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It's times like these I wish I'd learned to drive. Up until Barney passed on, I didn't need to. He took me wherever I wanted to go. Now I'm at the mercy of slugs, and I don't mean the bullet kind.
Little Donny is nineteen years old, and he really appreciates the backwoods. He came to the Michigan Upper Peninsula, the U.P., as we call it, from his home in Milwaukee the day before yesterday for the opening of deer-hunting season, which is today, November fifteenth. At the first gray streak of daylight you could hear rifles going off all over the woods, and that's when Chester got it right between the eyes.
"I suppose I missed the whole thing," I called out the window when we pulled up outside of Chester's blind.
My son, Blaze, leaned against his rust-bucket yellow pickup with SHERIFF printed on the side, filling out paperwork. No one else was around. Either we'd beat the ambulance or it had already transported its patient.
"Just finishing up," he muttered, still writing in his notebook, not noticing my disappointment. "Chester's body is at the morgue in Escabana by now. How did you find out about it?"
"Heard it on the scanner."
Last year when Barney died, I cold-packed my dreams in a canning jar and placed them high on a dusty shelf in my pantry. A week after I buried him I turned sixty-six and Cora Mae bought me a police scanner for my birthday. It sat in my closet until three days ago when I mentioned to someone that I'm a recent widow and Cora Mae let me have it. "Gertie Johnson, I know you loved Barney, but it's time to start living again. Let's go over to your house and listen to that scanner I gave you. Maybe something will pop up."
Something had popped up, and that something had popped Chester.
I jumped down from the cab and the box of buckshot fell to the ground.
"That thing better not be loaded," Blaze said, after heaving himself off the truck and glancing at the shotgun on the floor. "You know it's against the law to transport a loaded weapon in a vehicle. We've been through this before."
"Of course it's not loaded," I lied, picking up the box of buckshot and stuffing it under the seat.
Little Donny crawled out of the driver's seat, and I couldn't help noticing a glob of mustard stuck on his chin. And I couldn't help noticing that Blaze couldn't button the bottom of his sheriff's uniform shirt anymore.
I sighed, thinking of Chester's family and how they'd feel when they heard the bad news, and for a few minutes Little Donny's sloppiness and Blaze's escalating weight gain didn't seem important at all.
"What happened here?" I asked.
"Nothing much to it," Blaze said, shaking his head. "Stray bullet whomped into the blind and caught poor unlucky Chester right between the eyes. We have at least one shooting accident every hunting season."
The air was clean and crisp, and Blaze's breath steamed around his head while he talked. I could smell cheap cologne hanging in the air. Blaze always wore too much.
"Remember last year," he continued, "that guy in Trenary was shot in the stomach sleeping in bed. Remember that, Little Donny?"
"Yeah, I remember."
"So you're writing this off as an accident?" I stammered, in disbelief.
Blaze looked surprised that I would even suggest anything else. "It was an accident and don't go saying anything different."
Ever since Blaze turned forty-four all he thinks about is retirement, even though he still has a few years left if he wants a full pension. He's already retired in his mind and that's the scary thing. He doesn't care anymore and is just putting in his time. Maybe he needs me to watch out for him, make him walk the straight and narrow. Maybe I have to be tough with him.
"What if someone murdered Chester and you're letting a killer get away with it?" I pulled off my Blue Blocker sunglasses so he could see my glare. "I bet that's what happened, and you're too lazy to follow through with a proper investigation."
"Ma, quit. I really hate to disappoint you, but nobody ever gets murdered in Stonely. You've been watching too many soap operas again."
"I've never watched a soap opera in my life. But I have some inchoate ideas about this."
"It's my word for the day."
Last week I decided it was time for some self-improvement. I'm expanding my vocabulary by learning one new word every day and I have to use it in normal conversation so it sticks with me. I've found it's best to try out my new word first thing in the morning or else I forget to use it.
"Who found Chester?" I wanted to know.
"Floy . . ." Blaze hesitated and shook his head. "Oh, no. I'm not telling you right now. You'll just go over and bother the poor man. He's upset enough as it is."
