Eve Fisher

By noon, the wind had died down, and it was warmer –about 25 degrees – mainly because a thick blanket of clouds had rolled in. For South Dakota, that wasn’t bad at all, and of course, Don Nordstrom didn’t care because he was dead. I looked over at the three hunters – Larry Halberg, Jim Mackenzie, and Dave Nelson – who’d found him.
“So you were coming over the rise and then what?” I asked.
“We saw him lying there,” Larry said. He was the one who’d come to get me at the lodge. “I saw his feet first.”
I nodded. Don’s feet were splayed out in the snow like broken boats. Up towards his head there was a fair amount of red snow. Since he was face down, I was willing to wait to turn him over until Randy Walworth, the coroner, showed up. “You hear a shot or anything?”
“Come on, Grant,” Dave said. “We were hunting.”
“I meant in between your shots,” I said. Everyone shook their head. “How’d you do?” I asked.
“Half a dozen pheasant apiece,” Dave replied.
“Not bad. Where’s the dog?” I asked.
“We didn’t bring any,” Larry said. Dave started to say something, but Larry continued, “Don went off by himself early on and took his dog with him. Him and Jim had a bit of a disagreement.”
“But that’s all it was,” Dave said hastily. “You know Don. He got huffy and went.”
I looked down at the ground. The snow was so churned up you couldn’t tell who – or what – had been where. “You guys trampled this up pretty good,” I said.
“Well, hell, Grant, we had to see if he was alive,” Larry protested.
“True.” I looked over at Jim. He was standing apart from us, looking at Don as if he was trying to figure something out. “Jim stay with you guys the whole time?” I asked.
Dave and Larry looked relieved that I’d asked. “You betcha,” Dave said.
“Never out of our sight,” Larry said.
I nodded. “You okay, Jim?” I called out.
Jim looked over at us and said, awestruck, “He killed himself. The son of a bitch killed himself.” He shook his head. “It’ll break Jennie’s heart.”
Make her day more like, I thought. But I didn’t say anything.
Detective Jonassen, Bob Johnson, and Randy showed up together. Jonassen asked the same questions I had and sent the three men back to the lodge. Then things got unpleasant. After Bob shot photographs of Don from the back, we rolled him over. Part of his jaw was gone, and it took a lot not to delight Jonassen by throwing up in front of him. Bob Johnson took more photographs, Randy did his in-field examination, we bagged up the evidence, including the rifle, and then the four of us carried the body up to Randy’s hearse. After Randy drove off, Jonassen turned to me and asked, “How’d you get out here so damn quick? I thought you were on vacation.”
I thought of mentioning enthusiasm, but I stuck with the truth. “I am. Here at the lodge,” I said. “We’re having a fraternity reunion and hunting party.”
“You didn’t go to college with Nordstrom.”
“No, high school.”
“A high school fraternity?”
“It was unofficial.”
Jonassen shook his head. “Figures. It’s going to be hard, telling his wife.”
“Vera’s not here. She’s still in treatment,” I said.
“She’s getting out next week,” Jonassen replied, and I remembered that Vera Nordstrom was Paula Jonassen’s first cousin. Or maybe second.
“Maybe they could keep her longer,” I suggested. “To help her through the crisis.”
“Keep her from drinking?” Jonassen shook his head. “If she’s going to, she’s going to. But this sure as hell won’t help.” The wind picked up, making his eyes water. The sun, which had been like a flashlight in fog, went out. “Well, we’d better get over to the lodge and take statements.”
There had been a dozen of us in that unofficial fraternity, but Gene and Rick had been killed in a car wreck our senior year, Jeff and Bud had moved to Minneapolis and Hawaii respectively, and that left six of us in Laskin: Larry, Dave, Jim, Bob Olson, myself and Don. Now we were five, and we were all at the lodge. Dave had brought his wife, Lizbeth, but Jim’s wife, Sally, was in Tahoe waiting for their divorce to be final. Lizbeth had brought a cousin, Judy, hoping she’d click with Larry, but he’d seemed to be interested in Jennie Nolan, who used to be Jim’s mistress but I’d thought had come with Don this time, except they’d had separate rooms like Linda and Bob, who everybody knew were just old friends. I had come solo, if you must know. It was a lot less complicated.
