A Guy Blanc Mystery
First, it was two cars parked in the middle of nowhere. Then, it was the odor. That came later, and anyway with my adenoids I can’t vouch for it. So, I’ll begin with the cars. Here’s what I mean when I say nowhere. I’m a city boy living in the country after sort of retiring. That’s another story. But for me, here in the country, it’s like everywhere is nowhere. You can go for a mile without seeing anything, no houses, no people, maybe some horses, or a barn or some other kind of storage building, but I’m not sure that counts against the idea of nowhere or nothing. Sometimes there aren’t even intersections, just one road through nothing. And then when another road intersects, there’s no sign to tell you what it is. You’re supposed to know. I’m a P.I. but guessing the names of roads coming from somewhere into nowhere is more than I can handle.
The particular nowhere I’m talking about was different because there was something there. More specifically, there were two things. With that straight, I’ll begin with a little background as to how I wound up nowhere where there turned out to be something.
My new doctor, a runner with no visible body fat, looked up from my blood test report at the paunch I have been nurturing for decades.
“Mr. Blanc, we’ve got to do something about that,” he said. “Because it, combined with this,” he held up the report, “is trouble. You’re borderline diabetic.”
My uncle Harry lost both his legs to diabetes. My doctor had my attention.
“What do you suggest?” I asked.
“Start with exercise. Like running.” He looked at my paunch. “OK jogging. We’ll check you again in a month.”
I couldn’t keep the grimace off my face.
“Walk?” he tried.
“Flat feet. Occupational hazzard.”
He was not easily discouraged.
I hadn’t ridden since I was a kid when I had a full head of wavy brown hair and weighed maybe 160 on my six foot frame. The bike had an oversized basket to carry the groceries I was delivering. The front wheel was reduced to accommodate the basket, making steering interesting.
“Like they say, “ I said, while buttoning my shirt, “you never forget. Right?”
“You’ve got it,” he replied. “And it’s beautiful biking country out on the peninsula.”
“Those hills,” I said.
“The gears you know, that’s what they’re for. Work up to the hills, little by little.”
The delivery bike had one gear. When you came to a hill, you pedaled harder.
He handed me the paperwork for the front desk. “I’ll see you next month.” He glanced at my stomach. “With a lot less of that.”
Having parked on the flattest stretch of land I could find among the rolling hills of the peninsula, I tossed the new helmet with the racing stripe onto the back seat. The pimply faced clerk at the bike store insisted I buy the helmet, said something about there being a law, but I figured my head was hard enough, and anyway I preferred my Cubs baseball cap. I slapped it on, with the bill pointing straight ahead, as God intended, and detached my new bike from its new rack on the back of my car. The spot I had chosen was a secondary road that crossed the peninsula from one bay to the other. Except for one small house almost hidden in the trees that I passed a quarter of a mile back, this place qualified as nowhere. I kicked up the stand, swung my right leg over the seat and groped for the pedal. I found it with my right foot and remembered that I could push it backwards so that it was at the top of its arc. I stepped on that pedal and lowered myself onto the seat. The bike rolled, leaned to one side, then the other as I shifted my weight, and deposited me into the tall meadow grass off the shoulder of the road.
I lay in the high grass listening to the birds and looking up into the sky darkened by thick clouds. I felt something on my arm, a large, hairy bug with lots of legs. I flicked it off. I was not entranced by this intimacy with nature. Then, a shape with a wide wing span floated overhead.
Having grown up in Chicago, my knowledge of our feathered friends pretty much starts and stops with pigeons, or maybe extends, on a good day, to robins. The creature that had just flown over my head seemed to be the aviary equivalent of a 767. I had no idea what kind of bird it might be, and so I made a mental note to get some kind of bird book out of the library for a little research project. I’m a firm believer in self-improvement, as long as it doesn’t require too great an expenditure of cash. Or energy. .
After a couple of near crashes, I managed to get my bike up to enough speed to smooth out its tendency to tip. A little more practice, and I learned how to work a couple of the twenty-four gears. I figured if I needed the other twenty-two, I’d just get off and walk.
