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Authors: Kathleen Hills

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BOOK: Past Imperfect
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V

As it turned out, McIntire's dramatics were ignored and the burial went ahead as planned. According to the doctor, no useful information was likely to be obtained from Nels' embalmed body, at least not enough to make it worthwhile to send the entire town into an uproar on the basis of some “half-assed” suspicions.

Despite Leonie's vehement protestations, McIntire skipped the trip to the cemetery and, leaving her in the company of the only too willing Guibard, drove to the center of Bertelsen's fishing operations.

Nels had been gone only three days, but the aura of desertion was complete. The net drying racks sat empty on the sand like the beached bones of some gargantuan fish. The windows of the fish house stared out over the sun-dappled water with a doleful air. The
Frelser
was tied, bow and stern, to the stone dock. In the shadow of her barn-red hull was a small motor boat. An even smaller skiff lay bottom side up on the shore.

McIntire found the doors to the fishing boat securely latched but not locked. He boarded with some trepidation, treading softly as if the vessel could sense an alien footstep on its deck. It didn't help. With every step the dried planks let out a complaining creak that reverberated through the dusky space.

At first glance, the interior looked to be as he had last seen it, but now felt bleak and lifeless as a tomb. Maybe it should have been one. They could have given Nels a Viking burial—placed his body in the boat, floated it out into the lake, and sent him to greet his ancestors on wings of fire—except that the
Frelser
probably wasn't yet paid for.

He turned on the light. The thermos and newspaper were wedged into their spots. The rubber slicker had fallen from its hook and lay in a heap against the wall. The bee that he had so summarily dispatched was still stuck fast to the paper, providing emphatic punctuation to the report of a two-headed calf born somewhere in West Virginia. He held the paper up to the light, and saw what he should have recognized right away, what he might have recalled from his translating of that scintillating Finnish work,
Beekeeping for the Backyard Gardener
, had his brain been operating at full capacity. This bee was a drone. He used his pocket knife to scrape free the mangled carcass and placed it in the matchbox next to its partner in crime.

The lunch pail was still in place and judging by its weight and its aroma, had not been emptied of its contents. However, one of Nels' colleagues must have come on board to take care of such housekeeping duties as he deemed vital. The bait nets had been dried and heaped into a wooden box, and the gas tank had been brought inside from its customary place on the open deck. The bee sting kit, with its syringe and tourniquet, was gone.

The shirt in which the falsely accused had been lurking still hung on the wall. He lifted the fabric to his face and inhaled deeply. It smelled only slightly fishy. Were bees attracted to the smell of fish? As Mia had mentioned, wasps or hornets might be, which did raise the question of why Nels had supposedly turned to fishing to escape them, but surely honeybees had no interest in dead fish. As he let the shirt drop back against the wall, he realized that it was no longer hanging directly over the counter as it had been when he swatted the bee off its sleeve. He couldn't be positive, but he'd have bet that the sweater and long underwear that he'd noticed on his first visit had also been moved. Picking up each of them in turn, he pulled the sleeves inside out and gave a vigorous shake—nothing. How could bees have gotten into the boat anyway? He tugged on the string that switched off the light. No telltale glimmer showed up a gap around a hatch or porthole. If Nels had indeed kept things closed up—and given his reputation for vigilance in such matters, it certainly seemed that he would have—it was unlikely that any insects had found their way in on their own. Had Nels been wearing the shirt harboring the bee that killed him when he boarded the
Frelser
? A six-legged critter crawling up your arm is hard to ignore. He hadn't been wearing an undershirt. If he'd put that shirt on at home, he'd have felt the bee long before he got out on the lake. And it probably would have stung him sooner. Guibard thought he must have put the shirt on
after
he was on the boat. So what had he been wearing when he left home? McIntire turned the light back on and began opening the cupboards. He found tea bags, a few cans of soup, a jar of coffee, a blanket similar to the one that had become Nels' shroud, and, stuffed into a lower cabinet, a pair of faded corduroy trousers and still another wool shirt.

