Harry pulled his old Chevy truck up to the Luther’s door and shut it down. He waited for the engine to finish sputtering and then got out, pushing his old guy hat down on his head as a cool gust of wind raked across the treeless landscape. He glanced around the property, taking in the ragged looking laundry hanging on the line, and wrinkling his nose at the smell of hog manure that permeated the air.
He knocked on the scarred, white door and waited for sounds of a response inside. As he waited, he looked around. Far off in the distance, the tiny town of Hooperville emerged from the rolling terrain; its low, wood and brick buildings barely visible from the depths of the valley between the two largest hills. Running through the center of town, Oak River glistened in the fading sun and forged a path through the cornfields and farmlands that formed the endless countryside beyond Hooperville.
Harry leaned to peer through the window into the darkened house. He decided no one was home and turned back toward his truck. As he opened the door of the old Chevy, he heard sounds of activity coming from the barn.
Missy Luther was standing calf-deep in manure stained straw with a pitchfork in her hand. As Harry called out to her from the tractor-sized doorway she looked up, squinting in the deepening shadows of the old cow barn, and pushed a wisp of pale, yellow hair off her forehead. “Is that you, Mr. Vanderlinde?”
“Hi Missy. How’re you doin’?” Leaving the sunlight behind, he entered the dusty barn.
Missy shrugged and scooped the pitchfork through the straw. “I’ve been better, Mr. Vanderlinde. I miss my aunt Lena.”
Harry nodded and lowered himself carefully onto a clean bale of straw. “That’s kinda what I come out here to talk to you about, Missy.”
She stopped in mid fling, her poop-laden pitchfork dangling in the air above the muck bucket. “About Aunt Lena?”
Harry nodded. “I was the one found her you know.”
Missy nodded and frowned.
“She shouldn’t have been on Mary Agnes’ property, but she didn’t deserve to get shot for bein’ there.”
Missy stabbed the pitchfork into the straw and leaned against the stall divider with a sigh. She stared hard at her shoes for a long time before she spoke. “She promised me she wouldn’t go there no more. I believed her.”
Harry gave a sigh. “I know how bad that must make you feel, young lady, but it ain’t all that unusual for grown-ups to break their word. Sometimes a little white lie is the easiest kind to tell.”
“No sir. She didn’t lie to me, she wasn’t poachin’ down at Mary Agnes’ place.”
Harry frowned and looked at his old guy hat, clutched in his hands between his legs. “Maybe you’re right, Missy.”
“I am right. She musta been there for some other reason. She wouldna lied to me.”
Harry stood up. “I wonder if I could go up to Lena’s place and look around a bit.”
Missy shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t matter to me. She never locked the place, so I guess she wasn’t too worried about people goin’ in. Help yourself.”
Mike Cleary pushed the rough-hewn door open and peered around inside the cabin. Daylight had been unable to pierce the blanket of trees that towered over the tiny, two-room cabin in the middle of an otherwise unbroken woods. As he entered, his hand automatically reached for the light switch, only to discover that no light switch existed. In fact, he soon discovered that no electricity existed within the cabin. Lena Luther had lived a truly rustic existence. He propped the heavy door open to make use of the limited outside light and started looking through the cabin. He wasn’t sure what exactly he was looking for, but he felt that it had to be done.
In the main room, he found lots of firewood, a pair of deerskin slippers, some homemade beeswax candles, and various canned foods. The twig furniture appeared to have been handmade and didn’t look very inviting. He knelt down beside the fireplace and sifted halfheartedly through the cold ashes. As he stood up, he heard a chattering sound and turned to see a huge, fat raccoon staring at him from an interior doorway.
Mike remembered that Lena had raised a litter of coons from pups and kept them as pets. He knelt down and made smooching noises at his wide-eyed companion. The coon just turned on its tiny heel and lumbered unsteadily out the door. He shrugged and stood up, deciding that he’d better check the second room and get out of there before he lost all daylight.
He wasn’t prepared for the sight that met him as he entered the bedroom. The room’s single twig chair and a dresser made of rough-hewn boards, both apparently handmade, were lying on the floor as if they’d been pushed or thrown over. The few blankets and articles of clothing that Lena had owned were strewn about the floor. And, in the center of the room, a large trunk was open, its lid resting back against an overturned chair. He knelt beside the trunk and saw that it was empty, except for a broken bottle, and the remains of some kind of liquid, which had spread across the bottom and seeped out onto the floor.
Damp raccoon prints led away from the trunk and out the door. Mike reached into the trunk and touched the liquid. Holding his wet fingers up to his nose, he chuckled and stood up. It was just wine.
Harry passed Mike Cleary on his way down from Lena Luther’s place. He lifted his old guy hat to the younger man as he drove by, but Cleary didn’t seem to notice. He just kept on driving, looking straight ahead down the road.
