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Authors: Kathleen Ernst

Old World Murder (2010) (20 page)

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
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“I think it might be tied to the events at Old World Wisconsin.”

“You’ve got an unlocked trailer that might have been left that way by the employee. A possible intruder alert from an outdated system that often gives false alarms, at a building that appears to be undisturbed. Still no burglary report from the site director.” The chief picked up a pencil and began playing with it.

“Yeah,” Roelke admitted. “That’s about what I’ve got.”

They heard Marie come back from break and slam her purse into a drawer in the next room. “Let me know if you hear anything from Dane County,” Chief Naborski said finally. “But you probably won’t. Roelke, this is not your concern. We do not have jurisdiction on state property. You will not involve yourself further.”

“Right.” Roelke kept his best cop face in place.

“Any luck tracing the bookie who ripped off Ginger Herschorn’s nephew?”

“Still working on it. I’m pretty sure we don’t have enough to convince a judge we need a warrant. There’s one other angle …”

“What’s that?”

“A guy came into the bar that first night, acting squirrely. Stanley Colontuono. Lives at the end of Marigold Court. Neighbors have been complaining about a surge in traffic into his place over the past couple of weeks. Skeet and I have been keeping an eye on it.”

“What kind of vehicles?”

“All kinds. More beaters than anything else, but a couple of high-end jobs as well. If Colontuono is our bookie, he might have moved his operation home after he found out we’d had a complaint. Or it could be drugs. Or nothing at all.”

The chief nodded. “Keep me posted.”

Roelke headed out on patrol, hoping the Dane County detective would call back by the end of his shift. If not, Roelke would get in touch with him later, and leave his home telephone number instead.

____

Chloe was working in the trailers that afternoon when the phone rang. She glanced at her watch: ten to five. Maybe Ralph had waited until the end of the day to fire her. She answered in her most courteous and professional tone: “Chloe Ellefson.”

The voice in her ear was definitely not Ralph Petty’s. “I need you to get over here. Right now. Before I explode.”

Chloe blinked. “Nika?”

“I will
not
be treated this way. You hear me?”

“What way?” Chloe began, then interrupted herself. “No, wait. You’re at the church? I’ll come over.”

By the time she reached the main entrance the site was officially closed, so Chloe took the liberty of driving out to St. Peter’s Church. Nika stood by the fence, rigid.

“What is this all about?” Chloe asked as she got out of her car.

“I’ll show you.” Nika turned and marched down the basement stairs. With every step the white wooden beads adorning the bottom of each cornrowed braid bounced for emphasis.

In two short weeks, Nika had made amazing progress in transforming the church basement into a serviceable storage facility. She’d gotten some large storage cabinets donated from God-knew-where. Everything was organized and tidy … except for a jumble of baby clothes lying beside an empty archival storage box on the worktable. Baby clothes, Chloe thought. This particular crisis would have to involve baby clothes.

Nika pointed at the offending pile. “I had all these things packed up, and he comes along and does this!”


Who
?”

“Ralph Petty!”

“Why on earth … ”

“You ask me
why
?” Nika’s voice quivered with rage. “There is no
why
! I’m down here working and he walks in and says he wants to see what I’m doing. Next thing I know he’s taking everything out of this box. When I asked him what for, he tells me he wants to inspect my work.”

Chloe’s jaw tightened. That little prick.

Nika jabbed one elegant finger toward Chloe’s nose. “I will not take this, you hear me? I will not—”


Hey.
” Chloe put her hand over Nika’s and pressed down. For a brief moment the younger woman resisted. Then she let her hand drop.

“I want to hear what you have to say,” Chloe said. “But I will not be harangued. We clear on that?”

“Yes.”

“OK, here’s the thing.” Chloe ran a hand over her hair. “In a staff meeting this morning I pissed off Ralph. Big time. In fact, when the phone rang I thought it was him, calling to fire me.” She exhaled slowly. “Evidently he decided to take his ire out on you instead.”

