Real Men Die
by John H. Dirckx
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2009
If there was anything about Jack Glosenby to suggest a rural background, it was perhaps his air of quiet self-sufficiency and the impression he gave, at age fifty-two, of robust health and strength in reserve. But although, as a teenager, he had inherited two hundred acres that yielded him a handsome income year after year, agriculture had never been part of his personal agenda. When August came around each year he didn’t even have a tan, and the crescents of black under the ends of his fingernails weren’t topsoil but ink.
Surrounded by the appurtenances of a small printing shop of a century or two ago, Glosenby was setting type by hand, picking up the letters one at a time from a type box with his right hand and placing them in a compositor’s stick held in his left. The job proceeded at a dizzying pace, only a little less rapidly than keystroking at a modern computer. Each time he came to the end of a line he wiped the perspiration from the fingertips of his right hand on his canvas apron, an action that hardly broke the rhythm of his work.
The shop occupied a one-story annex to the farmhouse. Like the rest of the house, it lacked air-conditioning, but a refreshing breeze, laden with the scents and sounds of summer, swept intermittently through screened windows, stirring curtains and rustling papers. A babel of birdsong and insect noises and the distant purr of a tractor engine didn’t distract Glosenby from his work.
The copy he was setting was skewered on a spike above the type, but he seldom looked at it because he had written it himself. From time to time he swung round on his high swiveled stool to transfer a mass of type en bloc from the compositor’s stick to a frame on the imposing stone, a smooth flat sheet of marble that had once been white but was now laced with gray veins of ink spilled by generations of printers.
“Jack?” Glosenby’s wife Jan appeared at the door that led from the farmhouse to the shop.
“Mmm?” He went on with his work, but something in the tone of her voice made him glance up briefly. She was standing motionless in the doorway, dressed in her usual summer outfit, a sleeveless print dress. Her face, without a trace of makeup and framed by long straight hair, had the worn look of waiting-room furniture.
“Cole Blanchard is here.”
“In the kitchen. Says he wants to talk to you.”
Glosenby sat up straight, put down his stick, and wiped both hands on his apron. “Sure I’ll talk to him. I didn’t think that horse thief had the guts—”
“That horse thief,” said Blanchard, who hadn’t waited in the kitchen for a formal invitation, “is here to talk turkey.” He stepped past Jan and strode into the shop, casting his eyes to right and left as if he were appraising the furniture.
“I’m not making any deals with you, Blanchard.”
“Don’t be too sure of that.” Below average height despite his elevator shoes, Cole Blanchard dressed like a dandy of the 1920s and wore a wide-brimmed black hat like the bad guy in an old Western, which he hadn’t bothered to remove on entering the house.
Glosenby laid his hands, palms down, on the imposing stone before him and felt the cool of the stone ooze into him and temper the fire of rage that the very sight of Blanchard had ignited.
“If this is about your landfill scheme, there’s only one answer you’ll ever hear from me, and that’s No. Everybody knows you bought those parcels of swamp land along Merrick Road for practically nothing because they’re useless for farming, and then turned around and tried to lease them to the county to start a landfill.”
“It’s a perfectly legitimate transaction.” Blanchard was chewing a toothpick. From time to time he removed it and spat a splinter off to one side or the other as if he were outdoors. “And the voters of the county are ready to approve it unless they’re turned away by your reactionary newsletters and handouts and signs.”
“They won’t approve it if they have all the facts. That’s why somebody needs to tell them what you’re planning to dump into that ground.”
“Dead trees, stumps, cornstalks, chaff, boulders, scrap iron, maybe a tractor tire or two . . .”
“And maybe a whole lot of nonbiodegradable toxic waste from the Spivakov plant in Monroe—enough to turn every man, woman, and child in this county into a bald, babbling—”
“All right, what’s it going to take to square you, Glosenby? Name your price.”
Glosenby’s hands turned to fists on the stone. “I know this is going to be hard for a chiseling, double-dealing swindler like you to grasp, Blanchard,” he said, “but I haven’t got a price. This landfill idea of yours is a menace to the public welfare, and nothing you or anybody else could offer me would make me back down and let you get away with it. So how do you like that?”
“How do I like that?” replied Blanchard, from whose thick hide Glosenby’s insults had bounced off like marshmallows. “Oh, about as well as I like eating cold soup and playing golf in the rain.” Then, abandoning his mood of nonchalance, he waved his hand in contemptuous dismissal of Glosenby and his printing plant. “You think you can manipulate and control people with the power of the press. But some day you just might come to a fence that’s too high for you to climb.”
Glosenby stood up and leaned across the workbench to bark his answer. “Hear this, Blanchard. Real men don’t climb fences—they tear them down.”
Detective Sergeant Cyrus Auburn laid the last of a series of yellowed newspaper clippings, each in a protective sleeve of transparent plastic, on the desk in front of his supervisor, Lieutenant Savage.
“Couldn’t you just fax these to him?” asked Savage.
“I don’t think a fax would show the type clearly enough. Besides, he doesn’t have a fax machine. I’m not even sure he has a computer. I mean, the guy is still setting type by hand like Benjamin Franklin—”
Savage shrugged. “You could mail them . . .”
Auburn matched his shrug. “Chain of custody . . . ?”
The case, though not exactly trivial, didn’t involve murder, grand larceny, or child abuse. Moreover, the Public Safety Department had been enjoying a slump in activity, probably related to an August heat wave. Auburn and Savage’s mood was correspondingly lighthearted as they discussed a trip Auburn proposed to make in the line of duty.
Savage gathered the newspaper clippings into a neat stack and sat back in his chair. “What so draws you up there to Hicksville, Cy? Does this guy Glosenby whip up a superior grade of moonshine, or has he got a knockout of a daughter who’s never been to the big city?”
“You’re stereotyping again, Lieutenant.”
Savage peered at him narrowly. “What do you mean again?”
