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Authors: Kathleen Ernst

Old World Murder (2010) (9 page)

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
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After waking up the
next morning Chloe lay in bed for some time, hands on her flat belly, feeling empty and alone. Markus had been an early riser, and often woke her with cups of steaming hot chocolate. Other days he’d plop down on the bed, full of ideas for the day. “We’re out of flour—we need to go to the market,” or, “Let’s take the steam cog up the Rothorn!” Chloe loved the Appalachian mountains, but the Alps … oh, the Swiss Alps, with their steep paths hiked to the music of cow bells and songbirds, were like no place else on earth…


Dammit
.” She abruptly scrambled out of bed. Enough of this. If she didn’t get moving, she’d likely crawl back under the covers. Not good.

After padding into the kitchen, she opened her refrigerator. The shopping fairies had not magically filled it for her. In fact … she sniffed, then stuck a hand deep inside. Lovely. Her brand-new used refrigerator had died. She wouldn’t get her first paycheck for weeks. Fridge repairs were not in the budget. Chloe shut the door again.

It was Saturday, and her mother was expecting her at the old homeplace in Stoughton. Chloe had mixed feelings about going home. Still … she could eat there, and do a load of laundry too.

The drive to Stoughton took less than an hour, winding through small towns and rolling farmland. Her parents still lived in the two-story colonial on South Prairie street where Chloe had grown up. When she pulled up in front of her parents’ house that morning, she cut the engine and sat staring at the sign hanging by the front door:
Velkommen til vårt hjem.
Petunias and sweet potato vines spilled from rosemaled window boxes. A flagpole in the front yard hosted both American and Norwegian flags. Mom and Dad avoided Norwegian cute—no little ceramic elves peeking around garden plants, no stumps carved like trolls. Still, in a town that had turned its Norwegian heritage into a bankable tourism phenomenon, Chloe’s parents were part of a dwindling minority: the real deal, both born of families that had not married outside the Norwegian community.

Mom met her at the door. “Oh, come in, dear! My, you look wonderful.”

“Not really,” Chloe said.

Her mother blinked, and for a moment Chloe thought she might actually respond. Then Mrs. Ellefson turned away, heading toward the kitchen. “I still have the coffeepot on. Want some?”

“Sure. And granola or something too, if you’ve got some.”

“I’ll scramble you some eggs.”

As her mother bustled about the kitchen, Chloe settled into her old chair. Blue curtains, a blue teapot on the stove, and blue dish towels livened up the white walls and appliances. A wall calendar featuring Norway’s scenic fjords hung above the sink, and a
krumkakke
iron hung above the stove. A high shelf circling the room displayed a variety of rosemaled bowls and boxes and trays. Her mother’s work, all of it. Chloe remembered her irritable outburst in the police office—“You think we all sit around eating
lefse
and painting woodenware?”—and felt her cheeks warm all over again. The truth was, when Officer McKenna had prodded her about finding an expert on rosemaled antiques, she’d known she wouldn’t have to look far.

“Are you getting all settled in?” Chloe’s parents had helped her move into the farmhouse the week before.

“Sure.” Chloe took a sip of coffee. “Where’s Dad?”

“He’s bowling.” Mom slid the eggs onto a plate already graced with a sticky bun. “Here.”

“Thanks.” Chloe had skipped supper the night before, and she dug in.

Mom sipped coffee from her own mug. She was a tall woman who had recently bobbed her hair after decades of wearing yellow braids in a coil behind her head. Silver had overpowered the blonde, but her eyes still shone Scandinavian blue. “So,” she said finally, when Chloe put her fork down. “When you called last night you said you wanted to ask me a favor?”

“I’m hoping you might have time to do a little research for me.” Her mother knew a lot about local history resources and genealogical searches. And she was cronies with every reference librarian in Dane County.

“Why, of course, dear. What do you need?”

