Kell Thorn knew his end of the business. He knew the law, the books, the loopholes. The midnight oil had been burned by him on a thousand nights or more. In the core of his brain what he had to do was always in a fight with what he wanted to do. The odds had come out against his want. That he was cut short in no way hampered his zeal and his zest for the scales of justice to be properly weighed and executed, even if a little ballast had to be employed.
When he looked at the small-statured, neat, bird-loving ex-detective from BPD begin his stroll through a crime scene, he was rapt with attention. Harry Krisman’s acute senses and their exploits had penetrated his chambers on more than one occasion. He knew he’d be studying him as he had studied both prosecutors and defense attorneys, and, of course, the accused.
The two men, with different gaits, with obverse statures, but with the same intensities, moved down the hallway of Morrison. Harry Krisman measured every step, every door, every window, locking them away in his mind as if a schematic drawing was being slowly developed. He plucked a leaf from the edge of the wall to wall rug. Noted a black rubber scuffmark at one doorway. Picked up a white reinforcement ring from a paper’s punched hole. It looked like a Lifesaver left in neutral.
The men’s room where the murder had taken place was cordoned off with a yellow POLICE-DO NOT PASS ribbon that hung from three different doorknobs or door handles.
A uniformed officer of the Waltham Police Department was stationed at the head of the hallway, near the men’s room. He knew the official looks of the two men advancing down the hall toward him. They not only looked cop, they smelled cop.
He recognized Judge Kell Thorn, the bigger of the two men, before he recognized Harry Krisman, who was well known to both his senior commanders.
“Your Honor,” he said.
“I remember your face, officer, but not your name. I’m just a private dick now with my friend Harry here who has a very special interest in the situation. We’d like to look over the scene if we may, not disturbing anything, of course.”
The policeman extended his hand. “Sergeant Mackovics, Your Honor. Sat in your courtroom on more than one occasion, I think. I do remember you, sir. And, of course, take your time looking. The body’s gone to the morgue, though. Took it away an hour ago after Dickie Melanson did his thing. He’s Waltham ME. Didn’t say much, but it was kind of evident what went on. The old bird, looked like a real nice guy, was cut six ways to forever. That looked like the real sad part to me, Your Honor.”
“What’s that, Sergeant?”
“It didn’t look to me like any one of the cuts or stabs was enough to do him in. All of them piled on top of each other, yuh, that’d do it, did it, but not any one of them by itself.”
“Like the perpetrator was enjoying himself?” Harry moved out of a corner.
“Just like he was having a fucking ball, Harry. “You know what we’d do to that son of a bitch we got him downtown.”
Harry nodded and slipped under the Waltham yellow ribbon and into the rest room. Kell Thorn followed him.
The floor, walls, urinals, wash sinks and doors to three commodes were splattered with blood. A chalk tracing of the late professor George Hinckler in his final position in life was a grotesque reminder on the tiles of the rest room. And it was also a strange, contorted shape that splayed itself there.
Kell Thorn caught Harry in a study. He saw him measuring, marking, and putting things away in the back of his mind. The position of the legs bothered the judge and he knew it was bothering Harry.
Harry knelt beside the drawn figure on the floor, carefully avoiding dried pools of blood. For a solid two minutes he was locked onto the figure. And Kell Thorn knew that he was probably at the last few seconds of life in the person of George Hinckler.
Harry looked up at the judge. “You notice this, Kell?” he said as he crossed one arm over the other in obvious reference to the professor’s leg positions.
Harry yelled, “Hey, sarge!”
“He said he was going to slip down the hall for coffee while we were in here,” said Kell Thorn. “You were going to ask him what?”
“If the prof was on his side when they found him. We’ll have to look at the pictures down at the station.”
“What are you thinking, Harry?” Kell Thorn said.
Harry Krisman mused for a few moments, his face more intent than at any previous time in the judge’s experience. The small motors were whirring, the judge knew, in the detective’s mind. He strained to hear the microsounds.
Standing beside the drawn outline, blood splattered everywhichway to Sunday in the rest room, his body and his apparel as foreign as an alien in the room, as neat as a new penny in a new wrapper, Harry Krisman took himself deeper into the death scene.
Kell Thorn continued to watch him, fascinated by the slim, neat detective’s total involvement, his movement to another realm. There was between them at that very moment, Kell knew, both time and space. It could have been millennia or parsec at either extreme.
He waited on the return of Harry Krisman.
Finally, after it appeared to be precious seconds of voyage, Harry Krisman turned to Kell Thorn and said, “I think he either rolled on his side, on his own, or was pushed on his side.”
“If he was pushed on his side, the bad guy wanted to get in his back pockets. There doesn’t appear to be any other reason I can think of.” Kell Thorn nodded in thought.
“So if we check robbery as the motive, then, like the sergeant said, we’d have to forget about the intention of the wounds, about watching the poor old buck die. Maybe it was more,” Harry said, offering a shrug of his shoulders.