Remembering my rule against over indulgence, I confined this day’s exercise to three short jaunts, back and forth on this road. I tried to get interested in the vegetation bordering my route, but my years of staking out wandering spouses turned my eyes instead to two cars on the south side of the road, parked nose to nose like they were going to grind their grills together. Neither vehicle was occupied, and there was no house nearby.
As I was wrestling my bike back onto its rack, somebody tapped me on my shoulder. She was a middle aged woman in spandex tights and top, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. In spite of the heavy overcast, her eyes were hidden behind opaque sunglasses perched on her long, narrow nose. The effect was something like a pigeon wearing shades. Her face glowed with perspiration. I glanced down at her running shoes. They cost more than half my wardrobe.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I saw you stopped by those two cars. I pass them every day when I jog by here. I live just up the road.”
I recalled that house tucked in behind some trees. I looked at the cars and then the areas on both sides of the road where there was no house or driveway. Two cars in the middle of nowhere.
“You’ve noticed,” she said.
“And no reason why they should be here.” She shook her head.
“Is there something else?” I asked. Why else did she look like she was sucking on lemons?
“Yes,” she said.
I waited, but then she stretched a moment, and resumed her jog. Slowing as she passed the two cars, she glanced through the windows of each, and then picked up her pace and disappeared around a bend in the road.
I walked over to the cars. The first was a turquoise subcompact. Its nameplate said it was a Honda Civic. Judging by its faded paint, dents, and scratches, it was eight or ten years old. The other was a maroon Buick Century, much newer. Together they looked like they should be in someone’s driveway. The parents’ car and the kid’s.
Only there was no driveway.
I took a closer look at the Honda. On the back seat was a leather case that might hold a camera, an old one of some size, not like these new digital deals that fit in the palm of your hand. Next to it a notebook. The kind with paper. On the floor in front of the back seat was a pile of Arby bags and drink containers.
I strolled over to the Buick. Its interior was spotless, no debris, not even any dust.
Maybe I was dealing with Felix in the Buick, Oscar in the Honda.
All of it could wait for another day. I mounted my bike and pedaled back up the road.
Another day came a week later when I switched on the oldies station as the news came on at the end of an ad from some local car dealer shilling no money down, no interest for a year to qualified buyers, of whom you can’t find any. The headline news item described how that smell I mentioned before drew a couple of teenagers to a two track in the woods off the road where the cars had been rubbing noses. Expecting to find the carcass of a half eaten deer, they instead saw Helen Tomkins hunched over the steering wheel of her Buick. When they shook her shoulder to rouse her, she flopped back and they saw the hole in her chest. One of them reportedly lost his lunch. It wasn’t the blood, which they said there wasn’t much of. It was the maggots coming out of her nose. You got to get used to something like that.
I never did.
Over the last couple of days I hadn’t seen the Buick. Only the Honda. But it didn’t stay put. It followed me as I stretched my route to reach the general store that featured Moomer’s ice cream, which I heard was so rich it made you forget your troubles. I heard right. One double scoop cone of Rocky Road and I forgot how late I was with my alimony payments.
Two or three times that little Honda rode behind me. But it didn’t stop at the store.
When I noted that the Buick was no longer nuzzling the Honda, I surmised there must have been a quarrel, lover to lover, parent to kid, Felix to Oscar, whatever would cause one to leave in a huff and not come back.
I decided to investigate. In an unofficial way because I had no client, or as my Texan cousin would say, if I had a cousin in Texas, which I don’t, I didn’t have a dog in that fight. Except I kind of felt involved because of my bike rides by those two vehicles and my one brief conversation with the jogger. I decided I would start with her.
She wasn’t hard to find. I know this much about people, who unlike myself, take their exercise seriously. They are regular. I waited where I had met her. After half an hour, I had about exhausted any interest I could generate in studying the local flora and fauna, which pretty much consisted of a squirrel climbing up the trunk of a tree whose identity exceeded my limited stock of tree names. Which consists of Maple. Which was home base when I was a kid and the only tree on the block. Which made it hard to hide. Usually, you would crouch down behind a big trash can and hope it was collection day so it wouldn’t stink too bad while you waited for a chance to dash to the tree. As I was watching the squirrel practice jumps from one branch to another, I sensed her approach. There she was, red faced against the black of her glasses, but not breathing very hard. I can’t walk up two flights without my lungs complaining, so I was impressed. She stopped next to me.