"Well, stop by on your way home later and let me know what's happening."
Blaze lives in a mobile home on the east forty. Barney and I– well, just me now–own three forties, meaning I own one hundred and twenty acres. The properties in Tamarack Township are sectioned in blocks of forty acres so when someone asks how much land you own, you say two forties, or five forties, or whatever.
The terrain in the Upper Peninsula is as rugged and as difficult to categorize as the people who settled here–miles and miles of swampy lowlands, then miles of even country with every type of pine tree you can imagine, and when you think you have it all figured out, the elevation soars and you find yourself high on a wind-blown ridge overlooking one of the Great Lakes, watching waves slam against enormous rocks.
Most of us own a lot of land and we're proud of it, even though it comes cheap. It's all we have.
Blaze lives on the east forty with his wife, Mary. His two girls are off at college. My youngest daughter, Star, lives in a log cabin on the west forty. Her kids are grown and gone and her no-good husband left her for a blonde bimbo, so she's there alone. But her kids visit often.
Heather is Little Donny's mother. She, her husband, Big Donny, and Little Donny, my favorite grandson and current chauffeur, live in Milwaukee.
I like the fact that two of my kids stayed in Stonely and decided to live on the family property. I like the fact that they have to drive right past my house coming and going. Sometimes it's stressful having family right on top of me, but in the final analysis, it's worth it.
"Let's go hunting later, Blaze," Little Donny said.
"Stop calling me Blaze," Blaze said, glaring at me while prying open the door of his rust-bucket truck. "I legally changed my name to Brian. I keep telling everyone in town over and over, and no one can seem to get it straight."
"Brian?" Little Donny was confused, which isn't anything new for him.
"You weren't born a Brian and you don't look like a Brian," I huffed. "Who's going to call you that? It's not your real name."
"Your Granny, here," Blaze said to Little Donny, ignoring me except for an accusing finger pointed in my direction, "named me after a horse."
Which was true.
I wanted to look around the crime scene, but Blaze wouldn't let me. He waited in his dump truck–as in what-a-dump truck– until we pulled out ahead of him. At my direction, Little Donny turned right on Highway M35. I knew Blaze would turn left and head toward town, and I didn't want him following us all the way back.
He had a family to inform of their loss. I had a crime scene to investigate.
"Nice and slow," I cautioned Little Donny. I wore a blaze orange hunting jacket, since those crazy hunters will shoot at anything moving. I had my hair pulled up under an orange hunting cap with the earflaps folded up. Two trucks passed us going the opposite way, the drivers also wearing hunter's orange. I waved and they waved back.
As soon as Blaze turned left, I slapped Little Donny's knee. "Turn around and head back to Chester's."
"Blaze is going to be hot, and anyway, I want to go hunting," Little Donny crabbed.
I gave him a stern look, and he swung around at the first crossroad.
Chester's hunting blind stood on the edge of a small clearing, butting up against a grove of tamarack trees. It wasn't wrapped in yellow tape to mark it as a crime scene, confirming my suspicions that Blaze wouldn't even do a cursory investigation.
I carefully opened the blind door with the sleeve of my jacket so I wouldn't leave prints, in spite of my belief that this was one case where it wouldn't matter. I suspected there weren't any prints to find. This was a long-distance murder.
Granted, I had no evidence that Chester's death actually was a murder, but every time a stray bullet from a high-powered rifle took a life, I thought about whether it was an accident or not. In the Michigan U.P., it would be the perfect crime.
Opening the door, I wondered who or what Chester might have seen before he died.
The shack was built on a movable platform so it could be towed around on the back of a tractor. We all did that. One reason is that it's nice and easy to move next season if we find a better hunting spot, and another reason is so the federal government can't slap a tax on us for building a permanent structure. They try to get you coming and going.
Inside, I could feel the leftover warmth of the propane heater as I looked around.
