Prose Header

Cindy’s New Profession
appears in issue 503.

Murder Among the Oaks

by Bill Kowaleski

part 1

“Good boy! Dig it up.”

Kaiser’s paws moved so fast that all Jim Walsh could see was a blur of brown dog hair mixed with a blizzard of soft, sandy dirt and leaf litter flying in all directions. The golden retriever’s snout disappeared into the rapidly deepening hole as he dug. Suddenly his paws stopped, his head twisted, then jerked up.

In the dim light of the thick tree cover, Jim couldn’t see what Kaiser held in his jaws. He ran to a nearby clearing where the low light of dawn left long shadows on frosty grass, and the dog dutifully followed. Kaiser dropped the small object in front of Jim, sat, and waited excitedly for his reward.

Jim dug into a pocket of his hunting vest where he always kept the training treats and popped two between the drooling jaws. Kaiser’s foggy breath hit Jim full in the face.

“Oh man, Kaiser. Gotta be time for your teeth cleaning again. I know how much you love that!”

He crouched and picked up the object. With one hand he brushed off the dirt, and as its details became visible, he pulled in a breath. He could see what looked like fingers and a palm. Yes, it was definitely the skeleton of a hand. His police training kicked in: buried for some time, child between eight and twelve years, fingers oddly long. He counted, then counted again: five fingers, one thumb.

“Hey, Kaiser. Let’s go back and dig some more. I’ll bet you’d like that.”

Now both man and dog were carelessly spraying the loose sandy soil all around them. Soon the outline of a skeletal arm appeared, and then a shoulder joint. Jim stopped. He’d better get the forensics guys to finish. This just might be a crime scene.

* * *

Sheriff Ollie Gustafson stood next to the skeleton while the county’s only forensic investigator explained his findings.

“I’m thinking about getting some help,” Randy Blomquist said, shaking his head slowly as he stared at the remains. “It’s not a child; the bones are too mature. And yet it’s only four feet long, and that head...”

Gustafson considered the head. It was too big for the little body, perfectly egg-shaped, oddly stuck onto the torso with almost no neck.

“At least we know how he died, eh Randy?” said the Sheriff.

“Oh yeah, a nine-millimeter, based on the size of the hole in his skull... and these.” He picked up a bag with two bullets.

Somebody buried the corpse with those still in it?” Gustafson shook his head. “Not too smart.”

“No,” said Blomquist. “Pretty dumb. Musta thought it would never be found. I’m estimating our strange friend here was buried about six months ago. Not much of a burial, in such shallow ground, no clothing.”

The Sheriff scratched his bushy, graying moustache and said, “You know, Randy, there’s someone who just might be able to shed some light on this little mystery of ours.”

An hour later, Gustafson and Deputy Jim Walsh sat in the Tall Timber nursing coffees. The low sun of a late autumn mid-afternoon streamed through the bank of windows beside them, creating a golden glow on the oak-paneled walls. The heavy oak table hid most of Gustafson’s bulky frame as Cindy approached.

When he’d first come in, she’d noticed that his gut was just a little bigger, his hair a little thinner and grayer, but Jim seemed to have slimmed down recently. Maybe that new wife of his was keeping him away from the pizzas and nachos that had dominated his diet after his return from the Navy. He was still stocky, his hair mowed by clippers she’d seen him use in his squad car. Nothing to look at; not like Sean, her boyfriend — if that was the right word for him.

She wiggled up to the table, adjusted her tight jeans, smoothed her long, straight, golden hair, poised her pen beside her order pad, and said, “Anything else for our keepers of the peace?”

The Sheriff turned, evoking a loud squeak from the overmatched chair. “Not to eat, Cindy, but maybe you could help us with something.”

“Well, I’m always willing to help you boys out,” she said, her breathy voice ever so slightly insincere.

“We found something in the woods, something I wouldn’t even tell most people about. But I know that you’re capable of keeping a secret.”

“Oh, you bet, Sheriff!”

Walsh said, “She sure can keep a secret, Ollie. Just yesterday I was talking to Caroline, you know, the Mayor’s wife, and I could tell that she still doesn’t know about...”

“Hush, Jim!” Cindy hissed. “Don’t ever talk about that!”

“Yeah, Jim, Cindy’s not in that business any more. Give her a break. Ever since she met Sean, she’s been on the straight and narrow.”

Walsh nodded, smiled, ran his thumb and forefinger across his lips as though he were closing a zipper.

“Okay,” the Sheriff continued. “So you seem to know a lot more than we do about this lumber buying that’s going on around here. Couple different companies buying oak; they all say it’s the best in the world. Your boyfriend’s big into that, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, but you already knew that, Sheriff.”

“Sure, but Sean and those other guys: what do you know about them? Where are they from?”

She fidgeted with her pen, flipped through the pages of her order pad, looked away. Gustafson watched her intently, but let the silence linger. Finally she said, “Well, he doesn’t talk much about himself. Far as I know he’s from Chicago.”

Deputy Walsh shook his head and leaned forward. “Come on Cindy. He’s your boyfriend. Don’t tell us you don’t know a thing about him.”

“But it’s true. I just have some fun with him when he comes up here. If you haven’t noticed, he’s totally gorgeous!”

“No, can’t say that I’ve noticed that,” said Walsh. “But I have noticed that Infiniti-M he drives, and I’ve noticed that swagger he has, and that look in his eye like he thinks he’s better than the rest of us up here.”

“OK, Jim, let’s not get too quick about judging the guy. I’m gonna accept what Cindy says. But I think she should take a look at what you found out in the woods there.”

Gustafson pushed back the heavy chair and stood, adjusted his sagging belt, and said, “Let’s go on over and take a look, eh?”

They walked the two blocks to the County Building, an all-purpose structure housing the Board meeting room, State Patrol office, Public Works, a library, and a morgue. When she saw the skeleton laid out on the cold slab she gasped. She had no doubt about what it was, but she was sworn to secrecy. Her lucrative job with the oak dealers depended on her silence.

Both the Sheriff and his Deputy had been watching her closely. She knew how well Gustafson could read people, knew she’d have to explain her shock.

“It’s creepy. I never saw a real skeleton before,” she said softly. “Was it a child?”

“No, said Gustafson. “Look closer. It’s very odd. Look at the head. Look at the five fingers plus thumb. Look at how thin the bones are. You ever meet anyone this could have been? He’d have been very, uh, distinctive-looking.”

“Why would you ask me that?”

“Well, you see all the out-of-towners that come through here. Where else is there to eat?”

His eyes never left hers. She pulled her gaze away from the skeleton and looked directly into them. “Sorry, Sheriff. I never saw nobody this weird.”

Gustafson nodded, sighed, said, “OK, thanks. Sorry to bother you, Cindy.”

Through the window of the County Building they watched her walk up the street. When she was a block away, Walsh said, “She’s lying.”

“Yeah,” said Gustafson, barely above a whisper. “I can see that. But why?”

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Bill Kowaleski

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