Sunday, May 22, 2011
The plot thickens in Hooperville, Minnesota. Looks like Mike Cleary might be closin' in on the killer. He'd better catch him fast, or I think Harry might just take him out himself. Enjoy!
Mary Agnes stood in the center of her largest meadow. Behind her, baking in the hot sun and sending off a sweet, fruity smell, was a bucket full of freshly picked apples. She had tethered Bobo to a tree nearby, and he was happily munching the tall, lush grass in the shade.
She stood as still as possible, her bony arms hanging at her sides, her nose stuck into the air, sniffing quietly. After about ten minutes, she pursed her lips and whistled softly. She stopped and listened for a minute, and then whistled again. Then she sat cross-legged in the tall grass and placed the bucket against her crinkly, brown knees. As she waited, she closed her eyes and reveled in the heated air beating down on her head.
She barely heard them approach. They were always careful. Not fully trusting. A moment later she felt the soft whoosh of warm breath as one of them reached a golden nose toward the bucket longingly. Mary Agnes expelled air in a soft sigh, opened her eyes, and smiled as she reached into the bucket, carefully and slowly removing a small, imperfect apple with a tart aroma. The boldest of the five deer reached her velvet muzzle toward Mary Agnes’ hand and gently pulled the sweet treat into her mouth. Mary Agnes reveled in the first rush of pleasure that surged through her at the connection. She would sit until the bucket was entirely empty. And the deer had all been fed.
Burdett Hinclemeyer was really just a funeral director. His knowledge of forensic evidence was spotty at best. Murder just didn’t happen all that much in Hooperville and he hadn’t been called on to give forensic evidence more than once or twice in his entire career.
He was literally up to his elbows in this one. First they brought him the charcoaled remains of an unknown stiff, and asked him to find out who it was, and now this. He plunged his tweezers into the next hole and dug another piece of steel shot from the cold, dead corpse of Lena Luther. He plunked the shot into a glass petri dish and plunged the tweezers into the next hole. He was just about to plop the ball of metal into the dish when he noticed the tiny wad of paper that had attached itself to the metal with a human glue of dried blood and fatty tissue. He squinted at the paper and gave a slow smile. Rather than drop the paper ball into the petri dish along with all of the rest of the shot, he dropped it into a small, paper bag. Then he reached for the phone on the wall above his stainless steel draining table.
* * * * *
Cleary took the phone call and left his storefront office within two minutes. This was his first break in the case. Maybe the paper would tell him something. As he drove the few blocks to the Hinclemeyer’s Haven Funeral Parlor, his mind raced with the possibilities. The biggest problem about Lena Luther’s murder was the murder weapon. Although it had been found at the scene, Lena’s own rifle hadn’t been used to kill her. A shotgun loaded with steel shot had killed her. Unfortunately, Cleary knew all too well that shotgun pellets don’t provide any clue as to the identity of the weapon that fired them. The paper wadding, however, was an interesting development. Usually, only the hunter who reloaded his shotgun at home used paper wadding. Cleary snorted at the thought. This fact didn’t narrow the field very much in a part of the country where 9.5 out of every 10 people were hunters and owned some kind of shotgun. However, if the wadding used in the shotgun that killed Lena Luther was recognizable and had been punched from a magazine or newspaper that was still on the killer’s premises, he might have something to go on.
Cleary pulled into the small parking lot behind Hinclemeyer’s Haven and headed toward the renovated white building. The funeral parlor had originally belonged to the first mayor of Hooperville back in 1805, and at the time it had been the biggest, most splendid home in the tiny town. It had traveled a long way since then, through several owners and as many renovations, but it was still the biggest and most spectacular place in town.
He entered the parlor through the back door and went down a short, narrow hallway with oppressively low ceilings. Cleary knew that this part of the house had once been the servants quarters, and the room that Burton Hinclemeyer now used as his workshop had been one of two original kitchens.
Burton was still picking shot out of Lena Luther when Cleary entered the shop. “Did you put it in a paper bag, Burton?’
Burton Hinclemeyer straightened his long, lean body and grinned at Cleary as he dropped another pellet into the petri dish with a ping. His smile was wide and full of perfect, white teeth. The funeral director was 45 years old, and looked 30. He was tall, blond and handsome. Looking at him, Cleary was suddenly reminded that the population of Hooperville was dominated by Scandinavian descendants.
