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Authors: Kathleen Hills

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BOOK: Past Imperfect
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“I don't know that they do. That's another story.”

“So, tell it.”

“Well, the word is,” Nick informed her, “that when Johnny-boy skipped out on the funeral festivities he was poking around on Nels' boat and—get this—in the dump.”

“And what does ‘the word' have it that ‘Johnny-boy' was looking for?”

“That, My Lovely, remains a mystery. But his car was in Nels'—or should I now say Lucy's?—yard when I went by today. And they say Guibard paid him a visit later.”

Mia left off twisting Nick's hair and went to work on her own. “Those two had their heads together and were whispering like a couple of schoolgirls at the dinner yesterday. It was right after that John slipped out,” she recalled. “I figured he was getting one of his headaches.”

“If you ask me our ‘British gentleman'
is
one great big headache.” Nick yawned. “He got another of those packages today, the ones that come from the
United States Department of Defense
. I'd give my eye teeth to know what he's up to.”

“Maybe it was a big box of money. His pension.”

“Too heavy,” Nick laughed. “But that's just it. If he's retired why's he getting…whatever it is that he's getting? He does get a check from them, too, now and then.” Nick sprang to his feet in one movement and reached for her hand. “Come on, it's been a long day. Time for a nap.”

Mia laughed. “I've already slept half the afternoon. I can't say I'm too tired. Which,” she added, “is no doubt just what you were hoping to hear.”

X

McIntire navigated the winding street that climbed up a gear-strippingly steep hill into the parking lot at the rear of the Flambeau county courthouse, a seventy-year-old structure situated high on a bluff overlooking Chandler's main street and the waters of Keweenah Bay. Before getting out of the car he pulled a small spiral-bound notebook from the glove compartment and recorded the date and the twenty-one miles he had driven from St. Adele.

The sheriff's outer office was narrow, cramped, and colorless, an appropriately somber setting for dealing with the darker side of Flambeau County life. A bank of file cabinets lined the wall opposite the entrance, and identical desks faced one another from the end walls. A heavily scratched oak table flanked by three straight-backed chairs occupied the center of the room. On the wall behind the desk on the right hung a very large map of the very small county. Before it Sheriff Pete Koski sat hunched over a second map, a red pencil in his hand.

Even sitting down, with his lower body obscured by a couple of hundred pounds of furniture, the sheriff was an imposing figure, uncannily resembling, as it was frequently said, a hefty John Wayne. He was not above exploiting this fortunate happenstance. The furrowed brow he often presented, especially nearing election time, was as much the result of the narrow western boots on his size sixteen feet as an expression of concern for the well being of the citizens of Flambeau County. It was his misfortune that Leonie, with her abiding passion for all things Western, couldn't vote.

He circled a small inland lake on the map and slid a folded copy of the
Chandler Monitor
casually over the spot. As if McIntire would have any interest in going after his lethargic walleyes. “Afternoon Mac,” he said, “what's up? Cecil's been burning with curiosity ever since you called.” He indicated the deputy's vacant chair. “I sent him out to buy paper clips. Be interesting to see how long it takes him to get back.” When the sheriff laughed even the floor under McIntire's feet seemed to vibrate. “So what's the problem? The good folk of St. Adele giving you a hard time again?”

McIntire wondered what information the sheriff might be privy to that he was not, but decided that this was not the time to pursue it. He took the matchbox from his shirt pocket, slid the lid off, and placed it on the desk. Koski studied the contents intently, rolling the bees over with the point of his pencil. “This is very nice, John, but you're going to need a hornet and maybe a carpenter bee to make your collection complete.” He shoved the box back across the desk. “What the hell is this? Bees are legal in this state, even in St. Adele.”

McIntire sat down and detailed his suspicions, watching as the sheriff's expression grew more incredulous by the minute. But to his credit, Koski neither laughed outright nor escorted McIntire to the door. “It seems to me bees do tend to run around in groups,” he said. “What's so odd about finding two of them together? A bee off on its own would be more out of the ordinary.”

“Bees might join their chums to tiptoe through the tulips, but they don't generally pair up for shipboard cruises.” McIntire hesitated as he noticed the merry light that sprang into Koski's eyes, a light he'd learned to recognize in his St. Adele neighbors. It was that word “chums” he supposed. He mentally added it to the growing list of vocabulary to exorcize from his brain, and continued, “and, as you so kindly pointed out, these don't even look like the same sort of bee. But they are. They're the same species, I mean—Three-Banded Italian honey bees. The big one is a drone, and drones don't generally go flying around at all. Before winter they'd be driven out of the hive and killed, and one or two might escape, but this time of year they should be living the high life as members of the queen's harem.”

