Read Dark Coulee Online

Authors: Mary Logue

Tags: #Mystery

Dark Coulee (9 page)

“What?”

“Could you tell me what is in each plate on this table? I can’t see very well anymore.”

Nora looked up into her face. “Your eyes look fine.”

“Yes, I know they do, but they don’t work so good anymore.”

“Sure, I can do that. I’ll tell you what I liked and what wasn’t so good, too.” Nora reached up and took her hand.

“That would be nice. Why don’t you just tell me what you like?”

So Mrs. Gunderson came to find herself holding a plate full of Jell-O salads and brownies and date bars, but she had managed to get a ham sandwich. Nora had declared the sandwiches okay.

“Should we go sit with Jenny?” Mrs. Gunderson asked her when they were done filling her plate.

“Sure, she’s right over there.” Nora took Mrs. Gunderson’s arm and led her to the far end of a table where Jenny sat picking at her food.

“How are you, my dear?” Mrs. Gunderson asked as she set her plate down.

Jenny shrugged.

“Please speak up. I have trouble reading body language.”

“I’m peachy,” Jenny said with a nasty tone in her voice.

“I rather doubt that.”

“I’ll just be glad when this day is over.”

“It nearly is.” Mrs. Gunderson bit into her ham sandwich and wished that it had a little mayonnaise on it. Awfully dry. She managed to swallow the first bite, then asked, “How are you doing at home?”

“Awful.”

Mrs. Gunderson could hear the slurring in Jenny’s voice. She wondered if it was caused by pills or alcohol. Whatever it was, it would need to stop. Jenny was simply too good a child to throw her life down that pit of despair.

“Well, I was wondering if I might come and stay for a week or two. Just to be there for all of you. To help get you settled.”

Jenny didn’t say anything, and Mrs. Gunderson took a bite of some kind of Jell-O. It had an orange color to it, and she could taste those little mandarin oranges that come in a can. It was not bad, quite sweet and fluffy, but tasty to eat.

“We’re not easy to live with,” Jenny finally said. “Nor am I, I imagine. I’ve been on my own for over twenty years now.”

Jenny finally said grudgingly, “We could use some help.” “I’ll come up in the next day or two, and we’ll see how it works out.”

12

L
IMA beans.

If she squinted her eyes just right, her toenails looked like a row of pale green lima beans.

Jenny sat on the top of the stairs, staring at her bare feet. She had always liked her feet. They were the one part of her body that didn’t make her puke. It was midafternoon, and she was waiting for Nora to get home from school. Jenny hadn’t felt up to going to school. Brad had tried to make her, but she had stayed in bed despite all his begging and screaming.

One more day, she thought, give me one more day. Then maybe I’ll be ready. Brad was worried that if they didn’t behave, the county would step in and take them all away. But now Mrs. Gunderson was coming, so he didn’t need to worry about that. Jenny picked at her toes.

Maybe she would do some cleaning today, she had thought, get the house a little more presentable for Mrs. Gunderson. But somehow the hours had floated by without her doing much of anything. She had eaten a piece of toast about eleven. The pill she had taken had smoothed out all the rough edges of the day.

After she had gotten up this morning, she had gone and stood in the doorway of her father’s room. The bedclothes were tossed back. He never made his bed, though Lola would make it sometimes when she stayed over. She had certainly disappeared from their lives. Not that Jenny cared, but still, it had surprised her that Lola didn’t come around at all except that one time. Her father’s work jeans were on the floor at the foot of the bed. Jenny knew that if she opened his closet, not much would be hanging up in it. Most of his clothes would be in piles on the floor.

Mrs. Gunderson would have to stay in her father’s room. Jenny thought she would try to clean it up, but she found she did not want to go into the room. It smelled like him: dirt, oil, and beer. Not a horrible smell, but it reminded her too much of her father.

Hearing the school bus pull up down the road, Jenny lifted her head up from her contemplation of her toes and watched Nora get off the orange vehicle. Nora made it all worthwhile. That’s the way Jenny felt about her. Maybe that was the way Brad felt about both of his sisters.

Nora waved, and Jenny waved back.

Rich finished cutting a pile of firewood and stacked it into the woodshed. He put the new wood at the back of the pile. He still had enough wood left over to get through most of the winter, but he liked his wood aged at least a year. The wood he was cutting up was over half a year old. It should be dry enough to burn by the time he needed it.