The judge pointed at the bloody half handprint on the side of the middle urinal. “That’s obviously the professor’s.”
Harry Krisman knelt beside the urinal. He studied each square inch of floor and white porcelain of the urinal. On the bottom of the urinal, within the possible spread of the hand that had left the bloody print but not visible to a person standing up, he noted a small figure in red.
“This looks like an F or an incomplete E which I think the prof left for us.” He pointed it out to a leaning Kell Thorn. The figure was barely an inch high.
Thorn said, “He did it while the killer was waiting on him to die, maybe even watching him die, or after the killer left, thinking him dead.”
“And you know what else, judge,” said Harry Krisman, “the son of a bitch was in stocking feet.” He pointed out the slightest and partial imprint of a stocking foot at the border of a dried pool of blood.
Kneeling down, keeping his pant cuffs away from the dried blood, pulling up the bottom of his topcoat like a dress being lifted, Harry Krisman studied the imprint. “Heavy woolen sock,” he said, a thick nap to it.”
“Like a skier would wear,” Kell Thorn advanced.
“Or a Down East fisherman,” Harry Krisman offered.
Both men heard Max the Most’s words coming out of a dim periphery.
Kell Thorn, judge once removed, then marveled all the more at Harry Krisman. He thought instantly about the story of how Harry had first seen Maxine stretching for a book on an upper shelf at the BPL, and saw what was hidden within the folds of her being. He had followed her back to the Bandley campus, something more than rut and estrus in that pursuit.
Though there was that, he was sure.
He marveled at the joining of two marvels.
He believed it to be engendered fate.
Harry Krisman, at that moment, put himself back at an Atlantic dock way Down East on one of his and Max’s bird sighting trips. They had taken a number of such trips and had found places rich in avian glory.
The Northeast corridor was one of their favorite spots, and they had found a few totally endearing places in Maine to watch shore birds and the birds that abided in the deeper parts of the state. There came to him a sense of temperature measurement and salt and cold air and oilskins and heavy rubber boots and woolen clothes and sweat of men that rolled on their persons and was retained for days at a time.
Too, there came an image of a fisherman sitting on the round top of a telephone-pole-size pier post that had been driven into the ocean floor and to which was bolted a stringer of the pier itself. It was Eastport. Gulls and terns flew in a panic around them and the pier, their wings cutting and slicing the air, the whir of wings as steady as an engine. The man had taken off his boots and had laboriously taken off three pair of heavy gray socks. Harry could remember the sense of compression he’d felt at seeing the heavy socks come off the man’s feet.
The scallop fleet home for the day.
On the third floor porch of the Down East Motel, wind in the air and two odd gulls logged in Max’s laptop computer, they ate a meal of lobsters and clams which had been cooked on the outside brick stove of the Cobscook Bay Fish Company.
Back again came Max’s words about Maine. They mixed freely and easily with the images he had brought back on himself.
Later he’d remember he thought fisherman.
The door to Room 306 in Morrison, with Professor George Hinckler’s nameplate beside the door, opened at Harry Krisman’s slight push. Kell Thorn walked in behind him. They were the large and the medium in a topcoat/cape gallery.
It was a Chair Office and was larger than Max the Most’s office in another corner of the building. An obviously superior computer set-up took up space on one wall. The screen was blank. Even shut off, the computer breathed accomplishment. A maroon sofa with thick arms, decorated with two blue and white pillows, took up most of another wall. The sofa looked comfortable and used. The heels of a well-worn pair of slippers protruded from under a small, skirted edge of the sofa. A sweater hung on a hanger on the back of a door.
A mahogany credenza hugged the wall behind a large wooden desk that had a parquet top under a large sheet of glass. A picture of a handsome woman, somewhere in her late thirties or early forties, blonde, pronounced cheekbones, lips slightly open, sat on the credenza. The frame was a gold frame with a shine to it. A neat hand had written, George, Go on. I love you, Miriam.
The message rushed at both men. They read it, hoping for accuracy, and marveled at it. A mid-sickness message from one loved one to another? A release? An imploring? An adieu?
Harry Krisman and Kell Thorn let the silence fill the room. The dead woman came to life for them. Then, for the first time, the dead man came to life for them. Max the Most had tried to do her best in explaining Professor George Hinckler.
His dead wife did it so much better.
Kell Thorn turned to Harry Krisman, his deep voice filling the office, judge out of robe, mind over matter. “Harry, let’s get that fucking son of a bitch!”
“Max is right,” Harry said, half smiling in agreement at Kell Thorn’s declaration. “I don’t think the kid did it. There’s something a lot dirtier here than plain mayhem and murder.”