Harry made the turn into the long, winding, dirt road that led to Lena’s place. He entered the cabin and went straight to the beeswax candle that was sitting on an overturned box beside Lena’s handmade birchwood rocking chair, lighting the candle with a damp pack of matches he’d found next to it on the box. Harry cupped his hand around the candle as he dropped into the rocker. He sat there for a few minutes, letting himself soak up the atmosphere of the quickly darkening cabin. Just about the time he’d decided the atmosphere consisted mainly of damp and mildew, he heard a scratching sound at the door. He placed the candle on the box and stood up to open it.
A fat, wide-eyed raccoon sauntered past him as he pulled the door open, and gave him a chirp of displeasure for his tardy response. He was about to push the door closed again when a tiny paw, followed by a black, pointed noise, inserted itself into the opening and a smaller, equally rotund version of its mother pressed itself through the narrow space and threw a crabby squawk at him. “Sorry. I didn’t know you was there.” Harry said with a laugh. Before closing the door, he looked out and saw three more raccoons waddling toward the cabin. “Oh Hell.”
He stepped away from the door, leaving it open.
All five coons entered Lena’s bedroom. He followed them and stood in the doorway, observing. Mama went straight to an open trunk and jumped inside. The babies tried to climb in with her, but she snarled and growled at them so they finally gave up. One by one they jumped up onto the bed and curled up together in a neat, furry little pile in the center of the mattress.
Harry walked over to the trunk and peered into it. Mama jumped out and scurried away in fear as he approached. Harry leaned his head into the trunk and gave a sniff. A familiar scent wafted up from the wet spot at the bottom. He reached in and retrieved the neck of the broken bottle inside, lifting it to his nose and sniffing again.
“Well I’ll be damned.” He said, shaking his head.
“Mark Dickson came home last night.” Cleary told Duff Potter with a scowl. “Seems he’d just gone off with some woman he met in a bar in Minneapolis. His wife called this morning.”
Duff shook his head. “Where’s that leave us?”
“Wish I knew. I got the dentals from Fred Castlehoff yesterday, but Dr. Boll doesn’t have anything like ‘em in his files.”
“Maybe he’s mistaken.”
Cleary shook his head, still scowling. “This guy had only three teeth in his head. Seems he wasn't too much into dental hygiene.”
Duff chuckled, “Then it musta been somebody around here who just didn’t go to the dentist.”
“I’d say that’s about it.”
“Well then, I guess you need to compare all of the locals to the Doc’s list of patients and start weedin’ em out.”
Cleary gave a huge sigh. “Guess so.”
Harry smiled at Mary Agnes through the window. She scowled and dropped the curtain. A minute later, the bolt on the door was thrown and the door inched open. Harry found himself looking down on a very puckish old woman. “Harry, what in the Hell are you doin’ back here?”
“Nice to see you too, young lady.” Harry pulled his old guy hat off his head and moved one big, flat foot into the space she’d allowed between the door and the frame. Mary Agnes gave a resigned sigh and stepped away from the door. “OK, you may’s well come in. Never a minute’s peace around here for an old woman.”
Harry followed her in and closed the door. He clutched a brown paper bag against his stomach as he shadowed her into the kitchen, where Mary Agnes conducted all of her business.
Entering the large, over-warm kitchen, Harry’s eyes widened considerably as they landed on the upturned countenance of an extremely tough looking young man who was sitting at the table with a medium sized glass of Mary Agnes’ prized brew in his hand.
Harry’s first idea was that he’d seen the young man somewhere before, but he couldn’t quite remember where. The youth looked like he’d spent a lot of time on the streets fighting battles Harry Vanderlinde had only read about and never experienced. His dark hair was long and stringy, though it appeared clean, and hung in limp strings down his forehead into his eyes and around his square, darkly stubbled jaw. The eyes that peered out at Harry from beneath the hair were hostile and a little empty, like a shark’s. The boy was dressed simply and cleanly in a plain gray sweatshirt and skin-tight black jeans, with well-worn sneakers on his feet.
Mary Agnes’ visitor swallowed down the last half inch of the wine, made a face, and stood up abruptly, nearly knocking his chair over in his abruptness. “This shit’s too sweet, M.A., but it packs a nice kick.” He told Mary Agnes with a somewhat wicked grin.
Harry’s eyes widened even more in expectation of the coming fireworks, but he was rendered stupid by the old woman’s mild response.
“You wouldn’t know good palates if they bit you on the ass, boy.” She was surprisingly fidgety and her eyes kept swimming guiltily toward Harry as she spoke. “Now get the hell out of here, and next time,” she gave the young man a slight shove, “don’t throw my newspaper where Bobo can get at it. You know he likes to chew it up.” She finished this with a smile that looked more like a grimace, which she threw in Harry’s general direction.
The tough looking young man laughed as if she’d said something really funny and turned to go. Surprisingly, Mary Agnes followed him to the front door.
Harry peered around the door and watched as she pulled something that looked suspiciously like a wad of bills, folded in half, out of her apron pocket and shoved them into the boy’s hand. He stuffed the bills into the front pocket of his black jeans and leaned down to kiss her on the cheek, whispering something in her ear before he left.
