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Authors: Kathleen Ernst

Old World Murder (2010) (3 page)

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
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“What happened was horrible,” Ethan said firmly, “but you can’t take any responsibility.”

She shrugged. It wasn’t that easy. “Well, enough about me. Tell me about you. What’s going on in Idaho?”

“The beginning of the fire season. Environmentalists and lumber companies chewing on the same bone. Lost campers. Dumpster-diving bears. Same old, same old.” Ethan worked for the United States Forest Service.

“How’s Chris?”

“Chris is good.”

“I wish you lived closer.”

Ethan laughed. “Wisconsin is a hell of a lot closer than Switzerland.”

“I suppose.”

“Hey, Chloe.” He’d stopped laughing. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah.” She got up and stood by the front window, the receiver still tight to her ear.

“Should I be worried about you? I mean, really worried?”

Chloe stared out at the last streaks of sunset staining the sky. “No. Really, Ethan. It’s not like last winter. I’m better now.”

“You’re sure.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“It’s weird, you know? Last winter the thought of death seemed like a comfort. Seeing that sweet old lady dead, though—it was horrible.” A shudder twitched over her skin.

“I can imagine.”

“I truly am better. I think.” Chloe sighed. “I just—I just still miss Markus sometimes.”

“Do you ever talk to him?”

“Talk to him? God, no.” Think about him—yes, every day. His quick laugh and knowing hands. His lanky stride on hikes to high hidden lakes. The smudges under his eyes when he’d been up all night at lambing time. The way his dark hair grew in a tiny cyclone whorl from a spot on the back of his head—

“Chloe? You there?”

“I’m here.” She swallowed down the sudden lump that had formed in her throat. “And I know it’s stupid to still feel this way. It’s been almost a year since we broke up.” Since Markus dumped her.

“It’s not stupid. It just is.”

“I miss school sometimes, too. The good old days.” Forestry school at West Virginia University. Backpacking trips with the Outings Club. Feeling completely at home in a place she’d never been before. Meeting Ethan, who’d become her best friend.

“Me too,” he said. “But now is good, too.”

Chloe realized she was exhausted, and that her glass was empty. “Listen, thanks for lending an ear. I gotta go unpack some boxes. Let me know if you get called out on a fire, OK? I’ll give you my new number.” She waited until he’d found a pencil before dictating the digits.

“Got it.”

“Hey, Ethan?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you still gay?”

He chuckled softly. “’Fraid so.”

“Just checking.”

After hanging up, Chloe resisted the temptation to mix another drink, and returned the glass to the sink. She located a small carton in the bedroom, conspicuously marked with a Magic Marker asterisk. She dug beneath a photo of her parents, a tissue-wrapped pinecone from an exceptionally wonderful back-country campsite at Dolly Sods, and a small stuffed dog so battered it had no fur left around the middle. She finally found a framed snapshot of herself and Ethan, bulging backpacks visible over their shoulders, dirty and sweaty, posed on a rock outcrop in the southern Appalachians.

Chloe set the photo on one of the empty bookshelves in the downstairs bedroom. The only other signs of life in the room were a sleeping bag and pillow on the bed, a suitcase worth’s of clothes in the closet, and a battered paperback copy of Jack Finney’s
Time and Again
on the nightstand. “I’ll unpack tomorrow,” she promised herself, and got ready for bed.

When Chloe drove to
work the next morning her stomach, acknowledged that morning only with coffee, clutched in protest as she turned onto County Trunk S. Aside from the tire tracks left in the vegetation beside the gravel shoulder, there was little to mark the accident scene. No one had left flowers, or banged a hastily constructed cross into the ground.

Did Mrs. Lundquist have a family? Had that young Eagle cop called them with the news? Or did cops still do things like that in person? Chloe wasn’t sure. The policeman who’d questioned her didn’t seem a likely candidate for delicate duty. His uniform had been a solid, grim black, not friendly blue like on TV. And his manner …

Her thoughts trailed away as she pulled into the restoration area lot and saw a patrol car with “Eagle Police” stenciled on the side. The subject of those thoughts appeared around the corner of the pink trailer.

Lovely. Chloe got out of the Pinto. “May I help you …” She checked his name bar. “Officer McKenna?”

“I need to ask you a couple of questions, Ms. Ellefson.”

Chloe had promised to meet Byron at Ed House in ten minutes. Besides, it rattled her to find the policeman waiting. Couldn’t he have called or something? “Sure,” she said.

He pulled his pad free and uncapped a pen with his thumb. “First—”

“Let’s go inside.” Chloe turned away. Anything to get him to take off those damn sunglasses.

