In the office on Tuesday morning, Harry Krisman waited on Kell Thorn. He had last seen him in Bangor as he drove off in a rental car. Harry had driven the Bentley back to Boston. It was parked in the garage, the gas tank full, the oil checked, the ashtray clean.
He wore another issue of his impeccable brown suits and a pale green tie he suddenly remembered having worn one day in the week previous. He filed the self-complaint. The press in the pants could have been set by a tinsmith from Local 25 or by an iron monger from Local 7.
An additional page had been completed in his bird sighting book. All the birds he had seen in Maine were listed. Kell Thorn, he presumed, had not noted his recognition of any of Maine's indigenous birds in and about the Maltby farm. Or by the road where Miriam Hinckler had been killed by the hit and run driver about fifteen years earlier.
He put the book in a desk drawer.
Sunlight slammed into the office with a mind of its own and spilled over the top of the desk, warming him.
Looking out over the city, he saw the sun splashing over it, but in strategic pockets, in quasi collections. It hit windows, rooftops, slanted off the Charles like a broad sheet, came up to him off a thousand panes of glass. Life came out of the all-night struggles, out of the dark spots, all across the town he called his own. The hum of the city came rising up to meet him, though it was really unheard. It was so different from the wide spread of land he had felt in Maine. Up there he had been close to something primal. Heat and cold, food and hunger, the hard call of tools, had been primitive, raw. A man opened and closed his fist on life just about every day. The land drew a person down to its level. He had been alert to demands he had not known before, a basic divisiveness, scratching and clawing from every direction. But then he'd noticed a harmony was an umbrella over all of it.
Maine had bred and formed Max the Most. It did, thusly, demand allegiances.
He shook his head. All about him were stark callings. The basic image of David Crestwood, the Bandley student who had been a student of both Max and Professor Hinckler, came back to him. The charge was now Murder One. His fingerprints had been found in the restroom. One of his papers had been found in a trash can. Another had been found near the back end of the building, Morrison, where the killing had taken place. He had absolutely no alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the murder.
Max the Most had been as upset as he'd ever seen her.
"It's like sending another useless death after the other one. Locking him up for life would be like death. He has so much promise, Harry. So much promise. And I know he didn't do it! He is not a murderer. That boy is not a murderer!"
Harry had come back to Boston late on Friday evening and gone immediately to her apartment near the campus. Seeing her, holding her close to him after but a day's separation, was a balm. He wondered where Kell Thorn was, what the judge was doing.
Max stayed in his arms, but she was distant for moments. Her blonde hair, out of its usual style of being piled neatly on top of her head, hung loosely about her shoulders. She was in a pink robe. She smelled delicious, primitive and clean. But her mind held her as much as he did.
"Did you find anything in Franklin? I kept thinking all day you'd call me and say you'd found out some clue or some hidden truth that would throw light all over this murder. Oh, I know the odds on that, but I kept thinking it. I thought you'd go to see David Crestwood even before you went up there."
"I think you're absolutely right on a number of accounts, Max." He sat on the couch as she brought him a drink of wine in a tall glass. It was a rosy pink and the glass caught the light of a lamp. He sipped the wine. "Tell me later," he said, tapping the glass. Then he continued, "David has no connection with anything up in Maine, except he had the prof and you in class. Also, I don't think he did it, just as you say. But there was something going on with the professor up there I have to tell you, and I don't really know what it was."
He told her all about Carlton Evers and the woman in the store and the rod that George Hinckler never went out of the farmhouse without.
"Looking for what, Harry? That's a barnyard riddle."
She moved against him.
In the robe she sizzled. It demanded attention.
"That's how I felt," he said. "The place is so big up there. Big. Brown. And getting cold. If he was looking for something, there could be a thousand and one possibilities. There's got to be something else. Did you know how his wife died?"
"I heard it was an accident. He never mentioned it. I never asked. It was like forbidden ground. It was very conscious on his part. I wasn't going to tread on it. Not in the least. Do you think all this has something to do with his wife? With her death?"
He explained all that he knew about the death of Miriam Hinckler.
Which was not a hell of a lot.
"I'm convinced the answer is in Maine," she said. "It's not in a jail cell in Waltham. It's got nothing to do with David Crestwood. It's down Maine. It's in Franklin. If Carlton Evers is right about some kind of passion that drove George on, the answers are down Maine. What are you going to do now?"
Her hands were on his person.
Undoubtedly she was still the most marvelously sexy woman he had ever met. The subtleties at times bordered on the explosive. Even Lucille in her pink outfit in Gray couldn't hold a candle to her. Her hands were talking to him, touching him. Nothing was unintentional in their touch, nor casual without a commitment, though an observer might think so. There were punctuation and declarations moving along with her questions. A touch at his shoulder. A touch at his knee. Her eyes looking elsewhere. Her mouth saying something else.
He'd have to keep better track of his thoughts. On target. He'd try.
"A friend of mine worked with an archeologist many years ago. Sort of a summer helper on a few excavations. A hunky, really. The archeologist had found the ruins of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond. Then he worked on the First Iron Works over in Saugus. I want to show him the rod. I'm positive he spoke about the same kind of rod the archeologist used in his work."
"Is the rod that special?"
"If there was a passion in the prof, the rod had something to do with it. I'm convinced of that. I'm going to see your student and I'm going back to the prof's office. More than meets the eye, you know. Perhaps I missed a trick or two. That inscription on her picture threw me way out where Teddie Boy played, way out in left field."
He explained his initial thoughts on a long-suffering disease. "Perhaps it was too damn dramatic. Or too creative. I found something in her picture, in her face, in the look I know she was imprinting on the very negative. It was an act of intelligence. Kell thought that too. She knew what she was about. Like it was a piece of history being formed or being set off by itself. Maybe I just wanted it that way. She looked like a special lady. Her eyes carried so much. To this day, the people up in Maine, all that had come in contact with her, speak highly of her. And she's been gone for fifteen years."
"Could there be the kind of passion with her that drove a man like George Hinckler all this time? Maybe numbers, after all, were not the all the stuff that he was made of."
She had nodded her head in answer to her own question. Max the Most had locked on again. He knew the sense of timing she brought to situations. In all situations.
He had caught a minor sense of his own urgency. It was telegraphy at its most vibrant alert.
After they had spilled against each other, he said he'd go to see David Crestwood when Kell Thorn returned from Maine. She had giggled lightly when he told her about Lucille, in pink, from Gray.
Competition was not what Max the Most was about.
Kell Thorn strode in at nine o'clock. The top of the desk was getting warmer from the sunlight.
His black hair had been trimmed at the edges. It showed off the clear cut of his tanned face. He wore a gray suit whose cost would pay the rent for a month. Over his right arm he carried a fine cape which also was gray, but had thin lines of orange hinting through it. Harry had not seen the cape, or the suit, before.