“Wasn’t it just last week that you asked me if we ate neck bones and collard greens and watermelon when I was a kid?”
“Cy, I never said anything like that to you in my life!” said Savage, as nearly aghast as his stern self-discipline permitted.
“Well, then, it must have been some other guy. You know how all white dudes look alike to us. It’s been a couple of years since I went up to Passavant, a k a Hicksville. And what draws me there is Jack Glosenby’s files of old newspaper typefaces. The FBI and the Smithsonian send him stuff to identify—”
Auburn left early next morning so as to arrive in Passavant well before noontime. The day was bright, hot, and excessively humid. Patches of milky fog hung in the still air above creeks and ponds and in the low places, until the rays of the sun found them out and boiled them away. As Auburn passed beyond the city limits, he felt an almost physical liberation from the mantle of responsibility that had lain on him as a sworn peace officer operating within his own bailiwick.
Passavant Pike wound hither and yon like a maze, skirting fields that had first been surveyed and staked out by men wearing knee breeches. Stalks of chicory with bright blue blossoms grew on the very shoulders of the road, while farther back, beyond the roadside ditches, clumps of ironweed with brushes of royal purple presaged the approach of autumn. Colossal machines, dwarfed by the vast flat fields in which they were operating, carried on harvesting and haybailing activities.
Long before he reached Passavant, Auburn began noticing recurring evidences of some local controversy. On one residential site or farmstead after another he saw signs, some rudely painted on wooden boards and others professionally lettered and printed: No Landfill. no landfill. No Merrick-Dampiere Landfill. Stop Landfill. no landfill.
It was ten twenty-five a.m. when he pulled off the road and started along the driveway that led to Glosenby’s farm and printing shop. The name on the mailbox was Glosenby, but the sign for the shop called it Jack Horner’s Printery.
When he was halfway to the house he had to pull partly onto the grass to allow a white van to pass him. Its driver, a huge man with a bald head like a prize squash, responded to Auburn’s nod by showing his teeth in a grin that might have been either a sign of unfailing good nature or a grimace of indignation. As the vehicles passed, Auburn noted that the van belonged to the local gas and electric company.
The farmhouse and the barn behind it were both big and well maintained. The shop occupied a one-story outbuilding attached to the house by a breezeway. The farmyard, partly grass and partly gravel, contained two cars, a truck, a Jeep, and a tractor with a mowing machine attached. Auburn parked among them and headed for the house. As he drew near the tractor he could feel heat radiating from its engine and hear its insulated exhaust pipe clucking metallically as it cooled.
Presuming on several years of friendship, he headed for the kitchen door. Through an open window came the sounds of a friendly dispute—more friendly than disputatious—between a man and a woman. The female voice he recognized as that of Jan Glosenby, but the other certainly wasn’t Jack’s.
When he started up the kitchen steps in the bright sunshine he became visible to the two in the kitchen long before he could see them. Out of the shadows the male voice squawked an aggressively friendly “Die, mite,” which Auburn swiftly deciphered as “’Day, mate.”
Jan’s “Well, hello, stranger!” followed immediately after. She opened the screen door to admit him to the cool, dark, cavernous kitchen, where an ancient oscillating fan hummed unobtrusively on a wooden pedestal. Except for the modern appliances, few changes had been made in the décor here since the house was built. The formidable array of empty glass jars and equipment on the big worktable and the rich syrupy tang in the air made it obvious that Jan was making blackberry jelly the hard way.
The man who sat hunched over a cup of coffee in the breakfast nook was thin as a fence rail, with sunbaked skin stretched taut over prominent cheekbones, a diamond earring, and more teeth than a ten-speed bike. The same sun that had darkened his skin had faded his clothes to a muted neutral shade of pastel gray.
“Cy, this is Alf Chickering. From Australia, as if you couldn’t tell.”
Chickering half rose, shook hands with Auburn, and repeated his greeting. Since he hardly moved his lips when he spoke, most of the sound came through his nose, taking on a reedy timbre in the process. He looked wild, reckless, and dangerous, with the kind of exotic charm that exerts a fatal appeal on women.
“Good to meet you, sir,” said Auburn. He turned to Jan. “Is Jack around?”
“Sure. Is he expecting you?”
“No, I didn’t call. Is he in the shop?”
“He’s always in the shop. And so am I except when he gives me a day off to can or make jelly. You know the way, don’t you?”
As Auburn moved toward the print shop, Chickering finished his coffee, stood up, screwed a broad-brimmed straw hat onto his tall narrow head like a bottle cap, and went outside.
A twelve-foot breezeway, mostly windows, eased the transition from nineteenth-century farmhouse to eighteenth-century print shop.
“Hey, Jack!” called Auburn, as he tapped lightly on the frame of the doorway. Getting no answer, he moved on into the shop but stopped frozen in his tracks by the sight that greeted him there. The lifeless form of Jack Glosenby sprawled facedown over one of his presses. A shotgun blast at close quarters had carried away the back of his head, spattering the wall beyond with blood and peppering it with shot. Gouts and splashes of blood gleamed wetly on walls, furniture, and floor.
Recovering from his momentary mental and physical paralysis, Auburn looked at his watch and compared it with the antique pendulum clock on the wall. Both agreed, within a minute, on 10:34. Without moving farther into the room, he made a swift and critical survey of his surroundings.
During his years as a beat cop he had been present at the discovery of a couple of undoubted suicides, but he didn’t remember ever having been first on the scene of a murder. Chance had cast him today in the role, not of a homicide detective, but of a member of the general public.
Stand still. Look, listen, and smell. Don’t touch.
Two ceiling lights and a gooseneck lamp over the work area were all burning. Both sash windows stood wide open, with screens in place. The aluminum screen in one of the windows, which was situated some six feet behind the position of the body, showed a neat round hole a little less than two inches in diameter.