The weather was balmy, but he could tell the days were getting shorter, and he knew that winter could descend upon them anytime after September. He even remembered snow in September. It didn’t stick, but it could make the roads a mess.

Rich stood in the middle of his yard and saw that a few leaves were coming down off the black walnut tree, always the first to lose its leaves in the fall and the last to get them in the spring. There was a scent of fall in the air, a smell of sweet decay. He was done with his morning chores, and he had a phone call he wanted to make, so he headed into the house.

He still hadn’t talked to Claire since the dance and the morning after. And he was feeling uncertain if he should, after the note she had left him. He felt slightly awkward calling her at work, but she had assured him it was okay. “If you don’t call me there, you might never catch me.”

He poured himself a last cup of coffee, sat down at the table, and dialed her number. It rang only once before she picked it up. Her voice, clear on the line, announced, “Deputy Watkins, Pepin County.”

“This here is Mr. Haggard. I’m calling to report an assault by a rose bouquet.” His attempt at humor.

Her laughter broke over the phone, and he relaxed. “Did you like them? They were all from that bush in front of my house.”

“Of course. They smelled almost as good as you.”

“Rich, I’m at work.”

Then he asked what he had called to ask, what he had been thinking about for days. “I know you said you were busy, and I appreciate that. My busy season is about to start too. But … when can I see you again?”

Claire didn’t say anything for a few moments. “How about dinner tonight?”

Her answer took him by surprise. “Tonight?”

“Is that too soon?”

“Hardly soon enough.”

“What would you like?”

“Whatever you’re having. The only two things I don’t like are tripe and eggnog.”

“It won’t be exotic. Meg likes her food plain and simple,” Claire said, then asked, “Why don’t you like eggnog?”

“You don’t want to know. Let’s just put it this way: A bit of blood floating in a glass of sweetened yellow milk wasn’t my idea of holiday cheer when I was a kid. Put me off it forever.”

“Yuck. No eggnog.”

“Can I bring anything?”

“Just yourself and your wide store of Pepin County history and lore.”

“How’s the case going?”

“I’ll know more by dinner.”

He wanted to ask her if he could spend the night, but was afraid she’d say no. It would be easier for him to know beforehand, but he could think of no subtle way of asking. “I’ve missed you.”

Again, there was a pause, then Claire’s voice: “Yeah, me too.”

Claire looked up to see Sheriff Talbert standing next to a post near her cubicle in the big room, cleaning his fingernails with the edge of a matchbook. They weren’t dirty; it was a habit he had. Seemed to help him think.

“What can I do for you?” Claire asked, smiling up at him.

“Have you heard anything on Leonard Lundgren?”

“Nothing yet, sir.”

He pulled a chair toward Claire’s desk and turned it around so the back was facing her. He sat in it with his arms wrapped around the top of the chair. His short gray hair looked as if it was mowed every day or two, creating a half-inch of white stubble that gleamed on his pate. He had snapping blue eyes set into deep wrinkles and could bore a hole through a person with his stare.

At the moment, he was smiling back at Claire and looked slightly wicked. “Did I ever tell you about the last time Leonard was pulled in for a murder?”

“Don’t believe so.” Claire figured he was going to tell her about the hunting accident, but rather than tell him she already knew the story, she decided to hear his version.

He tottered back in the chair and then came forward with a snap and started his story. “This is going on thirty years ago. I was a deputy. Lundgren was maybe twenty years old. I was five years older. It was morning. We got a call that there had been a hunting accident. I drove out with the chief deputy sheriff, and when we got to the so-called scene of the crime, there was Lundgren. His truck was pulled into a dirt track near a farmer’s house. That was where he had called us from. He met us at the truck and led us to the body. He had shot the guy right in the neck. Don’t think the friend lasted a minute. But what was weird was that after that, he had shot a deer. After he killed his friend, a deer came by, and he shot it. Strangest thing I ever heard.”

Claire asked a question that had been bothering her. “So he wasn’t too upset about killing his friend?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that. I do think he was upset. They had been very close. Gone hunting every year since they were kids. But I think he just figured you don’t waste an opportunity. Not shooting the deer wasn’t going to bring his friend back.”

“Do you think he shot his friend on purpose?”

Sheriff Talbert rubbed the top of his head. “Oh, you know, there were rumors flying about. Something about a girlfriend. Nothing much I can do about that. It isn’t my business. I just get paid to see that someone’s prosecuted if they deserve it. Leonard’s blood alcohol was not over the limit, but he had some in him. He’s a big guy. I bet he can drink three or four beers without going over the limit. His buddy’s was higher. They had been up all night long, partying, what have you. Come morning, I don’t think they were in very good shape.” The sheriff paused, then pronounced, “It was a stupid accident, but, far as I could see, it was an accident.”

