Authors: Judy Clemens
Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General
“Oh, shit. All right.”
“What?” Nick asked.
I pointed toward the back of the barn. “It’s how we move grain from one place to another. We gotta thaw it out or we’ll be shoveling feed ourselves.”
“We might end up doing that, too,” Lucy said. “The silage is starting to freeze to the walls and the unloader.”
I sighed. “Why don’t you start hacking away at that. Nick and I will work on the auger.”
“I’m on it.”
Nick followed me into the barn and I handed him a hair dryer.
He laughed. “What’s this?”
“Our un-freezer. Come on.”
An extra-long extension cord later, Nick was standing with the blow-dryer in his hand, pointing it toward the frozen mechanism on the auger. I got to work trekking in and out of the barn with hot water, attempting to hurry along the melting process where ice had locked up the gears. When the auger finally began to move, Nick cheered.
“Nice work,” I said.
He smiled, and I couldn’t help but smile back. “Ready for some more?”
“Lead on, oh fearless leader.”
I didn’t know about fearless. But at least working was better than thinking.
We were loading newspaper into the shredder when a car pulled into the lane. Queenie bounded out to check on it, and I straightened up.
“Friend?” Nick asked.
I shook my head. “Don’t know the car.”
A woman stepped out of the white Caprice Classic, bundled in a knee-length coat, her head and face covered with a scarf.
I went to the doorway of the barn. “Help you?” I called.
She looked up and I saw it was Detective Shisler. My breath caught.
“You find Wolf?” I asked when she reached me.
She met my eyes. “No. I’m sorry. But I got your message. Can we talk?”
“Sure,” I said. “We can go to my office.” I turned to Nick. “Why don’t you go inside and warm up? I’ll get you when I’m done. Or Lucy can give you something to do, if you want.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll finish this.” He held up a fistful of
I nodded and led the detective through the parlor and into my office, where heat from the electric baseboards greeted us.
“Oh, that feels good,” she said.
“Go ahead and have a seat.” I pulled off my stocking cap and unzipped the top part of my coveralls, circling around to my chair. My stomach was suddenly back to the cramps that had afflicted it up until I’d begun work that morning. I made sure the wastebasket was in easy reach, and waited.
Detective Shisler sat down, unwinding the scarf and revealing a short cap of brown curls that stuck out at all angles from her head. Her mascara was smudged, and the eyebrow pencil a bit much, but her smile was genuine, if sad, revealing slightly crooked teeth. I’d noticed none of these things the night before.
“You never did tell me how you knew I’d been at Wolf Ink yesterday,” I said.
She took off her gloves and laid them on my desk. “That was the easy part. I saw your note on their computer, and matched you up with the appointment book.”
She crossed her legs. “We kind of shook you up last night—”
“Kind of? I was a wreck.”
“Sure. I’m sorry.” She pulled her tablet out of her pocket. “You called me this morning?”
“Yeah.” I relayed the information to her about Billy’s thrashing at the school.
She nodded. “We know all about that. In fact, we investigated it.”
“So you know who was involved.”
I waited, but she said nothing more.
“Any chance they’re involved?” I asked.
She lifted a shoulder. “Sure, there’s a chance. We’re checking it out.”
She shifted in the chair. “That’s why you called?”
“Yup. Sorry it doesn’t help more.”
She smiled. “I’m just glad you’re willing to share information. Speaking of that, could you please tell me some names of people who know Mr. and Mrs. Moore?”
“Don’t know many. But my friend Bart Watts knows the Moores pretty well.”
Mandy. Hopefully still
I gave Shisler Bart’s number at home and at the Biker Barn. Not that he’d be getting to work that day. “He’ll tell you whatever he can.”
“Thank you. And thanks again for calling. I was going to stop by today, anyway, to make sure I got all the details from you about yesterday, and to ask a few more questions.”
I sighed, but waved my hand over my desk. “Ask away.”
She sat back. “The man who came into the parlor—Tank, I believe you said? Do you remember anything more about him? Who he might be?”
“I have no idea. Bart might. I didn’t think about asking him.”
“I’ll follow up.” She scribbled on her pad. “And the meeting the Moores had planned? Any chance you remember what it was about? We can’t find anyone or anything that tells us. Mrs. Moore’s mother doesn’t even know where they were headed. Lots of ideas, but nothing concrete.”
I shook my head. “They never said. Just mentioned it would go late, so Billy was staying at his grandma’s.”
She sighed and put away her tablet. “Thanks again for calling. I appreciate any help you can give me.”
“Whatever I can do.”
She took a card out of her coat and wrote something on it. “My cell phone. Feel free to call anytime.”