All Kell Thorn said in reference to the weekend was, "Lucille sends you her regards. And remember that Lucerne Inn I pointed out to you. It's a haven of delight and good cheer." Then he asked, "What about the rod?"
Harry Krisman reached behind him and brought the rod away from the wall where it had been leaning. It looked more rugged in the office than it did in the wide outdoors. It was cold-iron black where it didn't shine. Which was at the tip and across the crest of the handle.
"I saw Guido Mori at M.I.T. The minute he saw it he recognized its use. Said Rollie Robbins had found the ruins of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond with one just like it. It could be a twin, or one Rollie left after he went on to the Big Dig. He'd found the base of the water wheel and the furnace and the slitting mill site at the Iron Works in Saugus. Didn't know how long he'd been looking for Thoreau's old place, but it was a couple of years anyway. At the Iron Works it had been easier. The basic site had been known for years."
He handed the rod to Kell Thorn.
"Our prof was certainly looking for something," Thorn said. "He was at it a lot longer than the archeologist was, it appears, but with the same fervor, the same dedication. Maybe even more. The passion we spoke of. Not the passion of the saddle, mind you, but a higher passion. I think we are dealing with unique personalities, my friend."
"Let's go see if we can talk to David Crestwood," Harry Krisman said.
"The skids are already greased for that, friend of Maxine," Kell Thorn said. "I called earlier and spoke to Augustus Wheatley over there in Watchtown. All the time we need. Guaranteed, according to Gus. We've gone down a few roads together."
"And got to a few towns?" Harry Krisman offered a simple smile.
The handsome ex-judge offered neither smile nor grimace. Secrets are secrets, to some people at least, thought Harry Krisman. It was one of the reasons he had found Kell Thorn to be so vigilant and trustworthy. Vanity rarely got in the way of duty or desire.
David Crestwood was a normal looking twenty-one year older whose whole world was suddenly upside down and inside out.
It was apparent that he had not had enough sleep. Worry filled his eyes as well as tiredness. His face was drawn and pinched and his mouth was hard-lined. He was a slim six footer, about one hundred and seventy pounds, with sandy colored hair that needed a trim or a cut. His facial color was almost an off-white, pale to wan. He looked a pound short of sickly. The right eyebrow had a small scar that ran through it and parted the line of the eyebrow. The scar said it might have been a very serious cut at the time of infliction.
They were in a private room at the Waltham Police Station. Gus Wheatley was as good as his word.
Harry introduced Kell Thorn and himself. "We are friends of Maxine Humdroph who believes, as we do, that you had nothing to do with the death of Professor George Hinckler."
"I've told everybody here exactly that. I've said it a hundred times. A thousand times. They don't seem to believe me. Or they don't want to believe me." The young student was sincere, tired, just getting to desperate. Ache had a way of being spelled out on his face. The attention he was getting was a lot different than what he was used to.
The young man's hands were slim and not at all athletic or given to tools, at least heavy tools. They had no tan on them or sun lines of any kind. He looked like a CPA in the making. He certainly did not look like a killer to either of the men who had come to question him.
"The evidence against you is circumstantial, David," Harry Krisman said. "We're just trying to determine what way we can help you. What our best approach would be to do that. It's really very simple what we have to do, once we have a road map. That's why we have to ask questions. Don't get nervous by what we ask. Just try to give us a quick clear answer to each question. We realize that finding papers of yours in places where you would naturally be during your class days, has no evidential proof of anything. Nor your fingerprints in a room you've been in, probably so many times you can't remember. Do you understand our intent?"
"I didn't kill anybody," David Crestwood said. "He was a good man. A kind man. I couldn't hurt him the least bit. He always worked so hard for us. We knew how long he stayed on the job. The nights. The weekends. Everybody loved him. Now they think I had something to do with it. You've got to believe me. I wouldn't do anything like a murder. I wouldn't do anything like that. Not like that at all. Not at all! I didn't do it!"
Kell Thorn put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "David, we are not powerless in our ways. We believe in you, but we have to go a certain route. You have to help. Do you recall losing any papers? Did you throw them away? Did someone take them? Was someone studying them?"
"I've thought about that a hundred times. I don't know. They were not test papers. They were assignment papers I did over a month ago. I just can't remember what happened to them. They had been graded. I know I wouldn't have been upset if I had found out they were missing. If I'd've known. I just wouldn't have been bothered by it. I didn't know they were missing, or were not with my other papers."
"How many times have you been in that rest room, David?" Harry had his hand on David's shoulder. "Do you go there often? When was the last time? Was anybody with you?"
The young man looked beseechingly at Krisman. "Please don't go so fast. I don't know how many times. Maybe three or four times in the last couple of months. Maybe a couple of times in the last week. I don't mark Piss-call." He added, eyes dropping to match his face "I'm not a wise-ass either."
He looked with wonder around the room. It was as if he did not believe he was where he was. A dumb, hang-dog expression etched itself on his face.
"Who the hell remembers when he's had to take a piss. I don't. I remember once getting stuck on the Tobin Bridge in traffic back-up must have gone half way up 93. I remember that. My bladder was going to burst almost. It was excruciating. I remember that time, but I don't remember being in there, in that rest room, on a specific occasion. Just that I've been in there. And more than once."
"The night of the murder," Kell Thorn put in, "do you remember where you were all evening? Your roommates were at the gym, we heard."
"Yes, they go almost every night. They go to the gym more than they study, it seems. Everybody to their own thing, my father used to say. I was in my room all that night. I was studying. I'm in Honors program and doing well. I have to keep at it. I'm not really the brain some people think I am. I have to keep at it. I was studying that night. I distinctly remember. I was in my room all night. I did not go out once. Not all night long. Not all night long. Not for one second."
David Crestwood's hands were folded one over the other on the tabletop. If he had a green-visor across his forehead he would have been a CPA before the computer had come on the scene. For a tired moment he looked like a throwback to another time.
"Well, David," Harry Krisman said, "Professor Humdroph wants to let you know we will do anything we can to clear up this mess. She said to say hello to you. She's a very special person and believes in you."
David Crestwood smiled a very uneasy smile. It was as if something deep had been touched, or turned over in the sunlight.
Krisman and Thorn left the young man with Gus Wheatley. When they were leaving, each one patted David on the back and gave him words of encouragement.
In the Bentley, Kell Thorn caught Harry Krisman's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Did you come away with the same feeling that I did?"
"You see an awful lot for a newcomer at this business, Judge."
"I keep telling you, Harry, I've been around a long time. My time in court counts double. I should have received combat pay for it, or extra course credit if you'd rather go that route. I'm as convinced as you are that David Crestwood did not stay in his room all night. I don't know where he went or what he did, but he did not stay in his room all that night. Too sure. Too vociferous. Especially in comparison to his other answers. I still don't believe he killed the old prof, but he's hiding something from us."