“What do you think about this case? You think Leonard Lundgren would stab someone?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. I think you had good reason to get a warrant for him, search his place and all. But I’m not betting on him. You never know, though. Keep me posted.”

“I’ll do that, sir.” Claire returned to her paperwork. She had been sitting tight at her desk, waiting for the phone to ring from Eau Claire. Leonard Lundgren was starting to think a lawyer might be a good idea. She wanted the forensic results before they listened to him too seriously.

Five minutes after the sheriff had stopped by, the phone rang again. Claire finished the sentence she was writing, then picked up the phone.

“There was blood on the handle of the knife, as we suspected,” Clark Denforth told her after they had exchanged minimal pleasantries.

“That’s good.”

“Except guess what kind of blood it was?”

Claire didn’t need to guess. “Deer?”

“Good guess. Deer blood. How’d you know?”

“Lundgren told us what he had done with the knife on the ride back to the station. I thought of calling you, but knew you’d have to check it out no matter what. What about all the other knives?”

“From what the technicians could tell, a couple of the knives might have had faint remnants of beef blood, but it was likely they were used for cutting up meat. For dinner. Nothing else showed up. Sorry.”

Claire hung up the phone and stared into her empty cup of coffee. No more for her—she could feel how it jangled her. Her therapist recommended she get off the stuff completely. Told her it wasn’t helping her anxiety at all. But Claire still felt that she needed at least a cup or two in the morning to get her going. She had cut back to decaf after lunch.

Sitting at her desk, she thought of putting her head down on her desk and having a brief cry, not a good sign. This stupid case. She felt like she didn’t know enough, didn’t understand what had gone on before. She knew she had done what she should do—Lundgren was a logical suspect, and she had checked him out. She had needed to do that. But now what?

She needed to talk to more people. She had always felt that the children—Brad and Jenny—were not telling all they knew. Were they protecting someone? Would she have to look more closely at the two of them? She hated the thought of that, after all they had gone through.

And then there was Rich. He was coming for dinner tonight, probably happy at the thought of seeing her again. If it could only be that easy. She hated to do what she had to do tonight, but she could see no other way at this moment.

She kept imagining her life as a clean-swept prairie, where everything was easily seen and nothing could sneak up on you. But she was not there. Rather, she was in some kind of deep hole, dark and claustrophobic. How to get out, she did not know.

13

C
LAIRE had kept it simple for dinner. Meat loaf, roast potatoes, a salad, and chocolate pudding for dessert. Meg liked all these foods, and that would make dinner easier. At the moment, Meg was in the bathroom getting ready for Rich to come. She had told her mother that she had to look in the mirror and see if she looked pretty.

“You always looks pretty.”

“Oh, Mom, you just say that because you’re my mom. Sometimes I know I don’t. When my hair’s all ratty and I have dirt on my face.”

“Even then you are adorable.”

Meg looked at Claire carefully and cocked her head. “You could use a little lipstick, I think. I’ll go get it.”

Now she could heard Meg singing to herself in the bathroom. She was so good at entertaining herself. She always had been. She could play by herself in her room for hours.

The meat loaf looked almost done. It should sit for a few minutes, then it would cut better. She had poured the chocolate puddings into parfait glasses and set them in the refrigerator.

The potatoes could use another few minutes. She knew this wasn’t elegant dining. You weren’t supposed to shove dinner at company the minute they walked in the door. Where were hors d’oeuvres and drinks? But she liked to get Meg fed near six o’clock so she had a little time to digest before she went to bed.

She heard a knock at the door and went to answer it. She could see Rich looking down the road, then he turned and smiled. His hair was still wet from a shower, and he was wearing a light wool Pendleton shirt in a soft brown plaid that suited him. As she opened the door, she heard footsteps running up behind her.

“Hi, Rich,” Claire said. He said, “Hi,” but his eyes weren’t on her. They were on her daughter, behind her.

Claire turned to see what he was looking at. The bright, makeup-covered face of her daughter Meg resembled a trampy clown. Obviously, she had decided to use Claire’s makeup. For a first try, it wasn’t too bad.

“Are you practicing for Halloween?” Rich asked innocently.