He left the boat and walked the length of the dock. Except for the lazy droning of flies around the fish house door, only the soft lapping of water and the occasional creak of rope against wood intruded on the stillness. Even the lone herring gull was silent as it regarded him from its perch on a weathered post. He strolled back toward the twin buildings, the fish house and the ice house, both painted the same barn red with white trim as the
Frelser
.

The fish house was built with half of its length resting on land and its front extended over the water on pilings. A walkway attached at a right angle to the dock ran the full width of the small structure's front wall. Even standing outside, there was no ignoring the redolence resultant of a decade of cleaning fish. McIntire thumped the screen, turning a curtain of flies into a cloud, and opened the door the minimum necessary to squeeze through. Inside the closed building, the temperature had risen to tropical proportions, and the stench was overpowering. A quick look around showed an interior of bare wood, tables built along three sides, buckets, knives, stacks of wooden boxes, nets on the walls, an oil can on a windowsill, a metal toolbox and a gasoline can, kerosene lanterns suspended from a wire strung along the ceiling. A large sprayer for insecticide sat prominently on a shelf near the door. Heavily stained canvas coveralls hung on a hook nearby. A few flies crawled on the work surfaces. Probably those that McIntire himself had let in. Nothing seemed out of place here—not that he would be likely to know if anything
was
out of place. He lunged for the door and oxygen.

The ice house was set some distance back from the water, a windowless building constructed of square-hewn logs. McIntire didn't open the heavy door, but stood contemplating its solid facade as he fingered the matchbox in his pocket. Everything here was just so…ordinary. Could this sun-drenched setting really have been the scene of a monstrous crime? Was it conceivable that someone had stolen onto Nels' boat and planted bees in his clothing? It was almost too bizarre to comprehend. Still what other explanation was there?
Two
bees, and the way that sleeve had been so oddly folded back on itself in a manner that kept the one he'd swatted imprisoned. That should have struck him as peculiar right away. Being a drone, it shouldn't have been out wandering around in any event. And the clothing had been moved since Nels' death, he was sure of it. Someone had preceded him in his search of the
Frelser
. Someone looking to get rid of superfluous bees?

But who could have done such a thing, and why? Was it an ill-fated practical joke or some kind of ingenious murder plot? And the most baffling question: If Nels had injected the adrenaline, why had he dropped dead as the proverbial stone? Why had he died so
quickly
? McIntire didn't remember seeing a bottle that might have contained the antidote itself, only the syringe, which the doctor took away.

The sound of steady traffic moving on the nearby gravel road signified that Nels Bertelsen's remains had been duly committed to the earth, and McIntire left the tranquility of the lake for the St. Adele town hall.

He found Leonie waiting solicitously upon Lucy and the ancient Paulsons. He asked her to save a chair for him and excused himself for a surreptitious consultation with Mark Guibard over the necessity of examining the residue left in the syringe and the locating of any remaining antidote. Guibard took his elbow and led him into a corner near the stage. Before speaking he pulled back the dusty curtain for a quick glance behind.

“John, I would never have figured you for somebody to go off half-cocked like this. Nels died from anaphylactic shock, pure and simple. The world is full of bees. He couldn't have avoided them forever.”

“When was the last time you had a bee in your shirt?” McIntire asked.

“I haven't taken up with a batty woman that makes me change my clothes outdoors.”

So Lucy was the reason that the cabin of the
Frelser
resembled a backwoodsman's haberdashery. Guibard might have a point, although considering the heady floral bouquet in which the doctor kept himself steeped, McIntire couldn't imagine why he wasn't overrun with nectar-sucking pests. “Well,” he persevered, “it can't hurt to take a good look at whatever might be left in that syringe and the bottle of medication. Can you do it yourself, or would it have to be analyzed in a lab somewhere?”

The doctor sighed. “The epinephrine was in a small vial. I never found it. Maybe it ended up in the lake. I gave the kit to Lucy along with Nels' other effects, his wallet and his watch. Maybe we can come up with some plausible excuse to get it back.” Before McIntire could open his mouth to offer a suggestion as to what that excuse might be, he added, “
But not today
. This is neither the time nor the place, John.”