"This is something we will not tell Max, right, Judge?" Harry was staring in the rearview mirror. Their car discussions always seemed to go through the rearview mirror.
"That's one thing we'll keep from her," Kell Thorn kept his smile for himself. "Now what beats in that head of yours?"
"We go back to the prof's office and do it all over again. If it's a real passion we're dealing with, and he's the man that everybody says he was, there is a piece of evidence, a sense of direction, waiting for us. We just need to find it. And Max said she was going to get into his computer. Never can tell. Not in this day and age you can't."
Max the Most let them into the professor's office in Morrison. Nothing had been touched since they had last left it, before the trip to Franklin, Maine, before Lucille, before the visit with David Crestwood, before the specter of George Hinckler's passion had risen as if from darkness of the grave itself.
"You go into the computer, Max," Harry said, "and the judge and I will start at opposites ends of this room and go right past ourselves. We have no idea what we'll find. We might not even recognize it if we find it, whatever it is. Play it by ear, play it by instinct. Remember who and what the old prof was and what his routine had been. He was at something. Whatever that was is what we're looking for." Like a timekeeper he looked at his watch.
Finding a needle in the haystack is like finding a new star in the galaxy," Max the Most offered as she sat in front of the computer, "or a new formula."
The screen lit up in front of her throwing an ethereal blue light on her face. Her fingers were deft on the keyboard. She was absolutely not out of place, no matter how forcefully her breasts pushed against the material of a pale green blouse.
At the far end of the room Kell Thorn began looking at the first of a hundred or more books that sat on the shelves of Professor George Hinckler's bookcases. He extracted the first book, one on probabilities, and opened it wide. No inscription. No message. He moved on to the next book. And the next.
At the desk Harry Krisman felt under each drawer, checked for attachments, checked for any alien or secretive edges. Checked for inadvertent cubbyholes or special compartments. Nothing turned up. Nor were any drawer contents more revealing than they had been before. The usual was spread before him.
The computer meanwhile hummed its song. Max the most made it sing. But there was no new song in the music coming from it. The mouse pounced or leaped across the pad and the screen jumped and information she recognized at a glance flew its microscopic way. Charts came and went. Graphs. Visual aids. And student histories. With all of it went much of the apparent energies that George Hinckler had expended in the Chair of his department at Bandley College.
Two of the professor's rank books lay in one drawer. Harry looked at them. He saw the grades spelled out for the students. He saw David Crestwood's A's and B's spill across more than one line. He read all the student names. Nothing came of the exercise.
Max the Most went through reams of material and information. Nothing came up on the screen that she could treat even questionably. It was all cut and dried and in its numeric place. It was all so probable and predictable.
It was over thirty minutes later, and from the other end of the office, that Kell Thorn said, rather emphatically, "Uh huh."
The other two searchers turned to look at him.
He motioned Harry and Maxine over to one of the bookcases. The judge was in one of his rather expensive suits. The pressed line on one sleeve of elegant material ran on in its continuous way into his pointing index finger. His index finger flowed across a variety of upper case lettering, across the stream of titles on the spines of all the books. All were predictably tailored, selected, in the chief interests of the old professor. All seemingly telegraphing George Hinckler's role in life. Chances and probabilities and mysteries of numbers. Accountancy and related topics were all that spoke back at them. All the business of arithmetic and numbers and analyses. There were rows and rows of routine titles and a routine life behind such titles.
Then the judge placed his index finger on one title. A book in the middle of the third row in the second bookcase. Each case had five shelves brimming with both darkness and colors, color coming from a few book jackets, it appeared. His eyes were opened wide. As if a long-lost secret were about to be unfolded, taken from its darkness, he nodded his head to where his finger lay.
They looked down his finger to the inscription on a book.
The faded blue spine read THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE.
"Note all the other titles," he said, sweeping his hand across the spectrum of the two bookcases.
It was the singular piece of fiction on any shelf, in either bookcase. It stood out to all three of them, as much an anomaly as a message. In his routed way, all of them immediately supposed, George Hinckler had covered a back door. He had played the long odds and would not let himself be the loser. This was an unknown part of an equation coming to light.
It could not be anything else.
Kell Thorn gestured to Maxine. She looked at Harry Krisman. He nodded back to her. She was why they were there, in that room, at this task, in the first place. Marvelous Max the Most. The uncovered woman Harry Krisman had found one day at the BPL. The woman whom former Judge Kell Thorn admired as much as Harry loved her. Max the Most and her Maine roots, her inclinations, her warmth and admiration for a murdered man who was, in his life, pushed by a passion they could only guess at.
And that passion was as much mystery as his death. Perhaps more.
Max was dressed in a pale green woolen dress that hugged her the way Harry hugged her. Her breasts filled the woolen clutch. Light danced an excitement and an expectation in her eyes. Slowly she reached for the book. It slipped slowly but easily out of place. Neither time nor moisture nor any residue caused it to stick to its neighbors. It had not been stuck in place, unused. She opened the book. As if indexed for them, bookmarked, it opened to a piece of folded paper which lay thrust against the tight grip of the binding.
She took the paper out of the book and lay the book on top of the bookcase and the sheet of paper across the body of the book.
It was a piece of graph paper that was probably near white in its original state. It was well-worn. The blue lines of its graphed squares were faded almost to invisibility, the way the horizon is sometimes gone. Hand stains lurked at the creases, as if human oil had been wiped on, wiped off, wiped on, a territory marked. The shine of many fingers had worked its way along the edge of the creases. George Hinckler's touch seemed so evident across the faded field of the graph, a grasp at papyrus, a memorial of sorts.
Max the Most unfolded the paper.
A series of hand-drawn parallel lines were etched across its surface. The lines did not all move in the same direction. They seemed to be in smaller groups or sections and were random at first note. Two hand-drawn darker and more permanent lines formed an upside-down T. The lines wandered off the edge of the paper. There was an arrow pointing toward the T.
The three of them studied the paper for long moments. Some of the parallel lines were in ink. Some were in pencil that had smudged. Some pencil lines were crossed over with ink lines. Then they noticed a sort of enclosing line around the edge of the paper. Most of that line was straight, but in sections, and a small portion was somewhat curved, but opposite the T.
Max the Most slowly drew her hand across the bottom of the paper, below the inverted top of the T. Across that portion of the paper, in widely separated spaces, were the letters M A L T B Y.
"It's a land plot, a layout of the land across from the Maltby farm," exclaimed the judge. That arrow is North," he further stressed.
Max the Most put her hand on Harry's shoulder. "It's all down in Franklin, Harry. He knew we'd find this. He left a trail for us to follow. It's a trail of aberrations, anomalies, of deviations. It's the mathematical mind letting us know that there is a route to all this mystery."
She remembered the day she had come to work in his department. He had greased all the skids for her, with all the other department members, the administrators. She had known there was a special grace about the man. Now a sense of that grace came rushing at her.