Nika picked up a christening gown and smoothed row upon row of white lace. Her long brown fingers against the lace were so gentle that Chloe had to look away. “I spent
hours
cleaning and packing these things,” Nika said.

“I know. I’m sorry. I’d talk to him about what he did, but honestly, it would probably do more harm than good.”

Nika gave Chloe a level gaze. “What did you do in the staff meeting? If you don’t mind me asking.”

Chloe, long past worrying about the subtleties of professional decorum, told Nika what had happened.

Nika shook her head. “And you think he’s so small that he’d come down here and give me shit rather than deal straight with you?”

“Well, it’s just a theory.” Chloe considered. “I didn’t ask his permission before we got you set up down here. That didn’t help, either. Ralph is a classic micro-manager.”

“You think?”

Chloe leaned against the worktable. “Nobody wants a top-of-the-line collections facility more than me. But I intended to get a sense of the collection overall, make some estimates, and come up with a plan that reflects the size and scope of our collection. Ralph decided I was dawdling, so he took the liberty of drawing up his own architectural plan.”

Nika raised her eyebrows. “Was it any good?”

“Oh, please. I could do better with a crayon and a cocktail napkin. And you would probably have the whole thing spec’d by now, and fundraising well underway. Listen, try not to let him get to you. Average middle-aged white guys tend to flock toward administrative positions. You gotta get used to them.”

“I suppose.” Nika looked pensive. “You know, I’ve processed hundreds of items down here, and to the best of my knowledge, not a single one was worn by a black person.”

“I’m not surprised by that.” Chloe sighed. “Have you found any good Euro pieces, though? Anything worthy of writing up?”

Nika began re-folding the christening gown around protective rolls of acid-free tissue. “No such luck.”

“Don’t give up. You’ll find the right story somewhere.” And that, Chloe thought, is the last piece of banal advice I’m going to spout.

“Thanks,” Nika said. “And … I hope you don’t get fired.”

As Chloe was leaving, she spotted something truly amazing in the corner: two four-drawer filing cabinets, old but serviceable. “Are these full?”

Nika shook her head. “Not even close. They were surplus, I think. I found them in the pole barn at Restoration. Joel helped me haul them over here, clean ’em up and bang out a few dents. I figured they’d get put to use somehow.”

“Well, I’d like to commandeer a drawer or two. Byron dumped a bunch of files on me, and I don’t have any place to put them.”

“Where are they?”

“In the trunk of my car.”

Nika followed Chloe out to the Pinto. Her eyebrows lifted when she saw the overflowing file folders. “What is this stuff, anyway?”

“Repro requests from the interpreters. They need everything from darning eggs to plows.” Chloe grappled a box up to one hip. “And Byron thoughtfully saved six years’ worth of vendor catalogs for me.”

With Nika’s help, all of the forms and catalogs were soon down in the basement. “Leave them,” Nika said. “I’ll put them away.”

“Thanks. Offer accepted.”

“It’s the least I can do, after losing my cool.” She held Chloe’s gaze. “I apologize for that.”

“Apology accepted, too.” Chloe dusted her hands on her trousers and headed back up the stairs. “Let’s call it a day.”

They emerged into a peaceful evening. “You want a ride back to the parking lot? Oh—wait.” Chloe sighed. “I promised Byron I’d look at a jack in the wagon shop. I might as well do that while I’m here.”

“No problem. I’ll walk.”

Chloe checked on the jack at the wagon shop, and scribbled a note for Byron. She was plodding back to her car when she remembered something else. She’d planned to ask Nika for an overview of her progress with the textile project before meeting with Leila in Madison the next day. Numbers, analysis—the hands-on stats bosses like. Shit.

Well, she’d take a quick survey herself. That would have to do.

Back in the basement, Chloe took a closer look around. Cabinets were labeled:
Children’s. Men’s. Ladies, pre-1900. Ladies, post-1900
. Storage boxes were stacked and labeled as well:
Gloves. Aprons. Mourning items.
Rows of hats sat poised on shelves, protected with tissue. A stack of neatly typed forms stood on the old desk Nika had found somewhere. If I just got out of her way, Chloe thought, Nika could whip this whole site into shape.

