Read Dark Coulee Online

Authors: Mary Logue

Tags: #Mystery

Dark Coulee (4 page)

She never called him Daddy. She did it for everyone who was watching. Give them the show of the grieving daughter. Tears squeezed out of her eyes.

He was really dead. Gone from their lives forever. She felt incredible freedom. She could now make her father be the dad she had always wanted him to be.

6

Y
OU look good tonight, Claire.” Billy drove easily in the dark, leaning back in the worn seats of the patrol car. He knew the coulee country so well. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you out of uniform. Now, don’t take no offense.”

Claire laughed. “I won’t file a sexual harassment claim. Thank you for the compliment.”

“That top and a little makeup really transform you.”

“Thanks, Billy. I don’t think they had Coco Chanel design our uniforms. In fact, I know that a female body was never meant to wear them.”

“You might be right about that.”

They were driving upriver toward Fort St. Antoine. The moon lit the way, but Claire couldn’t help watching out for deer even though she wasn’t driving. She had had a close call one night when a herd had jumped up on the road in front of her. Somehow she had slalomed through without hitting one, but it had left her ever watchful.

“I hate it when some of the other guys cut you down just because you’re a woman.” Billy shifted in the car seat next to her.

Claire took his statement in the gut. She knew that went on, but she hadn’t realized it was so prevalent. “Oh, don’t pay attention. I don’t.”

“I think most of them are just jealous. Stewy tries not to show it, but it’s clear he’s a little partial to you. You know, like when he made you investigator. But I think he should be. You’ve had more experience than the rest of us put together.”

“Hey, you can stop a drunk like nobody’s business.”

“You know what I mean. I dig it that you know so much. I think it’s exciting working with someone that’s done all the things you’ve done.” Billy paused for a moment, then continued. “It might be easier for me because you were already in the department when I started. First woman and all. I suppose the other guys just aren’t used to it. That’s their problem. I like working with you.”

“I like working with you too, Billy. I feel like I can be myself with you. But don’t think you need to stick up for me with the other guys.”

He nodded.

Claire brought up the investigation. “Before we get to Fort St. Antoine, I want to hear what you thought of Brad. What did he tell you?”

“Not much. He said Jenny and he were just wandering around at the dance. She was drinking a beer, even though she’s underage. He was keeping an eye on her. He said that Jenny could be a little wild.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“He said they were watching the band, and then they saw their dad on the ground. He was making noise, so they knew he was still alive. Jenny touched him, and they saw where the wound was. But he said they didn’t move him at all. They knew not to do that.”

“What did you think of Brad?”

“I think he’s a nice kid. A little uptight, but a straight shooter. Hard to read emotionally. But, hey, that’s not so unusual with us male types.”

Claire laughed. They didn’t partner up in the sheriff’s office like they had in the police force in town, but if they did, she wished she could have Billy as partner. Being able to laugh with someone got you through the worst of it.

“What about Jenny?” Billy asked.

“She told basically the same story.” Claire thought of Jenny again. It would be a while before she would forget the look on that girl’s face when she turned and asked Claire to come with them when they went to see her dead father. So in need of rescuing. “Hard to know what goes on in that girl’s mind. She’s on her way to becoming addicted to one substance or another. She’s so uncomfortable with herself, it’s kinda painful.”

“I know what you mean. She looks like she might break if you said the wrong thing.”

“Yeah, maybe. I think she’s stronger than she looks. I don’t know how those two are going to make it through their father’s death. What a legacy that family has had.”

They were approaching Fort St. Antoine, and she needed to tell him that she didn’t want to be dropped off at home, but rather at Rich’s house. She liked to keep her life private from her work, but often it was hard as a deputy. A small lie would have to do the trick.

“Could you drop me at Rich Haggard’s house? I left my car there.”

“Sure, no prob. You two dating?” He looked over at her as he asked the question, probably to see her reaction. Cops did love to ask the probing questions.

“Yes, I would say we are.”

“He seems nice. Don’t really know too much about him. He’s so much older than me. I think my dad went to high school with him.”

Claire sat and waited to hear what more he had to say on the subject.

“Dad always said that Rich could do anything he wanted to do. He figures he works with pheasants because they’re nicer than most people.”

The first thing he felt was a hand on his forehead, cool and gentle. Then he was being kissed like a soft rain falling on his face. He basked in it and sighed. Then a whisper in his ear told him, “You don’t have to wake up. Just move over,” and she was in his arms, under the covers. His mouth full of hair, his body at the ready, and soft, warm skin all around him like he was swimming in it. It had been so long since he had been with a woman.