Mary Agnes swiped at the spot on her cheek where his lips had grazed her but she didn’t look nearly as disgusted as she tried to pretend. She slammed the door shut behind him and turned back toward the kitchen. Harry hightailed it back to the table and was easing his 80-some-year-old body into the chair the boy had vacated when she bustled in.
“Well I s’pose you want some of my wine, old man. That’s why you always come snoopin’ around here.”
Harry just stared at her until she began to swear and reached to pull a shot glass from the cabinet above the sink.
“Don’t bother with the wine, young lady.”
She shrugged and set the glass on the counter. “Suit yourself.”
“You make it a reg’lar habit to get the paper boy drunk?”
“You’re talkin’ nonsense now, old man. I was just bein’ neighborly.”
“That boy looked familiar but I can’t place the name. Who was it?”
“You don’t know ‘im.”
“I think I do, I just can’t place him.”
She was even more agitated now than she’d been when he’d first come into the room. “You don’t have to know everybody, you nosy old man.”
Harry peered at her for a moment longer, narrowing his eyes like he’d seen Lieutenant Columbo do on TV. Then he shrugged and placed the brown bag he’d been carrying on the table between them.
She cast a sideways glance at the bag as she plopped herself ungraciously into a chair. “What you got there, Harry.” Her faded, old eyes widened with interest. “You bring me somethin’?”
Harry reached into the bag and pulled out the broken bottleneck. “You recognize this, Mary Agnes?”
She narrowed her eyes at it for a minute before she said, “Well dang, ain’t I just the lucky one. You brought me a broken bottle. You want me to fill that with wine for you?”
Harry placed the jagged glass on the table in front of her. “You been sellin’ your homemade dandelion wine to Lena Luther, young lady?”
“That wouldn’t be a very profitable arrangement these days, Harry.”
“You know what I mean.”
Mary Agnes shrugged her sharpish shoulders and smiled an ugly smile. “I got her hooked on the stuff. She said my wine had the best palates of any around.”
Harry nodded and reached for the bottle. He turned it over so Mary Agnes could see the tiny sticker on the side. “What’s this number mean, Mary Agnes?”
Scrawled on the sticker, in bright red ink, was the number 42.
Mary Agnes pursed her arid lips and squinted to read the label. “That’s my sticker. I always put a number on the bottles for I can tell who I sold it to. A good business woman keeps track of her customers, Harry Vanderlinde.
Harry nodded. “I found this broken bottle in Lena Luther’s cabin tonight, how long has Lena been a customer of yours?”
Mary Agnes squinted her watery gray eyes at him and scowled. “Writin’ a book?”
Harry gave her his best smile.
“You got gas, Harry?”
Harry reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a small baggie. The clear ziplock baggie contained a single, tattered piece of paper with irregularly shaped blackish spots all over it. He held it close to Mary Agnes’ face. “You recognize this, young lady?”
Mary Agnes reached for the baggie but Harry pulled it away from her gnarled claw before she could get hold of it. She scowled at him and slapped the tabletop with her empty hand. “What the hell’s the matter with you, old man? You want me to tell you if I recognize it or not?”
“You can look but you can’t touch.”
“Why the hell not?’
“Because this here’s evidence. I took it off Lena before I went to call the police.”
Mary Agnes’ floaty gaze widened with reluctant respect. “Dang. I can’t believe you stole evidence from a murdered victim.”
Harry shook his head. “I didn’t steal it, Mary Agnes, I just borrowed it for a bit. It was just stickin’ out there callin’ to me. I had to take it.”
Her face suddenly split in an evil looking grin. “This calls for a celebration, Harry. I got me some of my best wine right here on the counter. She started to stand but Harry reached an age spotted hand toward her and grabbed her arm. “Not so fast, young lady, I want you to tell me if you see anything familiar about this paper first.”
She gave a huge sigh and threw him a nasty look but she sat back down and grabbed her half glasses off the tabletop. She popped them on her nose and leaned toward the baggie. After a minute she nodded and pulled the cheaters off her nose. “It’s one o’ my receipts all right.” She stated proudly, in her best business voice.
“What’s this stuff all over it, mud?”
Harry shook his head. “Blood.”
“It ain’t red.”
It was Harry’s turn to shrug. “I guess it decomposited or somethin’ but I can promise you that there’s blood.”
Mary Agnes nodded apathetically and her eyes strayed to the lonely looking bottle on the countertop a few feet away from where they sat.
“I knew this was one of your receipts, Mary Agnes. I’m not happy to hear you say it though.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because, it’s dated November 15th. Don’t you know what that means?”
She punched her sharp shoulders toward her ears and looked longingly toward the bottle of wine on the counter, licking her lips in anticipation.
“That was the day Lena was killed, Mary Agnes. This proves she was here that day. You were probably the last person to see her alive, young lady.”