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Authors: Aaron Stander

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Cruelest Month

BOOK: Cruelest Month
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CRUELEST

MONTH

 

AARON STANDER

 

 

Writers & Editors

Interlochen, Michigan

© 2012 by Aaron Stander

 

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Printed and bound in the United States of America

 

 

FOR BEACHWALKER

 

WHO HELPS THIS ALL HAPPEN

1

 

 

 

Ma French bumped along
the snow-covered two-track in her dilapidated GMC Jimmy, her golden retriever Roxy peering attentively out of the windshield. She slowed to a crawl and turned into a two-track that had been flattened by snowmobiles. Rolling forward a few dozen yards, Ma switched off the engine and pushed open the door, using her arm and shoulder to overcome the resistance of the worn hinges. She stood and waited as Roxy walked across the seat and dropped to the ground next to her, then turned back to retrieve a steel-tipped walking stick. Together, they followed a narrow, winding path of hard packed snow for several miles through the dense brush until they reached the shore of a small lake.

Ma stood for a long moment and took in the panorama. Her gaze moving from left to right, she viewed the perimeter of the ice-covered plain. Three sides of the lake were bordered in marshland. The dusky skeletons of long dead pine trees angled helter-skelter at the verge of the marshes. Beyond, scrub forests of oak and maple in saturnine nakedness stood on the rolling terrain. A dark overcast added to the grimness of the tableau.

Ma looked over the expanse of ice toward the old resort. She could just make out the dark forms of a few of the buildings near the shore. Winter was starting to loosen its grip. Ma knew with the coming of warm weather the inland lakes would start to open. She wanted to make this trip to the landlocked resort before anyone was around, and while it was still easy to get there.

A few inches of water separated the shore from the layer of snow-crusted ice that covered the lake. Ma took her walking stick and tested the ice, probing carefully, then stepping gingerly across the band of water to the ice. With Roxy at her side, she followed the shoreline, hoping that if she did break through, the water wouldn’t come above her rubber farm boots—boots her husband had worn for years before he became too sick to work.

Ma half circled the lake, coming ashore in the area where the dock extended far out into the water during the summer. She followed snowmobile tracks up past the main house—its interior obscured by wooden shutters—several hundred yards to the ridgeline. A derelict windmill stood at the top. The tower was covered with a thick layer of rust and most of the blades were missing, the remaining ones twisted and distorted. Just below it was the massive storage tank, steel bands on wood, now collapsing inward.

Ma crossed the ridge and looked out at Lake Michigan. Most of the shelf ice had disappeared in recent weeks, leaving the shoreline open to the waves. She moved toward the rolling surf, stopping on a bank high above the water. With trembling hands she pulled a plastic bag from her jacket pocket. These were the last of them, the last of Pa’s ashes. She had spread the others near his favorite deer hunting blind, and in the yard where they had buried many generations of dogs during the almost half century of their marriage.

The first two places were special to Pa.
Perhaps,
she thought,
this is more important to me. This is where it all began that first summer when we met.

She slowly poured the ashes from the bag, letting the wind carry them away. Roxy stood at her side, silent and watchful. Ma folded the bag carefully and put it in her pocket. Then she turned and retraced her steps back up to the ridgeline, this time heading into the small family cemetery. Ma gazed across the undisturbed blanket that covered the area. She could remember a time, years ago, when a wrought iron fence surrounded the plot. Now only bits and pieces leaned drunkenly.

Ma carefully brushed the drifted snow from the base of the largest headstone.

 

Rose-Marie Hollingsford 1870—1962

 

She remembered when they brought Mrs. Hollingsford’s body back from Chicago for burial. It was late spring, and she and the other folks that worked on the estate had already completed most of the necessary work to open the place for the season. She was thinking about how kind Mrs. Hollingsford had been to her during the four summers she had worked there, only sixteen that first summer.