Chloe felt an ache in her chest. Why hadn’t her mother been able to ask that question when her daughter had been struggling last winter? When her personal life was in the crapper, Chloe had wondered just how much to confide in her mother. She’d made one or two hesitant attempts. And Mom simply did not want to take delivery—

“Chloe?”

Chloe started. “Right. Here’s the thing. On my first day at Old World I talked to an artifact donor about a Norwegian ale bowl. Unfortunately, she passed away before I could get any of her family history.” Chloe poured herself another cup of coffee. “And you know how it is,” she said vaguely. “It would be really helpful for our records if we had a better idea of the ale bowl’s provenance. I don’t have time to do that kind of legwork.”

“What fun!” Mrs. Ellefson leaned forward on her elbows. “Tell me about this ale bowl!”

Chloe pinched off a corner of the sticky bun and popped it into her mouth. “Mrs. Lundquist—the donor I met—originally gave it to the state historical society years ago. It got transferred to Old World, but I haven’t been able to find it. I’m trying to figure out if it might have been more valuable than most other Norwegian pieces, for some reason.” Chloe told her mother what little she knew about the ale bowl.

“Cow heads?” Mom looked thoughtful. “That’s unusual.”

“I thought so,” Chloe said, impressed with herself.

“We’re probably talking about
kjenge—

Chloe held up a hand, palm forward. “English, please.”

“A
kjenge
is a type of bowl carved or turned from a single piece of wood, with handles carved as animal heads. Horse heads and lions are common motifs. And dragon heads.” She smiled. “Those go back to Viking days. You can see them adorning old churches in Norway. During the era when Christianity was overtaking the old religion, people evidently wanted to hedge their bets.”

“The reference to cow heads was probably a mistake,” Chloe said morosely. “The original accession record is sketchy. The curator probably didn’t even realize what she was seeing.” She chewed her lip for a moment. “Mom, what else would make a rosemaled ale bowl particularly desirable to a collector?”

“Well … the obvious things. Age and condition of the piece. The artist’s skill with design and execution and color.”

“I want to look at your collection.” Chloe ate the rest of the sticky bun and washed her hands before following her mother into the living room.

Her mother was a superb rosemaler who had won a coveted gold medal a decade earlier. Her handiwork was displayed in every room in the house. But a glass-fronted cupboard held pieces she’d collected.

“I haven’t bought an antique in years,” Mom said. “The prices have really shot up.”

“I assume some collectors look for pieces from certain regions.” Chloe knew that styles of rosemaling were distinct enough to be identified.

“Sure. Telemark and Hallingdal are best known, of course. Serious collectors might focus on one region, or even one artist.” Her mother picked up an exquisite bowl, painted orange and decorated with an intricate design of green, white, and black flowers and flourishes. “This one’s from Hallingdal.”

Chloe carefully took the bowl from her mother. She shouldn’t handle the piece without wearing cotton gloves, but she hadn’t brought a pair with her. “Are the pieces signed?”

“It’s very rare to find a signed piece, but the best artists developed unique characteristics.”

“Were all these pieces painted in Norway?” Chloe eased the bowl back onto the shelf.

Her mother nodded. “Almost certainly. Immigrants brought painted pieces with them. Lots of painted trunks, but also smaller pieces. Rose painting was starting to decline in Norway by the time of peak immigration to North America, though.”

“Didn’t any of the painters immigrate?”

“Some did. But most weren’t able to support themselves with rose painting here. A few might have done some painting for family and friends, I suppose. But the real renaissance didn’t begin until the twentieth century.”

“So … a nineteenth-century piece actually painted in Wisconsin might be more valuable than a piece painted in Norway, since they’re more rare.”

Her mother considered. “I suppose so. A few men may have kept the tradition alive, but in general, the immigrants soon took pride in American styles. You’ve seen those Andreas Dahl photographs, haven’t you?”

“Um … I don’t think so.”