Chester's blind was pretty ordinary, built for comfort, warmth, and an unobstructed shot when Big Buck strolled out into the clearing. It had an insulated wood frame and windows on each side, the same as a house. Metal fasteners on the sides of the windows could be turned, and the window would silently swing out. The floor was covered with worn brown shag carpet. A can of WD40 was in the corner along with a cooler full of beer, a can of peanuts, and a pair of binoculars.
Even though I considered Chester a neighbor, I didn't know him real well. He kept to himself out on Parker Road, nodding his head when we met, then moving on. Not a chit-chatter. His wife died a few years back, before Barney died. Everyone thought she went plumb loco until the doctors discovered the brain tumor. Then it was too late.
When I left his blind, I knew a little more about him. I knew he drank the cheapest beer he could buy, and that he drank it early in the day. He must have slammed down a few cans before he was slammed down himself by a deadly bullet. I saw several empty cans tossed in a pile on the floor. An open can on a small table had spilled and beer had run in a stream with the blood from his head.
I also learned that a hole in the head makes quite a bloody mess, and that Chester liked smut magazines. Since I never saw one before, I paged through the stack by the window.
"Granny, this isn't a good idea. Come out of there or I'm telling Blaze."
Little Donny's large bulk blocked out the light though the door. I wanted to search for clues between the shack and the creek running through Chester's property, but I'd have to get rid of Whiney first.
"Okay, let's hit it," I said, climbing into the cab.
Floyd Tatrow was hard of hearing, so when I stuck my head in his kitchen door, I called out nice and loud. He didn't answer. The kitchen smelled like freshly fried bacon, and the sink was full of dirty dishes soaking in sudsy water–the water was still warm to my touch.
"Floyd," I hollered. "It's Gertie Johnson. Where are you?"
I checked every room and found them all empty. Floyd kept the place spic-and-span clean even though his wife, Eva, had a stroke a year ago and was in a private nursing home in Escanaba. He still had hopes that she would come home some day, but the rest of us knew she was there for life.
Eva was a little too church-like for my taste. Her favorite phrase was "The Lord will provide." I always thought you had to provide for yourself. No one else is going to do it for you, not even the Lord, but you couldn't reason with Eva.
Years ago when Floyd lost everything but the shirt on his back at the Indian casino, I cooked up a large roast with carrots and onions, mashed ten pounds of homegrown potatoes, and dropped the meal off at their home.
"I told you the Lord would provide," Eva said to Floyd, putting the pans down on the countertop.
"That wasn't the Lord providing," I said, tapping my thumb on my chest. "That was me."
The Tatrow house was decorated in frilly yellow curtains and embroidered religious pictures. Crocheted blankets covered the upholstery and lace doilies were draped on the tables. Eva liked her arts and crafts, before the Lord provided her with a stroke that paralyzed her entire right side.
That private nursing home must be costing Floyd a pretty penny, I thought, eyeing a television set as big as my entire dining room wall. He better learn to cut back on his spending.
I let myself out and stood on the porch, scanning the property. I avoided looking at the truck where Little Donny sat fuming. Big cities squeeze the ability to be patient right out of people. Life becomes too frantic and rushed. It's a sad thing. He needed to spend more time in the woods with me, learning the art of slow and simple.
I strolled over to the sauna and yanked the door open.
There sat Floyd, naked as a blue jay and not half as pretty. He had the largest head I ever saw on a man, and was wearing a Ford baseball cap that was three sizes too small. Men around these parts don't take off their hats unless they absolutely have to.
"Gertie Johnson," Floyd exclaimed. "What are you doing?"
The difference between men and women is this–if you catch a woman butt-naked, she tries to cover the private parts with her hands. A man will sit there just like you found him even if he doesn't have much to be proud of.
Floyd sat like that, not moving.
"Put your drawers on," I said, looking away too late. "I'll wait outside."
Floyd took his sweet time coming out. I sat in the truck with Grumpy until Floyd opened the sauna door and walked toward the truck.