“You, again,” she said. “I told you last time...”
“Excuse me,” I replied, “but you didn’t tell me very much.”
“Then you weren’t paying attention.” She looked down the road to where the cars had been parked. “I know you were coming by here when there were two cars, and then when there was one. And today, none. Don’t you get it?”
And I thought I was going to question her.
“And the smell? Everyone knew something was dead. Thought it was a deer. Not a person. Didn’t you catch a whiff?”
I started to explain about the unusual fact of my adult adenoids problem, but she cut me off.
“I’m not interested, “ she said. “A woman is dead.”
Her tone indicated I was responsible. On second thought, it probably meant that men were responsible.
People tell me I have an expressive face, and it must be so because she saw that thought on my face as clearly as if I had spoken it.
“I’m not that extreme,” she said. “My ex wasn’t bad as far as that goes. I still use his name. Too much trouble to switch back. But...”
She left the sentence unfinished, and began jogging in place in preparation for taking off again.
“If I wanted to know who shot Helen Tomkins, the guy driving that little Honda would be on the top of my list,” she said.
“The police...” I began, but I was talking to her disappearing back. I finished the sentence anyway. “...have questioned her husband as a person of interest.”
She stopped, wheeled around and came back to me.
“Interest? Let me show you what I saw one day.”
She reached into a pocket and pulled out a cell phone. Flipping it open, she ran her thumbs over the keyboard, squinted at the tiny screen, then handed it to me. I squinted, too, but couldn’t make out much.
“Don’t you see?” she asked. “The woman who is dead, Helen, I worked for her, she owned that Buick. And she was blonde.”
“OK,” I said.
“Look, more closely,” she insisted.
“Oh,” I said.
She held out her hand, and I placed the phone onto her palm. She flipped it closed.
“Now, you see what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
I nodded. .
“Good,” she said. “I’ll email the picture to you. If you want to talk about it, call me. Loretta Loveless.”
My face began to give me away, and hers got that lemon sucking look on it again.
“Don’t go there,” she said. “You’d be wrong. I’m in the book.” She turned, and this time kept going down the road. “His name is Kyle,” she tossed back over her shoulder, “Kyle Jorgenson..”
Amazing how she could run and talk at the same time.
I was not surprised when Kyle phoned me. But I hadn’t expected him to be in jail just yet.
“They say they found a gun on the floor of my car, shoved under the driver’s seat.”
“No doubt it matches the bullet from Helen’s heart.”
There was a pause. Which I took for an affirmative. I could see him there shaking his head first one way, then the other, up and down for yes, and side to side, for how the hell did he wind up in this situation.
“I got your name from Joe at the general store,” he said after a while. “Where you buy your ice cream every day. He said you used to be a cop.”
“Sort of,” I replied. “Of the private variety.”
“He also said you were retired.”
“Do you ever make a definite statement?”
“Sure. When I have something definite to say.”
“I need help. The police think I shot Helen.”
“Are you crazy?”
I asked the question to see how he would answer. Of course, he would say he didn’t do it.. But his response was immediate, so either he was a practiced liar or he was innocent.
“I know who put them on to you.”
“I can guess,” he answered. “Loretta Loveless. Helen’s secretary.”
“What do you know about her?”
“Besides that she jogs?”
“Yeah. Besides that.”
“Well, she likes to take pictures, too. Showed me one. On her cell phone.”
“You. And Helen. Nose to nose in your car. And her nose looked like it was headed south. If you know what I mean.”
“I can explain that.”
“I’m sure you can.”
“Can you get me out of here? So I can tell you about that picture?”
“The murder weapon in your car. I don’t think so.”
“OK. But I’ve got an idea.”
His idea took a little work to implement.
“Are you his lawyer?” Sheriff Bryant asked, leaning forward until his substantial belly met the top of his desk and stopped his progress..
“No. Just a private dick he’s hired. If he has any money to pay my fee.”
“If he don’t?”
“I’ll work something out.”
“I don’t know. If you were his lawyer.”
“I’m not. I think this record is stuck in its groove.”