“Dahl was a Norwegian-American who took dozens of photographs in Dane County during the 1870s. Lots of them show immigrant families posed in front of their homes, with sewing machines and farm equipment and whatever else they were most proud of. Modern American things, factory-made. I’ve got copies of a few of Dahl’s photos somewhere. We used them in a Daughters of Norway display.”

Chloe stared at the bowls and tankards and plates on the cabinet shelves. What did the missing ale bowl
look
like? Was it from Telemark, Hallingdal, somewhere else? Was it one of those rare pieces made in America, or did it show the delicate brushstrokes of a sought-after Norwegian master? Without more to go on, how could she ever know?

____

I should quit this nonsense, Chloe thought that afternoon, as she drove east from Stoughton. Ethan was right; Mrs. Lundquist’s missing ale bowl is none of my business. I have plenty of things to worry about instead. I have no way of
ever
finding out what Mrs. Lundquist was so upset about, not with the shreds of information I have. For all I know she was a senile old bat.

Immediately, the image of the widow’s face swam accusingly into her memory. Beseeching Chloe for help in life. Still and staring in death.

“I’m sorry,” Chloe whispered. “Truly. And I’m trying hard to keep my promise.”

In Whitewater, Chloe made a last-minute decision to turn north on Highway 59 instead of continuing east to her farmhouse. She might as well go to work. She had yet to so much as visit the museum’s German, Finnish, and Danish farms. Byron had scheduled her to help provide training to the college students and teachers who’d be augmenting the interpretive ranks for the summer. Ralph Petty had scheduled a meeting to discuss a plan for permanent collections storage. And God knew she’d have to keep on her toes to stay one step ahead of Nika.

The restoration area was quiet. Chloe parked her car under a pine tree. Maybe she should spend the afternoon on site, mingling with visitors, getting to know the place. She hadn’t checked out that wallpaper problem at Tobler, either. She’d just pick up her clipboard and—

She stopped halfway up the trailer steps. The door was closed. But its heavy padlock glittered from the ground beside the steps.

Dammit!
Chloe yanked the door open and plunged inside. “Hey!” she yelled. The trailer was empty. The intruder was gone. She stared helplessly at the crowded storage shelves. She didn’t have an inventory, so she had no way of knowing if something had been taken.

She picked up the phone receiver, but the site phone list she’d left beside it was gone. She put the receiver back down, and took a hard look at her workspace. Her papers had been moved. So had the black ledgers.

Who had messed with her stuff? And why?

She finally found her phone list, and dialed the security office number. A woman answered on the seventh ring. “Hello.” She sounded out of breath.

“Is this a security guard?”

“No, it’s the gift shop. Hank got called out to German. A visitor twisted her ankle and needed a ride. I can leave a message for him.”

Lovely. “Well, this is Chloe Ellefson. The new curator. I’m at the collections trailers in the restoration area. Could you tell him I think there’s been a break-in? I’ll wait here.”

“Sure.” The receiver slammed down.

Chloe retreated to the picnic table outside to wait, wishing she’d asked for more information. Hank was giving an injured visitor a ride—to where? The parking lot? The hospital in Waukesha, forty minutes away? She nibbled her lower lip for a moment, then headed back inside to the phone.

Roelke realized that it
was too late to chase the driver who’d just blitzed past the speed trap. Second one, too. His bad mood was distracting him.

He should have been in a good mood. He’d spent the previous night in Milwaukee with some of his old buddies, drinking beer and playing poker. Roelke didn’t care about poker. Spending time with other cops, though—that was good. He had a standing reservation on Rick Almirez’s sofa in Wauwatosa. Rick and Roelke had gone through the academy together.

“Next time bring more salsa,” Rick had said that morning, as they lingered over store-bought cherry kringle and bad coffee in Rick’s cramped apartment kitchen.

“Yeah, I will,” Roelke had agreed. He wasn’t much of a cook, but he made kick-butt salsa.

Rick Almirez was smart, a fast thinker, and even faster on his feet. He also smoked like a stovepipe. “You coming back out for practice?” he asked, reaching for a pack of cigarettes.