Chloe carefully moved a stack of folded textiles aside on the desk so she could scribble a few notes for her meeting. An apron string slipped loose. “Can’t have that,” she murmured, and picked the piece up for refolding. It was a white cotton apron, limp and spotted with age, but lovely nonetheless. White embroidery stitches, almost invisible, created lacey designs and flowers. She touched the stitching with a gentle finger. Some long-ago woman had stitched the apron, perhaps for Sunday best. Or for a hope chest, a trousseau, a gift? Chloe unfolded the apron for a closer look.

And her mouth opened in surprise. Letters had been stitched carefully above the hem.
Vi maa uddanne vaare dötre
.

Chloe’s eyes narrowed as she squinted at the white work.
Dötre
… Wasn’t that “daughter” in Norwegian? Or possibly Danish. Either way, Nika had discovered a very rare ethnic piece.

Half an hour earlier, Chloe had asked about just that. Why had Nika lied?

The next morning, Chloe
left the farmhouse at 6:45 A.M. Even with a stop at the Cambridge Bakery for coffee and a chocolate doughnut, she made it to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin headquarters building in Madison ten minutes early for her 8:30 meeting with Leila.

The society building was old and elegant, with mosaic tile floors, worn marble staircases, artifacts displayed in glass cases, and the obligatory portraits of dead white men on the walls. Chloe paused in the lobby, letting perceptions come: layers of quiet busy-ness, varnished with a brittle veneer of frustration. Chloe attributed both to the employees with state-mandated obligations to preserve and protect the past, but insufficient funds to do so. Nothing here to jangle her nerves. Good. Her nerves were jangled enough.

Leila was a plump woman, perhaps forty, with prematurely gray hair cut in a thick bob. Her windowless office on the fourth floor overflowed with piles of stuff, old and new: potato mashers and emergency Management Plans, hog scrapers and plastic cups full of paperclips. Chloe’s assumption of chaos disappeared as Leila repeatedly exhibited an uncanny ability to put her hands instantly on whatever she wanted.

Leila talked rapidly, outlining division procedures for everything from handling potential donations to closing up the site for the winter. “I think that covers it,” she said finally. “Our next division collections committee meeting isn’t until—” she consulted her calendar—“July eighteenth.”

Chloe dutifully marked the date on her own planner. July 18th seemed impossibly far away.

“Any questions?” Leila asked. “I know you got dropped into deep water. But the historic sites division is staggeringly understaffed. You learn to tread water pretty fast.”

Or sink, Chloe thought. “I do have a question,” she said. “Who do I work for?”

Leila looked startled. “Excuse me?”

“Who is the primary person I answer to?” Chloe said. “You, or my site director? Here’s the thing.” She summarized her difference of opinion with Ralph Petty about the collections storage facility plan.

Leila toyed with a button hook while she listened. “Well, that’s tricky. I am responsible for overseeing collections issues at all of the historic sites, though. And I agree that a general assessment of what you’ve got is a logical first step. I’ll talk with the division administrator and let him know that we have a possible scenario.” Possible scenario was evidently historic sites division code for “conflict between site curator and site director.”

Chloe had assumed that her orientation would consume much of the day, but Leila indicated she had a ten o’clock meeting with a paper conservator. “You can call me any time,” she said, as Chloe gathered her things. “And I’ll see you on the eighteenth.”

“Right!” Chloe said brightly, and left. She didn’t mind having most of the day ahead of her. She had projects of her own in mind.

First stop: the microforms room. Margueritte Donovan, Old World’s curator of research, had refused delivery of the wallpaper paste problem, explaining kindly that such issues did indeed fall into Chloe’s domain. She had also explained that the freelance curator who had researched and furnished the Tobler House had left a furnishings plan with specific information about each artifact acquired, but little contextual material to help the interpreters explain the building to visitors. “Next time you’re in Madison, try going through the Green County newspaper,” Margueritte told Chloe finally. “You can learn more about the community. And sometimes you get lucky and find some descriptive detail that can make all the difference in understanding how a building was furnished and used.”