Harry Krisman and Kell Thorn felt it too.
And Down Maine called them back.
Leaving the office, the paper in her hand, Max said, "This is something he didn't leave to chance."
In the general store/diner of sorts/gas station on Route 182 in Franklin, Maine, Audrey's Place, southerly side heading east, on a ruggedly chipper late October Sunday afternoon, Audrey Lightizer, Mother Goose of the Store as the youngsters of the area called her, served up a late breakfast customer. On the three-stool counter she placed a plate of fried eggs, a most generous slab of ham and a double dose of home fries and re-cooked beans. She stacked a plate of dark toast beside the main dish and poured more coffee into the mug in front of her customer, Harland Grovers. He lived less than a mile away from Audrey's Place, on a large place of his own, out along the easterly running Route 182, heading toward the Bluehill Tower and Cherryfield.
Audrey Lightizer was a woman as large as life. She had ponderous breasts and thick wrists, but had kind and knowledgeable eyes. She could measure things well without putting out her tape or ruler, and that included the spirits of a man and the things that made him tick. As she once said herself, "I been cooking chicken eggs for so long, I ought to know what's up with a rooster."
" 'Preciate your business, Harlan'," she said, "though you eat your breakfast down at the wrong end of the day. Might straighten your clock up one day, you might, if it won't bother the cow, if you had a cow worth bothering." She laughed way down in her throat. Her breasts shook slowly, heavily.
"Don't go politickin' on me, Audrey," he said, eyeing the small mountains moving in front of him. "Gets right uncomfortable after me comin' in here for breakfas' for better part of twenty years. Twenty years since Mabel called it a day." His voice carried it like M-a-y-B-E-L-L-E, very heavy on the second syllable as if he were purposely giving the name a hint of discredit. He counted out twenty on his fingers as though at that exact moment he was remembering each year in detail.
"Twenty long ones, at that." Smiling at her, he dug into his home fries, spearing a whole forkful. The edges were burned black with a crispness he loved. They crunched between his teeth, but his eyes spoke of flavor and acceptance.
A red and black lumberjack shirt, a few sundowns since a wash, "a moon and then some," as Audrey might have added, draped big as a sail on him. He was a large man, wide in the shoulder, now a little wider at the waistline. Enormous hands dominated the plate in front of him. Their wide, thick fingers looked as if they could pry nails out of wagon bottoms, or spikes. His shoulders sloped more from the effects of a long time cinched in labor than from the weight of the years. In truth some of his neighbors thought of him as an enduring mule. His skin was permanently bronzed from the sun and the wind and whatever temperatures and rigors he had fought against in his life. It had a near-metallic sheen to it that made him appear rigid and unbending.
He was, without a doubt, a Down East survivor at a glance.
Recessed under a heavy skull, his dark eyes seemed full of curiosity. "Who're those fellows over with Carlton Evers last week? Hung around' most of the day I hear. Were up on the hill too? Nice little car they had, that little black one. Kind of pert and sassy if you ask me. Seems awful small for that big feller, the bigger of the two, the one with the doo-dad clothes. Looked mighty prosperous he did. Fact is, so did the other feller, sum total of that."
He had put his portion of knowledge out, as if on the countertop for show; choosers-takers be damned.
Audrey Lightizer shook her head behind the counter, and smiled right into the eyes of her customer. Strands of graying hair that had not known a recent comb fell haphazardly and awkwardly about her face. She might have been called disheveled, but she was usual, she was her acceptable self. Her sweater, a solemn golden sweater of heavy material, and with a broken zipper, was almost too casually thrown over her shoulders. It had a small major-league stain on the front of it but it did appear to be warm.
Tapping the counter in front of his plate, she said, "Play me no games, Mr. Wants-To-Know-It-All."
"They up here working on how old George got hisself kilt?" Harland Grovers was into his fried eggs with a flourish. They were wet and yellow as sunflowers.
"Strange man, that old George. He kept comin' back to an old haunt. Walkin' around like he was lookin' for gold treasure all the time. Diggin' in the ground all over with that iron rod of his. Like to hit the plumbin', he was, if we had any. Strange man, not that I didn't like him, mind you. Tell you best truly, I had my mineral rights all checked out again in case he found somethin' I didn't look for way back when Mabel got the place from her daddy. Got to keep up with your rights these days, Aud."
He had used the diminutive of her name for the first time in the conversation and the woman smiled at him.
An onlooker, with any suspicions, would presume it had happened before, at the same speed of conversation.
She poured more coffee. "You drink it like there's no tomorrow, Harlan'."
"Ain't rightly countin' on too much of it, says I. I take in much as I can now, these days. Sleep. Dream some. Wake. Light the fire. Milk the cow where it's worth botherin'. Then some." He smiled again. The still-white incisors were large as tile pieces.
"They're kinda detectives, the way I understand it. Not real police, but kinda private like," Audrey Lightizer said. "One of their friends worked with George at that there college down there in Taxachusetts. Don't want to let any moss get growed on it if they kin help it."
"What brings them all the way up here? Seems odd, don't it?" Harland Grovers was into his third piece of toast and had devoured the home fries after poking them through the yellow eggs.
"They findin' anything that looks peculiar? Chrissake, come to think of it, Miriam Maltby's been gone almost as long as Ma-bel. All that's older than yesterday's news. Can't be workin' on that cold end of things, can they? Seems real odd, don't it? What's Carlton Evers have to say about them? "
"Why, you're a snoop yourself, Harlan'. You got more quiz in you than Miss Beirline down at the grade school. You got interests you ain't saying?"
She moved a hand through her hair and brushed some of it back on the side of her head. Mot much of it stayed moved, but it was plain it was a gesture they both understood.
Harland Grovers was wiping his plate with the last piece of toast. "You didn't say if you think this whole thing is goin' all the way back to Miriam's gettin' knocked over and drug across that hill over there, Aud? You holdin' to any of that?"
He pushed the empty plate toward her and patted his stomach.
"If we were to think that, Harlan', we'd be tyin' her dyin' and George's killin' right back into one little ball of wax."
He wiped his chin with a paper towel she had put out on the counter. "Well, Aud," he said, "if they're bent to drug it through the butter again, sure and somethin' gonna get to stickin' where it wasn't stuck before."
"Right you are, Harlan'. Never know what's hidden lest you turn over a few stones."
She flicked her hand at her hair again. "You want to come by later for some wine. Come by a jug of muscatel in a small trade with Benton Gurney I did." Her suddenly bright eyes had twinkled when she said "later later."
" 'S'pose that means a bathin' almost in the middle of winter." A laugh came from the range of his chest, a deep rumbling laugh from a gorge or chasm of origin. Up off the stool he heaved himself the way he might have done twenty years earlier.
"Right again you are, Harlan'. Amazin' how smart some men get in their old age."