Rick, Roelke, and two of their friends from the force played in a bad garage band called The Blue Tones. “If I can get somebody to switch shifts with me,” Roelke said. “I’ll stop at the PD and check the schedule.”

“For Chrissake, do not go in this afternoon just to check the schedule.” Rick glanced at the ceiling as if searching for divine counseling:
Lord, what am I to do with this guy?
“You got to get out of that two-bit town. When are you going to transfer back out here?”

Roelke shrugged.

“You said when you left MPD that it was temporary. Helping out your cousin. How long can you drive in circles around that village before you go nuts?” Rick blew a plume of smoke over one shoulder. “You’re not even full-time.”

“The only full-time guy is out on medical with a bad back. He’ll probably take early retirement. I might be in line for that.” Or Skeet might. One or the other.

“You’re gonna lose your edge, man.” Rick got up to get a carton of milk from the refrigerator. “When I went on shift on Friday night there were seventy-nine calls waiting. God, what a night! The only way I could grab a bite was to swing through George Webb’s before calling back in service.”

“Small towns do have crime too,” Roelke said irritably. Although it would probably take the EPD several weeks to rack up seventy-nine calls.

Rick had eaten another piece of kringle, and licked his fingers. Then he’d said, “You’re screwing your career out there, Roelke. But I guess we’ll let you hang out with us anyway. The band needs you.”

Now, Rick’s observations echoed in Roelke’s ears. He shifted grumpily in the seat. All right, that was it. Next speeder he clocked was getting pulled over, and no amenities given.

Then dispatch came on the radio. “Possible break-in and entry at Old World Wisconsin restoration area, off County S.”

Roelke grabbed the radio. “George 220. I’ve got this one.”

He drove a bit faster than usual as he headed out of Eagle. The historic site’s security vehicle pulled out of the main entrance and turned onto Highway 67 in front of him. Roelke followed it to the restoration area.

Chloe was sitting on a picnic table near the trailers. “I guess the cavalry is here,” she said, getting up to greet the two men.

Hank DiCapo cast a sidelong glance at Roelke. “Hello, McKenna. Didn’t realize you’d gotten a call too. I could’ve saved you a trip.”

Roelke made a
no big deal
gesture. Old World’s three security guards worked for a private security company—all conscientious men, as far as he could tell. But DiCapo was possessive about his turf.

“What’s this about a break-in?” Hank asked Chloe.

She held up a padlock. “I found this on the ground, there by the step. Someone broke in.”

“You sure you didn’t drop it when you left last time?” Hank asked.

Her face tightened. “Quite sure. And when I looked inside, I could tell that someone had been going through my things.”

She looked? Roelke felt the muscles in his jaw tense. Before he could respond to that, another car pulled into the lot. He turned to see County Deputy Marge Bandacek climb from her car. “What we got?”

Great. Roelke swallowed more irritation as he introduced Chloe and brought Marge up to speed.

Marge hitched her pants up. “Is something missing?”

Chloe spread her hands. “I don’t have an inventory of the artifacts stored here. All I can say is that some things were messed up in the kitchen.” She led the way inside.

The galley was so small that the three officers had to proceed one at a time. Roelke went first. The space didn’t look any better than it had on Tuesday—dark, cluttered, worn. Depressing. “What’s different?” he asked.

“These ledgers were shoved farther over on the counter than I left them.” Chloe pointed. “And some of my papers were shuffled.”

They convened back outside. “So basically, you aren’t aware of anything that got stolen,” Hank said.

Chloe gave him a level look. “No. But finding a padlock on the ground is cause for concern, I’d say.”

Marge shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “When were you last inside there yourself?”

“Yesterday afternoon. I locked it up about five, before going home.”

“Are you sure you didn’t forget to hook the lock?” Marge asked. “Maybe you just
thought
you did. Maybe it didn’t quite catch.”

“I locked it,” Chloe snapped. “And even if it hadn’t caught—which it did—it would still be hanging here, wouldn’t it? Not on the ground?”