I took the card and stuck it in the front pocket of my coveralls. “I’ll try to think of anything else I’ve forgotten. Can’t imagine what it would be, though.”
“Thanks.” She stood and re-wrapped the scarf around her head. “You able to keep ahead of the snow here?”
I stood, too, and moved to the window, where I could see flurries beginning outside. “We do our best.”
She walked toward the door and opened it. “At least we won’t have people complaining about not having a white Christmas.”
Just not having a merry one.
She left, shutting the door behind her, and I watched until she made it out to her car, backed around in the space we’d cleared, and headed out the drive. I jammed my hat back on my head, zipped up my coveralls, and went to find Nick.
We finished shredding the newspaper and broke for lunch, a short affair punctuated with Tess’ comments about Christmas and computer games. Lucy had sent her upstairs when the cops had arrived the night before, and we’d told her nothing about their visit. So Tess was still in the Christmas spirit, even if the rest of us were finding it difficult to cooperate.
The remainder of our day was filled with transporting hay, filling feed bins, moving more snow, helping Doug with the milk truck—which arrived almost two hours late—thawing a couple of frozen water bowls, setting up space heaters at problem areas, and cleaning out the heifer barn and the soon-to-be-mother pens. All of which, of course, led us right up to the evening milking.
Nick worked smoothly with me in the parlor, helping to feed the cows and taking his side of the aisle during the milking. By the time we’d cleaned out the stalls and re-filled them with new straw and shredded newspaper, he was yawning.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s see what Lucy’s cooked up for supper.”
The fragrance hit us as soon as we walked in. Garlic, ginger, and steamed rice.
“Oh, wow,” Nick said. “Will it taste as good as it smells?”
“Better,” I said. Even my touchy stomach responded with a positive rumble.
We hung up our coveralls, washed our hands, and greeted Tess, who held a kitten in her arms. She held her out to Nick. “This is Smoky.”
Nick stroked the kitten’s head. “How old is she?”
“Very sweet.” He looked at me. “The litter from this summer?”
“Yup. You can tell how long it’s been by how big she is.”
His chest rose and fell as he pondered this. I hadn’t meant it to be a dig at him, but he apparently took it as one.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s see if Lucy’s ready for us.”
She was, and we almost did justice to her stir-fry chicken, followed by an incredible German chocolate cake.
“Geez, Lucy, what is this?” I asked. “Gourmet dining?”
She grinned. “Just thought I’d make a little something special. It’s not every day we have out-of-town guests.”
Nick sat back in his chair. “Guess you wish I’d come around more often, huh, Stella?”
I looked at him. “For the desserts?”
He lifted a shoulder, his expression turning pensive.
“Can-I-be-excused-Mom-thank-you-for-supper,” Tess said. “Nick, come look at my computer game. I just got to a new place.”
“Tess—” Lucy said.
Nick smiled. “It’s okay. I’ll be glad to see it. Thank you very much for supper.”
He followed Tess into the living room, and I got up to help clear the table.
“He’s nice, Stella,” Lucy said, watching him go. “Really nice.”
I didn’t answer, concentrating on stacking plates in the dishwasher after rinsing off the most offensive food hangers-on.
“Pretty darn cute, too,” Lucy said.
I spun around. “He’s a
, Lucy. He lied to me, working here under false pretences, and left. He hasn’t called or written in six months, and now he stops in here without warning? It’s
Lucy scraped rice into a Tupperware container. “So he stays until the roads are open, and goes home. You never have to talk to him again. Is that what you want?”
I sank against the counter. “I don’t know what I want.”
She opened the fridge and stacked the containers of leftovers inside. “Well, you have at least until tomorrow to decide. The roads will probably open, and he can go. Until then, I guess you’ll survive.”
I gave a small laugh. “I guess.”
She flicked me with a towel. “Now come on. Stop being a chicken and talk to the man.”
We were headed toward the living room when the phone rang. I answered.
“Rusty? Geez. It’s been forever.”
“Longer. How’s that steer head treating you?”
I reached up to touch the tattoo on the back of my neck. The tattoo Rusty had inked as soon as I’d turned eighteen and Howie couldn’t stop me. “Never looked better.”
“Listen,” he said, “I’m calling about Wolf and Mandy. I got a call from Bart Watts, said you were asking questions.”
Thank God for friends who did what they promised.
“Yeah. It’s a mess. Wolf was doing a tattoo for me and left right in the middle of it. And, well, you know what happened to Mandy.” I breathed carefully, then said, “Wolf’s still missing.”
