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Authors: Kathleen Ernst

Old World Murder (2010) (27 page)

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
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“Did Joel say anything about me?” Chloe asked. She wasn’t sure what she was hoping for. An apology? Could mere words make up for what he’d done?

“No. All he wanted to do was see Nika.”

Chloe’s head ached, and her thigh was starting to hurt like hell. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t think about this anymore right now.”

“I’ll get going. I just didn’t want you to hear about Carlisle’s overdose on the news or something.”

Chloe braced her hands against the table and shoved gracelessly to her feet. Roelke put out a hand, but she waved it away. “I’m OK.”

“I heard you needed stitches.”

“Just three. Are you OK?” Her face grew warm; she should have asked at once. “Where I, you know, hit you with the shears? I was aiming at Joel.”

“It was just a scratch.”

Thank God for that, too. “Good. But listen, Roelke?” Chloe caught his gaze and held it. “Thank you. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come.”

“You’re welcome.”

He matched his stride to her limping gait as they walked around the house. “Where is the ale bowl?” she asked.

“In our property locker.”

“I need to take care of it. It’s been in the stabbur all these years, and some of that fire retardant stuff might have gotten on it, and Joel dropped it, and—”

“It should get released pretty quickly. No reason to hold on to it, now.”

Right. No need for evidence anymore. “Well,” she said as they reached the curb, “I guess I’ll—”

“Chloe.” Roelke’s eyes suddenly bore into hers.

She took a step backward. “What?”

“With everything that happened, and Carlisle’s overdose, I just wondered … Well, you said you felt sad, and it made me think that maybe …” A ruddy flush stained Roelke’s cheeks. “Are you thinking, or feeling, like—”

“No,” Chloe said firmly, finally understanding. “I’m not. I’ll be OK, Roelke. Truly.”

He looked unconvinced. Two teens on skateboards flashed past, the wheels clicking on every sidewalk seam.

Chloe wrapped her hands over her shoulders. “When I was out at the farm with Joel, before you got there … I was scared, Roelke.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Terrified, really. I almost peed my pants.”

For the first time that afternoon, Roelke smiled. “Good.”

____

It was almost midnight before Roelke got home that evening. He’d done no more than remove his duty belt when he heard footsteps on the outside stairs, ascending fast—Libby. He opened the door before she could knock, and she barreled inside. “Oh my God,” she said, and wrapped her arms around him.

“What?” he asked finally, although he had a pretty good idea.

She stepped back and glared at him. “Why didn’t you tell me? I had to read about it in the paper!”

“It wasn’t that big a deal,” Roelke said. Although it was.

“You’re OK?”

“Yeah.”

“God, I
hate
your job sometimes.” Libby dropped into a chair. “And Chloe’s OK?”

“She’s pretty shook up. But not seriously hurt.” He reached for his kettle and began to fill it at the sink. “Want some tea or something?”

Libby watched him. “Are you in trouble?”

“I didn’t go by the book, so I’ve got a letter in my file,” he admitted. “But a commendation, too. I don’t think the chief’s going to hold it against me.” He fixed her with a look. “And Libby? That’s a good thing. Because I’m not going back to Milwaukee.”

“Because of Chloe?”

“No. Not because of Chloe.” Chloe’s career at Old World Wisconsin was evidently over. There was no reason to think she’d stick around.

“Then … why?” Libby asked.

“Maybe I actually like working for the Eagle PD. Did that ever occur to you?”

“Name one thing about a part-time job in Eagle that’s better than your career in Milwaukee,” she said quietly. “Just one.”

“Here’s one. The first time I saluted the chief, he told me to cut the crap.” Roelke folded his arms. “He talks with me, not at me. Want another reason? I’ve yet to meet a mother in Eagle who’s taught her kids to hate anyone in uniform because cops put their daddy in prison. Want another? When a man calls the station in tears after I’ve just hauled his wife up to detox for the fifth time, I actually have time to talk with him. To
help
him.”