Through the desk and credenza drawers they searched. They found no notes, no phone bills, and no reminders of anything outside the office and the life that was lead in it and through it. Beyond the text books there were no personal reading materials. No novels. No magazines. No books of poetry. The office seemed totally locked in neutral gear. There was no jump-starting anything but toward accounting and numbers and probabilities and chances and odds that come from such acute language, from the rhythms of mathematics itself.
“The computer?” Kell eyed the dark face of the screen.
Harry said, “We’ll have to ask Max to go routing for us. It’s not really my cup of tea.”
“I’m all thumbs at it, too. Do we go to the station now? Give what we have to the boys down there?”
Harry nodded. “Yes, after we see Max again, we’ll go down there, see the detective in charge, the ME’s report, see what else we can bring out of the picture if they’re done yet.”
Leaving the room was leaving the silence of a shrine, yet an echo stayed behind them. The history of one man, what he had been, what he had done in life, clawed at them as they left. The red bricks of Morrison carried much of the old professor in them. It worked itself in the hallways. Came at them from the existence of the building itself. It could be felt in the air, in the atmosphere, as if it had been poured into the mortar that set the very bricks in place.
George Hinckler not only had been, he had done! The signs were everywhere. Harry wondered how far across the Bandley campus the aura of George Hinckler had spread. He wondered if it was something that made a college what it was, not a cluster of red brick buildings but a sense of doing and getting done, the duty of a man on the long road. In the professor’s office he’d felt a permanence, and the charge of endless pursuit.
At the same time, Kell Thorn felt the same resentment he had felt too many times in court. It had often erupted at the sight of men without remorse for the transgressions they had cruelly imposed on lesser people, old people, poor people, people with a strike on them, or two strikes, in the game of life. He knew he was short on pity in a very direct route. An irremediable anger continued to work its way in him.
Ex-BPD detective Harry Krisman, thinking again of the professor, wondered what the odds were in catching the maniac who had killed the old pedant. Certainly there were enough routes to follow, clues to chase after, suppositions to explore. In the recesses of his mind he tried to find the professor at his last moments. The pain, he felt, would have been almost superficial at the end. It would have been like a tick of a muscle, a minor irritation one could contend with as long as one’s message was being sent. It would have been covered over by shock itself.
The incomplete E came back to him, as did the F.
Suddenly he knew the heroics that had cruised through the professor’s veins. The sign he had left was a vital sign, even as his own vital signs were being diminished rapidly. Harry Krisman locked onto the clue etched in blood on the base of a common urinal in a men’s room of the Morrison Building at Bandley College.
He would not let go of it for the longest while.
If there had been impervious odds at the moment of the crime, Professor George Hinckler had cut them way down.
He had a way with numbers.
Harry Krisman would prove him out.
Kell Thorn, in his black Bentley, drove Harry Krisman to the office, dropped him off, and went off to his own secrets. He waved to Harry and said, “Say hello for me.”
“Do the same for me,” Harry said, not bothering to send the wink he harbored.
Harry checked the messages in his office. Nothing was important until he heard Max, in her throaty voice, say, “There is hurry in October’s air.”
He felt November’s chill.
At Watertown Square he scoured through Surabian’s Liquor Store until he found a bottle of Catawba, made from the fox grape. He bought it because it almost called out Max’s name. He thought of her on a soft doeskin mat in a deerskin teepee, the smoke of a small fire just over their heads, their revolution under the stars as slow as their reaching.
Down through the edge of Watertown and Waltham he flew and cruised up Trapelo Road. Then, in one stroke, he thought of Maine and heavy gray socks and salt in the air and blood at the hand of George Hinckler, and an enormous sigh took its way out of his body. It was the necessary purge at work. All policemen had to call upon it.
Max the Most was not quite radiant. He hadn’t expected her to be, but she still moved in a primordial way that spoke to him in its pure language. The housecoat she wore was not incidental. It was as carefully chosen as anything in her wardrobe. Its folds rode her the way feathers rode a hawk in flight. Something moved around her the way air moved around a bird under wing. Her body had a sumptuous displacement. What was hidden wasn’t. She was as real as dollars and bottom lines.
Somewhere in his throat or his hands was an ache. He wasn’t sure where.
Hard delicacy sometimes is difficult to assign.
Max had a small roast of lamb in place. Onions were subtilely hidden in some part of the kitchen, under cover, under glass perhaps, waiting their turn. Acorn squash almost bubbled its sweetness. He could smell the treated brown sugar. Aspic, green as new grass, caught his eye. His mother’s kitchen had sometimes given such promise. But not often, not with the same fire.
He set the bottle of Catawba on the countertop. Looking at the label, seeing an old name for the first time in a different place, Max smiled at him. “You don’t have to work very hard to get at me, Flight Leader. Wine isn’t very necessary, but it is appreciated.”
A sense of life and urgency crowded around her. She came into his arms. “Smell me,” she said, “then try to talk to me about wines and perfumes, the nectars and honeys of the gods. Then,” she said, matter of fact, clear as a headline, “you can get down to the real thing.”
