants had not been sealed in a time capsule on the day he boarded that ship in Hoboken. They had inconsiderately lived on for thirty years without McIntire's participation, or even observation, except through his mother's letters. The sadness that he felt at Bertelsen's passing was for a young man who had been dead and gone for three decades. Mia had just lost someone who had been a consistent presence over the entire course of her lifetime, a circumstance McIntire could not even imagine.

“How much longer are you going to keep me hanging?” she finally asked. “Let's have it.”

Undiluted terror, transient but unmistakable, leapt into Mia's eyes when she heard that Nels Bertelsen was dead, but her only response was a stiff, “How?” The news that he had died from a bee sting brought an incredulous look. Silence then descended, a silence that McIntire attempted to fill by relating the story of the morning's events in scrupulous detail. When he finished up by lamely informing her that Nels seemed to have netted quite a few herring that morning, she remained unmoving, her water-blue eyes fixed on his, frowning slightly while she slowly wound her single long braid around the fingers of her right hand in the old familiar gesture McIntire remembered from high school. She could appear to be concentrating furiously, but whether she was comprehending, or even listening, was impossible to tell. He wondered if this compulsion might be the reason she continued to wear her hair in that juvenile style, defying the dictates of fashion and, in his admittedly non-authoritative opinion, good taste.

BOOK: Past Imperfect
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