An Accountable Death: part 7
Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
The men in the house had deliberated at length about how they were going to go after Merchant and his long-buried secret. Sheriff Cal Holender, in charge of investigating the crimes in the town of Franklin, as well as Hancock County, was going into Merchant Blore's fields with one of the metal detectors. Harry Krisman, treated as a volunteer but with considerations, was allowed to utilize the second metal detector. Deputies Hagrider and Tash were to keep their eyes open on the hillside. Brynne Morgath and Kell Thorn were relegated to ringside seats at the windows of the Maltby house.
Retired Sheriff James Wasshaye Clockburn was going to sit in the front hall of the Maltby farmhouse. He was assigned the old Hawking rifle which had belonged to George Hinckler, the one which Carlton Evers had fired uphill at Merchant Blore some weeks earlier.
Sheriff Clockburn was a dead shot with his glasses on.
Cal Holender had said, "I'll let you go on this trip, Harry, but if anything breaks out, I want you to high tail it out of there. Get your butt end down and get out of sight. I don't need any more goddamn paperwork 'cause I'm up to my elbows in it now."
Harry Krisman said, "Don't worry about me, Sheriff. I saw what Down Mainers can do with a rifle on the way up here." He told him about the supposed poacher they had seen and what he had done with his rifle from the edge of the road.
"Well," the sheriff said, "if Merchant Blore lays his rifle over the limb of a tree and sights down it, your ass could be in a lot of trouble. We've seen what that old boy can do with a rifle, and he might not have been mad at anybody then, just perturbed. I assume he's going to be downright pissed off about all the company he's going to get today. So keep your head down and your ass in gear. What we have to do is to find that damn car of his. If we don't find it, we might end up with nothing at all on old Merchant."
Jim Clockburn, from his post in the hall, said, "I'll keep ol' Merchant busy if anything starts up."
The Hawking was hefted over his head. It was solid and heavy looking and very ominous. "Mighty lak a gun," he chortled, and shook it again. He looked like a desperate, idle man called back on the job by a suddenly thoughtful boss.
The other men slipped into position as Sheriff Cal Holender and private detective Harry Krisman, splitting up, walked across Black's Pond Road, Route 182, toward the land owned by Merchant Blore, sitting uphill, behind a tree, with a rifle in his hands.
The two men were about twenty-five feet apart.
The Sheriff, who had studied George Hinckler's plot plan, carried the plan in one hand and the metal detector in his other hand. At his side was a .38 police special, which nested, in a brown holster. The sheriff's Stetson rode high on his head. His heavy gray jacket made him look larger and more imposing than he really was.
The badge of his office was very visible on his jacket. It caught at the sunlight in flashes of movement.
Harry Krisman, in a dark blue padded jacket, a dark blue stocking cap with a couple of white stripes in it, and faded dungarees, walked slowly across the road with the sheriff. He kept thinking about Max the Most and how he'd be able to tell her what had happened, after it all had happened. He looked uphill and saw nothing. But he knew Merchant Blore was probably at that moment looking right down at him. He hoped it was not over the sights of a rifle.
The two men, now about thirty or thirty-five feet apart, drifted further down the pastureland at the foot of the hill. They moved slowly toward a low spot on the land, which, according to the plan, was a lead-in to a long irregular tract not lined-out by the professor.
The metal detectors clicked and buzzed lightly, infrequently, as the men walked, sparse inferences that an old horseshoe or a rake tine or an old spike lay in the earth. Nothing with any body to it came under their search.
The two men walked slowly across the unmarked terrain.
A flock of birds, geese of some kind, thought Harry without a good look, swung a long, looping Vee across the far hill. Their cries rang out as dull as drums.
From far off a shot was heard and then another, the sound carrying clear and long on the cold air of the morning. The hunters were afoot. Staples, for some tables, were being gathered. Life was going on, and Harry Krisman, out of his precinct, out of his bailiwick, for the very first time since he had come to Maine, began to feel tightness in his throat, a faltering in his breathing.
