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Authors: Kathleen Ernst

Old World Murder (2010) (10 page)

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
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“What was I thinking?”
Chloe muttered. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror, braiding her hair. Why had she agreed to go to a cookout with Roelke McKenna?

She heard his knock as she was tying a ribbon around the bottom of her braid. Squaring her shoulders, she went to greet him. “Come on in. I just need to put on shoes.”

He waited politely, looking only slightly less cop-like than usual in jeans and a plain blue T-shirt. The man definitely lifted weights. He did wear scuffed hiking boots, though, which was oddly comforting. They reminded Chloe of hours spent lounging in the lobby of WVU’s Percival Hall with college buddies, waiting for the next forestry class to begin.

“Still have a bit of unpacking to do, I see,” he said, gazing about at the untouched boxes.

“I’ve been busy.” She laced up quickly. “OK. I’m ready to go.”

It felt strange to climb into the cab of this man’s pickup truck. She gave him a quick glance as he pulled out of her driveway. Was this a date? Surely not. He barely knew her. She’d turned thirty-two in March; he was maybe twenty-eight, tops. He probably thought she was a nutcase, obsessing about a problem that had nothing to do with her. And he kept a photograph of a pretty redhead in his locker.

OK, enough of that. “I’m a vegetarian,” she said into the silence.

“That’s all right.”

“I should have mentioned it earlier.”

“It’ll be OK. Libby always overdoes on food.”

Chloe searched for another pleasantry. “Um, what does Libby do?”

“She used to work for the DNR, but she quit so she could be at home for the kids. She freelances now. Articles for magazines, press releases for local businesses. That sort of thing.”

“Yikes.” Chloe tried to imagine taking care of two kids as a freelance writer, never sure where the next paycheck was coming from. “That can’t be easy.”

“She seems to do OK with it. She’s always liked to write.” He glanced in her direction. “What do you like to do?”

What did she like to do? Chloe’s brain froze. She wanted to say, I write too. I enjoy folk dancing. I play the dulcimer and the recorder. But she hadn’t done any of those things in a long time.

“All I can think about at the moment is getting settled,” she managed. “I lived in Switzerland for five years, then moved to North Dakota last fall. Then on to here.”

“What were you doing in Switzerland?” he asked.

Getting my heart broken into glittering shards, she thought. “I worked at a huge historic site there. How about you? Have you always worked in Eagle?”

“I worked for the Milwaukee PD for six years. I decided urban crime wasn’t my thing, so I moved back out. My mom grew up on a farm not too far from there.”

“Oh.”

More silence. Chloe looked out the window. “I wanted to ask you about something,” Roelke said finally. “You mentioned the maintenance chief yesterday. Stanley something.”

“Stanley Colontuono.”

“Can you spell that?”

She did.

“All right. Thanks.” He flicked on his blinker, checked his mirror, and passed the car ahead of them.

“So … why did you want to know?”

“I ran across a Stanley in an Eagle bar the other night. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just curious. What does your Stanley look like?”

“He’s not
my
Stanley.” The thought gave her the willies. “Howdy Doody with a beer gut.”

“What?” He shot her a perplexed glance.

Oh, Lord. Was this guy so young he’d never watched Howdy Doody? “Mid-thirties. Curly red hair. Cowboy boots.”

“Hunh.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Sounds like the same guy.”

They rode a few more miles in silence. “I have to ask,” Chloe said finally. “Why did you invite me to come with you today?”

He kept his gaze on the road. “You’re new in the area. You had a rough week. I think you’ll like Libby. She’s good people.”

Fair enough. Chloe settled a little more comfortably into the seat.

Roelke drove north through the Kettle Moraine to Palmyra, a village wrapped around Lower Spring Lake about six miles west of Eagle. His cousin lived in a brick ranch-style home on a quiet side street. The grass needed cutting, but baskets of pansies gave the place a welcoming air.

As Roelke pulled into the driveway a boy of perhaps six barreled around the corner of the house. “Roelke! Roelke!”

“Hey, Justin!” Roelke greeted the boy with a warmth Chloe wouldn’t have guessed possible. Justin wore glasses and an earnest, eager air. He launched a breathless flow of words that circled from finding a turtle to maybe going to a Brewers game with his dad to hoping he could have frozen custard that afternoon.

His mother joined them with a smaller girl in tow. “Catch your breath, buddy,” she told Justin. She flashed Roelke a grateful look before turning to Chloe with hand outstretched. “Hi. I’m Libby.”

Libby had frank eyes and an open smile. Short chestnut hair, prematurely shot with gray, framed a thin face. Cutoffs and a purple tank top displayed a runner’s physique, and her feet were bare. Chloe sensed a woman at home in her own skin.

“Come ’round the back.” Libby led the way to a fenced backyard. A flagstone patio spilled from the back wall, furnished with planters and deck chairs, and the biggest grill Chloe had ever seen, something akin to a metal drum tipped on its side. From the patio, Libby could keep an eye on a sandbox, a plastic wading pool, and one of those colorful slide-swing-jungle gym-fort things. Perennial beds provided the yard with a riotous border of reds and blues and yellows. Several birdfeeders hung from a river birch near the back fence.

“This is lovely,” Chloe said.

“I live out here in the warm weather,” Libby admitted. “Can I get you something to drink? Beer, wine, soda?”

Chloe accepted ginger ale served in a “Phone Home E. T.” glass, and settled into a chaise lounge. It felt surprisingly good to sit in the sunshine, watching mourning doves pick at the safflower seed in one of the feeders, letting conversation flow around her. Justin grabbed a handful of taco chips and retreated to a game that involved tossing small beanbags at a target. Dierdre, Libby’s three-year-old, settled placidly into the sandbox with a plastic shovel and stack of Tupperware.