When we got back to the lodge, Jonassen remembered that I was on vacation, so I went back upstairs and had some lunch while he and Bob Johnson took statements from everyone in the manager’s office. When I came out of the dining room, no one was around except Linda Thompson and Bob Olson, who were sitting on the couch in front of the fire in the lobby, looking at a camera.
“Where’d everybody go?” I asked.
“Back to their rooms,” Linda said. “And the girls aren’t back from Brookings yet.”
I let out a sigh. There were going to be hysterics when they returned. Especially from Jennie.
“I’ve decided it’s all our fault,” Bob said. “I told Linda, every time we go anywhere outdoors together, it’s a disaster.”
“I’ve heard the stories,” I said, pouring myself a cup of coffee from the machine. “You may be right.”
“Stop camping and save the world?” Bob asked. I snorted in spite of myself, and we all started laughing.
“Hush,” Linda said semi-sternly. “This is a lodge of mourning.”
“Oh, well, if you want to get technical…”
“I want to get official,” Linda said, ignoring Bob. “Unofficially, of course. What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It looks pretty good for accidental death. Can’t see suicide, but that’s what Jim suggested. Is there anything I should know?”
“Jennie and Jim are back together,” Bob said. “Don might have been broken-hearted about that.”
“I thought she’d come with Don,” I said. “When did they split up?”
“I guess as soon as Sally went off to Tahoe,” Bob replied. “That’s all that Jennie was waiting for. Or Jim, for that matter.”
“Why the hell didn’t they just get married back in high school?” I asked no one in particular.
“Jim was seeing Tina, and Jennie was busy with Neil,” Linda said casually. I glanced at her: she was about the only person in Laskin who would say that name around me. But then I was probably the only person who would mention Gary Davison around her.
“I’d forgotten about that. So, where were you two today?”
“Oh, thank God you asked,” Linda said. “I was beginning to think we didn’t count.”
“We went on a five mile hike,” Bob said.
“Two miles,” Linda disagreed.
“Linda wanted to take pictures. Take a look.” I bent over and peered into the screen. “See,” Bob said, “There I am by the lodge door. There’s some tracks in the snow. There’s a bush. There’s a rock. There’s me by another bush. There’s some more tracks in the snow. A tree. A rock. Yet another bush.” Actually, the nature shots were pretty good, and I told Linda so.
“Thanks. Check this one out,” Linda said. “This is over by Olson’s Draw.” It was a tall cottonwood, with a yellow bush wedged up in one of the bare branches. “Looks like a bush, right?” Linda asked. “Watch this.” She’d zoomed in with the next couple of photos, and the yellow bush turned out to be a porcupine.
“You ever see a porcupine in a tree before?” Linda asked, and I had to admit I hadn’t. “What on earth it was doing there…”
“I keep telling you, some kind of predator,” Bob said. “Has to be.”
“All I spotted were dog tracks,” Linda said. “I took a picture…”
“Where did you say that was?” I asked.
Linda opened her mouth, but the door opened, and the other women came in on a rush of cold air and chatter.
“What’s the police car doing outside?” Jennie asked, shaking a wave of perfume out from her coat.
“I’m afraid there’s been some bad news,” I said. “There was a hunting accident. Don’s dead.”
Jennie’s blue eyes widened, she gasped and then she slumped to the floor.
“How could you do that?” Lizbeth cried, bending over Jennie. “You couldn’t break it to her gently? Jennie. Jennie.”