“Rich, I dressed up for you.”

She had gone over her questions in her mind so she wouldn’t forget them when they went on their walk. Rich had promised her a walk after dinner, and her mom had been happy to get rid of the two of them so she could clean up the kitchen.

As they walked up to the shore of Lake Pepin, Meg picked the top question on the list. “So how is King Tut?” King Tut was her pet pheasant that Rich had given her in early spring. He had lived in a castle with a high wall around it all summer long, dining on fresh greens and seeds that she would hand-feed him. About two weeks ago, Rich told her that he thought it was time for King Tut to go back to the flock. He had assured her that King Tut would reign until he died a natural death.

“He seems to be adjusting well. Happy to be with other pheasants. It’s not good for anyone to live alone.”

“You live alone.” Meg felt like she had to point this out. It led into her next question.

“You’re right. I do. But who knows what the future will bring?”

“So are you and my mom boyfriend and girlfriend?”

Rich picked up a rock and threw it as far out as he could into the lake. The rock dropped into the calm lake, and wavelets rippled out until they faded away. He was taking his time answering Meg’s questions, just to tease her. “Did you ask me to go for a walk with you just so you could quiz me about my relationship with your mother?”

“No. I have other questions.”

“Oh, that’s reassuring.”

“So?”

“So your mother and I are becoming good friends.”

“That sounds good.”

“Let me ask you a question. Do you have a boyfriend?”

Meg reached down and picked up a rock. She heaved it into the water about five yards away. “I’m not a very good thrower.”

“I could show you how to do it better.”

Meg turned and faced him and said, “There’s one boy I like and one boy who likes me, but they’re not the same boy.”

“These things happen.”

She decided to ask him her big question and get it over with. “Have you ever been married?”

“Yes.”

“What happened to your wife? Did she die?”

“No, we got divorced. It was quite a few years ago.”

Meg had suspected that he might have been divorced. But she knew she should not stop asking her questions at this point. She needed to go on and see how he would respond to one more. After all, if she didn’t watch out for her mother, who would? “Whose fault was it?”

Rich walked over and sat down on the huge cottonwood stump that was near the water’s edge. Lightning had hit the tree, and it had fallen last winter. “Some hers, some mine. We wanted different things. I was a lot younger then.”

“So you feel like you’ve changed?”

“That I can say for sure. I have changed.”

She wouldn’t settle.

That was the first thing that he noticed about Claire’s behavior when she came downstairs from putting Meg to bed. She kept walking around the house, picking up pieces of clothing, hanging them up, straightening a rug, looking out the window. Through all this, she was talking to him, but not about anything important. What Meg had done at school, what the weather was supposed to be like tomorrow, how the meat loaf had turned out. She was avoiding any serious subject.

It came to him that she reminded him of a bird, scouting around, nervously pecking. And that is how he knew how to handle her. He had worked with birds all his life. If you walked toward them, they backed up. If you were aggressive, they flew away. He knew to stay calm, keep his voice low and soothing, and do nothing to startle her. He could wait her out.

Finally she sat down. But not next to him—in the armchair by the window, not on the couch where he was sitting. She perched. She stopped talking and gave out a sigh.

“How’s the case going?” he asked. She always seemed willing to talk about her work. She had mentioned that she missed having a partner, someone she could discuss the case with at length. He knew she often used him as a sounding board.

“One step forward, two steps back. Doesn’t look like it was Leonard Lundgren who knifed Spitzler. I keep going back to the wife for some reason. She keeps coming up, and it makes me wonder if the two deaths are linked. Maybe it’s just me who thinks that. I can’t stop thinking about that horrible accident. What was she like? Did you know her? Rainey, her name was.”

“Not really. I knew who she was, but she went to a different school. She was pretty, I remember.” Rich thought back to high school, so many years ago. “You know who knew her real well was Pit Snyder. He played football in high school. We have so few guys in our schools that they take anyone who goes out for football, and actually he wasn’t bad. A block of a guy. Fairly fast on his feet. She was a cheerleader. Classic romance. Anyway, he went out with Rainey through high school. Then he joined the service, served in Vietnam, and when he got back, Rainey had married Jed.”

“Jed isn’t from around here, is he?”

Rich thought back over what he knew about Spitzler. “No, not sure what brought him to this area. That farm was Rainey’s family’s farm. Jed hasn’t done so bad with it. Some of the farmers laugh at him for the things he tries to grow, like sorghum and now sunflowers, but he tries different things. Got to give him credit for that.”