He didn’t have a word to say. She had a way that almost led to madness. She was in his arms. It had been a long day. The old man of the Bandley campus was never as close as he was at the moment.
“I saw his wife’s picture, Max, in his office. It could kill me time and time again. There must have been something tough and lovely between them. Kell felt it too. Made him so goddamn mad he could hardly contain himself.”
“I never met her, of course,” Max said. “She died a long time before I came to work at Bandley. But he told me about her. He told me lots of times about her. I think I learned from her, or he provided me with the chance to learn from her.”
Harry was surprised at first, and then that surprise faded. The message that Miriam Hinckler left behind on the gold-framed picture overtook him again. Maxine Humdroph was, in a certain way, an extension of Miriam Hinckler. The understanding of that parallel came to him cleanly and abruptly. That long-gone woman was partly responsible for making Max the Most what she was.
He owed that woman. He owed her husband. He owed the maniacal killer who had slashed and stabbed George Hinckler with crazy abandon.
He’d get the fucking son of a bitch, just as Kell Thorn had said.
After dinner, after the table had been cleared and the dishes put away, and the wine of the fox grape had begun its long slow song, after the two of them had come against each other in a quiet grace and then in anxiety, they talked.
“Tell me all you know about Maine,” Harry said, “any and every detail which your mind can pull up from the past. The smallest iota. Rumor, fact, the least important thing that comes to you. I want to know it all. Any aside he might have dropped in conversation.”
They were sitting on her couch, their feet on a heavy, wooden coffee table at least a century old. Max the Most lay back against the soft backing of the couch. She took his right hand and placed it inside her housecoat, against one firm breast. “Just so there’ll be no artful deliberations,” she said, and pursed her lips. He kissed her
“I don’t care for deliberations or arguments,” she said. “I’m for now. This moment. This eternity. George and Miriam had that and they lost it. I am not going to lose it.”
She told him, eventually, with the Catawba in place, all she knew of George Hinckler and the State of Maine.
“He wasn’t a hunter or a fisherman. The outdoors, in that hard way, never called on him. I don’t think he’d ever hang up a trophy, much less kill something. It wasn’t his way. It wasn’t his style.”
“Where did he go when he went to Maine?” Harry said. His hand was almost sleepy. His wrist was.
“Remember the nipple,” Max said. “Do not forget the nipple lest the nipple forgets you.”
He readjusted his hand. “Where did he go? Did he have a camp or a lodge or a cabin down Old Piney?” The slight attempt at a joke went past her.
“I don’t know that it was any place special, or that it was a place used to get away from down here or the school. I don’t think he needed that. It was someplace in a small town above Bangor, above Ellsworth, the way you go to get to Bar Harbor. I’ve never been there; not to Franklin. It’s the Christmas Tree center of Maine. Franklin, Maine. He did say that once. Could be population zero for all I know.”
“Tell me how to get there.” His thumb and his forefinger were working by themselves. She was turning to him and her eyes were closed.
“Up 95 for three hours. Just push it. Go right on 395 toward Bangor. Go onto Route 1 to Ellsworth, maybe twenty-five miles or so. In Ellsworth you go north on Route 1 a few miles to Route 182. Take a left. That road goes right to Franklin. I think he said it was about six or eight miles to his place.”
“What kind of property?” he said. She was fully turned now. He could see more of her than less.
“An old farm. A couple of barns on it. One of them used to be the first schoolhouse in Franklin. I remember him saying that. I caught a sense of pride in him saying it. There’s a white picket fence along the road in front of the house, said he painted it with a spray gun. At times he had a garden. Said Miriam and him had gone there for all the years they were married. I really think he said they went three times a year. Just like he did after she died.”
She was looking him in the eye, and smiling. “You are the most delicious thing that ever happened to a girl, even one from back of the barn at Wallagrass where there’s not much else to do.”
She put his other hand inside her robe.
“Gyrfalcon,” she said, letting the word fall away from her mouth.
She was uncoiling.
On Friday morning the Bentley moved north on Route 95 as sleek as an aircraft. It was smooth on the road and hummed northward with a dull roar. Kell Thorn drove with both hands on the bottom of the steering wheel, sort of resting on his stomach. He spoke without using his hands and never looked sideways at Harry, but found his eyes in the rear view mirror when he wanted them.
Much of the time Harry’s eyes were elsewhere, down a road, around a corner, cresting over a hill or mountain, somehow at work, seeing the unseen, measuring the immeasurable, always at notes.
“Maxine had nothing else to say?”
“Nothing I haven’t told you. It’s not a great mystery, I don’t think, his going down Maine. But she seems to think there’s something else to it. Something the old prof purposely kept from her. Not that she was a confidante, but he did favor her a great deal.”
Kell Thorn said, “He saw a good deal of his wife in Maxine I imagine. A good deal.”