The Finns like their saunas. They usually build them around the back of the house for privacy because they roll in the snow when they're done sweating it out. Afternoon is their favorite time. It takes all morning to fire the sauna up and get it steaming hot. Sometimes a Finn will invite his friends over for a sauna, and if it's mixed company, the men go together then the women go together, and everyone tries to peek when the snow rolling begins. Especially if the moonshine has been going around.
Floyd has six or seven old geezers who share the sauna with him, and I was grateful that they weren't over today. One naked old guy is enough for any woman. I shook my head to clear the image and rolled down the truck window.
"You found Chester this morning," I said. When Blaze let it slip that Floyd found Chester, I was pretty certain he meant Floyd Tatrow. There weren't any other Floyds around Stonely.
I remembered that Floyd couldn't hear well and repeated the question, loudly.
"It was an awful shock," he said.
"What happened?" I shouted.
I looked over at Little Donny wedged into the driver's seat and our eyes met. Little Donny, who can't stay mad long, grinned at me.
"Is that thing turned on?" I leaned out the window and pointed at Floyd's hearing aid.
Floyd dug the hearing aid out of his ear and made an adjustment. "Sorry," he said, screwing it back in. "Blasted thing was turned off."
"What happened to Chester?"
"Shot in the head's what happened to Chester. I walked up to the blind, calling out so he wouldn't accidentally shoot me. I was going to tell him to stop over for a sauna, you see. I could tell he was past saving, but I ran back to his house and called for an ambulance anyway. Then I called the sheriff."
"What do you think happened?" I said. "In your own opinion."
Floyd leaned against the truck. "I already told you. Chester was shot in the head. That's what happened to him." He said it loud and clear like he thought I was the deaf one.
"No, I mean, do you think he was murdered?"
"Murdered! Lord, no! This is a Christian, law-abiding community, and if Chester's dead it's because God called him. When Eva could still talk she used to say The Lord will provide' and that's it in a nutshell, you see. God's bullet took Chester and He must have had a good reason."
Cora Mae, my all-time best friend, was waiting for us at my house with a fresh pot of coffee and a plate of sweet rolls. In all the excitement, I forgot she was giving me a hair rinse today.
Cora Mae has been my friend since I moved to Stonely. I remember Barney calling Stonely "God's Country" and I'd thought he meant a paradise, like the Garden of Eden. Then we arrived and I found out it was God's Country because nobody else wanted it. No jobs worth mentioning, cracker-box houses clumped together in towns so small you missed them even though you knew you hadn't blinked, and bugs the size of pumpkins.
Cora Mae saved me. She's three years younger, making her sixty-three, and she's buried three husbands. Cora Mae never could stay away from men; they're in her blood–she's always on the lookout in spite of her bad luck in the past.
"Onni Maki's hot with the widows around here. I hear he's taking Viagra to keep up, or rather to keep it up," Cora Mae said, pouring two cups of coffee. "Sure would like to give him a whirl."
"You'll have to take a number and stand in line," I said, pulling out a kitchen chair and sitting down to tug off my hunting boots. I used to be able to take my boots off leaning against the wall, but it's been a few years now. I can do it only if I absolutely have to, using all my concentration.
I hung my hunting jacket on a peg by the door and pulled off the hunting cap, running my fingers through my short, coarse gray hair.
Little Donny took his rifle down from the gun rack, shoved a box of ammo into his jacket, and headed for the door. "Onni Maki is the only available male within fifty miles, especially since Ches-ter's dead," he said to Cora Mae.
"What about George?" I reminded him. "George is available." I chewed my lip after realizing my mistake. Cora Mae stalks any single man who breathes air and I don't want her rushing off after George, who is a good friend and doesn't deserve to be worked over by Cora Mae.
Glancing sideways, I saw her reading the directions on the hair product box, paying no attention to me.
"Well, good luck," Little Donny said to Cora Mae.
She peered over the top of the box and fluffed her hair with one hand. "I don't need luck, honey. I got sex appeal."
Cora Mae did look good for her age. She was wearing black stretch pants, a black long-sleeved tee, and pointy boots with two-inch heels. Her man-hunting outfit, she calls it. Last year Cora Mae discovered Wonderbras and now her boobs are always in the lead. They're the first things you notice about Cora Mae.