He tried to measure all of what was coming at him, where he had been, what he had done. It was difficult. There was the threat of hyperventilation; it was evident in his chest, a feeling he had not known before. The metal detector began to get heavy in his hands, though he continued to swing it in searching little arcs over Down East Maine.
Ahead of him, and off to his right, the sheriff was making the same motion, but he appeared to be walking faster, perhaps with more purpose.
The idea of measurement came back to Harry Krisman and he thought of Maxine Humdroph again. She had opened up all of life for him, including his current activity. Because of her, he was here, the girl who could wear hats like no other girl could wear them, who loved flight as he did, who could nest the way nesting was meant. He was not here because of George Hinckler or Miriam Hinckler or Carlton Evers or Harland Grovers or even Merchant Blore. Love had brought him into this foul field.
For the very first time he was uneasy with it.
To his right the sheriff was dipping out of sight down a small incline. Harry saw the Stetson disappear like a rabbit going down a hole. His own detector clicked lightly again and he guessed at a small piece of iron thrown from a wagon a hundred years ago or some clasp material from leather traces.
Another century heard from.
Time welled as visible as rock faces or granite ledges dotting the terrain. Time and harsh certainties.
The cold he felt on his cheeks and at his fingers. The ground was harder underfoot. Another shot, more distant than before, came rolling across the low part of the fields. It was dull still, like worn-out thunder too far off to be worried about.
Merchant Blore came back into his thoughts. He tried to picture a man trying to bury a car in the middle of a field, maybe in the middle of the night. In a great leap of his mind, he tried to measure the panic and desperation, which must have been about that man. And a grim death hanging its weight all over him. The parts did not come easily, though he could somehow feel the tools of measurement exerting themselves in his mind.
Neither of the men in the field could see Merchant Blore.
Uphill of them, the sun behind him, Merchant Blore now slid along behind a growth of bushes and kept his eye down on the men. Anger of the most visible kind was working on him. They were on his land without his permission. He'd make them pay for that, sheriff or no sheriff, law or no law. The rifle in his hands was a Springfield Ought Three he had gotten long before the Packard Red Speeder had come into his life. It was clean and oiled and had been ready to fire every single day he had ever owned it. A man has to take care of things up here. He'd always known that. You do what you have to do, no two ways about it. If you have to beat at it, you beat at it. No straw horns or straphangers can stand in your way. Like going down to Boston that time was a thing he had to do. You laid out what patch you had to weed and you went at it until you got done of it, weed by weed and as grubby as it can get, until it was cleaned as a berry in a bowl. Perhaps all this had meant to come down to this one single cold day. He'd been so long with the thoughts of her. She had been the most special thing that had come into his life ever and he had ended it as quick as it could be ended. Hadn't he had enough of pain, losing her like that, and not his fault 'cause she had come out of nowhere on the road? Sometimes he even wondered if she had stepped from behind a tree on purpose, to get even with him for looking in on her. She did come from nowhere.
The ground was cold on his knees and his hands as he crawled and snaked his way to stay under cover. Cigarette taste was still in his mouth and he wanted to light up but that would make him look real stupid. The others were obviously still sitting in the house and looking out on his land, sitting in George Hinckler's house, really her house, where he had watched her and him doing it all the time, night after night, week after week, year after year it seemed.
The sheriff in his tall Stetson, he saw, was down in the hollow and closing on the old washtub he'd left out there for years. None of them would ever know it was his salt lick and he'd done a few deer over the years right on that spot. The other fellow, the puny one that came in the little black car, was heading over toward the maple tree that had grown like he had dropped it into a cesspool or a pig sty when he took it from the swamp all that long ago.
He had somehow forgotten how to measure time.
Neither of the two men in the field with metal detectors saw or heard the Honda come zipping down Black's Pond Road and slide heavily into the driveway of the Maltby farm.
Max The Most leaped from the car as Kell Thorn ran out of the doorway.