“Oh, no,” Jennie murmured. “Oh, no. No, no, no. No!” She started screaming. Lizbeth and Judy tried to calm her down, but she kept on screaming until Jim came running down the hall and put his arms around her. She collapsed then, weeping, and he half carried her away, her blonde mane trailing over him the way it does on the covers of those romance novels. I turned back towards the women, and saw Jonassen standing in the doorway.
“Nicely done,” he criticized.
“I hope you fire him,” Lizbeth said.
“He’s not on duty,” Jonassen told her. “Though that does mean you should have waited for me to talk to her.”
“She asked,” I defended myself.
“You…” Lizbeth began, but Jonassen interrupted.
“Mrs. Nelson, could I have a word with you and your friend?”
“Gladly.” Lizbeth and Judy swept past me into the manager’s office.
“Don’t go away,” Jonassen said. “I want a word with you later.”
“I’ll be here,” I assured him. Though what I really wanted to do was go up by… “Where was that porcupine?” I asked Linda.
“See, you’re just as fascinated as I am.”
“Great. You two can go over it one more time.” Bob yawned. “I’m going to take a nap. Five miles is enough for one day.”
Two,” Linda said. After he left, we sat back down on the couch and looked through the pictures again. After a while Linda said, “By the way, about Don. I don’t think… No, I know he didn’t have any intention of suicide.” I looked at her encouragingly. “He was looking forward to when Vera got out of treatment. He knew that before we got divorced, Gary went in once…” She gave a strained laugh. “Trying to save our marriage. Anyway, I was somebody Don could talk to. I really believe Don got involved with Jennie just because he was desperate and lonely. She was a fling, but nothing more. I’m not saying it was right, but… When Vera went into treatment things changed. Don went every weekend to see her, did the couples therapy, went to meetings, the whole nine yards. And she was doing well. He was talking about taking her to Arizona for a few weeks when she got out. Said Fred could handle the car dealership while he was gone.”
“Fred? Not Larry?”
Linda’s eyebrows twitched. “Fred’s his nephew. Besides, Larry was a little… enabling with Vera. I just know it’s not suicide.”
“So you think it was an accident.”
“What else could it be?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Look,” Linda said, “I know you have a down on Jennie. But she’s not a killer. Besides, she was in Brookings all morning shopping.”
“Did I say Jennie?”
“No, but –”
I looked at the picture of the porcupine in the tree. “You up for another walk?”
“It’ll be gone by now,” Linda pointed out.
“I just want to see the tracks. They might be important. Please?”
Just as Linda agreed, Lizbeth and Judy came out of the office, and Jonassen called out “Grant!”
I went in and sat down. “You want to know where I was this morning?” I asked.
“I know where you were. You watched the Today show after breakfast, played video games with the chef until ten, and then you were sitting in the lobby reading a book until Larry came busting in at eleven-thirty to say Don had been shot.” I should have known he’d already checked. Jonassen is thorough. “So, consider yourself back on duty as of eleven-thirty. I’ll tell Jean and she’ll clock you in. Now, what do you think?”
“I’m wondering where the dog was. Is. Don brought a hunting dog with him. I know he did, because Bob was fussing at Linda for making him leave Elsie at home.”
“He the only one who brought one?”
I nodded. “Jim’s dog died last year in some kind of accident, and Lizbeth won’t let Dave have any. She says it’s cruelty to animals.”
“I’ll bet she does,” Jonassen muttered. “You’d think it would stick around its master’s body.”
“Unless it didn’t like him,” I pointed out.
“Do you always have to say crap like that?” Jonassen was truly offended.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it. “No, the dog… I’m thinking of going out to track it down.” I told Jonassen about Linda’s porcupine and the dog tracks below. “Between the two of us, we might be able to find it.”
“Go. Keep me posted.”
“You going to be here for a while?” I asked.
“Got to talk to Jennie Nolan when she recovers from the shock you put her in. After that I’ll head back. Call me when you get in.”