Apart from the presence of a dead body, there was little evidence of any disturbance within the room. In toppling forward Glosenby had overturned the stool on which he had apparently been sitting, so that it lay awry under his legs. He had also dropped or spilled several dozen pieces of type, which now lay strewn like a handful of shiny new nails over the rug beneath him.
During its many years of service, that rug had soaked up countless large and small spills of ink, most of them black but a few in a half dozen other colors. The rug also showed a deeply worn traffic pattern of ground-in dirt and ground-away pile. But despite its threadbare condition, it retained the marks made by the four legs of a piece of furniture that must have stood in the same position for months or years, but wasn’t there now.
Auburn squatted and, without touching anything, satisfied himself that the marks had been left by a heavy, high-backed chair, the only piece of nonfunctional furniture in the room, which must have been displaced fairly recently and now stood about half a yard from its former position. Displaced exactly when? By whom? For what purpose?
Auburn stood up. Closing his eyes, he heard the leisurely and impersonal ticking of the clock, the twittering of birds in the orchard behind the shop and, away across the fields, the growl of a tractor, presumably piloted by Alf Chickering. His nose detected the smells of ink, machine oil, gunpowder, and freshly spilled gore.
In a cold sweat he made his way back to the kitchen.
“Jan, I’ve got bad news. I mean, really bad.”
“Jack? He’s not—?”
Auburn nodded. “I’m so sorry. He’s dead, Jan.”
“But he can’t be. Are you sure? Oh, I have to see—” She put a steaming pan down on the table and was around him and through the door before he knew it.
“Wait a minute,” he called as he dashed after her. “Don’t touch him. Don’t touch anything.”
She turned in the breezeway, her expression of grief changing to one of apprehension. “Why not?”
“Because Jack was shot.”
“Oh, no! No! Oh, that crazy, crazy fool!” She rushed on into the shop, and before Auburn caught up with her he heard her scream of anguish and horror. Eager to spare her the suffering of remaining with that appalling vision before her, and intent on preventing any disturbance of evidence at the crime scene, he urged her back toward the kitchen with clumsy expressions of sympathy and support.
“Sheriff’s Department. How can I help you?” A contralto voice, capable and aloof.
“This is Cyrus Auburn calling from Glosenby’s on Passavant Pike—”
“I have the address, Mr. Auburn. Go ahead.” As Auburn made his report he could hear Jan sobbing hopelessly behind him and, far away, the drone of the tractor.
“They’re on their way,” he told her after hanging up. Having no official status at this crime scene and being personally acquainted with the victim, he felt particularly uncomfortable and useless. “What did you mean when you said, ‘That crazy fool’?” he asked her.
“I don’t know . . . I was probably just hysterical.”
“Were you thinking Jack might have shot himself?”
“Oh, no. No, never. But he was always such a . . . a warrior. He was never happy unless he was fighting for a cause—the more hopeless, the better. And once he sank his teeth into something, he couldn’t let it go. He’d stand up to anybody, no matter how rich and powerful they were.”
“So who’s he been standing up to lately?”
“Well, Cole Blanchard, for one. He has a car and truck dealership and a tool rental agency in town, and besides that he buys and sells real estate and dabbles in local politics. He wants to lease some property of his to the county waste disposal system to use as a landfill. And Jack went all out to block that because any toxic waste that goes into the ground could contaminate the soil and the water table around here for generations to come. When we weren’t printing business cards or wedding invitations, we were doing broadsheets and posters opposing the landfill.”
“I saw the signs along the road. Did this Blanchard ever threaten Jack that you know of?”
“Probably. He came here one day last week and tried to pay Jack to drop his campaign.” Talking seemed to be helping her to calm down. She stood now looking out the kitchen window toward distant hills, where a green blur of trees waved in the breeze. “I’m sure Blanchard didn’t pull the trigger himself, but I wouldn’t put it past him to hire some hoodlum to do it.”
Auburn looked at his watch. “Jan, we’re going to have to answer a lot of questions in the next few minutes. I assume you didn’t hear a shot?”
“No, but Alf started mowing just on the other side of the orchard early this morning.”
“When was the last time you saw Jack?”
“At breakfast, probably a little after six. It was just getting light. He always got up early and worked all morning in the shop.”
“What time did Alf get here? Or does he live here?”
“No, he lives in town. He comes in as soon as it’s light enough to work.”
“Is that his Jeep out there?”
“Yes. I hope you don’t think he had anything to do with this?”
“Has anybody else been around this morning? Besides the meter reader?”
She turned away from the window and gave him a blank stare. “What meter reader?”
“A man in a car from the gas and electric company was just leaving as I drove in. A big man—”
“Bill Stull.” Jan nodded but still looked bewildered. “But I didn’t see him this morning.”
“Are your meters inside the house?”
A clatter of gravel outside and the revving of a car engine just before it was switched off announced the arrival of the Law. A long lean man wearing a star appeared at the screen door, gave it one perfunctory rap, and walked in.
“Miz Glosenby,” he said, with a businesslike nod to Jan. “You’ve had some trouble here?”
“Sheriff Heddles, this is—”
Heddles looked through Auburn as one looks through a plate glass window. “Where is he?”
“In the shop. Do you know the way?”
“I can find it.” The sheriff’s right leg was about three inches shorter than his left, so that from the waist up his body canted off at an angle like the stock of a rifle. His bronze complexion might have been the result of sun exposure, a circulatory disorder, overindulgence in alcohol, or a little of all three.
In half a minute he was back in the kitchen. “Any idea when this happened? Hear the shot?”
“No. We, I—”
“Who found him?”
“I did,” said Auburn. “At 10:34.”
Heddles gave him more of the plate glass treatment. “You are who?”
“That your car out there, Auburn? With the city plates? You stick around till I can get some ID and a statement.”
He whipped out a cell phone as if it were a revolver, called in a report to the coroner’s office, hobbled into the shop for a second look, bustled out to his car, and returned with forms on a clipboard. Then, turning the breakfast table into a desk, he took a detailed statement from Jan.