Koski grunted. McIntire took it to be an expression of mild interest and plunged ahead. “These bees were both on Nels' boat,
in
his clothes—each bee had staked out a claim in a different shirt. Guibard found one with Nels' body. The one that I found was in a shirt hanging on the wall. The sleeve was kind of bunched up so the bee couldn't get out, but it apparently managed to get
in
with no trouble. And don't forget Nels gave himself that shot, which had no effect whatsoever—except maybe to kill him all the faster. The vial that contained the antivenin has conveniently disappeared.”

The sheriff fitted the eraser of his pencil into the cleft in his chin. “So you think somebody tampered with Bertelsen's adrenaline and then sneaked on board his boat and put bees in his shirts? That's pretty far fetched, John. Do you have any idea who this dastardly villain might be?”

“‘Dastardly villain'? Good Lord, Pete, where do you come up with these archaic terms? I don't know who the son-of-a-bitch could be, although…”

“Although?”

“A young man who worked in the Bertelsen orchards has gone missing. There's probably no connection, but regardless, we'll be needing your help locating him.”

McIntire forgot about semantics and filled the sheriff in on the situation with David Slocum, including his run-in with Nels and the incident with Cindy Culver. Koski acknowledged that he was already acquainted with David, several of whose earlier exploits had caught the attention of the county authorities. He himself had once or twice, none too gently, reminded the young man that school attendance was compulsory for those under the age of seventeen. David had not been impressed, and sending a deputy on a fifty-mile round trip each morning to escort him to school had not been deemed efficient use of taxpayer funds. Koski was obviously still somewhat rankled by David's steadfast resistance to intimidation. He screwed the eraser more firmly into his chin.

“Well, it looks like we better try to track him down, if his ma's getting worried. I'll send a deputy to look around up in the hills. Be just like the dumb kid to run his car off the road or get mired down in a swamp somewhere. If he did, it could be a long time before anybody stumbles across him. Nobody goes out there this time of year…except those intrepid uranium prospectors. Meanwhile, I guess we can ask around. The older son's got a barber shop down the street, and maybe the girlfriend knows something.”

At that moment the door swung open and Deputy Cecil Newman sailed in, pink-cheeked and panting. He dropped his paper bag onto the sheriff's desk with a clunk and turned his attention to the visitor. “Good afternoon, Mr. McIntire.” He cleared his throat, breathed deeply, and began again in an octave more suited to his status. “I hope it isn't some trouble that's brought you to us?”

Koski rose to his full six feet, five inches—without his campaign boots. “We were just waiting for you to get back, Cecil, so we can leave the office. Mr. McIntire has some,” he paused to give the word more emphasis, “
investigating
to do, and I do believe that I could use a haircut.”

After dropping the sheriff at Al Slocum's barber shop, McIntire drove to the residence of Warner Godwin, the widowed attorney who had taken Cindy Culver under his wing, that she might do the same for his motherless daughter. It was located on the north side of town in Chandler's most prestigious neighborhood, an area where a small group of homes, loosely termed “mansions” by the locals, were clustered on a steep hillside overlooking the bay. The houses had been erected before the turn of the century by those few plunderers of the area's abundant natural resources who chose to actually live, at least for part of the year, among their vassals rather than in the more stimulating environments of Chicago or New York City.

The Godwin home was set high above the street and commanded a panoramic view of the water and the distant opposite shoreline. It was built in a Tudor brick and stucco style. McIntire felt a surge of wistfulness for the solid architecture of Britain—a sensation that swiftly evaporated as he recalled the dank and dreary interiors of most of those picture-postcard domiciles.

There was nothing remotely dreary about the interior of the Godwin home, or about the petite young lady who answered the door. She was dressed in the requisite rolled-up blue dungarees and a raspberry pink pullover fashioned of some fuzzy material, the sight of which set McIntire's nose to itching. The costume fit the remarkable ins and outs of her form as if she had been knit into it. Waves of blond hair fell to her shoulders, artfully arranged to sweep across her forehead and partially veil one of the sparkling hazel eyes—a sophisticated
femme fatale
coiffure incongruously paired with the cupid's-bow lips and dimpled cheeks of a Rubens angel. When McIntire identified himself, she extended both hands in front of her body, and with a soulful look exclaimed, “Alas, I've been found out! Slap the cuffs on me, I'll go quietly.”

