Authors: Mary Logue
A CLAIRE WATKINS MYSTERY
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
To Lee, my good neighbor
Peter, my dearest companion
I have set the Claire Watkins mystery series in a part of the country I know and love. There are distinct advantages to this and, of course, problems. I made up the town of Fort St. Antoine, and I wish that I had made up the county, too. There is a Pepin County in Wisconsin. It is a beautiful place to live and only in the positive ways does it resemble the county in my book.
I have many people to thank. For information on law enforcement: Ray DiPrima of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Special thanks to Robbi Bannen, Ted Fisher, Tom and Cindy Hanson, and Kay and Chuck Grossman for advice on various aspects of country life. Thanks to the readers along the way: Mary Anne Collins-Svoboda, Marianne and Jim Mitchell, Christine Andreae, and Elizabeth Gunn. I must always thank my two sisters, Robin LaFortune and Dodie Logue, for their love and their wisdom. Special thanks to Steve Stilwell, bookman extraordinaire, for advice and support.
Thanks to Pete Hautman for the many readings, the many talks, the many tips on the fine points of writing. I could not live this life without him.
[Coulee] is derived from the French word couler which means “to flow.” While “coulee” is used in different contexts in different regions, in the hill country of western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota it refers to steep-walled, tributary valleys, with sandy beds that are only intermittently occupied by water flow.
—Cotton Mather and Ruth Hale,
Prairie Border Country
It often starts with cloth: sheets, curtains, scarves. I’m struggling to get out of them, to get into them. That vagueness. I’m not sure where I am. The confusion of fear.
Then I know.
I know he’s there, waiting for me. I know there’s a gun that will go off. I know, once again, I’ve walked into my own death.
The material, the cloth, is smothering me. I can’t breathe. I can’t move. I can’t see. I’m paralyzed.
And I know he’s in danger too. That’s the only thing that gets me to move.
But I’m always too late.
I come into the clearing just as it ends. The gun goes off. The sheets drop away. He falls at my feet. A sacrifice. Instead of me.
My death leaves.
But I know it’s only a matter of time.
What never leaves, what is always with me, is the fear.
Do you think the cloth is the fear?
Maybe, or the very air I breathe.
OVE is a strange flower that blooms in drought, in despair, even in darkness. As Claire dressed for the street dance, she thought about love and wondered if that was what she was feeling.
She had been seeing Rich Haggard for over three months, but it wasn’t moving very fast. Their courtship had the feel of a slow, courteous country romance. They saw each other once or twice a week. He would come over for dinner; she would stop by for coffee. They had gone to two movies, even went bowling once. That night they had taken Claire’s ten-year-old daughter, Meg, with them.
Meg was part of the problem. Actually, Claire didn’t see it as a problem. The slowness of their dating suited her fine. Claire didn’t want Rich to stay over when Meg was at the house; at least not yet. And Claire couldn’t stay at Rich’s house because she didn’t want to hire a baby-sitter for the whole night. The small town of Fort St. Antoine was gossiping enough about her, a deputy, going out with the pheasant farmer, without giving them more to work with.
That’s what made this night special. Meg had gone to stay with Bridget, Claire’s sister. Rich would pick her up in fifteen minutes. They hadn’t really talked about it, but Claire was pretty sure that they would spend the night together. What a perfect evening for love. Unlike the climate in which she and Rich had met—one of the worst seasons of Claire’s entire life.
The late-August air smelled sweet with clover and roses. The moon would be full tonight, and the sun wouldn’t set until after eight o’clock. The warm air felt soft against her skin as she walked out the back door and looked up at the bluff.
Someone else might find it oppressive to live in the shadow of the bluff, but she loved this three-hundred-foot-tall sloping wall of limestone, covered most of the way up with red cedar, birch, black walnut, and sumac. It lifted out of the field behind her house, and she felt sheltered by it. This whole Mississippi River valley had a warmer, softer feel to it, sitting on the eastern edge of the plains.
Claire felt ready to move forward with Rich. He was on the quiet side, but stir into him a little, and you found humor and cleverness. And, she suspected, passion.
It had been a long time since she had slept with anyone. Her husband had died a year and a half ago, and she had only slept with one man once since then. That had been a mistake—one she would never forget. That was one of the reasons why this slowness with Rich felt so comfortable to her. He seemed like a man who could bide his time.