Linda had filled up a flask of hot coffee and bundled herself back up while I was talking. Outside, Linda looked up at the solid light gray sky and said, “Snow sky.”
“All the more reason to get out there before the tracks are covered up.”
We hiked along the west ridge, following Linda and Bob’s earlier trail, until we got to Olson’s Draw.
“That’s the tree,” Linda said.
“No porcupine now,” I replied, looking around: it wasn’t that far from where Don had been shot.
“No predators.”
We walked carefully around the tree. There were dog tracks everywhere: the dog had obviously been excited, running, jumping.
“You can see where he’s run a couple of times down there,” Linda said, pointing towards where Don had been shot. “But he kept coming back. And then there was something over that way that grabbed his attention.” She started to walk off towards the northeast, over the rise and down into a little shallow valley. I followed, making sure to walk in her footsteps. I’d learned years ago that while Linda hated hunting, she was a damned good tracker. She likes to go out and watch animals in the wild. A little ways further down, Linda said, “Look – footprints. The dog ran up to meet whoever it was. Not Don.”
“Those prints weren’t made by Don’s clodhoppers,” I agreed. But they were men’s shoes, thickly treaded, with an s-curve running down the outside of the sole. I looked back. From here, you could see the tree, but not the other side, where Don, presumably, had been taking a break, waiting for his dog to come back. “Can you get a close up photo of those?”
“Sure can. Hey, look over here.” There was a small depression, with some reddish-brown scraps still left.
“The dog ate something,” I said.
And then the dog had gone on, obviously following whoever had fed it. By now we’d crossed the valley and were coming up on another rise. At the top, we could still see the big porcupine tree behind us, and in front was another shallow valley, with a small frozen pond and a few rocks in the center. We started walking down, when Linda gasped and said something unprintable.
Linda pointed, and I realized that one of the rocks was the dog, and the shadow – I should have known there couldn’t be a shadow under a snow sky – was blood.
“It was shot,” Linda said, her voice tight.
I stopped her from kneeling by it. “I need photographs of this,” I said. “If you can’t –”
“Oh, I can,” Linda said. She took a dozen, from all angles, and then asked, “You think he shot it before or after he shot Don?”
“Had to be before,” I said. “It wouldn’t have left Don’s body. Shall we see where our boy went?”
We took up the killer’s footprints again. They took us in a wide loop, down along the backside of the gentle swells. I was beginning to think we might be dealing with some kind of anonymous nutcase when suddenly, finally, they took a sharp left. Half a mile more, and we came upon a knot of willows, where a couple of other guys had been waiting. There all the footprints milled together, and down in the snow was the stub of one of the mini-cigars Jim Mackenzie smoked whenever he was out hunting, the ones with the plastic tip. Linda photographed it, as she had the entire trail. Then we followed the group’s tracks as they headed northeast, away from everywhere we’d been before.
“Where the hell were they going?” I asked.
Linda shook her head. “I think towards the Havard Slough. God only knows why.” We walked on, and then Linda said, “Our boy broke off here.”
“Lead on,” I said. Within a few minutes, we were back down at the hollow where Don’s body had been found. “Down and back,” I said. “To meet up again with the other two and tell them that he didn’t see a thing.” We followed our boy back to the group, and then, after another long circle, the group ended back at the hollow, where they could all discover Don’s body together.
I turned to Linda and said, “You’d have made a fortune in the fur trade days.”
“Calamity Jane in another life.”
“I guess we’d better get back to the lodge.”
“What about the dog?” Linda asked.
“I hate to say it, but we have to leave it there until I can get Jonassen out. It’s evidence.”
“You’re right,” she sighed.
We’d been gone over three hours, and it was almost dark by the time we walked up the steps to the lodge. We were both exhausted. Linda went to her room, to upload the pictures to her laptop in case of accidents. I went up to the lobby desk and asked the manager to borrow his office and telephone. I called Jonassen and told him what we’d found, and after we’d discussed things I went into the bar.