Burton had gone to Hooperville High fifteen years before Cleary, but his legendary prowess with a basketball, as well as any number of nimble bodied females, had dominated the men’s locker room conversation throughout Cleary’s four years at the school. Even now, the joke among Hooperville residents was that women grew pale at the sight of him…very pale. How the man had managed to stay single for so long was a mystery to Cleary.
“Officer Cleary, just because I drain and paint dead people doesn’t mean I’m stupid. How many times have you told me that wet material must be stored in a breathable container or it will decompose?”
Mike grimaced. “I suppose I’ve told you that a few times.”
Burton laughed his deep, rich laugh. “I did go to college you know. That’s the only reason I got stuck with the coroner’s job.”
Mike grinned at him. “That’s not the only reason. Nobody else would take it. Maybe that’s why I question your intelligence.”
Burton’s thunderous laugh filled the small room. He handed Cleary the small bag.
“Have you examined it?”
Burton shook his head. “I wanted you here.”
Mike handed the bag back to Burton and they moved to a smaller table under the window where Burton had a microscope set up. He opened the bag and plucked the pellet out with his tweezers. Placing it into a sterile, stainless steel tray he’d pulled from a shallow drawer in the center of the table, he grabbed a second pair of tweezers. After a minute of trying to disengage the paper from the steel shot without tearing it, he finally managed to scrape it loose. Using the two pairs of tweezers, he carefully pulled the paper open. “It looks like it came from the cover of some kind of magazine. The paper is heavy and glossy. He grabbed a small corkboard that was leaning against the windowsill. He laid the small paper segment on the board and pinned it in place using the outermost corners. Then he pulled a large magnifying glass from the center drawer and bent over it. The edges were scorched and jagged, but he could still make out the boxy shape of a letter printed in burgundy ink.
He straightened up and handed the magnifying glass to Cleary. Looks like the top of a W or the bottom of an M to me, see what you think.”
Cleary nodded after examining the scrap for a minute. “Burgundy color, boxy lettering, looks like a title section. This shouldn’t be too hard to place.”
Burton snorted, “Yeah, there are only about 12,000 different magazines it could have come from.”
Mike straightened and scowled. “It’s all I’ve got right now.” He continued to stare at the tiny scrap for a couple of minutes with a thoughtful frown on his face. Suddenly his eyes refocused and he turned to Burton. “You got anything on that John Doe yet?”
Burton grimaced. “The body’s still in Wakomia, and I’m not in any hurry to get it back.”
Cleary nodded his understanding. I’m gonna call the hospital and see if somebody there can do an autopsy for me.”
“Good. You got any idea who the guy could be?”
“Nope, but I’m workin’ on it.”
* * * * *
When the doorbell rang Harry was in his office, which used to be the dining room when his wife was alive. He was making his notes on the case. He opened the front door to find two men in bright orange caps and green and brown dappled overalls standing on his front step. Behind them, sitting in his driveway, was a battered blue pickup truck with a rifle rack in the back window. He turned an unfriendly face to the two men.
The oldest of the hunters, probably the father, because the second hunter was just a teen, smiled at him and offered his hand. “Hiya, name’s John Cooper, this here’s my son John Junior.”
Harry reluctantly took the offered hand and gave it a single, weak pump. He nodded at the silent, sour looking teen. “I don’t allow huntin’ on my land, John Cooper.”
The older man looked disappointed but he remained polite. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir. Word is you got a hell of a lot of deer around here.”
Harry’s gaze narrowed, “Where’d you hear that?”
“All the hunters is talkin’ about it.”
“Here, Wakomia, Saint Cloud, Poocherville. All around here.”
“You don’t say?”
John Cooper grinned. “Word is some guys been comin’ around here and shootin’ deer without permission.” When Harry’s face gained an angry red tint, the hunter quickly added, “not here, understand, but I guess a couple of guys snuck onto your neighbor’s property late one night. Come back with a couple of nice bucks.”
Harry scowled at the man and started to close the door in his face. “You assholes better not try that again. I suffer from insomnia and I just decided that a good brisk walk over the fields with my shotgun might be a really good way to cure the problem.”
John Cooper’s drooping mouth was the last thing Harry saw as he slammed the door shut in his face.
Harry went straight to the phone and called Mike Cleary’s storefront office in downtown Hooperville. Mike answered on the second ring. “Cleary, I got information on the case, get your narrow butt over here fast.”