Claire walked back into the house and looked at herself in the mirror by the back door. She had done the best she could with the materials at hand. She laughed. That was her mother’s voice coming out in her. Such a practical woman. She missed her. Claire twirled in front of her reflection, and her hair lifted off her neck.
Rich looked down at his cowboy boots, good old shit-kickers that they were, and wondered if he could dance in the things. He wondered if he could dance, period. Would Claire want to dance? He supposed so. And the idea of holding her in his arms, even in a crowd of loud, drunken people, took his breath away.
He had wanted to hold her since he had met her. Lately, he’d felt like he was about to explode if he couldn’t touch her. On this warm, humid summer night, he wanted his skin to melt into hers. He wanted to kiss her neck, put a hand on the small of her back, and spin her around the world. Hell, maybe he would be able to dance after all.
He had polished his boots, and he thought they looked pretty good. Good old Stewart cowboy boots. Like him, they were well worn but comfortable, but with a little polish, they could shine. He knew that Meg was staying at Bridget’s; Claire had let that slip out when they talked earlier. He would invite her to stay the night. That way his car wouldn’t be sitting in front of her house come the morning light. He had changed the sheets on the bed, cleaned up the bathroom, even scoured the tub, and bought some rolls for breakfast from Stuart’s bakery.
He knew that they had been smart to move so slowly, but it had been damned hard on him. When they had first started going out, he had really been careful with her, after all she’d been through, but he’d found her as resilient as they come. Meg wasn’t the spunky little ten-year-old girl she was for no good reason.
Rich looked at the clock. He’d told her he would pick her up at seven. Ten minutes away, and he was ready. He walked out the front door and stretched his arms up to the heavens in the front yard. The moon would rise up full tonight. A real harvest moon, red with the rays of the setting sun. Blood red. It would be a beauty. Tonight, he was sure, would be a night he would never forget.
Jed Spitzler stood in the doorway and looked out over his land—ripe, golden heads turned toward the rising sun—forty acres of sunflowers. He had taken a risk, but it had worked out, and this fall he would reap the rewards.
Some of the other farmers had laughed at him while putting their fields in the same old crops: corn, alfalfa, soybeans. But he had wanted to try something different.
He knew he appeared a quiet, conservative man, but there was a side to him that few people knew about. Better that way.
How had Lola talked him into going to this stupid dance? He’d rather stay home and drink a beer or two and watch TV, but she had made him promise. The older kids were going too. Nora would stay home. He didn’t want her shuffling about a dance like that. Who knows the trouble she might get into? At twelve, she was old enough to stay home alone. When he was a kid, his mom had left him and his brother alone when they were eight and four. They made out okay.
People babied their kids so much these days. Didn’t sit well with him. He told his children they had to pull their own weight, do their chores, and help around the house.
When he thought of Lola, he realized he was tiring of her. At first she had seemed very agreeable, would do anything for him, but lately she had become more demanding. He had already had a wife once; he didn’t need another one.
Nora came to the door. “Whatcha looking at, Dad?”
She spun around and threw her hands out toward the fields, then smiled up at him. “All the sunflowers?”
“Yes. Come here.”
She came to him, and he pulled her up against his waist, wrapping an arm around her chest and stroking her golden hair. She was his baby girl, but she was getting bigger every day.
Riding in the truck, Claire felt awkward with Rich. She couldn’t seem to think of anything to say. She hadn’t told him that she had started seeing a therapist. Every time she opened her mouth to mention it, she could think of no way to lead into it. If she told him about the therapist, she would have to tell him about the panic attacks. She didn’t want to scare him away with her fears.
They had turned toward Little Rock. The land rolled in green hillocks around them. The bluffs fell away here, and the river would glimmer, then disappear behind the pine trees. It seemed a different landscape from her place in Fort St. Antoine—more bucolic, more intimate—as the bluffline softened.
“How’s work?” Rich asked.
“I like my new job as investigator with the department. It’s been a quiet week. We had two drunks in the tank and a hit-and-run driver last night.”
“I heard somebody got burglarized down in Nelson.”
“That’s right. Back door was open. They walked in and took a couple guns and a microwave and a case of beer.”
Rich started laughing. “Quite a haul.”
“Yeah, probably some kids. Don’t like the idea of them getting some rifles, but firearms are easy enough to come by around here. I’ve never lived in a place before where the kids get out of school for deer-hunting season. Certainly says something about the priorities of their parents.”
Rich didn’t say anything for a moment, then he said quietly, “Hunting isn’t so bad.”