“Had to be a hell of a woman, that Miriam.” Harry’s eyes had gone over another hill.
Thorn pulled the Bentley out from behind an eighteen wheeler and whipped by it on the median lane. The Road America trucker tooted his horn at the black dart of an automobile. Thorn waved back over his shoulder and put the truck out of sight on the next grade. The Bentley, especially uphill, was aerodynamic, found the wind tunnel north.
Two hours up Route 95, in Gray, Maine, they stopped for a late breakfast at Cole’s Restaurant. The late morning crowd was mostly a mix of tourists and local truckers. Their waitress was a buxom, sloe-eyed, lay-me-down-to-sleep thirty-year-older who could not take her eyes off Kell Thorn. One button on her pink outfit was undone when she first appeared, hovering over them at a booth in the main room. When she came with their menus, a second button was undone.
The two men looked at each other. Harry Krisman put a dollar bill on the tabletop and said, “No.”
Kell Thorn covered the dollar with one of his own and said, “Yes.”
When the waitress, with a name tag that said Lucille on it, came back with their coffees, a third button was undone and the cleavage was dramatic, even for a late breakfast.
She flashed a major smile at Thorn. “Are you gentlemen tipping up front? That’s really different.” Her smile was All-American healthy, her skin as pure as good cream all across her smile. A large pin held much of her blonde hair on the back of her head. Out front her breasts were not enormous but spilled ever so lovely from their silken cups. In the pink uniform, of a thin material, her hips were pronounced and message-sending. More than a rustic quality or vibrancy flowed about her.
Kell thought her rare and smooth, like an old Shirley Temple Hoodsie ice cream container cover, and vanilla through and through.
“I won the wager on your buttons,” Kell Thorn said. His thick, dark and somewhat early gray hair was wavy, his smile was authentic and wide, and his eyes locked on hers. “I’m glad I did. I’m glad you did. Maine might not prove to be all pine trees and barnyard and cackle when you get right down to it. Business may have pleasure.”
Lucille’s complexion had not altered one bit. Her lipstick was a shade off bright red and was not too much for the rest of her face. She picked up the two-dollar bills and stuck them in Thorn’s breast pocket.
She believed the arc of electricity that leaped against one finger.
“It’s on the house,” she said. She swayed ever so slightly on her feet, a gesture that did not go unread.
“I used to be a judge. I think I’m still some kind of judge. I ask a lot of questions to get to the heart of the matter.” His smile was now acetylene, and just as warm. Lucille was drawn into it.
Kell Thorn said, in his best courtroom voice, but with the volume turned down, “Do you ever consider oral sex as an important primal activity and if I were to shed my friend here and were to come by this establishment at seven-thirty this evening, would you be averse to our getting further acquainted on this weekend?”
“The answers are yes and no,“ Lucille said, taking the two dollar bills back from Thorn’s breast pocket. Pulling the order book from her apron pocket, wetting her pencil against her lips, she said, “Your orders, sirs.” Her eyes were alive.
They ate omelets and a rasher of delicious ham, dark toast, and more coffee. Lucille kept them supplied with coffee. The last two buttons, which had been opened, were done up.
Harry Krisman, feeling slightly like a toad alone out on a lily pad, said little. He thought about a Greyhound bus or getting a rental car or flying home out of Bangor. He thought about possibilities. He thought about his way, the BPL way, how he had found Max. Life was variety.
Kell Thorn left a healthy tip on the table. He left a sheet from a small note pad he had taken from an inner pocket. On it he wrote, in a very broad and sweeping hand, 730 KT . The note was pushed under the tip as he nodded to Lucille across the room, at another table. The late breakfast crowd had thinned more. The lovers who were not yet lovers sent smug glances through the dwindling crowd, across the whole room.
After retrieving a ticket at the Gray tollbooth, they pushed out into Maine Turnpike traffic. A flotilla of eighteen wheelers was strung out on the road. The Bentley leaped past them.
Harry began to laugh. “Do you do this often, Judge?”
“Only after a pronounced study of the situation,” Thorn said.
“Any real winners?” said Harry Krisman. He was very interested in the judge’s approach, admiring the brutal directness that he himself could never have mustered.
“There have been a few notable stars over the years. One still hangs on, but she is devoted to her job and her career.”
“Is she your go-to girl?” Harry asked.
“On many occasions, yes. It’s primal, but convenient, and exclusively lovely if I do say so. She has an end-of-the-month tussle with bills and deposits and balances which knock her completely off her pins, but not in the right way.”
“This is the end of the month?”
“Right,” the judge said.
The Bentley ate up the rest of the Maine Turnpike and a short run along 395 as they passed by Bangor. It zoomed up hills and down hills on the mostly two-lane Route 1 heading to Ellsworth. The only time Kell Thorn stopped the car was when they came over a hill and he saw a body of water and the Lucerne Inn sitting on the edge of a hill looking down on a broad lake. Braking and parking at the side of the road, he took in the scene. The lake, far below, spread a mirror of the trees and mountains leaning into it. Water, shifting around coves, leaping from shore to shore, was colored. At least thirty cars were parked in front of the inn and it was yet early on Friday.
