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Rich fingered the small package in his pocket as he walked down the hill with Claire to the farmer’s market in the park—his mother’s diamond engagement ring. His mother had given it to him a few days ago with her blessings.
Meg ran ahead of them, skipping and leaping over imaginary boulders in the road. Her legs looked as long as the rest of her body. She was shooting up. Eleven years old. Not the little girl he had first met almost three years ago.
Claire held his other hand and carried a big colorful plastic satchel that she claimed was her shopping bag. At the bottom of the bag was her cell phone. Claire was on call to the sheriff’s department this weekend.
Meg was going to a friend’s house for a sleepover tonight—and Rich had invited Claire to his house for a romantic dinner. He had it all planned out. He would ask her tonight.
He was slightly nervous because they hadn’t really discussed marriage. But, he assured himself, their lives were intermingling as easily as the St. Croix flowed into the Mississippi, twenty miles to the north. They had been seeing each other for long enough. He knew he wanted to live with Claire.
He squeezed her hand. She turned and smiled at him. She had let her dark hair grow and today was wearing it loosely braided. A thread or two of silver hinted at her age. She was wearing cutoff jeans, yellow flip-flops, and a big T-shirt that she and Meg had tie-dyed yellow and blue. He wanted to be connected to her in a tangible way. He never wanted to lose her.
The farmer’s market was held in the park every Saturday morning during the summer months. It was organized by a few of the local farmers who grew transitional or totally organic crops. Ted Wallis brought his honey to sell. Penny Swenson and her husband Louie brought their brick-oven-baked bread. Other farmers showed up occasionally with strawberries, or asparagus, or morels when they were in season.
The mainstay of the market was the produce from the Daniels farm. They were a couple in their late thirties who had immigrated to Pepin County from the Twin Cities about ten years ago. They had moved down to start an organic farm. At first they just sold produce from a stand. But they were now bringing vegetables into Red Wing to sell at an organic outlet, and they had also been instrumental in setting up the farmer’s market.
As he approached the stands, Rich saw a flash of red. Nine months he had been waiting. A pile of red fruits. The first of the tomatoes. He walked right to them and picked up a couple. If he had a salt shaker he would have stood right there and eaten one. His mouth watered just thinking about the first bite. His mother used to tell him that his grandfather had called them love apples and had eaten them with sugar and cream.
A plate of sliced tomatoes with a little salt and pepper, oil and vinegar, and freshly cut basil would be the perfect side dish to his meal tonight. A good sign of what the evening might bring.
“Two per customer,” Celia Daniels told him. “We’re trying to spread them out so everyone can take a couple home.”
“Sounds fair. How do you manage to get ripe tomatoes this early?”
“The greenhouse makes it all possible. This is the earliest I’ve ever had them. July first. Well before the Fourth of July. Can you imagine?”
He carefully selected the most perfect two he could find. Round, ripe, and red. Claire was busy picking through the large selections of greens and lettuces. Meg had run off with the two Daniels kids to play on the swings.
Then he heard a distressing sound. If he hadn’t known what it was, he might have thought it was a mother bird fending off an attack on its young. But he recognized the strident beep. Claire’s phone was ringing. She glanced over at him and reluctantly reached into her bag.
“Watkins,” she said, and then turned her back to him and listened.
His hands shook lightly on the steering wheel, but he just repeated the phrase over and over again: First step done, first step done.
He parked down the old field road that no one used anymore. Most people didn’t even know it was there. He drove the road ten times a year in order to keep it from growing over completely—once in April, once in May, twice the next three months, then back to once in September, and once in October. Then the snow came and he didn’t have to worry about the road until the next year.
This was the start of his plan. So far it was working. He didn’t feel too nervous. Just a little excited. It was so inevitable. It had to be done. He had thought it through for many years and he was ready. What he had done today was the first step. There would be many more. He hoped they would all go as smoothly as this one.
And in the end, he might get what he wanted.
He got out of his truck, went around to the back, and opened the topper. He reached into the bed of the truck and grabbed the two-gallon jug. He put that into the backpack he had brought with him. Then he wrapped his arms around the two boxes. It was a lot to carry, but he didn’t want to make two trips. He had been away from home for too long already. He wanted to get this stuff safely stowed away.
He knew the number of steps it took to get to the hiding place. He counted them as he went. Each step had a number, and if he thought that number he would get there. It was a way of holding on to the world.
The world was out of balance. It had been so for nearly fifty years. Only he could see it. Only he could change it. He had lived with this knowledge most of his life. It was time to rectify it.
He walked down the hill and into the shade of an old oak. He stopped for a few moments to catch his breath and to cool off. The day was a hot one. But he didn’t relinquish his burden. He couldn’t put it down until he got to where he would store it. It was the way it had to be. When you decided on a plan, you had to keep to it. There was only one way to do most things.