Sheriff Bryant was, maybe, thirty. He didn’t get the reference.
“It’s just a phone call.”
He leaned back in his chair. I’d say he had a bemused smile on his face if I thought he knew what that word meant.
“OK. But I’ve got to listen in. On an extension.”
“Fine with me if it’s ok with Kyle.”
So, later that afternoon when I found an oil drip on the road where his car used to park, I dialed the sheriff’s office.
“Just a minute,” Bryant said, and then after a click Kyle was on the phone.
“Did your car leak oil?” I asked.
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
“Never mind. But I think I’m standing in a pool from your Honda. Now talk to me.”
“Did you bring binoculars?”
“In my hand.”
“Good. Do you see a big maple some twenty or thirty feet into the woods. Stand with your back to the oil slick.”
“Bingo,” I said.
“Do you see it?”
“Hell no. You’re just lucky you told me to look for the one kind of tree I might, on a really good day, recognize.”
“Once you find the tree, you can’t miss the nest.”
I stared in the direction he indicated, found what I thought was a maple by the shape of its leaves, just like the kind I used to see on the ground in the fall around that one on my old block.. Branches, leaves, branches, leaves. There it was. Sitting on a branch where it joined the trunk, two thirds the way up the tree, a crude basket of woven twigs, maybe five or six feet wide.
`”Got it,” I said.
“If you look really hard, you can see their heads. The eaglets.”
I turned the focusing knob and the white and orange became the head and beak of a baby bird. A big baby bird.
“We’ve been coming out there every day to watch them. There was a notebook on the back seat of my car with columns for dates and rows for observations. We charted their progress, waiting for them to leave the nest,” he said.
“Me and Helen. She’s on the Planning Commission. Which is considering a variance to permit five house to be built on that property. She was in favor until I showed her the eagles’ nest.”
“The nest is up in the tree,” I said.
I pulled out the print of the cell phone picture that Loretta had sent me.
“That picture. Of you. In your car. With a blonde head, like Helen’s, and she’s not looking at eaglets.”
“Sometimes we had lunch in my car. She didn’t want the mess in hers.”
I recalled the spotless interior of the Buick. And the Arby’s wrappers in his.
A closer look at the picture showed there was something in his hand, could be an Arby’s roast beef sandwich although he didn’t look much like a meat eater.
“I usually got a wrap. Pecan chicken salad. Helen liked the roast beef.”
He could be telling the truth.
Another click, and I was about to shut my phone when I heard the sheriff’s voice.
“Quite a story,” he said. “Believe it?”
“I’ll let you know.”
“We’ve got the gun,” he said. “And that picture. Loretta sent it to us first.” I detected satisfaction in his tone.
Helen Tomkin’s office was above a used book shop on the main street in town. Loretta sat at her receptionist’s desk although her boss’s office was dark.
“Just clearing up some loose ends,” she said. “I thought you were going to call me, Mr....?”
“Blanc, Guy Blanc.”
Her eyes no longer hidden behind those dark shades were red, as though she had been crying.
“An allergy, Mr. Blanc,” she said. “That’s why I wear those dark sunglasses. My eyes are very sensitive to light.” She pointed to a bottle next to her phone.
“May I?” I asked.
The label said Visine. The bottle, though, was almost empty. I put it back onto the desk, next to a coffee mug being used as a pencil holder. It bore the name of Helen.
“I suppose you made your boss coffee,” I said.
“No,” she replied.
“Oh, not something you would do for a woman boss?”
“No. It was tea. Helen drank tea. I wanted to keep something from her when they cleaned out her office,” she said. “Her husband had his flunkies here the next day.”
“Think she was hiding something?” I asked.
“No. Nothing about the organization. I would know.”
“Tell me about this organization.”
“A non-profit foundation, supporter of various causes. Helen wanted to put her husband’s money to good use. He’s an investment banker. Helen was the trophy wife who got bored sitting on the mantle, so he gave her this non-profit.”
“Various causes, such as?”
“Pretty much land issues, managing development of farmland, but lately, well, you know, those eagles.”
“Those same eagles where you run...”
“And you ride. Where Helen and Kyle, well, you know...”