She immediately regretted her impulse, for it was unsettling to walk into the tiny galley where she’d last seen Mrs. Lundquist alive. Embarrassing, too, to have more company before she’d had a chance to scrub and air the place. “I just started working here,” she said, propping the door open with a rock.

He leaned against the sink and—thank God—removed his sunglasses. “I’d like you to tell me again what transpired between you and Mrs. Lundquist.”

Chloe rubbed her palms on her trousers. “I told you everything yesterday.”

“I know. But I’d like to hear it again, now that you’re not quite so upset.”

Chloe eyed him, wondering if there was more to the request. Officer McKenna was about her height, five-foot-ten inches. He was perhaps four or five years younger than her own thirty-two, lean, well-muscled. He looked like a recruiting poster for the Marines, with dark hair clipped close to his head, a too-strong jaw, and direct brown eyes. There was something unsettling about his demeanor—a muscular tension, a sense of perpetual watchfulness. His inscrutable gaze made her long for the mirrored shades.

“Is there a problem?” she asked. “Do you know what caused the accident?”

“It was probably a heart attack or stroke. Is this where you met Mrs. Lundquist?”

“Yes.” Chloe stared through the doorway at the pines and replayed the conversation for him.

He made notes in a tight scrawl. “And you have no idea where this particular antique might be?”

Chloe sighed. “As I
said
, yesterday was my first day on the job. There are thousands of artifacts on this site. Some are on exhibit, in fifty-odd buildings that are open to the public. Some are stored in these trailers, and in that pole barn over there, and probably half a dozen other places I haven’t even seen yet. Some were donated specifically to Old World Wisconsin, and some were originally donated to the State Historical Society and transferred here. There hasn’t been a curator of collections on staff here for six years, and—”

The archaic rotary telephone jangled. Chloe snatched the receiver. “Hello? Um, Collections area. This is Chloe.”

“Chloe? It’s Byron.”

Byron … Shit. “Right. You’re probably waiting for me.”

“You said you’d meet me here by eight-fifteen so I could take you to the interpreters’ morning briefing.” The accusation in his tone slid through the wire.

“Right. I’m sorry. I …” She glanced at the police officer. “I got detained. I’ll be right over.” She glanced at Officer McKenna again. “Well, in a couple of minutes—”

“I have to leave right now. We’ve got seven hundred school kids coming today. You can meet the interpreters tomorrow.”

“That’ll be fine,” Chloe tried, but she was—once again—speaking to a dial tone. She replaced the earpiece and looked back at the officer. “Is there anything else you need?”

“May I see the accession form you mentioned?”

“Sure.” The form still lay on the counter where she’d left it the evening before. She handed it to him.

He squinted at the blurry printing, then handed it back. “That address is the same one we have on file from her driver’s license. The sheriff’s department hasn’t identified any family members yet.”

“All she mentioned to me was a son. She said he died years ago.”

“One of her neighbors told the sheriff that he didn’t think Mrs. Lundquist had any relatives.”

Chloe’s shoulders slumped. The whole thing was horribly sad. Everything was so sad …

Officer McKenna cleared his throat. Chloe snapped back to the morning, and for a moment they stared at each other. He was frowning slightly. Chloe felt stupid. “Is that all? I’ve got to get to work.”

He nodded. “That’s all I need. But if a relative should happen to contact you about that artifact, please give me a call. Here’s my card.”

She took the card.
Village of Eagle Police Department, Roelke McKenna, Police Officer
. “Rell-kee?” she asked, checking the pronunciation. “Is that German?”

“Roelke was my mother’s maiden name.”

“Birth name.”

He frowned again. “I beg your pardon?”

She gave herself a mental shake; this was not the time for a feminist lecture. “I’ll call you if I hear from anyone about the ale bowl.”

“Thank you.” He nodded.

Chloe watched him descend the steps, then suddenly bolted after him. “Wait! I was wondering—do you know anything about a funeral?”

He paused, hand on his car door. “No.”

“Well, please let me know if you hear anything.”

“OK.” He nodded again, got into his car, and drove away.

After he was gone, Chloe picked up the old accession form again. All she needed to do was file the form away—when she figured out the filing system—and forget the whole episode.

Still, she stood for a long moment, staring at the mimeographed page. Like many decades-old records she’d seen at various museums and historical sites, this one was frustratingly short on details.
Hand-painted Norwegian ale bowl with cow heads, nineteenth century. SHSW 1962.37.3.
Hand-painted, Norwegian, nineteenth century—that meant rosemaled. Rosemaling—or rose painting, as it was sometimes called—was a highly decorative style of embellishing that had become synonymous with Norwegian folk culture. The cow head reference seemed odd … but then, she was hardly an expert.

Shouts from two of the teenage boys on the summer maintenance crew drifted through the open door. A truck door slammed. An engine roared to life. A fly buzzed at one of the dirty windows.