"Maxine," he yelled. "Come in here quickly!" He motioned to her anxiously, one arm waving out through his cape, one arm hidden by his cape. "There's a man up there on the hill with a gun!"
"Where's Harry?" she yelled, spinning on her feet, looking all about the Maltby farm. Blonde hair tumbled all over her head, likely that she had not combed it at all that morning. She wore no hat and no jacket, but wore a thick green sweater with a collar on it that fell across her shoulders and Levis clutching at her body. A wild blueness had set itself deep in her eyes as if it had been cast there.
She looked tired and terrified all at once.
Kell Thorn pointed out to the field that spread slowly and widely, across much open space, to a crest that was dotted with a few trees.
She saw Harry's blue jacket first. She saw him moving slowly, effortlessly, in the wide field with but a single tree near him. The sudden fear came back to her. It had come to her in the night. It had come full-blown and had come in the person of Miriam Maltby Hinckler, in the midst of her great love, being cut down and away from the one she loved. The tearing, the rendering, the separation, squeezed itself through her blood. The terror had torn her from her sleep. It had forced her to her car and forced her to the four-hour drive up the long road from Waltham.
She had made it in less than four hours.
Much less than four hours.
And the fright and the terror were still in her, still squeezing her veins.
Swooping across the top of the hill, as if trying to split her attention, came a dark-winged bird, perhaps a hawk, riding an unseen thermal, its wings motionless, wide, silent. It turned slowly, majestically, on one wing tip, as if gauging something on the ground. In one quick movement she turned from it, cursed, and ran across the road and into the field.
"Harry! Harry!" she screamed.
Kell Thorn raced after her, his black cape flapping in the cold air, one fist raised on high.
Merchant Blore saw the girl, and then the big man with the funny coat who had come in the little car, running across the road. Their steps seemed slow to Merchant, the way walkers moved instead of runners. Perhaps something was holding them back. Two other men, they must be the deputies he guessed, were in the yard of the Maltby house and pointing up near where he was.
He heard the sound of the girl's voice, high-pitched, carrying. He saw the runt of a man nearing the tree. The sheriff was looking back at the girl. The man at the tree started waving, not at the girl who was running towards him but to the sheriff just coming over the rise of the small hill.
Merchant Blore had a quick vision of his Packard Red Speeder. He remembered putting the brake on so it would not roll just before he started putting earth all over it. He remembered closing the windows tightly so the dirt would not fall in on the lovely fabric. He remembered the pain that rose in his chest, real live pain he had never before felt, and how he had held back a scream that would have shattered the universe and the whole sky and the whole hard rock of Maine and his whole farm if he had let it go. Sounds also came back to him from that awful burial, the earth falling on his great red runner, rocks hitting metals of the body, the engine still turning its great pistons, exhaust fumes rising for a long time as he labored to cover it alive in the hole he had dug with the tractor plow.
The stars had been overhead, a huge amount of them, a whole great field of them like fruit on the bushes, as many stars as there were blueberries in his own field. They had shone down on him and the Red Speeder, the only witnesses to the most intimate burial he had ever attended.
Even her burial was different from that one.
Downhill of Merchant Blore, Harry Krisman heard the sudden thick static of the metal detector. It was live as breathing, like a radio gone wacky, or some odd piece of electronic wizardry he had no clue of. It almost shook the handle of the piece in his hands. He saw the Sheriff Cal Holender waving back at him as he climbed back out of the low spot he had gone down into but minutes before. At a distance he thought he heard a voice calling to him. His breath suddenly caught in his chest and balled itself up. It had caught itself up on sharp edges. He could not get it out. Again and again he tried but it was welled up there in his chest, being clutched at or grasped or pinned by something he had no power over. And it was going to explode in him.
Again, from a distance, he heard the voice calling out his name. It sounded like Max's voice. It was way off. He knew he was hyperventilating and knew the pain and the desperate call for help lost in his throat.