At length he said to Harry, “For future reference. It’ a lovely setting. A lovely view. You ought to keep it in mind.”
Harry Krisman realized he would not bet against the judge again on any kind of promise, any kind of wager.
Not too much later they found Franklin, or rather, Franklin found them, surrounded them. A stretch of inlet came alongside the road, Route 182, with the sun blazing off the Atlantic surface. Now and then there were horses and cows out in pastureland. Often the animals were dark statuary against a cool gray sky or the dim line of horizon behind them. Time stood still with the stationary figures in the middle of fields. Fences were of every possible type, from chain link to split rail. The dark figures of barns seemed to be full, stuffed with whatever, and the land, brown as acorns, getting ready for winter. The air had a definite chilled quality to it.
At a country store-gas station establishment they were given directions to the Maltby Farm, or what was left of it, where George Hinckler spent a minimum of three prolonged visits every year.
“Less than a half mile down on the right,” a heavy-set woman behind the counter had said. She wore a faded blue sweater that hung over her shoulders. Her arms were not in the sleeves.
“Can’t miss it. Got a white picket fence, newly painted, out front. Too damn bad about old George. We saw it in the papers and heard it on the radio news. A sure sweetheart he was. Nice man. Came in here a lot. Came in every visit since his wife got killed. That’s her family’s place. Or it used to be, the farm. Don’t know whose it is now, them all gone and such, but not my worry, thank the Lord.”
Harry Krisman was puzzled. So was Kell Thorn. Both of them thought about the inscription on Miriam’s picture in the professor’s office. It seemed to have said something else.
“How did his wife get killed?” Krisman said. “I thought she died from cancer or some other long-standing disease. Maybe I just supposed that.“
The heavy-set woman pointed to the east. “No sickness for her, old soul. Hit and run killed her one mornin’. On the next left, top of the hill. Right where you can look back over the blueberry fields and see the farmhouse and the barns of her place. See it proper like if you’ve a mind. That’s maybe fourteen or fifteen years ago. My Charlie’s almost fifteen now and I was luggin’ him around then, like a bear gone home. Close company, you know what I mean? They said she walked every mornin’ all by herself. Was right, they were. Had done it since she was a tad young. Sonofabitch dragged her almost a hundred yards. Like a friggin’ rag doll.”
The woman’s eyes had steeled, gone absolutely gray. Her chin stuck out as if daring anyone to hit her.
“Never caught him?” Kell Thorn said.
“Never once had a look at any body.” She paused, a second sense overtaking her eyes. “You lawyers or such?”
Harry Krisman said, “We’re checking on the professor’s death, on our own, for a friend.”
The woman said, “Checkin’ way up here, huh! Well, you go down there like I said. Carlton Evers will most likely be there. Took care of the place for old George, he does. Or did. He don’t know what’s goin’ to happen now either, or which.” She shrugged her shoulders. “You see Carlton. He’ll take care of you. A man as good as any.” She moved off to help another customer.
Two hundred yards down the road, in the middle of a curve, they saw the white picket fence and the small white house and the two barns. A man was working on storm windows in front of the house. He was tall and lean and tools worked easily in his hands.
The Bentley tires crunched over crushed stone in the driveway. The tall man turned and waved and leaned a storm window against the side of the house. The sun leaped off the glass of the window quick as a mirage, and then the flare disappeared.
The tall man waved them on further into the yard. The Bentley moved up a slight grade.
The two barns were old, but neat. On the rear barn was a sign over the barn doors that said SCHOOLHOUSE. The doors were open and an old red Jeep could be seen parked in the interior. Here and there on both barns a newer board could be seen where an older one had been replaced. All the glass was in place in the windows of the barn with the sign on it. Paint had been applied in a number of areas, to serve as primer, saying maintenance was afoot.
A pile of cord wood, almost thirty feet long, over four feet high, ran like a wall from the back of the house out toward the rear barn. A black and white cat stretched atop the pile and leaped down to welcome them. Attached to the second barn, the one nearer to the road, was a corral with a slab board fence. A small horse stood in the center of the corral looking at the men crunching gravel underfoot. They were surprised to see goats and sheep in the same corral. The place was trim and neat and prosperous looking. It was well maintained. It had carried itself that way far into its second century. The two city folk made that instant reading.
“You from Boston?” the tall man said. A shock of gray hair hung over one eye. It was as thick as it must have been even fifty or so years earlier. His skin was as ruddy as all outdoors and his hands were huge. “Been expectin’ someone,” he continued.
Kell Thorn looked at the Massachusetts registration plate on the Bentley. The tall man, noting his glance, smiled at him, but said nothing.