“I’m pretty swamped,” Chloe’d said, trying to look needy.

“Me too,” Margueritte had said firmly. “I’m up to my eyebrows looking for a Polish building to bring to the site. That’s Ralph’s priority.”

Chloe knew all about Ralph’s priorities. She also sympathized with the interpreters’ needs. So after leaving Leila’s office that morning, Chloe made her way to a cramped room tucked behind the main library. She found the proper rolls of microfilm and, miraculously, an empty reader. Huddled in the dark among genealogists and grad students, she rolled through the pages of old newsprint as quickly as she dared, squinting, skimming, hitting “print” whenever anything seemed relevant to the Tobler House. Two hours later she paid for her file of smeary photocopies, and left.

The society building was surrounded by the UW campus. Chloe bought lunch from an Asian man operating a cart on the library mall, and munched a vegetarian spring roll while enjoying the sun. Students in shorts and flip-flops sauntered past. Young men played Frisbee with their dogs. Young women sunned themselves on the grass in front of the historical society building. Across the street, beyond the student union, Lake Mendota sparkled invitingly. Chloe considered squandering more time with an ice cream cone, eaten on the terrace overlooking the lake. Then she remembered her main goal in coming to the society today, and the events behind it. She headed back into scholarly gloom.

The iconographic collections—photographs—were housed in another small windowless room. “Be sure you sign in,” a student worker said impatiently, indicating a clipboard by the door. She was pencil thin and had a snake tattooed in a coil around one arm. How long did it take to get that? Chloe wondered, as she scribbled her name, address, the date and time of entry, and her topic of interest on the form. Then she told the young woman what she wanted.

“Name files are in those drawers,” the worker said, pointing. “I’ll have to pull the Dahl stuff for you.”

While the Dahl photographs were being fetched, Chloe thumbed through the “H” names file. Harrod … Hart …
yes!
She pulled the folder labeled “Haugen” and parked at a table.

“Hey!” The student worker’s voice over her shoulder was accusing. “You’ve got to wear gloves!”

“I haven’t touched any photos yet,” Chloe observed mildly, but she dutifully pulled on a pair of cotton gloves from the pile left out for patrons.

At first glance, the file appeared to contain only images of one Nils P. Haugen: a ferrotype of Nils as a young student, several
carte de visites
of Nils as a young man, a cabinet card of Nils in middle age, one black and white photograph taken in 1945 of Nils in his living room with his wife and two daughters, the latter in Norwegian folk dress. Chloe turned that one over and found an inscription: Nils P. Haugen, First Tax Commissioner of Wisconsin.

Chloe leaned back in her chair, considering. As she’d told Roelke, the elusive ale bowl might be especially valuable if it was known to be made or owned by someone famous. Did being the first tax commissioner of Wisconsin qualify as famous? Only to a very select minority, surely. “This is just too weird,” she muttered, earning another frown from the tattooed student.

At the bottom of the file she found the only Haugen image that did not belong to Nils P., a poor-quality photocopy of what might have originally been either a retouched daguerreotype or an oil painting. It showed the head and shoulders of a stern man dressed in a black coat and white shirt, with a long gray beard. Late 1890s, she guessed, although she was better at dating women’s clothing than men’s. Some helpful soul had blithely scrawled “Halvor Haugen” across one corner of the image.

Was Halvor Haugen an ancestor of Berget’s? Without full genealogical information, it was impossible to know.

This is a complete waste of time, Chloe thought. Still, she made photocopies of both Halvor and Nils P.’s likenesses before moving on. The girl had wheeled a cart stacked with gray file boxes from a back room … boxes and boxes and boxes.

“These are all Dahl photos?” Chloe asked.

“All Dahl photos.”

Geez Louise. Mindful of the ticking clock, Chloe began quickly scanning the photographs.