“OK,” Libby said.

“So cut the I’m-wiser-than-you bullshit.” He pulled the kettle from the stove and poured steaming water into two mugs. “I mean it, Libs. I’m sick of it.”

“O-
kay
,” she said. “I get it.”

“Eagle is a good fit for me.” Roelke rummaged in his cupboard until he found a box of herbal orange spice tea. He sat down across from his cousin. The tea steeped in silence.

“It’s the little things,” he said finally. “I do a lot of little things that no one ever sees, or even knows about, but they make Eagle safer. And if that makes me some kind of a lesser cop in your eyes—”

“I never said that,” Libby protested.

“You might as well have.”

“Look, I’m sorry.” Libby put a hand over his. “I was wrong, OK? I was wrong.”

On Monday morning, Chloe
stopped first at Ed House. When she arrived at the trailer, she found the expected summons from Ralph taped to the door: COME TO MY OFFICE. Chloe got back into her car and drove to the administration building.

“Thank you for coming in,” Ralph said stiffly, when she knocked on his door. He indicated a chair. She took it.

Ralph regarded her. “Shall I be frank, Ms. Ellefson?”

“You might as well.” All Chloe wanted was to get this done with.

“In the short time that you have been an employee at Old World Wisconsin, you have persistently ignored my directives. You have exhibited a complete disregard for my authority. You were disrespectful in the staff meeting.”

He waited, perhaps giving her time for rebuttal, but she had nothing to say. It was all true.

“I asked repeatedly for a preliminary plan for a collections storage facility, and you refused to comply. I had a donor waiting. She had money to give, and she needed to give it quickly.”

Well hell, Chloe thought irritably, why didn’t you share that little tidbit earlier? “I didn’t know that.”

“You didn’t need to know that.”

She shifted in her chair, trying to ease the strain on her thigh. So much for getting this over with quickly.

Ralph tented his fingers. “When I went to Madison last week, I met with the division administrator and Leila. I made a clear case for firing you. The administrator authorized me to do so.”

Chloe nodded. She wanted to get through this final exchange with some shred of dignity. She had nothing else left.

“If you had not called in sick on Thursday, I would have fired you first thing in the morning.”

“I wasn’t shirking,” she observed mildly. “The ER doctor told me to stay home for a couple of days after—after what happened.”

“Yes. ‘What happened.’” Ralph’s mouth twisted with distaste. “As I understand it, ‘what happened’ was a direct result of you ignoring my instructions to stop looking for the ale bowl.”

Oh for God’s sake, Chloe thought. Just cut to the chase. “Look, if—”


However
.” Ralph leaned back in his chair. “Your escapade at Kvaale, and the recovery of the ale bowl, has generated a lot of publicity. The division administrator called me Friday afternoon. He is having second thoughts about firing you.”

Chloe raised her eyebrows, trying to wrap her brain around that unexpected announcement.

“Ms. Ellefson. Do you wish to remain employed at Old World Wisconsin?”

Chloe thought of the cramped trailers and of sandhill cranes calling as they flew overhead, of the crushing backlog of collections work and of the taste of heavy rye bread still warm from its brick bakeoven. “Yes,” she heard herself say. “I guess I do.”

Ralph’s gaze was stony. “You are still on probation. Is that understood?”

“Yes.”

“I may be able to salvage the storage facility donation. Completing the preliminary plan will remain your primary responsibility. Is that understood?”

“Yes.”

He stared at her, mouth pressed in a hard line. Was he waiting for her to leave? She rubbed her palms on her knees, then stood.

“One more thing.” Ralph pinned her with a look of naked dislike. “If you ever again belittle me in front of other staff members, not only will I fire you on the spot, I will do everything in my power to make sure you never work in the museum world again.”

“I was out of line,” Chloe said. “It won’t happen again.”