Her mouth found his, and they kissed. She bit his lip, and he said, “Claire.” She rubbed against him and gave a deep throaty chuckle.

He never opened his eyes. He didn’t have to. He knew her smell, her feel, her sounds. She sang to him, sighs and coos from the feel of his hands on her body. When his hand went between her legs, he felt how ready she was for him, and then he made her wait a little longer. He stroked her and sucked her and nipped her until her sighs became higher in pitch, until he knew she was nearly ready to ask for it.

She was down under him, and he rested up on his arms, his legs locked around her hips. She guided him in, and then he held still. So they could both be there together. After this moment of quiet, he started rocking into her, sure and steady.

She felt like the earth and the sea beneath him, as necessary for his life as anything else in it. For one instant the boundaries between them disappeared, and then he exploded. He was sent high, and stars danced in his head.

When he moved off and curled around her, he was ready to fall back into sleep.

He heard her ask, “Was that good for you?”

What a silly question, he thought. It set him off. Instead of answering, he started to laugh. She rolled into him and laughed too. Their laughter took the last of their energy, and they fell asleep wrapped around each other, only to separate gently in the night, bodies floating loose on the bed, touching in spots.

7

E
LLA Gunderson, retired schoolteacher, walked down the road with the use of a good sturdy walking stick. She knew she looked older than her sixty-eight years, but she was determined not to let that stop her from getting in her daily walk. She figured the reason she looked older was that she walked like she was ancient. Stooped over, hesitant, watching the ground as much as she could. She walked like she was eighty years old. Doddering.

It shamed her, but she knew if she quit walking, she would start to move slower, and her life would become more limited. She walked two miles a day. Had since she retired. She didn’t care what the weather was like. If it was forty below zero, like it was a couple of winters ago, she dressed for it. Down jacket, moon boots, glove liners inside polar fleece mittens inside leather choppers. Even a mask so she could breathe the cold air without damaging her lungs.

The cold days actually weren’t so bad. They were usually clear and bright, the sun a bright pebble in the sky. The days that were harder on her were the mid-thirties, overcast, wet. The cold penetrated her bones, and she couldn’t see worth a darn. But she still walked her two miles.

She knew her route by heart. She never varied it, so there were no surprises. As she walked, she might have heard a cardinal calling from the trees, a hawk screeching overhead. She wouldn’t see them, but they were still in her life.

She took the time of her walk to think of her life and organize her day. She tried to read a bit, but more and more she relied on Books on Tape. She wrote some. Before her eye problem, she had had all these plans of what she would do when she retired: write her family history, volunteer at the county historical society, take trips to various places in the world she had never been. But her life was much more circumscribed than it had ever been. Being alone had never bothered her much until she began to lose her eyesight. Being alone and sightless was scary.

Night was the hardest time. She knocked things over, couldn’t go out, certainly couldn’t drive. So she stayed in and listened to the TV, but relied on Wisconsin Public Radio more and more for her news and entertainment. Bless them for their talk shows and their short stories and their music. What would she do without them?

This morning she was edgier than usual. She wondered how Jed Spitzler was. It was too early to call anyone. She hoped for Jenny’s sake that her father would not die. The poor girl had suffered so many losses.

Ella remembered how sweet Jenny had been as a student in her class. One day she had brought Ella a poem about what she thought her teacher’s hair looked like and proudly recited it to her. Ella still remembered a line from it: “White as snow, it seems to glow.” Ella had cherished it. She probably still had it in one of her files.

Unfortunately, what was really bothering Ella was what she had seen last night. Although she could not see clearly straight ahead, most of her vision was still fairly good. She had been listening to the music when she saw a flash of light out of the corner of her eye. What she had been seeing, she realized later, was the knife that had killed Jed Spitzler.

She hadn’t said anything because she wasn’t sure Jed hadn’t deserved what he got. Plus, she didn’t think anyone would take her account very seriously. She knew her testimony would never stand up in court. What defense lawyer wouldn’t have a heyday with her loss of vision?

But maybe she should tell someone what she had seen.

Right before Claire woke up and opened her eyes, she felt fear shoot through her body like a knife twisting in her side. She bolted upright in bed, not knowing where she was for an agonizing moment. Sun painted a landscape of brightness on the opposite wall. Rich’s house. His bed. She was okay. Don’t flip into panic. Not here, not where Rich can see what it does to you.