Auburn hadn’t noticed that the sound of the tractor had stopped until, awaiting his turn to be interviewed, he looked out into the yard and saw Alf Chickering approaching the house in the company of a very large man in the uniform of a deputy sheriff, who looked like the exact image of the meter reader Jan had identified as Bill Stull.
Auburn had once learned, in a course in physical anthropology, that emaciated or extremely thin people all tend to look alike because the absence of fat brings out the contours of the skull and facial bones beneath, while all very obese people also have roughly the same facial features because the excessive cushioning of subcutaneous fat approximates the shape of the head to a sphere. All the same, unless this deputy and the meter reader were twin brothers, the resemblance was uncanny.
The deputy left Alf Chickering in the yard and labored up the steps to the kitchen door, abruptly shutting off the daylight with his enormous bulk. Sheriff Heddles went to the door to meet him.
“Did you frisk him?”
“Yes, sir. No weapons on him except this.” He handed the sheriff a big jackknife with a scarred bone handle.
“Okay, go around to the window at the south end of this ell—the one with the hole in the screen—and look for a shotgun shell. I’ll get with you in a few minutes, Chickering.”
After Jan had signed her statement, Auburn replaced her in the hot seat at the breakfast table. Heddles started a new form, conscientiously copying data from Auburn’s driver’s license and Public Safety ID. Meanwhile Jan made fresh coffee and poured cups for Auburn and Heddles. She had abandoned her jelly making.
“Detective Sergeant Auburn,” said the sheriff. “Are you carrying a weapon?”
“No, sir.” Since Auburn had dressed casually for this semi-official summer trip to the country, the only weapon he could have concealed on his person might have been a straight razor.
“What was your relationship to Glosenby, exactly?”
“We were old friends, from years back, but today’s visit was business. I wanted to show him some old newspaper clippings to see if he could identify the papers they came from.” Heddles’s hard-bitten expression took on a trace of scorn, as if Auburn had said he was looking for help with a crossword puzzle.
“Did you have an appointment?”
“So you got here what time this morning?”
“Around ten-thirty.” Auburn glanced at his watch and was amazed to see that it was only a few minutes after eleven. “I passed a meter reader in the driveway as I came in. At least he was driving a car from the gas and electric company, and from what Jan says I gather his name is Bill Stull.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“What did you do?”
“Parked in the yard and came to the kitchen door.”
“Who let you in?”
“Anybody else here?”
“Chickering. Taking a coffee break from mowing.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Just to say hello. I’d never met him before.” Auburn then recounted his discovery of Glosenby’s body and went on to describe his findings at the scene, tentatively at first and then in increasing detail as he noted the sheriff assiduously recording his every word.
“We may do things a little differently out here in the country than you do in the city,” said Heddles at length, “but we get pretty much the same results in the end.” He put down his pencil and struck a reflective pose, as if he were trying to decide how far to unbend before a fellow lawman who might, after all, have committed this murder. “I’ve got two or three rules,” he said. “The killer is never a stranger to the victim. And you’ve got to nail ’em quick and not let up until they make a mistake.”
The deputy appeared again at the kitchen door. “What’d you find?” asked Heddles. “Anything?”
“Bring Chickering in here.”
Auburn, presuming on the sheriff’s more or less genial air, asked him a question. “Is your deputy related to Stull, the meter reader?”
“My deputy is Stull, the meter reader. Besides that, he farms some land on the other side of Blueband Creek and he plays the piano at the First Methodist Church in Dampiere.”
The sheriff’s poker face gave no clue as to whether he was reciting Bill Stull’s accomplishments with pride or derision.
Stull returned with Alf Chickering in tow. As he entered the kitchen, Alf swept off his hat and exchanged silent glances with Jan.
“What do you know about this, Chickering?” asked Heddles, who remained seated at the table.
“Only what Bill told me—somebody shot Jack?” His brow glistened with sweat and he gave off a pungent aroma of tractor exhaust and freshly mowed clover.
The sheriff unfolded a piece of newspaper on the table. “Empty out your pockets right here.”
Chickering dug his hands into his pockets, scooped out their contents as if he were digging a trench with a backhoe, and dumped everything on the table in one heterogeneous pile. Heddles snatched up Chickering’s wallet and began copying data on a fresh form. Meanwhile the pile grew, as coins, pieces of string, pieces of wire, scraps of paper, rusty nails, clods of earth, and wisps of dried vegetation came forth from Chickering’s shirt and pants pockets. The fan blew two bits of aluminum foil and several small round disks of soft plastic to the floor. Auburn picked them up and returned them to the pile.
Without inviting Chickering to sit down, Heddles subjected him to a much more rigorous questioning than the ones he’d put Auburn and Jan through. Chickering was forty-four and a native of New South Wales, which, he had to explain to the sheriff, was an Australian state and not one of the British Isles. He had begun working as a sheepherder at age twelve, had emigrated to the States about twenty years ago to escape a forced marriage, and was now a U.S. citizen. He had been working for Jack Glosenby as a general farmhand for the past eighteen months. He had seen and heard nothing unusual that morning, and stubbornly refused to speculate as to who might have murdered Glosenby.
Heddles rummaged through the pile of personal articles on the table with a stiff, insistent forefinger, took possession of a ring of keys, and stood up. “Come in here with me, Chickering. I want you to see something.”
As Chickering followed the sheriff into the print shop, Auburn wondered whether Heddles had already “nailed” his killer. If so, what did he hope to accomplish by confronting the suspect with his victim? Was he expecting to see signs of remorse on that saucy, devil-may-care face? Testing the truth of the old adage, “The corpse bleeds when the murderer is near”? Whatever his intentions, he was risking contamination of the crime scene with trace evidence from the suspect.
Heddles and Chickering returned from the shop almost immediately. The farmhand appeared badly shaken, probably more by what he was hearing than what he had just seen.