The bell hanging on a curved band of steel over the door clanked a brassy denseness as the door opened and Merchant Blore walked in.
Under her breath but loud enough for Harland Grovers to hear, Audrey Lightizer said, "Jeezus God, this I don't need any time before Friday week!"
Harland turned on the seat of the stool to look at Merchant Blore who was in a red and black lumberjack shirt with the tail hanging out. "Merchant, you come down off'n the hill again. You run outta tobacco or spit?"
"I seen you musta had breakfas' agin, Harlan'. Good thing the chickens and the cows ain't lookin' to you for clockin', they'd be late on eggs and milk for everybody else from here to Cadillac Mountain. I jest need a good cigar for later on and a pack of butts to help me get there."
He put a five-dollar bill on the counter and Audrey picked it up, reached for a cigar in a dark wrapper and a pack of cigarettes and put them on the counter. The cigar looked like a small salami.
"Had some company, ain't we?" said Merchant Blore. His lips moved very little when he spoke as though he were trying to hide his teeth. They were not white and not healthy looking, tobacco stain in full residence. A few of them were missing in one corner of his mouth. Dark eyes seemed spelled over, sort of inattentive at the least, or carrying permanent disdain for things usual. His nose was very large and very narrow and stopped abruptly in the darkness under his eyes.
An inert, smokeless cigar stub was clamped between two fingers and looked like it was an aberrant growth.
He had always made Audrey Lightizer uncomfortable. His beard was dirty, as if he'd strained some of his last meal through it.
"You mean them outlanders in the fancy little black car that's been arunnin' around here?" said Harland Grovers. "Didn't much think you noticed it more'n me, Merchant, being up there on that incline. Seems, 'cording to Aud here, that they're chasin' after whoever or whatever done in poor ol' George Hinckler down there at the college. Aud and me think maybe it gits to tie in somehow with Miriam's death so long ago. But don't know's that can't be stretchin' things a bit much."
His mouthful said, out in front and proper, Harland Grovers closed his mouth and just sat back on the stool, his back resting against the counter edge. His elbows splayed wide over the countertop and his hands hung over the edge big as catcher's mitts.
Merchant Blore threw his dead cigar stub in an open trash box, opened the pack of cigarettes and lit one up. Smoke caught in his eyes as he turned around and said, "Folks from down that way always seem to work the dog end of the trail. Like as they think they know which end is up."
Audrey Lightizer went a long way back in her mind. It always happened when Merchant came into the store. He triggered a distaste in her, a bothersome distaste, she often felt had no solid ground, but happen it did, like it or not. She could see him way back there at school, in the odd way he had about him, and all the kids teasing him and yelling, "Merchant Blore, he can't sell no more! Merchant Blore, he don't keep no store!"
Merchant Blore knew that Harland Grovers had said his last pronouncement. There'd be no more coming from him. And he knew it was just as difficult as ever to get two words out of Audrey Lightizer. Chrissake, she'd been that way ever since she was a kid.
He had always felt the strangeness and sudden distance in him when it came to parting company with anybody. He was never sure whether to say the last word or not. Whether or not the last word was supposed to be his. It was fair discomforting. He knew he'd often, in haste or uncertainty, said the wrong thing.
And this time he knew he had done it again when he said, "Hell, George and Miriam are probably at each other again wherever they are right now."
Harland and Audrey kept their understanding nods to themselves. But each reflected that Merchant Blore, had a time or two, been known to peep a little. And, truth, had probably watched Miriam and George in the upstairs bedroom or in the barn or out on some soft meadow a proper night. There had been no rush for that pair of birds, no rush to get anyplace else than where they were at.
Audrey Lightizer let go a diminutive sigh from such a large body when the door closed behind Merchant Blore. She rang the sale up on the cash register.
Harland Grovers, standing beside the stool, said, "He's odd at the mouth, ol' Merchant, but he's all ours, Aud. Franklin bred to be Franklin dead. Just winds his clock a little different. Don't push his paddle too deep"
He smiled at her as he said, "See you after the water treatment."
She fixed her hair a bit. When she looked at Harland he was nodding with a smile on his face.
At Max the Most's apartment, late afternoon sun sprawled in the rooms like an old cat in a slow stretch. Shadows were beginning. Harry Krisman knew Max was out of sorts. He'd seen her preoccupation since he had first come in. Her pursed lips were poser lips, a question knowingly sitting just behind them, ready to be asked. The taste of them was almost taste on him, but the timing was on the wrong cusp of the wrong house.
"Why don't we get out of here tonight and do something different, Max. I'll be going back up to Maine tomorrow. We can kick the can on this case until the morrow comes."
She brightened. It wasn't often that she had to brighten because she was so often upbeat about practically everything. Down Maine had made her right, Harry Krisman announced to himself.
"What calls where?" she said, coming across the room towards him. A soft woolen dress, tan and huggy, rounded on much of her, moved with her every move. A string of off-white pearls hung at her neckline. Her earrings were small, white, and elegant. Her blonde hair was still piled atop her head in an intriguing clump because there were no pins or bungies visible. Even caught up in a sense of preoccupation, she was a most dazzling creature. Her eyes began to glow.
"Something with some excitement, "she said. "Some action."
"How about us going to a hockey game?" he said, looking down at the sports pages of the Boston Globe.
"Bandley's season doesn't start until next week," she replied. "One of the captains told me in class this week. And they're out of town for the first two games, someplace down in Alabama of all places."
She looked a little disappointed.
"Let's go down to B.U. and see the Terriers play. UVM is in town tonight. It could be a good game. Lots of noise there at the rink. Big crowd. Old, young, colorful. Even the band will be there. You'll enjoy it. Anyway, I'd rather go see a college game than go see the Bruins on some nights, especially these days."
"Can I go like this?" She made a semi-pose in front of him. It was almost lewd, but not quite. It was provocative.
"You can go anywhere in the world like that," he said, "and then some." There was in the air between them the raw taste of being at the edge of dark beauty.
They parked the car near the B.U. rink and walked a half block over to Babcock Street. When they got to the doors of the rink a series of signs blazoned out on glass and on brick, TONIGHT"S GAME SOLD OUT, INCLUDING STANDING ROOM ONLY TICKETS.
The signs were all over the rink building and adjoining walls, as if a political hack had strewn his placards at random
"What'll we do now, Harry?"
His hand squeezed her hand. "Follow me. We'll try to find some tickets. Maybe a scalper or a student trying to scrape up a few bucks."
There were only a few people in the lobby a little more than an hour before game time, one lithe and slim athletic-looking woman who had to be six-foot two or so, and half a dozen men. Two ticket windows were open but there was nobody in line or behind the windows.
The SOLD OUT signs were pasted on the windows of the ticket offices.