____

An hour later, Chloe unlocked the door of the little cobblestone cottage in the Crossroads Village, formerly believed to be the dwelling and shop of a Swiss carpenter named Aldrick Tobler. She held her breath, eased the door open, stepped inside … and smiled. No more bad ju-ju.

It didn’t take long to pack up the tools the freelance curator had left. “It’s just a start,” she said, to whomever might be listening. “I’ll get the rest later.” She look around, imagining the cottage as it might one day be. “And oo-la-la, am I going to have fun furnishing
this
building.”

Chloe locked the cottage up again and considered the rest of her day. Astonishingly enough, it would be spent doing her job at Old World Wisconsin. Ralph’s precious collections storage project? It could wait one more day. She just wasn’t in the mood.

As she stood debating, she noticed a light glowing from the window wells at St. Peter’s Church. Surely Nika hadn’t come to work …?

Nika had. Chloe found her at the table in the church basement, sorting a pile of socks and stockings. She wore a purple silk blouse and sleek black pants. A purple band captured her braids behind her neck, and amethyst earrings dangled against her neck. Nika looked as classy and controlled as ever—until she glanced up. Grief and shock and anger showed beneath a glimmer of tears in her eyes.

Chloe stifled the urge to hug the younger woman, sensing it wouldn’t be welcome. “Hey,” she said instead.

“Hey.” Nika carefully placed a hand-knit and well-darned woman’s sock into a gray archival box.

“Nika. You don’t have to be here right now.”

Nika reached for another sock with a suddenly trembling hand. “Are you firing me?”

“No! But surely … I mean, some time off might be a good idea—”

“I don’t
want
time off. Where do you expect me to go? I have nothing left but this job.”

Chloe sighed. “I am so, so sorry.”

Nika took a deep breath. “I need to talk to you.”

“OK.” Chloe removed a storage box from a folding chair and sat down.

“I saw Joel after he got out of jail. He told me about the gambling. And that he bought a gun after my tires got slashed.”

Chloe opened her mouth, then thought better of speaking.

“Joel also told me about that woman. Berget Lundquist. My great aunt. You know about that?”

“Yes. I swear, Nika, I had no idea.” An ache was growing beneath Chloe’s ribs. “I just can’t believe … she seemed so sweet.”

Nika gave a contemptuous flick of her hand. “That woman doesn’t matter.”

“How can you
say
that? Her neighbor told me she said she was open-minded for marrying a Swede. I thought she’d been
joking
.”

“Do you think she was the first person to judge me because of my skin?” Nika asked harshly. “I knew my grandfather’s family had disowned him. I just didn’t know their names.”

“But Joel figured it out.”

“He was very protective.” Nika’s voice trembled. “He wanted to take care of me.”

“I know,” Chloe said. “I do know that.”

“But he fucked up.” Nika clenched her fists in her lap. “Last Thursday, he kept saying that the ale bowl was my birthright. That I’d been cheated out of my family name and I should at least have the bowl.
God!
” Nika stood abruptly and began to pace in the short aisle. “As if I would have consented to theft!”

“He adored you. Sometimes people act stupid when they’re in love.”

Nika was silent for a moment, letting that in. “I didn’t know, Chloe. That’s all I can say.”

“I believe you.” Chloe sighed, feeling old.

“I would have sworn that Joel would never have been able to hide anything from me. But even on Thursday, the last time we talked …” She wiped her eyes. “I guess he was thinking of suicide even then. And I didn’t get it.”

Suicide
. Nika is the only person strong enough to say it straight out, Chloe thought, remembering how she and Roelke had swerved around the word.

Then she remembered something else. “How on earth did Joel figure out where the ale bowl was?”

Nika went to one of the battered old file cabinets she’d salvaged. She pulled open a drawer, revealing a neat row of folders. “Last Wednesday, Joel came here with me. We got in late because he’d felt sick in the night, and I insisted he go see his doctor. I think now he was just hyped up with worry about the trouble he was in.” A tiny frisson seemed to ripple over her skin. “Anyway, he wanted to help me. Just like always. I asked him to organize all those reproduction request files you brought over.”