Jennie was sitting with Jim, and Larry at a table in front the sliding glass doors that led out to the deck, while Linda and Bob were at a table next to them, looking at Linda’s laptop. I went to join Dave at the bar and ordered a beer.
“So where have you been?” Dave asked.
“Me and Linda took a long walk. She wanted to talk.”
“Bob’ll be jealous, if you don’t watch out,” Dave said.
“Nah, she wanted to talk about Don.” I glanced down at Dave’s shoes: an old pair of rubber bottomed hunting boots that to my knowledge he’d had for ten years. They weren’t what I was looking for, and I was glad. “They were kind of buddies. Or at least, he came into the courthouse a lot, and they’d talk. She was upset.”
“We’re all upset. I can’t believe it. Man, you hear about hunting accidents every day, but you never think it’ll be someone you know.”
I nodded. “Listen, I found Don’s dog,” I said quietly. “Dead. Somebody shot it.”
“Jesus,” Dave said.
“Good. Course, it’s possible that Don shot it himself, by accident, and was so upset, well…”
“On the other hand… Dave, you sure that Jim was never out of your sight this morning?”
“Never,” Dave replied. “I swear to God. Him and me were together the whole time.”
“What about when Larry went scouting the territory? Jim stuck with you?”
“He sure did,” Dave said. “Never left my side.”
“Thanks, Dave.” I went over to Jim’s table.
“Oh, God, here comes Grant,” Jennie groaned. She was dressed in black, which might have been mourning, and was fairly drunk. “You know, you’ve always been bad news to me. So what do you want this time?”
“I just wanted to talk to Jim and Larry,” I said, walking around to get a better view of their feet.
“What the hell are you doing?” Jim asked.
“Checking out your shoes. My feet are freezing, and I need a new pair.”
Jim laughed, but then his boots were like Dave’s, only shearling lined. It was Larry who lunged out of his seat, towards the doors behind him. I grabbed for him, but it was Bob Olson – signaled by Linda - who tripped him flat on the floor. I leaped on his back and barked, “Linda, get a shot of his shoes!”
Linda was flashing the camera like a paparazzi before anyone got over their shock.
“What’s going on?” Jennie asked.
“Done,” Linda said.
I hauled Larry up by his collar and slammed him back down in the chair. Two patrol cars were coming up the drive, their lights pulsing. Larry was slightly green, but he stood his ground.
“What’s all this about?” Larry blustered. “I didn’t do anything –”
“Yes, you did,” I said. “You killed Don, and you killed his dog.”
“You?” Jennie gasped. You killed him? Wha-- D’you really think I’d have anything to do with a salesman?”
Larry looked at her incredulously. “You think this has anything to do with you? He was going to fire me! The night he dumped you, he told Fred -”
“He did not dump me!” Jennie shouted, leaping to her feet. Jim grabbed her arm.
“He dumped you for that drunk wife of his!” Larry shouted back, as I held on to his collar.
“That drunk wife is my wife’s cousin,” Jonassen said from the door. He’s got quite a voice. It shut them both up. He gestured to Bob Johnson. “Arrest him, read him his rights. Jim, I suggest you take Jennie somewhere less upsetting.”
There was a flurry of activity, and then Bob Olson, Linda, and I were alone with Jonassen, who took off his hat and said, “What I want to see is this porcupine in a tree.”
Linda laughed, and brought over her laptop. “Here it is.”
Jonassen looked through the entire cache of pictures. “You’ve got hunter’s instincts, that’s for sure,” he said. Thankfully, Linda took it as a compliment. “The next time you want to go camping, you call me, not Bob.”
“I’ve got first dibs,” I said. Linda blushed.
“Wait a second!” Bob Olson protested.
But Jonassen was up and moving. “Come on, Grant.”
I turned in the door and winked. “Stop camping, save the world.”