Putting her hand over her heart, she willed it to slow down. Sometimes she feared it would give way under the adrenaline flood. Gradually the beating lessened. She sank down into the bed and relaxed.

She crawled back under the covers for a moment and tried to calm down. She wanted to bolt, throw her clothes on, and leave Rich’s house immediately, but she would not let herself do that. Her fear was not to control her life. If she was to overcome it, she must fight it off and not let it rule her.

Forget about the dream. Stare at the sunshine.

She was wearing a large T-shirt of Rich’s, and it smelled like him—earthy and sweet. In the pit of her, she ached slightly from the lovemaking last night, or rather, early this morning. Wondering what time it was, she tried to find her watch, which she had placed on the bedside table before she had climbed in with Rich.

Eight. Good. She could take her time. Even though she wanted to leave and go home, she would stay and at least have coffee with Rich. Officially she wasn’t working today, but Meg would be coming home, and she did want to check in on Jed Spitzler’s case.

She could hear Rich downstairs, moving around. What a pleasant sound. A man stirring in the morning, probably putting coffee on, reading the paper. How long it had been. Domesticity. She missed it.

After a long moment or two of trying to enjoy this instant in her life, she rose from the warm bed. Pulling on her jeans, she decided to keep his T-shirt on. To show that she was not exactly the woman she had been before. To acknowledge his presence in her life. Besides, it felt comfortable. A trip to the bathroom, where she washed her face, swished water around her mouth, and pulled her hair back, and she was ready to meet the quiet world of Rich’s kitchen.

“Hey, how’d you sleep?” Rich asked her as she descended the stairs.

“Great,” she told him—and she had, until the end. He didn’t need to know about her dream. He wouldn’t understand.

He walked up to her, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her. Then he pulled back and said, “I assume you need coffee.”

“Desperately.”

“I have some of Stuart’s delicious caramel rolls. Would you like one of them with your coffee? Or I could scramble up some eggs?”

“I could eat both.”

Two old white plates sat on the pine table with knife and fork next to them. Rich poured her a mug of coffee. “I know you like it black.”

She sat down at the table and felt touched by his hospitality. She watched as he pulled out a small cast iron pan and poured some oil in it.

“Do pheasants lay eggs?” she asked.

“Yes, but only in the spring. So you’ll have to make do with plain old chicken eggs. But these are very free-range chickens, as you will see by the color of their yolks.”

“What’s different?”

“They’re bright orange. Startlingly so.” He broke one in a bowl and brought it over for her to see.

“What a beautiful color. Like the sun.”

“Yes, regular storebought eggs look so pale by comparison. The color comes from the iron they get by eating grass and other weeds, I think.”

Suddenly it occured to Claire that Rich didn’t know what had happened last night. “He died, Rich. Jed Spitzler died. Lost too much blood.”

Rich gently poured the eggs into the hot oil and then stirred them slowly. “I wondered. Were you there?”

“Yeah. The kids took it pretty hard. They’re on their own now. I felt so sorry for them. Did you say there was one more?”

“Yeah, they have a little sister. I don’t know her name. She must be nearly twelve.”

“Close to Meg’s age.” Claire thought of Meg all alone in the world. It had almost happened. She pushed the thought away. “At least they have each other. The three of them. And the oldest boy is nearly eighteen.”

“They can’t manage that farm on their own,” Rich said.

“I don’t know. They seem to think they can.”

Rich pulled the eggs off the stove, delivered two to her plate, and brought out the caramel rolls. “Tuck in.”

She took a bite, and he watched her. “Have you eaten already?”

“Yeah. I got up a while ago. I don’t last an hour without some food in me. But it’s time for my midmorning break. I’ll have coffee and a roll.” He paused, then said, “It’s odd to be going out with a deputy. What a strange life you lead.”

Claire nodded. “Stranger than I thought it would be. When I graduated from the academy, I was young and enthusiastic. My uncle had been a cop. I idolized him when I was young. Recently, looking back on his life, I see how destructive police work had been to it. He was divorced twice, drank too much, smoked too much. But what are you going to do? At first the adrenaline of a new case is exhilarating. I loved it. I’d work all night long, drink far too much coffee. Then have to drink something stronger even to get to sleep. But now I see how that adrenaline takes its toll on the body.”

“Even working down here?”

“It’s better, definitely. But you saw last night. I’m not sup posed to be working today, but I’ll probaby run into the office and check out Lola’s ex-boyfriend, Leonard something.”

“I talked to him last night,” Rich told her after taking a sip of his coffee.