And he saw the shot before he heard it.
It was ignition! Like a match struck in the dark. The sudden flare of a bulb. The tail end of a piece of lightning.
A spark leaped off a rock face right down beside him. It was as if a small piece of that lightning had been left over just for him. Jagged little pieces of rock flew into the air in crazy straight lines. More sparks leaped up and more pieces of rock flew about. They were jagged and sizzling in their sound and he thought about shrapnel. The ground was exploding at his feet.
As if war was at hand!
Then he heard the booming noise of the rifle shot as it came downhill to him, the dull roar of distant shot suddenly as live as thunder. The echo boomed and boomed again and Sheriff Holender screamed and he heard Max's voice again screaming his name and the machine was chattering like an old maids' sewing circle gone on a drunken spree.
Suddenly he knew it was Max's voice. She was out here in the field with him! His Max! Goddamn! He'd heard the gun! It was a gun! Uphill of him. Loud. Thunderous. He whirled around to look, spinning on his feet, the machine still spitting out some crazy kind of message, and the force of something hit at his arm and drove him downward and the machine was still going wild. Then his breath came as he called out her name, the explosion in his chest coming right up through his throat like a tunnel had been blasted clean through a mountain.
The last thing he heard was a booming shot as James Wasshaye Clockburn, with George Hinckler's Hawking laid over the half-door in the front hallway of the Maltby farmhouse, put one very solid round into the chest of Merchant Blore who had suddenly stood up beside a tree on the skyline, the smoking rifle in his hands.
Maxine Humdroph had fallen over the love of her life even as the sound of the rifle echoed again and again in her ears. The blood was a violent red. There was noise behind her, yelling of all sorts, and the sound of another shot. Her arms leaped about Harry to pull him inside the protection of her body. God! she loved him. Let him be alive. Let him be mine forever. She heard Miriam's words rather than see them: George, Go on. Harry, go on, go on. Oh, Harry, Go on, go on! She held him close, the panic of the previous night a wild realization in her mind, a bloody apparition beneath her body. Life froze on the threshold of a cold day.
Now, in the hospital in Bangor, she held him again. Twice he'd been moved and twice she had been there when he woke. Waking again, his chest and arm bandaged and tightly in place, he came slowly out of his darkness. Someplace in that void she had been at his side. That he knew. Now here she was again.
Slowly his head cleared. He saw her face framed in the light, more beautiful than ever.
She clutched his hand. "Harry," she said, her voice warm, inviting, real.
"You used to call me Gyrfalcon," he said.
"Such a game of names, Harry. If it pleases you, I'll do it. I'll call you any thing you want. I missed you. I thought I might never see you again."
She held his hand tightly to her breast. He realized she had no bra on. He announced that realization to her with his eyes.
"It was as close to you as I could get," she said. She looked over her shoulder and he saw Kell Thorn for the first time.
"Hello, Judge," he said. "Did we wrap it up?"
Kell Thorn stepped forward. Harry saw that he was in a suit that would pay the rent on the office for two or three months. His cape was hanging over the back of a chair. Now Harry knew who he looked like. It was an old movie star named Laird Cregar.
"David Crestwood has been released. We found the knife in Merchant Blore's barn, the one he did the professor in with. It was driven to the hilt in a beam in the mow of his barn. Blood tests proved it out. The rifles, though, are another story. We'll have to wait on that issue until the tests are done. He might have swapped firing pins or moved rifles about, but it will all come out in the wash, as they say."
"The car?" Harry Krisman said.
"Right where you found it, Gyrfalcon," Max The Most said, hugging his hand tightly into the loveliness of her breasts. "Right under your feet. Right under the tree in the middle of the meadow. The old Packard he reported stolen years ago. The sheriff is positive it will yield both signs and proof that it was the vehicle that killed Miriam Hinckler all those years ago."
"He was right, wasn't he, Max, the old prof?"