I was about to say something about Kyle’s version of nothing more than sharing a tuna sandwich in his car, but decided against it. Loretta did not look like the kind of a woman whose mind could be changed once it had been set.
“Those eagles,” I said instead, “they are spectacular. Never gave them much thought before.”
“They’re just big birds,” she declared.
I had misread her. Thought serious jogger, eats a lot of Granola, tree hugger, therefore, lover of things in trees.
“Surprised?” she said.
I shrugged. The phone rang. She did not pick it up right away. Her expression said we were done talking.
“So glad you called,” I heard her say as I reached the door.
Mr. Geoffrey Tomkins did not seem as perturbed as he should have been talking about his recently deceased wife. He invited me onto the patio of his huge house on a bluff overlooking the bay. It was the kind of house you see on television or in the movies, not the kind you expect real people to be living in. I looked up to the second story. Lots of windows, six or eight. The Tomkins, with no children, rattled around in this house by themselves.
“A bullet in the heart,” he said “Helen’s heart. It was always a closed door to me.”
“I see,” I said. “Any idea who had the key. Or put the bullet there.?”
“We have slept in separate bedrooms for the past several years. I imagine she was sleeping with someone. Maybe that someone had a reason to want her dead. I didn’t. She was useful to me as long as she didn’t screw up.”
“I guess getting killed is a kind of screw up.”
“Like I said, she was probably sleeping with someone. Kyle. Loretta. Talk to them. The police have already talked to me.”
They had. And he had an iron clad alibi. Or as iron clad as alibis can be. He was with his girlfriend. At her mother’s house. Ordered Chinese delivered. Delivery guy swears he remembers big tippers like this guy was. Could he have paid them all off? Possible. Main thing though is he simply didn’t seem to give a damn his wife was dead, and if he didn’t care now, he probably didn’t care about her when she was alive. And people generally don’t kill people they don’t care about. But maybe he wanted to wed his new squeeze, a shiny new trophy for his mantle. I didn’t take him off my list, but slid him down.
Behind Kyle who didn’t seem to have a motive unless he had lost the argument about the eagles, and Loretta, who might have done more for Helen than brew her tea, and was either fingering or setting Kyle up.
Somehow it seemed to me that the answer to this one was in the land. And the eagles. Together.
The young woman behind the desk in the township office was only too happy to pull out the large, dust covered volumes.
“It gets pretty boring in here,” she said. “I’ve been here two weeks and you’re the first person who’s asked for anything.”
“Glad to brighten your day,” I said. She was pretty, in an all-American kind of way, reddish blonde with a freckle or two. Young enough to be my daughter’s friend, if I had a daughter. Which I don’t. She retrieved a huge volume and placed it on a table. It was labeled Title Deeds.
“Try this one,” she said. “I love looking at these old documents For the old handwriting and all. Mind if I help?”
“Not at all.”
A quarter of an hour later, with dust that had risen from the volume settling back onto the table, and us, we were done.
“Well,” I said, “very interesting.”
“Helpful?” she asked. “I mean about Ms. Greene.”
“Do you think...” she began.
“Maybe. If I need more information.”
I was pretty sure I was on the right track now. Pretty sure might be good enough to bet on a long shot nag, but not to nail someone for murder, so I sat in front of a micro fiche reader in the library to learn about managed land development. And eagles.
What I found out is that they don’t mix. That part was easy. I didn’t know exactly what else I was looking for so I stared at the screen. Waiting for inspiration. Which sometimes comes. I was reading an article on purchase of development rights, farmers being paid a kind of subsidy in exchange for not selling their land to a developer. The legalese began to cause my eyes to glaze over. I turned the knob without thinking what I was doing, and moved the focus sideways instead of down. I was now looking at a picture rather than the continuation of the story. I blinked.
There in an ad for the Turtle Creek Casino, run by the local Ojibwe, were several faces, one with a big smile with a pile of chips in front of her, another just at the edge of the picture wearing a frown, hands gripping the empty space before her on the table. Well, I thought. You must be Ms. Greene. That does explain something. Now, I need that inspiration.
Which caught up with me while I was having a cup of joe at a Burger King. So I dialed my old buddy Al Kelly, the M.E., now retired like me, in Chicago.
