Monday, April 11, 2011
Harry Vanderlinde liked to fancy himself something of an amateur sleuth. Harry based this belief on the fact that he read an average of 10 mystery novels a week. As a result of this extensive delving into slueth-dom, Harry could always find a mystery in his ordinary, rural Midwestern existence. So of course it was a natural thing for Harry to find himself wandering around Mary Agnes Hawthorne’s barn later that same day. He took care to stay out of the firemen’s way, doffing his tattered, old-guy hat in their direction whenever they glanced at him or spoke. Only one time did they come close to throwing his nosy butt out, and then he distracted the young, overeager sheriff’s deputy with a story about a three-foot long pike he’d caught up north.
Harry knew most of the men scurrying around the remains of the fire. Small towns in rural Minnesota were not good places to try to hide out. Within minutes of something happening in Hooperville, everybody for miles around knew all about it.
He spotted Mike Cleary standing next to the charred John Deere and headed for him. Mike was talking to a man wearing a brown suit, which sported permanent, horizontal wrinkles. Despite the hobo-like geography of the suit, the man was surprisingly clean given the fact that he was standing in the middle of a soot and ash mountain. Harry recognized Duff Potter even from the back. Only Duff would wear a three-piece suit into a smoldering barn. In fact, only Duff would wear a three-piece suit.
As Harry approached, he heard Duff say, “…covered in gasoline. No doubt in my mind it was arson.”
Cleary scowled and glanced at a strangely uncluttered spot on the dirt floor that was encircled with yellow, crime scene tape. “It’s more than that though, isn’t it, Duff?”
Duff shook his head in disgust. “Any ideas?”
As if he could feel the pull of Harry’s curiosity behind him, Cleary suddenly lifted his gaze and gave the older man an insincere smile that barely covered a look of irritation. “Mr. Vanderlinde, what are you doin’ here?”
Harry doffed his old-guy hat and favored them with a creaky, equally insincere smile of his own. I was the one spotted the fire this mornin’ just thought I’d see how bad it was.”
Cleary nodded. “The barn is just about gone, as you can see, only that one wall in the back and part of that far side can be salvaged, but they might be able to save the Deere, if they want to put a lot of money into it.”
Harry focused watery, brown eyes at Duff. “You think this fire was set deliberate, Duff?”
Duff tried to laugh off this uncomfortably direct question. But his eyes kept dancing away from Harry’s. “I’m not ready to make my report yet, Harry….”
“Bull pucky!” Harry followed this polite negative response with a sleuth-like grin. “You boys might not like it, but I heard what you said. Now it won’t do no good to lie to me.”
Cleary glanced at Duff and the fire investigator simply shrugged. “OK, Mr. Vanderlinde, but you can’t tell anyone about this. If it gets out too soon it might hamper the investigation.”
Harry nodded at the deputy. “Don’t worry about me, son, I’m gonna help you figure this one out.”
Cleary smiled as if he were dealing with a precocious child. “The best way to help us right now, Mr. Vanderlinde, is to stay out of the way and keep your ideas to yourself.”
“Don’t you be gettin’ all high and mighty with me, young man. I know more about murders than you ever will.”
“Is that so, sir? And where did you get this extensive knowledge?”
“I read more murder stories than you ever thought o’ readin’, and I can spot a clue a mile away.”
Mike laughed outright, earning him a dark scowl from the elder sleuth. Harry bade them a curt goodbye and headed toward the house.
Harry dropped a small bag of trash into the battered, green can at the side of his garage. The night was so bright he didn’t even need the light over his garage to see what he was doing. Beyond the light’s arc he could clearly see the path heading toward Mary Agnes’ property and into the woods.
He swatted at a mosquito and looked up at an impossibly fat moon, which hung like a halo over the trees on the horizon. Despite the fact that the sun had been down for a couple of hours, it was still warm. So warm that the state’s 747 sized mosquitoes were still hanging about pestering everybody. He’d lived in Minnesota all of his life and, one thing he could say for sure, the weather was rarely the same for two years in a row. Last winter they’d been wading through a good foot of heavy, wet snow about this time. This year, although the weather had already dipped below 30 degrees a few times, it looked like it would be close to 70 degrees on Thanksgiving day. He shook his head and smiled. He wasn’t going to complain about 70 degrees, no matter what time of year it was.
As he turned back toward the house he heard a not-too-distant shot coming from the direction of Mary Agnes’ property. He scowled as he realized she must have poachers on her property again. She’d lost at least twelve deer that fall, despite the fact that she had ‘No Hunting’ signs plastered over every tree and fence post along her property line. Unfortunately for Mary Agnes and her beloved deer, the whole county knew she had a herd of about 100 deer living on her 200 acres. And she fed them well.