“You what? Rich, you are full of surprises.”

“I knew you would ask about him, and I’ve been preparing.”

“Really?”

“Yes. When you ask me about people around here, I always feel like I have nothing to tell because I’ve known these people all my life.” Rich paused and sipped his coffee. “You gotta understand, when you live in one spot with the same community around you, you assume everyone knows what you do—because they do.”

“You’ve got a point.”

“Last night he didn’t have too much to say except he didn’t care for Jed Spitzler. But I assume you knew that. While I was waiting for you to come here, I put my mind to what I had to tell you about Leonard. Three things occurred to me that you should know. First, and this is just to give you some background, he and Lola have been on again, off again for going on a decade now. They’ve never been married, but they’ve lived together and such. Lola’s younger than Leonard. She was a friend of his kid sister’s. So I do think he feels like he owns her.”

“Lola was sure pointing the finger at him last night.”

“She’d like to blame everyone but herself for the state of her life.”

“Wouldn’t we all? What else?”

“Two, Leonard’s been known to drink too much and act rashly. He’s not alone in that behavior around here. One night, this is about four or five years ago, he was drinking at Barb’s Bar, you know where that is? Down by the river, other side of the tracks, between Pepin and Nelson. Anyway, this guy name of Buddy Purdy pisses Leonard off. They’re sitting drinking at the bar next to each other. Pretty soon, Leonard gets up and leaves the bar. Buddy looks out the window and sees that Leonard is driving Buddy’s car down to the shoreline and then out onto the ice. I forgot to mention it’s winter, the lake is frozen over. He drives it about fifty yards out, and the ice starts to crack. Leonard barely gets out of it in time. The car sinks through the ice.” Rich swirled his coffee around in his cup. “I don’t think they towed it out until spring.”

“How did Leonard get the keys to this guy’s car?”

“Buddy did what most everyone down here does. He had dropped the keys under the front seat.”

“And what’s the last thing?”

“This happened long ago, but I think it’s pertinent. Leonard went out deer hunting with his best buddy when the two of them were just out of high school. So we’re talking twenty-some years ago. They went bow hunting. The season’s longer. It was early morning when this happened—hunting starts at first light. Leonard shot his friend in the neck with an arrow. The kid died.”

Rich unrolled part of his caramel roll and buttered the piece, then took a bite. Claire waited for him to finish eating it. She knew he had more to tell her.

Rich continued. “There had been some talk of his buddy cheating with Leonard’s girlfriend, but it might just have been talk. Sheriff called it an accident. It might well have been.”

Claire took a sip of her coffee and waited. When Rich didn’t look like he would add anything, she couldn’t stand it. “What did you think?”

“Well, it being so early in the morning, it was a safe bet, unless they had been at it all night long, that they hadn’t been drinking. That time of day it is hard to see. But with bow hunting, you tend to be closer to your target before you shoot. I thought about it all when it happened. To tell you the truth, I was just never sure. But I can tell you this. I would never go hunting with Leonard Lundgren.”

Nora made breakfast for herself. She was pretty good at it. She made everything just the way she liked it. She toasted her bread and then let it sit for a while until it cooled off so the butter wouldn’t melt on it. She liked the butter to stay whole. Then she slathered strawberry jam on the toast. More than her dad ever let her put on.

She poured herself some milk, but she poured it into a coffee mug. She stirred a little sugar into it. She liked to pretend she was drinking coffee. Sometimes Brad would make her a very weak cup of coffee. He would heat up milk and then pour enough coffee into it to make it turn color. Then he would let her put a couple spoonsful of sugar in it. The best.

Everyone else was sleeping. It didn’t happen very often that she was on her own. Like last night. What she would do was pretend that her mom was there, in the other room. Otherwise, sometimes she was afraid. But if her mom was there, then she would be all right.

Nora worked hard at remembering her mom. She had her picture right by her bed, and every night she kissed her good night. She said prayers to her mom. She believed in her mom more than she believed in God. Maybe that wasn’t right, but since they rarely went to church, she figured she hadn’t had much practice at believing in God.

After she finished her breakfast, she cleaned up her dishes.

She went out and fed the chickens and gathered all the new brown eggs they had laid early that morning. She loved to hold the eggs against her cheeks. They felt so smooth and warm.

She walked down to the end of the road and got the paper.

Then she watched TV quietly for a while.

They had all gotten in late last night. Very late. When she heard them come home, she had taken her mom’s picture out from under the covers where she had put it for protection and set it next to her bed. Then she went back to sleep.

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