McIntire muttered something reassuring and entered the line snaking through the buffet, marveling at Guibard's knack for reducing him to the level of chastened schoolboy. What did the doctor think he was planning to do? Slam Lucy up against the wall and frisk her? He piled a plate with a hefty scoop of each of the assembled dishes and went to rejoin his wife. Here the discussion in progress—calculated, he supposed, to take Lucy's mind off her grief—centered on the sumptuousness of the repast.

“This chicken is delicious,” Leonie was saying. “Did you bring it, Inge?”

Inge Lindstrom blushed and cast her eyes to her plate. “Ya,” she said, “but it was last year's bird. I thought it might have got a little bit dry.”

McIntire swallowed. “You know,” he ventured, “I have heard that a hypodermic syringe can be useful for basting poultry.” His contribution was greeted with a gasp from Mrs. Paulson, a delicate cough from Guibard, and look of pure horror from Leonie. But Lucy's head shot up. “You don't say? How would a body go about doing that?”

McIntire ignored Leonie's heel on his instep. “Well, you fill it up with…,” with what? “With melted butter and a little lemon juice and,”—he mimicked a thumb on a plunger—“just squirt it right in.”

Lucy slapped four fingers to her chubby cheek. “Well, who'd a thought it? And I just pitched Nels' needle and stuff in the trash. If that ain't the berries!”

“You could get it back out.”

“Too late. It's already been carted off to the dump.” She turned to Guibard. “Maybe you could get me another one?”

The doctor's fork clanked against the enameled plate as he stabbed a pickle. He smiled graciously. “Certainly.”

“And perhaps one for my husband?” Leonie purred. “He seems to have talents of which I never dreamed.”

Leonie's pleasure with her husband did not increase when he rose and, parting reluctantly with his uneaten lunch, made straight for the township dump. There he spent the remainder of the day sifting through the latest additions with no success.

The sun was low in the west when McIntire returned home carrying a perfectly serviceable colander and a green glass vase, which had only the smallest of chips, as peace offerings.

He must have presented a pathetic sight, shivering on the front porch in his underwear—his gray pinstriped suit being best left in the open air for the time being. Leonie's good will grudgingly returned.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” she asked through the screen door. “Wasn't it the habit of changing his clothes in odd places that brought Mr. Bertelsen to his doom?”

Before entering McIntire paused to give a gentle prod with his bare toe to the bristly black heap that occupied the single remaining spot of late afternoon sun. A tiny portion of the mass lifted and thumped the floor three times. Satisfied that Kelpie, the spaniel he had acquired from his mother along with her house, was still breathing, if not, strictly speaking, living, he opened the door. “I daresay,” he responded philosophically, “that more than one man has come to grief by disrobing in the wrong spot.”

“Not likely,” she observed, “when they smell the way you do!” She hustled him off to shower while she hummed along with Hank Williams and reheated pot luck leftovers until the various tuna hot dishes were indistinguishable from those that had hamburger as the featured ingredient.

Between bites McIntire agonized over how he was going to convince a skeptical county sheriff that, although it was remotely possible that one bee had gotten past Nels' line of defense, two of them, and one a drone, was too much of a coincidence.

“And for that matter,” he said, waving his fork at Leonie, “why didn't that medicine work? Guibard says it should have saved his life, but that even if it didn't, it probably would have kept him alive for a short while, at least long enough for him to start up the engine and head for home. The last time he got stung it was by hornets—quite a few of them—and he was able to drive himself into St. Adele for help. But from the sting of a single honey bee he dies within minutes! Very few minutes. The syringe was right by his hand like he had just dropped it.”

“Maybe he didn't get it all injected. Maybe he was so nervous he spilled some of it.”

“I couldn't find the medicine bottle, but they usually have a rubber cork.” McIntire smoothed back an errant strand of wet hair. “You just stick the needle through it, so it can't spill. He had a mark on his thigh where he gave himself the shot. I suppose he could have ended up squirting some of it out before he got the needle in. It was wet all around so there was no way to tell. But it just doesn't seem right, Leonie. He shouldn't have died so fast. Guibard hasn't really said so, but he agreed we should try to get the syringe and vial of antidote back. I'm pretty sure he thinks there's something fishy about this, too.”

BOOK: Past Imperfect
13.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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