“I think I’ll start the charcoal,” Libby said finally. “We tend to eat early around here because of the kids, Chloe. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” All Chloe had eaten that day were two granola bars and a piece of rhubarb cobbler her mother had given her. It belatedly occurred to her that polite people brought hostess gifts when visiting. Flowers or candy or something. Shit.

Libby tore open a bag of charcoal and poured some briquettes into the grill. “So, Chloe. Roelke said you’re a curator at Old World. What exactly do you do?”

“Well, I’m responsible for all the collections,” Chloe said. “I try to support the interpreters by providing what they need in their buildings.”

“Interpreters? Do you have to speak a second language to work there?”

Chloe shook her head. “No. We call the guides ‘interpreters’ because they interpret the past for visitors. It’s really a very demanding job.”

“Are the interpreters all pure German or Norwegian or something?” Roelke asked. “People trying to learn about their own background?”

“No! You don’t have to be ‘pure’ anything to work there. Besides, cultural identity is more than racial and ethnic genetics. People can choose what aspects of their background they want to explore and celebrate.” Chloe reached for her drink. And that’s enough, she told herself. Don’t preach.

“I always thought Old World must be a fun place to work,” Libby said. Then she turned to her cousin. “What’s new on the beat?”

He sipped his beer. “Same old. Speeders. A domestic. A few DUIs. I hate DUIs.” His voice tightened and his face took on that granite edge that probably, Chloe thought, scared drunks sober. “Then there’s that gambling deal I was telling you about—”

Libby interrupted him with a low, inaudible curse. “There he goes.”

“I’ll get him.” Roelke jumped to his feet as Justin nailed his sister with a hurled bean bag. Libby scooped up Dierdre as she began to wail.

“Justin!” Roelke barked. He reached Justin before the boy could let loose again, and grabbed his wrists. Justin’s voice rose in a petulant whine as he stamped his feet, trying to break free. Roelke crouched in front of him, unmoving. As both children’s cries subsided, Chloe heard Roelke’s low, patient tone.

Once Dierdre was settled back with her toys, Libby rejoined Chloe. “Sorry for that bit of drama. Justin has some issues with misplaced anger.”

“That must be difficult for everyone.”

“It is.” Libby squirted lighter fluid on the coals. “Hardest on him, though.” She struck a match, lit the coals, and sank into a lawn chair. “Thank God for Roelke. He moved back out from Milwaukee just as things with my ex-husband were getting really bad. He’s been a rock.”

“I can see that.” It was a revelation.

Libby smiled. “You don’t know Roelke very well, do you?”

“I barely know him at all.” Chloe sipped her soda. “I, um, happened upon a car crash last Monday. My first day on the job. The driver had just left my office. I found her. Dead. Roelke was the next person to get there.”

“So you’ve experienced his tough cop routine?”

“Is it a routine?”

Libby stretched tanned legs out in front of her. “Yes and no. Do you watch
Hill Street Blues
?”

“Um … what?”

“That cop show? No?” Libby shrugged. “OK, you know the old cliché about the ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing? Sometimes I think Roelke’s both. His dad was a tough old guy—” her face hardened briefly—“but his mom was really sweet. She died before Roelke graduated from high school, though. It was really hard on him.”

Chloe looked at Roelke. The discussion concluded, he was pitching balls for Justin, who swung valiantly with a huge red plastic bat. She wasn’t sure she wanted to learn these things, personal things, about Roelke McKenna.

OK, time to change the topic. “Roelke said you’re a freelance writer?”

“I am. I did it on the side for quite a while, then finally felt ready to jump off the cliff and try it full-time.” Libby pulled a Corona from the nearby cooler and poked a wedge of lime into the bottle. “Always something new. And it lets me stay home with the kids.”

Chloe watched as Libby put her thumb over the opening and tipped the bottle until the lime floated to the bottom. “I like to write,” Chloe said, “but I’ve wondered if it would stop being fun if I had to actually earn a living at it.”

“Hey, Lib?” They were interrupted by a brunette woman opening the gate. She was very young and very pregnant. “Oh—sorry, I didn’t realize you had company.”

Libby gave her a calculating look. “Lordy, Therese, haven’t you had that baby yet?”

“Any day now. Just like Princess Di. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a baby the same day the royal prince or princess is born?” Therese smiled, then held out several envelopes. “Here. I got some of your mail in my box by mistake.”

“Thanks.” Libby inspected the mail, then tossed it on a chair. “Nothing but junk and bills. Want to join us for dinner? You know Roelke, and Chloe here is a friend of his.”

“Not tonight, thanks. Jim’ll be home soon and we’re going over to his parents’. Nice to meet you, Chloe.” Therese waved and waddled away.

Chloe picked up her glass, put it down. Wine. That’s what she should have brought, a nice bottle of wine. Yes. Wine would have been good. Scotch would have been better.

“Back in a sec.” Libby disappeared into the house, then returned with platters of skewered shrimp and veggies. She arranged them carefully over the coals. “So,” she said, adjusting the grill lid. “Did you lose a baby?”

For a moment, Chloe forgot to breathe. She realized her fingers were clenching the arms of the chaise lounge, and she carefully softened her grip, watching each finger flush pink as blood began circulating again. Justin connected bat to ball with a resounding
thwack.
“Nice job!” Roelke called.

“Sorry,” Libby said. “None of my business. I have a bad habit of saying whatever comes to mind.”

“How did you know?”

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
12.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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