Harry Krisman could see that all the people in the lobby kept looking at Max the Most including the tall, lithe woman. A very gracious and pleasant feeling came over him. It was a repeat feeling that he had known a number of times. He had known it when he first saw Maxine at the BPL, when she was sort of 'undercover' as he had called it, again when they had made love for the first time and he knew his search was over, and now again he felt it. An aura, a sphere of influence or attraction, glowed about the woman he had selected for life, and who had selected him. He remembered the open but profound look on her face when he had followed her to her Bandley College office from the BPL. He'd been standing outside her door after she entered her office, when the door suddenly opened and she said, "You've been following me since the BPL. If it's personal, come on in. If it's otherwise, you can buzz off," or something to that effect. He shook a little to think he might have forgotten her exact words. He struggled to hear them again.
A bright, red-faced man in his mid forties had stepped to the ticket window after he had looked at Max the Most just the way other men had looked. He had dark curly hair, bright blue eyes and was a happy-looking man. He smiled easily.
Harry read into the situation; an alumni picking up reserved tickets, possibly influential. It was worth the chance. Harry approached the man and introduced himself. He pointed out Max the Most and said, "I've brought her all the way down here from Franklin, Maine just so she could see a great hockey game. She's really excited. We get here and it looks like we'll be shut out. Do you think there are any tickets at all available? Perhaps in some little corner of the office?"
"My gosh," said the happy-looking man. "Franklin, Maine? Small world, isn't it? My name is Dick Kelley. I'm picking up a couple of tickets for me and my best friend Marty Clapton. We skated with the BU coach many years ago. Marty and I have a camp in Cherryfield, Maine. That's the next town over. We hunt up there. Some fishing, too. Small world, indeed. If I see the coach or anybody else who can help us out, I'll put in a word for you, Harry. And for Maxine." He sent another smile her way.
"Wait until I tell Marty. He won't believe it. Small world gets smaller, I tell you. My uncle, James Clockburn, used to be the Hancock County Sheriff, and that covers Franklin. He was located in Ellsworth, Troop J, but they had all of Franklin under their jurisdiction. Them and the rest of the Staties of course."
Harry Krisman lit up. "Used to be?"
"Yes. He retired about nine or ten years ago. Got banged up pretty badly in a car accident. One of those wild chase scenes. Hit a tree. Almost lost his leg. He says some days he might be better off if he had lost it. Gives him all kinds of hell."
"Nothing he can do for it?" said Harry.
"A few beers now and then is about the best medicine he can take."
"My kind of medicine," said Harry, and then he explained part of the situation on the Hinckler case, Max's interest, her total feelings about the murder, about her student's arrest, and how he, Harry Krisman, private detective, would like to get an interview with the retired sheriff of Hancock County, if any intercessions were needed.
"Piece of cake," Dick Kelley said. "I'll take care of it." They swapped cards. Dick Kelley smiled again at Max the Most. Harry Krisman had that good feeling again, felt it surge through his small frame.
The BU hockey coach, Jack Parker, came into the lobby from his office. He and Dick Kelley hailed each other and went into a tight conversation, and the coach departed. A few moments later a young man approached Harry and Max the Most and handed them two tickets, smiled at Max the Most, turned and left them.
Dick Kelley shrugged his shoulders. "Wait until Marty hears about this. It'll bust him. He should be here pretty soon. He had to coach a PeeWee hockey game in Newton after a golf outing at the Cape. He won't believe this."
Max the Most, professor of accounting, and Harry Krisman, private detective, saw the B.U.-UVM game with Dick Kelley, communications specialist, and Marty Clapton, Pee Wee hockey coach and golfer among other things.
Max the Most absolutely loved the game. A lot of people in the crowd had split vision during the game, taking in the rink action, eyeing Max the Most lighting up the usual aura all around her.
When it came to BU hockey, Max the Most was a stick out.
And before the night was over, from a pay station in a sports bar on Comm Ave, Harry Krisman had an interview set up with the retired sheriff of Hancock County, Maine, James Clockburn, at his home in Ellsworth. Dick Kelley had delivered on his promise.
James Wasshaye Clockburn was a piece of work. But he was not, it was easy to see, turned out by any Swiss watchmaker. He was a firmly built six foot three in his stocking feet and from the word go was a survivor of all things Maine. He'd been a handsome dude in his day, now gray-haired, red-faced, weathered by so much rawness in his time his skin was leathered.
He had hailed Harry Krisman and Kell Thorn from the doorway of a spacious log cabin built on a hill looking down on Route 1. Waving at them with a newspaper in his hand, he had motioned them on in as if they were going to miss something special. He wore a soft gray woolen shirt that had more room in it than needed. His pants were dark green and had a red stripe down the side. A retirement uniform, thought Harry Krisman, a hunk of the relic still in place. He instantly liked the big man.
Kell Thorn had liked him too from the outset, but his mind was a ways off in Gray, where they had again stopped for breakfast. Lucille had sped unabashedly to their table. In her early morning tiredness, a bit granular with the late breakfast hour, she grinned up a smile for the judge. She was still in pink.
Harry had noticed Thorn's hand hanging at the edge of the tabletop in the booth. In her own explicit fashion, Lucille had pinned the judge's hand between the edge of the table top and All The Outer Hebrides, The Seven Cities of Cibola, the Mound of Venus. The judge, eternal explorer, chart maker, overseer of knowns and unknowns, had not moved his hand. Harry Krisman had instantly felt the wheel of the Bentley in his own hands again.
Constants still ranged about them.
James Clockburn's spacious cabin was on the southbound side of the road and had a porch on three sides. At ten in the morning the sun splashed across the porch and through all the east-facing and south-facing windows. A bed of hardy cabbages along the front of the cabin still glowed with purple life. Testaments, one might say, of green thumbs or hardy roots.
"Coffee'll get to walkin' on you if you don't get at it. Melba's got us a special pot going. Thinks you boys from down south like the aromatic kind." He scrunched his nose and shook his head.
He called his wife out from another room. "Melba, I want you to meet Harry Krisman and Judge Kell Thorn. Like as you know you can tell who's who of the pair. This little one sure don't look like no judge. So that's the cut of it. They got some kind of action goin' on the professor thing from Franklin. He owned that place on 182 with the new white picket fence just past Audrey's Place. Was killed by unknowns down there at his college near Boston. Rank it was to say the least. They got here through my sister Pat's son Dickie. Called from some noisy bar in Babylon or Bohemia or Bessarabia late last night, he did. Like to woke the mindful dead of Hancock County."
James Clockburn put his arm around his wife. It was a custom fit.
She was gray-haired, round-faced, buxom. She had an authentic Down East smile that melded with her glasses, and a softness. Her face said patience and pleasure all over it. She wore a pale printed dress and a red and green apron. She had no jewelry, no make-up, and exercised no pretensions in her manners.