“So Pit Snyder went out with Rainey. I wonder if he held a grudge against Jed for taking his girl away.”

“After all these years, I doubt it. As far as I know, Pit’s pretty happily married himself. He got married about ten years ago. Nice woman. Works in Durand, I think.”

“Does seem awful after-the-fact.”

“Maybe the knifing was just a fluke,” Rich suggested. “Remember how Jed bumped into me when we were getting beers? Maybe he had too much to drink and was a little out of control. Said something to someone he shouldn’t have. So the guy pulls out a knife and stabs him.”

“It could be, but you would have thought there’d be more of a fight for someone to be provoked that badly. That someone would see something. That’s partly why I think the knifing was premeditated.”

“What else makes you think that?”

“Just who Jed Spitzler was. I feel that at least one person wanted to kill him.”

“Not very scientific of you, my dear Sherlock.”

She wrinkled up her face at him. “I wish I were Sherlock Holmes. I often feel I have more in common with Watson. I bumble around until something hits me over the head.”

“I’ve never seen you bumble.”

She shrugged, and they were both quiet for a few moments.

Seeming uncomfortable with the silence, Claire asked if she could get him something, anything.

Rich thought about what he wanted: her in his arms, here on the couch, up in bed, wherever. He said he was fine. Let her come to him. Let her make the move. Be patient, he kept telling himself.

“I have something to tell you,” she started.

It scared him, the way she said it. An announcement. Something she had thought about. Often thinking didn’t help a relationship. They were still so new to each other. Maybe she had thought him out of her life. He nodded for her to continue.

“I haven’t told anyone. I guess I feel a little ashamed. But I wanted to tell you.” She took a deep breath. “I’m seeing a therapist. A woman in Red Wing. She was recommended by my former police department.”

“Oh,” Rich said, relieved at what she had to tell him. “I think that’s good.”

“Yeah, I guess it is. I mean, I know people do this. I just never thought I’d do it, you know, go to a therapist. But things have been kind of hard lately.”

“Like what?”

“Well, this is more stuff I haven’t told you, but I’ve been having panic attacks.”

He wasn’t sure what those were, but they didn’t sound good. “Panic attacks? How do you mean?”

“I’ve been told that panic attacks can take different forms. Mine mainly come at night, when I’m sleeping. I wake up totally scared, heart racing, mind spinning, body jumping around. Petrified. The first time it happened, I thought I was having a heart attack. I nearly called nine-one-one. But sometimes they happen during the day. When I’m on the job, driving around. I have to pull over and let them pass. I feel like I can’t breathe, like I’m going to die.”

“Die?”

She leaned toward him, anxious for him to understand. “Yes. That’s how I feel sometimes.”

It took great strength not to go to her and swoop her up in his arms. But he stayed seated on the couch and said, “That sounds awful.”

“It is.”

She ducked her head, and he let another silence happen. Then he asked, “Is there anything I can do?”

She raised her head, and she had tears in her eyes. “I know you don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to say it, but I think I just need a little time here, Rich. I like you so much. I want to see you and all, but it’s scaring me.”

Rich felt his heart sinking in his chest. His lips tightened. He nodded.

Claire went on. “You see, the therapist and I have been talking, and one of the triggers for me might be feeling strongly for someone.”

“So you feel strongly for me?” he asked.

She nodded and continued, “The last two men I’ve loved have died. I feel like they’ve died because of me. I need to figure this out, work it through, somehow get over it.”

So she had loved Bruce, her old partner. Rich had met him once, and he was sorry to hear that she had loved him. He had never trusted the guy. Something snaky about him. “Do you think that will take long?”

Claire pulled back her hair. “God only knows. Some days I feel like I’m making progress, but then other days I feel worse than ever. I know this Spitzler case is getting to me. A murder that feels like it might have been premeditated. The wife’s death four years prior. The kids’ involvement. Layers of history in this community. And I’m trying to figure it all out.”

Rich had to ask. “So what are you telling me? Are you saying you don’t want to see me for a while?”

“I think so.”

Rich had to ask again. He had feared something like this when he had gotten the note, but he still couldn’t believe it. “Not see me at all?”

Claire squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them and looked right at him. “I don’t want to have to do this, but I see no other way. Whenever I feel myself opening up to you, I panic.”

Rich stood to leave.

Claire rose from her chair and watched him walk to the door. “Rich, I’m afraid if I love you, you will die.”

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