"He was as right as his passion, Gyrfalcon. Can you imagine how he carried that thought with him without letting it break him down? How it drove him all those years. From the very first day I knew he was a special person."
"And he had the same feelings about you, Max, as I understand it." Kell Thorn said.
He threw the cape over his shoulders. "That's reciprocation on a divine order."
"Because she's heavenly?" Harry said.
No," Kell Thorn said, "because he said she was going to be a star. We just have to determine what magnitude he had in mind."
It was two days after the Thanksgiving break had ended and the dawn had broken crisp and clear over the campus of Bandley College. Snow as yet was a distant thought. The air had a slight movement to it and if one tried hard enough the salt in the air could be found, a thin iodized taste in the mouth, at the nostrils, the sea pushing inland. It washed against the red brick buildings dotting both the upper and lower campuses of the college and moved further into the interior.
Gulls, as distant as the iodine from the Atlantic, ever on the search, cruised overhead in scattered details. Now and then flights of them broke up the pale blue sky.
In the air was also a high lightness that was partly illumination and partly spirit. Nothing during the day had hampered either element and students continued to walk about and strut with a new spirit. The football team had won a bowl game for the third year in a row, the basketball team was off to a 3-0 start for both men and woman, and the hockey team was off to a 6-2 start.
And news had come from the north country.
Gossip. Stories. Tall tales.
Much of it had moved around the campus as the salt in the air moved, the thin proof of the tincture from the sea, a snitch of it here, a bit of it there, but as if it was not real yet.
Center stage, at the rostrum in the Pavilion of the Adamian Center for Graduate Studies, looking uphill at the faces of her students in one of her favorite classes of all, Associate Professor Maxine Humdroph held the class textbook over her head. On its spine was the title MONEY, MOXIE AND MOVEMENT, which had been written by Jim Dimilla who was a Bandley graduate in the class of 1985.
She slammed the book shut above her head with great enthusiasm. She wore a pale green dress, high at the collar, a string of pearls, and an unbuttoned off-white sweater. Her smile was dazzling.
"That's part of the good news, ladies and gentlemen. Work is complete for this marking period of the semester. No one is failing. You all get extra credit for helping in a communal activity of significant importance."
The rising sea of faces stared at her. She saw that the doe-eyed blonde was now sitting next to the former Marine, Paul Thorenson, who had a mere few weeks earlier spoken about the entombment in England of a Caterpillar D-6 bulldozer.
Maxine pointed at them and gave them a thumbs-up.
The class to a whole began to titter and whisper and she cut back to her initial message.
"David Crestwood, as many of you know by now, has been released by the police. He is not here today, for reasons of his own, and has decided to drop out of school for the current semester. I know we all wish him well."
Back to Paul Thorenson she sent her eyes, gave him a nod and said, "Authorities in Franklin, Maine, Sheriff Calvin Holender of the Hancock County Sheriff's Department, has proved that our dear professor, George Hinckler, was killed by a Franklin native by the name of Merchant Blore. They have found the ugly instrument of his death driven into a beam of the man's barn and proved it without any doubt."
For almost an hour, looking into their eyes, holding them on the edge of their seats, speaking the language that they understood, she told them just about every detail she knew surrounding the Hinckler case: about Miriam's hit and run death so long in the past, the strange heavy iron rod that George Hinckler carried around Franklin, Maine for fifteen years like an eccentric looking for treasure, the terrible and needless deaths of Carlton Evers and Harland Grovers, the determination, which arose for the first time right here in this room, that the car which killed Miriam Maltby Hinckler had been buried to keep it out of the hands of the police.
She gave Paul Thorenson another thumbs-up salute, which everyone in the class really understood this time. He looked younger than ever to her, yet proven. In a very casual manner he nodded back, his face slightly red, the doe-eyed blonde holding his hand in hers.
Passion for life, for love, for her chosen profession came in her message.