“I’m not charging you yet,” said Heddles. He held up Chickering’s wallet and keys before ostentatiously stuffing them into his own pocket. “But I’ve got my eye on you. Just like you’ve probably had your eye on Miz Glosenby, and Miz Glosenby, who’s about twenty years younger than Jack, has probably had her eye on you.” Oblivious of his audience, he tossed off these comments as nonchalantly as if he had been discussing last year’s soybean crop.
Jan, nearly dumb with indignation, managed to whisper, “Seven years.”
“Come along with me, Sergeant,” said the sheriff, addressing Auburn. “You too, Stull.”
As they stepped out of the cool kitchen into the blazing noonday sunshine, Auburn was struck by the pervasive silence of the country, scarcely broken by the faint hum of traffic on the county road and the tweeting and chirping of a few birds and locusts that weren’t taking their siestas.
“Look around and see if you can find that twelve gauge,” Heddles instructed the deputy. “Don’t forget the Jeep. Here, these might help.” He handed over Chickering’s keys.
While Stull set off on a tour of the outbuildings, trudging over the rough ground like a steer ready for slaughter, Heddles led Auburn around to the window with the perforated screen. The shop wing was almost completely surrounded by an apple orchard, but the window in question lay less than ten yards from the edge of a broad field of freshly mown clover hay.
“What he probably did,” said the sheriff, pausing in his awkward stumping progress to survey the field, “was to stop his tractor right about there, leave the engine running to cover up the sound of the shot, sneak up to the window . . .”
The ground beneath the window bore an abundant crop of sorrel, dandelions, chickweed, and other wild vegetation, some of it almost deserving the name of shrubbery. Someone, presumably Deputy Stull in his search for the shotgun shell, had trampled or uprooted some of the weeds and left a jumble of footprints in the soft earth.
“It might be a good idea,” Auburn ventured to suggest, as Heddles marched up to the window, “if you could make some kind of record of those footmarks before too many more people stroll through here.”
The sheriff paused with his ungloved hand on the enameled steel sash of the window and favored Auburn with an austerely superior smile. “Like I said before,” he said, “we do things differently here in the country. Now, you take those footprints. It’s no use trying to tell who made them, because everybody around here wears the same kind of boots. You wait till November, when Hooke’s General Store in Dampiere has their annual sale, and you buy two, three good pair—steel toe, oil and acid resistant, non-skid soles—for forty-five dollars per.” He lifted his left foot and turned it over to show the sole, which had a tread like an airplane tire. “They sell out in one morning.”
Auburn forbore to point out that length of stride and pattern of gait vary markedly from person to person, that boots come in different sizes, and that tracks left by a pair purchased last November would by now be almost as distinctive as fingerprints, showing different patterns of wear, scrapes and gouges in the sole, pebbles wedged in the tread.
“There’s Doc Rushkin,” remarked the sheriff, as a heavy, low-slung vehicle, a cross between an SUV and a ’50s-style hearse, rolled into the yard.
The Lerner County coroner, sparely built and about seventy, bounded out of the driver’s seat with energy to spare. Auburn suspected that, like Deputy Stull, he divided his time between official duties and farming. Heddles greeted the coroner with a mute wave of the hand and followed it immediately with a gesture indicating the location of the body, or rather of the route to it. Then, with Auburn in tow, he made a tour of the orchard and a circuit of the house, kicking every clump of weeds and leveling every mound of earth with the toe of his generic right boot from Hooke’s General Store in Dampiere.
When they got back to the farmyard they found Chickering examining the chrome trim of the coroner’s car. Stull was nowhere in sight.
“Look here, mate,” said Chickering, “what you said in there about me and Jan—that’s all codswallop. I mean, I’ve got me own sheila in town, see—”
Ignoring him completely, the sheriff led Auburn back into the kitchen. Dr. Rushkin was administering counsel and consolation to the widow, assuring her that Jack had died instantly and felt nothing. “Dead about four hours,” he remarked to Sheriff Heddles. He rolled a couple of shotgun pellets between his right thumb and forefinger. “Lead,” he said. “Number one buckshot.”
Heddles pulled his own specimen out of his shirt pocket and held it up to the window. “At least. Any guns here, Miz Glosenby?”
“No. Jack didn’t hunt, and gun control was one of the things he . . .” Her voice trailed off into silence.
“If I can get some help loading him into the van,” said Rushkin, eyeing Auburn but addressing Heddles, “I’ll run him over to Brant Memorial.” He shooed Jan away to another part of the house and brought in a folding stretcher and a body bag from the van. After being introduced to Auburn, he explained that the postmortem examination would be carried out by the Piedmont County coroner because Lerner County lacked the necessary facilities. “And anyway,” he added, “I’m just an old rhubarb and soda doctor.”
Alf Chickering wasn’t invited to be a pallbearer. The first thing Heddles did when they went into the shop was to slide the big chair back in front of the window, aligning its legs almost perfectly with their former positions, as indicated by the depressions in the rug. He did this, of course, to make room for the stretcher, and yet it occurred to Auburn that here again he was doing a pretty efficient job of muddling up the physical evidence at the scene.
After they had loaded Glosenby’s remains in the van, Dr. Rushkin sat down at the breakfast table to read the statements that Heddles had taken from Jan, Auburn, and Chickering. “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm,” he intoned repeatedly as he looked them over and copied names and times into a notebook.
Once the coroner had driven away, Auburn asked the sheriff if he was free to leave the premises long enough to run into town and pick up some fast food for everybody.
“Don’t get too far away. I might want to ask you some more questions. Might even need some help,” he added, in exactly the same way that a man suggests to his four-year-old son that he might need some help in driving the family car.
“Oh, don’t do that, Cy,” objected Jan. “There’s plenty of food here. I can make some sandwiches in five minutes, and we’ve got our own fresh corn, green beans, apples . . .” While they worked together to prepare a cold lunch, she told him she’d called her parents in Indiana, and that they would be there by nightfall.