Harry Krisman made the introductions and explained the purpose of their visit.
“C’mon in the house,” Carlton Evers said. “Make us a pot of tea. George gave me the run of the place, includin’ the house, whenever he wasn’t here. Don’t know what’s gonna happen now, things turning up the way they have.”
He shrugged his shoulders. Faded blue dungarees dipped into a pair of well-worn boots. The tall thin man had no butt at all, as if he never sat down. A faded green and black checkered lumberjack shirt sloped deeply at his shoulders and was tucked into the waist of his dungarees. The large hands seemed larger than before.
They sat for tea in the kitchen. It was an old but a pleasant room with lots of sunshine pouring in three tall windows. Its cabinets were made of narrow, slotted hardwood not over an inch wide, and were stained a light golden oak. A host of antique articles seemed to surface in every direction, as if waiting discovery. The tea was served in old white diner-type mugs with slight crack marks crawling on the surface, like cracks on an eggshell. An old black range, like some diminutive giant squeezed into place, was pumping heat. On the oven door raised letters said Clarion. A black iron flue pipe ported into the wall above the stove. The kitchen was homey and the years rode it comfortable.
Over a thick darkness of tea the two men asked Carlton Evers a lot of questions. He gave a lot of answers. He made some guesses on his own.
Harry Krisman said to him, “I’m going to try to summarize everything you’ve told me, Mr. Evers, all the details. If I skip anything, fill me in. The thing is, we don’t know if anything is important or not. So we have to treat everything as important until we find out it’s not. That’s simple enough, isn’t it?”
“T'weren’t born yestiday,” Carlton Evers said. He offered a part of a smile to Harry Krisman, but he was not belligerent. It was the same smile he offered to Kell Thorn in the yard when Thorn had glanced at the registration plate on the car.
Harry Krisman continued. “George Hinckler’s wife Miriam was killed by a hit and run driver fifteen years ago on that hill over there.” He pointed out toward the front of the house. “You’ve been taking care of the place all that time for Mr. Hinckler. He continued to come three times a year every year since his wife died. You figure it’s because they did that when she was alive. He didn’t hunt or fish or get caught up in anything special down here except walking out and around.”
“Mostly there,” Carlton Evers said, pointing to the front of the house and the hill where Miriam had been killed. “He mostly walked up there.”
There was not an urgency in his voice, but it did carry a note of importance.
“Sometimes he was gone for hours. But he went out just about every day. I know some days, when it was too bad, like rain or a sudden snow in October, it really bothered him that he couldn’t go. He was dogged about gettin’ out there. If a man has a passion, it shows sure enough. George had a passion. A man gets that way, there’s not much stoppin’ him.”
The last was a testament not unexpected by the outlanders. After all, Miriam had made a directive, had inscribed it.
The caretaker stopped as if he had said too much, had made too much of a pronouncement about a dead man and the privacy of whatever had driven him.
Harry suddenly waited for him to say more. He could feel it coming.
“I think he was looking for somethin’,” Carlton Evers offered. He appeared to be relenting on a firmness, on an oath of sorts. “Somethin’ buried. Somethin’ maybe down deep. I never followed him, wouldn’t think of doin’ that to another man, but I think he was lookin’ for somethin’. He came spring, summer and late October every year. Like clockwork. Like I said, some men lock on and don’t let go. He was cropped like that.”
“Why do you think he was looking for something, Mr. Evers?” Kell Thorn stood tall against a wall, his cape draped over one arm, an outlander if there ever was one.
“Because he never went out without this,” Carlton Evers said as he walked out of the room into the front hall. They heard a metallic sound as if a pipe had been hit with a hammer. Harry Krisman thought about a Symphony Hall visit he and Max had made and a Copeland tune where a hammer in the back row came in to play, the musician standing on a chair to hit a pipe at the exact right time.
When Carlton Evers came back into the kitchen he was carrying a sturdy metal rod, over five feet long, a half an inch thick at its thickest end, near the handle. It was pointed at one shiny end and shaped into a broad, oval-shaped handle at the other end where the metal must have been pounded into shape, that a blacksmith had formed. The rod certainly could be pressed down into the earth by pushing on the handle that could hold a man’s two hands side by side. The handle was at least an inch wide and the rod was extremely well used, its use reflected in its tipped shininess.
“Never once saw him go out there without it,” Carlton Evers said. “And like I said, it bothered him on the bad days when he couldn’t go out there. That’s the passion I spoke about. Some men lock onto it, it gets hard to move them off’n it, like an old turtle holding a log down at the pond.”
“Gold or treasure of some sort?” Kell Thorn asked. He was examining the rod. It would not bend across his knee.
“I have no idea on that,” Carlton Evers said. “Thought about it some, but then let it be. He did me well. Don’t know what’s goin’ to happen now. But life travels, as they say. “
“I know there will be a reading of a will, Mr. Evers,” Harry Krisman offered “I’m sure the professor will have made the proper moves. I’ll keep you advised.”