Roxy’s sudden barking pulled her from her memories. The retriever was pawing at something. Ma dropped to her knees to see clearly the object of Roxy’s attention. She pulled a jar from the sand. The glass had a greenish tint with the brand name
Ball
in raised letters on one of the four sides. Wiping the sand from the glass, she squinted at the contents—it looked like a roll of newspaper bound by several dull-red rubber bands. She pulled off her mittens, clasped the bottle firmly with her left hand and applied pressure to the lid. It slowly gave way. Pulling off the rubber bands, Ma peeled away the newspaper and unrolled a large wad of new $100 bills. She stood suddenly and looked around, up and down the shore and back toward the woods. Then for several minutes she stared at the money, flipped through the bundle. Scanning the area a second time, she shoved the bundle into the pocket on the right side of her jeans. Ma put the newspaper back in the jar, screwed on the lid and dropped it, pushing a layer of sand over the glass. Then she picked up the rubber bands and put them into her jacket pocket.

Dragging a reluctant Roxy, Ma quickly retraced her route past the main house, outbuildings, cabins and boathouse. She crossed the ice, and began the long trek back to her car, pausing occasionally on her retreat to listen carefully while surveying the terrain. Anxious and in a heightened state of awareness, she found nothing suspicious or alarming.

 

2

 

 

 

Ray Elkins, sheriff of Cedar County
, was in the early stages of re-entry, a.k.a. the downside of taking a vacation. From the moment he walked through the back door to the department, everyone he met had to comment on his rich tan, a rarity in northern Michigan in late March. At the first few encounters, he felt obliged to explain that it was just a “skier’s tan.” It ended at his collar. He quickly learned that it was easier to say “thanks,” rather than try to explain.

Ray spent the early hours at his desk responding to letters and e-mails. His long-time secretary, Jan, had arranged the paperwork in order of importance so he could efficiently attend to the most pressing issues. Jan, also a skilled gatekeeper, gave him several hours of cover to begin the process of catching up. He was starting to think about lunch when Sue Lawrence, a key member of his small department, knocked at his closed door and uncharacteristically waited until he pulled it open before entering.

Although the Cedar County Sheriff’s Department had a command structure similar to other police agencies of its size, at least on paper, Elkins’ management style was more collegial than top-down. His approach was shaped by years he spent in university teaching and administration, and was further influenced by his desire to give every member of his small staff a role in improving the effectiveness of the department. Ray encouraged people to grow their professional skills, providing money and time for additional training.

Sue Lawrence had joined the department right out of college and quickly became the person he assigned to major criminal investigations. Sue was bright, insightful and took advantage of the in-service training available from state and federal agencies, especially the FBI.

Over the years Ray and Sue had also developed a strong friendship that had almost spilled over into a personal relationship. Ray worked hard at maintaining a professional distance, wary of the risks and negative consequences of crossing the line.

“Great tan,” commented Ray, remembering that Sue had spent a week in Florida with her parents before his own vacation.

“It’s starting to fade,” she responded.

“Anything happen last week I should know about?” he asked.

“Nada. How about the week I was gone?” she asked.

“Same.”

“It’s about time things slowed down. Remember when deep snow and frigid temps used to keep the bad guys indoors or out of state for weeks at a time?”

“It’s just one more negative consequence of global warming,” Ray shot back. “How was your vacation?”

“A week with the parents, not too exciting. I hit the beach every day, read a stack of books. We went out to eat a lot. That’s what they seem to do in Florida. I think my mom has stopped cooking. How about you?”

“We skied every day. Salt Lake has great snow. And in the evening we did the opera, the symphony, chamber music. I got back Saturday, slept most of yesterday.”

“What does your friend do?”

“He says he’s an investment banker—I’ve never quite figured out what that is. It appears that he’s sort of retired or has taken a sabbatical. He obviously doesn’t like to talk about it, so I left it alone. His main focus now seems to be skiing, music, volunteer work, and a long-term girlfriend.”

“In that order?” asked Sue.

Ray thought about the question before responding. “That was probably true last week. My presence might have skewed the data.”

“The opera,” Sue started, “the one we went to, I really enjoyed that. The next time your love life falls apart and you have an extra ticket, I’d be happy to go again. Only this time it would be nice not to work a homicide scene before the show. The onstage carnage was enough for one day.”

Ray’s focus was drawn to his secretary standing in the doorway. “Yes?”

“Sorry to bother you,” Jan said, “but I have a Mrs. French waiting in the outer office. She insists that she has to see you. She says that it is very important.”

“It’s okay, bring her in.”

Less than a minute later Jan escorted Ma French into the office. Ray steered her to his conference table. He sat at the end of the table, while Sue sat across from her.