“Sure,” he said. “Could be done. Kids think it causes diarrhea. It doesn’t. They use it for revenge sometimes. Like against a teacher they don’t like. Been a couple of cases with more serious consequence intended. Doesn’t usually work. But with the right person, yeah, sure. What did the autopsy say?”
“Not much. Bullet through the heart, cause of death. Kids who found her said there wasn’t much blood, but local M.E. didn’t see any reason to be more curious.”
“I can understand why. A bullet in the heart is pretty obvious. If you’re right the bullet was to throw the cops off. Let me know how it turns out. And now you owe me. Dinner the next time you’re in town. Porterhouse, medium rare at Morton’s.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but we’re not done. You might have to testify. As an expert witness.”
“Happy to. Just add a bottle of single malt to go along with the steak.”
Loretta wasn’t surprised to see me. She lifted her red rimmed eyes from a paper she was reading.
“You’re back because you think you’re onto something,” she said.
“I don’t think your eyes are red because you’ve been crying.”
“Allergies, I told you that.”
“Right. I didn’t have you figured for the sentimental type, Ms. Greene.”
She did not flinch. I was impressed.
“I told you I still use my husband’s name.”
“So you did,” I replied and reached my hand toward the desk.
Her eyes followed my hand, and she nodded, half a smile forming on those lemon sucking lips.
“You’re not as dumb as you look,” she said as I picked up the coffee mug. “Maybe there is hope for your gender.”
I held up the mug.
“I think there’s more than pens and pencils in here.”
She folded the paper she had been reading.
“Don’t get excited. You know the saying about the fat lady.”
“She’s warming up her vocal chords.”
“Maybe. In the meantime, this,” she indicated the paper she was sliding into an envelope, “is just a note to Kyle. Telling him what he can do with those damned eagles.”
It was late fall by the time her trial was over. I read about it with my back against the tree holding the eagle’s nest. The newspaper story got it mostly right, how Loretta had run up big gambling debts at the casino, where she was such a regular customer that her picture at the roulette table was in the promotional ad I saw that day in the library, how she had inherited the land where the eagles nested, now held in a trust under her maiden name of Greene, as I saw on that dusty title book in the town office, how she had a deal to sell the property to a developer, which Helen as head of the planning board nixed after Kyle convinced her that the eagles needed the land more than Loretta needed the money. Time was running out for Loretta, and the board was set to vote against letting her sale of the land, and she was about to lose her own home to foreclosure. Along with other unpleasantness associated with bankruptcy. Which I know about from my own experience.
Nothing unusual there. Money is a great motivator. For good and not so good. The surprising thing was the mug. The one that Loretta served Helen her special tea in every day. As I suspected, the forensics boys found traces of Tetrahydrozoline in it. The active ingredient in Visine. Which can cause cardiac problems, especially in a person who already has a heart condition. Just like Helen did. Which her husband remembered at trial but which didn’t show up in the original autopsy because of the big bullet hole in her heart. Which Loretta put there after Helen did have a heart attack. While looking at that eagle’s nest one more time at Loretta’s invitation. Close up down that two track. The heart attack did the job, but Loretta wasn’t satisfied. She shot Helen and then planted it in Kyle’s car so the one who caused her problem would be her solution.
The story also mentioned my fondness for Moomer’s. And I had a doctor’s appointment coming up.
I was left to wonder about my conversations with Loretta. She could have jogged on by with a nod. One exerciser to another. But she stopped to drop a hint that something was amiss about those two cars. Maybe she was just putting me off a track I didn’t yet know I was on, pointing me toward Kyle.
I looked up as a young eagle glided toward the tree and landed on the branch next to the nest.
Folding the newspaper, I walked back up the two track toward my car. On its back seat was a bottle of single malt for Al whose testimony clinched the case. At least, in my view.
My fit young doctor was pleased to know somebody whose name was in the newspaper in a good way. Instead of in the obits.
“But that Moomers,” he said.
“You did lose a pound and a half.”
“It’s a start.”
“Getting too cold to bike.”
“Ever cross country ski?” he asked.
I still had that book from the library about birds. I figured I’d check out to see whether eagles head south for the winter.
If I was going to ski in those woods, I would want company.