After checking back issues of the
earlier, Charlotte had found the social page where Mrs. Fiske's travel plans had been mentioned. On a more practical note, the fact she was out of town meant she wasn't a suspect. Michael had said killing Fiske took some strength as well. That covered a number of men and women who lived in a place that required muscle and skill to survive.
“Eddington will be questioning the housekeeper and whoever else works for them to ask about her return plans. In the meantime, we'll have Fiske taken over to the funeral parlor. I don't envy them this preparation.” Michael rose, stretched his back, and crossed to stand with her at the window. “I know that look in your eye, Charlotte. Keep your nose out of this and let Eddington do his job.”
She held up her right hand in the Boy Scout salute. “I promise not to impede his investigation.”
Michael squeezed her fingers. “That isn't the same thing as staying out of it.”
Charlotte eased her hand out of his and rose up on her toes to peck him on the cheek. “I wouldn't want you to call me a liar. Let me know when you want me to type up your report for Juneau.”
As his sometimes secretary, Charlotte helped keep his patient files and official reports organized. Sending copies to the Territorial capital was one of the tasks she helped with.
“Oh, about that,” he said, cheeks pinkening under his new beard. “I'm getting someone to help me with paperwork and some interpretation issues.”
Charlotte couldn't help the surprise widening her eyes. “You are? Since when?”
They saw each other every day, or just about, and he'd never mentioned getting help.
“Well, it's not official yet, but with more of the Natives coming into town for work and whatnot, I thought it would be a good idea to have someone with me who knew them better.”
That made sense, but it didn't explain why he'd never mentioned it to her.
“And I've been busy with the newspaper and unavailable,” she said.
Michael's mouth quirked into a crooked grin. “That too. But mostly because Mary can really help me communicate with her people. And she needs the job.”
“Mary?” Charlotte wasn't nearly as familiar with the local Eyak population as he was.
“Mary Jenkov. You might have heard her called Old Creek Mary. She's worked at the grocer before.”
“Oh, yes.” Charlotte recalled a young Native woman stacking shelves or behind the counter at McGruder's. A lovely girl. Well, not a girl. She was probably the same age as Charlotte. “She has a couple of kids, doesn't she?”
“That's right. A boy and a girl, five and around three. The grandmother watches them when Mary's working.” Michael returned to his seat at the desk. “Her husband died last spring.”
“It was. When she mentioned she was looking for something more challenging than stacking shelves, I sort of offered her a job.” He winced. “You don't mind, do you?”
“Of course not. In fact, I'm looking forward to talking to her.” Charlotte crossed the room and retrieved her coat and hat from the peg on the back of the door.
Just as she lifted the mackinaw, the door opened and she stepped out of the way to avoid getting hit.
James came in and shut the door behind him. Removing his hat, he said, “Shoulda known you'd be here before me.”
Charlotte grinned. “Early bird gets the worm.” The deputy shot a questioning look at Michael. “Don't worry, James, I promise not to write or say anything until you give me the go-ahead. I won't compromise your investigation. But you'll inform me of any developments, right?”
James and Michael exchanged glances. After the terrible situation with Darcy Dugan, they knew Charlotte couldn't help but get herself involved. But they could also trust her to keep her word and not spoil the case.
“You've told her how Fiske died?” James asked Michael. There was a hint of irritation in his voice.
“She's my current secretary of record,” Michael said. “I trust her with keeping pertinent evidence and case information to herself.”
He'd just told her that a different person would be performing that task, yet here he was, covering for her. Practically lying to James. Though it was possible Michael wouldn't want to frighten his soon-to-be assistant Mary with the horrible details of an autopsy.
Charlotte suppressed a grin of appreciation. Not only for him standing up for her, but for the renewed closeness they'd achieved since she arrived in Alaska. Terrible things had transpired for each of them, inspiring them to regain the relationship they'd shared as children. In a way, Charlotte was glad for the challenges and heartache they'd both endured. Without it, they may never have reconnected.
James shook his head, resigned for the moment. “Fine. Was there a stab wound, or was it the blow of the hammer?”
“Stab.” Michael recapped his autopsy findings. “Any idea why someone would kill him?”
“Robbery. The till was open and empty.”
Charlotte could see that scenario play out in her head. The thief broke into Fiske's store after hours, thinking it empty. Lyle happened to be there, working late while Caroline was out of town. Surprised, the thief killed Lyle, then set the fire to cover up the crime.
“Whoever did this is looking at a life sentence, if not worse,” James said.
Robbery was bad enough, but compounding it with murderâintentional or notâwas almost a sure-fire way for the culprit to get hanged or sent to the electric chair.
“Have you been able to contact Caroline?” Charlotte wasn't close to the woman, but couldn't imagine returning from holiday to this horrible news.
James rubbed the back of his neck. His eyes seemed sunken in with weariness. “Just talked to the housekeeper. She comes in on tomorrow's steamer. I'll get a message to the naval office outside town. They'll wire the ship to have everyone kept on board when they get in. Better she wonder about the delay than come down the gangplank to a dock full of gawkers.”
Charlotte nodded, appreciating his sensitivity about the matter. “You may want to have a friend of hers or at least the housekeeper with you.”