"The little man who sat over there in Morrison on so many late nights trying to improve our lot in life, who made this department what it is today, who slogged his way over the fields with a heavy iron rod in his hands for fifteen years looking for the murderer of his lovely Miriam, is one man that not one of us should ever forget. His very determination and drive must be remembered. For one, I know that I'll always see him as a force in my life."
In the middle of the room Paul Thorenson stood at his seat. The doe-eyed blonde did not stand.
"Ma'am," he said, "we don't know what part you played in this whole thing, but we want you to know we sure appreciate everything you've done, not only for Dave but for Professor Hinckler and his wife." He nodded slowly at her, trying to be as casual as he could, slightly red in the face still, the doe-eyed blonde continuing to hold his hand.
Another cheer went up from the class. It went ringing up the inclined seating to the back of the room and out into the foyer.
It found Harry Krisman and Kell Thorn coming toward it, Harry in a tan topcoat, one empty sleeve loose at his side, that arm of his gathered in a sling, Kell Thorn in his trademark cape, a replacement for his lost robe he had confessed to Maxine under the pressure of a special bottle of Bordeaux which she had opened for celebration on the previous evening.
They had toasted each other royally and often, and James Wasshaye Clockburn for his unerring marksmanship and Cal Holender for his competence and Audrey Lightizer for her lust for life and her bulletin board that showed life in Franklin, Maine would continue on for a long, long time and Doyle Hagrider and Arthur Tash and all the people in between life and death and the continual struggle between the two events.
In their short walk from the parking lot, every student who saw the pair stared at them, the thin slight man with one arm bundled under his coat, the heavy-set handsome man wearing, a bit majestically, a royal black cape over his broad shoulders.
They were an odd lot, the two men, small and large but both handsome, freed up perhaps from a play at the Wang or the Schubert or another stage in Down-town Boston and here on campus to give some kind of demonstration, to prove once and for all that the arts and commerce indeed had a sincere and lasting connection.
They had, it must be known, conferred at length with authorities both in Franklin and in Waltham and made their depositions.
The tree which Merchant Blore had transplanted from the swamp to its spot over the internment of his Packard Red Speeder was cut down and hauled off by Harold Igoe and Jim Wikson. The remains of the antique auto had been uncovered and pulled from the earth. The place on it had been duly noted where Miriam Maltby Hinckler had had the life crushed out of her. Merchant Blore, cold stone dead from a Hawkins' single round, had been put to rest in the harsh earth of Franklin, Maine, as had been Carlton Evers, Harland Grovers, and George Hinckler, for eternity, with his not-forgotten wife Miriam.
Thus the decks were clear for Harry Krisman and Kell Thorn. Time was at hand for the closure. They would see Maxine Max the Most at work, in the place where it had all started for them, and they had arrived as the cheers came flooding at them, rising from the Pavilion.
Max saw them standing behind the last row of students, whose hands were still waving, whose cheering and noise were still climbing and leaving the pitched room.
Partnerships of all kinds she had studied in her courses, those that stayed together, those who didn't, what had failed them or where they had failed each other or their initial missions. She saw Harry and Kell as the odd ends of an odd partnership, brought together from different sources out of different personalities and mindsets, out of different life styles, into the common ground. This was a partnership she believed had all the makings of a long and happy life; that they didn't belong together would make them stick.
Things, she realized, get changed by their looks or things look for the change. This class would change on her, elite as she believed it was; the faces would move on and there would be another doe-eyed blonde looking at a marvel of a man, or vice versa, and she'd be able to observe the meld from her place at the podium.
Some things would never change.
She blushed as she looked at Harry, private detective, bird watcher, lover. The doe-eyed blonde sitting beside Paul Thorenson looked over her shoulder and smiled when she saw the man in the topcoat. She gave Maxine a thumbs-up salute.
Maxine realized everything was open and free from restraint. She threw a kiss to Harry.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the men who solved the Hinckler murder cases, and a whole lot of it by help from this very room," and she pointed out the two men at the top of the classroom.
"Thorn and Gyrfalcon," she said, suffused