Heddles and his deputy had vanished, intent on their own business or perhaps on their own lunches. Alf Chickering appeared at the kitchen door, as subdued in manner as a whipped dog, and didn’t come in until he had asked if he might share in the “tucker”and had been invited in by Jan. The three of them ate in somber silence and with little appetite.
“Did you see Deputy Stull here earlier today?” Auburn asked Chickering. “Before I got here?”
“I did,” nodded Chickering. “You can spot that bit o’ lard a mile off. Mucking about down by the babbler, he was.”
“Down by the which?”
“The babbler. The brook, mate.”
“He means Blueband Creek,” explained Jan. “Bill Stull owns the farm on the other side of the creek from us. Last winter Jack figured out that the creek has been gradually changing its course for years, and that Stull is farming land that belongs to us.”
“It sounds like a problem for a surveyor,” commented Auburn. “Or a lawyer.”
“Exactly,” agreed Jan. “Jack wanted Stull to go halves with him to get the boundary line verified, and Stull refused. They went round and round about it—you know how Jack loved a good argument.”
“But you didn’t see Stull here this morning?”
“No. I’m sure he didn’t park out in the yard.”
“Could he have been talking to Jack through the shop window?”
Jan was already putting away leftovers from lunch in the refrigerator. She paused in deep thought with her eyes closed. “I guess so, sure. Are you thinking—?”
“He’s thinking what I’m thinking,” interrupted Chickering, who had eaten almost nothing. “Bill didn’t have a gun when I saw him. But that bloke is a right drongo, and as such, I wouldn’t put it past him to shove a gun up to the window and blow old Jack into a dog’s breakfast. Begging your pardon, love.” He stood up and began cramming his personal articles back into his pockets, including the clods of earth and sprigs of clover. “I’ll be pegging it about the fields somewhere,” he said, “seeing as the field marshal copped me key to the tractor.” He slammed out of the kitchen without further farewell.
During more than fifteen years in law enforcement, Auburn had dealt with dozens of bereaved and grieving people. He clearly sensed that what Jan Glosenby needed at this moment was privacy and not further condolences. On the assumption that Sheriff Heddles had completed his examination of the crime scene, he returned to the print shop for another look.
The shop consisted of a single large room. Antique presses, racks of type, and worn and ink-stained workbenches occupied the central space, while cupboards and file cabinets, some oak and some steel, completely lined the walls. Stacks of printed materials—broadsheets, brochures, newsletters—filled open shelves in some of the cupboards.
The stool on which Glosenby had evidently been sitting when he was shot still lay on its side on the floor, and under it the compositor’s stick he had been using. Four or five dozen pieces of type that had spilled out of the stick gleamed in the early afternoon sun.
No one had taken any photographs here. Auburn set out to remedy that omission, even though the body had now been removed and furniture had been shifted from its earlier position. He shot a dozen views with his cell phone, transmitted them to his computer at home, and then erased them.
The grisly patch of blood and tissue on the wall had already attracted the attention of three or four flies, which had gained admittance through the hole in the screen. Auburn closed that window but left the other two open for ventilation. Avoiding several dark, sticky patches on the rug, he went down on his knees and began gathering up the type. He didn’t pause to ask himself whether he was looking for clues, yielding to a passion for neatness, or just killing time until the sheriff released him.
One column of type, already set, lay in a frame on the imposing stone. With a little effort Auburn was able to read the backward-facing letters and find the place in the handwritten copy hanging from a spike above the rack of type where the complete column broke off.
Still kneeling, he began lining up the spilled pieces of type along the edge of the stone to match the next line of text: “. . . which are clearly motivated by his political and commercial agendas.” He quickly figured out that the pieces with no letters on them were slugs used to separate words. After repeatedly mixing up b, d, and p, he began to entertain a gentler view of printers who made typographic errors.
So intent was he on his task, he barely noticed the arrival of another car in the yard, the slamming of its door, a distant hubbub of male voices. Only when he heard those voices approaching one of the open windows did he realize the ludicrousness of his position. If they looked in now and saw him kneeling on the floor at a crime scene where he had no jurisdiction, setting out little pieces of metal in a neat row . . .
Feeling utterly foolish, he cowered lower and then crawled like a crab into a corner where he was invisible from the windows. Or so he hoped.
One of the voices—strident, clipped, but no longer so autocratic—belonged to Sheriff Heddles. The other, a bass drawl, he didn’t recognize. The two men approached the screen with the hole and, although that window was now closed, Auburn could hear them fumbling with the screen and no doubt making yet more tracks with boots from Hooke’s General Store.
A move into the shade brought them outside one of the open windows. After that Auburn could hear their conversation as distinctly as if he had been part of it. Heddles, showing a side of himself that Auburn hadn’t suspected, deferred to the other as to a superior, and even seemed to be defending and justifying his procedure thus far. Eventually Auburn divined that the other man was Cole Blanchard, owner and chief advocate of the projected landfill.
Blanchard spoke little, but what he said had the ring of authority, and incidentally made excellent sense. “I wouldn’t arrest him till you find the weapon,” he advised. “If he pulled that trigger, you’ll find powder residue all over his right hand. Just hold on to the keys to his Jeep. You say this black guy’s a cop from out of town?”
“So what’s he doing here?”
“Said he wanted to ask Glosenby something about some newspaper clippings.”
“Uh-huh. You check him out pretty good?”
“His ID checks.”
“How’s the wife taking this?”
“I haven’t seen any tears yet.”
“Yeah, well, give her my sympathies,” said Blanchard, matching the sheriff’s cynical, sneering tone. “I think I’ll split.”
“Sure. I’m going to round up Stull and search the house.”