"This here, gentlemen, is the mother of the brood." He motioned at the mantelpiece over the fireplace. Pictures of youngsters and young adults, and what they had fully grown into, were scattered with a haphazard tenderness across the mantelpiece and nearby beams. Every beam and board of the building had a part of its surface exposed on the inside of the over-sized cabin. Board, beam, trestle, joist, lintel, still with their newly-pared or debarked edges on view, exhibited a clinging strength in the cabin.
It suited both the man and the woman. It said that all the parts fit.
"Had a sackful, she did," James Clockburn said. "Six boys and Victoria-Jean. That's James." He pointed at one picture. " Coaches high school football near Pittsburgh. McKees Rocks, a hotbed of high school football. Has had two state championships and lives on the side of a mountain of stone. Paul, here, is in sales. Paul is into money. Timothy has a piece of land north of here that he makes talk with. Leonard is career in the Air Force. Right now we don't know where he is. Neither does his wife. Michael and Richard have a small company down in Bangor. They're goin' to work for a livin'."
James Clockburn's eyes lit up when he said, "This is Victoria-Jean." He held out a picture of a very attractive girl with dark hair and bright features. She resembled her mother in a striking way." All the boys wait for her to come up with ideas. She's the one got this place goin' for us. Picked out the land, the design, and then made the boys pay for it havin' done her part. We call her Vicky-J and she lives down your neck of the woods. In Cambridge. Works in the library at Harvard. No husband yet but she's lookin' for him, only he don't know it yet."
He patted his wife Melba on the rear. "Some of that good bagel toast, hon. The kind we save for company." She gave him a partial elbow any Celtic under the basket would have been proud of.
James Clockburn limped slightly to a great-chair in green fabric with a pillowed head, solid oak arms and a well-worn ottoman at its feet.
"Now, boys, we're back in business. I feel up to roundin' up the posse." He snickered for their edification. " What have you got and what do you want?"
Turning before they could answer, he said to Kell Thorn, "How'd you get tailed up in this end of things, Judge? Makes a body wonder."
"A series of viable and deadly promises in court, among other things, to some rather nasty creatures." Kell Thorn spoke from a small bench he had picked out for himself near a piano. The bench fit him well. His clothes were just short of sheer elegant. His gray suit pants still had, after a long ride, after a breakfast at Cole's in Gray, Maine, after his nearly being accosted by Lucille, the same Local 25 tin knocker's press in the seams.
"You stepped on some toes, eh, Judge? A throwback in the modern era. Pleased to meet you, Judge. I kicked a little ass myself. More than not it could be the best part of the job." James Clockburn nodded his full approval.
"Somehow, Sheriff," Harry Krisman said, "we think there's a connection with George Hinckler's murder at Bandley College and his wife's death at the hands of a hit and run driver up here about fifteen years ago."
"I remember it. Knew Miriam Maltby like my own sister. She was a sweet spirit. It always bothered me we never even got to question anybody 'bout that."
Kell Thorn said, "We understand there wasn't a single witness to the accident, Sheriff. Someone found her laying there hours after it happened."
"Right 'bout that, Judge. Almost two hours b'fore someone came by and saw her. She was long gone b'then, a course."
Quizzically he looked at Kell Thorn and then at Harry Krisman. "I'm from the boonies. First one to admit that, but can't see how you get the two of them connected. And after near fifteen years. I will say it's always bothered me more than a mite. I remember thinkin' of somethin' one night, somethin' strange, long after she was in the ground. I was sort of in that near-sleep darkness we have to get acrost before we get to snorin'. I was thinkin' somethin' odd. When I woke up it was gone. Could never bring it back. You ever have them kind of happenin's? Yes, sir. Miriam Maltby was a fair good girl." He went on to add, "As I recall it was fair bad what someone did to her. Must have dragged her half acrost that hill and into some brush. No tire marks that could be lifted. No paint chips or broken parts we could recover. Like as not the whole crown of that hill was kind of swept down."
Harry and Kell then took turns filling in the sheriff about George Hinckler's special rod, his plot, his fifteen years of apparent passion on some quest. They showed him the marked-up plot diagram they'd found tucked away in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
James Wasshaye Clockburn (Wasshaye, he said, meant Tiller of the Boat in one of the Maine Indian tribe languages) could throw no more light on the Miriam Maltby death. He stared at the paper and both of the other men knew he was committing it to memory. At length, however, he did voice that he had a similar feeling, now that the two deaths were interlocked at another level.
"This door is always open to you, night or day. If I can scratch anythin' up out of this dense head of mine, I'll get it to you. Owe it to Miriam." He smiled at them as he looked over his shoulder toward the kitchen. "Never did know George too well. Only seen him once or twice up close, but knew he was around all the time."
"We'll keep you posted, Sheriff." Kell Thorn put out his hand and the big ex-sheriff took it firmly.
"Sure would be nice," James Clockburn said. He was nodding his head thoughtfully.
"How's that, Sheriff?" Harry Krisman said.
"Why, to knock off this case before I have to turn in all my workin' gear."
Carlton Evers rolled in the predawn darkness down the incline of his driveway and onto the pavement of Route 182 westbound. The stars were still brilliant overhead. The wind was off the northeast. The night's cold had not forsaken him. It still had a fearsome edge to it.
The old Ford chugged and talked to him much as an old friend. He worked the choke throttle a few times until the engine smoothed its chugging. It had been a cold-weather vehicle much of its existence and he had grown accustomed to its temperament. His fingers tapped on the steering wheel to an unheard music. A deer leaped past his headlights and disappeared, the tail flagging off the side of the road. It made him smile and nod his head.
There were other animals for him to take care of on the Maltby farm. The feed had to be put out, hay turned. The woodpile had to be checked again. Other windows, besides the ones he had done already, had to be caulked. Requirements and obligations sat well with him. They made him feel neat and punctual. He could still make a hard fist, could tolerate cold when it came right down to it, and size up a needed strength. Perhaps again this morning he'd catch the scoundrel Merchant Blore sitting up there in the brush looking out over all the land. Been at it a long time, had Merchant, though Carlton Evers never knew why or cared much about what Merchant Blore did with the odd lots of his life.
It'd been some months now since he'd first seen the flash of light coming off the hill. He never knew what it was until he saw a western movie one night on television. A cowboy saw the sunlight flashing off an unknown surface high on a hill. It had turned out to be coming off the lens of a small telescope. There had been a number of other times he saw the same kind of flash. It had happened both mornings the detectives were up from Boston with the jaunty black car. It was coming from land Merchant Blore owned, to the south and uphill a ways from the Maltby farm.
Never know what makes a man tick, he'd said to himself, what kind of a wick he burns off. Nor where he leaves his paddles when not working the water. Merchant had been a strange one all his life. This activity didn't stray too far from that. He'd known Merchant to peek a time or two, but it had never bothered him. He had nothing to peek at now, hadn't had any for a long time.