Finally Chloe slipped the accession sheet under the metal edge of her clipboard. She needed to find the ale bowl, as she had promised. There were only two places it could be: on display in one of the restored Norwegian farms, or in storage. If the bowl wasn’t already on display, she’d put it out for visitors to enjoy. It will be a silent memorial for Mrs. Lundquist, Chloe thought, and felt a tiny bit better.

____

Chloe spent the rest of the morning assessing the overall condition of the two trailers. Some artifacts crowded their shelves. Others were packed into boxes, or layered into bags. The benign neglect would have overwhelmed most curators—at least any sane curator, Chloe thought sardonically. But this—
this
she could do. These artifacts needed cleaning, better storage conditions, perhaps cataloging. But they waited silently, without reproach or complaint. And she was the person to improve their lot.

One thing did give her pause. She immediately noticed a few recent smudges in the fur of dust on the shelves. Who would have been in here prior to her arrival? She frowned, fingering one of the clean streaks. Director Ralph Petty? Byron, looking for something for one of the historic homes? She’d have to make sure that no one felt free to disturb the artifacts in storage without her permission. Some of these items were extremely fragile, and even well-intended handling could cause damage.

She’d mention that to the director the next time they talked. When she’d met with him yesterday, the need for permanent, environmentally sound collections storage had been number one on his agenda. Actually, Ralph had talked
at
her for half an hour, but she certainly agreed with his assessment. She’d made a cheery promise to start considering plans for a collections storage building.

That would take time. For now, she made a list of items she wanted to order immediately: cotton gloves, masks, mountains of archival tissue and acid-free boxes. She’d have to learn the state procurement system, no doubt an overly complex process. Still, it was satisfying to take even the first tiny steps toward providing good care for these artifacts.

When her list was complete—at least for the moment—Chloe searched the trailers for Mrs. Lundquist’s ale bowl. She found a number of rosemaled Norwegian artifacts, but the painted designs she could make out fell into the floral or curlicue categories. One had handles carved as dragon heads. Not a cow head in sight.

Next she poked through the big pole barn. She found some abandoned office furniture shoved into one corner. Side storage stalls were full of large antiques—antique plows and cast-iron cookstoves and a
schnitzelbank
or two. No smaller items. No ale bowls.

By eleven-thirty she was hot, hungry, dirty, and ready for a break. Years of wilderness camping hadn’t prepared her for the trailer’s neglected bathroom—no one was
that
hard core—so she walked across the parking lot to use the bathroom facilities in the maintenance shop. She found a little front hallway that boasted a soda machine and three mismatched chairs. “Hello?” she called, but received no answer.

The garage, storage rooms, and a desk area were also deserted. She had a vague memory of meeting the maintenance supervisor the day before. He was a red-haired man in his mid-thirties, wearing blue cowboy boots, gold chains, and a distinctly smarmy air. What was his name? Stanley something … Stanley Colontuono, that was it.

Chloe passed his desk, which was overflowing with files, boxes of bolts, and the various other detritus of a man whose position straddled administration and hands-on maintenance work. The wall calendar hanging above Stan-the-Man’s telephone featured a naked blonde woman leaning on a motorcycle. D-cup.

Lovely. Chloe pulled the calendar from the wall, ripped each page in half, and stuffed the dreck into his trashcan.

Five minutes later, she emerged from the maintenance building just as an old white Chevette rattled into the lot near the trailers. When the door opened a young woman popped energetically from the car. She was slim and lithe, with milk-chocolate skin. She strode forward, hand outstretched. “You must be Chloe!”

“Yes!” Chloe agreed brightly, allowing her hand to be pumped. “And you are …?”

“Nika.” She was perhaps five inches shorter and ten years younger than Chloe, with fine-boned features and slightly slanted eyes, like a cat’s. A headband striped with yellow and green and blue kept a curtain of shoulder-length braids swept back from her face. “Tanika Austin,” she added, when Chloe didn’t respond.

Tanika Austin, Tanika Austin? Chloe spread her hands.

“Your intern.”

She had an intern? Chloe tried to hide her dismay. Had Ralph Petty said anything about an intern? Perhaps she should have listened. So. She had an intern—

“Is there a problem?” Nika asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Of course not,” Chloe said. “I’m afraid I’m on overload. Still sorting out names.”

Nika eyed her a few seconds longer before saying, “No problem. I interviewed with Mr. Petty during spring break. I actually started last week. I’m sorry I wasn’t here on your first day, but I took a long weekend. My fiancé’s parents were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary. I told Mr. Petty it would probably be just as well to give you some time to get your bearings, anyway.” Nika’s voice was quiet but decisive, her posture full of self-assurance.

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
13.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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