A Meeting with Sheriff Strickland
Strickland was quiet for so long I was afraid he was thinking of just pulling his weapon and shooting me. Finally he cleared his throat and spoke very quietly. “Why do you think these two men committed those crimes?”
“Because that’s what I dreamed. I mean, I didn’t dream about the nursing home or about Drake, but in my dream, that’s who killed Alan.”
“Why would they do something like that?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Maybe Marget Lottner was seeing Nathan Burby and he decided to get rid of the competition.”
“So Mrs. Lottner is involved, too,” Strickland speculated neutrally.
“No!” Alan shouted.
I cocked my head, considering. “Well, maybe, but I don’t think so.”
“Ruddy, you know that’s not right,” Alan lectured me.
“I mean, I don’t know that’s not right, but it could be,” I said, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.
Strickland was pondering something. “I’ve read the file on the nursing home explosion probably one hundred times. Did you know a woman named Elizabeth Wexler was killed in the bombing?”
“Liddy Wexler, yes I did.”
“Everyone with a relative at the home was looked at. Franklin Wexler was in Las Vegas that night. I remember that because in the file there’s a picture of him shaking hands with Wayne Newton.”
I shook my head in frustration. “Well, okay, look. I can’t explain it. But, Sheriff, what if when we die, there’s a ... a remnant of us, something of us that stays around sometimes after we’re gone. Something no one can explain or prove, but that can get a message to the living.”
“You’re saying what, that Alan Lottner is communicating with you from beyond the grave?”
“Please don’t tell him, Ruddy,” Alan begged.
“No, just that I think the dream came from him. Sheriff, if you search Burby’s and Wexler’s houses, I know you’ll find the rifle that killed Alan and Drake.”
He shook his head. “No, I won’t.”
“How can you say that?” I asked in frustration.
“Because it wasn’t the same gun. You were wrong about that.”
“I don’t have probable cause to search anything except your home—there was a dead body in the living room, last time I was there.”
“Yes, because Burby and Wexler thought it was me.”
“Nathan Burby is out of town, according to Deputy Timms,” Strickland observed.
“Oh, yeah. Right, I knew that. So it must have been Wexler.”
“If you pull in Wexler for questioning ... ” Strickland raised his cold eyes to mine.
“Oh-oh,” Alan murmured. “He looks angry.” But when Strickland spoke again, it was without heat. “When I was a cop in Muskegon, twenty years ago, one of my first calls was on a woman, shot to death in her bedroom. We were out canvassing the area, checking garages and backyards to see if maybe the perp was hiding in the area. I rang the doorbell of a neighbor and when the guy opened the door, I knew he was the one. I don’t know how I knew it, I just had it, that feeling in my gut, that I was looking at the guy who shot the victim.
“I was just a beat cop then, but when I told the homicide detective about the feeling I had, he followed up on it, and they nailed the guy on forensics.”
Strickland stood up and stared out his window, his hands in his pockets. Then he shook his head. “I am not going to pull in anyone for questioning based on a dream, McCann. You say you have a, a remnant of some kind, but that doesn’t do me any good. I can’t take it to the D.A. and I certainly can’t as a police officer act on it. A man was killed in your living room the other night and you’re an ex-con—those are things I can act on.”
“He’s going to arrest you!” Alan squeaked.
I swallowed. Absurdly, the only thought I had was that if I were taken into custody I would miss my date with Katie to see the sunset.
Strickland wasn’t arresting me, he was dismissing me. “My gut’s been telling me all along that you’re clean on this, that you didn’t kill Alan Lottner. I think you made a mistake you’re going to have to live with the rest of your life, but you’re not the same kind of criminal that lived next door to the murder victim in Muskegon. And I understand that there are some things we can’t explain, like how I knew I was looking at the perpetrator twenty years ago when he opened the door. But what was true then is true now—it takes police work to solve a crime.” He turned away from the window, giving me a sober appraisal. “It’s best you go home now, Ruddy.”
I left the station feeling as if I’d just somehow been found not guilty—but only by reasonable doubt.