“Maybe your hands were full, or you were in a hurry, and you dropped that lock yourself,” Hank said.

“Hold on a minute,” Roelke told Hank and Marge firmly. He had no real authority here, but he wanted to intervene before Chloe started throwing punches. “Who else has a key to these trailers?” he asked her.

She looked startled. “Well … the head of maintenance. Stanley Colontuono.”

Stanley? Roelke took a mental note and filed it away.

“And Ralph Petty, the site director,” Hank added. “He’s got a master for everything. Have you called them?”

“No. But—they wouldn’t have cause to be here without letting me know,” Chloe pointed out. “And that wouldn’t explain why the lock was on the ground, anyway. I can’t believe any employee would be so careless.”

For a moment no one spoke. Then the radio clipped to Hank’s big belt crackled. “VC to Security.”

He pulled it free. “Security here.”

“We’ve got a family in the parking lot, locked out of their car. Can you give them a hand?”

“I’m on my way.”

“It’s a Jeep Cherokee, Illinois plates, third bay. VC out.”

Hank replaced his radio with an air of authority. “What we’ve got here is, not a whole lot.” He nodded at Roelke and Marge. “Sorry you got called in for nothing.”

As Hank drove away, Marge pulled at her belt again. “It seems to me if someone was
really
trying to break in, he would have taken a carload or two of those antiques.”

Chloe folded her arms over her chest.

The deputy caught Roelke’s glance and jerked her head toward her car. “Nothing here to follow up on,” Marge said as they walked away from Chloe. “I think the security guard is probably right.”

“Perhaps.”

“I’ll do some extra drive-bys.” Marge opened her car door. “Isn’t that the woman from the car wreck? She seems high-strung.”

“I think she’s just trying to do her job.”

“Aren’t we all.” Marge shrugged. “Catch you later, McKenna.”

Roelke walked back to Chloe, who watched the deputy drive away with her lips pressed into a tight line. “It seems the mounties think I overreacted,” she said.

“You did the right thing to call. What you
didn’t
do right was charge inside an isolated trailer when you saw the missing lock.”

“I thought someone might still be inside!”

“Exactly. You should have called for help, let one of us do the looking.”

“These trailers and the artifacts inside are my responsibility,” she snapped.

A tiny bird serenaded them from a pine branch overhead,
chickadee-dee-dee
. Roelke waited.

“Oh, shit.” The tension left Chloe’s posture and she sat down on the trailer steps abruptly. “All I could think when I saw that door unlocked was that someone came here searching for that blasted ale bowl.”

“Do you have a reason to think that someone might break in with that in mind?”

“Nothing concrete. But I locked that door properly yesterday,” Chloe said stubbornly. “I
did
.”

Roelke leaned against his squad.

She sighed. “Look, I know you can’t help me. I don’t have any evidence of a crime.”

“No. But I do agree that finding the lock on the ground is cause for concern. If something like that ever happens again, though, don’t touch anything.”

“You mean … so you could look for fingerprints?” She looked even more chagrined. “I didn’t even think of that. Sorry.”

“I’ll write up what happened, and let the other guys know. We can keep an eye out for a while.”

“I’m pretty sure someone messed through the records in the kitchen, but …” She rested her cheek on one palm. “Hank was right. I can’t be positive, because I’ve spent more time in the last week looking for that ale bowl than doing my job and starting a proper inventory.” She gave a mirthless laugh. “And I’m a state employee. That’s your tax dollars at work.”

“Would you like to come to a cookout tomorrow afternoon?” Roelke asked.

“Would I—
what
?”

He had no idea where that invitation had come from. “I’m going to my cousin’s house to eat with her and her two kids. You’re welcome to come with me.”

She looked bewildered. “Um … OK.”

“I’ll pick you up,” he said, feeling stupid. “Does three o’clock work for you?”

She nodded.

He got in his car and drove away before she could change her mind.

BOOK: Old World Murder (2010)
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