I must look pretty drab and nondescript next to her. Cora Mae has style. Here I am–barely five feet tall, a hundred and twenty pounds, with old-lady gray hair and a winter roll of fat around my middle that seems to increase in size every year.
I saw Little Donny heading for the door. "Where you going with my car keys?"
"Hunting with Carl. Remember? I already asked you if I could take the truck."
"Oh. Ah . . . I remember now," I said, not remembering at all.
"See you later." Little Donny slammed the door shut behind him.
"He'll be back in a minute or two," I said, chuckling. "He forgot something important."
Thirty seconds later, Donny stomped through the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and grabbed a pile of sandwiches I'd made earlier. He had to use both pockets to stuff them all in.
"Let's get started," I said to Cora Mae after Little Donny was loaded up and gone. I clipped a towel around my neck.
Normally, I have a rinse to take the yellow out of my gray hair. Gray hair doesn't scare me. Neither do flabby muscles, or liver spots, or strange little wart-like bumps. All of which are cropping up here and there on my body like clumps of weeds. I'm slowly losing my hearing, my eyesight, and yesterday I noticed I'm losing my eyelashes. I've stopped being afraid of age since it doesn't do any good anyway. You can't stop the march of time and the sooner you accept it, the sooner you can focus on the important things in life.
Cora Mae likes to play the role of hairdresser, and although I know how to take care of my own hair, I humor her. She waved the box containing my rinse in front of my face. "You're full of surprises, Gertie."
I looked at the box and screeched. "Strawberry blonde? Oh, no. I must have picked up the wrong box."
"I think it's time for a new look," Cora Mae of the black-as-tar hair said when I attempted to grab it away. After a brief struggle, she won.
I filled her in while she worked. She knew about Chester's death because I'd called her earlier while I was waiting for Little Donny. Now I went through the graphic details.
Two hours later I stared into the mirror in disbelief and horror. My head was covered in a brassy orange mess. I grabbed the box and read the directions.
"Cora Mae, I told you it was on my head too long. It says fifteen minutes, not fifty. Now what am I going to do?"
"The clown show's coming to Escanaba. Maybe you can apply for a job." Cora Mae was holding her left side from laughing so hard, while tears streaked with mascara slid down her face. "I never saw hair take color like that before."
"Well, at least I won't need to wear my orange hunting cap." I checked my watch. "I wanted to search Chester's property but it's starting to get dark. It'll have to wait until morning."
Cora Mae had that look in her eye. The here-she-goes-again look, and I knew I was going to hear it whether I wanted to or not.
"Gertie, every time someone dies doesn't mean it's murder. Remember when Martha fell in the tub, hit her head, and drowned. You said that was murder."
"Might have been. It was poorly investigated."
"And when Ted Hakanen drove his car into the tree on the side of Peter Road, dead drunk. You said that his car had been tampered with."
"Blaze sent that old Buick to Escanaba, mechanics went over it, and the only thing they found was an empty bottle of Jim Beam."
"That's what a killer would want you to believe. Maybe Martha and Ted died in accidents, but it's a numbers game, Cora Mae. One of these days it really will be murder."
We cleaned up the kitchen and polished off the bag of sweet rolls. Since I'd missed lunch, I shared a liver sausage sandwich with Cora Mae.
The thought of investigating Chester's death appealed to me. The more time I spent listening to my police scanner, the more I thought I'd make a pretty good investigator. After all, I had three kids to practice on while they were growing up. If nothing came of my efforts and it was a stray bullet that killed Chester like Blaze and Cora Mae thought, I'd chalk it up to on-the-job training.
At the moment, I knew three things. One: based on television shows I've watched, the person who finds the body sometimes turns out to be the killer. He should be the first name on a suspect list. Two: a detective has to move fast. As the murder ages, it gets harder and harder to solve. Three: Floyd Tatrow's phone number was in the telephone book.