Katie and I watched the sun expand into a huge orange ball and drop into Lake Michigan with our arms around each other, and then decided nothing would be more fun for her than to watch me help Becky tend bar.
We drove to Kalkaska, but as we drew close to the Black Bear, traffic—and there never really is such a thing in Kalkaska that time of year—was at a standstill. The congestion seemed at its worst right in front of the bar.
“Why all the cars?” Katie asked curiously.
I looked at her. “I don’t know. Something’s going on.”
We parked at my house and made our way back to the Bear on foot. The place was packed to the walls; I had to shove my way in.
“I had no idea this place was so popular!” Katie shouted to me over the crowd noise.
I shook my head. “It isn’t!”
We fought our way to the bar and found out why there was such a mob: Becky was pouring everyone free champagne. “Ruddy!” she shrieked when she saw me, giving me a huge hug and a kiss.
I reminded Becky that she had already met Katie, and Becky gave her an ebullient hug, too. “I take it that we’re drinking what we’re not giving away?” I asked.
Becky tugged on me and I nodded at Katie to give me a minute. In the back room, things were more quiet.
“This is the best day of my life, Ruddy,” Becky told me. “You know what we got in the mail today?”
“The new Home Depot catalogue?”
“No!” Becky shook her head wildly. She was, I decided, drunk, a state in which I’d never seen her before.
“The money?” I repeated stupidly.
“The sex line sent us the money back. Everything we sent to them, they sent back. We can cover everything and have some left over!”
“They must have interpreted the death of their business manager as a sign of the way you work,” Alan speculated. “They decided to send you the money before you came down to collect it in person.”
“Kermit says that twenty percent of the charges are ultimately good, so we’ll wind up making a profit!” Becky proclaimed.
“That’s great, Becky. It means the Bear is no longer an endangered species?”
“Okay. But free champagne for the entire town? Isn’t that a little excessive?”
“Oh, Ruddy, it gets even better.” She held up her fist and I looked at it.
“The ring,” Alan suggested. I stared at the diamond on her finger, and then up into her radiantly happy eyes. “I’m engaged, Ruddy! I’m going to be married!” I opened my mouth.
“Don’t say it,” Alan warned. “Don’t say anything except ‘congratulations,’ Ruddy. Please.”
“Congratulations, Becky,” I grated.
She threw her arms around me and hugged me fiercely. “Oh, Ruddy, I’ve never been so happy.”
“Okay, good. Good, Becky,” I told her, patting her back. “But enough with the free booze, okay? Go tell everyone that we’re back to being a pay-as-you-drink enterprise.”
She nodded joyously and all but skipped out of the room.
“You see anything coincidental about the fact that we get this money and all of a sudden Kermit wants to marry my sister?” I demanded.
“Isn’t he supposed to ask my permission so I can say no?”
“Who are you, the Godfather? Why should he ask you— seems to me asking Becky would be sufficient.”
“I’m not going to talk to you if you’re going to be like this.”
“I thought you were going to give Kermit a break because he makes your sister happy.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I want to be related to him!”
Trying to spend time with my date proved to be impossible: even with the free alcohol spigot shut off we were crammed with people, and I worked the bar without pause, darn near pouring myself into carpal tunnel syndrome. Katie ran into some girlfriends who ultimately gave her a ride home, laughing off my apology with a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Call me?” she asked, though we both knew the answer. As long as I had permission, yes, I would call her every day.
After last call I went into bouncer mode, forcing people to leave. Jimmy sat in a chair, his black hair matted with sweat, and my sister and Kermit were cooing to each other in the corner. What looked like a thousand empty beer bottles littered the place, and I knew the floor would have to be scrubbed and waxed.
“Good thing tomorrow is Sunday, give us some time to clean up,” I observed. When football season ended the Bear was closed Sundays until Memorial Day—a policy we might have to rethink now that people were eating our food.
I walked home with Jimmy, the cold air refreshing on my face. “Look, Ruddy,” Jimmy said uncomfortably. “I kinda said that I would see Vicki tomorrow.”