“No.” Chloe felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. “Oh, no. Please don’t tell me …”

Nika picked up a piece of paper lying on top of the file cabinet and handed it over. Chloe read the penciled scrawl:
Can we get a reproduction ale bowl? It would be great to use on Midsummer. When I was dusting the rosemaled artifacts in Kvaale today I noticed a tiny crack in the bowl with cow head handles. Somebody should look at it. I put it up in the stabbur for safekeeping. Ginny Dunning, August 3, 1978.

“The answer was in my car the whole time,” Chloe whispered. “The whole frickin’ time.”

Nika sank back into her chair. “Joel found that. He told me he was going to the visitor center to use the bathroom. I started wondering when he didn’t come back. Finally I went looking, and found my car gone. One of the interpreters came by and gave me a lift home. I didn’t know what was going on until the cops showed up.”

“I don’t suppose this matters, now.” Chloe put the note down on the table.

Nika laid a piece of tissue over the layer of stockings in the box with the precise care of a surgeon, then picked up another stocking to begin again. Suddenly her fingers clenched, crushing it. “Joel told me on Thursday that he was going to tell his father’s lawyers not to fight the charges. ‘It’s time to face the music,’ he said.”

And what about poor Mr. Solberg? Chloe thought. Did Joel mention him? But Nika didn’t say, and Chloe wasn’t brave enough to ask.

Nika swallowed. “I knew he was going to his parents’ house after he left me. I did not know that he was going to swallow a bottle of sleeping pills.” She was crying now, silently, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Mrs. Carlisle called me on Saturday morning, after they’d found him.”

Chloe’s throat felt thick. The sound of children’s voices drifted through the windows, followed by a chaperone’s shrill whistle. Nika finally glanced down, noticed the scrunched sock, and smoothed it flat again.

“Look, Nika,” Chloe said. “There are a couple more things we need to get out in the open.”

“Like what?” Nika asked warily.

“When I went to Madison last Tuesday, I saw your name on the patron roster in Iconography.”

Nika looked perplexed. “So?”

“Well, why didn’t you mention that you’d been there?”

“I’d been intrigued by those Dahl photos you had, and wanted to see the rest of the collection. I was looking for a project I could pursue on my own time. But I never discuss stuff like that. The academic world is too competitive.”

Nika made it sound so logical. “Fair enough,” Chloe conceded. “But there’s another thing. The night before I went to Madison, I saw an embroidered Norwegian apron here on the worktable.” She hesitated. Did Nika know about the apron’s connection to Berget Lund-quist? Since the donation had been made through the Norwegian Women’s Club, possibly not.

Nika folded her arms over her chest, looking more defensive. “Yeah? So what?”

“I’d just asked you if you’d found any ethnic pieces, and you said no.”

“I hadn’t examined that apron yet. I didn’t know it was an ethnic piece.”

More logic. “OK,” Chloe said. “But when I got back to Eagle on Tuesday evening, I looked all over for the apron—” Chloe gestured vaguely at the cabinets and neatly stacked storage boxes—“but it wasn’t here. So … where is it?”

“Are you accusing me of stealing it?” Nika demanded.

“No,” Chloe said carefully. “I am asking you a question.”

“I took the apron and a couple of other pieces to Ed House so I could clean them.”

“Why not just clean things here at the church?”

“Here? With no sink? And visitors all around?”

Chloe thought that through. Cleaning white textiles meant soaking them on screens in plastic trays with a bit of archival soap. After repeated rinses, the pieces were spread on grass to dry and bleach. “I see your point,” she said, feeling like an idiot.

The strident chords of a pump organ suddenly came through the ceiling as the interpreter upstairs began playing for visitors. Nika pinched her lips together. “Do you know that I have an arrest record?”

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
5.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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