“I’m not saying anything against hunting. I think a walk in the woods under any circumstances is probably a good thing. But compared to a week of school? Take the kids out hunting on the weekend. Plus the idea that twelve-year-old boys and girls can be tromping through the woods with guns in their hands, shooting at anything that moves, scares me. Meg doesn’t get to go anyplace that week. She can stay at home and read.”
“I could take her hunting.”
“Are you purposely missing the point of what I’m saying here?”
“Yup.” He smiled over at her.
“She would do anything with you. She adores you. It kind of worries me.”
Rich slowed down as they approached the town. “Hey, her dad died. Every little kid needs a guy in their lives. I’m not a bad guy. Plus, could be she’s glad to see her mom happy again.”
Claire blushed and looked down at her lap. “That’s gotta be it.”
Little Rock was a small town built on the north side of the Chippewa River. It was on the way to nowhere, and there wasn’t much in the town: a couple of bars, a gas station, a small grocery store, and a feed store. But once a year, it exploded. The town threw a great street dance, and everyone came from the whole county and beyond.
Cars and pickup trucks lined the main street of this 134-person town. The street had been blocked off, so Rich pulled behind the gas station and parked in the weeds.
He turned off the truck and put his hand on Claire’s shoulder. “You seem a little edgy. Are you trying to pick a fight?”
“What you need is a beer.”
“A beer might help.”
Rich felt the eyes on Claire. Other men taking barbed looks at her, wanting to reel her in. She looked gorgeous tonight. Gorgeous was exactly the right word for her. She was wearing a sleeveless cotton shirt that was cut low. Like a fruit that had ripened to perfection, her skin looked lush. Her jeans fit her to a T. Her hair was loose and full around her freckled face, and she was wearing ruby lipstick.
As they walked up to the street dance, Rich recognized a few neighbors. He and Claire couldn’t go many feet without saying howdy to someone. The strains of the old rock and roll tune “Roll Over, Beethoven” floated down the street from the band at the far end.
About three hundred people of all ages were dancing in the street or watching from the sidewalks. People had brought their own lawn chairs and coolers. The two bars in town—Porky’s and the Riverside—were selling all sorts of food from stands outside their establishments: cheese curds, barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs, grilled chicken. Porky’s had kegs out in front of the bar, and bartenders were serving the lines of people just as fast as they could. For many people in the area, this was the big summer celebration.
When they got close to it, they could see the street dance was in full swing. “Hank Texaco and the Gas Guzzlers,” according to the banner hanging over their heads, were playing, whipping the crowd into a dancing frenzy. The sun had set, and the afterglow lit up the clouds into cotton-candy colors.
Near the stage everyone was dancing: eighty-year-old women with ten-year-old boys, older couples who had been dancing together for forty years, and teenagers who flailed around and danced in clusters.
Rich maneuvered Claire up to one of the kegs in front of Porky’s and bought them each a beer. A tall, dark-haired man bumped into Rich, making him slosh some beer on his shirtfront. When he turned to see who it was, Rich recognized Jed Spitzler.
“Sorry,” Jed said.
“Rich. How’re your pheasant doing?”
“Getting nice and plump. What’re you raising this year?”
“I’m trying my hand at sunflowers.”
“Maybe I’ll buy some as feed.”
“No, these are high quality. They’re for human consumption, not animals. I aim at getting top buck a bushel.”
Rich introduced him to Claire and noticed that Jed looked her up and down.
“Looks like you’ve got some spunk in you,” Jed said, staring at her breasts.
Rich didn’t like the tone in his voice, but he figured the guy must be loaded already to talk like that.
“Let me buy you another beer,” Jed said.
“Forget it. This shirt needed a wash anyway.”
Jed laughed, nodded good-bye, and walked off.
When Claire took a swig of beer, she took a healthy swig. Rich could tell she was relaxing. In the truck, she had seemed all wound up tight, and Rich wondered how the night would play out.
Claire would think back to this moment with Jed Spitzler over the weeks to come. What she would remember about him is that he stood tall and straight. His hair was dark but thinning. And his blue jeans were pressed. She assumed some woman was taking good care of him. She was wrong.
She wished she would have noticed him better, but she was focused on Rich. The beer he bought her tasted good. It made her feel giddy.
“Thanks for not telling him that I’m a cop.”
“Sure. Why’s that?”
“Sometimes I don’t feel like being one.”