“I know.” His voice broke, and he paused. “I don’t like that one bit. And I don’t care what they say, it’s not ’cause he did anything to Mandy.”
“I’m with you. That’s why I’ve been checking around. You have some news?”
“Just some info for you to pass on to your detective, if you’ve got his number.”
“Her number. And yes, I’ll pass it on, unless you want to call her yourself.”
“I’ll let you do it. Can’t say I’m too comfortable with cops. Never have been, since they raided my place back in the nineties.”
“I’ll relay your info. Although she’ll probably want your name.”
He sighed. “If it will help Wolf.”
“She’s a good cop. At least she’s treated me well, tattoos and all. So what you got?”
“Last spring at the Forged in Ink convention in Wyomissing, an artist named Lance Thunderbolt—”
“No way. Lance Thunderbolt?”
“‘Fraid so. Claims he’s part Perkasie Indian. Anyway, Lance about went apeshit ‘cause he said Wolf stole some of his flash. Went around telling everybody Wolf was a thief.”
“It wasn’t true.”
“Course not. Wolf’s a far superior artist.”
My mind went to the flash, Wolf’s art, displayed on the walls at Wolf Ink. Detailed, colorful, beautiful designs, begging to be etched into someone’s skin.
“But?” I said.
Rusty grunted. “Lance spent a lot of time and effort, not to mention money, trying to prove Wolf plagiarized his work. Never did amount to anything but a pain in the ass, and he finally slunk away with his tail between his legs.”
“Did he threaten Wolf and Mandy?”
“Lots of times. But only with money stuff. Never violence.”
“But you’re still calling to tell me this.”
Rusty sighed again. “Thunderbolt was humiliated. Basically told by the entire community that Wolf’s art made his look like little kid scribbles. Or worse. Who knows where that could lead a man?”
I leaned against the wall, thinking. “So when exactly did this happen?”
“Started in…well, Forged in Ink was in April. So it was from then until, I’d say, about October till he finally gave it up.”
“So pretty recent.”
“And who knows? Maybe something happened to remind him.”
I picked up a pen. “You got information where my detective could reach him?”
He rattled off the business name—Ink Warrior—and where he was located in Pennsburg.
“I already been by his place, and it’s locked up tight. Thought if he had anything to do with Wolf’s kidnapping, with Mandy’s… Anyway, I wanted first crack at him. But he ain’t there. So you can tell your detective, but I don’t know what good it’ll do her.”
“Thanks, Rusty. Where are you these days, anyway? Still in Philly?”
“Actually, no. Moved up to North Wales. Wanted to be more in the country.”
“The country? Up here in development heaven?”
“Compared to Philly it’s the country. No skyscrapers.”
“Okay. I hear what you’re saying. Thanks.”
I hung up and walked out of the kitchen to the foyer, where I pulled the detective’s card from my coveralls. I could feel eyes on me—wasn’t sure whose, exactly—but didn’t look back.
Back in the kitchen I dialed Shisler’s cell phone, and she answered before I’d heard a complete ring.
“Stella Crown,” I said. “Got something for you.”
I relayed Rusty’s story, as well as his and Thunderbolt’s contact information. I cringed as I gave out his name, but knew he’d okayed it. For Wolf and Mandy.
“Thanks, Ms. Crown,” Shisler said. “I’ll get on this right away.”
I hung up, wondering what else I could do, but couldn’t come up with anything. I reluctantly joined the others in the living room, where Tess was taking Nick through the newest Spy Fox game on the computer we’d gotten as a hand-me-down from Zach Granger, my summertime fourteen-year-old farm helper. Nick and Lucy both looked up at my entrance.
“News?” Lucy asked.
“Just info to pass on to the detective.” I stood behind the couch.
“Okay,” Lucy said. “How about doing something all of us can play, now that Stella’s off the phone?”
“Come on,” Lucy said. “It’ll get your mind off things. How about a round of good old Uno, or Dutch Blitz?”
“Dutch Blitz?” Nick said.
“It’s a Pennsylvania Dutch game,” Lucy said. “I’ll show you.” She grabbed a small box from the cupboard and tossed it to him.
“‘A Vonderful Goot Game!’?” he said, reading from the cover, which displayed drawings of an Amish boy and girl.
“Told you. P.A. Dutch. I’ve got aunts and uncles who speak like that. Anyway, there are four decks of cards. You want to be the pumps, buggies, barrels, or hand plows?”
“If I have to play,” I said, “I’m the pumps. I’m always the pumps.”
Lucy threw them to me and distributed the others. “Now we shuffle, deal them out, and try to be the first to get rid of our ten-pile and make the most points.”