“Sorry to hear about Pa,” said Ray. “I saw the obit in the paper and hoped to get to the funeral but….”

“I understand, Ray,” she said. “I read the papers, too. Horrible things were going on. And I appreciate the card and your nice note. It meant a lot. That card is something that I will hold on to.”

“Jan said you needed to see me.”

Ma unbuttoned her coat—an ancient, heavy, red and black wool hunting jacket—and extracted a small brown paper bag. She set it on the table in front of Ray.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Money, lots of it. Ten thousand dollars by my count. All in hundreds.”

“Do you want to tell us about it?”

Ma French made no attempt to summarize her story. She started with the economics of dying, and how she and Pa had talked it over with the undertaker in the fall when it was clear he wasn’t going to last much longer. They found that a cremation was far cheaper than burial, and Pa liked the idea. Then she told Ray and Sue how Pa had asked her to spread the ashes nearby in a deer blind, in the burial place of the family dogs, and on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan near Camp E, their nickname for the Hollingsford Estate. She explained that they’d met there the summer before she graduated from high school.

Ray was tempted to prod her a bit to summarize, but he took a deep breath and allowed her to continue. Mamie, her given name, but not one used by the locals for decades, told them about her trip over to Lost Lake to spread Pa’s ashes, how she’d parked and walked across the ice-covered lake to the grounds of the old estate. Then how she had followed the snowmobile track through the woods to shore. Finally, Ma told them about stopping at the burial plot and her dog Roxy unearthing the jar with the money near Rose-Marie Hollingsford’s grave.

“Did you see anyone else that day, from the time you left your car until you returned to it?” Ray asked.

“No one,” she said. “Not that time or the next day.”

“You made two trips?” asked Sue.

Mamie flushed. “Well, when I first opened the jar and saw the money, I didn’t count it or anything. I just put it in my pocket and looked around to make sure no one saw me. When I got home, I laid it out on the kitchen table and counted it. I couldn’t believe how much was there. Right from the beginning, I knew it wasn’t right—all that money and me just taking it. So I thought I should put it back. I went over there again the next day after I got off from work.”

“What days and times are we talking about?” asked Ray.

“Wednesday and Thursday. Last week. Both times I was over there it was probably ‘bout four-thirty, quarter to five. But the second time it was different. When I was there the first time, there was no footprints, but Thursday there was prints everywhere. I could see someone had been raking around, looks like they used their hands. You know, open fingers. I got scared. Headed out fast. Got back to the car and out of there.”

“Did you see anyone?”

“No.”

“How about the footprints? Did it look like someone might have followed your trail from Wednesday?”

“I thought about that. I didn’t see none. I think they came on a sled. There’s still enough snow along the shore, but it’s going fast.”

“How about when you were on that access road?”

“No. I didn’t see anyone either time. What are you going to do with the money?”

Ray sat for a long moment before he answered. “I would like you to count the money again in front of us. I’ll then give you a receipt. Sue will check for fingerprints. She will record the serial numbers and send them on to the FBI. They’ll see if there’s a match to any bills in their database that are connected to criminal activity. In the meantime, it will be held in the vault of the county treasurer.”

“And if no one claims it, and it’s not part of law breaking?” probed Ma.

“Let me check with the prosecutor’s office. I think after a certain period of time, pending no other claims, the money has to be returned to the finder.”

“That would be something,” she said. “I desperately need a new roof and lots of other stuff.”

“Don’t talk to anyone about this,” Ray warned. “Did Bobby see you with the money, or did you tell him about it?”

“No.”

“Don’t go back to the Hollingsford Estate.”

“I won’t, Ray.”

“Tell me again about your connection with the Hollingsford Estate. You worked there as a teenager?”

“Yes, it was my first paying job. One of my cousins worked there, and she got me in. We stayed right there on the property all summer. It was my first time away from home.”

“What did you do?” asked Ray.

“Domestic work mostly, helped in the kitchen and laundry. There was a lot to do. They had china and crystal and silver. Everything had to be polished and dried spot-free. As you know, I grew up on a farm not far from there, but I didn’t know people lived like that. They had late dinners every night. Everything was by candlelight. It was beautiful.”

“And you said you met Pa there?”