Driving up behind a Maltby barn the one closest to the road, he parked the Ford back there, tight against the double rear doors. At the corner of the barn he looked up the hill across the road. "Now if Grace was here to be apeeked at," he said aloud, "I'd throw a few rounds up thet way just for the pure fun of it. Sure would joy to see ol' Merchant wangle his way out'n there with the lead aflyin' 'bout his ass."
He checked the fire in the old house. It needed a bit of kindling on the still-warm cinders, and a few small chunks of split oak which he put in place and cinched the door tight. The house was fairly warm. The tea kettle rattled as he put it on the stove. A cup and saucer he set to place at the edge of the table.
In the dawn flash of the cool morning he did not put on any lights. His morning inspection went quickly; windows tight, doors tight, no broken glass, nothing odd in the cellar. No night visitors, animal or otherwise. No 'coons diggin' in through the roof, no wayfarers breakin' in. At each point of inspection he nodded as if someone were looking over his shoulder. He accepted the unsaid compliments created out of nothing.
On the kitchen table he placed two large potatoes he had brought up from the cellar. "No sense to lettin' them waste off," he said to himself. They were the same words he'd said on many mornings. Especially after the good man George Hinckler had been killed.
Carlton Evers did not think very often about any will of George's or the future of the farm. He rarely thought about it. His mind had been made up to trust in George and the good Lord. Nobody left who knew the place like he did any ways. Nobody could squeeze it and make it dance like he could. Nobody at all.
Merchant Blore's face came to him in the semi-darkness of the room, in the snap, crackle and pop of the stove beginning to hum, its heat becoming a thickness of itself, like company being in the house with him, having room of their own.
Whatever Merchant Blore was at, what deed or deeds he had concocted, could never be meant to deprive him of what might be his due, of that he was sure. He'd do his best to let it be. Rest was good for the weary. There was warmth to enjoy, among all the other good things in life.
For a few moments he stood by the cast iron stove and reveled in the heat. Then he peeled the potatoes and cut them up and put them in a pan to soak. It would be lunch time before he knew it. The stars would leap away. The sun would jump. It would be lunch time.
Almost in the same instant he thought of lunch, he could feel the dawn strike its match. He went to one of the front windows and looked uphill. Nothing came overtly to his eyes. Staunchly he stood at the window, not moving. Minutes went by. The sun hit at a few remaining leaves, which had kept their lacquer. It glistened off pieces of quartz embedded here and there in outcroppings and rocks fisted out of the earth a long time ago. It found numerous mirror faces to play off across a wide element of creation.
Then he saw it. Not once, but twice. Two flashes in almost the exact spot as before. Merchant Blore checking out the Maltby farm, trying to see what was going on, using a pair of field glasses or a telescope. Nosy Merchant Blore. Merchant Blore the peeper. Merchant Blore the peeker.
Carlton Evers shook his head. Whatever makes some people do what they do is a complete mystery to me.
On the hill, tucked down into a clump of brush near a tree, Merchant Blore wondered where Carlton Evers was. The old black Ford car was nowhere in sight. Not a light was visible from any window in the house. No other cars were around that he could see. The men from Boston were not there. He could tell that little black car of theirs even without the field glasses, the way it sat itself on its haunches, pert and sassy. They were a strange pair, the little one and the big one, dressed to the nines, overstuffed to say the least, not the salt of the earth no way. Not in Franklin!
Then he saw the smoke rising from the chimney at the left side of the house. That'd be the kitchen flue, he thought, and that's new kindling smoke, so Carlton got there ahead of me. He let the field glasses scan over all the property, the two barns, the corral, the spread of land out back that ran against the pine thickness, three former garden plots stiffened into late October. The old pick-up with the plow attached sat beside a relic of a wagon. Beside the wagon, a neat pile of timbers.
Nothing but smoke moved on the Maltby farm.
Down to the left of him a stag and a doe eared up in the stillness, their heads at silent salute, cocked at the quizzical, at their grace. Merchant, in truth, was a shade light of seeing the beauty in their pose. He fell to the ground as a bullet suddenly tore through the thin webbing of branches above his head. It sounded quick and deadly. It tore its way past him. Then he heard the report of the rifle, coming from way off. He was not sure of the direction. The deer came dashing just off to his left. Their hooves echoed in the stillness as they rushed down along a swale and over the hill.
"Fuckin' bastard!" he yelled. "Asshole!" The words ripped out of his throat. His hands and face had nettles on them and were itching almost instantly. Slivers of grass were against his eyes, slight as cobwebs, bothersome. A stick was hard against one ear as he lay on the ground. Then he felt his heart beating the way a forge bellows, only swifter, with a sense of pain in it. Both his elbows and one knee hurt from the sudden fall. An ache was in one thigh, and then it was in his chest again. What the hell would people think if he were found out here, not even dressed for hunting. Everything would come out of the woodwork. Wanting to swear again he couldn't think of the harshest thing he wanted to say, the foulest, to scream it out across the hillside. His own wetness, the moisture of his own breath, was at his mouth with the dampened grass.
He scratched for the reasoning process. If someone was shooting at those deer, the shot had to come from way west of him, at the edge of the swampy meadow. It wasn't likely that someone had come through the swamp this time of morning. This, he said to himself, would have to take some thinkin'.
Not yet daring to move, in case the shot wasn't accidental, Merchant Blore continued to lie on the ground. For a full two minutes he stayed on the matting of leaves and grass and twigs. A series of dire thoughts came to him, thoughts that he had had before, and no shot in the trees had brought them to him those other times. As he was about to rise, as he got to one knee and sort of kneeled on the barrel of his rifle, another round tore through the branches above him. He went down again and half scrambling and half rolling managed to duck behind a small mound of earth and rock. By the barrel he'd dragged his rifle with him, and the backs of his hands were cut and bloody from whatever he had rolled on. The pain was gone in his chest, but a pot of anger began to steam away where he his heart was supposed to be.
"Sonofabitch bastard!" he said through his teeth. Even alone he couldn't say what he most wanted to say.
"Jest spendin' my days windin' down and like to fill them up with somethin' new every now and then. This is about as new as it gets up here, two rich dogs in a spiffy little black car 'n' all nosin' around' Franklin like it was waitin' to be discovered. Can't be too light out some days, seems to me. Detectives, eh? I bet ol' Carlton gets his say or two in there, not that I'd blame him any for that, being as what he's done and doin' around there. What'll happen to the old place now that George is out of the picture and all the Maltby's gone on when poor ol' Miriam went her way?"
The large woman nodded a knowing nod and said, "George was fair honest all plowed up when Miriam died, he was. I kinda liked him for all of that. Never let the place get out of hand. Kinda kept it a Franklin place, mind you, setting Carlton in there like he did. Wouldn't surprise me one bit George takes care of Carlton in his will, 'suming he has a will, of which there's no doubt about that. No boubt adout it."
To be continued...