Harry shook his head and made a quick decision he hoped he wouldn’t regret. He turned in the direction of the gunshot and started off, praying he wouldn’t get himself shot before he found the culprit.
An unnatural silence filled the air as he picked his way carefully across his yard. Nothing intruded on the silence accept the sound of buzzing insects.
The earth beneath Harry’s feet was spongy from a recent rain and pungent. In the distance, Bobo broke the silence with a soft whinny, like a question floating across the two yards. Who’s there? Harry smiled. The fat little pony was the neighborhood busybody.
As Harry entered the deepest part of the woods, something crashed through the woods just ahead and to the left of the path where he walked. He jerked to a stop, his heart pounding forcefully in his chest. Squinting through the filtered light he saw the white flash of a deer’s tail as it leapt into the protective cover of the dense underbrush. Harry smiled.
Score one for the deer.
He’d never been a hunting man, himself. He just couldn’t understand how a person could look into the gentle, brown-velvet depths of a deer’s eyes and pull the trigger. He took the crashing retreat to mean that the hunter’s aim had been off.
He decided he’d better let his presence be known, just in case the poacher he was pursuing had trigger-happy tendencies. “Helloooo. Anybody in here?”
Harry listened for a response he didn’t get. Ignoring the alarm bells sounding in his brain, he started off again. He really didn’t expect the scoundrel to answer him, but he sure didn’t want to get mistaken for a 12 point buck, minus the points.
The atmosphere in the woods was heavy, silent and moist. Sounds were muted but somehow amplified at the same time. A scuffle of small, clawed feet here, the whisper of swaying vegetation there. Harry’s head was on near constant swivel, assessing each sound carefully.
The moon snaked through the trees to dapple the path ahead and Harry forced himself to keep moving forward. A few minutes later, Harry emerged into the 20-acre cornfield bordered by the woods. The harvested field was cris-crossed by grassy strips to hold erosion at bay. It was where Mary Agnes liked to commune with her deer. She came there often to feed them apples and watch them graze.
Emerging into the moonlit clearing, he saw telltale signs of deer in the flattening of the tall grasses along the edge. He knelt down next to one of these flattened areas and put his hand on the grass. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, the damp grasses didn’t exactly tell him anything, it was just that he’d seen an Indian guide do it once on a western movie on TV. He heard a faint rustling noise and looked up. “Anybody there?”
No one responded. Harry stood up with a groan, his 80-some-year-old knees creaking in protest, and peered across the field.
He looked more carefully at a tree bordering the field. The tree was cast half in shadows, the moonlight unable to penetrate its dense, spreading branches. The thick trunk was misshapen at the bottom, thicker and oddly shaped. Peering closely, he realized it was a hunter, sitting on the ground, with his back against the tree. He was wearing a camouflage jacket and had a dark green cap on his head. Harry called out again, but the figure sitting at the base of the tree didn’t respond. He shrugged and moved closer. Maybe he was asleep.
When Harry was about 6 feet from the tree, his shoes splashed into something trailing through the grass and he looked down. A small river of blood was trickling around his feet. He gasped and lifted his shoes, first one and then the other, in a comic attempt to avoid the cherry-red liquid. He finally hopped to one side and frantically began swiping his shoes across the moist grass.
His ancient face creased in a scowl of displeasure. “I don’t know why you sons of bitches just can’t leave them poor creatures alone.” He declared angrily to the man who was seated silently in the tall grass. “It’s not like you couldn’t just go up to Happy Don’s and get you a big fat steak or pot roast.”
Harry didn’t stop to question the logic of this one. Since he’d been eating beef all his life, he had somehow ceased to attribute to the juicy, flavorful stuff any life prior to the supermarket.
He was a little surprised that the figure at the base of the tree didn’t respond. He’d always gotten quite a rise out of the guys at the Legion Hall with that kind of talk.
He cocked his head and walked on more slowly, keeping an eye out for both the river of blood and the leaking carcass of the deer as he went.
When he finally reached the tree, however, the first thing Harry noticed was that the hunter’s shotgun, which was standing on its butt end, and leaning toward the sitting figure at a strange angle, was pointed straight at the hunter’s head. The next thing Harry noticed, God bless his soul, was that the seated figure was a woman. This observation was not at all his fault, since the hunter’s bosoms, painted a bright slimy red and resembling hamburger in geography, immediately drew his notice. A tattered slip of paper stuck up from a small pocket in the victim's shirt. The paper was dotted with blood.
Harry saw stars and felt the color drain from his face. He swiped a shaky hand over his eyes as the fat moon overhead cast everything in a unnatural brightness, making the green of the grass and the bright red of the blood pulse before his eyes.
As Harry’s dinner started the short journey from his stomach to the grass at his feet, his mind couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that the dead woman’s eyes were an incredible shade of blue, and looked very surprised.
Then he turned away and reintroduced himself to his dinner.