“Yes. He was older than me, been in the Army for a few years. He was the handyman, and he also helped the chef some. Pa had cooked in the service. We fell wildly in love, the way kids do, got married a year later when I graduated high school. Pa stayed on as the assistant caretaker for a few years.”

“Why didn’t that land become part of the National Shoreline?” asked Ray. “It’s just about at the southern border.”

“I heard a lot of talk, something about how the family lawyers were able to keep the property. The Hollingsfords had lots of political connections. Last I heard the place belonged to Faye Hollingsford, she’s gotta be way up in her 90s by now. I think she was one of the granddaughters of the people who built it.”

“This Faye, has she or other members of the family used the place in recent years?”

Ma thought about it. “No. I don’t think anyone from the family has been there in 25 or 30 years. I don’t know why they hold on to the property. Maybe sentimental reasons or something.”

“But there’s been a caretaker?” said Ray.

“Yes, Perry Ashton. He’s been there for years; took over when his father died. Perry opens the place in the spring, shuts everything down in the fall, just like someone from the family is going to show up. Every month he gets a check from a law office in New York. He used to live in the house on the highway next to the road that runs into the estate. That was the winter place for the caretaker.”

“But he doesn’t….”

“No, not no more. I think he’s supposed to, but he doesn’t. No one checks. These days he spends the winter in town with his girlfriend. They live out at the estate in the good weather.”

“The girlfriend, do you know her name?”

“Let me think, first name is Carol and last name is…something…maybe Truno.”

“So no one watches over the place during the winter?” Ray asked as he penned Perry Ashton and Carol Truno at the top of a yellow legal pad.

“True. There was never a problem in the old days. It’s just too hard to get through all that swampland, and almost no one knew it was there. But you know those damn snowmobiles can go everywhere. If you put up fences, they tear them down. There’s been some vandalism over the years. Perry told me he took all the valuables out of there years ago. He’s got them stored some place in town.”

“Other than the vandalism, has there ever been any other trouble?”

“What do you mean?”

“Drugs or anything that might have involved the police?”

“I don’t think so. The place has always been sort of its own little island, if you know what I mean. Whatever happened there was family stuff and nothing bad.” Ma paused, holding Ray’s gaze. “There was one thing, years ago. It happened in the spring, caused a bit of a stir.”

“What?” pressed Ray.

“A body, a boy in his early teens, washed up on the beach.”

“When was that?” asked Sue

Ma’s reply was slow in coming. “Maybe 20 years or a bit more. Perry found him. As I remember, he was a kid from down around Sandville. Paper said Sheriff Orville thought the kid was probably skinny-dipping down around South Bay, got caught in a rip current or something and drowned. His body got carried up here by the wind and waves. I never thought that added up. Like if he went skinny-dipping, why didn’t they find his clothes on a beach somewhere. There was a lot of talk at the time. And who would be swimming in the big lake then? It was early spring; the water was still awful cold. Too cold even for kids.”

“So what happened?” asked Ray.

“I don’t think anything happened. Orville and his deputies did their investigation and said it musta been an accidental drowning. Kid was from a poor family. Other than his folks, probably no one really cared.”

“Anything else about that case? Do you remember the victim’s name?”

“Ray, that was a long time ago. If I ever knew it, I long ago forgot. Life moves on.”

Ray looked across at Sue. He knew that they were sharing the same thoughts. Over the past several years, they had uncovered numerous examples of incompetence on the part of Ray’s predecessor, Orville Hentzler, and the collection of cronies and relatives he employed as deputies during the more than 40 years he held the office. Most of the records and reports from Hentzler’s long tenure in office had been lost in a suspicious fire that took place shortly before he left office.

“How is Bobby doing?” asked Ray, moving the conversation back to Ma.

“He’s struggling with his dad’s death. They’ve always been buddies. I’ve started taking him to an adult daycare when I go to work. I think it’s been good for him to meet other people. My job is my big worry right now.”

“How’s that?”

“The new business manager at Leiston School, he’s looking to cut costs. There’s talk that they’re going to hire an outside contractor to handle things like food service, laundry, custodial, and grounds. Rumor is that some of us will still be able to keep our jobs, but we’ll get paid less and probably lose our health insurance. I don’t know how we’ll make it.” Ma looked at her watch. “I dropped Bobby off at the barber shop. I know Leo will look after him till I get there, but I shouldn’t make him wait too long.”

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