That was Auburn’s cue to scramble out of the shop. As they turned away from the window, he peered over the sill and caught a brief glimpse of Blanchard from the rear. A short man in a black hat, strutting arrogantly and champing at a toothpick. Auburn was back in the kitchen pouring himself a cup of coffee when the sheriff and his deputy walked in without knocking. Ignoring Auburn completely, Heddles summoned Jan by shouting, “Miz Glosenby!”
When he announced that they were going to search the house, Auburn decided to find occupation elsewhere. His offer to hand over his car keys so that they could check his trunk for the missing weapon was accepted by the sheriff with a curt and noncommittal nod.
He walked across the yard and into the orchard with no particular goal in mind. The sun beyond the shade of the orchard was brutal. That was all right with Auburn, because he needed something to distract him from the frustration and exasperation he was feeling. Not only did the local political boss appear to have the sheriff in the palm of his hand, but Bill Stull, whom Auburn considered a prime suspect in the murder, was even now taking part in its investigation.
As a boy Auburn had acquired considerable skill, during one summer spent in the country, in identifying and following animal tracks. His subsequent training and experience as a detective had turned him into a pretty good tracker of human spoor, at least in an urban setting. So he had no difficulty in distinguishing the footprints of the ponderous and plodding Deputy Stull from others, including his own, near the window with the perforated screen.
Then, setting off across the dead level field of clover that Chickering had mowed that morning, where the tropical sun was already transforming the fragrant grass to hay, he found more of the same tracks in occasional patches of bare soil. These seemed to be leading in the general direction of the creek, where Chickering claimed to have seen Stull earlier in the day. At length Auburn found himself on the bank of the creek. Here Stull had left a continuous trail in the damp, loamy earth.
Broad but shallow, with a rocky bed, miniature waterfalls, and quiet pools, the creek meandered among ancient sycamores and cottonwoods. The shade here was refreshing, but swarms of mosquitoes soon drove Auburn back into the direct sunshine. He had lost Stull’s track but wandered along the stream in a generally northeast direction, enjoying the temporary retreat from human society and its seemingly inevitable corollary, murder.
Not that “civilization” had left this pleasant sanctuary unsullied. Beer and soda cans and broken bottles gleamed here and there amid the rippling water. Nondescript wads of paper and plastic had been trapped by fallen branches to form miniature dams. An occasional tree trunk bore mystic symbols in orange spray paint.
Auburn had proceeded upstream more than a quarter of a mile before he found the shotgun. Wrapped in a black, heavy-duty trash bag from which only about six inches of barrel protruded, it lay among, or rather on top of, a patch of goat’s rue. If it had been there more than a day or two, some of the tendrils and racemes would have begun to grow around and over it. Auburn paused only a few moments to fix the location and its surroundings in his memory and then began the warm trek back to the farmhouse.
He found Chickering in the barn going over a large machine with a grease gun in one hand and a monkey wrench in the other.
“When do you pick your corn?” Auburn asked him. “Most of the cornfields I passed have already been picked.”
“That’s sweet corn, mate. Hybridized for the right taste and texture so you can gnaw it right off the old cob. Or for popping. It ripens early. We raise field corn. Sell the whole crop to a processer to make molasses, starch, corn syrup, or ethanol as a petrol booster. Are they still searching the house?”
“I think so. Why didn’t you tell Sheriff Heddles you saw Stull here this morning?”
“What, with old Bill standing right there ready to deny it? Matter of that, why didn’t you tell him?”
Chickering eyed him sharply. “That straight?”
Heddles evinced a certain amount of skepticism when Auburn reported his finding of the shotgun. “I was wondering where you’d run off to without your wheels,” he said. He handed back Auburn’s keys. “Funny thing you just happened to find that gun. You say it’s up by the creek?”
“Yes, sir. An over-and-under double-barrel twelve-gauge. All but the muzzle tied into a plastic trash bag.”
“Just lying there on the ground?”
“Down on the bank, a couple feet from the water.”
Heddles took off his hat, wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, and replaced the hat. “Come on.”
They traversed the freshly mown field in almost total silence, Heddles walking a half-pace in advance and sedulously scanning the horizon, apparently as an alternative to noticing his companion. When they arrived at the margin of the creek, he shuffled down the bank to squint at the gun in its bed of pink and purple blossoms.
“Not much of a hiding place, is it?” Did his skeptical tone imply that any idiot could have found it or that he thought Auburn had stashed it there himself?
“Probably just temporary,” suggested Auburn.
After a moment of hesitation, Heddles picked up the gun and, pointing the barrel skyward, fumbled with the wrappings. “More than one bag,” he said. “Two, maybe three, one inside the other.” He felt the outer bag some more. “Loose shell in here. Empty.”
“That plastic might show some latent prints,” Auburn remarked.
“Might,” agreed Heddles. “But if we can figure that out, so can he. You can bet he wore gloves.”
“It’s pretty hard to fire a gun with gloves on,” objected Auburn. “Don’t you think he wrapped the bags around the gun to keep from getting powder burns on his hands? That would explain why the ejected shell is inside.”
“I’d think it would be pretty hard to fire a gun in a bag, too.” Heddles scowled at the ground. “Hard to hit anything, anyway.”
“With a shotgun?” Auburn almost shouted. The heat and the bright sun were giving him a headache, and besides that, the sheriff was inducing the kind of pain that pills don’t help. “At seven or eight feet you couldn’t miss a grasshopper on the wing.”
Without replying, the sheriff turned on his heel and started back toward the house. Auburn accompanied him, keeping abreast this time. When they were about halfway to their goal he decided to broach the topic of Bill Stull although, or maybe because, their last exchange had stopped just short of open conflict.
“Are you aware that Deputy Stull was here earlier today?”
“I’m aware you said you saw him here.”
“I saw him driving down the driveway in his van. But Chickering saw him walking across the field and along the creek.”
“That’s what Chickering says.”
“What does Stull say?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask him.” Heddles’s tone, frosty and defiant, effectively put an end to the conversation.
