Authors: Ted Wood
For Bob and Betty Russell with great affection
The bar was called Brewskis, which said it all. A typical Vermont aprés-ski place for people trendy enough to use pet names for a drink. And they were out in force, in their stretch pants and puffy sweaters, laughing together about T-bars and moguls and the spectacular tumbles they’d seen on the hill that day.
The bartender was a pretty blonde, around twenty-five. “A brewski?” she asked me with a smile that looked like she meant it. “We have Budweiser or Bud Light on tap and just about everything in the world in bottles.”
I ordered a draft Bud and she brought the beer and stood talking, part of her job, I guessed, to get the customers relaxed to the point they feel delighted to spend three times the going rate on a beer.
“This afternoon.” I nodded.
“Thought so. You’ve got a tan but not the same as a skier.” She sketched the area on her face as she explained. “You know, real leather brown on the face, fish-white where the toque covers your ears and forehead.”
“It’ll develop,” I said. A new customer came to the bar and she bobbed her head at me and moved off up the bar. I looked at him. He wasn’t a skier either. Night worker’s pallor and a dark suit. I studied him, trying to figure out what he did for a living. The owner of the place? No. He’d have had an innkeeper’s snap-on smile.
He saw me looking and asked, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“I don’t think so,” I said politely. “I was just figuring that you didn’t look like a skier any more than me.”
“I’m not,” he said shortly and turned to take his beer, not laying down any money. Then he asked, “If you’re not a skier, how come you’re here?” No more need to guess. He was a cop.
“Visiting friends,” I said. Perhaps the next morning I would be in his office looking for assistance. Right now he didn’t need the whole story.
He turned away, leaning one elbow on the bar, nursing his beer in his left hand, studying the crowd. I wondered if he was asking himself the same questions that were going through my mind. Had any of these people seen Cindy Layer the night she was murdered? Probably not. Resorts like this are repopulated every week by new people. Maybe ten percent of the crowd would be weekend regulars. The others had been far away from the corner of Vermont the night Doug Ford was supposed to have strangled the woman, a thirty-six-year-old bookkeeper.
I did my own looking around, getting the feel of the place and the crowd as the cop finished his beer and dropped a buck on the counter. The waitress stuck it in her tips glass and gave him a big smile as he left.
I wait on people-watching. Nobody looked like a murderer, but then, nobody does until he’s been charged. These were all healthy, cheerful people, either paired up already, like animals in the ark, or working on it. There were a couple of pairs of men alone. The gay contingent, I assumed. But there was one bunch of rowdies, a table of guys on their own.
They were well down the slippery slope to being hammered, laughing too loud, heads together over the table, swapping comments probably about the women in the bar. A tableful of nerds, acting superior.
A waitress came over to them and one of them beamed at her like an aging uncle, and stuck his hand up the back of her skirt.
She gave a little squeal and backed away but he hung on to her and she went red, slapping at his hand.
There was too much noise for anyone else to notice what was going on but I watched, waiting to move. Sir Galahad I’m not but I don’t like to see anybody getting a hard time. She was trying to get away and then he put his other hand on her waist and I moved.
I sauntered over to the table and spoke to him. “Hey, George, isn’t it?”
He looked at me, keeping his hands where they were. “Piss off,” he told me, and his buddies all roared. I smiled at him and punched him, not hard, in the upper arm, my middle knuckle projecting to strike him on the nerve. It paralyzed his arm and his hand fell away from the woman’s skirt. She took a quick step back and scurried to the bar. He sat there, nursing his injured bicep in his other hand. One of his buddies said, “Hey. Did he hit you?”
I had the advantage of height and readiness and I stood staring down the first guy’s eyes and into his moldy little soul until he folded. “Screw this place,” he said. “Let’s head over to the Glauwein.”
“I was having a good time,” one of them protested but the mauler stared at him coldly and one by one they got up. I stepped back, out of range of a sucker kick, and let them go, the groper last. He said, “I’ll get you for this.”
They left and I went back to my beer. The bartender was waiting for me. “Thank you,” she said, without the smile. “We owe you one. What would you like?”
“Another Bud’d be good, please,” I said and when she brought it I asked, “Don’t you have a bouncer?”
“Don’t need one generally.” She flicked her hair back with one hand. “It sounds kind of snobby, I guess, but most of the clientele keep their hands to themselves. We don’t get rough stuff in here. That creep is the exception. Thanks for taking care of it.”
I raised my beer to her. “You’re welcome. Just a drunk. He’ll feel bad when he gets over it, likely stay away.”
“For a while anyways. He pulls stunts like that sometimes and the boss kicks him out but they’re buddies really. He knows he can come back another time.”
I just smiled and said nothing and she pushed on, making friendly. “Are you staying somewhere around?”
“For a while.”
She looked at me, narrowing her eyes. “You’re not a skier, are you? A skier would have said, ‘Yes, I’m at such and such until whenever.’”