“Uh-huh,” Carlton Evers replied. He didn’t carry much expression on his face. “Think you fellers can catch the one who did him in?”
“We’ll give it our best shot, Mr. Evers,” Harry Krisman looked him squarely in the eye. “Did people hereabouts think it odd that he went out every day with his rod?”
“Uh-uh,” Carlton Evers said. ”Never much thought about it. Some folk thought it was like a walking stick for him. But they mainly let him be. Nobody went spyin’ on him, if that’s what you’re meanin’. They knew how much he loved his wife and she grew up right here. All hereabouts loved her. She was a special lady who loved this country, this region, this farm. She wouldn’t do to spoil any of it. Not a bit. Fact is, neither would he. But his passion seemed to be somethin’ else. Told me to take care of the place, he did, and paid me well enough to carry on and keep my own place just down the road. What he didn’t want out of the gardens, I got to keep. When the animals got slaughtered, likewise. He was more than fair with me and that’s a fact if there ever was one.”
“You’re going to miss the man, Mr. Evers?” Harry Krisman said.
“That I am, son. That I am. Now you two do your level best and then some to get the man who did him bad. Whatever George’s passion was, whatever drove the man, you’ll find out. Perhaps when you do, things will come together for you. Answers almost always get caught in the strangest places.”
The neat detective believed another little Maine bird had whispered something very important in his ear. Max’s words came back to him even before Carlton Evers turned around and walked back to his business.
The two city-breds watched the tall man from Maine go back to his chores. Each of them reflected on the hard-line character of the man, how much he resembled the rugged piece of earth that was about them, that demanded much in the way of work so a living could be made from it, off it.
Love and energy, Harry Krisman said to himself.
When they were seated in the Bentley, Kell Thorn said, “I am driving down to Bangor later to get a rental. I want you to drive the Bentley back for me.” Before Harry could say a word, Kell said, “Let’s go up on that hill where Miriam Hinckler was killed.”
On the hill, with a piece of road running over the crest of its slow curve, they looked down on the Maltby farm. A field of blueberry plants ran into a close-cropped meadow that bordered on the road. Beside the meadow, to the east, was a stand of trees so dense little light came through. Across the road was the Maltby farm. The view was decorous and neat, but not without a sense of labor or, the more, the demand for labor which had an eminence to it, as if this hard earth spread out before them had a sponge in the deep mix of it, a sponge that could sop up the whole lifetime and sweat of one man.
Behind them, in the opposite direction, other fields wore their ways into a series of small rolling hills and small clumps of pines and hardwoods chunked here and there on the fields like checkers on a board.
“It’s newly paved.” Harry Krisman toed the new blackness of the roadbed.
“And probably wider than it was fifteen years ago. If you sneezed coming over this crown and this curve you could still hit anything on the stretch.”
“But nothing that would make you keep on going.” Harry nodded, a statement as well as a guess.
“What the hell would the prof be looking for up here, if he was looking for something,” the pondering judge said. His eyes marked the stretch of road, the fences that lined it, the spread of fields. It was, in a sense, looking at the Atlantic itself. It was big and broad and swept away to the horizon.
After ten minutes of believing they might also have been on a Western prairie, they climbed into the Bentley and drove off, heading down the newly paved road. The sun had gone down behind a far hill. The chill in the air was getting stronger.
The twin lights of the taillights twirled their redness against the coming twilight. The red lights went down the small incline and swung westerly, on Route 182, and went out of sight.
On the crest of a small hill more than a hundred yards to the north a man put down a pair of field glasses. He was behind a thickness of branches and low brush. He wore a dark green cap, a green lumber jacket much like Carlton Evers’, dark blue denim dungarees, and rubber-bottomed pac boots with leather tops. The dungaree pant legs were tucked into the boot tops. The field glasses were old and battered and had no strap attachment.
The man was about forty, thick-skinned in the way a hunter is from continued exposure, darkly complexioned, and carried a heavy growth of dark beard. One large hand held the field glasses with ease. He coughed a few times, muffling his cough with one arm and the sleeve of his heavy shirt. On the ground at his feet were remnants of three different brands of cigarettes and two brands of cigars. In varying degrees of rust were a number of beer cans, from very old to rather new. Here and there a discarded bottle lay still collecting light. The area at his feet was matted down. Three other similar spots showed their edges in the thicket of brush.
A rifle leaned against one thick clump. No shell casings, no brassy fingers catching light, were visible on the worn patches of ground in the thicket.
The man’s name was Merchant Blore.
To be continued...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Sheehan is well known to our readers, with several of his stories and an interview already published in 3 AM Magazine (see the archives). This is instalment 2 of Tom Sheehan’s exclusive novel, An Accountable Death. Be sure to read Tom’s soon-to-be-published poem, Once Shouted to the Flag-waving Drunks…