Soon her back and her eyes joined her head in aching solidarity. The curator part of her brain was impressed by the rich visual documentation of southern Wisconsin in the 1870s. The other part, the part that desperately wanted to understand Berget Haugen Lund-quist’s and Bill Solberg’s deaths, was completely frustrated. Andreas Dahl had photographed many Norwegian-American families in front of their homes, but the vast majority were posed only with mass-produced, American-made belongings. Women in bustle dresses sat at sewing machines, men stood proudly beside new-fangled reapers, children played croquet.
We are American now.

Only a handful of images held any hint of the old country: a Norwegian flag flying over a house or excursion boat, a family that had posed for “before” and “after” photographs (one standing in front of a small log cabin, the other in front of a beautiful frame home), and several portraits of women wearing decorative, obviously old-country collars. Chloe photocopied these for Nika, so the afternoon wasn’t a total waste. But she’d seen nothing she could identify as an ale bowl, much less
the
ale bowl.

“Thank you,” she said to the student. “I’m through with these.”

“Be sure you sign out!” the girl called after her, vigilant to the end.

Chloe picked up the clipboard and wrote down the time she was leaving Iconography. It had been a quiet day in the photo archives, she noticed. Only one other person had used the collection, someone who’d marked their interest as “Iron Brigade.”

Then Chloe went very still as she registered the neat printing several lines above that, left by someone who had visited on Saturday and spent six hours looking at photographs. She’d marked her interest as “Norwegian/Dahl.” And she’d recorded her name: Tanika Austin.

____

So what? Chloe asked herself, as she headed down the stairwell. So what if Nika came here on Saturday? She’s a hard worker, self-motivated, interested in ethnic objects.

But Chloe had asked Nika if she had plans for the weekend, and Nika had said “Nothing special.” Not a lie, exactly, but why hadn’t she mentioned an excursion to the historical society? Even if the trip had been spontaneous, it seemed a little odd that Nika hadn’t mentioned it yesterday.

Chloe had also asked Nika if she’d found any interesting ethnic pieces among the textiles she was cataloging. Nika
had
lied about that.

When Chloe spotted a recycling bin on one of the landings, she stopped long enough to discard the photocopies she’d made for her intern.

Ten minutes later she was dialing a phone in the lobby. She had one more stop to make that afternoon, and the society’s collections processing and storage facilities were locked away from public access.

The registrar who came to let Chloe into the nether regions didn’t look much older than the student worker upstairs. She was short and petite, with brown hair that hung in a glossy curtain to her butt. “I’m Ann,” she said, offering a quick handshake.

“Thanks for this,” Chloe said, following her through a maze of narrow corridors. “I’m sure you’re busy.”

“Always,” Ann said.

OK, message received. Chloe didn’t mind. She wasn’t in the mood for chitchat either.

Ann’s tiny office was everything Leila’s was not, precisely ordered and sterile. “I never did find the site copy of the transfer form for that artifact I spoke with you about a couple of weeks ago,” Chloe began. “It’s a Norwegian piece, and—”

“Accession number?”

“SHSW 1962.37.3.”

Nine seconds later Ann handed Chloe a file. “Here you go.”

Chloe flipped it open. The original donation form Mrs. Lundquist had signed in 1962 lay on top, identical to the photocopy the elderly woman had given Chloe. Beneath it lay a neatly-typed transfer form, officially reassigning the ale bowl to the OWW collection. The ale bowl’s new designation was OWW1977.14.1—which fit the numbering sequence in the Old World accession ledger where the page had been removed.

But stapled to that form was a page of hand-scribbled notes, evidently written in 1962 by the curator who had initially accepted the donations:
All three pieces came from Mrs. Jack Lundquist’s maternal great-grandmother, Gro Skavlem.

Chloe shoved aside her instinctive flare of feminist indignation—Mrs. Jack Lundquist, indeed—and stared at the words. Gro Skavlem. She had a name!

“There’s a note here,” she told Ann, stabbing her finger at the form. “Why didn’t you read me this information when I first called you?”

Ann folded her arms. “I recall our conversation quite clearly. You asked me about the date of transfer. I provided it.”

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
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