“I’m here on business,” I said. “And maybe you can help me.”
A customer came to the bar and she raised one hand to me and went to serve him, then came back. “Shoot.”
“I’m interested in what happened to Cindy Laver. You know about her?”
“I sure do,” she said in a rush, then stopped. “You a cop or something?”
“Not here.” My own little bailiwick was a hard day’s drive north of the border in Canada’s summer resort country. “I’m a buddy of Doug Ford’s. We were in the service together.”
Her mouth forced a perfect O. “Then I guess you don’t want to hear that I think he did it.”
“Why’d you think so?”
“He used to meet her here, every night. He’s a cop, right? And she worked at Cat’s Cradle, the ski place.”
“And they were an item?” Doug was married. I would be staying at his house, with his family.
“They held hands under the table,” she said. “He’d always order the same things. A Black Russian for her, a scotch for him. One drink. They’d sit there for half an hour. Then she’d leave. Then, around five minutes later, he’d go out like they weren’t heading back to her place or somewhere.”
“Were you here the night she died?”
She looked at me levelly. “I’ve already talked to the police about that. I told them the truth.”
“I’m going in to talk to them tomorrow. But I’d really like to hear it firsthand, from you.”
She left to fill the waitress’ tray with beers, then came back and stood in front of me with one hand on the bar. “They had a fight. Joyce was serving them. She didn’t hear what all they said but even from here I could see they were arguing. Ms. Laver didn’t finish her drink. She just got up and walked out, and he followed her.”
“Thank you for telling me. And thanks for the beer.” I finished it and turned to go.
She called me, softly. “What’s your name?”
“Reid Bennett. What’s yours?”
“Carol Henning.” She stuck out her hand. “I wish you luck.”
“Thanks, Carol.” I shook her hand which was strong. “I’ll likely be back in before I leave town.”
“I’ll be looking for you,” she said and the invitation hung there. I wasn’t about to take it up but it pleased me.
It was bright outside with the parking lot lights glinting on six-foot banks of snow on every side. My car was at the far end and I walked to it the long way, going around the first double row of parked cars. Instinctive, I guess. It’s been a lot of years since I was on the sharp end in Vietnam but I still stay away from any place I could be ambushed. It could have happened too easily if I’d walked between a mess of parked cars.
I was halfway down the aisle toward my own car when the four guys from the bar got out of a parked Oldsmobile and came toward me.
“Well. It’s the big man,” one of them said. “Still feeling big?”
I said nothing but gave a shrill whistle between my teeth. Instantly Sam, my big German shepherd, squirmed out of the open window of my car and came bounding up from behind them. They turned as he whisked past.
I bent and patted Sam’s head. “Good boy, easy,” I whispered and kept on walking.
The guy I’d stopped in the bar said, “So the big man’s got a big dog. We’ll have to tie a can to his tail.”
Sam sensed the hostility and raised his big head, gazing steadily at the one doing the talking. One of the others said, “That thing’s huge, fer Chrissakes. I’m not getting myself bit.”
The talker was losing them, I could see that. “There’s plenny of time,” he said. “That thing’s not bulletproof.”
“Neither are you,” I reminded him and walked between them. They parted for us but I expected a back attack so I hissed at Sam who checked and turned to watch them. I didn’t look back but by the time I reached my Chev I heard car doors slam. They were leaving. As I took out my keys I whistled Sam. He bounded up to join me and I bent to fuss him while the Oldsmobile drove out, moving with menacing slowness. “Good thing I brought you along, old buddy,” I told Sam and put him back in the car, closing the window now and heading out, following the directions I had written down for Doug Ford’s house.
It was a modest place, typical of the area, two-story clapboard with a white picket fence buried to the tips of the boards in snow. The drive had been shoveled and I drove in. Almost at once the door opened and Doug’s wife, Melody, came out. She’s lighter-skinned than he is, and beautiful. She hadn’t changed since I danced at her wedding the year I got out of the service. Looking at her made me wonder why the hell Doug had gotten involved with Cindy Laver.
Melody half ran to the car. “Reid. Thank you for coming.” We kissed like brother and sister and she clung to my arm.
“I’d rather it had been under happier circumstances. How are you holding up?”
“We’re holding up,” she said tightly. “But I’m scared, Reid.”
I patted her arm. “I knew Doug before you did. He didn’t kill this woman.”
Two children were at the door, a boy, around fourteen, and a girl a year or so younger. The boy came out to meet me and I shook hands with him. “Wow, Ben. You’ve grown since I saw you last.”
“That was two years ago when Doug brought him fishing up to your place,” Melody said. “But he’s done most of the spurting in the last six months.”
Ben grinned proudly and said nothing. I ruffled his hair. “I brought Sam with me. Remember him?”
“I sure do.” He bent and rubbed Sam’s read. “Hi, Sam. How’s it goin’, big guy?”
“Can Sam come in the house, Melody? If you prefer, he can sleep in the car just as happily.”