“Good idea.” He eyed her warily. “And no, not you.”
Indignation heated her face and neck. “I'm a journalist, not a ghoul, Deputy. The woman deserves her privacy at a time like this.”
“I'm glad we agree on that.” James set his hat on his head and touched the brim in his standard salute. “Get me a copy of the autopsy report as soon as you can, Doc.”
“I'll do that, but I think a nap is in order first.” Michael covered a yawn, as if the very idea of sleep made him more weary.
Charlotte buttoned her coat and donned her hat. “I think that's a fine idea. Walk me home, Deputy?”
James's eyes widened, but without pause he opened the door. “Of course, Miss Brody. See you later, Doc.”
As she walked with James, Charlotte pulled on a pair of mittens she kept in her coat pocket. The colorful wool cheered her, and reminded her of her friend Kit, who'd sent them as an early Christmas present. The sun had supposedly risen an hour before, but thick, dark clouds made it feel much later. Few were out on the snowy street, though there was inviting light from within businesses.
The cold and wet of Cordova, Alaska, in late November wasn't any worse than she'd experienced back east; it just felt colder and wetter because of the shorter days. Lack of daylight sometimes made her want to hibernate along with the bears. Sunrise around nine or ten and near dark by four in the afternoon took some getting used to. Some people never got used to it. Add that to being cooped up when bad weather hit, further darkening the skies, and folks tended to get a little antsy.
Those who could stick it out loved it in the Great Land, and she enjoyed interviewing those folks and sharing their stories with
readers. It was a matter of staying busy, she'd been told more than once. That explained the frequent turnover of shows at the Empress Theater and the weekly community dance or two. Keeping entertained and social was a good prescription for fending off cabin fever.
“I didn't mean to imply you'd harass Mrs. Fiske as soon as she got off the boat,” James said as he took her arm and guided her around a large, slushy puddle. “If you weren't a journalist, I'd have asked you to come with me. I just don't want her to feel overwhelmed.”
“Apology accepted,” she said. “Did you get much information from the Fiskes' housekeeper or employees? Was Fiske having trouble with anyone?”
James shook his head. “I spoke to Mrs. Munson, but she's only been working there a month and doesn't see Mr. Fiske all that often. Fiske had two men working with him at the store. I'll interview them later this morning.”
“Michael said Fiske seemed like a decent sort.” Charlotte watched him for a reaction. James tended to have a spot-on opinion of most people in town. They both knew a person's public life could conceal unpleasant private activity.
He flicked a glance her way and shrugged. “Nothing reported to us.”
“But you have your suspicions.” What could James think Fiske was up to?
“I'm suspicious of just about everyone, Charlotte. It's my job.”
She grinned. “Mine too.”
In about ten minutes, they'd navigated the slippery incline of a side street and were in front of the little green house where Charlotte was staying. The owners, Harold and Viola Gibbins, were in the States for the winter. Having Charlotte live there gave them peace of mind that their home would be cared for while they were away. And since the first place Charlotte had lived in had burned down in August, she now had a roof over her head.
The house, with its angled footings to compensate for the road, was large enough to provide plenty of room, but small enough to feel cozy. The woodstove heated the place quickly, which was appreciated each and every morning.
James held her elbow as they ascended the stairs. The staircase wobbled a bit, and Charlotte made a mental note to have it looked at. Standing in front of the shiny black door, James said, “All settled, are you?”
“I didn't have much to move in, thankfully, but yes.” Her parents were shipping more of her things, but storms had delayed arrivals from Seattle.
She glanced up at the quaint little home and the neighbors' similar houses. She'd only briefly met the folks on either side, but felt comfortable here, like she belonged. “I'll need to find another place before Mr. and Mrs. Gibbins return in March. It'll have to be bigger than a room at a boardinghouse, though. I rather like having the space to move about.”
She tended to pace and putter about while mulling her writing, a challenge in a single room.
“So you're staying past spring.”
Charlotte eyed him curiously. Was he asking or concluding? “That's my current plan.”
James nodded. “Good. That's good.”
“I'm glad you approve.” She poured as much sarcasm into the words as she could while grinning.
He startled at her tone. “I'm not approving anything.” She laughed, and his face pinked beneath his dark beard. “What I mean is, you don't need my approval or anyone else's. I'm glad you're staying. If you are.”
The urge to tease him diminished, but only a little. “Even if I'm bothersome?”
“I'm hoping you'll grow out of that,” he said with a mock scowl.
Charlotte laughed again. “Don't count on it.” She unlocked the door and glanced over her shoulder. “Thank you for walking me home.”
James put his hand on the doorframe, leaning slightly toward her. “Why did you ask me to, Charlotte?”
She turned and stared at him, her body suddenly tense, aware of his proximity. Why
she asked? Honesty seemed the best course with James Eddington. Even if he did seem to tie her tongue at times. “Because I enjoy your company.”
The smile he gave her brought out the dimple in his cheek. “The feeling's mutual, Miss Brody.” He tugged the brim of his hat. “Good morning.”
“Good morning, Deputy,” she said, more breathlessly than intended.
He made his way down the stairs and strode back toward Main Street. As she watched him turn the corner, Charlotte wondered for the umpteenth time if she'd ever be able to let herself truly relax around him.