“You mean,” I replied, stopping and staring at him in disbelief, “that you’d rather spend time with your daughter than help clean up the bar?” He frowned. “Well ... yeah.”
I slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it.” I was just glad he was alive.
The bar looked even worse when I limped in after noon the next day, especially compared to the sunshine and warmth outside—we were having one of those exceptional days that fooled you into thinking this part of the country was paradise. Jake trotted in on my heels and sniffed disdainfully at all the spilled beer. I rubbed his ears and he groaned a little.
Becky was tiredly picking up trash and empties. “Up late celebrating?” I asked her.
She blew the hair off her face and gave me a lazy, satisfied smile. “A little.”
I was so overwhelmed with unexpected emotion at that moment that I felt my eyes tear. I turned away so she wouldn’t see. My sister Becky was going to be married. She was happy. God, how I’d wanted her to be happy for so long and now here she was, smiling without covering her mouth.
“You should tell her,” Alan murmured. “Life’s too short and precious to keep things like this hidden. Tell her what you’re feeling.”
I cleared my throat and turned back. “Becky.”
She looked up from the collection of glasses she was stacking.
“I love you,” I choked. My mouth trembled a little, and I nodded, overcome.
“I love you, too, Ruddy,” she said simply. She went back to her work.
We labored side by side, cleaning up the Bear on a Sunday morning the way we used to when we were younger. Okay, so maybe we had tablecloths and soup du jour and windows you could actually see through, but it was still the Black Bear, still home.
An hour later I ran to the store for some cleaning supplies and when I returned Becky had a message for me. “Sheriff Strickland called for you,” she said. “He wants you to meet him out where you found the Realtor’s body at one o’clock.”
“Did he say why?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Just that you need to be there.” I looked at my watch. “Okay then. I’d better leave. You don’t have to do all of this, though; I’ll get to it when I get back.”
“Where’s Kermit?” I asked with forced neutrality.
“He’ll be back. Milt sent him to Traverse City to pick someone up at the airport.”
I took Jake with me as I walked home to get my pickup. The cops had cleaned up and left. My dog seemed disappointed to leave the bar: he wanted to sleep between Jimmy and me. I looked at him sadly regarding the blanket on the floor, and it was as if I could feel the stiffness in his old joints. Life was too short. “Hey, come here a minute, Jake.”
He followed me into my bedroom. I patted the bed.
He regarded me in astonishment.
He launched himself onto the bed, his tail wagging. “Good boy,” I told him as he circled three times and lay down with a contented sigh. The new rules were instantly approved and accepted. When I scratched his ears, his eyes closed and he moaned with pleasure. “You go ahead and sleep here. I’ll be home soon, Jakey.”
I drove north and soon was winding my way through the Jordan Valley. The trees were all feathered with green, the grass looked new and tender: In a few weeks it would be summer, unless it snowed.
I sensed Alan’s uneasiness as we turned down the now-familiar dirt track that led to the scene of his murder. Though we were just crawling out of winter instead of rushing toward it, the day felt much the same as it had when Alan had been killed, with sun streaming through the gaps in the branches and lighting up the ground with dancing sparkles. We cruised past the felled oak tree with the huge hole, the ground next to it still black from everyone tramping around in the mud.
“I expected to see him here,” I said, frowning. It was ten after one; it didn’t seem like Strickland to be late.
“Maybe he’s up where the cabin used to be, next to the river.”
I drove on, pulling right up to the old foundation. When I shut off the truck, the woods were completely silent. There was no sign of the sheriff.
I walked down to the water’s edge. The stream was swollen with meltwater, more than four feet deep here in what was usually a shallow rapid. Where the waters sluiced their way past some fallen trees they laughed out a loud, wet gurgle, a pleasant and welcoming sound that lifted some of the dread away from this place. My eyes found the spot where Alan had picked up my ring. I could remember it vividly now, feel the icy water as he plunged his hand in.
“There’s still something we’re missing,” Alan muttered. “Some connection we’re not getting, some reason I was killed.”