She chatted as she hung up his hat and bounced ahead of him through the hallway. Of course she knew who he was. She had seen him in church lots of times last summer. Her mother used to wait tables for McIntire's father when he had the bar. She was so excited to meet someone who had actually lived in another country, especially a place like England. She had seen
Forever Amber
three times and intended to travel herself someday, and England was going to be one of her first stops.

McIntire forbore explaining that Hollywood's version of seventeenth century Britain might not bear much resemblance to present day reality. He followed her through a shadowy dining room, past a table littered with papers and stacks of envelopes, to an airy plant-filled room at the back of the house, where Cindy indicated that she'd be able to “keep an eye on Annie.” Looking out through the French doors, McIntire saw a broad carpet of lawn and a small girl on her knees, peering intently into a shallow pool. A fat straw-colored braid on each side of her face stirred the water as she slowly swayed from side to side.

“She's trying to hypnotize the goldfish,” Cindy explained. “I have to be ready to haul her out if she puts
herself
in a trance first. Now Mr. McIntire, please do sit down and tell me what I can do for you.”

McIntire's mild amusement at her Home-ec class comportment turned to consternation when Cindy, rather than positioning herself in a spot advantageous to keeping Annie under surveillance, sat down close beside him on the small sofa, threw back her head to look directly into his eyes, and beamed expectantly.

McIntire cautiously put a little more distance between his own and Cindy's knees and adopted a stiffly formal manner. “Caring for a child and a house is a big responsibility. It must be very difficult for someone as young as you.”

Cindy bestowed a smile of benign tolerance upon her guest. “At home I had
seven
kids to look after most of the time and farm work besides. Here I have my own room, every other weekend off, the bathroom is indoors, and I didn't wake up with snow on my bed even once last winter…and we
never
have porcupine for dinner.” The childlike face took on an expression of pure adult avarice. “I'm going to have a house like this of my own someday.”

McIntire looked at the polished floors and subdued glow of the cherry paneling. He wouldn't mind having a house like this himself. “It is a grand home,” he agreed, “but it must be a lot of work to keep up.”

“Oh, Mr. Godwin has a cleaning lady come in twice a week. He did that even when Mrs. Godwin was alive. Wasn't that sweet? Mrs. Godwin did all the decorating herself, Got the ideas from magazines, Mr. Godwin said. She had awfully good taste, don't you think? In clothes, too. Mr. Godwin gave me lots of her things. Can you believe she was exactly the same size as me?” Since Cindy appeared to be only marginally larger than her juvenile charge, McIntire did find that moderately difficult to believe. His skepticism must have shown on his face. Cindy displayed signs of jumping up to fetch some of the treasured objects to substantiate her case, and he decided it was time to get down to business.

“Miss Culver”—he switched to his “constable's here, the party's over” demeanor—“David Slocum has left home without telling anybody where he was going, and his mother is worried about him. Have you got any idea where he might be?”

If Cindy was embarrassed by McIntire's evident awareness of her past indiscretions, she didn't show it. “I haven't seen David in months,” she said, “not since before I came here.”

“Have you had any contact with him at all?” McIntire pressed. “Has he ever talked about leaving home, or about somewhere he might want to go?”

Cindy looked guilelessly into his eyes. “I haven't seen or heard from David since last October. How would I know where he's gone? He's not exactly Mr. Responsibility. I'm sure it's not the first time he hasn't come home.”

McIntire met her gaze. “So I understand,” he observed. “Did you ever hear David talk about Nels Bertelsen?”

She looked at him now with frank curiosity. “You mean the grouchy man that lives by the orchards? No, why would David talk about him?”

“Mr. Bertelsen died last week, didn't you know that?”

“No kidding? I haven't been home for a while. From what? He wasn't all
that
old.”

“He died from being stung by a bee. He was allergic.”

Cindy's eyes opened wide. “Holy cow! A bee? Are you sure?”

McIntire assured her that there was no doubt.

“That is the weirdest thing I ever heard…but what's it got to do with David Slocum?”

“Like I said, David is missing. Before he died, Mr. Bertelsen was very upset about something that happened when David was working on his place. I thought he might have mentioned it to you.”

“But David didn't work for Nels Bertelsen. He worked for that old one-armed guy.”

“Old guy,” was it? Thirty-six days older than McIntire himself. He ceased to concern himself with the proximity of Cindy's knees. “Yes, he did work for Mr. Petworth,” he told her, “but Mr. Petworth and Mr. Bertelsen were business partners. Mr. Petworth managed the orchards, so David worked there sometimes. Mr. Bertelsen yelled at David and tried to kick him off the place. Did David ever talk about it?”

BOOK: Past Imperfect
4.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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