Not far now. The steps counted off in his mind as he came up to the indentation in the earth. He wondered if anyone in the county even knew this was here anymore. Gone out of use many years ago. A wooden cover over what looked to be an old pump. He knew what it was. He had been there when it had been dug.
Now he could set the boxes down. He put them right next to where his feet would go. He bent over and lifted the hasp on a slanted wooden door. He raised it up and propped it open with a stick.
When he looked down into the hole, he saw a long, thick bull snake slither across the rock wall of the hole. Just so it wasn’t a rattler, he didn’t care. Regular snakes didn’t bother him. He liked to see them around. They ate other critters. He had only seen one rattler this year, three bull snakes, and fourteen garter snakes. Slow year.
The ladder was in place. He grabbed the boxes and carefully stepped down the ladder into the damp coolness. He had put a plastic tarp on the floor of the hole for the boxes. He set them down and then took off his backpack and put the jug on top of the boxes.
His supplies. He had what he needed. He knew how it would happen. Step by step. They all had a number. But what he didn’t know, what he couldn’t control, was how many people would be dead at the end.
It was inconvenient for Claire, living in Fort St. Antoine and working for the sheriff’s department located in the county seat of Durand, that they were as far apart as two towns could be and still be in Pepin County. She drove the thirty miles at a consistent five miles per hour over the speed limit. All Sheriff Talbert had said on the phone was that there had been a burglary. He hadn’t said where, or what had been stolen, but by the tone of his voice she knew it was important.
The minimum staff was working this Saturday morning. Judy was manning the phones. She looked up from the magazine she was reading and said, “Everyone’s back in the sheriff’s office. They’re waiting on you.”
Claire walked into his office and found two men sitting in chairs across from the sheriff. She didn’t recognize either of them.
The sheriff looked as if he had been pulled from the golf course. He was wearing canary-yellow pants with a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt. “Claire, I’d like you to meet Ron Sorenson and Petey Hauer. They are the president and vice president of the Farmer’s Cooperative. Claire is a deputy with my office and acting as chief investigator.”
The only investigator, Claire thought as she proffered her hand. The two men stood up and shook hands with Claire. She smiled and said hello. She noticed that they didn’t smile back.
She guessed Ron Sorenson to be close to sixty: thinning white-blond hair, sunburned face, and soft blue eyes. Not handsome, but appealing. He had the look of a minister even though he was dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt. Petey—probably not much older than thirty—was chunky, short, dark-haired with deep brown eyes. Reminded her of a chipmunk.
There wasn’t a fourth chair in the room, so she stepped around the men until she was next to the sheriff’s desk and perched on a filing cabinet. The two men took their seats again after she had settled.
“I’m not sure I know what the Farmer’s Cooperative is,” Claire admitted. She had found out early in her career that it never did any good to pretend to know something she didn’t. It always caught her up in the end.
“We sell farm equipment, feed, fertilizer, and weed control to all our member farmers in the area.”
“The area is?”
“Mainly Pierce and Pepin counties.”
Claire turned and looked at the sheriff.
“I called you in, Claire, because they had a break-in last night at the warehouse. Behind their main office. You’ve seen it. It’s that big cream-colored pole barn just about a half a mile east of Durand on Twenty-five.”
“Past the Dairy Queen?” she asked.
All the men nodded.
“What was taken?”
The sheriff waved at Sorenson. “Why don’t you explain it to Claire?”
“They took two boxes of Parazone and a two-gallon jug of Caridon,” he said gravely.
Claire didn’t recognize these names. “They are . . .?”
“Sorry. Pesticides. Parazone is an herbicide and Caridon is an insecticide. Fairly common pesticides that we stock regularly.”
Claire didn’t know what to say. It didn’t sound like much of a haul to her. Certainly not enough to generate the tension she felt in the room. All the men were looking at her. What did she not understand?
The sheriff jumped in. “Tell her how much you figure the whole haul was worth, Ron.”
Sorenson cleared his throat as if he hated to talk about such things. “Between sixty and seventy thousand dollars.”
Claire tried not to let the surprise show on her face. Not your ordinary pesticides, she figured. That amount probably equaled what the two men earned in a year. A loss like that could really hurt a small business, especially a cooperative.
“What exactly happened?” she asked.
“We don’t know much,” Sorenson answered. He appeared to be both the president and the man in charge. “If the lock off the back storeroom hadn’t been busted we might not even have noticed that anything was gone until we did inventory. No one saw anything that I’ve been able to find out.”
“Nothing else was taken?” This puzzled Claire.
“Nope. Just those two pesticides. It’s surprising, since we’ve got a lot of valuable equipment on the floor that they could have hauled out of there.”
“I’m guessing these pesticides aren’t something I’d be able to pick up at the Home Depot?” she asked.
“Right,” Sorenson said, looking her in the eyes, then added, “You need to know what you’re doing to handle these products. If the wrong person got hold of them, someone could get hurt.”