"This is the sheriff's office calling," I said into the phone, holding my nose lightly with my fingers. "You need to take a lie detector test."
"Why would I have to do that?" Floyd wanted to know.
"It's standard procedure. You found the body, didn't you?"
"Yes, but. . . ."
"It's perfectly voluntary, of course, but you'll clear yourself right away if you agree to it."
"Clear myself of what?"
"I can't answer that. It's confidential police business. Can you be there in twenty minutes? Sheriff Johnson has the equipment at his mobile home."
"I suppose. All right, but I never heard of anything like this before."
"You never found a dead body before."
Cora Mae giggled.
"And don't eat or drink anything before the test," I finished.
"What is going through your mind?" Cora Mae asked when I hung up.
She's a perfect example of the difference between an investigative mind and a regular mind, if you can call Cora Mae's mind regular. Regular minds rarely have brainstorm ideas that catch killers.
I flipped on the spotlight next to the drive leading past my house to Blaze's mobile home and started gathering the supplies to make popcorn.
"If Floyd shows up, he probably didn't murder Chester," I reasoned. "The killer isn't going to willingly walk into the town sher-iff's house to be hooked up to a lie detector."
I finished making the popcorn, turned off the inside lights, and waited in the dark by the window, eating popcorn. Cora Mae held the bowl. "The beauty of the whole plan," I bragged, "is that Blaze and Mary aren't home. I saw Mary drive out half an hour ago and Blaze is still working. If Floyd shows up, he'll find an empty house, take off his little cap, scratch his big head, and go on home. Blaze will never know what happened. But I'll know Floyd didn't kill Chester."
I was tossing kernels of popcorn in the air and trying to catch them in my mouth when Blaze's sheriff's truck turned onto our road and passed my house. "Oh, no," I muttered. Pretty soon Floyd's blue truck went by. When he passed under the spotlight, I could see his large, pale head peering over the dashboard.
"How are you going to explain to Blaze?" Cora Mae asked, crunching popcorn.
"I'll deny involvement," I said, disappointed that Floyd showed up. "What makes you think he'll suspect me anyway?"
Cora Mae raised one eyebrow, which isn't an easy thing to do.
A few minutes later, Floyd drove out and Cora Mae flipped the house lights on. I crossed Floyd's name off my list of suspects and stared at a blank page.
"When is Little Donny going back to Milwaukee?" Cora Mae asked.
"I don't know. He's not in any big rush, since he's between jobs."
Between jobs is what Donny calls it. I call it canned, fired, let go, but I'm not saying anything. Little Donny's had more jobs than a rabbit has bunnies.
Cora Mae picked up her purse.
"Little Donny should be back any minute," I said. "It's too dark to hunt. He must have stopped for a beer. If you wait a bit, he can drive you home."
Neither one of us drives a car, which some people from other parts of the country might consider strange, but it's not so unusual in the U.P. Things are spread out here, but we don't go out that much and when we do there's always someone willing to drive us. Once a week Blaze or his wife, Mary, drives me to the grocery store and, along with my own groceries, I buy a few things for Cora Mae from a list she gives me.
I'm now starting to see the complications of finding chauffeurs to drive me around to investigate crimes.
"Nah, it's only down the road." Cora Mae swung her purse and eyed my expanding midriff. "Exercise is good for you."
I found a flashlight in the closet, handed it to her, and watched her walk down the side of the road. Then I plunked down in front of the television to wait for Little Donny.
Word for the Day
SIMPATICO (sim PAHT i koh) adj.
Gets along well with or goes well
with another; compatible.
"Where were you last night?" I asked Little Donny the next morning when he staggered to the table.
I finished writing my new word on a scrap of paper and included the pronunciation since it wasn't an easy one to say–it sounded Italian.
Little Donny looked like he'd partied too hard and smelled like stale beer and probably would have stayed in bed if I hadn't rolled him out.
"Herb's Bar." Little Donny rubbed his red-rimmed eyes and squinted at me through narrow slits. "What time is it?"
"Way past time for you to drive me over to Chester's house. I have some investigating to do."