“Alan, what if it wasn’t complicated at all? What if it’s just that Nathan Burby wanted you out of the way so he could marry Marget?”
“But it was Wexler with the shovel. Why would he kill me? You heard Katie, they didn’t even know each other,” Alan argued.
“But they did, remember? The way they were talking, they weren’t strangers.”
I watched the waters flow past. The property was still for sale, and I pictured myself sitting on a dock in this very spot, dropping a fly on the water to seduce a couple of trout to join me for dinner. And that’s when it hit me. They weren’t strangers, but they claimed not to know each other, even to this day. There was only one person who could put the two of them together.
“Alan. Who called you that day? Who said they wanted to see the property?”
“I told you, I don’t remember.”
“But think about it. Could it have been Nathan Burby?”
While Alan pondered this, I heard a noise behind us and turned. Nathan Burby and Franklin Wexler were coming down the hill toward us.
They both had rifles.
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Fear of Drowning
“Afternoon, fellas,” I called, forcing a casualness I didn’t feel. Inside, Alan’s anxiety was nearly boiling over. I didn’t blame him: Last time he’d encountered these two out in the woods, it had not turned out well.
Wexler and Burby approached silently, looking intent.
“Glad you’re here. Sheriff Strickland will be along in a minute, and I think he’s going to have some questions for you.”
The two of them exchanged a look, and the slight smile on Burby’s face made my heart sink. “Oh, Nathan, did you pretend to be someone else again? Like you did the day you killed Alan Lottner, and you pretended to be interested in real estate so that he’d come out here and see the two of you together?” I turned to Wexler, who was now only ten feet away, his rifle leveled at me. “Did you know about that, Frank? Or did you think that when Alan showed up it was all some sort of accident?” Wexler’s expression flickered and I nodded at him. “That’s right, Frank ....”
“Ruddy!” Alan shouted.
Burby’s rifle butt slammed me in the back of the head with such force I lost track of where I was. Stars drifted across my vision and my palms hurt from where they’d hit the ground.
Then I was up, driving forward, reaching for Burby. I got under his arms before he could do anything with the rifle and then I was fighting my fight, just as Alan had once told me to do. Burby gasped and crumpled as I punched him in the stomach and the chest and then I went down, felled by Wexler’s gunstock.
He’d hit me at the base of my neck and I wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon. My head rang and my limbs felt useless. I lay gasping in the mud, stomach churning, barely able to breathe.
“I’m not dead,” I slurred.
They grabbed me under the arms and I tried to move my worthless legs, get some power underneath me, but all I could do was flail limply. I strained to see what they were doing, but I couldn’t bring my eyes into focus.
And then I hit the water.
“Oh no!” Alan cried. “Not the water!”
The cold shock put some strength back into my body but there were two of them and they were pressing down where Wexler had hit me and the pain was paralyzing. I heaved, everything forgotten but the need for air. I put all my strength into it and burst from the surface and whooped in a single breath before they got a better grip and slammed me back down. My right arm was bent behind me but my left was free and I groped around, trying to find balls, eyes, something, but the angle was wrong.
“Ruddy,” Alan shouted in anguish. “We’re drowning, we’re drowning!”
I wanted to say something to him, but he couldn’t hear my thoughts.
My legs grew heavy and my arms stopped obeying instructions to move. Alan went quiet and a blackness leaked into my vision that was far darker than the swirling, muddy waters. Becky, I thought. Katie. Jimmy. Jake.
“Hey, Ruddy, it’s okay,” Alan said. The pressure in my chest was building and I knew I was through. I tried one last kick, but had nothing to give.
“Ruddy, this is it, this is my dream,” he soothed. “I know what to do now. You just need to sleep, okay? I’ve been through this before. Let me do it. I promise, it’s okay. Let go now, Ruddy. Give me control of your body. Go to sleep.”
With a frustrated yell I lost my grip on my lungs and sucked the river inside.
“Good-bye, Ruddy,” Alan murmured. “Good-bye.”
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