The deputy in question was resting his huge frame on the kitchen steps when they reached the house.
“Stull, did you see any bags like this?”
“No, sir. Not like that. Not with those cord ties.”
“Well, we’re going to look some more. Go lock this in the trunk. It’s got to go to the lab just like this.” He glanced around for Auburn as if he didn’t know exactly where he was. “I’ll need a further statement from you, Sergeant,” he said, and immediately turned and started up the steps to the kitchen door, implying that, just now, getting that statement was not high on his agenda.
Auburn stayed outside. It was now nearly four o’clock. His arrangements with Lieutenant Savage had been fluid. Recognizing that circumstances might make it impossible for him to get back to headquarters before five today, they had agreed that he should call in by mid-afternoon.
Although his cell phone had functioned satisfactorily a few hours earlier, he now found it impossible to place a call. Since telephone transmission towers were usually located in proximity to major highways, he set off across a field of ripe corn in the direction of the county road, trying the phone again at intervals.
“Public Safety Department.” Arch Willis, the dispatcher, always managed to achieve about the same blend of exuberance and culture as a commencement speaker at an Ivy League college.
“This is Auburn. What’s new?”
“Not much. The guy with the black-and-white checked ski mask hit Seiffert’s Market on Riverview.”
“In this weather? He deserves—” Auburn was about to say “a Purple Heart” but, remembering that Willis had lost a leg in Vietnam, he changed it to “a slot in the loony bin.”
“Who do you want, Cy? Records or the Lieutenant?”
After a brief pause Savage came on the line. “Cy? How’s that moonshine?”
“Kicks like a mule. Actually I’m in the middle of a real mess up here. I walked into Glosenby’s shop and found him dead—shotgun wound to the head. The sheriff—” He paused and looked back over his shoulder to be sure he wasn’t overheard. “—is some kind of a Keystone Cop, and I think he half suspects me of the murder, or of knowing something about it. Mainly because I found the weapon for him.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“No, thanks. I don’t think it’s time to post bail yet. But I might be tied up here for hours yet.”
“Understood. Keep in touch. And don’t hassle that sheriff.”
Auburn had switched off and pocketed his phone before he fully realized what it was that he had been staring at during most of his conversation with Savage: a crop other than corn, flourishing in neat plots among the cornstalks.
A wall of stalks parted and Chickering drifted into view, a burlap sack in one hand and a machete as heavy as a meat-cleaver in the other. “All right, mate,” came his acidulous whine. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I couldn’t dash off without taking leave of the lovely Miss Warner, could I?”
“The lovely Miss who?”
“Warner, mate. As in Marie. Marie Warner, you follow? Grass, pot, weed. Canna-bloody-bis.”
As nonchalantly as possible, Auburn started backing away from him and reached for his cell phone.
“Chuck that, mate,” Chickering warned him. He had dropped the sack of freshly harvested marijuana plants and now crouched two paces away, brandishing his machete and eyeing Auburn like a half-starved dingo. “Here, I’ve got nothing against you. All I want to do is hop it out of here with a whole skin. But don’t push me. The field marshal already has the noose around me neck.”
“You had a sweet thing going here, didn’t you, Chickering?” said Auburn. “Growing all the pot you could sell to the kids in Passavant right here because Jack and Jan never come out in the fields.” Instead of retreating, Auburn was now drifting sideways, trampling down cornstalks clumsily and noisily as he went. “But they were going to hire surveyors to straighten out their boundary dispute with Stull, and that would have led to the discovery of your secret garden and probably sent you up for a stretch. So Jack had to go.”
“Here, I didn’t have anything to do with that. I loved Jack like a brother.”
“Sure, and maybe you love Jan like a sister. But you still pulled that trigger.”
“How do you make that out?”
“The killer was probably somebody who knew Jan wouldn’t be working with Jack in the shop today because she was making jelly. And since he moved a chair out of the line of fire before shooting through the window, he must have had access to the house—”
“That don’t prove bloody nothing.”
“The killer also wrapped heavy-duty plastic trash bags around the stock, breech, and trigger guard of the gun so he wouldn’t get powder residue on his hands. The sheriff couldn’t find any bags like that here at the farm, so the killer must have brought them from outside. When the machine that makes those bags punches out the holes for the drawstrings, the punchings are supposed to drop into a waste collector, but some of them always get caught in the folds of the bags. You had about a half-dozen of those punchings in your pockets this morning—”
“Here, who asked you to stick your bib in, anyway? I’ve already put down one bloke today, and I can bloody well do it again. You haven’t got a weapon, but I’ve got this. And I can tear you apart with it before you can say ‘Ned Kelly.’”
He was getting ready to leap to the attack when the voice of Sheriff Heddles behind him stopped him almost in mid flight. “Hold it right there, Chickering.” Heddles and Stull, both with drawn revolvers, swarmed around him from behind. Heddles relieved him of his weapon and Stull bore him to the ground facedown.
“Like I said,” Heddles remarked to Auburn, “we do things differently out here in the country, but we get the same results in the end.” While Stull cuffed the prisoner, Heddles stepped closer. “You almost got yourself rubbed out, Sergeant. But I like the way you kept him from hearing us coming.”
He didn’t thank Auburn for assembling evidence of Chickering’s guilt and inducing him to confess within earshot of two lawmen. He also neglected to mention that he and Stull had trailed Auburn into the cornfield in the conviction that, after all, he and not Chickering had probably murdered Jack Glosenby.
Next morning Auburn gave Lieutenant Savage a detailed report on his experiences in the country. “But I never did get the information on those clippings,” he said. “And I have to report to Lerner County courthouse on Monday for Chickering’s arraignment.”
“So,” said Savage, “more moonshine and another visit to that farmer’s daughter? Or will you be consoling the grief-stricken widow this time?”
“You’re stereotyping again, Lieutenant.”